The Mole is back, three weeks into the domestic season, just like an international. Is the player management program of any benefit? We’re not sure either, so let’s just ease back into things and see how we get on.
Leinster started the season away to Llanelli, who they also face in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup. Leinster have made a habit of slow starts under Joe Schmidt and this season was no exception. Llanelli away is a very difficult fixture and the Mole expects the Scarlets to be a playoff team this season. Perhaps it was no harm to go there with a depleted team in a game that served a wake up call. The following match was against the Dragons. While I’m a fan and defender of the Rabo, there’s something about a league where one team can field a lot of third choice players and still win by 20 points that’s unsettling.
“But it’s just like Man Utd in the Premiership!” I hear you cry, “and everybody loves the Premiership, the top, top league in the world.” Maybe, but the qualification-for-the-Heineken-Cup-debate is going to be one of the defining memes of the season, so we’ll get back to that later.
More immediately, there was another fine display from Madser who has become quite the media darling, no surprise in these quarters. Two players that caught my eye were Cooney and Cullen. Leo got on the ball an awful lot against the Dragons and looked fitter and more mobile than he has done for a number of years. Perhaps it’s the new Achilles tendons he had installed last year or perhaps it was Brad Thorn showing him what was possible in your mid-to-late 30s but the captain had a fine game. This is good for Leinster because they are skinny at second row. Cooney also impressed with slick passing, high tempo rhythm and outstanding defending. After his display away to the Ospreys last season it looked like he would disappear to Rotherham forever but he has bounced back and promises a lot. As an aside, Jamie Heaslip looked very fit, albeit only as waterboy. That is encouraging for Leinster who haven’t seen the best of their number 8 since he injured his ankle in Clermont two seasons ago.
Ulster have been quick out of the blocks. With Rory McIlroy dominating golf, it’s a fine September to be a Nordie sports fan. Their season, like last, will be defined by the fitness of John Afoa. More than Pienaar or Ferris, Afoa is the totem of this Ulster team. That’s not good news for Declan Fitzpatrick and we’ll be interested to note how much insistence there is from the Irish camp about Fitzpatrick getting more game time this season. Jared Payne looks a good signing and Ulster will benefit when he links with Tommy Bowe as a counter attacker. Pienaar’s return will make for interesting viewing. The incumbent Springbok scrum half is a great man to have but doubts remain over Ulster’s outhalfs. Will Pienaar be selected one out or does he have it written in the small print that he must play at nine?
Munster have also started well and taking Edinburgh’s scalp in Murrayfield surprised me, because the Scots had recruited well during the summer and look strong. Rob Penney exudes positivity and has said all the right things. I’m interested in how many Munster players make declarations in the media about their position under his watch. It was a surprising feature of McGahan’s tenure but I suspect that Penney and O’Donovan will run a tighter ship.
I’ve been a Billy Holland fan for a number of seasons and have been disappointed at his lack of progression so it’s encouraging that he’s started the first two games. The absence of two test locks helps of course. Penney is about more than PMA. As a former chief executive of a union (Marlborough), he has been a suit as well as a tracksuit. He’s aware of the commercial and political nuances in the game and it is the latter that is rumoured to have cost him a job as the director of a Super Rugby franchise. Penney, allegedly, does not get on with Steve Tew, the CEO of NZRU. If anyone knows more about this, please leave a comment below. He’s a good coach a long way from home.
Connacht’s loss at home to Cardiff was very disappointing. I’m not hoping for big things from Connacht, just that they close the gap a little. The home win against Harlequins in appalling conditions last season, along with not finishing last in the league, somehow made their season palatable by consensus. It wasn’t that great an achievement. Zebre (Aironi), Treviso and the Dragons are all pretty rubbish unless they’ve their full complement of internationals playing, while Edinburgh struggled with a thin squad last season. Cardiff were there to be beaten and Eric Elwood’s team need to start scoring tries. On the evidence of the weekend, Leinster 2.5s look more potent than Connacht – a lot of that reflects coaching and ambition.
Outside of the Irish teams, I’m expecting good things from Llanelli and Edinburgh, as alluded to above. Llanelli put together a solid season last year after a dreadful start and have the potential, from this detached viewpoint, of representing their region like a great club. Any Welsh readers can tell me if I’m delusional or in the ball park? Edinburgh signed John Yapp and Willem Nel, bulking up their front row corps, which was much needed. Bradley’s team play an exciting brand of high tempo rugby although their defence was dreadful last year, Neil Back’s arrival as forwards coach should help with that.
Most interesting for Irish fans is that Easterbunny and Bradley are both well decorated Irish internationals. With Conor O’Shea having led Harlequins to the Premiership last season and Mark McCall involved in the thick of project Saffacens, there is a growing number of Irish coaches working at the top level. With the current coaching ticket coming to the end of its contract, expect to see many more column inches written about this quartet.