Just What Was That?

When we heard the news that Conor Murray was going to miss the trip to Globo Gym and their 4G pitch (bet you hadn’t heard Sarries had one, had you? The Irish media don’t dwell on it much), any lingering hopes we had that Munster could eke out a win pretty much disappeared.  On the eve of the game we tweeted that Egg Chaser was predicting a drubbing by Saracens but Palla was going for more of a bloodless coup.  It turned out to be both.

Munster were routed in every facet of play – the scrum, which had creaked under BJ Botha all season, was marched backwards. By Mako Vunipola! The breakdown was a breeze if you were a Saracen – every ruck resulted in nice easy ball, whereas when Munster had possession, poor Duncan Williams, hardly blessed with decisiveness at the best of times, had opposition forwards all over him. The lineout was a fiasco. Munster’s kicking game took no account of the Allianz Park surface. Their big players were not a factor. Munster simply could not get into the game.  Any time they had a platform they made a mistake.  Saracens are a good side, one of four sides (Toulon, Clermont and the Saints being the others) who will not be happy unless they win this competition, but the scale of Munster’s humiliation was frightening to behold. Just how did it come to this?

It was all neatly encapsulated by the two trademark BT Sport-mid-match interviews with coaching staff.  Mick O’Driscoll’s vox-pops sounded just as Saracens were in the process of gaining 30m and setting up the platform that would result in their first try.  It gave the impression of a man fiddling while Rome burns.  At around the 60 minute mark, Saracens’ Paul Gustard was asked to discuss the victory in waiting and tried to convince those watching at home that it wasn’t done yet, but you could tell from his demeanour that he knew the game was won.

It’s been a miserable first half-season for Axel Foley in the job he has worked so hard to get – the brave and the faithful can live with indifferent league form, especially when it comes sweetened with two thumping victories over the arrogant Ladyboys from Dublin, they can live with defeats to sides as good as Clermont and Saracens, but Munster fans are wondering how the team can go out so far off the mental pitch required for a game aptly described by Axel as one with “no tomorrows”. They had a tough pool, no question, but it wasn’t in the script needing a last minute drop goal to beat Sale, or losing their home unbeaten record to French teams, or to lay down so meekly against a team perfectly placed to make Munster bitter. Rob Penney’s teams might have benefitted from kinder draws, but any European exit was with their heads held high, making a higher-quality team sweat buckets before getting over the line.

Penney himself never got an easy ride from the press – the stuttering league performances were seen as evidence he didn’t fit, and the wide-wide games with Donncha O’Callaghan popping up on the wing before Munster had “earned that right” were scoffed at as an alien style imposed on an unwilling team. When Munster did resort to a fruitier forwards-based effort and won, the credit went to the players. When Penney’s contract wasn’t renewed and Axel Foley was given the job, many felt Penney would be glad to be out of there – getting not much credit for dragging a transitional team to successive HEC semi-finals. But no Penney team ever capitulated like Foley’s Munster did at the weekend, and it makes you wonder where the camp is right now – when Paul O’Connell is making elementary errors and Peter O’Mahony is anonymous for 60 minutes, it needs to to be asked why the players aren’t producing.

Is it the personnel? Well, it’s a very similar squad to the one that made last year’s semi-finals – POC might be a year older, but Murray is if anything even better, players like Dave Foley, Duncan Casey and CJ Stander are much improved, and Ian Keatley is having his best season as a professional. The centres are different, but hey, what’s new? It’s more or less the same panel.  Injuries?  Sure, Varley and Sherry are a miss at hooker,. but Casey has played well enough to be a minor cause celebre when he didn’t get picked for Ireland in November.  Keith Earls hasn’t been fit, but he missed a lot of rugby last year, and if anything the backrow options have been enhanced by the return to form of Tommy O’Donnell.

Is it the gameplan? The narrow forwards-based plan is certainly more like (cover your ears) “traditional Munster values”, but then again, so is winning important games in Europe, as is producing the type of clinical control exhibited by Saracens on Saturday. Their most-talented youngster, JJ Hanrahan, has tired of not playing and has flounced off to Northampton – Foley pronounced himself “mystified” then picked Dinny Hurley and left Hanrahan kicking his heels for 76 minutes.

Is there something else? It feels like raking up old muck, but when emailgate happened, most of the punditerati were on the TV and the radio to say it was much ado over nothing and the squad would quickly move on. All except Bernard Jackman that is, who said it would destroy the dynamic in the dressing room and take a very long time and hard work to move past – it’s important and relevant because Jackman was the only pundit asked who actively coaches a proper side – Grenoble, currently sixth in the Top 14, and with a good case to be a better side than Ulster, Munster or Leinster. Maybe the squad just hasn’t move on yet.

Four years ago, the last time Munster failed to make the quarter-finals, the coach had the Week 6 balm of a home game against an average English side – last time Lahn Oirish, this time Sale Sharks – Munster will want to see an angry response to get some mojo back, for what it’s worth. Then the real business gets underway.  McGahan used the ensuing Pro12 campaign to rebuild and made some changes, notably bringing in Conor Murray and James Cawlin for Strings and Leamy, and Munster went on to win the Pro12. It’s imperative that Munster do something similar – though probably more along the lines of expanding the gameplan than bringing in new personnel – and grab this season by the scruff of the neck. No-one wants the defining memory to be the limp capitulation in Allianz Park.

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There Is No Such Place As …

Harlequins! Or: Ospreys! Or: Wasps! Or: Racing Metro! And, of course, Saracens – as we will doubtless hear tired repititions of for the rest of this week. But the existence, or otherwise, of a place called Saracens is completely irrelevant to the game this weekend. The club itself is as stable as it has been since Nigel Wray got involved – they are close to celebrating two years in Allianz Park, where they consistently attract 8,000-9,000 for Premiership games, and Mark McCall is approaching four year of quiet excellence as supremo.  And I hear the tannoy rings out clear as a bell.

McCall has finished 1st in the league three times out of four (once helped by half a season of Brendan Venter), won the grand final itself once, and was a TMO call away from doing so again last year. In the HEC, Saracens might have been memorably outclassed by nouveau riche arrivistes Toulon last year, but they thumped big game chokers Clermont Auvergne in the semi-final, feeding them an ugly forty-burger. The previous years saw losses to Toulon and Clermont in the semis and quarters respectively.

The squad itself is stable and well-balanced, and has quality throughout – the pack is as strong as you would expect from a Premiership side, and there are internationals in most backline positions. They are a proper club, like it or not, and the fact that Munster is a coherent geographic entity that you can be from will not be a decisive factor in the game.

But what factors will be decisive? Saracens have been defeated only three times in two year at Allianz Park – twice to the Northampton Saints, and once (when depleted by the Six Nations) by London Oirish. They defeated (and scored four tries against) Clermont Auvergne there in Round 1 of the ERCC while Munster laboured to a last minute victory over Sale Sharks. This won’t be a matter of turning up, singing louder, and letting the cowed Britons bend the knee – an actual gameplan will be required.

And they need to win – before the season, we expected this pool to come down to bonus points, but its not going to happen – Clermont’s win in “Tomond” means that someone will finish with 5 wins, someone with 4 and someone with 3. If Munster are to avoid being the ‘3’, this is the one they need to win.

First, discipline – don’t give Saracens easy points. Saracens are the top points scorers from the boot in the Not-So-Boshiership, scoring 195 points in 13 games – a neat average of 15 points a game. With a front row of, at best, Cronin (just back from injury), Casey and BJ Botha, there is a risk Poite will earn further ire by rewarding the dominant scrum (likely to be Saracens), as he tends to do. But that is out of Munster’s control (largely) and can only be managed, as opposed to turned on its head. But if Munster start giving away breakdown penalties in their own half, the jig is up – even an easy 6 points to the boots of Charlie Hodgson or Owen Farrell (both kicking 80% this season) is likely to be insurmountable, the margin of error being very slim.

Regular viewers of Saracens (we don’t see enough of them – we have yet to sup from the poisonous chalice of BT Sport, but that’s likely to change, given how great the Boshiership is to watch; yes, really) tell us that they are vulnerable to being attacked through the centres, utilizing quick hands and smart lines. Something that Dinny Hurley brings to the table, for example. Wait, what? Joking aside, a Munster selection with JJ Hanrahan at 12 is one that Saracens won’t like to see. With potential wingers of Keith Earls and Simon Zebo, the last thing Saracens will want is someone who can get them the ball. A selection of Hurley will signal an attacking gameplan whose scope barely extends beyond the fringes of the ruck. Saracens will treat this as meat and drink, and is almost certainly a losing hand.

The first game between these sides was as tight as the proverbial duck’s arse until Rhys Gill went and did something stupid. Munster profited from his absence to score the game’s only try and tag on an extra three points, which ended up being the difference between the sides. The game was essentially lost by something dumb from Saracens. Flip the venue to England, and look at the side’s intervening form, and Saracens are deservedly favourites – for Munster to win, they can’t rely on Lady Luck in the form of a bounce of the ball or a silly yellow card. Simply turning up and giving it all isn’t going to cut it – they’ll need a gameplan to take advantage of Saracens’ weaknesses.

Expect the game to be described as a ‘must-watch’ from all corners of the media, and while any do-or-die game involving Munster has a reasonable chance of a dramatic finale, chances are it will be spirit-sappingly dull.  Foley admitted his team needed to ‘not get bored’ executing their game-strangling kicking game in the last match, and expect more of the same here.  Conor Murray put air on the ball 17 times in that game, and we can expect something similar again – assuming he recovers from a neck injury.  The game might not be so much ‘must watch’, unless you’re really into that sort of thing, as ‘must follow’ on your Ultimate Rugby app, which could be the best vantage point, at least until the final 20 minutes which should provide a pulse-raising endgame.

Away We Go

The Heineken Cup quarter finals are imminent. It’s always hard to see past the home sides in these games, and traditionally home advantage holds a big sway, but there’s usually one team able to overturn expectations and pull off a win on the road. Last year it was Munster, who were unfancied going to Harlequins but raised their intensity to levels Quins couldn’t deal with. The year before that it was Ulster, who went and sacked the Thomond Park fortress in a remarkable game. Which of the four look the most likely this time?

  1. Toulouse, at Munster. It’s increasingly hard to see Toulouse pulling off a result in this match. Their away form has been dismal all season and there are doubts over Louis Picamoles and Yannick Nyanga and Dusatoir is still injured. With the likes of Medard, Fickou, Huget and Poitrenaud in their backline they should be one of the most exciting teams around, but it never really comes to fruition. If you’re wondering why, the clue might be in their half-backs. Jean-Marc Doussain is a scrum half in the Tomas O’Leary mould – picked for his physicality, he lacks mobility and intuition. Simply put, he’s a poor player for a club of this stature. Luke McAllister is a great footballer, but not a great 10 or a great place-kicker. Ulster showed that you can still win in Thomond Park even if your 10 plays rubbish, but only if your nine makes up for him. Can’t see that happening here, with the caveat that Toulouse’ bruising pack ground down Globo Gym once they were let into the game. If Munster whack and bag them early, tears will flow.
  2. Leicester Tigers, at Clermont. Nobody wins at the Stade Marcel Michelin, and Leicester, for all their undoubted awkward toughness and never-say-die attitude, do not look quite good enough to break what has been an incredible winning streak at home. Clermont are just too good, and their annual choke doesn’t usually get started until later. Leicester came up short in both games against Ulster, despite throwing everything at them and a similar outcome here feels inevitable. Having Tuilagi back in the fold is great news for them, and don’t expect Leicester to give Clermont anything cheap, but even if it’s tight, Clermont will pull through in the end.
  3. Saracens, at Ulster. The new Ravenhill is ready. Are Ulster? They look to have gone the old Munster route, throwing in a careless Pro12 defeat the week before the game, which gives Anscombe plenty of scope to kick them up the rear and get minds focused on the game ahead. Assuming Pienaar is fit, they’ve a pretty full deck to choose from. Even Ferris could feature, presumably as part of a double-whammy with Iain Henderson with 20 minutes to go. But what of Saracens? Never the most likeable of clubs, with the odious chairman Nigel Wray spearheading the European rugby governance coup, they have at least tried to broaden their game this season. They always looked to have the players capable of playing a bit more footie than they did, especially the superbly balanced Alex Goode, and it’s working well for them; they’re top of the Premiership and top try-scorers too, averaging almost three a match. This will be a hard game for Ulster and Saracens have a reasonable chance of pulling out an away win; in truth if the away win comes from anywhere it is most likely to be here. Ulster have shown enough toughness in this competition to deserve the tip, but Saracens are confident and in good form.
  4. Leinster, at Toulon. If timing is everything, Leinster have got this one wrong. Before the Six Nations, Bernard Jackman, the resident expert on all things French rugby, saw no reason why Leinster couldn’t win, citing Toulon’s shoddy morale, poor coaching, infighting and mediocre results as evidence. Roll on a few weeks and Toulon have put together five wins out of six in the Top 14 and the juggernaut appears to be pointing in the right direction. Heck, they’ve even won an away game! In the Top 14! Sacre bleu! As for Leinster, they’re just not playing well enough to be confident of getting what would be a remarkable win. Their greatest wins have been based on the twin pillars of accurate passing and near-feral clear-out; neither have been in much supply this season. Doubts remain over who will play at fly-half and whether the selected player can deliver. We’d have guessed Jimmy Gopperth was favourite, but it looks like O’Connor may feel his best chance is to approach this game as he would a home tie and play at as high a tempo as possible against what is a huge, but not overly mobile Toulon pack. So we’re expecting Jennings, Reddan and Madigan all to be in the starting team. Leinster still look to be dining out on their performance in Northampton this year and something of the same order is required here. Being Leinster, they can’t be ruled out but it’s a tall order. A home win looks the more likely.

Forgive the blandness of the opinion, but four home wins looks the most probable outcome, which would give us a semi-final line-up of Ulster-Clermont and Toulon-Munster. Both have met in recent years, with Ulster likely to look back with fonder memories. Clermont’s flakiness under pressure and poor record in Ireland would lead you to hesitate picking Clermont, but still, a repeat of last years final is a distinct possibility, and any winner other than Toulon would be a mild surprise.  The winner of Toulon-Leinster becomes tournament favourite.

Numero Uno, and Triskaidekaphobia

There is one story today – Gatty. Brian O’Driscoll is mere collateral damage – Gatty has picked the team he wanted for the biggest game of his career. About the team, more anon, but let’s just consider something for a second.

When rumours were flying that Gatty was going to be offered the big gig, the WRU were aghast – in 2001, the Liiiiiiiiiiiiions took their coach, and he returned a lame duck, shelled by his players who thought they didn’t get a fair crack. This time, it was agreed Gatty would take the winter off Wales to concentrate on watching Saracens (we can only assume, judging by the gameplan). But what is unavoidable is this – Gatty will be Wales coach on Sunday morning. Even if he genuinely thought his best team contained only a handful of Welshmen, can you really see him picking it, given he’ll be in charge of the same men next week?

He has to balance those two facts for this team – if he picks a shed-load of Welshmen and loses, his day job is actually easier than dropping them all and winning. It’s an uncomfortable truth, and it’s not all Gatty’s fault. The Liiiiiiiiiions took the plunge on a coach of one of the constituent nations, and it looks like it might backfire. In fact, even if they win, what damage is done to the Lions “concept” (Sky alert) by so nakedly favouring “your boys”? It’s an interesting question.

Last week we felt the team showed a refreshing lack of Welsh bias, but this week’s side is almost trying to write that abberation of a performance out of history.  ‘This is the team I’ve wanted to play’, Gatty apears to be saying, ‘and injuries to my key men have stopped me up until now’.  The hell with the breakdown, the lineout, Tom Croft, that small hooker who can run with the ball, passing in the backline – instead, let’s just try to bludgeon the opposition.

So, in fact, the selection of least resistance is this: if in doubt, Irish/English/Scottish out. But let’s talk positive first.

Given the BOD furore, the rest of the team selection has barely been noticed , but he’s injected a serious quotient of prime beef into what was an undernourished pack, and recalled Mike Phillips at scrum-half. At the risk of trying to second-guess the gameplan from the team-sheet, which has proved a fool’s errand so far, it looks more than ever that the team is set up to play Warrenball in its purest form.

The pack now has the ballast to break the gainline, and the monstrous three-quarter line is now finally in place as Gatland probably always wanted it.  With no fewer than ten Welsh starting, he’s gone for what he knows best, but that which has repeatedly – and if we hear about how close the games were one more time… – come up short against Australia, no fewer than six times in the last 18 months.  They’re going to try and run the bus over Australia – problem being Australia have quite a few nippy mopeds and sports car who could sidestep a bus blindfolded.

The decision to drop BOD will turn out to be a sentiment-ignoring masterstroke which won the Lions a first series in 16 years, or a stick with which Gatland will be beaten till kingdom come should the Lions lose.  As Irish supporters, the temptation is to call Gatland a pr*ck, adopt a ‘how dare he’ attitude, and start ironing your Wallaby shirt in protest.  But even trying to look at it with cold, hard eyes (we’re doing our best here, people, but it ain’s easy), this looks an exceptionally risky call.

Before the series, we hoped that Gatland’s plan would be to augment his straight-running Welsh backline with the subtlety that Sexton and O’Driscoll would bring to proceedings, and that their creativity and passing skills would make the difference.  So far, that has not come to be, as the backline has been stifled by a negative kick-heavy gameplan and lack of go-forward ball from the pack, and a struggling setpiece. It’s well and good arguing that the team is picked for a specific gameplan, as opposed to getting his Welsh chaps on the field, but the point is moot – it’s the Welsh gameplan, ergo he picks the Welsh players.  No room for creativity here.  That O’Driscoll should be the fall guy is extraordinary.  Davies was no less effective in his role at inside centre.  It’s worth viewing this excellent video put together by Murray Kinsella, demonstrating how the partnership has failed.  But he can bosh harder than Drico, so he’s picked.

Davies (admittedly, out of position) missed three tackles in Melbourne and the AAC try went through his real estate. On the flip side, he has played well when at 13 on tour, and it’s not his fault Gatty has picked him out of position. Still, to be selected ahead of a man who has started every Lions test he has been available for, going back 12 years, is a huge shock. It’s also heavily ironic, given it was Gatty who parachuted Drico into a game against Australia in 1999, before he’d even been capped by Leinster.

With O’Connell and Warburton already out, it also leaves the team worryingly short of leaders.  Gatland mentioned that they picked the team first and the captain second, which is fine, but in the white heat of a do-or-die deciding test, O’Driscoll’s defensive organisation and inspirational leadership would surely be invaluable. With Jamie Heaslip out as well, they have been left with precisely zero national captains in the team (whatever you make of Heaslip’s armband-wearing career to date).

The loss of those three aside, the pack looks a bit smarter this time, although Tom Youngs can be considered unlucky.  Richard Hibbard makes the cut by dint of his physique, as opposed to any particularly great rugby played on tour so far.  Toby Faletau is a good call, and for all the grunt work Heaslip has put into the first two tests, Faletau would have been unlucky to go home without featuring in the test side.  Sean O’Brien’s elevation to the team is long overdue.  The hope would have been that Gatland would go for broke, and switch the backrow wholesale, with Justin Tipuric at openside and O’Brien at 6, but it was far-fetched. It looks pretty unbalanced, and the suspicion is that Michael Hooper George Smith will be wearing a big smile today.  As much as Drico doesn’t suit the crash-bang gameplan, neither does Tipuric.  He’s the excetion that proives the rule, a Welshman who should be in the team, but isn’t.

Mike Phillips is the other fortunate starter, picked on blind faith more than anything.  Conor Murray retains his place on the bench, which is the least he deserves.  While none of the scrummies have shot the lights out, Murray has been the most accomplished over the whole series, and his newfound understanding with Jonny Sexton would have been worth exploring in the final test.  Phillips owes his coaches one for sure – particularly after the first test.

Gatty has picked a team which will delight Australia – they fear only one player in the Lions team, Sean O’Brien, and he is playing out of position to accomodate a non-carrying, non-passing tackling machine. They will be confident of winning the series, particularly if the day is dry – they haven’t had much luck so far, and it’s hard not to envisage a scenario where they get a break or two and end up ahead by double figures.

But Gatty’s team also will delight his employers – he’s looking after number one, and if the Lions win the series, great. If not, hey – the WRU and their players will be happy – which makes Gatty happy.

Postscript: the heavy doses of Lions-nostalgia have included numerous hour-long tear-soaked documentaries about the great Lions tours, the 1974 one chief among them. Every time Willie John McBride is asked about it, he is at pains to describe how, at the end of the final test, the XV went straight across to applaud the dirt-trackers – he is rightly and justifiably proud of the squad unity he presided over, and anyone from the tour insists it was a huge factor in their success. Rewind the clock back four years – the Lions, bruised and battered, went into the third test with a near-scratch side, yet played as enterprisingly as ever and took a well-deserved win home. The entire squad were overjoyed and it was clear the connection that had been made. Any thoughts on what the likes of Stuart Hogg and Drico are thinking right now?

Make Twickenham Forget Last Year

Man, its such a relief when the HEC rolls back round – the all-encompassing juggernaut that is the national team sucks all rational debate from its surroundings like light into a black hole, then disappears over the horizon with fists flying and noise levels rising like a bunch of 2-year olds in a sweet shop. The Heineken Cup just seems nicer, more orderly, and more suitable to sitting down with a beer and having a sensible conversation about rugby. The loud loutish fools who clamber aboard the patriotism wagon are nowhere to be seen, and you are left with an educated and intelligent fanbase.

This even extends to the pundits – in December, Quinny went on Newstalk and dismissed Munster’s chances of beating Saracens in Thomond Park, extending his gimlet eye down the teamsheet and just not seeing enough evidence of the class to win. In March, the same person was nodding in a sanguine fashion as Frankie blamed the Cigarette-Smoking Man for making Deccie drop Rog.

We have ourselves dismissed Munster’s chances this week, so let’s move on to the other province in the Big Gig – Ulster. On paper, the Ulster quarter-final looks the only one that might be close – Clermont are nigh-on unbeatable in the Marcel Michelin, and Montpellier don’t bring the same energy on the road as they do at home, Munster’s last two away games featured implosions against Treviso and Glasgae, and, for all Leicester’s blood, thunder and Tom Croft, they just don’t have the pack or halves to compete with mighty (nouveau riche) Toulon.

That Ulster aren’t at home and favourites is down to their own blundering – a week after tearing the all-talk-and-no-trousers Saints pack a new one, they meekly laid down at home to them. Losing at home is simply unacceptable to the best teams in Europe, and it shows Ulster have a while to go. Toughing out a win in Castres was a good riposte, but this is a whole new level altogether. Their pool was rather weak – the Northampton Saints are no-one’s idea of a barometer of manliness, Castres lay down like the Euro-bunnies they are, and Glasgow showed nothing of their Pro12 form in the HEC.

So it’s a trip to Twickers, just like last year. That went well, didn’t it? Errrr… The hope (and expectation) is that Ulster will have learned from their big day out in May, and the experience of playing there will set them in good stead. But will they be able to win?

The good news for Ulster is that Saracens are utterly woeful at getting to the ball to their talented outside backs – properly-serviced, Tompkins, Strettle, Ashton and Goode should be killing teams out wide, but they rarely see the ball. Ulster have a good record of late against teams that rely heavily on their packs – Munster, Saints and Castres for example. If Ulster can neuter the Saracens forwards, they have the weaponry to do damage – they are adept at getting Gilroy and Trimble in off their wings, and Jared Payne is a rare talent.

Neutralizing the Sarries forwards is about slowing the ball down – with a ponderous scrum-half, a kicking ten, and a boshing twelve, they very much rely on their more dynamic pack members (Vunipola, Brits, Hargreaves, Joubert) spotting gaps then offloading to trailing runners or recycling ball quickly and forcing last-ditch penalties from defenders. That’s a game Ulster will be confident they can deal with.

The three key men are Johann Muller, Darren Cave, and, particularly, Chris Henry. Ulster’s pack in the absence of Muller is notably worse – decision-making suffers and the lineout is much more fallible – expect a tight and controlled aggressive performance with the Springbok in tow. Cave marshalls the defensive line excellently, and Ulster will need to be extremely disciplined in defence as well as scrambling effectively when Saracens do get going. And as for Henry, a contender for player of the pool stages, his job is to slow down ball, frustrate the Saracens forwards, and manufacture a dogfight. If Henry bosses the breakdown, Ulster have half the job done.

Another factor is Ulster’s favour is the presence of Romaine Poite in the middle. Poite is a contrary character, but he rewards a dominant tight five at scrum-time, and doesn’t tend to do what home fans want him to. Saracens backups of Rhys Gill and John Smit are better scrummagers than the starters, and if Saracens are forced to bring them in earlier than they want to, Ulster will be setting the tempo of the match.

Ultimately, Ulster are going to look to keep their line intact and restrict Farrell to 4 to 5 kickable penalties. After that, they will ask themselves: do they have the firepower to score one try and kick a few goals of their own? They would be confident that they do – Saracens are an extremely tough nut, particularly at home, but Ulster won’t fear them, and would probably fancy themselves in a mano-a-mano knock-out tie, especially at a venue where they will have 20,000 supporters and a need to exorcise some ghosts.

Something we haven’t heard too  much of yet is the Mark McCall factor – McCall won the Celtic League in his time at Ravers, but left under a cloud as the squad fractured asunder – the unity and singularity of purpose of Ulster’s squad this season has been admirable, and one can imagine Humph waking up in a cold sweat at the prospect of having to congratulate McCall on knocking his Project out of the HEC. You can bet your bottom dollar this is a match Ulster will bring their A game to.

But will it be enough? Saracens have impressed us every time we have seen them in the Premiership this year, but were rather underwhelming for the HEC group stages. Ulster, on the other hand, have wobbled badly after a dream start to the season. Ulster look a more balanced and complete team, but are still re-integrating after injury (and are missing Fez and Tommy Bowe). Saracens have all the form and the glamour and home advantage. It’s very tight, but Saracens might just squeeze through. We hope we are wrong of course, and Saracens reliance on Owen Farrell’s boot can work both ways. If Ulster cross the line twice, or defend something like they did in Thomond last year, or at the RDS on saturday night they will win. Otherwise, and most improbably, Munster will be the last Irish team in the HEC come the Sunday Mass kickoff in Lahn.

HEC Round Four – Review

The old cliche is that you can never safely predict too much in the Heineken Cup, and it was reassuring to see that it still holds true this week.  Just when it looked as though most issues were virtually settled with two rounds to go, Quins did the unthinkable and won in Toulouse.  It’s not the first supposedly unbreachable citadel this young side has sacked, and it underlines their credentials as a coming force after they appeared to have been scuppered last week.  Here’s our latest good week/bad week…

Good week


Who else? Quins

A remarkable victory for a remarkable team.  When they lost to Toulouse last week it looked like a case of ‘Welcome to the Big League, chaps’.  To turn it around in Toulouse’s own patch a week on was a feat you simply had to stand and applaud.  This may be a year too early for them to win, but they are a team nobody will fancy playing in the knockout stages, for which they now look set to qualify for, either as winners or as runners-up.  It also underlined the importance of having a world class kicker.  Which brings us on to…

Johnny Sexton

While ROG has been grabbing the headlines with his timely drop-goals, Sexton has been efficiently getting on with the business of playing brilliantly.  He bailed Leinster out in Montpellier, ran the show against Glasgow and then delivered back-to-back man of the match performances against Bath and has racked up 63 points in four games.  On Saturday, he showcased the full range of his talents, and was a dream to watch.

Saracens

In poll position in Pool Five and looking in decent nick having done the double over the Ospreys.  Not the flashiest of teams, but they do have a consistent kicker in Owen Farrell and a belligerant set of forwards, which are two of the basic requirements to qualify as contenders.  Creativity is in short supply, with a somewhat predictable backline (Ooooooohhh Brad Barritt was literally centimetres over the gainline there!), but there’s always Schalk Brits to provide a spark. 

Bad Week


Blind Dave Pearson

Yes, it’s Blind Dave’s second appearance in our Bad Week section, and while his first was for bewildering us with reasoning we couldn’t really understand, this is for one of the single most knuckleheaded decisions in recent times.  You know the one, the blatantly obvious Scarlets try that he just walked away from and went back to give them an attacking scrum.  Had they not scored from said scrum, there would have been serious questions asked.  It was a bizarre moment.

Tomas O’Leary

Lordy.  Tomas had actually impressed a little on his recent cameos but this was back to the 2010/11 vintage.  Munster were totally in control until he came on, and promptly fell on to the back foot.  At one stage, his back-and-across crabbing saw him trapped metres behind the gainline and a penalty followed.  He was then extrmely lucky when his ill-judged grubber went out to touch off a Scarlets boot late in the match. 

Connacht

How much heartbreak can a team take?  Strangely, Connacht have saved their best performances for away matches in the competition, and were five minutes from a famous victory over Gloucester until nothing so complicated as a missed first-up tackle let in a late try.  It must be hard to take for a fanbase that so seldom has anything to cheer.  Connacht are the anti-Munster – a team that simply doesn’t know how to win.

Crazy coaching

So, Sarries are basing their scrum-half selection for the Premiership final on a coin-toss. Professional. It all got Whiff of Cordite thinking – what other moments when coaches lost their minds can we recall?
  1. In the opening game of the 2009 6 Nations, Nick Mallet picked openside flanker Mauro Bergamasco at scrum half against England. Not Mallett’s finest hour, it must be said. Frankly crazy, didn’t work, and unfair on a great player.
  2. Lesley Vainikolo. After just 9 games of union and 6 tries (5 of them against Leeds), the Sunday Times unleashed a double page spread by the reliably lunatic Stephen Jones (Headline: “Next Big Thing”). Sure enough, he was railroaded into the England team. Toe-curlingly awful – he could barely catch or pass and seemed unfamiliar with the rules.
  3. Clive Woodward on NZ Lions tour 05 – Woodward went a bit mad on the Lions tour, recruiting Alistair Campbell, posting Power of Four wristbands to the players and, of course, picking the entire England team of ’03. And Charlie Hodgson.
  4. Ceri Sweeney overlooked for Gav Henson on the Welsh bench at Lansdowne Road in 2006. Cue Stephen Jones injury, while playing beautifully, and a man who could barely run a club game from 10. Dire.
  5. We were going to laugh at the time Lievremont picked Sea-bass Chabal at 7, but we thought we had better broaden it to any time Lievremont picked Chabal. Or is it the sponsors picking him?
  6. Remember RWC11, when Uncle Deccie brought John Hayes? Utterly unfair on the man, he got caned against Russia. A sad way for a great career to end.

What other coaching lunacy have we missed?

Keep your eye on: the Premiership play-offs

Here at Whiff of Cordite, we are self-proclaimed (and proud) rugby nerds. And in addition to Red Dwarf and Cheesy Wotsits, nerds love numbers. So let us look at the Premiership play-offs by numbers:

Leicester vs Northampton

The last 3 regular season games between the sides at Welford Road have had remarkably similar scorelines:
2010-11 Leicester 27-16 Northampton
2009-10 Leicester 29-15 Northampton
2008-09 Leicester 29-19 Northampton

The Tigers home record this season is daunting, with 9 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat. The visitors have a respectable away record, winning 6 and losing 5 of their 11 games on the road.

Leicester have made the play-offs every year for the last 5 years … and won every time, with 4 of those victories coming at home. The Saints have been here once before, losing last year to Saracens (at home).

Saracens vs Gloucester

Saracens have won the last 2 regular season games at home against Gloucester (including a win just 3 weeks ago), but Gloucester have recent experience of a victorious trip to Watford:
2010-11 Saracens 35-12 Gloucester
2009-10 Saracens 19-16 Gloucester
2008-09 Saracens 21-25 Gloucester

Saracens have the best home record in the league this year, winning 10 matches and losing just 1. Gloucester, on the other hand, have the poorest away record of any of the semi-finalists, winning just 3 games on the road this season.

Both sides have won 1 and lost 1 of their 2 play-off semi-final appearances in last 5 seasons. Gloucester’s victory came against Saracens at Kingsholm in 2007 on a scoreline of …. 50-9!