Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Touchline’s Ireland Selection

Andrew Trimble, pictured carrying the ball, is one of Ireland's most in-form players. (c) Ross Wynne.

At lunchtime tomorrow, Ireland will announce their match day 22 for the Six Nations opener with Wales on Sunday. Everyone has their own opinions on who should be in that match day squad, and plenty of different reasons why. So here’s your chance to pick the team…

Below is The Touchline’s choice of 22 for Sunday. You’ll see why we have chosen each player and why they were preferred to the other available options. After you’ve read through this selection, post your team/squad in the comments sections at the bottom of the page.

This is not the exact team that we think Declan Kidney will pick, but rather the team that we would pick if we were in charge of the Ireland team. Some players will be unanimously picked in everyone’s teams, but it will be interesting to see what players you think Kidney should take a chance on…

The Touchline’s Starting 15 for Wales Game

1. Cian Healy – As we saw in a Man of the Match performance against Australia at the World Cup, Healy is world-class at his best. While he hasn’t really hit those heights for Leinster since returning from New Zealand, his display against Montpellier two weeks ago showed he is hitting form at the right time. Also, the fact that Brett Wilkinson and Tom Court are his only opposition for the loosehead spot means he is a certainty to start. His battle with Adam Jones will be key.

2. Sean Cronin – Rory Best had a stellar World Cup and probably deserves to retain the jersey because of that. But for this particular match, Cronin would be my choice. Battling with Richardt Strauss for the Leinster No.2 jersey has brought rapid progress from Cronin. His lineout throwing has improved to an international level. However, it’s his pace and mobility that I would pick him for. The Welsh aren’t afraid to open games up, and that is where Cronin is at his best. With Welsh tackles likely to be focused on O’Brien and Ferris, the Leinster hooker could cause havoc.

3. Mike Ross – The lack of competition at tighthead means that Ross has become an irreplaceable cog in this Irish team. Declan Kidney’s loss of faith in Jamie Hagan means that Tom Court is the only other viable option in this position. Court would be a clear downgrade on Ross, so keeping him fit is essential. His importance lies at the set-piece, ensuring Ireland win their own ball and trying to disrupt on the Wales put-in as much as possible.

4. Dan Tuohy – There’s no lack of competition here, with Donnacha Ryan and Donncha O’Callaghan hopeful of selection, and realistically ahead of Ulster’s Tuohy. There will be plenty of calls for Ryan’s ball-carrying ability to be included, but for me, Tuohy offers more than the Munster man. His strength on the ball is complemented by good skills and he is a shrewd operator out of touch. Tuohy was one of the stand-out players in the Wolfhounds loss to the Saxons, continuing his superb form for Ulster all season.

Paul O'Connell will captain Ireland on Sunday. (c) Ross Wynne.

5. Paul O’Connell – There will be no argument with this selection! O’Connell captains the side and is in the best form of his life. Even if you were to exclude his world-class leadership qualities, O’Connell is one of the best second-rows in the world right now. He has been immense for Munster all season, dragging them through games on several occasions. His ball-carrying, which was not always a strength, has improved immeasurably in the past six months. Expect another huge performance.

6. Stephen Ferris – If there is any Irish player who can match O’Connell’s level of performance this season, then  it’s Stephen Ferris. He has been vital to Ulster as they have developed into a side that looks like real contenders for the Heineken Cup. Bouncing defenders for fun and smashing opponents in the tackle, Ferris has been unstoppable. The physical side of his game has been complemented by his refined offloading and decision-making. Ferris is not just a wrecking ball, he offers pace and subtlety too.

7. Sean O’Brien – While Ireland’s lack of a breakdown specialist is a weakness, there are no standout options to perform that role. If Niall Ronan hadn’t been ruled out for the season, then I would have seriously considered him here. But O’Brien’s extreme physicality has to be accommodated somewhere. At his best, the 2011 ERC European Player of the Year can carry this team. He has proven calibre at this level and will be keen to show that the Welsh cannot nullify his impact a second time.

8. Jamie Heaslip – One idea I toyed with in my selection was playing O’Brien at the back of the scrum, meaning Heaslip would be dropped. If James Coughlan had been included in yesterday’s 32-man squad then I would have contemplated starting him. In the end though, Heaslip gets the nod. While he still hasn’t matched the heights of 2009, the Leinster No.8 offers experience, intelligence and a degree of ability at the breakdown. He will be out to prove himself as one of the tournament’s best No.8s

9. Conor Murray – The Munster scrumhalf is up against Leinster’s Eoin Reddan for the 9 jersey. We’ve gone for Murray due to the more all-round game he brings. While Reddan’s passing is crisp and his game well suited to a team on the front foot (witness Leinster’s hammering of Bath at the Aviva), Murray offers more. The 22-year-old has a physical presence that Reddan cannot match, is far more threatening around the fringes and possesses a cool head. It seems to be very difficult to fluster the youngster, whereas Reddan is at times susceptible to a lack of control. Murray against Mike Phillips at scrumhalf would be a fascinating battle of the world’s best and one with the potential to challenge him.

10. Jonathan Sexton – This was the hardest call to make and I changed it several times. Ronan O’Gara’s form for Munster means it is difficult to leave him out. Sexton nudged ahead on the basis that his style perhaps suits this game a little better. Physically stronger, Sexton is better equipped to handle the likes of Jamie Roberts and Toby Faletau running down his channel. While there is nothing wrong with O’Gara’s distribution, Sextons’s more all-round attacking game is more of a threat. The hope would be that Sexton has put his World Cup place-kicking nightmare behind him.

Sexton just about gets ahead of O'Gara at outhalf. (c) Ross Wynne.

11. Andrew Trimble – If Kidney were to pick his team on form, then Trimble would be one of the first names mentioned. The 27-year-old has never been an undisputed first-choice for Ireland, but surely now his time has come. He has been excellent for Ulster all season. 6 tries in 11 games highlights his finishing ability, but there is so much more to Trimble’s games than taking scoring opportunities. His work-rate is as high as you will see for a winger. Defensively aggressive and brave, Trimble is not afraid of getting stuck in. His strength and speed make him the complete winger.

12. Fergus McFadden – Gordon D’Arcy has been the man in possession of this jersey for what seems like an eternity. He has been a great servant to Ireland, that cannot be disputed. But the past two seasons have seen his influence gradually wane and the time has come to install a replacement. Leinster teammate Fergus McFadden fits the bill nicely. He is a different type of player to D’Arcy. He gets over the gainline through hard, direct lines using his pace whereas D’Arcy relies on his excellent footwork. D’Arcy is regarded as a fine defender but the truth is that he has missed some important tackles in recent times. McFadden’s passing has improved massively under Joe Schmidt (check his skip pass here), to the extent that he has the ability to distribute from 12.

13. Eoin O’Malley – It seems likely that Kidney will go for Keith Earls against Wales. Darren Cave would have been my first-choice but he too has been ruled out through injury. Next in line for me would be Leinster man O’Malley. He is a natural 13 and his form has been superb this season. The talk of his defence being weak appears to be based on one missed tackle, a tackle which wasn’t even his to make. In fact, O’Malley is an extremely competent defender. His positioning is always clever and he has exceptional ability at the breakdown. O’Malley’s low centre of gravity allows him to get over the ball, slowing it down or winning turnovers. He is also a real attacking talent, with quick feet and a strong pass off both sides.

14. Tommy Bowe – First off, I will admit that I have not seen much of Bowe for the Ospreys this season. However, even an off-form Bowe would be included in my team. 5 tries in 13 games would suggest that the Monaghan man hasn’t forgotten his way to the tryline. The Ospreys wing is one of the world’s best wingers and one of Ireland genuinely world-class players. The big occasion often brings out the best in Bowe. As always, he will be relied upon to make positive yards for Ireland as well as finishing any chance that comes his way. Going for Trimble and Bowe on the wings means Earls missing out. Trimble’s form sees him ahead of Earls while Bowe’s quality makes him undroppable.

15. Rob Kearney – Joe Schmidt has backed Kearney as his first-choice fullback this season despite the excellence of Isa Nacewa when filling in at 15 last season. But Kearney’s recent displays have justified Schmidt’s decision. The Louth native looks quicker than ever and clearly used his the time out last season to study the role of the modern fullback to a greater extent. Kearney’s understanding of when to counter-attack, when to kick and when to take contact make his decision-making a real strength. His defensive positioning and concentration look to have improved too. Fullback is another position where Ireland have a lack of genuine competition. Denis Hurley is nowhere near Kearney’s standard. In fact, Kearney’s younger brother David would appear to be the next best option.

Subs

16. Rory Best – The only other hooker in the squad and therefore a no-brainer.

17. Tom Court – Brett Wilkinson is the only other prop in the squad, but he can only cover loosehead. Court has played on both sides of the scrum so is included for that reason.

18. Donnacha Ryan – Ryan could cover second-row as well as the back-row, making him an obvious choice for the bench. He would have good impact too with his aggression and ability to make hard yards.

19. Peter O’Mahony – This is a seriously competitive spot, with plenty of competition to cover the back-row. O’Mahony gets the nod because he would be the one who could create the biggest impact. His abrasive, in-your-face style would be ideal if Ireland were struggling to impose themselves on Wales. O’Mahony fears nothing and would do everything in his power to unsettle the Welsh players.

20. Eoin Reddan – Once again, Reddan is the only other option in this position so has to be included in case of injury to Murray. In an ideal world, Paul Marshall would have been better to spring if Ireland were chasing the game.

21. Ronan O’Gara – What a man to have on the bench. Any sign of Sexton not handling the pressure and ROG could be relied upon. While there is an argument that Sexton should be now given free reign over the outhalf position, without the added pressure of O’Gara on the bench, the Leinster No. 10 should be well able to  deal with it.

22. Keith Earls – The Munster man scored 5 tries at the World Cup and clearly is a quality player. His best position is on the wing and he would benefit by both Munster and Ireland seeing this. However, for this game, his ability to fill in at centre, wing and fullback makes him an ideal replacement.

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So, what do you make of that team? If you were in Declan  Kidney’s position who would you pick? Would you go for any wildcards? Would you give youth a real chance and blood all five uncapped players? Or would you stay loyal to the tried and tested? O’Gara or Sexton? Cronin or Best? Murray or Reddan?

Comment below with your starting 15/22!

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Photos courtesy:  Ross Wynne.

Final Ireland Training Squad Announced

Ireland take on Wales at the Aviva on Sunday. (c) Ross Wynne.

Declan Kidney and his management team today announced a 32-man squad for the final week of training before Sunday’s Six Nations opener with Wales at the Aviva. Kidney will pick his match day 22 for Sunday from this extended training squad. 23 of last week’s 24-man senior training squad have been retained, with only James Coughlan dropping out.

Dan Tuohy, Simon Zebo, David Kearney, Eoin O’Malley, Brett Wilkinson, Chris Henry, Denis Hurley and Rhys Ruddock have all been promoted from the Wolfhounds squad. Munster’s Peter O’Mahony is the only of last week’s ‘additional players’ included this week.

Here’s a look at the latest squad:

Ireland Training Squad

Forwards (17): Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Tom Court, Brett Wilkinson, Paul O’Connell (capt.), Donncha O’Callaghan, Donnacha Ryan, Dan Tuohy, Stephen Ferris, Peter O’Mahony, Shane Jennings, Sean O’Brien, Chris Henry, Jamie Heaslip, Rhys Ruddock.

Backs (15): Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan, Jonathan Sexton, Ronan O’Gara, Gordon D’Arcy, Paddy Wallace, Fergus McFadden, Eoin O’Malley, Keith Earls, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, David Kearney, Simon Zebo, Rob Kearney, Denis Hurley.

Kidney will hope Sean O'Brien is at his destructive best this weekend. (c) Ross Wynne.

After the initial burst of criticism aimed at Kidney’s conservatism, this squad actually has a relatively fresh look to it. While it would still be a surprise to see someone like Zebo or O’Mahony actually make the match day squad, it’s encouraging that Kidney has followed through on his assertion that any players who performed well for the Wolfhounds would be considered for the senior side.

If Kidney had originally named this selection as his Six Nations squad, there would have most likely been a positive reaction. That said, there are certainly still areas of the squad that some will disagree with. The inclusion of Donncha O’Callaghan over Mike McCarthy would appear not to be based on form. James Coughlan’s absence might also provoke some dissent.

However, the time for discussions on who should have been included in the squad is now over. This is the pool of players from which Kidney will (or most likely already has) select his match day 22 for Sunday. That announcement will come at lunchtime on Wednesday. Whatever way Kidney goes, it’s going to be a fascinating match with Wales. The anticipation is rapidly building.

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Photos courtesy:  Ross Wynne.

Saxons Set-Piece Provides Platform For Win

Match Report

England Saxons 23-17 Ireland Wolfhounds

Saturday 28th January @ Sandy Park, Exeter

(Video highlights at bottom of piece)

David Kearney, pictured playing for Leinster, was the stand-out Irish player as the Wolfhounds outscored the Saxons 3 tries to 2, but still lost. (c) Martin Dobey.

In a match that failed to truly ignite, the strength of the Saxons set-piece proved crucial to their win. There were intermittent glimpses of quality from the Wolfhounds backline but they understandably failed to click. Indeed, as could be expected after only a week together, both sides lacked cohesion in a largely scrappy affair. The watching Declan Kidney won’t have any fresh selection headaches ahead of the Six Nations based on this game. Still, it was a worthwhile exercise with many players getting their first taste of senior international rugby.

The Saxons enjoyed a dominant opening ten minutes to establish a 10-0 lead. Outhalf Freddie Burns opened the scoring with a penalty after Ugo Monye’s intelligent defensive work at the breakdown. A patient Saxons maul then laid the platform for scrumhalf Ben Spencer to snipe over from a metre out.

The Wolfhounds will be aggrieved with the manner in which the try was conceded as George Robson blocked Isaac Boss at the fringe of the ruck. There were clear echoes of Nathan Hines’ involvement in Clermont’s try against Ulster last weekend. Referee Mathieu Raynal somehow missed the block and Burns added the conversion.

The Wolfhounds should have got themselves on the scoreboard four minutes later as Ian Keatley glided through the Saxons defence and released Simon Zebo down the left wing. But as is his wont, the Munster wing ignored the three supporting runners inside and backed himself. This time, the decision was wrong as Matt Banahan battered the 21-year-old into touch. A real chance wasted.

Strong carries from Chris Henry, Nevin Spence and Rhys Ruddock put the Wolfhounds back in position to close the deficit. Following the big men’s contributions, Keatley’s pass sent Eoin O’Malley on a wide line with the Saxons defence stretched. The Leinster centre straightened off his left foot and slipped a pass inside to the trailing David Kearney. Kearney had enough pace to glide through Andy Saull’s tackle and touch down. Keatley was off target with the straightforward conversion.

That was the last scoring action of the first-half as neither side managed to gain control of the game. However, the Saxons scrum did completely dominate, as it would continue to do after the interval. Just before the break, a scrum penalty gave Burns the chance to extend the lead but he dragged his 35m effort wide to the left.

Gloucester outhalf Burns kicked 13 points for the Saxons. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Saxons No.8 Thomas Waldrom was the beneficiary of a lucky bounce as the English side scored their second try on the 54 minute mark. After another strong Saxons scrum 5m from the Wolfhounds’ line, Burns attempted a grubber, intended for the in-goal area. But when the ball bounced up off Spence’s feet, Waldrom was in the right place to gather and stride over untouched. Burns tacked on the easy conversion for a 17-5 lead.

A positive response from the Wolfhounds ended with replacement scrumhalf Tomas O’Leary getting over for a try. Another powerful Ruddock carry from the base of a scrum was followed by Dan Tuohy and Stephen Archer getting their hands on the ball. O’Leary sniped from the resulting ruck and had the power to take Paul Doran-Jones’ tackle and stretch out for the score. Substitute outhalf Ian Madigan converted.

The Irish side couldn’t build on that score as the Saxons scrum continued to dominate. Burns again failed to reward that dominance as he missed with a poor penalty effort. He made amends soon after when the Wolfhounds were caught offside. With the Irish side attempting to play out of their own 22, the Gloucester outhalf wrapped the game up with another straightforward three-pointer after aggressive work at the breakdown from the English forwards.

The Wolfhounds managed a consolation score with the last action of the match. Ruddock’s strength in contact again set the platform. O’Leary hit Zebo, one-on-one with Matt Mullan. The wing used his pace to get outside the Worcester prop and dive over. As the Saxons second-row George Robson was named Man of the Match, Madigan was wide with his conversion effort.

The performances of Leinster tyros Rhys Ruddock and David Kearney were hugely promising. The No.8 carried strongly throughout while Kearney’s threat on the ball was complemented by his defensive awareness. O’Malley showed flashes of his attacking ability and defended strongly. Ulster’s Dan Tuohy also offered several examples of his mixture of brawn and skills while Mike McCarthy was reliable in the lineout.

No.8 Ruddock put in a muscular performance. (c) Art Widak.

Stephen Archer and Brett Wilkinson will have learned plenty from their losing battle with the Saxons front-row. Archer is still only 23, very young in propping terms. Days like today are all part of the steep learning curve for novice props. Gavin Duffy at fullback had a day to forget, looking jittery whenever the ball came near him.

Overall, Declan Kidney may be slightly disappointed that no one made themselves impossible to ignore ahead of the clash with Wales next weekend. There will almost certainly be no surprises in the selection for that game, certainly not on the basis of what was offered in Exeter today. From this point, all the focus is on 3 o’clock next Sunday afternoon, when Ireland begin their Six Nations campaign looking for revenge.

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Photos courtesy:   Pierre-Selim, Art Widak, Martin Dobey.

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Here’s the three Irish tries from Dave Kearney, Tomas O’Leary and Simon Zebo:

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Wolfhounds vs. English Saxons Preview

England Saxons vs. Ireland Wolfhounds @ Sandy Park, Exeter

Saturday 28th January (17.00) Sky Sports 1

Simon Zebo will be hoping to touch down for the Wolfhounds tomorrow. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

The first international action of the year sees the Irish Wolfhounds take on the English Saxons in Exeter on Saturday. According to Declan Kidney, these Wolfhounds still have a chance of being selected for Ireland’s Six Nations opener with Wales in two weekend’s time. That should ensure a high-quality performance from this Irish side. Connacht coach Eric Elwood takes charge of the Wolfhounds this season and he has gone for a blend of youth and experience for the clash with the Saxons.

Munster hooker Damian Varley is joined in the front-row by his 23-year-old teammate Stephen Archer, who has only had nine PRO12 starts so far in his career. Connacht’s Brett Wilkinson is at loosehead. The second-row is made up of two players who are having superb seasons, Ulster’s Dan Tuohy and Mike McCarthy of Connacht. Both players will have realistic hopes of impressing enough here to break into the senior squad.

Ulster’s Chris Henry captains the team from openside. John Muldoon’s gritty performances for Connacht are rewarded with a spot on the blindside. Muldoon has ten caps at this level so adds some valuable experience. 21-year-old Rhys Ruddock completes the back-row at No.8. At 16 and a half stone, the youngster is not likely to shy away from the expected physical aspect to this game.

Munster's Keatley starts at outhalf. (c) Martin Dobey.

It’s a Leinster-Munster pairing in the halfbacks with Isaac Boss at scrumhalf and Ian Keatley at 10. With 12 and 7 caps appearances, both players are well accustomed to this level and should direct play with confidence. There’s an exciting-looking centre partnership for Elwood’s side with Ulster man Nevin Spence inside Leinster’s Eoin O’Malley. The power of Spence should nicely complement O’Malley’s evasiveness. Their battle with the Saxons partnership of Billy Twelvetrees and Matt Hopper promises to be one of the highlights of the game.

In the back-three, Gavin Duffy’s experience at fullback is qualified by the youthful talent of Simon Zebo and David Kearney on the wings. Zebo is the man of the moment and the Wolfhounds will look to deliver him ball in space. This trio will have their hands full defensively against the experienced Saxons back-three of Ugo Monye, Matt Banahan and Delon Armitage.

Elwood has some relative experience to call on from the bench, including Tomas O’Leary, Kevin McLaughlin, Denis Hurley and Devin Toner. Leinster’s talented outhalf Ian Madigan will hope for a chance to display his sharp attacking game while Munster hooker Mike Sherry is included despite only recently returning from an ankle injury. Connacht tighthead Ronan Loughney completes the match day 22.

Harlequins' Ugo Monye is on the wing for the Saxons. (c) cormac70.

The Saxons side has an overall youthful look to it. Scrumhalf Ben Spencer is still only 19. He has been vying with Peter Stringer for the number 9 jersey at Saracens this season. Outhalf Freddie Burns, of Gloucester is 21. Outside him is a backline that Saxons coach Jon Callard will expect to deliver tries. Twelvetrees is a combination of creativity and strength at 12, while Hopper offers a natural flair at outside centre. Banahan, Armitage and Monye have 55 England senior caps between them. Their blend of size, inventiveness and pace makes them a threatening unit.

Up front, Leicester No.8 Thomas Waldrom’s strong carrying will need to be stopped at source. He is flanked by Saracens’ Andy Saull, an intelligent natural openside, and James Gaskell. Sale’s Gaskell captains the team despite being only 21. Wasps’ Matt Garvey partners George Robson of Harlequins in the second-row. Paul-Doran Jones, once contracted to Leinster starts at tighthead. ‘Quins hooker Joe Gray and Worcester loosehead Matt Mullan complete the front-row.

One man to watch off the bench is Gloucester’s Jonny May. The speedy outside back showed his talent with a brilliant display in Gloucester’s shock win over Toulouse last weekend. Northampton outhalf Ryan Lamb is also on the bench, hoping to forget about last weekend.

The fact that Declan Kidney has said that the door to the senior squad remains open for these Wolfhounds should make this a game well worth watching. While their English counterparts would appear to have less of a chance of promotion, it’s impossible to guess how many of these players might have a role to play in the Six Nations. The addition of so many young talents on both sides means this clash offers us a glimpse of the future. It may not be a full international, but any game between Ireland and England is likely to be fiercely competitive.

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England Saxons: 15 D Armitage (London Irish), 14 U Monye (Harlequins), 13 M Hopper (Harlequins), 12 B Twelvetrees (Leicester), 11 M Banahan (Bath), 10 F Burns (Gloucester), 9 B Spencer (Saracens), 1 M Mullan (Worcester), 2 J Gray (Harlequins), 3 P Doran-Jones (Northampton), 4 M Garvey (London Irish), 5 G Robson (Harlequins), 6 J Gaskell (Sale, capt.), 7 A Saull (Saracens), 8 T Waldrom (Leicester).                                                                                                                                      Subs: 16 C Brooker (Harlequins), 17 R Harden (Gloucester), 18 K Myall (Sale), 19 T Johnson (Exeter), 20 P Hodgson (London Irish), 21 R Lamb (Northampton), 22 J May (Gloucester).

Ireland Wolfhounds: 15 Gavin Duffy (Connacht), 14  David Kearney (Leinster), 13 Eoin O’Malley (Leinster), 12 Nevin Spence (Ulster), 11 Simon Zebo (Munster), 10 Ian Keatley (Munster), 9 Isaac Boss (Leinster), 1 Brett Wilkinson (Connacht), 2 Damien Varley (Munster), 3 Stephen Archer (Munster), 4 Dan Tuohy (Ulster), 5 Mike McCarthy (Connacht), 6 John Muldoon (Connacht), 7 Chris Henry (Ulster, capt.), 8 Rhys Ruddock (Leinster).                                         Subs: 16 Mike Sherry (Munster), 17 Ronan Loughney (Connacht), 18 Devin Toner (Leinster), 19 Kevin McLaughlin (Leinster), 20 Tomas O’Leary (Munster), 21 Ian Madigan (Leinster), 22 Denis Hurley (Munster).

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Photos courtesy:  Martin Dobey, cormac70, Ivan O’Riordan.

Mid-Season Report: Munster

With the Heineken Cup pool stages finished, the PRO12 campaign just over halfway complete and the international season about to start, now is a great time to take stock of how the four Irish provinces have gotten on so far this season. Starting with Leinster yesterday, we’re reviewing their European and PRO12 campaigns as well as outlining what lies ahead in the coming months.

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Munster

Peter O'Mahony and Simon Zebo have become important players for Munster this season. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Who would have predicted it? Munster qualified for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals as top seeds after their comprehensive demolition of the Northampton Saints last weekend. 6 wins from 6 in Pool 1 sees them advance to a home QF against Ulster in April. Seen by many as a side in transition, Munster have proved many of their doubters wrong with the performance against the Saints.  Tony McGahan’s side sit 3rd in the PRO12 and their remaining fixtures in that competition should enable them to secure a home play-off.

3rd position in the PRO12 has come courtesy of 8 wins from their 13 games so far. Those losses came against Glasgow, Edinburgh, the Ospreys, Leinster and Ulster. Still, the current holders are only a single point behind the 2nd placed Ospreys. McGahan’s side are the 5th top try-scorers in the league with 24 while they are 3rd in terms of points difference on +63. Meanwhile, their defence has conceded the 2nd fewest tries, 14. Munster said goodbye to the retired John Hayes as he played his last match in a 34-17 win over Edinburgh at Thomond Park.

The Heineken Cup is where Munster have really excelled. 6 wins from 6 is a phenomenal achievement in anyone’s books and they are the only side to have done it this season. Supporters will never forget the dramatic last-gasp drop goals from Ronan O’Gara to secure wins over the Saints and Castres in the first 2 rounds. Workman-like victories followed over the Scarlets twice, then Castres again. Munster saved the best for last as their backline came alive to dismantle the Saints, 51-36. That performance will put Munster back in contention as one of the favourites for the tournament.

From left to right, Wian du Preez, Conor Murray and BJ Botha have all played big roles so far. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

The PRO12 champions haven’t had the best of their inter-provincial tussles so far this season. They went down to a superior Leinster by 24-19 in the run-up to the Heineken Cup. A poor Connacht were dismissed at Thomond Park on Stephen’s day by 24-9 but that was followed four days later by a 33-17 loss to Ulster at Ravenhill. Admittedly, Munster had a weak side out that day but they will be looking for revenge in the Heineken Cup quarter-final on the 8th of April.

Unsurprisingly, Ronan O’Gara is the top points scorer in the squad with 135, including those two famous drop goals. He has been brilliant for Munster all season, directing play and often dragging Munster through matches along with captain Paul O’Connell. Back-up outhalf Ian Keatley has contributed a respectable 115 points. After his hattrick against the Saints, Simon Zebo is Munster’s top try-scorer this season with 6 so far. Danny Barnes and Doug Howlett are next best with 4 each.

Mention has to be made of the injuries Munster have sustained this season. Howlett was ruled out for the remainder of the season after an achilles rupture in the loss to the Ospreys on the 4th of December. Felix Jones, David Wallace, Mike Sherry and Jerry Flannery have yet to feature for Munster thanks to their long-term injuries. Niall Ronan ripped his cruciate ligaments in the 26-10 win over Castres this month and has also been ruled out for the rest of the season. Tommy O’Donnell is another currently on the treatment bench. The good news is that Jones, Wallace and O’Donnell are all expected to return in the coming weeks. Mike Sherry has returned to training and is on the bench for the Irish Wolfhounds this weekend. Worryingly, there is no definite news on a return for Flannery.

O'Gara leads the scoring charts for Munster. (c) Martin Dobey.

The fact that Munster have enjoyed such a good season despite these injuries is testament to the belief and determination within the squad. There has been certain games this season that Munster probably haven’t deserved to win, those drop goal games for example. But sheer will power and refusal to give up have seen Munster through. If they can now consistently perform the level they did against the Saints last weekend, that combination be hard to stop. Munster’s defence has been aggressive and solid all season and they will be confident that very few teams can cut them open.

If Munster can manage to negotiate the quarter-final with Ulster, then a home semi awaits them, against either Edinburgh or Toulouse. The stage is all set for a Munster vs. Leinster Heineken Cup final. That would be special. In the PRO12, Munster’s run-in to the play-offs is relatively straightforward, with home advantage in the the big derbies against Leinster and Ulster. Munster have the ability to join Leinster in the latter stages of both competitions. It should be an exciting few months.

Munster’s stats so far this season:

Games played: 19     Won: 14     Drawn: 0     Lost: 5

Points scored: 440     Tries scored: 38     Try-scoring bonus points: 4

Points conceded: 332     Tries conceded: 24     Losing bonus points: 3

Top points scorer: Ronan O’Gara (135)     Top try-scorer: Simon Zebo (6)

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Photos courtesy:   Ivan O’Riordan, Martin Dobey.

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To finish, here’s a look at some of the highlights of Munster’s season so far, starting with the hardly believable O’Gara drop goal against the Saints:

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And highlights of the 2nd drop goal game against Castres a week later:

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And finally, all the tries from Munster’s best performance of the season, the 51-36 win against Northampton last weekend:

Mid-Season Report: Leinster

With the Heineken Cup pool stages finished, the PRO12 campaign just over halfway complete and the international season about to start, now is a great time to take stock of how the four Irish provinces have gotten on so far this season. Over the next few days we’ll look at each province individually, reviewing their European and PRO12 campaigns as well as outlining what lies ahead in the coming months.

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Leinster

Leinster have only lost two games this season thanks to a dominant pack and and exciting backs. (c) Art Widak.

Top of the PRO12 by 9 points and a home quarter-final secured as second seeds after dominating Pool 3 of the Heineken Cup, Leinster are in great shape. Joe Schmidt’s squad have only twice all season and both of those losses came back in September with the international players away on World Cup duty. Since the 19-23 loss to Glasgow at the RDS on the 17th of September, Leinster have gone unbeaten in 16 games, 15 of those wins.

In the PRO12, the only other loss was to the Ospreys on the opening day of the season when Leinster fielded a fairly inexperienced team. Since September though, Schmidt’s men have been unstoppable. They are the top try-scorers in the league with 29 while their points difference is streets ahead of anyone at +128. The closest side to that are the Ospreys who stand on +65. Leinster have the 5th strongest defence in terms of points conceded, 218. Their biggest win of the PRO12 season so far is the 52-9 trashing of a heavily weakened Cardiff team at the start of December.

In the Heineken Cup, the reigning champions had no trouble negotiating Pool 3, winning 5 and drawing 1 of the 6 fixtures against Bath, Glasgow Warriors and Montpellier. The three home fixtures showed exactly what Leinster are capable of, particularly the spectacular 52-27 dismantling of Bath at the Aviva in December. Leinster, with 18, are second only to Clermont in the try-scoring stakes in the tournament so far. Clermont have scored 26 so far, thanks to their 12-try, 82-0 humbling of Aironi. The French side obviously lead in terms of points difference too, on +146, but Leinster’s +84 is well ahead of the next best, Munster and Toulouse on +45.

The 52-27 win over Bath at the Aviva in December is one of the season's highlights so far. (c) Art Widak.

The two-time Heineken Cup victors have 4 wins from the 4 inter-provincial games they’ve played so far in this campaign. They dispatched Connacht 30-20 at the RDS in October, then just about survived to win 13-15 at the Sportsground this month. Johnny Sexton’s kicking ensured a 24-19 win over Munster at the Aviva in November while a weak Ulster team was dispatched 42-13 on Stephen’s Day.

In terms of player performances, the size and strength in depth of the Leinster squad is what has kept them at the forefront of both competitions. Jonathan Sexton is the top points scorer in the squad with 121 so far. Isa Nacewa stands at 87, but Fergus McFadden’s prolific recent kicking form means he’s gaining fast on 71. Surprisingly, Ian Madigan is the squad’s top try-scorer with 6. Rob Kearney’s 4 in the last 4 games leaves him just one behind on 5, while Luke Fitz has crossed the whitewash 4 times.

Leinster now have a quarter-final final with the Cardiff Blues at the Aviva on Saturday the 7th of April to look forward to. A win in that game would mean an away semi to the winner of the Saracens vs. Clermont quarter. It does look like a tough route to the final, but nothing is beyond this Leinster squad. As with every side involved in the HC quarter-finals, Schmidt will be keeping his fingers crossed that key players like Sexton and Sean O’Brien can avoid injury in the 6 Nations.

Jonathan Sexton is Leinster's top points scorer at this stage. (c) Martin Dobey.

With that healthy 9 point lead in the PRO12, and only 10 games left before the play-offs, Leinster should be ok for a home semi-final there. The two toughest fixtures in those 10 will probably be the away clashes with Munster in March and Ulster in April. However, we should see Leinster challenging for honours on both fronts come the end of the season.

Leinster’s stats so far this season:

Games played: 19     Won: 16     Drawn: 1     Lost: 2

Points scored: 518     Tries scored: 47     Try-scoring bonus points: 5

Points conceded: 306     Tries conceded: 26     Losing bonus points: 1

Top points scorer: Jonathan Sexton (121)      Top try scorer: Ian Madigan (6)

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Photos courtesy:  Art Widak, Martin Dobey.

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Here’s a look at perhaps Leinster’s most impressive performance of the season, the 52-27 demolition of Bath at the Aviva in December:

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And a look back at the 52-9 thrashing of Cardiff at the RDS on the 2nd of December:

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Finally, highlights of the 24-19 win over Munster in the PRO12 back in November:

Four on Form

(c) Jukka Zitting.

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Cian Healy

Healy in action for Ireland. (c) Martin Dobey.

Leinster’s 25-3 win over Montpellier saw a much-improved performance from loosehead prop Healy. The Clontarf man has struggled to find his best form for Leinster this season after being one of Ireland’s stand-out players at the World Cup. At times, Healy has given an impression of disinterestedness and has seemed more irritable than usual on the pitch. But this was all swept aside with a vintage performance in the dominant win over Montpellier. The 24-year-old was back to his best with some big carries and a visibly better attitude.

Starting in the first minute of the game with a strong surge through a tackle, Healy put in an outstanding 48 minute shift. In the build-up to the opening try from Sean O’Brien, Healy was involved with a trademark one-handed carry close to the Montpellier line. Minutes later, the prop grabbed a Montpellier knock-on and showed his pace as he rampaged into the French side’s half, eventually leading to a penalty which Fergus McFadden stroked over. As Leinster defended their line for the last twenty minutes of the first-half, Healy showed great hunger with some aggressive tackles around the fringes.

The 25-times capped Irish international came out after half-time similarly amped up and burrowed his way over for a 42nd minute try. While it was only from a metre out, there was no one else Leinster would have rather had in that position. Joe Schmidt decided that Healy had done his job and replaced him soon after. With a real lack of competition in the prop positions for Ireland, Declan Kidney will be relieved to see Healy returning to his ball-carrying best. The Dublin man and part-time DJ has been dangerous with ball in hand from the very beginning of his career and Ireland fans will hope he can continue where he left off against Montpellier in the Six Nations.

Healy’s key stats vs. Montpellier:

Minutes played: 48     Kick/pass/run: 0/0/8     Metres gained on ball: 45         Defenders beaten: 3     Tackles made/missed: 5/0

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Simon Zebo

Zebo takes flight against the Saints. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Zebo’s hattrick in Munster’s hammering of Northampton won him the Man of the Match award but there was more to his performance than just tries. Since breaking into Munster’s first team this season, Zebo has looked like a genuine attacking threat. He now has six tries in just nine starts and at only 21 has plenty of time and potential to improve. The blow of the season-ending achilles injury to Doug Howlett has been softened by Zebo’s form and perhaps the biggest compliment you could pay the youngster is that it was easy to forget that Munster were missing the All Blacks legend on Saturday.

Zebo’s tries showed his pace and attacking instincts at their best. The first was a straightforward finish after good hands from Keith Earls and Denis Hurley, as well as a beautiful Conor Murray pass, created the space. Zebo’s second was a great read as he intercepted James Downey’s pass and stretched the legs to run it in. Zebo recognised that Downey hadn’t looked before passing, so there was only one place it was going. Zebo cleverly put himself in the right position. The Corkman’s third score saw him take an intelligent switch line inside Ian Keatley and against the grain of the drifting Saints defence. The young wing’s pace made his line all the more effective.

Speed seems to be in the Zebo bloodline. His father, from Martinique, came close to representing France at the Olympics while his sister is heavily involved in athletics too. But there was more than pace and tries to Zebo’s game on Saturday. His committed kick chasing was superb. His reclaims of O’Gara drop-offs were the source of both BJ Botha and Johne Murphy’s tries. In a game where the restart was massively influential, Zebo made the difference. His defence was untested on Saturday and some doubts do remain in that regard. But for now, we should savour the joy Zebo brought to the game. With the rolled-down socks, exuberant confidence and ‘Z’ celebration, he has the makings of a different type of Munster hero.

Zebo’s key stats vs. Northampton:

Kick/pass/run: 2/3/11     Meters gained on ball: 130     Clean line-breaks: 3 Defenders beaten: 2     Tackles made/missed: 1/0

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John Muldoon

Muldoon warms up for the Toulouse match, two weekends ago. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Connacht’s first ever Heineken Cup win will go down in the province’s history as an unforgettable night. In the wind and rain, the Connacht pack dug in and showed incredible commitment to their team’s cause. Harlequins couldn’t cope with the ferociousness of the Connacht defence and that was what made the difference. Muldoon was Man of the Match and spoke afterwards of that award being for each member of the pack. But that was the typically self-depreciating Muldoon. While others around him did put in similar efforts, the blindside’s contributions were crucial.

Two turnovers in particular stood out. The first came after 26 minutes as Harlequins, trailing 9-5, hammered at Connacht and still showed belief that they could break them down. Muldoon was involved in a tackle and then instead of looking to get his hands on the ball, he got to his feet and drove straight over the top of it. With his teammates piling in behind him the ball ended up in the Connacht side of the ruck. It was intelligent, determined work from Muldoon.

The second key turnover came in the second-half. ‘Quins were deep inside the Connacht 22 as Jordan Turner-Hall burst at their defence. Muldoon went high with his tackle, knowing that Mike McCarthy had tackled low. As Turner-Hall went to the deck, Muldoon ripped the ball free from his grasp and there was relief for Connacht. Those kind of turnovers helped to sap the belief from Harlequins and lift the Connacht players and crowd.

On top of those crucial interventions, Muldoon was his team’s top ball-carrier in a game where they didn’t see too much of the ball. He put in his usual high tackle-count too. This was the kind of game that totally suits Muldoon’s strengths and attitude. He played a major role in what will become a famous night for Connacht. Muldoon will hope for a chance to shine again in the Wolfhounds game with the English Saxons on Saturday.

Muldoon’s key stats vs. Harlequins:

Kick/pass/run: 0/1/7     Metres gained on ball: 5     Minutes played: 80         Turnovers: 2     Tackles made/missed: 14/1

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James Coughlan

Coughlan (right) supports his captain, Paul O'Connell. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

While Simon Zebo had a superb game for Munster, Coughlan was probably slightly more deserving of the Man of the Match award. He has become indispensable to Tony McGahan’s team and is a real leader on the pitch. It’s easy to forget how poor a start Munster made on Saturday and Coughlan was important in ensuring Munster stayed with Northampton up until half-time. The No.8 set his stall out as he claimed the first kick-off, beat a Saints chaser than smashed into two more. He didn’t let up for the remaining 80 minutes.

Two bruising carries from Coughlan resulted in the penalty which allowed Ronan O’Gara to draw Munster back to 13-6 after conceding the first penalty try. Soon after, another surge from the Cork man led to Northampton coming offside as they looked to stop Munster’s wrecking ball, allowing O’Gara to further reduce the deficit. In the build up to Johne Murphy’s try it was a hard, flat line from Coughlan which had the Saints back-peddling in defence.

The ex-Dolphin back-row was again central to Zebo’s third try. After a Denis Fogarty overthrow at a Munster lineout, Coughlan’s hit on Ben Nutley knocked the ball loose, allowing Keith Earls to break. Seconds later, it was Coughlan who set the ball up in the middle of the Saints 22, from where Keatley and Zebo performed their switch for the wing to score.

Coughlan was today called up to the Ireland senior squad, just reward for his brilliant form this season. The fact that he was left out originally was very hard to understand. For him not to be included in the Wolfhounds was beyond belief. Declan Kidney has fortunately realised the error of his ways and added the Munster No.8 to his squad for the Six Nations. He replaces the injured Leo Cullen and at 31, will hope to get his first full cap.

Coughlan’s key stats vs. Northampton:

Minutes played: 80     Kick/pass/run: 0/2/13     Defenders beaten: 4            Turnovers: 1     Tackles made/missed: 7/1     Metres gained on ball: 52

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Photos Courtesy:   Ivan O’Riordan, Martin Dobey, Jukka Zitting, Pierre-Selim.