Parallel Universe

Montpellier and Castres will be in action this weekend against Irish opposition; both at the same time in fact, which is very convenient for those who might have a passing interest in both matches.

Montpellier pose a significant threat to Ulster’s hopes of qualification.  They’re a beastly team with a mean pack of forwards and when they bring their A game they’re as unplayable as the best French sides.  They never quite bring the same energy on the road with them, but hey, plus ca change, plus ca meme chose and all that.  Hey Gerry, get off our typewriter!

The way the French typically set up their back five and operate their lineout is very different to Irish teams.  Their second rows are designed primarily with scrummaging and mauling in mind, with a side order of lifting – yes, lifting, not jumping – in the lineout.  In the winter months, the Top Quatorze turns into a slog, invariably decided by penalties, so having a hefty scrum to milk the opposition for three pointers is seen as de rigeur.  So the French think nothing of picking two of what we would call ‘tighthead locks’, the oversized granite-hewn chaps that add heft to the scrum and maul.  For Ireland think Mike McCarthy or Donncha O’Callaghan, though in France Donners would probably be considered underpowered.  For the French, think classical baby-munchers like Lionel Nallet and Romain Millo-Chluski.  Both top out at 195cm, below the 1.99m mark that is almost considered minimum for the role in Ireland.  Clermont’s gruesome twosome of Jamie Cudmore and Nathan Hines are old and not particularly tall or athletic in the lineout, but bleedin’ heck, what a lot of grunt they add to the team in the tight.

This weekend Castres will line out (assuming they bring their A-team, which they probably won’t, but anyway) with Richie Gray and Uruguayan behemoth Capo Ortega in the second row.  Gray is a decent lienout jumper, in spite of his size, but don’t expect to see the burly 195cm Ortega get in the air too much.  At the weekend they won five lineouts, but only one of those won by Gray, while Ortega took none.

Same goes for Montpellier, who will have to try and get all 124kg of Jim Hamilton off the ground a few times, but the 134kg Robins Tchale-Watchou will be positively earthbound throughout.

So who catches the ball in the lineout, then?  The chaps in the backrow, that’s who.  Most French teams contain a light, athletic backrow who they can fling in the air with ease, and who runs the lineout.  The model performer in this role has been Julien Bonnaire, who has ruled the skies for eons for both France and Clermont Auvergne.  Toulouse’s unsung hero Jean Bouilhou was their lineout specialist even when Fabian Pelous was around.  Imanol Harinordoquy’s lineout skills are almost unparalleled in world rugby – some of his one-handed takes are to die for.  Montpellier’s main lineout man is the exceptionally athletic Fulgence Ouedraogo.  Though not especially tall, he has an extraordinarily springy leap and at 102kg he can be flung miles into the air.  He’ll pose Ulster massive problems at lineout time this weekend.  Each of the Castres backrow caught a lineout against Northampton and between them they stole two of Northampton’s throws.

For Ireland, picking a second row of, say, Dan Tuohy and Mike McCarthy would be unthinkable; too unbalanced.  Where’s the lineout man?  If Peter O’Mahony and Kevin McLaughlin were French, they’d probably be the main lineout callers in their teams.  Both are tall, springy and athletic and are great catchers when in the air.  More interestingly, and it’s a point Demented Mole has made before, if Tony Buckley were French he would never have been converted from the second row to prop.  At 196cm and a whopping (according to Wikipedia) 138kg, he could hardly be expected to catch much lineout ball, but that would be no barrier to success if he had the likes of Ouedraogo around him.  Buckley’s decision to convert to front row was no doubt a result of Ireland’s dearth in that area, while locks would have been in abundance.  Had those around him been able to forecast how the scrum dynamics would shift (almost impossible, unfortunately), and how important all-conquering power in the engine room would become, it would probably never have come to pass.  Buckley’s career has been mired by an inability to master the technicalities of scrummaging; in a parallel universe somewhere he’s lording it up, dishing the hurt out with his sheer bulk in the second row.

Going backwards

Last week we handed out our Team FAIL gongs. Now, we present the Individual awards. Step forward the weak-willed, the constantly injured, the thuggish and the just plain useless.

On a fairly disastrous Irish tour to NZ and Australia last June, Ed O’Donoghue played against the Barbarians and NZ Maori and acquited himself well. Ed was coming off a good season for Ulster and had secured a move to Leinster. However, in a season where Leinster’s second row was beginning to creak with Trevor Hogan retiring, Devin Toner not really stepping up and Leo Cullen not getting any younger, Ed disappeared. Completely. He isn’t even listed in the programmes any more.

To be truthful, Delon Armitage never totally endeared himself to Whiff of Cordite, with his ridiculous chest thumping and 2009 “tackle” on BOD. This season, however, having lost his hold on the England 15 shirt, we expected him to put the head down. However, he has turned into a poor mans John Terry – when not screaming at officials, he was punching Stephen Myler off the ball. Whatever happened to professionalism?

Whiff of Cordite was at Croke Park in March 2010, fully expecting an(other) Irish Triple Crown to be wrapped up with victory against Scotland. Especially when we scanned the Irish back row and saw the names Ferris, Wallace and Heaslip. But the best back row forward on the pitch that day was John Barclay, and he ended last season as the front-runner for the Lions openside shirt. This season, the expected kick on has not happened. Showing minimal leadership qualities for an underperforming side that desperately needed them, Barclay checked out mid-way through the 6 Nations.

Speaking of Scotland players who seem to have given up, what about Euan Murray? As sanctimonious as ever, Euan’s performance in the 6 Nations was nothing short of embarrassing. Never mind his powder-puff propping, his lack of responsibility and poor attitude saw him ditched mid-way through the tournament by an exasperated Andy Robinson. Another Lions front-runner this time last season, he would struggle to make the plane right now.

On the topic of stroppy tight-heads, Tony Buckley also seems to have thrown in the towel. Back in October, with John Hayes on the verge of actual retirement (as opposed to retirement from scrummaging), Mike Ross not even on the radar and Tom Court playing primarily at loosehead, the Ireland tighthead shirt was Mushy’s for 3 years if he made even the slightest effort at fitness and application. Nine months later, his place on the RWC11 plane is uncertain and he is on his way to a flailing Sale Sharks side. With Andy Powell. And Sam Tuitupou.

Rocky Elsom arrived in the Northern Hemisphere in November on the back of leading a pretty successful Tri-Nations for Australia and a Hong Kong Bledisloe Cup ambushing of NZ. He departed, having decided abusing the touch judge was the best way to rally his weak-scrummaging troops in Italy, as one of the leading men in a Brumbies side expected to challenge for the Super Rugby playoffs. Player power then struck 3 games into the season with Andy Friend departing amid rumours the senior players wanted Stephen Larkham installed. Since then, Rocky has mystifyingly yet to tog out, the Brumbies sink to new lows virtually every week, and the Australian fans don’t want him in the team.

Oh, and has Mike Phillips been on strike recently? After walking out on his 3 year Ospreys contract? The Ospreys have got a lot of heat from WoC recently, but we are on their side on this one.