Monthly Archives: December 2011

Ulster Capitalise on Munster Mistakes

Match Report

Ulster 33-17 Munster

Friday 30th December @ Ravenhill

Humphreys scored 15 points for Ulster. Photo via Fabio Beretta.

Ulster secured a try-scoring bonus point as they strolled to victory over Munster in an entertaining game at Ravenhill. The nature of this defeat will rankle with the Munster players as several of the Ulster tries came from their errors. Brian McLaughlin’s decision to rest his first-choice team for the Stephen’s Day loss to Leinster was vindicated as his more settled team overcame a Munster selection which completely failed to gel. Ulster always looked the more dangerous side in attack as they cut Munster open on several occasions.

The opening quarter of the game was a scrappy affair which foretold the entertaining game that was to follow. Ulster opened the scoring through the boot of Ian Humphreys after Lifemi Mafi went offside chasing Ian Keatley’s garryowen. Munster hit back with a try from their impressive young wing Luke O’Dea. The Shannon man collected Keatley’s cross-field kick and did well to beat the tackle of Adam D’Arcy to dive over in the right-hand corner. Keatley was on target with the difficult conversion from the touchline.

An incisive passage of Ulster play led to their next score. Humphreys slipped Pedrie Wannenburg through the Munster defence with a neat inside pass. Munster came offside as they scrambled to halt Ruan Pienaar’s snipe down the blindside. To the left of the posts, Humphreys slotted the penalty. Better was to come for Ulster as they dished out maximum punishment for a Munster mistake.

Denis Hurley spilled the ball forward as he attempted to counter-attack from his own half. Humphreys sprayed a long pass out to Darren Cave on the left. The centre had enough pace to get outside the covering defence and draw the last defender to put Stefan Terblanche over in the left-hand corner. Humphreys added the extras from the touchline to put Ulster into a 13-7 lead.

Ulster try-scorer Terblanche is a recent signing from the Natal Sharks. Photo via Ryk Neethling.

In reply, Keatley drilled over a lovely penalty from out to the right after Pienaar was penalised for questioning referee Alain Rolland’s decision-making at the breakdown. After the Munster scrum had got a strong nudge on to win another penalty, Keatley had the chance to level the game. However, he missed from what seemed an easier position than his previous kick and Ulster were let off the hook.

McLaughlin’s team responded with another try which began with Terblanche bursting out of the Ulster 22 down the left. The ball was moved through five or six pairs of hands all the way out to the right, inside Munster’s half. Chris Henry then burst through only to be hauled down by Duncan Williams. The ball was recycled and moved to Terblanche in space out on the left. The South African chose to step inside and was tackled but John Afoa was on hand to go through Williams’ tackle from just metres out. Humphreys was successful with the conversion to send Ulster into half-time 20-10 to the good.

The first half had seen Munster clearly dominant in the scrum, but on resumption of play, Ulster turned the set-piece on its head. From a Munster put-in on their own 10 metre line, Ulster got a huge shove on. As Williams picked from the base of the retreating scrum, Willie Fallon’s tackle forced him into a knock-on. Humphreys hacked the bouncing ball ahead and won the race to touch down. The outhalf inexplicably missed the easy conversion but still, it was a weak 5 points to concede from Munster’s point of view.

More of the same followed 10 minutes later. Once again, Ulster shunted Munster back on their own put-in to the scrum. Williams tried to dig the ball out of the scrum as it travelled backwards. Under pressure from Henry, his attempted pass went loose and bounced up perfectly for Pienaar to run onto and stride over from inside his own half. Humphreys missed again with the conversion but Munster now had a mountain to climb after the complete turnaround of their first-half scrum dominance.

Chambers came on for the injured Gleeson and looked Munster's most dangerous player. Photo via M+MD.

Despite a period of sustained possession, Munster failed to create any semblance of a try-scoring opportunity. On the occasions they did find their way into Ulster territory, knock-ons meant they coughed up that possession. It was Ulster who continued to look the more threatening as they moved the ball wide at every opportunity. Humphreys extended their lead with a penalty from under the posts after David O’Callaghan had entered a ruck from the side.

With the clock running down, Munster did get a consolation try. Ulster looked to attack out of their 22 but Pienaar’s pass to substitute Peter Nelson was at the young fullback’s feet. The ball rebounded up for Johne Murphy to gather and stretch over. Keatley converted with the final score of the game.

In the end, a comfortable win for Ulster. Tony McGahan will be disappointed with some of the individual performances from his team. There weren’t many positives to be taken from this game, apart from the promising glimpses of talent from Luke O’Dea. McLaughlin will be delighted with the five points and relieved that his decision to rest players against Leinster was vindicated. Without the Irish internationals, this inter-provincial derby was always going to be devalued. Ulster dealt better with the losses and these five points mean they remain in the hunt for a play-off place.

ULSTER: 15 A D’Arcy (P Nelson, 71), 14 C Gilroy, 13 D Cave (C Farrell, 63), 12 I Whitten, 11 S Terblanche, 10 I Humphreys (P Marshall, 67), 9 R Pienaar, 1 P McAllister (C Black, 62), 2 A Kyriacou (N Brady, 55), 3 J Afoa (A Macklin, 71), 4 J Muller (capt.), 5 D Tuohy (L Stevenson, 62), 6  C Henry, 7 W Faloon (A Birch, 71), 8 P Wannenburg.

MUNSTER: 15 D Hurley, 14 L O’Dea, 13 T Gleeson (W Chambers, 27), 12 L Mafi (S Deasy, 63), 11 J Murphy, 10 I Keatley, 9 D Williams (T O’Leary, 62), 1 W du Preez (M Horan, 69), 2 D Varley (D Fogarty, 49), 3 S Archer, 4 I Nagle (B Holland, 73), 5 M O’Driscoll (capt.), 6 Dave O’Callaghan, 7 T O’Donnell (P Butler, 37), 8 J Coughlan.

Referee: A Rolland (IRFU).


Photos courtesy:  Ryk Neethling, M+MD, Fabio Beretta.

PRO12 Previews

Ulster vs. Munster @ Ravenhill

Friday 30th December, 19.05 (RTE 2) 

Keatley continues at 10 for Munster. Photo via M+MD.

Brian McLaughlin’s decision to rest his first-choice fifteen for the Stephen’s Day clash with Leinster lead to an inevitable 42-13 loss. Ulster come into this inter-provincial derby with their front-liners all restored to the starting line-up. The northern province lie 8th in the league after the loss to Leinster so a home win would be a timely boost before the new year.

Tony McGahan also chose a second-string side for Munster’s Stephen’s Day clash with Connacht. However, that team still proved strong enough to give John Hayes a winning send off at Thomond Park. Munster remain in 3rd after that 24-9 win but a loss at Ravenhill could mean dropping out of the play-off places depending on results elsewhere.

For this derby, McGahan has retained only three of the winning team from Stephen’s Day. Those players are captain Mick O’Driscoll, young wing Luke O’Dea and outhalf Ian Keatley. Tom Gleeson gets his third start of the season alongside Lifemi Mafi in the centre. Ian Nagle is included alongside O’Driscoll in the second-row. Surprisingly, given his form last season, this is Nagle’s first start of the campaign.

Johne Murphy is back on the wing for Munster. (c) Ivan O'Riordan

Elsewhere, Stephen Archer comes in at loosehead and Munster Academy player Dave O’Callaghan starts in the back-row, where he is joined by Tommy O’Donnell. Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Donnacha Ryan, Conor Murray and Keith Earls are all in training camp with the Irish squad. McGahan has also decided to rest Danny Barnes and Niall Ronan who have featured heavily so far this season.

Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has named a completely different starting fifteen from Monday’s loss to Leinster. Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Tom Court and Andrew Trimble join the Munster internationals at Carton House for that Ireland training camp. Nevin Spence joins the likes of Paddy Wallace and Simon Danielli on the injury-list. Recent South African signing Stefan Terblanche starts on the wing while Ian Whitten joins Darren Cave in midfield. Ruan Pienaar continues at scrumhalf and New Zealander John Afoa is back in at tighthead.

With home advantage, Ulster will be confident of beating their inter-provincial rivals. However, they have not looked the same team without Ferris and Best when they have been rested this season. Munster have a promising-looking blend of experience and youth. McGahan’s team look narrow favourites for this one. It will be a fiercely contested inter-pro no matter what the outcome. A win either way would not be greeted with surprise.

ULSTER: 15 Adam D’Arcy, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Ian Whitten, 11 Stefan Terblanche, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Chris Henry, 7 Willie Faloon, 6 Pedrie Wannenburg, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Johann Muller (capt.), 3 John Afoa, 2 Andi Kyriacou, 1 Paddy McAllister.
Subs: 16 Nigel Brady, 17 Callum Black, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Lewis Stevenson, 20 Ali Birch, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Chris Farrell, 23 Peter Nelson.

MUNSTER: 15 Denis Hurley, 14 Luke O’Dea, 13 Tom Gleeson, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Johne Murphy, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Duncan Williams, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 Dave O’Callaghan, 5 Mick O’Driscoll (capt.), 4 Ian Nagle, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Damien Varley, 1 Wian du Preez.
Subs: 16 Denis Fogarty, 17 Marcus Horan, 18 John Ryan, 19 Billy Holland, 20 Paddy Butler, 21 Tomas O’Leary, 22 Scott Deasy, 23 Will Chambers.

Connacht vs. Leinster @ The Sportsground

Sunday 1st January, 17.00 (TG4)

Nacewa moves to fullback for the New Years Day derby with Connacht. Photo via M+MD.

Well things just don’t get any easier for Connacht, do they? After a record 11th defeat in a row in the Stephen’s Day derby with Munster, Eric Elwood’s team now take on the league leaders Leinster. The sheer depth of the Leinster squad means that even when Joe Schmidt rotates players, it’s usually still a strong team on paper. That competition for places is a luxury that Elwood can only dream of. Even with Munster fielding a weakened team on Monday, Connacht’s first-choice never looked like potential winners.

Leinster are now 6 points clear at the summit of the PRO12 table following their bonus-point victory over Ulster. Connacht, meanwhile, languish in 10th, but the Newport Gwent Dragons have a game in hand which, if won, would see them move above Connacht. Ulster are only 5 points ahead of the western province and a couple of wins would mean Connacht challenging for automatic qualification for the Heineken Cup. However, in their current form, it’s extremely difficult to see where those wins will come from, certainly not against this Leinster team.

Joe Schmidt has once again made changes to his team. Andrew Conway is chosen on the wing after making his comeback from injury off the bench on Monday. The pacy young winger is joined in the back-line by his ex-Blackrock teammate Brendan Macken. This is only Macken’s second start of the season, and he has been more famous for his impressive impersonations than his rugby exploits recently. Up front, there are further recent Leinster Academy graduates in props Jamie Hagan and Jack McGrath. A decision on who will occupy the number 7 jersey, as well as two of the slots on the bench, will be made closer to kick-off.

Connacht were limited in the changes they could make for this match by the lack of depth in their squad. 6′ 5″ Connacht Academy player Mick Kearney gets his first start for the province, replacing the injured Dave Gannon in the back-row. Adrian Flavin gets the nod ahead of Ethienne Reynecke at hooker. In the backline, Kyle Tonetti comes into the centre for the injured Dave McSharry, Paul O’Donohoe is chosen ahead of Frank Murphy at scrumhalf and Brian Tuohy is back on the wing in place of Fetu’u Vainikolo.

Paul O'Donohoe lines out against his former club. (c) Ivan O'Riordan

Despite the youthful look to their side, Leinster should have too much for a Connacht outfit short on form, confidence and quality. It would be magnificent to see Connacht finally end their long-term slump but it doesn’t look likely that they will be ringing in the New Year with any victory celebrations.

CONNACHT: 15 Gavin Duffy (capt.), 14 Brian Tuohy, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Kyle Tonetti, 11 Tiernan O’Halloran, 10 Niall O’Connor, 9 Paul O’Donohoe, 8 John Muldoon, 7 Johnny O’Connor, 6 Mick Kearney, 5 Mike McCarthy, 4 George Naoupu, 3 Ronan Loughney, 2 Adrian Flavin, 1 Brett Wilkinson.                        Subs: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Denis Buckley, 18 Dylan Rogers, 19 Eoin McKeon, 20 TJ Anderson, 21 Frank Murphy, 22 Matthew Jarvis, 23 Henry Fa’afili.

LEINSTER: 15 Isa Nacewa, 14 Dave Kearney, 13 Eoin O’Malley, 12 Brendan Macken, 11 Andrew Conway, 10 Ian Madigan, 9 Isaac Boss, 8 Leo Auva’a, 7 Kevin McLaughlin/Shane Jennings, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 Damien Browne, 4 Leo Cullen (capt.), 3 Jamie Hagan, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Jack McGrath.                                 Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Heinke van der Merwe, 18 Nathan White, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Shane Jennings/Jordi Murphy, 21 John Cooney, 22 Noel Reid/Fionn Carr, 23 Luke Fitzgerald.

Photos courtesy:  MD+D, Ivan O’Riordan.

Paul McCarthy Interview

Munster's scrum has been impressive so far this season. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

I had the chance for a quick catch up with the Munster Scrum coach Paul McCarthy at the Munster Scrum Clinic he gave at the Waterford Institute of Technology just before Christmas. You can listen to the short interview by clicking the link at the bottom of this page.

Munster’s scrum has come in for justified praise this season as it has been turned into one of the real strengths of this team. The arrival of BJ Botha has obviously played a big part in this but credit has to go to Scrum Coach Paul McCarthy too. Along with the forwards coach Axel Foley, McCarthy has turned what was a trouble area for Munster last season into a real threat this year. Wian du Preez has been brilliant at loosehead and the scrum as a unit is working well.

John Hayes and Marcus Horan have been lending experience in their squad roles and promising youngsters like Stephen Archer, Sean Henry and Dave Kilcoyne have gotten exposure to the senior team this year too. In Jerry Flannery’s continued absence, Damien Varley has assumed the first-choice hooker role but Denis Fogarty has kept pressure on Varley with his form in the PRO12. This competition for places has obvious benefits to the Munster squad.

Munster’s forward packs have always prided themselves on a high work-rate and this season is no different. However, one of the more noticeable aspects this season has been the amount of work their props are getting through. Often, props are thought to be solely concerned with getting the scrum and lineout right and maybe adding the odd tackle or carry from time to time. But Botha and du Preez have been extremely busy around the pitch this season.

Hayes' experience will be greatly missed. (c) Ivan O'Riordan

Both props have been noticeable in defence with their consistently high tackle counts. As well as this, the South African pair have been offering themselves up as effective ball carriers. Du Preez in particular has improved greatly in this area. In the second-row, the magnificent form of Paul O’Connell has been complemented by the battle between Donncha O’Callaghan and Donnacha Ryan to partner him. This competition is bringing the best out of both players and the likes of Ian Nagle and Dave Foley will have to wait for their chance to impress.

In the back-row too there has been competition for places, even without David Wallace. Peter O’Mahony’s breakthrough has been well-documented and has added to the options at the back of the scrum. Niall Ronan is in the best form of his career and James Coughlan is another enjoying a flourish of late. Denis Leamy had been impressive off the bench before finally starting in O’Mahony’s absence in the second game against the Scarlets. Younger squad members like Tommy O’Donnell and Paddy Butler have also excelled when given the chance.

Munster’s 4 wins in the Heineken Cup have been built on dominant performances from their pack. The back-line hasn’t really sparkled, but then when has it ever really done so for Munster? With so many of the forwards mentioned above in good form, it makes sense for Munster to play to their strengths in the scrum, maul and strong carries closer in. With so many defences now blitzing up hard out wide, the combination of Ronan O’Gara’s intelligent tactical kicking and the brawn of this Munster pack is winning games for Munster.

Here’s the interview with Munster Scrum Coach Paul McCarthy:


Photos courtesy:  Ivan O’Riordan

Four on Form

Heineken Cup Round 4 Matches

Photo via Jukka Zitting.

Luke Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald had a lively outing for Leinster against Bath as he showed just how talented a player he is. Fitzgerald seems to be gradually rediscovering his best form after a couple of inconsistent seasons and that continued at the Aviva. As pointed out by his teammate Brian O’Driscoll after Saturday’s game, Fitzgerald seems to be making good decisions more often than not. In the past, the 23-times capped Irish international has often been guilty of bad decision making and an over eagerness in attack. This season we have seen a seemingly more relaxed Fitzgerald and his all-round game has benefited from this approach.

Fitzgerald scored two tries at the Aviva on Saturday. Photo via M+MD.

On Saturday against Bath, Fitzgerald showcased his footwork and pace as he scored twice. The first try was a fairly routine run-in after Devin Toner and Rob Kearney had done all the hard work. However, the Blackrock man’s second try was the winger at his best. He showed neat footwork to step inside and swerve around two tacklers then his initial burst to get away from the covering defence was lightning-quick. In between his own two tries, Fitzgerald’s pace helped him to provide the try-scoring pass for Jonathan Sexton’s score.

Declan Kidney will surely be impressed with how Fitzgerald has bounced back from the disappointment of missing out on the World Cup squad. The form of the 24-year-old means that Kidney will probably involve Fitzgerald in the upcoming Six Nations squad. Ireland are certainly not short on options on the wing at the moment but if the Leinster man puts in more displays of this quality then we will see him back in the green jersey sooner rather than later.

Fitzgerald’s key stats vs. Bath:

Tries/Assists: 2/1     Clean line-breaks: 3     Defenders beaten: 4                           Metres gained on ball: 135     Turnovers: 2     Tackles made/missed: 5/2

Conor Murray

Murray in action against Aironi earlier in the season. (c) Ivan O'Riordan

Murray needed a big game against the Scarlets and he delivered. Murray was not at his best in the first match of the double-header with the Scarlets but he responded well on Sunday. Tomas O’Leary has impressed off the bench for Munster and is keeping the pressure on Murray. Both players are benefiting from the competition and that can only be a good thing for Tony McGahan’s squad. It’s easy to forget how early a stage Murray’s career is at, especially when he puts in a showing like he did on Sunday.

Against the Scarlets at Thomond Park, Murray showed how complete a scrumhalf he is. He is superb at directing play and he gets the best out of the Munster forward pack in terms of carrying. The 22-year-old’s intelligence lies in how and when he hits the runner. He varies his game well between direct passes from the base of the ruck, sniping himself or taking a few steps before hitting the ball-carrier. This variation keeps opposition fringe defences constantly guessing.

Perhaps the area of his game that needs most work is his box-kicking. While the Limerick native is a naturally talented striker of the ball, he can sometimes put a little too much length on his box-kicks which means the opposition has time to counter-attack before the Munster chase is upon them (For example, Chris Ashton’s try against Munster). This consistency will come with experience, and Murray’s kicking was very good on Sunday.

Murray’s ability to carry the ball himself is what makes him such a rounded scrumhalf. The Scarlets game was a perfect example of this. Murray carried the ball 9 times over the course of his 63 minutes on the pitch. That was the most carries by any scrumhalf over the whole weekend of Heineken Cup action. His break in the second half showed his ability on the ball, as well as a good turn of pace. Another strength of Murray’s is his defensive game. He is physical enough to make his tackles and he is brave under the high ball. Murray’s all-round performance was a remainder of what made him Ireland’s first-choice number 9 at the World Cup.

Murray’s key stats vs. Scarlets:

Kick/Pass/Run: 3/35/9     Metres gained on ball: 50     Clean line-breaks: 1         Offloads: 2     Tackles made/missed: 7/1

Tiernan O’Halloran

O’Halloran put in another promising performance for Connacht as they went down 23-19 to a late Gloucester try. The 20-year-old Galway native has been one of Connacht’s better performers this season despite the fact that he has been starved of quality ball. While the likes of Luke Fitzgerald benefit from Leinster’s expansive style of play, O’Halloran rarely gets much time and space on the ball with Connacht’s more limited style. However, the young winger almost always makes the gainline when he is in possession. He has an uncanny ability to make a yard or two more than looks possible.

Against Gloucester, O’Halloran had the most carries of any player on the pitch. Many of these were kick returns but the Ireland U20 international is also intelligent in coming off his wing and involving himself in open play. O’Halloran had 13 carries but only actually made 26 metres of gains. This is a misleading statistic though as much of the time O’Halloran got on the ball he was under immediate pressure. The fact that he still made positive yards is actually an impressive thing.

O’Halloran was on the scoresheet against Gloucester, his 2nd try in 4 Heineken Cup matches. Much like his try against Harlequins, O’Halloran didn’t have much to do on Saturday but he at least shows the awareness and work-rate to be in the right place to finish off line-breaks. Defensively, O’Halloran appears to be solid. He made all 6 of his tackle attempts against Gloucester and, as has been mentioned, he fielded a high number of kicks as well.

O'Halloran is hopefully part of a "New Dawn" in Connacht. Photo via boocal.

This was another promising exhibition of O’Halloran’s talent. Along with the likes of David McSharry and Eoin Griffin, the ex-Roscrea man offers hope for the future of Connacht rugby. Eric Elwood will recognise the importance of ensuring O’Halloran joins Griffin and McSharry in tying his future down to the province. If he continues to perform like he did against Gloucester, lots of clubs will be sniffing around O’Halloran.

O’Halloran’s key stats vs. Gloucester:

Kick/Pass/Run: 1/2/13     Clean line-breaks: 1     Offloads: 1                                Tackles made/missed: 6/0     Turnovers: 1     Metres gaines on ball: 26

Tom Court

Court was one of Ulster’s best players as they secured a vital try-scoring bonus point away to Aironi in Round 4. The Australian-born prop has 24 caps for Ireland and was part of the World Cup squad, but it is sometimes easy to wonder just why he is rated so highly by the Irish management. His display on Saturday was a typically efficient example of what he brings to the pitch. As a relative late-comer to the sport of rugby, the former shot-putter is still improving, even at the age of 31. He only played rugby for the first time in 2004 so to be where he is now is an incredible achievement.

Against Aironi, Court was an integral part of an Ulster scrum that won 100% of their own scrums. This was against an experienced pack of Italian internationals. With John Afoa at tighthead, Court at loosehead and Rory Best hooking, the Ulster front row is particularly strong currently. Court managed to get over for his 2nd try of the season with a pick-and-go from a metre out. A fairly unspectacular score but that’s they type of player Court is. He gets his job done without any fanfare and there is something of John Hayes in that characteristic.

Court’s ability to cover both tighthead and loosehead is what makes him a valuable squad player for Ireland. To have someone as solid as him on the bench is reassuring in case of injuries. Declan Kidney will be encouraged to see that Court is still growing and improving as a player. He will no doubt be a part of the Ireland squad once again for the 2012 Six Nations. Kidney will hope that Court can continue to improve, helping to create even more competition in the Ireland squad.

Photos courtesy:  Jukka Zitting, Ivan O’Riordan, M+MD, boocal.

Heineken Cup Round-Up

Gloucester 23-19 Connacht

Saturday 17th December @ Kingsholm

Connacht's defence let them down at the death. Photo via Eoin Gardiner.

Connacht came so, so close to ending their miserable run of defeats but were denied as Gloucester replacement Johnny May scored a try with only four minutes remaining. This was a much improved showing from the Heineken Cup minnows and they will be devastated to have left this one behind them. In doing so, they have now recorded a club record 10th defeat in a row. If they can match this performance at Kingsholm in the coming weeks, that run will finally come to an end.

Connacht scored one lovely try after Frank Murphy intercepted Gloucester flyer Charlie Sharples’ pass. The scrumhalf offloaded to Gavin Duffy who then popped the ball back inside to Murphy. George Naoupu took Murphy’s second offload and looked to be clear, but was hauled down metres short of the tryline. He had the awareness to pop the ball off the deck to the supporting Tiernan O’Halloran who dotted down. Niall O’Connor converted that try and added four penalties over the course of the 80 minutes.

For Gloucester, outhalf Tim Taylor scored a try, conversion and penalty in the first half before being replaced by Freddie Burns at the break. Burns knocked over two penalties as well as the conversion after May’s late try. The match looked to have gone Connacht’s way when O’Connor was successful with a penalty 8 minutes from time to leave his side 19-16 up. But a weak missed tackle by substitute hooker Adrian Flavin allowed May to break through the Connacht line and use his pace to go all the way.

There are certainly positives Connacht can take from this defeat. O’Connor was vastly better than the previous weekend. His kicking from hand was exquisite at times. Along with O’Halloran, Eoin Griffin and David McSharry there is obvious potential in the Connacht backline. Clearly, forwards coach Dan McFarland spent a lot of the week running up to this game working on set pieces as Connacht were greatly improved at the scrum and lineout. There were far fewer individual errors too, but as we saw with May’s late try, even one mistake can have fatal consequences.

Here’s a look at Pool 6 after the weekend’s action:

Aironi 20-46 Ulster

17th December @ Stadio Brianteo

Ian Humphreys kicked 12 points in Italy. Photo via M+MD.

Ulster scored 6 tries as they overcame a second-half resurgence from Aironi to leave Italy with a five crucial points. Brian McLaughlin’s charges dominated the opening half to lead 27-3 at the break through tries from Andrew Trimble, Tom Court and a penalty try after a fantastic rolling maul was dragged down by the Aironi pack. Ian Humphreys converted all three tries and tacked on two penalties as well.

Ulster came out from the half-time interval in a less than convincing manner and allowed the Italians back into the game through their own sloppy play. Aironi scored two tries through wing Sinoti Sinoti and substitute Roberto Quartaroli. Luciano Orquera converted one of the tries to bring the game back to 27-15. Ulster were finally stirred into action and Craig Gilroy was on hand to finish a good team move which secured the bonus point.

Aironi then went over for another try when replacement back-row George Biagi took Quartaroli’s offload close to the line to go over untouched. But Ulster confirmed the win with late scores from South African Robbie Diack and sub Adam Macklin. Ruan Pienaar added two conversions in the second half to leave Ulster with a 46-20 win.

These five points keep Ulster at the top of Pool 4. The pool is wide open following Leicester’s win over Clermont, with all three sides still competing to top the group or secure a best placed runners-up spot. Ulster host Leicester in January in a must-win game. If they can do that and then secure a losing bonus point away to Clermont, it could be enough to see them through as a best placed runner-up. However, even though there are only two rounds of pool games left, nothing is decided. That’s the beauty of the Heineken Cup.

Here’s how Pool 4 stands after last weekend:

Here’s the Ulster tries against Aironi. This is a playlist, so just let each one play through and you’ll be able to select the next try:

And here’s the highlights from the other game in Pool 4 on Saturday between Leicester and Clermont:

Leinster 52-27 Bath

Saturday 17th December @ Aviva Stadium

Devin Toner had a great game for Leinster. Photo via M+MD.

Leinster scored 7 tries as they hammered a far inferior Bath side in front of a big crowd at the Avia. You can read the full match report here. At times, Leinster were just sensational and if they can consistently match the heights they hit at times on Saturday then no team will beat them. With such a strong squad too, it is hard to see injuries affecting Leinster too much. Still, there’s a long way to go before the business end of this competition.

Leinster are looking comfortable now at the top of Pool 3 and should secure a home quarter final with wins over Glasgow and Montpellier in the final two rounds of pool fixtures. Joe Schmidt will certainly head into Christmas in positive form after this win, although he was frustrated by how his team switched off for the closing quarter of the game. It is a measure of this Leinster squad that they will find negatives after a win like this.

Here’s how Pool 3 looks following the action over the weekend:

And here’s the highlights from Leinster’s win over Bath:

Munster 19-13 Scarlets

Sunday 18th December @ Thomond Park

O'Gara was crucial for Munster yet again. Photo via M+MD.

Munster had another hard-fought win on Sunday. They’ve now won 4 from 4 in Pool 1. It was a case of more of the same from Munster as O’Gara kicked 14 of the points and James Coughlan touched down at the back of a rolling maul. The Scarlets were threatening in patches but once again lacked the accuracy to finish off the breaks they made. They scored a try of their own through substitute prop Ken Owens. Rhys Priestland kicked a conversion and a penalty while Stephen Jones added a penalty of his own.

Tony McGahan was happy with another win but admitted to being disappointed with the performance from Munster. Regardless, Munster are now very well positioned to go on and secure a home quarter-final. They’re 4 points clear of the Scarlets at the top of Pool 1 and next up are a Castres side who have lost all interest in this competition. McGahan will hope to secure Munster’s first bonus point win in that game.

Here’s Pool 1 after four rounds of action:

Anyone who missed Munster vs. Scarlets can watch the entire match over on the TG4 Player. Just click on ‘Sport’ under the ‘Archive’ menu then select ‘Rugbai Corn Heineken’.

Photos courtesy:  Eoin Gardiner, M+MD.

Leinster Lay Down Heineken Cup Marker

Match Report – Heineken Cup Round 4

Leinster 52-27 Bath

17th December @ Aviva Stadium

Leinster were far too strong for Bath at the Aviva. Photo via M+MD.

Leinster blew Bath away with a scintillating 60 minute performance in front of a 46,365 crowd at the Aviva. This performance clearly marks Leinster out as one of the favourites for the tournament. While the last 20 minutes of the game saw Leinster thoughts turn to their Christmas party, the display up until that point was as complete as it possibly could have been. Dominant set-piece, crisp handling, exhilarating pace and aggressive defence were all part of the package. With so many of the Leinster players in top form, Bath never had a hope.

The match was over as a contest within 30 minutes, as Leinster blitzed Bath early on. Rob Kearney gave the home side the lead after just 3 minutes. Jonathan Sexton’s penalty effort came off the post and Devin Toner was quickest to react, using his height to claim the bouncing ball. Leinster recycled and Eoin Reddan’s clever flick pass caught Bath unaware and allowed Kearney to dive over. Sexton added the conversion for a promising start.

Ex-England centre Olly Barkley got Bath back into the game with two penalties, but in between Sexton came up with a fantastic drop goal to keep the scoreboard ticking over for Leinster. Bath fullback Sam Vesty’s clearance kick was straight down Sexton’s throat and he had more than enough time on the ball to smack home the drop goal from 45 metres out.

Leo Cullen was sent to the sin-bin for a punch but that didn’t effect Leinster in the slightest. Their next try came from an unexpected source. 6′ 10″ second-row Toner dummied and then made a lovely one-handed offload to Kearney, who drew the last defender and put Luke Fitzgerald over for the try. It was a subtle, surprising piece of play from Toner, part of a strong display by the 25-year-old. Sexton was on target with the conversion to give Leinster a 17-6 lead.

Next to cross the tryline was Sexton himself after another passage of sumptuous Leinster play. Sexton used the Leinster trademark loop off Jennings to give McFadden the space to send Fitzgerald speeding down the left-hand touchline. He drew in the covering defender and Sexton was on his inside to take the scoring pass and stride over. Sexton converted his own try as Cullen returned to the pitch. Leinster has scored 14 unanswered points while their captain took a breather.

Sexton scored Leinster's 3rd try as well as kicking 16 points. Photo via M+MD.

Following half-time, Leinster picked up immediately from where they had left off. Directly from the kick-off, they shifted the ball from right to left, through the hands. A beautiful skip pass from McFadden allowed Kearney to use his footwork, fix the outside defender and hit Fitzgerald, just outside Leinster’s own 22. Fitzgerald did the rest as he beat two defenders and showed a tremendous burst of pace to go the length of the field. Once again, Sexton knocked over the conversion.

Scrumhalf Reddan got a deserved try ten minutes later as he sniped over from close range following strong carries from Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy. Sexton added the extras. Any hope of a Bath revival was extinguished as first Vesty and then Chris Billar were yellow-carded. Replacement back-row Rhys Ruddock got Leinster’s 6th try when he went through a weak tackle after Kearney had made the initial break. Sexton was on target with his conversion.

With a whole raft of changes to the Leinster team, their focus started to slip in the last quarter as Bath tried to restore some pride. All Blacks World Cup winner Stephen Donald went through Eoin O’Malley’s tackle to get Bath’s first score of the second half. Barkley nailed the conversion from out to the right. Bath second-row Dave Attwood crossed next for Bath, with Barkley again successful with the conversion.

Leinster briefly awoke as O’Malley cleverly took a quick lineout in the Bath 22, and Jamie Heaslip surged up the middle. Isaac Boss then hit fellow replacement Ian Madigan, who stepped inside a tackle to dot down. Isa Nacewa took over the kicking duties and duly slotted the easy conversion. The game ended with another try for Bath as they won the restart and eventually substitute Ben Williams went through some uninterested tackles to touch down. Barkley knocked over the conversion with the last act of the game.

The true measure of this Leinster side lies in the fact that they will be frustrated with their performance in the last quarter of this clash. If they can consistently match the levels they hit in the first 60 minutes at the Aviva then most teams will find it extremely difficult to stay with them. Leinster now have a comfortable 6 point lead at the top of Pool 3. If they maintain this form, you would have to fancy them to wrap things up when they travel to Glasgow on the second weekend of January.

Leinster: R Kearney; I Nacewa, E O’Malley, F McFadden (G D’Arcy, 53), L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (I Madigan, 59), E Reddan; H Van Der Merwe (C Healy, H-T), R Strauss (S Cronin, 53), M Ross (N White, 65), L Cullen (capt, K McLaughlin, 59), D Toner, S O’Brien (R Ruddock, 53), J Heaslip, S Jennings (I Boss, 78).

Bath: S Vesty; J Cuthbert (B Williams, 56), M Banahan, O Barkley, N Abendanon; S Donald (T Heathcote, 68), M Claassens (C Cook, 56); D Flatman, C Biller (R Batty, 67), D Wilson, D Attwood, R Caldwell, F Louw (capt), S Taylor (A Beattie, 53) G Mercer.

Referee: Romain Poite (France)


Photos courtesy:  M+MD

Heineken Cup Round 4 Previews

Aironi vs. Ulster @ Stadio Luigi Zaffanella

Saturday 17th December, 13.30 (Sky Sports 1, red button)

Johann Muller captains Ulster from the second-row again. Photo via Chris Jobling.

Ulster secured five points against Aironi last weekend as they ran in five tries in a 31-10 win. Brian McLaughlin and his side know that they will need to do the same in Italy if they are to fulfill their ambitions of progressing from the pool stage. Clermont travel to Leicester on Saturday in the other fixture from Pool 6. Leicester need to win that one if they want to stay in contention, and whichever way that result goes, Ulster will still be in a strong position to get out of the group, particularly if they secure a bonus point win in Italy.

But McLaughlin will have ensured his players’ focus is on the Aironi tie first and foremost. The Ulster team sees just one change. Tom Court comes back in after Paddy McAllister was given a chance to start last weekend. Nevin Spence has recovered from the rib injury sustained last Friday night in the win over Aironi and keeps his place in the centre alongside Darren Cave. Ruan Pienaar resumes his comeback from injury at scrumhalf.

Aironi have made several changes after their disappointing performance last weekend. Andrea Masi is back in the centre for the Italians and his experience will be a big boost. Ruggero Trevisan comes in at fullback while Giovanbattista Venditti takes the place of Italian international Matteo Pratichetti on the wing.. At flyhalf, Tito Tebaldi is replaced by Luciano Orquera, who was involved in the World Cup with Italy. Up front, the only change is an enforced one. Last weekend’s captain Carlo Del Fava is out but is replaced by another Italian international, Quintin Geldenhuys. Marco Bortolami takes over the captaincy.

This is an Aironi side who have lost 3 from 3 in the Heineken Cup as well as 9 from 10 in the PRO12 this season. Clearly, Ulster are not getting ahead of themselves in targeting the bonus point. Aironi have nothing but pride to play for, although that can be a massive motivation for Italian teams. Leicester failed to secure a bonus point on their trip to Italy in the first round of pool fixtures as they won 28-12. Ulster cannot afford to make the same mistake and the likes of Stephen Ferris and Rory Best will ensure they take the five points.

AIRONI: 15 Ruggero Trevisan, 14 Sinoti Sinoti, 13 Andrea Masi, 12 Gabriel Pizarro, 11 Giovanbattista Venditti, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Tyson Keats, 8 Josh Sole, 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Nicola Cattina; 5 Marco Bortolami (capt.), 4 Quintin Geldenhuys, 3 Lorenzo Romano, 2 Fabio Ongaro, 1 Salvatore Perugini.
Subs: 16 Tommaso D’Apice, 17 Alberto De Marchi, 18 Fabio Staibano, 19 George Biagi, 20 Filippo Ferrarini, 21 Tito Tebaldi, 22 Naas Olivier, 23 Roberto Quartaroli.

ULSTER: 15 Adam D’Arcy; 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Nevin Spence, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Ian Humphreys, 9 Ruan Pienaar; 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Johann Muller (capt.), 3 John Afoa, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court.
Subs: 16 Nigel Brady, 17 Paddy McAllister, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Tim Barker, 20 Robbie Diack, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Paddy Jackson, 23 Stefan Terblanche.

Gloucester vs. Connacht @ Kingsholm

Saturday 17th December, 15.40 (Sky Sports 1)

Connacht will need a big effort up front. Photo via Eoin Gardiner.

Connacht narrowly lost 14-10 to Gloucester in the first part of this double-header last Saturday in the Sportsground to record their 9th defeat in a row. It was certainly a missed opportunity to end their losing streak. Failure to win at Kingsholm would consign Eric Elwood’s team to further misery. In a letter to Connacht fans this week, hooker Ethienne Reynecke has admitted that he and his teammates are feeling the pressure of this streak, but are determined to turn things around.

Elwood has made 2 changes to the starting fifteen which lost last weekend. Eoin Griffin and Johnny O’Connor both return form injury to give Connacht a well-needed boost. Kyle Tonetti drops to the bench to accommodate Griffin’s return. Ray Ofisa is out with a knee injury so O’Connor comes in at openside. George Naoupu and David Gannon swap positions this week. On the bench, Dylan Rogers replaces Denis Buckley.

Gloucester coach Bryan Redpath has made five changes to his team. There are two new props in the shape of Dan Murphy and Rupert Harden. There’s also a fresh halfback pairing. Tim Taylor replaces Freddie Burns at outhalf while Nick Runciman is chosen ahead of Rory Lawson at scrumhalf. Mike Tindall has recovered from a groin injury and takes his place alongside Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu in a physical-looking midfield.

If Connacht are to turn things around, they simply have to cut out some of the unforced errors they are making. Added composure in threatening attacking positions would go a long way to ensuring a victory in Gloucester. The set-piece will have to be tightened up too. Connacht lost 2 of their 6 scrums and 3 of their 9 lineouts last time out, and these percentages have to be improved upon. Apart from one heavy defeat at the hands of Toulouse, they have not been losing by big margins. Even slight improvements in a some of these areas mean Connacht will start to come out on rights side of these narrow winning margins. Hopefully, it will happen on Saturday at Kingsholm.

GLOUCESTER: 15 Olly Morgan, 14 Charlie Sharples, 13 Mike Tindall, 12 Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, 11 James Simpson-Daniel, 10 Tim Taylor, 9 Nick Runciman, 1 Dan Murphy, 2 Scott Lawson, 3 Rupert Harden, 4 Peter Buxton, 5 Jim Hamilton, 6 Brett Deacon, 7 Andy Hazell, 8 Luke Narraway (capt.).                                             Subs: 16 Matias Cortese, 17 Nick Wood, 18 Shaun Knight, 19 Will James, 20 Akapusi Qera, 21 Rory Lawson, 22 Freddie Burns, 23 Jonny May.

CONNACHT: 15 Gavin Duffy, 14 Mark McCrea, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Dave McSharry, 11 Tiernan O’Halloran, 10 Niall O’Connor, 9 Frank Murphy,1 Brett Wilkinson, 2 Ethienne Reynecke, 3 Ronan Loughney, 4 George Naoupu, 5 Mike McCarthy, 6 Dave Gannon, 7 Jonny O’Connor, 8 John Muldoon.
Subs: 16 Adrian Flavin, 17 Dylan Rogers, 18 Rodney Ah You, 19 Mick Kearney, 20 Eoin McKeon, 21 Paul O’Donohoe, 22 Matthew Jarvis, 23 Kyle Tonetti.

Leinster vs. Bath @ Aviva Stadium

Saturday 17th December, 18.00 (Sky Sports 1)

D'Arcy is on the bench for Leinster. Photo via M+MD.

Leinster came away from the Rec with a crucial away win last weekend. They sit top of Pool 3, and a win at the Aviva would bring them a step closer to a home quarter-final. Leinster will be keen to make up for what they felt was an incomplete performance on their part last time out. Try-scoring chances weren’t finished off in the 18-13 win, and they will surely be more clinical on Saturday evening.

Joe Schmidt has once again changed his starting fifteen, a luxury he is allowed due to the strength of his squad. Eoin O’Malley comes back into the centre, where he partners Fergus McFadden. That means Gordon D’Arcy has to be content with a place on the bench. Eoin Reddan is in at scrumhalf in place of Isaac Boss. In the pack, Devin Toner comes into the second-row with Damien Browne dropping out of the squad. Shane Jennings gets the nod over Kevin McLaughlin in the back-row. Once again, Cian Healy is confined to the bench where he is joined by Rhys Ruddock and Ian Madigan.

The only change in the Bath team sees Sam Vesty coming in for the injured Dan Hipkiss. That means last weekend’s try-scorer Matt Banahan moves into the centre and Nick Abendanon onto the wing. Vesty lines out at fullback. It will be no surprise to see Bath look to Banahan to make the hard yards in midfield. It will be a big challenge to O’Malley who lines up opposite the massive England  international, but he is well up to the task. All Blacks World Cup saviour Stephen Donald is at outhalf for Bath.

Leinster have sold over 45,000 tickets for this clash and it should be yet another enthralling Heineken Cup tie. Leinster should be buoyed by their win last weekend, and by the fact that they did cut Bath open at times. It’s just a case of finishing those chances. If Leinster do that then they should win this comfortably. If it’s still close with 2o minutes to go, Schmidt has a strong bench with which to change the game. Leinster to win.

LEINSTER: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Isa Nacewa, 13 Eoin O’Malley, 12 Fergus McFadden, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan, 1 Heinke van der Merwe, 2 Richardt Strauss, 3 Mike Ross, 4 Leo Cullen (capt.), 5 Devin Toner, 6 Sean O’Brien, 7 Shane Jennings, 8 Jamie Heaslip.
Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Cian Healy, 18 Nathan White, 19 Kevin McLaughlin, 20 Rhys Ruddock, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Gordon D’Arcy.

BATH: 15 Sam Vesty, 14 Jack Cuthbert, 13 Matt Banahan, 12 Olly Barkley, 11 Nick Abendanon, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Michael Claassens, 1 David Flatman, 2 Chris Biller, 3 David Wilson, 4 Dave Attwood, 5 Ryan Caldwell, 6 Francois Louw (capt.), 7 Guy Mercer, 8 Simon Taylor.
Subs: 16 Ross Batty, 17 Nathan Catt, 18 Anthony Perenise, 19 Will Spencer, 20 Andy Beattie, 21 Chris Cook, 22 Tom Heathcote, 23 Ben Williams.

Munster vs. Scarlets @ Thomond Park

Sunday 18th December, 12.45 (Sky Sports 2)

Earls is back at 13 for Munster. Photo via Shane Horan.

Munster secured a vital 17-14 win last weekend in Wales and now look to complete the double over the Scarlets. That win last weekend showed Munster’s experience as well as the progression their pack has made this season. With BJ Botha’s signing, Munster have made their scrum a strength this season. While Munster may not be sparkling in winning, they have a 100% record from their first 3 matches in Pool 1, with two of those wins away from home.

Tony McGahan has been forced into at least one of the changes to the Munster team. Peter O’Mahony picked up a jaw injury against the Scarlets on Saturday, so Denis Leamy gets the start that his form off the bench in recent times probably deserves. Elsewhere, Donncha O’Callaghan will be relieved to finally start in the second-row. Donnacha Ryan drops to the bench. The most welcome change is the return of Keith Earls. Earls comes in at 13 in place of Will Chambers, who drops out of the match-day squad. Stephen Archer and Tommy O’Donnell are included on the bench.

While Earls is back for Munster, the Scarlets are still without their young star George North. Stephen Jones comes in at outhalf, meaning Rhys Priestland moves to fullback. Prop Iestyn  Thomas is ill so he is replaced by Gareth Davies. Lou Reed comes into the second-row in place of Sione Timani. Last weekend’s try-scorer Aaron Shingler is out with a toe injury, so Johnathan Edwards comes into the back-row

Tony McGahan will have ensured Munster do not fall foul of complacency after winning in Wales last week. The Scarlets really have nothing to lose in Limerick and that makes them very dangerous. They will realise that they left a lot of opportunities behind them last weekend and will be highly motivated to get revenge. They are fighting to get back into contention in a group that is far from decided. However, in front of their own fans, the experience of the likes of O’Connell and O’Gara should once again see Munster home.

SCARLETS: 15 Rhys Priestland, 14 Liam Williams, 13 Scott Williams, 12 Jon Davies, 11 Sean Lamont, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Gareth Davies, 1 Rhodri Jones, 2 Matthew Rees (capt.), 3 Rhys Thomas, 4 Lou Reed, 5 Damian Welch, 6 Rob McCusker, 7 Johnathan Edwards, 8 Ben Morgan.                                                         Subs: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Phil John, 18 Deacon Manu, 19 Sione Timani, 20 Kieran Murphy, 21 Tavis Knoyle, 22 Gareth Maule, 23 Viliame Iongi.

MUNSTER: 15 D Hurley, 14 J Murphy, 13 K Earls, 12 L Mafi, 11 S Zebo, 10 R O’Gara, 9 C Murray, 1 W du Preez, 2 D Varley, 3 BJ Botha, 4 D O’Callaghan, 5 P O’Connell (capt.), 6 D Leamy, 7 N Ronan, 8 J Coughlan.                                            Subs: 16 D Fogarty, 17 M Horan, 18 S Archer, 19 D Ryan, 20 T O’Donnell, 21 T O’Leary, 22 I Keatley, 23 D Barnes.

Photos courtesy:  Eoin Gardiner, Shane Horan, M+MD, Chris Jobling.