provinces-flegSo we’re in a new year (by the way, happy new one etc), but more interestingly, we have passed the mid-way point in the domestic rugby season. How stand things, then, in Irish rugby?

Ulster on the Up

After Ulster’s December horribilis (yes December in Latin is the same word, or so says the internet!) things look fairly rosy for team Ulster.

Still 9 points ahead of nearest challenger Scarlets, almost certain to leave the HEC pool, with a home quarter-final a live possibility – and all of this in spite of greater levels of disruption from international call-ups, and something of an injury crisis, which at times presumably had the coaches carrying a 6 foot 4 inch piece of wood around with them, and offering anyone who could see over the top a starting second row berth for the next Ulster game.

The one fly in the ointment is the home loss to Saints. It was a sickening kick in the teeth, and is the only match which really casts a shadow over the first half of the season. It can hopefully be written off as an aberration – with Ulster’s error count way in excess of any other performance this season – rather than the match in which the wheels started to come off. The fact that Ulster followed this defeat up with a comprehensive home victory over a pretty strong Leinster side hopefully supports this interpretation.

From here on out, Ulster should really be home and hosed in the league – of the 10 remaining fixtures, 6 are at home, and it would take Ulster to stumble very badly indeed to cede a 9 point lead.

In the HEC, while no doubt some surprises remain in store, the most likely results from the next round are home wins for Ulster and Saints, essentially eliminating any prospect of progress for Castres – in turn hopefully rendering Ulster’s trip there in the final round an easier prospect. With Clermont, Toulon and Quins looking set to breach the 22 point mark after the next round, while Ulster are unlikely to be overhauled by Saints to win the pool, they will likely need something from the Castres trip to nail the all-important home quarter.

Munster ‘in Transition™’

Coming off a shocking pre-season, Munster actually had a good start to their competitive season with a good away win in Edinburgh, followed up with a couple of sound home wins and a great performance in Belfast where they ran Ulster very close.

As the season has unfolded however, some of the underlying fault lines have become more exposed: the waning powers of the elder statesmen of the squad, most notably O’Gara; the limitations of some of the vaunted replacement generation, including Murray, Sherry, O’Mahony, Jones; in spite of a large squad in purely numerical terms, a lack of depth of quality in many areas, but most notably in the front row, where an injury to Botha could have season-torpedoing implications; and seemingly unresolved tensions around gameplan, with it remaining difficult to pin down precisely what the Rob Penney blueprint is for this squad.

All isn’t bleak, with a strong breakthrough year for Kilcoyne at loosehead and good seasons for Zebo, Dave O’Callaghan and the much-improved O’Donnell, with promising glimpses of O’Dea and CJ Stander before his injury. And while their European campaign hasn’t been as satisfactory as many of yesteryear, they still have a likely path through to the quarters (maybe even to Belfast??)

In truth I think that the ‘transition’ narrative is over-egged in Munster’s case – transition is the norm for all pro sports teams. I think that many fans and pundits have seized onto the idea of Munster being in some kind of fairly benign transitional phase is firstly because treating it as if it is something that ‘just happens’ to all teams means that they don’t have to come clean as to where it came from, and why it is so jarring for Munster – i.e. from the complacency and short-sightedness of the management and coaches since Kidney’s time in charge, when the academy withered, and succession planning and squad development were ignored. And secondly, thinking about the present as a transition – presumably back to the heights scaled in past years – is a more comforting thought than thinking of the present as Munster’s likely base case scenario for the foreseeable future, which to my mind is more likely.

Leinster – Still Top Dog?

By Leinster’s recent standards, this season has been fairly mediocre – by the standards of most of their RPD12 peers, it has still been pretty good. Still very much in the hunt for second place in the league, the real disappointment has been in the back to back losses to Clermont in the HEC which have all but put qualification out of their grasp.

While there is no doubt that some of the gloss has come off – in the recent pre-Christmas match at Ravenhill, Ulster showed little sign of the fear factor that has plagued this fixture for them in recent years, delivering a physically dominant and comprehensive victory – I think that there is a risk of overstating Leinster’s decline. Firstly they have been unlucky with injuries, with Fitzgerald, the Kearneys, O’Malley, O’Driscoll, O’Brien and Strauss among others missing big chunks (or all) of the season to date. Secondly, while it feels like a big comedown from back-to-back HEC wins to a likely first-round exit, my view of Leinster-Clermont match-ups is that if they were played 10 times, each side would win 5 each – Leinster were just unlucky that they hit a sequence of 2 Clermont wins.

That said, some question marks remain – while under successive coaches they have made more inroads into planning for the eventual replacement of some of the ageing generation of players, the more recent generation of academy graduates have made less eye-catching progress than the likes of Rob Kearney, Fitzgerald, Healy and O’Brien a couple of years ago. The coming 12 months will be an important time for pretenders to stick their hands up – something which the lads at Whiff of Cordite cover in a recent blog. Some areas of the squad look somewhat light, most noticeably the second row which has been problematic for Leinster for some time, and while the arrival of McCarthy will certainly help, this remains an area for reinforcement.

Connacht Tread Water

Connacht have had a reasonable season, but it could have been much better. The much-improved squad assembled over the last few years by Elwood & Co showed what they are capable of with big home performances against Leinster in the League and Biarritz in the HEC, but too often this season they have been frustratingly pone to slip to narrow home defeats, with Cardiff, Edinburgh and most recently Munster picking them off by less than a score. Accordingly they seem likely to finish in the bottom 3 in the league once more, with progress in the HEC a practical, if not mathematical, impossibility.

Losing the influential Mike McCarthy to Leinster must feel like a kick in the teeth, but until such time as Connacht are realistic challengers at the European top table, this will be the pattern for them, and they may as well get used to it, rather than back-biting in public. Getting the right replacement for Elwood is important – his decision to leave was surprising, but understandable when you see the extent to which his passion for the place is so consuming. Arguably a more dispassionate coach from outside will be better suited to take on the job, which is tough but not irredeemably so – Connacht have developed some cracking youngsters recently, Buckley, McKeon, Marmion, McSharry, Griffin, O’Halloran, Henshaw, the spine of a team right there, mostly Connacht natives. For the right man, there’s a lot of upside to be had there…

Who’s the Daddy?

Whence, then, provincial bragging rights? There is no doubt that in terms of performances and results, Ulster have been the leading light in Irish provincial rugby so far this season. The S&C guys have delivered up a group of players stronger, faster and more athletic than any Ulster squad in living memory, and Anscombe and Doak have made great strides in developing a gameplan that marries physicality up front with depth and variety outside – on top of an uncompromising defence, courtesy of Bell. Young players and ‘squad’ players have stepped up, and been rewarded with responsibility and gametime. Experienced players and leaders within the squad have ratcheted up performance levels a notch. The results speak for themselves.

That said, since the introduction of the play-offs to the RPD12, it is theoretically possible to go through an entire season unbeaten but for 2 matches, and end with an empty trophy cabinet. Ulster’s excellent first half of the season will be scant consolation if, for example, we witness another slip-up in a home QF in the HEC – or if the home loss that we saw against Saints consigns us to an exit in a tough away QF. Likewise winning the league table by 9 points will feel hollow if we don’t get the job done in the play-offs.

I think all but the most deluded or cockeyed will accept that so far this season, Ulster have been a cut above the other provinces. Let’s wait however until we have silverware to point to and, importantly, until we follow up a good half-season with another one, and then consolidate by doing the same next season, before we definitively cast Ulster at the top in our notional provincial pecking order.