Posts Tagged ‘ Isa Nacewa ’

Sexton On Brink Of Leinster Return

Jonathan Sexton is returning home

Jonathan Sexton is returning home

It still has the slightest whiff of rumour to it, given how few media outlets have covered it, but it would seem to be all but confirmed that Jonathan Sexton has agreed to return to his home province of Leinster once his Racing Metro contract expires next summer. What’s more, reports suggest he has been signed on a four year contract, an unprecedented move by Leinster and the IRFU and hopefully one that will set a template for the future. Continue reading

Heineken Cup – Munster Brilliance Keeps Irish Interest Alive


Well, that was emotional. Be it the dream of another fairytale for Brian O’Driscoll, the anger and passion that followed Jared Payne’s red card, or the sheer and utter dissection Munster undertook, that was yet another Heineken Cup knock out round that simply had it all. It was yet another reason why the dissolving of this competition next year is little short of a travesty, though at least the new tournament looks set to more closely resemble this one than it could have. Continue reading

Heineken Cup – The French Connection Continues


What is it with Irish teams versus the French? The English have Le Crunch, but with fixtures like Leinster VS Clermont in 2010 at the Aviva, again two years later in Bordeaux, Ulster VS Montpellier and Munster VS Perpignan this year, you’d have to say the Celtic and Gallic head to head has just created a huge buzz in recent years. Good news then that two of the three Irish provinces are of course taking on French opposition this weekend. Pure sporting nectar. Continue reading

Double Proves Fitting Send Off For Leinster Greats

Leinster 24 -v- Ulster 18

Leinster, the dominant force in Europe for the last five years, have landed a domestic title that has alluded them for three seasons in a row and in doing so completed a famous double. For this extraordinary group of players no less would have done.

For the last two years Heineken Cup hangovers and primed opposition have tainted what was meant to be their European champions’ party. This year was different. After bowing out in the group stages of the Heineken Cup, because of two defeats at the hands of the majestic Clermont, Leinster’s focus switched to the domestic title that had escaped their greedy grasp at their zenith. Last week’s European victory in the Amlin Cup took on a secondary importance. They enjoyed Friday night’s celebrations but didn’t allow them become weekend long sessions as they licked their Parisse induced bruises and returned to training on Monday setting their sights firmly on Ulster and the difficult task ahead. This was unfinished business. Their opponents for the final had completed a home and away double against them during the regular season and the game would demand the standards that have epitomised Leinster during the Joe Schmidt era, this technically away final in the RDS was his 99th and last game in charge of the province. However, the Ulster defeats earlier in the season were not the main motivating factor for Leinster instead it was the fact that they have been runners-up for the last three seasons in this competition that really irked them. For this uber successful bunch those defeats lingered through the Summer months. All talk this week was about completing the job, finishing the season off to their lofty standards and not leaving a sour taste, and that meant victory – the only fitting send off for Joe Schmidt, Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa. Continue reading

Ulster’s Heineken Cup Dream Ends Whilst Mighty Munster Return


It really is a funny old competition the Heineken Cup. A few months back, Ulster and Harlequins were shoe ins as the top four teams in the tournament, Ulster unbeaten, Quins as good as. Yet here we are with the Quarter Finals played, both teams knocked out in comprehensive losses. In the meantime Leinster showed the Heineken Cup what it is missing in their stunning win over Wasps, in what certainly ranks as one of the best games of the weekend from a spectators perspective.

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Rabo Round Up: Leinster & Munster Advance As League Concludes

Yes there is semi-finals and a Grand Final to come, but as much as they provide good entertainment and cap off the tournament well, the RaboDirect play-off games are a new addition to the competition structure and for that reason I thought it would be wise to look at the tournament as a whole based on the league table after the last weekend of normal fixtures. Since its inception at the start of the millennium, the Celtic League has evolved from a version of the Premiership and Top 14 for the remaining teams into a much more independent beast. Today the Rabo serves as a base for coaches to get good, proper experience for their second strings as opposed to them only getting game time in bits and pieces and in cup games. As teams gain experience and skills through the competition, it is becoming more and more competitive with regard to European qualification also.

New  developments are beginning to have a great impact for teams like Connacht who aside from their automatic qualification to the Heineken Cup have this year recorded their best ever league finish. They sit three places behind a Heineken Cup finalist in the table. All of a sudden European qualification, something the other three provinces would have generally taken for granted, could actually be jeopardised should Connacht overtake any one of them in a year without an Irish European champion. Were it not for the Rabo and how much it has grown in importance over the years, teams like Connacht would not be growing into the team they are today. Leinster too, though it may be hard to imagine now, were once the biggest bridesmaids in club rugby. Anytime they came near a Heineken Cup final they would lose out in the knock outs, usually unexpectedly. They lacked confidence and self-belief. Then in the 07/08 season, they finally won their second Celtic title since the inaugural tournament. It provided the silverware, the desire. Next season they ran out Heineken Cup winners. Was the Celtic win the sole factor in Leinster finally achieving their ultimate goal? No; of course not. Was it a major contributor towards them finally landing top prize? Absolutely, and now based on the current table they have sailed ahead of the competition as comfortable league champions. The Celtic competition has reached such levels of competitiveness now that it can properly test a team, can properly prepare them. Hopefully interest can stay alive in it because without it, the Celtic dominance we are seeing in Europe at the minute would not be possible. Many see it as lesser tournament for second string players but, particularly for Irish fans who are sick of seeing their national coach constantly wheeling out the worn out war horses of the squad, the young players are the ones that bring the spark to these teams, the ones that change the game and tear up the playbook.

Staying on that topic, we can look at a perfect example in the form of Leinster’s untelevised defeat of Dragons on Saturday. Aside from Reddan starting on the pitch and Nacewa on the bench who ultimately went unused, Leinster fielded one of the most inexperienced teams of the season. Though they may have leaked two tries in the final four minutes, they ran out winners away from home with a scoreline that read 22 – 6 until those final minutes. Not a shabby result in any way shape or form for a youthful and untested selection. I had speculated last week that this match could have turned into a rout for Leinster but as match reports would suggest it appears to have been more of a fight put up by Dragons than expected. The performance from this Leinster side is deserving of all the credit it is receiving. Most notably in a season including a World Cup where the B teams are called on even more so, the full depth of the Leinster squad has led to this being the club’s most successful season to date. Just another one of those signs that the Rabo is increasing its significance year by year. Dragons 18 – Leinster 22

In a rather unfortunate turn of events, Connacht betrayed the logic of my opinions on the Rabo and how it develops teams, by losing out severely to Glasgow Warriors. Nikora secured three points for the men in green after fourteen minutes, and after that it was up to Glasgow to score the rest of the game’s points in a match that wound up being a miserable night in Firhill for Connacht. Little or none of their form that saw them win their last three games was on display against the Warriors. As much as the hosts were playing to ensure that nobody got any notions of overtaking them on the table, Connacht also looked wildly lost at times on the pitch, nothing like a team that seemed to be finally hitting its good run of form. The one solace on offer here however is that Saturday is more likely to have been “one of those nights” for them as opposed to being some form of regression that renders the last month a fluke. No Connacht still have a good solid season to put in the books this year, surprising given some of the losing streaks they found themselves on, but a highest ever league finish, once again the opportunity for Heineken Cup experience available and some exciting signings such as Dan Parks, Nathan White and Willie Faloon. All in all they now stand with a big season facing them and a chance to prove themselves given the year of Heineken experience under their belts now. Eric Elwood will be aware of this and will be eyeing up more than the “expected wins” next year Glasgow 24 – Connacht 3

The last bit of Irish action on Saturday was the rematch of Ulster and Munster in Thomond after Ulster became only the second team to hand Munster a European defeat in their beloved fortress. Only the thing is McLaughlin’s team selection made this less of a rematch and more of a lost cause. Munster were playing their last home game of the season, in the last competition of the season they have any investment in, with Mick O’Driscoll playing his last home game and David Wallace sitting in the stands having hung up his boots. Remember what I said about Munster playing with a cause to play for? McLaughlin obviously would pick a team based on less voodoo based features, but surely even he saw this one as a no win situation, clearly keeping an eye firmly fixed on the Holy Grail in Twickers. Even with the team chosen however, Ulster would not have been expected to be beaten so comfortably, though they were not helping their cause early into the match. The 10 minute substitution of Tom Court obviously could not be avoided but the cynical behaviour from Andrew Trimble that led to his yellow card was frankly frustrating to see from such an experienced player, a player who was representing one of the few bodies of experience on the Ulster side of things. Though Ulster weathered the 14 men storm quite well it must be said, they never really seemed right after that moment. Munster made life hell with the likes of Connor Murray and Mick O’Driscoll in particular playing out of their skin. On the Ulster front, one particularly impressive moment came from Iain Henderson who emulated his Stephen Ferris to score a fantastic individual try that included a lovely barrage through Zebo and Jones for good measure. But that was the height of it from the Ulstermen. Worst of all from the match though was the sight of Paul O’Connell in what looked plain and simply like excruciating agony in a ruck and then the terrifying sight of him being helped off the pitch clearly in trouble. We won’t have information on the injury for another few days but it is fairly safe to assume his Munster duties are finished for the season and possibly he will miss the summer tour too. The greatest fear is that this injury could turn into one akin to those of Shane Horgan and David Wallace, and that for all the rehab and physio work he undergoes we may find that at his age and place in his career he can’t recover from it this time. A worry with no real grounds to it at this early stage, but with so many of the old guard clocking out and so many doing so to injury in particular one can’t help but worry. Munster 36 – Ulster 8

All in all, the league has been a success this season for all four Irish provinces, although Ulster would probably beg to differ. Where they can take positives is in how the league games provided them with the platform to blood at least some younger players in order to have some cover on the bench. Though their squad depth is still an issue, the few players who have been involved during the league’s rotation could prove vital on May 19th. As much as they may have been the wrong team on the day, the 23 from Thomond could any one to a man prove vital in two weeks. Again, the Rabo offers this territory for this experience. Ulster will though look back and rue the games where they could have but didn’t secure a bonus point, or the losses they’d rather forget such as Treviso at home. Connacht too will once more have losses to look back on that are hard to swallow. Half of the matches they lost saw them pick up a losing bonus point, showing just how little there was to the final result. Again though their league position and wins such as those over Ulster and Dragons are moments to be built upon and nobody will know this better than Eric Elwood and there is no better man for the job of taking them onwards and upwards. As for the old guard of Leinster and Munster, both teams for the most part kept up standard form they show in this competition. Apart from a grey area over October/November where they recorded the majority of their eight losses, Munster performed admirably in the 11/12 Rabo, most of the time putting 15 – 20 points between them and their opposition. The two problems that face them now however is that number one, they have been schooled twice in the league by their upcoming play-off opponents Ospreys. The second issue is that they seem to have become more comfortable in the domestic arena than the European which they used to command so forcibly. Hopefully the Foley/Penney combination can help rectify this. Leinster it goes without saying have had a fantastic season, the province’s best yet. Three losses, only one between the final week of September and now, phenomenal scorelines such as 54 – 13 on Edinburgh, 52 – 9 on Cardiff, and some of the finest individual performers in the Northern Hemisphere; it would seem the Blue Magic cannot be stopped. Though, once again it can’t be ignored that two of those three losses came from the same opposition, those pesky Ospreys. Have the Welsh figured Leinster out, is that what it is? Whatever the reason, Leinster need to make sure they keep the push going to get every last inch out of their players if they are to achieve that eponymous double and secure their place as truly the best team in Europe, and the one for all others to beat.

Heineken Cup Semi Finals Preview: Ulster Return To Lansdowne & Leinster Return To Scene Of Their Last Fall

As we near the end of the Heineken Cup, it is hard to argue that we are looking at two of the most intriguing and exciting semi-finals in the tournament’s history. As recently as three years ago, Leinster would not have been given a hope travelling to France for a semi, and Ulster wouldn’t be given much hope in a semi full stop. Fast forward and we find both teams, on form at least, the favourites in their respective games. Ulster have been electrifying throughout the competition, not least in their epic battle with Munster, and Leinster are currently 13 matches unbeaten in European rugby. But it could all end this weekend, this is the nature of sport and the essence of rugby, whoever wants it more on the day will come away with it.

Much is being made of Ulster’s lack of depth and it has to be said that this is just about the only Achilles’ heel on show for them ahead of Saturday. By comparison to Edinburgh, their opponents, they have had a much tougher run to this stage having come up against Clermont, Leicester and Munster along the way, as opposed to Edinburgh who had the relatively easier ride with only the floundering competition non-performers Racing Metro in their pool and a slack Toulouse in the Quarter Final. That is not to say that Edinburgh had it easy per say, or that they didn’t play out of their skin to beat the French, but it is fair to say that Ulster have probably had to earn this semi through tougher means. But we cannot ignore the fact that one of those wins, the clash against Munster, was done without the use of a single substitution, something I’d never had the privilege of seeing before. It is definitely a worry that they cannot seem to do without the golden 15 and the inevitable worst case scenario is that they progress and have half their players incapacitated through injury for the final. Putting that aside for now however, Ulster do have what it takes to beat the Scots on Saturday, their bench included. Without the comfort of home, and more importantly with the discomfort of a near packed Aviva with bare bones travelling support, Edinburgh are not likely to pull out a performance equal to that of the one against Toulouse. In apprehension of this game Bradley rested his entire first choice team against Cardiff last week and a depth issue of their own showed as Cardiff handed them a spanking in a 38 – 13 defeat. Then again Edinburgh’s Rabo form has by no means bean a measure of Heineken this year, but all the same Ulster are not by any means up against the conveyer belt of Scottish rugby here either. Ultimately the only thing that can prevent this match from being a well-controlled display from Ulster is if they don’t settle and let factors like the occasion and the stadium creep into their heads. If they manage to keep the intensity they had in Thomond then there is really no other possible outcome except Ulster win

Then we move to one of the years most anticipated and exciting fixtures. Schmidt and his history as Clermont backs coach, Leinster and their returning of the favour to the French outfit in the pools in 2010, Ireland’s wake up call to French rugby in the Six Nations, the fact that Clermont are the last team to have beaten Leinster in Heineken Cup rugby; there is any number of reasons to be absolutely giddy with excitement ahead of this game. From one to fifteen too, regardless of team selection, there is a mouth-watering battle to be found between each position. Thorne up against Hines is a likely one and will prove titanic. Heaslip VS Bonnaire or Rougerie VS O’Driscoll or of course Sexton VS James. Or is that Sexton VS Parra? The current state Clermont find themselves in is that David Skrela is a confirmed absentee for Sunday and as a result Brock James once again is likely to have an entire game ahead of him much like the Sarries game. Who takes kicking duties however will be an interesting call. Sexton VS James is actually more worrying than most would imagine though for, apart from that nightmare game two years ago against the same opposition in a Quarter Final, when he performs he is one of the best technical players around. It is entirely mental strength that gets in the way of him achieving full potential. Playing at home, at least from his team’s perspective, there is a chance of him achieving the required mental strength and proving to be quite a nuisance to Leinster. Most opinion seems to be that Leinster need to front up early and attack Clermont hard from the get go in order to unsettle them and I can’t help but think back to the World Cup warm up game against France in the Aviva last year. Ireland burst in to the game and within 10 – 15 minutes Healy had plowed over the line for a well-earned try. France looked terrified. Now admittedly France went on to win that game, but the fashion in which Ireland began is just how Leinster have to take the game on Sunday. It’s an obvious point to make given that every team ideally wants to start every match with an opening ten minutes try, but Leinster nearly have to do this. An opening penalty or two from Sexton won’t be enough to cut it with the combined kicking ability of James and Parra against them. Think back to the 2011 Six Nations tie against France where Ireland hammered France physically, outscored them three tries to one, and still lost. Parra in particular, is a monotonous kicking machine who can kick from anywhere under any pressure when given the opportunity. This one is near impossible to call, Leinster are the better team but have to travel, which makes them about even really. Then again Leinster haven’t lost on the road this season yet. If in doubt, go with the gut. Leinster win

In other Leinster news, Isa Nacewa has thankfully signed an extension to his contract up to 2013, giving the IRFU a year to think of an excuse to keep him within their new non-Irish rules. It was never really in doubt that the IRFU would make sure Nacewa stayed, but it was getting more and more insulting the longer it ran on that a man such as himself who has given so much to Irish rugby wouldn’t be a shoe in for an extension. Luke Fitzgerald on the other hand is still languishing in limbo with his own negotiations although murmurs from the camp are that he is nearing signing on the dotted line.