Job Done

Two new regimes got up and running this weekend.  The Schmidt regime and the ROG-as-pundit regime.

The rollercoaster of November was something of a bedding in period for Joe; this felt like the first performance with his imprint on it.  All in all, it was a low tension affair, a satisfactory ‘job done’.  Once Ireland got the first try at the end of the first half it never looked like they’d lose the game.  They pulled away comfortably.  Sure, Scotland were rubbish, but the trick is not getting dragged down to their level.  Previous Ireland teams have let Scotland make them look even more rubbish.

Positives were plenty, but chief among them has to be the backrow.  Ireland fans have gotten used to lopsided backrows where someone has to forego their natural game.  If one or two of the ‘loosies’ play well, one of them has a quiet game by comparison.  Here all three played terrifically.  The carve-up in roles looked a bit different with O’Brien out.  Heaslip did most of the carrying, leaving O’Mahony to busy himself in the ruck.  The Munster flanker has been accused of a lack of appetite for the dirty stuff in the past, but that couldn’t be levelled at him on Sunday, when he came up from the ground with turnover after turnover.

Heaslip won man of the match and showed exactly why he’s so valued by coaches.  Eleven carries for 66 metres tells its own story; every time he got the ball Ireland were at least a couple of metres further up the pitch when he was presenting it.  So far so Robin Copeland, but what makes Heaslip exceptional is that he is such an all-rounder.  While most flankers have one specialised talent, Heaslip is good at everything.  As well as leading the carrying, he also had the highest number of tackles in the pack, scored a try, almost scored another off the wing, played scrum half when Murray was getting sucked into rucks (as you read this Schmidt will be talking about protecting the ball better next week), caught a lineout and made his usual share of clear-outs.

Then there’s Chris Henry who is an absolute nuisance to play against.  He gave away his customary penalty early on, but remained well disciplined thereafter.  He doesn’t look like a #genuineopenside, but he has proven once given the chance that he is up to this level.  With Tuohy and Henderson belatedly promoted to the team and bench respectively, this felt like the day Ulster were finally recognised for three years of belligerent match-winning.

Watching the aftermath of the game on telly, we couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the enlightening discussion between Shane Horgan and Ronan O’Gara pitchside and the old lags (O’Shea excepted) in the studio.  O’Gara took to punditry as we expected he would; easily.  As always, it was all too tempting to try and read between the lines of what he was saying.  He’d heard from the Munster lads that Schmidt had driven standards sky-high.  Was that a dig at the man who ended his Ireland career in such ignominious circumstances?  He was also less than complimentary about his new club, describing Racing’s play as ‘more organised than usual’ in the recent win over Toulouse.  He was fascinating in his analysis of French rugby culture.  He has test rugby in his DNA and, like Shaggy, has plenty to say about it.  What a pity there wasn’t more of them and less of the studio on Sunday.  Watching McGurk and Hook exchange their usual cantankerous bleatings, a familiar thought came into our heads: ‘Get RADGE on!’.

End of an Era

As if to have one last laugh at his ability to become the story, the news that Ronan O’Gara had announced his retirement from playing and his move into coaching on the night Leinster won the Amlin Vase was deliciously ironic. For ever since the apple-cheeked young Corkman came onto the scene, he has resolutely been able to bend the narrative to his will.

The triumvirate that guided Ireland to the new dawn of Triple Crown success and then the Grand Slam was Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Rog. BOD and POC were captains of country and province respectively and, in that capacity, their public utterances were largely banalities for our VBFs in the print media. Rog, on the other hand, felt no constraints to stay on-message – his confident, chippy and proud communiques were always newsworthy, and you got the impression that better represented the feelings inside the Munster and Ireland camps.  It has helped to make him the most divisive sportsman in Ireland since Roy Keane (another chippy Corkman).  While the likes of O’Connell, O’Driscoll and The Bull are easy for the public to love for their bravery and charm, O’Gara will never have the same unanimous adoration; he gets people’s goat up, and probably doesn’t care that much about it.

When Rog went on Sky the week before a crucial HEC game in Leicester and announced he “would not accept” that English players were better than Irish ones, it was a call to arms – and one he backed up on the pitch with a 50 metre penalty in pouring rain to win the game. We always felt this very modern Irish desire to break free of the “gave it 100%” brigade and measure success in medals was something O’Gara elucidated very well, and his contribution to the noughties Silver Generation was as important as the two big leaders. The fact that the willowy fly-half spent large portions of his international career pursueing an ongoing vendetta with one the toughest teams in world rugby – Argentina – was indicative of his bloody-mindedness.

Rog’s Ireland career was book-ended by back-and-forth rivalries for the 10 shirt – with David Humphreys from 00-03, then with Johnny Sexton from 09-12. What was notable about both was that O’Gara refused to accept being second best – while Humph looked a better suited player to the backline Ireland possessed, it was Rog who went to Eddie and simply demanded to always play, and Humphreys who retired from international rugby in frustration at collecting splinters.

Then when Sexton broke through, it was O’Gara who doggedly refused to go away quietly into the night, gaining oxygen from the rivalry and feeding off his coaches lingering doubts over Sexton to elbow his way to the 10 shirt for the RWC11 quarter-final.  Getting selected for that game was the winning of the battle, but the game itself was the losing of the war.  Wales ruthlessly exposed his by now limited game, and ROG never started another game for Ireland.

While his status in Ireland and at Heineken level is assured, there is no point pretending Rog didn’t have a great record on the highest stages of all – he went on three Lions tours but never started a Test, and his role in the second Springbok test in 2009 was rather ignomininious, even if being boshed by Jacque Fourie is excused by having sustained a big hit shortly before. At World Cup level, it never quite happened either – even aside from the horrendous experience that was 2007, the 2003 and 2011 were not without their moments, but both ended with a whimper, having been selected over his rivals on both occasions.

His best days, though, were saved for the Munster jersey, and it was in that shirt that he almost seemed most comfortable.  When he endured difficult times with Ireland, it was back with Munster where he was put back together.  This ws most after the World Cup in 2007; O’Gara had given his worst ever performances for an abject Ireland, but returned to form quickly at Munster and won the Heineken Cup.  It was a remarkable transformation. It happened again this year; ROG looked like a pub player for Ireland, ultimately forcing Kidney to turn to rookies instead of him.  He seemed finished, but managed to deliver two outstanding performances for Munster in the subsequent Heineken Cup knockouts.

For all the extreme views that O’Gara seemed to inspire in people, there is little doubt he maximised his talents through hard work and no little skill. He had his limitations, notably his weak defending and lack of running threat and pace.  But what made him a great was his ability to make big games bend to his will in spite of those limitations.  In a clutch situation, there were few better.  His record speak for himself, and, as someone who has met the man outside rugby on a couple of occasions, his public persona bears little resemblence to the well-spoken, thoughtful and intelligent person that he is. We think that not only will he ensure he succeeds as a coach, but his meeja utterances will reflect those personality traits of honesty and incisiveness, making him a relative rarity in Irish rugger circles.

He has given us a finale that nobody saw coming – disappearing into the Parisian sunset arm in arm with Jonny Sexton.  It’s tempting to see only the funny side, and imagine Jonny Sexton rolling his eyes and cursing that he will simply never get out of the shadow of the chippy Corkman.  One can picture Jonny opening the curtains in his Parisian apartment only to reveal Ronan O’Gara waiting for him with his kicking tee.  But in fact it’s almost certainly an outstanding coup by Racing Metro.  They have a great fly-half on their books, and another in their coaching team.  By all accounts, Sexton and O’Gara get on well, and have a productive relationship.  They’re ultimately not that dissimilar; both are cranky, have collosal self-belief and are serial winners.

Heineken Cup Round 2: The Good, the Bad and the Saints

Good week

Scarlet Fever
We have been banging on about the potential in the young Llanelli side for a while now, and we aren’t the only ones – key Scarlets played important roles in Wales’ RWC success and the potential at Stradey Park Parc Y Scarlets has long been acknowledge. This week, they arrived, filletting last years beaten finalists and wrapping up a 4 try bonus point on the hour. Sure, the Saints were distracted and sloppy and Peter Fitzgibbon was poor, but the Scarlets nullified the Saints scrum and let talent do the rest. Rhys Thomas, Ben Morgan, Rhys Priestland, JJV Davies, George North and Liam Williams were excellent.

Heavyweight Division
Last week, we pointed out how the Heineken Cup seemed to be rather open this year. This week, two of the favourites flexed their muscles – Leinster and Toulouse swatted aside what were expected to be troublesome opponents with ease. Both also had the luxury of making several changes and still looking formidable – they will take some beating this year.

Radge
After last week’s get out of jail stunt from Rog, we confidently predicted it was a stunning once off. And, not for the first time, the man came to his sides rescue in Europe. A nerveless injury time drop goal from the maestro got Munster out of France with a very useful 4 points. In spite of the new blood, the men in red know exactly what needs to be done and when – and they have the perfect executioner. We are at odds as to who is in the driving seat for the pool – but there is no doubt who is the star driver.

Bad Week

Les Autres Francais
Toulouse are HEC bluebloods, and reach the knock out stages pretty much every year – and will do so again this year. In the last two editions, they have been joined by a variety of fellow countrymen – Toulon, Stade, Clermont, Biarritz and Perpignan. This year, they might be a bit lonely in April. Castres and Racing Metro are out of it with two defeats and Montpellier now need to win in the RDS – don’t be surprised to see all three throw in the towel and concentrate on the Top 14 from here. Biarritz and Clermont are in scraps to the death to get through their pools – it doesn’t look like a vintage year for the French.

Northampton Saints
After 80 minutes of this year HEC, the Saints had an away victory nailed and were all set to stay on the radar as one of Europe’s best sides and a team with a bright future ahead of them. 41 phases and 80 minutes later, their European season lies in tatters – torn asunder by Rog and the Scarlets. The nature of some of the Saintly performances – Ryan Lamb (flaky), Dylan Hartley (weak-willed) and Chris Ashton (appalling attitude) and the likely departure of Jim Mallinder to replace Johnno at St Boshington’s creates an air of uncertainty about the future at Franklin’s Gardens. What an astonishing turnaround in 6 days.

No Romance at the Dog Track
It was the biggest night in the history of Connacht, but also one of the toughest.  After a great effort at The Stoop last week, the hope was that they could at least make life uncomfortable for Toulouse, for 50 or 60 minutes anyway.  Instead, they never fired a shot.  Maybe the occasion got the better of them, or perhaps Toulouse were simply too powerful, but Connacht are rarely hammered in their own ground like this.  It should have been a night to celebrate (and in some ways still was), but the old questions about the future of Connacht will be asked all over again this week.

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.

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Inside Backs

The penultimate post in the series looks at the fly-half and centres quandry.  Egg Chaser will wrap things up on Friday by looking at the back three.

How many will go? Two fly halves, three centres.

Who is certain to travel? It will come as little surprise to Ronan O’Gara, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy when Deccie informs them that they are going down under.  These four can purchase their copy of Ki Te Whaoiao’s An Introduction to Maori Culture and Society.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? Dedicated outside centre cover is thin on the ground.  If the unthinkable were to happen to Brian O’Driscoll and he should miss a game it is likely that one of the outside backs, probably Tommy Bowe or Keith Earls would step in to the breach.

One man who is likely to go as cover for Dorce and the two fly-halves is Paddy Wallace.  A couple of high profile mistakes and the images of his face being mashed in the 2009 Six Nations have made Paddy a bit of a punchbag among Irish rugby fans, but the truth is that he is a classy distributing centre, and one of the best passers of the ball in the country.

He was in Eddie’s 2003 and 2007 squads as a reserve out-half (the reserve in 2007), and his ability to cover 10 and 12 and offer an alternative ‘second five-eighth’ option at 12 gives Kidney another way of playing.  So far so good.  But the truth is that he is not even close to being an international 10.  If Sexy and ROG were both to get injured, Ireland may as well pack up and go home – the notion that Wallace should be brought to cover this remote eventuality is a nonsense.  Even more nonsensical is the idea that Wallace covers full-back.  A certain esteemed Irish Times journalist has repeatedly peddled this line, and it has been used to justify Paddy’s selection as half-time orange provider throughout the Six Nations, but it is hard to think of any attributes of a modern 15 that Wallace possesses.

So his value should be measured on his ability at 12.  And we like Wallace as a 12, but he has not had the best of seasons with Ulster or Ireland.  Menwhile, Fergus McFadden offers cover across the three-quarter line and is coming off the back of a superb season with Leinster, even if he is not yet a consistent starter in the big games.  Tigerish in contact, with enough gas to play on the wing, and the ability to place-kick, he should be taking his place on the plane in September.

A final option, and an increasingly fashionable one, is playing a big man at 12 to bosh up the middle.  After all, didn’t BOD mesh wonderfully with Jamie Roberts on the Lions tour?  The man to play this role for Ireland would be Ooooooooooooooohhh James Downey.  WoC was surprised to see Downey show reasonable hands for Northampton in the HEC semi-final, and felt we had perhaps underestimated him.  The feeling remains that he is probably not quite up to international level, though this is one option that would have been worth exploring before now.  Downey didn’t make the 43-man training squad this week, so the ship has probably sailed.

We think Deccie will plump for Wallace, with the fly-half cover working in his favour, but it is possible (particuarly in light of Shaggy’s injury) that Fergus could still make it as a utility back, more of which anon…

Any bolters? Nevin Spence had made a bolt with a string of impressive performances for Ulster, and is unfortunate to be ruled out through injury.  His time will come.

Should go: Ronan O’Gara, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Fergus McFadden
Will go: Ronan O’Gara, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Paddy Wallace