Welcome to my 80+ column, a weekly post featuring final thoughts from the week of rugby just gone.
WRAP OF A WRAP
After a hectic time putting together the Stormers wrap a week before, it was a much more comfortable process organising the Ulster one and myself and Conor were delighted to have Mark back with us after a spell on the sidelines. As ever the lads did a bang up job going through the relevant talking points.
If you missed it, check it out here or on most major platforms.
HARPIN ON…RYAN BAIRD (“THE NEXT LEVEL ATHLETE”)
When your team wins, fans arguing over which player was the best is a bit like parents arguing over their favourite kid, yet while Jack Conan has been getting back to his Lions best in recent weeks, I think the general concensus among Leinster fans is that it was actually Ryan Baird who should have taken the Star of the Match award at the weekend, so for this week’s Bonus Clip myself, Mark and Conor had a chat about his abilities and what he is capable of in the future.
If you’re playing the clip above maybe pop over and subscribe to the channel too? That’s where we post our Preview Show as well as other content throughout the week.
DISCIPLINE V LEINSTER TIK TOK
I think Mark hit the nail on the head here – Saturday’s match at the Aviva was closer than the scoreline suggests with discipline a clear deciding factor.
RED HAND POD APPEARANCE
We have had Peter Lockhart on our pod a few times this season and on Tuesday night I am happy to return the favour by appearing on The Red Hand to go back over the match at the Aviva on Saturday. I’ll post a link here once it’s out and also share on social media.
DEMOGRAPHICS “V” COACHING
From Saturday, March 18, 2023 7:30pm to Saturday, April 1, 2023 12:30pm, the Irish rugby community was celebrating a Grand Slam. And so we should, as it is by far and away the single biggest achievement for fans of the men’s game among the Six Nations.
But why did the partying come to an abrupt end in less than two weeks? Because between lunchtime and 7pm on Saturday, three of the four Irish provinces got knocked out of Europe, with Leinster the last one standing.
So I guess that means we need a change of narrative, right? Hell, yeah – because, well, you know, clicks n stuff. Besides, sure it wasn’t Ireland that won the Grand Slam anyway, it was actually Leinster. So there’s that.
At least the buzzwords surrounding these cries of injustice have shifted from the old reliables like “private schools” and “avocado toast” and such – now they have all been packaged into a handy little soundbite – it turns out Leinster are winning everything, even international tournaments now, because, well, you know, “demographics”.
So if this is the theme arising from the online discourse, you can be sure the mainstream media is going to weigh in and stir the pot even further. When the Indo put this narrative to Stu Lancaster, he responded by pointing to the standards of coaching at the province (I mean the bare faced cheek of him, being a coach and all) and naturally once that was released into the Birdhouse, now we had a straight shootout between two possible reasons why the province is doing so well and it HAD to be much more of one than the other.
I’m so tired of this. But I know it’s not going to go away, if for no other reason than it’s impossible to control the tides of world rugby in such a way that raises all four provincial boats equally. Can’t be done. Does Irish rugby benefit greatly from the private school sector when it comes to producing world class athletes? Yes. And are the majority of those schools in Leinster? Yes. But that that make their success on the world stage less of an achievement for the country somehow? I guess it does to many.
Rather than get dragged down too far into the mud on this issue, I’ll instead try to go the opposite direction and offer an overview.
My biggest bugbear in rugby union is the Northern Hemisphere senior rugby calendar. And that has been the case ever since 2008 when I first began Harpin’ On Rugby. It makes absolutely no sense at all, with the top tier 6N competition jammed into the middle of the season and players having to jump in and out of squads several different times from August to July.
Yet when I put a pin in my objections and accept that the status quo, I cannot deny that of all the six unions involved at the elite level in these parts, none have been able to manage their product within that framework better than the IRFU. Yes, I know that sounds like ass-kissing, but I do criticize them on these pages as well so take it whatever way you choose. The fact remains that on top of the Grand Slams there have been other Six Nations championships, Triple Crowns, Heineken Cups for three provinces and even Celtic League titles for all four in the professional era.
Of COURSE things can be done better. That said, to what extent do we want the IRFU to put their thumb on the scale when it comes to the provincial branches governing their own affairs? If Leinster keeps on winning, does that mean the union’s job now it to curtail that success to make sure the others catch up? Actually take some best coaches, players and/or academy prospects out and move them around, essentially providing punishment for winning too much?
I guess what I’m trying to say is…does every Leinster victory now somehow “prove” that the IRFU is doing things wrong?
Look – I don’t want a tribal war. That’s why I’m typing these thoughts here on my site rather than diving down social media rabbit holes. I’m a Leinster fan and I would still be one if they hadn’t won any trophies at all since I started doing this, in fact we had exactly zero stars over our crest when I wrote my first post.
But this need to put an asterisk beside every good thing my team does really, really is getting….ridiculous? No, it’s not that. ….becoming more and more of a pain in the hole with each day? Well, yeah, but that’s not what I’m looking for. …boring? Yeah. Let’s go with that.
I get it that all four provinces are proud, and I also get that one progressing at a faster pace is frustrating, but if we’re to have a discussion about closing those gaps, can we at least do it with all the relevant issues out on the table and not just a few convenient stereotypes.
UPDATE – While my views above focus on general attitudes towards Leinster, Rugby Kino offered a good take with a view to looking at constructive ways forward…
HCC FORMAT 2023/24
We’ve been getting very mixed signals about the makeup of the 2023/24 Heineken Champions Cup. I have said before on this column that the two-pools of 12 format, while far from ideal, didn’t bug me half as much as it seems to have done for the vast majority of fans, which means they really should do something about it.
Yet while it was announced a while ago that the system was to be changed, the announcement of the dates for next year’s competition showed that there were still only going to be four rounds in the pool stages. And with the amount of qualifiers still locked at 24 (including 8 from just 11 functioning Premiership clubs, but that’s for another day’s column) then we have to ask ourselves how are they going to change things exactly?
My guess is that they might make it look like they’re giving the masses what they want with 6 pools of 4 but maybe within each pool the top two seeds will play home and away against the bottom two and not against each other, thus producing a schedule similar to the current method, just with a more traditional looking set of pool tables?
I have a feeling that whatever they’re doing, it could possibly cause more problems than it solves.
Exeter beat Montpellier at the weekend even though the final score was 33-33 after extra time., because of a clause that states that teams level after the overtime could be separated by tries scored, and possible cards conceded too, if required. I have seen a lot of pushback against this method but personally I think it’s ok, ONCE EVERYBODY KNOWS going into the match. I wonder how many in Sandy Park knew the score?
This reminds me of an AIL final back in 2009 when it finished 19-19 between Shannon and Clontarf and they went to extra time only for news to be sent on to the pitch that actually if Shannon could see out the game with the scores level they’d win the trophy because they scored the game’s FIRST try.
Not sure if I’m a fan of that particular method but the point is that it was farcical that for a senior rugby match not everyone involved knew what was going on…and we multiply that farce by a lot when it comes to the highest level behind test rugby.
For me, every avenue possible should be taken to avoid competition progress based on a penalty shoot out. And we give bonus points in pool play for scoring tries, why can’t we reward a team in a knockout fixture for doing the same?
Somewhere in that group is Jordi Murphy who was winning the Leinster Schools Cup with Blackrock at the RDS just four days before Ireland won the 2009 Grand Slam in Cardiff.
He went on to earn further success for both Leinster and Ireland at senior level until moving to Ulster in 2018 and it’s sad to hear of his impeding retirement once the season is over. Obviously I’m hoping he doesn’t add to his trophy success, but definitely not in a bad way – I’m sure all fans of Irish rugby wish him nothing but the very best for his future.
The Sexton news has pretty much been accepted at this stage, so it has to be said the injury report from Saturday at the Aviva could have been a lot worse. Obviously a rolled ankle never sounds good especially when it’s your World Player Of The Year but I have a feeling we’ll see Josh in blue again for Leinster this season, and with Scott Penny more than ready to step up I’d say give him a start against the Tigers this weekend. But then again I got nowhere near predicting the use of Jimmy O’Brien at 13 against Ulster so they suggested 23 below is far from written in stone!
POSSIBLE 23 V LEICESTER
Keenan, J O’Brien, Ringrose, Henshaw, Lowe, R Byrne, Gibson-Park
Porter, Sheehan, Furlong, Ryan, Jenkins, Baird, Penny, Doris/Conan
McKee, Healy, Ala’alatoa, Molony, Conan/Doris, McGrath, H Byrne, Larmour/Frawley
(note – the above team is purely from my imagination, it’s certainly not one of those quasi-leaked Thornley teams which are always 22 out of 23 correct)
INJURY UPDATE – AVAILABLE FOR SELECTION:
Hugo Keenan: came through the game at the weekend with no issues after his return from the Graduated Return to Play Protocols
Garry Ringrose: has come through the Graduated Return to Play Protocols, trained fully at the end of last week and will be available for selection this week
INJURY UPDATE – FURTHER ASSESSMENT REQUIRED:
Caelan Doris: has come through the Graduated Return to Play Protocols however missed the game last week with illness and will be further assessed this week
Josh van der Flier: rolled his ankle in the second half of the game against Ulster Rugby and will be further assessed this week before a final decision is made on availability
INJURY UPDATE – UNAVAILABLE FOR SELECTION:
No further injuries to report from the game at the weekend.
There are no further updates on:
Johnny Sexton (groin), Jamie Osborne (knee), Rónan Kelleher (shoulder), Joe McCarthy (ankle), Cormac Foley (hamstring), Martin Moloney (knee) and Charlie Ngatai (hamstring)
The top four in Div 1A was already pretty much set although Cork Con’s win over Terenure gave them a shot at beating them to a home semifinal although they’ll have to win at Young Munster on the final day to make that possible. The biggest result in Round 16 came at the Belfield Bowl where UCD not only fought back from 0-19 to take their Colours battle with Trinity, but it also helped their survival push at the bottom of the table, although with Shannon also winning it means the race to avoid a playoff for seems to involve the Limerick side and the two Dublin universities and going on form it looks like Trinity have the easiest task of the three.
Meanwhile in Div 1B, congrats to City of Armagh as they clinched the title with a narrow win over UCC which will now mean two Ulster sides in the top tier next season. It’s anyone’s guess who will take the playoff spot with Old Belvedere currently in 2nd although they must win at Templeville Road against Mary’s to be sure of it otherwise either Highfield or Buccaneers could overtake them.
Seems a bit strange having a week’s gap between the final two rounds but I guess that only heightens the tension for all still in contention across the five divisions.
Lansdowne 28-31 Clontarf
UCD 22-19 Dublin University
Cork Con 27-23 Terenure
Shannon 26-10 Ballynahinch
Garryowen 28-22 Young Munster
ROUND 18 (ALL SAT APR 15)
Ballynahinch v Lansdowne
Clonfarf v UCD
Dublin University v Garryowen
Terenure v Shannon
Young Munster v Cork Con
Old Belvedere 27-27 Banbridge
City of Armagh 24-20 UCC
Highfield 21-7 Naas
Malone 29-13 St Mary’s
Old Wesley 40-10 Buccaneers
ROUND 18 (ALL SAT APR 15)
Banbridge v Highfield
Buccaneers v City of Armagh
Naas v Old Wesley
St Mary’s v Old Belvedere
UCC v Malone
Not the best weekend for the Irish 7s programme down in Hong Kong – the men had a stinker of a pool and really needed to overcome the Blitzboks in their opener to have a hope of making the quarterfinals and couldn’t manage it. However, once out of the top 8 the best you can do it finish 9th and they did manage that with 3 knockout wins including the final against Samoa so the damage was limited.
Meanwhile the women, who had to play while knowing their XVs team was struggling back in Cork, did reach the quarterfinals only came up against Australia for a second time then further defeats to France & USA meant they had to make do with 8th place overall.
As you can see by the overall standings, both teams are anxiously looking over their shoulders hoping to avoid slipping further down the table although only the men are playing this weekend in Singapore and will be targeting wins against GB & Japan hoping to get back into the proper knockouts once more.
Saturday, April 8
2:30AM – IRELAND MEN V ARGENTINA
6:18AM – IRELAND MEN V GREAT BRITAIN
9:22AM – IRELAND MEN V JAPAN
Sunday, April 9
3:50AM – PLAYOFFS BEGIN
If you’re a new reader of the column, I’m keeping tabs on USA’s pro rugby competition this season to see how the sport is progressing over there, and I’ll be studying one match each week throughout the season. After giving the conferences two weeks each so far, I decided on a cross conference battle this time as NOLA Gold were hosting the undefeated Seattle Seawolves, and what a match it was.
The match was played at the “Goldmine” and it was billed as the immovable object of the Gold defence coming up against the irresistible force of the Seattle backline. And sure enough, you couldn’t get a better start than the Seawolves’ kickoff sailing straight over the jumper’s head into the arms of their winger who sprinted to the line “Mack Hansen In Paris”-style to pen the scoring.
But the home side was yet to show off their defensive system and for the remainder of the first half they proceeded to strangle their opposition enough to give themselves opportunities at the other end, which they took to go in 21-10 at the break, and when a penalty try and yellow card stretched that lead to 18 after 43m, it looked like that was it.
Just a sidenote – when Seattle had a man on the naughty step I wouldn’t have held it against the US commentators if they used the hockey term “power play” to explain how NOLA had the advantage – anything that gets sports-mad Yanks into our game is a definite plus.
But anyway, back to the action, it seemed all that first half tackling took its toll on the home side and once the Seawolves got one try with a man down, they went on to burst open the floodgates reeling off another three to establish a multi-score lead of their own with just over ten minutes left.
Did that mean the Gold were done? Absolutely not and they pulled back within a point with the clock at 77 setting up a grandstand finish and although the restart went deep in the Gold 22, they kept it through the hands to emerge through gaps the length of the pitch only to somehow be hauled down short of the line allowing the Seattle blindside to jackle a decisive penalty.
I know this sounds bad, but the disgusted faces on the faces of the home crowd at the awarding of a penalty was good to see because it shows they were invested in the match right up to the end. And although the Gold have now lost more than they have won this season, they still look good enough to be playoff contenders so from what I have seen from this league so far, it would not surprise me if these same two teams contested the championship final later in the year.
More on the league next week.
UTAH 26-24 NEFJ
DAL 14-11 TOR
CHI 21-38 HOU
NOLA 35-36 SEA
NYI 31-20 ATL
SD 48-26 OGDC
NEFJ V CHI
TOR V NYI
ATL V OGDC
HOU V UTAH
SEA V SD
THE NEXT BATCH OF HARPIN’
Like I say I’m on the Red Hand pod during the week, then we’re all about the Good Friday visit of the Leicester Tigers with a preview show on Thursday, the wrap pod recording Sunday and all the usual features in between.
In the meantime, be sure to enjoy your rugby wherever you are. JLP