Category Archives: Heineken Cup

Leinster Reaping Benefits of Backroom


Kearney’s strong return from a serious knee injury shows the strength of Leinster’s backroom staff. (c) Ken Bohane.

Leinster’s squad update on their website yesterday today told a familiar story. Or rather, it told no story at all. As has become a commonplace occurrence, there were “no fresh injury concerns”. Some might put it down to luck that Leinster have remained largely free of the niggly injuries that are normally standard for any squad at this late stage of the season. However, it has been the province’s squad rotation and intelligent injury management that should be congratulated.

There’s no need to go into the quality and depth of the Leinster squad in any great detail as it’s been widely acknowledged elsewhere. Let’s all simply commend the academy for the quality of player they are regularly producing and also to Joe Schmidt, and Michael Chieka before him, for giving these young players a chance to play. The combination of the two factors has led to genuine depth in Leinster, allowing Schmidt to make wholesale changes week-to-week without affecting his side’s win ratio, and thus sparing his front-liners from overuse injuries and fatigue.

The depth of Leinster’s squad and their backroom’s intelligence in knowing when a player needs a rest go hand-in-hand. For any rugby geeks, this fascinating article by Steve Hamm is well worth checking out. It’s highly likely that Leinster operate a similar analytics system in relation to injury prevention. You may recall certain Leinster players speaking of how the coaches are aware of when to ease individuals’ training programmes depending on how the player is feeling.

The quality of players like Madigan and McFadden, who aren’t first-choice, allows Leinster to rotate. (c) Ken Bohane.

While Munster have suffered with a long injury list throughout the season, Leinster have more often than not had close to a full squad to choose from. This may partly be down to luck, and misfortune on Munster’s part, but it’s also attributable to the good work of Leinster’s backroom staff. Jason Cowman and Daniel Tobin are the men in charge of the squad’s Strength & Conditioning. They are clearly doing a fantastic job, as Leinster always look stronger and fitter than their opposition.

Physiotherapists James Allen and Gareth Farrell, Nutritionist Emma McCruden and Masseur Mike Thompson all play key parts too. The role of Stephen Smith, the squad’s Rehabilitation Coach, is particularly interesting. In his own words, his job is to “assess injury from start to finish. Look at what an individual needs to do to be able to play again”.  The return of Brian O’Driscoll months sooner than expected after shoulder surgery suggests that Smith is excellent in his line of work.

Likewise, the return of Rob Kearney from a serious knee injury was impressive. Smith’s work as Rehab Coach, along with Cowman and Tobin’s contributions, meant Kearney returned from injury a better athlete and player than before. Kevin McLaughlin is another who suffered a knee injury that had the potential to diminish his power. He returned stronger too. Luke Fitzgerald would seem to be the exception to the rule, but if he stays with Leinster, you would have confidence in the staff’s ability to help him recuperate from his long string of injuries.

Rhys Ruddock is a fine example of the physically match-ready players which the Leinster Academy produces. (c) Ken Bohane.

We go back to the depth of Leinster’s squad and how this is hugely important in maintaining success even when the front-line players need to be rested. Again, the less-lauded backroom staff deserve praise. Academy Manager Colin McEntee oversees the whole operation to great effect. It doesn’t need to be argued that Leinster’s Academy is producing the highest amount of physically match-ready young players in Ireland. Much of this is down to the likes of Academy S&C Coach Tom  Turner, Bryan Cullen with the Sub-Academy and Dave Fagan with the Underage teams.

It goes even deeper. McEntee oversees the Elite Player Development programme which works with players from the age of 15. Girvan Dempsey and Wayne Mitchell are two of the Officers in charge at this level. Getting their hands on kids at that age, and introducing them to the Leinster ethos, can only be a good thing.

In Joe Schmidt, Leinster have a world-class coach. In the likes of O’Driscoll, Sexton, O’Brien, Kearney, Nacewa and Thorn they have a group of world-class players. It also appears that the world-class ability in Leinster reaches all the way into their impressive backroom staff.


Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane.

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.


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

Prime Opportunity For Cave


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.


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.


Photos courtesy: Liam Coughlan, Sean Mulligan.

Heineken Cup Highlights


Sean O'Brien and Leinster were very impressive during their 34-3 win over the Blues on Saturday. (c) Ken Bohane.

Leinster sent out a title warning with their comprehensive 34-3 win over the Cardiff Blues at the Aviva on Saturday. The first half in particular showed just how sharp Joe Schmidt’s side can be in attack, with some gorgeous tries. Leinster may be slightly unhappy to have spent the majority of the second half defending, but they did so impressively. They now face a trip to Bordeaux to take on Clermont on the 29th of April in what should be a thrilling encounter.

Ulster overcame Munster in Thomond Park on Sunday, 22-16. Most of the damage was done in the opening 30 minutes as Ulster raced into a 19-0 lead thanks to some Munster indiscipline and a scintillating individual try by Craig Gilroy. The home side replied with a Simon Zebo try and 11 points from ROG. However, despite completely dominating possession and territory, Munster failed to really trouble the Ulster defence. Brian McLaughlin’s side move on to a semi-final against Edinburgh at the Aviva on the 28th of April.

Leinster vs. Blues highlights:


Munster vs. Ulster highlights:


Photo courtesy: Ken Bohane.

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.



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)


Photos courtesy:   Ivan O’Riordan, Martin Dobey.


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:


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


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