Monthly Archives: November 2011

Welford Road Woes For Ulster

Match Report 

Leicester 20-9 Ulster

19th November @ Welford Road

Ben Youngs had an impact off the bench for the Tigers. Photo via MD+D

Ulster came away from Welford Road with nothing to show for their efforts after a bruising encounter with Leicester. A strong final quarter from Richard Cockerill’s outfit saw them take the spoils here, denying Ulster a precious bonus point in the process. In a match dominated by defence, Leicester scored the only try and that proved crucial. Despite a brave effort, Ulster failed to break down a physical Leicester side.

In a first half that lacked any clear-cut try-scoring opportunities, it was the two outhalves who featured prominently. Ulster were first on the scoreboard as Ian Humphreys smashed over a penalty from 52 metres out after only two minutes. English international Toby Flood replied for Leicester with a penalty from a similar distance.

Ulster’s early game plan involved sending the likes of Stephen Ferris, Rory Best and Pedrie Wannenburg hammering at the Leicester defence but penalty opportunities were all they could muster. Humphreys restored the Ulster lead with another three points off the tee in the 11th minute when Leicester were pinged for playing the ball on the ground after a surge from Ferris. Flood missed his next effort at goal but made up for it soon after, leveling matters after Leicester constructed a decent passage of pressure in the Ulster 22.

However, Ulster hit back almost immediately when Leicester prop Marcos Ayerza  went off his feet at ruck time. Humpreys was successful again. Leicester had no intention of letting Ulster settle or build on a lead though and Flood knocked over another penalty after the Tigers got on top of the Ulster scrum after 22 minutes. That was to be the last score before halftime. The majority of the half was played in the middle third of the pitch, with both teams’ defences proving hard to penetrate.

The half finished with excitement for Leicester fans as Matt Smith and captain Geordan Murphy combined to put Alesana Tuilagi into space down the left hand touchline. Tuilagi broke Trimble’s tackle but Humphreys and scrumhalf Paul Marshall combined to drag the Samoan winger into touch.

Leicester took the lead for the first time shortly after the interval when Ulster were again penalised by referee Romain Poite at the scrum. Flood stroked over the penalty for a 12-9 lead. Humphreys had a chance to tie the match once again soon after but he was wide with his effort. Ulster enjoyed a period of sustained possession for much of the next ten minutes with Ferris, Trimble and Gilroy all making efforts to break down the gritty Tigers’ defence. Darren Cave threatened with ball in hand too but Cockerill’s men were disciplined and aggressive, repelling every wave of attack.

With the introduction of Ben Youngs and Martin Castrogiavanni with a quarter of the match left, the tide began to turn in the Tigers’ favour. After Rory Best had won a fantastic relieving penalty in Ulster’s own 22, Humphreys crucially missed his touch. Leicester countered back downfield, and after a typically strong Tuilagi burst up the middle, Flood had time to side foot a grubber through for Matt Smith to run on to. The centre beat the covering Paul Marshall to touch down. Flood was unsuccessful with his conversion attempt.

Ulster came back at the Tigers, bravely searching for a foothold in their 22 and gaps in their defence. But once again, it was in vain as Leicester just kept on tackling. A lineout steal with five minutes to go offered a brief glimmer of hope, but Ayerza burst away from the maul and hacked the ball downfield. Marshall raced back, just beating Youngs to the ball to prevent a clinching score.

That clinching score did come for the Tigers right on the stroke of full time with Flood knocking over another penalty from distance as the Leicester pack emphasised their scrum dominance. For Ulster, failing to secure a losing bonus point may prove critical but there is a long way to go yet in this pool. They face a double header with Aironi in December and will need two wins and most likely at least one try-scoring bonus point from those two fixtures.


Photo courtesy: MD+D

Drop Goal Deja Vu

Match Report

Castres 24-27 Munster

19th November @ Stade Ernst Wallon

Ronan O’Gara repeated last week’s heroics with a match-winning drop goal in the last play of the game to ensure two wins from two for Munster in Pool 1. From a similar position to the drop goal against Northampton, O’Gara once again showed serious nerve to land the three pointer. In doing so, he earned Munster a valuable four points in a game that looked like it had slipped away from them at one stage.

Castres set the early pace at the Stade Ernst Wallon, with outhalf Pierre Bernard opening the scoring with a long-range penalty out on the left after only 3 minutes. Several minutes later he added another booming penalty, this time from inside his own half. With Munster struggling to get into the game at this early stage, Castres built on their encouraging start with the first try of the game after 11 minutes.

Following strong carries from Jannie Bornman and then Chris Masoe, Bernard spread the ball wide to the right and good hands from the outside backs manufactured a two-on-one, allowing hooker Brice Mach to go over for the score. Bernard’s conversion came back off the upright, but Castres had now built a strong 11-0 lead.

Howlett went over for his second try in two games. Photo via MD+D

Munster manufactured a replying score within ten minutes. Wian du Preez put his team on the front foot and Paul O’Connell drove on inside the 22. Conor Murray cleverly put du Preez through a gap and then moved the ball to Coughlan who released Doug Howlett to dive over for the try. O’Gara added the conversion. This passage exemplified Munster at their best. Simple, strong carries from forwards coming onto the ball, then releasing the finishers off front foot ball.

A feature of the first half was Munster’s inability to come away from promising field positions with scores on the board. Just before the Howlett try, O’Gara had scuffed a drop goal attempt after good build up-play in the Castres 22. Soon after the try, he uncharacteristically missed a straightforward penalty attempt when Masoe was penalised for not releasing the tackled player. Then, when Munster returned to the Castres 22, Coughlan was penalised for side entry at the ruck following promising phases. When Castres came back downfield and were offered an opportunity in Munster’s 22, they made no mistake.

Castres kicked in behind Munster and after Murray had cleaned up, O’Connell carried from his own five metre line. Tekori stripped the ball from the Munster captain in contact and Castres swiftly moved the ball through the hands to Lakafia, a replacement for the injured Marc Andreu, wide on the left. He stepped inside a helpless Howlett to touch down. Bernard hit a lovely conversion to put Castres into an 18-7 lead.

On the stroke of half-time, Munster won a scrum battle underneath Castres’ posts to allow O’Gara to narrow that lead. Referee Wayne Barnes had reset the scrum five times before Wihongi was singled out for his binding. O’Connell smartly opted to get the points on the board rather than go for the scrum again. Tony McGahan must have stressed the importance of making territory count at half-time, because Munster began the second half with a well-worked try.

Murray ripped the ball from Masoe in contact and Will Chambers, on for Danny Barnes,used his strong fend to break through the Castres’ defence. Murray then looped off O’Connell and popped to Niall Ronan whose quick hands allowed Peter O’Mahony to gallop to the line as Castres fullback Florian Denos and Lakafia fluffed their defensive lines. O’Mahony fully deserved his try, following up last week’s Man of the Match performance against Northampton with another high-powered effort here. O’Gara added the conversion to O’Mahony’s score.

Bernard gave Castres a four-point lead when Wayne Barnes penalised Munster for dragging down a maul. O’Gara then missed with another drop goal attempt following a counter attack involving Johne Murphy, Howlett and Ronan. Perhaps the outhalf’s drop kicking boots had been left behind in Thomond Park? With Castres holding onto the ball in the Munster half, Ronan made a crucial turnover allowing O’Gara to boot downfield, eventually resulting in Munster taking the lead for the first time.

O'Gara was the hero again. Photo via MD+D

O’Gara blocked down an attempted relieving kick from Castres’ Remi Talles and Denis Leamy, on for James Coughlan, pounced on the rebounding ball. He offloaded to Chambers who crossed the whitewash untouched. O’Gara swung his conversion through the uprights and Munster led 24-21 with ten minutes remaining. The lead didn’t last long though, as BJ Botha was punished for losing his feet at a scrum and Bernard drew Castres level with the penalty, 24-24.

Munster nearly broke through for a try with time running out when Chambers made a scything break through the middle, fending off several tacklers and showing great pace. Mafi took the offload from Chambers but Howlett was then driven into touch as the move broke down. However, the feeling remained that Munster could manufacture one more opportunity, especially with the last-gasp win over Northampton so fresh in mind.

Munster didn’t need 41 phases to construct the position for O’Gara this time. O’Leary hit his outhalf with a pinpoint long pass and, with the last act of the game, O’Gara struck another beauty from the ten-metre line. A legend, a hero, who else would you rather have in that position?

View all the tries and O’Gara’s drop goal here.

Photo courtesy: MD+D

Heineken Cup Round 2 Previews

Photo via MD+D

Castres vs. Munster @ Stade Ernst Wallon

Saturday 19th November (15.40)

Tony McGahan’s side travel to France buoyed by their thrilling injury-time win over Northampton. This fixture has been moved away from Castres’ own 10,000 capacity Stade Pierre Antoine to Toulouse’s Stade Ernst Wallon which holds almost 19,000. Castres come into this game in need of a win after their opening round 31-23 loss to the Scarlets, where a Rhys Priestland penalty late on denied them a losing bonus point.

For Castres, the most influential players include captain Chris Masoe. The former All Black notched a try last weekend and his team will look to him for inspiration. Winger Marc Andreu, who also went over for a try against the Scarlets, has been capped for France. Samoan Iosefa Tekori moves to the second row for this encounter and he can be dangerous from open play. Fullback Romain  ‘Robocop’ Teulet, who is lethal from the tee, has been dropped to the bench. Max Evans makes his first European start for Castres on the right wing, while his fellow countryman Scott Murray starts in the second row.

Castres currently sit 3rd in the Top 14 and have had wins against Stade Francais, Biarritz, Montpellier and Toulouse already this season. Clearly, this is another tough fixture for Munster. However, home advantage for Castres has been diluted with the change of venue and apparent disgruntlement of their fans at this move. With an unchanged team from last week, Munster have momentum on their side, and will target another good start. This will not be an easy day out for Munster but they should return home with another four points in the bag.

Connacht vs. Toulouse @ The Sports Ground

Saturday 19th November (18.00)

Another historic day for Connacht after last weekend’s maiden Heineken Cup match away to Harlequins. This game marks the province’s 100th game of European rugby. The Sports Ground has been sold-out so expect an extremely vocal 9,000-strong crowd. Connacht fans have been waiting for fixtures of this calibre for many years so Eric Elwood can certainly rely on a 16th man come Saturday evening.

There couldn’t be a more illustrious visitor than four-time champions Toulouse for Connacht’s first home Heineken Cup clash. They are synonymous with this tournament and represent a huge challenge. Toulouse had a difficult first fixture last weekend, having to come from behind twice to beat Gloucester 21-17 at home. They have enjoyed a great start to the Top 14 season and sit top of the table with eight wins from ten games.

With big names like Clement Poitrenaud, Florian Fritz, Census Johnston and recent Australian recruit Luke Burgess, this is another in the long line of Toulouse teams with quality all over the pitch and throughout the squad. Thierry Dusautoir, Maxime Medard, Vincent Clerc and William Servat all start this weekend for the first time since returning from the World Cup. Lionel Beauxis replaces Luke McAlister at out half. Meanwhile, the Connacht team sees one change, with David Gannon coming into the second row. Mike McCarthy moves to the back row and Ray Ofisa drops to the bench.

Connacht were disappointed to lose out to Harlequins and will once again aim to prove that they are in this tournament on merit. They showed up well against Harlequins, dogged in defence and with cutting edge in attack, scoring two tries. If they can stay close to Toulouse coming into the closing stages of the game then anything is possible. It would be a huge upset, but this is a Connacht side who fear no one. This should be a cracking game.

Leicester vs. Ulster @ Welford Road

Saturday 19th November (18.00)

Ulster opened up their Heineken Cup campaign with a 16-11 win over Clermont at Ravenhill last Saturday. Ulster were the stronger team throughout but an abundance of unforced errors meant they didn’t convert possession into scores, particularly in the first half. Brian McLaughlin was understandably pleased with his team but will stress to them that these mistakes must be reduced. Still, the defensive effort and overall performance from Ulster was encouraging and they go to Welford Road with belief.

Leicester enjoyed a 28-12 win away to Aironi last Friday but missed out on a bonus point. Toby Flood controls their game from outhalf while the occassionally unstoppable Alesana Tuilagi is a real handful on the wing. Geordan Murphy captains the side from fullback. The likes of Dan Cole, Tom Croft and Thomas Waldrom provide the grunt up front. Ex-Leinster winger Niall Morris scored a try on his Heineken Cup debut last weekend but is on the bench this week.

Tuilagi will pose a threat. Photo via MD+D

Leicester have endured a fairly torrid start to their Aviva Premiership campaign, winning only twice in eight games. As expected, they have shown better form recently with the return of their World Cup players. They will expect to continue this resurgence with a win over Ulster in front of their fans. They will not have it easy against an Ulster side led by Johann Muller and the inspired Stephen Ferris. Ulster are without Paddy Wallace for the next 6-8 weeks after he underwent thumb surgery. Nevin Spence is promoted to the centre. Declan Fitzpatrick comes in at tighthead to replace John Afoa, who had returned to New Zealand to be Jerome Kaino’s best man. The rest of the starting line-up is unchanged.

This should be a hugely physical game at Welford Road. But with Toby Flood and Ian Humphreys lining up in the number 1o jerseys, there is always a chance of play opening up. Humphreys is up against his former club and will hope to direct play in familiar surroundings. Leicester are favourites for this tie and a losing bonus point would not be a disaster for Ulster at this stage. However, with Leicester still warming up in a season that is far from vintage up to this point, McLaughlin’s men will recognise this opportunity for a vital away win.

Leinster vs. Glasgow @ The RDS

Sunday 20th November (12.45)

Sexton saved Leinster against Montpellier. Photo via MD+D

Leinster were fortunate to come away from Montpellier with a 16-16 draw last weekend after a last-minute penalty allowed Jonny Sexton to equalize for his team. Joe Schmidt will look for his side to be more ruthless this weekend at home to the Glasgow Warriors. Leinster failed to come away with scores from several promising positions against Montpellier and must be more lethal this time around.

Glasgow come to the RDS following a fantastic last-gasp victory over Bath. After a Stephen Donald penalty had put Bath ahead with only minutes remaining, Richie Gray recovered Duncan Weir’s failed drop goal attempt to drive over for the winning score. Duncan Weir kicked four penalties and two conversion, while fullback Stuart Hogg went over for the only other try in the game. While not a hugely worrying performance from Leinster’s point of view, Glasgow did display grit and determination to come away with a win in a match where the lead constantly changed hands.

Highly-rated second row Gray and openside flanker John Barclay lead the Warriors up front along with captain Ally Kellock. Chris Cusiter lines out at scrumhalf while Graeme Morrison and Rob Dewey form a big, physical centre pairing. Tommy Seymour, signed from Ulster last summer and a former Ireland under-age international, lines out on the wing for the Scottish outfit. Joe Schmidt has made several changes to his starting fifteen. Eoin O’Malley comes into the side in place of Fergus McFadden who is suffering with a dead leg. Sean Cronin is rewarded for his try-scroing performance off the bench last week with a start in place of Richardt Strauss. Eoin Reddan replaces Isaac Boss at scrum half. Cian Healy returns to the squad but starts this game on the bench.

Leinster have already hosted Glasgow at the RDS this season. That RaboDirect PRO12 fixture back in September saw Glasgow come away with a 23-19 win. While that match was played without Leinster’s World Cup players, Glasgow too were missing their key men. They will take confidence from that win but Leinster’s returned World Cup players will add far more than the Warrior’s additions. This is a must-win game for Leinster so expect nothing other than a commanding win.

Photos courtesy: MD+D

Four On Form

Heineken Cup Round 1 Matches

Photo via Jukka Zitting

In what will become a weekly feature of this blog, Four on Form looks at four Irish players who really hit form in the previous weekend’s action.

Last weekend saw wins for Munster and Ulster, a draw for Leinster and a narrow loss for Connacht in the first round of Heineken Cup action. Who were the Irish players who stood out in these matches?

Please feel free to comment at the bottom of this article letting me know who you think should have been included here or disagreeing with any of the selections. Any feedback at all would be appreciated.

Peter O’Mahony

Heineken Cup debutant O’Mahony is an obvious choice. He collected the Man of the Match award after Munster’s dramatic win over Northampton. The 22-year-old backrow was brilliantly aggressive and his workrate was never-ending. As early as the 3rd minute, O’Mahony was hounding Chris Ashton and Ben Foden into conceding the lineout which led to Varley’s opening try. Eighty minutes later, O’Mahony was still going, carrying several times during the 41 phases before O’Gara’s drop goal.

In between, he put himself about the pitch to great effect, with one important carry in the lead up to Howlett’s try. O’Mahony has already captained Munster several times this season in the PRO12 and is clearly a natural leader. He showcased his abrasive, determined side here and will hope to build on this showing. His reputation will continue to grow with performances like this and they will not go unnoticed by Declan Kidney and the Irish management team.

Sean Cronin

Cronin started Leinster’s visit to Montpellier on the bench, but had a telling impact when he was sprung in the 57th minute. With Leinster struggling to make real incisions into the Montpellier defence, Cronin made an immediate impact after taking an inside pass from Fergus McFadden. Cronin burst through a slight gap in the defence but was eventually tackled. This was only a taste of what was to come. Released by D’Arcy out wide, the hooker showed great pace to get outside Montpellier’s Gorgodze. After being dragged down by the Georgian’s tackle, but crucially not held, Cronin displayed determination to bounce back up on his feet and drive over for the try.

This was Cronin’s Heineken Cup debut, having played in the Amlin Challenge Cup with Connacht last season. Cronin will hope that his blistering 23-minute cameo will be enough for Joe Schmidt to install him ahead of Richardt Strauss for Sunday’s clash with Glasgow at the RDS. Cronin will be eager to prove that his set piece abilities match his undoubtedly dynamic contributions in possession.

Eoin Griffin

Yet another Heineken Cup debutant, outside centre Griffin had an impressive game for Connacht away to Harlequins. The Galway-native showcased his attacking threat when he cut through the ‘Quins line from a Mia Nikora pass and put Tiernan O’Halloran over for a try. Griffin has nailed down the 13 shirt for Connacht in recent times and his confidence grows with every game. The former Ireland U20 international combines good physical strength with fine handling skills and a calm head in defence.

Griffin displayed tremendous potential against Harlequins, carrying the ball well, showing a good burst of pace and being extremely solid in defence. He had no problems shackling the physically bigger Harlequins centre Jordan Turner-Hall. Griffin is another of the confident young players currently coming through within the Irish provinces. He will hope to continue his progress against Toulouse this Saturday.

Stephen Ferris

Ferris continued from where he left off at the World Cup during Ulster’s clash with Clermont. Ferris lifted the decibel levels at Ravenhill every time he carried ball. His physicality is always second to none and that was on full display last weekend. Ferris was a wrecking ball every time he had possession, knocking defenders backwards at every opportunity. He continued his position as every scrum half’s nightmare when he held up Morgan Parra, turning over the ball.

Ferris never took a backward step in a tough opening fixture for Ulster. Himself and opposite number Julian Bonnaire stepped up nose to nose just after half time, typifying this particular battle. Ferris made hard yards all day for his side and put himself about in defence too. He was replaced with four minutes left having made 12 tackles and made a huge contribution to his side’s 16-11 victory.


Photo courtesy:  Jukka Zitting

Lucky Leinster Escape Stade de la Mosson with Draw

Match Report

Montpellier 16-16 Leinster

12th November @ Stade de la Mosson

Sexton earned a drwa for Leinster in the last minute

Sexton held his nerve late on. Photo via MD+D

Jonny Sexton secured a draw for Leinster with the last kick of the game as Leinster survived a tough test in the first match of their Heineken Cup defence against Montpellier. A disciplined and physical effort from the French side had seemingly given them all four points until they conceded a penalty in the last passage of play. To a deafening chorus of boos Sexton held his nerve and kicked the three pointer. Joe Schmidt will have been relieved to get two points from this match and move onto next Sunday’s clash with Glasgow at the RDS.

Montpellier were making their Heineken Cup debut here but were not over-awed to be facing the defending champions. Indeed Fabian Galthie’s side came out highly motivated and took the game to Leinster all afternoon.

Scrumhalf Benoit Paillaugue drew first blood for Montpellier when he was successful with a penalty given for hands in the ruck. Sexton equalized for Leinster minutes later with a 39m effort just to the right of the uprights. In the 16th minute, Sexton put his team in front after Mamuka Gorgodze was pinged for not rolling away.

Leinster were doing well at managing Gorgodze’s surges on the ball. He was met by at least two tacklers every time he got his hands on the ball. Montpellier were similarly dealing well with Leinster’s wrecking ball, Sean O’Brien, taking inspiration from Wales’ example in the World Cup and cutting him down with low tackles. Trinh-Duc at outhalf was threatening every time he had the ball, carrying with pace to the gain-line. Sexton showed he too could threaten after soft hands from Cullen and Heaslip manufactured a break for their outhalf. Sexton tried a cross-kick on the run and the move came to nothing.

Both sides were showing great attacking qualities and the next few minutes were heart-stopping. Luke Fitzgerald made a scorching break into Montpellier’s 22. Leinster spread the ball across to Isa Nacewa whose attempted grubber was blocked by the feet of Argentine fullback Lucas Amorosino. After hacking the ball downfield, Amorosino won the chase and popped off the deck to France international Fulgence Ouedraogo. The powerful blind-side had a clear run to the line for the game’s first try. Paillaugue added the conversion from under the posts, 10-6 to the home side.

The diminutive scrumhalf added another penalty soon after from distance. Both sides continued to look for tries. Leinster enjoyed good field position, attacking inside the Montpellier half but the defensive effort of Galthie’s side was fantastic. Throughout the course of the match they were patient enough that they gave away few penalties but also aggressive in recognizing the opportunity to turn over possession. Ouedraogo and replacement Remy Martin excelled in this regard.

The opening fifteen minutes of the second half saw the physicality of both sides stepping up even further. Gorgodze started to gain some yards carrying as Montpellier continued to repel O’Brien and the other Leinster ball carriers. The sides were turning each other over frequently in a real breakdown battle. Gorgodze steamrolled through O’Brien’s tackle as Leinster conceded a penalty and with Paillaugue replaced by Tomas Martin, Trinh-Duc took over the place kicking duties, extending the lead to 16-6.

Leinster made several replacements coming into the last quarter. Shane Jennings, Eoin Reddan and Sean Cronin all made an impact and helped Schmidt’s men to recover the deficit. Cronin showed his dynamism on the ball soon after coming on when he took an inside pass from McFadden and burst through the defensive line. The passage broke down through a forced pass but signaled a slight shift in momentum.

Leinster had raised the tempo and were now getting on the front foot with clean rucks and quick service from Reddan. Toner showed soft hands to offload to O’Brien and the blindside finally rumbled through contact. Quick ball was spread to Cronin who bounced up from Gorgodze’s tackle and dived over for the try. Sexton converted and Leinster were back in contention, 16-13.

Leinster came straight back into the Montpellier half, searching for the winning try. Montpellier’s defence held firm, first from a maul which saw several of the Leinster backs joining the shove. Then, from a scrum five metres out on the left with only a minute left, D’Arcy knocked on. Montpellier cleared the ball and it seemed that Leinster had run out of time.

But with the seconds ticking down, Leinster came back into the Montpellier half and finally the French side’s patient defence let them down. A needless penalty for hands in the ruck gave Sexton the chance to salvage the draw for Leinster.

Photo courtesy:  MD+D