Tag Archives: Doug Howlett

IRFU’s Double Edged Sword

The IRFU will implement changes to NIE player contracts from 2013/14 onwards. (c) José Ramón Vega

With the dust now settling on the IRFU’s announcement of changes to the manner in which NIE (Non-Irish Eligible) players are contracted to Leinster, Munster and Ulster, it’s worthwhile taking a look at what these changes actually involve and how they may affect the provinces when they come into effect for the 2013/2014 season. The IRFU have announced that Connacht will be external to this process.

The IRFU’s reasoning behind the changes is to ensure that Irish eligible players will be gaining valuable Heineken Cup and PRO12 experience in every position across the field. This will have obvious benefits for the international squad, ensuring that Ireland will have a degree of depth and competition in every position on the field. The measures have been designed with the aim of having at least “two suitably experienced players” Irish players in each position.

The new principles mean that across the squads of Leinster, Munster and Ulster there will only be one NIE player for each of the 15 positions on the field. The prime example to use here is the current situation at tighthead pro. Indeed, these new measures seem to have been motivated in part by the lack of experienced Irish tightheads. Currently there are 4 NIE tightheads contracted to Munster (BJ Botha and Pete Borlaise), Ulster (John Afoa) and Leinster (Nathan White). These players are obviously preventing Irish eligible players from gaining experience in the Heineken Cup and the PRO12.

Botha (middle) is one of 4 NIE tightheads in Ireland at the moment. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

The new rules mean that from 2013/14 onwards, only one of these players would be allowed to be contracted. The three provinces will have to discuss their potential NIE targets with each other and the IRFU in order to prevent an overlap in NIE players in the same position. Only one of the provinces will be allowed a tighthead (or winger or outhalf), which may mean some argument between them. Each province will now have to recognise which positions they need a NIE player to fill, and put their cause to the IRFU to ensure they get that player.

The changes also specify that “all future provincial non-Irish eligible player contracts will be position specific”. An example again illustrates this example best. If Munster were to sign, say, James Hook from Perpignan, his contract would have to state which position Munster intended to play him in. Hook has the ability to play 10, 12, 13 and 15 but Munster would have to contract him as one of these. So, if he was contracted as a 15, he could only play at fullback. Barring emergency circumstances (injuries and suspensions) Hook would not be permitted to play in any other position on the pitch.

Another change is that NIE players will only be allowed a single contract. The IRFU has stated that “[f]or the 2013/14 season and onwards, for any given position involving a contracted NIE player, a province will not be permitted to renew that NIE player contract or bring in a new NIE player into that same position in its squad”. So the Irish provinces will be limited to signing NIE players for a single contract only. The NIE player will then be forced to move away from the province at the end of their contract.

Firstly and most immediately, this means that the likes of Isa Nacewa and Ruan Pienaar will be leaving their provinces at the end of their contracts. This will be an obvious blow to the provinces in the short-term, losing key players like these. However, it will certainly benefit Irish players in the longer-term. Taking the example of Pienaar, once his contract is finished, Ulster will have to let him go and will be prohibited from signing a new NIE scrumhalf. This means that someone like Paul Marshall, currently undeservedly sitting on the bench, will take their place in Ulster’s starting 15.

Nacewa won't be offered a new contract at Leinster due to the new rulings. (c) Martin Dobey.

John Afoa and BJ Botha will also be leaving Ireland when their contracts expire. As a result, Ulster and Munster will need to give their young props more exposure to ensure they are ready to step up when Afoa and Botha’s contracts finish. The likes of Adam Macklin and Stephen Archer will now need to feature more for their provinces so as to be Heineken Cup-ready when these current front-liners leave.

Secondly, this change may result in NIE players being more hesitant to move to Ireland. If they are only being offered a short-term contract, these players may be more hesitant to uproot their families and lives. The advantage of bringing in NIE players is often the experience they bring to the provinces. However, with only a single contract on offer, these experienced professionals may not be willing to move. This stipulation in the changes may actually result in a downturn in the quality of NIE players coming to Ireland.

The fourth principle of the IRFU statement says that “All future provincial injury replacement players must be eligible for selection for Ireland”. This is much the same as the other rulings. Each province will have to have Irish qualified players as back-up in the same position as their NIE player. Again, this will only increase the amount of exposure young Irish players get.

Connacht will be unaffected by the changes. (c) James Gallagher.

Connacht have been exempted from these procedures, with the IRFU saying that the province “has recently commenced a new programme of structural and performance development”. This means Connacht will be permitted to bring in NIE players in any position, regardless of the other provinces’ NIE players. When you look at the likes of Fetu’u Vainikolo and Mia Nikora though, you have to wonder if these players are benefiting Connacht at all. They don’t bring any real experience to the squad and there are surely uncontracted Irish players with the same levels of ability.

So will these changes benefit Irish rugby? It’s hard to see how they won’t in the long-term. If Ireland can get to the point where at least two players in every position are playing Heineken Cup standard rugby then it will improve the squad immensely. It’s the short-term where the changes might have negative effects. If the provinces are forced into selecting young players in key positions at Heineken Cup level, it really means throwing them in at the deep end. As mentioned above, there may also be a reduction in the quality of NIE players coming to Ireland.

Overall, it looks to be a good thing. Perhaps the changes need a little bit of adjustment but Eddie Wigglesworth, the IRFU Director of Rugby, has said that the “four guiding principles that we have down are non-negotiable”. He qualified that statement by saying that if these principles meant a province looked weak due to injuries or a lack of Irish players of sufficient quality then the IRFU “would have to be quite pragmatic and adjust the policy within the framework”.

Four guiding principles to deliver at least two experienced players in all 15 field positions for national selection:

1 One non Irish eligible (NIE) player only in each of the 15 field positions across the provinces of Leinster, Munster and Ulster e.g. one foreign player allowed across all three teams per position.

2 For the season 2013/14 and onwards, for any given position involving a contracted NIE player, a province will not be permitted to renew that NIE player contract or bring in a new NIE player into that same position in its squad.

3 All future provincial injury replacement players must be eligible for selection for Ireland.

4 All future provincial NIE player contracts will be position specific.

So what do you make of the new principles the IRFU has laid down? Will this be a good thing for Irish rugby? Or will it mean weakened provinces, and as a result a weaker national team? Comment below with your opinion on these new changes and how they could be improved or changed?

Photos courtesy:  Martin Dobey, Jose Ramon Vega, Ivan O’Riordan, James Gallagher.

Who Will Replace Howlett?

Howlett's injury is a big blow for Munster. Photo via M+MD

As Doug Howlett collapsed onto the turf at the Liberty Stadium last Saturday, under no contact, Munster fans immediately feared the worst. This is not a man who goes down or stays down. Howlett is one of the hardest-working backs to ever grace the field for Munster and has no time for feigning injury. Confirmation of those fears came yesterday as the All Blacks legend was ruled out for the remainder of the season.

This is a cruel blow for a Munster squad who have already had to cope with losing their two other most penetrative backs in Keith Earls and Felix Jones. With David Wallace missing too, Munster are a side short on players who can go through holes in opposition defences. This season, with Earls and Jones missing, Howlett has been the only back to make consistent inroads into defences for Munster. Even against the Ospreys on Saturday, as many of those around him struggled, Howlett made positive yardage every time he got on the ball. His work-rate was as high as ever and was rewarded with a try when he dived on the rebound of Will Chamber’s grubber.

That was Howlett’s third try in three games and he had looked in fantastic form recently. But unexpected injuries are part and parcel of sport. Munster now have to move past this disappointment as they prepare for a trip to the Scarlets on Saturday. How will McGahan replace the superb Howlett? We look at some of the options within the Munster squad.

This weekend comes too early for Earls who is almost recovered from his knee injury. The Ireland winger is expected to be back in training next week and is hoping to be fit for the return match with the Scarlets in Thomond Park. Meanwhile, Jones is still sidelined with his foot injury and is not expected back for another 4-5 weeks.

Simon Zebo went over on his ankle in training yesterday in another blow for Munster. He is hoping to be recovered in time for the 3.40 kick-off on Saturday but it is always hard to predict how long ankle injuries take to heal. In one Twitter update, the young winger said “Hurt ankle pretty bad today hoping for a good recovery per next day or two to try play #godihateice”.

Zebo has looked good on the ball in his last two outings for Munster so McGahan will be hoping that the Cork Con speedster will recover in time. If Zebo is fit, he will most likely be part of a back-three with Denis Hurley and Johne Murphy. Hurley has put in two strong performances at full-back in the Munster’s last two matches and he deserves to keep his place there. Murphy is comfortable on the wing and should be moved there to accommodate Hurley’s good form.

If Zebo does not recover in time then Munster will have to move one of Danny Barnes, Will Chambers or Lifemi Mafi onto the wing. The most likely of these three is Barnes who, even when playing at centre, often spends large parts of games out in wide channels. Mafi and Chambers certainly looks like the best centre partnership at the moment for Munster.

McGahan does have one further option in re-jigging his backline. Ian Keatley played full-back for Connacht many times last season and he could come into the back three, leaving Zebo, Hurley and Murphy battling for the wing positions. Keatley hasn’t featured at full-back for Munster yet this season so this will most probably be one of McGahan’s least favoured solutions.

Whatever backline Munster do decide on, they are facing a young, talented and dynamic Scarlets backs division. The likes of Scott Williams, George North and Liam Williams are devastating if given space. Rhys Priestland directs play from outhalf and they also boast Wales centre Jonathan Davies. However, the Scarlets are facing injury worries of their own as North and Davies hope to be fit in time for what should be another magnificent Heineken Cup clash.

With Howlett out, the most obvious choice of backline for Munster would be Murray and O’Gara at half-backs, Mafi and Chambers in the centre, and Zebo, Hurley and Murphy making up the back-three. Hopefully Zebo recovers from his ankle injury in time, as Munster will need the pace and penetration that he offers. While it’s not quite do-or-die time for Munster yet, whoever is chosen will need to step up to the plate and help make up for the loss of Howlett.

Photo courtesy:  M+MD

Munster Given Wake-Up Call by The Ospreys

Match Report

Ospreys 19-13 Munster

3rd December @ Liberty Stadium

Ian Keatley lines up a penalty for Munster. Photo via M+MD

Munster were given a wake-up call by the Ospreys ahead of next weekend’s trip to the Scarlets for the first of their back-to-back fixtures in the Heineken Cup. The loss of Doug Howlett for those clashes compounds a poor effort from Munster, who could only manage one try to the Osprey’s two. The aggressive, physical defence of the Welsh side posed serious problems for Munster and they will have to be far smarter if the Scarlets adopt similar tactics. Munster weren’t helped by a frustrating performance from referee Peter Allen but will realise they did not deserve to win here.

Munster’s opening fifteen minutes suggested they weren’t focused on the task at hand. The Ospreys turned over the first Munster lineout and this was another area with which Munster would struggle all game. Ian Keatley then missed two penalties in quick succession. The first was, admittedly, from long-range but the second was kickable. Soon after, Tommy Bowe nearly had an intercept score for the Ospreys but he was unlucky to knock-on Keatley’s intended pass.

Munster hooker Damien Varley was then sent to the sin-bin for needless use of the foot at a ruck. With 14 men, Munster coped well, only conceding three points. Outhalf Matthew Morgan knocked over the penalty after captain Peter O’Mahony was pinged for hands in the ruck. Morgan had missed with a long-range penalty effort minutes earlier. Just before Varley re-entered the action, Keatley got off the mark with a penalty from the left-hand side to leave the sides tied at 3-3.

The 19-year-old Morgan then pulled a straightforward penalty effort wide to the left after a Simon Zebo high tackle. Munster responded by finally breaking down the Ospreys defence.

After Danny Barnes made a turnover, Denis Leamy put Zebo away down the left-hand touchline where he beat one defender before being tackled. Niall Ronan carried up the middle and then Will Chambers’ intended grubber bounced off Ospreys’ second-row Ian Gough. Doug Howlett was on hand to touch down the rebound. A fortuitous end to a great passage of play from Munster. Keatley added the conversion and Munster were 10-3 up.

However, the try didn’t result in Munster settling into the game and holding on to possession as it should have done. Instead, they were guilty of forcing offloads in the following minutes, resulting in Morgan reducing the deficit with another penalty. The half finished with a Varley overthrow at a lineout just to exemplify Munster’s lack of composure. Still, with a half-time lead and such a strong bench to be utilised if needed, the expectation was that Munster would raise their game in the second period.

The Ospreys conceded a penalty from the restart and Keatley kicked into their 22, good field position to kick-start the second half. But once again, Varley failed to hit his man and the opportunity was wasted. It appeared that Munster had emerged even less focused for the second half and that had dire consequences minutes later. Danny Barnes had the ball stripped from his grasp twice in one minute, and Munster were clinically punished the second time.

After Bowe had effected the turnover, Ospreys’ scrumhalf Rhys Webb and Morgan shifted the ball wide. Gough broke through Ronan’s tackle and offloaded for the hard-working Webb. The scrumhalf then passed inside for wing Richard Fussell. Keatley managed to get a hand to the pass but Fussell was still able to collect the bouncing ball and dive over. Morgan missed with an easy conversion to the left of the posts to leave the Ospreys with just a one point lead, 11-10.

The loss of Howlett is a big blow for Munster. Photo via M+MD

Paul O’Connell entered the fray and was clearly up for it as he won Keatley’s restart. Unfortunately, not all of O’Connell’s team-mates were as alert and motivated. Keatley missed touch with a penalty and the Ospreys came back into Munster’s 22, piling on the pressure. When Allen gave a penalty to the Ospreys for hands in the ruck, Webb took advantage of several Munster players turning their backs. The lively scrumhalf took a quick tap and raced over for the try as Tomas O’Leary and Zebo fell over each other. Morgan was wide to the right with this conversion effort.

Ronan O’Gara was called into action with Munster struggling and he too made an immediate impact with a fantastic restart which the Ospreys knocked-on. However, the possession was wasted again as replacement prop Wian du Preez had the ball ripped from him in contact. The Ospreys weren’t letting up in the aggressiveness of their defence. Conor Murray was next to be introduced from the bench as Tony McGahan looked for his side to up the ante.

O’Gara narrowed the gap on the scoreboard with a penalty after the Ospreys collapsed a Munster maul. But barely a minute later Allen harshly penalised Ronan for handling in the ruck. Ronan looked to have won a turnover but Allen saw things differently. Morgan was on target this time for a 19-13 Ospreys lead.

With Murray now directing proceedings, Munster finally started to make inroads into the Ospreys defence. Murray brought the forwards into the game as he threatened around the fringes. With the Ospreys were still shooting up hard in defence out wide, Munster were making far more ground with ‘pick and go’s around the fringes. Murray was held up a metre short from one snipe and Munster were given the scrum five metres out, a great platform from which to win the match.

What followed was extremely frustrating for Munster. The Ospreys conceded three penalties at the scrum as Munster got the upper hand. Allen even warned the replacement prop Cai Griffiths that, “You know what I’m going to do” if he infringed again. As the scrum reset, Murray fed and the front rows went to ground. Incredibly, Allen gave the penalty against BJ Botha for losing his feet. It was hard to understand the decision with Munster in the ascendancy and clearly on top of the Ospreys scrum.

Munster then lost Howlett to injury when he went down as he took the ball into contact. They came back at the Ospreys once more and won a lineout five metres out. But the lineout failed again as Varley’s throw was over the reach of Donnacha O’Callaghan. Tommy Bowe collected the ball and booted it into the stand to confirm the Ospreys’ 19-13 win.

A bad evening for Munster but there can be positives taken from the closing fifteen minutes. With their key players on the pitch, Munster were a different side and another referee might have judged the sequence of scrums on the Osprey’s five metre line very differently. That said, this was an Ospreys squad missing a multitude of players through injury and international call-ups. The loss of Howlett is a blow as he has been the only member of the backline to threaten opposition consistently this season. Munster are always different proposition in the Heineken Cup but they will have to raise their game massively to take anything from the Scarlets next Saturday.

Photos courtesy:  M+MD

Drop Goal Deja Vu

Match Report

Castres 24-27 Munster

19th November @ Stade Ernst Wallon

Ronan O’Gara repeated last week’s heroics with a match-winning drop goal in the last play of the game to ensure two wins from two for Munster in Pool 1. From a similar position to the drop goal against Northampton, O’Gara once again showed serious nerve to land the three pointer. In doing so, he earned Munster a valuable four points in a game that looked like it had slipped away from them at one stage.

Castres set the early pace at the Stade Ernst Wallon, with outhalf Pierre Bernard opening the scoring with a long-range penalty out on the left after only 3 minutes. Several minutes later he added another booming penalty, this time from inside his own half. With Munster struggling to get into the game at this early stage, Castres built on their encouraging start with the first try of the game after 11 minutes.

Following strong carries from Jannie Bornman and then Chris Masoe, Bernard spread the ball wide to the right and good hands from the outside backs manufactured a two-on-one, allowing hooker Brice Mach to go over for the score. Bernard’s conversion came back off the upright, but Castres had now built a strong 11-0 lead.

Howlett went over for his second try in two games. Photo via MD+D

Munster manufactured a replying score within ten minutes. Wian du Preez put his team on the front foot and Paul O’Connell drove on inside the 22. Conor Murray cleverly put du Preez through a gap and then moved the ball to Coughlan who released Doug Howlett to dive over for the try. O’Gara added the conversion. This passage exemplified Munster at their best. Simple, strong carries from forwards coming onto the ball, then releasing the finishers off front foot ball.

A feature of the first half was Munster’s inability to come away from promising field positions with scores on the board. Just before the Howlett try, O’Gara had scuffed a drop goal attempt after good build up-play in the Castres 22. Soon after the try, he uncharacteristically missed a straightforward penalty attempt when Masoe was penalised for not releasing the tackled player. Then, when Munster returned to the Castres 22, Coughlan was penalised for side entry at the ruck following promising phases. When Castres came back downfield and were offered an opportunity in Munster’s 22, they made no mistake.

Castres kicked in behind Munster and after Murray had cleaned up, O’Connell carried from his own five metre line. Tekori stripped the ball from the Munster captain in contact and Castres swiftly moved the ball through the hands to Lakafia, a replacement for the injured Marc Andreu, wide on the left. He stepped inside a helpless Howlett to touch down. Bernard hit a lovely conversion to put Castres into an 18-7 lead.

On the stroke of half-time, Munster won a scrum battle underneath Castres’ posts to allow O’Gara to narrow that lead. Referee Wayne Barnes had reset the scrum five times before Wihongi was singled out for his binding. O’Connell smartly opted to get the points on the board rather than go for the scrum again. Tony McGahan must have stressed the importance of making territory count at half-time, because Munster began the second half with a well-worked try.

Murray ripped the ball from Masoe in contact and Will Chambers, on for Danny Barnes,used his strong fend to break through the Castres’ defence. Murray then looped off O’Connell and popped to Niall Ronan whose quick hands allowed Peter O’Mahony to gallop to the line as Castres fullback Florian Denos and Lakafia fluffed their defensive lines. O’Mahony fully deserved his try, following up last week’s Man of the Match performance against Northampton with another high-powered effort here. O’Gara added the conversion to O’Mahony’s score.

Bernard gave Castres a four-point lead when Wayne Barnes penalised Munster for dragging down a maul. O’Gara then missed with another drop goal attempt following a counter attack involving Johne Murphy, Howlett and Ronan. Perhaps the outhalf’s drop kicking boots had been left behind in Thomond Park? With Castres holding onto the ball in the Munster half, Ronan made a crucial turnover allowing O’Gara to boot downfield, eventually resulting in Munster taking the lead for the first time.

O'Gara was the hero again. Photo via MD+D

O’Gara blocked down an attempted relieving kick from Castres’ Remi Talles and Denis Leamy, on for James Coughlan, pounced on the rebounding ball. He offloaded to Chambers who crossed the whitewash untouched. O’Gara swung his conversion through the uprights and Munster led 24-21 with ten minutes remaining. The lead didn’t last long though, as BJ Botha was punished for losing his feet at a scrum and Bernard drew Castres level with the penalty, 24-24.

Munster nearly broke through for a try with time running out when Chambers made a scything break through the middle, fending off several tacklers and showing great pace. Mafi took the offload from Chambers but Howlett was then driven into touch as the move broke down. However, the feeling remained that Munster could manufacture one more opportunity, especially with the last-gasp win over Northampton so fresh in mind.

Munster didn’t need 41 phases to construct the position for O’Gara this time. O’Leary hit his outhalf with a pinpoint long pass and, with the last act of the game, O’Gara struck another beauty from the ten-metre line. A legend, a hero, who else would you rather have in that position?

View all the tries and O’Gara’s drop goal here.

Photo courtesy: MD+D