Sunday, April 29, 2012

Heineken Cup - Ireland 2 Europe 0

Ulster, at their temporary home of the Aviva Stadium, kicked off the weekend with their match against Edinburgh. The flags waved, the sun shone, and a good time was had by all. I didn’t give the Scots nearly enough credit for how well they were going to play, producing a running style of rugby that I’m sure the whole of Scotland would like to see more often. If either of the teams looked like they had stage fright, it was Ulster, who got a bit of a shock with the way that Edinburgh ran at them. It was a step down in intensity from the Munster match for them, they like to be underdogs as well! What is it with Irish teams? Ruan Pienaar was ice cold with his place kicking , but Laidlaw was none too shabby either, and the match the whole way through was wide open, staying within one score. Ulster’s senior players lead the way home though , playing smart, finals rugby, keeping it tight and grinding out the win.

Well talk about flags waving , if you had a euro for every flag waving at the Clermont Leinster match, you’d be rich. Those French crowds are ultra passionate, and the racket, the flag waving, and the booing of Wayne Barnes was second to none. Wayne Barnes has now turned another nation off to him, I don’t think he did a bad job at all, but then I wouldn’t, would I. Leinster did get a lot of the tight calls, but that’s swings and round abouts, in the blue of Leinster and the green of Ireland they’ve been at the rough end of a few decisions themselves., and the team that scored the try won.

Leinster started hard, and gave Clermont a fright with their early intensity. But they French turned it around, and it was all Clermont at the end of the first half, going into the break with the lead. Now Leinster were proper underdogs, they were happy. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and that man was Rob Kearney, splitting open the defense with a run that lead to Healy’s try, and putting in a drop goal as good as you’ll see. After that, Leinster stayed on the front foot, up until the last unwatchable 5 minutes, when Clermont rocked them back with wave after wave of attacks, and Fofana came within inches of stealing a win. That brings to an end Clermont’s run of 42 home games unbeaten, incredible really. Good thing they don’t play Leinster too often! Also, a record 14 Heienken Cup wins a row for Leinster. Not that I’m boasting or anything. They have a few things to sort out, namely an appalling line out, but apart from that , it couldn’t look better.

Job done, the final in Twickenham is 100% Irish!

Best tweet of the weekend @nathinhines to @seanobrien : ‘My team is playing the Hcup tomorrow – please can I get a retweet’

Heineken Cup
Ulster 22 - 19 Edinburgh
Sunday , April 29
Clermont Auvergne 15 - 19 Leinster

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Are we going to be enjoying the full Irish at Twickenham on the 19th of May?

We’ll begin at the beginning, in Dublin on Saturday, as hoards of Ulstermen, Edinburghians, and a good few Dublanites /Irish fans who simply love rugby, descend on the Aviva Stadium.  It’s the start of the swansong for Ulster’s Brian McLaughlin, taking on Michael Bradleys men, the former Connacht coach no stranger to Lansdowne Road himself.  It’s the furthest any Scots team has got in the competition. I think it’s going to stay the furthest a Scots team has got in the competition. I’ll probably enjoy the match a lot more than Sunday’s fixture – sure I’ll be supporting Ulster, but as a neutral, it’s a lot easier than seeing your own team play. Ulster are the favourites, and have the edge in numbers of internationals, experience of the occasion from last year, most things really. Edinburgh are going to bring passion in spades, but Ulster’s big guns, the likes of Ferris and Pienaar, are going to see them home.

Leinster travel to France to take on Clermont, and while they’ve lost home advantage, they gained the upper hand in the battle to be the biggest underdog. Let’s face it, Ireland would never have beaten Australia last year if we’d been the favourites! That’s just the motivation the teams needs. So you think home advantage counts for everything do you? So you have a squad that was built up a cost that would have settled the Irish debt  crisis? Well, we’ll show you a thing or two!  We have some inside gen on the workings of the team from former Clermont assistant Joel Schmidt. They have some insight from Nathan Hines, who went the other way (not that way), but as it’s been said- he could never remember the line out calls when he was at Leinster anyway, so our secrets are safe. What impressed me about Clermont against Saracens in the last round was their awesome physicality against a pretty huge Sarrries teams, and their refusal to surrender their tryline.

Leinster are going to have to face down the crowd, man up to the physicality, and live with the flair of Clermont’s backline. So no pressure then. However, no matter how the French talk up Leinster, I think they still see us a little Irish team, that’s awesome at home, but quite beatable playing away. That’s our chink of opportunity, that O’Driscoll, Nacewa, Heaslip, Sexton, Kearney and co have to prise open and run a tank through. Are we going to sack Bordeaux? Are we going to make two finals in a row, and probably face the team we’ve already beaten home a and away this season. Personally, I don’ think we have a great chance, but we do have a chance. The pressure on the ref will be enormous, it’s going to be ‘Can I get a scrum reset – yes you can!’, and a physical onslaught not often seen off a battlefield. It’s in the brains trust of Sexton, O’Driscoll, Nacewa, and Kearney that this will be decided.

Heineken Cup
Saturday , April 28
Ulster vs Edinburgh 17:45
Sunday , April 29
Clermont Auvergne vs Leinster 15:00

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Leinster Slam the provinces, and Munster get a draw

Tommy O'Donnell (picture )

This was another poor weekend for me as a Leinster fan, Twitter was as close as I got to following the match. Ah well, they did OK without me. Leinster put out a strong team, so did Ulster, but Leinster have awesome strength in depth on the bench, and left behind too. It’s something that’s taken a few years to build up, through an excellent academy, and basically giving players their chances. Joel Schmidt has players queuing up in most positions, and 6 out of 6 against the home provinces says it all.

So after missing Leinster and Ulster, I again managed to watch most of Munster and Scarlets. Good to see Munster get the draw, although a win would obviously have been better. They played much better than last week while I was watching. Mick O’Driscoll is an absolute legend, playing as well as, and better than most on the field. There is some serious talent in the team, OMahoney get’s better all the time, as does Dominic Ryan. I thought  Dave Kilcoyne had a really decent outing and Tommy O'Donnell looks like one to watch. Zebo looks great in attack, once his defense is sorted out he’s going to be a real threat.

Apart from that, I saw quite a bit of the Sharks Chiefs match. Please, can someone get a video of Patrick Lambie tackling Sonny Bill Williams and show it to all the Irish teams. Tackle him round his ankles, works every time, works with 99% of players. What I’d love to see is the Sharks put in a bit of passing practice – head height, a foot behind you is no good to man nor beast. With just a few basic skills, they could be contenders…

RaboDirect PRO12 Ospreys 31 - 12 Newport-Gwent D'gons 
Ulster 8 - 16 Leinster
Connacht 19 - 16 Aironi Rugby 
Scarlets 20 - 20 Munster
Cardiff Blues 38 - 13 Edinburgh 
Benetton Treviso 8 - 13 Glasgow

Thursday, April 19, 2012

This week - I'm going to get mathematical on your ass as I predict the final PRO 12 standings!

It’s always great to see the PRO 12 starting, then the middle bit, especially in the 6N, is nothing to write home about, but it gets exciting again at the end. Leinster have top position wrapped up, but there is going to be an almighty bunfight to fill the other spots, with the Ospreys, Munster, Glasgow, Ulster and the Scarlets all in contention.

Ospreys, with the Dragons and Treviso to come, should bag 8-10 points, and nail down second spot with 69.

Munster have Scarlets and Ulster, the hardest set by far.  Based on recent form I think they’re going to lose at Parc y Scarlets to a very competitive Scarlets side , but beat Ulster, so that should give them, say 65.

Glasgow have Treviso and Connacht, which is their 10 points to lose, so they’ll finish on 67 I’d say.

Ulster have Leinster and Munster –equally as hard as Munster’s run in. Now, if I was the IRFU, I would call Leinster and Ulster in, get into a huddle, there would be losts of nods and winks afterwards, and Ulster would win. They will probably win anyway, as what’s the point of Leinster risking any injuries? I’ll give them 5 points so finish on 61.

BUT now I've seen the teams I'm going with a Leinster win. So no more wins for Ulster. Leinster have 5 internationals on the bench! Ulster to finish on 56.

Ulster: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Paddy Wallace, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, 7 Willie Faloon, 6 Chris Henry, 5 Lewis Stevenson, 4 Johann Muller (capt), 3 Declan Fitzpatrick, 2 Nigel Brady, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Andi Kyriacou, 17 Paddy McAllister, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Neil McComb, 20 Robbie Diack, 21 Ian Porter, 22 Ian Humphreys, 23 Adam D'Arcy.

Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 David Kearney, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Fergus McFadden, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Sean O'Brien, 7 Dominic Ryan, 6 Kevin McLaughlin, 5 Brad Thorn, 4 Leo Cullen (capt), 3 Mike Ross, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Heinke van der Merwe, 18 Nathan White, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Shane Jennings, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Fionn Carr.

Scarlets have Munster and the Blues to come. I’m backing them to pick up 9 points, and then finish on 64.
So my reckoning for the final standings is:

Leinster 78
Ospreys 69
Glasgow 67
Munster 65
Scarlets 64
Ulster 56
Good luck to all!

Current Pro 12 Standings   Leinster Rugby       73
   Ospreys                  62
   Munster Rugby       60
   Glasgow Warriors   57
   Ulster Rugby           56
   Scarlets                  55

RaboDirect PRO12 Friday , April 20
Ulster vs Leinster 19:05
Ospreys vs Newport-Gwent D'gons 19:05
Saturday , April 21
Connacht vs Aironi Rugby 17:00
Scarlets vs Munster 18:30
Sunday , April 22
Benetton Treviso vs Glasgow 14:05
Cardiff Blues vs Edinburgh 14:05
Sat 5 May 19:30  Edinburgh   v   Treviso Murrayfield
Sat 5 May 19:30  Warriors   v   Connacht Firhill Stadium
Sat 5 May 19:30  Munster   v   Ulster Thomond Park Stadium
Sat 5 May 19:30  Dragons   v   Leinster Rodney Parade
Sat 5 May 19:30  Scarlets   v   Blues Parc y Scarlets
Sat 5 May 20:30  Aironi   v   Ospreys Stadio Zaffanella

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Leinster take a democratic approach to try scoring

I’m a bad Leinster supporter, wasn’t at the match against Edinburgh, didn’t see it on TV, didn’t Sky+ it. Looking at the team that was put out, it only emphasizes Leinster’s strength – their B-Team would be just outside the top 4 you’d think. They took a very democratic approach to scoring – 8 tries scored, all by different people. Edinburgh have nothing to play for at this stage, and obviously don’t want any injuries. Is there a place for a promotion and relegation system to keep the teams interested?

Not having caught the Leinster match, I did see the end of a great win for Connacht over high flying Ulster – no shortage of pride in the West. And I watched the whole of the Munster match, as they struggled to subdue a very confident looking Glasgow side. They kept letting Glasgow back into the game where a few years ago they would have slammed the door shut in the first 20 minutes. Keatley did OK considering amount of game time he’s been getting – wouldn’t mind seeing him varying the kick off a bit, and all the other stand out players were in the pack. The ball should never have left the pack and they would have been far better off.

I also watched the Crusaders subdue the Stormers – that’s the best looking Stormers side for years, and frankly not the best Crusaders side ever. Can’t wait to see the sides that NZ and SA will put out this year under new coaches.

RaboDirect PRO12
Newport-Gwent D'gons 32 - 33 Benetton Treviso 
Leinster 54 - 13 Edinburgh
Connacht 26 - 21 Ulster 
Munster 35 - 29 Glasgow 
Cardiff Blues 12 - 33 Ospreys
Aironi Rugby 23 - 26 Scarlets

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Back on the Pro 12 trail for Leinster et al

After all the high flying games this weekend, time to get down to the more humble affair of the Pro 12. Well in fairness, it is going to be two fellow Heineken Cup semi finalists meeting up when Leinster welcome Edinburgh to the RDS. And with 15000 tickets sold already for the match, the fans are certainly taking it seriously. Eoin O'Malley should be back in the selection frame, and while I expect a few of the big guns will be rested, that’s not to say it’s not going to be a weak team.  It’s a chance for some of the fringe players like McFadden, Ruddock and Madigan to get some good game time and stake their claim to up into the big time. I’m expecting Leinster to knock over the Scots, using home advantage and the momentum of their excellent win over Cardiff. It sounds like Luke Fitzgerald is close to signing a new contract, which is just what we want to hear.

No Aironi for next year’s PRO 12 – that’s a pity for Italian rugby, but I guess the money just wasn’t in it. Out of all the suggestions for a replacement team, I like the sound of the Cornish Pirates the best, as much for their name as anything else.

Munster have to pick themselves up from their defeat to Ulster, and subdue the high flying Glasgow Warriors. They’ll be without James Couglan most likely Keith Earls, and are really going to have to work hard to shake off those HC blues. Munster at home will always be a fearsome proposition though, with the Scots to catch the backlash.

Ulster travel to Connacht on a high, and should overcome the men from the west in green.

RaboDirect PRO12
Friday , April 13
Newport-Gwent D'gons vs Benetton Treviso 19:30
Leinster vs Edinburgh 19:45
Saturday , April 14
Connacht vs Ulster 17:15
Cardiff Blues vs Ospreys 18:30
Munster vs Glasgow 19:15
Sunday , April 15
Aironi Rugby vs Scarlets 14:05

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Champagne from Leinster, brandy from Clermont, sunshine in Ulster and Edinburgh and Morgan Parra is the biggest little sh*t in French rugby

Well I managed to catch the Leinster match live, and what a pleasure. If that’s not champagne rugby, I don’t know what is. The BOD is back, leading from the front, and Leinster are back in the groove. The pack laid the foundation, and then Kearney, Nacewa, and O’Driscoll hammered it home, with running lines and handling skills as sweet as you like. Admittedly, Cardiff look completely out of sorts, weighed down by the burden of their problems. If it was ever in doubt, Leinster are serious, serious challengers to retaining their title.

Saracens Clermont was the other outstanding match of the weekend, in a match so physical I felt like I needed physio after watching it. The only thing worse for Saracens than dropping the ball, was catching the ball. Clermont used their unbridled physicality to smash their way forward in attack and defence, and produced a moment of magic in the second half to score the try that sealed the match. Morgan Parra, meanwhile, has made the title ‘Most annoying little shit in French rugby’ his own, indeed he has few challengers, he’s that far ahead of the rest of the field. The French outfit have it all, raw power, and skill in the backs to underpin it.

Thomond Park was not a happy place to be for Munster fans, as their team stumbled to defeat over a determined Ulster side. From an Irish perspective, watching Munster was like watching Ireland in the 6 Nations. Lots of earnest toil, but very few flashes of cutting edge. When DOC and Tomas O’Leary are your impact subs, it’s time for change. Ulster defended staunchly and took their try well, they have a few real class players, Irish and foreign stars, and did what they needed to do. With the right new coach, Munster will be back, but for now, it was Ulster’s day in the sun.

I didn’t see the Edinburgh Toiulouse match, but fair play for a massive result for the Scotsmen.
6N form was turned on it’s head with two Irish provinces, a Scots and a French Team in the H Cup semis, and four French teams in the Amlin Challenge Cup. A tough trip to France for Leinster, but don’t write them off yet, and surely Ulsters match to lose now.

Heineken Cup
Munster 16 - 22 Ulster 
Saracens 3 - 22 Clermont Auvergne
Edinburgh 19 - 14 Toulouse 
Leinster 34 - 3 Cardiff Blues

Thursday, April 5, 2012

This weekend - mainly through Sky+ - I'm running with Toulouse, Leinster, Ulster and Saracens. Controversial!

I should be massively looking forward to this weekend, and I am of course, but family arrangements have been made for me with scant regard for the important things in life – Heineken Cup rugby! I might weasel my way to seeing the Leinster match, but Munster Ulster is going to have to go on Sky+ as it’s bang in the middle of a big Sunday lunch, where I am the head chef.

Starting off with Leinster, and I guess the focus is really on Cardiff at the moment, and whether they can get their act together. The news from their camp reads like a Shakespearian tragedy. They are in limbo in terms of a home venue, big cutbacks  in budgets are on the way for all the Welsh provinces next year, they have a raft of injury worries including Jamie Roberts and Sam Warburton, and are on a big losing streak in the Pro 12. Then add the Gavin Henson debacle, contributing little on the pitch, and making the headlines and causing disruptions with his off pitch antics. It was probably a good opportunity to shift him if budgets are going to be tight anyway. Having said all that – I’ve seen Cardiff put in some terrific performances in the last year, and most impressive, even if not recently, is their never say die attitude. If they can channel all their frustrations  in a positive manner on Saturday, they’ll be in with a shout.

For Leinster, they had the perfect warm up, spanking Munster at Thomond. They have the beef up front ( god am I not looking forward to the scrums though), the firepower behind, and scrum halves and fly halves to set the perfect tempo for the match. Add in Rob Kearney in the form of his life, superstar Isa Nacewa, home advantage, and you surely have the winning formula. O’Brien and Heaslip have been pretty quiet all the Six Nations – I want them to be noisy now! So Leinster to win.

Munster Ulster is an all Ireland affair at Thomond, with the pubs to open early in honour of the match – scandalous! Munster are going to be welcoming back some of their big names, which is great news. This is a huge match for Munster, after their uncharacteristically poor performance against Leinster last week, and there is a hungriness about Ulster they had better watch out for. Looks like Ferris is out for the match, which is a blow for the Ulstermen as he’s being playing really well. Very very hard to call this match – Munster’s home advantage will count for a lot, but if Ulster put in the type of performance that saw them monster the Tigers, they will win this. Before last weekend, I would have gone with Munster all the way, Pauly will make a huge difference, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Ulster squeezed this one.

Toulouse are missing a few big names for their trip to Edinburgh, but big names is what they possess in  abundance, and it’s not likely to affect their performance. I would love to see the Scots steal this one, just to shake things up a bit, but it’s hard to look past Toulouse.

Finally, the last match will pit Saracens against Clermont. Saracens are a top team these days, but as their defeat to Quins last week shows, they are still a bit inconsistent.  Clermont have a ridiculous amount of talent to call on, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they lost, actually, nothing they do would surprise me, they could also give Sarries a good thrashing.  I think Saracens should be able to bludgeon them into submission though.

Enjoy the rugby!

Heineken Cup
Saturday , April 7
Edinburgh vs Toulouse 15:00
Leinster vs Cardiff Blues 17:45
Sunday , April 8
Munster vs Ulster 13:45
Saracens vs Clermont Auvergne 16:30

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Get thee to the bold step, Marcus Horan!

The only match I really got to watch this weekend was the Munster/Leinster match, which was a bit of pity because it was a pretty crappy match. I’ll take the win all day long, but it just wasn’t a great match to watch. The scrums were a fiasco – that’s three weekends in a row I’ve been watching the front rows eat grass. Marcus Horan should have been on the bold step, never mind getting a yellow card. When a complete front amateur like me can tell you he was hinging, but he wasn’t called up on it, there’s something wrong.

Then there was Munster’s overall performance -  I know they are missing some big guns, and when you have a shortage of power, just add some  O’Connell for an instant power boost – just use the power wisely. But there does seem to be a gap in depth opening up between Munster and Leinster – I might have blue tinged glasses on, but for me out of the 46 players and reserves, the best two 10’s, 9’s and 2’s were in blue. Little bit harch on O’Gara, whose place kicking is much better than Madigan’s but Madigan’s general play was better. Munster can and will turn it around, put O’Connell, Murray and Ryan back in and they’ll be a 100 times better. I think it’s time for a big shake up though, between Kidney and Tony McGahan, that’s 7 years of continuity, some new thinking is required.

What about Leinster? Without a decent scrum platform they struggled, and their lineouts weren’t too flash either. They got going in the last 20 minutes, and then never looked back. Kearney is in imperious form, and Nacewa – why don’t they just give him the man of the match before the match while his jersey’s clean? Leinster are picking up steam nicely ahead of Cardiff next weekend.

Elsewhere, There was a great away win for Connacht, and Edinburgh did well against the Scarlets.

RaboDirect PRO12
Ulster 45 - 7 Aironi Rugby 
Edinburgh 26 - 23 Scarlets 
Glasgow 31 - 3 Cardiff Blues 
Newport-Gwent D'gons 19 - 27 Connacht
Ospreys 41 - 10 Benetton Treviso 
Munster 9 - 18 Leinster