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Rugby Nerds Look At Ulster And Munster Ahead Of The New Season

Rugby Nerds Look At Ulster And Munster Ahead Of The New Season
By Rugby Nerds
Munster 2013/14 Season Preview

Let's get the ugly stuff out of the way first. Munster's PRO12 campaign last season was bad. Really bad. All the headlines and highlights went to the other competition with little left to cheer in the league. A brief glance over some of the Munster stats makes for grim reading:

  • Missing the playoffs for the first time since they were re-introduced
  • Finishing closer on the table to Connacht (16pts) than Leinster (24pts) or Ulster (27pts)
  • 50% win rate
  • Just 2 wins and a draw from the 10 games against the teams that finished above them
  • Only doing the double over Zebre, Edinburgh and Connacht

Picture credit: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

Compounded by drubbings in Glasgow and Treviso and then having to watch Scarlets have their bellies tickled in the semi-finals, it was a league to forget. Transition and gameplan were the most (over)used words in relation to Munster last season but the crux of it was they frequently didn't play very well.

But enough of the bad stuff. Like every sports fan the world over, in the days proceeding the start of a new season I'm incredibly optimistic about the new campaign. A year into Project Penny, a greater level of clarity and comfort seemed to be developing towards the end of last season in the big games. Now a greater level of consistency is the requirement.

Outhalf

Nothing to see here....

Okay, back up the truck. The King is dead, long live the King. With Jonny Sexton's boss not around anymore out of ROG's shadow need to come Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan. O'Gara had his peaks and troughs last season but saved his troughiest moments for the league (home to Blues and away to Scarlets come to mind). In that sense his retirement won't be so keenly felt, at least initially. Keatley has had a couple of decent seasons as understudy, with strong place kicking stats and a growing influence. His physical presence, pace and strength at the gainline are well suited to Rob Penny's plans, either fixing defenders or exploiting gaps himself. He can be erratic though and was present for plenty of Munster's off days last term (the service he was received was an issue as well).

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Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

The other out-half is of course JJ Hanrahan. The (over?) hyped 21-year-old spent most of last season with the A's but after ROGs retirement will be thrust firmly forward as back-up 10. Undoubtedly talented he looks to have the skills required of a modern out-half. He's likely to be heavily exposed this year at both 10 and 12, it's going to be a huge season for the young man.

One thing is for certain, Munster will be heavily reliant on the fitness of Keatley and Hanrahan.

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Squad Depth

Munster have good depth in certain positions; the third choice lock will be a 90-odd cap international, 5 different back-rowers started HCup games last season all of whom are still around (plus CJ Stander), a plethora of options and combinations are possible for a back 3 from Conway, Hurley, Jones, Zebo, O'Dea, Murphy, O'Mahony (Ronan not Peter) and new signing Gerhard van den Heever.

In other positions the story is altogether different. As mentioned, half-back looks shallow. At loosehead, the release of Wian du Preez leaves Munster thin at Number 1. David Kilcoyne had a great season last time, becoming one of the squads most important carriers and more than holding his own in the scrum. But its only in his second season as first choice and he will be away with Ireland most likely. Next in line at the moment is James Cronin who is making his first ever league start next Saturday. Beyond that the conversion of John Ryan to a dual sided prop is the next option. A serious injury to Kilcoyne could prove disastrous.

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At scrum-half there is a sizable gulf between Conor Murray and the rest and with Murray to be saved for Ireland and HCup duty, the onus is on Sheridan, Williams and Hurley to provide better support for the 10s than was seen at times last season.

Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
 
Old Youngsters

Several fringe players will be trying to (finally) make their mark after years on the outskirts of the squad. It's nearly 3 years since his man-of-the-match performance against Australia but in the intervening years Ian Nagle (24) has still only had only fleeting runs in the team. Retained as his contract ran out, there is clearly faith in him from the coaches. Centre Ivan Dineen impressed at the end of last season and at 26 years old it would be timely for him to take some of the league strain from James Downey. Twenty eight year old Gerry Hurley has been brought in from AIL as cover in the contentious scrum-half position.

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Munster missed 4th place by 8 points last season and looking at some of the loses (home and away to Scarlets, home to Cardiff, away to Dragons) that should be a bridgeable gap and Munster should make their way back into the playoff spots. A few more wins in the derbies wouldn't go amiss either.

Ronan Murphy

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Ulster 2013/14 Season Preview

At last the rugby season is back. Ulster start their campaign against the Dragons tonight and I am looking forward to my annual trip to Rodney Parade to watch their first competitive run out.

The last two seasons have been fantastic but, despite the magnificent demolitions of Leicester and Northampton, and two outings at Twickenham, the Silvo remains unopened.  Ulster enter the new season virtually unchanged which hopefully enable the team to continue uninterrupted on their upward trajectory.

Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Whilst the squad is virtually unchanged from last season, the emergence of Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding, Paddy Jackson and Craig Gilroy as players of international class means that Ulster should start the season in a better place.  And if Nuck the Bruck can reproduce his form of last season we should be there or thereabouts come the end of the season.

At the start of the campaign, we should see plenty of the youngsters as the big hitters rest following their summer exertions. I am looking forward to seeing more of Chris Farrell who, after a solid start, missed most of last season with a serious knee injury. Tall and rangy, he looks a real prospect at inside centre. Luke Marshall starts outside him tonight and let’s hope he can get through a few games without seeing stars because I really want to see his talents flourish on the international stage.

The player who I hope will break through this season is Niall Annett. Rory Best is going nowhere anytime soon, but the young hooker should be targeting Rob Herring’s number 16 jersey for the big games. Dynamic in the loose, his darts are as good as anyone’s.  He has looked quality in his brief appearances for the senior team to date and I hope he gets a lot more game time this season.

Two of Ulsters’ new recruits are returnees.  David McIlwaine, a talented winger and full-back returns after seasons at Doncaster and Bristol whilst James McKinney, former Ireland U20s fly-half comes home following a successful season with Rotherham. Ostensibly brought in as cover for the ginger crooner, he is good enough to compete with Paddy Jackson for the out-half shirt. However, this remains Ulster’s weakest position, even if Anscombe continues with his tactic of moving Pienaar to 10 after 60 minutes. Many, including me, would have liked to see a Jimmy Gopperth style recruit although I suspect that the IRFU NIQ rules, and a lack of cash prevented that.

Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

The fixture list has not been kind to Ulster so they will have to play well if they are to improve on last season. Despite hosting Glasgow in week 2 and travelling to the Sportsgound a fortnight later, the start of the league season is relatively straightforward. However, if they don’t secure their semi-final spot early, they will be up against it with a run in of Glasgow at Scotstoun, Leinster at home and Munster at Thomond in the final weekend of the regular season.

The Heineken Cup draw is equally challenging. Ulster start by hosting the Tigers at Ravenhill when they will be looking for a repeat of that famous night two years ago, although the beating they took at Welford Road last weekend won’t have done much for the confidence. Then they travel to Montpellier and we all know that it is preferable to travel to the south of France in the spring, when hopefully the French have lost interest in the Heiny and are focusing their efforts the Top Quatorze.  If Ulster can come through those then they have a pre-Christmas double-header against Treviso, where anything less than 9 points could mean curtains. They certainly don’t want to be travelling to the East Midlands needing a result to make it out of the group.

Picture credit: Oliver McVeigh / SPORTSFILE

So it should be another cracking season, with plenty of big nights to savour in Ulster’s shiny new stadium. Regrettably it is the last season in which we will get to watch John Afoa and Johann Muller in the red and white. Both have been outstanding signings and must rank as two of the province’s best ever. Muller’s class is beyond question and the pack is never as strong without him, despite the quality of his deputies. But it is Afoa, who will return to New Zealand to join his family at the end of the season, that I will miss more.. He is a freak of a prop, magnificent in the scrum, fabulous about the park with silky skills to shame many a professional centre.  It’s a shame he’s going but our loss will be the Blues’, and hopefully the All Blacks’, gain. Let’s hope Muller and Afoa can take some winners medals with them as mementos of their time in Belfast.

SUFTUM

Paddy Logan

 

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