Season in Review: Leinster

What a pity.  Two scores in front with nine minutes to go with a historic double knocking on the door.  But even then you never felt Leinster were in control.  With Poite on their back at scrum time, a couple of costly errors gave the all important territory to Ospreys: Sexton’s booming spiral kick bouncing just into touch and the crossing incident when Leinster were attacking the Ospreys 22.

Such is life, as the French say.  Once again, the double has proved elusive. Leinster will be aggrieved at Poite’s refereeing of the scrums and the offside line, but in truth they never really controlled the game – and it wasn’t Poite’s refereeing that caused them to miss so many tackles.  Ospreys’ quick feet and offloading game got them through plenty of gaps.  It all served to underlie just how difficult it is to win back to back titles. Leinster restrained their post-final celebrations, and clearly wanted this trophy, but, down to the reserve front row for most of the match and missing Sean O’Brien, it was not to be.  Maybe they used up their good luck chips with that Fofana ball (mis)placement.

The sad thing is that the players will wake up this morning feeling gutted when they have so much to shout about over an extraordinary season.  They lost just four games all season, and took their game to new heights.  At times – the first halves against Cardiff and Bath, the second against Clermont, and the final against Ulster stand out – their passing and ingenuity in attack were unplayable.

What’s more, they scorched the earth in a season when their two marquee forwards had difficult seasons.  Sean O’Brien endured something of a ‘second season syndrome’, (though he found his form for the knockout stages of the Heiny) and Heaslip had a quiet campaign confined mainly to dirty work at the coalface.  In addition, BOD was out for all but the final few weeks.

Huge credit must go to the footsoldiers who stepped up.  Kevin McLoughlin had a terrific campaign and deserves his call-up for the summer tour.  Shane Jennings had another solid season, McFadden stepped up another notch and place-kicked exceptionally well for much of the campaign.  Devin Toner – previously a bête noir of ours – improved out of sight.  There were plenty of starlets on view too, with Ian Madigan, whose sweet pass and probing runs have been thrilling to watch.

We’re going to single three individuals out for special praise, contrary as it may be to the notion of the ultimate team game.  Joe Schmidt, the coach extraordinaire for his high standards, now infamous video meetings and empowering the team to play the way they do.  It’s particularly impressive how the ‘midweek’ team is able to fit in seamlessly and play in the same ‘Leinster way’, albeit against lesser opponents.  His recruitment of Brad Thorn to shore up the second row showed the sort of ambition and shrewd thinking that sets him apart.  Secondly, Johnny Sexton, whose form this season has been unmatched in Europe.  His pass is sublime, he can boom the ball 60m down the pitch and his place kicking nudged close to 90%.  He’s Leinster’s Cranky General.  Finally, Rob Kearney.  The forgotten man last season, his feats under the high ball defy belief, but his determination to run the ball back and his improved passing game were just as impressive.

It’s hard to see Leinster falling off a cliff next season, and they should be competitive again.  Three in a row?  They’ll certainly be favourites, but every team will be gunning for them.  Succession is being managed well, and the eventual replacements for Generation Totes Ledge (Dorce, Drico etc.) have already amassed plenty of experience.  This year they evolved from an offloading team to more of a passing team, and chances are they’ll have to look for more innovations next year while the chasing pack analyse how to trouble them.  Ospreys certainly seem to have found a means of containing them, perhaps there’s a model to be followed there.  Of course, as Munster know all too well, bad luck with injuries can slash a season to pieces, and for all Leinster’s depth they’d be vulnerable if they lost Sexton, Ross or O’Brien to name but three.

The main issue is the second row, and it has been looming since Nathan Hines left.  Brad Thorn bids farewell, and leaves a huge hole to fill.  Leo Cullen was withdrawn from both finals before the 60 minute mark – can he deliver another season as a first pick?  It seems unlikely.  Devin Toner’s performance yesterday was hugely encouraging and he should force himself into the role of regular starter in the big games next year, on the loosehead side of the scrum.  A tighthead lock appears to be on the shopping list (suggestions welcome).  We will watch new arrival Tom Denton (signed from Leeds Carnegie, and seemingly with a good reputation) and academy graduate Mark Flanagan’s progress with interest.

Leinster won’t always be this good, so best enjoy the moment and try not to dwell too much on the one that got away.

Season to remember: Kevin McLoughlin.  Abrasive blindside and terrific lineout forward.  Doesn’t catch the eye but something of a workaholic and textbook tackler. 

Season to forget: we had high hopes for Fionn Carr’s return to the provine, but broken field line breaks could be counted on one hand.

Best match: Clermont 15-19 Leinster.  A titanic battle between the two best teams inEuropethat came right down to the wire.

Best performance: Leinster 42-14 Ulster.  Sucked up everything Ulster could throw at them and racked up the tries with cold ruthlessness.

Worst performance: Ospreys 27-3 Leinster.  Take your pick from three defeats to the Ospreys; this mauling was pretty nasty.

Thanks for the memories: Big Bad Brad may only have played a handful of games, but his contribution was massive.  From listening to the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, so great is his charisma that meeting the man is like that brilliant passage in The Great Gatsby where Nick Carraway describes the titular Gatsby’s smile.

See you next season: Dom Ryan’s campaign was obliterated by injury.  We have high hopes for him.  Lets hope he can make the long awaited breakthrough next year.

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.

Heineken Cup Final: The View from the (Following) Afternoon

The house divided in the latter half of last week, and remains so until today. Tomorrow we’ll be back to our united front, but for one last time, each half of Team Cordite will look at the final from a partisan perspective.  Here are Palla’s thoughts from Twickenham.

As Sean Cronin raced to touch down under the posts and the clock ticked into the red zone, this blue-clad Leinster fan’s first thought was that the all the talk of the strength of the respective benches had panned out.  In fact, as is the case less often than you might think, the fairly straightforward pre-match expectations largely came to pass.   Maybe the margin of victory was glossed a bit, but plenty of the pundits’ boxes got ticked: Ulster forwards serving up a good fifty-ish percent of possession – check.  Leinster backline having more invention with their share of the ball – check.  Leinster bench able to take the game away from the opposition – check.  Gulf in class between the opposing 10s – check.

The one thing that didn’t come to pass was Ulster’s put-on-the-squeeze gameplan.  In fact they played quite a bit of rugby, looking to work the ball to their dangerous wide runners quickly with long cut out passes – as we thought they’d do against Embra, but never really managed.  They played pretty well at times and contributed much more to the game than the scoreline suggests.  Paddy Wallace had an outstanding match from where I was sitting, and Cave and Gilroy threatened.  They just weren’t quite sharp enough – Trimble’s season has tapered a bit and Ulster needed him at his most dynamic, and they played a passing game but left their best passer on the bench.  On Friday’s head-to-head I’d said I thought Ulster might benefit from having iHumph in the team to bring a bit of flair.  Turns out they asked too much of young Jackson and in iHumph’s 20-minute cameo he showed what they’ll be missing next year.  He was a risk that had to be taken to give Ulster any chance.

But this was Leinster’s day.  Two in a row, three from four, on for the double – this is a team that is writing the history books right now.  Future generations will ask if you were actually around when BOD, Sexton, O’Brien and Kearney were all in the same team together, and really, were they as good as everyone says they are?  So start practicing those stories about how Kearney would leap 50m into the air to pluck high balls out of the sky, or how O’Brien would hand-off seven bullocks at a time in his Tullow fields.  Folk will want to hear them.

There were a few dropped balls, the odd sliced clearance, and at around the 60 minute mark, I had the feeling Leinster were making hard work for themselves.  Then they brought on the bench.  Every reserve seemed to have an impact.  Jennings’ arrival and the speedier ruck ball were hardly coincidental.  Toner made one great carry and followed up with the softest of hands moments later. van der Merwe looked seriously up for it and Sean Cronin was hugely effective as a carrier – he has been great off the bench all season.   Leinster won the last 18 minutes 18-0. It served to underly the remarkable depth of Leinster’s squad.  van der Merwe, for example, is rarely talked about by anyone but has been a totem for Leinster over two seasons.  Healy knows he can waste himself in 60 minutes and Leinster can bring on a teak-tough, technically excellent replacement to see out the match.  Ireland, to name but one team, don’t have the same luxury.

Leo Cullen’s choice of Shane Jennings to lift the cup was a lovely moment, and was testimony to Jennings standing in the squad, even if he no longer starts regularly. It held up a mirror to the image of a photo of the pair doing exactly the same thing after Leicester’s Premiership win in 2007.  It served as a reminder of how far Leinster have come in that time, and that success has come the hard way to many of this group.  Cullen and Jennings went to Leicester because Leinster was a poorly-run shambles, and in 2007, when Jenno and Leo were scooping up silverware,  Leinster were beaten by Wasps in a one-sided quarter-final and blew a huge lead to gift the Magners League to Ospreys.  Truly, the recent past can be a foreign country sometimes.

For Leinster it’s a triumph of skill, great players and great coaching.  The ease with which they can integrate different players into the team without diluting their style is remarkable – they play the Leinster way whether it’s the Heineken Cup final or home to Aironi on the thursday before a Six Nations match.  Take a bow, Joe Schmidt.  Nobody doubts that the likes of BOD, Sean O’Brien and Sexton have the talent and the temperament to dominate these sorts of occasions.  But when the regal Sexton comes off with eight minutes to go and his uncapped replacement (Madigan) attacks the gain line and passes to those outside him with such skill as to appear to the manor born, the only conclusion can be that we are in the presence of greatness.

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.

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.

Contract-shaped Confetti

There were a few new contracts announced at Leinster yesterday – 20 to be precise. The headline one was the IRFU stumping up for another 2 years for Dorce. While not in the Leamy-esque generosity category, after the Six Nations it was hard to imagine that D’Arcy will be in the national team for the 2014 Six Nations.

Still, the old warrior has upped his game since getting back to Leinster, and his tackle on Wesley Fofana on Sunday was essentially the winning of the game. But can you really see him in front of Fergus McFadden in 2 years? And what about Nevin Spence? ‘kind of like the Stakhanov thanks-for-the-memories contract from Deccie.

More important for Leinster’s long-term squad building was the 3 years given to Kevin McLaughlin. It wasn’t that long ago that Locky was intern-ing in Evil Bank with one of Egg’s mates for a summer with a view to leaving professional rugger behind. Since then, he’s had 3 great seasons with Leinster, made a few appearances for Ireland, become one of Europe’s premier defensive lineout operators at HEC level, and positioned himself as future Leinster captain (albeit potentially only at Rabo level) and one of the squad supremos. Its a well-warranted extension, and Locky is on course to become whatever a ligind is called in a D4 accent.

Staying in the back-row, Rhys Ruddock and Leo Avua’a get another 2 years each. Leinster are building serious depth in that line – besides the 3 mentioned here they have Heaslip, O’Brien, Dom Ryan and Shane Jennings – they certainly wouldn’t need to turn to Willie Falloon in the event of one injury. You’d have to suspect Munster offered Ruddock quite a few quid and possibly a 2000 jersey autographed by Gaillimh to make the switch, so its a bit of a coup for Leinster have managed to tie him down – he’d be a good fit in Thomond and isn’t threatening the Leinster HEC team right now.

In backs-news, Ian Madigan got a well-deserved 2-year extension after a stunning season culminating in an IRUPA Baby of the Year Award, in spite of being told by Hook, McGurk et al to just “go to Munster” for some first-team action. Team scrum-half have another 2 years each.

Further back again, Conway and Little Bob got 2 years each, which makes it a little surprising Fionn Carr has got another year as well – you’d have to think its last chance saloon for the blond bomber at the RDS. Isa Nacewa also got an extension of a year.

In other NIE-news, the IRFU have laid down the law folded like a cheap suit – Heinke van der Merwe has got 1 more year. We think that when the new rules come into force, both Wian du Preez and VDM will be going to the same loose-head slot. Expect Farrelly to publish some puff-pieces about du Preez being so settled in Limerick he’s pretty much Willie O’Dea in about 11 months time.

Newly minted Irishmen have arrived in the shape of Michael Bent (prop, Kiwi) and Tom Denton (lock, English) from Wellington and Leeds respectively.

The full list:

  • Leo Auva’a – 2 years
  • Isaac Boss – 2 years
  • Fionn Carr – 1 year
  • Andrew Conway – 2 years
  • John Cooney – 1 year
  • Leo Cullen – 1 year
  • Gordon D’Arcy – 2 years
  • Aaron Dundon – 2 years
  • Mark Flanagan – 1 year (Development)
  • David Kearney – 2 years
  • Brendan Macken – 1 year
  • Ian Madigan – 2 years
  • Kevin McLaughlin – 3 years
  • Isa Nacewa – 1 year extension
  • Eoin Reddan – 2 years
  • Rhys Ruddock – 2 years
  • Thomas Sexton – 1 year (Development)
  • Heinke van der Merwe – 1 year
  • Michael Bent – 2 years
  • Tom Denton – 2 years

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.

 

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.