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: 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.

All-Ireland Final

Phew, howzat for a weekend of rugby! The Pallas nerved their way around Porto on Saturday, relying on Tw*tter and t’interweb for updates, then crowded around a laptop screen today, chewing all fingernails to the quick.

The Eggs had a somewhat more conventional rugby weekend, with prawn sandwiches and beer at the Palindrome yesterday followed by a raucous night in town … with Poite! Retirement to the same Japanese stream as the Pallas Sunday afternoon was incredibly nerve-jangling – we can only sympathise with the Palla clan, who were last spotted wondering around the harbour in Porto in a daze.

So what did we learn this weekend? Let’s start with Ulster:

  • Ulster’s gameplan of giving the ball to Embra oh-so-nearly blew up in their face – the Scots, led superbly by Wee Greig, tossed the ball around with gay abandon for the first 40, and were very unlucky to go in behind (more of which anon). Ulster settled after half-time and choked Embra, playing territory and forcing them to make tackles
  • The Irish Prop Crisis ™ had a bad weekend – Declan Fitzpatrick, in his first start in a big game (at 28!) at times minced the all-international front row facing him – Ulster’s first 10 points came directly from him, and he will surely tour NZ as the backup tighthead. It’s good to see him fulfilling some of the promise of years gone by, and it’s hard to imagine Hagan, Loughney or Archer (his equivalents in the other provinces) faring as well
  • If the Northerners are to harbour genuine hopes of winning at Twickers, they simply must get Chris Henry back. Willie Faloon is that rare beast, a Genuine Openside, but he was conspicuous by his anonymity on Saturday – bossed by the Embra flankers, he fell off one too many tackles. We knew Ulster’s depth chart wasn’t good, but how far Faloon was off HEC standard came as a shock – you can see why Humph sent him to Connacht
  • Paddy Jackson was comprehensively outplayed by Wee Greig, but he can be relatively happy with his day. He played the full 80, stood up in defence and never looked completely at sea. When you have Pienaar and Wallace either side of you, you essentially have the luxury of not having to run the game for your side. He will have learned from the experience, and will start many many more HEC matches (sarting with the final)
  • Ruan Pienaar is an incredible player – anything he tried came off, goal-kicking, box-kicking, leadership. He is undoubtedly one of the superstars of world rugby, and Ulster’s key man – he’s the Rocky Elsom of 2012

As for Leinster .. what can you say. Of all the brilliant performances the team has produced down the years, this was the best, and the game itself was one of the highest quality that we can recall:

  • People talk about Championship Minutes, and boy do Leinster know when those are. At half-time they looked like they were teetering on the brink, one score away from being Saracened, but they came out of the blocks and had 10 points on the board within 7 minutes. This surge was the platform for keeping Clermont at arms length for 30 minutes, until the frenetic endgame, when they produced another 3 minutes of bravery to get over the line, typified by Sean O’Brien in the final phase
  • Clermont’s lack of experience at this level looked to be a factor – they had the winning of the game at half-time but failed to keep up the intensity while Leinster stepped up. When they needed to get a foothold in the game, their rhythm was disrupted by substitutions. Then, crucially, on 78 and 80 minutes, when it looked for all the world like they must score, they didn’t take their chances. A bit more dead-eyed composure is required next time – and there will be a next time
  • From minutes 40-75 , Leinster were virtually flawless. They pulled ahead and away on the scoreboard and took the crowd out of the equation. The team was forced up to this level by a brilliant side, but if they produce a spell like this in 3 weeks, Ulster are snookered. It would be remiss not to point out that Wayne Barnes’ leniency with Dorce following a cynical ruck offence helped them stay on top
  • Fortune favours the brave. In protecting narrow leads once the clock has ticked into the red it’s customary to stay well away from the ball at every ruck and just hope for an error by the opposition, but Sean O’Brien was having none of it.  Feet planted, he duly reached in and got his mitts on the ball to win the crucial turnover. Another penalty and it was card time, but he had the conviction to go for it and it was the match-winning play
  • Rob Kearney is from Mars. Whatever he’s having for breakfast, we want some
  • Stretching the arm out over the line and safely grounding it isn’t easy. Shane Horgan was the master of it with his shovel-like hands. Wesley Fofana didn’t quite have it.
  • Clermont continued their incremental progress in this competition – today’s experience will stand to them next year, when the rarified air of the last 4 won’t be as novel. A top seeding will mean an easier draw, and probably the introduction of HEC knock-out rugby to the iconic Stade Marcel Michelin and another last 4 visit. Rather like their accession to their first Top 14 title, expect them to crawl step by agonising step across the line over a period of what seems like millennia

It has been another memorable weekend in Irish rugger – 2 provinces will contest the HEC final for the first time, and 2 unforgettable occasions will live long in the memory. There’s no doubt Leinster are playing at a higher level than Ulster right now, but it will come down to a once-off game, and, lets be truthful, Ulster have to beat Leinster some time!  Let’s see if we can still be friends here at Cordite Towers in three week’s time…

Gerry’s Verdict

Huge news – Gerry wears his sunglasses in the office!

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

 

HEC Semi Final Preview: Ulster v Edinburgh

Two unfashionable outposts of European rugby lock horns for a place in the final that seemed unlikely at the start of the season.  But they’re here now, so let’s get on with it.

History: The two sides crossed paths, and traded wins, in the 2009/10 season. A late try by – who else? – Tim Visser won the tie 17-13 for Embra at Murrayfield, while Cave and Isaac Boss crossed the whitewash in the return leg. Neither side advanced to the knockouts.  In this season’s Pro12, Ulster have dished out two thrashings to Edinburgh, wrapping up  four-try bonus points in both legs.

Form: Edinburgh are the two-headed hydra of European rugby this season.  Abysmal in the Pro12, where they lie 11th and regularly roll over and allow their tummies to be tickled, they come to life in the Heineken Cup. Watchers of Connacht will recall Michael Bradley’s strategy of targeting particular games and dining out on fifty-burgers in others: well, he has taken that to the nth degree this season. WoC has always been dismissive of the argument that the English and French are stymied by being in more arduous leagues, partly because Munster and Leinster, the Pro12s traditional challengers in Europe, are competitive in the league and see it as a trophy worth winning.  But Edinburgh’s attitude does bring into question whether a more merit based qualification system is in order.  Their results since beating Toulouse are a 54-10 reverse at the RDS and a 38-13 beating by a pretty ordinary Cardiff Blues side, but little should be read into those scorelines; they weren’t trying a leg.

Ulster haven’t exactly killed themselves in the fortnight since beating Munster either.  Their seconds got beaten by Connacht, with Ian Humpreys putting in a distracted, lazy performance, and lost at home to Leinster with something more like their first team, but minus heavy hitters Tuohy, Best and Ferris.  But at least their losses were respectable.  It’ll be a different team which takes the field on Saturday.  Ulster’s strength in depth has come up just short in mounting a challenge in the Pro12, but they are a team transformed when Ferris and Best are in the side.

Gameplan: Edinburgh will want it loose, open and broken up.  They look to keep the ball alive and offload wherever possible.  Their two props offloaded more than any other forwards in the pool stages.  They’ve good carriers in their pack, with No.8 Netani Talei ably abetted by Ross Ford (no longer flattering to deceive) and David Denton, fresh off an impactful Six Nations.  Ross Rennie will look to rule the breakdown area.  In the half-back division, Mike Blair is still something of a headscratcher, and it puzzles WoC to this day how he went from brilliant to awful seemingly overnight some time around 2009.  The centres are average, but they’ve plenty of threat with Tim Visser out wide.  Give him some grass to run into and his big long arms are capable of some of the best hand-offs in the game.  Dude knows where the tryline is.

Ulster will want a more structured game, but they also play a brand of rugby that’s good to watch.  As discussed in the week, they look to their classy 9-10-12 axis to spread the ball wide and quickly, and get their strike runners into space.  A call has to be made at 10, where little iHumph is woefully out of form.  Paddy Jackson is inexperienced, but showed flashes of his talent against Leinster.  With Marshall probably missing, the option of moving Pienaar to 10 looks to be a non-starter.  McLoughlin’s a conservative fellow, and it would be a remarkable call if he threw young Jackson in for his first Heineken start in the semi-final.  Could it be a Johnny Sexton moment?  Elsewhere, Andrew Trimble is good at coming off his wing and looking for work (by work, we mean opportunites to bosh).  They’ve a tough, granite-hewn pack with Wannenbosh and Stephen Ferris expected to provide plenty of hard yards.  Best and Tuohy will be required to chip in.  Hard carries up the middle, spread it out wide.  Simple, and if accurate, pretty effective.

Prediction: It’s hard to see past Ulster.  It’s in Dublin, they’ve come here the hard way, and you can’t help but feel Embra got through a bit of a Group of Dearth.  We’re not expecting it to be easy, though.  For all the supposed experience of Ulster’s World Cup Winning South Africans, they didn’t show much composure down in Thomond Park – they really just gutsed it out.  This time the onus will be on them to play a bit more rugby.  They won’t have it all their own way, but they should be able to grind down an Edinburgh side that appears to lack the sort of grizzled leaders to win this game.  Grizzled leaders like Rory Best and Johann Muller.  Ulster by 7.

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.

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.”