Stop Smoking, Join A Gym, Kick Between Posts

Ah, the festive season! Turkey, toy fights, rum & coke and Barnesy’s autobiography in the stocking – we all know the drill. Oh, and interprovincial rugby.

The twitching corpse of tradition lives on in Irish rugby with the October/December/April series, and there is nothing more seasonal than a few glasses of Pimms at the RDS, a few pints of Guinness at Thomond, a few thumps of the Bible at Ravenhill, or a few lost souls at the Sportsground.

So, how did they go for each of the provinces? We rate the Christmas gifts bestowed by Father IRFU.

Ulster – L Leinster 42-13 W Munster 33-17
On Stephen’s Day, the kids went to RDS and didn’t disgrace themselves by any stretch of the imagination. They looked well-drilled and composed, and were down just 8 points after 60 mins before the predictable onslaught began. After that, they filleted Munster up front and looked very threatening with ball in hand – you had a recollection of last season when a stuttering first half of the season was turned around in the New Year. Ruan Pienaar is now back and with most of the rest of the playoff contenders down key men while Ulster welcome them back, is there a possibility of simliar run to last season? They will look for a semi-final not against Leinster, and hope Andrew Trimble is on to the right man upstairs when they go to the Marcel Michelin.
New Year’s Resolution for 2012: Put together a run of wins.  Ulster are seven points off the playoffs and an extended run is required to propel them up the table.

Munster – W Connacht 24-9, L Ulster 33-17
Something of a curates egg for Munster – a very poor Connacht were easily swatted aside in a game they learned little about themselves in, but they were bossed around in Ravenhill in a game reminiscent of a different era. The scrum was bullied, Duncan Williams was awful, and Ian Keatley looked what he really is – a 10 who is still learning his trade. On a brighter note, Earls was back – and showed beautiful hands for set up one of the tries in the Connacht match. However, judging by some of the performances by the other outside backs, they need three of him. And he is still defensively suspect in a key position. It’s an important few weeks for Munster – falter in the HEC (by which we mean 5 points or less in 2 games) and a trip to Toulouse or Clermont beckons. So, just the right time to have your most dangerous finisher missing tackles in the midfield, eh!
New Year’s Resolution for 2012: Develop an attack.  Their pack have manned up well so far, but their back play is still clueless.  They’ll need to get some coherence for the sharp end of the season.

Leinster – W Ulster 42-13, W Connacht 15-13
In general, Leinster are motoring so well at the moment that even Gerry is conceding they are “almost Toulouse-like”. However, despite the wins, this wasn’t the most satisfactory Christmas in D4 – a very experienced front 8 took far too long to subdue the Ravens, and the main worries (replacing Hines, BOD and Shaggy) are still leaving a too-much-turkey feeling in the stomach. But that’s a measure of the sky-high expectations. They will be hoping Leo Cullen recovers the form of May and not December 2011, and that talk of a double does not get too far out of hand. In truth, Joe could do with expectations being dampened, so he might be a little happier after the Great Escape of Galway. And to be more truthful, if it’s going to be a HEC semi-final trip to Toulouse or Clermont (or Wembley to meet Saracens), they will need their A game, and even that may not suffice in France.
New Year’s Resolution for 2012: Tighten up on D.  Leinster’s two wins showcased their superior squad depth, but they have leaked more tries this season than last.  If they are to achieve back-to-back HEC’s, there’ll be no place for soft tries.

Connacht – L Munster 24-9, L Leinster 15-13
Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose. A shockingly poor display against Munster (it was almost as if they felt it would be impolite to ruin The Bull’s swansong by trying) was followed by a tough and gutsy one against Leinster … with exactly the same outcome – another defeat. Elwood is all optimism but when the focus isn’t there, they are rubbish. The attacking patterns are appalling and they really look drained – the losing sequence is taking it out of them. Given the size and make-up of the squad, Eric was probably hoping for 6 to 7 league wins to bank at this stage. Instead, they have just 3, and despite the fact they won’t lose (m)any players during the 6N, it’s hard to see what will be the catalyst for a turnaround. If Aironi get their freak on, it could be Connacht returning to familiar barrel-scraping territory in April.
New Year’s Resolution for 2012: Where to begin?  Connacht just have to get a win from somewhere to break the losing streak.  Improved place kicking would help.  They travel to Aironi next – lose that and they’re in trouble.

Team in Focus: Connacht

Last season: C. They struggled domestically and failed to build on their AmlinVase semi-final from the year before. Then all their decent players left. However, Leinster winning it all meant they got a backdoor ticket to the HEC.

So far this year: Grinding on in the RaboProLeague – 3 wins from 7. They won’t be too pleased given everyone else has been understrength, but at least new players (of which there are many) have had some integration time.

Prospects: As usual, as soon as any Connacht players impressed, they bailed out of there. Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan and Fionn Carr headed (back) to Leinster, and Ian Keatley went to Munster. Another bunch of surplus to requirement players from the other 3 provinces stepped into their shoes, but another season of embedding guys who will leave at the first opportunity is Connachts’s lot.

The front row will suffer for the loss of 2/3 of its starting contingent. The fantastically-named Rodney Ah You comes in a tight-head, but its more likely to be Rodney Peep Collapsing Yes You against the big sides. Hooker Ethienne Reynecke came from Sarries to replace Cronin, but its fair to say he isn’t top class. Brett Wilkinson is another Saffa, and is a decent honest loose-head who won’t let you down. Stewart Maguire used to be the a big prospect in the Leinster academy – lets hope he fulfils some hype.

Mike McCarthy held his own in the pre-RWC Ireland training camps and is typical of the current generational of Irish second rows (Paulie aside) – hard working but uninspiring. Connacht look to have recruited well in the back-row – TJ Anderson and particularly Eoghan Grace are young men who once had a promising career and have come West to do a Jirry and get regular gametime to step on. Grace was once in the position Peter O’Mahoney finds himself in – that is the young saviour of an ageing Munster back-row. It hasn’t happened so far, but at least now he has a shirt. Johnny O’Connor and John Muldoon are the grizzled veterans here – O’Connor once had words with Egg Chaser’s younger brother on Egg’s stag in his moonlighting bouncer role, and gained kudos for allowing trousers to remain on head.

Paul O’Donohoe never quite made the grade at Leinster – a couple of starts here and there tended to end when established names came back – he’s still young and possesses a snappy pass. He’ll think a few good few years in Connacht will set him up to return home to perhaps take Eoin Reddan’s place in the Leinster squad – he is not to be underestimated. Former Leicester Tiger Frank Murphy will backup O’Donohoe and is an able deputy. The (very) poor mans Morne Steyn, Niall O’Connor, has joined from Ulster. In Matt Williams final year in Ravenhill, O’Connor kept iHumph on the bench, and he offers a towering boot and defensive solidity. In many ways, its exactly what Connacht need – he will kick goals from anywhere inside the opposition half, and keeping the scoreboard ticking over will be a key component in the hanging-in-there gameplan Connacht generally adopt.

The diamond in the backline is young Tiarnan O’Halloran, the star turn in the Connacht academy’s respectable production line of the last year or 2. The lad is only 20, and can play at centre or full-back. If he continues his progression, there is a fair chance he could be the first Connacht player since Eric Elwood to consistently make national squads. He should get plenty of time this year, and expect him to catch the eye. Hopefully players like O’Halloran do not have to leave Galway to make career progress, but the reality is, without regular HEC football, you aren’t getting international recognition.

Relatively familiar names like Gavin Duffy and Mark McCrea are bog standard Rabo backline merchants. Fetu’u Vainikolo at one stage was a peer of Israel Dagg, but concerns about his positioning led to the Highlanders letting him slide, and he has wound up in Connacht – he could be a real danger and is a like-for-like replacement for Carr, albeit with greater Oooooooohhh factor. Kiwi Benson Stanley was at one stage interested in rocking up to Galway, but rumour has it he confused Connacht with Leinster and didn’t sign when he realised the the difference between the RDS and the Sportsground – and we aren’t talking about the availability of butternut squash focaccia and skinny caramel frappaccinos.

Connacht’s inaugural HEC adventure was kind in terms of the bank balance potential of the draw – European big guns Toulouse will bring their unique brand of brilliance to Galway, and will be joined by Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins and the eminently beatable Gloucester. Toulouse in November will be the biggest and most glamourous game in Connacht’s history, and the exposure alone will be worth its weight in gold. At home, Connacht’s small squad tends to mean that, instead of rotation, they target particular games to make best use of resources – this means they tend to mix heroic home victories with pastings on their travels. Its not always pretty, but you can only work with the tools you have

Verdict: Despite the chopping and changing, the summer has been a successful one for Connacht – season ticket sales has rocketed following Heineken Cup qualification, and the feel-good factor around the province is high. The increased exposure and revenue should help bring through more Tiarnan O’Halloran’s, which is realistically the best way forward for the poor relation of Irish rugby. The need for regular HEC rugby is likely to only be fulfilled through the back door, so young talent is the way forward.

On the pitch, we foresee some schizophrenia in the HEC. Connacht have generally been very competitive at home in the AmlinVase, and might target Gloucester, and should come very close to winning that one. Away, it could be painful. Five match points in the pool would represent a major triumph for Elwood.

In the RaboLeague, Connacht are struggling after 7 games in which every other side has been under-strength. Finishing above someone other than Aironi would ensure a good season at home. The chances of getting back to the HEC rest solely on the shoulder of the Leinster squad, but the increased exposure, revenue and investment from this season will mean it is a good season for Connacht no matter what happens on the field.