Muddy Waters

The waters are muddying. We thought we had it all under control. Michael Bent, 17 forwards, six half-backs leaving a jam to squeeze eight players in to suffieciently cover off all the outside back positions. Done!

Then Isaac Boss goes and plays so badly that Ian Madigan looks set to be required to cover scrum-half in the now-unthinkable scenario where one or both of Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan get injured. It’s a bit of a throwback to 2007 when Geordan Murphy was nominally our third choice fly-half. Madigan has scarcely any experience there, and while Schmidt has no doubt thought this through very carefully, the best we can go on is that Madigan is a really good passer and quick over the ground, so he has some of the constituent parts of the scrum-half’s game. Time was that was probably enough, but given the modern day scum half’s requirement to dig slow ball out of messy rucks, escape the attentions of flailing limbs before getting the ball away and box-kick for territory, it’s not that simple.

Anyway, the hope is that it will simply never come to pass. Madigan might have to fill in there for 20 minutes against Canada, but that’s likely to be as big a deal as it gets. Hopefully. And no, this isn’t like Matt Giteau acting as emergency third scrummie for Oz – Gits is outrageously talented and one of the best players in the world – he has six caps for the Wobblies at scrum half. We would be asking Madigan to do something he hasn’t ever done before – well, almost never.

However, what it would do is allow one extra berth in the back five, which was looking worryingly tight with just eight names, especially with cover at centre and full-back looking like being a mish-mash of players more used to playing in other positions. Ian Madigan was down in most people’s heads as the primary cover at 12, but it would seem to be a peculiar everything-and-nothing workload for the bequiffed one to have to perform the role of back-up for three different positions. Here’s how we saw it:

Centres: Henshaw, Payne, Earls

Wings: Zebo, Bowe, Trimble, Dave Kearney

Full-backs: Rob Kearney

Cover for inside centre would have been provided by Madigan, and Zebo would be primary cover for full-back.

That’s your eight, and excludes Luke Fitzgerald, Felix Jones and Darren Cave, as well as those further down the pecking order, Gordon D’arcy and Craig Gilroy.

The Madigan-to-9 thing would allow room for one more of the above names to squeeze in. A lifeline for Fitzgerald? That might be one’s first assumption, but given the woefully thin cover at centre, it might just be that someone like Darren Cave, more specialised centre cover and comfortable at both 12 and 13, could be drafted in. A further option is to bring Felix Jones, just the type of hard-running, hard-working player Schmidt appears to be a big fan of, could make it, with Zebo allowed to focus solely on the wing.  Too much is perhaps made of the ability of Payne and Henshaw to cover full-back.  They’re Ireland’s first choice centre partnership, so Schmidt would be loathe to have to break them up in the event of injury to Kearney.  It’s too much shuffling around.

The Welsh selection may start to reveal some, or none, of this. The plot thickens, the picture becoming less clear, rather than more clear, by the day.

Jobs for the Goys

Leinster have named Leo Cullen as their new head coach today, in a move that will surprise exactly nobody, having been leaked and rumoured since Matt O’Connor bit the dust at the end of last season. What is surprising is the following nugget reported by Murray Kinsella this morning:

It’s understood that Leinster had moved to make Cullen permanent head coach, before IRFU performance director David Nucifora expressed his concerns.

What? Leinster are appointing an insider over the objections of the Union’s Performance Director? Now, we don’t know what those objections might be (coaching qualifications and experience, or something more benign) but that’s strange. Remember that part of Nucifora’s role is to “ensure that both playing and coaching talent is developed to provide a prosperous long-term future for the provincial and national teams”. It also raises another question – this has been rumoured for months, so Nucifora has had plenty of time to object.

As it stands, Cullen has a worryingly low amount of experience to take over as head coach of one of Europe’s top teams (at least in ambition) – he retired after winning the 2013-14 Pro12 and has one (disappointing) season as forwards coach behind him. By contrast, when Axel got the Munster job, he had retired six years previously (putting significant distance between himself and the then playing corps) and had the following experience:

  • 2 years as Munster A coach
  • 3 years as Munster forwards coach
  • 2 games as Irish Wolfhounds coach
  • 1 Six Nations as Ireland forwards coach

Even then, plenty of fans, Munster and otherwise, expressed the view that Axel was a bit raw for the job – and his all-Munster (© every piece Gerry wrote last season) coaching ticket certainly didn’t add any experience. At least Cullen hasn’t that problem, with Kurt McQuilkin and Richie Murphy in his backroom staff, alongside Girv the Swerve and John Fogs.

Leinster have had a decade of coaching stability due to an in-depth and considered appointment process – Cheika and Schmidt were huge successes and while O’Connor was something of a disaster, the process by which he was selected and appointed wasn’t to blame – it just didn’t work out.

Now, Cullen is a Leinster legend and a great guy, but if the likes of Nucifora are advocating appointing someone else, presumably a Penney-esque figure for him to serve under for a few years, it is not exactly the sort of all-encompassing endorsement that the Leinster branch would be looking for.  Presumably, Nucifora has been appeased, at least in so far as he can be.  Indications from earlier this summer are that Leinster did indeed cast the net wider in order to attract experienced coaches, but found the response to be less than overwhelming.  It’s a case of going with what appears to be the best available solution.

It calls into question just how attractive the provincial jobs are seen by for’d’ners.  To our own ferverishly passionate eyes, all we can see are the world class players, rousing rivalries with neighbouring provionces, stadia full of well-heeled fans and traditions of sporting excellence, but against that must be considered the high expectations, limited access to the best players and perhaps an increasing sense that the primary function is to serve the national team.  To an extent there appears to have been a sea change; Munster and Leinster now both boast indiginous head coaches, while Neil Doak oversaw Ulster’s bid for glory this season.  But is it that the Antipodean coaches of whom we appear to have been so fond are now out of vogue, or simply aren’t that interested any more?

When Jonny Wilkinson retired from playing, at the same time Cullen did, he moved into a coaching role with Toulon (he is a “specialist skills mentor” – whatever that is). It was acknowledged that, like Cullen, he has always been a leader and has performed a pseudo-coaching role most of his career. But no-one in their right minds considered appointing him as head coach after one season – because that would be fraught with risk in a sport where sustained success is not guaranteed. Leinster have been left with  little choice but to do just that.

Off The Plane

Ireland’s pre-season knockabout against Scotland in front of a half-full Palindrome will probably be forgotten rather quickly – we were ragged and loose and allowed the Scots to have a bit of fun at our expense. Vern Cotter will feel like it was something of a moral victory that his team piloted by Greg Tonks, carried by Mercurial David Denton and containing the first Scot to be capped as both a back and forward in over 100 years forced Ireland to look so vulnerable.

Joe Schmidt, on the other hand, got a look at a few of the faces on the fringes of his squad and some new combinations as well – and the RWC squad situation looks much clearer as a result.  This is the post where you can insert your own use of the well-worn phrases ‘Off The Plane’, ‘Fellas putting their hands up’.

In the forwards, the identity of the second row and back row are set in stone now – Dan Tuohy looked wild and unstructured and nothing like a ‘Schmidt player’ and is likely out of the picture, and the unlikely task for Jack Conan to dislodge Schmidt favourites Chris Henry and Jordi Murphy isn’t going to happen.

If we take five props, as seems likely, the 17 forwards will be:

  • Church, McGrath, Bent, Ross, Moore, Best, Cronin, Strauss
  • O’Connell, Toner, Henderson, Ryan
  • Heaslip, O’Brien, O’Mahony, Henry, Murphy

If we take six, Killer (who had a pretty useful outing, albeit with the traditional three penalties) and Nathan White look like the choices. Either way, they won’t be venturing too far from the training paddock – for if there is an injury to a front line prop, they are likely to be flown over pronto and parachuted straight onto the Test 23 bench.

We didn’t learn a whole lot from the halves – sure, Isaac Boss is slow to the ruck and ponderous when he gets there, but we knew that already. But Boss is going as third choice scrum-half, and the only alternative is Kieron Marmion, who is deemed to raw for the squad this time around. Knowing the premium Schmidt puts on players being in camp and around the group, the odds of Boss being usurped are low.  Boss is going to his third world cup.  Remarkable in many ways, but there you have it.

Madigan gave the traditional curates egg of a performance – flashes of Spencer-esque creativity, good off the tee but always culpable to brain farts. Nonetheless, he tipped the balance in favour of the positive.  His distribution in the lead-up to Zebo’s try was superb.  He appears to relish playing under Schmidty, and Schmidt seems to get the best of him. He’s going to go as bench outhalf, and after a miserable couple of years toiling under O’Connor, the World Cup could be a restorative event for him.

Among the outside backs, it got interesting.

It gave absolutely no-one any pleasure to see Dorce left so comprehensively marooned on the day he overtook the great Mike Gibson as Ireland’s longest serving player. The pace had long gone, the dancing feet have been going for a while, but it was sad to see the defensive reads and positional certainty be exposed by the likes of Tonks and Peter Horne. It felt to us like a waste of a pick (at this stage, Darren Cave can do everything Darce can, and more, so why bother?) before the game, but it’s clear now – there will not be any fairytale and Dorce will not be going to his fourth RWC. He undoubtedly feels he has more to offer, so let’s hope this season turns out to be productive for him – for Leinster.

Zeebs was named as Quinny’s man of the match, which was generous, if not outrageous. We would have gone for O’Brien or the excellent Jared Payne, but there you go. Zebo played well, was solid under the high ball, scored a nice try. He could be ahead of Felix Jones in the reckoning if Schmidt rates his obvious qualities as more relevant than his occasional tendency to error. Either way, you’d imagine he’s ahead of Fitzy, who looked to have reverted to the skittish trying-too-hard Fitzgerald of four years ago, well-taken try aside. While Earls and Zebo have looked assured and confident in this series so far, Fitzgerald was quite the opposite. The sight of Dishy Dave coming off the bench to good effect won’t be making him sleep much easier either. We’ll look at this one in more depth in a few days, but Fitzgerald could well be in a bit of bother.

Peter O’Reilly mentioned last Sunday that Dave Kearney has apparently been outstanding in training, and he certainly appeared tack-sharp in his cameo appearance.  We can expect to see him start the next match.  Kearney was a mainstay of Schmidt’s first season with Ireland but last year never got going with injury ruining his season.  He’s become something of a forgotten man but could be about to burst back on to the scene.

Glass Half Full

Four years ago, the half-back combination were Ireland’s biggest personnel headache heading into the World Cup – at scrum-half, Tomas O’Leary was the first choice but was playing like a drain – he was being kept out of the Munster team by young tyro (© Gerry) and 4th choice at Ireland Conor Murray and all attempts to play him into form were progressively worse. One out, after 18+ months of prevaricating between Jonny Sexton and RADGE, we still had not decided on our starting outhalf.

Unsurprisingly, this all came back to bite us – while Conor Murray smoothly stepped up and ended the tournament as starter, it was too much to ask of him to play the French petit general role. That one went to Ronan O’Gara Jonny Sexton Ronan O’Gara, which didn’t work out. Not Radge’s fault, but chickens came home to roost.

This time around it’s all so different – bringing Benty (PLEASE – let’s keep him out of this one below the line) means we have space for an extra back, which looks like being Ian Madigan, meaning squad selection dilemmas are virtually nil.

Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton would likely be the Lions starting pair if a tour started tomorrow, and Eoin Reddan is the back-up change-up scrummie on the bench.  Reddan had a poor season for Leinster, but was superb against Wales, albeit with the ball presented on a silver platter.  The only remaining question is who Sexton’s backup is – while he has started 15 games under Schmidt, he has only finished 2, with 1 of those being injury-enforced – so this is a live question.

Under Schmidt, Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan and Ian Keatley have all started one game but Jackson and Madigan have vied for the first reserve position, with Jackson sitting on the bench for the 2014 Six Nations (except, famously, the last game) and Madigan for the other series. The generally accepted pecking order is that Madigan is the bench guy, but if Sexton is injured Jackson or Keatley are preferred. Since Keatley displaced Jackson in the squad for the 2014 November internationals, their form-lines have sharply diverged – Jackson has returned from injury playing heads-up and sharp rugby right on the gainline and is a good defender, while Keatley was a harrowed mess by season end. Madigan, the best goal kicker of the three by a distance, was stuck behind Jimmy Gopperth for most of Matt O’Connor’s Leinster reign, and was playing like Keatley for the tail end of it. When the wider squad was named, Keatley was out and Jackson and Madigan were in.

Jackson started the Wales game, playing well but kicking from the tee again remains a concern, and the received wisdom is that Mad-dog will get a shot at Scotland. And the likelihood is that all three will make the squad – Jackson will be Sexton’s nominal backup if he goes down while Madigan will wear number 22. If Sexton does go down and Jackson starts a Test, the biggest question remains around his place-kicking – while Sexton and Madigan are 80+% men, Jackson is 70%, on a good day (he went 4/7 against Wales and missed one easy kick). Can we trust an outhalf who isn’t a guaranteed kicker? It certainly contributed to Sexton’s demotion in 2011.

This time around, Jacko has been working with Dave Aldred, and Richie Murphy chalked Jackson’s first missed kick in the Millennium down to it being his first of the season coming early in the game, and him not being settled in his breathing yet. Mind you, would you trust Madigan to start a game, even with his kicking? At least it’s better than 2007, when the backups were Paddy Wallace (centre) and Geordy Murphy (fullback).

At least we know both will make the squad. At scrummie, the third slot seems likely to go to Isaac Boss, who, incredibly, will be going to his 3rd World Cup (as will Eoin Reddan) despite just 7 starts for Ireland – which must be some kind of record. At least Boss has been in and around matchday squads under Schmidt. Kieron Marmion looked to have inched ahead of him nine months ago, but a poor performance in the Wolfhounds game and a significant drop in performance in the second half of the season means Boss is back. After that, the dropoff is severe.

The squad, Test 23 and Test XV selections largely pick themselves, which is nice:

  • Test starter: Murray, Sexton
  • Test backups: Reddan, Jackson
  • Test bench: Reddan, Madigan
  • Tackle-bag duty: Boss

The Michael Bent Effect

It’s all about Michael Bent. Everyone’s favourite hurl-carrying ambi-prop is going to be the pivotal character in how the World Cup squad is made up.

When the world switched to eight-man benches it appeared that the day of the ambi-prop was finished. JB Poux was carted off to retirement, Tom Court was ditched and their like would never be seen again. But with space at a premium in world cup squads, the man who can prop on both sides still has a value, albeit diminished.

So get comfortable folks, because Michael Bent is going to the World Cup, probably at the expense of David Kilcoyne and Pure Wexford Beef. If you were picking a team from just those three, chances are you would pick Kilcoyne and Furlong ahead of Bent, but the fact that Bent can cover both sides with a reasonable-ish level of competence makes him more valuable as a squad man. He passed his first test this weekend, when he continued Ireland’s scrum dominance when introduced for Mike Ross against Wales. He also got around the pitch to make seven tackles. As of now, Bent is in, we reckon. Better to make peace with it than begin weeping uncontrollably – we’ve already put our objections in ink (what’s the blog equivalent – underpants? – must ask Cummiskey some day) so our embarrassment will be complete when he shunts the Beast all around Twickers in the final.

Bringing Bent has the knock on effect of ensuring a 17-14 forwards-backs split, meaning four second rows and five backrow men, with sufficient room left to bring Ian Madigan appropriate cover in the back division, where there is a minimum requirement of six players to cover the half-backs, which leaves eight places to cover the centres and back three. It’s a tight squeeze, even with Bent in.

All of which means the make-up of the lock and backrow positions in the squad relatively straightforward after Tommy O’Donnell’s incredibly bad luck, with a couple of straight-up head to heads for the starting XV, both of which involve The New Willie John.

In the second row, Paul O’Connell and Devin Toner are going as incumbents. Iain Henderson we will stick in the second row camp for now, but more on him later. The final place is a straight-up shootout between Dan Tuohy (injury prone, good passer, eye for a gap) and Donncha Ryan (injury prone, destructive, force of nature). Not an easy one to call. Ryan was excellent on Saturday, but Tuohy came off the bench to good effect too. Ryan has a bit more test experience and might be ahead on points, but then Tuohy is well aware he face has not always fitted in the national team and has the according chips on both shoulders to call on. It’s a high calibre of player to be bringing along as the fourth lock, given Wales will need to make the (Hobson’s) choice between Dom Day and Jake Ball.

With five places in the backrow, we can be certain that the Six Nations first choices Jamie Heaslip, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien are inked in – incredible that Heaslip, who is now Ireland’s most-capped back row of all time, is still not rated by some – thankfully Schmidt isn’t one of them. Chris Henry was injured for that tournament, but started all games in the previous Six Nations, when O’Brien was injured, and it seems highly unlikely Schmidt wouldn’t bring him. Schmidt has rated Henry highly since his days at Leinster, which included game-planning for him in the 2012 HEC final, and he brings a complimentary skill on the flank to the others.

With Rhys Ruddock injured, the last spot seemed to be a tussle between Tommy O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy until O’Donnell got carted off after an impressive game against the Welsh waxworks. A pity, he played really well, but then again Murphy’s ability to cover No.8 – lacking elsewhere in the squad, unless you figure Peter O’Mahony could perform the role, but it’s been a long time since he has – might just have swung it in his favour anyway.

The main issue is who to pick in the first team once Ireland get there. Iain Henderson wasn’t quite at his swashbuckling best against Wales, but he did give one superb offload near the try-line. There is an argument that Henderson as it his best is almost impossible to leave out, but it’s not quite that simple. Schmidt as we know, selects players to perform the particulars of his role in the team to an exceptional standard. Toner and O’Mahony have accomplished this without question and are currently fixtures in the XV.

Henderson, for all his explosive talent, still has a rawness about him. A couple of barnstorming ‘Big Runs’ isn’t going to sway Schmidt either way. The key to whether Hendy gets selected or not probably depends on how much rope Schmidt gives his men to pass out of the tackle. So far he has been reticent to give them any at all, but if he does open up this approach to attack, there is nobody better in the Ireland squad at doing it. For now, though, chances are we will see Toner, O’Connell, O’Mahony, O’Brien and Heaslip as starters with the Ulstermen Henderson and Henry in reserve and Ryan and Murphy on pad-holding duty.

Still, with Henderson as talented and influential as he has become at just 23 (!), one can’t help but feel all it will take is one subdued performance by Toner or O’Mahony and the clamour to unleassh the llama will begin. Who would Kaino, Hooper or Burger rather face – O’Mahony or Henderson? And who would Retallick, Etzebeth or Skelton – Toner or Henderson? We don’t quite know, but Hendy does offer a tantalising glimpse of something world class. Willie John himself said that when he first got picked for Ireland it was because “the previous guy died or something” – the possibilities offered by Henderson’s rare talent are huge, and we sometimes wonder are we missing a trick leaving him on the bench?  Nice problem for Schmidt to have though.

Let’s Get Warmed Up

And so, this weekend, begins Ireland’s World Cup campaign, with what should be a good hit-out away to Wales.

As Gerry outlined to good effect this morning, it’s customary for Ireland to perform dreadfully in these world cup warm-ups, but how much meaning should be attached to that dreadfulness is hard to gauge. Eight years ago, Ireland carried awful form into the World Cup and simply never got going.

Four years ago the same happened, with Kidney forced into the drastic action of dropping entirely the one scrum half he had staked all his chips on playing into form. But Kidney’s team were an emotionally driven side, and seemed to thrive most when they appeared at their lowest ebb, and the sense of looming crisis ultimately played into their favour, in the pool games at least, before the tournament came crashing down in the quarter-finals.

Schmidt’s brood are the opposite, so if absolutely nothing is working well and Ireland conspire to lose all their warm-up games, then it probably is a cause for concern. Joe will be looking for signs that his charges are capable of playing to whatever instruction he has deemed the order of the day for this upcoming, monumental challenge. Just what that is remains to be seen. Schmidt has earned the reputation of a ruthless pragmatist over the course of two Six Nations campaigns, with a strategy high on aerial bombardment and low on offloading, but it’s worth recalling that in the last 120 minutes of the 2015 Six Nations campaign, with Ireland required to chase a Welsh lead, and build a large points haul against Scotland, they kept the ball in hand to great effect. Will he stick to that approach in the World Cup?

Ireland have four warm-up games, but in reality it’s a six (maybe seven depending on Sergio Parisse’s fitness)-match lead-in before the real stuff begins, because the first pool games are against the minnows. So there’s no need to panic if – as seems likely – Ireland play with a total lack of cohesion this weekend. There’s time yet to get the form going.

For all that, though, it’s a nice enough looking team Schmidt has put out; his strongest available props, a spine of experience and plenty of ‘nice to have you back’ uplift from players who missed large chunks of last season. And as usual, there’s plenty of scope for looking out to see who is ‘putting their hands up’ for the last few places in the world cup squad.

Donncha Ryan, Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble and Fergus McFadden are all welcome returnees. Ryan is in a face-off with Tuohy for the last second row place, so he gets a chance to put down a marker of some sort. Terrific, aggressive players both, but prone to injury, it may be a literal case of survival of the fittest. Tuohy is on the bench.  Keith Earls is selected at 13, which will cause frothing in several quarters (welcome back Leinsterlion), but it’s worth remembering that while he is not the complete outside centre by any means, he’s not bad either; try focussing on what he does well there rather than what he doesn’t. He’s a player Schmidt has referenced a lot while he’s been injured, so this is a welcome opportunity to see him in green.  With a maximum of 14 backs making the final cut, there is a premium on versatility, and if Earls can capably cover centre and wing, it puts him in the box-seat.

Trimble was last seen winning all sorts of awards, and is now an established ‘Schmidt favourite’. If he can get back even a shard of the form he had before injury, he can be a huge player this World Cup. McFadden’s chances of making the touring party look more remote, but it will be nice to see a few head-first charges into Welsh tacklers anyway.

The half-back pairing looks nice: Reddan and Jackson. They’re most likely going to be Ireland’s test-match back-ups so it’s time they got to know each other a little better. Jackson was playing quite beautifully at the end of the season. If he can produce that form again he can not only establish himself as first reserve, but become a player worth introducing from the bench for material impact.

In the pack, the main cause for excitement will be Iain Henderson’s selection. His wild, unrestrained style is a thing to behold and his form towards the back end of last season was astonishing. We’ll talk more on the topic next week, but he could make an unanswerable case for test XV selection. The backrow is light on size, but high on work-rate. Jamie Heaslip is flanked by O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy, who, conventional wisdom has it, are auditioning for the last back-row berth in the squad. Don’t be afraid to pass to each other, boys.

Kebabs All Round

The 2015 World Cup is the first one of the eight man bench era, and the All Blacks PR Department World Rugby have awarded everyone an extra squad place (and hopefully a bigger food allowance) to compensate them for the inconvenience. So that’s one extra slot, with Ireland going from four to five based on previous tournaments.

However, this is also going to the the first RWC where Ireland will have a substitution strategy, and backups will have a role to play beyond stepping in when the first choice gets injured. In the last two (ambi-propstrous) tournaments, Ireland have brought the following props along, with minutes played in crucial games (Argentina, France in 2007; Australia, Italy, Wales 2011) noted:

  • 2007: Starters: Marcus Horan (160), John Hayes (155). Backups: Simon Best (5), Bryan Young
  • 2011: Starters: DJ Church (232), Mike Ross (236). Backups: Patsy Court (12), Mushy

Bryan Young.  If you can remember anything about him, consider yourself the proud owner of a brand new hatchback.

Hard to see the bench men playing 17 collective minutes over five games this time around somehow. So if we now have four props that are critical members of the Test 23, of which we will need every man to play his role in the tournament. Best case scenario, we shove against Italy, France and Argentina just to get to a semi-final, so should Ireland be bringing a specialist backup for each side of the scrum?

First things first though – the first four slots on the plane, and jumpers 1, 3, 17 and 18 are locked in place with DJ Church, Jack McGrath, Mike Ross and Marty Moore all certain to travel. There was a flurry of “fears grow” stories started by the Indo about Church’s recovery last week, but there is simply no chance one of our few world class players won’t be given right up to kick off in the France game to get ready – he’ll be picked. And we’ve moaned incessantly about Ross starting ahead of Moore, but Ross’s performance have largely been good, and Schmidt has largely been vindicated, so we’ll park that one for another day.

So – five or six? O’Reilly suggested on Sunday that Schmidt was leaning towards five, and taking Michael Bent as the fifth prop in the squad, but that simply beggars belief – that would mean we are one injury away from pitching Bent in against the French for 20 minutes. Bent has made an admirable stab at nailing down a place in the Leinster squad (something we saw as his ceiling when he came over) but to suggest Leinster’s fourth choice tighthead could somehow play a meaningful role for Ireland in the World Cup is fairly fanciful.

With two props on the bench, the marketable skill that is being able to scrum on both sides is worth a lot less, and, given you are guaranteed to be facing a specialist, it all seems a bit pointless. Some will say “yeah, but if Church was injured, Schmidt would just call up Kilcoyne”, but if that’s the case, why even pick Bent in the first place if we are certain we won’t play him against the better sides? It seems an unnecessary risk.

Surely better to pick specialist backups on each side, and bring one less centre or wing or whatever – to place our World Cup hopes on the ability of Bent to hold up a side against Argentina seems a pointless risk. Tadhg Furlong and Dave Kilcoyne are the obvious choices for those roles – it seems to be too soon for James Cronin and to be fair to Kilcoyne, which we may not always have been, he’s a survivor in the scrum who is good on the ground and weighs in with more tries than you might think.

WoC’s Front Row squad picks: Healy, McGrath, Kilcoyne; Ross, Moore, Furlong

Playing Them Into Form

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh! *stretches arms* well, that was a fun summer vacation wasn’t it? The World Cup is very nearly upon us, and we’re beginning to get pretty excited about it all. There are only four warm-up games to go before it all starts, and what could possibly go wrong in those, eh? Eh, Geordie? Wally?? Whatever about the wisdom of playing three tough warm-ups and Scotland, surely surely they can’t go as badly as in years past? We have to negotiate:

  • Wales (away)
  • Scotland (home)
  • Wales (home), followed by squad selection announcement
  • England (away)

and two of those fixtures are the ones Joe Schmidt has lost in the Six Nations. While we look a cut below the Southern Hemisphere giants, we’ve been lucky enough to land in a Northern Hemisphere-heavy half of the draw – if we beat France, it’s Argentina (no gimme, but surely beatable) and then potentially England or Wales to get to a final. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

Ireland have a pretty settled squad and the vast chunk of the Test 23 are assured of their places. There will be some jockeying over tackle bag-holding slots (with one major positional exception – see below) but we are finding it tough to drum up OUTRAGE over the identity of the 31st guy to go. We’re going to think about how Ireland will get on in terms of a series of questions around the first choice 23 and preview accordingly:

  • Front Row: in the first RWC of the eight-man bench era, an extra slot has been added. We’ll look at this one first
  • New Willie John: Iain Henderson was the outstanding Irish player in the Pro12 post-last years 6N and his cameos in that tournament were of a high quality. We think it’s getting to the point where you simply have to pick him. Where though? Big Dev has quietly been one of Ireland’s most consistent players of the Schmidt era, and POM has been a critical component of the backrow. We’ll think about how we might use Henderson best
  • Backrow: four years ago, we had to pick three from Wally, Fez, SOB and Heaslip .. until Wally crocked himself in the warm-ups. Now we have to pick three from O’Mahony, Henry, O’Brien and Heaslip, all of whom have been selected when fit by Schmidt. Oh yeah, and there is Henderson as well.
  • Sexton and ….?: Jonny Sexton is far and away the best outhalf in Ireland, but the identity of his backup is still murky. Unlike in 2007, when Paddy Wallace and Geordan Murphy (!) would be assured of zero minutes when it mattered, Sexton’s increasing injury-proneness and Schmidt’s pro-active use of the bench means Wee Jacko, Mad-dog or even Ian Keatley might have a key role to play in this tournament
  • Wing competition: for the likes of Luke Roysh, Andy Trimble, Zeebs, Little Bob and Craig Gilroy, the possibilities for the tournament range from left at home kicking heels to Test starter. This position is where Schmidt has the most options, and it would seem only Tommy Bowe is guaranteed squad selection. Who should go?

We’ll be back tomorrow to talk about the props – feel welcome to give us your thoughts below, and preview the best OUTRAGE moment from the Indo’s Twitter.

The Milky Bars Are On Him

We’re breaking from our customary summer sabbatical because an important bit of news broke yesterday. Joe Schmidt signed a contract extension to stay on as head coach until 2017. Hip hip! There were a couple of amusing red herrings in the announcement lead-up. Fangio reported that Schmidt’s extension was for eight years (eight!), and the presence of the Lions rugby handle on a Peter O’Reilly tweet had people speculating that Schmidt was being given the Lions gig a full two years in advance.

It seems to be now customary for the good people at the IRFU to extend the coaching ticket’s contract before – and not after – the world cup. It’s a double edged sword, and hasn’t necessarily worked out in the past, but also a tricky balancing act we can have some sympathy with. Renew the coach’s contract and it bears the hallmark of a reward before he’s even passed his exams; leave him hanging and the coach spends half the press conferences fielding questions about his future, and if things go well (heaven forbid!) he’s open to being whisked away by another paymaster.

The IRFU gave Eddie a whopping four-year contract before the 2007 World Cup, when his stock was at an all-time high following a stupendous autumn and a Six Nations lost only on points difference, only to see the bottom fall out of his team in the tournament itself. They appeared to learn by degrees and heading into 2011’s Grand Shindig they gave Kidney and his coaching team, which was held in high esteem to be fair, a mere two year extension. It looked a slightly dubious move, as Kidney’s coaching style and conservative selection was already looking its age, and his team were capable of mixing the good with the truly awful. The performance in the World Cup was a rollercoaster affair, starting and ending abysmally but with spectacular highs in the middle but after that the only way was down, and although Kidney hung on to see out his two year extension, his tenure fairly petered out.

On the face of it, the IRFU’s obvious concern in this case would appear to be Joe Schmidt leaving for his homeland nation, New Zealand. The Kiwi coach is universally admired and regarded as one of the best coaches in world rugby, and might be on the all-consuming rugby nation’s radar as a potential replacement should Steve Hansen decide to rest on his laurels after winning the World Cup later this year.  Schmidt was contracted until the end of the 2016 Six Nations, rather than the end of the World Cup, but that would be no huge barrier to him switching to New Zealand, where the Rugby Championship only kicks off in July.

In Ruchie’s (excellent) book, he talked at length about the huge premium BNZ put on players and coaches being at home, within the system – there is huge emphasis put on building structures, from school to club to Air BNZ Cup to Super Rugby to the <insert hackneyed colour-driven marketing tool team name here>. If you leave BNZ, you are out of the game. Deeeen Caddah got very special dispensation to spend six months on the medical couch in Perpignan, but Dingo Deans, who took the Wobbly job after being passed over for Graham Henry after RWC07, was told he could forget about the BNZ job forever if he left.

We’re not sure if BNZ would appoint a new coach direct from Northern Hemisphere rugby without a few years penance in Super Rugby – sure, Schmidt was assistant at the Blues ten years ago, but we suspect some lip service would need to be shown. Still, the IRFU would be foolish to bank on that, and the point stands – BNZ would look to bring him home at some point.

The new contract leaves Schmidt with the option to be brought home by the NZRU for the 2018 and 2019 SR seasons and take over BNZ after RWC19 – it’s called “succession planning” and will probably never work – but the Union are right to hedge against the less likely possibility of him being sniped right away.

So, for Ireland, three times a charm, then? Hopefully, and with back to back Six Nations under his belt and having appeared to solve the two most demanding riddles associated with this, and any, Ireland team: how to get them to perform to a consistent base level, and how to overcome their innate inability to beat France, Schmidt is surely set to oversee Ireland’s first properly decent World Cup attempt, and there appears no earthy reason why he can’t continue to excel beyond that.

It also leaves him free to take on the Lions Tour in New Zealand, should he be daft enough to take on what from this distance appears to be a tour that can only irreparably break the reputation of whoever chooses to take it on. Best leave that one to Wazza. After all, he did so well on the last tour and seems to enjoy the wretched thing, and if Schmidt does have ambitions to coach BNZ, best not to show them up too publicly.

O’Connell’s Swansong

Paul O’Connell is bound for the sunny climes of Toulon. It’s a richly deserved payday for the all-time great second row, but don’t for one second imagine that he’s heading down there just to get the sun on his back and gently wind down his career.

The first indicator that this is the case is that the deal is for two years, so it’s not just a post-World cup lap of honour. The second signifier is that this is Toulon, where full and total buy-in to the local rugby hotbed’s way of doing business is required. None of Bakkies Botha, Jonny Wilkinson or Simon Shaw were coasting when they headed to Toulon in the latter part of their careers, and Paul O’Connell won’t be either. The third, and most obvious clue is that we’re talking about Paul O’Connell, a man who knows only one way of playing: at full throttle.

The length of the deal may raise a few eyebrows. Two more years will take O’Connell up over the age of 38, but on close inspection it’s not unreasonable to expect O’Connell will still be going strong at that stage. Last we checked O’Connell was still playing at an exceptionally high level. His standard has scarcely tailed off in any way. Sure, there was the odd quiet game, like the Saracens nightmare this year, where he didn’t bring his usual ferocity to bear on the match, but that looks like a rare one-off rather than a bellweather of any precipitous decline.

Plus, O’Connell hasn’t quite as many miles on the clock as you might think. He had his share of injuries that kept him out of the game for long periods and, if anything, he is as fit as ever: he’s right in the middle of as long an injury-free run as can be remembered. He’s going to be an indispensable member of Ireland’s world cup bid, and if he’s good enough for that, he’s good enough to keep going through the rest of the season with Toulon.

There has been some loose talk of release for Ireland training camps, but it appears wrong-headed. Almost certainly, for all the points made above, O’Connell won’t have the reserves of energy to devote himself to both Toulon and Ireland, and will retire from international footie after the World Cup. It makes sense that he hand over the reigns of captaincy to Jamie Heaslip and his role as lock enforcer to Iain Henderson for the next four-year-cycle.

No Munsterman will begrudge O’Connell two years in Toulon, even if they end up coming face-to-face with him in the European Cup, as fate will surely decree they will at some stage. There is crazy talk of the province looking for a contractual clause that he can’t face them, but that’s ridiculous on so many levels – not least the fact that it would be the preference of the likes of Dave Foley and Billy Holland to face the big man. So here’s hoping he turns out at Thomond Park for one last time.  If only there existed an all-encompassing word to describe the almost mythical nature of his contribution to Munster and Irish rugby, we would apply it to this man.

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