Heineken Cup Final: the Ulster Reaction

Phew, that wasn’t much fun. Egg’s much-vaunted high hopes never materialised and Ulster deservedly lost to Leinster, a team who, after 2 years of being head and shoulders above all comers (a short head in Clermont’s case), can be proclaimed as the best European side of the professional era.

What can Ulster take from Saturday? First of all, a few bruises and a few regrets. But mostly pride in their performance, pride in their fans and, when the dust has settled, acknowledgment that this could be the start of something.

Here’s a thought:

Its funny how good sides varnish dominant displays with late scores. And there was no doubting who was the dominant force here.

That’s from our muse, Le Gerry. And it’s from 2006, after Munster beat Leinster. In many ways, Ulster’s key games have mirrored Leinster’s that year – a breakthrough win in a notoriously tough venue, followed by a humbling at the hands of their neighbours. Leinster took the lessons learned that day, quietly built big-game fortitude and came back with the team of 2009, which now looks prosaic compares to the all-conquering 23 men of 2011-12. That’s Ulster’s task now – their position in the pecking order is well below Leinster, but above most others, and it gives them a clear level to aim towards. We said before that Thomond Park was Ulster’s Stoop moment – that no longer applies, so let’s at least hope it can be their Le Stadium Municipal moment.

[In an eerie parallel, Leinster had a duff bench that day as well – only a young Bob stands out].

There is no doubting Ulster will benefit from having played in a final – Egg had a brief thought yesterday that perhaps it would have been better if Toulouse had scraped past Embra and beat Ulster in the Palindrome – but it’s not true. If (when?) Ulster get back to the final, they’ll know what the day feels like, they’ll know how to manage the build-up, and they will be able to focus on the 2% extra to get over the line. The experience will stand to them.

As we hope it stands to Paddy Jackson – it was a harrowing day for the youngster, who looked nowhere near ready for this level. Hindsight is 20-20 of course, and the Ulster coaching staff know Jackson better than anyone, but when they selected him for Embra, they knew they would have to pick him for the final. Jackson looked overawed and nervy – understandable of course, but it is the coaches job to prepare him both physically and mentally, and their effort came up a long way short. We think Jackson will recover, he’s a talented guy, but it does seem to be a rather cavalier way to treat a talent of his nature. Conversely, iHumph looked spritely and expansive when he came in, his arrival corresponding to Ulster’s most threatening phase of the game.

Many other Ulster players who can be very happy with their individual days work – John Afoa was excellent, Rory Best nuggety and driven. Dan Tuohy didn’t look out of place at this level, and of course popped up on the wing to score his try from a sumptuous pass from Paddy Wallace, who skill level illuminated mostly pedestrian attacking moves. Cave and Gilroy also had good days; and the backline will have Tommy Bowe and Jared Payne next season.

Fez had a solid day – while not as explosive as he can be, he too looked comfortable on this stage, albeit not quite 100%. Speaking of not quite 100%, Chris Henry was not fully recovered from his injury – he was a marginal presence, and came off for Willie Faloon on 65 minutes. As the Mole said, if you see Faloon coming in, it wasn’t going to plan for Ulster.

The bottom line for Ulster is that they were beaten by a much better side on the day. But it was one of the great, if not the greatest, sides that did it. In terms of getting to the final, Leinster’s win in Bordeaux was the toughest task, but Ulster beat Clermont as well, and also beat Leicester and Munster, both better sides than anyone else Leinster beat. They were in the final on merit, and came across a whirlwind, a maelstrom of physicality, high skills and intelligent players who just weren’t going to lose.

Ulster can reflect on a breakout season, one where many of the core players had their best seasons to date (Cave, Wallace, Best, Tuohy, Ferris, Henry) and some outstanding youngsters moved into and to the fringes of the first team (Gilroy, Marshall, Fitzpatrick, Jackson, Henderson) – Ulster have proved themselves against some of the greatest sides on the continent, and fallen short of the best.

No shame there – SUFTUM.

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Heineken Cup Final: Ulster

After cappuccino-slurping, Irish Times-perusing, 46A-travelling, Dundrum-shopping, Fallon & Byrne-frequenting, field-fearing Leinsterman Palla’s look at his team yesterday, I’ll be giving the proud Ulstermen some analysis today – SUFTUM etc.

We’re going to have a roundtable discussion tomorrow and give our forecasts – let’s hope it doesn’t come to fisticuffs.  We’ll keep you posted…

Who’s going to play:

Unlike Leinster, who can expect up to 12 of the team that played in their last Heineken Cup final, Ulster won’t be calling on any of the 1999 side, not even Gary Longwell. Also unlike Leinster, there isn’t much competition for places – the XV is pretty much set in stone: Terblanche; Trimble, Cave, Wallace, Gilroy; Jackson, Pienaar; Court, Best, Afoa; Muller, Tuohy; Ferris, Henry, Wannenbosh. Lots of Ooooooooooooohhh there (of which more anon).

On the bench, there is a chance Iain Henderson will get the reserve lock slot from Louis Stevenson (but it’s unlikely), so that is pretty much set in stone as well. McLaughlin hasn’t been one for changes in the big games, but with the probability Ulster will be chasing it in the last 20, you can expect Paul Marshall to come in for Paddy Jackson with Pienaar moving out; but that’s it unless there are injuries – the bench is low on experience and, in some of the more established players’ cases (Willie Faloon, Nigel Brady, the outside backs) HEC standard class.

What’s the plan:

Keep it tight. As tight as a duck’s butt. Like the proverbial Shannon quote (“if we ever find a number 8 who can kick…”), the lower the digits on the shirt of the players with the ball, the better for Ulster. Ulster will fancy their set piece is superior to Leinster’s, and will look for the template they employed in the Marcel Michelin – grind, bosh, boot and Bok.

They will aim to play territory, looking to kick for touch when they give the piano players the ball, and hope their superior lineout can get disrupt Leinster throws in their own 22. The good thing about this is they have four good tactical kickers (Pienaar, Jackson, Wallace, Terblanche) to execute the plan. The bad thing is their execution against Embra was poor, and Leinster have the best kick-returners in the business (Bob, Nacewa, Sexton) – a repeat of the first half showing in the semi-final and they’ll be going in 20 points down.

To win, they must:

Not deviate from the gameplan, and execute everything with absolute precision. They need to get their set pieces on top. The Ulster lineout is undoubtedly better than Leinster’s, their scrum will break even at least (but beware of the intelligent Leinster props turning a perceived advantage on its head). Assuming Kevin McLaughlin plays to shore up the creaky Leinster lineout, Ulster will have the best breakdown merchant and back frustrater on the pitch in Chris Henry.

Ulster will have been watching the Leinster-Clermont game and noted how Ulster’s performance away to Clermont was arguably better in the set pieces – they will think they can turn the screw on Leinster just as Clermont did in the second quarter, and as they did against Edinburgh in the third quarter.

When Leinster have their inevitable purple patch, Ulster must defend with discipline and intelligence – the boys in blue can score tries against anyone from anywhere – the likes of Wallace, Henry and Cave need to be alert for inside runners and their tackling technique needs to be bang on to take offloads out of the question – if the Ulster backrow are prominent, Leinster should be worried. The Springbok model of defending and hitting hard is the Ulster one – make the scores come in multiples of 3.

They’ll be snookered if:

They put a foot wrong! Any errant kicks will be punished, and punished severely – with respect to the Embra backs, they have nothing on these guys. Looking at Leinster’s results away from D4 this year, one try has generally been enough – if Leinster break through at all, you’d have to fancy Ulster’s chances are small. So don’t concede any tries.

If the scrum does not get on top, Ulster should be worried – Afoa and co need to put pressure on the Leinster fatties to take the ref out of the equation. In their knock-out games to date, they have had the luxury of Poite i.e. if you are on top, you get the penalty.  With Owens, unless it’s clear cut (and even when it is), the scrum penalties are a bit more of a lottery.

And finally, they must be ready for an onslaught in the final quarter. Ulster need to lead from the front, and Leinster might be quite happy to work the tacklers in the first half and go in, say, 6-9 down, with a view to pushing on like they did in Clermont, and bringing on their impact subs. Ulster will have much of the same XV on the field to the end, and they need to be mentally ready for the last 20 if they are to cling on.

Heineken Cup Final: Leinster

There’s a whiff of cordite in the air alright.  Oh yes.  Deep and pungent.  As tension builds in Heineken Cup final week, we’re barely on speaking terms.  Egg Chaser has started calling Palla Ovale a ‘D4-dwelling lady-man’ (surely he means ‘ladies’ man’?), while Palla hilariously, and not at all childishly, has resorted to putting Egg’s favourite bible inside a jelly mould.  Things reached a low when Palla said he never rated Paddy Wallace anyway.

In the semi-finals we elected to put emotion on the back-burner and have the Leinster man preview the Ulster game and vice versa, but that’s impossible this time (mainly because Egg’s first draft of his Leinster preview just had ‘Leinster are rubbish and Jamie Heaslip is a show-boating pansy’ repeated ad nauseum).

Onwards and upwards though, so, first, let’s have a look at Leinster.

Who’s going to play?

So poor is our track record of trying to forecast Joe Schmidt’s team selections that it’s almost laughable that we’re going to try again, but here goes.  As usual, the hard calls are in the front row, the backrow, and at scrum half.  With Luke Fitzgerald out there’s another in the back three.  We’re working off the assumption that all of those managing niggly injuries will show sufficient healing powers to make the cut.  Cian Healy should get the nod at loosehead, as he usually does in knockout games.  Expect him to waste himself for 55 minutes and the granite-hewn van der Merwe to be one of the first two reserves to enter the fray.  Wihle Richardt Strauss has not quite hit the heights of last season, he looks likely to hold off the challenge of Sean Cronin.  Cronin’s timing onto pop passes around the fringes is terrific, but his throwing is still woefully erratic (more of which later).  Mike Ross, Leo Cullen and Brad Thorn will fill out the tight five.

In the backrow, O’Brien and Heaslip are nailed on, but who is chosen to join them infers a lot about how Leinster intend to play.  In the semi-final Jennings was selected for his niggly scrum-half-harrying qualities.  We’re expecting a switch in the final, with McLaughlin to start.  Leinster’s lineout has creaked of late and Locky provides a superb tail-jumping option which will be needed against a lineout which is one of the best in the competition.

Fergus McFadden is long overdue some good news at selection time.

The other call which reveals much about Leinster’s gameplan is at scrum-half.  We’ve a sneaky feeling Isaac Boss might just get the start, but then we said Reddan would wear 9 in the semi-final.  Boss knows this Ulster team pretty well and Schmidt might like the idea of Reddan increasing the tempo in the final quarter.  One will start, the other finish.  Sexton, D’arcy and BOD in midfield, and Nacewa and Kearney Sr will certainly start in the back three.  The final outside back will surely be Fergus McFadden, seeing off the challenge of the greater broken-field threat of Dave Kearney, due to his sturdier defence.  The versatile back has had a career of selectorial disappointments, and it will be a satisfying moment for him to be selected in a final.

What’s the plan? 

Johnny Sexton is the most influential player in the competition

Leinster can play it myriad ways, as the above paragraphs will tell you.  But the principles generally remain the same: manic aggression and correct body height at the ruck, accurate passing with the ball.  Leinster are lords of the breakdown in Europe, and the addition of Brad Thorn hasn’t done them much harm in that regard.  Jamie Heaslip hasn’t had the best of seasons, but criticism should be tempered, because he is sensational in his work on the ground.  Once they secure quick ball it’s Sexton who dictates the play.  His form this season and last in the competition are matchless.

What they need to do to win:

Leinster are a better team than Ulster, and generally beat them home and away in the Pro12.  They need to relax, be patient and play their natural game.  Get the ball quickly away from the ruck, get Sexton involved, and treat the ball with care.  If they can play at a high tempo and the accuracy to which we have become accustomed, they will have too much in their arsenal for Ulster.  Breathe deep.  Relax.  Play.

They’ll be snookered if:

…their set piece work is shoddy.  Ulster relied on their set piece and some hard grunt up front to overcome Edinburgh.  They don’t appear to have a huge desire to play an awful lot of rugby, but they can grind you down in the tight exchanges.  Leinster’s lineout is a concern in this regard and Leo Cullen will no doubt be at his most nerdish this week, pouring through hours of tape and devising a plan.  With John Afoa returning at tighthead, Ulster look to have an advantage in the scrum.  Ross and Healy are capable of off-days and were outmuscled on their recent visit to Ravers.  If Ulster get an upper hand in the scrums, they can kick points from anywhwere and work the scoreboard impressively.  It won them a semi-final.

The Great Heineken Cup Swindle

In Roald Dahl’s famous short story ‘Lamb to the Slaughter‘, the police turn up to interview the murder suspect with a view to finding the murder weapon.  Said item was a frozen leg of lamb which she currently has cooking and feeds to the police officers.  Upon leaving, one of the officers comments that the ‘murder weapon was probably right under our very noses’.

It’s not dissimilar to the standard of sleuthing being demonstrated by much of the Irish rugby media at the moment.  The likes of Farrelly, Thornley and even Matty Williams are keen to present this season’s divergence of provincial and international form as a seemingly unsolvable mystery, an endlessly ponderable enigma, like what happened at the end of the Sopranos.

Could it be to do with the abundance of foreign players? What about the fact that Leinster train and play together more often than the national team? Or is there just some magic in the provincial waters that seemingly dries up once the players get to Carton House?  Is it the lack of a national rugby philosophy?  Everyone wants to put forward a handful of half-baked theories, but the leg of lamb is sitting right under their noses – and nobody dares to consider it.

Previously, Thornley in particular has been at pains to tell us how successful Heineken Cup group campaigns have generally led to successful Six Nations Championships, but this season the picture doesn’t fit.  What’s more, Wales’ ascendancy has mirrored their much-discussed unravelling at club level.  What a mystery!  If only some clues would present themselves! Is it the ‘Welsh Way’ – the great history of Welsh international rugby – that inspires players that look workaday in their club sides?

One thing’s for sure – it certainly can’t be the coaching, tactics and selection, right?  Because that would mean – shock horror! – that Ireland’s coaching ticket isn’t really all that. Oh dear, and how does one square that circle with Gerry’s ability to uncannily predict the team week after week? I mean, 3 HECs in 4 Deccie-years, or 2 Celtic Leagues from 3 (and maybe more) in the same timeframe? Surely that means our players are good? So why aren’t they doing it at international level?

Lately we have had Thornley telling us the Heineken Cup had suddenly become ‘less correlated’ with international rugby, Farrelly declaring that foreign imports (especially at Ulster) are thwarting the hopes of developing Irish talent and on this week’s Wednesday Night Rugby, Keith Wood and Gerry Thornley pondered the ‘mystery’ of why Leinster players looked so much better in blue, and could only come up with the theory that they play together more often – it was up to Shane Horgan to belatedly mention that the coach had to ‘create the right environment for players to express themselves’, and argue that while he didn’t consider Gatland a great coach, this was an area in which he was strong.  Hilariously, Farrelly’s piece yesterday alluded to the national team’s patchy form as ‘the elephant in the room’.  While displaying a complete lack of understanding of the meaning of the phrase ‘elephant in the room’, it also raised new levels of irony in not mentioning the possibility that national management could be in some way culpable.  Now, that’s the elephant, Farrelly!

Matty Williams’ piece on Monday certainly sounded a note of clarity, in that it highlighted a lack of national rugby philosophy on which we can fall back, but it overlooked the fact that Ireland have been successful in the recent past, when the provinces were even further apart tactically than they are now.

So let’s rewind a bit: from RWC 2003 to RWC 2007 the provinces won 1 HEC and 1 Celtic League – it would be reasonable to conclude that, at provincial level, our players were okay, but weren’t achieving consistently. But what’s this? Ireland won 3 Triple Crowns in the same period? And were a late Elvis Vermeulen touch down in the corner against Scotland away from a Championship? Shurely shome mishtake Mish Thornley?

No points for spotting that the period above corresponded with the most ferrous period of Eddie’s iron fist, and what Eddie did – and was much criticised for – was play a very structured game; a game far removed from the boot and bullock at Munster, the sparkling and flighty back play at Leinster, or the slightly sniffy 10 man dross in Ulster. Sod any ‘national philosophy’, Eddie had his own gameplan and micro-managed incessantly – in the end, it did for him, but it was very successful when it worked. To use Ger Loughnane’s words, Eddie felt he had to “drive the horse over the fence”. When the bunch of losers (in trophy terms) he took over needed a different approach to win the race once they had worked out how to get over the fence, Eddie couldn’t give it, and he paid the price.

So in came Deccie with his mind-bending cute hoor-ism and essentially let the lads work it out for themselves (to use a word beloved in Egg’s place of employment, Deccie “enabled” the players). Through Bob’s brave words in Enfield and Jamie Heaslip’s youthful endeavour to the grizzled leaders at 5, 10 and 13, Ireland’s players made it over the line. It was a genius plan really – feed off the bitterness and anger of the near misses and the venom in the press and harness the inter-provincial rivalry for that last push.

Problem is, it could only work for so long. The more Deccie is required to interact, and actually engage and work out a plan for his players, the less successful he has been. Ireland have fallen inexorably from the peak of November 2009 against the Boks in almost a straight line. There have been a few shining one-off performances in between, but they came against teams who were psychologically frail, and usually when Ireland were painted into a corner:  a beaten-up England or a uniquely vulnerable Australia (that performance, while memorable, was steeped in good fortune and would not have sufficed against NZ, SA, France or Wales). Any team who plays Ireland with a belief they can beat them generally does.

And this is where the mystery deepens – Eddie got a huge amount of flak from the press for “only” winning 3 Triple Crowns, and for consistently challenging for the Championship, but not winning it. And look at his squad! Deccie, on the other hand, has presided over an initial burst followed by an energy-sapping descent into drudgery, with eight wins in the last three Six Nations – and has had a virtual free ride. Now, the obvious answer for this all-enveloping mystery of why Irish players appear so much better at provincial level is ignored. And it’s this: the coaches just aren’t doing very well.  It’s the leg of lamb, dammit.

Ireland’s gameplan under Deccie has gone from puke rugby (2008-2010 vs Wales) to going wide and lateral at every opportunity (2010 vs Scotland – 2012 vs Wales) to a promising-looking hybrid featuring backline moves other than the Randwick Loop (2012 vs Italy onwards). The lack of a coherent gameplan post-Boks 2009 for 2.5 years is one thing, but then the complete lack of questioning of it is another.  Meanwhile selection has become a dismally tiresome affair, with management handing out loyalty cards, but the same media apologists see it as their mission to defend every iota of team selection, even when it flies in the face of all available logic.

If Eddie had been presiding over such a series of duff results amid unimaginable provincial success, would the reaction have been any of the below:

Ireland did not lose the World Cup quarter-final to Wales because of overseas players, and particularly because Afoa was in Ulster and Botha in Munster. [Thornley]

You could call it the ‘Welsh way’, when talented players come together, are told to put their club issues behind and are then encouraged to express themselves in the name of their country. [Farrelly]

Someone has to finish fourth, and the margins between defeat and victory are tight at this level. [Thornley on Off the Ball]

I think Declan Kidney is a great coach. [Thornley, again on Off The Ball when McDevitt read a text from a viewer asking why Thornley felt the need to defend every selection]

Look, I still believe in Declan Kidney! [yep, Thorinho again on Off The Ball, when Emmet Byrne ran rings around him in a critique of Ireland’s failings after the home defeat to Wales]

While Leinster, Ulster and Munster play to a style that does not have its origins in a national philosophy, the national team will not benefit to the degree it should from provincial success. [Williams]

Or might it be that the coaching, selection and tactics are crap, and the current ticket cannot get the best from the resources at its disposal? Just a thought…

HEC Seedings 2012/13

With only a handful of regular season games left across Europe, the qualification and seeding picture for next season’s HEC is becoming pretty clear.

In England, barring a miraculous bonus point win for Oooooooooohhh Bath in Welford Road, the 6 qualifiers have been decided; ditto for Ireland (3 + 1 as the winner earns a place for Connacht), Wales (3), Scotland (3) and Italy (2). In France, 8 teams are in the mix for the 7 places (Biarritz will earn themselves a wild card if they win the Amlin, or Toulon will earn it for the 7th placed Frenchies).

As of right now, by our (possibly dubious) calculations, the 25 teams in contention are ranked thus (including points):

Leinster Rugby 38
Toulouse 29
Munster Rugby 23
Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque 22
Cardiff Blues 20
Northampton Saints 20
ASM Clermont Auvergne 18
Leicester Tigers 17
Stade Francais Paris 17
Ulster Rugby 17
Harlequins 15
Toulon 15
Ospreys 12
Edinburgh Rugby 12
Glasgow Warriors 9
Scarlets 9
Saracens 8
Sale Sharks 7
Connacht Rugby 6
Benetton Treviso 4
Castres Olympique 4
Racing Métro 92 4
Montpellier 3
Aironi Rugby 2
Exeter 0

Note there are 2 more points up for grabs for the winners of the HEC and 1 for the winners of the Amlin.

Biarritz are still fighting a relegation battle in France and cannot make the playoffs. If they get one win from their last 2 games, Montpellier (4th) away or Stade (7th) at home, they are safe, and, given its their only route back to the HEC, you’d also expect them to give the Amlin a go. Their form has improved, and their crushing of Brive in the semi-final (with the class of Yachvili to the fore) looked ominous.

At the top end, Stade Francais are 7th, but have Racing Metro(6th) followed by Biarritz (9th), both away. If they don’t win this weekend, they are reliant on Toulon winning the Amlin. Realistically they will need to win both to make the top 6 and qualify automatically.

Casting a glance forward to the possible seedings next year, here’s what to watch:

  • If Ulster win the HEC, they are automatically in the top tier, relegating Clermont and possibly Northampton (if Biarritz win the Amlin) to the second tier
  • The second tier will definitely contain Leicester, Stade (should they qualify), Harlequins and Toulon – none of those are a soft touch and are difficult away trips, particularly Toulon and Leicester
  • The third tier will definitely contain Embra, Glasgow, Saracens, Scarlets and Sale Sharks – Embra were semi-finalists this year, Sarries quarter-finalists and Sale will have Richie Gray and Danny Cipriani – those 3 are to be avoided
  • If Stade don’t make it, Connacht will be in the third tier – this means Toulouse or Clermont could get a pool with Connacht and one of the Italian teams or Exeter
  • Of the 3 lumbering French oafs in the bottom tier (assuming they all make it), Castres are the bunnies, Montpellier the fearsome boshers (Gorgodzilla ahoy!) and Racing Metro the entertainment merchants

For Irish provinces in the top tier, the nightmare draw looks something like Clermont/Saracens/Treviso (note Exeter > Treviso but you can’t have 2 English teams in a group), and the dream would be Quins/Glasgow/Castres. If Ulster are in tier 2, they will want Saints/Glasgow/Castres and fear Toulouse (or Clermont)/Saracens/Treviso. And if Connacht get into the 3rd tier, they will be licking their chops at Cardiff/Quins/Castres and cringing at the prospect of Toulouse/Leicester/Treviso.

Note we have included Aironi here – if the Italian federation decide to go with a Milan or Rome-based franchise, they are still bottom tier.

The Penney Drops *cringe*

So, it’s official. To our surprise, Axel hasn’t got the job, but will continue to earn his coaching spurs under Rob Penney for the next 2 years, at which point he will presumably get the big gig.

This makes Connacht the only Irish province that will not be coached by someone dismissed as an unheralded Kiwi next season – we can only hope Penney and Anscombe emulate Joe Schimdt’s considerable achievements at Leinster.

The first way to view Penney is as a sacrificial lamb who will get to soak up all the ire of the fans by continuing Ludd’s work of the last 18 months and retiring the Liginds one by one and then buggering off to let Axel take over once the newbies have been transitioned in. In the 2 years of his contract, Penney will be forced to retire Horan, Stakhanov, Leamy … and Radge. The first 3 should be easy, but O’Gara is unlikely to go quietly – apart from anything else, he is still head and shoulders above Ian Keatley or anyone else who is available for Munster.

However, we hope and suspect that his work at the Crusaders Academy may have been an important factor – the Munster academy is perceived as being behind Leinster and Ulster right now, and even Connacht have had more under-20 representatives in recent years. – some of the players who have come through from the Academy to the Super Rugby team in Penney’s time there are Owen Franks, the Whitelocks, Matt Todd, Kieran Read, Tyler Bleyendaal and Sean Maitland.

Or maybe it’s because he coached Peter Borlase in the 2009 Air NZ Cup (now ITM Cup) – if Munster can actually get the Kiwi Irishman on the pitch and playing it would save a hell of a lot of sweat once BJ gets kicked out.

Penney will be picking the rest of his coaching staff in the weeks to come. We note with interest that Brian Ashton is now a free man…..

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…

Gerry’s Verdict

Huge news – Gerry wears his sunglasses in the office!

Also, he spends a minute moaning about Barnes, another 2 minutes bigging up Clermont, and goes for Leinster anyway (shock horror). It will be an all-Irish final if our muse gets it right.

 

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.

HEC Semi-Final Preview: Clermont v Leinster

It’s semi-final weekend and these are nervous times in Cordite Towers.  In order to remove the overrunning emotion from the occasion, bible-thumping Ulsterman Egg Chaser is going to brush the chip off his shoulder and preview Clermont v Leinster, while cappuccino-slurping D4TRESS-regular Palla Ovale will look at the Ulster v Edinburgh Big Match Special.

Clermont v Leinster

History: Lots of recent history. In the 2010 quarter-final, Leinster triumphed 29-28 in a memorable game in which Brock James missed 5 kicks and 2 drops at goal – Clermont did everything but win, and their fans would go down as one of the best (and the most naked) sets of away fans to visit D4.

In the following season’s group stages, they beat each other at home – a heroic away performance by Leinster set the tone for a dominant tournament, and their denying of a losing bonus point to Clermont put them in the driving position in the pool. Back in the day (2003), Leinster did the double over Montferrand.

Form: Both teams are on the top of their game, and, with due respect to Uster and Embra, would be likely finalists if they avoided each other at this stage.

At domestic level, Clermont are joint top of the Top 14 with Toulouse, miles clear of Toulon in third. They have the best defensive record in France, and have won every game at home – in fact they are unbeaten in 42 games at home. In Europe, they came through top of a tough pool which looks even tougher in retrospect. Leicester, who have 6 bonus point victories on the trot in England, could only finish 3rd; and fellow semi-finalists Ulster were runners-up. In the quarter-final, Saracens were ground into the dirt in an intimidating statement – putting to bed suspicions from some of the underpants brigade (©Farrelly Productions) that they lacked the mental.

Leinster have been opening cans of whoop-ass all over the Pro12 this season, despite resting most of their big players for the tournament. They have already secured top seeding for the playoffs and the home advantage throughout that that entails, and are hot favourites to take it home. This year’s HEC campaign has been a bit of a stroll, especially in comparison to last year, winning all 3 home games by half time and grinding out 2 wins and a draw away without having to hit top gear. In the quarter-final, a divided Cardiff side were eviscerated. Leinster are undefeated in their last 13 HEC games, dating back to last year’s loss in … Clermont.

Gameplan: Joe Schmidt would, uinder normal circumstances, start with Leinster ‘away’ team for a game like this, with McLaughlin, O’Brien and Boss included from the start, and Jennings and Reddan coming in to inject pace on the hour mark. However, its hard to see how rope-a-dope will work – Clermont are no Bath or Glasgow – so Leinster’s best chance probably comes from getting some pace into the game – Reddan is likely to start on Sunday.

The away template tends to consist of territory and playing it tight, but, again, giving Clermont the ball is not a strategy thats likely to succeed. Leinster will look to put pace on the ball, playing to their strengths. Expect the Leinster flankers to try and put some heat on Morgan Parra – if the matinee idol genius is ratty, Clermont tend not to be at their best. With some-guy-called-Brian (© G. Thornley) back and Schmidt’s knowledge of Clermont’s players, expect rock solid defence. Shane Jennings and Heinke van der Merwe will be the first substitutes on to the pitch, and Leinster will look to take advantage of any gaps opening up.

Clermont have a plan of terrible beauty and it’s oh so simple. Firstly, deny Leinster clean possession at scrum and ruck time with their gargantuan pack. They will want to see Reddan taking the ball going backwards and the Leinster fowards having to put in a huge amount of work to protect ball. Secondly, when they do have the ball, expect the creative inside backs to shift ball quickly to onrushing huge powerful backs (Rougerie, Sivivatu, Malzieu) and force Leinster to make big tackles. It’s a fearsome side and one that just pounds mercilessly until they get their reward. Cotter will shift in some powerful beasts after 50 minutes – Vincent Debaty was sensational against Ulster, turning the tide when it looked like Clermont were in a spot of bother, and the bench will be of top quality.  Look out for our new favourite bright young thing, Jean-Marcel Buttin.

Prediction: This one will be epic. Quinny said in the IT today that semi-finals can be grinding affairs, but we think that more applies to finals – there have been some memorable games at this stage: Munster-Leinster (twice), Leinster-Toulouse, Munster-Wasps, Leicester-Cardiff. However, this one is not going to be a try-fest, both teams will be content to have the last man standing.

When facing a baying crowd of Auvergnats (yes, we know its in Bordeaux, but don’t expect it to be anything but intimidating), the first 20 minutes are crucial – Leinster came flying out of the traps last year with an early Shaggy try, and Ulster bent but did not break in January. If you get past that, you have a chance. A small chance.

Clermont’s stated mission is to win this year’s Heineken Cup – this season, they have come through four games tougher than Leinster have faced (Ulster H & A, Leicester A, Saracens A) due to the champions’ somewhat powder-puff draw. Leinster had their quarter-final wrapped up inside half an hour, and proceeded to practice defence for most of the second half.  It’s not the greatest habit to get into.  If Leinster are not immediately at the intensity of the second half of last years semi-final, they won’t win, despite more experience at this heady level. Away to a gnarled set of huge and driven opponents, and with a creaking lineout, we have Leinster slightly odds-against.

They’ll ask plenty of questions of Clermont, and when the going gets tough they’ll hang in through pure muscle memory but they might come up just short – we’re going for Clermont by less than a score.