Monthly Archives: April 2012

Pressure is on Ulster

South African Waltzing Matilda

Stefan Terblanche attacks during Ulster's 22-16 win over Munster in the quarter-finals. (c) Sean Mulligan.

This is completely new territory for Ulster. Their first Heineken Cup semi-final since 1999, when they famously went on to win the tournament. More importantly, Ulster are the clear favourites for tomorrow. It’s a position that they haven’t had to deal with in any of their big games this season so far. How Ulster cope with that tag could have a telling effect on the outcome of the clash with Edinburgh.

Let’s take a closer look at Ulster’s three most important wins this season. All the way back in November, Brian McLaughlin’s side opened their H-Cup campaign with a hard-fought 16-11 win over Clermont in Ravenhill. A loss there would obviously have had disastrous effects. Coming into that game, all the pre-match talk had been about Clermont’s power and pace – Rougerie, Byrne, Bonnaire and Parra. It’s worth remembering that Ulster were viewed slightly differently as a team back then.

While, the pressure was most certainly not off Ulster, no one would have been greatly surprised to see Ulster lose. Despite Clermont winning the set-piece battle and edging the possession/territory stakes, Ulster pulled off a confidence-boosting victory. Their now trademark aggressive defence was led manfully by Stephen Ferris and Ian Humphreys’ try came from an incisive counter-attack following a Clermont knock-on in the Ulster half.

Heineken Cup Q Final April 2012 141

Ulster's defence has been a strength. In this photo, Stephen Ferris is typically bursting up ahead of the defensive line. (c) Alan06.

The next key result was the 41-7 mauling of Leicester, again at Ravenhill. This was another match where Ulster weren’t viewed as definite favourites. The Tigers were still pushing hard for a quarter-final spot at that stage. Once again, Ulster were second-best at the set piece, and were narrowly shaded in terms of territory and possession, yet they still managed to tear the Tigers apart.  As with the Clermont game, Ulster’s defence shut down a Leicester side who are easily the top try-scorers in the Premiership. We’ll come back to Ulster’s attacking performance that day.

So, to the quarter-final win in Thomond Park. It’s fair to say that Munster were the narrow favourites for the majority of fans and bookies. The home side had a whooping 72% possession and 79% territory, but Ulster again came out on top. While Munster’s attacking play was very limited, it’s hard to emphasize Ulster’s phenomenal defensive effort enough. Their try, from inside their own half, was a mixture of Craig Gilroy’s ability with ball in hand and Munster’s unacceptably poor tackling.

The major point is that Ulster’s three biggest wins of the season came in matches where they were slight underdogs and didn’t expect to dominate possession (nor did they). Against Edinburgh tomorrow, both of these aspects will be reversed. Encouragingly, Ulster have strong leaders in the likes of Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best and John Afoa. Still, it will be intriguing to see how McLaughlin and his charges handle the expectation. This won’t be a game where the opposition will have long spells of possession and Ulster can simply batter them with their aggressive defence.

Ulster's lineout copy

Muller and his pack will expect to provide quality possession to Pienaar at 9. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

We go back to that glorious win over Leicester for the attacking template that Ulster should look to use. The first try that day was sheer excellence. It was kick-started inside Ulster’s half as two passes put Wannenburg in space out wide on the right. The South African’s offload was followed by Trimble’s before the move was slightly halted. Following a few patient phases, Ferris’ burst put Ulster back on the front foot and Trimble finished in the corner.

That’s Ulster at their best. One or two direct boshes in tight (Trimble, Tuohy, Muller etc. run at Laidlaw!) followed swiftly by long passes into a wide channel. As pointed on Whiff of Cordite, Ulster’s 9-10-12 axis are all lovely passers of the ball, and that doesn’t change with the selection of Paddy Jackson at 10. As the lads highlight, that Gilroy try vs. Munster is another fine example. Trimble up the middle, then two long passes (Humphreys, that’s an absolute beauty!) to the wide channel. While the 21-year-old isn’t going to finish like that every time, it still allows Ulster to play to their strengths.

Ulster’s pack looks slightly stronger than Edinburgh’s, although with John Afoa missing, Edinburgh will expect to get on top in the scrum. Even without Chris Henry, Ulster’s forwards should be able to provide Pienaar and Jackson with a steady share of quality possession. If Ulster can manage the added pressure of favouritism, retain their disruptive defensive style and unleash their most effective attacking patterns then they’re a banker to get to the Heineken Cup final. Once there, they will return to the role of underdogs against Clermont or Leinster. As we’ve seen before, that’s a position which suits them.

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Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Sean Mulligan, Alan06.

The Exiled Irish: Italia

Ex-Munster, Toulon and Newcastle prop Tim Ryan is now playing for Italian Super 10 side Cavalieri. (c) Daniela Pasquetti.

In the last Exiled Irish piece, I looked at several Ulster-bred players who are contracted in the Aviva Premiership. This time around, Italy is the location. There are three Irish professionals playing in the Italian Super 10 at the moment. It’s definitely a league that is well under the radar here in Ireland, and in the rest of Europe. Still, it’s a fantastic place to be playing rugby. The quality of the league is obviously at a lower level than our own PRO12, but that simply means further opportunities for Irish guys to make a career for themselves.

With it’s warm climate and incredible cuisine, Italy could certainly be a sweet consolation for players who haven’t quite been able to break through for the provinces, or looking for a new challenge later in their careers. Alongside an intelligent agent, the Italian Super 10 could also be used as a springboard to higher success. It’s definitely worth a thought, especially here in Ireland where our view of rugby can be very insular.

Here’s four Irish guys who recognised the opportunities available in the Italian Super 10:

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Tim Ryan

Ryan takes to the field for Cavalieri. (c) Daniela Pasquetti.

Tighthead prop Ryan was an Irish international at U18 and U19 level, although he played in the back-row at that stage. The chronic lack of tightheads in Ireland dictated that the Cork man was soon converted to the front-row. His strength and power made him an early success, with Munster signing him at the start of the ’05/06 season. However, opportunities were limited and over the next four seasons the Ryan made just 13 appearances off the bench. His only start came against the All Blacks as Munster almost pulled off a famous win in November 2008.

Ryan’s performance that day convinced Top 14 side Toulon to give him a chance for the ’09/10 season. The 120kg prop made 12 appearances over the course of the year before joining Premiership outfit Newcastle for the ’10/11 campaign. In England, Ryan made just 9 starts and he moved on at the start of this season to current club Cavalieri, based in Prato. The 27-year-old appears to have found his feet extremely well in Italy. He’s been first-choice at tighthead, playing 6 Amlin Cup games. Cavalieri head into their Super 10 play-off semi-final this Friday as favourites after topping the regular season table. Ryan has become a vital cog for the Italian side with his powerful ball-carrying and strength in the scrum.

Cavalieri Profile: Tim Ryan

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Dave Ryan

Dave (right) after being beaten by Tim's (left) Cavalieri side last month. (c) Daniela Pasquetti.

Dave is Tim’s younger brother and he’s also based in Italy, with Super 10 side Lazio. The younger Ryan plays mainly at loosehead prop. An Irish U19 international, Dave came through the Munster Academy to secure a full-time professional contract. However, similarly to his brother’s experience, the opportunities were limited to just 2 starts and 8 substitute appearances over the course of three seasons. With his time at Munster up, Dave moved to Lazio at the beginning of this season. He’s now enjoying regular professional rugby for the first time, starting all but 2 of Lazio’s Super 10 games this season.

Lazio finished their season 6th in the league after a very inconsistent campaign which saw just 6 wins in 18 games. Still, it’s only the Rome-based club’s second season in the Super 10 after winning promotion from the Serie A in ’09/10. They will continue to improve and so will 25-year-old Ryan. Italy has a strong reputation for scrummaging excellence, and that’s one of the areas where Ryan is going about proving himself. If he can build on this season’s efforts, he may well earn a move to a more prestigious level. He has plenty of time on his hands and plenty of talent.

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Eoghan Hickey

Hickey (10) after helping Petrarca to a win over Tim Ryan's Cavalieri. (c) Daniela Pasquetti.

Dublin-born Hickey is an ex-Ireland Schools, U21 and ‘A’ international, currently contracted to Super 10 side Petrarca Padova. He earned his first professional contract with Leinster back in ’05/06. Only three substitute appearances followed, so Hickey moved south to join Munster in ’06/07. Again, opportunities were limited (10 in total) so the outhalf/fullback took up an offer from Premiership side London Irish. Hickey had two enjoyable seasons with Irish, making 15 Premiership starts, as well as featuring in the Heineken Cup and Amlin Cup.

The ’09/10 season saw a move to Wasps, but again first-team rugby was hard to come by. Hickey made just 6 appearances before leaving the club at the end of the campaign. The outhalf returned to Ireland and played a season of Ulster Bank League rugby with Lansdowne. However, the stint at home didn’t last long and Hickey was off to Petrarca last summer. The 30-year-old has been integral for the Italians since, starting every game this season and kicking 182 points (3rd best in the league) as well as chipping in with a try. However, last year’s champions narrowly missed out on a play-off spot due to points difference. Still, with Aironi folding, and the possibility of a new Italian PRO12 side, this is a good time for Hickey to be impressing.

Petrarca Profile: Eoghan Hickey     Twitter: @eoghanhickey

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Bryan Young

Young in action for Cavalieri earlier this season. (c) Daniela Pasquetti.

The loosehead was a teammate of Tim Ryan’s at Cavaliero in the Super 10 this season. Young’s career began with Ulster in April 2002 when he came off the bench against Connacht in an Interprovincial clash. It took until ’05/06 to establish himself as undoubted first-choice at the province. His excellent form that season resulted in an international call-up and Young went on to earn 8 caps for Ireland. He was also a member of the 2007 Rugby World Cup squad. In 2009, he won a Churchill Cup with Ireland ‘A’ and also passed to 100 cap mark for Ulster.

Last season at Ulster, Young was still an important part of the squad, making 19 appearances. His technical scrummaging ability and the fact that he could cover at tighthead made him valuable enough to earn 132 caps in total. However, this season saw the Ballymena man take on a new challenge with Cavalieri. Unfortunately, injury restricted the 30-year-old to just 4 starts before Christmas. A front-row including himself and Ryan would have been a great sight. According to the Cavalieri website, Young’s serious back problem resulted in termination of his contract. A well-placed insider has reported that Young’s injury may mean his career is at an end. Despite the injury, hopefully he was able to enjoy the taste of a new culture.

Cavalieri Profile: Bryan Young     Twitter: @by_bear

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Photos courtesy: Daniela Pasquetti.

Recent Articles Elsewhere

(c) Angelo Failla.

On the off chance that you’re spared my daily plugging on social networks, I’ve rounded up some work that I’ve done on other sites in the last couple of weeks. Plenty of this stuff is outdated now, but some readers might still enjoy it!

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Currently enough, this piece on Back Page Rugby concerns the massive challenge facing Leinster this weekend against Clermont:

Leinster’s Biggest Test Awaits

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Also on Back Page Rugby, I had a look at the sometimes positive effects of a long-term injury, using the specific examples of Rob Kearney and Stephen Ferris:

The Positive Side of Injury

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Over on Talking Rugby Union, I discussed the extremely difficult nature of coaching an international side, with our own Declan Kidney the example:

International Coaching is a Fine Art

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I had a look at several possible reasons why Jonny Sexton produces more consistently excellent form for Leinster than for Ireland on Back Page Rugby:

Sexton a Different Beast for Leinster

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The original Exiled Irish piece was featured over on SportsNewsIreland:

Irish Rugby Stars Making Their Name Abroad

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And my first-ever column for Back Page Rugby was about the chance Ulster had to announce themselves at Europe’s top table by beating Munster!

Time for Ulster to Announce Themselves

Prime Opportunity For Cave

Options.....

Cave (2nd from top) in action during Ulster's quarter-final win over Munster. (c) Sean Mulligan.

In the first ever post here on The Touchline all the way back in November of last year, I suggested Darren Cave as a potential replacement for the then-injured Brian O’Driscoll. Cave’s pre-Six Nations form this season demonstrated that the 25-year-old has the ability to eventually do so. Unfortunately, a foot injury sustained in January prevented any possible international inclusion. Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh presents a prime chance for Cave to put himself back in contention.

The Holywood man is back in action now and has played the full 80 minutes of Ulster’s last three games, including the quarter-final win over Munster. Like the rest of Ulster’s backline, he had a quiet game in terms of attack as Munster dominated possession that day. In defence he was as solid as ever, making all 12 of his tackles. It’s very rare to see Cave miss a hit. His defensive positioning at outside centre, an extremely difficult channel to defend in, is always good.

Some Irish fans will have reservations about Cave due to the fact that he is often unglamorous in attack. While Keith Earls, and Brian O’Driscoll is his pomp, can create line breaks from seemingly nothing, Cave is a more direct runner. For Ulster, Paddy Wallace at 12 gets the best from Cave with his creative skills. Wallace’s subtle ability to feed ball-carriers running smart lines is greatly underrated. If Cave is to excel against Edinburgh, Wallace’s fitness will be crucial and thankfully it now looks likely that he will play.

THOMOND PARK

Cave (background) is at his best when Wallace (headband) plays inside him. (c) Liam Coughlan.

At 6’0″ and close to 100kg, Cave is ideally built for his position. He may lack the top-end pace of a world-class 13 but he is very powerful in the contact area. Look back to Ulster’s mauling of Leicester in January, perhaps their most complete performance of the season so far. Cave only carried 5 times that day, but made 25 metres gain in total, beating 2 defenders and creating a clean line-break.

That’s a typical Cave stat sheet. He’ll rarely beat a defence with a lightning fast side-step, but he will repeatedly punch holes. His support play is also a real strength (as illustrated below). I’m not suggesting that Cave is anywhere near his level, but a decent comparison would be with New Zealand’s Conrad Smith. The Hurricanes captain is not particularly flash, but his defensive game is world-class. In attack, he rarely beats someone with jaw-dropping footwork and pace, but his contributions are vital. Quietly and superbly efficient.

Edinburgh’s likely centre partnership on Saturday is Scotland internationals Matt Scott and Nick de Luca. Cave and Wallace should be confident of giving Ulster a clear advantage in midfield. 28-year-old De Luca has 33 caps for his country but has largely failed to excel. He seems to carry a reputation as a creative influence, but the outside centre has never shown consistent evidence of it at the top level. At PRO12 level, he’s a decent provider for Tim Visser.

Inside him, Scott is still only 21. He made his Scotland debut off the bench against Ireland in this year’s Six Nations, looking fairly nervous as he over-ran a couple of promising offloads. On the four occasions De Luca and Scott have played together in the Heineken Cup this season, they have only manufactured a single line-break between them. Their threat is minimal compared to what, for example, Leinster face in the other Heineken Cup semi-final. Cave should be confident of shutting them down.

One argument that might be created against Cave’s inclusion at international level is that he has never bossed a top-level game. His confidence has grown this year; his performance in that mauling of the Tigers being one example. Now that Ulster have returned to the business end of the Heineken Cup, it’s time for Cave to dominate a game. Saturday is a perfect opportunity for him to do so.

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Photos courtesy: Liam Coughlan, Sean Mulligan.

The Exiled Irish: Stand Up For the Ulster Men

John Andress, pictured playing for Harlequins, is now at the Exeter Chiefs. (c) Mike Davies.

It’s clear that Ulster are a club side making long strides of progress year on year. Next weekend could see the province secure a place in the Heineken Cup final for the first time since winning the trophy in 1999. While we have to praise the northern province for bringing through home-grown players like Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave and Paul Marshall, amongst others, it’s also obvious that Ulster’s foreign imports have played a huge role in the success.

If Ulster continue to grow they could join Leinster at the forefront of the club game. That would in turn increase the difficulty for young players to break through at the province. Coupled with their overseas signings, it may mean more Ulster-based players looking for moves abroad. In this week’s Exiled Irish installment, I look at four Ulster-bred players who have moved to the Aviva Premiership. As always, opinions on all of these players, and any I have missed, are hugely welcome. If you watch plenty of Premiership rugby, how do you rate these players?

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Ryan Caldwell

Caldwell joined Bath at the start of this season after opportunities at Ulster had dried up. The 27-year-old originally broke into the set-up at his home province in 2005, eventually becoming first-choice for the ’07/08 and ’08/09 seasons. Two Ireland caps followed in May 2009, against Canada and the USA. However, the signings of Dan Tuohy and then Johann Muller pushed Caldwell down the pecking order and he made just 6 appearances in the ’10/11 season. Caldwell decided to move on to new pastures, taking up Baths’s offer and he has thrived since.

The 6’7″ lock has become an integral part of the set-up at The Rec thanks to his physicality and lineout skills. He has been ever-present in the first team, playing all six of the Heineken Cup fixtures and scoring two tries. While Bath haven’t had a vintage season, sitting 7th in the Premiership with one game left and winning only two of their Heineken Cup games, Caldwell has clearly benefited from his move. Another strong effort next season might see the second-row back in contention for international honours.

Bath Profile: Ryan Caldwell     Twitter: @Ry_caldwell

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Gareth Steenson

Steenson in action against Harlequins last season. (c) David Coldrey.

Coming through at underage level, it seemed nailed-on that Steenson was going to represent Ireland at the highest level. The outhalf was top points scorer at both the 2004 and 2005 U21 World Cups. In ’04, he guided Ireland to the final, where a New Zealand side including Luke McAllister and Jerome Kaino denied them a famous win. He subsequently graduated from the Ulster Academy as a genuine prospect. However, David Humphreys was still bossing it on the pitch for Ulster so Steenson took the ambitious leap of joining Championship side Rotherham Titans for the’06/07 season.

That move proved a success as Steenson amassed 264 points before joining the Cornish Pirates. That stint lasted also lasted single season before the ambitious Exeter Chiefs secured the young outhalf’s signature for the ’08/09 season. Steenson was key to the Chiefs to promotion in ’09/10, scoring 24 points in the play-off final. The Ulster man’s first season at Premiership level was a further success as the Chiefs finished 8th and Steenson was again top points scorer. This year,the 27-year-old has lost his place due to the brilliant form of Argentinian flyhalf Ignacio Mieres, limiting Steenson to just 7 starts. The Dungannon native is contracted to the Heineken Cup-bound club for next season and will hope to reclaim his place in the team.

Chiefs Profile: Gareth Steenson     Twitter: @steeno10

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Neil Best

Best

Best (right) during his time at Northampton. Alongside him here is fellow Ulster man Roger Wilson. (C) Henry Southgate.

It might surprise some Irish supporters that Best is still playing, but he’s actually only 33. He made his debut at Ulster in 2002 and would go on to make 122 appearances for the province, winning a Celtic Cup and a Celtic League. The flanker made his Ireland debut against the All Blacks in 2005 and was capped 18 times, including 4 substitute appearances off the bench at the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Northampton enticed the aggressive back-row to the Premiership for the ’08/09 season and Best quickly established himself as first-choice, winning the European Challenge Cup in 2009. An 18-week ban for eye-goughing was an obvious lowlight.

In 2009, he captained Ireland ‘A’ to Churchill Cup glory in the United States. For the ’10/11 season, 6’3″ Best dropped down to the Championship to join current club Worcester Warriors. He helped his new team to promotion at the first time of asking. The Warriors have retained Premiership status for next season, with a likely final position of 10th. A broken arm has meant only 10 starts for Best this season, but he still has plenty to offer in terms of leadership and physicality. A brick wall of a man.

Warriors Profile: Neil Best

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John Andress

A current teammate of Steenson’s at the Exeter Chiefs, Andress also played alongside the outhalf at the 2005 U21 World Cup. The tighthead prop was on Ulster’s books for the ’05/06 season, but a reputation as someone with a poor attitude meant no appearances for the province. He moved to then-Championship side the Chiefs in 2007 and two impressive season at that level resulted in a switch to Premiership outfit Harlequins at the beginning of the ’09/10 campaign. Andress made 19 starts in his first year in London, but that dropped to 11 the following season.

The Belfast native made a return to the Chiefs for this season, but again opportunities have been limited (8 starts), mainly due to the strong form of Hoane Tui. That has led to Andress’ decision to join Neil Best at the Worcester Warriors next season, where he will expect first-team rugby. Andress is capped for Ireland ‘A’, winning the Churchill Cup with Best in 2009. A senior call-up has never followed. However, some strong displays from the 28-year-old next season would mean Ireland could create better depth at tighthead. Andress will be closely watched.

Chiefs Profile: John Andress     Twitter: @JANDRESS84

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Photos courtesy: Henry Southgate, Mike Davies, David Coldrey.

RaboDirect Round-Up

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Sexton contributed 11 points to Leinster's win over Ulster. (c) Ken Bohane.

Ulster 8-16 Leinster

Fri 20th April @ Ravenhill

Ulster’s play-off hopes look to be almost certainly over after losing to a powerful Leinster side in Ravenhill on Friday night. While the northern province could still mathematically claim 4th spot with an unlikely bonus point victory over Munster in two weeks’ time, a win the same weekend for either the Warriors or the Scarlets would deny Ulster. Even more worrying was the sight of Pedrie Wannenburg, Chris Henry and Paddy Wallace all leaving the pitch injured during Friday night’s loss.

Henry and Wannenburg’s withdrawals looked to be precautionary, but Wallace looked dazed, if not concussed, leaving the field. Fingers will be crossed across the country that those three recover for next Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh. Meanwhile, Leinster were impressive without ever cutting loose. Kevin McLaughlin crashed over after some poor Ulster defence and Jonny Sexton added 11 points, including a smart drop goal. This win confirms top spot for Leinster with a game away to the Dragons remaining.

Here’s the highlights from Ravenhill:

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Connacht 19-16 Aironi 

Sat 21st April @ The Sportsground

Unfortunately, this game was not televised but it sounded like there was great excitement at the Sportsground. This win makes it 3-in-a-row in the PRO12 for Connacht, their best league run since 2004. Aironi, in their last ever away fixture, raced into a 16-3 half-time lead but Connacht gradually hauled themselves back with Rodney Ah You’s 74th-minute try, converted by Miah Nikora, leveling the game. The stage was set for replacement fullback Matt Jarvis to make himself the hero with a long-distance penalty, the final act of the game.

In case you missed it, I wrote a piece on Friday about the progress being made at Connacht. Check it out here. Next weekend, they travel to the Warriors, for whom a win would secure play-off status. A victory for Connacht would see them equal their record for most league wins in a season, set at 8 in 2004. If they were to deny the Warriors a losing bonus point, it would give Ulster a slim, slim chance of sneaking into the play-offs.

Here’s a video of Jarvis’ winning kick. Great scenes of celebration:

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Scarlets 20-20 Munster

Sat 21st April @ Parc y Scarlets

At the end, Munster were clinging on as the Scarlets launched a desperate effort to find a winning score. A draw was a fair result after a game in which neither side managed to take control. The hosts opened the scoring through Sean Lamont’s superb team try but Munster responded swiftly, with Donnacha Ryan strolling through Rhys Preistland’s uninterested tackle to touch down. Simon Zebo was next over after taking Keatley’s intelligent inside pass and using his pace to finish.

Aaron Shingler’s second half score put the Scarlets right back in it, and Priestland’s 70th-minute penalty drew them level. The Scarlets looked the more likely winners in a wildly open last 5 minutes but the visitors held on. The draw means that Munster can’t overtake the 2nd-placed Ospreys for a home play-off. They are now guaranteed an away semi-final though, most likely against the Ospreys. Munster finish the regular season with the chance for revenge over Ulster in two weekend’s time.

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Here’s a look at the PRO12 table with just one round of fixtures left before the play-offs:

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Photos courtesy: 

Connacht Look For 3rd-in-a-Row

Frank Murphy pass

Frank Murphy spins a pass away during Connacht's 26-21 win over Ulster last weekend. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

This week’s IRUPA Player and Young Player of the Season shortlists unsurprisingly failed to include a Connacht player. Ronan Loughney was included on the Medal for Excellence shortlist alongside Shane Jennings and Mick O’Driscoll. That award is basically the ‘Unsung Hero’ prize. Check out the full shortlists for all the awards here.

Surely the lists in the main competitions could have been extended to four to include a player from Connacht, seeing as every other province is represented? Mike McCarthy, Brett Wilkinson, Gavin Duffy and Loughney have been ever-present and instrumental in all of the big Connacht performances this season. In the Young Player category, Tiernan O’Halloran’s superb season deserves mention.

Anyway, Eric Elwood and his squad will be unconcerned ahead of a weekend where they can earn a 3rd consecutive win in the PRO12 . They host Aironi in the Sportsground tomorrow evening (17.00 KO). If they win, it will be their second best run of form since this competition took on the current league format back in 2003/04. That season, Connacht won 4 games on the trot (Borders, Glasgow, Llanelli and Borders again, for the record). Since then, the best they have managed in the league is two wins in a row.

It’s been a rough ride for Connacht rugby since the Celtic/Magners/PRO12  league’s inception. They have finished in the bottom two positions for seven consecutive seasons. That 4-game run in ’03/04 helped them to 9th of 12 teams, their best-ever final standing since the competition became one league. In the two seasons prior to ’03/04, the tournament was split into two pools of 8, with the top 4 teams in each pool entering the quarter-finals.

Connacht v Munster

Connacht rugby has always been overshadowed by its provincial rivals. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

Both those seasons were particularly successful for Connacht as they reached the quarter-finals in consecutive campaigns, losing to Glasgow in ’01/02 and Munster in ’02/03. In that ’02/03 season, Connacht even had a 5-game winning run (Borders, Cardiff, Leinster, Newport and Bridgend that time). Those seem like relative glory days compared with what the western province’s fans have been watching since. However, as I have mentioned before and truly believe, the signs from Connacht this season have been positive.

Tomorrow’s game at home to Aironi is one that Elwood’s men simply have to be winning if they are to continue moving forward. They are a better team than Aironi and their performance needs to show the confidence that has been building in the second half of this season, highlighted by wins over Harlequins and Ulster. If Connacht can manage to win both of their remaining fixtures (the final one is away to the Warriors) then they have a strong chance of a best-ever 8th-placed finish.

If that is achieved, coupled with a first Heineken Cup win in their debut season, this campaign will have represented superb progress for the province. Elwood has managed to blood some exciting young talent this season in the likes of Eoin Griffin, Dave McSharry, O’Halloran and Denis Buckley. Ireland U20s’ fullback Shane Layden will hope to join those ranks next season. The signings of Nathan White, Dan Parks and Willie Faloon will certainly add quality to Elwood’s squad too.

Ruan Pienaar

The Connacht defence smothers Ruan Pienaar during the win over Ulster. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

The hope for Irish rugby is that either Ulster or Leinster wins the Heineken Cup, thereby ensuring qualification for Connacht again. Elwood would be better prepared to balance his squad at the second time of asking. This season, Connacht were often stretched, playing largely the same team from week to week. That effected their PRO12 form, manifested in the inability to see out games from winning positions.

Another positive is that Connacht will field an ‘A’ team in the British and Irish Cup for the first time next season. That means decent exposure for more of the province’s Academy and underage players. Furthermore, Connacht are exempt from the IRFU’s succession strategy, which will soon limit the number of Non-Irish Qualified players at the other three provinces. Elwood and his management team will have few restrictions as they aim to bring Connacht rugby to a new level in the coming years.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Small steps at a time, inch by inch; that’s the way. It all starts with securing a 3rd consecutive PRO12 win tomorrow in Galway. That would represent clear, statistical progress. Do that and focus will turn to the Warriors, where a win could mean a best-ever finish. It’s impossible to say for certain where Connacht will go from there, but I’m optimistic.

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Photos courtesy: Eoin Gardiner.