Zero Rucks Given; Jerry Flannery's rugby blog
In the first of his weekly rugby blogs, Fla previews the new season and why it is now or never for Ulster.
The beginning of a new season in the RaboPRO12 yields so much hope and so much expectation for all the teams involved, even poor old Zebre. I’m writing this over in London, where I’ve been working on the strength and conditioning side of things at Arsenal but I’ve been keeping a keen eye on the rugby back home, and will do for the coming season.
Anyway, despite the fact that I'm currently spending my days trying to help talented young footballers from every corner of the world become powerful animals, I realise that first and foremost I’m an expert rugby analyst and it would be shameful of me not to share my gift with the world.
At first I didn't believe I was truly gifted, people would approach me after watching me on TG4 and rave about my performance. I would go all shy, awkwardly shuffle my feet and tell them I'm nothing special, just doing my job. But as time went by I watched at how certain things which came to me so effortlessly, like dressing well and making insightful analysis, seemed to cause others great consternation.
Seeing men I soldiered with and respected like Frankie Sheahan constantly talking about reset scrums or how well Pete O'Mahony was doing, game after game listening to Alan Quinlan consistently reference how he's actually a personal friend of Paul O Connell and Ronan O'Gara or cringing at poor old George Hook as his clown outfits molest the eyeballs of the RTE viewers made me realise that I really had a special talent when it came to looking fantastic and delivering incredible rugby observations. Therefore, it’s great to have another season of rugby to look forward to and to have a chance to share my views and thoughts on JOE.ie.
One team in particular that really interests me this year is Ulster. They've been there or thereabouts for the past couple of seasons. They have to make that step now because if they don’t the team could start to fall apart. You can’t keep saying ‘we’ll learn from this defeat, this setback, we’ll be back stronger next year’. They have key players in the prime of their careers right now, the likes of Rory Best, Nick Williams and Pienaar so it's crucial they capitalise on that and win something. They've had less movement than any other province, so they’re my tip to win it from the outset.
As for Leinster, they have the quality, they have the attitude and they know how to win, it’s just transitioning now from Joe Schmidt to Matt O’Connor. I think people might overplay the Jonny Sexton thing. Jonny was undoubtedly one of the key drivers of standards in the Leinster camp but its a testament to the strength of the Leinster academy system to have produced a player like Ian Madigan to step in and take over. Madigan is an excellent athlete and I think as he adds that bit more patience to his game he’s going to be a star player for them this year.
In Connacht, they have to deal with the post Eric Elwood world. I have massive respect for Eric and what he achieved at the province. Pat Lam (below) may not look to incite the same local ‘passion play’ stuff that Eric did, and if you look at some of Connacht’s biggest wins in recent years, they were the result of impassioned stuff from Eric. I've been very impressed with the job Connacht rugby have done in growing the game throughout the province and this is reflected in the amount of quality players that have come through the Connacht underage system to the current senior set up.
Connacht need to be able to consistently grind out games, especially in the long, hard road that is the Rabo and if Lam can build on the foundation laid by Elwood then this is a real possibility. Despite the loss of Mike McCarthy to Leinster they have a lot of young players in the likes of Henshaw, Marmion and McKeon who got good exposure last season and there's no reason to think they can't step their game up again significantly this season. The addition of Fionn Carr is also a bonus as he's a proven try scorer and he sounds like Pee Wee Herman when he talks.
As for Munster, I reckon the current team is just as talented as the squad was when I was there. We were lucky enough to stay together long enough that most of us hit our best years at the same time. When you look at the current lads like Peter O’Mahony, Mike Sherry, Dave Kilcoyne, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Felix Jones and Conor Murray, they have ownership of this team now. Pete is the perfect fella to captain this team. He grew up playing with most of them, so he’s accessible to the younger lads.
Sometimes, with younger players coming through who want to make their mark, it can be difficult if there is a player like Ronan or Paul there as they feel a little in awe of them but, for me, the decision to pick O’Mahony puts out the message that this is the new generation’s team.
Time will tell just how much Ronan's retirement will be felt. You can never say it is all about one player but it is hard to explain how important ROG was to Munster. With the likes of him, it’s not just his on-field stuff, it’s the general presence and influence he had about the place.
And, with JJ Hanrahan (below) and Ian Keatley battling for the No 10 spot, it should help as there isn’t massive pressure on just one of them to step into ROG’s boots and be the new Messiah. It’s similar in Leinster with Madigan and Gopperth, the burden is shared and competition is healthy.
I think Munster are probably behind Ulster and Leinster at this point, but last year's European Cup run could hopefully act as a catalyst for the current squad to whet their appetites after running Clermont so close .
Away from the Irish teams, I fancy Glasgow to go well, I love watching their little genius Matawalu, whilst the Ospreys, with the likes of Alun Wyn-Jones, Hibbard and Adam Jones, also look like potential challengers.
As an aside I'm also curious as to how the recent Lions tourists fare over the upcoming season. A Lions tour takes a lot out of the body (I lasted about 25 minutes on the 2009 tour before I, so, so tragically, broke my elbow) so it'll be interesting to see how clubs manage the returning players to avoid them breaking down.
I'm also looking forward to seeing how the likes of Murray and Zebo will have developed as potential franchise players for Munster after working with so many top class players over the tour. Taking a good break on your holidays is another important area after an intensive tour. I know those two lads worked hard on relaxing, getting away from the spotlight and rugby, these things are very important, so I'm predicting big things from those lads.
It should be some season…