Tag Archives: Paul Marshall

PRO12 Preview: Ulster vs. Edinburgh

Ulster

Ulster and Edinburgh in action at Murrayfield last season. (c) Alex Sanz.

Friday 2nd March, 19.05 (BBCNI)

Ravenhill is the venue tomorrow evening as Ulster host an Edinburgh side who have lost their last three games in the PRO12. The home side are looking to complete the double over their visitors this season. A hand injury has ruled Nevin Spence out, meaning Adam D’Arcy comes into the side. D’Arcy’s inclusion at fullback means a re-jig of the backline, with Stefan Terblanche moving onto the left wing and Ian Whitten relocating to outside centre.

Paul Marshall and Ruan Pienaar form the half-back partnership for the second week running. With Chris Henry travelling to Paris to provide cover for the Ireland squad, Pedrie Wannenburg moves to the openside, meaning a return to the starting 15 for Robbie Diack at No.8. Luke Marshall and Chris Cochrane are two exciting young players to watch off the bench for Ulster.

Edinburgh boss Michael Bradley has made four changes to the side which lost to Connacht last weekend. Sep Visser comes onto the right wing, opposite his prolific brother Tim. John Houston is included at inside centre while Phil Godman returns at flyhalf. The only change up front is the inclusion of recent signing Ulises Gamboa at tighthead.

As mentioned above, Edinburgh are on a bad run without their international contingent. A home loss to the Ospreys was followed up with away defeats to the Dragons and Connacht. That has resulted in Bradley’s men dropping to 11th in the league. Meanwhile, Ulster come into this weekend sitting 5th and hoping for another win to boost their play-off chances. Verdict: Ulster by 6-10 points.

Ulster: 15 Adam D’Arcy, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Ian Whitten, 12 Paddy Wallace (capt.), 11 Stefan Terblanche, 10 Ruan Pienaar, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Robbie Diack, 7 Willie Faloon, 6 Pedrie Wannenburg, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Lewis Stevenson, 3 John Afoa, 2 Andi Kyriacou, 1 Paddy McAllister.
Subs: 16 Nigel Brady, 17 Callum Black, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Neil McComb, 20 Mike McComish, 21 Ian Humphreys, 22 Luke Marshall, 23 Chris Cochrane.

Edinburgh: 15 Tom Brown, 14 Sep Visser ,13 Matt Scott, 12 John Houston, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Phil Godman, 9 Chris Leck, 8 Netani Talei, 7 Roddy Grant (capt.), 6 Stuart McInally, 5 Sean Cox, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 3 Ulises Gamboa, 2 Andrew Kelly, 1 Kyle Traynor.
Subs: 16 Alun Walker, 17 Robin Hislop, 18 Jack Gilding, 19 Robert McAlpine, 20 Hamish Watson, 21 Alex Black, 22 Harry Leonard, 23 Chris Paterson.

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).

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Photo courtesy:  Alex Sanz.

PRO12 Previews

Munster vs. Blues @ Thomond Park

Friday 24th Feb, 19.05 (RTE2)

Simon Zebo, who scored two tries against Treviso last weekend, is on the left wing. (c) Jason Miller.

The revelation that Tony McGahan will leave the province at the end of the season has dominated Munster news this week. However, that will have to be pushed aside tonight as they look to continue their 4-game winning streak. 3 of those wins have brought try-scoring bonus points, but the Blues, 5th in the league, represent a tougher challenge.

McGahan has made five changes to his starting 15. Ronan O’Gara, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony, all starters against Treviso last weekend, are on the Irish bench tomorrow. Denis Hurley has also been called up as cover in the event of any late injuries. For Munster, Marcus Horan starts at loosehead ahead of Wian du Preez, while Ian Keatley, Tommy O’Donnell and Billy Holland slot in for the internationals with Felix Jones getting his first start of the season at fullback.

Blues’ boss Justin Burnell has made three changes to his side. Richie Rees replaces Welsh squad member Lloyd Williams at scrumhalf, Chris Czekaj comes in at fullback for Ben Blair while Maama Molitika starts at No.8 with Xavier Rush out ill. Munster fans will be denied an early look at recently announced signing Casey Laulala, sidelined with a hamstring injury.

Munster are 3rd in the table coming into this weekend, 4 points behind the Ospreys, with a game in hand. A Munster win, coupled with a favour from Ulster in Ravenhill, would see McGahan’s men into that home play-off position. Verdict: Munster by 5.

Munster: 15 Felix Jones, 14 Johne Murphy, 13 Danny Barnes, 12 Lifeimi Mafi, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Tomas O’Leary, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 Dave O’Callaghan, 5 Mick O’Driscoll (capt.), 4 Billy Holland, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Damien Varley, 1 Marcus Horan.
Subs: 16 Denis Fogarty, 17 Wian du Preez, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Dave Foley, 20 Paddy Butler, 21 Duncan Williams, 22 Scott Deasy, 23 Luke O’Dea.

Cardiff Blues: 15 Chris Czekaj, 14 Richard Mustoe, 13 Gavin Evans, 12 Gavin Henson, 11 Tom James, 10 Dan Parks, 9 Richie Rees, 8 Maama Molitika, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Michael Paterson, 5 Paul Tito (capt.), 4 Cory Hill, 3 Scott Andrews, 2 Ryan Tyrell, 1 John Yapp.
Subs: 16 T Rhys Thomas, 17 Nathan Trevett, 18 Sam Hobbs, 19 Macauley Cook, 20 Thomas Young, 21 Lewis Jones, 22 Ceri Sweeney 23 Ben Blair.

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Ulster vs. Ospreys @ Ravenhill

Friday 24th Feb, 19.05 (BBCNI)

Munster V Ospreys

The Ospreys, with Dan Bigger at 10, beat Munster at Thomond Park earlier this season. (c) Martin Dobey.

Ulster’s recent good form was brought to an abrupt halt by the Blues last weekend, as the Cardiff side came out 21-14 winners. Brian McLaughlin knows that a win tonight is vital if Ulster, in 6th, are to keep their play-off hopes alive. While the Ospreys have only lost three times in the PRO12 season, they are missing a total of 16 squad players due to international call-ups.

McLaughlin has finally made the call that many, including The Touchline, have been calling for in recent months. David Humphreys has been dropped to the bench, with Paul Marshall coming into the side. That results in Ruan Pienaar moving to outhalf. Pedrie Wannenburg’s return from a foot injury means that Robbie Diack (3 tries in 4) is unlucky to miss out. The only other changes are in the front-row, with Paddy McAllister taking over from Callum Black at loosehead and Andy Kyriacou being restored at hooker in place of Nigel Brady.

As mentioned, the Ospreys are missing a host of internationals, as well as having 7 players out injured. They can still name the likes of Welsh internationals Duncan Jones, Ian Gough, Dan Biggar and Andrew Bishop in their starting line-up. The talented young trio of Rhys Webb, Matthew Morgan and Ashley Beck have curiously been left on the bench, so expect an impact from them at some stage.

There will be no better chance for Ulster to beat a team above them in the PRO12. While the Ospreys are severely depleted, Ulster’s selection is basically first-choice bar Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble and Rory Best.                            Verdict: Ulster by 7.

Ulster: 15 Stefan Terblanche, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Nevin Spence, 12 Paddy Wallace, 11 Ian Whitten, 10 Ruan Pienaar, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, 7 Willie Faloon, 6 Chris Henry (capt.), 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Lewis Stevenson, 3 John Afoa, 2 Andi Kyriacou, 1 Paddy McAllister.
Subs: 16 Nigel Brady, 17 Callum Black, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Tim Barker, 20 Robbie Diack, 21 Ian Humphreys, 22 Simon Danielli, 23 Adam D’Arcy.

Ospreys: 15 Richard Fussell, 14 Hanno Dirksen, 13 Andrew Bishop, 12 Stefan Watermeyer, 11 Eli Walker, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Kahn Fotuali’i, 8 Joe Bearman, 7 Sam Lewis, 6 Tom Smith (capt.), 5 James King, 4 Ian Gough, 3 Joe Rees, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Duncan Jones.
Subs: 16 Mefin Davies, 17 Ryan Bevington, 18 Will Taylor, 19 Jonathan Thomas/Lloyd Peers, 20 George Stowers, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Matthew Morgan, 23 Ashley Beck.

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Connacht vs. Edinburgh @ The Sportsground

Friday 24th Feb, 19.30 (Not televised) 

Connacht Rugby

Connacht are looking for their 5th win of the season. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Connacht managed to end a 10-game losing run in the PRO12 against the Warriors last weekend thanks to a last-gasp Niall O’Connor penalty that drew the score level at 13-13. As seems to be the way with Connacht, it could have been so much more. Tonight they take on an Edinburgh side who sit 9th in the league and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Dragons. Prime opportunity for Connacht to secure a rare win.

Eric Elwood has given Academy prop Denis Buckley his first start for the province with Brett Wilkinson away covering for the international squad. The only other change to the side sees scrumhalf Frank Murphy return after recovering from a groin injury. Dave Moore is unfortunate to drop out of the match day squad after some promising cameos in recent weeks.

Michael Bradley makes four changes to his Edinburgh side after that loss ot the Dragons. Chris Paterson comes in at fullback, Jim Thompson is selected at 13, while 20-year-old Gregor Hunter should add some flair at outhalf. Up front, Scotland A international Andrew Kelly starts at hooker. The prolific Tim Visser is on the left wing, and Connacht will need to cut him down early.

It’s not the most intimidating Edinburgh selection, and this is a game that Connacht will most likely have been targeting for a home win. Whether or not they start finishing the chances they have been creating will be the deciding factor. Verdict: Edinburgh by 3.

Connacht: 15 Gavin Duffy (capt.), 14 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 13 Kyle Tonetti, 12 Henry Fa’afili, 11 Tiernan O’Halloran, 10 Niall O’Connor, 9 Frank Murphy, 1 Denis Buckley, 2 Adrian Flavin, 3 Ronan Loughney, 4 Michael Swift, 5 Mike McCarthy, 6 John Muldoon, 7 Eoghan Grace, 8 George Naoupu.
Subs: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Dylan Rogers/Brett Wilkinson, 18 Stewart Maguire, 19 Mick Kearney, 20 Ray Ofisa, 21 Paul O’Donohoe, 22 Matthew Jarvis, 23 Eoin Griffin.

Edinburgh: 15 Chris Paterson, 14 Tom Brown, 13 Jim Thompson, 12 Matt Scott, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Gregor Hunter, 9 Chris Leck, 1 Kyle Traynor, 2 Andrew Kelly, 3 Jack Gilding, 4 Grant Gilchrist, 5 Sean Cox, 6 Stuart McInally, 7 Roddy Grant (capt.), 8 Netani Talei.
Subs: 16 Alun Walker, 17 Mike MacDonald, 18 Ulises Gamboa, 19 Esteban Lozada, 20 Hamish Watson, 21 Alex Black, 22 Phil Godman, 23 Dougie Fife.

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Warriors vs. Leinster @ Firhill

Saturday 25th Feb, 18.00 (TG4)

22

Last weekend's win over the Scarlets was Leinster's 12th in a row. (c) Ken Bohane.

Fergus McFadden’s complete individual performance helped Leinster to a narrow 16-13 win over the Scarlets last weekend. That win saw them maintain a 10 point lead at the top of the PRO12. The Warriors were denied a victory in Galway as Niall O’Connor kicked Connacht level with the last action of the game. The Warriors remained 4th after the draw, but will be feeling the pressure of Ulster, the Blues and the Scarlets breathing down their necks this weekend.

Joe Schmidt has made several changes to the team which scrapped past the Scarlets. Young centres Collie O’Shea and Brendan Macken return, hoping to continue the promise they showed two weeks ago against Treviso. At scrumhalf, Isaac Boss comes in with Eoin Reddan on Ireland duty. In the front-row, Richardt Strauss is joined by Heinke Van der Merwe and Connacht-bound Nathan White. Mark Flanagan gets his 2nd start of the season in the second-row, while Dominic Ryan is at blindside. There’s plenty of youth on the Leinster bench, including promising 20-year-old wing Andrew Conway.

The Warriors show four changes to the side which drew in Galway. Alex Dunbar comes into midfield with Graeme Morrison selected for Scotland. Sevens specialist Colin Shaw is on the left wing in place of ex-Ulster man Tommy Seymour. In the pack, Mike Cusack is chosen at tighthead, with Scottish Rugby Elite Development player Nick Campbell starting in the second-row. Ruaridh Jackson will run things from outhalf.

Leinster were far from their sharpest last weekend, and with the Warriors under pressure in the last of the play-off spots, this is a big test for Schmidt’s side. Incredibly, they haven’t lost in any competition since the 17th of September 2011, an 18-game unbeaten streak. That loss was at the RDS against the Warriors, with fairly similar line-ups. Crucially, the likes of Ian Madigan, Leo Auva’a and Dave Kearney have grown as players since then. Verdict: Warriors by 2.

Glasgow: 15 Peter Murchie, 14 David Lemi, 13 Alex Dunbar, 12 Troy Nathan, 11 Colin Shaw, 10 Ruaridh Jackson, 9 Henry Pyrgos, 8 Ryan Wilson, 7 Chris Fusaro, 6 Rob Harley (capt.), 5 Tom Ryder, 4 Nick Campbell, 3 Mike Cusack, 2 Pat MacArthur, 1 Ryan Grant.
Subs: 16 Dougie Hall, 17 Jon Welsh, 18 Gordon Reid, 19 Rob Verbakel, 20 Calum Forrester, 21 Scott Wight, 22 Federico Aramburu, 23 Tommy Seymour.

Leinster: 15 Isa Nacewa,14 David Kearney, 13 Brendan Macken, 12 Colm O’Shea, 11 Fionn Carr, 10 Ian Madigan, 9 Isaac Boss, 1 Heinke van der Merwe, 2 Richardt Strauss, 3 Nathan White, 4 Damian Browne, 5 Mark Flanagan, 6 Dominic Ryan, 7 Shane Jennings (capt.), 8 Leo Auva’a.
Subs: 16 Aaron Dundon, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Jamie Hagan, 19 Devin Toner, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 John Cooney, 22 Eoin O’Malley, 23 Andrew Conway.

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Photos courtesy:  Jason Miller, Martin Dobey, Pierre-Selim, Ken Bohane.

No Surprises in Kidney’s 6 Nations Squad

Ronan O'Gara is back for another 6 Nations campaign with Ireland. (c) Ross Wynne.

The Irish management team today announced both the Irish senior squad for the forthcoming 6 Nations and the Irish Wolfhounds squad for a game with the English Saxons in two weekend’s time.

The senior squad includes 24 players, plus an additional 6 players who will join the first week of training. The Wolfhounds squad features 22 players.

First off, here’s a look at the two squads:

Ireland Training Squad

Forwards (13): Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Tom Court, Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Leo Cullen, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell (capt.), Donnacha Ryan, Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip, Shane Jennings, Sean O’Brien.

Backs (11): Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan, Ronan O’Gara, Jonathan Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy, Paddy Wallace, Fergus McFadden, Keith Earls, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Rob Kearney.

Additional Players (6): Ian Nagle, Peter O’Mahony, Tiernan O’Halloran, Paddy McAllister, Andrew Conway, Simon Zebo.

Peter O'Mahony is one of 6 "additional" players named by Declan Kidney. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

O2 Irish Wolfhounds Squad for match vs. England Saxons (Sat 28th January)

Forwards (12): Stephen Archer, Ronan Loughney, Mike Sherry, Damien Varley, Brett Wilkinson, Mike McCarthy, Devin Toner, Dan Tuohy, Kevin McLaughlin, Chris Henry, John Muldoon, Rhys Ruddock.

Backs (10): Isaac Boss, Tomas O’Leary, Ian Madigan, Ian Keatley, Nevin Spence, Eoin O’Malley, Luke Fitzgerald, David Kearney, Gavin Duffy, Denis Hurley.

Players not considered due to injury

Brian O’Driscoll, David Wallace, Darren Cave, Felix Jones, Jerry Flannery, Eoin Griffin, Denis Leamy, Niall Ronan.

Luke Fitzgerald, pictured scoring against Bath, is in the Wolfhounds squad. (c) Art Widak.

Before we start criticising Declan Kidney’s senior squad for being too conservative, which it clearly is if looked at as a definitive final squad, it’s worth noting that Kidney has emphasised that players in the Wolfhounds squad are still in consideration for his matchday 22 to play Wales. The Wolfhounds take on the Saxons on the 28th of this month, giving those players a final chance to impress ahead of the Wales clash on the 5th of February.

It’s unclear why Kidney did not simply name a 30-man senior squad, instead of marking the 6 young players as “Additional players”. This promising sextet will have just one week of training with the senior squad to impress. Surely if someone like Peter O’Mahony puts himself about to good effect in that week of training he will be considered for a place on the bench against Wales? Why bother to mark these guys as “additional”? He has left himself open to criticism for not blooding younger players that would have been avoided by simply naming those 6 players in the squad.

It may be confusing, but at least Kidney is keeping the door open for the Wolfhounds players. At the squad announcements he said, “The Wolfhounds game gives myself and the other coaches one final chance to give games to players to see possible options before we settle on our matchday 22 for the opening game of the Championship.” That will be encouragement enough to ensure that the Wolfhounds game is treated seriously, a final trial of sorts.

So what of the player selections Kidney has made? The fact is that any of the 52 players he and his management have named could be in the squad for the Wales game. Until he names that matchday 22, it’s hard to criticise or praise. But of course, being named in the senior squad is a better indicator that a player will be involved.

O'Callaghan, Earls, Healy and Ross are all in the senior squad, while O'Leary (centre) is amongst the Wolfhounds. (c) Ross Wynne.

In terms of second-rows, Dan Tuohy and Mike McCarthy have been in fantastic form for Ulster and Connacht respectively. Donncha O’Callaghan is named in the senior squad despite slipping behind Donnacha Ryan in the Munster pecking order. Tuohy and McCarthy will feel aggrieved at Kidney’s loyalty in O’Callaghan, especially with the Munster man now 32.

Luke Fitzgerald is one name noticeably missing from the senior squad. However, he hasn’t played in the last two weeks because of slight glute/neck problems. It looks as if he will be given the Wolfhounds match to prove his fitness before being considered for the 6 Nations matchday squad. His form this season demands inclusion. Elsewhere, the form of Ulster’s Paul Marshall and Conor Gilroy has been ignored completely as neither features at all.

It would be fantastic to see younger players like Tiernan O’Halloran and Peter O’Mahony getting a chance in this year’s 6 Nations, even if only off the bench. However, with the squads he has named, the feeling is that Declan Kidney will stick with the tried and trusted.

What do you make of the squad selections? Who do you think deserved to be included or shouldn’t have made the cut? Should Kidney go all out to win this year’s 6 Nations or rather use it as a chance to blood some uncapped players? Comment below with the matchday 22 that you would pick for the Wales match and why…

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Photos courtesy:  Ross Wynne, Ivan O’Riordan, Art Widak.

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.

IRFU’s Double Edged Sword

The IRFU will implement changes to NIE player contracts from 2013/14 onwards. (c) José Ramón Vega

With the dust now settling on the IRFU’s announcement of changes to the manner in which NIE (Non-Irish Eligible) players are contracted to Leinster, Munster and Ulster, it’s worthwhile taking a look at what these changes actually involve and how they may affect the provinces when they come into effect for the 2013/2014 season. The IRFU have announced that Connacht will be external to this process.

The IRFU’s reasoning behind the changes is to ensure that Irish eligible players will be gaining valuable Heineken Cup and PRO12 experience in every position across the field. This will have obvious benefits for the international squad, ensuring that Ireland will have a degree of depth and competition in every position on the field. The measures have been designed with the aim of having at least “two suitably experienced players” Irish players in each position.

The new principles mean that across the squads of Leinster, Munster and Ulster there will only be one NIE player for each of the 15 positions on the field. The prime example to use here is the current situation at tighthead pro. Indeed, these new measures seem to have been motivated in part by the lack of experienced Irish tightheads. Currently there are 4 NIE tightheads contracted to Munster (BJ Botha and Pete Borlaise), Ulster (John Afoa) and Leinster (Nathan White). These players are obviously preventing Irish eligible players from gaining experience in the Heineken Cup and the PRO12.

Botha (middle) is one of 4 NIE tightheads in Ireland at the moment. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

The new rules mean that from 2013/14 onwards, only one of these players would be allowed to be contracted. The three provinces will have to discuss their potential NIE targets with each other and the IRFU in order to prevent an overlap in NIE players in the same position. Only one of the provinces will be allowed a tighthead (or winger or outhalf), which may mean some argument between them. Each province will now have to recognise which positions they need a NIE player to fill, and put their cause to the IRFU to ensure they get that player.

The changes also specify that “all future provincial non-Irish eligible player contracts will be position specific”. An example again illustrates this example best. If Munster were to sign, say, James Hook from Perpignan, his contract would have to state which position Munster intended to play him in. Hook has the ability to play 10, 12, 13 and 15 but Munster would have to contract him as one of these. So, if he was contracted as a 15, he could only play at fullback. Barring emergency circumstances (injuries and suspensions) Hook would not be permitted to play in any other position on the pitch.

Another change is that NIE players will only be allowed a single contract. The IRFU has stated that “[f]or the 2013/14 season and onwards, for any given position involving a contracted NIE player, a province will not be permitted to renew that NIE player contract or bring in a new NIE player into that same position in its squad”. So the Irish provinces will be limited to signing NIE players for a single contract only. The NIE player will then be forced to move away from the province at the end of their contract.

Firstly and most immediately, this means that the likes of Isa Nacewa and Ruan Pienaar will be leaving their provinces at the end of their contracts. This will be an obvious blow to the provinces in the short-term, losing key players like these. However, it will certainly benefit Irish players in the longer-term. Taking the example of Pienaar, once his contract is finished, Ulster will have to let him go and will be prohibited from signing a new NIE scrumhalf. This means that someone like Paul Marshall, currently undeservedly sitting on the bench, will take their place in Ulster’s starting 15.

Nacewa won't be offered a new contract at Leinster due to the new rulings. (c) Martin Dobey.

John Afoa and BJ Botha will also be leaving Ireland when their contracts expire. As a result, Ulster and Munster will need to give their young props more exposure to ensure they are ready to step up when Afoa and Botha’s contracts finish. The likes of Adam Macklin and Stephen Archer will now need to feature more for their provinces so as to be Heineken Cup-ready when these current front-liners leave.

Secondly, this change may result in NIE players being more hesitant to move to Ireland. If they are only being offered a short-term contract, these players may be more hesitant to uproot their families and lives. The advantage of bringing in NIE players is often the experience they bring to the provinces. However, with only a single contract on offer, these experienced professionals may not be willing to move. This stipulation in the changes may actually result in a downturn in the quality of NIE players coming to Ireland.

The fourth principle of the IRFU statement says that “All future provincial injury replacement players must be eligible for selection for Ireland”. This is much the same as the other rulings. Each province will have to have Irish qualified players as back-up in the same position as their NIE player. Again, this will only increase the amount of exposure young Irish players get.

Connacht will be unaffected by the changes. (c) James Gallagher.

Connacht have been exempted from these procedures, with the IRFU saying that the province “has recently commenced a new programme of structural and performance development”. This means Connacht will be permitted to bring in NIE players in any position, regardless of the other provinces’ NIE players. When you look at the likes of Fetu’u Vainikolo and Mia Nikora though, you have to wonder if these players are benefiting Connacht at all. They don’t bring any real experience to the squad and there are surely uncontracted Irish players with the same levels of ability.

So will these changes benefit Irish rugby? It’s hard to see how they won’t in the long-term. If Ireland can get to the point where at least two players in every position are playing Heineken Cup standard rugby then it will improve the squad immensely. It’s the short-term where the changes might have negative effects. If the provinces are forced into selecting young players in key positions at Heineken Cup level, it really means throwing them in at the deep end. As mentioned above, there may also be a reduction in the quality of NIE players coming to Ireland.

Overall, it looks to be a good thing. Perhaps the changes need a little bit of adjustment but Eddie Wigglesworth, the IRFU Director of Rugby, has said that the “four guiding principles that we have down are non-negotiable”. He qualified that statement by saying that if these principles meant a province looked weak due to injuries or a lack of Irish players of sufficient quality then the IRFU “would have to be quite pragmatic and adjust the policy within the framework”.

Four guiding principles to deliver at least two experienced players in all 15 field positions for national selection:

1 One non Irish eligible (NIE) player only in each of the 15 field positions across the provinces of Leinster, Munster and Ulster e.g. one foreign player allowed across all three teams per position.

2 For the season 2013/14 and onwards, for any given position involving a contracted NIE player, a province will not be permitted to renew that NIE player contract or bring in a new NIE player into that same position in its squad.

3 All future provincial injury replacement players must be eligible for selection for Ireland.

4 All future provincial NIE player contracts will be position specific.

So what do you make of the new principles the IRFU has laid down? Will this be a good thing for Irish rugby? Or will it mean weakened provinces, and as a result a weaker national team? Comment below with your opinion on these new changes and how they could be improved or changed?

Photos courtesy:  Martin Dobey, Jose Ramon Vega, Ivan O’Riordan, James Gallagher.

Four on Form

RaboDirect PRO12 Round 10 Matches

With all four of the Irish provinces in action last weekend, we once again look at four Irish players who stood out in their provinces’ matches. Leinster had a big win over Cardiff, Ulster beat the Scarlets, Connacht narrowly lost at home to Treviso and Munster were beaten by the Ospreys. So who are this week’s Four on Form?

Stephen Ferris

Ferris featured in Four on Form three weeks ago after Ulster’s Heineken Cup win over Clermont and the world-class blindside is back again this week after his performance against the Scarlets last Friday night. Ferris was his usual self, making massive ground for his side and putting in his usual amounts of big hits. His two tries were the difference for Ulster as they won 24-17.

Ferris’ first try was a simple enough finish after Paul Marshall had done all the hard work. Still, the try did showcase Ferris’ pace as he beat the covering defender on the outside. It’s nigh on impossible to stop Ferris from five metres out with the amount of space he had. The Scarlets defence, with one man in the bin, had no chance.

Ferris’ pace was again on display for his superb second try. From a lineout on the left-hand side, Ian Humphreys skipped to Darren Cave who hit Ferris in the wide right-hand channel. Ferris took the ball just as he crossed the Scarlets ten metre line. Rhodri Williams looked to have Ferris covered but the young replacement made the mistake of going in high on Ferris. The Irish international slammed Williams into the ground with a huge fend, then stepped the shameful covering tackle of Viliame Iongi.

Yet another top-quality display from Ferris who is becoming more and more indispensable to this Ulster side. They will expect another big game from him this Friday in the Heineken Cup when they entertain Aironi at Ravenhill.

Check out both of Ferris’ tries over in our RaboDirect Round-Up from last weekend.

David Kearney

Kearney makes a break against Glasgow earlier in the season. Photo via M+MD

Kearney has impressed for Leinster every time he has been given an opportunity by Joe Schmidt this season. In last weekend’s 52-9 win over Cardiff Kearney went over for two tries to top off an accomplished and hugely promising performance. And while Kearney clearly has the potential to improve, it is also clear that he is already playing at a high enough level to be in competition for Leinster’s Heineken Cup squad.

In Leinster’s win over the Blues on Friday night, Kearney was easily the best winger on the pitch. He completely outshone the Welsh international wing Tom James as well as his teammate Fionn Carr. Kearney has played a good deal of his rugby at full-back and like his older brother, he is very comfortable under any ball kicked his way. Kearney is not afraid to come off his wing in search of the ball either. With these attributes allied to his pace and finishing ability, Kearney is a dangerous player.

His two tries on Friday night displayed some of Kearney’s qualities. The first came as he touched down from a Jonathan Sexton dink over the Cardiff defence, showing good awareness to get up flat for the kick. The second showcased his work-rate, pace and nose for the tryline. The Irish Wolfhounds international did brilliantly to pick from the tackled Isa Nacewa and break two tackles to dive over, especially considering the lung-busting run he had made in support of Sean Cronin’s initial break.

Kearney will now hope he can break into Leinster’s match-day squad for the Heineken Cup and pick up where he left off. Intermittent appearances in the PRO12 may not be enough for a player of Kearney’s undoubted talent. Leinster have a lot of competition in their squad for the two wing positions and Kearney will have to continue to seize every chance he gets.

You can see Kearney’s tries in the RaboDirect Round-Up too.

Paul Marshall

When Ruan Pienaar injured his hamstring against the Scarlets back on the 29th of October, Ulster fans could be forgiven for thinking that their side would be seriously weakened until the South African scrumhalf returned from injury. However, while Brian McLaughlin’s side have missed the World Cup winner’s experience, the form of his replacement Paul Marshall has heavily softened that blow.

Marshall put in another energetic display for Ulster as they beat the Scarlets on Friday. The 26-year-old was a live-wire all night for Ulster and his service was as crisp as usual. Marshall also showcased his sniping ability as he made several clean breaks around the fringes of rucks. Despite weighing in at only 79kg, Marshall never shirks his defensive responsibilities either.

His break for the first Stephen Ferris try was an obvious highlight of the entire match. Marshall is always on the look-out for holes at the edges of rucks and after spotting one down the Scarlets’ blindside he didn’t need to be asked twice. His chip over the last defender was sublime and he was unlucky to be caught from behind. The Ulster Academy graduate then showed great presence of mind to throw the ball back towards his team-mates.

With Pienaar now back from that injury, Marshall was replaced by the South African with just under a quarter of the match remaining. With Aironi visiting Ravenhill on Friday night, it would be cruel for Marshall to be dropped. However, it would be madness for McLaughlin to leave the star that is Pienaar on the bench for such an important match. Pienaar has experience at outhalf and it might be worth McLaughlin’s while considering replacing the inconsistent Ian Humphreys rather than dropping the in-form Marshall.

David McSharry

While Connacht have been on a run of defeats that now stands at eight-in-a-row, their 21-year-old centre McSharry has put in string of strong performances which bely his lack of experience. The Dublin-born McSharry joined Connacht from the Leinster Academy at the start of this season and the move has paid off handsomely as the Irish underage international has become one of Connacht’s most important players.

The 94kg centre was part of the Ireland U20 World Cup squad which travelled to Argentina in 2010, alongside his current team-mate Eoin Griffin. Last season, McSharry was playing for UCD in the Ulster Bank League where he did enough to convince Eric Elwood that he could step up a level. Elwood’s punt on McSharry has been fully rewarded with a series of confident, physical performances leading up to McSharry being named Man of the Match last Friday as Connacht lost at home to Treviso.

McSharry went over for his first try for Connacht in that game, showing his strength to burst through several defenders. The centre is one of Connacht’s only potent threats in a backline that has failed to ignite so far this season. In defense McSharry is already a leader for Connacht, always physical in the tackle and hard-working too. Even against the likes of Toulouse in the Heineken Cup, McSharry’s defensive efforts have stood out.

It’s a bad time for Connacht rugby fans right now. With the aforementioned run of defeats leading into a difficult-looking double header with Gloucester in the Heineken Cup, there are not too many positives for them to grasp at. McSharry is certainly one of them and news this week that he and Eoin Griffin have extended their contracts until 2014 will be a big boost for the western province.

Photos courtesy: Jukka Zitting, M+MD