On Saturday they kick off their campaign against French giants Toulouse while also in Pool 5 await Llanelli Scarlets – Ulster’s closest rivals in the Magners League – and London Irish, the side that lit up the English Premiership last season with their free-flowing rugby. A tough task, yet Mark McCall’s side may be Ireland’s best shot at regaining what is generally regarded as the best club competition in world rugby.
A sign of their own impressive start to the season, but also a sign of the marked decline of the current European champions Munster. On Friday last, they were turned over at home by Edinburgh, a result that has left them second bottom of the Magners League courtesy of a 2 and 4 start to the season. But there was worse news to come out of Friday. Paul O’Connell failed to make the game while Ronan O’Gara was helped from the field with a shoulder injury. The official word is that both will be fit to start the defense of their Heineken Cup campaign away to Leicester (Cardiff and Bourgoin also await) but Declan Kidney faces an anxious wait, especially with a bench that lacks the quality of some of Europe’s other big names.
Things weren’t much better for Leinster as they fell to bottom of the table Borders. In the process they lost Guy Easterby with a broken jaw, Denis Hickie left the field with a lower back injury and Cameron Jowitt could also face a spell on the sidelines. Michael Cheika’s side begin their campaign against Gloucester this weekend with Agen and Edinburgh making up Pool Two.
The good news for the Irish sides? They may have started badly but so have their main rivals. In France only Stade Francais look the side of recent seasons with both Biarritz and Toulouse sinking in mid-table while in England, it’s Bristol that lead the league after five weeks. Further bad news for those abroad is the season that lies in wait. With the World Cup now on the horizon, unions in England, Wales and France are facing a testing and potentially tiring season. Clubs are determined to get the full worth from those on the pay-roll while national managers will want their big names rested. The latter could come to happen with financial compensation the obvious solution.
Irish provinces face no such problems with their top names already rested for a chunk of the Magners League season. All that tips the balance in favour of the Irish sides despite their obvious negatives. Expect one to triumph in Twickenham in May with the main challenge coming from Wasps and Stade Francais.
Stan’s ‘long, hard
week’ finally ends
If you were Karol Bruckner, how would you have felt? You’ve just left Lansdowne Road with a point, having come up against an average team in free-fall who happen to have an E.R. unit of injuries. Two points dropped? You’d never tell he was unhappy. When the Czech Republic manager wandered into the press conference last Wednesday, there was suddenly a presence in the room. Even though he spoke in Czech, people listened. And when his translator failed to do one of his jokes justice, there was still laughter. Five minutes later, that had all changed…
Steve Staunton sat alone at the top of the room. He was convincing himself the world was against him, keeping alive the siege mentality the FAI have used to hide their embarrassment from the 5-2 defeat in Cyprus. And to help out, he’d spent the last five minutes putting on his angry face in the men’s room, making sure his eyebrows were pointing to the heavens. “The lads were magnificent,” he opened, just as he had after Ireland’s 1-0 defeat to Germany. With all the charisma of a wood-burning stove, on he goes: “It’s been a long, hard week, but it’s gone now… I can’t fault anybody. I’m delighted with everyone… They did everything but win the game… On chances and all-round play we deserved the three points… The back four didn’t make mistakes… The players produced what I know they can produce, and let us not forgot just how many players were out… There’s a long way to go in this group, but we now know what we can do, and I’m not going to give up the ghost on this… We know it’s going to be very tough, but we will give it our best shot.” His answers were short and sharp, aimed at the press who have ridiculed his performance, rather than the public that would read his comments over the next few days.
It’s becoming increasingly obvious Staunton needs to learn quickly, and not only on the pitch. Just because he tells people his team are magnificent, Ireland won’t stand back in awe. To date his managerial career has been a joke. He’s quickly become a laughing stock, and a draw against a team who were dumped out of the World Cup in the first round shouldn’t change that, no matter how great he claims it was. Had Ireland drawn with the Czech Republic and then went out and lost to Cyprus, he’d be out of a job. The sequence of fixtures shouldn’t change that.
Ireland were always going to respond with a performance after the debacle in Nicosia. That’s what Irish teams do, be it Staunton or Sinead O’Connor in charge. But their point against the Czech’s was driven by two players in particular. Lee Carsley – the Everton midfielder who Staunton continuously refused to call up, despite his offers to come out of international retirement, and a player that wouldn’t have made the squad until it became apparent that there might be a spare jersey in the dressing room come kick off. And then there was Man of the Match, Paul McShane – the young West Bromwich Albion defender who wasn’t considered good enough to sit on the bench in Nicosia three days earlier. Desperate times, desperate panic and for Staunton, ultimately luck.
The next two games are against San Marino (six points you’d imagine but the last time we presumed victory…) and that will buy Staunton and the FAI more time as they trundle forward with their four-year plan, blaming all around for their pathetic predicament. At one stage last Wednesday it was the press who were at fault for Staunton having lost all hope of qualifying for the European Championships. When Kevin Kilbane put Ireland 1-0 up against the Czechs, Mick Byrne turned to the press box, grabbed the crest on his jacket, and continued with a foul-mouthed tirade against those with laptops. Maybe, Mick, your wise and appreciated words would have been better directed at the players. Maybe you might have told them to keep focused because within two minutes it was all square?
But let that not ruin a good night’s work. By the end, Byrne was leading the players on a lap of honor, praising the terraces for their continued support. Where once the crowd stood because of a winning performance, now they stood because the players begged them to. Back on the touchline, the Czech manager was watching all of this, as he shook hands with Staunton. Now, how would you have felt if you were Karol Bruckner?
Rules boss Boylan’s nod
to Meathmen shocks fans
The Aussies are coming, and as is the case every couple of years, their self-praise has reached these shores long before the best of their AFL have. We’ve already been told that this year’s side is the best ever… bigger, stronger, faster, higher, whatever you are having yourself. But what was once arrogance is now confidence. The first international rules test takes place under lights in Galway on Saturday, Oct. 28 and the visitors are already overwhelming favorites for the two-match series.
After their display the last time, when they eased to one of the easiest wins the competition has ever seen, it’s no surprise. And many would say Se_n Boylan’s squad selection is further reason for peoples’ negative predictions. The former Meath manager was always going to be a little biased towards his selection but when his Irish squad was announced in the last few days, there was general shock.
Along with Kerry, Meath top the list with five – Kevin Reilly, Anthony Moyles, Graham Geraghty, Joe Sheridan and Charles McCarthy – this from a county that was annihilated by Wexford in the Leinster Championship and that’s been in decline ever since Boylan’s latter days at the helm. With the likes of Tom_s