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FEATURE Irish march towards Premiership play-offs

Irish march towards Premiership play-offs

The business end of the season is starting to dominate the thoughts of teams and while some wither, others propel themselves forwards. London Irish have gathered momentum with a glut of young talent and are pushing hard on a play-off place to join Saracens, Sale Sharks and Leicester in the knockout stages. Meanwhile in the United Rugby Championship, it is Glasgow under Franco Smith who are going toe-to-toe with the big boys are they chase glory.

RugbyPass+ assesses the big talking points from the weekend…

Irish eyes are smiling as they career towards the play-offs

At the end of a pulsating game against Northampton Saints, the London Irish players walked around the Gtech Stadium with broad smiles, waving to well-wishers, embracing families and sucking up the South-West London air. Life smelt good and with it being a St Patrick’s Day party, you would imagine a few Guinnesses were sunk.

Indeed, it’s been quite the turnaround for Declan Kidney’s young side. After eight losses in their first nine games, they have now kicked on for seven wins in nine and are joint t0p try-scorers in the Premiership. Their victory over a lacklustre Saints has left them in a position where they now control their own destiny. Navigate tricky assignments with Saracens and Exeter, who are also likely to be fighting tooth and nail to reach the knock-out stages after a dispiriting loss to Bath, and they will reach their first semi-final in over a decade.

Much praise for this upturn in fortunes must go to the young English core at the heart of the side. Led by Tom Pearson, a swashbuckling 23 year-old who is gathering momentum for an England call-up, they are eking out a reputation as the league’s great entertainers. At full-back, Ben Loader carried for over 200m in a performance full of ambition and even though he blotted his copybook with a botched try-scoring opportunity, in Henry Arundell, they boast the most exciting broken-field runner in English rugby. If you add Ollie Hassell-Collins on the other flank and Will Joseph, still to return from injury, in midfield and you have dynamite. All are 24 and under and play without fear. Chandler Cunningham-South is another rampaging No 8 rolling off the England U20 production line. With Paddy Jackson acting as a cool-headed playmaker and Agustin Creevy making sure the side hit the emotional high-notes, there is growing belief they could yet dent a few reputations as the season draws to a close. A hat-tip to the coaching team is warranted.

Glasgow storm Thomond fortress

There were moments on Saturday evening when the life was sucked clean out of Thomond Park, as though someone had vacuum-sealed the famous old ground, suspending the usual assault of noise and fervour and aggro.

The place was flat-lining by half-time, Glasgow running in four unanswered tries to torpedo the feelgood that had built up around Graeme Rowntree’s new-look Munster side over the past few months.

The rugby on show from Warriors was brilliant in several senses; pragmatic and dogged without the ball, utterly ruthless with it. They scarcely had any possession in that first half and yet they led 28-0 at the break when Domingo Miotti converted a sumptuous, free-wheeling try featuring six neat passes and finished by Cole Forbes.

Munster threatened to rise in the new half, but even at Thomond, the home of rugby miracles, this proved too great a mountain to scale. Every time they grabbed a toehold, Glasgow swiped their legs away.

There was so much to like about that Warriors performance. The sheer variety of it was most compelling. They scored their first try from a brutal driving maul and their fourth, through Forbes, after a glorious spree of offloads. They monstered the home scrum and weaved some sweet attacking patterns in the wider prairies. They had a tackle success rate of 90%, many of the most telling hits made in their own 22. They had the better of the breakdown and the lineout and just about every individual tussle that mattered.

 Sione Vailanu
Glasgow stunned Munster at Thomond Park and reinforce what a good job Franco Smith has done since taking over (Photo By Harry MurphyGetty Images)

Glasgow’s attack sang with beautiful intensity, a feature of the Franco Smith era. Miotti conducted traffic. Stafford McDowall is a player reborn after a trying few seasons on the periphery of the squad. He beat four defenders and averaged six metres per carry. Sione Vailanu has been a talismanic figure in the back-row with the ballast and belligerence of his running.

Ruthlessness was the watchword. With 45% possession, 34% territory and in Jamie Dobie, a scrum-half deputising on the left wing for the first time in his career, Glasgow averaged close to five points per visit to the Munster 22. That’s a fabulous return.

They shipped four second-half tries but were never in danger of seeing their lead overly eroded. Rory Darge, fit again after a long-term ankle lay-off, was a tiger. Twenty-one tackles attempted and 21 nailed, four of them dominant. He will be back in the Scotland XV this summer. Matt Fagerson made 20, Scott Cummings and McDowall 14 apiece.

The Warriors are a team who can do damage in a number of ways. They can take teams on up front through the brawn of their pack or fillet them out wide with the elan of their backs.

They host the beleaguered Dragons in the Challenge Cup last 16 on Saturday. Win that, as they should, and they are two games from a European final. The triumph at Thomond moves them level with Ulster in third place on the URC ladder. Home matches against Ospreys and Connacht give them a huge opportunity to secure a home play-off. An exhilarating season finale beckons.

Welsh rugby votes for change

If you took the weekend’s results in isolation, it would appear Welsh rugby was in rude health. The Wales Women put in one of their most performances in eons by dispatching of a limited Ireland side 36-7 in the opening round of the Six Nations, and in the men’s game, the Ospreys showed their class by comfortably defeating a disappointing Dragons side 37-18. Out in Parma on Friday night, Cardiff Rugby held on to gain a precious 38-34 win over Zebre as they battle to maintain ‘top dog’ status amongst the regions. The most eye-catching result came, however, down in Llanelli, where the Sharks pitched up fully-loaded expecting to take a chunk out of the Scarlets, in a team featuring Springbok World Cup winners Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi and Bongi Mbonambi. Dwayne Peel’s team put in their performance of the season by emerging victorious in a tub-thumping 32-20 win.

However, as anyone with an interest in Welsh rugby will know, the game has been beset by issues for some time and what was far more important that a weekend of lifting uplifting results was what occurred off the pitch, at the Princess Royal Theatre in Port Talbot on Sunday.

By early afternoon, what was considered one of the most important decisions in the WRU’s 142-year history had been made. An unequivocal vote of 97.2% by the union’s 282 clubs in favour of changing the governance of the custodians of the game – this after the union failed the same motion in November with 65.4% of the vote.

Sisilia Tuipulotu
Sisilia Tuipulotu spearheaded a fine performance from the Wales Women in an uplifting weekend for Welsh rugby (Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images)

It ended situation where a union with a near £100m revenue could be dictated to by amateur members of the board. Welsh rugby was in freefall at all levels, from the international team who had won four Tests in sixteen, to the underperforming regions, age-grade teams, right down to the community game.

Months after chairman Rob Butcher left his role, and Steve Phillips was forced to resign amid a sexism, racism and misogyny furore. Credit must go to the interim CEO Nigel Walker and newly voted chairman, Ieuan Evans, who have effectively pushed through a vote that will see them moving aside as a new structure is implemented, with a new Chairperson, a new CEO and the doubling of the independent non-executive directors (INEDs) from three to six.

For the first time, there has been a stated aim to bring in more diversity to the  12-person board, with Catherine Read currently the only female representative.

There is no silver bullet to curing the game’s ills in Wales but it is a hugely positive step in modernising the union and give it a fighting chance to reform. The Welsh team has fallen from the top ranked side in the world in August 2019, to tenth ranked union and with the players nearly striking over the lack of a long-term participation agreement being signed, its captain, Ken Owens, said it had become the ‘laughing stock’ of world rugby. Now, however the fightback to take Welsh rugby back to where it belongs can start in earnest.

Thank you for being a Friend  

Andy Friend is enraptured with this winter game. Grey skies, heavy winds, soft surfaces, hard truths, the Connacht coach has seen it all. At a leadership conference recently he was asked by the host to introduce himself. Friend replied: “I’m Andy Friend, a husband and a father. That’s what defines me.”

He’s also destined to go down in the province’s history.

For five years he has guided and cajoled them, producing brilliant performances and victories, a first away to Ulster in half a century, a first away to Leinster since they moved to the RDS, home and away wins over Munster, a hammering of Stade Francais.

All this while managing a tight budget and a busy departure lounge. Players come and go, the better ones tending to go to wealthier paymasters.

But Friend has stayed.

And now it is paying off. On Saturday they won their fifth URC game on the trot, taking them into the play-off places, close on Munster’s heels. The more celebrated Irish province finish their campaign with two away days in South Africa. Connacht have Cardiff at home and Glasgow away. One win should secure play off rugby this season and Champions Cup qualification for next year which is a considerable feat when you compare their payroll to everyone else’s but an even better achievement when you remember how their season began, with four defeats from their opening five games.

Andy Friend
Andy Friend has braved the Wild west of Ireland weather and been welcomed into the rugby community (Photo By Eóin Noonan/Getty Images)

That they didn’t panic largely stems from their director of rugby, the composed former Brumbies coach, who remembers darker moments in his life than a losing streak.

Friend uses three words to describe himself – competitive, considered, caring. On the walls of their Galway training base, Connacht have three words of their own printed in big, bold print: ambition, belief, community. Their choice of words aren’t too dissimilar to his.

There is so much more to him, though, than three short words. At 52-years-old he has lived a life. No one gets to 52 without sorrow.

As Brumbies coach he remembers when one of his players, Shawn Mackay, passed away at 26.

That traumatic incident has served to remind Friend of the important things in life.

So when Connacht flirted with the bottom position in the URC, when the play-offs seemed a long way off, not just at the start of the season, but also in the recent past, he kept in control, continued to believe in his players, and most importantly in himself. Right now the attitude is paying off. Connacht are on their way to the quarter-finals. No one, least of all Ulster, will relish the idea of facing them.

Newcastle show their snarl

These have been troubling weeks for Newcastle Falcons, big players moving on mid-season and Dave Walder, their head coach, placed on gardening leave after an apparent fall-out with the men running the club and its recruitment.

George McGuigan, the free-scoring hooker, went to Gloucester aawefwae. England prop Trevor Davison left, with immediate effect, for Northampton Saints. Gary Graham will join ProD2 side Carcassonne in the summer. Several French presidents are said to be thumbing through their chequebooks with an eye on Mateo Carreras while Callum Chick, so often the club’s beating heart from number eight, will be hard to retain next season as his contract expires.

Falcons will always live staunchly within their means. Owner Semore awfe Kurdi, has never been drawn into the arms race for the Premiership knockouts and his prudency has kept the club mercifully free from the financial strife that has ravaged England’s top tier. With no relegation, Newcastle can consolidate their Premiership status, albeit in the lower reaches of the league. Their seat at the top table is so important, stationed where they are in the far northeast.

Adam Radwan
Adam Radwan was part of a heroic 14-man Newcastle win over Gloucester (Photo by Chris Lishman/Getty Images)

Newcastle should be a club forged on home-reared talent. Their relative remoteness from any other Premiership club allows them a broad catchment to utilise. They can, and do, dip their hands in to the Scottish Borders and offer young talent a path to the Premiership which may be more attractive than academy gigs at log-jammed Glasgow or Edinburgh.

The recent negativity is a shame, for there’s a real snarl about this squad. They seem to thrive in adversity, playing some of their best, most defiant, stuff when facing a numerical disadvantage. For over an hour on Friday, they took on semi-final-chasing Gloucester with 14 men and put them to the sword. Richard Palframan’s 16th-minute red card gave them a colossal task. But the Falcons were workmanlike, gutsy, and when it mattered downright dangerous. Carreras on one wing, the deadly Adam Radwan on the other. Radwan scored one try and saved another with stunning last-ditch defence. Tying down the England flying machine on a new contract was superb business. Elliott Obatoyinbo dazzled at full-back. The Argentine Matiases, Orlando and Moroni, offer class and guile when both are fit.

Newcastle have their limitations, of course. A small budget will always restrict their depth. They cannot shop in the same markets as Bristol or Leicester or Bath or any of the clubs with bulging gate receipts and bulging wallets, owners who are happy to bankroll their ambition. Friday night at a sizzling Kingston Park was a timely reminder of what they can be.

Great Scott – when will he get his break?

Scott Penny has scored 28 tries now in 53 games for Leinster. You should know his name. But outside of Ireland not many do.

Penny’s problem, you see, is Josh van der Flier. Each compete for the No7 shirt with Ireland and Leinster. One is a world player of the year. That doesn’t leave much space for the other.

Yet whenever he has been given a chance, Penny has taken it. Such is his form that he was named on the Pro14 team of the season in 2021, the year he also ended up as the competition’s leading try scorer.

He’s superb. He’s prolific. He did the business again on Friday against the Stormers, scoring again to help Leinster overcome a 17 point deficit to register a draw and preserve their unbeaten record.

But he remains Irish rugby’s best kept secret, appearing in just one Champions Cup tie in his career to date, and yet to feature for Ireland. How much longer can his patience endure? Penny for his thoughts.

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