Time To Look In The Mirror

If Ulster fans left the RDS depressed amid the repetition of the same traits that have hamstrung them for much of Mark Anscombe’s reign – an inability to score tries against an organized defence – it would have been made worse by the relief felt by Leinster fans given the balance of the play. That said, Leinster fans will be feeling a little empty on Sunday morning in spite of their win – their sheer ineptitude in the first half was stunning and their mistakes were off the chart. If anything, it was worse than the Embra game.

The first 33 minutes of the game felt like a culmination of a season of Leinster having Joe Schmidt trained out of them – the error count was horrendous, sky high, the likes of Eoin Reddan couldn’t pass the pill, accuracy levels were on the floor. It was the worst Leinster have looked in years. And yet – despite totally controlling the game, Ulster were only 3-0 up, and never really looked likely to break the Leinster defence down to score the try that would surely have led to a comfortable win.

The stabilisation point, ironically, came from yet more poor Leinster play – this time a rank leading elbow from Dorce, which deservedly had him cooling his heels on the sideline (there was quite a bit of niggle going on – much of it involving famously nice chap Andy Trimble for some reason). Suddenly, the psychology of the game switched – the pressure on Leinster to find their A game dissapated and the pressure switched to the Ulstermen to score a few points while he was in the bin. Nearly a quarter of that time was wasted on one scrum, and Ulster didn’t cross before half time. Leinster went in at half-time feeling a bit spritely at being ‘only’ 6-0 down despite playing like drains.

In the second half, Ulster continued to own the football, but Leinster began upping the urgency levels – rucks were contested a little more vigourously and the aggressive defensive line was beginning to force Ulster errors. The turning point came when you-know-who trying to takle NWJMB’s knees – not advisable under the best of circumstances, and especially not when the man-child was in this form. Drico sustained perhaps the last concussion of many in his career and was replaced by Ian Madigan. Shortly after, Wee PJ left the field and was replaced by James McKinney. The net effect was for Leinster to have someone ready to take the game by the scruff of the neck and Ulster went down a notch in the playmaking – and defensive – stakes.  This was the Ian Madigan that has been missing in action all season.  Could it be that with seemingly nothing to lose he was able to just relax and do his thing.  It’s rare in rugby for the man of the match to go to a reserve, but Madigan was indeed the game’s most influential player.

Aided and abetted by some serious beef off the bench, Leinster finally found their feet, and ten minutes of pressure culminated in Madser’s game-winning try. Even in Optimism Central BBC NI, the score was greeted, with nine minutes to go, as the “game-winning try”. The hole Madigan sauntered through was left there by Jared Payne, who, if this was an audition for some-bloke-called-Brian’s shirt, wouldn’t get a call-back. Bamm-Bamm will feel he is the best inside centre in the team and Darren Cave is easily a better fit outside him right now – if Payne really is an outside centre, he has yet to show it.

To say Ulster let Leinster out of jail would be an understatement – they had them in solitary confinement but accidently left the key lying around and Leinster strolled out of the prison whistling a tune. Anscombe will feel a tad uncomfortable this morning, and he should be – Ulster’s failing 12 months ago was an inability to make big plays in big games (Saints, Leinster) and that is still the case.

There have been a number of games this year in which Ulster have had countless visits to the opposition 22, and been made to pay for not converting enough of them into points.  The freak result at home to Glasgow earlier this season was one, and two more were the home games against Leicester and Montpellier in the Heineken Cup, which they won, but which nearly proved costly in terms of bonus points.  As a team they have the set pieces and forward oomph to dominate matches, but their struggles to score from close range have become the equivalent of getting the yips on the putting green.  Anscombe described them as lacking compusure in key situations, and that seems about right – but that’s as much on him as it is on the players. It feels like they force the issue – the missed touch with several penalties trying to eke out every last metre, when there really wasn’t any need to.

Leinster’s Schmidt Generation would have been much more clinical, and likely have been 15 points up and out of sight by half-time in a similar situation. Lofty standards, sure, but that’s what Humph is aspiring towards with Ulster – and rightly so. The rumour mill already abounds that his coach will be replaced by Neil Doak after next season – this may seem harsh, but unless Ulster’s failing in knockout games is rectified, it’s quite easy to argue that Anscombe has taken Ulster as far as he can and a new approach is needed.

As for Leinster, they’ll be glad to still be alive. It must not be forgotten that they provided the majority of the Six Nations team and a handul of their players were on the Lions tour too, so they’re most likely exhausted.  But it still looks as if Matt O’Connor is more Gary Ella than Joe Schmidt, and if anything performances seem to be getting worse by the week.  And yet he may just finish his first season with silverware.  I can think of a couple of provincial coaches who’d love to be in that position.

They will face a Glasgae side who won a great old-fashioned arm wrestle in a seething Scottish stadium (no, really) against Munster on Friday night. Leinster will see the final as a free play, but they’ll need to be a damn sight better than Saturday to deny the Warriors the win they felt they deserved in last years semi at the Oar Dee Esh. After 33 minutes, Leinster’s season seemed in tatters with performances reaching a nadir. Somehow, and again, Ulster let them off the hook – but it’s hard to know who has the bigger long-term worry.

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Summer Summer Summer Time

Are these songs on the playlist in Thomond Park these days?

Are they about to throw the towel in rather fight tooth and nail for silverware? After losing to an exceptionally inexperienced Ulster time, it’s time to be worried. Next week they travelt to Glasgow, the form team in the Pro12 and a team hungry for the cup having repeatedly gone close in recent seasons, for a very tough semi-final.  Time to shape up.

In 2012, with a head coach leaving at the end of the season, Munster threw their hat at the final rounds of the Pro12, culminating in an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Ospreys.  Sounds familiar?  After their exit at the hands of Toulon, we mentioned that they would do well to quickly turn their attention to the prefectly respectable piece of silverware that was available.  The signs so far are mixed.  They put 50 points on Edinburgh, which served to underline that they mean business, but their performance against a junior Ulster team was so poor as to be bizarre.  Even great players like Conor Murray were reduced to throwing aimless passes to nobody.  In front of a barely half-full Thomond Park they didn’t seem very interested.  Sure, there wasn’t much at stake, but Munster would have been better off building momentum for a very difficult semi-final next weekend than throwing in a clanger in front of (a few of) their own supporters.

RTE were at pains to argue that Munster would definitely respond to their dire performance next time out, and that no team can turn an abject performance into a good one a week later than Munster, but they were missing the point.  The Pro12, in its various guises, is not a competition that really switches Munster on – it’s not in their DNA to give it as much respect as the Heineken Cup, and at times they seem to pride themselves on their ability to play as abominably as possible, to make their HEC exploits look even better.  If they were playing, say, Clermont Auvergne next week we wouldn’t doubt they’d respond, but Glasgow?  Hard to see it.

The only time since 2009 that Munster really went full-tilt at the Pro12 was in 2011, but under unusual circumstances.  Munster were out of Europe in the pool stages, so they had time to get over the emotional hump and re-focus.  Back then, Munster ditched the remnants of several aged Liginds and found a spark to their season when they introduced Conor Murray and Felix Jones to the team. They won that year, in memorable style against Leinster  – but it wasn’t typical.

Three years on, the newbies have read the script: the Pro12 is for vain losers like the Hairsprays and Leinster .  Real men only care about The Big One, or friendlies against touring test sides. Now there’s something worth giving your all for!  For Munster, the idea of going to a ground like Scotstoun and considering it worthy of their greatest efforts, is insulting their standing in the game. Glasgow?  What have they ever done in Europe?  This game is Glasgow’s season, but Munster’s ended two weeks ago. They are a better team than Glasgow, but they don’t need this game to prove anything to anyone.

Nor did they need to beat Ulster’s seconds to prove anything – ironically, the sight of some rivals for the green shirts might have got more out of them, but Paul O’Connell and Conor Murray – best in their positions in Europe – do not look at Lewis Stevenson and Michael Heaney and find their hearts pumping. They were sloppy and disinterested, and as we forewarned in our post-Toulon review, if they perform with the same lack of vigour against Glasgow, the sense of a good season in which many gains have been made will start to dissipate.  There’s a trophy on the line guys, look alive!

Will it hurt their chances in green? Maybe, after all, Joe Schmidt is a stickler for detail and Leinster prided themselves on giving every game 100% when he was in charge, but more likely, he’ll understand- the good work the fringe Ireland players like Simon Zebo and Dave Kilcoyne put in against Toulon is far more relevant to international rugby than a workout against the Ulster Ravens at the tail end of the season. This game told us precisely nothing about Ulster’s chances in the Oar Dee Esh, but it told us everything about Munster’s in Glasgow – they’ll lose to the hungrier side.

Great Vengeance and Furious Anger

The new Ravers’ formal opening on Friday night was an occasion to remember – a pantheon of Ulster greats and Paddy Wallace (joke) presented to the crowd, rugby through the medium of dance by an odd troop who we thought were cheerleaders, Peter Corrie leading the crowd in a rendition of Stand Danny Up For The Ulstermen Boy, and the stadium paying homage to one of its modern greats – Johann Muller, the captain who led this team from bottom-feeders to European powerhouse in his time here.

The game itself was sizzling – a raucous atmosphere which, at times, approached Thomond-Park-on-a-Saturday-night-facing-the-bleating-English levels of intensity (sacrilege, we know, Gerry, we know who the better province is), a great game and yet more red card controversy involving Ulster. Oh, and they lost (to Leinster, again), but qualified for the knock-outs.

Munster-Leinster has long since jumped the shark – when the bitter rivalry got superimposed on the green shirt, it ceased to be fun, and, although the buildup to games congratulates itself in “best rivalry in the world” terms, Ireland really needs something else to take the spotlight off it. Ulster-Munster can result in some crankiness, but doesn’t quite fit the bill as Ulster don’t seem to buy into the Munster-as-Celtic-Gods ethos, and Munster prefer to focus their ire on a more deserving foe – smartarsed city slickers Leinster. Thankfully, the Ulster-Leinster rivalry is beginning to get back to what it once was in the past, and it’s really beginning to irk Ulster that they can’t seem to beat the Blue Meanies when it matters.

When Paddy Jackson said after the game the game that he was pissed off that Ulster keep losing to Leinster, you sensed he spoke for the group – Leinster have broken their hearts for the last two seasons, and it’s getting annoying for the Northerners. It makes Ulster a mighty dangerous semi-final opponent for Leinster.

For vast tracts of Saturday night’s game – 50 minutes we think – Leinster were a man up, yet they huffed and puffed and looked far from convincing. The set piece was solid and the maul strong but lateral shuttling across the backline was again a feature – the only feature, in fact – of their attacking play. Their try was crafted out of virtually nothing – seemingly innocuous turnover ball turned into a try by you-know-who – but apart from that, Dave Kearney’s slip in the corner when trying to pick up a pass that could have been better (sound familiar) was as close as they came to scoring a try. Ian Madigan had a bit of a stinker in open play, and his chip into Wee PJ’s breadbasket wasn’t something he’ll enjoy seeing again.

Luke Pearce, Rabo debutant, refereed the game well, and it wasn’t an easy one – he got the big calls pretty much right:

  • Tom Court (red): like Pearce said to Court and Muller, he was left with little choice – Court lifted Toner above the horizontal and drove him down. A terrible end to his last appearance at Ravers, but Court can have few complaints
  • Nuck Wulliams (no card): the ref was lenient here – Williams got a bit caught up in the crowd’s post-Court frenzy and swung a dig at Rhys Ruddock. It was bird-brained and deserved a yellow, and probably would have got one if Ulster weren’t already down a man – Muller seemed relieved it was just a penalty
  • Bob (yellow): PJ had scooped up Madge’s gift-wrapped chip and was sauntering in when Bob, eschewing the tackle-the-little-guy-into-touch-low approach, tried to behead him. Jackson mostly ducked under it, and dotted the ball down anyway. You sensed if first on the scene was an angry forward rather than Tommy Bowe that it could have turned into a schemozzle, but it defused rather quickly. Bob took his yellow and acknowledged PJ on the way past. Eddie thought it was a red on TV, but it wasn’t really. There was talk of it being a penalty try, but since he scored (and the ref asked the TMO to rule first on the try being scored) that was out – and it wasn’t a penalty from the restart as the offence was commited before the score.
  • Rhys Ruddock (yellow): Jackson was again the victim here, taken out in the air by a combination of Ruddock and Sideshow Zane. Ruddock was all over the place, and looked like he had no idea how to contest the kick, but in the end it looked like Kirchner was more culpable.  It was all a bit of a mess, with Kirchner seeming to shove Ruddock into the contact area.  Someone had to go, and Ruddock got the short straw. It was adjudged yellow as PJ landed on his side. Hmmmmmm.  It appears that the crucial detail in a number of recent decisions is which body part the player lands on.  Jackson didn’t land on his neck or shoulders, so a yellow card was sufficient.  There’s a huge random element when a player is touched in the air – more so than with a spear tackle where the guilty player has more ‘control’ of things, so it’s a tricky area to navigate through.

All of which left Ulster with a nice sense of grievance to take home with them. With Ulster now guaranteed fourth place, and Leinster needing only a bonus point against hapless Embra at home to guarantee first, it’s odds-on they’ll be meeting again the week after next. It’s a pretty dangerous situation for Leinster to be in – they might be top of the log, but they haven’t entirely convinced this season. Ulster will be going down looking to strike down upon Leinster with great vengeance and furious anger, and they will have a few players back, potentially including Ruan Pienaar.

This spicy rivalry might have another twist this season yet.

The Last 2%

So Leinster saw off Schmidty, Johnny Sex-bomb and Isa Nacewa with a much-coveted Pro12 title – while Ulster were the better team over the year, Leinster were better on the day. They out-scored their hosts/visitors two tries to none, and looked a little more composed all day.

Their experience of bigger days certainly told, and they had ice in their veins at key moments. Ulster came out a tad over-exuberant and struggled to come to terms with Lacey’s refereeing, giving away 4 penalties in 8 minutes, while Leinster eschewed three points from an early penalty and went for the corner, resulting in their first try. Hurting your opponent at key times is something Leinster excel at – think early in the second half in Bordeaux last year.

Ulster had a similar situation with an hour gone – they had momentum and had turned Leinster over a few times, then earned a penalty in the corner at 12-19. Egg remarked to his companion that this was the time to go for the corner and try to really turn the screw on Leinster, but as he talked, the entire Ulster team walked backwards and prepared for Pienaar to take a shot. There was no discussion of going to the corner at all, which surprised us. What would Leinster have done? What would Munster have done – the theatrical conversation between O’Connell and O’Gara preceding the inevitable kick down the line is well known at this stage. We’re just not sure three points was what the doctor ordered at that stage in the game.

In the final analysis, Leinster were able to eke out tries and Ulster weren’t – or conversely, Leinster were able to keep Ulster out, while Ulster couldn’t do likewise – Leinster had key interventions to prevent tries – Boss after PJ’s chargedown, Sexton holding up Diack, the scrum just about holding up from 20-25 minutes.

Those little extra things, and the nous that comes from multiple finals (this was their sixth in three years under Joe Schmidt) told for Leinster – and Ulster will be back, hopefully with lessons learned. They have had another good season,  but the next step is going to be learning how to win these big games. It isn’t a given that a team will make that final step from contender either. Some teams climbed the mountain step by painful step (Munster), some went virtually straight to the top (Leinster), some seem to be forever bridesmaids, but do get the occasional fulfillment (Clermont) and some simply never do it (Northampton Saints).

Ulster’s homework this summer is to figure out what they need to add to their game, and plan accordingly. They seem to have most of the starting XV personnel in place (caveat, Fez is a massive loss) but just need to work out the next step – be it better execution, more ambition in the gameplan, a better use of the bench, whatever. Oddly, the one impact sub in the backline they had, Paul Marshall, was unused – having a Plan B would certainly be a start if Plan A wasn’t really working. Still, they can feel satisifed with their efforts in this years Rabo, and rest easy that they did the memory of the tragic Nevin Spence proud. As for Leinster, all you can say is Matt O’Connor has one hell of a tough job living up to this.

Postscript: John Lacey did not have a good game. Leaving aside his obvious frustration at the early penalties, Anscombe made an excellent point after the game – shouldn’t the best referee available be in charge for the final? Of the Celtic refs, Owens would have been that man – was there a reason he wasn’t there? Was it that we wanted an Irish ref? If so, it couldn’t have been Rolland, so the only other alternative was *gulp* Clancy. Last year, though, it was Poite, but presumably the best French refs were busy at the Top14 semi-finals. Getting to the nub of the issue then – if the Pro12 wants to be taken seriously, it needs to start awarding finals to referees with the kind of stature the league aspires to – Superstar Steve Walsh, opportunity knocks!

Friday Night Interpro at Ravers

This weekend sees the first interpro of the season, as Ulster take on Munster at Ravenhill on Friday.  If not quite ‘must see’, it’s the first game of the season that’s worth fixing your plans around.  Both teams have made promising starts with two wins apiece, including wins on the road that were contrary to expectations – well, ours anyway.  Both teams are, of course, under new coaching regimes and the early signs are positive in each case.  And each is allowed to field a couple more internationals under the player management programme.  So the phoney war is over and the real season is beginning.  It’s hard to know just how much can be read in to the first two games, such is the array of missing arsenal, so we’re hoping Friday’s game will allow us to infer a bit more about the direction these sides are heading in.

Have Munster got themselves a pair of centres?

It looks like it.  We’ve been a bit sniffy about Oooooooooooohhh James Downey in the past but while he may be a one-trick pony, it’s undeniably a good one.  Trucking the ball up in the 12 channel is one thing, but it’s Downey’s ability to offload that’s giving Munster’s attack shape.  What’s been particularly impressive is that the likes of Luke O’Dea are alive to the possibilities, and the whole Munster game plan looks joined-up for the first time in a long time.  Outside Downey, Laulala’s quick footwork and direct running look a potent threat, and he’s also keen to keep the ball alive.  He’s always been a quality footballer and, while his presence in the Munster 13 shirt might not be ideal for Keith Earls’ happiness index, he’s here and they might as well get the best of him.

Have Ulster got any fly-halves?

With Nick Williams starting very brightly and Robbie Diack reborn (apparently he’s ashamed of his performances last season and keen to make amends), our concerns over Ulster’s back row depth are receding.  Worries at fly-half remain, however.  Niall O’Connor has never really looked above Pro12 standard, so it’s a lot of pressure on young Paddy Jackson’s shoulders.  Does he have it?  His impact off the bench against the Ospreys has been enough to win him the starting jumper for the Munster game.  His opposite number is Ian Keatley (and a certain centurion ligind awaits on the bench), who has had a reasonably bright start to the season.  It’s a good opportunity to watch a couple of young Irish fly-halves who are looking for big seasons this year.

Donncha O’Callaghan – same-same but different?

Last season Stakhanov looked a fading force, devoid of power and no longer capable of the old manic energy that characterised his best days.  But his performance against Edinburgh was his best in years. Heck, he even carried and – no, really – passed the ball.  As a senior pro in a young-ish team, perhaps Penney is asking him to show more, well, seniority, and actually provide some leadership.  Apparently it’s not enough just to be really great craic – who knew?!  Can he roll back the years for one last hurrah, or was the Embra game a false dawn?  Oh, and congrats on the nipper, Donners!

Ulster – Northern Saffers or expanding their game?

Ulster’s Saffa-inspired gameplan got them to a Heineken Cup last season, but to stand still is to go backwards in modern rugby, so we anticipate they’ll have to expand a bit on the template in order to stay at that level this year.  They’ve a Kiwi coach now (albeit a gritty flanker type who was never known for his ball-playing ability) and Jared Payne brings a creative dimension to the full-back position that was missing last year.  Their back three on Friday is Trimble-Payne-Allen and Darren Cave is back in the team at 13.  It’s a backline with good strike threat, so let’s see if they’re prepared to play a few more phases and try and get the outside backs onto the ball and into space.

It’s a shame it’s not a week further out in the schedule, allowing the likes of O’Gara, Henry, Tuohy and O’Mahony the benefit of an additional week and a place in the First XV, but in any case, there’ll be plenty to chew over on Friday night at Ravers.

And the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor goes to ……

Mick O’Driscoll!

Hardly a name that will be remembered by generations of Irish rugby fans. But it should be – Micko is a stalwart of the professional era, and reached a significant milestone on Saturday night when he earned his 200th cap for Munster, fittingly as captain, in his 12th season (he spent 2 years in Catalunya from 2003-05). The domestique of Irish rugby, he puts in the dirty minutes in an empty Rodney Parade and unquestioningly returns to the bench when Thomond Park fills up for big European nights. It’s Farrelly-esque to say that someone never gives less than 100% and never lets anyone down, but it is appropriate for Micko.

Micko’s professionalism and durability is remarkable, and he most certainly will be able to retire saying he made the most of his talent. It’s worth noting that Micko has never been first choice in his Munster career, being stuck behind Gaillimh, John Langford, Paulie, Stakhanov O’Callaghan and recently Donnacha Ryan, yet the majority of his 200 caps have been as a starter, which shows the trust that multiple coaches have put in Micko to lead the Celtic/Magners/Rabo league dirt trackers.

His best years were assuredly the 3 seasons from 2008-2011 where he led Munster to 2 league titles, consistently out-performed Stakhanov and famously played on an almost-but-not-quite night against New Zealand, when he was simply sensational, leading a team shorn of 10 internationals to within minutes of a stunning victory over a team containing Cory Jane, Joe Rokocoko, Kieran Read and, errrr, Thomas the Tank Engine’s brother (Ooooooohhh!!).

The moment that we will never forget is in 2009, when Munster lifted the Magners League trophy. The occasion was set to a desperately disappointing backdrop, being in the shadow of that defeat to Leinster, but Micko led the troops to yet another win, and, fittingly, was invited by provincial captain Paulie to lift the trophy. The class of the occasion was only matched by the Paul Derbyshire moment after the 2011 win.

Of the 23 players used by Ireland to win the 2009 Grand Slam, only 1 played zero minutes – Micko; yet you never would have worried if either of the second rows had pulled up injured (well, maybe a little if Paulie got hurt), such was his reliability. And if he owed his place to Mal O’Kelly’s errant timekeeping as much as his own qualities, well that’s not his lookout.  He did come off the bench in both HEC finals, but, unsurprisingly, and uncomplainingly, didn’t start either. For such a committed player in a notoriously dirty position, it’s also worth noting that his recent yellow card against Treviso was only his second ever and his first in 6 years, playing and thriving in a physical side not renowned for their discipline.

If only there was some term to convey the almost mythical, fabled, nature of his contribution… 

Mick O’Driscoll – we salute you!

Keep your eyes on… Ian Madigan

The Irish Wolfhounds play England Saxons in late January in a game that should give Deccie a chance to look at a few up-and-coming options.  Who he picks to play fly-half will be of particular interest.  Wolfhounds fly-half may sound inconsequential, but with Radge moving towards retirement, Deccie will most likely be looking to groom someone he feels can back up, and challenge Jonny Sexton in the near future.

The choice would appear to come down to three Ians – Humphreys, Keatley and Madigan.  Humphreys has been the traditional choice for these games, and is the only one of the three that is first-choice at his province – but he’s now pushing 30 and management have made it clear that they believe his frailties are sufficient to ensure he won’t be making the step up to test level.  It’s time to move on.

That leaves us with Keatley and Madigan –  or Ewan Ma-dee-gan, as he will always be known to some.  Keatley has already played for Ireland and has a wealth of Pro12 experience with Connacht, but Madigan’s career graph is moving consistently upwards, and continued to do so on Friday night when he bagged another try and looked assured for most of Leinster’s rout of Cardiff.  Keatley, meanwhile, had the proverbial stinker in Munster’s pretty rank defeat to Ospreys.

Along with Devin Toner, Madigan is the most improved player in the Leinster squad.  Last season, most Leinster fans would have regarded McKinley as the more promising of the province’s two academy graduate out-halves, but Madigan has impressed hugely this term.  It is no exaggeration to say he is the best passer of a ball in the country, and his eye for a break, and pace to go with it, has seen him score four tries in six starts and four sub appearances so far.  A decidedly atypical Irish pivot, he plays more in the mould of an Aussie first-five, or a French 9-cum-10.

There’s still work to do.  Game management is an issue, with too many loose kicks and missed touchfinders (although he has got a big boot), and while this should improve with experience, it remains to be seen if he has ‘the mental’ to dictate a game in the manner that Jonny Sexton and Radge can.  The game is littered with talented out-halves who never learn this art – think of Shane Geraghty, Ryan Lamb or even James Hook.  His place-kicking has yet to be tested at Pro12 level, and we’re unlikely to see it for a while, given McFadden’s form with placed ball.  On Friday, well though Madigan played, Jonny’s cameo showed him where he has to get to – could Madigan have executed the deft cross-field chip for Dave Kearney, or the 75m gain from the penalty in his own 22?  The jury is still out, but with distribution skills to die for, this is one diamond that’s starting to polish up nicely.

What’s the hell is going on at… Ulster

Concern is growing for Ulster after another meek defeat in the AAA-Bank12.  A feeble 17-9 defeat left them empty handed from their trip to Glasgow, and leaves them 8th in the table, just 2 points ahead of Connacht and nine points behind the team in fourth place, which happens to be Glasgow.

It’s a worrying state of affairs for a team that finished third in what looked to be a breakthrough season last time around.  Last year’s Ulster were characterised by the number of tight victories they squeezed out, many of them won late in the day by Ruan Pienaar; this year’s model look to have lost that ability.  They are, admittedly, missing the ice-veined Suthifrikan, who is currently injured.  Another being badly missed is Jared Payne, the outstanding Kiwi signed to play full-back, who is out for the season.  Their troubles began in losing three in a row during the World Cup, amid a general sense that their much vaunted youngsters hadn’t quite grasped their opportunity, and they just haven’t got going at all yet.

The Glasgow match was the second week in a row that Ulster were in the game for the most part (the previous one being Leicester), before losing a try late in the day.  This time it was due to poor alignment and organisation, with Trimble allowing a gap for David Lemi to breeze into.  It’s also Ulster’s second week in a row without a try, and their attack is becoming an issue.  For a team with a relatively heralded backline, their attaking play has been littered with errors; poor passes, dropped ball, and little or no cutting edge in the opposition’s 22. 

Marshall is a good scrum half, albeit not in the Pienaar class, and with a tendency to box kick too often (well, he is an Irish scrum half, so what’s new?).  iHumph will never be everyone’s cup of tea, but he is at least an inventive touch player. In the absence of Paddy Wallace (recovering from a broken finger), the centre combination of Spence and Cave is full of hard running, but it’s all a bit boshtastic – they miss the subtlety that Paddy brings to their game.  Andy Trimble has plenty of gas and power outside them, but he’s spending his time trying to step through heavy traffic – someone needs to try and put him into some space.

A backline often lives and dies by the backrow in front of it – after all, you could have Ma’a Nonu and BOD in midfield, but if you can’t get them any quick ball, they would look ordinary.  Casting a glance over Ulster’s loose trio, it does look as if this is where their problems lie.  Ferris is outstanding, but all of Diack, Wannenberg, Henry or Falloon are in the ‘decent but not great’ category.  More often than not, the Ulster backrow looks imbalanced, with three contact-magnets trying to bosh their way through midfield.  They look better when Faloon, a good link man, plays well, but he needs to start performing with a bit more consistency.

The Heineken knock-outs look a step beyond Ulster this year (it probably requires them to beat Leicester 4-0 at home and get something from the trip to Clermont), and the Magners League playoffs look a long way off at the moment.  Ospreys are showing no sign of letting up, Leinster and Munster will surely stay in the top four, Glasgow are going well and Scarlets look to be up and running with all their internationals back.  It has all the hallmarks of being a(nother) disappointing season up north.

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.

Team in Focus: Leinster

Last week we caught up with the domestic season so far, but it’s hard to escape the sense that the phoney war is now over and the serious business starts this Friday. This weekend the provinces reintegrate their full quotient of frontliners, Leinster take on Munster and Ulster face Connacht, and the following week the Heineken Cup kicks off.  We’re going to have an in-depth look at each of the Irish provinces, and we’ll look at the Heineken Cup groups after that.  We’re kicking off with European Champions, Leinster.

Last season: A+ all round. Joe Schmidt overcame a terrible opening month to deliver a second Heineken Cup in three years.  Unlike the first Cup triumph, Leinster were imperious throughout the competition; Schmidt reinvigorated a tired looking backline by introducing an offloading game that made them more potent than ever in attack, while retaining the hard-nosed winning mentality forged under Michael Cheika.

So far this season: Ticking over.  Five wins in the Magners League, but unsurprisingly, have yet to scale the heights of last year.

Prospects: Leinster will be looking to go one better than last season, which can only be done by winning both the Heineken Cup and the Pro12.  On the face of it their prospects couldn’t be healthier.  Joe Schmidt is fully settled in the role, and now tipped as the next Ireland coach, and a raft of players who made an impression last year will be a year older and more experienced: the likes of Rhys Rudock, Dom Ryan, Fergus McFadden and Eoin O’Malley will be looking to push on and start the big games this year. 

Back row is an area of notable strength, where Sean O’Brien has graduated to the status of global star, and Jamie Healsip will look forward to playing his natural game after a subdued World Cup.  Jennings, McLaughlin, Ryan and Ruddock will be toughing it out to to start alongside them.  With Ross and Healy, the scrum looks rock solid and the addition of Cronin at hooker means Leinster have solid cover for the outstanding Richardt Strauss.  In the backline, Rob Kearney is back to full fitness having had a sound world Cup and the returning Fionn Carr brings out-and-out pace, a missing ingredient since Disco Den’s retirement.  A relatively benign draw (Bath, Glasgow, Montpellier) in the group stages of the HEC puts Leinster in the position of joint tournament favourites, with Toulouse, to win the Cup.

It looks like an impossibly rosy picture – but a couple of clouds are looming.  Second row is a worry.  It is impossible to overrate the contribution of Nathan Hines to last year’s HEC win – the big man’s handling skills were crucial to the offlading game Leinster play, but he has been forced out by the IRFU.  Early indications are that Devin Toner is being groomed to start in his place this year.  At 208cm, Toner is a completely different player to Hines.  He played badly last season (his restart work is frequently appaling), but has started well this, and has a newfound, and badly needed, aggression about his play.  The middle of the lineout should be safe enough with him on the pitch, but Leinster will miss the power, and that bit of mongrel that Hines brought to bare on the team.  Much will depend on whether Toner steps up to the plate.

And what of the centres?  Brian O’Driscoll played the World Cup on one shoulder, and assuredly won’t get through a season unless he is given the chance to properly recover.  How he is handled by the Leinster management remains to be seen, but it must be possible that Leinster will have to cope without him for the early rounds of the Heineken Cup.  Gordon D’arcy has struggled for consistency for some time, and in a world of 110kg centres, looks decidedly small these days.  Shane Horgan is a grievous loss, and leaves Leinster without a big man in the backline.  It means we’ll be seeing more of Fergus McFadden, who was knocking hard on the door last year – this has to be his breakthrough season.  If the BOD-Dorce-Shaggy axis is M.I.A. for vast swathes of the season, it’s hard to see Leinster retaining the Cup, but at the same time they need to start safeguarding for the future.

There’s also the possibility of ‘second season syndrome’ for Joe, and the historical difficulty of retaining the Heineken Cup (only Leicester, in 2001, have done it).  What looked like an easy HEC draw became tougher when Leinster were sent to Montpellier in the opening week.

Forecast: Leinster should qualify from their group, but it may end up tougher than is anticipated.  Lose to Montpellier in opening week, and they’ll have to go to the Rec and win – a result they should get, but not easily.  The knockouts are impossible to predict this far out, but Leinster will be in the shake-down.  In the Pro12, there should be plenty of bitterness stored up by losing out to Munster last year, and Leinster will be looking to pip their rivals this time.  They should manage that, and the likelihood is that Leinster will win silverware in one of the two competitions this year – but a double will remain beyond them.