Tag Archives: Ulster

RaboDirect Round-Up

Last weekend saw the four Irish provinces in PRO12 action, with a mixed bag of results. We catch up on the four matches in our RaboDirect Round-Up.

Ulster 24-17 Scarlets

Friday 2nd December @ Ravenhill

Ulster ended their recent run of poor form with a win over the Scarlets at Ravenhill on Friday night. Their increasingly important talisman Stephen Ferris barged over for two tries. Scrumhalf Paul Marshall put in a lively performance while Ian Humphreys kicked 14 points.

Ulster endured a fairly disastrous opening quarter as they conceded two tries to the Welsh side. First, Pedrie Wannenburg gifted Sean Lamont an intercept try as he threw a shocking pass inside Ulster’s own 22. Then Scarlets debutant Vilami Iongi touched down after the Scarlets switched back down the blindside and caught Ulster off guard. Fortunately for Brian McLaughlin’s side, Stephen Jones missed both conversion attempts.

Humphreys got Ulster on the scoreboard with a penalty before the Scarlets’ young fullback Daniel Evans was yellow carded. Ulster made that advantage count as Ferris finished after fantastic play by Marshall. Humphreys missed the conversion to leave Ulster trailing 10-8 at half-time.

Humphreys added two more straightforward penalties after the break to put Ulster into the lead for the first time. He then extended that lead to 17-10 with another penalty from distance. With just over fifteen minutes left Ferris all but confirmed the win for Ulster after a blistering run down the right-hand side ended with a try. Humphreys converted to give Ulster a comfortable lead.

The Scarlets did give Ulster a nervy last few minutes after Kieran Murphy went over and Stephen Jones converted. But with only four minutes left, Ulster were strong enough to end the match in possession in the Scarlets half. This win sees Ulster stay in eighth in the league but they are now only seven points off the play-off places. More importantly, it will boost their confidence ahead of Friday’s Heineken Cup fixture, when they will need to aim for a bonus point win against Aironi at Ravenhill.

Here’s the two Stephen Ferris tries:


Connacht 13-15 Treviso

Friday 2nd November @ The Sportsground

Connacht’s run of defeats now stands at eight after Treviso left the Sportsground with four points on Friday night. With a Heineken Cup double-header against Gloucester up next for Eric Elwood’s side, the worry will be that the run of losses could extend into double figures. Connacht’s poor start to this match left them with a lot of ground to make up and they just didn’t have the quality to reel the Italian side in.

Treviso were first off the mark as Willem de Waal kicked an 11th minute penalty. Australian winger Brendan William then went over for a try, converted by de Waal. Treviso’s lead was extended even further as Tommaso Iannone won the chase to a loose ball to touch down. De Waal missed the conversion but the Italian side now had a 15-0 lead.

Connacht did respond after Italian international Fabio Semenzato was sent to the bin. Promising centre David McSharry barged his way through several defenders for his first try for the province. Niall O’Connor converted to bring Connacht back into the game. But the home team couldn’t come up with the try they needed. O’Connor struck two more penalties but that wasn’t enough to secure an elusive win for Connact.

Elwood’s team sit 10th in the table after this loss, with only the Newport Gwent Dragons and Aironi behind them. They are going to need something special to end this run in the coming weeks. All they can do is continue to work hard and hope that some reward will come. Gloucester visit the Sportsground on Saturday and that’s where the focus is now.

Here’s the highlights from the Connacht game. Apologies for the Italian commentary!

Leinster 52-9 Cardiff Blues

Friday 2nd December @ The RDS

You can read all about Leinster’s magnificent performance in our match report here. Following this win, Leinster are the outright leaders of the PRO12, one point ahead of the Ospreys. Joe Schmidt’s men visit Bath on Sunday in confident mood. It is hard to see Bath ending Leinster’s nine-match unbeaten run.

Here’s the highlights of the Leinster match:

Ospreys 19-13 Munster

Saturday 3rd December @ Liberty Stadium

Munster lost out to a heavily-depleted but plucky Ospreys side on Saturday evening. Read our full-length match report here. Munster missed the chance to overtake the Ospreys with this loss. Tony McGahan’s side remain in third position in the PRO12 table. They will need to improve for the Heineken Cup clash with the Scarlets in Llanelli on Saturday. The Scarlets welcome back their international players and look to continue their impressive HC form. It’s a massive match and the loss of Doug Howlett is a big blow for Munster.

Welford Road Woes For Ulster

Match Report 

Leicester 20-9 Ulster

19th November @ Welford Road

Ben Youngs had an impact off the bench for the Tigers. Photo via MD+D

Ulster came away from Welford Road with nothing to show for their efforts after a bruising encounter with Leicester. A strong final quarter from Richard Cockerill’s outfit saw them take the spoils here, denying Ulster a precious bonus point in the process. In a match dominated by defence, Leicester scored the only try and that proved crucial. Despite a brave effort, Ulster failed to break down a physical Leicester side.

In a first half that lacked any clear-cut try-scoring opportunities, it was the two outhalves who featured prominently. Ulster were first on the scoreboard as Ian Humphreys smashed over a penalty from 52 metres out after only two minutes. English international Toby Flood replied for Leicester with a penalty from a similar distance.

Ulster’s early game plan involved sending the likes of Stephen Ferris, Rory Best and Pedrie Wannenburg hammering at the Leicester defence but penalty opportunities were all they could muster. Humphreys restored the Ulster lead with another three points off the tee in the 11th minute when Leicester were pinged for playing the ball on the ground after a surge from Ferris. Flood missed his next effort at goal but made up for it soon after, leveling matters after Leicester constructed a decent passage of pressure in the Ulster 22.

However, Ulster hit back almost immediately when Leicester prop Marcos Ayerza  went off his feet at ruck time. Humpreys was successful again. Leicester had no intention of letting Ulster settle or build on a lead though and Flood knocked over another penalty after the Tigers got on top of the Ulster scrum after 22 minutes. That was to be the last score before halftime. The majority of the half was played in the middle third of the pitch, with both teams’ defences proving hard to penetrate.

The half finished with excitement for Leicester fans as Matt Smith and captain Geordan Murphy combined to put Alesana Tuilagi into space down the left hand touchline. Tuilagi broke Trimble’s tackle but Humphreys and scrumhalf Paul Marshall combined to drag the Samoan winger into touch.

Leicester took the lead for the first time shortly after the interval when Ulster were again penalised by referee Romain Poite at the scrum. Flood stroked over the penalty for a 12-9 lead. Humphreys had a chance to tie the match once again soon after but he was wide with his effort. Ulster enjoyed a period of sustained possession for much of the next ten minutes with Ferris, Trimble and Gilroy all making efforts to break down the gritty Tigers’ defence. Darren Cave threatened with ball in hand too but Cockerill’s men were disciplined and aggressive, repelling every wave of attack.

With the introduction of Ben Youngs and Martin Castrogiavanni with a quarter of the match left, the tide began to turn in the Tigers’ favour. After Rory Best had won a fantastic relieving penalty in Ulster’s own 22, Humphreys crucially missed his touch. Leicester countered back downfield, and after a typically strong Tuilagi burst up the middle, Flood had time to side foot a grubber through for Matt Smith to run on to. The centre beat the covering Paul Marshall to touch down. Flood was unsuccessful with his conversion attempt.

Ulster came back at the Tigers, bravely searching for a foothold in their 22 and gaps in their defence. But once again, it was in vain as Leicester just kept on tackling. A lineout steal with five minutes to go offered a brief glimmer of hope, but Ayerza burst away from the maul and hacked the ball downfield. Marshall raced back, just beating Youngs to the ball to prevent a clinching score.

That clinching score did come for the Tigers right on the stroke of full time with Flood knocking over another penalty from distance as the Leicester pack emphasised their scrum dominance. For Ulster, failing to secure a losing bonus point may prove critical but there is a long way to go yet in this pool. They face a double header with Aironi in December and will need two wins and most likely at least one try-scoring bonus point from those two fixtures.

 

Photo courtesy: MD+D

Heineken Cup Round 2 Previews

Photo via MD+D

Castres vs. Munster @ Stade Ernst Wallon

Saturday 19th November (15.40)

Tony McGahan’s side travel to France buoyed by their thrilling injury-time win over Northampton. This fixture has been moved away from Castres’ own 10,000 capacity Stade Pierre Antoine to Toulouse’s Stade Ernst Wallon which holds almost 19,000. Castres come into this game in need of a win after their opening round 31-23 loss to the Scarlets, where a Rhys Priestland penalty late on denied them a losing bonus point.

For Castres, the most influential players include captain Chris Masoe. The former All Black notched a try last weekend and his team will look to him for inspiration. Winger Marc Andreu, who also went over for a try against the Scarlets, has been capped for France. Samoan Iosefa Tekori moves to the second row for this encounter and he can be dangerous from open play. Fullback Romain  ‘Robocop’ Teulet, who is lethal from the tee, has been dropped to the bench. Max Evans makes his first European start for Castres on the right wing, while his fellow countryman Scott Murray starts in the second row.

Castres currently sit 3rd in the Top 14 and have had wins against Stade Francais, Biarritz, Montpellier and Toulouse already this season. Clearly, this is another tough fixture for Munster. However, home advantage for Castres has been diluted with the change of venue and apparent disgruntlement of their fans at this move. With an unchanged team from last week, Munster have momentum on their side, and will target another good start. This will not be an easy day out for Munster but they should return home with another four points in the bag.

Connacht vs. Toulouse @ The Sports Ground

Saturday 19th November (18.00)

Another historic day for Connacht after last weekend’s maiden Heineken Cup match away to Harlequins. This game marks the province’s 100th game of European rugby. The Sports Ground has been sold-out so expect an extremely vocal 9,000-strong crowd. Connacht fans have been waiting for fixtures of this calibre for many years so Eric Elwood can certainly rely on a 16th man come Saturday evening.

There couldn’t be a more illustrious visitor than four-time champions Toulouse for Connacht’s first home Heineken Cup clash. They are synonymous with this tournament and represent a huge challenge. Toulouse had a difficult first fixture last weekend, having to come from behind twice to beat Gloucester 21-17 at home. They have enjoyed a great start to the Top 14 season and sit top of the table with eight wins from ten games.

With big names like Clement Poitrenaud, Florian Fritz, Census Johnston and recent Australian recruit Luke Burgess, this is another in the long line of Toulouse teams with quality all over the pitch and throughout the squad. Thierry Dusautoir, Maxime Medard, Vincent Clerc and William Servat all start this weekend for the first time since returning from the World Cup. Lionel Beauxis replaces Luke McAlister at out half. Meanwhile, the Connacht team sees one change, with David Gannon coming into the second row. Mike McCarthy moves to the back row and Ray Ofisa drops to the bench.

Connacht were disappointed to lose out to Harlequins and will once again aim to prove that they are in this tournament on merit. They showed up well against Harlequins, dogged in defence and with cutting edge in attack, scoring two tries. If they can stay close to Toulouse coming into the closing stages of the game then anything is possible. It would be a huge upset, but this is a Connacht side who fear no one. This should be a cracking game.

Leicester vs. Ulster @ Welford Road

Saturday 19th November (18.00)

Ulster opened up their Heineken Cup campaign with a 16-11 win over Clermont at Ravenhill last Saturday. Ulster were the stronger team throughout but an abundance of unforced errors meant they didn’t convert possession into scores, particularly in the first half. Brian McLaughlin was understandably pleased with his team but will stress to them that these mistakes must be reduced. Still, the defensive effort and overall performance from Ulster was encouraging and they go to Welford Road with belief.

Leicester enjoyed a 28-12 win away to Aironi last Friday but missed out on a bonus point. Toby Flood controls their game from outhalf while the occassionally unstoppable Alesana Tuilagi is a real handful on the wing. Geordan Murphy captains the side from fullback. The likes of Dan Cole, Tom Croft and Thomas Waldrom provide the grunt up front. Ex-Leinster winger Niall Morris scored a try on his Heineken Cup debut last weekend but is on the bench this week.

Tuilagi will pose a threat. Photo via MD+D

Leicester have endured a fairly torrid start to their Aviva Premiership campaign, winning only twice in eight games. As expected, they have shown better form recently with the return of their World Cup players. They will expect to continue this resurgence with a win over Ulster in front of their fans. They will not have it easy against an Ulster side led by Johann Muller and the inspired Stephen Ferris. Ulster are without Paddy Wallace for the next 6-8 weeks after he underwent thumb surgery. Nevin Spence is promoted to the centre. Declan Fitzpatrick comes in at tighthead to replace John Afoa, who had returned to New Zealand to be Jerome Kaino’s best man. The rest of the starting line-up is unchanged.

This should be a hugely physical game at Welford Road. But with Toby Flood and Ian Humphreys lining up in the number 1o jerseys, there is always a chance of play opening up. Humphreys is up against his former club and will hope to direct play in familiar surroundings. Leicester are favourites for this tie and a losing bonus point would not be a disaster for Ulster at this stage. However, with Leicester still warming up in a season that is far from vintage up to this point, McLaughlin’s men will recognise this opportunity for a vital away win.

Leinster vs. Glasgow @ The RDS

Sunday 20th November (12.45)

Sexton saved Leinster against Montpellier. Photo via MD+D

Leinster were fortunate to come away from Montpellier with a 16-16 draw last weekend after a last-minute penalty allowed Jonny Sexton to equalize for his team. Joe Schmidt will look for his side to be more ruthless this weekend at home to the Glasgow Warriors. Leinster failed to come away with scores from several promising positions against Montpellier and must be more lethal this time around.

Glasgow come to the RDS following a fantastic last-gasp victory over Bath. After a Stephen Donald penalty had put Bath ahead with only minutes remaining, Richie Gray recovered Duncan Weir’s failed drop goal attempt to drive over for the winning score. Duncan Weir kicked four penalties and two conversion, while fullback Stuart Hogg went over for the only other try in the game. While not a hugely worrying performance from Leinster’s point of view, Glasgow did display grit and determination to come away with a win in a match where the lead constantly changed hands.

Highly-rated second row Gray and openside flanker John Barclay lead the Warriors up front along with captain Ally Kellock. Chris Cusiter lines out at scrumhalf while Graeme Morrison and Rob Dewey form a big, physical centre pairing. Tommy Seymour, signed from Ulster last summer and a former Ireland under-age international, lines out on the wing for the Scottish outfit. Joe Schmidt has made several changes to his starting fifteen. Eoin O’Malley comes into the side in place of Fergus McFadden who is suffering with a dead leg. Sean Cronin is rewarded for his try-scroing performance off the bench last week with a start in place of Richardt Strauss. Eoin Reddan replaces Isaac Boss at scrum half. Cian Healy returns to the squad but starts this game on the bench.

Leinster have already hosted Glasgow at the RDS this season. That RaboDirect PRO12 fixture back in September saw Glasgow come away with a 23-19 win. While that match was played without Leinster’s World Cup players, Glasgow too were missing their key men. They will take confidence from that win but Leinster’s returned World Cup players will add far more than the Warrior’s additions. This is a must-win game for Leinster so expect nothing other than a commanding win.

Photos courtesy: MD+D

Heineken Cup Round 1 Previews

Photo via bobaliciouslondon

Friday 11th November (20.00)

Harlequins vs. Connacht @ The Twickenham Stoop

Connacht are the first Irish province up in the opening weekend of Heineken Cup action. They travel to London to take on high-flying Harlequins on Friday night. ‘Quins have made a flawless start to their Aviva Premiership campaign with eight wins from eight so far. Boosted by last season’s win over Munster in the Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final in Thomond Park, Conor O’Shea’s side have begun this season bristling with confidence and represent a serious test for Connacht on their Heineken Cup debut.

With All-Black Nick Evans directing play at outhalf, Nick Easter leading by example from no. 8 and Mike Brown threatening from full back, Harlequins are not short on experience. Jordan Turner-Hall in the centre is dynamic and will be aiming for a senior English international cap this season. Conor O’Shea will hope to keep his side’s feet on the ground and avoid complacency against Connacht.

Photo via boocal

After a solid start to their RaboDirect PRO12 campaign, with three wins from four, Connacht come into this match off the back of a four game losing-streak. The loss of last season’s key players like Sean Cronin, Ian Keatley and Fionn Carr is an obvious blow to Eric Elwood’s side. He will hope that the likes of Eoin Griffin, Paul O’Donohoe and Tiernan O’Halloran can provide supporters with new heroes.

This away fixture is a tough assignment for the Western province but they will be highly motivated. Many of the squad’s longer-serving members will have dreamed of this chance to prove themselves at the top level of European club rugby. Expect a ferocious start from Connacht. That said, Harlequins fantastic form so far this season sees them as clear favourites for this tie.

Saturday 12th November (13.30)

Montpellier vs. Leinster @ Stade de la Mosson

Leinster begin their title defence on Saturday with a trip to the south of France to take on Montpellier. Leinster will take confidence from their 24-19 win over Munster last weekend at the Aviva, even if they may not have been entirely happy with the performance. They sit joint top of the RaboDirect PRO12 with the Ospreys on 26 points after 8 games. The boost of the returned World Cup players has been tempered by the news that Brian O’Driscoll will most likely miss the remainder of this season.

Still, this Leinster side has quality all over the pitch and also within the squad. The likes of Fergus McFadden and Eoin O’Malley will look to shine in O’Driscoll’s absence and Jonny Sexton will be eager to show Declan Kidney that he is Ireland’s premier flyhalf. Jamie Heaslip’s place at no. 8 is under increasing pressure so expect a big performance form him. Joe Schmidt has the luxury of quality squad players to provide competition in almost every position. On paper, Leinster clearly have enough quality to beat any team, but the post-World Cup form of the international players will be an issue.

Photo via MD+D

Montpellier have endured a dreadful start to the Top 14 in France, winning only two of their nine fixtures so far. Nonetheless, Leinster will have to be wary of a backlash from Fabien Galthie’s team who narrowly lost out to Toulouse in last season’s Top 14 final. France international Francois Trinh-Duc will hope to pick up where he left off in the World Cup final, impressing after coming off the bench against New Zealand. Leinster will also have to halt the rampaging Mamuka Gorgodze in his tracks. L’Equipe named the imposing Georgian the Top 14’s Foreign Player of the Year last season

This is certainly a winnable match for Leinster and provides them with an early opportunity to get an away win. Montpellier certainly won’t roll over in this one, but Leinster should have enough strength to return home with four points.

Saturday 12th November (15.40)

Ulster vs. Clermont @ Ravenhill

Ulster kick off their European campaign at home to Clermont. Brian McLaughlin will hope his side can build on last season’s run to the quarter finals of this competition. They have been handed a tough task in Pool 4, facing Clermont, Leicester and Aironi. Ulster’s form in the PRO12 has been inconsistent, opening with three wins before a run of four successive losses was ended with the 22-3 won over Connacht last Saturday.

Clermont have a hugely impressive squad on paper, including French World Cup players such as captain Aurelien Rougerie, Julien Bonnaire and Morgan Parra. They also boast a whole other range of internationals like Julien Malzieu, Gonzalo Canale and Elvis Vermuelen. New signings Lee Byrne, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Nathan Hines and David Skrela add an extra dimension and depth to their squad.

Last season, Clermont’s losses when travelling to Racing Metro and Leinster were what cost them a place in the quarter finals. Their 20-13 win at home to Leinster in a high quality match showed the pedigree of Vern Cotter’s side. Clermont come into this fixture sitting in second place in the Top 14, a point behind Toulouse.

Ulster will need to start this game well in order to counter the confidence Clermont will bring to Ravenhill after such an impressive start to the season. McLaughlin will look to his international stars like Ruan Pienaar and new signing John Afoa, as well as Irish stars Stephen Ferris and Andrew Trimble, to lead from the front. Home advantage should just about see Ulster squeeze through in this one.

Saturday 12th November (18.00)

Munster vs. Northampton @ Thomond Park

Finally, Munster host Northampton in Thomond Park on Saturday evening. Tony McGahan’s men will be keen to bounce back from last weekend’s disappointing loss to Leinster. Meanwhile, Northampton are on a five-match winning streak in all competitions, racking up 20 tries in the process. The Saints have welcomed Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes back into the fold, and all four will be delighted to be back playing for their club side after a difficult World Cup with England. Coach Jim Mallinder will have been encouraged by Munster’s loss to Leinster, as well as last month’s defeat in Thomond Park to the Ospreys.

Despite the form and confidence Northampton bring, no one can write off this Munster team. With experience and ability throughout the squad, Munster will fancy themselves to halt the Saints’ recent run. Paul O’Connell has been reinvented and will ensure his team are motivated for another tilt at the Heineken Cup. The injured David Wallace, Keith Earls, Felix Jones, Jerry Flannery and Mike Sherry will all be missed but Munster still have enough in their squad to see off this challenge.

One of the most encouraging aspects of last weekend’s defeat to Leinster was the performance of the scrum. BJ Botha and Wian du Preez will relish the front row battle against Tongauiha, Hartley and Mujati. If they can get on top as they did late in the game against Leinster then this will provide the platform for a Munster win. Lifemi Mafi looks close to his explosive best and O’Gara should look to use him early on to get his side on the front foot. O’Gara will expect to show his mercurial opposite number, Ryan Lamb, how to control a game.

Both teams will approach this game with confidence, and that should make for an absorbing battle. Northampton, last season’s beaten finalists, will surely be aware of what a Munster team who have been questioned by critics and supporters alike are capable of. Expect a close-fought game here. Munster to edge it.

Photos courtesy:  boocal, bobaliciouslondon, MD+D

Life After BOD

Who will replace BOD?

Photo via MD+D

News that Brian O’Driscoll is to undergo surgery on a long-standing shoulder injury, and thus most likely miss the entire 2012 Six Nations as well as Leinster’s Heineken Cup defence is a cruel blow to all Irish rugby fans. Both Ireland and Leinster will greatly miss the legendary centre. However, the rest of this season will offer rugby fans in this country a glimpse of life after BOD. The question of who will replace O’Driscoll when the Six Nations kicks off in February is an intriguing one. Here, we look at some of the options Declan Kidney has in filling the 13 jersey.

The loyal Kidney will almost certainly look within his current squad for options. Keith Earls is the most obvious in this regard.  He will miss the next six weeks due to the knee injury suffered against Leinster. He will hope to be back in Heineken Cup action as soon as possible. If Earls can get some game time at 13 for Munster this season, it will obviously increase his chances of replacing O’Driscoll in the centre. Many supporters have always seen Earls as the long-term heir to O’Driscoll.

However, most of his provincial and international rugby has been played on the wing and at full-back. Earls will need more exposure to the outside centre role with Munster to convince Kidney. With Earls’ pace, evasiveness and finishing ability, he is an attacking threat no matter where he togs out. It will be hard for any player to match O’Driscoll in terms of his defence, and this is where Earls will have to prove himself. The 13 channel can be particularly difficult to defend, something which hasn’t been too obvious with O’Driscoll’s supremacy there.

Earls’ fellow World Cup winger, Tommy Bowe, has played at 13 for the Ospreys, and once for the Lions in 2009. While these appearances in the centre have been limited, Bowe has shown that he is more than capable of holding his own there. Kidney will certainly consider unleashing Bowe’s powerful running game from further infield.

Bowe is an option for Kidney

Photo via MD+D

Similarly to Earls, Bowe has not been consistently tested in the position at the top-level, making only fleeting appearances there. If Bowe were to get an extended run in the centre for the Ospreys then it would offer Kidney a taste of his ability there. However, Bowe’s natural position is on the wing and he remains a lethal threat from there. The Ospreys will not be inclined to move Bowe into the centre merely to serve the Irish management’s interests.

Andrew Trimble is another member of Kidney’s squad who may be considered in the centre positions. Trimble has played most of his rugby for Ireland on the wing. Once again, Trimble may have limited chances playing in the centre for his province, and so, little chance to convince Declan Kidney that he is a viable option here. Earls or Bowe would be the more obvious candidates to move inside, with Trimble replacing either of them on the wing.

Kidney must also look at players with less international experience. One of these players is Fergus McFadden, who will see himself as favourite to become Leinster’s outside centre with O’Driscoll out injured. This opportunity of an extended run in Leinster’s first 15 is one that McFadden’s potential has been crying out for. The Kilkenny-born centre is now 25 and will relish this chance.

McFadden has had even more limited exposure at international level but has acquitted himself well at every chance. He was voted MVP (Most Valuable Player) of the 2009 Churchill Cup after some highly impressive performances during Ireland ‘A’s victory at that tournament. McFadden now has six full Irish caps after appearing, and scoring a try, against Russia at the Rugby World Cup. A try-scoring appearance on the wing against France in the 2011 Six Nations also marked McFadden’s ability to step up to international level.

The 92kg centre will be eager to impress for Leinster in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup, starting with next Saturday’s trip to Montpellier. McFadden offers defensive solidity, a surprising turn of pace and is a viable goal kicking option behind Jonny Sexton or Ronan O’Gara. As things stand, he is surely the favourite to take O’Driscoll’s place on February 5th against Wales at the Aviva.

Ulster’s Darren Cave is another candidate and a player who has shown rich promise in the past. Cave was a member of the Irish U-20 Grand Slam winning team of 2007. He was voted Ulster’s Young Player of the Year in 2009.  Cave suffered an injury-disrupted 2010/2011 season so he will be raring to go for Ulster’s Heineken Cup campaign. If the outside centre can return to form in the coming months then he will hope to add to his single Irish cap.

The fact that Cave had such an injury-ravaged year last season allowed young Nevin Spence to showcase his talents in the 13 jersey for Ulster. The 21-year-old had a fantastic season culminating in being voted the IRUPA Young Player of the Year. His good form led to two caps for the Irish Wolfhounds where he showed his ability with a devastating break to set up a Denis Hurley try in the 20-11 win over the English Saxons.

Other young centres such as Munster’s Danny Barnes, Ulster’s Luke Marshall and Leinster’s Eoin O’Malley most likely fall into this category too. The youngsters, 22, 20 and 23 respectively, have all shown up well for their provinces when given the opportunity. However, like Spence, they all face a battle for a starting place in their provinces’ first-choice 15.

Barnes and O’Malley are better placed than Marshall, who is currently out injured. Barnes will hope to stave off the competition of Munster’s new signing, Will Chambers, for the 13 shirt. The New-Zealand born Kerryman will look to build on a confident, try-scoring start to his Munster career.

Meanwhile, O’Malley will probably be in competition with McFadden for Leinster’s outside centre berth, but he has shown exciting talent when given the opportunity. An elusive player with ball in hand as well as an intelligent defender, he is a dark horse right now but as we have seen with the likes of Conor Murray things can change quickly in professional rugby.

For the time being, all of these players will be engrossed on their provinces’ RaboDirect PRO12 and Heineken Cup campaigns. However, with the news on O’Driscoll, these players will surely keep the vacant Irish 13 jersey at the back of their minds. With Gordon D’Arcy’s form in the past year or so appearing to wane, perhaps Declan Kidney will even consider a completely new centre pairing. Clearly, the motivation is there for these young Irish centres to fulfill their potential and attempt to step their careers up to the next level.

 

Photos courtesy: MD+D