We need to talk about POM

The WoC equivalent of Godwin’s Law involves a certain divisive backrow forward from Cork – whatever we post on, it’s virtually inevitable that the comments box will descend into a debate about Peter O’Mahony. While his defenders saw him as a skillful and athletic lineout forward, his detractors saw an argument-fond workshy show pony. We considered him an excellent lineout merchant, a good open field runner with skilful hands who clearly offers leadership possiblities, but one whose tackling is poor and desire for snarling too high – if he met his potential he could be be Ireland’s Tom Croft or Imanol Harinordoquoy, and if not, our Jonathan Thomas.

To  further confuse the already-muddied water, his media street team (who were numerous) constantly cited his workrate, bravery and inability to take a backward step. Whatever you think about him, none of those are his strengths. His simply is not David Wallace, no matter what Conor George wanted, and the terms of the debate were just far too fluid to have a sensible conversation about it. And it still persists – Cummiskey in the Irish Times seemed to think he won man of the match in the Wales game for getting into two fights, which, to our eyes, simply didn’t happen.

We talked about his ‘Good Face’ in the past, but it’s now arguable that the ridiculous media narrative around him hs now gone full circle to the point where it almost undersells his ability.  Munster pishun, fighting, bravery?  It’ll get you so far, but what about the jackalling technique and brilliant handling ability?  Those things require, y’know, talent, right?  Credit to the Second Captains for cutting through the BS and jokingly talking about ‘Brand O’Mahony’ and how his ‘entourage’ would be in his ear, telling him to shout out the anthems tunelessly and loudly and to celebrate turnovers as if they were a try to enhance it.

The first two rounds of the Six Nations have marked the true international arrival of Peter O’Mahony, in his 20th and 21st caps. His first couple of seasons on the international scene corresponded with Ireland’s worst run since the 1990s, with the deepening crisis at the tail end of Deccie’s time in charge impacting all areas of the team. His first three starts were in three different positions, and the backrow unit rarely functioned well in the fag-end of the Deccie era. The team was used to the beef and skill of Fez and Wally, and O’Mahony was a completely different player – he wasn’t integrated at all well into the XV and not only did he rarely shine, but Jamie Heaslip’s performances went down a level as roles shifted.

That’s not to say he didn’t have his moments, and there was the odd good day amid the gloom, notably the draw at home to France (of which we performed an in depth analysis and found the backrow all showed up well, each man got through a pile of work, and O’Mahony did best – apart from Steve Walsh *swoon*).  It’s worth remembering that in that game Peter O’Mahony’s standout contributions were a couple of brilliant ruck turnovers as opposed to big runs in wide channels.  Sound familiar?  But it’s hard for anyone, let alone a rookie backrow only learning the international game, to look consistently good when the team is going nowhere and doesn’t look like it knows what it’s doing.

With the arrival of the Milky Bar Kid, O’Mahony has now a defined place in the team – positioned much closer to rucks, his breakdown work has formed the platform of Ireland’s success. He carries much less, and still isn’t a great tackler in either frequency or impact (he has notoriously never reached double figures in a test, but we don’t think this is as important as it is sometimes made out to be – in this Championship, he has kept pace with Henry and Heaslip’s numbers, which will do us). He has been simply brilliant, probably our best player, and has stepped into a lieutenant role in the team.  As captain for Munster this year, he has improved on the field in both play and conduct and it seems to bring out the best in him.

Equally noticable was his discipline – the shirt-grabbing rabble-rouser has been replaced by a focused and cold-eyed professional. Wales continually tried to rile him on Saturday but he never wavered once, concentrating instead on winning the game. He seemed .. coached .. odd as it might sound. The only moment when the old O’Mahony resurfaced was when he almost talked himself into a sin-binning when Barnes had asumed his punctilious hat.  [O’Connell was off the pitch at this point, with Heaslip assuming captaincy duties, and he probably should have smelt the danger and made himself present at the little chat and gagged O’Mahony.]  Twelve months ago, we still thought his place in the team was in question, but right now he should be forming the backbone of our team through to RWC19. Heck, even Leinsterlion has conceded that he’s at least average.  The backrow unit has improved beyond all recognition, yet its best player, possibly best two players, are out injured.

The game in Twickenham represents another great opportunity for O’Mahony to do his feet-planted-in-the-ground-bent-over-the-ball thing, as England lack a dedicated fetcher and rely on two six-and-a-halves in Robshaw and Wood to divvy up breakdown duties.  He’ll need to watch out for Dan Cole, though, who is a hell of a clearer-outer.  The rangy No.6 being dragged up from the ruck while the referee’s arm lifts to the sky in Ireland’s direction is fast becoming our favourite sight of the Six Nations.

And did you know this little discussed fact: he once played on the wing in an AIL final.  Fancy that!

Captain Fantastic

There is plenty of speculation about who the Milky Bar Kid will hand his armband to. For some, it seems particularly relevant as it gives Schmidt the chance to prove he isn’t inherently biased towards the Blue Meanies and pick someone who isn’t from the Pale. This is nonsense of course, but doesn’t make it any less important. Deccie’s well-meaning attempt to position Ireland for RWC15 by picking Jamie Heaslip  as last season’s captain [Aside: Deccie always picked Leinstermen as Ireland’s permanent captain – BIAS!] didn’t quite work out, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to do it. We might be late to the party in planning for the tournament, but that should be our horizon here. So who are the contenders?

Some Bloke Called Brian.  He has done the state some service, they might say. But he’ll be gone in nine months, and is only coming back from injury.  His leadership is so great it’s almost hard for the captain to be in charge, as Heaslip found last season, but this being his last year, there is surely no point in handing the armband.

Paul O’Connell. Favourite, due to his totemic pack leadership credentials, but an injury doubt for the first game, which doesn’t help his chances. Many of his best recent performances – think first Lions test – haven’t come as captain and he seems to function best as a leader, but not the leader. You’ll get his on-pitch leadership anyway, so it probably matters less to him than to some outside the camp.  Would be a fine choice in any case.

Jamie Heaslip. Divided opinion when appointed last year – some considered it a brave choice by a previously unimaginative coach, some a foolhardy choice  of an “absolute knob” (C. George). Undoubtedly, it didn’t work out, amid a team imploding on-field and off. Healsip didn’t help himself by wearing headphones absent-minded and naive post-game comments. But surely remains a respected leader within the team, and his relationship with Schmidt is presumably stronger than that he had with Kidney, which always looked like an uneasy alliance.  Schmidt used him as captain any time Cullen wasn’t around, and if O’Connell is injured, Heaslip probably becomes the favourite. He is also incumbent, so choosing Heaslip won’t be as controversial for Schmidt as it was for Deccie.

Rory Best. The stalking horse. Besty has been mentioned by precisely nobody, but he is who we would appoint. He is already part of the squad’s leadership corps, has plenty of experience, and has recovered from last season’s half-annus horribilis. Best will be around past RWC15, and has played a key role in husbanding some of the exciting youngsters at Ulster who are also now exciting youngsters in green (Henderson, Jackson, Marshall, Gilroy). A fine man, whose character is reflected by his reaction to being omitted from the initial Lions squad – he used the opportunity to recall the memory of the tragic Nevin Spence, and opined there was more to life.

Peter O’Mahony. Munster captain, and an important member of the squad. Has been excellent in red this season, and we will hopefully see him concentrating on 8 from here on, although that muddles things at national level where he’s most likely to play at 6. But he’s only bedding into the role with Munster, and handing him the national captaincy on top of that may seem like too much burden all at once. Still, he is presumably Frankie’s choice, and that has to count for something right?

Sean O’Brien.  Not an obvious choice as he looks more wrecking ball than strategist, but his game has matured recently, highlighted by his outstanding breakdown work in recent months.  Unduobtedly a key player for the incoming coach, and arguably now the best player in the country, but is he ready to lead it?  Probably not, but a possible wild-card nonetheless.

Paddy Wallace. Go on Joe, for a laugh. The righteous indignation would have us rolling in the aisles.

The Steve Walsh Show, and Ireland’s Backrow

Before we go through this game minute-by-minute, first let’s ask what the press made of the contribution of our back-row? The Sunday Times plaudits went to Peter O’Mahony – O’Reilly rates him highest (8, with 7’s for Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip), crediting his impressive all-round game while Denis Walsh had POM as man of the match. The Sindo had Sean O’Brien in contention for the gong (with Murray). The press in Blighty made no mention of our hotly-debated backrow, restricting themselves to managing to staying awake as two bald men fight over a comb while ENGLAND sniff a Grand Slam.

Based on the live Saturday viewing, we thought POM had his best game to date for Ireland, SOB was the highest class of the unit (what about that kick!) and Heaslip played with authority and continued his personal upturn in form in a green shirt. But will the statistics back it up? With due trepidation, we get reviewing ….

After cracking open two bottles of wine (Valpolicella Ripasso, in case you were wondering) and re-playing the entire game, stripping out Steve Walsh’s contributions, we have to say that the backrow appeared to work – it may not look conventional, but collectively they functioned well. All three men played well for the first time this series, and it was about as good as we have looked in that unit since Fez broke down.

We graded every action as:

  • +2: big play
  • +1: positive play
  • 0: neutral
  • -1: bad play
  • -2: awful play – a cross-field kick in your own 22 that goes straight to an opponent, for example

There are several things to note about our findings:

  1. Steve Walsh bestrode the match like a collossus – the man dominated the game, his tanned and ripped torso was rarely off-screen and he even refereed well – there was a clanger of a penalty on each side, but they balanced out. There was no shoving over of players, a la Conrad Smuth, but we were left in no doubt who was in charge – this was the Steve Walsh Show
  2. Morgan Parra’s passing was terrible – we have a lot more sympathy with Freddy than we did on first look, although he was rubbish too
  3. The volume of ruck inspecting by green shirts was ridiculous – either they don’t know what they are doing, or they do, and it’s rubbish. You would often have two green shirts in a ruck vs one blue, with two other green shirts inspecting – how can 11 men expect to break a 14-man defensive line?
  4. Donncha O’Callaghan’s tears during ‘Ireland’s Call’ were emotional. All the talk was of BOD, but this was likely Stakhanov’s last appearance in Lansdowne Road as well – whatever your opinion of him, 95 caps is a tremendous return and he will retire one of the most decorated players in our history. Hat tip.

What about her eyes the results, you say?

Well, looks like we picked the right week to stop sniffing glue.  All three men contributed hugely.  Our numbers have Peter O’Mahony scoring the most points by a cigarette paper, largely down to big turnovers (which got bonus points), but all three scored between 22 and 24 points – there’s some margin of error of course, and another review might place either of the other two in pole position, and we are sure people will disagree with some of our findings.  By the by, if we missed anything significant, please let us know.  We can attest to how tricky it is to capture every nuance of the match, especially in tight phases.

O’Mahony was the tidiest player, with only one error. He produced big plays when needed, two massive turnovers standing out, and (notably) didn’t start  any silly fights. His lineout work was good, and he tackled well.

Heaslip, as we suspected, was the groundhog/blindside groundhog – not always first to the ruck, but the most effective when he got there. Missed tackles were costly for Heaslip – two in two minutes against Kayser didn’t look good. As captain, we reviewed Heaslip’s decision-making (without awarding points) – with power comes responsibility. He was decisive and authoritative and looked, for the first time, a real leader. He trusted Jackson and the team seemed united and cohesive.

O’Brien was the most impactful player, and we feel we probably undersold his all-action excellence, but you live and die by the numbers. If you factor in the points earned for kicking and chasing, O’Brien scored the lowest pure back-row points, but he was almost Parisse-esque in his ubiquity at times.

Mauling was one of the big success stories of the day and all three were prominent, with good body positions and lots of aggression.  We awarded points for anyone who was in a maul which moved forwards, and there were plenty of them.  Heaslip in particular appears to excel at this element of the game, but all three were part of a huge mauling success.

All three players effectiveness declined in the second half, in tandem with Ireland’s in general. Some tables are below for your viewage.

NB: does not include Steve Walsh

NB: does not include Steve Walsh

NB: Steve Walsh's actions are broken down in the pdf file at the bottom

NB: Steve Walsh’s actions are broken down in the pdf file at the bottom

The complete analysis is below – feedback is welcomed and assumed, particularly from those who tweeted us at half-time from their high horse, assuming we’d make up stats to ensure O’Mahony wasn’t recognised – we expect a mea culpa below the line.

So, our preceonceptions turned out more or less correct.  Heaslip is the closest thing to an openside we have, but relies not so much on being the first man to the ruck, like a classic seven, but more on being the strongest man at the ruck.  O’Mahony plays like a No.8, and O’Brien is a carrying machine.  The numbers may be a jumble, but we seem to get away with it.

But one thing stuck out beyond all others.  Well though the three of them played, they were no match for Steve Walsh.  The tan, the arms, the demeanour, the chatty style, the mad new TMO rules he invented on the spot.  It’s Walsh’s world, the rest of us just live in it.

The full breakdown of every action is in the link below:

Backrow Stats – All Actions

Peter O’Mahony, the Rage Virus and Statistics

Ireland’s backrow is most confusing in its current iteration – it appears unbalanced (what’s new), consisting of an 8, a 6.5 and a 6/7/8 (delete as appropriate), and appears unable to grab a game by the scruff of the neck.  Far from the traditional roles one associates with the 6, 7 and 8, Ireland’s appears to be a jumble of roles.  Now, we’re not against fluidity of systems, but given Ireland’s recent results, it has to be asked – does the current backrow work?  For the record it looks like this:

No.6 Peter O’Mahony

Typical role of number 6: tackle anything that moves, truck dirty slow ball around the corner and try to turn it into quicker ball, add ballast to mauls, possible tail of lineout option

Prototype: Dan Lydiate, Stephen Ferris

Role of O’Mahony (as we understand it). Standing wide between the centres, looking to join up the play and make rangy breaks in midfield by handing off defenders.  Important part of lineout.

No. 7 Sean O’Brien

Typical role of number 7: arrive first at as many rucks as possible, win turnovers, track ball carriers, take and give offloads to bring continuity to play

Prototype: Sir Ruchie, David Pocock, Justin Tipuric

Role of O’Brien (as we understand it): primary ball carrier. Relied upon to repeatedly carry slow ball over the gainline and deliver huge tackle count in defence.

No.8 Jamie Heaslip

Typical role of number 8: set up attacks off the base of scrum, carry ball, usually allowed a little more free reign to stand wide from ruck to get ball in space, should have good hands, often a lineout option

Prototype: Sergio Parisse, Louis Picamoles

Role of Jamie Heaslip (as we understand it): used primarily in tight, where he is depended upon to clear rucks and win turnovers.  Seldom asked to carry the ball.

It’s certainly a far cry from, say, Wales’ uber-traditional backrow where the 6 (Lydiate / Jones), 7 (Warburton / Tipuric) and 8 (Felatau) are outstanding in the traditional primary roles.  As a unit, Ireland’s backrow performed well against Wales, were hopelessly outmuscled against England and did enough against Scotland to deliver sufficient clean ball and go-forward to win the game, which failed to happen for various reasons.  Looking at the individuals, we’d say O’Mahony was good against Wales, ordinary against England and poor against Scotland.  Heaslip was good against Scotland, poor against England and average against Wales.  O’Brien has probably been our best forward, heroically committed and hardworking – with the caveat that he has given away too many penalties.

Any time we try to have a rational debate, it degenerates quickly into bitter provincial bickering – Munster folk will point to Jamie Heaslip’s relative lack of visibility while Leinster and Ulster folk will decry Peter O’Mahony’s lack of impact, and lament the absence of the glorious Fez. Sean O’Brien is largely spared criticism, thankfully, for if we agreed on nothing, this would be a most depressing state of affairs.  The oddly fitting roles probably don’t help here.  We expect our 6 to be a tackling machine, and our 8 to be making big plays, but neither seems to be the case.

The statistics from ESPN Scrum bear out the above thesis.

Carrying: Heaslip has carried for 27 cumulative metres over three matches.  O’Mahony and O’Brien have over 90m each, with O’Mahony averaging over 4m a carry.  He made an eye-catching 65m from nine carries in his best game of the series, against Wales.  Carrying the ball further away from the ruck allows him more space to make metres, while O’Brien is asked to carry slow ball repeatedly.  He has made 44 attempted carries so far.

Tackling: O’Brien appears something of a workaholic, adding a huge tackle count to his carrying ability.  He has 28 successful tackles to his name.  Heaslip, as we’d expect given his responsibility close to the ruck, leads the tackle count on 30.  O’Mahony’s tackle count is somewhat dwarfed by the other two, on 13 over three games, again reflecting his tendency to  play further out from the ruck.

Discipline: O’Mahony has a reputation as a penalty machine, but he’s only cost his team two so far this series.  O’Brien has never shaken off his tendency not to roll away quickly enough in the tackle area, and has coughed up six penalties.  Heaslip – usually a well disciplined player – has cost his team five penalties so far.

Lineout: This has not been a vintage series for the Irish lineout, but O’Mahony’s skills have seen him claim seven catches.  Heaslip gets thrown up reasonably often too – he’s won four, and O’Brien has two.

ESPN doesn’t provide numbers on what Donncha O’Callaghan fans might refer to as the unseen work – clearing rucks, shoving hard in a maul, winning a choke tackle turnover, slowing down opposition ball at a ruck.  Nor do the stats on ESPN tell the whole story of any action.  Keith Earls’ break and non-pass gave him huge metres carried, but many of them were thrown away by failing to the right thing once he’d done the hard bit. 

For this weeks France game, we are going to go through with a fine tooth comb (rather like the Mole did for kicking against England and chart (and, crucially, grade in terms of positive impact) each action of each backrow forward, specifically:

  • Tackles
  • Carries (number and metres)
  • Rucking (clearing out and otherwise)
  • Lineout takes and steals
  • Other good actions: Linebreaks, key passes, turnovers won, tries
  • Other bad actions: Turnovers lost, penalties, free-kicks, missed tackles

We expect that O’Brien will have the most tackles and carries, and Heaslip the most ruck clearances, and we don’t expect to see the same quantity of dog-work from O’Mahony. If he is to stand in wider channels let’s hope he can make his ball skills and rangy carrying ability tell and deliver serious metres in open space and keep the play alive.  In general we’d prefer to see him involved in the action more than he is, but we know he’s capable of coming up with big plays.  We’ve a suspicion his yardage is a little flattered by his standing so wide, so we’ll see if that’s borne out.  One thing’s for sure, he’s a very different player to what his astonishing media profile suggests; we’re far from convinced that he’s a no-backward-step warrior that he’s portrayed as in the press, and we’ve already aired our Good Face theory.

We have to come out and admit that we find O’Mahony to be a most curious player. He can do the hard things brilliantly – zipping passes like Strings in his peak, and taking balls from the air or off his bootlaces with consumate ease. Yet, for a blindside, his tackling is largely absent, his carrying inconsistent, and his breakdown work unseen (to coin a phrase). In short, we think he doesn’t work hard enough.  He’s yet to deliver 10 tackles in a match in any of his eight starts for Ireland, and in four games has combined single digit metres with single digit carries.  On his day, however, he can be impactful, as in this season’s win against Wales. 

He has not yet been forced to nail down a jumper for Munster, never had his attitude and play questioned, and never really been subject to any media criticism whatsoever. The Mole opined that some time at the coalface nailing down a position and learning about himself might be the best thing for him – we feel he just coasts too much, but that seems to be out of tune with a lot of opinions, so we felt this was a puzzle worth delving a little deeper into.

What we’d like to see from Heaslip is an improvement in his carrying, which looked pretty marshmallowy in the first two games of the Six Nations, before improving against Scotland.  And as for O’Brien, well, we’d almost like to see him carry less.  If he’s making over 20 carries in a match it’s a surefire sign that Ireland’s Plan A of Give The Ball to O’Brien has been jettisoned for Plan B: Give the Ball to O’Brien.

More than simply analysing each player’s individual performances, we want to try and gain some understanding as to whether Ireland’s backrow functions as a unit.  It’s highly unconventional in that the role of the players is so at odds with what we traditionally expect from each shirt number.  Are we suffering as a result of that?  Are we getting the best out of the three players?  Do we have the right men selected?  Would we be better off with a more traditional 6 and 7, allowing Heaslip to carry more ball as he did three years ago?  Is his carrying good enough to merit that role?

So on Sunday night we’ll sit down with a bottle of wine and pour over the tape.  By far the biggest issue we expect to have is that O’Mahony and Donnacha Ryan look rather similar.  Let’s hope we can tell them apart enough to get some accurate stats.  Results will be up early next week.

Good Face

In the ever-fascinating world of fans’ perception of players and their abilities, one factor that’s surprisingly important is what the player looks like – both to male and female fans alike.  Male rugby fans may not be considered the most meterosexual bunch, but make no mistake, looks matter.

Demented Mole, under his ‘Hugonaut’ guise on the Leinsterfans’ forum, once wrote that he thought Rory Best to be just as good a player as Jerry Flannery, but that Flannery’s hair and superman posture generally elevated people’s perceptions of him, while Rory Best was bald when he was 23 and looks like a Nordie farmer.  It was a fair point.  I’ve seen Flannery’s hair in person and it really is extraordinary.  Who wouldn’t allow it to colour their opinion slightly?  What a player looks like can have a surprising influence on just how he’s perceived by the public.

Some players undeniably have what Moneyballers refer to as ‘good face’.  Having ‘good face’ needn’t mean being good looking in the conventional sense, though that hardly hurts either.  Sergio Parisse would be a brilliant player no matter what he looked like, but it’s no harm that he looks like a film star while trying to fill all 15 positions for the Azzuri.  And the reliably invigorating sight of David Wallace smashing defenders hither and yon was only improved by his looking so ruggedly handsome in the process.  Few would be ashamed to admit a slight man-crush on either.

The player with the best face in Irish rugby right now is Peter O’Mahony, with Donnacha Ryan in close pursuit.  In fact, they both look rather alike.  Neither are what you’d call conventionally handsome, but they both have amazing features: deep-set eyes and weird bone structure.  They look permanently angry, ready to start a fight at a moment’s notice.  Perfect, then, for the all-out war that is the forward battle on a rugby pitch.

The interesting thing is that O’Mahony’s face has had a misleading effect on how he’s perceived as a player.  Mention O’Mahony’s name and people will tell you he’s a fearsome warrior who won’t take a backward step, as tough as they come.  Have a look at his snarling features and you wouldn’t doubt it.  But watch him in action, and in fact, you’ll probably conclude he’s not really that type of player.  Yes, he has a tendency to look for trouble on the pitch, but the faux-hardman act is really his weakest suit and something he shouldn’t bother with.

In fact, he takes a backward step fairly often.  He slips the odd tackle and, for a blindside, isn’t great at trucking slow ball around the corner of the ruck and over the gainline.  He’s no Joe Worsley.  What he is, however, is a talented footballer; a very skilful handler, brilliant lineout forward, and a slightly willowy flanker who can get up a good gallop when further out from the ruck, where he can use his long-armed hand-off to good effect and is capable of beating defenders in a little bit of space.  His ground and tracking skills are also very useful.  His skillset is really closer to, say, that of Jamie Heaslip’s than many have let on or than you might think – by the look of him anyway.

Another whose appearance can be deceptive – in a different way – is Tom Croft.  He looks every inch the English yeoman, magnificent of physique and with a chiselled face that can only be honed in the finest English public schools.  It’s tempting to believe the hype that he’s the world’s best blindside.  Now, Crofty is not a player without his strengths, and his good moments can be spectacular, but he doesn’t influence a game over 80 minutes.  And no blindside should ever be bundled into touch by Paddy Wallace.  He’s just not quite as good as he looks.

Demented Mole recently wondered aloud why Devin Toner was such a figure of ridicule outside – and sometimes inside – Leinster. The answer might just be the cut of the chap.  Not quite filling out his 210cm frame and with a face that looks almost boyish, he doesn’t quite fit the desired mould of second row hardman.  Regardless of how good he is or isn’t, prehaps he just doen’t have ‘good face’.  Don’t underestimate it.

Deccie – Get Out There And Sell Some Tickets!

Tomorrow, Deccie names his 30 man squad for the November Internationals against the Boks and the Pumas, plus a Wolfhounds-type panel for the “Ireland XV” against Fiji in Thomond Park. He’ll be holding a press conference, which doesn’t normally happen for a mere squad announcement, but the IRFU is keen to promote the games to boost sluggish ticket sales.  Quite what sort of a boost a Deccie squad announcement will provide we’re still trying to figure out, but as far as we know tickets already purchased before the announcmement are non-refundable, so that’s something.

He isn’t one for surprises, so expect plenty of Munster players famliar names and faces. But outside of Ireland’s key key men (e.g. the front row, POC, Fez, SOB, Heaslip, Sexton, Earls, BOD, Tommy Bowe, Bob), there is actually quite a bit of jockeying for position.

On the one hand you have the familiar Murray/Reddan or Dorce/Ferg debates, but below that, the last 8 or so squad names are still in flux. Here’s five players who have put their hand up this season, and five who have struggled to get teacher’s attention.

Hands up:

Iain Henderson: New Willie John McBride indeed. Henderson was a revelation at last years U-20 World Cup and looked to have the tools to make it. We thought he would get some gametime at blindside this year, but in the Rabo, certainly not in the Heiny. But it’s tantamount ot the impact he has had that Fez has not been missed one iota – Hendo has been a MOTM contender in both games and looks to the manor born. Of course, he is a second row by trade, so some of the names beneath him here should be watching out. He surely isn’t ready for the ‘unforgiving environment of test rugby, but we can’t be sure about that – no harm in bringing him along for the ride, and he might get on the pitch against Fiji.

Chris Henry: Sean O’Brien is still injured, Shane Jennings is not a friend of Deccie and Peter O’Mahony is patently not an openside (more of which anon) – by process of elimination, Chris Henry is the man. More importantly, he was our MOTM against Glasgow and has picked up where he left off in Thomond Park last season (he wasn’t fully fit after that). He only got about five minutes in New Zealand, where his most notable (and funniest) act was to barge over Romain Poite. He’s been the most consistent 7 in Ireland for a year now evne if he is not built in the classic openside mould – in O’Brien’s absence it’s time he got a shot at the green jersey.

Paddy Jackson: Jacko was like a rabbit in the headlights in the HEC final, but it turns out he was staring at Johnny Sexton and learning oodles. It was the type of experience that can haunt a fellow, but his recovery has been impressively swift.  He looks like a proper player now, not a youngster out of his depth. He has solid defence and has done a decent job of igniting Ulster’s backs. At his age, he is still one for the future, but as the second best 10 in Ireland right now (Madigan has been playing 15 for the last month) and one who is only going to improve, we think he makes the cut.

Paul Marshall: Eoin Reddan is going strongly for Leinster and despite his costly nightmare in Paris, Conor Murray has in fact started the season well.  That leaves the test jerseys more or less locked away, but Marshall should be in line to play against Fiji.  His form is terrific, and his only competition for the jersey is Isaac Boss, who is just back from injury.  Kidney has been reticent to pick Marshall up to now, but with Tomas O’Leary exiled, the time has come.

Simon Zebo: Still tucks the ball under one arm to carry it, but Simon Zebo looks like the most threatening runner in the Munster backline, perhaps even more so than Earls.  The try-count was eye-catching last season, but this year he looks a better all round footballer.  Wingers are best picked when young, fast and in form, and Zebo ticks all the boxes.  With Keith Earls still injured, Zebo has a real chance of squeezing into the test 11 jersey.

Hands Down:

Kevin McLaughlin: Ireland’s Tom Wood finished last season strongly, impressing in the Heineken Cup final and the second test in New Zealand, but he’s yet to get into his stride this season, which has been characterised so far by powder-puff carries and knock-ons in the opposition 22.  With Ferris back in contention and any number of potential blindsides in the mix, Locky is likely to have to settle for Ireland XV action.

Peter O’Mahony: We said last season the over-hype from certain corners about O’Mahony would do him no favours, and now his versatility may be working aginst him. After starting his first three games for Ireland in three different positions, he has merely had his flaws highlighted by very tough opponents. He has played 6 and 8 this season, but with Ferris and Heaslip around, he is unlikely to barge his way into the test team.  Openside is the position with the word ‘Vacant’ outside the parking lot in neon letters, but not having played there this season hasn’t helped his chances of being picked there.  Besides, he hasn’t stamped his authority on the season just yet – though he played well against Embra, Munster looked much more effective with a natural No.8 (Paddy Butler) there.

Ronan O’Gara (WoC ducks for cover): It’s honesty time. An intervention is needed. Despite what Gerry says, the heroic Rog has been largely ineffective this season. He’s also injured.  Father Time can’t tick backwards, and not only is Paddy Jackson a better option (see above), but so are Ian Madigan and (whisper it) Ian Keatley. Deccie might like an easy life as much as anyone, but O’Gara simply no longer justifies selection – it’s time to move on.

Donnacha Ryan: Not a criticism of Ryan as such, but he is not playing in his favoured position, as Rob Penney has stuck Stakhanov in the team, apparently for his play on the wing, and is using Ryan to beef up his light-ish back row. If any of the rest of Ireland’s myriad of ok-but-not-amazing second rows were putting their hands up, he might be under pressure for his test place. As it is, with Dan Tuohy more concerned about Lewis Stevenson, Mike McCarthy playing for Connacht (a major negative it seems) and Devin Toner struggling (see below), he should start – but it’s disappointing he hasn’t been able to persuade the coach he is an indispensable member of the Munster second row.

Devin Toner: Huge strides made last season, but still can’t get into the starting team of the provincewith arguably the weakest second row of the four.  His work at restarts is excellent, but there are still concerns over his lack of power.  Time is still on his side, and Leo Cullen’s legs will eventually grind to a halt, but cannot expect to be in the squad until he finally nails down a place in the Leinster team.  Ireland XV action at best.

Weeks Out… Round Two

That’s your lot for Round One, now the whole tournament goes on hiatus for a couple of months and we reconvene on drier tracks in the April.  Everyone take a deep breath.  As Group stages go, this was up there with the best of them.  Every week seemed to throw up something bizarre.  Indeed, the exact line-up went down to the very last phase.  With Cardiff having a lineout in the Racing 22, but then turning over and Racing almost breaking out for a try of their own, three possible outcomes were in play.  Try for Cardiff, and Cardiff were home to Clermont; try for Racing and Biarritz were playing Munster; no try (as it turned out) and Cardiff were playing Leinster.  Phew.  Here’s our final Heineken Cup Good Week/Bad Week.

Good Week
Frankie goes to Hollywood
It was a good weekend for Frankie. Firstly, in Galway on Friday night, he (astonishingly) wasn’t the worst commentator in view – his lead (whose name we can’t recall) spent the first 79 minutes patronizing Connacht, patting them on the head and thanking them for giving Quins a tough game – the realization that they had won came late in the day, and Frankie crowed like only he can. Then, on Sunday, his big prediction came true. Last Wednesday, he had anointed Peter O’Majesty the HEC Player of the Group Stages in his blog. Oh, how we scoffed, especially since Frankie himself had awarded one of the MOTM’s he referred to. We are big POM fans, but we didn’t agree with the hyperbole. Cue Sunday, and a breath-takingly good performance from the man himself and, while we don’t want to declare him the greatest player in world rugby just yet,  we’re pretty sure he looks the real deal. Frankie the sooth-sayer, we salute you! Wait, stop press, what’s this? Surely not a conflict of interest?
Who said Round Six was predictable?
One of the best (and worst) games of the group stages was in the Sportsground on Friday – a memorable victory for Connacht, and confirmation the Quins bubble has well and truly burst. Despite of the nail-biting and desperate attempts of both teams to lose, the real story on Friday was Gloucester beating 4-times winners Toulouse. Although they have a really gassy back 3, Gloucester are an average Premiership team. Toulouse , despite giving away a ridiculous early try, eased 17-7 in front. But that only inspired Gloucester to cut loose, and the Cherry and Whites ended up winning by 10 points. Make no mistake, this was a massive win – Toulouse are top of the Top 14 and looking menacing. Given Connacht and then Embra ensured Toulouse are not only through, but have a benign route to the semis, this result may be lost in the mists a little, but try telling that to Glaws.
On the Seventh Day, God created Fez
The sense of bathos surrounding Ulster’s quarter-final is a bit strange. I mean, they produced the best Irish performance yet in the Marcel Michelin – eschewing containment for an aggressive and fearless drive to win. Clermont’s initial superiority melted away, and only the impact of the Clermont bench, some uncharacteristic inaccuracy from Pienaar and a lack of true ruthlessness let them down. A win would have, incredibly, meant 3 home quarter-finals for Irish teams (although they would have played Toulouse). Instead, Ulster now await the bear-pit of Thomond Park, and have to address the toughest question of them all: do they have The Mental to win big games away from home? One fears it may be 2013 before we learn the answer, and they need only ask Northampton Saints about how much fun the glass ceiling can be if they don’t answer them correctly.

Bad Week


The Aviva Premiership Moaning Competition


It’s been a poor season for the Premiership teams, and expect a lot of headscratching (and even more carping) over the next week or so.  The Torygraph has already nailed its colours to the mast and wants to see a more meritocratic qualification system.  Paul Ackford has a right old whinge, but never offers any explanation explain why, Sarries aside, the Premiership teams have been so poor this year – Leicester got thrashed in Belfast, Bath in Dublin and Quins blew up when the pressure came on. Northampton Saints epitomised the malaise, with just two wins out of six, and showed a surprising lack of savvy.  They couldn’t see out a potentially seismic win in Munster, and on Saturday, couldn’t stay in the game when they were under the kosh.  Their team is breaking up this summer, and last season looks like their peak, rather than a springboard for success.


Leinster, Cardiff, Toulouse and Edinburgh


All are in the quarter-finals, but all pitted in the away half of the semi-final draw.  It remains the single biggest flaw in the quirky tournament – the difference between getting Toulouse, say, or Clermont home or away is a masive swing, and it’s all decided on pot luck.  This year, though, it mightn’t be as big an advantage as it looks.  Ulster have never played in the Palindrome, and Munster are zero from two there.  It’s a bigger advantage for Leinster to play there than either of the other Irish provinces, but that won’t be happening this year.  Sarries enjoy their trips to Wem-ber-ley, but it’s no fortress – Leinster have already gone there and won, without BOD.  Meanwhile, we’ve no record of Clermont playing in St. Etienne or Lyon.


Declan Kidney


Uncle Deccie will inherit the happiest 52-man squad in Irish history.  Hooray!  A record three provinces in the HEC knockouts, and Connacht finally ending their losing streak.  Munster finally found a cutting edge, Jamie Heaslip is at his marauding best, and Ulster have become men.  But with that comes heightened expectations.  Deccie will have to work extra-hard to turn this group of in-form players into the lateral-attacking, penalty-condecing, gameplan-confused, poorly selected side we’re used to seeing.  The real hard work begins now.

Team in Focus: Munster

Last season: A curate’s egg.  For the first time, Munster failed to make it out of their HEC group, and were lamentable in their pivotal game in Toulon.  The sight of their scrum being shunted around the park and a collective loss of discipline appeared to mean the jig was up for McGahan.  But Munster salvaged a difficult year with a Magners League win, with particular satisfaction derived from beating their rivals to secure it.  The long and painful transition to a new era spearheaded by the likes of Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Felix Jones looks to have begun.

Season so far: business as usual, with five wins from seven in the Pro12. From a rudimentary scan of headlines in the Indo, Peter O’Mahoney appears to have cured the lepers and turned water into wine.

Prospects: This is a huge season for Munster, with one overriding objective: re-establishing themselves in Europe.  The Heineken Cup has always been the lifeblood of the province, and despite finishing with silverware last year, for most fans the season was a disappointment.  Failing to get to the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup just shouldn’t happen to Munster, and it never happened to the liginds.

It’s an objective that looks increasingly difficult.  Munster have been drawn with Northampton, beaten finalists last year, and travel to Castres (second in the Top 14) in Week Two.  A much-fancied Scarlets side makes up the group.

What sort of Munster team will be put out to face these sides?  A pretty unfamilar one, all told.  Generation Ligind, essentially the pack and halves that delivered two Heineken Cups, has all but passed into the next world.  Quinny has gone, Hayes and Horan will be bit part players, Flannery’s future is less certain than ever and David Wallace’s injury robs them of their primary carrier.  Dennis Leamy, no longer anything like the powerful, aggressive player of four years ago, may not make the team and Peter Stringer is now third – maybe fourth – choice scrummie. Stalwarts like Donncha are starting to fade, and the production line is not quite what it should be – Munster under-20s are poor, and have been passed out by Connacht.

The front row will likely be du Preez, Varley and Botha.  The success of the scrum entirely depends on Botha staying fit and in form.  His last season at Ulster was marred by injury and mediocrity; Munster will hope they have the 2009 version.  A creaky Munster scrum is nothing new, of course, but they are used to putting out top class second and back rows.

Paulie can still mix it with the best, and is fit and flying – he was missed hugely in the early stages of the HEC last year. Micko has been performing very creditably (and at a level above Donncha) for two years now – his experience will be a useful asset, though he may take a back seat to allow the likes of Donnacha Ryan is and Ian Nagle more gametime. Nagle is a prospect, but still a little underpowered, but is – he’s unlikely to feature at HEC level this year, but we are hoping Ludd gives him some Rabo action.

Moving back, the glory days of the Quinny-Wally-Axel axis are a dim and distant memory – the 2012 unit is likely to be Ryan/Leamy-O’Mahony-Coughlan.  Ryan seemed to finally break into the first team last year and played fairly well on World Cup duty with Ireland, but the jury is still out – he has only one HEC start, and that was in defeat to London Irish.  Coughlan is an honest, hard-working journeyman, but struggles against the better sides.  Peter ‘the son Hugh Farrelly never had’ O’Mahony is the wildcard – Munster fans had better hope he’s half as good as Farrelly thinks he is – otherwise they’ll be taking on Saints with the ineffectual Niall Ronan at openside. Paddy “Slievenamon” Butler was a barnstorming underage number 8 a few years back, but he hasn’t made it past first base yet – we’re hopeful he can breakthrough for some Rabo games at least.

At half, Conor Murray will likely own the 9 shirt for big games, unless Tomás gets back to 2009 form – and we aren’t optimistic on that front. ROG still has the fire, no doubt there, but he’s 34 now. As one of rugby’s most forthright, intelligent (and divisive) men, he will be aware managing succession is crucial to sustained success, but don’t expect him to be helping Keatley into the 10 jumper just yet.  Munster’s hopes will rest on ROG’s ability to turn dirty, slow ball into scores. Again. It’s not code red yet, but this looks like a potential problem position for Munster in two years’ time unless Keatley can prove himself HEC standard.

Outside the halves, it’s a huge pity that Felix Jones is injured; he added much to Munster’s attack in the second half of last season.  At centre – a problem position last season – Tuitupou has been swapped for Will Chambers, signed from Queensland Reds.  It should be an improvement (lets face it, Chambers would have to be pretty bad to be worse than Tuitupooooooooooooooohh), but a lot rests on the young shoulders of Danny Barnes.  There’s Lifeimi Mafi too, who was superb in the ML final last year, but hopeless (and pretty dirty) for most of the campaign. Keith Earls has class with ball in hand, but moving him around is guaranteed to maximise defensive mistakes – Ludd and Axel (and Keith) need to decide what they want him to be – he looks a winger to us, but many in the Cork Con Mafia media are convinced otherwise.

All told, it’s not a side to strike fear into top-class opponents the way the 2004-2009 vintage did.  Northampton will fancy themselves in the opening week visit to Thomond Park.  Munster will be relying more than ever on the great warriors Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara to navigate them through the tough games – it may be too much to ask.

Forecast: We think Munster will ultimately come second to Northampton.  The two will probably trade wins, and Thomond Park will remain a fortress, but Munster will probably need to get two wins on the road, and we just can’t see it.  In the Pro12, Munster’s ability to consistently churn out results against weaker sides will stand to them, and it’s impossible to see the semi-finals without them.  Another tilt at silverware is inevitable, but they may come up just short this time.