Four on Form

Paul O’Connell

O'Connell in action against Leinster last season. Photo via M+MD

The Munster captain was named Man of the Match as he helped his team to a vital win away to the Scarlets. It was another mammoth performance from the two-time Lions second-row. After the disappointment of missing much of last season through injury and suspension, O’Connell has been re-born this season. His energetic displays have belied the fact that the Irish international is now 32. The time O’Connell spent on the sidelines last season has been of benefit to both Munster and Ireland, as O’Connell is now more hungry and in-form than he has ever been.

Against the Scarlets, O’Connell’s performance was all-encompassing. He made 15 carries, the most of any player on the pitch. The closest to him was James Coughlan with 11. O’Connell constantly offered himself up to take the ball on, multiple times during certain passages of play. He was immaculate in the lineout, winning the 3 balls sent his way by Varley. O’Connell made five tackles from five attempts. This relatively low number can be explained by the fact that Munster retained possession for long periods of play, often through O’Connell’s carries.

O’Connell started this season with a brilliant World Cup for Ireland, resulting in being named as part of the tournament’s Dream Team. He has brought that form back from New Zealand and has been outstanding for Munster every time he has set foot on the pitch. Munster without O’Connell are a completely different proposition. If they can keep himself and O’Gara fit and firing for the remainder if the season then it will go a long way to ensuring they can compete at the top of the European game. Meanwhile, with Brian O’Driscoll ruled out of the Six Nations, Declan Kidney will be thrilled that O’Connell is looking better than ever.

Jonathan Sexton

Sexton's place-kicking has improved since the World Cup. Photo via Ross Wynne

Sexton scored all of Leinster’s points in their 18-13 win over Bath at the Rec on Sunday. Leinster weren’t their usual selves as they butchered at least three good try-scoring opportunities. Instead, they had to rely on the boot of Sexton as the outhalf held his nerve to kick two late penalties. Matt Banahan’s try had put Leinster 13-12 down, but Sexton made no mistake with two penalties in the last 8 minutes to win it for his side. With Ronan O’Gara getting so much credit for his late kicks in Munster’s Heineken Cup wins, Sexton must be applauded too.

At the World Cup, Sexton’s place-kicking was an issue as he missed 7 of 11 attempts from the tee in Ireland’s first two matches. O’Gara took over the duties from there, with Sexton relegated to the bench. However, since returning to Leinster, Sexton has been back to his best from the tee, and this has been just as important to Leinster as O’Gara’s drop goals have been for Munster. It was Sexton who secured a draw for Leinster away to Montpellier with the last kick of the game and a chorus of boos in his ears. And again last weekend, his kicks ensured the victory for Leinster away to Bath.

Sexton and O’Gara’s performances at the weekend highlighted the difference in style between the two outhalves. Sexton received possession on 34 occasions, kicking 5 times and carrying the ball himself 5 times. He passed 24 times, highlighting his qualities as a playmaker. In contrast, of the 32 times O’Gara got the ball, he kicked 12 times and passed 17 times. He carried on 3 occasions. Obviously these stats are effected by Leinster and Munster’s different game plans. Munster play a much tighter game while Leinster look to move the ball around far more often. Still, it is clear that Sexton offers a more expansive attacking game as well as a more robust defensive game. He made all 6 of his tackle attempts, while O’Gara missed 3 of his 7 attempts. It will be intriguing to see if Kidney retains O’Gara for the Six Nations, or finally gives Sexton an undisputed first-choice role at outhalf.

John Muldoon

While Connacht extended their losing streak with a 14-10 loss at home to Gloucester, Muldoon shone for western province. He put in an all-action performance that was not matched by some of his team-mates. Muldoon was full of aggression and hunger as he attempted to drag Connacht back into the game. Sporting a grizzly caveman style beard, his defensive qualities came to the fore as he played a huge role in keeping Gloucester to just one try. While Ray Ofisa wore the number 7 jersey for Connacht, it was Muldoon who performed more of the duties of an openside as he got through a mountain of work.

Muldoon made 13 tackles to finish the match with the highest tackle-count of any player on the pitch. He didn’t miss a single tackle all afternoon. Muldoon was also excellent at the breakdown, as he was involved in several turnovers for Connacht. The Irish international is intelligent in recognising when to actively pursue a turnover, something that the best back-rows in the world are all good at. One of Muldoon’s turnovers, in the last minute of play, allowed Connacht to go downfield in search of a winning score which they could not find. The turnover exemplified the attitude and desire Muldoon brought to the game.

Muldoon was also responsible for one of only two clean line breaks for Connacht. He claimed the restart after Gavin Duffy’s try and burst through the chasing Gloucester pack to put his team immediately back on the front foot. As is their wont, Connacht spoiled the good play with a knock-on.

At 28, Muldoon still has plenty of rugby left in the tank. With such strength in depth at back-row in Ireland presently, it will be very difficult for Muldoon to get a look in. If Connacht can start winning games it would certainly help Muldoon’s cause. All he can do is continue to put in displays like this one and hope his team-mates can match him.

Stephen Ferris

Ferris in action for Ireland. Photo via M+MD

While it might be getting a bit repetitive including Ferris in Four on Form for a third time, he simply cannot be ignored. Four on Form‘s aim is to highlight four Irish players who hit top form in each weekend’s action and there is no Irish player in better form than Ferris at the moment. He was named Man of the Match for the third time in five games as Ulster ran in five tries to beat Aironi 31-10 at Ravenhill  of Friday night.

Ferris was on the scoresheet yet again as he powered through a tackle in the left-hand corner to get Ulster off the mark in this match. Ferris’ power in contact has gone up a level since he missed must of last season through injury. Like O’Connell, Ferris has seemingly benefited from the time out and his hunger and determination are inspiring for Ulster. As well as his obvious strength on the ball, Ferris is a hard worker off it. That showed again as the Ireland blindside made 12 successful tackles in his 66 minutes on the pitch.

At this rate, Ferris is becoming a nightmare for opposition. Given any sort of space, he will almost always go through the first tackle with his combination of strength and pace. It’s hard to see any real weaknesses in Ferris’ game at present. He is even offloading out of tackles, with two good examples against Aironi. His 9 carries throughout the game were offset by 5 passes too. Ferris is showing that he is a complete back-row and both Brian McLaughlin and Declan Kidney will be  praying that he can stay injury-free.

Photos courtesy:  M+MD, Ross Wynne

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