After a bumper weekend of inter-provincial rugby, Ozer McMahon delivers from talking points from two titanic tussles.
Christmas is a time of the year that throws up an abundance of gifts and surprises, both wanted and unwanted. It’s also a period that consists of a succession of quick fire Inter-provincial clashes that give supporters the chance to measure the strength of their sides against their local rivals. With Heineken Cup fixtures around the corner, these clashes allow coaches the chance the thrust their players into high intensity, highly pressurised situations to prepare them for a vital part of the season. From a player’s perspective it presents them with the chance to tear into each other and try to gain an advantage over a positional rival for an international shirt. With Joe Schmidt set to name his Six Nations squad in mid-January these meetings enable the Irish boss to see players battle it out in direct opposition of each other.
In keeping with the time of the year the games were far from free flowing and high scoring battles. Leinster dogged it out, picking up two hard fought victories to boost morale after the disappointing home defeat to Northampton in the Heineken Cup before Christmas. The two victories were welcome, the dislocated shoulder injury picked up by Sean O’Brien was not. Having come through successfully against Connacht in the first game, Munster lost narrowly to Ulster but more worryingly lost Donnacha O’Callaghan, Damien Varley and Cathal Sheridan to what is already a lengthy injury list. That victory over Munster was very important for Ulster. They delivered an important response following their no-show in defeat to Leinster a week previous. As for Connacht, a case of same old same old. They fought gamely but ultimately were outgunned by opponents with more resources on both occasions.
All in all it was an interesting time for players, coaches and fans alike, here are the five key revelations from those games;
1. Replacing Sean O’Brien is worrying for coaches
If you were to ask Matt O’Connor and Joe Schmidt which player they would least like to see missing for a long period of time the Tullow Tank would presumably top the list. O’Brien’s work at the breakdown is much improved over the past 18 months and his ball carrying is unrivalled on these isles. Replacing him will be the job of two men as no one else in his position commands the same range of attributes. Chris Henry will be in pole position to replace O’Brien for Ireland in the opening stages of the 6 Nations at least, with Tommy O’Donnell a possible option off the bench given his strong ball carrying abilities. With crunch Heineken Cup fixtures on the horizon, Leinster can call on the experience of Shane Jennings from the start with the likes of Dominic Ryan or Jordi Murphy offering impact and dynamism off the bench.
2. The Arrival of Jordi Murphy
The 22-year-old has been long touted as a future star in Blue and Green but after consecutive man of the match performance the backrow players time might be coming sooner rather than later. Standing at 6’2 and over 16 ½ stone he represents formidable opposition. Having played in his more natural No.8 against Ulster he was shunted to No.7 to fill the role vacated by Sean O’Brien against Connacht. He did a reasonable impression of O’Brien and has the talent to push himself into the reckoning in what is a squad well stocked with fine backrow players. Should Jamie Heaslip decide to decamp to France, Leinster can be assured they have a player already in their ranks ready to step into the void.
3. Munster’s Misfiring Game-plan
Hardly an earth shattering revelation but Friday nights defeat in Ravenhill further highlighted the confusion within the Munster think-tank as to what is the best approach. Munster have been toiling laterally with their back play all season but in the absence of Keith Earls, Simon Zebo and Conor Murray they were missing a player that could conjure something from nothing. When they reverted to a forward orientated game in the second half they had Ulster reeling and mauled over for two tries that dragged them back into the game. It has been spoken about at length at this stage but Rob Penney’s instance to implement a game clearly not suited to his squad is starting to have a detrimental effect on his ambitions of receiving a contract extension.
4. Get Jared Payne’s Irish Passport Pronto
The Kiwi back was playing on a level of his own at Ravenhill against Munster. He has a relaxed and easy approach on the field but ghosts through gaps that many cannot see, let alone avail of. The way he carries in two hands keeps defenders constantly guessing as to his next move which creates space for him and his teammates. At 28 Payne may not be the long term solution to getting the Irish backline moving but he should certainly be brought in for the medium term. He plays regularly at full back for Ulster but his creativity and inventiveness, he constantly looks for space rather than the tackler when in possession, could see him as an ideal replacement for Brian O’Driscoll in the number 13 jersey.
5. Connacht Production Line is Moving Steadily
Without the riches and resources of the other provinces Connacht have to spend their money wisely, while augmenting the rest of their squad with young local products and cast offs from other provinces. Eoin Griffin, Kieran Marmion, Tiernan O’Halloran and Robbie Henshaw are amongst some of the high quality prospects to force through to the first team scene over the past few seasons. Jack Carty and Darragh Leader are the latest two backs to show promise and both showed up well in such vaunted company at the Sportsground on Saturday. If Connacht can continue to cultivate talents of this pedigree the game in the West will remain in rude health for the foreseeable future.
Pundit Arena, Ozer McMahon.