Heineken Cup Round Five

Whiff of Cordite went on its second trip of the season this weekend – a swift eight-hour round trip to Belfast.  It was Leinsterman Palla Ovale’s first proper Ravenhill experience (Ireland A v Tonga doesn’t really count).  Talk about timing – the old ground heaved as Ulster racked up a wonderful four-try victory that keeps them in the hunt.  The highlight was the three fans behind us who with, as typical Nordies, refused to get carried away when Palla began to laud the Ulster display, responding ‘Aye, but Leicester are sh*te!’.  Here’s our Good Week/Bad Week, and where else to start but at Ravenhill.

Good week

Shtand up for the Ul-[whistle]-termen:
The standout performance of the weekend – Ulster absolutely smashed Leicester, dominating the collisions and set-piece and leaving England’s most storied team of the professional era a leaderless rabble by full-time. The tone was set by an immense hit by Fez on Agulla to prevent a Tigers try early on, and the ferocious work never stopped. Once the ball made it to the piano players, they did the business as well – even PedrieWannenbosh had two gorgeous try-making offloads. The pity is that they probably won’t qualify – the lost bonus point in

Welford Road

might prove crucial. True, they will make it if one of Toulouse, Quins, Embra or Cardiff slip up, but that is still odds against. Mind you, stranger things have happened, and better to have one in the hand then to need a win in Galway when you are playing sh!te…

When Eric eats a banana, he turns into…
Bananaman!  If you closed your eyes slightly, you would have though fifteen Erics were playing on Saturday morning. Egg Chaser was enjoying a leisurely lunch with the family when he decided to check the latest score from the Zaffanella on the off-chance there would be a shock. Errr … no. It was 47-0 at half–time. Then the Erics added another 35 in the second half for a grand total of 82 points and 12 tries. Okay, it was only Aironi. But still.  Aironi beat Biarritz last year, and gave Leicester a pretty uncomfortable time of it this year.  They have home wins against Embra, Treviso and Connacht in the AAALeague and gave Cardiff and Ulster some heart-in-mouth moments. Sure, they are bunnies, and they target matches (Munster, 12th of February, watch your backs), but they are improving – they are certainly not an 82-0 team. If Clermont get 4 more tries and win on Saturday, they will likely have a home quarter final, and from there, anything can happen. Ask Eric.
Send Them Homewards tae the Knockout Stages
Scottish rugby has been in the doldrums for so long, you sometimes forget the positives. They have some decent back-row forwards, they should have won the Triple Crown in 2010, and they will soon have HupHupTim Visher. But they have loads of negatives. Glasgow have no history of rugby and struggle to get the deposit back from Partick Thistle Nil and are losing Richie Gray to Sale (Sale!).Embra do well to pack 10% of Murrayfield on a weekly basis. So with those handicaps, its great to see Embra show such bronca – 2 last minute away wins, and a 30 point comeback in this group –its the stuff quarter-finals are made of. If they beat London Samoa at home, they are in. Given they might make it at the expense of Ulster, it’s a stretch to say we will be cheering them on, but no-one could begrudge them, and Scottish rugby, their day in the sun.

Bad Week

Peter Stringer and the Wobbly Kick

There could hardly be much more goodwill towards Peter Stringer – we were in a Bath pub full of travelling Leinster fans who loudly cheered his debut appearance against Ospreys.  What a pity to see his kick charged down, resulting in a Biarritz try on Sunday.  His boot out of play to secure the win also went at a strangely low trajectory – it would have been funny-painful to see Ngwenya catch it on the full and gallop in for a winning try.  Things have gone well for Strings up til now – he’ll put this one behind him.

Biarritz and Leicester – All Pedigree and no Trousers

Pedigree is often argued to be the crucial ingredient in the Heineken Cup – it’s what digs Munster out of tight spots and gets Toulouse through the group stages without breaking a sweat.  Biarritz and Leicester have it in spades, but it will only get you so far.  Both are a pale shadow of fomer sides.  Biarritz were never the most watchable of teams, but the forward power that used to intimidate is no longer there.  Leicester became a rabble on Friday night.  They are admittedly beset by injuries, but they don’t appear particularly strong in any unit.  Castro is no longer the force of old, and the backrow was anonymous on Friday, smashed to pieces at the breakdown.  12×3 had a meltdown, and Ben Youngs is starting to look a bit overrated.  Both these teams will be focussing on domestic affairs for the rest of the season.

Stuart Barnes Has Something to Say

Oooooohhh Barnesy, what a week!  Darren Cave took him on in his Sunday Times interview (questioning his pick of Leicester as among the favourites), and came out on top.  After the Friday debacle, he made an extraordinary admission: that the Rabo Pro12 is better, and quicker, than the Premiership.  The Premiership Sky Hype, the perennial excuse that the powder-puff Rabo gives the Celtic sides an unfair advantage – all gone in a flash.  You half expected the producer to get in his ear and make him recant.

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Strings, Strings, he’s our Boy, if he can’t do it, Tomás will

The Ludd Revolution at Munster continues to grind on – retirements and injuries have knocked a few of the Liginds off, one was dropped this year (Donncha), and last week, for the first time, one of them left Munster by choice, albeit temporarily for the time being.
Strings has jumped ship, gone to join Sarries– the very anthesis of Munster – on a three month loan deal.  Perhaps it’s cathartic for him. He was no ordinary player – iconic for his size and bravery, and he won it all with province and country, and deserves better than to play out his last days in the British & Irish Cup.
Stringer was one of the five new caps introduced by Gatty against Scotland in 2000. From that moment until “Georgia” he was undisputed first choice for Ireland.  The overlap with his Munster first choice career was remarkable – for only 6 months either side of his Ireland career was he the red 9 of choice.
If you think of the landmarks in Irish rugby in that period – Munster’s European breakthroughs from 1999-2004, Ireland’s Triple Crowns, the win over England in Croker, the first HEC, the Grand Slam – Strings was there for them all. Yet there must be some caveats … and there is.
Strings’ professional career was largely governed by two men – Eddie and Deccie – and neither quite trusted him 100%.  At national level, Eddie frequently called up duff scrum halves and gave them gametime (Neil Doak, Kieran Campbell, GuyEasterby), not something he was ever renowned for in other positions. Then after the Namibia/Georgia debacles in France ’07, it was Stringer alone who paid the price, getting the curly finger for Eoin Reddan.
In Munster, Strings was dropped by Deccie as soon as Tomás O’Leary’s pass wasn’t absolutely terrible. Stringer’s much superior passing and game management were sacrificed in favour of O’Leary’s physicality and breaking. The circumstances of the chop were astonishing – a coach known for his conservatism replaces a mainstay of the team for an away HEC quarter-final! It was a shrewd call but nonetheless it was, and remains, cruel, and a sad way to effectively end Stringer’s career as a starter.
Stringer didn’t even get off the bench for the rest of that HEC knock-out campaign, and his next start of note was the semi-final against Leinster in 2009 – and we know how that went.  He started three pool games last year in O’Leary’s absence, but the last of those – the dismal capitulation in Toulon – more or less signalled the end of his Munster career as a frontline player.
It’s also a fact that when Ireland (the Grand Slam and the Springbok game in Croker were the peaks) and Munster (who were imperious in the 12 months from the Gloucester game) peaked, Stringer wasn’t in the team. The solid extra dimension of O’Leary (combined, it must be said, with the stinking ELVs) gave Ireland and Munster what they needed to get to the next level.

All the best to the wee man in Watford, and how ironic is it that Stringer’s most memorable contribution to Irish rugby was doing that what he apparently couldn’t do (Ryle: ‘He can’t make a break?!  Well, he’s just made one in the Heineken Cup Final!’:

World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 3

Just 10 days remain until Kidney names his World Cup squad, and last week’s performance and this week’s team announcment give us a little insight – but not too much – into who is likely to go and who isn’t.

On the surface, it all looks rosy for Donncha Ryan, who, having played in the second row last week,  is now given a chance at 6, and so can prove his versatility and bag himself a spot on the plane.  But think forward to next week, and the backrow could be something like Locky-Wallace-Heaslip, and the complexion would look somewhat different.  Would you rather play at home to France with Jamie and Wally beside you and Paul O’Connell in the second row, or go to Bordeaux with no O’Connell and Leamy at 8?

The same applies, to a lesser extent, to McFadden, who didn’t play well last week and finds himself out of the team – but next week in all likelihood BOD will be back.  If he was to play 12 inside BOD it would be seen as an endorsement of his chances. So it’s not all over quite yet for Ferg, though he looks odds-against at the moment.

Following the team announcement and last Saturday’s game we can infer a little about who’s looking good and who isn’t.

Practicing ordering fush’n’chups: All the back three. Rob Kearney came through 80 minutes and looked sharp.  He gets another start on Saturday.  Already a Kidney favourite, he can start laying a claim on the 15 shirt for the Australia game.  Luke Fitz looked a lot more confident, and though he kicked the ball away a little too often, he wasn’t exactly blessed with options by the time the painfully slow ball he was supplied with. Andy Trimble played with great intensity, as usual. All three look to be heading southwards next month.

Still hanging on the telephone: Donncha Ryan did reasonably well on saturday, but he will have a tough job on Saturday convincing that he’s an international 6. He’s up against Thierry Dusatoir dans la sud de France, so no pressure.  Jerry Flannery’s return was positive, but all he did was miss one throw. We need to see some of the old Jirry mongrel before declaring him back for good.

Buying their Electric Picnic tickets: It looks like Peter Stringer’s terrific international career may finally be up.  Sent to La Rochelle to play with Munster, he is the only scrum half yet to see action for Ireland.  Unless he starts at home to France next week, which he won’t, then the game will be up.  Shane Jennings always needed to make a big impression to win Kidney over, and injury looks to have robbed him of that chance. We are presuming Wally will get a start next week in the 7 shirt, with Jenno togging out against Connacht.  A pity.

As for the game itself, it could be a long night for Ireland.  It’s not the most defensively robust 9-10-12-13 Ireland have ever put out and Mermoz and Marty will most likely look to run at the goalposts and hope for some change.  Keep an eye out for the French debutant, Biarritz No. 8, Raphael Lakafia.  We haven’t seen too much of him, but he’s regarded as a huge prospect and someone who could star at the World Cup.

Finally, Meejawatch.  It was interesting that Brendan Fanning and not Gerry Thornley had the inside track on the team this week.  Could Kidney be playing them against each other?  Gerry will have to up his uncritical fawning over the regime and justification of tactics and selection, no matter how bogus, to get back into Teacher’s good books.

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Scrum Halves

Last week we looked at the forwards, and this week we turn our attention to the backs. As per previous posts, we think a 16-14 split is how Deccie is going to go, and we are breaking the forwards down into three scrum halves, five inside backs (fly halves and centres) and six outside backs.

How many will go? Three. We can’t see any deviation here. Ireland tend not to do Pienaar types who can play multiple positions, so we will bring three specialists.

Who is certain to travel? Unless he is struck by lightning, Ponderous Tomás is on the plane, and even if he was, Deccie might bring him anyway. WoC reckons Deccie saw David Pocock in action in November 2009, and pencilled TOL in for the Aus game two years  in advance. 18 months of hot stepping, ugly passing and injuries have not changed a thing – O’Leary is Deccie’s first choice 9.

Eoin Reddan also appears secure, despite being as inconsistent as ever. When Reddan is good, like in the second half of the HEC final, he is the best we have, but when he is bad, like against Toulouse, he is terrible. However despite having neither the best defence (O’Leary), best pass (Stringer, up to recently anyway), best break (Boss) or best kicking (Murray), he is the best composite player, and deserves to be first choice.

O’Leary and Reddan can start learning the words to the second verse of Ireland’s Call.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? A three-way fight here, between three imperfect candidates. Firstly, the Passer. Peter Stringer is now a veteran, and is beginning to play like one. His pass, when it is on song, still fizzes with dangerous possibility, but it is increasingly erratic and unreliable. Even McGahan doesn’t see Strings as a big game player any more. He is odds-against at this stage.

Next, the Future. Since the time Tony McGahan finally bowed to the clarion calls of the more thoughtful of the Munster faithful and gave Conor Murray his chance after the liginds had bowed out of the HEC, he has been a revelation. Wristy pass, physicality, good game management and great box-kicking. The kid appears to have it all. However, it must be acknowledged he hasn’t played any rugby close to test-level intensity i.e. the HEC or international level. It is a huge risk to take an essentially untested player to the World Cup.

Finally, the Mullet. Hugo “Isaac” Boss has been an effervescent presence at Leinster, with his solidity and experience gelling together Joe Schmidt’s “away” HEC team. However, as the season went on, opportunities seemed to dry up, and given that Deccie hasn’t given him game time this season (although he is named in the extended squad anounced on Friday), Boss is another more possible than probable.

Of the three above, Murray is possibly just about favourite to make the trip now. It’s becoming ever more difficult to make a case for Stringer, and Boss seems to be at the back of the queue. However, Boss should be seriously considered. Not just for his play this season, but also for his partnership with Reddan. At Leinster, the pair have the happy knack of improving the team when they interchange – they offer different threats and dovetail very effectively – they are an off-the-shelf scrum-half team ideal for tournament play.

Were it down to us we would definitely take Murray and Reddan, and have a look at how O’Leary and Boss pitch up in August.  If O’Leary can show something like his 2009 form, he would be on our plane, but it is a long time since he has looked the part – right now we would have Boss in poll position.

Any bolters? Murray, of course. The Munster fan sites have been touting him for a while, and he hasn’t disappointed from the moment he got the red 9 shirt. His Ireland underage colleague Paul Marshall has looked spritely this season, but is a little light – this is a year too soon for him.

Should go: Isaac Boss, Eoin Reddan, Conor Murray
Will go: Tomás O’Leary, Eoin Reddan, Conor Murray