Tag Archives: Conor Murray

What’s Next For Ireland?

POC is out, leaving a second-row gap and a captaincy gap. (c) Art Widak.

The disappointment of Paris will linger ahead of this weekend and that is where the motivation will come from. Sunday afternoon saw a refreshing aggression, particularly in the first-half. That edge was notably missing against Wales and Italy. As with all of Ireland’s big performances in recent times (think Oz at RWC2011 and England 6Nations 2011), aggression is the key. The challenge now for Kidney is to ensure that his team take to the Aviva pitch on Saturday similarly motivated.

Team selection is an issue again this week. The loss of Conor Murray and Paul O’Connell is obviously a big blow. The scrumhalf was close to his physical best against France before suffering that horrendous-looking knee injury. O’Connell was again magnificent, somehow disguising a pretty bad knee injury from everyone. His level of consistency is remarkable. Reddan in for Murray is a switch that many had called for in the build-up to Paris, and now we will see if his uncomplicated delivery does actually put Johnny Sexton on the front foot.

The selection of Tomas O’Leary as cover at scrumhalf is a baffling one. Surely this was a chance for Kidney to have a look at Ulster’s Paul Marshall, a man whose form has pushed Ruan Pienaar to outhalf. Kidney’s loyalty is hugely frustrating at times and this is one of them. O’Leary has been far from his best this season and hardly deserving of an international call-up. Isaac Boss was the other natural choice, but the word is that the Leinster scrumhalf is back in New Zealand this week and so, unavailable.

Kidney has some big decisions to make this week. (c) Art Widak.

Connacht’s Mike McCarthy has been given the call to cover in the second-row. Dan Tuohy of Ulster had a good chance too, but McCarthy is the more recently capped of the pair and has been more heavily involved in Irish squad training this season. The obvious change to the first 15 would see Donnacha Ryan slot into O’Connell’s vacant position. However, there is a case for McCarthy’s inclusion from the start. He is a natural number 4 jumper and calls the lineout shots for Connacht. Both Ryan and O’Callaghan jump at 2, and neither calls lineouts at Munster. In Declan Kidney’s risk-free mind, McCarthy may look like the safe choice.

Elsewhere, the back-row has once again come under scrutiny. Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris both had big, physical games, particularly in defense with some trademark choke tackles as well as a couple of big hits. O’Brien was crucial to Tommy Bowe’s second try with his intelligent screen pass to Johnny Sexton. Intelligence is probably not associated with O’Brien’s play too often but he deserves more credit in that department. Jamie Heaslip was the quietest of the back-row trio and if Kidney decides to unleash Peter O’Mahony from the off, the Leinster No.8 may be the one to miss out, with SOB moving to the base of the scrum.

The centre partnership put in a good display on Sunday, one mistake each aside. They were very solid in defense, with the one exception being Fofana’s try, when Earls’ wild hack at the ball on the ground was the wrong decision. However, the Munster man did very well for the second Bowe try, straightening the line intelligently after Ferris had eaten up a lot of space with his lateral run. Earls looked comfortable in the 13 jersey. D’Arcy had that one bad knock-on in the French 22 when his intended pass hit his own hip. He worked very hard in defence though, especially at the breakdown.

Is there a captain amongst these men? (c) Art Widak.

It’s hard to see changes anywhere else on the team. Andrew Trimble didn’t enjoy the best of games and there might be a case for Fergus McFadden being included. That’s unlikely though as Kidney will look to build on the impressive first-half showing from his team. The truth is that France had a lot more possession but when we did have the ball we looked to have a bit more attacking shape and confidence. That all stemmed from the early aggression, leading to some big hits and choke tackle turnovers.

The confidence built from those plays was infectious. Seeing Bowe back himself so assertively was exhilarating and exactly what you want from your wide men. Once again, Rob Kearney was the best player on the pitch. The uplifting effect of the kind of fielding game he offers is easy to see. As those who have played the game will know, a big catch in opposition territory is inspirational. Kearney’s confidence, built on the back of a brilliant season for Leinster is becoming so important to this team.

The final issue is the captaincy. Rory Best has been in great form up front, and has experience of captaining Ulster. Jamie Heaslip has captained Leinster, and was once seen as a possible Irish captain in waiting. Stephen Ferris’ form might make him a candidate. And then there’s Rob Kearney. The thought of the fullback captaining Ireland hadn’t really occurred to me until pointed out by a knowledgable friend. But the idea has grown, and his inspirational play and respect within the squad might make him the compelling choice.

Who would your choice of captain be? Who will Kidney go for in your opinion? Would you make any changes to the starting team/squad beyond the two obvious ones for Murray and O’Connell? Comment below with any and all of your opinions/rants/praise for the Irish team ahead of Saturday’s clash with Scotland…

Ireland Name Squad to Face Wales

Ireland will hope for a better result than last time against the Welsh, 22-10 at the World Cup. (c) Joslyn Layne.

Declan Kidney has named his team to take on Wales in Ireland’s Six Nations opener on Sunday. Here’s the team:

Ireland team for Wales match

1. Cian Healy

2. Rory Best

3. Mike Ross

4. Donncha O’Callaghan

5. Paul O’Connell

6. Stephen Ferris

7. Sean O’Brien

8. Jamie Heaslip

9. Conor Murray

10. Jonathan Sexton

11. Andrew Trimble

12. Gordon D’Arcy

13. Keith Earls

14. Tommy Bowe

15. Rob Kearney


16. Sean Cronin, 17. Tom Court, 18. Donnacha Ryan, 19. Peter O’Mahony, 20. Eoin Reddan, 21. Ronan O’Gara, 22. Fergus McFadden.

Ireland will be intent on avoiding this situation on Sunday. (c) Joslyn Layne.

So no shocks in the starting 15. Peter O’Mahony’s inclusion on the bench is the only selection that was not widely anticipated. However, his form and impact for Munster this season make it well deserved. As expected, Keith Earls takes the 13 jersey after an accomplished performance there for Munster in that big win over Northampton.

Donncha O’Callaghan’s inclusion from the start may draw the most criticism, but Kidney has always been loyal to the players who have served him well in the past. Donnacha Ryan will have to be content with making an impact off the bench. ROG won’t be happy acting as a replacement but there’s every chance he will have some part to play.

In the end, this is what everyone expected from Kidney. But that’s no criticism from The Touchline. Kidney has picked what he sees as the strongest available team to beat Wales at the Aviva on Sunday. He has no interest in testing youngsters in that environment. Take a second look at the team above. It is filled with quality. If it lacks excitement on paper, just remember the form players like Rob Kearney and Stephen Ferris are in. This is a team with the potential to win the Six Nations and that is Kidney’s only concern.

Wales name their team on Friday. Alun Wyn-Jones, Luke Charteris, Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees are all out injured. Rhys Priestland, Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts are hoping to be fit in time for Sunday’s game.


Photos courtesy:  Joslyn Layne.

The Touchline’s Ireland Selection

Andrew Trimble, pictured carrying the ball, is one of Ireland's most in-form players. (c) Ross Wynne.

At lunchtime tomorrow, Ireland will announce their match day 22 for the Six Nations opener with Wales on Sunday. Everyone has their own opinions on who should be in that match day squad, and plenty of different reasons why. So here’s your chance to pick the team…

Below is The Touchline’s choice of 22 for Sunday. You’ll see why we have chosen each player and why they were preferred to the other available options. After you’ve read through this selection, post your team/squad in the comments sections at the bottom of the page.

This is not the exact team that we think Declan Kidney will pick, but rather the team that we would pick if we were in charge of the Ireland team. Some players will be unanimously picked in everyone’s teams, but it will be interesting to see what players you think Kidney should take a chance on…

The Touchline’s Starting 15 for Wales Game

1. Cian Healy – As we saw in a Man of the Match performance against Australia at the World Cup, Healy is world-class at his best. While he hasn’t really hit those heights for Leinster since returning from New Zealand, his display against Montpellier two weeks ago showed he is hitting form at the right time. Also, the fact that Brett Wilkinson and Tom Court are his only opposition for the loosehead spot means he is a certainty to start. His battle with Adam Jones will be key.

2. Sean Cronin – Rory Best had a stellar World Cup and probably deserves to retain the jersey because of that. But for this particular match, Cronin would be my choice. Battling with Richardt Strauss for the Leinster No.2 jersey has brought rapid progress from Cronin. His lineout throwing has improved to an international level. However, it’s his pace and mobility that I would pick him for. The Welsh aren’t afraid to open games up, and that is where Cronin is at his best. With Welsh tackles likely to be focused on O’Brien and Ferris, the Leinster hooker could cause havoc.

3. Mike Ross – The lack of competition at tighthead means that Ross has become an irreplaceable cog in this Irish team. Declan Kidney’s loss of faith in Jamie Hagan means that Tom Court is the only other viable option in this position. Court would be a clear downgrade on Ross, so keeping him fit is essential. His importance lies at the set-piece, ensuring Ireland win their own ball and trying to disrupt on the Wales put-in as much as possible.

4. Dan Tuohy – There’s no lack of competition here, with Donnacha Ryan and Donncha O’Callaghan hopeful of selection, and realistically ahead of Ulster’s Tuohy. There will be plenty of calls for Ryan’s ball-carrying ability to be included, but for me, Tuohy offers more than the Munster man. His strength on the ball is complemented by good skills and he is a shrewd operator out of touch. Tuohy was one of the stand-out players in the Wolfhounds loss to the Saxons, continuing his superb form for Ulster all season.

Paul O'Connell will captain Ireland on Sunday. (c) Ross Wynne.

5. Paul O’Connell – There will be no argument with this selection! O’Connell captains the side and is in the best form of his life. Even if you were to exclude his world-class leadership qualities, O’Connell is one of the best second-rows in the world right now. He has been immense for Munster all season, dragging them through games on several occasions. His ball-carrying, which was not always a strength, has improved immeasurably in the past six months. Expect another huge performance.

6. Stephen Ferris – If there is any Irish player who can match O’Connell’s level of performance this season, then  it’s Stephen Ferris. He has been vital to Ulster as they have developed into a side that looks like real contenders for the Heineken Cup. Bouncing defenders for fun and smashing opponents in the tackle, Ferris has been unstoppable. The physical side of his game has been complemented by his refined offloading and decision-making. Ferris is not just a wrecking ball, he offers pace and subtlety too.

7. Sean O’Brien – While Ireland’s lack of a breakdown specialist is a weakness, there are no standout options to perform that role. If Niall Ronan hadn’t been ruled out for the season, then I would have seriously considered him here. But O’Brien’s extreme physicality has to be accommodated somewhere. At his best, the 2011 ERC European Player of the Year can carry this team. He has proven calibre at this level and will be keen to show that the Welsh cannot nullify his impact a second time.

8. Jamie Heaslip – One idea I toyed with in my selection was playing O’Brien at the back of the scrum, meaning Heaslip would be dropped. If James Coughlan had been included in yesterday’s 32-man squad then I would have contemplated starting him. In the end though, Heaslip gets the nod. While he still hasn’t matched the heights of 2009, the Leinster No.8 offers experience, intelligence and a degree of ability at the breakdown. He will be out to prove himself as one of the tournament’s best No.8s

9. Conor Murray – The Munster scrumhalf is up against Leinster’s Eoin Reddan for the 9 jersey. We’ve gone for Murray due to the more all-round game he brings. While Reddan’s passing is crisp and his game well suited to a team on the front foot (witness Leinster’s hammering of Bath at the Aviva), Murray offers more. The 22-year-old has a physical presence that Reddan cannot match, is far more threatening around the fringes and possesses a cool head. It seems to be very difficult to fluster the youngster, whereas Reddan is at times susceptible to a lack of control. Murray against Mike Phillips at scrumhalf would be a fascinating battle of the world’s best and one with the potential to challenge him.

10. Jonathan Sexton – This was the hardest call to make and I changed it several times. Ronan O’Gara’s form for Munster means it is difficult to leave him out. Sexton nudged ahead on the basis that his style perhaps suits this game a little better. Physically stronger, Sexton is better equipped to handle the likes of Jamie Roberts and Toby Faletau running down his channel. While there is nothing wrong with O’Gara’s distribution, Sextons’s more all-round attacking game is more of a threat. The hope would be that Sexton has put his World Cup place-kicking nightmare behind him.

Sexton just about gets ahead of O'Gara at outhalf. (c) Ross Wynne.

11. Andrew Trimble – If Kidney were to pick his team on form, then Trimble would be one of the first names mentioned. The 27-year-old has never been an undisputed first-choice for Ireland, but surely now his time has come. He has been excellent for Ulster all season. 6 tries in 11 games highlights his finishing ability, but there is so much more to Trimble’s games than taking scoring opportunities. His work-rate is as high as you will see for a winger. Defensively aggressive and brave, Trimble is not afraid of getting stuck in. His strength and speed make him the complete winger.

12. Fergus McFadden – Gordon D’Arcy has been the man in possession of this jersey for what seems like an eternity. He has been a great servant to Ireland, that cannot be disputed. But the past two seasons have seen his influence gradually wane and the time has come to install a replacement. Leinster teammate Fergus McFadden fits the bill nicely. He is a different type of player to D’Arcy. He gets over the gainline through hard, direct lines using his pace whereas D’Arcy relies on his excellent footwork. D’Arcy is regarded as a fine defender but the truth is that he has missed some important tackles in recent times. McFadden’s passing has improved massively under Joe Schmidt (check his skip pass here), to the extent that he has the ability to distribute from 12.

13. Eoin O’Malley – It seems likely that Kidney will go for Keith Earls against Wales. Darren Cave would have been my first-choice but he too has been ruled out through injury. Next in line for me would be Leinster man O’Malley. He is a natural 13 and his form has been superb this season. The talk of his defence being weak appears to be based on one missed tackle, a tackle which wasn’t even his to make. In fact, O’Malley is an extremely competent defender. His positioning is always clever and he has exceptional ability at the breakdown. O’Malley’s low centre of gravity allows him to get over the ball, slowing it down or winning turnovers. He is also a real attacking talent, with quick feet and a strong pass off both sides.

14. Tommy Bowe – First off, I will admit that I have not seen much of Bowe for the Ospreys this season. However, even an off-form Bowe would be included in my team. 5 tries in 13 games would suggest that the Monaghan man hasn’t forgotten his way to the tryline. The Ospreys wing is one of the world’s best wingers and one of Ireland genuinely world-class players. The big occasion often brings out the best in Bowe. As always, he will be relied upon to make positive yards for Ireland as well as finishing any chance that comes his way. Going for Trimble and Bowe on the wings means Earls missing out. Trimble’s form sees him ahead of Earls while Bowe’s quality makes him undroppable.

15. Rob Kearney – Joe Schmidt has backed Kearney as his first-choice fullback this season despite the excellence of Isa Nacewa when filling in at 15 last season. But Kearney’s recent displays have justified Schmidt’s decision. The Louth native looks quicker than ever and clearly used his the time out last season to study the role of the modern fullback to a greater extent. Kearney’s understanding of when to counter-attack, when to kick and when to take contact make his decision-making a real strength. His defensive positioning and concentration look to have improved too. Fullback is another position where Ireland have a lack of genuine competition. Denis Hurley is nowhere near Kearney’s standard. In fact, Kearney’s younger brother David would appear to be the next best option.


16. Rory Best – The only other hooker in the squad and therefore a no-brainer.

17. Tom Court – Brett Wilkinson is the only other prop in the squad, but he can only cover loosehead. Court has played on both sides of the scrum so is included for that reason.

18. Donnacha Ryan – Ryan could cover second-row as well as the back-row, making him an obvious choice for the bench. He would have good impact too with his aggression and ability to make hard yards.

19. Peter O’Mahony – This is a seriously competitive spot, with plenty of competition to cover the back-row. O’Mahony gets the nod because he would be the one who could create the biggest impact. His abrasive, in-your-face style would be ideal if Ireland were struggling to impose themselves on Wales. O’Mahony fears nothing and would do everything in his power to unsettle the Welsh players.

20. Eoin Reddan – Once again, Reddan is the only other option in this position so has to be included in case of injury to Murray. In an ideal world, Paul Marshall would have been better to spring if Ireland were chasing the game.

21. Ronan O’Gara – What a man to have on the bench. Any sign of Sexton not handling the pressure and ROG could be relied upon. While there is an argument that Sexton should be now given free reign over the outhalf position, without the added pressure of O’Gara on the bench, the Leinster No. 10 should be well able to  deal with it.

22. Keith Earls – The Munster man scored 5 tries at the World Cup and clearly is a quality player. His best position is on the wing and he would benefit by both Munster and Ireland seeing this. However, for this game, his ability to fill in at centre, wing and fullback makes him an ideal replacement.


So, what do you make of that team? If you were in Declan  Kidney’s position who would you pick? Would you go for any wildcards? Would you give youth a real chance and blood all five uncapped players? Or would you stay loyal to the tried and tested? O’Gara or Sexton? Cronin or Best? Murray or Reddan?

Comment below with your starting 15/22!


Photos courtesy:  Ross Wynne.

Pro12 Previews

Edinburgh vs. Ulster @ Murrayfield

Friday 6th January, 19.30 (Not televised)

Rory Best is one of four Irish internationals who return for Ulster. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Ulster welcome back their Irish internationals for the trip to Murrayfield tonight. Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble and Tom Court all return to the starting 15. Stephen Terblanche moves to fullback to accommodate Trimble on the wing, meaning Adam D’Arcy drops to the bench. In the back-row, Willie Faloon is the one to miss out due to Ferris’ inclusion. Ferris is at blindside, so Chris Henry moves to the openside with Pedrie Wannenburg retained at No.8.

Ruan Pienaar and Ian Humphreys continue as half-backs while Ian Whitten and Darren Cave start again in midfield. The team selection ensures a degree of continuity from the morale-raising 33-17 win over Munster last weekend. Prop John Afoa said this week that there’s a “real buzz” in this Ulster squad at the moment. Coach Brian McLaughlin will hope this atmosphere is extended with another win in Scotland tonight.

Coming into this match, Ulster sit 8th in the PRO12. Edinburgh are one place behind, trailing by 4 points. Last time out, the Scottish side lost 17-12 to Glasgow Warriors. Outhalf Phil Godman scored a last-gasp drop goal to secure a losing bonus point there. Edinburgh have won just once in their last four PRO12 matches, but have only lost once in seven at Murrayfield in all competitions. Ex-Connacht and Ireland A coach Michael Bradley is in charge at the club.

Bradley has rung the changes for this tie. Scotland legend Chris Paterson comes in at fullback while Nick de Luca starts at centre. Try machine Tim Visser is on the left wing, opposite 21-year-old Tom Brown. It’s a Scottish international half-back pairing of Godman and Greig Laidlaw. Up front, Fijian international Netani Talei starts at No.8 while Bradley has gone for an all-Scottish international front row in Geoff Cross, Ross Ford and Allan Jacobsen.

Ulster come into this match with more momentum and the huge boost that the likes of Ferris and Trimble bring but Edinburgh’s home form has been good. Both teams face must-win Heineken Cup clashes the weekend after this so it may come down to whichever side can keep their focus tonight. If Ulster are to make a bid for the playoff spots then this is the kind of game which they have to win.

Edinburgh: 15 Chris Paterson, 14 Tom Brown, 13 Nick De Luca, 12 James King, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Phil Godman, 9 Greig Laidlaw (capt.) 8 Netani Talei, 7 Roddy Grant, 6 Stuart McInally, 5 Esteban Lozada, 4 Sean Cox, 3 Geoff Cross, 2 Ross Ford, 1 Allan Jacobsen.                                                                                                             Subs: 16 Alun Walker, 17 Kyle Traynor, 18 Jack Gilding, 19 Grant Gilchrist, 20 Alan MacDonald, 21 Chris Leck, 22 Matt Scott, 23 Jim Thompson.

Ulster: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Ian Whitten, 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 Paddy Wallace, 23 Adam D’Arcy.


Aironi vs. Connacht @ Stadio Zaffanella

Saturday 7th January, 15.35 (TG4) 

Connacht captain Gavin Duffy (catching ball) will hope to help his team end their awful run. (c) Liam Coughlan.

This match looks to be Connacht’s best chance of ending their run of losses. Aironi are bottom of the table, having won only two of their games in the PRO12, as well as losing all four of their Heineken Cup matches. Connacht were cruelly dealt more injuries during last week’s narrow loss to Leinster. Eoin Griffin, Johnny O’Connor, Brian Tuohy and Ronan Loughney all picked up injuries in that inter-pro derby.

Eric Elwood is able to call on the the province’s most capped player in Michael Swift, who returns in the second-row. Dylan Rogers replaces Loughney in the front-row. In the back-line, Dave McSharry returns from injury to replace Griffin in the centre while Fetu’u Vainikolo comes in for Tuohy, who broke his leg last weekend. The fifth and final change sees Frank Murphy start at scrumhalf instead of Paul O’Donohoe.

Meanwhile, Aironi had a derby of their own last weekend. They lost 37-14 away to Treviso and have made three changes from that starting fifteen. Giulio Toniolatti comes in on the right wing, while Tyson Keats gets the nod at scrumhalf. Joshua Furno joins captain Marco Bortolami in the second-row. The Aironi bench has experience in abundance with the likes of Salvatore Perugini, Mauro Bergamasco and Quintin Geldenhuys to call on.

Connacht’s next two fixtures after this are against Toulouse and Harlequins in the Heineken Cup. That makes a win against Aironi all the more important. Those two HC fixtures will be huge asks so a win in Italy looks their only hope to lift some of the gloom. While Connacht have only scored one try more than Aironi in the PRO12 this season, the Italians have conceded 33 to Connacht’s 18. Hopefully Connacht can match their performance of last weekend. That would be enough to secure a precious win.

Aironi: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Giulio Toniolatti, 13 Roberto Quartaroli, 12 Gabriel Pizarro, 11 Sinoti Sinoti, 10 Luciano Orquera, 9 Tyson Keats, 8 Josh Sole, 7 Simone Favaro, 6 Nicola Cattina, 5 Marco Bortolami (capt.), 4 Joshua Furno, 3 Fabio Staibano, 2 Roberto Santamaria, 1 Alberto De Marchi
Subs: 16 Tommaso D’Apice, 17 Salvatore Perugini, 18 Lorenzo Romano, 19 Quintin Geldenhuys, 20 Mauro Bergamasco, 21 Tito Tebaldi, 22 Naas Olivier, 23 Alberto Benettin.

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


Cardiff Blues vs. Leinster @ Cardiff City Stadium

Saturday 7th January, 18.15 (TG4)

Jamie Heaslip (being tackled by Keith Earls here) captains the Leinster side. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Joe Schmidt has named an all-Irish starting fifteen for Leinster’s clash with the Blues on Saturday evening. With the recent announcement of the IRFU’s plans to change the manner in which overseas players are contracted to the provinces, it’s a sign that Leinster will probably be the least affected. Blues coach Justin Burnell has also named a strong side for what should be a high-quality encounter.

For Leinster, fullback Rob Kearney is joined by brother Dave and 20-year-old Andrew Conway in a back-three brimming with pace. Fergus McFadden is selected at outside centre, where he’ll be hoping to impress Declan Kidney ahead of the Six Nations. Eoin Reddan is at scrumhalf ahead of Isaac Boss.

Up front, Sean Cronin comes in at hooker, with Mike Ross and Cian Healy either side of him. Devin Toner and Damian Browne make up the second-row. Kevin McLaughlin is named at blindside while Sean O’Brien is at 7. Jamie Heaslip captains the side from No.8.

Cardiff give Gavin Henson a start at fullback while Wales captain Sam Warburton leads the side at openside. Leinster will have to look to negate Warburton’s influence as much as possible. Elsewhere, the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, Gethin Jenkins and Dan Parks add an international flavour to this tie.

Looking at the teams on paper, this is a mouth-watering clash. Cardiff sit 5th at the moment, just 3 points behind Munster and with a game in hand. They’ll be looking to catapult themselves into those play-off positions. Leinster are currently 6 points clear at the top of the table and will hope to maintain that breathing space. It should be a cracker.

Cardiff Blues: 15 Gavin Henson, 14 Leigh Halfpenny, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 Gavin Evans, 11 Tom James, 10 Dan Parks, 9 Lloyd Williams, 8 Xavier Rush, 7 Sam Warburton (capt.), 6 Maama Molitika, 5 Michael Paterson, 4 Macauley Cook, 3 Scott Andrews, 2 Marc Breeze, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Subs: 16 Rhys Williams, 17 John Yapp, 18 Sam Hobbs, 19 Matthew Screech, 20 Josh Navidi, 21 Richie Rees, 22 Ceri Sweeney, 23 Richard Mustoe.

Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Dave Kearney 13 Fergus McFadden, 12 Gordon D’Arcy, 11 Andrew Conway, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Jamie Heaslip (c), 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Kevin McLaughlin, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Damian Browne, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 Aaron Dundon, 17 Heinke van der Merwe, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Rhys Ruddock, 20 Leo Auva’a, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Isa Nacewa, 23 Fionn Carr.


Munster vs. Treviso @ Thomond Park

Saturday 7th January, 20.15 (RTE 2)

Conor Murray is back at scrumhalf. (c) Robbie Ambrose.

Munster are back to full-strength after a disappointing performance from a weakened team against Ulster last weekend. Only five of that team are retained as Munster look to get back on track. Ronan O’Gara is back in to steer the ship at outhalf, while Paul O’Connell returns to captain the side from the second-row. Peter O’Mahony has recovered from his jaw injury and comes in at blindside flanker.

Elsewhere, Keith Earls is back at outside centre, another player looking to impress Declan Kidney. The exciting Simon Zebo is back in on the left wing, meaning Johne Murphy moves over to the right. It’s a strong-looking Munster bench too, with Donncha O’Callaghan, Tomas O’Leary and Ian Keatley all waiting in the wings.

Treviso are only 5 points behind Munster in the league, so a win for them at Thomond would be huge. Coach Franco Smith has made only one change from the team that ran in four tries against Aironi last weekend. Manoa Vosawai replaces the injured Robert Barbieri at No.8. Treviso have been the most improved team in the PRO12 this season, so Munster will have to be wary of the threat they pose.

Still, with the strength of the team McGahan has gone for, Munster should be looking for a big win. As always, they will be made to work extremely hard by the Italians but this game may be an opportunity to secure a bonus-point win that would leave Munster in a much stronger position. The Blues, Scarlets, Treviso and even Ulster are all breathing down Munster’s neck, meaning a big win would be very welcome.

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

Treviso: 15 Luke McLean, 14 Ludovico Nitoglia, 13 Tommaso Benvenuti, 12 Alberto Sgarbi, 11 Brendan Williams, 10 Kristopher Burton, 9 Tobias Botes, 8 Manoa Vosawai, 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Gonzalo Padrò, 5 Corniel Van Zyl, 4 Antonio Pavanello (capt.), 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Franco Sbaraglini, 1 Michele Rizzo.
Subs: 16 Diego Vidal, 17 Matteo Muccignat, 18 Ignacio Fernandez Rouyet, 19 Valerio Bernabò, 20 Enrico Pavanello, 21 Simon Picone, 22 Edoardo Gori, 23 Alberto Di Bernardo.


Photos courtesy:  Ivan O’Riordan, Robbie Ambrose, Liam Coughlan.

Four on Form

Heineken Cup Round 4 Matches

Photo via Jukka Zitting.

Luke Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald had a lively outing for Leinster against Bath as he showed just how talented a player he is. Fitzgerald seems to be gradually rediscovering his best form after a couple of inconsistent seasons and that continued at the Aviva. As pointed out by his teammate Brian O’Driscoll after Saturday’s game, Fitzgerald seems to be making good decisions more often than not. In the past, the 23-times capped Irish international has often been guilty of bad decision making and an over eagerness in attack. This season we have seen a seemingly more relaxed Fitzgerald and his all-round game has benefited from this approach.

Fitzgerald scored two tries at the Aviva on Saturday. Photo via M+MD.

On Saturday against Bath, Fitzgerald showcased his footwork and pace as he scored twice. The first try was a fairly routine run-in after Devin Toner and Rob Kearney had done all the hard work. However, the Blackrock man’s second try was the winger at his best. He showed neat footwork to step inside and swerve around two tacklers then his initial burst to get away from the covering defence was lightning-quick. In between his own two tries, Fitzgerald’s pace helped him to provide the try-scoring pass for Jonathan Sexton’s score.

Declan Kidney will surely be impressed with how Fitzgerald has bounced back from the disappointment of missing out on the World Cup squad. The form of the 24-year-old means that Kidney will probably involve Fitzgerald in the upcoming Six Nations squad. Ireland are certainly not short on options on the wing at the moment but if the Leinster man puts in more displays of this quality then we will see him back in the green jersey sooner rather than later.

Fitzgerald’s key stats vs. Bath:

Tries/Assists: 2/1     Clean line-breaks: 3     Defenders beaten: 4                           Metres gained on ball: 135     Turnovers: 2     Tackles made/missed: 5/2

Conor Murray

Murray in action against Aironi earlier in the season. (c) Ivan O'Riordan

Murray needed a big game against the Scarlets and he delivered. Murray was not at his best in the first match of the double-header with the Scarlets but he responded well on Sunday. Tomas O’Leary has impressed off the bench for Munster and is keeping the pressure on Murray. Both players are benefiting from the competition and that can only be a good thing for Tony McGahan’s squad. It’s easy to forget how early a stage Murray’s career is at, especially when he puts in a showing like he did on Sunday.

Against the Scarlets at Thomond Park, Murray showed how complete a scrumhalf he is. He is superb at directing play and he gets the best out of the Munster forward pack in terms of carrying. The 22-year-old’s intelligence lies in how and when he hits the runner. He varies his game well between direct passes from the base of the ruck, sniping himself or taking a few steps before hitting the ball-carrier. This variation keeps opposition fringe defences constantly guessing.

Perhaps the area of his game that needs most work is his box-kicking. While the Limerick native is a naturally talented striker of the ball, he can sometimes put a little too much length on his box-kicks which means the opposition has time to counter-attack before the Munster chase is upon them (For example, Chris Ashton’s try against Munster). This consistency will come with experience, and Murray’s kicking was very good on Sunday.

Murray’s ability to carry the ball himself is what makes him such a rounded scrumhalf. The Scarlets game was a perfect example of this. Murray carried the ball 9 times over the course of his 63 minutes on the pitch. That was the most carries by any scrumhalf over the whole weekend of Heineken Cup action. His break in the second half showed his ability on the ball, as well as a good turn of pace. Another strength of Murray’s is his defensive game. He is physical enough to make his tackles and he is brave under the high ball. Murray’s all-round performance was a remainder of what made him Ireland’s first-choice number 9 at the World Cup.

Murray’s key stats vs. Scarlets:

Kick/Pass/Run: 3/35/9     Metres gained on ball: 50     Clean line-breaks: 1         Offloads: 2     Tackles made/missed: 7/1

Tiernan O’Halloran

O’Halloran put in another promising performance for Connacht as they went down 23-19 to a late Gloucester try. The 20-year-old Galway native has been one of Connacht’s better performers this season despite the fact that he has been starved of quality ball. While the likes of Luke Fitzgerald benefit from Leinster’s expansive style of play, O’Halloran rarely gets much time and space on the ball with Connacht’s more limited style. However, the young winger almost always makes the gainline when he is in possession. He has an uncanny ability to make a yard or two more than looks possible.

Against Gloucester, O’Halloran had the most carries of any player on the pitch. Many of these were kick returns but the Ireland U20 international is also intelligent in coming off his wing and involving himself in open play. O’Halloran had 13 carries but only actually made 26 metres of gains. This is a misleading statistic though as much of the time O’Halloran got on the ball he was under immediate pressure. The fact that he still made positive yards is actually an impressive thing.

O’Halloran was on the scoresheet against Gloucester, his 2nd try in 4 Heineken Cup matches. Much like his try against Harlequins, O’Halloran didn’t have much to do on Saturday but he at least shows the awareness and work-rate to be in the right place to finish off line-breaks. Defensively, O’Halloran appears to be solid. He made all 6 of his tackle attempts against Gloucester and, as has been mentioned, he fielded a high number of kicks as well.

O'Halloran is hopefully part of a "New Dawn" in Connacht. Photo via boocal.

This was another promising exhibition of O’Halloran’s talent. Along with the likes of David McSharry and Eoin Griffin, the ex-Roscrea man offers hope for the future of Connacht rugby. Eric Elwood will recognise the importance of ensuring O’Halloran joins Griffin and McSharry in tying his future down to the province. If he continues to perform like he did against Gloucester, lots of clubs will be sniffing around O’Halloran.

O’Halloran’s key stats vs. Gloucester:

Kick/Pass/Run: 1/2/13     Clean line-breaks: 1     Offloads: 1                                Tackles made/missed: 6/0     Turnovers: 1     Metres gaines on ball: 26

Tom Court

Court was one of Ulster’s best players as they secured a vital try-scoring bonus point away to Aironi in Round 4. The Australian-born prop has 24 caps for Ireland and was part of the World Cup squad, but it is sometimes easy to wonder just why he is rated so highly by the Irish management. His display on Saturday was a typically efficient example of what he brings to the pitch. As a relative late-comer to the sport of rugby, the former shot-putter is still improving, even at the age of 31. He only played rugby for the first time in 2004 so to be where he is now is an incredible achievement.

Against Aironi, Court was an integral part of an Ulster scrum that won 100% of their own scrums. This was against an experienced pack of Italian internationals. With John Afoa at tighthead, Court at loosehead and Rory Best hooking, the Ulster front row is particularly strong currently. Court managed to get over for his 2nd try of the season with a pick-and-go from a metre out. A fairly unspectacular score but that’s they type of player Court is. He gets his job done without any fanfare and there is something of John Hayes in that characteristic.

Court’s ability to cover both tighthead and loosehead is what makes him a valuable squad player for Ireland. To have someone as solid as him on the bench is reassuring in case of injuries. Declan Kidney will be encouraged to see that Court is still growing and improving as a player. He will no doubt be a part of the Ireland squad once again for the 2012 Six Nations. Kidney will hope that Court can continue to improve, helping to create even more competition in the Ireland squad.

Photos courtesy:  Jukka Zitting, Ivan O’Riordan, M+MD, boocal.