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RaboDirect Round-Up

PRO12 Round 14 Matches

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Leinster 42-8 Treviso 

Thursday 9th February @ The RDS

Leinster

Shane Jennings and Richardt Strauss helped Leinster to a win over Treviso at the RDS. (c) Ken Bohane.

Leinster lead the PRO12 by ten points after their fourth try-scoring bonus point win of the season. You can read the full match report on the Treviso game here. The Italians gave Leinster a tough battle in the first-half, but in the end tries from Ian Madigan, Richardt Strauss, Isa Nacewa, John Cooney and Fionn Carr allowed Joe Schmidt’s side to pull well clear. Man of the Match Nacewa added 17 points from the tee as part of a truly complete individual performance.

Carr, Madigan and Shane Jennings all had strong showings while the young centre partnership of Collie O’Shea and Brendan Macken, 21 and 20 respectively, gave plenty of promising signs. With eight games left before the PRO12 play-offs, Leinster continue to look good for a home quarter-final. Next up, they welcome the 7th-placed Scarlets to the RDS on Friday .

Here’s the highlights of the Leinster vs. Treviso game:

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Ulster 30-12 Dragons

Friday 10th February @ Ravenhill

Ulster move up to 5th in the table after their fourth consecutive bonus point win at Ravenhill. Crucially, Brian McLaughlin’s men are now only 2 points behind 4th-placed Munster, although the southern province do have a game in hand. Friday night’s win didn’t see Ulster dominate but they still had far too much for a poor Dragons side. Get the full match report here. Tries from Robbie Diack, Ruan Pienaar, Craig Gilroy and Stefan Terblanche did the damage for Ulster. Pienaar added 10 points with the boot.

The second try, started and finished by Pienaar, showed Ulster at their best with the ball flashing through 10 pairs of hands as they attacked from inside their own half. It’s well worth a look below. That passage of play will have been particularly pleasing for Brian McLaughlin in a week that brought the public revelation of Ulster’s long-standing decision not to renew his contract as coach for next season. McLaughlin remains focused on the job though, and Ulster’s play-off push continues away to the Cardiff Blues on Friday.

Here’s the four Ulster tries against the Dragons:

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Cardiff Blues 22-15 Connacht

Friday 10th February @ Cardiff Arms Park

The Scrum Collapses

Connacht lost to the Blues in Cardiff. (c) Sum_of_Marc.

In their first match since the historic 9-8 win over Harlequins last month, Connacht reverted to old habits as they failed to take several try-scoring opportunities in Cardiff. Tries from Tiernan O’Halloran and Dave Moore, as well as a conversion and penalty from the boot of Niall O’Connor, weren’t enough to get a win against the Blues. However, the losing bonus point gained through Moore’s late try sees Connacht move up a place in the PRO12 table.

O’Halloran put in another promising display on the wing, scoring one and setting up the other try. Coach Eric Elwood will have felt a familiar frustration though as Connacht failed to finish off some good breaks throughout the game. On Saturday, the western province host Glasgow Warriors at the Sportsground. Elwood will be keen to ensure his side don’t go back on a run of losses. Connacht sit 10th in the table now, with Edinburgh just 5 points ahead in 9th. A few wins in the remainder of the season will be the target.

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Aironi vs. Munster

Postponed

Rugby Snow

Ireland vs. France wasn't the only fixture disrupted because of the cold weather last weekend. (c) Olivier Pechenet.

Munster’s game in northern Italy was postponed due to the freezing weather in the region. Aironi’s Stadio Zaffanella was heavily covered with snow all week, forcing the game to be rescheduled. This fixture will now take place on the 11th of March.

Glasgow Warriors’ win over the Scarlets on Thursday sees them jump above Munster in the table. Sitting 4th, Munster do have a game in hand. Despite, the disruption to their schedule, Tony McGahan has refocused his side’s attention to Saturday, when Munster travel to Italy to take on Benneton Treviso.

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Here’s the latest PRO12 table:

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Photos courtesy:  Ken Bohane, Olivier Pechenet, Sum_of_Marc.

Leinster Cut Loose Against Treviso

Match Report

Leinster 42-8 Treviso

Thursday 9th February @ The RDS

Nacewa

Fullback Isa Nacewa was Man of The Match after a 20-point haul. (c) Ken Bohane.

Four tries in the last twenty minutes gave Leinster a comfortable win over Treviso at the RDS. Joe Schmidt’s side now lead the PRO12 by 14 points, although they have played a game more than the rest of the league. Isa Nacewa put in a Man of the Match performance as he showed his class in attack and defence. Ian Madigan at outhalf put in yet another promising display, while Fionn Carr and Shane Jennings showed Ireland coach Declan Kidney what he is missing.

In wet conditions, Leinster were made to work hard in the first-half. Nacewa opened the scoring from the tee after a superb kick chase by himself and Brendan Macken resulted in a turnover penalty. Treviso leveled the score when outhalf Alberto Di Bernardo took advantage of Leinster’s poor line speed to scuff over a drop goal.

It took twenty minutes for Leinster to get into their attacking stride but they did so to great effect as Madigan touched down. Carr made a strong carry from Isaac Boss’ pass and then Leo Auva’a supplied Madigan. The 22-year-old outhalf showed good strength to fend off Alberto Chillon as he broke through the Treviso defence for the first try of the game.

Side entry at a ruck by the Italians allowed Nacewa to knock over another penalty, giving Leinster an 11-3 half-time lead. Treviso came out from the break extremely fired up and took the game to Leinster for the opening 15 minutes of the half. Another Nacewa penalty gave Leinster respite but Treviso came again. After switching down the blindside, replacement prop Pedro di Santo took advantage of a bad defensive decision by Nathan White to put front-row partner Matteo Muccignat over. Di Bernardo missed with the conversion.

Carr

Fionn Carr was a stand-out performer on the wing. (c) Ken Bohane.

Realising they had a game on their hands, Leinster reacted the way they know best, through all-out attack. A searing break from Carr resulted in Richardt Strauss bashing over from a few metres out. Nacewa converted that try then scored the next one himself. Switching swiftly to the blindside, the Fijian released substitute Dave Kearney down the left-hand touchline and took the winger’s return pass to cross the whitewash. The fullback was on target once again with the conversion.

The Leinster scoring continued as Treviso lost all hope. Nacewa was at the centre of the next try as he pierced through the Italians’ defence from a floated Madigan pass. The fullback drew the last defender and popped inside to replacement scrumhalf John Cooney, only on the pitch a minute. Nacewa added the extras from under the posts.

With the Leinster bench emptied by now, several of the youngsters showed up well in a very open final ten minutes. Some lovely touches from Noel Reid in the centre put Madigan in position to feed Carr with a cross-kick. The pacy winger was left one-on-one with second-row Francesco Minto and there was only ever going to be one outcome. Carr stepped the desperate tackle and scored in the left-hand corner. A well-struck Madigan conversion topped off an accomplished Leinster display.

With both sides missing their international players, this game had the potential to be a damp squib. Leinster’s exciting attacking play ensured that a satisfied RDS crowd and a satisfied Joe Schmidt. His attention now turns to the visit of the Scarlets in a week’s time. Schmidt will be encouraged by what he saw from young players like Collie O’Shea and Brendan Macken. The strength in depth of this Leinster squad is evidently increasing.

Leinster: 15. Isa Nacewa (Carr, 75), 14. Darren Hudson, 13. Brendan Macken, 12. Colm O’Shea (Reid, 67), 11. Fionn Carr (Kearney, 64), 10. Ian Madigan, 9. Isaac Boss (Cooney, 69), 8. Leo Auva’a (Ruddock, 56), 7. Shane Jennings, 6. Kevin McLaughlin (capt.), 5. Devin Toner, 4. Damian Browne (Flanagan, 64), 3. Nathan White (Hagan, 56), 2. Richardt Strauss (Sexton, 69), 1. Heinke van der Merwe (McGrath, 64).                                                                                                            Subs: 16. Tom Sexton, 17. Jack McGrath, 18. Jamie Hagan, 19. Mark Flanagan, 20. Rhys Ruddock, 21. John Cooney, 22. Noel Reid.

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane.

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Here’s the highlights of the game:

Mid-Season Report: Leinster

With the Heineken Cup pool stages finished, the PRO12 campaign just over halfway complete and the international season about to start, now is a great time to take stock of how the four Irish provinces have gotten on so far this season. Over the next few days we’ll look at each province individually, reviewing their European and PRO12 campaigns as well as outlining what lies ahead in the coming months.

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Leinster

Leinster have only lost two games this season thanks to a dominant pack and and exciting backs. (c) Art Widak.

Top of the PRO12 by 9 points and a home quarter-final secured as second seeds after dominating Pool 3 of the Heineken Cup, Leinster are in great shape. Joe Schmidt’s squad have only twice all season and both of those losses came back in September with the international players away on World Cup duty. Since the 19-23 loss to Glasgow at the RDS on the 17th of September, Leinster have gone unbeaten in 16 games, 15 of those wins.

In the PRO12, the only other loss was to the Ospreys on the opening day of the season when Leinster fielded a fairly inexperienced team. Since September though, Schmidt’s men have been unstoppable. They are the top try-scorers in the league with 29 while their points difference is streets ahead of anyone at +128. The closest side to that are the Ospreys who stand on +65. Leinster have the 5th strongest defence in terms of points conceded, 218. Their biggest win of the PRO12 season so far is the 52-9 trashing of a heavily weakened Cardiff team at the start of December.

In the Heineken Cup, the reigning champions had no trouble negotiating Pool 3, winning 5 and drawing 1 of the 6 fixtures against Bath, Glasgow Warriors and Montpellier. The three home fixtures showed exactly what Leinster are capable of, particularly the spectacular 52-27 dismantling of Bath at the Aviva in December. Leinster, with 18, are second only to Clermont in the try-scoring stakes in the tournament so far. Clermont have scored 26 so far, thanks to their 12-try, 82-0 humbling of Aironi. The French side obviously lead in terms of points difference too, on +146, but Leinster’s +84 is well ahead of the next best, Munster and Toulouse on +45.

The 52-27 win over Bath at the Aviva in December is one of the season's highlights so far. (c) Art Widak.

The two-time Heineken Cup victors have 4 wins from the 4 inter-provincial games they’ve played so far in this campaign. They dispatched Connacht 30-20 at the RDS in October, then just about survived to win 13-15 at the Sportsground this month. Johnny Sexton’s kicking ensured a 24-19 win over Munster at the Aviva in November while a weak Ulster team was dispatched 42-13 on Stephen’s Day.

In terms of player performances, the size and strength in depth of the Leinster squad is what has kept them at the forefront of both competitions. Jonathan Sexton is the top points scorer in the squad with 121 so far. Isa Nacewa stands at 87, but Fergus McFadden’s prolific recent kicking form means he’s gaining fast on 71. Surprisingly, Ian Madigan is the squad’s top try-scorer with 6. Rob Kearney’s 4 in the last 4 games leaves him just one behind on 5, while Luke Fitz has crossed the whitewash 4 times.

Leinster now have a quarter-final final with the Cardiff Blues at the Aviva on Saturday the 7th of April to look forward to. A win in that game would mean an away semi to the winner of the Saracens vs. Clermont quarter. It does look like a tough route to the final, but nothing is beyond this Leinster squad. As with every side involved in the HC quarter-finals, Schmidt will be keeping his fingers crossed that key players like Sexton and Sean O’Brien can avoid injury in the 6 Nations.

Jonathan Sexton is Leinster's top points scorer at this stage. (c) Martin Dobey.

With that healthy 9 point lead in the PRO12, and only 10 games left before the play-offs, Leinster should be ok for a home semi-final there. The two toughest fixtures in those 10 will probably be the away clashes with Munster in March and Ulster in April. However, we should see Leinster challenging for honours on both fronts come the end of the season.

Leinster’s stats so far this season:

Games played: 19     Won: 16     Drawn: 1     Lost: 2

Points scored: 518     Tries scored: 47     Try-scoring bonus points: 5

Points conceded: 306     Tries conceded: 26     Losing bonus points: 1

Top points scorer: Jonathan Sexton (121)      Top try scorer: Ian Madigan (6)

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Photos courtesy:  Art Widak, Martin Dobey.

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Here’s a look at perhaps Leinster’s most impressive performance of the season, the 52-27 demolition of Bath at the Aviva in December:

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

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

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.

RaboDirect Round-Up

Ulster 33-17 Munster

Friday 30th December @ Ravenhill

Tony McGahan won't have been pleased with Munster's performance. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Ulster managed to secure a try-scoring bonus point in  their comfortable win over a disappointing Munster on Friday night. You can read a full match report here.

Stefan Terblanche, John Afoa, Ian Humphreys and Ruan Pienaar were the try-scorers for Ulster. Humphreys kicked 10 points and Pienaar added a penalty. For Munster, 21-year-old wing Luke O’Dea and Johne Murphy scored tries. Ian Keatley added two penalties and a conversion.

This loss means Munster drop to 4th in the league. Worryingly, the Cardiff Blues in 5th have a game in hand over Munster and are only 3 points behind. Tony McGahan’s  men are back in Thomond Park next Saturday where they’re up against a Treviso side who have realistic playoff hopes.

Ulster’s 5 points don’t see them rise from 8th position but it does bring them closer to the playoff places. They’re now only 7 points behind Munster and if they can get a good run together then they’ll be in the shake-up come the tail-end of the season. Next up for them is a trip to Murrayfield on Friday to take on Edinburgh, a place behind them in the league. It’s the kind of match Ulster need to be winning if they want to compete for a playoff spot.

Here’s the four Ulster tries from the match on Friday night:

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You can watch the full Ulster vs. Munster match over on the RTE Player by clicking this link.

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Connacht 13-15 Leinster

Sunday 1st January @ The Sportsground

Reynecke and O'Halloran, pictured tackling Munster's Forgarty last weekend, were the Connacht try-scorers. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Connacht came within inches of beating Leinster as Mia Nikora’s last-gasp drop goal dropped just under the bar. Referee John Lacey had to consult the TMO to confirm that the ball hadn’t snuck over. It was a painful end to a brave Connacht effort in which they scored two tries to Leinster’s none. Joe Schmidt’s team didn’t hit the form of previous weeks but they will be relieved to have come away with the win.

Man of the Match Isa Nacewa was key as he kicked all 15 of Leinster’s points in a flawless display off the tee. Connacht will rue the fact that they don’t have as reliable a place-kicker. Matthew Jarvis missed two first-half penalties and Nikora was off target with a conversion and the drop-goal effort. Ethienne Reynecke and Tiernan O’Halloran were the try-scorers for Connacht. Both tries came with Leinster down to 14 men following the sin-binnings of, first, Leo Cullen and then Isaac Boss.

Leinster remain in a comfortable 6 point lead at the top of the PRO12 after this win. They’re away to the Blues on Saturday in what could be a tricky fixture. As mentioned above, the Blues are breathing down Munster’s necks for a playoff berth and they will be targeting a win on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Connacht’s 12th defeat in a row means they remain rooted in the bottom three of the table. Fortunately for them, the Dragons and Aironi are in similarly poor form. The Dragons do have a game in hand over Connacht and a win would mean the Dragons drawing level on points with Eric Elwood’s team. Connacht travel to Aironi on Saturday and this has to be the game that ends their losing streak. The Italians have won only 2 of their 16 matches in all competitions this season. Admittedly, Aironi will be thinking the same thing about Connacht, who’ve won 3 in 16.

Here’s the highlights from the Connacht vs. Leinster match:

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This is how the PRO12 table shapes up after the weekend’s action:

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Photos courtesy:  Ivan O’Riordan.