Rugby’s Great Institution

Between now and the World Cup, Ireland have .. let me count .. one, two, three, four, five games to go. Four of which are in the weeks before the squad needs to be named, with the other one being tonights knockaround against Rugby’s Great Institution in the library.

This time last year (roughly), Team Ireland were jetting off to Argentina for a few weeks of steak, malbec, Quilmes and some soft power photo ops at the Hurlingham Club and Newman College, with perhaps a few easy rugby games thrown in. But enough about Gerry – the squad weren’t expecting to be worked too hard either, and were taken aback at the intensity of Schmidt’s expectations when they got there. The main lesson learned is that Joe Schmidt will absolutely take every opportunity to run the arse off his players.

Which means you would be right to expect Ireland to approach this game as if they were playing BNZ in Dunedin – good performances will gain real credit with Schmidt and bad ones for fringe players might knock them out of RWC contention. The Munster players are unavailable and Connacht players have been rested – which isn’t really helpful to the likes of Matt Healy or Denis Buckley as they try to make an impression on the last few spaces in the RWC15 squad – so it’s an all Ulster/Leinster selection:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Dave Kearney
13. Colm O’Shea
12. Luke Marshall
11. Craig Gilroy
10. Ian Madigan
9. Eoin Reddan

1. Jack McGrath
2. Richardt Strauss
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. Dan Tuohy
6. Robbie Diack
7. Chris Henry
8. Jamie Heaslip (captain)

Replacements:

16. Rob Herring
17. Michael Bent
18. Mike Ross
19. Ben Marshall
20. Jordi Murphy
21. Luke McGrath
22. Paddy Jackson
23. Cian Kelleher

Here’s our thoughts, with a working assumption of a 31 man squad breakdown of 6 props, 3 hookers, 4 second rows, 5 backrows, 3 scrummies, 2 outhalves, 3/4 centres, 4/5 back three:

  • Outhalf: Madigan gets the start ahead of Jacko, which is fully unwarranted on any measure of recent form. Under Matt O’Connor, Mads had a miserable time (maybe he didn’t understand the structures of Leinster rugby?) and has stalled in his development; whereas Jackson has been the form ten in Ireland since the Six Nations finished. The selection of Madigan here suggests the backup outhalf slot is still his to lose for the RWC
  • Centre: while it’s nice to see Collie O’Shea get a start, the really interesting pick is Bamm-Bamm. With Robbie Henshaw now ensconced at inside centre, it would be sensible to identify a like-for-like replacement in the case of injury – Schmidt being a systems man and all. One might have thought Stuart McCloskey was the likelier contender here, but he’s off to Georgia and Schmidt goes back to Marshall, who started in Schmidt’s first game against Southern Hemisphere opposition (the Wobs). Schmidt will bring 3 or 4 centres, and Marshall could be in the mix, which would be extraordinary, but with Olding injured and Madigan-to-12 looking half-baked at best, there are not many inside centres on the scene.
  • Wing: Craig Gilroy gets a well-deserved recall to green following an electric period of form for Ulster, joining a queue that includes Tommy Bowe, Zeebs, Luke Roysh, Keith Earls and his teammate Little Bob (it’s probably too late for Trimby) – and Felix Jones as a Schmidt favourite. A good display here, particularly if he outshines Dave, will probably cement a place in the wider RWC training squad, and then he has a good a chance as anyone
  • Tighthead Prop: MIKE ROSS IN NOT STARTING FOR IRELAND SHOCK! Which is a first since June 2012 (even if this is a non-capped game). If we bring three tightheads, Furlong is essentially duking it out with Nathan White, Stephen Archer (stop laughing at the back) and Rodney Ah Here for the final place.  Even if the RWC comes too soon for Furlong, this is money in the bank for further down the line
  • Loosehead Prop: similarly, the final loosehead prop will likely be one of James Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne (stop laughing at the back) and Michael Bent (we said stop!). Bent is on the bench here, and a decent cameo might force Schmidt to not completely eliminate him from contention
  • Second Row: Yer Man From Limerick, Big Dev and NWJMB are nailed on, leaving one slot for a Celebrity Deathmatch between Mike McCarthy, Dan Tuohy and Donnacha Ryan. Tuohy gets a start here, and this is a really good opportunity to make a statement and pencil himself into Schmidt’s plans. Tuohy and Ryan are a cut above McCarthy in terms of quality, and while both have been beset by injuries, if one or other can force their way into the panel it is good news.
  • Backrow: this is the most competitive line. We have NWJMB in the second row as Schmidt had him there during the Six Nations. Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony are nailed on to be picked, leaving two seats between Chris Henry, Jordi Murphy, Tommy O’Donnell, Robbie Diack and Rhys Ruddock. Henry has long been a Schmidt favourite, and given he has proved his fitness, he would appear to be in the box seat for squad selection. Diack starts ahead of Murphy, with Ruddock missing out altogether – although he’ll play in Georgia. Which is .. um, not a good sign we suppose.

Maybe we are over-analysing, but, with Schmidt, that seems unlikely. Everything is now directed towards RWC15 – and this game will be worth watching.

The Clermont of Ireland

Ulster’s long wait for a trophy continues, after another heart-breaking loss – this time to Glasgae in Scotstoun. Ulster have made it a bit of a speciality to lose knockout matches in ever more imaginative fashion, and this one was the worst yet. The 2013 Pro12 final was largely acknowledged as pretty unlucky – Leinster were the better team on the day (and, admittedly, one of the best teams in Europe), and their experience told. Still, Ulster didn’t help themselves then, showing a distinct lack of composure when it mattered .. something that sounds familiar now.

Last year, they stepped out to an absolutely boiling Ravers … and managed to get Jared Payne sent off after 4 minutes. They nearly won, but then again – they didn’t. We, unlike most of Ireland, thought it was a red card, but whatever you think about that – Ulster lost largely through losing a man so early.

This year, after 70 minutes, the game was locked down. Ulster, though only 5 points ahead on the scoreboard, were well on top all over the field – Glasgow were desperate and one more score and it was over. What happened?

  • Dumb Penalties: ah yes, the familiar Irish refrain – someone else’s fault. Gerry today demanded that Clancy be held to account for giving a penalty to Glasgow for Ricky Lutton high-arming Matawalu. He also claimed Owens would not have given the penalty, which is rubbish. Sure, Matawalu embarrassed himself and Glasgow by going down like an Italian in the box, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a penalty. It was, and it was so incredibly stupid at a critical stage of the game, that it still infuriates us now. And its funny – Gerry wasn’t demanding that Garces be held to account for a lopsided outcome in his favourite statistic – the penalty count – when Leinster played Bath .. would that have anything to do with the Irish team being favoured?
  • Composure: even when Glasgow did score, Ulster had 4 minutes to fashion an opportunity. Four minutes – a lifetime for the best teams. Even for above average ones – France in 2007 in Croker, Ireland in 2009 got a drop goal, Munster on countless occasions, BNZ against us on numerous recent occasions. Ulster not only didn’t get a sniff, but they barely got the ball back – they approached the task with nothing that felt like dead-eyes cold-blooded focus, more of a harum-scarum hope-for-the-best mentality. They looked defeated. Even when Glasgow insanely went for a 30% penalty kick with time already up, and inevitably gave Ulster one final, undeserved, chance – you never sensed a score was on.

The same old problems over again. You have to compare this Ulster team does pressure to how the most recent great Irish provincial side would have reacted – Joe Schmidt’s Leinster team. That team was festooned with intelligent, streetwise, shrewd and assured players – DJ Church, Ross, Cullen, Hines/Thorn, O’Brien, Heaslip, Sexton, BOD, Dorce, Nacewa, Kearney all fit that description. And they had the best coach around , who got those players to that stage. At various points early in their career, Healy and SOB were both indisciplined penalty machines – but both had got that out of their systems by that stage.

Unlike, say, Iain Henderson – NWJMB is a force of nature and one of Ulster’s best players, but he gives away too many penalties. We are pretty sure he will lose that from his game – he’s pretty laid back and intelligent, but he is still learning his trade. Dan Tuohy is another man who never seems to be able to shake off the ability to get on referee’s wrong side.  Roger Wilson is a player who is great at running into things, but lacks composure at crucial moments – you’d never mix him up with someone like Heaslip, despite what Darren Cave thinks.

Elsewhere in the Ulster pack, Besty and Henry have a huge amount of nous, brains and the ability to think clearly under pressure .. but there aren’t many other names that jump out at you from the forwards as ones you’d want on your teamsheet during squeaky bum time. Even Pienaar doesn’t have the best record when the heat is on. Ulster have the same problems they had two years ago, and they have lots of work to do this summer. Until Ulster prove otherwise, they are the Clermont of Ireland – likeable, play great rugby, but crumble under pressure.

 

Ulster’s Resurgence

Leinster’s season is over after losing comprehensively to Ulster on Friday night in Ravers. It was an opportunity to back up their performance in Toulon – if indeed it you believed that performance to be as good as some claimed it was – and the opportunity was missed. Sure, Leinster were always going to struggle in the last 20 minutes after a tight turnaround and extra time last week, but they only played for 10, after which Ulster owned the ball and controlled the game with ease.

Worst of all for Leinster, it is another defeat in a sobering run where they have won two out of ten matches. They have lost the winning feeling. Last season and earlier in this, for all the dour, error-strewn rugby on display, they at least had the nous for how to win matches. They came out the right side of the scoreboard in any number of tight games; the trend has reversed, and they now find themselves under pressure to hold on to fifth place, and could yet find themselves in a playoff to ensure they are in the Champions Cup next year. With respect to Embra and the Scarlets, it would amount to an embarrassment, and surely the last nail in the coffin for the O’Connor regime.

As for the good ship Ulster, it sails on. They hardly fired a shot in Europe this year, but that would all be forgotten if they won the Pro12. At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, it is remarkable what a difference having three of their best forwards back playing can make. Remarkable insight, I’m sure you’ll agree, but Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry and Iain Henderson are such a step up in quality from Lewis Stevenson, Clive Ross and Mike McComish that the side cannot help but be transformed.

Another key to their form is the resurgence of Paddy Jackson, who was outstanding on Friday night. With Ian Madigan’s confidence bound to be at a low, Jackson surely comes back into the reckoning for not just the World Cup squad, but the test 23 on this form. While Jimmy Gopperth made a couple of terrific breaks which look amazing, they are ultimately no substitute for an ability to consistently get the backline moving on to the ball in a threatening manner; something Gopps has struggled with all season, but which Jackson accomplishes with natural grace. Subtly timed passes at the right height and pace for the receivers may not look as flash as running 30m and breaking tackles, but over the course of 80 minutes they add up to a lot more. It’s notable just how much Ulster get Bowe and Gilroy into the game, and the result is that Gilroy – another who could come back into the international picture on form – is the league’s leading tryscorer. He’s got his mojo back.

Whether they have the depth, or the quality at No.8, to mount a serious challenge in Europe next year is open to question, but for now that doesn’t really matter. It’s all about winning the Pro12. For all the progress over the last few years, they’ve yet to win anything, frequently losing their composure once the competition switches to a knockout format. Last year they struggled to convert pressure into points when in the red zone. This year they have looked more efficient, with the backline a potent threat.

At this point, they look pretty unlikely to lose to anyone at Ravers, and with a guaranteerd home final, it would seem that winning the big (ish) one requires one big away win out of maximum two attempts; they must either win in Scotstoun to ensure they force Munster or the Hairsprays to travel north, or failing that, go to Thomond Park to beat Munster. Neither is in any way easy, but Ulster are one of the few teams for whom a trip to Thomond Park brings little fear, and they have had some notable results there in recent years. They are the team in the tournament with all the momentum, and the final being in Ravenhill should only add to their motivation. And they have Iain Henderson.  They can’t lose, right?

David? Are You There?

Hot on the heels of the news Paddy Butler will be joining Kiwis Smuddy and Colin Slade at (nouveau riche) Pau next season came the news that Michael Allen would not only be leaving Ulster for Embra, but be leaving the Irish system altogether, with a view to qualifying for Scotland through residency.

Butler, a ball carrying number 8 who can deputize on the flanks, was finding his path at Munster blocked by CJ Stander (Irish in 6 months) and Robo-Copey – both of whom are going nowhere and, being only on the fringes of the Ireland setup, won’t be away for weeks at a time to give Butler gametime. Up north, Allen, a wing who has spent significant time at centre, was behind a long queue of internationals – Trimble, Bowe and Gilroy on the wing and Marshall, McCloskey, Cave, Olding and Payne in the centre. The logic of leaving their current provinces is hard to argue with in both cases.

However, it seems worth questioning why they are leaving the Irish setup altogether – Ulster might have plucked Paul Browne from the Bucuresti Welsh bench just last week, but they are extremely light in the back row. Until Hendo and Henry returned, they were regularly picking from Robbie Diack, Clive Ross, Naughty Nuck and Roger Wilson, and are in dire need of a decent number 8. Butler was marked as one to watch from underage but hasn’t quite made the breakthrough at his home province – wouldn’t have been worth at least exploring a move to Ulster?

Ditto Allen – Matt Healy aside, are any of the Connacht wings clearly better than the Ulsterman? Gametime would have been virtually assured – not at ERC level, but then that’s not guaranteed at Embra either.

Fans tend to overstate the extent to which player movement can be achieved.  There is an occasional tendency to view players like Panini stickers, which can be swapped around at will: ‘I’ll swap you two centres for a backrow, a lock and a sherbet dib-dab.’  But the idea of removing log-jams in various positrions with a bit of delicate prompting has been long-mooted as something David Nucifora is striving to achieve, but has been scarcely visible to date.

Given the general dearth of inter-provincial movement, one wonders what the plans are for this aspect of Nucifora’s role – he can’t force players into another province, but he can certainly tempt them with promises of gametime, and some cash. The alternatives for Butler and Allen are certainly exciting, but does it really benefit Irish rugby when there are NIQ restrictions on the one hand, and clear positional needs in other provinces on the other? It feels like a sub-optimal use of a scarce resource.

The Mole mentioned earlier this month how Munster brought in Pat Howard as a medical joker earlier this season – Howard did more or less what was expected of him, but left virtually zero legacy in Irish rugby. We don’t even know if the option of bringing in a centre from Ulster or Leinster on a short term loan was on the table, but that, at least, would have produced some long-term benefit to Irish rugby, even if small. Do we need to think a bit more expansively?

Back on the Gravy Train

News is breaking this morning that Charles Piutau has signed a 2 year contract with Ulster in a deal worth £500k a year. This is a sensational signing for a number of reasons:

  • Quality – Piutau is a full-back or wing who is in the BNZ extended squad, and is in a dogfight with the likes of Israel Dagg and Cory Jane for the last utility backs slots in the RWC15 squad. He is 23 and has 14 BNZ caps – at his age, Dagg had 11 caps, Julian Savea 20 and Ben Smith just one – this is a serious player who the NZRFU were anxious to keep in the domestic system. In recent years, the provinces have signed SH journeymen (Nick Williams, Andrew Smith, Jimmy Gopperth) or second tier talents that the SH unions were happy to let leave (Kane Douglas, CJ Stander, Franco van der Merwe) – this is the biggest signing in many years
  • It shows that in spite of the rhetoric, the provinces can compete – Piutau is the kind of player the Irish provinces were supposed to be unable to attract. Perhaps the strength of the pound is a factor (Jackman referred to this as an issue for the French on yesterday’s Go Easy Gazette), but the English clubs use pounds too. Whether the signing is funded by Ulster or the Union, it’s a serious statement of intent in the ERC era
  • NIQ rules – if the signing was funded by the Union, one should be asking why Piutau is going to Ulster. Piutau is a fullback who can play wing, and occasionally centre. As an NIQ, he is a direct replacement for fellow NIQ Louis Ludik at fullback for Ulster, but that’s ignoring the plethora of flexible young Irish talent that Ulster have in the backline – Bowe, Trimble, Gilroy, Allen, Olding, Cave, Payne, Marshall, McCloskey – there is hardly a gaping need at fullback in Ulster. Or in any province for the matter – Kearney and Jones are the Irish fullbacks and Mils Muliaina has just the century of BNZ caps
  • Backrow – there is however a gaping need in the Ulster backrow right now. At present, serious options, international class or close to it, consist of Robbie Diack and Chris Henry, with Iain Henderson and Franco van der Merwe as locks who can fill in at blindside. Then you have Roger Wilson, Williams, (no direspect to) Clive Ross, Charlie Butterworth and Mike McComish. Half a million quid a year will surely buy you two top quality backrow forwards, even in the current market.

In summary then, a fantastic player, a big statement, but a bit of a luxury signing .. unless there is more to come.

Squeaky Bum Time

Egg was minding his own business contemplating watching Jurassic Park III on <insert rubbish cable TV channel> on Saturday night when he noticed a tweet from a chap he’d never heard of. No, not the Examiner’s chief rugby correspondent, but “Paul Morgan”. Morgan had the following to say for himself: “The key thing since European qualification has changed… People are talking about and caring about the Pro12 more than ever”.

It was only after one of our eagle-eyed followers pointed it out that we noticed Morgan was Communications Director for Premiership Rugby aka the lackey of McCafferty, Craig and co. Sigh. Propaganda justifying a position held for monetary reasons then? Well, in Morgan’s case, yes, obviously. Unless this view, which is his own of course, happily happened to mirror 100% the views of his mates (and paymasters in this case). It’s nice when that happens, isn’t it? – kind of like when Charlie Mulqueen points out that it wasn’t Denis Hurley’s fault that Munster got knocked out of Europe, and his stint at 12 was an unreserved success story. Right.

Anyway, back to Morgan. Problem is, fulminate away, but when you have finished thumping your John Knox-signed bible/infusing your olive oil with white truffle/singing Amhran na bFiann extremely passionately/going to Saw Doctors concerts (delete as appropriate depending upon provincial affiliation), you’ll realize that he’s right. Maybe for the wrong reasons, but he’s right.

Take Friday night’s Cardiff-Connacht game for example – Cardiff’s last minute win was exciting sure, and would have been equally exciting in years gone by, but it meant a whole lot more this time. Cardiff kept their faint hopes of an ERCC slot alive, and kept Connacht close to the chasing pack at the same time – and the huge roar at the final whistle spoke volumes to the importance of the game for the league as a whole, as well as both teams. And the bizarre story Pat Lam had to tell about parking spaces and refereeing bias in the heat of passion would likely not have made it to print were it a meaningless mid-table clash. Less two bald men fighting over a comb, more two thinning on top men fighting over the right to be fed to Toulon in bite-size chunks.

At the top of the Pro12, there are five teams who are more or less qualified for the ERCC – Glasgae, Munster, Ulster, Ospreys and Leinster – and four of them will make the knockouts. Glasgow have the top spot more or less sewn up, but behind them it’s three into four.  The Irish provinces have just come off the back of a torrid weekend, with all four losing to their somewhat less illustrious, regionally composite Welsh counterparts.  A portent of doom for next weekend?  Hopefully not.

Leinster are in a bit of a jam, lying in fifth, but they are still in the reckoning.  They have still to play both Ulster and Glasgae, and are well in the reckoning.  They have made an unusual habit of throwing points away against the poorer teams in the league this year, and chances are they will have to go to Ravenhill and win.  They are also the only team in the competition that has European distractions ahead of them.

Ulster and Munster are locked on have the toughest fixtures, with only two home games and three against fellow top five teams. Their meeting on the penultimate weekend may swing it – not only do Ulster have a good record against Munster, but its in Ravers, so advantage Ulster for that one.

One of the hapless Italians will join the big five in Europe, plus one of Connacht, Scarlets, Embra (or maybe – at a stretch – Cardiff). Scarlets host Embra next, and also have games against both hapless Italians – albeit away. They are entitled to be considered favourites to nab the final spot. From an Irish perspective, Connacht will need to earn it the hard way if they are to qualify – with games against each of the current top 4 to come. Perhaps they should, y’know, reserve a parking spot for the ref at the dog track..

Interpro Mini League

And the winner of the Holiday Season Interpro League is… Leinster. They were the only province to manage two wins over the festive period which was low on memorable rugby matches and high on debates about whether international players should be more readily available for these matches or not.

By far the best match over the period was Connacht’s superb victory over Munster. For those who don’t get to see Connacht as often as they would like (count us as members of the club) the win was notable for the amount of rugby Connacht were willing to play on a rain-and-wind-lashed (i.e. slightly above average weather) night in Galway. With Kieran Marmion controlling the tempo, Connacht showed far more enterprise than Munster in creating space. Ex-pro commentators tend to be remarkably conservative types and generally implore the team they are discussing to play less rugby, typically suggesting they kick the ball away or stick it up the jumper, but Connacht confounded everyone with a willingness to play ball. Their short-passing game was especially impressive, with the passer frequently delaying his popped pass to perfection. Passing!  Instead of just running at the chap in front of you!  Who knew such things were possible?  Their youthful second rows were marvels to behold, especially in the carrying stakes, but the outstanding players on the pitch were their footballing centres, Bundee Aki and the increasingly magnificent Robbie Henshaw. It was Connacht’s only win of the mini-series, but their two other games were tough away matches and they got a bonus point out of Ravenhill. They stay on course for the top six.

For Leinster and Munster it was a curious series. With home advantage ruling supreme, Leinster won two, while Munster won one. However, the supine, apologetic nature of Leinster’s defeat in Thomond Park almost counts as a double-defeat. It was a result that had been threatening for some time, with Leinster having played numerous get-out-of-jail cards in the weeks leading up to it. Finally, the full-scale awfulness of their form was laid bare and we suspect that the ‘spoiled Leinster fans’ line will harder to dredge up in light of this defeat; any fanbase would be entitled to ask for more than that. It was like the clock was rewound to 2005.

As for the men in red, they seem to have the opposite problem to Leinster. They keep on losing, but nobody seems to notice. A fine and impressive win over Leinster in which Donncha O’Callaghan passed the ball at least twice masks the fact that they have now lost four games from five including at home in Europe, away to Glasgow where they surrendered a handsome lead, and in Connacht where they routinely win. They’ve allowed Leinster to close the gap on them to a point and given that a European exit is more likely than not, they need to keep the points column ticking over in the Pro12.

Up in Ulster, injuries and a lot of behind the scenes messing around have scuppered the season. All the talented blonde backs in the world count for little when there is nobody up front who can make the hard yards. With Nick Williams injured for the foreseeable, and useless anyway for at least the last 12 months, Iain Henderson not back until possibly after the Six Nations, Stuart McCloskey also crocked and Chris Henry’s return as yet unknown, their only decent yard-maker is a second row, Dan Tuohy. One supsects they would offer a king’s ransom for a decent bludgeon and a passable openside, where the only available player is Clive Ross. As Stephen Ferris sort-of put it, ‘I don’t mean to disrespect anyone but something-something Clive Ross’.  Ulster may find the squeeze coming on for semi-final places; it looks increasingly like a season that will be put down to experience, possibly including Neil Doak’s experience as a head coach.

The Cordite Awards 2014

Its been a pretty mental year – Ireland are genuine RWC15 contenders, the provinces are rubbish (except Connacht), Andrew Trimble is an automatic selection for Ireland, Dylan Hartley did something admirable and Wales actually won a game against a Southern Hemisphere side (and naturally became RWC15 favourites right away). Here’s our awards:

Man of The Year: Joe Schmidt – ten games, wins over France, South Africa and the Wobs (hard fought, thought victory and slihghtly fortunate respectively), one piece of silverware, only one loss; and a fresh broom. No pressure, but two pieces of silverware needed next year.

Male of The Year: Steve Walsh – who else. This time for saying “nice pass, mate” to Willie le Roux

The Awesome Power: of the Bath three-quarter line against Montpellier in round 4 of the ERC – Banahan, Burgess, Joseph and Rokoduguni. Oooooooooooooooooooooohhh!!!

Scapegoat of The Year: Jerome Garces, and his contentious red card for Jared Payne in Ravers against Globo Gym, was blamed by Gerry for … Ulster’s rubbishy ERC start. A campaign that included, from Day One in Leicester … er, Jared Payne.

Straw Man of The Year: when asked if it was right that naturalized NIQs such as Jared Payne played for Ireland (in the presence of CJ Stander), RTE’s Michael Corcoran said “well, if you look at how passionately Richardt Strauss sang the national anthem, that shows you he much he wants to play for Ireland”. Right – that’s what counts – and that’s why the anthem-mumbling Brian O’Driscoll was dropped after one cap. Wait a minute, what?

Most Relevant Phrase of The Year: return to traditional Munster values

Strange Correlation of The Year: Axel Foley’s facial hair growth versus clamours for JJ Hanrahan to be picked

Emotional Roller-coaster of The Year: Ulster fans, wailing and gnashing of teeth when Humph announced his departure, were thrown into raptures when Shane Logan welcomed Cowboy back from his holidays with a P45. Things haven’t quite gone to plan since, but the imminent arrival of Kissy suggests good times ahead. Just not now.

Dark Clouds on The Horizon: the Clermont partnership of Parra/Lopez/Fofana looks capable of derailing Ireland in RWC15. Camille Lopez reminds us of Barnesy – he looks completely out of shape and uninterested, but sets the team afire. Let’s hope Remy Tales is the Rob Andrew to Lopez’ Barnesy.

Player of The Year: Conor Murray

Quote of The Year 1: “That’s a mile forward. Aw man”. Triminjus, after Ireland were dependent on the TMO to rule out a French try for a (needless) forward pass. His nerves weren’t helped by the ensuing scrum, where the Gods smiled on Ireland and a penalty wasn’t awarded. It ended well when Ireland won the Six Nations a couple of phases later.

Quote of The Year 2: “Toulon are looking to sign Richie McCaw, and we’ve brought in Clive Ross. No disrespect to Clive Ross, but …” Think you disrespected him there Fez.

Happy Christmas and enjoy the interpros. See you in 2015 for a pointless debate about how the fact that there is no such place as Saracens means a Munster win in Allianz Park is inevitable.

Interpro Season

The Christmas interpros are upon us. The phrase ‘silly season’ has often been most appropriate as the games rarely amount to as much as they should. It’s a part of the calendar that hasn’t really been worked out properly, with coaches responding to player welfare rules by sending Ver Kidz on their away trip and saving the first choice men for the home match. The net effect is a series of non-events.

Dare we suggest that might change, at least a little this season? The decision to schedule Munster v Leinster on St. Stephens’ Day looks designed to add some extra wallop to these seasonal fixtures. Matt O’Connor dare not risk the fans’ ire further by throwing the game against their rivals. Or will he? Ulster do that kind of thing for fun, but then they mostly beat Munster and don’t have the biggest rivalry in world rugby (sic) to think about.

Another reason we might get a decent round of fixtures is more by accident than design. The Pro12 table is super-tight and all the Irish teams are jammed in the top six. Connacht’s big improvement has arguably been the provincial story of the year, while the mediocre form of the Big Three means the gap from first to fourth has never been so tight. And with Glasgow and Ospreys going well in the league, there’s no guarantee that the likes of Leinster can cruise through to the final in third gear, as they have done in previous years.

Leinster face all of Connaht (home), Munster (away) and Ulster (home); two-from-three is the minimum acceptable return. Matt O’Connor’s apologists in the meeja – we’re getting a bit tired of the line that Leinster fans are simply asking too much for their team to play a bit of decent rugger – keep perpetuating the myth that Leinster are ‘on course for another Pro12’ but in fact they’re off the pace. They’re fifth and three points behind Ulster, which sounds ok, but it’s not great. Realistically, to win the league one has to finish in the top two, as winning two away games in a row in the ‘barrage’ is very difficult. The final has been contested by the top two in each year since the format was devised. Leinster have also dropped six points they really shouldn’t have; losing one of their home games and drawing in Treviso. If Leinster lose two of their games, they will find themselves well off the pace, and possibly below Connacht, in sixth.

Ulster could really do with a pick-me-up after what has proved a disastrous European campaign. It’s hard to see that occurring away to Ospreys so they simply must beat Connacht and hope to get something from their trip to Leinster. In recent seasons they’ve sent pretty unfamiliar teams to the RDS so don’t be surprised to see the likes of Bronson Ross, Sean Reidy and –no, hang on, those are first team players. Maybe even Ruaidhri Murphy will play.

But whatever way you look at it, the big three are coming off a period of high intensity matches, and no amount of fixture list management will change the fact that the Christmas interpros aren’t exactly Clermont Auvergne in the massif central. For Connacht, though, it’s different. They sent a reserve team to Bayonne in the Challenged Cup, so we can be sure they’re targeting this trio of games in a big way. They’re dining out on rave reviews for their newly enterprising rugby under Pat Lam. After they struggled for results last season, they are getting the rewards this time around. They have Kieron Marmion, Robbie Henshaw and Mils Muliaina, and there is a sense that for the first time possibly ever, they are capable of properly competing with their illustrious neighbours. They have to play Leinster away, Ulster away and their only home match is against Munster, who they never beat, so it’s a tough old run of games. This is their equivalent of the back-to-backs and their chance to put down a huge marker for the rest of the season.

Back to Black

Munster’s late, and largely irrelevant, bonus point wrapped up what was a pretty horrific set of double headers from the Irish provinces in the ERCC. Munster lost 8-2 in match points, gave up their first home loss to a French opponent and were thoroughly outclassed by (the admittedly brilliant) Clermont Auvergne. With a bit more concentration yesterday, Clermont could have won the double header 9-1, and that would not have been an outcome which any Irish fan could have seriously queried. The late bonus point does at least have them feeling a bit better about themselves, and they will need to be feeling good to win in Globo Gym. Leinster broke even, 5-5, but are behind Quins on the tie-breaker (match points this year) and in the table. Ulster won their double header 5-4, but, since their faint hopes required 9 points, the fact they lost one of the games is the relevant point.  When future generations are asked if they know their Clive Ross from their Bronson Ross, they’ll look quizically at you and say ‘What are you talking about?’.

By our reckoning, the last time two of the three major Irish provinces lost their double headers was 15 years ago, the year after Ulster won what was then the European Cup – Leinster won and lost to Stade but were behind on both tie-breakers (bonus points hadn’t been invented yet), Ulster lost twice to Llanelli (not the Scarlets – they are completely different, obviously) and Munster saved Irish bacon by beating Colomiers twice. The Liginds were European newbies at that stage, and the ensuing tear-soaked journey to the final went quite a way to kindling the love affair with Europe.

We find it hard to envisage an Irish side making this year’s final though – they simply look too far off the French teams, and a home quarter-final is odds-against in both cases. In fact, for all the crowing from Bruce Craig et al about increased competitiveness, and following the pattern of recent seasons, most of the quarter-final places have been more or less decided – with Munster/Saracens the only serious question mark, unless Glasgow can secure a rare win on English turf.

Pool 1: Clermont are home and hosed – two more wins takes them to 22 points, and another point is a possiblity. The runners-up slot will be decided at Allianz Park in the next round, when Munster bring real fans to drown out the PA system. Saracens put a bonus point on Clermont in Round 1, have only lost to the Saints at home this year, and beat a Munster side superior to this current edition two seasons ago – it’s a big stretch to call this for Munster right now, and we can’t get there. We reckon Saracens to finish second on 17 points. If Munster do make it, they’ll likely have 18/19 points.

Pool 2: Quins have a home game against Wasps and visit patsies Castres in the last round – 8 points is virtually a given, with 9 a possibility – that takes them to 21/22. Leinster should just about be able for Castres, but might struggle with Wasps’ gargantuan pack – they’ll need to lose that one 5-0 in match points to go out, which is pretty unlikely, but we wouldn’t fancy them to win if that game was today. Leinster to finish second with 19 points.

Pool 3: Toulon will win both games, and probably score four tries against Ulster – that brings them to 22. A likely home win each for Leicester and Ulster won’t be enough to get them into the mix for the quarters, but Leicester to finish second on 14 for what it’s worth.

Pool 4: Toulouse are the only team to date with a 100% record, and look likely to finish the pool stages that way, with games against the Sam Burgess XV and Montpellier, who have thrown in the towel in hapless and hilarious fashion. Glasgow have a home game to feed off Montpellier’s rotting corpse, after which they go to Bath, where a win will be needed to be in the qualification mix. It’s an intriguing match-up, with Bath most likely out of the qualification picture by then, but it’s a big ask for Glasgae to win in the Rec. So we think Glasgae will finish second on 16.

Pool 5: Racing Metro will go to the Saints in the last round, and if Northampton don’t beat Ospreys away in round 5, a losing bonus point will suffice to top the pool on 20, with Saints losing the tie-breaker and finishing second on 20. Spare a thought for the Hairsprays, who could finish 3rd on 17 points, which might be enough to qualify from other pools (helped by Treviso).  If Northampton can beat the Ospreys, and beat Racing Metro, they’ll top the group.  Either way, both look good to progress.

That would leave us with:

  1. Toulouse 24
  2. Clermont 22/23
  3. Toulon 22
  4. Quins 21/22
  5. Racing Metro 20
  6. Saints 20
  7. Leinster 19
  8. Saracens 17/18

A win for Glasgow in Bath would push them up to 19 and would create an every-point-counts finale between themselves, Leinster and the winner of Saracens and Munster.

If there is a silver lining to be had, it’s provided by Connacht, who sent a fully reserve team to France and won.  Okay, it was only Bayonne, where the ham comes from, and it was only the Challenged Cup, but still.  They’ll hit the interpros with more feelgood than any of the other provinces.  They look the best coached of the four at the moment, by a mile.  Their next opponent: Leinster.  Great.