Season in Review: Munster

Well, it certainly ended badly.  Post-Six Nations, Munster had three big games: home to Leinster in the Pro12, the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Ulster and the Pro12 semi-final.  They flunked out of all three, and the final game of the season was pretty undignified; a rare whupping, 45-10 at the hands of an Ospreys team with little in the way of household names. While surprisingly long on talent, it was still the guts of the team that struggled past Aironi the week previously – albeit without Justin Tipuric.

It brought the curtain down on a difficult, transitional season.  It’s not the disaster of 2011’s Heineken Cup group exit, but it’s a year that everyone will probably be happy is at an end.  Munster’s passing of the torch to the next generation has been a somewhat piecemeal and fumbled affair without an overarching direction in mind.  You get the feeling they have not yet committed to a grand vision of how the future should look, and have stumbled from one selection to the next.  The uncertainty has been felt more and more as the season went on, and reached its nadir on Friday night – most worrying from a Munster perspective was the lack of fight, there seemed to just be an acceptance of sorts, a palpable relief that it was over. Much of the work was forced through by injuries, and while plenty of new names have been dropped in, there have been some alarmingly wobbly performance graphs and a couple of players seem to have gone straight backwards.

This time last year, Danny Barnes was being touted by an occasionally excitable fanbase as the future of Munster centre play.  He has had a torrid campaign, and finds himself back at square one.  Conor Murray is a talented player, but his was a classic case of second season syndrome.  Whether or not his propensity to take the ball into contact so often was under instruction (due to a lack of ball carriers elsewhere) we don’t know, but someone needs to sit him down in front of the tape of last year’s Magners League final and remind him to simplify his game.  He has the quality to recover, though, and did put in a strong finish.

All that said, there have been numerous success stories, none more so than Peter O’Mahony.  The versatile backrow has enough snap and snarl in him to start a fight in an empty dressing room, but what stood out were his football skills.  WoC can recall at least two occasions on which he went scrum-half and whipped quick, accurate, long passes out in front of the first receiver.  He looks future captain material.  Mike Sherry endured a nightmare on Friday night, but it was a first major setback in what has been a fine breakthrough season.  He looks set to be entrenched in the No.2 jersey for years.  The jury is still out to some extent on Simon Zebo.  Eleven tries is an impressive haul, but equally telling are the defensive lapses and sloppy distribution.  He’s still a pretty rough diamond, but time is on his side.  Dave O’Callaghan and Tommy O’Donnell look solid footsoldier material. Ian Nagle should be pushing for Rabo starts next season, particularly with Micko gone and Donncha’s decline.  We also have high hopes for Paddy Butler, who would add another badly needed carrier to the backrow.

To be fair, Munster were debilitated with injuries for much of the campaign.  Doug Howlett’s absence was keenly felt (he was in scintillating form), and Munster lost an entire backrow for much of the season: Wallace, Leamy and Niall Ronan (another whose form was terrific) were all chopped down.  Once James Coughlan succumbed to injury, the backrow was looking way too callow.  And no team would remain undiminished without a player of Paul O’Connell’s quality, and while Ireland suffered his absence more than Munster, he is the man they can’t do without.

Munster’s playbook remains an issue.  Foley has been commended with reinvigorating their forward play and, for sure, their set piece is improved from where it was last year.  However, the frequency with which they are dominated at the breakdown is a concern.  The unheralded likes of Shane Jennings, Chris Henry and Justin Tipuric all ruled the roost against them at the ruck in recent games.  In attack Munster looked laboured.  Too often the ball is handed to an isolated runner one man out from the ruck, who charges into the nearest available defender.  In the backline, an innovative coach is needed to bring some new ideas to the table.  Against Ulster, they owned the ball, but couldn’t punch their way through the blanket of tacklers.  Munster actually have pretty good players from 9-15, so there is no need for their back play to look quite as ponderous as it does.

Meanwhile, discipline is a problem that just won’t go away.  When Egg Chaser recently met Romain Poite (in a well lubricated exchange in Bruxelles after the Heineken Cup semi-final), he asked him what it felt like to be the most hated man in Munster; Poite replied that every time he referees Munster they make the same mistakes.  As Paulie put it, they’re beating themselves.

Whiff of Cordite would be of the opinion that the sorry thrashing from the ‘Spreys could be the best thing that happens to this Munster team.  Too often this year, tight victories (Northampton and Castres), or excuse-laden defeats (the “Poite-inflicted” defeat to Ulster) have allowed the cracks to be papered over.  Now the picture has been revealed, and the full scale of what needs to be done is clear to see – those 41 phases and that Rog drop goal might have entered the pantheon of Ligindary moments, but they most certainly hid some seriously average European performances, and Rog’s least effective season to date.  Rob Penney will be a welcome new voice, one who comes to the club with no baggage whatsoever.

His job is to build a winning group out of what is now a fairly callow, inexperienced side.  The image of Munster as an ageing unit has now passed, and it’s been replaced by a more youthful, and rather more uncertain version – Penney’s reputation is that of a disciplinarian, but some of the newbies will be needing an arm around the shoulder.  With Wallace, Flannery, the Bull and Micko retired, Horan and O’Callaghan peripheral and Leamy a busted flush, we are down to the last vestiges of Generation Ligind.  Paul O’Connell is still a magnificent warrior, and one ventures that the 35-point margin in the Ospreys debacle would have been as much as 20 points lower had he been playing.  But for the first time, there are real doubts over ROG’s value to the team.  Now 35, he has done precisely nothing of note in 2012 and had perhaps his worst game in the red of Munster against the Ospreys.  For a player of his calibre, it wasn’t good enough.  His lack of breaking threat is a contributor to the attack woes that have bedevilled Munster for who knows how long.  ROG will need to be succeeded eventually, but how soon should the process begin?  And can Keatley be the man to succeed?  One thing’s for sure – it’ll be interesting.

Penney’s first task as Munster coach should be to identify a core of young players who can be Generation Next, its future leaders, and empower them to step out of the shadows of Generation Ligind and take the reigns.  WoC was disappointed in hearing that when Penney talked to two of the Munster players at the time of being appointed, neither was one of its future stars (he talked to POC and ROG; Joe Schmidt by contrast met with Leo Cullen and Johnny Sexton before taking the equivalent post at Leinster). 

We would earmark Mike Sherry, Donnacha Ryan, Keith Earls, Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony as the core around which the club should build. Expect more difficult years ahead, but it is imperative they keep their eyes on the prize, which is HEC ambitions by around 2016. The years in between are likely to be characterised by silverware and success in D4 and BT6 – Munster must not get distracted by their rivals and should play the long game. Moaning and gnashing of teeth are anticipated, but (and just ask Leinster and Ulster) this type of hard work will pay off.

Season to remember: Keith Earls’ performances at centre have silenced many doubters, and his distribution and awareness are out of sight compared to twelve months ago.  Penney should be brave and keep him in the 13 shirt – Laulala will have to work around him.

Season to forget: Donncha O’Callaghan was only visible when warming up maniacally before his appearances as reserve.  National selection beggared belief.

Best match: the home win vs. Northampton.  Classic Munster drama.

Best performance: 36-51 win in Northampton.  O’Mahony owned the breakdown and Zebo shredded the Saints’ defence.

Worst performance: Limp capitulation to Ospreys was a sad end to McGahan’s tenure.

Thanks for the memories: David Wallace, the greatest Munster backrow of the modern era.

See you next season: James Downey arrives from Northampton.  Predictable, for sure, but he will at least provide another ball carrying option, where the outstanding James Coughlan needs a supporting cast to chip in some hard yards.

Wally’s Arms and The Hall of Liginds

Blimey, we’ve been writing a few of these career-end pieces of late (Flannery, Micko, Shaggy) and while it’s nice to be able to heap praise on great players and look back at glittering careers, it’s a sad day whenever another one of the stalwarts who’ve given so much to cheer about over the last decade is forced to throw in the towel.  So here we go again, as the great David Wallace announces his retirement, unable to return to fitness from the knee injury which ruled him out of the World Cup in the cruelest of circumstances.

It’s desperately unlucky that a player of such durability and astonishing fitness levels should be felled by a freak injury.  Jirry and Shaggy’s injuries were degenerative, and they would probably have sensed the end coming for some time, but Wally was chopped down suddenly when his knee went awry in a challenge amid a typically bustling performance in the World Cup warm-up match against England, as the game had been stopped but play carried on.  Tough break.

Most of our memory banks will be dominated by the Wally of the last six years, where he has been a constant in the national team, and a freakishly consistent performer.  So it’s weird to recall that at his supposed prime (the 25-29 years, as the Mole will tell you) he was a slightly peripheral in-and-out member of the Irish squad; the Eoin Reddan of the early-Eddie period.  A non-conventional ball-carrying openside, Eddie often preferred the more conventional No.7 (ask Hook and McGurk – they are well-versed in genuine opensides), Keith Gleeson.

Understandable in a horses for courses sense, for sure, but Eddie frequently omitted Wallace entirely from the picture (before then omitting Gleeson entirely – go figure).  It’s extraordinary to think that a 27-year old Wally was left out of the 2003 World Cup squad, eventually making it out as an injury replacement for Alan Quinlan but barely featuring.

In any case, there are enough great moments to remember that such grievances can take a back seat. Seventy-two Irish caps and three for the Lions, as well as 203 appearances for Munster.  He started all five games in the Grand Slam season, and was a cornerstone of Munster’s two Heineken Cup wins.  Man-of-the-match awards were frequent, and Wally, with his hard-carrying and speed over the ground, was a highly visible back-row operator.  He’d an eye for the tryline too, with 12 for Ireland and 40 for Munster.

His outstanding performances against England in 2011 and a barnstorming game, skittling of anything in front of him in the less familiar No.8 jersey against Sale at Thomond Park in a crucial 2008-09 Heineken Cup group game are two that instantly spring to mind.  When the era of Munster dominance came to its shuddering end in Toulon, Wally stood above all others in fighting the losing battle  in the Felix-Mayol. And, speaking of playing in an unfamiliar jersey, we seem to recall one injury-hit period in Munster when Wally played 4 different positions in 4 matches – across the back row and at 12 – Ooooooooooooooohh!! Its hard to think of another modern Irish player who could (and would) do that.

While we always knew Wally was great, it only dawned on this half of WoC (Palla) just how great he was when sitting in the front row of Croke Park for Ireland v Scotland in 2008.  Normally, I end up sitting up with the Gods for international games, but on this occasion I’d seats a couple of rows from the front.  Not so good for following the patterns and back moves, but great for feeling the collisions.  I came away with a whole new understanding of just how destructive Wally going into contact was. At times it seemed Scotsmen would be chucked over the hoardings into the seat beside me.  And – at the risk of getting into man-crush territory – the size of his arms!  Lordy!

He’ll be remembered as one of the best ball-carriers of the modern era, whose pace and leg drive drove him repeatedly over the gain line.  He was a tough, intelligent player and (ok, maybe we do have a bit of a man-crush) a handsome fellow to boot.  Pretty much how anyone would want to be go down in history.

P.S. Meanwhile, John Hayes has been inducted into the IRUPA Hall of Fame.  It goes without saying nobody deserves it more – he held up dodgy scrums against fearsome opponents for a decade.  We can add little to the mounds already written declaring him to be a ligind and a jolly good fellow, but suffice it to say that he gave everything he had for Ireland and Munster and even when he had nothing left to give, he continued to offer it up for the cause.

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…..

Trawling the World

Last week Ronan O’Gara urged Munster to trawl the world for the best possible head coach.  The search has turned up two names: ITM Cup side Canterbury ‘s head coach Rob Penney and Counties Manakau head coach Tana Umaga.  Some trawl.  Penney was interviewed yesterday, and Umaga rolls into town today.  Following Ulster’s appointment of Mark Anscombe, the Irish provinces certainly appear to be putting a lot of stock in the ITM Cup, which is the second tier of New Zealand rugby.

A little while ago, we ventured that Munster might find it difficult to recruit a top name, given the timeframe involved, Foley’s obvious stature as head coach in waiting, and the difficult transitional job involved (notwithstanding the obvious lure of a great club with a fine tradition and a fanatical, if expectant fanbase).  This appears to have come to pass.

Given the only argument being held against Foley is his lack of experience, Tana Umaga would be a bizarre appointment.  He was a failure at Toulon, and has nothing else on his CV to recommend him.  Even as a backs-coach appointment to work in tandem with Foley, they would look an oddly fresh-faced team.  Rob Penney is predominantly a forwards coach, so he would appear to dovetail poorly with Foley.

The decision not to interview Eddie O’Sullivan (backs coach par excellence) looks strange.  Another backs-oriented old hand like Brian Ashton, who has no head coach ambitions and an excellent record as a No.2, is another who would fit well with Foley, but doesn’t seem to have been in the frame.

Unless the Munster Branch have a trick up their sleeves that they’re not telling us about, the job is obviously Foley’s, and the recruiting process has all the hallmarks of a whitewash.

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.