Category Archives: Four on Form

Four on Form

(c) Jukka Zitting.

After an apt four week breakFour on Form is back. While the Six Nations has obviously been at the forefront of most rugby fans’ minds recently, the PRO12 continued last weekend. If you missed any of the action, you can find out how the provinces got on in our RaboDirect Round-Up. As always, Four on Form highlights four Irish players who were in top form over the weekend. This week’s edition is slightly longer than usual to make up for lost time! Do you agree with these selections? Which players do you think were more worthy of being highlighted? Feel free to comment at the bottom of the piece.

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Fergus McFadden

McFadden scored all of Leinster's points in their win over the Scarlets. (c) Ken Bohane.

McFadden is an obvious inclusion this week as he was quite literally the difference between Leinster winning and losing. His try, conversion and three penalties were the difference, with his penalty from 45 metres winning the game with the last play. Playing at inside centre, the 25-year-old looked very comfortable. McFadden has looked better on the occasions he has worn the 12 jersey this season.

While his pace can be effective in the 13 channel, McFadden is not the most naturally elusive or creative of players, so the directness often needed at 12 suits him. Joe Schmidt has clearly been working hard on McFadden’s distribution this season, and we saw another lovely skip pass from the centre which allowed Isa Nacewa to make a break in the first half.

McFadden’s footwork in traffic is also improving, as shown by the lovely sidestep he took to straighten his line for the try. The step forced Scott Williams into slipping, and McFadden’s pace allowed him to burst through the hole. He showed good strength to stretch over. On another occasion, a poor Isaac Boss pass put McFadden under pressure, but he showed quick feet to get out of traffic and offload. The signs are that McFadden is working hard to improve all aspects of his game, with the accuracy of his place-kicking another example.

This wasn’t a perfect display by McFadden. Just before half-time the centre shockingly knocked-on with Leinster attacking the Scarlets’ line. He got bounced off by the massive Ben Morgan too, in a manner reminiscent of the George North break against Ireland. At around 92kg, McFadden is not the biggest centre, but that’s not the reason for the two missed tackles, rather the height he tried to hit both ball carriers.

Despite those blips, this was a hugely effective performance from McFadden. He did all the basics well and showed that his game is suited to the inside centre position. With Gordon D’Arcy in decline, it’s time for Leinster and Ireland to put faith in McFadden.

McFadden’s key stats vs. Scarlets:

Kicking: 4/6     Points: 16      Kick/pass/run: 2/9/9     Defenders beaten: 3              Offloads: 1     Turnovers: 1     Tackles made/missed: 10/1

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Peter O’Mahony

Peter O'Mahony has another big game

POM had another big game against Treviso. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

After warming the bench for the duration of Ireland’s clash with Wales, O’Mahony was back in action for Munster in their bonus point win over Treviso on Saturday. The back-rower played at openside and put in yet another strong effort for his province. While O’Mahony is undoubtedly more at home at 6 or 8, he showed signs that he can adapt his game to the demands of openside play.

Against Treviso, we saw much less of the 22-year-old in open play than we have become used to. His ball-carrying has been a real strength this season, but against Treviso, O’Mahony only managed 6 carries. Playing at openside, he had much more work to do at the breakdown and he hit rucks with his standard agression all afternoon. Defensively, O’Mahony made 3 turnovers, showing he has the ability to compete on the floor.

At the lineout, O’Mahony was superb at the tail. Munster repeatedly used him to secure clean ball, and his 6 takes were the most of any player on the pitch. His soft hands make him a good target. We also saw a brief glimpse of what O’Mahony can offer as an openside in attack as he linked well from Johne Murphy’s counter attack in the first half. O’Mahony trailed Murphy’s run, took the pass and offloaded to keep the ball moving.

O’Mahony’s more subtle skills are something that are often masked by his aggressive ball-carrying and combative nature. He possesses strong footballing skills, as shown by two lovely kicks against Treviso, the second showing good awareness of space behind the Italians’ defence. With the game won, O’Mahony eventually got to show off his strength in contact as he burst through three defenders in the final minute.

This was a promising demonstration of O’Mahony’s ability to play at openside for Munster. While it is not his natural game, and his ball-carrying suffered because of having to adapt, the Cork man showed up well. He is a superb talent and looks likely to thrive wherever he is played.

O’Mahony’s key stats vs. Treviso:

Minutes played: 80     Kick/pass/run: 2/4/6     Lineout takes: 6     Clean line-breaks: 1     Defenders beaten: 3     Turnovers: 3     Tackles made/missed: 6/0

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Devin Toner

Toner

Toner claims lineout ball against the Scarlets. (c) Ken Bohane.

Toner has assumed increasing importance for Leinster in recent times. With Leo Cullen out after achilles surgery and Steven Sykes’ stint with the province a disaster, Leinster have been short on second-row options. It’s no surprise that Toner has the most appearances of any Leinster player this season with 20. Brad Thorn’s imminent arrival will relieve some of the workload. However, all this playing time has resulted in rapid improvement, and Toner continued his fine form against the Scarlets.

At 6’10″ Toner has always had difficulty with his ball-carrying. At that height, it is often easy for defenders to chop him down with low tackles. The 25-year-old does not seem put off though, and against the Scarlets he was Leinster’s top ball-carrier with 14, several of them very effective. From the kick-off, Toner showed good strength to bounce Josh Turnbull into the ground. In the second-half the Meath man displayed decent footwork to step inside a defender rushing up. Clear signs of improvement.

Toner is an obvious target at the lineout and Leinster relied heavily upon him in that regard, particularly as they chased the game in the second half. He proved up to the task with reliable handling, even in the rain. Defensively, Toner worked hard without particularly standing out. He had one or two opportunities to unload big hits on Scarlets’ outhalf Stephen Jones, but instead attempted choke tackles. A slightly more aggressive attitude to tackling would improve Toner’s effectiveness in defence.

With his height advantage, Toner is often able to get his hands free in the tackle. He has shown a desire to offload this season, and this is encouraging. He has to recognise the time and place though, as two attempts against the Scarlets resulted in knock-ons because of the slippy ball. Still, it’s encouraging to see that Toner has the intelligence and awareness to keep the ball alive. Better decision-making could make it a strength of Toner’s game.

Like McFadden, Toner’s performance wasn’t flawless in the wet conditions. Still, his work-rate, ball-carrying and lineout excellence were crucial to Leinster’s win. Toner last played for Ireland in 2010, earning 3 caps. If he continues at this rate of improvement he will be adding to that tally sooner rather than later.

Toner’s key stats vs. Scarlets:

Minutes played: 80     Kick/pass/run: 0/1/14     Defenders beaten: 3                      Offloads: 2     Tackles made/missed: 6/0     Lineouts taken: 6

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John Muldoon

Muldoon was Man of the Match as Connacht secured a draw against the Warriors on Saturday at the Sportsground. Muldoon is Connacht through and through and he never gives anything less than 100% in his performances for the province. Against Glasgow, his work rate was typically high and his determination inspirational.

The try-saving tackle he put in on Peter Murchie in the 72nd minute exemplified his desire. As Murchie dived into the corner to score, Muldoon intelligently dropped low enough to shove the fullback into touch. With the Warriors 13-10 in front, a try at that point would have guaranteed a win for the Scottish side. Muldoon’s intervention proved crucial as Connacht went downfield to secure an equalising penalty.

Muldoon’s work-rate was apparent in his ball-carrying too. He was one of the most effective Connacht players with ball in hand, carrying 9 times in total. As has become standard at Connacht, Muldoon led in terms of tackle count. His 12 tackle were all successful. A John Muldoon missed tackle is a rare sight in Galway. At 29, Muldoon still has plenty of rugby left in the tank. Ireland’s depth of back-row options means that he is unlikely to add to his three caps. However, Connacht will continue to be thankful for his loyalty and passion for the province.

Muldoon’s key stats vs. Warriors:

Minutes played: 80     Kick/pass/run: 0/2/9     Metres gained on ball: 24            Turnovers: 1     Tackles made/missed: 12/0

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Photos courtesy:  Jukka Zitting, Ken Bohane, Ivan O’Riordan.

Four on Form

(c) Jukka Zitting.

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Cian Healy

Healy in action for Ireland. (c) Martin Dobey.

Leinster’s 25-3 win over Montpellier saw a much-improved performance from loosehead prop Healy. The Clontarf man has struggled to find his best form for Leinster this season after being one of Ireland’s stand-out players at the World Cup. At times, Healy has given an impression of disinterestedness and has seemed more irritable than usual on the pitch. But this was all swept aside with a vintage performance in the dominant win over Montpellier. The 24-year-old was back to his best with some big carries and a visibly better attitude.

Starting in the first minute of the game with a strong surge through a tackle, Healy put in an outstanding 48 minute shift. In the build-up to the opening try from Sean O’Brien, Healy was involved with a trademark one-handed carry close to the Montpellier line. Minutes later, the prop grabbed a Montpellier knock-on and showed his pace as he rampaged into the French side’s half, eventually leading to a penalty which Fergus McFadden stroked over. As Leinster defended their line for the last twenty minutes of the first-half, Healy showed great hunger with some aggressive tackles around the fringes.

The 25-times capped Irish international came out after half-time similarly amped up and burrowed his way over for a 42nd minute try. While it was only from a metre out, there was no one else Leinster would have rather had in that position. Joe Schmidt decided that Healy had done his job and replaced him soon after. With a real lack of competition in the prop positions for Ireland, Declan Kidney will be relieved to see Healy returning to his ball-carrying best. The Dublin man and part-time DJ has been dangerous with ball in hand from the very beginning of his career and Ireland fans will hope he can continue where he left off against Montpellier in the Six Nations.

Healy’s key stats vs. Montpellier:

Minutes played: 48     Kick/pass/run: 0/0/8     Metres gained on ball: 45         Defenders beaten: 3     Tackles made/missed: 5/0

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Simon Zebo

Zebo takes flight against the Saints. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Zebo’s hattrick in Munster’s hammering of Northampton won him the Man of the Match award but there was more to his performance than just tries. Since breaking into Munster’s first team this season, Zebo has looked like a genuine attacking threat. He now has six tries in just nine starts and at only 21 has plenty of time and potential to improve. The blow of the season-ending achilles injury to Doug Howlett has been softened by Zebo’s form and perhaps the biggest compliment you could pay the youngster is that it was easy to forget that Munster were missing the All Blacks legend on Saturday.

Zebo’s tries showed his pace and attacking instincts at their best. The first was a straightforward finish after good hands from Keith Earls and Denis Hurley, as well as a beautiful Conor Murray pass, created the space. Zebo’s second was a great read as he intercepted James Downey’s pass and stretched the legs to run it in. Zebo recognised that Downey hadn’t looked before passing, so there was only one place it was going. Zebo cleverly put himself in the right position. The Corkman’s third score saw him take an intelligent switch line inside Ian Keatley and against the grain of the drifting Saints defence. The young wing’s pace made his line all the more effective.

Speed seems to be in the Zebo bloodline. His father, from Martinique, came close to representing France at the Olympics while his sister is heavily involved in athletics too. But there was more than pace and tries to Zebo’s game on Saturday. His committed kick chasing was superb. His reclaims of O’Gara drop-offs were the source of both BJ Botha and Johne Murphy’s tries. In a game where the restart was massively influential, Zebo made the difference. His defence was untested on Saturday and some doubts do remain in that regard. But for now, we should savour the joy Zebo brought to the game. With the rolled-down socks, exuberant confidence and ‘Z’ celebration, he has the makings of a different type of Munster hero.

Zebo’s key stats vs. Northampton:

Kick/pass/run: 2/3/11     Meters gained on ball: 130     Clean line-breaks: 3 Defenders beaten: 2     Tackles made/missed: 1/0

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John Muldoon

Muldoon warms up for the Toulouse match, two weekends ago. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Connacht’s first ever Heineken Cup win will go down in the province’s history as an unforgettable night. In the wind and rain, the Connacht pack dug in and showed incredible commitment to their team’s cause. Harlequins couldn’t cope with the ferociousness of the Connacht defence and that was what made the difference. Muldoon was Man of the Match and spoke afterwards of that award being for each member of the pack. But that was the typically self-depreciating Muldoon. While others around him did put in similar efforts, the blindside’s contributions were crucial.

Two turnovers in particular stood out. The first came after 26 minutes as Harlequins, trailing 9-5, hammered at Connacht and still showed belief that they could break them down. Muldoon was involved in a tackle and then instead of looking to get his hands on the ball, he got to his feet and drove straight over the top of it. With his teammates piling in behind him the ball ended up in the Connacht side of the ruck. It was intelligent, determined work from Muldoon.

The second key turnover came in the second-half. ‘Quins were deep inside the Connacht 22 as Jordan Turner-Hall burst at their defence. Muldoon went high with his tackle, knowing that Mike McCarthy had tackled low. As Turner-Hall went to the deck, Muldoon ripped the ball free from his grasp and there was relief for Connacht. Those kind of turnovers helped to sap the belief from Harlequins and lift the Connacht players and crowd.

On top of those crucial interventions, Muldoon was his team’s top ball-carrier in a game where they didn’t see too much of the ball. He put in his usual high tackle-count too. This was the kind of game that totally suits Muldoon’s strengths and attitude. He played a major role in what will become a famous night for Connacht. Muldoon will hope for a chance to shine again in the Wolfhounds game with the English Saxons on Saturday.

Muldoon’s key stats vs. Harlequins:

Kick/pass/run: 0/1/7     Metres gained on ball: 5     Minutes played: 80         Turnovers: 2     Tackles made/missed: 14/1

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James Coughlan

Coughlan (right) supports his captain, Paul O'Connell. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

While Simon Zebo had a superb game for Munster, Coughlan was probably slightly more deserving of the Man of the Match award. He has become indispensable to Tony McGahan’s team and is a real leader on the pitch. It’s easy to forget how poor a start Munster made on Saturday and Coughlan was important in ensuring Munster stayed with Northampton up until half-time. The No.8 set his stall out as he claimed the first kick-off, beat a Saints chaser than smashed into two more. He didn’t let up for the remaining 80 minutes.

Two bruising carries from Coughlan resulted in the penalty which allowed Ronan O’Gara to draw Munster back to 13-6 after conceding the first penalty try. Soon after, another surge from the Cork man led to Northampton coming offside as they looked to stop Munster’s wrecking ball, allowing O’Gara to further reduce the deficit. In the build up to Johne Murphy’s try it was a hard, flat line from Coughlan which had the Saints back-peddling in defence.

The ex-Dolphin back-row was again central to Zebo’s third try. After a Denis Fogarty overthrow at a Munster lineout, Coughlan’s hit on Ben Nutley knocked the ball loose, allowing Keith Earls to break. Seconds later, it was Coughlan who set the ball up in the middle of the Saints 22, from where Keatley and Zebo performed their switch for the wing to score.

Coughlan was today called up to the Ireland senior squad, just reward for his brilliant form this season. The fact that he was left out originally was very hard to understand. For him not to be included in the Wolfhounds was beyond belief. Declan Kidney has fortunately realised the error of his ways and added the Munster No.8 to his squad for the Six Nations. He replaces the injured Leo Cullen and at 31, will hope to get his first full cap.

Coughlan’s key stats vs. Northampton:

Minutes played: 80     Kick/pass/run: 0/2/13     Defenders beaten: 4            Turnovers: 1     Tackles made/missed: 7/1     Metres gained on ball: 52

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Photos Courtesy:   Ivan O’Riordan, Martin Dobey, Jukka Zitting, Pierre-Selim.

Four on Form

Heineken Cup Round 5 Matches

Photo via Jukka Zitting.

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Andrew Trimble

Trimble scored two tries in a Man of the Match performance against the Tigers. (c) Martin Dobey.

It was a hard task picking stand-out performers in Ulster’s thrashing of the Leicester Tigers simply because every single one of the Ulster players was on top form. It was a genuinely complete team performance from the northern province. Trimble was chosen as Man of the Match, but the award could have gone to at least five or six other players. Trimble is selected for Four on Form because he has been putting in consistently strong displays for Ulster this season. His two tries on Friday night were well deserved as he put in his usual hard-working shift.

Trimble’s first try was a straightforward dive into the corner after a breathtaking, multiple-phase passage of play from Ulster. More impressive than the finish was the Irish international’s heavy involvement in those phases, carrying and even playing scrumhalf at one stage. For his second, the 27-year-old wing was once again instrumental in the build-up as he hared after Terblanche’s chip and drove Horacio Agulla back over his own line. From the subsequent five metre scrum, Trimble’s finish outside Alesana Tuilagi was sharp.

Aside from the tries, Trimble was busy on and off the ball. He is a complete winger and his level of performance this season makes him a strong contender for one of the wing positions in the upcoming Six Nations. With the possibility of Keith Earls or Tommy Bowe moving into the centre, the Ulster man is the obvious replacement for either. Even if the two World Cup wingers don’t move inside, Declan Kidney might be foolish to leave such an in-form Trimble out of his side.

Trimble’s key stats vs. Leicester:

Tries: 2     Kick/pass/run: 0/6/9     Metres gained on ball: 51                         Defenders beaten: 2     Tackles made/missed: 6/2

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Donnacha Ryan

Ryan makes a break against Castres on Saturday. (c) Robbie Ambrose.

Tony McGahan’s post-World Cup decision to install Ryan as first-choice partner to Paul O’Connell was perhaps one of his more controversial selections calls this season. But the Munster coach’s backing of Ryan has been rewarded as the Nenagh man has gone from strength to strength. After his Man of the Match showing against Castres on Saturday, the debate about whether he should be starting ahead of Donncha O’Callaghan looks to be over.

Ryan was everywhere for Munster and gave several perfect examples of the extra dimension he adds to Munster’s game in comparison to O’Callaghan. While the 28-year-old Ryan did all of the tackling and spoiling that O’Callaghan specializes in, he also made some fantastic carries of which his rival is not capable of. Witness his break after 6 minutes, where he showed decent footwork to beat a tackle and then good pace until he was hauled down metres short of the tryline.

There was a similar example later in the first half as the 13-times capped Irish international again broke, this time offloading to Denis Hurley. Admittedly,  the amount of visible work Ryan got through was aided by the fact that he played the majority of this match in the back-row after Niall Ronan’s injury. Indeed, having O’Callaghan on the pitch freed Ryan. Still, he has been equally impressive in the second-row this season. There’s plenty of contenders to partner O’Connell for Ireland, with the likes of Dan Tuohy, Mike McCarthy and Devin Toner playing well. Ryan is most certainly in the mix too.

Ryan’s key stats vs. Castres:

Kick/pass/run: 0/1/10     Metres gained on ball: 34     Clean line-breaks: 1     Defenders beaten: 2     Offloads: 1     Tackles made/missed: 11/1

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Sean Cronin

Cronin playing for Ireland against France in last year's Six Nations. (c) Liam Coughlan.

Ian Keatley, Jamie Hagan, Fionn Carr and Sean Cronin. All key players for Connacht last season, all moved away to supposed brighter pastures. At the half-way stage in this season though, only Cronin can be said to have progressed. Keatley has been inconsistent as back-up to Ronan O’Gara while Carr and Hagan have played bit-parts in the Leinster squad. Cronin has had to battle with Richardt Strauss for the number two jersey in Joe Schmidt’s side. This tussle to be first-choice seems to have brought the best out of the younger.

Against Glasgow on Sunday, Cronin was Leinster’s most effective ball-carrier. Even with the likes of Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip in the starting fifteen, it was Cronin who did the most damage with ball in hand. He had eleven carries and while this wasn’t the highest carry count for Leinster, Cronin beat four defenders, more than any other player on the pitch. The Limerick man’s pace is a huge asset and helps him to win most collisions.

While Rory Best has been playing well for Ulster, Cronin’s dynamism is definitely something that Kidney will consider using from the start. The Leinster man offers obvious impact from the bench, but his display against Glasgow shows that he can do it for 80 minutes. Best has had a few hiccups with his lineout throwing, missing three against Leicester on Friday. Cronin’s throwing was almost perfect as he missed only one. Cronin’s time playing second-fiddle to Best for Ireland may be over.

Cronin’s key stats vs. Glasgow:

Kick/pass/run: 0/2/11     Tackles made/missed: 7/1      Clean line-breaks: 1     Defenders beaten: 4     Lineout jumpers hit/missed: 8/1

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Darren Cave

The discussion about who should replace Brian O’Driscoll for Ireland has mainly centered around Keith Earls, Tommy Bowe and Fergus McFadden. But another man whose form has given him a chance for Six Nations inclusion is Ulster’s Darren Cave. The outside centre has been impressive for his province all season and a return of four tries from eleven starts is not too shabby. Cave was having another storming game for Ulster on Friday night before picking up a foot injury with twenty minutes left.

Brian McLaughlin will be praying that Cave recovers in time for this weekend’s massive clash with Clermont. The 24-year-old has become a vital part of this Ulster side. His attacking zest and defensive work-rate would be massive losses for the Clermont game. Both of these qualities were on show against Leicester on Friday night.

Cave may not possess the footwork of someone like Gordon D’Arcy or Keith Earls but he runs fantastic lines in attack and his pace allows him to be very penetrative. His distribution skills are good and importantly, Cave recognises when to give the ball. He has a strong offloading game too. Defensively, Cave is full of energy. At close to 100kg, the centre does not specialise in big hits, but he is intelligent in patrolling the 13 channel. With Kidney naming his Six Nations squad this week, Cave has done all he can to deserve inclusion.

EDIT: Cave has cruelly been ruled out for up to six weeks with the foot injury he picked up on Friday, meaning he’ll miss Saturday’s crucial clash with Clermont. It also rules him out of the Six Nations campaign. Very unlucky.

Cave’s key stats vs. Leicester:

Kick/pass/run: 0/6/5     Clean line-breaks: 1     Defenders beaten: 2            Offloads: 2     Tackles made/missed: 6/0     Minutes played: 57

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If you missed any of the action over the weekend, check out the Heineken Cup Round 5 Round-Up, which includes video highlights.

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Photos courtesy:  Robbie Ambrose, Liam Coughlan, Martin Dobey.

Four on Form

PRO12 Round 13 Matches

Photo via Jukka Zitting.

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James Coughlan

Coughlan goes over for his try against Treviso. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

After a relatively quiet first half in Munster’s 29-11 win over Treviso on Saturday, Coughlan came out and lead his team to a bonus-point win in the second-half. With a slim 10-6 lead at the break, Munster needed players to step up and Coughlan did so in typical fashion. The Cork man scored a try off the base of a scrum as well as being massively important in the build up to Simon Zebo’s score. His work rate was as high as always.

Coughlan, the current Munster Player of the Year, put in a serious shift as he made 14 carries as well as 9 tackles. Only the Dragons’ Toby Faletau had more carries than Coughlan over the course of the PRO12 weekend. Of course, it is quality rather than quantity that a player’s ball-carrying should be judged on and Coughlan was not found wanting in that regard. His try from a scrum five metres out showed the No.8′s strength. His support line to take Ian Keatley’s offload in the build up to Zebo’s try showed his intelligence.

At 31, Coughlan is uncapped for Ireland and likely to remain so. He has been involved with the Ireland Sevens set-up, playing in the 2009 Sevens World Cup. His late start to professional rugby means he has never been seriously considered for a senior cap. His importance to Munster is indicated by the fact that he has been involved in all but 2 matches this season. Coughlan’s man of the match performance against Treviso showed exactly why he will continue to be so important.

Coughlan’s key stats vs. Treviso:

Kick/run/pass: 0/3/14     Metres gained on ball: 64     Clean line-breaks: 2       Defenders beaten: 3     Tackles made/missed: 9/1

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Paul Marshall

As highlighted before here in Four on Form, Marshall has been one of Ulster’s best players this season. The return of Ruan Pienaar has meant that the diminutive scrumhalf has been relegated to a back-up role in recent weeks. Coming off the bench to replace the injured Ian Humphreys after twenty minutes of Ulster’s 42-20 win over Edinburgh on Friday night, Marshall showed exactly why he deserves inclusion in the starting fifteen.

The 26-year-old was centrally involved in all four of Ulster’s tries. For the first, his crisp, clean service allowed Pienaar to release Darren Cave, who offloaded to Rory Best for the score. The second try all began with Marshall’s perfect, hanging box kick. The height on the kick allowed Andrew Trimble to chase and reclaim the ball. From there, Stephen Ferris provided the scoring-pass for Tuohy.

Marshall showed his ability to snipe as he set up the third try for Trimble. From an Ulster maul, the scrumhalf somehow managed to slip down the blindside, showing his pace before releasing Trimble to burn past Tim Visser. Marshall’s pace was again on display for the fourth try. He recovered an Edinburgh knock on just outside Ulster’s 22 and raced past several defenders before intelligently interchanging passes with Trimble and putting Cave through to touch down.

Although Humphreys has been named in Ulster’s provisional squad for this Friday’s vital Heineken Cup showdown with Leicester Tigers, surely the form of Marshall can no longer be ignored by coach Brian McLaughlin. As suggested here before, Pienaar can play at outhalf, accommodating the irrepressible Marshall.

Marshall’s key stats vs. Edinburgh:

Kick/pass/run: 3/43/4     Metres gained on ball: 54     Clean line-breaks: 3     Defenders beaten: 3     Tackles made/missed: 2/0

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Rob Kearney

Kearney in action against the All Blacks in 2008. (c) Martin Dobey.

Kearney put in yet another top-class 80 minutes for Leinster as they hung on to beat Cardiff Blues 23-19 on Saturday. The 25-year-old has rewarded Joe Schmidt’s decision to install Kearney as first-choice fullback by putting in some of the finest performances of his career. The Louth native is back to somewhere close to his best, having clearly adapted to the role of a modern fullback. Missing most of last season with a serious knee injury, Kearney had to watch on as Isa Nacewa made the number 15 jersey his own. The battle between the two for the fullback jersey that many expected hasn’t really developed. Kearney’s form has made him undroppable.

Kearney’s try against Cardiff was an example of what he has been doing all season. As Eoin Reddan went on a dummy-loop around Cronin, Kearney took a brilliant line inside the hooker to exploit the hole created by Reddan’s loop. His acceleration through the gap was as impressive as his step around Leigh Halfpenny to touch down.

The rest of Kearney’s game was just as excellent. His positioning was supreme, as he collected many of the Cardiff kicks into Leinster territory. He made several intelligent decisions to step up into the Leinster defence to cut off Cardiff attacks. the His left boot is a cannon, as he showed in the last ten minutes. Once, Kearney managed to clear to the halfway line from underneath the Leinster uprights. Kearney’s form means he will be the undisputed first-choice fullback for Ireland in this year’s SIx Nations.

Kearney’s key stats vs. Cardiff:

Kick/pass/run: 8/5/6     Metres gained on ball: 48     Clean line-breaks: 1      Defenders beaten: 3     Tackles made/missed: 4/0

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Jamie Heaslip

Heaslip captained Leinster to a win over the Blues. (c) Martin Dobey.

Heaslip took over the captaincy for Leinster and he made some big plays to vindicate Schmidt’s decision. The No.8′s performance was far from perfect, but he came up with important contributions when his team needed them the most. The first of these was his break and offload for Sean O’Brien’s early try. This was Heaslip at his best, breaking through defences and bringing others into the game.

In the second half, Heaslip made a similarly powerful break and we can only hope there is more of this to come from the 28-year-old. Heaslip put in a strong defensive effort too. He successfully completed all of his ten tackle efforts. A negative side to his game were the two penalties he conceded at ruck-time. However, the flip side to this was that his willingness to compete at the breakdown resulted in the crucial turnover penalty as Cardiff attacked the Leinster line in the closing seconds.

Heaslip has certainly been in great form this season. The Irish management will expect the No.8 to bring this into the Six Nations, and perhaps hope that the bigger stage can draw further improvement from him. More of what we saw against Cardiff would be greatly welcome.

Heaslip’s key stats vs. Cardiff:

Kick/pass/run: 0/4/8     Metres gained on ball: 52     Clean line-breaks: 2      Defenders beaten: 3     Offloads: 2     Turnovers: 2     Penalties: 2

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Photos courtesy:  Jukka Zitting, Ivan O’Riordan, Martin Dobey.

Four on Form

PRO12 Round 12 Matches

Photo via Jukka Zitting.

As always, Four on Form looks at four Irish-eligible players who hit top form in their province’s fixtures over the weekend.

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Mike McCarthy

McCarthy was one of the stand-out players for Connacht as they came up inches short against Leinster on New Year’s Day. The second-row was clearly desperate to help Connacht end their long run of defeats. He carried and defended ferociously for the full 80 minutes. McCarthy was also crucial to the lineout as Connacht always looked to find him from touch.

30-year-old McCarthy won his first cap for Ireland last August in the World Cup warm-up game against Scotland. Declan Kidney selected McCarthy at blindside flanker in that match but McCarthy eventually missed out on selection for the subsequent tournament. The London-born man’s ability to play in the back-row means that his strong ball-carrying and high work-rate come as no surprise.

McCarthy claims lineout ball against Gloucester in the Heineken Cup. (c) Eoin Gardiner.

McCarthy began his career with Wasps in London before joining Connacht for one season in 2003/04. He left to spend three years at Newcastle until he re-joined Connacht in 2007. Since then, McCarthy has passed the 100 cap mark for the province and become a key part of their forward pack. McCarthy showed exactly why with his performance against Leinster.

Of the 10 lineouts Connacht threw, McCarthy claimed 6, as well as pinching one of Leinster’s. McCarthy made 8 carries throughout, getting over the gainline nearly every time. His defensive game was equally important as he successfully made all 8 of his attempted tackles, most of them dominant hits. McCarthy’s importance to Connacht was particularly obvious in the build-up to their two tries. Both scores began with lineouts and it was McCarthy who secured possession both times.

International rugby is possibly beyond McCarthy now but displays like this one will certainly make the Irish management take notice. McCarthy’s versatility is useful in any squad. With no obvious first-choice lock to partner captain Paul O’Connell, McCarthy will recognise that continuation of this kind of form will put him in contention.

McCarthy’s key stats vs. Leinster:

Kick/Pass/Run: 0/5/8     Metres gained on ball: 26     Defenders Beaten: 1      Tackles made/missed: 8/0     Lineouts won on own throw/stolen: 6/1

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Luke O’Dea

O'Dea (15) in action for Shannon against Young Munster. (c) Liam Coughlan.

While Munster looked fairly toothless against Ulster in a 33-17 loss, winger O’Dea was lively every time he was involved in the action. The Munster Academy player only made his debut for Munster in November, scoring a try against Edinburgh in an impressive performance. He followed that up with a strong showing against Connacht, setting up a try for Sean Scanlon. The 21-year-old continued this form with another promising display against Ulster, one of the few positives on a disappointing evening for Munster.

O’Dea earned his chance with the senior Munster team through his fantastic performances with Shannon in the Ulster Bank League in recent seasons. He has also come through the Munster ‘A’ set-up, like many of the young players in this Munster squad. O’Dea’s natural position is at full-back and we may see him there eventually but he is doing an accomplished job on the wing at the moment.

O’Dea is exciting on the ball, as he showed against Ulster. He has the ability to always beat at least one man. This was exemplified by how he took his try. From Keatley’s cross-field kick, with Adam D’Arcy in front of him, the Ennis-born back-three player had the confidence to take him on in very little space. The safer option, and the one which D’Arcy seemed to anticipate, would have been to look for Will Chambers inside. O’ea backed himself and made no mistake.

It’s refreshing to see Munster wide men backing themselves in this manner. While Denis Hurley and Johne Murphy are solid professionals and haven’t let Munster down, they’re not the type of players who beat defenders too often. O’Dea looks to be a natural broken-field runner and he showed that soon after his try against Ulster. Receiving the ball in very little space down the right-hand touchline, O’Dea burned past Pedrie Wannenburg and almost stepped around D’Arcy. The move came to nothing but displayed O’Dea’s ability to beat defenders.

Despite only getting on the ball six times on Friday night, O’Dea made two clean line-breaks and beat two defenders. The prospect of O’Dea having with a little more attacking space from full-back is an exciting one. Judging on his first three Munster caps, we will be seeing a lot more of O’Dea in the future.

O’Dea’s key stats vs. Ulster:

Kick/Pass/Run: 1/0/5     Clean line-breaks: 2     Defenders beaten: 2               Metres gained on ball: 48     Tackles made/missed: 3/2

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Chris Henry

Ulster enjoyed a dominant display over Munster with a 33-17 win at Ravenhill on Friday night. Henry was one of the reasons that Ulster were on top as he got through a mountain of work. Henry was always earmarked as a future Irish international from his time with the Ireland U21 squad. Now at 27, the back-row has just one cap to his name, having played against Australia on the tour down under in 2010. This season, the spectacular performances of Stephen Ferris have meant Henry’s good form has been somewhat masked.

Against Munster, Henry was clearly to the fore. He was unmissable as his huge appetite for hard work shone through. The 107kg back-row lined out at blindside for this match, showing his versatility within the back-row. He can play all three back-row positions and this has perhaps held him back a little throughout his career. His natural position is at No.8 but the South Africa Pedrie Wannenburg occupies that role for Ulster.

Henry in his natural position of No.8 against Munster in 2009. (c) Liam Coughlan.

Henry was Ulster’s top ball-carrier against Munster with 12 carries for a total gain of 50 metres. His tackle count of 14 was second only to captain Johann Muller’s 16. While Henry did concede 2 penalties, that merely highlights how much spoiling of the Munster ball he did. For Ruan Pienaar’s bonus-point try, it was Henry who tackled Duncan Williams at the back of the Munster scrum, forcing the ball loose and allowing Pienaar to pick up and finish.

Henry was also crucial to Ulster’s second try, eventually scored by John Afoa. Henry beat off a tackle to cut through the Munster defence after they had seemingly recovered following Ulster’s initial break-out from their own half. Henry showed his power as he went through du Preez’s tackle to put Ulster back on the front foot.

With Ferris out, Henry assumed to role of primary ball-carrier to great effect. His work-rate in defence was equally accomplished. As has been mentioned here before, Ireland’s strength in the back-row means it will be hard for players to break into the international squad in that area. All Henry can do is consistently put in mammoth displays like this one and hope that a chance presents itself. At 27, he still has time on his side.

Henry’s key stats vs. Munster:

Kick/Pass/Run: 0/5/12     Defenders beaten: 1     Metres gained on ball: 50  Tackles made/missed: 14/0     Turnovers: 1     Clean line-breaks: 1

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Paddy McAllister

In the first half of Ulster’s match against Munster, it looked like McAllister could have been included in a hypothetical Four Off Form. Munster’s tighthead, Stephen Archer, seemed to be winning the scrum battle against McAllister, lining out at loosehead for Ulster. Munster won three penalties as they dominated the scrum in that first half and McAllister looked to be beaten. However, he is included in this week’s Four on Form for the manner in which he helped turn the scrum around for Ulster in the first 20 minutes of the second-half.

The 22-year-old’s battle with Archer, only 23 himself, was always going to be interesting. Archer was the clear victor in the first-half. The half-time interval was McAllister’s saviour as he came out a different player after the break. Obviously the Ulster scrum is a unit, not just McAllister acting on his own, but he played a major role in the two huge shunts at scrum-time that led to two Ulster tries. The tries were scored by Ian Humphreys and Ruan Pienaar (see them over in the RaboDirect Round-Up), but they belonged to the Ulster pack who sent the Munster scrum back-peddling on their own put-in.

Their will always be suggestions from the scrum which is going backwards of illegal scrummaging on the dominant packs’s part but whatever way McAllister did manage to get on top of Archer he must be applauded for it. Both these young props showed serious potential at different times of the match and that can only be a good thing for Irish rugby. While McAllister didn’t have a chance to showcase it against Munster, he is also a strong ball-carrier and has the mobility to contribute well around the pitch. The McAllister vs. Archer battle is one we could be seeing regularly in a few years time.

McAllister’s key stats vs. Munster:

Kick/Pass/Run: 0/1/6     Turnovers: 1     Tackles made/missed: 5/0                  Ulster scrum on own feed win/lost: 6/0

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Photos courtesy:  Eoin Gardiner, Liam Coughlan, Jukka Zitting.