Toulon task may be impossible but that means nothing to Munster

Rob Penney told journalists during the week that Toulon have booked their accommodation for the Heineken Cup already. The French side might be getting a tiny bit ahead of themselves. Counting your chickens is rarely wise in rugby. Just ask the England grand slam chasing squad of 2011. That didn’t work out too well now, did it?

It was Ireland who derailed England’s hopes that year, and it is Munster who can force a Toulon employee to ring a Cardiff hotel Monday morning looking for the club’s deposit back. There’s the added bonus of a Heineken Cup final at stake for Rob Penney’s side too.

Munster were devastating against Toulouse in the quarter finals, racking up 47 points against the four times Heineken Cup champions. For all their pedigree however, Toulouse are not the force they once were, and currently lie 6th in the Top 14. Toulon, on the other hand, are top of the table with 3 games left of the regular season.

Bernard La Porte’s side disposed of  Leinster  relatively easily in the quarter final, but there is little that Munster can derive from that game. Coach Penney has said that analysis of Toulon games unearthed very little weakness to exploit.

The goal for Munster has to be for the entire team to front up on Sunday afternoon at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille. With Peter O’Mahony out for the season, Damien Varley will captain the side. Talisman Paul O’Connell compared Toulon to the All Blacks this week, saying Munster will have to play at a level beyond any they have already this season, including the rout of Toulouse.

Forwards Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha will miss tomorrow’s game but there is some positive news for Toulon on the injury front. Bryan Habana, the pacy South African winger, has been passed fit to feature after a long spell on the sidelines. Jonny Wilkinson -forced from the fray early in the quarter final- is also in line for a return.

With such an array of talent at La Porte’s disposal, a game-defining moment could come from anywhere. However, it is difficult to ignore the threat of Steffon Armitage. The back-row combines mobility and power to frightening effect, and his work at the breakdown and with the ball in hand contributed hugely to Leinster’s downfall in the quarter final. Munster must aim to nullify his influence as much as possible if they are to advance to May’s final.

Crucially important to Munster in this regard will be CJ Stander. The South African replaced injured captain O’Mahony in the victory over Toulouse and put in a man-of-the-match performance. Tomorrow’s game will be the former Blue Bulls player’s first Heineken Cup start. If Toulon are going to go the way of Toulouse, both he and Munster will have to put in a superhuman effort.

Toulon are favourites, and deservedly so.  And yet, Munster have made a mockery of such tags before. For the travelling supporters and those watching at home there will be one creed tomorrow

“To the brave and the faithful, nothing is impossible.”

Ireland clinch Six Nations in Paris

2014 Six Nations Champions 

There would have been no shame in defeat, and yet no solace either. All week the question was which France would turn up; the clueless team of individuals or a ruthless try-scoring operation. The truth was somewhere in between. Individual brilliance with just enough cohesion to make Ireland sweat to the last.
Ireland gave themselves headaches at times, particularly in the first half. The kicking out of hand, which Ronan O’Gara stressed beforehand would be so important, was marginally off. In a game to decide the outcome of the Six Nations, small margins can be crucial.
Two tries and two awful kicks at goal. If it wasn’t for the elbow to the head from the 18 stone Mathieu Bastereaud, Jonathon Sexton would remember this game for a long time. Thankfully he was able to join in the post-match celebrations even after being stretchered off in the 65th minute. Irish fans chewed nails as his replacement Ian Madigan took to the field. Preferred on the bench to Paddy Jackson today, this was his first appearance in the 2014 Six Nations. 
With Jordi Murphy the only sub not to take to the field of play, Ireland were left with a good deal of inexperienced players to close out the game. While the scrum lost some of its ballast after the withdrawal of Ross and Healy, in open play Ireland were to a man committed and disciplined until the end. It’s expected of the old hands. It’s a joy to see it from the next generation.
The French, as is their wont, woke up from their Six Nations slumber today. Switched on from the start, they took a 6-0 lead before two quickfire tries from Sexton and Trimble put Ireland ahead. The home side’s response was swift and sublime. A crossfield kick from Tales was parried beautifully by Huget back for Dulin to dot down. The second of Sexton’s missed kicks ensured France went in one point to the good at half time.
The second half was as tense as they come, with neither side letting up in the intensity. Ireland struck first, with a break from Trimble finished off by Sexton with assistance from the O-Apostrophes.
These are the players by which the golden generation of Irish rugby is defined. Captain Paul O’Connell was immense today. It’s a mark of the man that when you see blood on his face during battle you’re never quite sure if it’s his. He threw himself into tackles with the usual vigour, and made laughable last year’s notions that he was a spent force.
And then there’s O’Driscoll.  He was involved in much that was good about Ireland today. While there’s perhaps an argument that Andrew Trimble deserved the man of the match award today for replicating his Ulster form, it was only going to one person.If anyone thought he would go quietly into the international rugby retirement home they were mistaken. And if BOD himself thought he could waltz quietly into the Parisian night at full-time, he too was wrong. A French interviewer attempted to cajole the outside centre into “one more year.” O’Driscoll smiled and shook his head. As retirement parties go, this one takes some beating.
O’Driscoll held it together during his interview with RTE until he brought up the influence of Joe Schmidt. The respect he has for the former Leinster coach was clear to see. It’s a mutual respect, as evidenced by the Ireland head coach’s assertion that “we’ll get someone to fill (O’Driscoll’s) boots, but their feet might be a bit smaller.” Indeed.
Late on there was a sense that France might spoil the party. A try from hooker Szarzewski  had Irish fans covering their eyes. However a horrible penalty miss followed by a late forward pass with men over on the right wing denied Les Bleus a win that would have handed England the Six Nations championship.
In Rome, tears surely trickled down tuxedos as the English squad watched on helpless. Like Ireland in 2007, hammering Italy on the final day just wasn’t enough. Theirs is a good team with a capable manager. The World Cup next year is on their territory and they will not capitulate easily.
Ireland under Schmidt have raised the bar high for themselves. The New Zealand game showed they could compete with the best. Today showed they can concentrate for a full 80 minutes plus. There must be no let up between now and the World Cup. Those who have earned their first caps must muster such intensity every time they pull on the green jersey. The hardened veterans must hold on to the hunger for more silverware. For tonight though, it’s time to celebrate. Gordon Darcy’s beard will soon be no more.
A championship clinched in Saint Denis on St Patrick’s weekend. It doesn’t get much better than that.

A Crucial Season Ahead For Irish Rugby

Schmidt’s first season in charge (Pic: irishrugby.ie)
When it comes to Irish rugby all seasons are important, some are more important than others, and this is more important than most.
New Irish head coach Joe Schmidt will be looking to put his stamp on his team in the forthcoming November series. His Leinster sides played some outstanding attacking rugby which  the national side often lacked under Declan Kidney. The players are certainly there for Schmidt to usher Ireland into an exciting new era, with the likes of Madigan, Zebo and Gilroy providing stern competition for the elder statesmen of the national set-up.
The November series will be a baptism of fire for Schmidt however, with a game against Samoa followed by clashes with Australia and his native New Zealand. Ireland had the upper hand the last time they met the Wallabies back at the world cup 2 years ago, but while Australia lost the Lions series and made a poor start to this year’s Rugby Championship, they have an enviable list of attacking talent at their disposal.
Enviable to all except perhaps the World Cup holders themselves. The less said about Ireland’s last clash with the New Zealand the better, however Schmidt will hope that his charges can at the very least acquit themselves well when the All Blacks come to town on November 24th.
Brace yourselves… They’re coming.
Then comes next year’s Six Nations and the opportunity and necessity of consigning this year’s poor performances in the competition to history. Finishing in 5th place, below both Italy and Scotland is not something that Schmidt would countenance in his first season in charge. However the fact that both those sides finished ahead of Declan Kidney’s charges last spring highlights the fact there is no such thing as an easy game in the Six Nations. Schmidt’s squad must hit the ground running in their first two games (at home to Scotland and Wales) if they are to avoid a similarly underwhelming campaign.
If the national side is facing a year of transition, it perhaps pales in comparison to the changes at provincial level. Former Blues coach Pat Lam is challenged with taking Connacht forward following Eric Elwood’s resignation. The western province have enjoyed some great Heineken Cup nights in the Sportsgrounds on Elwood’s watch, and Lam’s task will be to ensure better showings in the bread and butter competition that is the Rabo Pro 12. Last year they finished a disappointing eighth, 12 points behind Treviso. Losing the influential Mike McCarthy to Leinster is a setback they must quickly overcome.
Connacht Head Coach Pat Lam
Looking eastwards, Leinster have to adjust to their own changes in personnel. With Schmidt leaving the set-up to take charge of the national side, it’s former Leicester Tigers head honcho Matt O’Connor who picks up the mantle. The Australian had a good record with the Tigers in the Premiership, guiding them to back to back titles. However he now faces the task of further filling the Leinster trophy cabinet. Without Jonny Sexton and with Brian O’Driscoll entering the final year of a glittering career. If Leinster are to hold on to other key players then O’Connor must hope the IRFU figure out a way to compete with the vast amounts of money on offer from French clubs.  Lions tourists Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip are the latest figures to be linked with a move away, with Clermont Auvergne reportedly interested in poaching the  back-rows once their contracts end next June.
Gone. Going? Going. (Pic: irishrugby.ie)
They knew the day was coming in Munster but it still hurt to say goodbye when Ronan O’Gara departed for Paris and a coaching role at Racing Metro. While the return of Paul O’Connell to full fitness after a frustratingly long spell on the sidelines last season will be a welcome boost, the question facing Rob Penney’s side is where the next group of leaders will come from. Peter O’Mahony has been given a vote of confidence in that regard, with the back-row taking over the captaincy for the season. However with O’Gara gone and Doug Howlett too, the issue is who will emerge as a leader in the back-line. It’s a big year for Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan as they battle it out to become O’Gara’s undisputed successor.
Ulster are perhaps the most settled of the Irish provinces, with coach Mark Anscombe in the job a year at this stage and little movement in or out during the summer. However even the most stable of Irish provinces will be thrown into chaos in the coming weeks. It appears that as of next season the Heineken Cup will cease to exist.
English and French clubs have both released statements in the past few days indicating an unwillingness to continue competing in the Heineken Cups in its current format. The present agreement for Europe’s premier competition ends after next year’s final. The French and English propose the establishment of a new 20 team tournament where qualification is gained solely on merit. They have stated that this new tournament will include teams from both countries but will also welcome sides from the other nations.
At present each country’s union has discretion in how to award the 24 allotted Heineken Cup places. France and England have six slots each, Ireland and Wales three and the Scots and Italy taking up the rear with two apiece. The winners of the competition and the Amlin Cup are also allocated a place in the top competition the following season.
Is the Heineken Cup coming to an end? 
These regulations have allowed Ireland to send all four provinces into Heineken Cup battle in the past two seasons  and again this season, as Leinster’s two Heineken Cup successes and their Amlin win back in May this year have allowed Connacht to dine at the top table. Undoubtedly this has been fantastic for Irish rugby as a whole and anything that will alter the current arrangement should be treated with caution.

The ERC have countered the statements of the English and French clubs by reiterating that they must approve any European competitions, and stating that all parties are working towards a deal to extend the agreement that ends in May next year. However if the Anglo-French demands are not met and the Heineken Cup ceases to exist, it is imperative that the IRFU choose their side carefully. The provinces cannot survive on the Rabo Pro 12 alone, and anything that hurts them hurts the national team too. 

Hope to Heartache and Back. A Review of Ireland’s Sporting Year

Sport transcended itself in 2011 for this small island country. It became more than a form of entertainment, it became hope, transubstantiated in Katie Taylor’s boxing glove, Richard Dunne’s boots, and Sean O’Brien’s hands as we watched him steamroll yet another unfortunate opponent.

Did Northampton throw it away? Leinster sure didn’t.
     Barrack Obama came to Ireland at the end of May, and he told us something most of us needed to hear. “Is féidir linn”, or for non gaelgoirs, “Yes We Can”. Of course, Leinster already knew that. It must have been their mantra when, three days before the American President touched down on Irish soil, they found themselves 16 points down to Northampton in the Heineken Cup final in Cardiff. In the second half, inspired by Jonathon Sexton, the Blues scored 27 unanswered points to win their second Heineken Cup final, and join the pantheon of Heineken Cup legends including Munster.
     The men in red did not have a great start to the year, crashing out of the Heineken Cup at the pool stages for the first time in 13 years. But the mantra inscribed on the collar of Munster jerseys is not there on a whim. “To the brave and the faithful, nothing is impossible”. Written off before the new Heineken Cup even got under way, they sit top of their pool heading into the new year, with four wins and no defeats to their name. They’ve left it late in some games, but when Ronan O’Gara is on the pitch, that’s not even an issue.
He will be missed
     The national team’s year went from the most inauspicious of starts – with a disappointing Six Nations and some abysmal World Cup warm-up games – to the elation of beating Australia and the subsequent bubble being burst by Wales in the quarter-finals. Ireland may never have a better chance of reaching a Rugby World Cup final, but their journey to the last eight was enough to give the Irish people at home and abroad a lift. There’s a new generation of Irish diaspora growing across the world since the country went belly up, and it seems that the majority of them were in New Zealand to cheer on O’Driscoll et al. Handmade signs like “Ma, send over me dole money!” brightened up the early hours of autumn Irish mornings as much as the Irish team themselves did. This year also saw the retirement of John Hayes.  There’s not much that hasn’t been said about the man, except maybe that he’s diminutive in stature and lacks modesty. In all seriousness however, the Cappamore man will be remembered in high regard by rugby fans across the country for his often unsung work in the red and green of Munster and Ireland respectively

Richard Dunne, our very own “Iron Curtain”.
      The Irish football team weren’t to be outdone by the rugby team this year. As the Irish nation came down from the collective high we experienced watching their rugby counterparts, Trappatoni’s men decided they couldn’t allow us to feel low for too long. Queue qualifiying for a major tournament for the first time in 10 years, and for the European Championships for the first time in 24. In Moscow in September, Richard Dunne evoked the spirit of Paul McGrath as he single-handedly kept the Russians at bay for 90 minutes. When we drew Estonia in the play-offs, we dared to dream. Yet it wasn’t until the 4-0 win in the away leg did fans begin to plan their trip to next years tournament in Poland. When the draw for the group stages took place in December, we got Spain, Croatia and Italy. What hope we had faded, and the consensus is that Ireland are just happy to be in the tournament. Good. Coming in under the radar and upsetting a few of the big boys is how Ireland’s football teams have always operated.
     These were the stories which gained the most column inches in the back pages of newspapers this year, but the sporting odyssey was not confined to rugby and football. In hurling, a Kilkenny drubbing of Tipperary in September’s All Ireland final was enough to shut the mouths of all the nay-sayers who said the Black and Amber were finished. Didn’t they realise that Cats have nine lives? In Gaelic football, there was a small matter of Dublin winning their first senior All-Ireland since 1995. A lot was said after the game against Kerry, but it was the choice of match-winner Stephen Cluxton to say nothing at all that generated much of the debate.
     And finally, we come to the individual sportspeople who did much to lift the gloom in Ireland this year. In a year where Tiger Woods made his golfing comeback, Rory McIlroy was the real story. His melt-down at the Masters in Augusta led to many writing him off. When he blew the competition out of the water in the US open two months later, his detractor’s pens ran out of ink.
     One woman stands alone as this country’s most consistent performer at the highest level of sport. Katie Taylor this year won two European gold medals to add to her impressive tally. She now has enough gold in reserve to bail out the Irish banks. However, the biggest contribution Taylor could make to this country is to bring home Olympic gold next summer. If her performances this year are anything to go by, that won’t be a problem.
     It’s been a busy year in Irish sport. Forget the bad moments, savour the good. When you wake up tomorrow it starts all over again. 2011 was a good year, but 2012 has potential to be great. Happy New Year!
First published on Studenty.me on 31st December 2011.
Images: Brian O’Driscoll (telegraph.co.uk)
                 Richard Dunne (whoateallthepies.tv)
                 John Hayes (joe.ie) 

Crouching Tiger… The Engaging Story of Matt Hampson

Matt Hampson

You survey the wreckage that is your living room on Christmas morning. The gaudiness of the wrapping paper belies the dullness of the gifts. A DVD? Seen it. Clothes? Don’t like them. Christmas morning is hell.
     For those of you who feel this way, a bit of perspective please. Now this is not a piece dedicated to making you feel guilty about over-indulging on turkey this Christmas period while children starve in the third-world. We’ve all heard Do They Know It’s Christmas?
     This, rather, is a heads up on just how lucky you are, to be able to unwrap your presents yourself. Feel free to over-indulge all you want this Christmas, but if you for a second feel like self-indulging, think of one man.
Matt Hampson was an u-21 England Rugby international when a scrummaging accident in training led to his being paralyzed from the neck down. Long story short, he now cannot breathe independently, is destined to life in a wheelchair, and is a beacon of hope to all who have suffered similar spinal injuries.
A must read

     For the long version of the story, read Engage, the book written by Paul Kimmage. There is no detail spared in this, the williamhill.com Irish Sports Book of the year. In the afterword, Kimmage admits to pushing Hampson in interviews for the book further than a 21 year old quadriplegic ever should be pushed. It shows. The reader is taken into the darkest recesses of the young man’s mind. The endless nights of insomnia while in hospital, nothing to see save the rectangle of ceiling above his bed, nothing to hear bar the gentle whoosh of his ventilator. Hampson never stopped counting those whooshes.
     It’s not just a story of one man’s struggle. Through transcripts of the inquiry into Hampson’s injury we see the toll that it took on his family and his just blossoming relationship. The book is dedicated to the memory of Stuart Mangan, a young man from Cork who suffered a similar injury playing rugby. Hampson found in him an inspirational ally on his road to accepting his own fate. The positive outlook the Fermoy man showed before his untimely death at the age of 26 served to enhance Hampson’s strength of character.
     Other characters in Matt’s journey serve to show the importance of hope and belief to the preservation of the human spirit. The reader is introduced to Matt Grimes and Paul Taiano. Without delving into the details of the book to much, suffice to say both embody the Adidas adage that “Impossible is Nothing”.
Ronan O’Gara and Roy Keane’s single-mindedness. Paul Kimmage’s candour. Paul McGrath’s tragic flaws. In the pantheon of great sporting biographies, the sad aspect of Engage is that its subject never got a sporting chance.
     Matt Hampson’s story is a breath of fresh air which will blast away the cobwebs of self-indulgence in anyone this Christmas. There’s plenty of references to bowels, but no bullshit. Matt’s story doesn’t end on the 395th page of Engage,he continues to be an inspiration to able-bodied and disabled alike.
     Full after Christmas dinner today – in the hope of staving off a food-induced coma – I decided to read the first few pages of Engage on merit of the good things I had heard about it since its publication. Two litres of tea, three helpings of chocolate pudding and several hours later, I’m done. I wouldn’t recommend making tea while reading a book that is literally unputdownable. The minor scalds were worth it. Read this book.
www.matthampsonfoundation.org
images: newstalk.ie (both)

 (First Published 25th December 2011 on Studenty.me)

Take The Pieces And Build Them Skywards

The Future? (Pic: munsterrugby.ie)

Tomorrow the 24 year wait for Webb Ellis will end for a deserving New Zealand side. France at their best would find it difficult to beat the All Blacks in the form they have been in all tournament, and indeed since the last World Cup four years ago. And France are not at their best. Not by a long shot.
In any case, Irish eyes may be on tomorrow’s match, but they won’t be smiling. Instead there will be a sense of what might have been. France don’t deserve to be in the final, and if Ireland had beaten Wales then surely with 15 men they could have defeated France. If, if, if.
Once McCaw walks off the Eden Park clutching the trophy his career richly deserves, then it is time for Irish rugby to disengage from the World Cup proper and start picking up the pieces of this nation’s shattered dreams.
There are issues that need to be addressed between now and the Six Nations, some more pressing than others.
Lets start with the most important issue. Brian O’Driscoll will not be around for the next World Cup, and even though he is making noises about the next Lion’s tour in 2013, that is probably a step too far for even the world’s greatest ever centre. Therefore, before the next World Cup, Ireland need a new captain, one who is firmly established by the time England 2015 comes around. Would the next Six Nations not be the perfect place for Declan Kidney to bed one in?
The question that has to be asked is who fills O’Driscoll’s shoes? Of course O’Connell comes to mind, but in reality has he much more time left than O’Driscoll on the international stage? Kidney has to be bold and pick one of the younger generation as his leader. Jamie Heaslip would have been a shoe-in perhaps eighteen months ago, but now his mantle as the driving force of the back row has been usurped by the Tullow Tank, Sean O’Brien. Other candidates such as Rob Kearney and perhaps an in-form Jonathon Sexton spring to mind, but one look at world rugby’s greatest captains (at present Dusautoir, Parisse, and McCaw) would suggest that the rightful place for a leader is in the back row.
Which brings us to the next issue to be addressed. Ireland need a bona fide number 7. For all his qualities, O’Brien belongs either at 8 or 6, because his main threat is his ball carrying ability which is nullified if he has to scavenge for the ball in the ruck with the likes of Pocock and Warburton. Unfortunately a number 7 isn’t just going to magically appear, but it is imperative that before the next World Cup one emerges. In the meantime, how about experimenting with O’Driscoll at 7 as a stop-gap? Given his supreme ball-winning ability in the ruck, it’s not as radical a suggestion as you may think. Ferris could be slotted into the second row to give another option there, with O’Brien reverting to 6. This won’t happen of course, and the back row that finished this World Cup will probably start next year’s Six Nations. It is a solid back row, but when it comes up against a back row with a proper 7 cracks will appear.
The next issue is that of the half back partnership. O’Gara and possibly Reddan will not make it to the next World Cup, and as such the youthful partnership of Sexton and Murray must be given a chance to develop at test match level. The question is, if Sexton has an off day such as he is prone to, who comes off the bench to change the game? Ian Keatley has been given a chance with Munster with O’Gara in New Zealand and Warwick gone to Stade Francais, and he, along with Ian Humphries, must be blooded fully into the Ireland set-up in the coming years. Kidney must not be afraid to experiment.
It is lamentable but inescapable that the two O-Apostrophe’s in the second row are unlikely to make the short hop to England in 4 year’s time either. O’Connell and O’Callaghan have been great servants to the Munster and Irish cause the past decade or so, and whoever replaces them will have much to do to dispell their giant shadows. Donnchadh Ryan is the most likely candidate to replace one of the veteran locks, but who will join him?  Ian Nagle has shown great potential, not least in his man of the match performance for Munster versus Australia around this time last year. Dan Tuohy of Ulster and Devin Toner of Leinster are others who deserve the chance to prove themselves worthy.
Kidney needs to don his white coat and goggle and experiment at centre too. He said during the World Cup that he sees Earls as the long term replacement for O’Driscoll, but there is doubts about his suitability for the physical nature of outside centre. Kidney for the next few seasons must pick and mix between Bowe, Trimble, Earls, Fitzgerald, McFadden, and heretofore uncapped players such as Danny Barnes and determine what combination will be potent enough to take on the world’s best once more in four years time.
There is no need for Irish rugby supporters to panic if Kidney experiments and results don’t go Ireland’s way for a while. The time for panic will be if the manager fails to experiment, and lets the squad stagnate until its vital parts fall away.