#Flogged

We dreamed up this post lounging around on Northside grass, peeled grapes being handed to us by the Irish Times sports staff, having conned them into thinking we might need them to ghost an autobiography at some indistinct point in the future. But we soon realized the subject matter was far too serious for us, and we needed to rope in stats guru Andy McGeady for a joint post.

You’ll be able to tell who is responsible for what – the critical insight, relevant statistics and funny bits are from Andy, and the bitterness, carping and anti-Munster bias from us.

The issue of player welfare is something that will be big for us this year. Careers are getting shorter (Ian McKinley, Eoin O’Malley), the level of concern for serious injury differs among observers, and those players who are lucky enough to forge long and successful careers are increasingly paying for it with huge playing time. On this year’s Lions tour, Warren Gatland said that the physicality of rugby had gone up a notch since the last tour.  It was a statement that left us reeling; the 2009 series in South Africa was so bruising you almost felt your ribcage tightening just watching it.  The stakes are increasing all the time.  And when the NFL, where owners readily acknowledge players are mere commodities, seems more concerned about managing careers than rugby, we got a problem.

Two cases in point: Mike Ross and Ruan Pienaar.

Forget Johnny Sexton, Ireland’s most important player is nerdy Corkman Ross because if you don’t have a competent tighthead prop, you’re goosed. The opposition will milk you for penalties, and if you get away with giving up 12 points from this source, you’ve done well. Consider the last time Ireland had to do without an effective tighthead for a big game – in Twickenham in 2012 when Tom Court was forced to deputize for the crocked Ross. Shudders. This isn’t a Court diatribe of course, he is a loosehead by trade and was pressed into service through necessity, but merely illustrates the point.

Not only are tighthead props the most important players on the pitch, they are also typically the biggest (BBC infographics seem to delight in broadcasting the weight of Ireland’s tighthead) and strongest. The power output has increased to the extent that in the Southern Hemipshere and France, a prop isn’t expected to last longer than 60 minutes, with a new front row often introduced en masse between 50 and 55 minutes.

In Ireland, however, we are milking Mike Ross to a terrifically dunderheaded extent. Ross has played every game of note in the last three years for Leinster, and, once he saw off the ‘spirited challenge’ of Mushy, every game possible for Ireland in two and a half. And this is literally every game possible. When Ireland played a disinterested (for multiple reasons: the IRFU didn’t give them the respect of playing a full test, and they had just buried a team-mate) Fiji in November, Ross was required to tog out to prove his fitness. Then in June, when we toured North America, it was decreed we needed Ross to see off Shawn Pittman (London Welsh) and Hubert Buydens (Prairie Wolf Pack). Why?

By the end of last season, Ross looked completely shattered, markedly less effective and in need for a long rest more than anything. Was it really necessary to fly him around the world to steady the scrum? Frankly, without Ross, Ireland would struggle to win a game in the Six Nations, never mind against a Southern Hemisphere giant.

Ruan Pienaar, in turn, is Ulster’s marquee man and their key playmaker. He joined the brethren from the Sharks after the Tri-Nations of 2010, and has not only played every game of note Ulster have had (in both the HEC and the Magners/Pro12), he’s been involved in every Springbok squad in that time – encompassing a World Cup, two Rugby Championships, a Tri-Nations, three November tours and three June tours. Not much time for day trips to Bangor, that’s for sure.

Maybe it’s us, or maybe it’s the more rarified level Ulster are operating at now, but Pienaar seems notably less effervescent than he was two years ago – at the tail end of last year, he looked mentally jaded and unimaginative. Paddy Jackson and the speedsters outside sometimes rarely saw the ball, aside from chasing box-kicks and fielding delayed passes. For Ulster to take the next step in their development, which is often the hardest one, and win some silverware, they’ll need their best players fully engaged and in top form.

In Mendoza on Saturday, Pienaar was ponderous and indecisive – it was a miracle (and a shame) he lasted 80 minutes. Perhaps if Anscombe is honest, he’ll think that a month in the Caribbean for his best player might maximise the chance of him being where Ulster need him by April and May. Sadly, with the behemoth packs of Leicester and Montpellier to negotiate, the chances of that happening seem precisely zero.  But enough speculation – this is where we hand over to stats man Andy McGeady…

When the gentlemen of Whiff of Cordite brought up the subjects of Mike Ross and Ruan Pienaar I did what I am wont to do – I took out the pad and paper, scratched a few things down and had a good, solid mull.

Then I fired up the stats machine.

And I peered inside.

Mike Ross, as Leinster and Ireland’s number one tight head prop forward, is a singularly important player in Irish rugby. And, yes, last season he indeed played a very large number of minutes compared to his contemporaries in European top level rugby.

PropsPlayingTime

Note: the stats used are from the 2012/13 season proper, i.e. the same information that would have been to hand before people flew off to various summer tours.

Of all Rabodirect Pro 12, Aviva Premiership and Orange Top 14 props only six men played more minutes of domestic, European (Heineken/Amlin Cup) and international rugby than the ex-Harlequins man managed during the 2012/13 season.

Mike Ross is thirty three-years old.

1867 minutes of rugby at an average of 64 minutes per outing is a decent shift for a top level front row, especially so at that age.

But he is also thirty-three years young.

Mike Ross might have a birth certificate bearing the year 1979, but between professional club and test level rugby he doesn’t have as many rugby miles on the clock as others.

Fellow thirty-three year old Carl Hayman, for example, played the last of his 45 tests for New Zealand in 2007. Ross first pulled on an Irish test jersey in 2009 playing two summer tests against Canada and the USA, not featuring again in a test side until playing Italy in Rome in 2011.

Since then, of course, Ross has been a regular for Ireland but with just five weeks in age between himself and Hayman the contrast between the two couldn’t be more stark.

And it wasn’t just in the international arena where Ross was a late starter; it took the former UCC and Cork Con man some time to nail down a regular first team slot with a top side, becoming a regular with Harlequins in the 2006-07 season. Depending on how you look at it Ross has made between one and two fewer season’s worth of top level club appearances than the other capped thirty-and-overs in that list, Tom Court excepted.

That’s something to think about. It’s a Matt-Stevens-worth of games, after all.

Ruan Pienaar, like Ross, was the most flogged horse at his position in his league over the 2012/13 season, sitting in third place on the most-minutes-played list of halves currently plying their trade in the European game.

HalvesPlayingTime

Jonny Wilkinson and Rory Kockott might have both played more raw minutes than the South African but neither had to cope with the more rigorous physical and mental demands of the international game (not to mention travel to, literally, all four corners of the globe). The fourth placed Ian Madigan, just behind Pienaar on the list, had just 62 minutes of international rugby in that time (Ronan O’Gara had 78, for those scoring at home).

The IRFU will have no real say in how often Pienaar plays for Ulster, or at what position, perhaps with the exception of suggesting quietly that Paddy Jackson might be offered some time over the kicking tee in live games.

Joe Schmidt and the Irish coaching staff will, however, have some control over the number of minutes that Mike Ross spends rambling around paddocks in the blue of Leinster or green of Ireland. But whether his odometer or registration plate is the more accurate gauge, perhaps only the man himself will know.

Credit: individual playing time stats courtesy of Opta (player ages added from other sources)

Thanks to Andy McGeady for his contribution.  Visit his own excellent site here.

Stop Smoking, Join A Gym, Kick Between Posts

Ah, the festive season! Turkey, toy fights, rum & coke and Barnesy’s autobiography in the stocking – we all know the drill. Oh, and interprovincial rugby.

The twitching corpse of tradition lives on in Irish rugby with the October/December/April series, and there is nothing more seasonal than a few glasses of Pimms at the RDS, a few pints of Guinness at Thomond, a few thumps of the Bible at Ravenhill, or a few lost souls at the Sportsground.

So, how did they go for each of the provinces? We rate the Christmas gifts bestowed by Father IRFU.

Ulster – L Leinster 42-13 W Munster 33-17
On Stephen’s Day, the kids went to RDS and didn’t disgrace themselves by any stretch of the imagination. They looked well-drilled and composed, and were down just 8 points after 60 mins before the predictable onslaught began. After that, they filleted Munster up front and looked very threatening with ball in hand – you had a recollection of last season when a stuttering first half of the season was turned around in the New Year. Ruan Pienaar is now back and with most of the rest of the playoff contenders down key men while Ulster welcome them back, is there a possibility of simliar run to last season? They will look for a semi-final not against Leinster, and hope Andrew Trimble is on to the right man upstairs when they go to the Marcel Michelin.
New Year’s Resolution for 2012: Put together a run of wins.  Ulster are seven points off the playoffs and an extended run is required to propel them up the table.

Munster – W Connacht 24-9, L Ulster 33-17
Something of a curates egg for Munster – a very poor Connacht were easily swatted aside in a game they learned little about themselves in, but they were bossed around in Ravenhill in a game reminiscent of a different era. The scrum was bullied, Duncan Williams was awful, and Ian Keatley looked what he really is – a 10 who is still learning his trade. On a brighter note, Earls was back – and showed beautiful hands for set up one of the tries in the Connacht match. However, judging by some of the performances by the other outside backs, they need three of him. And he is still defensively suspect in a key position. It’s an important few weeks for Munster – falter in the HEC (by which we mean 5 points or less in 2 games) and a trip to Toulouse or Clermont beckons. So, just the right time to have your most dangerous finisher missing tackles in the midfield, eh!
New Year’s Resolution for 2012: Develop an attack.  Their pack have manned up well so far, but their back play is still clueless.  They’ll need to get some coherence for the sharp end of the season.

Leinster – W Ulster 42-13, W Connacht 15-13
In general, Leinster are motoring so well at the moment that even Gerry is conceding they are “almost Toulouse-like”. However, despite the wins, this wasn’t the most satisfactory Christmas in D4 – a very experienced front 8 took far too long to subdue the Ravens, and the main worries (replacing Hines, BOD and Shaggy) are still leaving a too-much-turkey feeling in the stomach. But that’s a measure of the sky-high expectations. They will be hoping Leo Cullen recovers the form of May and not December 2011, and that talk of a double does not get too far out of hand. In truth, Joe could do with expectations being dampened, so he might be a little happier after the Great Escape of Galway. And to be more truthful, if it’s going to be a HEC semi-final trip to Toulouse or Clermont (or Wembley to meet Saracens), they will need their A game, and even that may not suffice in France.
New Year’s Resolution for 2012: Tighten up on D.  Leinster’s two wins showcased their superior squad depth, but they have leaked more tries this season than last.  If they are to achieve back-to-back HEC’s, there’ll be no place for soft tries.

Connacht – L Munster 24-9, L Leinster 15-13
Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose. A shockingly poor display against Munster (it was almost as if they felt it would be impolite to ruin The Bull’s swansong by trying) was followed by a tough and gutsy one against Leinster … with exactly the same outcome – another defeat. Elwood is all optimism but when the focus isn’t there, they are rubbish. The attacking patterns are appalling and they really look drained – the losing sequence is taking it out of them. Given the size and make-up of the squad, Eric was probably hoping for 6 to 7 league wins to bank at this stage. Instead, they have just 3, and despite the fact they won’t lose (m)any players during the 6N, it’s hard to see what will be the catalyst for a turnaround. If Aironi get their freak on, it could be Connacht returning to familiar barrel-scraping territory in April.
New Year’s Resolution for 2012: Where to begin?  Connacht just have to get a win from somewhere to break the losing streak.  Improved place kicking would help.  They travel to Aironi next – lose that and they’re in trouble.

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: Ulster

Last season: A. Ulster had a fantastic season, their best since Humph retired – some shrewd Saffa recruitment and up-and-coming young talent led Ulster through their HEC pool, and, with a little more belief, the Saints were there for the taking. Third place in the ML secured a playoff, but an(other) inevitable defeat to Leinster ensued it ended potless in Ravenhill.

So far this year: If last year was A, this season has been C- so far. They didn’t have many players in NZ, but the ones they did have were crucial – the spine of the team (2, 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 14 including captain, vice-captain and on-field lieutenants) were gone. The forwards have been too lightweight to get ball for the talented backs and old faultlines have re-appeared – e.g. iHumph’s salloon door tackling.

Prospects: The shocking HEC draw has concentrated minds in Ravenhill – there is no room for error, and they must hit the ground running and beat the in-form and intimidating Clermont Auvergne next week followed by a tilt at the Tigers the week after.

The pressure seems to be telling a little and Ulster are struggling to get motoring. The hope was that the younger players would put some pressure on the established names, and that the RWC returnees would be coming back into a fight for the shirt. That hasn’t happened, and the string of losses is worrying.

On the personnel front, the question marks are mainly around whether the players who did well last year can step up. Paddy McAlister looks a real prospect at loose-head – he’s physical and aggressive and certainly looks more effective than Tom Court. If McLaughlin throws him in against the (very) big guns of Clermont and Leicester, it will be very interesting. Opposite him, John Afoa on the tight-head side can’t come in soon enough – Court’s scrummaging has always been passable at best, and it is frankly abominable on the tight side. Rory Best isn’t being shifted, but young Niall Annett has captained every age group he has played in, and will be given a taste of Rabo action this year – one to watch in 2015.

Further back, Ulster will want big seasons from Dan Tuohy and Chris Henry. Tuohy is a great ball carrier and when on form, seems to have all the tools to be an international player. The problem is that, particularly this season, his form has been up and down. The return of Muller alongside him (and Best) should help him concentrate on his own game.

The Ulster back-row is in a bit of flux. You want your back-row to be well-balanced and to have a tackler, a carrier and a line-out merchant. Fez is all 3 really, Pedrie Wannenburg is a carrier and Chris Henry is, well … nothing, really. For Henry to continue his progression, he needs to make a shirt and a role his own. He is probably best-suited to 6, but the imposing frame of Fez is blocking him in the big games (assuming he is fit). At 8, he is behind agricultural Bok bosher Wannenburg, who might be fairly one-dimensional, but he gets across the gainline and has a happy knack of picking up tries. Which leaves 7, where Willie Falloon is a much better, albeit inconsistent, fit. Henry is in danger of being left behind, but he has potential and is a good leader – it’s a huge season for him. The afore-mentioned Falloon is a classic openside and Ulster look much better balanced with him in the side. He is a younger man and has yet to produce consistently, but if he gets form and starts, he balances the team much better. Which leaves Henry on the bench…

Pienaar and iHumph offer Ulster a balanced and exciting halfback pairing. The idea of a play-making scummie is still a bit odd here, and it gives Ulster the ability to play it either way. Pienaar’s game management and kicking is top class, and it allows the luxury of Humphreys silky skills and woollen defence at 10. Paul Marshall on the bench offers snappy service and a fast break as the game opens up. Also, look out for a fascinating battle between Paddy Jackson and James McKinney for the Young Outhalf Prospect Cup. At centre, the current incumbents are Nevin Spence and Paddy Wallace, with Luke Marshall and Darren Cave backing up. The competition should bring the best out of them all, and probably usher in Paddy Wallace’s swansong. In Cordite Villlas, we hope to see Spence in a green shirt very soon.

Out wide, it seems strange that its less than 2 years since Timmy Naguca, Mark McCrea and Clinton Shifcofske were trundling around Mount Merrion wasting good ball. Trimble and Danielli are genuinely HEC class, and youngsters Craig Gilroy and Conor Gaston will hope for lots of gametime. Adam D’Arcy is a fantastic broken field runner, but it’s all a bit pointless given he can’t actually pass the ball. Ageing Saffa boot merchant Stefan Terblanche has been brought in to cover for the unfortunate Jared Payne, and will actually contribute – Ulster do not have a safe as houses full-back a la Bob Kearney in the squad.

Ulster got an absolute stinker of a HEC draw this year – just when they needed something benign (e.g. Biarritz) to establish themselves as a quarter-final side, out popped the worst conceivable pool – Leicester and Clermont. To be fair, neither of those two would have been happy to see Ulster – Leicester have had some very bad days in Ravenhill, and Clermont, despite being among the three best sides in Europe for the last 4 years, have seen their ambitions founder on Irish soil.

Nineteen points will generally get you close to a wild card for the knock-out stages, and it’s a simple formula – 4 wins and 3 bonus points. Ulster have to let tie-breaking criteria think of themselves, and hope perhaps that Clermont do a Perpignan and get a result in Welford Road. They will aim for a double over Aironi and two other home wins. As for bonus points, the most likely scenario for getting three is two try numbers from the Italians and one losing point in Leicester – nobody gets one in the Stade Marcel Michelin (except Munster and Leinster). It’s a tall order, but Ulster played the timing of their fixtures well last year, and its an easy argument to make that now is the time to be visiting Welford Road.

At home, it’s about getting into the top 4 – only Leinster stand out in the Rabo pack, and Ulster, Munster and the bigger Welsh sides are of a similar standard. Fourth place will do, but fifth wouldn’t be a disaster if some of the younger guns get useful and productive gametime.

Verdict: Despite all the optimism Egg Chaser can muster, it’s a huge ask to get out of this pool. We think they will come mighty close though. We forecast 18 points and a finish behind Clermont. ERC tie-breakers will decide if its them or Leicester who join Munster in pursuit of the AmlinVase. At ProDirect level, they won’t get a home semi-final, but will do enough to get an away one – the lack of Irish internationals will work in their favour in February and March. Unless of course Deccie goes for revolution not evolution… Nah, playoffs it is.

Don’t walk away Ruan-nee

Rumours are circulating that Ruan Pienaar, Ulster’s favourite of their many South African sons, will be heading back home with a view to playing out-half in the World Cup (and presumably the Tri-Nations as well). It seems there’s a bit of a crisis at 10 for the Bokke, as management have finally realised that being an international playmaker requires more than simply kicking the ball really high into the air, which is bad news for Morne Steyn.

If the rumours are true, we’ll be pretty upset here at Cordite Towers. Pienaar’s canny game management and slick distribution have helped spark a young Ulster backline, and his last-minute match-winning penalties have propelled his team to the Magners League playoffs. Indeed, he was honoured with the ML Player of the Year Award this week.

But we can see why chief headbanger Pieter de Villiers would have his beady eye on Pienaar, because none of the alternatives are really braai-ing our biltong. We would think about throwing in Patrick Lambie, a young player of huge quality, but it is maybe a year too early, and PdV is not known for his enterprising selections. Peter Grant is having huge difficulty sparking the Stormers stellar backline (de Villiers-Fourie-Habana) into action, and the less said about the Naas Olivier’s of this world the better.

Don’t break our hearts Ruan, and give us another year.