Monthly Archives: January 2012

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.



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)


Photos courtesy:  Art Widak, Martin Dobey.


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:

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


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

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.

Heineken Cup Round 6 Round-Up

Simon Zebo was the hattrick hero as Munster destroyed the Saints on Saturday. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.


  Connacht 9-8 Harlequins

Friday 20th January @ The Sportsground

A determined, ferocious effort from Connacht earned them their first ever Heineken Cup win at a wet and windy Sportsground on Friday night. Man of the match John Muldoon said afterwards that he and his teammates felt like they had  just won the tournament. While Munster’s huge win against Northampton on Saturday showed us one side of what makes rugby so special, Connacht showed a totally different side with their undying spirit and determination.

So, the awful run of losses is finally over. Connacht’s first win in fifteen games came thanks to what Muldoon called “a lot of ticker”. This heart was expressed through Connacht’s powerful, aggressive defence. ‘Quins failed to adapt to the conditions and the scrappy nature of the game suited Eric Elwood’s men. Niall O’Connor landed the crucial points with three penalties. Sam Smith touched down for Harlequins in the first-half but Nick Evans was off target with the conversion as well as a more straightforward second-half penalty.

Here’s the final table from Pool 6. Toulouse are the only team to advance to the quarter-finals:


Leinster 25-3 Montpellier

Saturday 21st January @ The RDS

Leinster completed their dominance of Pool 3 with a muscular win at home to Montpellier. Sean O’Brien, Rob Kearney and Cian Healy scored the tries while Fergus McFadden kicked ten points. Leinster did miss out on the try-scoring bonus point to leave Munster as top seeds after the pool stages. However, Joe Schmidt will be unconcerned following a good display from his team. Leinster will now host the Cardiff Blues, most probably at the Aviva, in April’s quarter-final.

Montpellier gave Leinster’s defence a severe testing for a 25 minute spell either side of half-time but the current Heineken Cup champions held firm. Schmidt will be hugely pleased to have only conceded three points, showing that Leinster can defend just as well as they cut teams open in attack. Some strong individual performances from the likes of Rob Kearney, Cian Healy and Gordon D’Arcy will have pleased Ireland coach Declan Kidney.

Here’s how Pool 3 finished up. Leinster are the only team to move on to the knock-out stages:

Pool 3

And here’s the highlights from the Leinster vs. Montpellier game:


Clermont 19-15 Ulster

Saturday 21st January @ Stade Marcel Michelin

Connacht’s win on Friday night meant that Ulster were already guaranteed a quarter-final spot coming into this game. After the narrow loss to Clermont, Brian McLaughlin stated that he was pleased his side had also secured that qualification on their own merits with a losing bonus point. However, he expressed his dissapointment at their failure to win and ensure a home draw. The Ulster performance was once again top class. This side, after a shaky and inconsistent first third of the season, has morphed into genuine Heineken Cup contenders.

The nature of this defeat will frustrate Ulster. Clermont scored the only try of the game through replacement hooker Ti’i Paulo. While the French side had been battering Ulster’s line at the time, the touchdown came only after an American football-style block by Nathan Hines. The fact that Hines was lucky to still be on the pitch after some highly cynical holding of Pedrie Wannenburg and Stephen Ferris only minutes before exacerbated the sense of frustration. The fact that dan Tuohy had been binned early in the game for a less serious offence topped off a one-sided display from referee Dave Pearson.

Still, Ulster will move on and now have a quarter-final with Munster to look forward to. That will be a momentous occasion in Thomond Park.

Here’s how Pool 4 finished up. Both Clermont and Ulster move on to the quarter-finals:

Pool 4

Here’s the highlights from the game:

And a closer look at the two incidents involving Nathan Hines. The Clermont try is first, followed by the Scottish second-row’s cynical holding:


Northampton 36-51 Munster

Saturday 21st January @ stadium:mk

Munster saved the best for last as they made it six wins from six to qualify as the top seeds for the quarter-finals. This scintillating performance was a stunning surprise from a Munster side who have, by their own admission, been winning without playing brilliantly up until now. Paul O’Connell had emphasised in recent weeks that his side needed to start converting more of the try-scoring chances they were creating. That finally happened to great effect at stadium:mk as Munster swept the Saints aside in the second-half.

Five tries from Johne Murphy, BJ Botha and Simon Zebo (3) ensured a try-scoring bonus point while Ronan O’Gara kicked 24 points. Munster had a sloppy opening quarter to the game, allowing Northampton pull into a 13-3 lead. At that stage, things weren’t looking good for Tony McGahan’s men, but they pulled back to 19-19 at half-time. After the interval, Munster were unstoppable as they repeatedly cut the Saints apart, despite the English side’s awesome dominance of the scrum. From being written off as a side in transition for most of the season,  Munster have marked themselves out as one of the teams to beat in this competition. The inter-pro quarter-final with Ulster will be fascinating.

Here’s a look at how Pool 1 finished. Munster are the only team into the quarters:

Here’s all five of the Munster tries. Enjoy!


Photos courtesy:  Ivan O’Riordan.

Heineken Cup Round 6 Previews

Connacht vs. Harlequins @ The Sportsground

Friday 20th January (20.00) Sky Sports 1

Danny Care has been involved in off-the-field controversy recently but starts at 9 for Harlequins. (c) Vincent Cornelius.

Connacht make just one change from the team that went down bravely against Toulouse last weekend. Ronan Loughney comes back in at tighthead meaning Dylan Rogers drops to the bench. Connacht’s injury list is crippling at the moment so Elwood doesn’t really have the option to change much else. He will expect a similar effort to last week and hope that Connacht can take the chances they create. Several try-scoring opportunities were left behind in Toulouse.

Harlequins also make a single change to their starting team. Wing Tom Williams has stayed in England with his first child on the way. Sam Smith is his replacement. Fullback Mike Brown was recently named Aviva Premiership Player of the Month for December and will have to be watched closely. Matt Hopper is a livewire at 13. Chris Robshaw captains the side at openside flanker.

Connacht will hope to go out of the Heineken Cup with a bang tonight. Harlequins come to Galway still in the hunt for a quarter-final spot so it would be massively surprising to see Eric Elwood’s men end their losing streak. However, Connacht will give everything to the cause in search of a first Heineken Cup win. The Sportsground is a sell-out as Connacht fans hope to see another performance like that against Toulouse last week. A Connacht win would be mean Ulster definitely going through to the quarter-finals, as one of the best placed runners-up. Here’s hoping!

Verdict: Harlequins, just.

Connacht: 15 Gavin Duffy (capt.), 14 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 13 Kyle Tonetti, 12 Dave McSharry, 11 Tiernan O’Halloran, 10 Niall O’Connor, 9 Paul O’Donohoe, 1 Brett Wilkinson, 2 Adrian Flavin, 3 Ronan Loughney, 4 Michael Swift, 5 Mike McCarthy, 6 John Muldoon, 7 Ray Ofisa, 8 George Naoupu.
Subs: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Dennis Buckley, 18 Dylan Rogers, 19 Mick Kearney, 20 Eoin McKeon, 21 Dave Moore, 22 Miah Nikora, 23 Henry Fa’afili.

Harlequins: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Ugo Monye, 13 Matt Hopper, 12 Jordan Turner-Hall, 11 Sam Smith, 10 Nick Evans, 9 Danny Care, 1 Joe Marler, 2 Chris Brooker, 3 James Johnston, 4 Tomas Vallejos, 5 George Robson, 6 Maurie Faasavalu, 7 Chris Robshaw (capt.), 8 Nick Easter.
Subs: 16 Joe Gray, 17 Mark Lambert, 18 Tim Fairbrother, 19 Ollie Kohn, 20 Luke Wallace, 21 Richard Bolt, 22 Rory Clegg, 23 Tom Casson.


Leinster vs. Montpellier @ The RDS

Saturday 21st January (13.30) Sky Sports 1

Leinster are hoping for fireworks on Saturday. (c) Art Widak.

Joe Schmidt has made several changes to the team that secured a quarter-final spot with a 23-16 win in Glasgow last weekend. After being left out of the Ireland set-up, Jamie Hagan comes in for Mike Ross as tighthead. Damien Browne replaces Devin Toner in the second-row while Richardt Strauss is in for Sean Cronin at hooker. Rhys Ruddock is at blindside flanker, with Shane Jennings dropping to the bench.

In the backs, Isaac Boss is preferred to Eoin Reddan at scrumhalf this time around. Jonathan Sexton continues at 10 despite picking up an ankle injury last weekend. In the centre, Gordon D’Arcy is partnered by Eoin O’Malley this week, with Fergus McFadden moving to the right wing. David Kearney drops out of the squad completely.

Despite already being out of the tournament, Montpellier have named their strongest available side. They have included French international half-back pairing Julien Tomas and Francois Trinh-Duc. In the back row, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Mamuka Gorgodze are key men. Ex-Ulster man Timoci Nagusa starts on the right wing.

A  bonus-point win for Leinster would guarantee them a home quarter-final and that should certainly be their target. A normal 4 point win would secure that home QF spot too, unless Ulster get a bonus-point win in Clermont. Although Montpellier have surprisingly named a full-strength team, Leinster have more than enough to comfortably overcome the French side.

Verdict: Bonus-point win for Leinster.

Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Eoin O’Malley, 12 Gordon D’Arcy, 11 Isa Nacewa, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Isaac Boss, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 Damian Browne, 4 Leo Cullen, 3 Jamie Hagan, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Heinke Van der Merwe, 18 Mike Ross, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Shane Jennings, 21 Eoin Reddan, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Fionn Carr.

Montpellier: 15 Lucas Amorosino, 14 Timoci Nagusa, 13 Yoan Audrin, 12 Paul Bosch, 11 Martin Bustos Moyano, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Julien Tomas, 8 Alex Tulou, 7 Mamuka Gorgodze, 6 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 5 Mickael Demarco, 4 Drickus Hancke, 3 George Jgenti, 2 Agustin Creevy, 1 Na’ama Leleimalefaga.
Subs: 16 Rassie van Vuuren, 17 Juan Figallo, 18 Maximiliano Bustos, 19 Joe Tuineau, 20 Vassili Bost, 21 Benoit Paillaugue, 22 Santiago Fernandez, 23 Geoffrey Doumayrou.


Clermont vs. Ulster @ Stade Marcel Michelin

Saturday 21st January (15.40) Sky Sports 1

Clermont are unbeaten at home in over two years. (c) Chris Brown.

This could be the game of the weekend. Two in-form teams, some world-class players, a sold-out 18,000 crowd,  and the winner goes through to the quarter-finals. What more could you want?

Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has made just one chance to the team that hammered Leicester last weekend. Darren Cave has been ruled out for up to six weeks with a foot injury sustained in that win. Ian Whitten is his replacement. Elsewhere it’s as you were. Johann Muller captains the side from the second-row once again.

The Clermont team looks incredibly strong on paper. Welshman Lee Byrne is at fullback. Sitiveni Sivivatu and Julien Malzieu make up a potent-looking back-three. Aurelien Rougerie and the supremely talented Wesley Fofana start in midfield. Half-backs Morgan Parra and David Skrela make up a strong back-line. Up front, there’s six more internationals including Julien Bonnaire at No.8 and Nathan Hines in the second-row.

A win for Ulster would most likely get them a home quarter-final. And a win is certainly possible, especially if the northern province can recreate the performance of last weekend. Clermont are unbeaten in the Stade Marcel Michelin since November 2009. In the last 36 games there, only seven of the visiting teams have picked up losing bonus points. Even if they lose, Ulster can still top the group if – 1) they prevent Clermont getting a try-scoring bonus point 2) get a losing bonus point themselves and 3) either score more tries than Clermont in the game or lose by less than five points.  Whatever happens, this one will be well worth watching.

Verdict: Clermont by 2 or 3 points, so Ulster to go through.

Clermont: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Julien Malzieu, 10 David Skrela, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Julien Bonnaire (capt.), 7 Julien Bardy, 6 Gerhard Vosloo, 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Julien Pierre, 3 Clément Ric, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Lionel Faure.                                                        Subs: 16 Ti’i Paulo, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Daniel Coetzee, 19 Jamie Cudmore, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Kevin Senio, 22 Brock James, 23 Regan King.

Ulster: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Ian Whitten, 12 Paddy Wallace, 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 Andi Kyriacou, 17 Callum Black, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Lewis Stevenson, 20 Willie Faloon, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Nevin Spence, 23 Adam D’Arcy.


Northampton vs. Munster @ stadium:mk

Saturday 21st January (18.00) Sky Sports 1

Munster look to make it six wins from six in Pool 1. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Another massive game in the final round of Heineken Cup pool games. Munster secured a quarter-final spot by beating Castres last weekend but will be hoping for the win that would guarantee them a vital home QF. Northampton are out of this tournament but still have a chance of dropping into the Amlin. Revenge will be on the cards for them too after Ronan O’Gara’s late drop-goal in Thomond Park derailed their season.

Munster have been forced into making one change from last week. Niall Ronan’s season is over, with the openside set for surgery on his cruciate injury. Donncha O’Callaghan replace Ronan, meaning Donnacha Ryan moves back to the blindside. Peter O’Mahony switches to openside. David O’Callaghan comes onto the bench for the first time in Heineken Cup.

The Saints have dropped Chris Ashton after he announced his decision to join Saracens next summer. Jamie Elliot takes his place on the wing. Ryan Lamb is back at outhalf after Steven Myler started against the Scarlets last weekend. Lee Dickson returns at scrumhalf while James Downey starts at inside centre.

There’s a temptation to write off Munster for this one. They have been winning games all season but their performances have been far from complete, by their own admission. Northampton will be desperate to get one over on Munster and do have something to play for in terms of Amlin qualification. But writing Munster off is always a dangerous game. They may not be playing the best rugby in the tournament but it hasn’t prevented them from winning yet. A tough one to call.

Verdict: Northampton by 5 points.

Northampton Saints: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Jamie Elliott, 13 George Pisi, 12 James Downey, 11 Vasily Artemyev, 10 Ryan Lamb, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Phil Dowson, 6 Calum Clark, 5 Mark Sorenson, 4 Samu Manoa, 3 Brian Mujati, 2 Dylan Hartley (capt.), 1 Soane Tonga’uiha.

Subs: 16 Brett Sharman, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Paul Doran Jones, 19 Christian Day, 20 Ben Nutley, 21 Martin Roberts, 22 Stephen Myler, 23 Scott Armstrong.

Munster: 15 Denis Hurley, 14 Johne Murphy, 13 Keith Earls, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ronan O’Gara, 9 Conor Murray, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Peter O’Mahony, 6 Donnacha Ryan, 5 Paul O’Connell, 4 Donncha O’Callaghan, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Damien Varley, 1 Wian du Preez.
Subs: 16 Denis Fogarty, 17 Marcus Horan, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Mick O’Driscoll, 20 Dave O’Callaghan, 21 Tomas O’Leary, 22 Ian Keatley, 23 Danny Barnes.


Photos courtesy:  Vincent Cornelius, Art Widak, Chris Brown, Ivan O’Riordan.

No Surprises in Kidney’s 6 Nations Squad

Ronan O'Gara is back for another 6 Nations campaign with Ireland. (c) Ross Wynne.

The Irish management team today announced both the Irish senior squad for the forthcoming 6 Nations and the Irish Wolfhounds squad for a game with the English Saxons in two weekend’s time.

The senior squad includes 24 players, plus an additional 6 players who will join the first week of training. The Wolfhounds squad features 22 players.

First off, here’s a look at the two squads:

Ireland Training Squad

Forwards (13): Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Tom Court, Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Leo Cullen, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell (capt.), Donnacha Ryan, Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip, Shane Jennings, Sean O’Brien.

Backs (11): Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan, Ronan O’Gara, Jonathan Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy, Paddy Wallace, Fergus McFadden, Keith Earls, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Rob Kearney.

Additional Players (6): Ian Nagle, Peter O’Mahony, Tiernan O’Halloran, Paddy McAllister, Andrew Conway, Simon Zebo.

Peter O'Mahony is one of 6 "additional" players named by Declan Kidney. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

O2 Irish Wolfhounds Squad for match vs. England Saxons (Sat 28th January)

Forwards (12): Stephen Archer, Ronan Loughney, Mike Sherry, Damien Varley, Brett Wilkinson, Mike McCarthy, Devin Toner, Dan Tuohy, Kevin McLaughlin, Chris Henry, John Muldoon, Rhys Ruddock.

Backs (10): Isaac Boss, Tomas O’Leary, Ian Madigan, Ian Keatley, Nevin Spence, Eoin O’Malley, Luke Fitzgerald, David Kearney, Gavin Duffy, Denis Hurley.

Players not considered due to injury

Brian O’Driscoll, David Wallace, Darren Cave, Felix Jones, Jerry Flannery, Eoin Griffin, Denis Leamy, Niall Ronan.

Luke Fitzgerald, pictured scoring against Bath, is in the Wolfhounds squad. (c) Art Widak.

Before we start criticising Declan Kidney’s senior squad for being too conservative, which it clearly is if looked at as a definitive final squad, it’s worth noting that Kidney has emphasised that players in the Wolfhounds squad are still in consideration for his matchday 22 to play Wales. The Wolfhounds take on the Saxons on the 28th of this month, giving those players a final chance to impress ahead of the Wales clash on the 5th of February.

It’s unclear why Kidney did not simply name a 30-man senior squad, instead of marking the 6 young players as “Additional players”. This promising sextet will have just one week of training with the senior squad to impress. Surely if someone like Peter O’Mahony puts himself about to good effect in that week of training he will be considered for a place on the bench against Wales? Why bother to mark these guys as “additional”? He has left himself open to criticism for not blooding younger players that would have been avoided by simply naming those 6 players in the squad.

It may be confusing, but at least Kidney is keeping the door open for the Wolfhounds players. At the squad announcements he said, “The Wolfhounds game gives myself and the other coaches one final chance to give games to players to see possible options before we settle on our matchday 22 for the opening game of the Championship.” That will be encouragement enough to ensure that the Wolfhounds game is treated seriously, a final trial of sorts.

So what of the player selections Kidney has made? The fact is that any of the 52 players he and his management have named could be in the squad for the Wales game. Until he names that matchday 22, it’s hard to criticise or praise. But of course, being named in the senior squad is a better indicator that a player will be involved.

O'Callaghan, Earls, Healy and Ross are all in the senior squad, while O'Leary (centre) is amongst the Wolfhounds. (c) Ross Wynne.

In terms of second-rows, Dan Tuohy and Mike McCarthy have been in fantastic form for Ulster and Connacht respectively. Donncha O’Callaghan is named in the senior squad despite slipping behind Donnacha Ryan in the Munster pecking order. Tuohy and McCarthy will feel aggrieved at Kidney’s loyalty in O’Callaghan, especially with the Munster man now 32.

Luke Fitzgerald is one name noticeably missing from the senior squad. However, he hasn’t played in the last two weeks because of slight glute/neck problems. It looks as if he will be given the Wolfhounds match to prove his fitness before being considered for the 6 Nations matchday squad. His form this season demands inclusion. Elsewhere, the form of Ulster’s Paul Marshall and Conor Gilroy has been ignored completely as neither features at all.

It would be fantastic to see younger players like Tiernan O’Halloran and Peter O’Mahony getting a chance in this year’s 6 Nations, even if only off the bench. However, with the squads he has named, the feeling is that Declan Kidney will stick with the tried and trusted.

What do you make of the squad selections? Who do you think deserved to be included or shouldn’t have made the cut? Should Kidney go all out to win this year’s 6 Nations or rather use it as a chance to blood some uncapped players? Comment below with the matchday 22 that you would pick for the Wales match and why…


Photos courtesy:  Ross Wynne, Ivan O’Riordan, Art Widak.