Category Archives: Ulster Rugby

Taking the positives from a post World Cup meltdown

It ain’t a happy time to be an Irish rugby fan.

After all the build up to the World Cup and talk of a possible ‘best ever’ finish, the flattest performance of the Schmidt era so far put an end to the positivity.

Since then, we’ve had the usual post loss provincial sniping, some tasty digs at the game in Ireland from the usual suspects in the press, the potential of some big defections to France and some downright depressing performances from Leinster, Ulster and Munster.

In pro. sport, the atmosphere has the capability to turn sour very quickly (just ask Stuart Lancaster). And yes, the economics of Northern Hemisphere rugby look loaded against a team from this island having European success in the near future.

But enough of the wallowing.

Tis the season to be jolly after all and from a playing point of view, there hasn’t been enough made of the good parts of the season so far.

Things aren’t that bad, and there’s plenty of reason for hope and excitement as we enter 2016.

The west’s awake

After the World Cup, the question was asked ‘where to we go from here’.

I heard a good Q&A recently with Kilkenny hurler Henry Shefflin, where the topic turned to Brian Cody. One of the things ‘King Henry’ referenced about Cody’s genius was his ability  to keep things fresh by bringing in 1-2 new young tyros each year. My guess is that Schmidt is thinking the same way, and despite all the gloom, lots of new guys are putting their hands up for green geansais.

Indeed, most of the guys doing so are already wearing the green. Connacht, despite an enormous injury list, have been the success story of the season, carrying the goodwill of all Irish fans with them. Healy, O’Halloran, honorary Irishman Aki and even unheralded forwards like Aly Muldowney have been carrying the can with some incredible skills based rugby, while both Marmion and Cooney continue to push Reddan and Boss.

Big Ally has been one of the in form forwards in the country this year. The 6'9 second row is a former basketball player, and indeed it shows when he's handling the ball.

Big Ally has been one of the in form forwards in the country this year. The 6’9 second row is a former basketball player, and indeed it shows when he’s handling the ball.

Don’t be at all surprised if Connacht keep making strides that the IRFU might knock on Mr Lam’s door if Joe decides to move on in 2017…

A Christmas Kiss

Moving northwards from Galway, one of the best European performances of the weekend came from the Ulstermen, who stormed an admittedly out of sorts Toulouse for the second week in a row.

Whether it’s a ‘bounce’ effect from Kiss coming in, or a real indication that Ulster are still a force to be reckoned with will become clear next year.

But for now, Ulster looked like a different team to the one that started the year.

It might be a cliche, but Pienaar is the real fulcrum of the side from 9. When he’s in form and controlling, PJ can concentrate on the things he does really well, like bringing in the vast array of talent from 11-15. With Madigan riding the pine, Jackson is coming back to himself nicely, and it’s heartening to see at least one Irish 10 in form (let’s presume Gareth Steenson is out of the reckoning!). Wee Paddy will never be a Sexton or ROG, and will never have the athleticism of Madigan, but with a good 9 inside him and some space to work with, he’ll carve teams open.

Perhaps more interestingly for Schmidt and the upcoming 6N is the form of McCloskey, Marshall and Trimble. Here are three guys tailor made for the current international game, and for the latter two in particular, it’s great to see them back and firing.

McCloskey in particular looks like he could be a superstar. Along with his obvious bulk and leg drive, he possesses a smart defensive brain, some nice hands and at least some semblance of a kicking game. Pairing the ‘Bangor bulldozer’ with Robbie Henshaw in the centre and Trimble (an old Schmidt favourite) back on the wing in would be very, very exciting indeed.

 

And then of course, we have the other two.

Considering this is a positive post, I won’t mention the jeering from the Thomond stands or Leinster’s complete lack of cutting edge, and instead focus on what’s gone right.

In the blue corner, Luke Fitzgerald and Rhys Ruddock were two of the best players on the pitch in both Toulon games. Ruddock looks fit and fearsome, and should provide a perfect cover for POM at 6 if the Munster man doesn’t make it back for February. Fitzgerald, though defensively still learning the inside centre role, took the scalp of Nonu a few times over the last 10 days with fleet of foot. He too offers Joe another backline option.

Leinster’s youth is also coming through slowly. Ringrose will be a star, and should see some more time in the saddle during the Christmas period, but Josh VDF and Luke McGrath have been the real start. Both could see Wolfhounds action.

Wearing the red of Munster, again leaving aside the negativity, Stander’s form is the obvious thing to emphasise. Say what you want about the project player system, if it produces any more CJs (and Bundee Aki could be another), we won’t mind. Even in defeat against Tigers, he stood up and though still a little light for international rugby, he’ll push both Heaslip and O’Brien for a starting berth.

Stander's blockdown against Embra showed a hunger to compete that Munster have lacked at times this season.

Stander’s blockdown against Embra showed a hunger to compete that Munster have lacked at times this season.

From the weekend, Mike Sherry and James Cronin put in huge shifts against two international class opponents. Given the lack of options at hooker and LH for Ireland, both could bench in the 6N too.

So where to next? Us Irish sports fans are great at bandwagon jumping, yet if the bandwagon hits a hitch, we’re also very good at cynicism and whinging. For now, let’s hold our fire. Let’s promise to enjoy the festive battles with a smile on our face. Cullen and Foley in particular are being impacted by mitigating factors, and deserve time and support to work through the issues.

Oh, and how about this for a side with fresh blood and enough experienced faces to defend a third 6N?

Henshaw, Trimble, McCloskey, Fitzgerald, Healy, Sexton, Murray, Heaslip, Stander, Ruddock, Toner, Henderson, Ross, Best, McGrath

Cronin, Sherry, Furlong, Ryan, SOB, Marmion, PJ, Earls 

Trending – Noel Reid & the return of the ‘second 5/8th’ to Irish rugby

The first time I saw Noel Reid play in the flesh, I made up my mind that he’d never make it as a professional player.

It was a weird atmosphere in the R.D.S., a strange mixture of ambivalence and venom on a sunny 2012 Good Friday evening – a B&I Cup Semi Final with extra spice, the day before Leinster would hockey a woeful Cardiff in the Heineken QF.

Much of the crowd was made up of those who came only for the drink. The R.D.S. was turned into a sort of member’s club for the night, one of the only places you could enjoy a pint in Dublin. But the usual brotherly love between Leinster and Munster crowds, and a particularly raucous bunch of Southern invaders, who had obviously made use of the alcohol availability, meant venom wasn’t in short supply!

On the night, Munster brought a fairly experienced team, while Leinster were relying more on untested Rabo players and a few bigger boys thrown in. I had heard a lot about an impish little playmaker and was looking forward to seeing him live at a fairly decent level.

Reid started that night at 10, and to say he had a nightmare would be selling it short. He was blocked down twice as far as I can remember, got turned over in contact, kicked poorly and passed poorly. He was small, light and completely shown up by his fairly limited Munster counterpart Scott Deasy. Munster won after extra time, Martin Moore showed his promise, but the big disappointment was the performance of our 10.

In the pub after, we predicted he’d diminish into obscurity, one of those Leinster names that you remember in passing.

How wrong I was though eh?

Footwork

Bulked up, devoid of the scrum cap, but retaining that playmaking ability, Reid has flourished in a permanent move to 12. Last season’s breakout was similar in many ways to how the likes of Eoin O’Malley, Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden burst onto the scene with strong Rabo performances.

Reid looked solid in the tackle, and his footwork, speed, support lines and passing  were some of the only highlights in a pretty staid Leinster Rabo backline, culminating in an Ireland cap in Argentina during the Summer.


At 24, and given the competition at 12 behind him in Leinster, Reid was perhaps entering last chance saloon, but now he’s supping champagne at the main bar. Perhaps more interestingly, in recent days, BOD, D’arcy, Heaslip and Matt O’Connor have all name checked the Clontarf lad as being a key part of the backline for this impending season.

Knowledge

For as long as we care to remember, Leinster’s 12 has been more bosh and ‘Bod foil’ than silky skills, McFadden and particularly D’arcy have played the power game to a more nuanced 13 with aplomb in recent times.

On the other hand, the term ‘second 5/8th’ in an Antipodean sense fits Reid’s bill – a smaller general supporting the two inside. The likes of Beale, O’Connor, Lealiifano and in particular Giteau have played the role recently for Oz, normally with a powerful 13 outside them, so MOC will have plenty of knowledge of the system.

Reid’s rise will come in tandem with the departure of the hallowed one at 13. With many expecting D’arcy, McFadden and Te’o to come into that jersey throughout the year,  a playmaking 12 could be critical to unlocking a backline with one of these three in the outside jersey.

Reid will also get an extended run of games, with many of the others subject to national stipulations. Like Ruddock last year and Kearney the year before, he could flourish into an important leader in that backline.

Luckily, Leinster have another potential 12 in waiting in Madigan. Increasingly, my opinion is that he’ll never make an international class 10, and with his step, pass, bulk and particularly with Le Sex supposedly returning 12 could be the answer. The extra space offers him more time to line up a man and cut a line, which is one of the key parts of his game.


O’Connor has been murmuring about an emphasis on improving backline play, as we saw from Madigan in the Rabo Final and Reid throughout the year, he has plenty of options.

Trending

The playmaking 12 seems to be the tactic du jour in Irish rugby at the minute, with our aforementioned Southern brethren set to trial it too. Since day one, Foley has been clear in his promise of having two footballers in those key positions, and with three men capable of interchanging in Hanrahan/Keatley/Bleyendaal, we should see a far smarter Munster backline. Having both Hanrahan and Keatley on the pitch at the same time last year yielded mixed results, but did seem to work in the Aime Giral…


The split backline will likely be used, with an increasingly world class Murray trusted to make the decisions, while Smith at 13 might be a similar signing to Te’o, a hard hitting, ‘up the jumper’ type to provide balance to the nuance inside.

Similarly up norf, the cult of Stuart Olding is growing. Many see the golden haired one as a 13 or 15 predominately, but with Luke Marshall’s future looking slightly cloudy and neither Cave or Payne likely to pull strings at 12, this too could be an option for Kiss to trial, at least in the Rabo.

For Reid, being mooted by BOD on his BT Sport debut, and MOC on his first big interview of the season as ‘one to keep an eye’ must be a huge boost, given where he’s come from. This should be a very interesting season for proponents of the running 12.

* Noel Reid image via Inpho

Darren Cave and the futile unfairness of pro sport

It’s funny how things can be misconstrued, purposely or otherwise, on Twitter.

Prior to the first Argentina test two weeks ago, I made a fairly off the cuff remark that I hoped Darren Cave, who had just been announced to start the game at 13, would ‘put his money where his mouth is’. Cave, famously, took a fairly sharp line at the end of 2013, with a possibly mistimed and for my money, foolish, statement.

‘Good Face’

Cave’s utterance wouldn’t have sat well with many.

The barb against a twice Lion backrow was particularly uncalled for, considering Heaslip had been made vice captain and was one of the senior leaders in the new Irish side, while Wilson is never likely to play international test rugby again. Here’s a few quotes”

“Unfortunately for me internationally the last few years haven’t gone that well and sometimes you wonder does the face not fit. Any time I’m unfortunate to read a paper that I’m mentioned in, quite often it says how I’m not established for Ulster or not first choice for Ulster, and inexperienced at international level, or for some reason not good enough to be an international rugby player.

“I don’t know how these people see that as I’ve never really had a good crack at doing it.

“I suppose it’s all motivation for me, but I still wonder sometimes does the face not fit. If you don’t know what I mean by that I suppose you should ask Roger Wilson how he has one cap for Ireland and Jamie Heaslip has 60 and two Lions tours behind him.”

Now that looks bad in the cold light of time, particularly considering Ireland’s subsuquent success without Cave.

But Schmidt is a calm and understanding man, and no doubt after an element of contriteness from the player overlooked the comments. At least, he should, simply because Cave, no matter the poor verbalisation, had somewhat of a point.

Cave was always seen as somewhat of a poster boy of Ulster rugby. With Ireland at lower levels, he stood out head and shoulders above the rest. At 27, having consistently played to a solid Heineken Cup standard, he’s never really looked like breaking into the Irish side, partly because of some guy called Brian. But there’s also elements of a mixture of southern media refusal to acknowledge him, a lack of that famed Moneyball term ‘good face‘ in terms of athleticism and speed (he’s hardly SBW, but good enough for international rugby) and partly because of the claims of guys like Fitzgerald, Earls, Henshaw, McFadden and others to the jersey, none of whom have played consistently at 13 bar the Munster man.

Pissed

I’d be pissed off too, and that was the context of my Twitter comment. Cave is a pro player with a bit of edge. He understands the competition to fill 13 is incredibly hot and has made his claim. My thinking was, with Fitz, Earls and Henshaw out of action, now is the time to put up or shut up.

However, this Summer he didn’t really do either. And that’s a problem for Joe.

Incredibly, Ireland has 10-12 or so games until the WC 2015 kicks off. Whatever your thoughts on O’Driscoll’s long walk into the sunset and indifferent form, that’s been done now and we need to find a replacement.

With Henshaw, Fitz, Earls, McFadden, Bowe and soon, most likely, Payne in the equation, there aren’t many minutes to decide who we go with. Schmidt will want a player to step in and show what he’s made of very quickly. Or else, realistically given the quality of player we’re talking about, the next guy will get a chance. Joe is nothing if not pragmatic and won’t think twice about discarding someone he doesn’t feel fits.

Payne in particular is seen as the saviour, though I have my doubts about his prowess at outside centre. For me he looks far more comfortable in the expanses of 15, given his deceptive footwork and ability to find space. However, he will almost certainly be tried at 13 in at least one of the two meaningful Autumn tests.

Henshaw meanwhile is probably first in line at this stage, and was unlucky to miss Argentina. He would likely have started last week but for injury, and again, will likely be given gametime before the 6 Nations 2015.

After that, we’re into pick and stick territory.

Step forward for your audition Darren.

Tweet

Last week in rural Resistencia, Cave was fine. Some nice breaks, some missed tackles (though not as many as others), a poor lack of speed while covering back, a general lack of incision, a knock on but a fairly ok game. We can all generally agree on that I think.


After the game, I tweeted, the following.

Of course, the knives came out and again, the statement was taken as meaning something it really didn’t.

My point was, and is, the very same as I said above. Cave has a limited window to impress, and needs to do more than just be ‘ok’ against a scratch Puma side in a Summer test.

On Saturday, McFadden was played at 13, an almost immediate back up of my theory that Cave won’t have much time in that jersey. At 12, the Ulsterman was again quiet, perhaps for good reason.

But pro sport is unfair and you must grasp your chance when it comes. In 180 minutes, Cave, for me, didn’t put his hand up enough. While there are mitigating factors, that’s the reality.

Very easily, we could see Payne start in Autumn, Henshaw come in for Spring and our Darren left to lick his wounds with Ulster in pre-season training camp.

Of course, as we saw with TOL at the last World Cup, anything can happen. But for me, this was a major opportunity missed for an undoubtedly talented guy to stake his claim.

One injury early next year, and that’s realistically the World Cup dream gone for the Hollywood man.

Here’s hoping you get another shot Darren, just make sure to grasp it this time eh?

 

What do you think? Has Cave missed his chance or am I being harsh? Will he get another before the big kick off in 2015?