Saturday, December 30, 2017

Ciarán Duffy's 100th guest post : Review of 2017

2017 has come to a close, and surprisingly, the nuclear apocalypse hasn’t happened just yet.  Plenty went on politically here and over the water both ways, but today let’s focus on that game we all love, rugby.  Here’s a look back at the last 12 months.  


Looking back at the Six Nations it seems like a grandslam gone missing, which is rare for a campaign with 2 losses.  The loss to Scotland was avoidable, Ireland may have been absent for most of the first half but were leading at a crucial stage and just needed to hold out.  Scotland deserved the victory, but it was there for the taking.  The response against Italy was exactly what was needed.  It was Irelands largest 6 Nations victory.  It was a game that saw a few firsts; CJ Stander became the first forward to score a hat-trick in the tournament, Niall Scannell got his first cap, and it saw the first try bonus point of the Six Nations.  The French game largely showed the loss against Scotland was a blip.  Then came the Welsh game, which was more frustrating than the Scotland game.  Scotland were especially up for that match, and early tournament lethargy made the first half display somewhat excusable.  But the Welsh game was the losing of the tournament.  Ireland had a try not awarded at a crucial stage, but it was the right call.  They just never got going really, which isn’t excusable in the 4th match of a tournament.  Then finally came England.  England were dominant throughout the tournament and were going for a World Record 19 wins in a row and a 2nd grandslam in succession.  Ireland put in the performance of a lifetime, reminiscent of that against New Zealand in Chicago, and won the game.  A great victory, but it could have meant so much more.  And having to go to Twickenham next year makes it more of a missed opportunity.  

Elsewhere in the Six Nations, Scotland showed there’s still work to be done, they beat Wales but lost a winnable game against France and were beaten out of the park by England, then kept Italy scoreless to finish 4th, a disappointing end to a tournament that started so well.  England retained the trophy, and really were the best team in the competition.  France finished level on points with Ireland, an improvement.  Italy pick up no points and the introduction of the bonus point made the table look especially grim as they picked up the wooden spoon.  Wales were the embodiment of a lower mid-table side.  One of the moments of the tournament has to be the ending of the France – Wales match.  At the 80th minute it looked like France would get the win, and they did, it’s just that it took 19 minutes to get over the line.  There were some farcical decisions in the build up as France surely should have been awarded a penalty try.  To add to the drama, had Wales won they would have overtaken Ireland as a top seed for the World Cup.  Alls well that ends well.  

The Set Up

For Ireland's Women, the Six Nations was much more successful.  The start was nervy with a late rally needed to beat Scotland.  But the grit was there, as it was away to Italy as Ireland got the bonus point.  The French and Wales games showed that this Ireland team was well able to grind out games.  Then came the England match.  With a grandslam on the line, the performance was there, but Ireland just couldn’t get their noses in front.  England eventually were able to build a big lead late on.  They deservedly won the game, but the margin of victory flattered them.  All in all things looked positive ahead of the World Cup, more on that later.  

Frustration 2: Frustration Harder

Leinsters end to last season was even more frustrating than Irelands Six Nations.  The best team in the league all season really should have won the whole thing.  Scarlets were down to 14 for most of the semi-final, but Leinster just couldn’t find a way through.  That’s not to say Munster in the final would have been an easy win, but Leinster could have beaten them given their performance on the day.  

And then there’s Europe.  Leinster went out to a Clermont team who were too good for the first 20 minutes.  After that the game was there for Leinster.  As we saw in the final, Saracens withstood the early rally and ultimately won the game.  Had Leinster been able to maintain their defensive solidity for the first quarter they would have made it to the final.  

Not necessarily two trophies on offer, but definitely two finals missed out on.  

Avoiding the Short Straw

The World Cup draw was made in May, and although it’s potentially tricky it is manageable for Ireland.  Scotland are familiar opponents and would be preferable to France, Japan will offer a tricky test as the home nation, but is better than Argentina.  Ireland will also play Europe 1, most likely Romania, and the winner of the Oceania/Europe Play-off.  The quarter Finals will in all likelihood be against New Zealand or South Africa, unless Italy can pool of a big shock.

Elsewhere, Pool C looks like the pool of death with England, France, and Argentina.  Pool D could offer a shock with Georgia and Fiji looking to upset Australia and Wales.  


I’ve never really been in to the Lions.  And before the series, I held out no hope that they would get anything from the series.  I honestly thought a make shift team, no matter how talented the parts, could not beat the best team in the world.  And yet, after some disappointing warm-ups, and a first test loss, the Lions pulled it off and beat the All Blacks.  The series would end in a draw, with plenty of drama.  The Lions tour provided a novel viewing experience alongside the usual internationals.  

Cap-ital gains

While the Lions tour took most of the attention of the summer, Ireland played the United States and Japan.  It was a good series, three comfortable wins with no slip ups.  More importantly it saw the introduction of some new faces.  Dave Heffernan, Andrew Porter, James Ryan, Rory Scannell, and Jacob Stockdale made their debuts against the United States, while Rory O’Loughlin, Kieran Treadwell, and John Cooney got their first caps against Japan.  It was not unimaginable that Ireland could have lost one test while missing so many key players, but they pulled it off and got three wins against decent tier 2 sides.  

Gonna Take A Lot To Drag It Away From Namibia

My favourite thing to write about is African rugby.  I enjoy the challenge of it.  It’s a challenge because there isn’t a lot of coverage, at times it’s hard to even find the try scorers names.  But really I love it because I love rugby, and I want it to be a truly global game, and hopefully I’ve contributed to that by sharing some insight into a an are of rugby most Harpin’ on readers wouldn’t be familiar with.  

Namibia once again retained the Gold Cup.  They are favourites for next year but I wouldn’t write off Kenya.  They put it up to Namibia much more than the 38-point loss would suggest, and they are at home next year.  This year outside of the first half against Zimbabwe Namibia never looked like losing a game.  If I had to call it now I’d back Namibia to retain the Gold Cup next year and qualify for Japan 2019.  For the repechage place, it’s between Kenya and Uganda.  Uganda really improved this year.  Tunisia were also impressive in finishing 4th.  Zimbabwe were disappointing, and I wasn’t surprised to see Senegal relegated.  Moroco had a great year.  They one the Silver Cup and retained the North Africa Tri-Nations.  They should be confident of staying up next season.  You can read my final round-up here.  

The World Is Too Much

The Womens Worl Cup, as a tournament, was successful.  The final was a classic between the world best two teams.  The tournament raised the profile of the womens game and helped most realise that it is the same beautiful game as the mens.  But from an on field perspective it was disappointing for Ireland.  In the first game they edged past Australia, and as it showed later had Australia had more game time that may not have been the case.  Then Ireland fought back to beat Japan when it looked like a repeat of the 2015 heroics by the mens team was on the cards.  Then came France, and having beaten them in the Six Nations, it was disappointing to lose to them in such convincing fashion.  Australia got their revenge in the next round and fatigue showed in the 7th place play-off.  It mirrored 2007, a good Six Nations which Ireland nearly won, but poor preparation, in this case a lack of warm-up games derailed that momentum.  It’s a shame because it was a real chance and this team is good enough.  However, when it comes to raising the profile of the womens game, the tournament was a success.  

World Cup Qualifiers

Throughout the year the number of spots in the World Cup that were still to be determined have been reduced, and good headway was made to get closer to deciding the remaining few.  The United States beat Canada in a two-legged play-off to secure their spot as Americas 1, the first time they have ever qualified as the top American side.  Uruguay won the CONSUR Rugby Championship A to set up a play-off with Canada to determine Americas 2, which will take place in January and February.  

Malaysia topped the 2017 Asian Rugby Championship Division 1 to advance to the 2018 Asia Rugby Championship alongside Hong Kong and South Korea, the winner will face Tahiti in a play-off to get into the repechage.  Tahiti got into this play-off by beating Cook Islands.  
Fiji and Tonga qualified for the World Cup as Oceania 1 and Oceania 2 respectively, beating out Tonga in the Pacific Nations Cup.  Tonga go into the Europe/Oceania play-off.  

In Africa, Senegal were eliminated from qualifying, and Morocco were promoted meaning they can still qualify.  The 2018 Africa Gold Cup will be contested between Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, Tunisia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, the winner will qualify as Africa 1 the runner-up will go into the repechage.  

In Europe, Portugal beat Czech Republic to move on to round 6 of qualifying, where they’ll play the runner-up of the Rugby Europe Championship, which at the moment is Spain.  Romania top the standings with 3 wins out of 4.  


There was a big change to the league this year, with 12 turning to 14 as Toyota Cheetahs and Southern Kings joined.  My first reaction to this was pretty negative, as I thought it would ruin the competition.  You’d be hard pressed to find fans willing to travel from Ireland to South Africa for a league game.  Away support has long been a problem with the league, and it really does impact on the games.  The South African teams can’t qualify for Europe, which makes sense.  If they were dead set on adding two South African teams, I think the current format does work best.  Having the same amount of derbies is key to keeping interest in the league.  The addition of the quarter finals is a good way of making sure both conferences remain competitive.  My one gripe is that teams play an uneven number of home and away games, it makes the competition slightly unfair.  

Bidding Farewell

In November, Ireland lost out in the bid to host the 2023 World Cup.  It was a bit messy with South Africa being recommended before France were awarded it.  It’s understandable that it went to France.  Holding the World Cup in Japan is a risk, they weren’t going to take another one so soon after.  France is the safest option financially.  A disappointing end to what had been a well-run campaign.  

Cap-ital Gains 2

The Autumn internationals provided a platform for some big performances this year.  Ireland got their biggest win ever over South Africa, squeaked past Fiji with a second-string, and got revenge on Argentina.  Like in the summer, new faces came into the team.  Bundee Aki and Darren Sweetnam were capped against the Springboks, Chirs Farrell made his first appearance against Fiji, and Adam Byrne made his debut against the Pumas.  All in all a good series with 3 wins from 3.  

Elsewhere, Ian McKinley made his debut for Italy, Brazil got their first win on Euoprean soil, Wales narrowly beat Georgia in the first meeting between the two sides, Germany played the United States for the first time, and Scotland got their biggest win against Australia.  

On The Dotted Line

One of the issues that will hopeful not be as prominent in 2018 was the contracts.  Simon Zebo announced he’d be leaving, ending his international career for the time being.  Munster did have some luck with CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony signing up.  Great news for Leinster as Tadhg Furlong signed a 3-year deal.  Connacht managed to keep hold of Kieran Marmion and Tiernan O’Halloran for another few years.  Ianin Henderson, Garry Ringrose, Andrew Conway, Rory Best, Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, and Rob Kearney are all out of contract next summer, hopefully Ireland can keep hold of them despite the allure of the French and English money.  I’ve written before about how regardless who leaves I think the current selection policy is the best.  

Finishing Strong

Leinster are the strongest of the provinces.  They have the best squad depth and that;s shown this season.  The only two loses have come away to Glasgow and Cheetahs.  Unbeaten in the Champions Cup and almost certainly going to finish top.  The recent game against Munster showed how far ahead they are.  Connacht are in a good position in the Challenge Cup, and are level on points with Cardiff in the Champions Cup play-off spot, and are only 6 behind Cheetahs in the quarter final spot.  Qualifying for the Champions Cup spot is realistic, and they had a great win against Ulster recently.  Munster are 2nd in their conference and are in a good position to get a home quarter final in both the league and the Champions Cup.  As for Ulster, they look like the weakest province but are still in position to get into the quarter finals.  They sit 2nd in their Champions Cup pool 2 points behind La Rochelle.  Each of the four provinces are in a decent position as it stands.  


This is my 100th article for Harpin’ on Rugby.  A few months ago I asked Jeff how many articles I had written, and I set myself a challenge to reach 100 by the end of the year.  My first article was back in May 2015, it was on Leinster vs Treviso.  I had just returned home from the game and was annoyed at what I saw.  I decided to start typing and sent an article in.  When I didn’t hear back within a day I assumed that it had been rejected, but it turns out Jeff was busy with the birth of one of his children.  Eventually it got accepted, and 2 ½ years later here we are.  I’ve really enjoyed writing for this blog.  Whether it was turning the Pro12 into the Premier League, imagining an inter-provincial derby day, or trying to fill in the blanks in the World Cup draw, it’s been a lot of fun.  My favourite game I’ve covered was South Africa - Japan in the 2015 World Cup, one that wasn’t easy condensing down into 80 words.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my articles, because that’s rwhat I write them for.  The only thing we really have in this world is passion, and I want to share that with as many people as possible.  

Harpin’ on readers, happy new year, have a great 2018.  

Ciarán Duffy (@TheVoiceDepth) is a Leinster supporter and self-proclaimed ‘big cheese’ of Post To Post (@PostToPostSport).   He’ll write about anything rugby under the condition he gets to take it too seriously.

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Thursday, December 28, 2017

Munster-24 Leinster-34

Trying something a bit different to tell the story of this Christmas cracker...we have used categories before, but not all brought to you by the same letter of the alphabet.  Basically you're about to see more L's than the sign at a Welsh train station...


Important to start with the nature of the task facing Leinster.  Nobody relishes a trip to Thomond Park, let alone the day after Christmas, let alone when you're a blue-clad team based in Dublin 4, let alone when you're a blue-clad team based in Dublin 4 that not so long ago comfortably took the spoils at the national HQ.  For the same fixture one year to the day earlier, we were both under-resourced and under-prepared and we deservedly paid the price.  At the very least our mission was to show we had no intention of a repeat [lack of] performance.


According to our preview, Leinster's task was to both get a hold of the breakdown battle and put points on the board as early as possible.  I don't think we could have ever dreamed of asking Santa for those boxes to be ticked by the 12th SECOND!!!  At the first breakdown Dan Leavy burrowed his way to a penalty which Ross Byrne duly converted.

It comes as no surprise that Dan was man of the match when you add that to his try on 9 minutes when he found himself wide open to receive a trademark kick pass from his out half, his 16 tackles, and as the home side looked ready to get within a point of us having been 22 behind at the break, yet another crucial jackling penalty embellished by a classic celebration.

Having had him in my 'ideal starting Leinster lineup' back in July it was great to see him shake off his injury problems and put in the kind of display he has always been capable of before such a large audience.  There's a lot more to come from him I reckon.

[alternatively, 'LOADS OF TACKLES']

How can you win a tough away match so comprehensively with just 39% possession and 34% territory?  Scoring tries certainly helps, but so do tackles, tackles, and more tackles.  Toner 22, Henshaw 20, Jordi 17 were among the leaders but it was mostly a team effort with just under 200 made overall and a 90% success rate.


Leinster have had a couple of stumbles this season it's true, but you can't amass an overall record of 13 wins out of 15 [including 4 from 4 in Europe and doubles over teams like Exeter and Munster] without being well prepared.  I mentioned the stingy defence already and our 34 points didn't put themselves on the scoreboard, but it wasn't just the tactics that impressed on the day, it was the way the 15 men in blue seemed so match ready from the kickoff.


OK this writeup has been another L up to now, namely a 'love-in'.   Time to harp on Munster for a bit, and it's not as though they came into this match with absolutely no plan.  Something had to get them past our line speed and it was clear that shipping a long pass to the wide channel as quickly as possible from the breakdown was their method of choice and you know what, it played a large part in their coming away with a four-try bonus, not that it would serve as much consolation.


Another way the home side tried to throw our D off kilter was with innovation at the lineout, similar to that which the Scots used against Ireland at Murrayfield back in February.  First throw a couple of backs into the line to have the opposition going 'wha?' then execute your play.  This time it was Conor Murray of all people taking the catch and while the set piece didn't directly lead to a try, the Ireland scrum-half's persistence did and it finally got the home side on the board after falling 0-13 behind.

For Leinster's part our lineouts weren't anywhere near as 'fancy' though having struggled in this area all season it was good to go 9 for 9.  Munster had a couple of costly yips of their own in the second half, more on that later.


He was far from man of the match, but for someone experiencing this unique occasion for the first time he was certainly up for the battle and I didn't expect anything less.  Seemed to love being the 'bad guy' and if the Munster fans were the type who would 'boo' the opposition [which they definitely aren't] the Kiwi would probably figure he was doing something right.

I don't care how blue you think my goggles are - Andrew Conway's challenge on Lowe was both a yellow card and a penalty try all day long and Nigel Owens not surprisingly got it right, although he neglected to mention the sweep of the leg under the Leinster winger to go with the grab without the ball.  

This score was arguably more pivotal than the one that dominated the highlight reels later in that it not only repelled the first attempted Munster fightback but it gave us a spell with an extra man to increase the advantage even further.


This is a handy category to name Leinster players who impressed yet don't have the desired letter at the beginning of their surname, although Messrs Larmour and O'Loughlin began the move which led to the third Leinster try; the former taking a good catch and the latter surging into the space left by the Conway sinbinning.  A neat offload to Daly was followed by an even neater one to Henshaw who had an easy finish.

But most impressive among the 'non-L' names was Ross Byrne.  He was far from a 'Sexton placeholder' on the day; nailing all his kicks from the tee, assisting in the Leavy try and showing good intelligence with the ball in hand.  


Dave Kilcoyne is my Munster mancrush and I don't care who knows it.  He displays all the attributes I expect to see from the position I played very badly back in the day, and as his team were falling 22 points behind on the scoreboard he was providing pretty much their only silver lining in that he was 'pwning' Michael Bent in the scrums, as well as giving James Lowe a cheeky little Thomond Park welcome after a kick to touch.

I'm not sure if I'd put Killer ahead of Cian and Jack on the Irish pecking order but he definitely should feel unlucky he doesn't have more caps than he does.


I understand why the mainstream media feel the need to avoid going overboard in praise for one team over the other particularly for matches like this, though perhaps the headlines saying Leinster 'edged' the match were a bit far-fetched.

While Munster did themselves proud in pegging Leinster back in the second half, few appear to be mentioning how they were outplayed in the first, and I also reckon they might be kicking themselves that they weren't able to post the 2nd and 3rd tries earlier.  A criminal waste of a penalty kick to touch by Keatley before the break followed by two botched lineouts after it were self-inflicted wounds they could ill afford.

On Leinster's side, I'm afraid to say it was only Jamison Gibson-Park who had multiple ticks in my negative column.  I'm really pulling for him to come good but with a couple of forward passes and a missed catch among other things, his display did stand out and I wonder if McCarthy might have been brought on sooner.


We don't need to stretch our imaginations too far to guess what went on in the Munster dressing room at halftime, and you can be sure it was the likes of Peter O'Mahony not only providing inspiration, but also owning up for not getting the better of their opposite numbers before the break.

It 'only' took the Munster skipper 32 seconds to force a turnover after the kickoff, and while the dodgy darts held them back a couple of times, they were determined to move their side of the scoreboard and with half an hour left they had narrowed the deficit to 'just' eight points courtesy of tries from Keatley and Conway.

Leinster struggled to get hold of the ball in that time and at one point had a scrum advantage I really think should have taken to slow things down.  We were also probably lucky not to lose a man in that third quarter as our penalty count continued to rise.  Right up to the final 12 or so minutes a Leinster victory was by no means certain [though I still say we definitely didn't 'edge' it].

The timeline for this sequence is both fascinating and the reason we've gone with L words for this piece.

66m - before a Munster lineout at our 22 following a penalty, Dan Leavy starts to trot off the pitch thinking he has been subbed only to turn around as it is actually Jordi being hauled ashore
67m - 14 punishing phases after the lineout, Leavy latches on at the breakdown to force a soul-sapping penalty which leads to his #powerstance
68m - from the lineout following our clearing penalty, we kick towards the halfway line where it is taken by Alex Wooton who launches one back at us - this one arrives in the hands of Jordan Larmour in his own half.

You know what happened next but I'll describe it anyway.  Multiple red jerseys left in Lamour's wake and although perhaps he should have used one of the three players in support as Simon Zebo was bearing down on him, his determination eventually got it down for a sensational match- and bonus-securing try just when Leinster needed something special.

Jordan has impressed in blue since way back in preseason and ahead of the trip to Exeter I described him as a 'potential RWC2019 bolter' - this has done that lofty claim absolutely no harm and his overall contribution on Tuesday was mostly impressive too.


While victory was assured by that stage, the allocation of match points certainly wasn't...the home side were in with a shout for pinching as many as two which would help in their Conference A battles with the Warriors and Cheetahs.  The quick long passes to the wing did get one of them as Conway was over in the corner again but they couldn't get the margin under ten from there.


Bit of a stretch getting this heading to begin with L - those Roman numerals represent the number 58 which was the total points scored on the day.  I mention it because by all accounts this match was very much enjoyed by all neutrals, including the referee himself.  It certainly lived up to its billing and not for the first time, did the league proud.  You can be sure the men from Munster will be keen to have another chance to 'stand up and fight' us, and the way the new league format looks I'd bet on them getting one before the season is done.


Absolutely no time for Leinster to rest on any laurels - a confident and well rested Connacht come to Ballsbridge on Jan 1st and just a few days later we host Ulster.  Then it's the small matter of our final two European matches to hopefully secure a high quarterfinal seeding.  Then it's a crucial pair of chances for revenge on Pro14 champions Scarlets during the Six Nations.

So as you can see, there's much rugby to be played, and I'm out of L words [just realised I never actually used 'Leinster' in a title!!!].  The boys in blue are definitely on an upward curve heading into 2018...I can't wait to see how high they can go.  JLP

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Pro 14 Round 11 review [Part 2] by Ciarán Duffy

Here’s our round-up of the second set of fixtures in round 11.  You can read the first part by clicking here.

Munster 24 – 34 Leinster

Leinster held off a second half Munster comeback to pick up a bonus point win.  Ross Byrne opened the scoring with a 3rd minute penalty before Dan Leavy claimed a cross-field kick to get the games first try.  Ross Byrne converted and added a penalty.  Conor Murray would get Munster on the board with a try.  The resurgence wouldn’t last long, Leinster were awarded a penalty try and Andrew Conway was yellow carded for illegally preventing a score.  Robbie Henshaw got Leinsters 3rd just after the 20-minute mark, Byrne once again converted.  At halftime Leinster led 5 – 27.

Munster came out stronger in the second half and were rewarded with two tries early on.  First Ian Keatley scored and converted one, then Andrew Conway showed a burst of pace to get over the line, Keatley once again converted.  It took 20 minutes for the games next score but it was worth the wait.  Jordan Larmour beat the entire population of Munster on his way to scoring the solo try of the season.  Byrne once again converted.  Conway got his 2nd try for Munster but it wasn’t enough to get anything out of the game.

The full write up will be up here soon.  

Scarlets 12 – 9 Ospreys

Scarlets played over 40 minutes with 14 players, but still managed to secure a late win to move back up to the top of conference B.  A Steff Evans try sent Scarlets on their way, but Evans was shown a red card in the 36th minute for a collision in the air.  Sam Davies scored the resulting penalty.

In the second half, two further Sam Davies penalties put Ospreys in front 5 – 9.  It looked like the away side would do Leinster a favour, but in the 80th minute Joshua Maclead crossed the line, Leigh Halfpenny added the conversion.  

Dragons 17 – 22 Cardiff Blues

The Blues held off a late Dragons rally to overtake Connacht in Conference A.  Cardiff went down to 14 early on when Brad Thyer was sent to the bin.  They wouldn’t concede while they were down a player, and got the first score of the game through a Gareth Anscombe penalty.  Aled Summerhill got them the first try of the game.  Gavin Henson kicked a penalty for Dragons, at halftime they trailed 3 – 8.  

A try each from Rey Lee-Lo and Tom James, both converted by Anscombe, saw Cardiff stretch their lead to 19 points.  Dragons would fight back with a try for Lloyd Fairbrother, converted by Henson, and a penalty try.  Cardiff had to play the last 7 minutes with 14 players as Kirby Myhill was sent to the bin.  

Conference A
Glasgow Warriors
Toyota Cheetahs*
Cardiff Blues
*game in hand

Conference B
Southern Kings*
*game in hand

Ciarán Duffy (@TheVoiceDepth) is a Leinster supporter and self-proclaimed ‘big cheese’ of Post To Post (@PostToPostSport).   He’ll write about anything rugby under the condition he gets to take it too seriously.

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019