Friday, May 31, 2013

The Lions and Ba Ba's get it on in Hong Kong!

The Lions kick off their new adventure against the Barbarians in Hong Kong tomorrow at 11.30. The team they’ve picked looks like maybes selection – lots of players will be trying to put their hands up for the big team. Pick me sir! From an Irish perspective, it’ll be good to see Jared Payne doing his things with the Barbarians. That’s as well because the Lions team is pretty light on Irish players – just the one like, although there are a good few on the bench. Lion’s coaches are always so cagey about revealing their first choice team and any tactics. How about going for it, being big and brash, and just saying, this is who we are, this is what we do, have go if you think you’re hard enough. Obviously I don’t have a career in coaching ahead of me :)

It’s not as crazy as it sounds – your defense wins the match – your attacking play determines by how much. Defense sytems don’t get learnt in a day, why not get you’re a team out there practicing it? As we two teams who hardly trained with each other, I’d say we can expect a few trys :). Bring it on!

Barbarians: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Elliot Daly, 12 Casey Laulala, 11 Taku Ngwenya, 10 Nick Evans, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Sergio Parisse, 7 Sam Jones, 6 Samu Manoa, 5 Dean Mumm, 4 Marco Wentzel, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Paul James.
Replacements: 16 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 17 Duncan Jones, 18 Jim Hamilton, 19 Imanol Harinordoquy, 20 Andrea Lo Cicero, 21 Kahn Fotuali'i, 22 James Hook, 23 Mike Tindall.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

More cups and goodbyes

And that was that for the Pro 12 really. It was a good finish to the league, the best two teams, only separated by a try at the end of 80 minutes. Ulster brought fantastic home support, matched by a swirling sea of blue. It has hard, it was tense, and it could have gone either way. The difference between the teams was Leinster’s ability to force the game, and score tries when they had to. Ulster need another 5% of magic to convert some of the many chances they had into tries. Leinster are in rude health though, when you see the caliber of players like Jennings, Madigan and Boss coming in and playing a blinder. I feel for Ulster, before Christmas they looked unstoppable, like they’d go on and win everything. They have so many talented young players though, they are nowhere near peaking.

It was a fitting farewell for Jonny, Isa and joe, and Jack and Andrew. Leinster get their hands on the Pro 12 for the first time in 4 years, as well as winning the Amlin Challenge Cup and the British and Irish Cup.  Ok the Heineken would have been good too, but you can’t be too greedy. And Joe Schmidt leaves with 2 Heineken Cups, an Amlin and aPro 12 title. Not too shabby and big shoes to fill.

I watched odds and ends of the Premiership final, including Hartleys sending off, which killed off the match as a contest. He’s a good player..but he’s a loose cannon, and a bit of order has been restored with Rory Best on the plane with the Lions, and Dylan having a break. Leicester are some outfit aren’t they? Ben Foden put forward a gold plated claim for a place in the Lions if another injury comes through.

RaboDirect PRO12
Ulster 18 - 24 Leinster
Aviva Premiership
Saturday , May 25
Leicester 37 - 17 Northampton 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Leinster v Ulster - it's going to be titanic!

It’s a big big match this Saturday for Leinster. Last match of the year, and the final of the Rabo Direct Pro 12, and up against Ulster, who’ve already beaten us twice this season. But it’s also pretty momentous to be losing two massive players, Isa Nacewa and Jonny Sexton, who have always done so much more than was ever asked of them than was ever asked of them.. Isa, whose 10 minutes for Fiji meant he couldn’t play for the All Blacks or Ireland who’s retiring, and Jonny, a home grown superstar whose next task is playing for the Lions as the best fly half in Britain and Ireland.  Leinster have a nearly full squad to call on, with SOB the biggest omission. I thought they were going to be a bit short against Stade, but being able to rest a few players for the at match has paid of  handsomely. We’ve slipped up before in this fixture – but in previous years, the focus was always the Heineken cup, this year  once we were out of that, we always wanted both the Amlin and Pro 12 titles. 

Ulster’s season has been very successful – making the knock stage of the Heineken Cup, admittedly going out earlier than they wanted to – but being in the top 8 clubs in Europe this season is not too shabby. Then they topped the Pro 12, and demolished the Scarlets in the semis. They have their big players back from injury and back in from – Bowe, Muller and Payne. And they’ve beaten us home and away this season already. They’ve haven’t been able to convert their good form over the last two years into any trophies yet though – can they hold their nerve to close this one out, at the RDS? That’s the million euro question.
I think…that Leinster will still pull this one off. Ulster probably have a better pack than us, but we have better backs, and we are just better at taking opportunities – we hardly had the ball at times against Stade, but scored with the very few opportunities we had. It’s going to be titanic :) and I just can’t wait!

Elsewhere – I’m actually going with Northampton, if the semi’s form of both teams is anything to go by.
RaboDirect PRO12
Saturday , May 25
Ulster vs Leinster 16:45
Aviva Premiership
Saturday , May 25
Leicester vs Northampton 15:00
Sunday , May 26
England vs Barbarians 13:00

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Leinster and Toulon prosper...

I watched the Leinster Stade Francaise with a fair amont of trepidation – there’s a good word. I wasn’t sure about the team that Joe Schmidt had picked, and thought Stade had looked impressive beating Perpignan. I guess that’s why I write a blog and Joe is just about to coach Ireland. With consummate team management, he’s 2 from 2 in the knock matches in the last two weeks, and has a fresh team going into the Rabo final. Quinn Roux is starting to come into his own, prop xxxx had a decent outing, and McFadden and Madigan could go a long, long way as a centre pairing. This was one touch rugby from Leinster – get one chance, string passes together, try! They made it look embarrassingly easy, and their defense was more than able to cope with anything Stade came up with. I hope we some game management and new faces like that from Scmidt in the Ireland job too.It’s not the Heineken Cup  - but is A Cup!

Then on to the final itself, as Dublin was overrun with rugby fans. The first half was brutal in every sense of the word – no tries, a penalty each, and unbelievelable physicality. It had Clermont playing all the rugby, and Toulon just about holding them out. Then after half time – two quick Clemont tries (which I missed because I was getting the salmon en croute ready to put in the oven –as you do) and it looked like the game was up. How Clermont lost it from there, I don’t know, but they’ll be deeply sickened they didn’t go on to close this out, as Toulon hung in, snatched the lead and defended it.  I really wanted Clermont to win, and thought they deserved to, but they have only themselves to blame for not going on and winning it. – that and Toulon’s defense. Fair play to Toulon for holding their nerve.

Heineken Cup
Saturday , May 18
Clermont Auvergne 15 - 16 Toulon 
Amlin Challenge Cup
Friday , May 17
Stade Francais 13 - 34 Leinster

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Lock up your daughters etc...the HC is coming to town!

So, with three French teams heading for Dublin this weekend, the conventional wisdom is to lock your daughters and wives up. And maybe, just to be sure your mothers and grandmothers. I mean, Irish fans would never behave like that when they go away. Anyway, leaving aside the perceived prowess of Frenchmen...what about the rugby?

Stade Francaise are a bit of an unknown quantity these days – they came 11th in the Top 14 this year and none of their players (in the match day squad) are involved with the French national team. What impressed me about their win over Perpignan in the semis  though was their physicality – they sucked Perpignan in  like a giant crushing machine and dropped little bits out the other side.  And the carrot for Stade here is that this is their ticket to the Heineken cup next season.  On the flipside, what disappointed me about Leinster’s narrow win over Glasgow last weekend was their lack of physicality – it was mainly a gigantic defensive effort, we weren’t on the front foot almost at all. Then we don’t have BOD or D’Arcy, and out locks look iffy – not iffy maybe but not threatening.  This is not shaping up well for us. I had a sense last week that they were pacing themselves for effectively three finals in a row. If they give it a 100% this weekend, will anything be left in the tank for next week? Also , we last played on Saturday, while Stade fielded a B Team last weekend, so they’ve had two weeks break. I’m examining the entrails here and I don’t like what I see.  We have home advantage, we took out Biarritz who are as good as Stade and maybe after all that i’m still going Leinster, but just, just squeaking home.

In the HC final, it’s the really big guns of French rugby, Clermont and Toulon slugging it out. I want Clermont to win it, for a few reasons. Firstly, they beat Leinster, and I want us only to have been beaten by the HC winners. Then I like Clermont too – they play attractive rugby, do the basics well, and are stuffed full of players you’d like for your own team. I don’t really like Toulon – I see them as the Man City of rugby, just going out and buying the best player in each position. They only had four French players in their starting 15 which is a bit poor for a French team you’d have to say. Overall, I think despite all of Toulon’s stars that Clermont have a better balanced team – brilliant forwards, and more creative and threatening backs. It’ll be close, but I think Clermont will do it.

Heineken Cup
Saturday , May 18
Clermont Auvergne vs Toulon 17:00
Amlin Challenge Cup
Friday , May 17
Stade Francais vs Leinster

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Someone was saying Hail Mary's for Leinster...

On Friday night, Ulster swept into the final at the RDS putting the Scarlets away all too easily. They had them hammered by half time, and took their foot off the pedal in the last 20 minutes, letting the Scarlets gain a little bit of respect with a few scores. Their physicality is impressive, and they have enough touches of magic from players like Bowe and Payne to keep them threatening. I’m worried for Leinster…

Meanwhile, at the RDS, someone was saying Hail Mary’s for Leinster. Lots and lots of them. They played their get out of jail card to win a match they scarcely deserved to. Glasgow played all the rugby, and looked a lot more threatening throughout the match. They beat Leinster up at the break down, and we seemed to be standing off their big physical backline who could get up a head of steam and then do serious damage. Niko Matawalu was as dangerous as expected, and if Glasgow had just converted more of their chances, they would have won it pretty easily. Our defense was massive though, and Heaslip, and even more so IMO McLaughlin were just outstanding. Our locks aren’t physical enough at the moment. We’ll take it, but I don’t know how we’ll beat Ulster…

Elsewhere I caught a bit of the Tigers smothering Quin. Harlequins are a shadow of the team they used to be, not taking anything away from Leicester obviously. Then the Sainst kicked some arse, upsetting Saracens by beating them at their game, ie beating them up!

RaboDirect PRO12
Saturday , May 11
Leinster 17 - 15 Glasgow 
Friday , May 10
Ulster 28 - 17 Scarlets 

Friday, May 10, 2013

This weekend, it will mainly be Ulster and Leinster...

This is nearly it now, the last knockout stage before the final, one slip up and you’re gone…

Ulster’s home advantage is one of few factors that should see the Ulstermen make it into the final – the Scarlets don’t always travel well as they found in Italy last week.When you look at the two teams, the Scarlets undoubtedly have some very talented players, the likes of North, Jonathan Davies and Liam Williams. But Ulster with players like Pienaar, Payne, Bowe and Cave have a lot more guile about them, and with the exception of the missing John Afoa, look to have a better pack man for man too. The Scarlets are going to leave anything on the pitch, really, I can’t wait, but this is Ulster’s match to lose

Leinster meanwhile have fielded a very strong team as they entertain Glasgow at the RDS. There are doubts over SOB, and Boss is a busy player but I’d  rather see Reddan there any day. We are a bit short at lock, but apart from that, it’s the A team, brimming with confidence at the moment. For Glasgow, the key for them will be how Leinster let scrum half Niko Matawalu play. If we tie him up in knots, we should beat this big, talented, but slightly erratic Scottish team, and I think we’re going to.

In England, I’m going with Leicester and Saracens, although the Tigers are going to have Quins make them sweat!

RaboDirect PRO12
Friday , May 10
Ulster vs Scarlets 
Saturday , May 11
Leinster vs Glasgow

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Healy's natural position is wing, and Munster come within a testicular hair of losing to Zebre!

Three well known Irish wings (picture

The final round robin weekend finished up with a few surprises, but no major change in the standings. Connacht couldn’t end with a flourish, but they played well enough to prevent Glasgow getting the bonus point, and finish in a hugely creditable 8th position.  Ulster thumped the Cardiff Blues – it seems only a few years ago Cardiff were getting pipped in the Heineken Cup knock outs. I didn’t see the match, but Ulster racked up a good score, and got the bonus point.

Leinster got a very good score against the Ospreys- it was a great match to watch, both teams going at it hammer and tongs, and lots of open attractive rugby. Sexton is playing at his best, and it doesn’t seem to matter who they pick at the moment, they put their hands up. The pack did very well without the front line props, and I applaud Schmidt for moving Healy to the wing, his more natural position. Having said that, Conway was awesome too.

The Scarlets totally fluffed their lines against Treviso, who were only 4 points off 7th place, but still made it through after the Ospreys lost. Scarlets are a Jekyll and hide team, but hard to see them beating Ulster.
It was a makeshift Munster team, but they still came within a testicular hair of being the first victim for Zebre this season.  BJ Botha scored a try to spare their blushes in the 66th minute.

In England, the Exiles finished 9th – it looked a bit dodgy at one stage, but even without London Welsh’s points deduction, it always looked like Sale would keep them up!

RaboDirect PRO12
Friday , May 3
Edinburgh 31 - 24 Newport Gwent D'gons 
Connacht 3 - 20 Glasgow 
Ulster 37 - 13 Cardiff Blues 
Scarlets 17 - 41 Benetton Treviso 
Leinster 37 - 19 Ospreys 
Zebre 25 - 27 Munster 

Pos Team P W D L F A PD B Pts
1. Ulster  22 17 1 4 577 348 229 11 81
2. Leinster22 17 0 5 585 386 199 10 78
3. Glasgow 22 16 0 6 541 324 217 12 76
4. Scarlets22 15 0 7 436 406 30 6 66
5. Ospreys 22 14 1 7 471 342 129 4 62
6. Munster 22 11 1 10 442 389 53 8 54
7. Treviso 22 10 2 10 414 450 -36 6 50
8. Connacht22 8 1 13 358 422 -64 4 38

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Rabo round up, Joe Schmidt, Leinster and the Lions...

This is the last weekend of the RaboDirect  Pro 12 before the semis, and there is still a b to play for.

Starting off with the Scarlets should beat Treviso, although the Italians have had a good season and finish in a creditable 7th spot. If the Scarlets win they‘ll deny last season’s winners the Ospreys a top four spot.
Leinster play the Ospreys , needing to win to keep their home semi final spot – and if they win , Ulster have nominated the RDS as their home ground for the final, so it’ll be a home final if Leinster get through their semi. They played their best rugby for a long time to demolish Biarritz, so I don’t think that the Ospreys are going to be able to get anything out of this match. The Leinster team has some heavyweights missing, but it looks strong enough.

Ulster really have to beat Cardiff – otherwise they could drop as low as third, which would be a pity after all their hard work this season.  They have a full squad, apart from Ferris, to pick from, and as Cardiff don’t really have anything to play for, I think UIster will finish with a bang.

Connacht will finish in 8th place , a great result for them. They have a history of upsetting the apple cart in Galway, but this is a pretty tall order from a very in form  Glasgow side. Most sides underestimate Connacht, who defend like tigers and have some very slick backline moves. I started writing this thinking Glasgow totally had this in the bag…but now I’m going with a final flourish for Connacht!

Elsewhere –it’s all happening! Joe Schmidt has become the Ireland head honcho – and I think it’s going to be a great thing for Irish rugby. He oozes quiet confidence, he has the skills to potentially bring Ireland success playing attractive rugby, and he seems to be savvy enough to handle the PR and politics of the job. My tip is that the biggest beneficiary of his tenure is going to be Ulster – there is a lot of new talent coming through there. We’ll see!

Then his rumored replacement is Matt O’Connor, the head coach at Leicester. You can’t fault the Leinster management team for their recent judgment in picking coaches, and Schmidt and Cheika before him are hard acts to follow. I’d say he’s a hugely capable coach, but whether he’ll be able to harness the backline flair of Leinster to maximum effect remains to be seen if he gets the job.

Zane Kirchener is arriving at Leinster, slotting in as a replacement for Isa. I’d say we could have done with a lock more urgently, but he’s a good player and has top notch experience.

Finally, dem Lions! 9 Irish players, 6 from Leinster! There’s a few lucky players in that squad, Connor Murray, Dylan Hartley, Tom Youngs, Sean Maitland…even Tommy Bowe who’s hardly played at all this year. Zebo and Rory Best would be the hardest done by Irish players. But it’s a long tour, and going to be brutally there may be more opportunities coming up. Bring it on!

RaboDirect PRO12
Friday , May 3
Scarlets vs Benetton Treviso 19:45
Leinster vs Ospreys 19:45
Edinburgh vs Newport Gwent D'gons 19:45
Zebre vs Munster 19:45
Ulster vs Cardiff Blues 19:45
Connacht vs Glasgow 19:45
Pos Team P W D L F A PD B Pts
1. Ulster 21 16 1 4 540 335 205 10 76
2. Leinster21 16 0 5 548 367 181 9 73
3. Glasgow 21 15 0 6 521 321 200 12 72
4. Scarlets21 15 0 6 419 365 54 6 66
5. Ospreys 21 14 1 6 452 305 147 4 62
6. Munster 21 10 1 10 415 364 51 8 50
7. Treviso 21 9 2 10 373 433 -60 5 45
8. Connacht21 8 1 12 355 402 -47 4 38