Muller’s Last Stand

With Munster’s defeat to Toulon meaning no Irish team’s in the Heineken Cup final, the fizz is threatening to go out of the Irish rugby season. With that in mind, Ulster facing Leinster head-on tonight in the Pro12 couldn’t be better timed. For the third season in a row, these two Irish behemoths play each other in May with plenty at stake – we’d lots of great stuff written about how this was must-win for Ulster, but then those wasteful Ospreys threw in a careless defeat to Zebre that pretty much means Ulster only need a single point from their last two games to make the semi-finals.  Gah!  Nonetheless, they’ll be looking for the win with a view to maybe passing out Munster and getting some much needed momentum for the semi-finals.  Coming into the business end on the back of a run of consecutive defeats would be far from an ideal.

The Leinster v Munster derby that came to define Irish rugby over the last decade tends to swallow all the oxygen, but with Ulster now dining at the same table as the two southern provinces, there’s no reason why that should continue. Indeed, the gap between the three provinces is probably as tight as it’s ever been, with all three strong but none outstanding. Leinster have come off a bit from a peak of two years ago, Munster have made big gains this season, while Ulster have been consistently strong for a while now.

For Ulster their mentality all week will have been win-or-almost-bust, but now they can relax a bit.  For Leinster, a losing bonus point will be tolerable, but a win will virtually assure them of the valuable top spot going into the knockouts. The game will have added poignancy for the Ravenhill faithful, as it’s Tom Court and Johann Muller’s last match at the ground. The South African has captained the side almost since his arrival and made a huge impression in his time here; a top-drawer import who offered massive value to the team. Court is the least valued player in Irish rugby – we suspect it will be a case of we didn’t know what we had until he went.

I the sting has been taken out of the match a little with Ospreys losing, the game should still be a treat with fascinating match-ups all over the paddock. Egg’s half-empty worldview has him looking concernedly as the front rows. No Rory Best or John Afoa for Ulster; instead Rob Herring and rookie prop Andrew Warwick go up against an all-international Leinster unit. Warwick is up against one of the world’s premier looseheads in Cian Healy, so it doesn’t get any tougher. Iain Henderson is selected ahead of Dan Tuohy, and he and Muller face-off against Leinster’s Devin Toner and Mike McCarthy. Toner has played an awful lot of rugby this season, much of it of the first order, but he’s perhaps showing signs of fatigue. Can he get back his Six Nations energy levels for this monstrous game?

Ferris is once again injured, so Ulster’s backrow lines up with Wilson at 6, Henry at 7 and Nuck Wulliams at 8. Good players all, but Williams hasn’t quite had the impact he did last season, and for all the skittle-smashing runs against rubbish opposition, he still doesn’t convince against more organised teams.

Leinster go with Ruddock, Jennings and Heaslip. Jennings excelled in the final against Ulster this year, and has often been effective at neutralising Henry’s breakdown shenanigans. No doubt he’s charged with that as his primary task tonight. Heaslip had one of those ‘Tonight, I’m going to do everything’ performances last week against Treviso, and has contributed yet another season of consistently good rugby. In the modern game where injuries are the norm, and considering the role he plays for the team, his durability borders on the freakish. Ruddock is now firmly established as first-choice 6, while Kevin McLaughlin probably needs a break, and to come back refreshed.

Both sides are missing their best scrum half, and they’ll feel it. Boss and Reddan have been neck-and-neck in the past, but not this year, where Reddan has been easily the better of the two. Ruan Pienaar is a big miss for Ulster, and Paul Marshall has played badly this season. A zippy, potentially game-changing impact substitute only a couple of seasons ago, he looks to be playing in treacle of late.

The media will be happy to paint the match as Jackson v Madigan. They may even forget there are 28 other players on the pitch. Nonetheless, it’ll be fascinating. Both are vying for the role of back-up to Sexton at test level, and for Ian Madigan, it’s been a frustrating season in which he hasn’t brought his best form. Indeed, he’s become one of the most talked about players in the comment section below. This would be an opportune moment to deliver a big performance, but then we’ve been saying that all season and he’s never really got motoring.

Centre has a similarly headline-friendly look to it, as the two Giant Dwarves of Leinster pair up against the two chaps seemingly inked in as their replacements for Ireland; Luke Marshall and Jared Payne. Payne at 13 is a most interesting selection, because with Cave – one of Ulster’s best players this year –on the bench, it’s not out of necessity. An audition for something, maybe?

It’s advantage Ulster on the wings, where Tommy Bowe is Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble is one of the year’s major success stories. Zane Kirchner and Dave Kearney have international pedigree but don’t pack quite the same punch. But Leinster make up for it at full back, where they have the mighty Rob Kearney going up against the less experienced Ricky Andrew.

Leinster have done well in Ravenhill down the years, and the ground holds no fears for them, and they look to have the better form coming into the game. Given the names missing from the Ulster team, it’s a tall enough order, but don’t forget that last year they came down to the RDS with Ricky Lutton and Adam Mackin as tightheads and won, with Macklin holding up the Ulster scrum when Leinster were camped on the Ulster line in the game’s last phase. At the risk of going all Munster-meeja on it, Ulster could tap into a well of emotion and deliver a big performance, but Leinster are favourites.

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

French need to learn Culture and Passion From Irish

Gerry Thornley’s been warming to his theme of IRFU-bashing lately – he’s been awoken from his autopilot by the new NIE laws and is using his weekly column as a platform from which to berate the [Insert number Here] Old Farts.  Which we approve.  And, of course, he’s only too delighted to see three Irish provinces in the HEC quarter finals.  After all, who isn’t?

But the final paragraph in today’s piece set off the alarm bells:

But, for all its wealth, foreign imports and benefactors, the Top 14 remains, a la the Premier League in England, something of a circus act which works against its national team. Nor do they have the same sense of culture and identity between fans and players who truly represent their regions.
What’s that Gerry?  The French club sides don’t have a sense of culture and identity between fans and players?  Really?  Tell that to the Clermont Auvergne fans whose ground is the most intimidating in Europe, and make their mark on every city to which they travel.  Or the Toulousains who pour into the streets donned in rouge-et-noir whenever they land silverware.  Anyone who was there two years ago for the Leinster-Clermont quarter final will regard it as the greatest atmosphere ever to grace the RDS.

There’s no need to go on, because we all know this.  We’ve all seen the French support, and we all know how much the fans value the Bouclier, and how attached they are to their club teams.  The idea that Perpignan could learn a thing or two from the Irish pishun is ludicrous.  Maybe we could teach them to cook, make wine and dress stylishly while we’re at it? 

We’re entitled to be pleased with the state of Irish rugby, but this sort of smugness has no place.  The Bouclier de Brennus has been contested since 1892, quickly took on the character of village against village, providing an outlet for the denizens of Albi, Dax, Carcassonne and Aix similar to that which soccer provides in the north of England. Domestic Fench rugby has a tribal ferocity to this day.

Perhaps Gerry should watch the video of Pere Harinordoquy taking to the pitch to fight some Bayonnais forwards in the recently contested Basque derby.  Speaking of which, the bi-annual match-up between Bayonne and Biarritz is considered the single most intense rivalry in European rugger. It’s a longstanding one too – while we can’t be entirely sure, we think it might even pre-date the Heineken Cup semi-final in 2006.