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.