The Cordite Awards 2014

Its been a pretty mental year – Ireland are genuine RWC15 contenders, the provinces are rubbish (except Connacht), Andrew Trimble is an automatic selection for Ireland, Dylan Hartley did something admirable and Wales actually won a game against a Southern Hemisphere side (and naturally became RWC15 favourites right away). Here’s our awards:

Man of The Year: Joe Schmidt – ten games, wins over France, South Africa and the Wobs (hard fought, thought victory and slihghtly fortunate respectively), one piece of silverware, only one loss; and a fresh broom. No pressure, but two pieces of silverware needed next year.

Male of The Year: Steve Walsh – who else. This time for saying “nice pass, mate” to Willie le Roux

The Awesome Power: of the Bath three-quarter line against Montpellier in round 4 of the ERC – Banahan, Burgess, Joseph and Rokoduguni. Oooooooooooooooooooooohhh!!!

Scapegoat of The Year: Jerome Garces, and his contentious red card for Jared Payne in Ravers against Globo Gym, was blamed by Gerry for … Ulster’s rubbishy ERC start. A campaign that included, from Day One in Leicester … er, Jared Payne.

Straw Man of The Year: when asked if it was right that naturalized NIQs such as Jared Payne played for Ireland (in the presence of CJ Stander), RTE’s Michael Corcoran said “well, if you look at how passionately Richardt Strauss sang the national anthem, that shows you he much he wants to play for Ireland”. Right – that’s what counts – and that’s why the anthem-mumbling Brian O’Driscoll was dropped after one cap. Wait a minute, what?

Most Relevant Phrase of The Year: return to traditional Munster values

Strange Correlation of The Year: Axel Foley’s facial hair growth versus clamours for JJ Hanrahan to be picked

Emotional Roller-coaster of The Year: Ulster fans, wailing and gnashing of teeth when Humph announced his departure, were thrown into raptures when Shane Logan welcomed Cowboy back from his holidays with a P45. Things haven’t quite gone to plan since, but the imminent arrival of Kissy suggests good times ahead. Just not now.

Dark Clouds on The Horizon: the Clermont partnership of Parra/Lopez/Fofana looks capable of derailing Ireland in RWC15. Camille Lopez reminds us of Barnesy – he looks completely out of shape and uninterested, but sets the team afire. Let’s hope Remy Tales is the Rob Andrew to Lopez’ Barnesy.

Player of The Year: Conor Murray

Quote of The Year 1: “That’s a mile forward. Aw man”. Triminjus, after Ireland were dependent on the TMO to rule out a French try for a (needless) forward pass. His nerves weren’t helped by the ensuing scrum, where the Gods smiled on Ireland and a penalty wasn’t awarded. It ended well when Ireland won the Six Nations a couple of phases later.

Quote of The Year 2: “Toulon are looking to sign Richie McCaw, and we’ve brought in Clive Ross. No disrespect to Clive Ross, but …” Think you disrespected him there Fez.

Happy Christmas and enjoy the interpros. See you in 2015 for a pointless debate about how the fact that there is no such place as Saracens means a Munster win in Allianz Park is inevitable.

Interpro Season

The Christmas interpros are upon us. The phrase ‘silly season’ has often been most appropriate as the games rarely amount to as much as they should. It’s a part of the calendar that hasn’t really been worked out properly, with coaches responding to player welfare rules by sending Ver Kidz on their away trip and saving the first choice men for the home match. The net effect is a series of non-events.

Dare we suggest that might change, at least a little this season? The decision to schedule Munster v Leinster on St. Stephens’ Day looks designed to add some extra wallop to these seasonal fixtures. Matt O’Connor dare not risk the fans’ ire further by throwing the game against their rivals. Or will he? Ulster do that kind of thing for fun, but then they mostly beat Munster and don’t have the biggest rivalry in world rugby (sic) to think about.

Another reason we might get a decent round of fixtures is more by accident than design. The Pro12 table is super-tight and all the Irish teams are jammed in the top six. Connacht’s big improvement has arguably been the provincial story of the year, while the mediocre form of the Big Three means the gap from first to fourth has never been so tight. And with Glasgow and Ospreys going well in the league, there’s no guarantee that the likes of Leinster can cruise through to the final in third gear, as they have done in previous years.

Leinster face all of Connaht (home), Munster (away) and Ulster (home); two-from-three is the minimum acceptable return. Matt O’Connor’s apologists in the meeja – we’re getting a bit tired of the line that Leinster fans are simply asking too much for their team to play a bit of decent rugger – keep perpetuating the myth that Leinster are ‘on course for another Pro12’ but in fact they’re off the pace. They’re fifth and three points behind Ulster, which sounds ok, but it’s not great. Realistically, to win the league one has to finish in the top two, as winning two away games in a row in the ‘barrage’ is very difficult. The final has been contested by the top two in each year since the format was devised. Leinster have also dropped six points they really shouldn’t have; losing one of their home games and drawing in Treviso. If Leinster lose two of their games, they will find themselves well off the pace, and possibly below Connacht, in sixth.

Ulster could really do with a pick-me-up after what has proved a disastrous European campaign. It’s hard to see that occurring away to Ospreys so they simply must beat Connacht and hope to get something from their trip to Leinster. In recent seasons they’ve sent pretty unfamiliar teams to the RDS so don’t be surprised to see the likes of Bronson Ross, Sean Reidy and –no, hang on, those are first team players. Maybe even Ruaidhri Murphy will play.

But whatever way you look at it, the big three are coming off a period of high intensity matches, and no amount of fixture list management will change the fact that the Christmas interpros aren’t exactly Clermont Auvergne in the massif central. For Connacht, though, it’s different. They sent a reserve team to Bayonne in the Challenged Cup, so we can be sure they’re targeting this trio of games in a big way. They’re dining out on rave reviews for their newly enterprising rugby under Pat Lam. After they struggled for results last season, they are getting the rewards this time around. They have Kieron Marmion, Robbie Henshaw and Mils Muliaina, and there is a sense that for the first time possibly ever, they are capable of properly competing with their illustrious neighbours. They have to play Leinster away, Ulster away and their only home match is against Munster, who they never beat, so it’s a tough old run of games. This is their equivalent of the back-to-backs and their chance to put down a huge marker for the rest of the season.

Back to Black

Munster’s late, and largely irrelevant, bonus point wrapped up what was a pretty horrific set of double headers from the Irish provinces in the ERCC. Munster lost 8-2 in match points, gave up their first home loss to a French opponent and were thoroughly outclassed by (the admittedly brilliant) Clermont Auvergne. With a bit more concentration yesterday, Clermont could have won the double header 9-1, and that would not have been an outcome which any Irish fan could have seriously queried. The late bonus point does at least have them feeling a bit better about themselves, and they will need to be feeling good to win in Globo Gym. Leinster broke even, 5-5, but are behind Quins on the tie-breaker (match points this year) and in the table. Ulster won their double header 5-4, but, since their faint hopes required 9 points, the fact they lost one of the games is the relevant point.  When future generations are asked if they know their Clive Ross from their Bronson Ross, they’ll look quizically at you and say ‘What are you talking about?’.

By our reckoning, the last time two of the three major Irish provinces lost their double headers was 15 years ago, the year after Ulster won what was then the European Cup – Leinster won and lost to Stade but were behind on both tie-breakers (bonus points hadn’t been invented yet), Ulster lost twice to Llanelli (not the Scarlets – they are completely different, obviously) and Munster saved Irish bacon by beating Colomiers twice. The Liginds were European newbies at that stage, and the ensuing tear-soaked journey to the final went quite a way to kindling the love affair with Europe.

We find it hard to envisage an Irish side making this year’s final though – they simply look too far off the French teams, and a home quarter-final is odds-against in both cases. In fact, for all the crowing from Bruce Craig et al about increased competitiveness, and following the pattern of recent seasons, most of the quarter-final places have been more or less decided – with Munster/Saracens the only serious question mark, unless Glasgow can secure a rare win on English turf.

Pool 1: Clermont are home and hosed – two more wins takes them to 22 points, and another point is a possiblity. The runners-up slot will be decided at Allianz Park in the next round, when Munster bring real fans to drown out the PA system. Saracens put a bonus point on Clermont in Round 1, have only lost to the Saints at home this year, and beat a Munster side superior to this current edition two seasons ago – it’s a big stretch to call this for Munster right now, and we can’t get there. We reckon Saracens to finish second on 17 points. If Munster do make it, they’ll likely have 18/19 points.

Pool 2: Quins have a home game against Wasps and visit patsies Castres in the last round – 8 points is virtually a given, with 9 a possibility – that takes them to 21/22. Leinster should just about be able for Castres, but might struggle with Wasps’ gargantuan pack – they’ll need to lose that one 5-0 in match points to go out, which is pretty unlikely, but we wouldn’t fancy them to win if that game was today. Leinster to finish second with 19 points.

Pool 3: Toulon will win both games, and probably score four tries against Ulster – that brings them to 22. A likely home win each for Leicester and Ulster won’t be enough to get them into the mix for the quarters, but Leicester to finish second on 14 for what it’s worth.

Pool 4: Toulouse are the only team to date with a 100% record, and look likely to finish the pool stages that way, with games against the Sam Burgess XV and Montpellier, who have thrown in the towel in hapless and hilarious fashion. Glasgow have a home game to feed off Montpellier’s rotting corpse, after which they go to Bath, where a win will be needed to be in the qualification mix. It’s an intriguing match-up, with Bath most likely out of the qualification picture by then, but it’s a big ask for Glasgae to win in the Rec. So we think Glasgae will finish second on 16.

Pool 5: Racing Metro will go to the Saints in the last round, and if Northampton don’t beat Ospreys away in round 5, a losing bonus point will suffice to top the pool on 20, with Saints losing the tie-breaker and finishing second on 20. Spare a thought for the Hairsprays, who could finish 3rd on 17 points, which might be enough to qualify from other pools (helped by Treviso).  If Northampton can beat the Ospreys, and beat Racing Metro, they’ll top the group.  Either way, both look good to progress.

That would leave us with:

  1. Toulouse 24
  2. Clermont 22/23
  3. Toulon 22
  4. Quins 21/22
  5. Racing Metro 20
  6. Saints 20
  7. Leinster 19
  8. Saracens 17/18

A win for Glasgow in Bath would push them up to 19 and would create an every-point-counts finale between themselves, Leinster and the winner of Saracens and Munster.

If there is a silver lining to be had, it’s provided by Connacht, who sent a fully reserve team to France and won.  Okay, it was only Bayonne, where the ham comes from, and it was only the Challenged Cup, but still.  They’ll hit the interpros with more feelgood than any of the other provinces.  They look the best coached of the four at the moment, by a mile.  Their next opponent: Leinster.  Great.

Double Judas

Irish rugby players who go abroad to earn their living generally fall into 2 buckets:

  1. Top class internationals who left at their peak
  2. Those who were not in line for a central contract and were dispensable to their provinces

The former basket consists of Jonny Sexton – Sexton was pissed off at the union’s slow pace of negotiations two years ago, felt insulted at their initial offer and flounced off to (nouveau riche) Racing. Since then, the Union have upped their game, and have kept the likes of DJ Church, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip in Ireland despite strong French interest – and Sexton himself is returning next season. The Sexton move was a game-changer that left no-one happy and has brought about earlier contractual negotiations, longer contracts and private investment with a goal to keeping the international squad based at home. In 2008, Tommy Bowe left Ulster for the Hairsprays, but at that stage his international career had stalled and Ulster were an utter shambles that he wanted out of.

In the second category, there exists various former internationals who were offered a better contract abroad (Tom Court, Tomas O’Leary), journeyman pros (James Downey, Gareth Steenson) and younger players looking for a new start after their careers stalled at home (Chris Farrell, Adam Macklin, James McKinney, Conor Gilsenan, iHumph). In all these cases, they are players who were not mapped internationally and were expendable to the domestic game.

The potential transfer of JJ Hanrahan from Munster to the Saints, as reported by Gerry yesterday, falls into neither of these buckets. Hanrahan is a former underage (schools and under-20) star who is generally seen as the future in the province – he is clearly behind Sexton, Madigan, Jackson and Keatley right now at international level, but has bags of potential and certainly appears to have the skills to grow into a key player for Munster, and maybe Ireland. But it seems he doesn’t see it that way – he seems to feel he is trapped on the bench and not getting adequate opportunities. As Gerry pointed out, last year he started 11 games at outhalf and came off the bench in every HEC game – this year he has started twice and was left kicking his heels while Munster came a cropper in Thomond last week.

Hanrahan is not only playing second fiddle to Ian Keatley, which we can understand at least even if we don’t always agree with it, but being out of the team at the expense of Denis Hurley is quite another matter – Hurley is a good honest pro, but apart from bashing up the middle, doesn’t offer a huge amount in an attacking sense. Hanrahan has been rooted to the bench, but isn’t even getting used as an impact sub, unlike under Penney last year.  It’s been one of the season’s curiosities because, to our eyes at least, Hanrahan has played well when he’s been let on the pitch.

Also since last year, Munster have signed Tyler Bleyendaal, an almost exact replica in positional terms of Hanrahan, Andrew Smith, another bosh it up the middle centre and Pat Howard, a medical joker who got straight into the team. The new head coach, Axel, has talked a good game about moving the ball through the backline and playing creative centres, but has reverted to reductive boshing in the big games – Hanrahan hasn’t got a look in. Being rooted to the bench while Munster trundled the ball backwards against Clermont for 80 minutes must have been galling – he might not have made any difference, but the sight of Plan B being the same as Plan A (bosh it up the middle) must have made him wonder. You sense that Hanrahan just doesn’t fit into Axel’s plans right now.   Much has been made of Hanrahan starting the season with an injury, which restricted his gametime in the early part, but it’s December now.  He played back-to-back games at 15 against Ulster and the Dragons – last we saw of him he was putting in a classy grubber kick for a try against Dragons – but still they wouldn’t let him on against Clermont.

And now Northampton have come sniffing with an offer (apparently £150k) that would dwarf anything Munster could offer, given general debt levels and the fact that he is seen as a reserve – it’s decent wedge for an essentially unproven player. Hanrahan is clearly a young man in a hurry – he is six months younger than his underage team-mate Paddy Jackson, who has been Ulster starter for two and a half years and has nine Ireland caps, and you wonder does Hanrahan compare himself to Wee PJ. Its a slightly different scenario for a number of reasons – PJ was outhalf for the under-20s when both were in the team – and Jackson also captained the side. PJ was coming from a different place, and Ulster coaches couldn’t wait to start him – he debut-ed just a month after turning 19, almost four years ago. Also, the Ulster jersey fell into PJs lap following some rubbishy performances from iHumph in Munster and Connacht in 2012, after which iHumph left the building, leaving Jackson unopposed as starter. This was both a blessing (allowed him to grow into the jersey without serious competition) and a curse (he effectively immediately became the number three outhalf in Ireland and was parachuted into the national team in non-ideal circumstances with non-ideal results).

Axel responded to Gerry’s story and talked about preparation and injury recovery, which is correct and laudable, but then topped it off by saying “we were considering introducing him at inside centre but Denis Hurley made a couple of breaks”. Talk about depressing – if Hanrahan does leave, you have a smoking gun right there – reductive and conservative rugby in the biggest games where a couple of minor breaks (that we must have missed – even ESPN had Hurley carrying just 5 times for 10 metres) as part of an ineffective gameplan trumps the potential to open the game up and run around Clermont instead of at them. After email-gate was classified as careless, letting the Golden Boy leave for want of opportunities would be a bit of an indictment on Axel’s squad management.

If Hanrahan does move, not only is it a disaster for Munster, where Hanrahan looked the most natural backline talent since Anto Horgan Keith Earls, but for Ireland, where the model of keeping young players at home and husbanding them through province (Pro12 then HEC/ERCC) to national training squad to national team is being challenged. Our top youngsters taking off to Northampton is not part of the plan. On the bright side, the Saints would not be paying him £150k a year to sit on the bench and give Stephen Myler hugs – he will be getting paid to play for one of the top teams in a league where he will be directly facing some excellent players – game managers like Nuck Evans and “Faz”, creative talents as George Ford, Charlie Hodgson and Danny Cipriani, and also potentially Jimmy Gopperth, who recently killed Bambi.

If he does leave, the best case is that Hanrahan wins the Saints starting jersey and is playing in a team potentially better than any Irish province, and who will be challenging for domestic and European silverware. Joe Schmidt cannot ignore him, he gets called up for Ireland and levers that into a bumper central contract and comes home as Munster starter in 2/3 years. Or, he does a Geordan Murphy and settles down and spends his career in England – his form demands selection and he picks up 50+ caps over a long career. Going further down the outcome chain, he does what a previous Munster prodigy did and spends his career in the Premiership without ever nailing down a place in the Ireland squad – the Jeremy Staunton path. Worst case, he can’t get shirt, sets his career back two years and limps home with his tail between the legs having stalled in his development – this is probably unlikely, he’s clearly talented and ambitious.

This career path is a little bit of an unknown, and carries risks for Irish rugby’s professional development model, but that’s not Hanrahan’s concern – he feels like he has more to offer and isn’t getting the chances at Munster. Nothing’s done yet, and he could yet sign on for Munster.  This could all have a happy ending, but even then, it has shone a spotlight on a curious unwillingness to embrace talent over the mundane.

The Passion of St Tibulus

This summer, when Axel Foley started his reign as Munster coach, there was a lot of talk about (brace yourself) a “return to traditional Munster values”. To be fair none of it came from Axel himself, but a meeja who had never really bought into the Rob Penney thing defaulted to assuming it would happen.  Those traditional Munster values, as we understand them, are something like an emphasis on the set piece, attacking by forwards around the fringes, and a gameplan strong on half backs kicking for territory.  But if pulled pork was among the most annoying phrases of 2014, ‘a return to traditional Munster values’ should be at least in the top five.  It’s become a sort of off the shelf commodity.  Get your return to traditional Munster values for just €29.99 at Argos.  Simply plug into the wall, and you automatically have a winning rugby team.

In recent weeks, Foley’s gameplan has been pretty effective, with wins in Sale (including an extra bonus traditional value of a late drop goal) and the Palindrome by a relative cricket score, and a satisfying slap-down of Globo Gym in Thomond. They have played a fairly narrow game, with CJ Stander carrying and big centres used to try and bash holes.  Foley’s one creative midfield outlet, JJ Hanrahan, has gone largely unused, when he’s a full deck to choose from at least.

There is, however, one traditional value not mentioned above, and it was best articulated by Axel himself – “we’re better when we are bitter”. Too right – a large portion of the Munster mytholgy is built on proving someone wrong – playing a big English or French team, taking a “they don’t rate us” mentality on to the field – and showing them who is boss. There are many classics of the genre, but our favourite was in Leicester in 2006 when Rog announced the week before the game that he could not accept the English players were any better than Irish ones (at a time when this was a controversial line), won with a last minute penalty into the rain from the halfway line. The perfect riposte – the arrogant English Tigers didn’t rate Munster, and they were shown up in their own house.  Munster still love the underdog tag.

In the build-up to this game last week, the talk was about how the Munster tight five would be dominant and Clermont would naturaly wilt in the cauldron that was Thomond on a Saturday night. No-one was under-rating Munster, and Clermont were painted as a powehouse, but ultimately a mentally frail team who always give you a chance no matter how good they are.  Everyone felt Munster would win.

If there was one team playing like they had a point to prove, one team that felt disregarded, it was Clermont. And they played like a Deccie-era Munster team facing the arrogant English. Munster looked a bit shell-shocked by the intensity Clermont were bringing, by the magnitude of the hits, by the un-Brock James like fortitude of Camille Lopez and by the refusal to bow down before the waves of passion from the stands. Lopez missed three early kicks but all were difficult and noe were especially badly struck.  Any supsicion that he had been Thomond-ed fell apart once he nailed a drop goal from the 10m line.

Clermont had the Munster scrum in trouble – how BJ Botha lasted 80 minutes is beyond us. The lineout malfunctioned – Duncan Casey’s hot arm is cooling at just the wrong time – and one-out rumbles were stopped on, or behind, the gainline every time. Of the forwards, only Tommy O’Donnell carried effectively (and he was superb, carrying for 44m, compared to 47m for the rest of the pack) and the general, Conor Murray, was under pressure and mis-firing, for once. Has Paul O’Connell ever been shunted backwards so often in a match?  CJ Stander had been Munster’s best forward in the early season, but he had a poor match; had Robin Copeland been available he might have been called ashore.

The most disappointing thing was the absence of a Plan B – in the last 10, Munster went through 20 phases in the Clermont half when Clermont took them behind the gainline every time they attacked the fringes of the ruck.  If you were one of those punters looking for a return to traditional Munster values – you had your wish granted.  Suggestions that Hanrahan would have made a difference in this match are miles off; he wouldn’t have seen the ball.

It felt like Munster simply did not rate Clermont and couldn’t get their heads around the fact that they were still unable to bash through the middle; that Clermont would eventually ‘give them a chance’ if they kept doing the same thing. The expected choke never happened, but this isn’t the time of year for it anyway – since the last time they played Munster in the pool stages, Clermont have qualified for five quarter finals in succession, topping the pool four times. In recent years, they have cruised through the pool stages and a succession of tough draws, including Leinster twice, Ulster, Leicester twice and the Ospreys – the tailspins are saved for the spring.  In fact Clermont deserve a huge amount of praise for the manner in which they won it.  Very few teams contest opposition lineouts in their own 22 these days, the vast majority prefering to set the maul defence, but Clermont were brave enough to put a man in the air and only went and stole the ball.  Chouly said they knew O’Connell would call it on himself.

Simply put – Munster weren’t braced for this kind of contest, and have likely paid with their participation in the tournament. Peter O’Mahony said straight after the game that Munster owed their fans a big performance in the return leg – problem is, the Marcel Michelin isn’t a very hospitable place for a last stand – however well Munster come out, they are unlikely to get the win they need. Going to Saracens and winning offers a better chance, but still less than probable.  Saracens are still in the competition and will need the result just as badly as Munster.  Munster needed the bitter attitude going in on Saturday, but somehow misplaced their indignation.

Now some caution needs to be thrown to the wind.  Foley talked about using both Keatley and Hanrahan together in the team earlier this season, but he has stuck with Hurley as a hole-punching inside centre.  Hanrahan’s scarcity of gametime in the important matches has been one of the season’s curiosities, because it’s not as if he hasn’t played well when he’s been on.  Foley needs to embrace the possibilites he offers, because they will not beat Clermont by trucking it up for another 80 minutes. But at least they’ll be underdogs and largely written off this time.  That always helps.

T Minus 400 – Part One

Following the November series / Autumn internationals / over-marketed “Irish” drink owned by London-based multinational series, Ireland now have the following games left on their pre-RWC schedule:

  • 5 Six Nations games (Italy, France, England, Wales, Scotland)
  • The Barbarians in the Debt Star in May
  • four World Cup warm-ups (Wales x 2, Scotland, England)

Ignoring the money-spinner in Thomond, and taking the reasonable case that Joe Schmidt will have his RWC15 squad close to finalised before the warm-ups, that gives Ireland’s players 400 minutes to cement their place in the squad .. or not, in some cases. We can’t, of course, ignore that possibility that someone will play themselves out of the squad in August, as did the unfortunate Tomas O’Leary four years ago, but then again it’s unlikely Joe Schmidt will persist for someone so badly out of form for so long that it becomes feasible. What is more likely, given the attrition rate in general, and even for the well-managed Irish players in recent years – only Jamie Heaslip of the notional first XV has avoided injury in Schmidt’s time – is that certain players will need to prove their fitness in the warm-ups. But that’s an unknown. For now, anyway. And the warm-ups themselves might result in injuries – Wally, and then Jirry (in training) were casualties in 2011.

It seems a good time to review what the composition of that squad might look like – and there is very little scope for experimentation left, so it’s unlikely we’ll see many changes from here (injuries, as ever, excepted)

This time out, the RWC squad will be 31, with the extra player presumably designed to be a tighthead prop – 23 man matchday squads in international rugger are an innovation from this cycle. In the three previous World Cups, Ireland have gone for splits of 17-13 (2003) and 16-14 (2007 & 2011). A working assumption of a split of 17-14 seems like a good starting point. Based on previous picks, we can expect the following:

  • 3 hookers
  • 5 props (1 more than in 2007 and 2011)
  • 4 second rows
  • 5 backrows (note: do not need all to be specialist blindsides)
  • 3 scrummies
  • 2 fly halves
  • 3 centres
  • 4 wingers
  • 2 full backs

While some Irish players, particularly in the backline, are multi-functional in nature, they are not necessarily viewed as Swiss army knives by the coach. For example, while Mad-dog might provide bench cover in several positions, most indications from Schmidt are that he is seen primarily as a fly-half. Equally, Ferg has played centre for Ireland (most recently in Argentina) and provided bench cover for centre during the Six Nations, but was used exclusively as a wing in Schmidt’s final season at Leinster, and started his 8 tests prior to Tucuman on the wing. It feels unlikely that he’ll fall into the centre bucket, but is really a wing who can cover centre if necessary.

Let’s have a look:

Hooker: Besty and Sean Cronin are miles ahead of the pack and are on the plane – Besty is a key lieutenant on the team, valued for his work in the scrum and at rucks; and Cronin is a very different player, an excellent carrier who offers dynamism, if not quite the same technical attributes as Best. Both players are prone to the yips – there was genuine surprise when Cronin, the hooker, was able to … er … hook effectively against the Boks; and Besty’s radar has the habit of going down for games at a time – even resulting in his omission from the original 2013 Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions squad. After that, Risteard O hOstrais is next in line, and had a good November series coming back from injury. Damien Varley stepped in for Jirry in 2011, and he’s the most Best-like replacement – questionable throwing, good scrummager and brilliant breakdown merchant. He’s injured right now, but could be in the mix. With Mike Sherry’s perma-injury problems showing no sign of abating, Rob Herring, who did well in Argentina, hs some credit in the bank but has been a marginal figure at Ulster this season. One bolter is Duncan Casey, whose lineout stats this year are exceptional.  He didn’t even make November’s training squad – but it’s early days for him and Ireland’s lineout wasn’t any great shakes this series, so his throwing could make him a valuable option.  If he keeps on playing like he is, he could come into the reckoning.  But currently, all signs point towards Best, Cronin and Strauss.

On the plane: Besty, Cronin. Most likely for final seat: Strauss Also in the picture: Varley, Casey, Herring, Sherry

Prop: The flogging of Mike Ross continues unabated – he’s started every game under Joe Schmidt, and his importance of the team is illustrated by the 80 minutes he played against the Wobblies. However, it’s worth noting that the next two best tightheads were injured, and by all accounts the plan was to reduce his workload until injury stepped in. Rodney Ah Here was his backup both in Argentina and this November but, if fit, Marty Moore should be the number two to Ross. Of the other options, Nathan White had been pencilled in for Ah Here’s role until he got crocked, Deccie Fitz might be the best scrummager in Ireland (bar none) but struggles for 20 minute shifts these days, and Stephen Archer is behind Ah Here, which isn’t saying much. On the other side, DJ Church and Jack McGrath are on the plane.  It could be Schmidt picks two specialist tightheads and uses McGrath as the filler inner in case of tighthead emergencies. Dave Kilcoyne had a good series and has probably put some clear blue water between himself and James Cronin at international level – even if Cronin out-wrestles him by the end of the year, Schmidt will put some value on his being involved in the camp up to this point.

On the plane: Ross, Moore, Healy, McGrath Most likely for final seat: Killer Also in the picture: Cronin, White, Ah Here, Archer, Fitzpatrick

Second Row: The incumbents are the mighty, manic Paul O’Connell and the ever-improving Devin Toner – this pair are on the plane. Next up, its Iain Henderson, the new Willie John McBride. Henderson is laid up having taken elective surgery to be in prime nick for the RWC – taking one of Ulster’s best players out for 4 ERC games, when the backups are average, shows his importance to Ireland. We expect Henderson to slot straight into the Six Nations 23, and perhaps even start a game – Henderson still likely has bulking out to do, but, of Irish locks of the same height (198cm) he is already 6kg heavier than Dave Foley (4 years older), 1kg heavier than Dan Tuohy (7 years older) and 2kg heavier than O’Connell (13 years older). And all that while being the best ball carrier in the unit, and a skillful and influential player already. The kid is a phenomenon. The last place is a shootout between that aforementioned Foley and Tuohy, the possibly sometime returning Donnacha Ryan and the slowly sagging Mike McCarthy. If Ryan comes back from injury the player he was 3 years ago, he’s red hot favourite – at this stage however, the question seems to be if he comes back at all, not what type of player he comes back as. McCarthy has been slowly regressing since that performance against the Boks two years ago, and appears unlikely to reverse that career graph. Dan Tuohy was unfortunate (in our view) to miss out on the RWC11 squad, and offers something that the others don’t – good hands and a handy eye for the tryline. However, Foley feels like he is a nose ahead right now – if he keeps up this seasons form, he is favourite. You would have a slight qualm about dropping him in against the big second rows Italy and France like to field – Will Skelton treated him like a speedbump on Saturday – but he’s 4th choice, hopefully that won’t be necessary.

On the plane: O’Connell, Toner, Henderson Most likely for final seat: Foley or Tuohy Also in the picture: Ryan, McCarthy

Back Row: At one point, we seemed like we  might have a mighty fight over the last slot in this unit, but if we bring five players, it looks like we know who they are. Rhys Ruddock was our best player in the Argentina tour, and stepped into the stricken Chris Henry’s shoes with aplomb, putting in two excellent displays against two very tough (and different) opponents. He appears to have put himself in an excellent position to be on the plane. And speaking of Henry, if he comes back from a frightening brain injury, he’s likely to travel as well – Henry is one of the very few players than Joe Schmidt has specifically tailored a gameplan for (the 2012 HEC final) and was a huge influence in the Six Nations. But little can be taken for granted with such a serious condition; Ulster have said they are ‘hopeful he will return to professional rugby’, so it’s a case of fingers crossed for now.  Moving on to more clear-cut matters: Jamie Heaslip – he’s in, and Peter O’Mahony – he’s in too. Which leaves one of the few world class players in our ranks – Sean O’Brien. If fit, he is most certainly not only going, but playing. But he’ll have been out for so long, he will have to show that he’s capable of being the same player as previously.  So assuming the best for our two injured men, that’s the five – simples. Now, this is a very tough and attritional position, so, to be frank, we’d be pleasantly surprised if we get to September with all five ready to play. So hope remains for the rest. Of those, Jordi Murphy, backup during the Six Nations, is probable first reserve. Another in contention would be Tommy O’Donnell, who looks close to his form of 2013, although not making it off the bench against Oz didn’t speak volumes to the coaches confidence in him. Robbie Diack has had a steady start to his international career, albeit an unspectacular one – to be frank, it’s difficult to see us winning the tournament if we are this far down the depth chart. Dom Ryan and Robin Copeland, a genuine number 8, saw gametime in November too, and got some good reviews, but both are likely to be thinking about provincial starts before the World Cup is in their mind.

On the plane: Heaslip, O’Mahony, Ruddock Fitness permitting: O’Brien, Henry Also in the picture: Murphy, O’Donnell, Diack, Ryan, Copeland

So that’s the forwards, and, of the 17 slots up for grabs, we reckon 14 are pretty much decided, injuries allowing. That’s a pretty good and stable base to be building from. Our eyes and brains are getting tired now, so we’ll be back tomorrow with the backs, where we have a bit more uncertainty.  We have question marks at inside centre, and wing is a position where there is scope to take form into account a little more, plus we have two giant elephants in the selectorial room – no, not Ah Here and Deccie Fitz, but Keith Earls and Luke Roysh – their performances could range anywhere between ‘never play again this season’ or ‘break into the Ireland team’ – we simply have no idea. But we’ll talk more about that tomorrow.

Anglo-Irish Rivalry

Since 2007, when Leicester lost to Wasps in an all-English Heineken Cup final, the Irish have lorded it over the arrogant English © Gervais de Thornleille – four tournament victories to none, five finalists to three and ten semi-finalists to six … all from approximately half the tournament representation. The perceived advantage in qualification enjoyed by the three major Irish provinces was one of the drivers of the ERCC setup (even though it’s bollocks – under any qualification rules, the three would have cruised through in most seasons).

This weekend, all three provinces played English opponents – and they struggled mightily. The combined half-time score was 62-21 to the Premiership – an average of 21-7, although it should be noted that it was a very blustery weekend and in each case the English teams had the wind at their backs in the first half. In the second halves, all three Irish teams came out and fought for their lives in the tournament and began to show something like the quality we all think they have – Leinster and Munster eked out wins over Wasps and Sale, and Ulster got close enough to earn a bonus point and leave Leicester somewhat worried and mildly panicky. Combined, the score was 71-70 to les Anglais. Two of the three games were played in England, but still, this wasn’t by any means the cream of this year’s Boshiership season – the English teams stand 5th, 8th and 10th. Or in other words, the same berths occupied by Connacht, Embra and Cardiff in the Pro12 – none of whom are gracing this years HEC.

This was hardly an outstanding weekend from the provinces, and it really felt like muscle memory keeping them in it at times – BT Sport might be over-anxious to sell this as a brand-new tournament, but the provinces’ collective history and experience certainly told at times when there was a prospect of wipeout.

A quick word on each.  Munster were able to use the wind to good effect in the second half and Sale just couldn’t get out of their own half.  Any platform they did get, they found Peter O’Mahony and Dave Foley all over their lineout ball.  And in CJ Stander they have found a wrecking ball.  This was a performance for the ages, he just could not be contained.  At times he looked to be going into contact too upright, but is just so strong he could keep going.  Remarkable!  They still have a problem at centre though.  Hurley’s up-and-down season hit a trough here, and JJ Hanrahan’s nicely angled kick to the corner late in the match showed his contrasting style in a good light.  Also, Simon Zebo seems a little out of sorts?

Three yers ago, Ulster lost in Welford Road and showed no cutting edge whatsoever, and got beaten.  Those days are certainly gone, and Ulster now boast a backline capable of the sort of try that Tommy Bowe dotted down on Saturday night.  With such potency behind the pack, they’ll be annoyed they gave Leicester a three try start in the match.  Coupled with Jackson’s conversion blooper, it felt like an Ulster performance that only got to 90% intensity; never enough to win in a ground like Welford Road.  Still, they’re alive in the pool, but must beat Toulon this weekend.

As for Leinster, they were the only one of the three at home, but this was another bounty of handling errors and tear-your-hair-out stuff from them.  It’s becoming the default.  Injuries are a mitigating factor and once the team was announced sans Messrs. Kearney and Ross, this had the potential to be a banana skin.  Again, they dug themselves out of a corner, and used the wind to decent effect in the second half.  Amid the injury crisis, Dom Ryan and Darragh ‘Fanj’ Fanning have stepped up admirably this season, and continued that streak here.

There is no doubt the delight we take in beating English teams, and we find it hard to really rate them – perhaps they are better than we think… and perhaps we aren’t as good as we think we are.  Next week, things get dialled up a notch as Munster face Saracens.  The last installment of this rivalry was a damp squib, but a repeat is unlikely.  We’ll have a fair idea of where everyone stands afterwards.

New Broom

As Gerry might say, plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose. The brand-new European rugby tournament is here, and it’s … err .. completely different. For example, it’s got a better TV deal – oh no, wait, just a French domestic one and a UK/Ireland one where fans aren’t sure what package they need to see their team on a given week – ok, more commercial clout – wait, off that, same sponsor – better governance? – same staff, but in non-cowboy country – well, that’s something. Phew!

On field, we’re down from 24 to 20 teams, having chopped some of the chaff (Connacht, Cardiff, Embra and the Zebras) and that’s no bad thing. We’ve been left with a couple of stonking pools (1 and 3) but, to be fair, there are also a couple of duds in there (2 and possibly 4). We still see three teams as going oh-from-six (Treviso, Scarlets and Sale) and three others as having essentially no chance of progression (Wasps, Castres, Racing Metro) – meaning an expected knockout stage lineup as very similar to the last couple of years. We reckon you’ll have 6 of last years quarter finalists back in April for the runoff and, presumably much to McCafferty’s chagrin, three of them will be Irish! Whoop-de-whoop. So here goes this year’s flight of fancy (or maybe not, we got seven right last year):

Pool 1 (Globo Gym, Munster, Clermont, Sale Sharks):

Three of last year’s four semi-finalists – this is one tough pool. Saracens and Clermont are top of their respective leagues, and Munster will need all of their fabled Europan cup nous to get out of this one.  When two of the three met last year, Saracens made mincemeat of Clermont, winning by 40 points. That could be relevant here as Clermont are not the strongest mentally. It’s hard to see the Sharks winning a game – they are languishing in the Boshiership and are a clear level below the rest. They aren’t an intimidating presence, even at home, and are bonus point fodder. This could easily see the big three trade home wins with two qualifiers decided by bonus points. Saracens look to have the best recent history here (runners up in HEC and Premiership last year) and are the easiest to back as the most likely to win at Munster or the Marcel Michelin. After that, if it came down to a Munster vs Clermont HEC-off in front of teary, rabid  fans, we’d back Munster. Just.

Prediction: Saracens to win (70% confidence level), Munster to qualify as runners-up (50.01% confidence level)

Pool 2 (Leinster, Castres, Harlequins, Wasps):

An utter dud of a pool – Leinster are playing like drains and struggling with a gameplan, on-pitch direction and a lengthy injury list. If they had Munster’s draw, we’d give them virtually no chance of making it through, but they don’t – they have a bit of a gimme. Castres are in the Top14 nether regions, and rarely give a hoot about Europe, and Wasps will be playing in front of zero fans and are reliant on Andy Goode – those two are out. Quins have something about them and are a tough nut to crack at the Stoop, but it’s hard to see them doubling up on the bunnies. They haven’t quite pushed on since their glorious championship-winning season, though any team with Danny Care and Nick Evans at half-back has to be at least useful.  If Leinster can win in Castres in round two then they are on the path.  Where Quins will be dangerous is in the race for second place against Munster – if they win four games, they’ll be in the mix – the brave and the faithful should be cheering full-throated for a pair of Leinster whuppings. Leinster may not hit top gear but they have the experience to deal with this lot.

Prediction: Leinster to win (95% confidence level)

Pool 3 (Toulon, Leicester, Ulster, Scarlets):

Pool of death! Scarlets are the bunnies here – they are <insert patronising platitude here> but are beatable at home and consider defence optional. They are capable of pulling one outrageous win out of the bag, but we’re expecting them to be whitewashed.  Of the three remaining, one are double European and reigning Top14 champions, one have been bridesmaids so many times they are in danger of becoming the Northampton Saints, and one are an injury-addled shadow of their former selves. Toulon are deservedly tournament favourites, and they are unlikely to become unstuck here – they could field two teams that would win this pool, and are good enough to beat anyone. We have covered Ulster already, and first up is the best time to play Leicester away – Barnesy feels Ulster are tournament dark horses, and they have enough tough wins in the European locker (Leicester home and away, Montpellier away, Clermont home, Saints away, Munster away) to warrant some faith here. They have shown themselves adept at getting through the pool stages, but have lost their heads in knockout games with exasperating frequency.  Time to deliver, boys.

Prediction: Toulon to win (80% confidence level), Ulster to qualify as runners-up (70% confidence level)

Pool 4 (Glasgow, Montpellier, Ooooooooooooooooooooooooohhh Bath, Toulouse)

This is a very interesting pool – unlike the previous three, there is no standout team here, and you can make a coherent case for each to qualify. The least coherent case is probably the Montpellier one – they are down a couple of forwards from two years ago, and Francois Trinh-Duc is out until 2015 – they gave up on the HEC after losing to Ulster at home last year, and might not be bothered. We’d dearly love to tip Glasgow to make the breakthrough – great for the Pro12 and a very likeable team addicted to high-risk, watchable rugby – but they have three tough away games ahead, and we can’t quite bring ourselves to back them in any of them. Potential is there, and the pool is up for grabs, but they’ll need to show us something new. Bath are flying high-ish in the Boshiership, marshalled by the quicksilver George Ford, but one feels dirty mucky French packs won’t quite be to their liking – they looked primed to be arm-wrestled out of it. Which leaves European aristocrats ™ boring bosh merchants Toulouse. Which team will show up – the one who beat Saracens twice, or the one who lost at home to Connacht and bent the knee in Thomond? Either way, they have the quality in their squad and consistent experience of just topping the pool to prevail here.

Prediction: Toulouse to win (60% confidence level)

Pool 5 (Northampton Saints, Racing Metro, Hairsprays, Treviso)

Let’s start with the easy bit – Treviso won’t win a game. The Saints look the best team here – they (finally) won the Premiership last year and are riding high again – in the last three years, they have come unstuck against Irish teams at home, this time around the draw is kinder and a quarter-final beckons. For the runners-up slot and (we reckon) the last place in the knockouts it’s red-hot young fearless Ospreys, with a pair of excellent halves, versus behemoth bosh-heavy moneybags Racing Metro. The Parisians are without Jonny Sexton for the opening rounds, and are really tough to have any confidence in – we’d like the Spreys to continue their recent form and get back to the knockout stages.  Backing them to transfer their Pro12 form to Europe has been a losing trade in recent years, but maybe this time it will be different?

Prediction: Saints to win (90% confidence level), Ospreys to qualify as runners-up (70% confidence level)

So there you have it – out go Leicester and Clermont and in come the Saints and the Ospreys. The group winners are mucking in for the all-important home draw – and without knowing who has that prize in the bag, or the home semi-final draw, picking winners is a fools errand. We will say this though, given the Saints pool, and the guaranteed 10 points from Benetton, they will expect a home draw – and they are a decent bet at 13/2.

Perception is Reality

It’s funny how one game can change the perception of a team. Especially when it’s Leinster vs Munster – for all the two provinces successes, they still measure themselves against one another. It’s pretty tough to remember before the two most famous of their clashes, but in both cases, perceptions after the game were diametrically different to those before:

  • 2006: Before the game, Munster were thought of as having lost their best chance to win a HEC when losing an epic semi-final to Wasps in Lansdowne Road. Leinster were coming off a most stunning second half of attacking rugby in Toulouse (an actual fortress back then) and were slight favourites going into a game where it was “how do you stop Leinster’s razzle-dazzle back play?” Post-game, Munster morphed in an unstoppable machine of forward power and passion, and Leinster became the ladyboys
  • 2009: Leinster were still the ladyboys – they’d tightened up up front, but couldn’t score tries and were liable to lose to a Castres or an Embra and not one to put any money on. Munster were double European champions who had just hammered the Hairspray Glacticos in the quarter-finals. The hubris was in overdrive, but then 80 minutes later, Munster had chinks in the armour – now they were an ageing team whose aura was punctured, while Leinster were a force to be reckoned with.

Nobody’s saying this game will prove to be as landscape-shifting as those, but the comprehensive nature of Munster’s victory at least passed an unwanted torch up the N7 for the next few weeks.  On Friday, Leinster had had a scratchy start to the season, but Munster were supposedly bordering on crisis – management’s feelings on some fringe squad players had gone public and it felt like the squad hadn’t quite managed to forget about it. They had lost in Thomond twice, in front of meagre attendances and only managed to beat hapless Eye-talians.

Now? Well, Munster are back to porridge – a pack whose feral intensity cannot be matched, driven on by the personality of Paul O’Connell and led by the general behind the pack – this time not a 10, but a 9; Conor Murray. The hard-working backs chip in, but it’s all about the piano shifters. And CJ Stander?!  What a find.  He looks increasingly like the real deal. And who cares about the early season messing about? Don’t worry about the Ospreys or whatever, we can do it when it matters. We got this one.  Was it ever any different?

It was remarkable how Munster got across the gainline in nearly every phase, cleared out brilliantly, and presented the ball quickly. When the pack deigned to let the backs have the ball, Murray distributed and kicked superbly, putting up contestable box kicks (which Munster invariably eventually won) and showing up the callow positioning of hipster’s choice Mick McGrath. Dinny Hurley had an excellent game, fixing the Leinster centres and making space for Keatley to orchestrate yet more gainline success. They were more disciplined than the four – four! – yellow cards suggests. The first was for cumulative penalties in Leinster’s half, and the fourth in garbage time. Bird-brained pair BJ Botha and Dave Foley conspired to give Leinster a thoroughly undeserved toehold in the game, but predictably they couldn’t take advantage.

And Leinster? Well, Leinster are the ones bordering on crisis now. They weren’t exactly in a fantastic place before the game, but they were so utterly dominated at the breakdown and now have been left with more injuries and selection issues (not of the good sort) in several positions. Jimmy Gopperth, for once not having an armchair ride behind a dominant pack, was abysmal – his passing was all over the place and his kicking aimless and often pointless. The nadir came when he kicked the ball twice – twice! – down the throat of Munster’s outside backs in oceans of space when Leinster were two – two! – men up. Barnesy remarked that Gopperth panicked, and that’s fair – he crumbled under pressure. Matt O’Connor has hoisted up the Gopperth flag, but even he has to reconsider based on that performance – Madigan might a little wilder, but if your pack is going backwards, Gopperth effectively offers you no game-winning options. As Keynes might have put it, when your outside half plays himself off the team, you change your opinion.

At the breakdown, Leinster were blown away – Dom Ryan finished the game as the team’s leading tackler, but had no discernible impact on the game, bar a few Hollywood tackles on Robin Copeland. On paper Leinster looked to have an advantage at the breakdown, with Munster’s backrow stacked with ball carriers, but that was turned on its head. Leinster are really down to the bare bones – Jordi Murphy can’t return quickly enough, and Shane Jennings would also have made a big difference.

And to add to DJ Church, Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Sean O’Brien, Murphy, Shane Jennings, Luke Fitz Roysh, Dave Kearndashian on the disabled list is Ferg, Tadgh Furlong and Rosser. Ferg had a horrendous-looking leg injury when some big lump fell on him, and both tightheads limped off looking uncomfortable.  Even Joe Schmidt’s Super-Duper All Conquering Leinster wouldn’t have been able to withstand such an injury crisis. And this iteration of Leinster aren’t super-duper or all conquering.

In weeks ahead, what looked like a group of death in the ERCC will now be approached with confidence by Munster (though it’s still pretty horrible), whereas Leinster’s gimme group suddenly appears daunting with a decimated pack and no direction to speak of. Funny how perceptions change innit?

Postscript: for this Ulster fan, the game has to be commended for being pretty watchable – not something that can be said about recent vintages of the fixture. High fives all round!

Very Mild Fever in the Aviver

Four weeks of decidedly ho hum build-up is over and the real season begins this weekend. At least that’s how it feels anyway. Leinster v Munster has come to represent the start of the ‘season proper’ and this season is no different. Coming the week before the first round of European matches, the tuning up is over and the intensity increases several notches.  Unless any province has a disastrous start to the season, the early skirmishes tend not to matter too much. The real business starts now.

Unfortunately, Munster have brushed with disaster in a spectacularly ignominious start to Axel Foley’s leadership. The catastrophic own goal of the leaked player review email has set the tone for a dire start. If Foley didn’t know the extent of the job he has at Munster, he does now. Two wins and two defeats doesn’t sound that bad, and is no worse than Leinster, but the wins were against meagre Italian opposition and the defeats were at home, where the proletariat have gone a bit cold on the revolution, seemingly preferring the more bourgeois pursuits of sitting at home watching deh telly. Consider that Munster still have all their hard away games to come this season and it already looks like they’re on the back foot. To make matters worse, the media – who we assumed would be utterly supine to the point of cheerleading Foley – have been surprisingly unsparing, with Gervais Thornley particularly critical.

Not that Leinster have been that much better. They’ve won their home games at least and both their defeats have been narrow and against teams that often beat them, but the same problems as last season have marked all their performances: in particular a lack of attacking cutting edge and a rudimentary game plan at the centre of which appears to be a desire to kick the ball to the opposition and chase it half-heartedly.

Much has been made of the lacklustre build-up to the latest round of what has come to be one of the biggest – but at times the most suffocating – derbies in the rugby calendar. The middling form of both teams hasn’t helped, and neither fanbase will be arriving feeling especially bullish. Indeed, the overriding feeling is one of fear. Leinster fans are thinking ‘If we lose to this Munster team…’ while Munster fans have come to expect defeat in the Aviva, and another loss would mearly exacerbate the sense of gloom around the team.

It doesn’t help that lots of players are injured: the derby would be so much more attractive (not to mention intense) if Sean O’Brien, Luke Fitzgerald, Cian Healy, Keith Earls, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony were on the pitch, among others. But they won’t be – although O’Mahony is apparently back training and Munster must be desperate to get their talisman and most talented forward back in the team. A whole heap of jerseys are up for grabs and how both sides line up, and how they play, will be the first item of fascination.

In the front row it’s advantage Leinster, with Jack McGrath making a timely return to fitness. Either Mike Ross or Marty Moore will start on the other side, and the collective should be enough to get the edge on the waning BJ Botha and David Kilcoyne. At hooker Sean Cronin has tremendous pedigree but has yet to hit the heights of last season’s stupendous form and Munster have unearthed yet another fine No.2 in Duncan Casey. In a lineout-heavy game he hit his man an impressive 20 out of 21 times against the Ospreys. He’s young and looks set to go far.

Kane Douglas has arrived and should get another hit out alongside Devin Toner. Toner’s ability to give and take a pass was one of the more impressive elements of Leinster’s win over Cardiff last Friday. We can only presume that Paul O’Connell will be partnered by Dave Foley. If Axel persists with O’Callaghan it will be a staggeringly bad pick, as the once Stakhanovite lock is now several shades of completely useless. Good partnerships both, but O’Connell gives Munster the slight edge.

In the backrow, Leinster are down three opensides, with Jennings, O’Brien and Murphy all out. Dominic Ryan should keep his place, and he’s having his longest run in the team for some time. The stratospheric expectations from 2011 have been put away but he can still become a decent squad player. Heaslip has started well, as ever, his footwork especially impressive and Rhys Ruddock is one of the revelations of the season. Always strong but not particularly dynamic, he looks to have added a deal of explosiveness over the summer and it’s helping him break tackles. A strong showing here, and he’s duking it out with POM for the green 6 shirt.

Munster will line out with CJ Stander at 6 and Copeland at 8. We’re guessing one of O’Donnell and Dougall will play at 7, with O’Mahony probably not quite ready. It’s a good unit. Stander is proving a big success and Copeland may not have the multi-faceted game of a Jamie Heaslip, but he can certainly carry ball. Both can get Munster on the front foot.  How the two contrasting No.8’s get on in direct opposition will be instructive. If O’Donnell plays, who is going to focus on the breakdown?

Come noon on friday, all eyes will be on the backlines to see if the cause-celebre 10/12s get picked. We think Madigan will – at 12 – and Hanrahan won’t. The Gopperth-Madigan-D’arcy axis had its moments on Friday and is good for another run out. McFadden and Darragh Fanning will probably stay in the team. Fanning playing in a Leinster v Munster derby – there you have it.

We’ve nailed our colours to the mast as regards Munster’s centre picks, but we’re expecting Keatley-Hurley-Smith and all that goes with it. Leinster will be happy not to face Hanrahan. Simon Zebo and van den Heever should give Munster a huge advantage out wide, so it would strike us as barmy not to include a centre who can pass a bit.  Dare we suggest that Leinster will be looking to bosh through the middle, while Munster look to move the ball wide as often as possible?

The match is unlikely to be a classic with so many big names and good players missing. But the game is timely for both sides; it has a habit of focusing minds.  Munster will surely put up a better show than they have so far. It was reassuring to see Foley talking about accuracy and execution and playing down the importance of the pishun. Nonetheless it’s hard to see an outcome other than a win for Leinster on their home turf, even if the Palindrome has lost some of its lustre for them in recent outings.  Strangely, performance could be more important than the result for both teams, or sets of fans at least.  Munster might take a loss if they at least go down swinging, while Leinster fans have been starved of quality under O’Connor and want to see some panache.

There are some signs of hand-wringing that “only” 40,000 tickets have been sold, but, to be frank, that’s about 30,000 more than the rank rugby served up so far by both sides warrants. If the improvement doesn’t happen, both provinces will go into European rugby in as glum humour as they ever have done. One can only wish RTE’s Rog-cam was re-constituted by Sky, live from Jonny’s apartment, to see the two generals who have given so much to this fixture shake their heads and go back to the foie gras and comte reduction and croissantsin order to get through the substitution-riddled, error-strewn second half.