Four on Form

(c) Jukka Zitting.

——————–

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

——————–

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

——————–

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

——————–

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

———————-

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

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