A weekend of Pro 12 fixtures that pit Zebre V Munster, Cardiff V Connacht, Leinster V Ospreys and Ulster V Glasgow could hardly be described as bumper weekend of rugby. It’s way too early in the season to get that carried away. But at the same time the second round of the competition has already thrown up some interesting points for discussion.
First up Munster’s trip to Zebre is the beginning of an extended stay in Italy. After arriving in Parma Thursday they play on Saturday before transferring to Lake Garda until Wednesday and then transfer on to Treviso for next week’s round three of the Pro 12.
Nice work if you can get it I hear you say. Well not really as it will be training as usual, except at a different venue. Most players would probably prefer to be back at their usual training venue and sleeping in their own beds between games.
The Zebre coach, Andrea Cavinato, bemoaned the fact that they were too cautious last week against Connacht and didn’t show any adventure. Rob Penny played the usual compliment to the opposition by saying what a good side they are and how physical they would be.
Cavinato’s hint that Zebre may be more adventurous this week hardly signals they will be trying to emulate the Barbarians. Also, Munster have never been a team that has been concerned about physicality from the opposition. That prospect is unlikely to keep Rob Penny awake on Friday night. Probably the only thing that might make Munster cautious is scraping home 27 – 25 in last year’s fixture.
The real talking points for Munster are in selection. Having missed last week through a dead leg he picked up in the pre-season against Gloucester, Andrew Conway makes his first competitive start. Great things are expected of Conway in the red shirt and rightly so. He is a very talented young player.
The fact he has moved from Leinster to Munster is good development all round. Not too long ago players were reticent to move provinces and would even consider moving overseas before doing so. It was not the norm when Eric Miller moved to Ulster in the late 90’s. Players seemed to avoid doing so based on some old fashioned loyalty rooted in the amateur era.
But in recent years it has become much more prevalent. To mention a few transfers Bernard Jackman and more recently Mike McCarthy have moved to Leinster from Connacht. Fionn Carr did the same and then came back. Willie Faloon moved to the west from Ulster and became the 2012/13 Connacht Player of the Year.
The transfer of players between provinces is healthy for the game, especially if the player finds a logjam in their position. Better players move provinces than move countries.
The selection of Damien Varley ahead of Mike Sherry at hooker looks like a case of rotating players. Coaches often rotate players early in the season to gauge form. One wonders if the selection of JJ Hanrahan is a similar rotation. If so, it would suggest that the fly-half shirt is very much up for grabs. This is not the scenario that Ian Keatley was hoping for. On Ronan O’Gara’s departure he would have hoped he was definitely the heir apparent. This selection might suggest that is not the case.
Connacht head to Cardiff and with Lions Alex Cuthbert starting his first game of the season for Cardiff, it will be a tough assignment. The interesting selection here is Gavin Duffy returns from injury and starts at full-back with Robbie Henshaw playing at outside centre. Up to now Henshaw has played most of his rugby at full-back.
With his talent, Robbie Henshaw is capable of playing most positions across the back line. But it is important he soon settles into one position and plies his trade there. His future could well be in the #13 shirt. If he remains at outside centre this season, Joe Schmidt will surely pay close attention. With Brian O’Driscoll due to retire in nine months it is not yet clear who will replace him for RWC 2015. But what Henshaw doesn’t need is a season of playing in numerous positions. Becoming a “jack of all trades and a master of none” is not in the best interests of the youngster.
In Ulster, Mark Anscombe has responded to last week’s loss to the Dragons by making seven changes to the team. Andrew Trimble’s is the only forced omission, which is due to a finger injury, and will make him unavailable for at least four weeks. The other changes are possibly Anscombe sending an early message that last week’s performance, he describes as “poor”, will not be acceptable going forward.
The omission of Paul Marshall is an interesting call. Marshall has become known for his firecracker appearances off the bench for Ulster late in the game. It often energises Ulster in the final quarter. But he has been prone to not sparkling as brightly when he in on from the start. Last Friday night in Rodney Parade would be one of those performances.
But Marshall has been the back up scrum half to Ruan Pienaar since Pienaar’s arrival in Ulster. On the completion of the Rugby Championship, Pienaar is due to return in time for the first round of the Heineken. Should Marshall remain in his support role, it would make sense to give him as much rugby as possible before Pienaar’s return.
Marshall will surely be nervous about being demoted to the bench. At the same time, he will not be the only person that is nervous in Ravenhill.
This is a tricky one for Ulster. Glasgow had great season last year and have been going from strength to strength under Gregor Townsend. Buoyed by their win over Cardiff last week they also have Stuart Hogg, Ryan Grant, DTH van der Merwe and Josh Strauss back for their first start of the season. They will certainly be up for this game and would see a win in Ravenhill as a great scalp.
For Ulster, losing the first two games of the league must be avoided at all costs, especially since it is against Scottish opposition. The last time a Scottish side won at Ravenhill was December 2009 and that side was Glasgow. A bad start to the season was not in the script for Ulster so already the pressure is palpable.
Leinster face the Ospreys and even though it is at the RDS they will be cautious. The Ospreys have been a thorn in Leinster’s side in recent year. The most painful intersection being in the Pro 12 Final of 2012 at the RDS when in the final minute of the game Shane Williams snatched victory for the Ospreys.
It was the week after Leinster had beaten Ulster in the Heineken Cup Final and Leinster had put their celebrations on hold in order to ensure they would be celebrating the double a week later. That had to hurt. At the time for the players, it took some of the shine off their Heineken victory and for that reason it won’t be easily forgotten.
The notable selection for Leinster, apart from the return of Shane Jennings as captain, is Ian Madigan’s appearance on the bench. One assumes he will appear on the pitch at some point at least as a tactical substitution. But will it be for Jimmy Gopperth or in some other position. In the battle of the fly-halves it is getting very close to game on!!