Tag Archives: Leinster

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

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Warwick in Munster colours versus Toulon in 2011. (c) Liam Coughlan.

It’s an oft-repeated mantra in rugby that talent alone won’t get you anywhere. Having had “everything at my feet at one point”, Paul Warwick was perhaps heading towards being living proof of that as he struggled to make an impact at the Queensland Reds a decade ago.

However, the chance of a move to Connacht in 2004 meant a working environment  which brought out the best in the Australian’s natural ability. A schoolboy, U21 and 7s international after converting from league at the age of 16, he admits he “didn’t make the most of my opportunities” at home. Removed from his comfort zone, Warwick has thrived in professional rugby since.

Three impressive seasons in the west of Ireland resulted in what looked like a dream move to Munster in 2007. While the following four years in Limerick involved a Heineken Cup medal and two Celtic League successes, it didn’t go completely to plan for a man who prefers to control his team’s attacking play from outhalf. With Ronan O’Gara the undisputed number one in that position there was definite frustration for Warwick:

“At Munster, I was in Ronan’s shadow and had to play at fullback, so the challenge for me was to get back to running things at outhalf.”

When Stade Francais came calling in 2011 it was time to move again, lured by the prospect of securing the outhalf position at the Parisian club. With cultural and language complications to consider, it wasn’t the easiest decision for Warwick and his family, but they have found it a rewarding experience:

“I’ve really enjoyed the different experience, for myself and the family. I mean we would have regretted it if we hadn’t taken the chance. Maybe we didn’t give it our best shot with the language side of things, but to say you’ve lived and played in Paris is pretty great.”

On the pitch, the change from Pro 12 to Top 14 took adjustment, with the week-to-week demands ramped up in France:

“The Top 14 has a lot more competitive teams. In the Pro 12, there are some games against the likes of the Dragons which maybe aren’t as demanding. The pride involved in home games makes it tough in France. Even when you go to a team like Agen, who were relegated this season, it’s a serious challenge with that pride on the line.”

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Warwick at fullback for Stade versus Toulouse in the Top 14. (c) Pierre Selim.

So has the move away from Ireland given Warwick the on-pitch footballing control that he desired?

Last season, under Michael Chieka, he faced stiff competition from Felipe Contepomi for the 10 shirt and was moved to fullback in order that both players could be accommodated. This season, under new management fronted by Christophe Laussucq, the emergence of 21-year-old Jules Plisson has limited Warwick’s game time at outhalf. Overall, more frustration:

“I didn’t achieve what I wanted to achieve in Paris personally. This season’s been ups and downs really, for me and for the team. Overall, we’re happy with the Amlin, but disappointed with the Top 14. We didn’t achieve the goals we set out at the start of the season.”

Those goals included finishing in the top six of the French championship. 19 points adrift, Stade Francais ended up in 10th. Just two wins away from home was the main reason.

A switch to Aviva Premiership side Worcester Warriors is the next move for 32-year-old Warwick. Worcester may have finished 11th in the Premiership this season, but with Dean Ryan set to take over at the club, Warwick is feeling positive:

‘They haven’t had the best of seasons, but they’re a developing team. With Dean Ryan coming in that’s a big plus, he’s got proven success. I think all the ingredients are there. I’m coming into a club where I don’t really know a whole lot of guys, so it’s just refreshing to be able to start again.”

Another chance to start from scratch, another opportunity to take control at outhalf. Before that, there’s one final task with Stade Francais: the small matter of a European final against heavyweights Leinster.

Paul Warwick in full flight

Warwick in full flight versus the Ospreys during his time with Munster. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

To be in a final at all came as a surprise to Warwick and his teammates. The Australian credits their European run to a recent change in attitude within the squad:

“It’s been unexpected. Our away form has been abysmal to say the least. But we went to Bath and Perpignan and came away with wins. The team is enjoying the footy we’re playing at the moment. There’s obviously lots of changes going on here, with the coaching team and everything, but we’re enjoying our footy. We’ll give it a real go.”

From Warwick’s point of view, it’s hard to pick out one area in which to target Leinster on Friday night. The focus instead will be on Stade’s own performance:

“Leinster have been the best team in Europe for a number of years, they really don’t have too many weaknesses. For us, the main thing is getting over the gain-line on first phase, putting them under pressure and asking questions of their defence. We have to match them at set-piece and then go from there. If we can do that, who knows?”

Warwick had settle for a place on the bench against Bath and Perpignan, and it looks likely that Plisson will be the man entrusted with the outhalf slot on Friday night. If things don’t go their way, Stade will call on Warwick’s flair and creativity. For himself and Stade, there is no fear in facing Leinster:

“Everyone wrote us off for the Bath and Perpignan matches and we went out and got the wins. We’re at a point where our attitude is that we’ve got nothing to lose, so let’s see what happens.”

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Photos: Liam Coughlan, Pierre Selim, Ivan O’Riordan.

Areas Where Leinster Can Thrive

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In this brief post, I take a look at three areas in which Leinster may be able to exploit Biarritz tomorrow. The screen grabs are taken from Biarritz’s 32-28 win over Clermont (highlights above) on the 23rd of March in the Top 14. While BO were impressive that day and showed that they pose many dangers to Leinster, there were also a number of potential weaknesses on display.

Didier Faugeron’s side run a fairly standard defence. They flood the breakdown, if a turnover is blatantly on, but generally fan out and fill the line. Their wingers drop back to cover kicks, or step into the line if the opposition spread it wide. There is one potential flaw in the system though, and Leinster should look to benefit from it. Faugeron has given his players the freedom to individually ‘shoot’ up out of the defensive line if they think a ‘ball-and-all’ tackle is on. While this can result in big defensive plays, it can also leave their defensive line vulnerable.

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Barraque ‘shoots’ out of the defence to great effect. Click to enlarge.

In the example above, you can see a Biarritz player (Barraque) has shot up out of the defensive line on his own. On this occasion, he managed to hit the Clermont attacker (Zirakashvili) as he received the ball. Zirakashvili tried a panicked offload and Biarritz won the ball back. On the flip side, the example below shows Yachvili getting it all wrong. He’s the ‘shooter’ this time but gets caught in no-man’s land, leaving Clermont with a 3-on-2. In this game, Biarritz were very hit-and-miss with the success of their ‘shooters’.

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Yachvili makes the wrong call and exposes Biarritz’s defence. Click photo to enlarge.

Leinster should look to exploit the Biarritz shooters through simple, short pop passes inside or outside to trail runners. In these circumstances, communication from the support players is the key, as the person giving the pass usually won’t even see the shooter coming.

The next area Leinster could look to take advantage of is Biarritz’s kick-chase. While they have something of a reputation as a formidable kick-chase team, this game against Clermont saw a sloppy display in that regard. Two Clermont tries came as a result of poor kick-chasing. The first example is below. Barraque has kicked out from BO’s 22, and Clermont have run the ball back into the BO half. The chase was  lazy, and one phase later Sivivatu breaks through and passes for Skrela to score.

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Biarritz’s organisation after kick-chase can be poor. Click for larger image.

If you look at the photo above, you can count 8 Biarritz players on the blindside, including 3 in the back-field. While Sivivatu did well to break the line from this particular situation, Biarritz didn’t seem to be well organised following kick-chases in general. They conceded from a remarkably similar situation later in the game. Again, Barraque kicked out from inside the 22. The chase was unorganized and 3 phases after the kick, Clermont created the 4-on-3 situation below and scored. Check the match highlights at the top of the post to see both tries in action.

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Another try following a Biarritz kick.

Biarritz winger Takudzwa Ngwenya is a lethal counter-attacker and finisher thanks to his sheer pace, but he should be targeted defensively. He struggles to make the right decision about when to come in off his wing and tackle. The photo below shows a prime example. Clermont have gone wide following a lineout. The Biarritz defensive line is actually in good shape at this exact moment. With Benoit Baby drifting across, all Ngwenya has to worry about is tackling his opposite number. But immediately after this frame, he decides to rush up on the fullback. Regan King throws a simple skip pass and puts Nakaitaci clean down the touchline.

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Ngwenya about to make the wrong decision.

There was a similar situation later in the match, pictured below. As outhalf Brock James attacks the line, Ngwenya gets tighter and tighter to the man inside him. As you can see, he’s got his body position all wrong, completely facing in towards the action rather than out towards where the ball is being passed. The winger leaves himself in a bad position, Nakaitaci is left with lots of room out wide for Clermont and nearly scores. Leinster should look to use Madigan’s excellent passing game from inside centre to force Ngwenya into making these sort of decisions. He’s not comfortable with doing so.

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Ngwenya gets himself in a bad position again.

Taking a Leaf From Spain’s Book

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Spain have taken maximum benefit of Barcelona’s incredible success. Lessons? (c) Euro 2012.

Spain confirmed their position as one of football’s greatest ever sides with that stunning 4-0 win over Italy last weekend. Each of the four goals were beautiful creations, coming from the Spanish insistence on keeping the ball on the ground, passing and moving into space. Barcelona’s influence on the Spanish team is undeniable. The Spanish national team has taken the Barca model and, if not replicated it completely, used its strengths as guiding principles. There is a lesson in that for Irish rugby.

Barcelona have dominated European football since the 2008/09 season. In that time, they’ve won La Liga three times, the Champions League twice, and the World Club Cup twice, amongst other trophies. The entire club operates on a philosophy of creative, passing, attacking football right up from their famous La Masia training facility. The senior squad is largely made up of locally-born Catalans, or at least Barca-educated players who love the club. They’ve built the club from the roots up, and have been hugely successful, winning trophies in style. They have been the greatest side in European club football for the last four years.

Leinster have dominated European rugby since the 2008/09 season. In that time, they’ve won three Heineken Cups, and finished runner-up of the PRO12/Celtic League three times, topping the regular season table twice. The province operates on a philosophy of creative, passing, attacking rugby, right up from their underage teams. The senior squad is largely made up of Leinster-born players, or outsiders who have bought into the ethos. While maybe not at Barca’s level of youth development, they have strong background roots in place. They’ve built the province from the ground up, and have been undeniably successful, winning trophies in style. They’ve been the greatest side in European club rugby over the last four years.

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Core players for Leinster, core players for Ireland. (c) Ken Bohane.

For Spain’s national team coach, building his team on the Barca model has been  a no-brainer. The availability of players like Pique, Busquets, Xavi and  Iniesta meant del Bosque would have been foolish not to allow them to form the spine of his team in their unique style. That’s exactly what he has done. While Spain’s style is a modified version of the Barca system, the influence is clear. The team has been built around the incredible assets of Xavi and Iniesta, with players from other clubs adapting to the demands. The results have been incredible, with Spain deservedly winning the last three major tournaments they’ve played at.

However, in Ireland, building the international team in the incredibly successful Leinster model hasn’t been a no-brainer for Declan Kidney. While the spine of Ireland’s team is Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney, they have not been encouraged to play in a similar manner as they do at Leinster. I’m not suggesting for a second that Ireland should just name the Leinster team as their international XV, but rather that the team’s style needs to be built around the strengths of that spine. While Ireland won the 2009 Grand Slam, their performances since have been generally weak.

The limited amount of time an international coaching team gets with their players simply adds to the argument. Del Bosque recognised this and allowed his key men to play in the manner in which they train every single day at their club (Barca). Why wouldn’t he have done so? Ireland haven’t done the same thing though. I’m not saying that Kidney should just say, “Go out and play like Leinster lads” but allowing some continuity for his spine players from province into international set-up would only benefit Ireland. One of Kidney’s strengths in times past has been his belief in giving key players the responsibility to dictate play on the pitch. Now he needs to bring that back into action.

Vicente del Bosque

There are similarities between Vicente del Bosque and Declan Kidney. (c) Universidad Europea de Madrid.

Kidney and del Bosque are similar figures, which makes their difference in approach harder to understand. Both men are reserved, dignified and give very little away to the media in interviews. Neither is renowned as a true ‘coach’, in that they don’t do too much hands-on work on the training ground. Their strengths lie in motivating players and creating a harmonious atmosphere within the squad. Del Bosque has been quick to recognise that he has an amazing asset in Barca and their tactical approach, but has Kidney done the same with Leinster?

I’m sure players from Munster, Ulster and Connacht have cast jealous glances as Leinster have gone about their business of winning H-Cups in spectacular style. Similarly, Spanish players like Xabi Alonso, Iker Casillas and Jordi Alba would’ve watched Barca and wanted to experience being part of it. Every single one of them, football and rugby players alike, would have felt that they had the ability to contribute and better such a system. The Spanish players have been given the chance to do so, and their joy has been clear. I think the Irish players from the other three provinces would have similar feelings if Ireland were unleashed with a Leinster-style gameplan.

Spain have extracted the utmost advantage and benefit from the once-in-a-generation resource that is Barcelona FC. Have Ireland done the same with Leinster?

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Photos courtesy: Universidad Europea de MadridMarc Puig i Perez, UEFA Euro 2012.

PRO12 Semi-Finals Preview

Ospreys vs. Munster @ Liberty Stadium

Fri 11th May, 19.35 (RTE2)

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Munster beat the Ospreys at this stage last season, with Danny Barnes scoring a brace. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

It’s 2nd versus 3rd in the first of the PRO12 semi-finals tonight. Munster will be desperate to advance in the hope of salvaging something from this campaign, but they face a tough task in Swansea. The Ospreys have been impressive all season in this competition and come into the game on a 5-game winning streak which started with their 23-22 victory over Leinster at the RDS in March.

Ronan O’Gara returns to the Munster bench, meaning Ian Keatley is back in at outhalf. This is a huge game for the ex-Connacht and Leinster man. After a strong start to the season, his form has tailed off and he needs to show that he is ROG’s long-term successor. The rest of the Munster team is as expected, with Keith Earls back at outside centre and keen to show Rob Penney that 13 is his best position. Ivan Dineen comes onto the wing due to a late Felix Jones injury, with Johne Murphy moving to fullback. Dave Kilcoyne is on the bench following his promising recent form.

Up front, the knee injury to Paul O’Connell means Mick O’Driscoll gets another outing before retirement. With James Coughlan still out with a hand injury, Peter O’Mahony continues at No.8. Without O’Gara and O’Connell, Munster haven’t looked the same side this season, so it’s crucial that the likes of Mafi, O’Driscoll, O’Callaghan and Botha step up to the leadership mark.

Mafi magic as Sexton and O'Gara eyeball

Mafi will be out to ensure this isn’t his final game for Munster. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

The Ospreys side is largely as predicted, with Dan Biggar set to steer the ship at 10. Interestingly, coach Steve Tandy has gone for Kahn Fotuali’i at scrumhalf rather than the talented youngster Rhys Webb, who is likely to have an impact off the bench. The centre partnership of Ashley Beck and Andrew Bishop has been effective for the Ospreys this year, with 22-year-old Beck looking to earn a place on Wales’ summer tour to Australia.

Up front, the Ospreys are highly experienced. The front-row of Paul James, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones have been around the block once or twice and will be confident of scrum dominance. Behind them, Joe Beardman is the only of the five who is not a Welsh international. Openside flanker Justin Tipuric has had a fantastic season, showing that Wales have depth behind Sam Warburton.

It’s a strong, solid, grizzled Ospreys team who have been doing the business all season. The Welsh side have lost only 3 of their 17 home fixtures, and they’ve already beaten Munster home and away. With the likes of Mafi, O’Driscoll and coach Tony McGahan all set to leave Munster, the province will be keen not to end their season on a losing note. However, the Ospreys appear to have too much. Verdict: Ospreys.

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Leinster vs. Warriors @ The RDS

Sat 12th May, 19.35 (TG4)

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Leinster’s record vs. the Warriors this season is P4, W2, D1, L1. (c) Ken Bohane.

Joe Schmidt will be ignoring the unfounded speculation of a return to New Zealand as Leinster look to stay on course for an historic double. They host the Glasgow Warriors is the second semi-final on Saturday night. The Scottish side confirmed 4th place with a 24-3 win over a disappointing Connacht last weekend. Regardless of the teams Sean Lineen and Schmidt pick (as yet neither side has been revealed), Leinster should have too much quality to be overcome by the Warriors.

The Scottish side have obviously been doing something right to find themselves at this stage of the competition. Lineen has built a solid, unspectacular outfit who are difficult to break down. They have obvious limitations in attack, highlighted by the fact that they have only bettered 3 other teams in terms of tries scored in the PRO12. The main attacking spark they possess is Stuart Hogg at fullback.

The 19-year-old Scottish international has lightening quick feet and pace to burn so Leinster will need to watch him closely. Duncan Weir has been given the nod over Ruaridh Jackson at outhalf. Weir offers more solidity in the 10 jersey, as well as a reliable boot, but expect to see the creative Jackson off the bench if the Warriors have to chase the game. Lineen’s backline really won’t strike fear into the Leinster squad. Big Graeme Morrison at 12 will look to put dents in the Irish side’s defence but is limited.

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Richie Gray will be a danger to Leinster’s lineout. (c) Ken Bohane.

Up front, Richie Gray and Ally Kellock form a complete second-row, which will cause problems for Leinster at the lineout in particular. At No.8 John Barclay has ball-carrying ability, but his form has been patchy this season. For Leinster, the only real surprise is that Eoin O’Malley starts at 13. This season’s PRO12 stalwarts in Devin Toner and Dave Kearney have earned their right to start. Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney are in competition for a H-Cup final spot so expect big efforts from both

Schmidt has picked a team that’s close to full strength, in what doubles up as a test run for the Heineken Cup final. It would be foolish to completely write off the Warriors. Despite the two wins for Leinster in Pool 3 of the Heineken Cup, the Warriors beat Schimdt’s side at The RDS in September and Leinster could only manage a draw in Firhill in February. However, Leinster should be close to full strength and the Warriors cannot match that quality. Verdict: Leinster.

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Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Ken Bohane.

Leinster Reaping Benefits of Backroom

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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.

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane.

Munster’s Need is Greater

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O'Connell won't be leading Munster out tomorrow night. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Another chapter of one of sport’s great rivalries will be written in Thomond Park tomorrow night. While there’s no immediate reward at stake for this battle, there is plenty to play for. Munster’s need for a win appears to be far greater. We’re into the real business end of the season, with the HC quater-finals to come the weekend after this. While a Leinster loss tomorrow would be a blow for them, failure at home could have catastrophic effects for Munster.

Picture it: a Munster loss at home just 8 days before that massive quarter-final against an Ulster side who have no fear of Thomond Park. How would it affect the side’s confidence knowing that they had failed against even bigger rivals the weekend before? The consequences would reach further than the Heineken Cup too. Munster’s next three PRO12 games are against the Warriors (h), Scarlets (a) and Ulster (h). All three of those sides are still play-off contention. A loss to Leinster tomorrow puts Munster right back in the thick of that battle. A win would allow some breathing space.

Would a loss effect Leinster as much? On the surface, no. They currently have an 8-point lead over Munster at the top of the PRO12. Losing tomorrow would have no effect on their league position, while two of their final three fixtures are very winnable (Edinburgh at home and Dragons away). Next weekend’s quarter-final at the Aviva is against the Blues, who will be boosted by Wales’ Grand Slam. Still, betting against Leinster in that one won’t be on too many people’s agenda. A defeat to Munster is never welcome, but the fact that the game is in Thomond Park would reduce any ill-effects.

Kearney returns for Leinster at fullback. (c) Ken Bohane.

As if Munster’s mission was already not difficult enough, this season’s leading lights of O’Connell, Ryan and Murray have all been ruled out through injury. These losses will be as keenly felt as POC and BOD’s were by Ireland during the Six Nations. Others will now have to step up as Ryan for Ireland. He would have relished this game, still with something to prove after starting only two Six Nations games. Who will provide the leadership without O’Connell? Who will provide the aggression without Ryan?

Leinster’s deck of cards is almost full with the return of their complement of internationals. After some patchy form recently, Joe Schmidt will be keen to get back to their glorious December heights ahead of next weekend’s quarter-final. Last season, Munster got back on top of this rivalry with a narrow 9-13 loss in the Aviva being followed by a 24-23 win in Thomond Park and that 19-9 Magners League Final win. Their only meeting this season resulted in a 24-19 win for Leinster in the Aviva.

Elsewhere, Ulster are in action tonight against bottom side Aironi. It’s a good chance for Brian McLaughlin’s side to secure a try-scoring bonus point in Ravenhill and keep themselves in contention for a play-off spot. Stephen Ferris, Rory Best and Andrew Trimble return to the side after their Six Nations involvement. Interestingly, McLaughlin has gone for Lewis Stevenson in the second-row ahead of Dan Tuohy, who has had a great season up to this point.

Ulster Aironi

Ulster have already beaten Aironi 3 times this season, twice with bonus points. (c) Fabio Beretta.

McLaughlin has stated that a number of places are still up for grabs ahead of next weekend’s quarter-final in Thomond Park. Tuohy will be devastated if this is an indication of his coach’s thinking before that Heineken Cup outing. A bonus point tonight looks even more important when you look at Ulster’s three remaining PRO12 fixtures, where they face three inter-pro derbies in a row: Connacht (a), Leinster (h) and Munster (a).

Connacht also play tonight as they travel to take on a Dragons side who have enjoyed a superb turn-around of form recently. They’ve won 4 of their last 5 games, and welcome back Grand Slam trio Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau and captain Luke Charteris for this game. The pressure is on Eric Elwood to finish this season with a few more Connacht wins. It would be disappointing to let the season simply peter out.

This week brought more good news for Connacht ahead of next season with the announcement of Willie Faloon’s signature. The 25-year-old openside joins from Connacht with plenty to prove. He will relish the opportunity for more game time at the western province. Along with Dan Parks and Nathan White, Faloon should help improve this inconsistent Connacht team.

It’s another PRO12 weekend with so much at stake. Enjoy!

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Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Ken Bohane, Fabio Beretta.

Shaggy Bows Out

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Horgan during last season's HC quarter-final win over Leicester. (c) Ken Bohane.

The week after Jerry Flannery announced his retirement from the game, fellow Irish international Shane Horgan has decided to call an end to his career too. The 33-year-old has been struggling with a long-term knee injury in recent times and his time as a professional is now over. As with Flannery, we have to celebrate the sheer quality that Horgan contributed to both Leinster and Ireland during his 14-year long career. He was the complete winger at his peak and his long list of honours proves just how good a player he was.

A minor footballer with Meath, Horgan’s parish roots would later help him to dominate aerially on the rugby pitch. His earliest rugby experiences were with home club Boyne RFC and then Lansdowne RFC before Leinster gave him his first professional contract in 1998, at the age of 20. The imposing winger quickly set about making himself a vital part of the set-up and a try-scoring international debut followed in 2000. He went on to win 65 Irish caps, scoring 21 tries, some of which will never be forgotten.

Horgan was central as Leinster grew year by year to the levels they now play at. Whether on the wing or at inside centre, ‘Shaggy’ was reliably hard-working and physical but had genuine intelligence and delicate offloading skills too. His finishing ability was unquestionable. The aforementioned fielding skills also made him a try-scoring threat in any one-on-one aerial contest. Throughout his career, Ireland and Leinster consistently looked for Horgan (6’5″ and about 105kg) to get on the end of cross-field kicks, often to spectacular effect.

BOD finds Shaggy copy

Horgan, 14, takes an offload from Brian O'Driscoll during his last ever Leinster appearance, the 2011 Magners League Final against Munster. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

I was always a particular fan of Horgan’s stint at inside centre. At a time when players like Brian O’Driscoll were the standard shape and size for centres, Horgan was considerably different. His strength and offloading ability in the 12 jersey were something fresh for Ireland. Of Horgan’s three test caps off the bench for the 2005 Lions, two were in the centre, showing just how well the Meath man adapted to the position. Today, we see far more centres and wingers of Horgan’s dimensions. A really complete player, he was good wherever he was chosen.

So, to his long list of honours. Two Celtic/Magners Leagues as well as two Heineken Cups with Leinster were just reward for his service. He made a total of 207 appearances in the blue jersey, scoring a remarkable 71 tries. With Ireland, he played in two World Cups (’03 and ’07) as well as winning three Triple Crowns. A true measure of the man is that this time last season, he was playing superbly for Leinster and, at the age of 32, pushing hard for a spot in the 2011 World Cup squad.

Unfortunately injury has denied him the opportunity to make a farewell appearance this season. He has transitioned smoothly into the world of punditry with RTE, where his sensible and knowledgable contributions are in stark contrast with some of this peers. Shaggy has always come across as an intelligent character and that is backed up by what we’ve seen so far.

Horgan was a brilliant Irish winger who was maybe even a little bit ahead of his time in terms of playing style and build. Imagine the hype that would surround a player of his size and strength if he was emerging from the Leinster Academy now? Horgan says that he feels “fortunate to have played at a time when Leinster and Ireland experienced such great success”. The truth is that he played a major role in that success and in helping both teams to progress to where they are now.

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Ivan O’Riordan.