All-Ireland Final

Phew, howzat for a weekend of rugby! The Pallas nerved their way around Porto on Saturday, relying on Tw*tter and t’interweb for updates, then crowded around a laptop screen today, chewing all fingernails to the quick.

The Eggs had a somewhat more conventional rugby weekend, with prawn sandwiches and beer at the Palindrome yesterday followed by a raucous night in town … with Poite! Retirement to the same Japanese stream as the Pallas Sunday afternoon was incredibly nerve-jangling – we can only sympathise with the Palla clan, who were last spotted wondering around the harbour in Porto in a daze.

So what did we learn this weekend? Let’s start with Ulster:

  • Ulster’s gameplan of giving the ball to Embra oh-so-nearly blew up in their face – the Scots, led superbly by Wee Greig, tossed the ball around with gay abandon for the first 40, and were very unlucky to go in behind (more of which anon). Ulster settled after half-time and choked Embra, playing territory and forcing them to make tackles
  • The Irish Prop Crisis ™ had a bad weekend – Declan Fitzpatrick, in his first start in a big game (at 28!) at times minced the all-international front row facing him – Ulster’s first 10 points came directly from him, and he will surely tour NZ as the backup tighthead. It’s good to see him fulfilling some of the promise of years gone by, and it’s hard to imagine Hagan, Loughney or Archer (his equivalents in the other provinces) faring as well
  • If the Northerners are to harbour genuine hopes of winning at Twickers, they simply must get Chris Henry back. Willie Faloon is that rare beast, a Genuine Openside, but he was conspicuous by his anonymity on Saturday – bossed by the Embra flankers, he fell off one too many tackles. We knew Ulster’s depth chart wasn’t good, but how far Faloon was off HEC standard came as a shock – you can see why Humph sent him to Connacht
  • Paddy Jackson was comprehensively outplayed by Wee Greig, but he can be relatively happy with his day. He played the full 80, stood up in defence and never looked completely at sea. When you have Pienaar and Wallace either side of you, you essentially have the luxury of not having to run the game for your side. He will have learned from the experience, and will start many many more HEC matches (sarting with the final)
  • Ruan Pienaar is an incredible player – anything he tried came off, goal-kicking, box-kicking, leadership. He is undoubtedly one of the superstars of world rugby, and Ulster’s key man – he’s the Rocky Elsom of 2012

As for Leinster .. what can you say. Of all the brilliant performances the team has produced down the years, this was the best, and the game itself was one of the highest quality that we can recall:

  • People talk about Championship Minutes, and boy do Leinster know when those are. At half-time they looked like they were teetering on the brink, one score away from being Saracened, but they came out of the blocks and had 10 points on the board within 7 minutes. This surge was the platform for keeping Clermont at arms length for 30 minutes, until the frenetic endgame, when they produced another 3 minutes of bravery to get over the line, typified by Sean O’Brien in the final phase
  • Clermont’s lack of experience at this level looked to be a factor – they had the winning of the game at half-time but failed to keep up the intensity while Leinster stepped up. When they needed to get a foothold in the game, their rhythm was disrupted by substitutions. Then, crucially, on 78 and 80 minutes, when it looked for all the world like they must score, they didn’t take their chances. A bit more dead-eyed composure is required next time – and there will be a next time
  • From minutes 40-75 , Leinster were virtually flawless. They pulled ahead and away on the scoreboard and took the crowd out of the equation. The team was forced up to this level by a brilliant side, but if they produce a spell like this in 3 weeks, Ulster are snookered. It would be remiss not to point out that Wayne Barnes’ leniency with Dorce following a cynical ruck offence helped them stay on top
  • Fortune favours the brave. In protecting narrow leads once the clock has ticked into the red it’s customary to stay well away from the ball at every ruck and just hope for an error by the opposition, but Sean O’Brien was having none of it.  Feet planted, he duly reached in and got his mitts on the ball to win the crucial turnover. Another penalty and it was card time, but he had the conviction to go for it and it was the match-winning play
  • Rob Kearney is from Mars. Whatever he’s having for breakfast, we want some
  • Stretching the arm out over the line and safely grounding it isn’t easy. Shane Horgan was the master of it with his shovel-like hands. Wesley Fofana didn’t quite have it.
  • Clermont continued their incremental progress in this competition – today’s experience will stand to them next year, when the rarified air of the last 4 won’t be as novel. A top seeding will mean an easier draw, and probably the introduction of HEC knock-out rugby to the iconic Stade Marcel Michelin and another last 4 visit. Rather like their accession to their first Top 14 title, expect them to crawl step by agonising step across the line over a period of what seems like millennia

It has been another memorable weekend in Irish rugger – 2 provinces will contest the HEC final for the first time, and 2 unforgettable occasions will live long in the memory. There’s no doubt Leinster are playing at a higher level than Ulster right now, but it will come down to a once-off game, and, lets be truthful, Ulster have to beat Leinster some time!  Let’s see if we can still be friends here at Cordite Towers in three week’s time…

HEC Semi Final Preview: Ulster v Edinburgh

Two unfashionable outposts of European rugby lock horns for a place in the final that seemed unlikely at the start of the season.  But they’re here now, so let’s get on with it.

History: The two sides crossed paths, and traded wins, in the 2009/10 season. A late try by – who else? – Tim Visser won the tie 17-13 for Embra at Murrayfield, while Cave and Isaac Boss crossed the whitewash in the return leg. Neither side advanced to the knockouts.  In this season’s Pro12, Ulster have dished out two thrashings to Edinburgh, wrapping up  four-try bonus points in both legs.

Form: Edinburgh are the two-headed hydra of European rugby this season.  Abysmal in the Pro12, where they lie 11th and regularly roll over and allow their tummies to be tickled, they come to life in the Heineken Cup. Watchers of Connacht will recall Michael Bradley’s strategy of targeting particular games and dining out on fifty-burgers in others: well, he has taken that to the nth degree this season. WoC has always been dismissive of the argument that the English and French are stymied by being in more arduous leagues, partly because Munster and Leinster, the Pro12s traditional challengers in Europe, are competitive in the league and see it as a trophy worth winning.  But Edinburgh’s attitude does bring into question whether a more merit based qualification system is in order.  Their results since beating Toulouse are a 54-10 reverse at the RDS and a 38-13 beating by a pretty ordinary Cardiff Blues side, but little should be read into those scorelines; they weren’t trying a leg.

Ulster haven’t exactly killed themselves in the fortnight since beating Munster either.  Their seconds got beaten by Connacht, with Ian Humpreys putting in a distracted, lazy performance, and lost at home to Leinster with something more like their first team, but minus heavy hitters Tuohy, Best and Ferris.  But at least their losses were respectable.  It’ll be a different team which takes the field on Saturday.  Ulster’s strength in depth has come up just short in mounting a challenge in the Pro12, but they are a team transformed when Ferris and Best are in the side.

Gameplan: Edinburgh will want it loose, open and broken up.  They look to keep the ball alive and offload wherever possible.  Their two props offloaded more than any other forwards in the pool stages.  They’ve good carriers in their pack, with No.8 Netani Talei ably abetted by Ross Ford (no longer flattering to deceive) and David Denton, fresh off an impactful Six Nations.  Ross Rennie will look to rule the breakdown area.  In the half-back division, Mike Blair is still something of a headscratcher, and it puzzles WoC to this day how he went from brilliant to awful seemingly overnight some time around 2009.  The centres are average, but they’ve plenty of threat with Tim Visser out wide.  Give him some grass to run into and his big long arms are capable of some of the best hand-offs in the game.  Dude knows where the tryline is.

Ulster will want a more structured game, but they also play a brand of rugby that’s good to watch.  As discussed in the week, they look to their classy 9-10-12 axis to spread the ball wide and quickly, and get their strike runners into space.  A call has to be made at 10, where little iHumph is woefully out of form.  Paddy Jackson is inexperienced, but showed flashes of his talent against Leinster.  With Marshall probably missing, the option of moving Pienaar to 10 looks to be a non-starter.  McLoughlin’s a conservative fellow, and it would be a remarkable call if he threw young Jackson in for his first Heineken start in the semi-final.  Could it be a Johnny Sexton moment?  Elsewhere, Andrew Trimble is good at coming off his wing and looking for work (by work, we mean opportunites to bosh).  They’ve a tough, granite-hewn pack with Wannenbosh and Stephen Ferris expected to provide plenty of hard yards.  Best and Tuohy will be required to chip in.  Hard carries up the middle, spread it out wide.  Simple, and if accurate, pretty effective.

Prediction: It’s hard to see past Ulster.  It’s in Dublin, they’ve come here the hard way, and you can’t help but feel Embra got through a bit of a Group of Dearth.  We’re not expecting it to be easy, though.  For all the supposed experience of Ulster’s World Cup Winning South Africans, they didn’t show much composure down in Thomond Park – they really just gutsed it out.  This time the onus will be on them to play a bit more rugby.  They won’t have it all their own way, but they should be able to grind down an Edinburgh side that appears to lack the sort of grizzled leaders to win this game.  Grizzled leaders like Rory Best and Johann Muller.  Ulster by 7.