Muller’s Last Stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scapegoat!

If there is one man in Ireland who its easy to dump blame on, it’s Tom Court. Court joined Ulster in 2006, aged 26, with a little bit of Super Rugby experience. Back then, he played both sides, but ended up specializing on the loosehead side, and has blossomed (if that is the right word) into a very competent and useful player. He has been one of the standout looseheads in the last few years of Heineken rugby and has been a major factor in Ulster’s pack becoming the best in the Pro12.

He has wracked up a few Ireland caps as well – 32 to date – and got a Lions call-up, albeit a fortuitous one. But Court’s international career will be remembered for one thing – the demolition of our scrum at Twickers in 2012 when he came off the bench and played out of position. This narrative is hugely unfair – Court had soldiered manfully, a diligent filler-inner, providing cover from the bench for both sides of the scrum when needed, yet got dumped on when he needed support.

In a way it was understandable – Court is Australian and you won’t get anyone building him up in the media or pencilling him into the team, especially ahead of a domestic-born yeoman who agent is prominent on certain TV outlets. The man himself was dropped out of the Irish 23 for last years Six Nations for Dave Kilcoyne, but came right back in when DJ Church was on the naughty step – Kilcoyne might have been the better impact sub, but Court was clearly the better man to start.

And now Court is on his way and has joined Reading Samoa (we’ll have to stop calling them that – they are Irish-ing up to the max with iHumph, TOL, Jamie Hagan and now Court) on a 3-year contract. Our feeling is that Humph wasn’t for budging and for a man of his vintage (he turned 33 earlier this month), three years is a good deal, but it fits with how his Irish career has gone – and we wonder will Ulster not know what they had until it’s gone.

So where does it leave Ulster? And what about Ireland? Ulster first – they have two looseheads behind Court – Calum Black and Paddy McAlister. McAlister would be the better-known and was certainly the better prospect, but hasn’t returned from injury since coming on in the HEC final in 2012. Calum Black has stepped in and has done ok, without troubling Court. It would be fair to say neither are mapped by Joe Schmidt at present.

Which brings us on to Ireland. Here is how we would see the rankings of internationally mapped Irish looseheads right now:

  1. DJ Church. No competition
  2. Jack McGrath. Vaulted Killer Davecoyne in the squad pecking order due to some impressive performance this season, and was MOTM on his debut (albeit slightly romantically from Wardy – we’d have picked the much-maligned/warrior-who-never-takes-a-backward-step – delete as per prvincial leanings appropriate – POM).  Appears to be second in command.
  3. Tom Court. Sure, he might be easy to drop, but remains arguably the second best scrummaging loosehead against all but the most technical opponents.  Still in the picture.
  4. Dave Kilcoyne. The well-connected Munsterman did a good job for Ireland off the bench last year and looked to be progressing nicely, but hasn’t started the season as well. You probably haven’t heard, but Frankie is his agent.
  5. James Cronin. Highly exciting youngster, who impressed in a high profile cameo against Leinster. It will be interesting to see how he finishes the season – will he take Killer’s shirt?
  6. Marcus Horan. Wait, off that, Deccie has gone

So, as of next season, the odd man out Court will be sunning himself in Lahn. Well, in Reading. Which will leave the best four looseheads in Ireland playing in Munster and Leinster. If this were Australia, and the best four looseheads (I know, right, Australia having FOUR whole looseheads is a bit of a laugh, but bear with us) were playing at the Reds and the Brumbies, one of them would just be told, in no uncertain terms, he was a Waratah now.

The IRFU have talked a good game to date about the next step after banishing foreigners from rugger was to spread talent through the provinces better, most recently in Cummiskey’s uncharacteristically excellent interview in the Irish Times excellent November rugger magazine last week. Time to see if they will put their money where their mouth is. Peter Nucifora, if it is actually he, might have an input here too – and he probably won’t be recommending queueing them up in Munster and Leinster.

We think / have been told that while Healy and McGrath are contracted through next year, both Munstermen will be out of contract at the end of the year – Cronin will surely enjoy an upgrade on whatever he is on now if his upward curve continues, but how would Frankie feel about his other client being offered, say, a central contract … with Ulster. Can you imagine Dave Kilcoyne fitting in in Belfast? With Munster currently in some financial woe, perhaps that might be his best option. Unless he goes to London Irish too.

Tackling AND carrying? Nah, no-one can do that.

One test down and the Lions have gone one-nil up, yet the odds on them taking the series (starting from generous prices, in our opinion) have barely moved. The Lions may have won, but they erred badly in a number of fields: selection (unbalanced backrow), tactics (Mike Philips booting the ball in the air or running into Ben Mowen), playing the referee (peep! off your feet .. peep! off your feet … peep! off your feet) and bench usage (the sight of the reserve Australian front row marching the Lions scrum backwards was an absolute embarrassment).  Australia made plenty of boo-boos of their own, especially with selection at 10 where the continued reluctance to forgive Quade Cooper is increasingly looking like the rock on which Dingo Deans will perish.  In the end the Lions squeaked home for a fortuitous victory.

Four years ago, the Lions got selection wrong too, but they looked coherent and had a gameplan to trouble the opposition. They were then playing the world champions, a team at the peak of their powers, about to win the Tri-Nations with a number of all-time greats in situ (John Smit, Bakkies & Victor, Fourie du Preez, Bryan Habana) – here they were playing a decent and underrated Australian team, but still an average enough one, and struggled, fading badly in the last 20. They could/should (delete as appropriate) have lost by 15 points. And this in spite of the Wallabies having four backs carried off, and losing their goalkicker and key attacking weapon Christian Leali’ifano after 42 seconds.

Even with a different selection and tactics, with no Dr Roberts and with Philips owned by Will Genia and Mowen, the Lions are up against it in this test. They got away with the first win, and the Aussies are more likely to improve as the series goes on, and surely can’t experience another perfect storm of head injuries.

If it comes to a decider, the Lions are goosed.  Why?  Well, injuries for a start.  Sure, both sides are just as liable to get them – heck, the Aussies had three players leave the field in neck braces – but if they do lose players ahead of the third test, they have a whole nation of players to choose from (well, NSW and Queensland, but you get the point).  If the Lions get badly hurt, the time for flying out emergency rations is over.  They must make do and mend with what they’ve got.  Or bring in players who are holidaying nearby.  Hello, Tom Court! Don’t suppose Lesley Vainikolo is visiting relatives in Oz?

There’s also the momentum swing-o-meter.  Should the Aussies level the series at 1-1, they’re the ones with the momentum whlie the Lions will be edgy, and they’ll expect to carry that through to the final test, just as they did in 2001.

It all makes this match something of a boom-or-bust for Gatland.  He got away with a flawed selection for the opener, and will have to make some changes in personnel and alter his gameplan a fair deal to win again.  Fate as not been kind to him, and two of his certain starters – Paul O’Connell and Alex Corbisiero – have been ruled out.  While O’Connell is the better player, at least there’s a like-for-like replacement in Geoff Parling (at least in playing terms – leadership qualities aside). At loose-head prop, it’s a choice between Vunipola, who got mashed into the turf in Brisbane; Ryan Grant, who is a better scrummager but is “limited” in the loose; or holidaymaker Tom Court. No easy solution. 

We were a little taken aback by just how poor Vunipola was in the set piece. We knew he was no technician, but we expected the Lions would at least be able to get the ball out on their own put-in, even if it was the sort of unusable rubbish that requires the scrum half to jump into the breakdown.  Alas, even that lowly ambition proved impossible.  He’ll be held back as impact reserve again, and Grant will presumably start.  Don’t expect to see Vunipola before the 60th minute this time, as Gatland will be more circumspect about changing up his front row after the way it backfired.

The backrow remains the most competitive and contentious area, and one where Gatland probably got it wrong in the first test, despite choosing from an embarrassment of riches.  After the way Will Genia ran wild and free, we’ve a really strong feeling that Dan Lydiate will come in to the equation.  While this is outright speculation, we’ve a feeling Gatty bowed to some pressure, whether from Rowntree or the English media, to pick Tom Croft for the first test, but doesn’t 100% trust him.  Now’s his opportunity to pick Lydiate with a view to shackling the Aussie scrum-half, around whom everything happens for Australia.  Stop Genia and you stop Australia.

With Lydiate and Warburton in the team, and with Vunipola unselectable because of his scrummaging, the Lions’ pack’s biggest issue is a lack of tackle-breaking ball carriers.  So there’s a chance we could see Toby Faletau selected for a bit of explosive ball-carrying. It would be harsh on Heaslip, who played well in the first test in getting through a mountain of dog work.  Faletau played for 80 minutes yesterday, which makes it odds against, but don’t rule it out.  Tackle-breaking ball-carriers who can also mount huge tackle counts, you say? What a pity they didn’t bring a multi-functional backrow forward, who is in form. Hang on, they did, didn’t they? Sean O’Brien. The Carlow chap. Likes cows and that sort of thing.  O’Brien seems to be falling between the gazelle-like Croft rock and the iron tackling Lydiate hard place, and at this stage is almost becoming something of a cause celebre. Sure, he isn’t a lineout option, but then again, with Tom Youngs throwing to the front to avoid Mowen every time, who cares? He is bang in form and the Wallabies don’t want to see him – he should play at blindside, but surely – surely! – he’ll at least feature off the bench this time.

The line-out was a bit of a puzzler.  Palla Ovale remarked at the time that he couldn’t understand why the only time the Lions went to the tail they tried to maul off it, and tried to go quickly into midfield off all the front-of-lineout ball they won.  Surely tail of the lineout ball is the only opportunity to get the ball to the backline with a bit of space in front of them?  Happily, far greater minds than our own thought exactly the same thing, proving us right in our own heads and enabling us to feel very happy with ourselves.

The Lions have to make a choice at half-back.  Not in terms of personnel, but in terms of gameplan.  Phillips had one of his worst test games in memory on Saturday and looked decidedly rough around the edges.  He’s a class player, however, and neither Conor Murray nor Ben Youngs have made a compelling case to oust him, so he’ll start again.  Sexton, of course, will also start.  Both Sexton and Phillips are alpha-halves who want to dominate and control the game.  The Lions spent much of the first test trying to use Philips’ running game to make ground, but got nowhere.  Once they started using Sexton, his varied kicking game and slick passing game caused Australia all sorts of trouble.  Gatland must sacrifice some of Phillips’ natural game and instruct him to be more of a servant to Sexton, who has the ability to bring the superb three-quarter line outside him into the game in lethal fashion.  What a pity Danny Care decided to play absolutely rubbish in the lead up to squad selection, in top form he would be a potentially superb alternative and perfect foil for Sexton, if his pack could protect him.  He’s basically a better Eoin Reddan.

At inside centre, the indications are Roberts won’t be back until Sydney, and it’s a choice between keeping Johnny Davies there or taking a chance on Manu. Davies is the probable safer option, particularly if Faletau comes in. We would have concerns about his defensive positioning facing Lilo (he occasionally drifted into the 12.5 channel and left Sexton defending a huge piece of real estate, but Pat McCabe and Michael Hooper never exploited it) but he has been playing well.  Manu has shown signs of dovetailing with BOD and there’s a compelling case to be made for his rough-hewn but often thrillingly destructive talents, espcially given the already discussed shortage of tackle breakers in the single-digit numbered shirts.

Tommy Tommy Bowe will come into the 23, but we don’t know if Cuthbert will make way on the right wing – he took his try well and didn’t do a whole lot wrong, apart from one horribly spilled ball. The progressive selector would pick Bowe (and Tuilagi incidentally) but we just can’t decide how Gatty will swing.  He appears to be saying a lot of lovely things about Bowe, but Cuthbert’s try might be enough to swing it for him.  Who knows?

We were confident last week that Gatland had made a mess of his bench, and so it transpired.  It was straight out of the Declan Kidney school of Substitutions.  He made changes too early where none were required, and then appeared to get spooked and made no more until very late on.  Vunipola looked like being the very definition of an impact reserve, but in the end he had the wrong kind of impact.  Ben Youngs should have been an upgrade on Mike Phillips – how could he not be? – but he wasn’t really much better.  In the backrow Dan Lydiate made only a cursory appearance, after all the broohaha over his selection.  This time around we’re hoping to see names like Richie Gray, Sean O’Brien and Tommy Bowe, so hopefully there’ll be a bit more oomph stepping off the pine.

Even with the selection we’d like, we think the Wallabies will win – they have lost Barnes, McCabe and Ioane, but the Honey Badger will probably come in (cue joy all around), Folau will move to full back (where he has played most of his rugger i.e. 12 starts from 14) and Beale will start – probably at 10 with Bieber on the wing. Their pack played well and the team should shake off the rust and play more confidently. It’s a big ask for the Lions without O’Connell and any of their three best scrummaging looseheads, but picking the right team from those available would be a start.

Playing Favourites

In the build-up to last week’s game against Fiji, Gerry Thornley mentioned not once, but twice that the selection of Mike Ross was due to managment’s unhappiness with his performance versus South Africa, where he conceded two scrum penalties before being substituted late in the game.  The articles are here and here and the quotations are as follows:

The selection is also notable for retaining Mike Ross ahead of Michael Bent, which suggests that management want more from their established tighthead than was shown last week.

The selection of Mike Ross to start again at tighthead rather than have a longer look at Michael Bent suggests the management were less than thrilled with the performance of Ross last week, when he was called ashore after conceding a costly couple of scrum penalties.

Now, we know Gerry Thornley has a direct line to the management, and we know Kidney uses him as a vehicle to get his message through to the public.  So it’s pretty safe to assume that this is not just Gerry throwing out a mad opinion, and that he is entirely correct: management were unhappy with Ross’ performance and asked him to prove himself in the Fiji game, and Thornley is to get the message out there.  Besides, it’s so left-field a notion that surely no journo, fan or otherwise would even think of it, unless they were told it was the case.  Wasn’t Mike Ross the player we were supposed to be having late night vigils for both before and since the Twickenham Debacle?

This being the case, this is some pretty shoddy man management.  Mike Ross is being singled out for Ireland’s multiple woes against South Africa.  Management are happy to go public, through the media, with criticism of his performance – and his alone.  Nice.  It’s particularly unedifying because Ross is a player we know Kidney has never been a huge fan of.  It was under Kidney’s watch that Ross’ Munster contract was allowed to lapse, and Ross only got into the Ireland team when all other possibilities (Hayes, Buckle and Court) were exhausted.  It smacks of hanging him out to dry at the first available opportunity.

Mike Ross has been a one-man bailout to the Irish management.  When their only plan for tighthead succession to The Bull (Tony Buckle) was doomed to failure, he came along, through none of management’s doing or planning, and saved their bacon.  He has held the Irish scrum up manfully, and occasionally destructively [e.g. England 2010], since the 2010 Six Nations and has become a key player.  Think for a moment where we’d be if Mike Ross were not around.  And this is how he is treated for giving away a couple of scrum penalties after an exhausting 70 minute shift, and against a Springbok loosehead fresh off the bench.  That’s not to say, of course, that he deserves a free ride if he plays rubbish, but have we really reached that stage because of a couple of poor scrums?  Incroyable.

Another prop being shabbily treated for his role in performing a thankless task is Tom Court.  Court has been Ireland’s unheralded ‘filler-inner’ for four years, taking his place in the number 17 shirt because he can just-about scrummage on the tighthead side, as well as being a fairly competent loosehead.  He endured a wretched experience against the English front row in Twickenham, but most right-minded folk would agree he was asked to do a job of which he is not capable.  On the loosehead side, he has never let anyone down.

Ever since, his form with Ulster – where a huge emphasis is being placed on the set piece – has been rock solid, and he has played solely at loosehead.  And with 23-man squads finally arriving into the international game, he can take his place on the bench solely having to focus on one role – loosehead forward.  Except that he’s been instantly demoted for David Kilcoyne, a nipper with literally a handful of starts with Munster.  Thanks for the dig-out Tom, but now that you might get a chance to show what you can do in your best position, we’re going to go with this other fella who’s started two Heineken Cup pool matches.  Kilcoyne is a decent player and has started the season well enough, but if Healy went off injured after 30 minutes against Argentina, would you prefer him or Court holding up the left-hand side of the scrum against the brutalising Puma front row?  I’ll take Tom Court, thanks.

Every coach has his favourites, and against that, every coach has players he only seems to pick out of necessity.  Safe to say, Mike Ross and Tom Court are not among Kidney’s favourites.