Twelve by Four

There’s a bit of uncertainty over who exactly will be turning out in the 12 jumpers for the Irish provinces this weekend.  Ulster and Leinster’s coaches both in a pickle, but it’s a different kind of pickle.

Bad Pickle

First to Ulster, whose pickle eased yesterday evening when they revealed that Paddy Wallace should be fit to play.  Phew!  Poor Paddy is something of a punchbag for Irish rugby fans.  There are plenty who will always remember him as the chap who almost gave away the grand slam, or the fellow whose face got mashed into horrible gargoylian shapes earlier in that same tournament.  But here at Cordite Towers we recognise that he’s a superb creative 12 with one of the best passes in the country.  In an age of bosh-‘em-up crash-test-rugby, he’s a proper footballer, y’know, one with like actual skills and stuff.  I know, weird!  Unfashionable he may be, but he’s been Ireland’s form 12 this calendar year.

He’s also crucial to Ulster’s gameplan.  Ulster look to get the ball wide quickly, and use their 9-10-12 axis – smooth passers all – in midfield to work the ball swiftly across the pitch.  Craig Gilroy’s try  vs. Munster was a classic case in point.  Pienaar and iHumph absolutely fling the ball from right to left, getting it across the openside (created by Trimble boshing through O’Gara) in just two passes to take out the narrow defence.  Although Paddy wasn’t involved on this occasion (he was clearing out the ruck (!) after Trimble’s bosh) he is generally central to this sort of attacking ploy.  On Friday night, he threw one such peach of a pass into the onrushing Gilroy’s arms early in the game.  All while suffering a migraine and visual disturbances.

Rewind to Ulster’s 20-9 defeat to Leicester in Welford Road earlier this season.  Shortly afterwards, we were even moved to write this piece.  It might seem strange now, but at the time we were genuinely concerned about Ulster’s season petering out to nothing.  Paddy Wallace was injured back then (so was Pienaar, which wasn’t helping either) and Nevin Spence was playing at 12.  Rather than working the ball wide, Ulster were looking to truck it up the middle at every turn, and with little success.  Tries were hard to come by against good teams.  Not any more – they’re second top scorers in the Pro12, and have been prolific in the H-Cup too.  A fit P-Wal allows Ulster to play their natural wide game; without him they’re narrower and more predictable.  Leinster had plenty of joy getting Dave Kearney around his man on the wing against Edinburgh Friday before last, and while it would be foolhardy to read too much into an eight-try turkey shoot, this is a game made for Paddy’s ball skills to get Gilroy on the front foot.  Take those Hedex tablets, Padser.

Good Pickle

Joe Schmidt is in the sort of pickle you want as a coach – both his international 12s are fit and raring to go.  Who to choose?  I like Gordon D’arcy… but I like Fergus McFadden too… there’s only one way to find out… FIGHT!

Whoever gets the nod will be going up against Wesley Fofana of the winged feet – a little jewel of a player.  D’arcy has looked more like his old self since getting his mainstay back beside him, but he still doesn’t pack the punch of the old D’arcy.  His feet are still quick, and he’s good at tidying up sloppy ball, but the linebreak threat is lacking.

Yet again, Fergus McFadden put his hand up for selection in Ravers on Friday night.  Having made a splendid impact against Munster and smashed all sorts of holes in the Embra defensive line recently, this was another performance full of hard running and gainline successes.  He must surely be closer than ever to passing out D’arcy, and finally getting selected for a knockout game.  However, like Spence, he’s a bit of a bosher.  He’s not short of gas, but loves nothing more than getting the head down and ploughing through contact.  His passing could be described as rough-and-ready.  Is he dynamic enough for the type of game Leinster need to take to Clermont – lightning fast, sleight of both foot and hand?  We suspect the old guard in midfield won’t be broken up just yet.

Wallace, presuming he’s fit, and D’arcy to start, then.  The age of the bosher is getting closer, but it’s still hanging by the telephone.

Johne Murphy … Zhonnee Moorfee … Nul Points

It’s that time of the year again – awards time, when professionals get to tell each other how great they are, and everyone can feel good about themselves no matter how rubbish they are – even London Samoa get to have a player of the year.

Over in Blighty, Ooooooooohh Brad Barritt and Ooooooooohh Jordan Turner-Hall get to fight it out with Oooooooooohh Matt Banahan for Most Over-rated Bosher, in France Lionel Beauxis and David Skrela compete for Most Disappointing Ten, and over here in Ireland, rank parochialism means the usual provincial carve-up of the big prizes.

The process is that a committee at IRUPA pick 3 names and the players vote along provincial lines for their choice. This year’s nominees for the Big Boys Cup were Fez, Bob and Radge; and for the Toddlers Prize its O’Mahoney, Gilroy and Madigan. Tiernan O’Halloran would doubtless have got nominated were he not based in (Hell or) Connacht, but it would be hard to find fault with the nominees, with one caveat – ROG.

A bit like the nomination of Piri Weepu for IRB Player of the Year, the nomination of ROG seems to be based purely on column inches – the man’s preference for the dramatic has played in his favour. We’re not naive enough to think that the committee didn’t just select the best Munster player (in their eyes), but it’s a bit of a farce – O’Gara is still a fine, massively important player for Munster, but this hasn’t been a vintage year for him, late drop goals aside.

ROG had an ok World Cup – playing better than Sexton in the group stages, but having an utter shocker in the quarter-final. In the HEC, his impact was huge, but more due to dramatic fireworks than sustained excellence.  He spluttered rather than strutted at times in the group round, along with the rest of the team and conspicuously failed to fire against Ulster. He was a peripheral figure in the Six Nations, where he didn’t start any games and didn’t score a single point.  There were a few more deserving contenders within Munster:

  • Paul O’Connell. Superman wears Paul O’Connell pyjamas etc. Well, he probably does after this year. O’Connell seemed to be carrying Munster on his shoulders at times this season, and was comfortably their stand-out player in the HEC. At international level, he continues to astound – like the best locks these days (Bakkies, Shawsy, Nallet, Thorn), he appears to be peaking in his early 30s. Long may this last.
  • Keith Earls. Played like a drain in the World Cup warm-ups, then like silk in the group stages, before missing 5 of 8 tackles against the Welsh. Come 6N time, he grew into you-know-who (© G Thornley)’s shirt and has (finally) shown some real development as a player – his (and the Irish 13 jumper’s) future looks brighter than it did in August.
  • Donnacha Ryan. Displaced Stakhanov from the Munster HEC team, and has added some aggression and dog to the pack that the newbies behind him have yet to develop, excepting POM. Had a curious Six Nations, in which he was a contender for Ireland’s player of the tournament, yet failed to displaced Teacher’s Pet despite being laughably superior. It would be remiss, however, not to mention that it’s unlikely Big Jim, Johann Muller or James Horwill would be speared by their opposite numbers.

Still, at least ROG’s nomination gave David Kelly the chance to erroneously claim that it meant O’Gara’s peers rated him higher than Sexton, and it has given us a reason to rant. We can only assume the committee used the following criteria:

  • Impact at international level (5%)
  • Impact in Heineken Cup (25%)
  • Impact on fawning domestic media (25%)
  • Impact on YouTube viewing figures (45%)

By that logic, Tom Croft is the best player in the world. To balance the ledger, let us show you the reason ROG is on the list – note: we think its official to refer to this as epic…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFJ65Og3A2o

P.S. at the Sunday Times round table, one of the panellists said that referees were given a notification to clamp down on sealing off and players going in off their feet after that game – it’s not the first time Munster’s sealing tactics have resulted in a new diktat from on high.  You can’t but be impresssed by Munster’s ability to bend the game to their will, but while they may have won the Northampton battle, they lost the Ulster war partly thanks to Paddy O’Brien being distinctly unamused at Owens’ home-towning.

Upriver about 75 clicks past the Do Lung bridge

When you read the Sunday Times chummy round table debates, you can almost feel your skin crawl with cringe – Barnesy telling Guscott how much weight he has put on, Jones laughing about annoying the Irish, yawn who cares. Well, they are much more fun live. We were lucky enough to be drawn out of the Sunday Times competition hat for free tickets for the HEC edition on Tuesday night, and it was a great lark.

Here’s our intel report:

One and a half hours of fun, and one imagines the transcript in Sunday’s paper won’t contain some of Barnesy’s more enjoyable rants, and there was more free Heineken than Dave Pearson could shake his white stick at – what’s not to like?

The first thing we noted was the audience demographic – white, professional and well-fed. Stop press, eh? Then we settled down to the debate, which was thoroughly enjoyed. Let’s rates the participants to within an inch of their lives.

Miles Harrison (compere) 3/5 – Miles has the voice that you recognise, but certainly not the face – he’s like a cross between George Bush senior and Rodrigo Roncero – but he knows his stuff. In a nation used to the likes of McGurk, it was great to see a debate where the host listened to the experts, and even let them finish what they were saying! Sounds easy, but there are many that can’t do it. Miles let the debate flow perfectly, and all that was missing was the half-octave higher that he goes when Manu Tuilagi gets the ball. Points were lost for a tad too much overt mateyness and in-jokes with Barnesy.

Peter O’Reilly (Sunday Times) 4/5 – O’Reilly is a comparitive rarity in Irish rugby journalism in that he himself isn’t the story. The quiet intelligence you can see in his pieces are certainly reflected in his prose and person – thoughtful, erudite and knowledgeable. He often tempered the stronger opinions of the other panelists and brought a more analytical perspective when occasionally others resorted to something approaching bombast. Plus he is a former Irish international … in cricket. Our money is on him being a upper middle-order batsmen who knows how to tame bowlers and can bat time – think Mike Hussey.

Tyrone Howe (Token Ulsterman) 3/5 – Tyrone was most definitely the grey man on the panel, but, as befits a former public representative, he’s a good speaker, and didn’t seem too  pissed off about getting the least airtime from Miles. A hint of inner steel/Ulster bitterness came as he excorciated Deccie for continually picking one player who couldn’t even get a game for his province while ignoring eminently better qualified candidates. We’ll let you guess who he was referring to…

Stuart Barnes (Oooooooooohh) 6/5 – Barnesy’s performance wasn’t just the highlight of the night, but quite possibly the highlight of life itself. When the man took to the podium swilling a glass of Bordeaux, you just knew it was going to be one of the Guinness books, and he didn’t let anyone down. Truly the life and soul of the debate, Barnesy was opinionated, intelligent and thoughtful without ever straying into “Pick Harrison Brewer!!” foaming-at-the-mouth territory. His thoughts on English rugby were fascinating, and he intruiged the audience with his non-Irish perspective on why Embra and Clermont could spoil the party – indeed, Egg has started stitching together a voodoo doll of Wee Greig on the back of it.

Shane Byrne (Leinster through and through) 3/5 – Munch was very much looked forward to by us, but he only shone in patches. Took a while to settle and seemed content to be the butt of Miles’ jokes for the first 30 minutes. He redeemed himself with some superbly insightful commentary on the front row, and how the usual Hook-esque quick fixes just won’t work. He dovetailed well with Howe when they considered the relative merits of province and country – you could feel the comfort zone being left behind as they spoke.

Audience (well-heeled) 1/5 –  After an hour, Miles turned the mike over to the hoi polloi, and they showed exactly why they were the ones who aren’t on the tellybox. The first question was a moan from a Munster fan about Poite (in the context of the semi-final refereeing appointments) – Barnesy jumped straight down his throat, refusing to countenance any of it, and putting him back in his box with the force of a Stephen Ferris tackle. Then the rest of the questioning turned into a Leinster love-in, ranging from the Pulitzer-bothering “Johnny Sexton is class, isn’t he lads?” and “Brock James will definitely choke, right Barnesy?” to the slightly more interesting “Joe Schmidt has to be Lions coach, doesn’t he?” and, more enjoyably, “Why can’t Deccie do what Joe does?”.

When it came to calling the semis, we do not wish to scoop the ST, especially O’Reilly, who has been good to us, but let’s say both of us left with a sickening feeling that there was trouble around the corner.

To wrap it up, and again keeping what goes on tour on tour, let us just say that the highlight of the night was when somebody said:

You’re sitting there watching Sale Sharks against Worcester and its 6-9 and you’re just thinking ‘Why are you so shit?’

We’ll leave it with you to guess who.

The Changing of the Guard

In the decade from 2001 to 2010, the Heineken Cup was dominated by four teams – Leicester, Munster, Toulouse and Wasps. The quartet between them won 9 of the 10 tournaments and were runners-up a further 5 times (with a nod to Biarritz and Stade, who never actually crossed the line). It was a truism that until you battled past these big guns in a knock-out situation, you had yet to prove yourself. Sale Sharks, Gloucester and Leinster were among those to feel the white rage from Munster after being talked up in advance.

This era is now firmly over. The Big Four contained players of a similar vintage – those who started out at the fag end of the amateur era and were the first generation of professionals – and all four have essentially fallen away at the same time.

Wasps won the tournament as recently as 2007 with an exciting and star-studded lineup and a progressive and driven management team, but when the Worcester Warriors handed them a donut last year, Wasps had none of that 2007 starting lineup in the team, and the coaches were preparing to lead Wales to a second Grand Slam under their tutelage. Wasps are currently struggling to preserve their Premiership status for next season, and are a salutory lesson in how quickly a team can lose its direction.  Look through their current  team sheet, and if you’re familiar with more than five names, let us know and we’ll post you out a Barnesy-endorsed Premiership Anorak award.  Their demise has been the steepest.

Back when English rugby produced players that were feared

The team they beat when they last won the Cup, domestic rivals Leicester, were runners-up three years ago, and gave Leinster a really tough test last year. This season, however, they limped home from the type of pool they used to relish with a whimper, and a 40 point beating in Ravenhill. The Tiger team that night contained just three of the XV from the ’07 final – Marcos Ayerza, Geordan Murphy and Oooooooooooooooohh Alesana Tuilagi – and it’s fair to say the latter pair won’t be getting better any time soon. The current Tiger setup has lost its way somewhat, and a bloated squad which is low in quality has failed even to maintain its pre-emptive status in a Premership shorn of its international reputation (even Barnesy is struggling to hype it up these days).

Munster built their Heineken Cup dynasty on a grizzled pack and Rog. Of the forwards that played in the Miracle Match (you know the one – Farrelly’s first game of rugby), 6 played again in the 2009 semi-final. And of those 6, only Donncha played on Sunday (O’Connell was injured in 2003) – a significant change, and one most notable by the difference in their backrow play. Munster were semi-finalists in 2010, but Generation Ligind is now disappearing over the sunset with all their experience and nous – they will do well to match that achievement in the next few years. Paulie captures the frustration within the team that they just can’t do what they used to:

We had the territory to do it, but just one try is disappointing. We need to make better decisions. You just can’t beat yourself. I’m not taking anything away from Ulster, but we just need to be that little bit more clever. It’s what we did in the past.”

Poor Tomas - he just can't catch a break, can he?

In that same 2003 tournament, Toulouse beat Perpignan to win their second title. The spine of the team contained such luminaries as Poitrenaud, Jauzion, Clerc, Bouhilou, Pelous, Poux, Servat – all currently or recently first-choice at Le Stadium. There is a tremendous amount of miles on those clocks, with 5 Heineken Cup finals and 4 Top 14 finals in 2 notoriously attritional compeitions, not to mention 1 RWC final and 2 semi-finals for a lot of those names. The hunger, desire, and will just isn’t there any more, and the fact that most of the names above still start will tell you all you need to know about the next generation, in spite of abundant promise. No doubt the squad is still packed with quality, but they only sparkle in patches. When they lost to Edinburgh it wasn’t really a seismic shock, more of a mild surprise, given Toulouse’ performances this season – changed times.

Toulouse and Munster will probably hold on to their top seeding in the HEC for a while (it’s based on four previous year’s results), so it would be a surprise if they disappeared as Wasps did, but they are firmly exiting stage left when it comes to winning the thing.

If Generation X is heading for the glue factory, who will be Generation Y?

Last year’s final was the first since 1999 not to have any of the former Big Four in it, and it had a fresh feel to it. Leinster’s stirring second half comeback after Northampton’s tactical coup early on was great to watch, and made the Irish province first and strongest of our contendors for the NKOTB. The 2011 trophy gave Leinster their second title, having broken the establishment hold on the HEC in 2009 (beating 3 of them along the way), and the bookies have them as favourites for a third this year. The age profile of the squad is generally positive, albeit with a few (key) caveats, at second row and at 13 mainly. If Joe Schmidt sticks around and the squad don’t become sated, Leinster could be at the top level throughout this decade.

Bosh!!

Their opponents in this year’s semi-finals are Clermont Auvergne. This is a team that has been knocking at the door of European greatness for a while, and which has a great domestic underage record – look out for Jean Marcel Buttin, the next superstar of French back play. Clermont have run the gauntlet of painful defeats (mostly to Irish provinces) and have made progress incrementally, crucially appearing to learn the lessons of what is needed to get across the line in this competition. With a frightening pack, the little genius Morgan Parra and a cabal of threatening backs, it’s a pretty intimidating side. If this isn’t the year (and it is perfectly set up for them), it will come soon – the best youth structure in France, huge institutional drive, and a fat chequebook will help. Their time will most definitely come. 

After era-defining wins over two of the former big four this season, Ulster look to have arrived somewhere close to the top table. The influence of their imports has been highlighted, not least by Farrelly, but they have a core of hardened Irish mid-20-something leaders (Best, Tuohy, Henry, Ferris, Cave, Trimble, Bowe) who can guide their golden (Irish) youngsters (McAlister, Marshalls L&P, Spence, Jackson, Stevenson, Henderson, Annett) towards the goal of maintaining their new-found status. It’s a pity there is a rather large elephant on the horizon, in the form of a new coaching ticket. Still, we gotta trust Humph and hope he takes Ludd’s Year 1 approach and keeps interference to a minimum. We suspect McLaughlin’s influence is not as large as it should be anyway, and that Ulster are self-coached to a degree, so we can only hope the change doesn’t derail them.

This time six months ago, we would have bracketed Northampton Saints as a team with the hardness to step on and stay at the apex of European rugby. However, this season has been a disaster – the European campaign collapsed following Munster’s 41 phases and the Scarlets ambush in Franklins Gardens. Add in the break-up of the team of 2011 (Wilson, Downey, Ashton all leaving), injuries to key players (Lawes), suspensions (Hartley, Clark), the Mallinder-for-England campaign and selection indecision (Myler/Lamb), and its pretty clear the Saints have lost their way. It will be interesting to see how they recover (they hauled themselves from Championship ignominy to the cusp of HEC glory in no time), but for now they are back in the chasing pack.

Saracens are another team who have looked on the verge of something until recently. They toughed out a bruising pool, and looked set for a long run after drawing a home quarter-final against a team that is flaky on the road. It didn’t happen however, and the Premiership’s tough guys were ground into the dust by Clermont. Again, they won’t go away, but until they win a game against one of the new biggies, they aren’t there yet.  Whinging about the salary cap doesn’t show a big club mentality, though, and Niegel Wray’s words from over a decade ago are still relevant: there is no place called Saracens.

Outside those, Toulon have the bank manager and the megalomaniac owner to build on last years quarter-final. Their evisceration of Munster in last years pool stages was the type of statement that reverberated across Europe (not least in Tara Street where it still feeds Gerry’s anti-Pearson rants), but they failed to qualify for this year’s event after a late collapse in the Top 14. If they make it this time around (they should), expect them to be by far the biggest Great White in the fourth seeds ocean – one to avoid, and one Irish teams are less likely to avoid than most due to the vagaries of the draw (Munster and Leinster drew French teams from that pot this year).

The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted the lack of Welsh and Scottish (and Italian) names in that selection above. Better to be a has-been than a never-were, and the lamentable Welsh regions must be categorised as just that.  Their ongoing under-achievement is beginning to bubble to the surface in the Principality, as the players all head off to brighter shores. As for the rest, let’s hope Embra’ superb achievement this year is the start something across Hadrian’s Wall, but when you only attract 3,000 or so to most league games, you aren’t going to compete consistently.

Palla Ovale says: Munster will win

“Should we trust him, your Neutralness?”

“All I know is my gut says maybe.”

Sunday will be a fanstastic day to be a neutral, and as a Leinster fan, this scribe finds himself in exactly that position.  Hopefully by Sunday lunchtime Leinster’s passage will have been secured and I’ll be watching in relaxed pose from my chaise longue as my manservant peels me grapes and drops them into my mouth.  After yet another low-try dogfight between Leinster and Munster, there’s a feeling that the familiarity between those two great rivals is becoming overbearing on the matches themselves: neither of this season’s bouts were particularly brilliant.  In contrast, there’s a real freshness to this game.  It’s a bit of an indictment of the Pro12, but these two rivals don’t play each other properly very often.  When they meet, it’s typically with shadow teams and predictable outcomes.  It lends a sense of the unknown to the occasion – after all Munster v Ulster should be every bit as intense a rivalry as Munster v Leinster – here’s its chance to stake a claim.  Bring it on I say, and fetch me my mint julip post haste, manservant!

Egg Chaser has bullishly presented his case for the team on the upward curve, but I’m just not feeling it.  Here’s why I reckon Munster will win:

The Injury-ometer

Not unlike Peter Snow’s swing-ometer, this thing has taken a massive turn on its axis in the last week.  Not long ago things were looking grim down south with a raft of injuries to key men.  Munster without Paul O’Connell (not to mention Wally, Ryan and Murray) are a significantly diminished beast, but he appears set to start, as are Murray and Ryan.  Wally could make an appearance from the bench.  Meanwhile, up North, the Protestant equivalent of rosary beads are out for their all-important flanker Stephen Ferris.  We have a sneaky feeling he might just play through the pain barrier, but will he be able to make the shuddering hits and inspiring carries his team needs?  Without him, it’s almost impossible to see Ulster winning.

Away Day Blues

Ulster were rightly acclaimed for their bullish performance in securing a losing bonus point in Clermont, but the result was still another L in the away game column.  Ulster are dynamite in Ravenhill, but have precisely two significant away wins in recent (and not so recent) history, and both were against fairly average Oooooooooohh Bath outfits.  They have yet to show that when it comes down to the sharp end of tough away games, they have the belief, experience and discipline to win.  The away game at Leicester was a missed opportunity, and they could have beaten Clermont, but didn’t seem to have the ice-veins.  Contrast with Munster who, even when second best, have the ability to come up with winning scores late in the day (sometimes after as many as 41,000 phases).

Shades of 2006?

The hypnosis treatment to wipe the memory of Black Sunday didn’t entirely work, and this game reminds me a little of the build-up to that match.  Munster were then the better side, but in the lead-up were slightly sniffily treated as the media raved over a more glamorous Leinster team who had just achieved an incredible and unlikely,  if uncontrolled, win over Toulouse.  They were crushed by a Munster team who had more pedigree and experience when it mattered.  This Munster vintage isn’t of the same calibre, but they will be mentally in the right place on the day.  Ulster appear to be incredibly hungry for this game, but can they control their passion?  Leinster whipped themselves into a frenzy on Black Sunday, but emerged from the tunnel oddly flat.  This is the biggest game yet for this Ulster team – they have to show they can manage the occasion.  It could be one of those days when Munster put the squeeze on and Ulster never get going.

Nobody – nobody! – beats Munster six times in a row

Peddling the Munster will win because they’ll win argument wouldn’t be our style, and as Egg rightly argued, Munster won’t win simply because they’re Munster.  But in many ways the Leinster result was the perfect preparation.  If it was the same personnel running out again, I wouldn’t be confident, but it’s primed for Paulie and ROG to give the troops a right kick up the you-know-what and take the situation by the scruff of the neck.  Axel Foley will have had the cattle prod out in training this week, and a wounded Munster side is a dangerous beast.  Ulster will have felt good about their six-try smashing of travel-sick Aironi, but will they be able to bring the intensity up to Munster-in-Thomond level?

Roman Poite and the scrum

Eh? After last week?  Well, yes.  It looks close to call on paper, but I have Botha and du Preez marginally ahead of Afoa and Court.  Poite generally allows the front rows to go at it any which way and gets the straight arm up for whoever’s marching forward, and I’ve a suspicion Botha may be the canniest scrummager on the pitch.  Afoa is no slouch in the scrum, but Court looks to be the weakest link here.  This could just swing a tight match the home team’s way.

This neutral just can’t wait for sunday lunchtime.  If I don’t survive, tell Ms Ovale, “Hello.”

Egg Chaser says: Ulster will win

This house is divided in advance of Sunday’s big game at Mass time in Limerick – half of us is convinced an epoch-ending/starting win for Ulster is in prospect, the other can’t see Munster losing at home in a HEC knockout game. Well, like Irish politics, we are slightly exaggerating our differences – both of us think it will be very tight, and whoever steps up their performance will win, but we will feign outrage and present both sides of the argument.

There is a real, to coin a phrase, whiff of cordite about this game – these are two sides who don’t like one another, and who see themselves as better than their opponents – don’t expect any quarter to be given by either team.

Here’s why, as a proud Ulsterman, I’m looking to Sunday with quiet confidence:

Bitter Northerners – For this years Six Nations, Ulster players were overlooked by Deccie in favour of their drain-playing Munster counterparts. Stakhanov and Tomas O’Leary were picked largely on loyalty, and Paul Marshall and Dan Tuohy will be itching to show them (and the selectors) what they can do. There are several other Ulster players who feel they haven’t got a fair crack of the whip as well – Chris Henry has been playing O’Brien-lite stuff at 7 all season, but was leap-frogged by Peter O’Mahony on the basis of one HEC game there; Paddy Wallace has been the best Irish 12 on show this season, but got nary a chance; and Tom Court will be bitter that the Twickers debacle is being attributed to him – he is back in his strongest position, and should be able to show BJ, with whom he is intimately familiar, that he can do it at this level. Ulster have been building for months to this game, and have had a peak for this weekend mapped since February, while Munster have had the distraction of 6N and then Leinster. This is Ulster’s moment.

Glory Days

The Toulon Effect – The Ulster conviction is based on evidence, the Munster on faith – they can’t lose in Thomond, they will step it up, they do have the pishun. Both of us are long enough in the tooth to know that when you hear “this time it’s different” you should be suspicious. Egg calls it the Toulon Effect – last season, all available evidence pointed to Munster being thumped in Toulon, yet the perceived wisdom was they would win, because … well, they just would. Yet we know what happened. For Munster to win, they will need a performance in excess of what they have produced this past two seasons (including the faintly mad game in Franklin’s Gardens) – that is something that is based on conviction. For Ulster to win, the type of performance they produced in the Marcel Michelin (a far more intimidating venue than Thomond) will suffice – Ulster know the level they need to reach, and have been there recently.

Mean Grizzled Pack – Comparing the two packs, the Ulster one looks the stronger scrummaging unit, has much better ball carriers, and has a grizzled look, albeit (and this is a huge albeit) much less grizzled without Fez. John Afoa has been a revelation since he arrived, with destructive scrummaging and dynamic loose play, and Ulster look a far more potent prospect than they were with BJ. Both hookers struggle with their darts and are useful in the loose, but Best is at a higher level than Varley (or Sherry?). The difference in carrying between Afoa/Tuohy/Henry/Wannenbosh and Botha/Stakhanov/Ryan/Coughlan is stark – less stark than when including Fez in that equation admittedly, but Ulster are more likely to be able to get a multi-phase continuous game going.

Centre Stage – Outside and in space, the Munster strike runners – Earls, Jones, Zebo vs Trimble, Gilroy, Terblanche – are probably better, but Ulster are far more capable at getting their outside backs on the ball. Radge is standing too deep to fire his backs, and the way Mafi is playing at the moment, you can’t blame Rog from not giving him the ball. In contrast, Ulster have two halves who can get the ball out quickly, and, more importantly, the best centre partnership in Ireland. Darren Cave (who kept Earls on the wing at underage level) has been a revelation this season, and Paddy Wallace is an ideal foil for a man whose running lines have been picking out minute gaps and breaking defensive lines all season. The Munster backs could be frustrated spectators while the Ulster ones might get some familiarity with the pill, and they they have the tools to do damage if that is the case.

Panic on the Streets of Tara Street– Our muse, Gerry, has spent the last 15 months being hysterical about referees in general and Blind Dave and Poite in particular (especially Pearson’s performance in Toulon). Gerry might be obsessive and delusional at times, but he is right about Blind Dave. But he’s wrong about Poite, who is a much better referee than he was 5 years ago. Gerry’s #1 issue is that he occasionally penalises the Munster forwards. If Nigel Owens is Munster’s favourite referee (witness the extraordinarily permissive 41 phases in November), Romain Poite is their least favourite – he has binned Paul O’Connell for lip (in Thomond Park!! On Munster’s 5 metre line!!!) and generally favours strong scrums and takes a dim view of breakdown chicanery – neither of which will work in Munster’s favour. You knew in the Northampton game that Owens would have given a penalty if he had the chance, but if Munster are in the same situation on Sunday, it’s far more likely Poite will penalise them for sealing off. His appointment is bad news for Munster, and good for Ulster.

Ill-informed Dimwits – Up to this point in Ulster’s revival, the Southern press have treated them a little bit like a growing kid brother – encouraging commentary and pats on the head all round. Now, however, Ulster are a serious threat to the established order, and the coverage is a little more serious. This morning, our friend from Dolphin, Mr Farrelly, veared towards the insulting with a ridiculous pop at Ulster – it’s not just bad for Munster if Ulster win, but it’s bad for Ireland. Farrelly has written some dumb dross down the years, but this takes the biscuit. Even though the only Irish-qualified prop on the pitch will be wearing white, and even though the only reason the up-and-coming Ulster players have not made the breakthrough at international level is Deccie picking his mates, Munster are on a mission to save Irish rugby by beating Ulster! Well, thanks Hugh, you have given Ulster an extra reason to win – to shove your idiotic words back down your throat.