Four on Form

PRO12 Round 12 Matches

Photo via Jukka Zitting.

As always, Four on Form looks at four Irish-eligible players who hit top form in their province’s fixtures over the weekend.

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Mike McCarthy

McCarthy was one of the stand-out players for Connacht as they came up inches short against Leinster on New Year’s Day. The second-row was clearly desperate to help Connacht end their long run of defeats. He carried and defended ferociously for the full 80 minutes. McCarthy was also crucial to the lineout as Connacht always looked to find him from touch.

30-year-old McCarthy won his first cap for Ireland last August in the World Cup warm-up game against Scotland. Declan Kidney selected McCarthy at blindside flanker in that match but McCarthy eventually missed out on selection for the subsequent tournament. The London-born man’s ability to play in the back-row means that his strong ball-carrying and high work-rate come as no surprise.

McCarthy claims lineout ball against Gloucester in the Heineken Cup. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

McCarthy began his career with Wasps in London before joining Connacht for one season in 2003/04. He left to spend three years at Newcastle until he re-joined Connacht in 2007. Since then, McCarthy has passed the 100 cap mark for the province and become a key part of their forward pack. McCarthy showed exactly why with his performance against Leinster.

Of the 10 lineouts Connacht threw, McCarthy claimed 6, as well as pinching one of Leinster’s. McCarthy made 8 carries throughout, getting over the gainline nearly every time. His defensive game was equally important as he successfully made all 8 of his attempted tackles, most of them dominant hits. McCarthy’s importance to Connacht was particularly obvious in the build-up to their two tries. Both scores began with lineouts and it was McCarthy who secured possession both times.

International rugby is possibly beyond McCarthy now but displays like this one will certainly make the Irish management take notice. McCarthy’s versatility is useful in any squad. With no obvious first-choice lock to partner captain Paul O’Connell, McCarthy will recognise that continuation of this kind of form will put him in contention.

McCarthy’s key stats vs. Leinster:

Kick/Pass/Run: 0/5/8     Metres gained on ball: 26     Defenders Beaten: 1      Tackles made/missed: 8/0     Lineouts won on own throw/stolen: 6/1

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Luke O’Dea

O'Dea (15) in action for Shannon against Young Munster. (c) Liam Coughlan.

While Munster looked fairly toothless against Ulster in a 33-17 loss, winger O’Dea was lively every time he was involved in the action. The Munster Academy player only made his debut for Munster in November, scoring a try against Edinburgh in an impressive performance. He followed that up with a strong showing against Connacht, setting up a try for Sean Scanlon. The 21-year-old continued this form with another promising display against Ulster, one of the few positives on a disappointing evening for Munster.

O’Dea earned his chance with the senior Munster team through his fantastic performances with Shannon in the Ulster Bank League in recent seasons. He has also come through the Munster ‘A’ set-up, like many of the young players in this Munster squad. O’Dea’s natural position is at full-back and we may see him there eventually but he is doing an accomplished job on the wing at the moment.

O’Dea is exciting on the ball, as he showed against Ulster. He has the ability to always beat at least one man. This was exemplified by how he took his try. From Keatley’s cross-field kick, with Adam D’Arcy in front of him, the Ennis-born back-three player had the confidence to take him on in very little space. The safer option, and the one which D’Arcy seemed to anticipate, would have been to look for Will Chambers inside. O’ea backed himself and made no mistake.

It’s refreshing to see Munster wide men backing themselves in this manner. While Denis Hurley and Johne Murphy are solid professionals and haven’t let Munster down, they’re not the type of players who beat defenders too often. O’Dea looks to be a natural broken-field runner and he showed that soon after his try against Ulster. Receiving the ball in very little space down the right-hand touchline, O’Dea burned past Pedrie Wannenburg and almost stepped around D’Arcy. The move came to nothing but displayed O’Dea’s ability to beat defenders.

Despite only getting on the ball six times on Friday night, O’Dea made two clean line-breaks and beat two defenders. The prospect of O’Dea having with a little more attacking space from full-back is an exciting one. Judging on his first three Munster caps, we will be seeing a lot more of O’Dea in the future.

O’Dea’s key stats vs. Ulster:

Kick/Pass/Run: 1/0/5     Clean line-breaks: 2     Defenders beaten: 2               Metres gained on ball: 48     Tackles made/missed: 3/2

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Chris Henry

Ulster enjoyed a dominant display over Munster with a 33-17 win at Ravenhill on Friday night. Henry was one of the reasons that Ulster were on top as he got through a mountain of work. Henry was always earmarked as a future Irish international from his time with the Ireland U21 squad. Now at 27, the back-row has just one cap to his name, having played against Australia on the tour down under in 2010. This season, the spectacular performances of Stephen Ferris have meant Henry’s good form has been somewhat masked.

Against Munster, Henry was clearly to the fore. He was unmissable as his huge appetite for hard work shone through. The 107kg back-row lined out at blindside for this match, showing his versatility within the back-row. He can play all three back-row positions and this has perhaps held him back a little throughout his career. His natural position is at No.8 but the South Africa Pedrie Wannenburg occupies that role for Ulster.

Henry in his natural position of No.8 against Munster in 2009. (c) Liam Coughlan.

Henry was Ulster’s top ball-carrier against Munster with 12 carries for a total gain of 50 metres. His tackle count of 14 was second only to captain Johann Muller’s 16. While Henry did concede 2 penalties, that merely highlights how much spoiling of the Munster ball he did. For Ruan Pienaar’s bonus-point try, it was Henry who tackled Duncan Williams at the back of the Munster scrum, forcing the ball loose and allowing Pienaar to pick up and finish.

Henry was also crucial to Ulster’s second try, eventually scored by John Afoa. Henry beat off a tackle to cut through the Munster defence after they had seemingly recovered following Ulster’s initial break-out from their own half. Henry showed his power as he went through du Preez’s tackle to put Ulster back on the front foot.

With Ferris out, Henry assumed to role of primary ball-carrier to great effect. His work-rate in defence was equally accomplished. As has been mentioned here before, Ireland’s strength in the back-row means it will be hard for players to break into the international squad in that area. All Henry can do is consistently put in mammoth displays like this one and hope that a chance presents itself. At 27, he still has time on his side.

Henry’s key stats vs. Munster:

Kick/Pass/Run: 0/5/12     Defenders beaten: 1     Metres gained on ball: 50  Tackles made/missed: 14/0     Turnovers: 1     Clean line-breaks: 1

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Paddy McAllister

In the first half of Ulster’s match against Munster, it looked like McAllister could have been included in a hypothetical Four Off Form. Munster’s tighthead, Stephen Archer, seemed to be winning the scrum battle against McAllister, lining out at loosehead for Ulster. Munster won three penalties as they dominated the scrum in that first half and McAllister looked to be beaten. However, he is included in this week’s Four on Form for the manner in which he helped turn the scrum around for Ulster in the first 20 minutes of the second-half.

The 22-year-old’s battle with Archer, only 23 himself, was always going to be interesting. Archer was the clear victor in the first-half. The half-time interval was McAllister’s saviour as he came out a different player after the break. Obviously the Ulster scrum is a unit, not just McAllister acting on his own, but he played a major role in the two huge shunts at scrum-time that led to two Ulster tries. The tries were scored by Ian Humphreys and Ruan Pienaar (see them over in the RaboDirect Round-Up), but they belonged to the Ulster pack who sent the Munster scrum back-peddling on their own put-in.

Their will always be suggestions from the scrum which is going backwards of illegal scrummaging on the dominant packs’s part but whatever way McAllister did manage to get on top of Archer he must be applauded for it. Both these young props showed serious potential at different times of the match and that can only be a good thing for Irish rugby. While McAllister didn’t have a chance to showcase it against Munster, he is also a strong ball-carrier and has the mobility to contribute well around the pitch. The McAllister vs. Archer battle is one we could be seeing regularly in a few years time.

McAllister’s key stats vs. Munster:

Kick/Pass/Run: 0/1/6     Turnovers: 1     Tackles made/missed: 5/0                  Ulster scrum on own feed win/lost: 6/0

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Photos courtesy:  Eoin Gardiner, Liam Coughlan, Jukka Zitting.

3 responses to “Four on Form

  1. Ulster’s back row looked a lot more balanced on Friday night with Chris Henry, Willie Faloon and Pedrie Wannenburg in the mix. His tackle on Duncan Williams was that of a good flanker; as Faloon also emptied Williams in the first half of the game, leading to a try for Humphreys. I’d like to see Henry remain at 6/8 as I genuinely think this is his best position; I’d also like to see Faloon being given another run of games to show what he can do as an out-and-out 7. Sadly, with Ferris coming back in for this weekend’s game, I can see Henry being moved back to 7 and Faloon losing out.

    • It’s a real conundrum for Brian McLaughlin! I agree that the back-row did look a lot more balanced for Ulster on Friday. I’d love to see Faloon a bit more too, there’s a lack of natural 7s in Ireland so he’s an interesting player. His tackle on Williams for the Humphreys try shows what he can offer. Henry’s certainly not an openside by nature but I think he has done enough to start ahead of Faloon. Ferris is untouchable and Wannenburg is the man in possession of the No.8 jersey. It’s a pity an Irish player, most likely Faloon, has to miss out. Maybe with the new NIQ ruling, we will see a back-row of Ferris, Faloon and Henry in the next few seasons!

  2. I agree; Faloon had a good run of games last season, and was unlucky to pick up the injury which kept him out of contention. Had he stayed uninjured last year it would have been really interesting to see how McLaughlin would have chosen between him and Henry, as the two are different in the openside role. Hopefully the new NIQ ruling will let the Irish players shine a bit more; I’d be up for that!

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