Magners League: Three things to watch
Ahead of the Magners League this weekend, JOE wonders if Kevin McLaughlin is a viable lineout option for Ireland, whether Ruan Pienaar can shine at out-half and if Munster’s demise has been greatly exaggerated.
Kevin McLaughlin - a lineout option for Ireland perhaps?
As pointed out by JOE columnist Malcolm O’Kelly on a regular basis throughout the Six Nations campaign so far, one of the most worrying aspects of Ireland’s decidedly mixed bag of performances has been the regression of the lineout as an area of strength.
In recent years, it has been one of Ireland’s most potent weapons and at one stage was rivalled only by the formidable South African set-piece in world rugby (although that might be stretching things just a little bit).
There have been valid reasons why the lineout hasn’t been as good as it might be so far this campaign: the leader of the lineout, Paul O’Connell, is still finding his feet after nearly a year out of action, although he has been very effective in the loose of late.
John Hayes, one of the best lifters in the game, hasn’t seen a minute of action due to injury. Jamie Heaslip was missing for the Italy game, while Stephen Ferris, like Hayes, hasn’t been involved at all. Also, if we’re honest about it, the throwing of both Rory Best and Sean Cronin has left a lot to be desired at times.
The absence of Ferris has been keenly felt at lineout time and there have been suggestions that Ireland are badly lacking alternative options for Best or Cronin to aim at, rather than constantly targeting O’Connell or O’Callaghan, which becomes easy to predict after a while.
While Declan Kidney may be loath to break up the back row triumvirate of O’Brien, Wallace and Heaslip, who have looked pretty impressive at times, it may be worth considering Leinster’s Kevin McLaughlin, whose lineout prowess and size are such that he is used in the second row at times.
McLaughlin, like O’Connell, has only recently returned to the fray at provincial level after seven months on the sidelines after knee and shoulder surgery, but has bedded back in with the minimum of fuss. The Irish management are unlikely to throw McLaughlin in at the deep end against Wales next weekend, but will have a keen eye on how he performs against the Scarlets at the RDS nonetheless.
Ruan Pienaar at 10
While Irish rugby fans have been, in the main, occupied with Ireland’s Six Nations campaign for the last few weeks, Ulster’s achievement in qualifying for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the first time in 12 years has been, if not forgotten about, certainly put on the back burner for a while.
The northern province have been quietly plodding away in the Magners League in the meantime and while they haven’t been exactly turning heads, they remain within touching distance of a semi-final spot, continuing what has been a fine season so far.
Ruan Pienaar will play at out half this weekend, a position many believe is his best
After a fantastic start, Ruan Pienaar attracted criticism for some of his performances, but he too has been quietly improving of late. Against Aironi this weekend, he will start at out-half, a position many believe to be his strongest position. Springbok coach Peter de Villiers certainly believes that is the case, judging by his comments last year: “If he wants to play scrum-half (for the Boks) then he must understand he will be fourth in the queue because I believe he is a natural fly-half who can play scrum-half.”
With Ian Humphreys having a sterling season, it is likely that Pienaar will revert back to scrum half before too long, but at least Brian McLaughlin knows he has a ridiculously talented alternative at his disposal should he see fit to mix things up.
Rumours of Munster’s demise have been greatly exaggerated
Numerous obituaries were written about Munster rugby following their exit from the Heineken Cup, as their passionate faithful came to terms with the fact that they wouldn’t have a quarter-final in the competition to look forward to for the first time since 1998.
The players are too old, the management isn’t working and there are no young players coming through are some of the complaints that have been voiced about the Munster set-up at present, but a closer look at their current situation will tell you that it’s not all bad down south.
Should Tony McGahan’s side triumph against the Dragons this weekend, they will be a minimum of eight points clear at the top of the Magners League table with only five games remaining and virtually assured of a place in the semi-final.
OK, they’re out of the Heineken Cup, but still have a Challenge Cup quarter-final to look forward to and anyone that deems that as nothing but a poor relation of the Heineken Cup should bear in mind that Munster were ultimately dumped out of this year’s competition by a team that lost the final of the Challenge Cup in 2010.
If anything, the demise of Munster has been exaggerated because of the startling progress made by their closest rivals Leinster, who are arguably the best team in Europe at the moment. While that will rankle with Munster supporters, they should take solace in the fact that there’s life in the old dog yet.