Pass the Parcel

Ireland look set to keep changes to a minimum today, with the returning Rory Best being brought into the front row and Gordon D’arcy is likely to squeeze in ahead of the increasingly impressive Stuart Olding at centre.

It’s the sort of selection we’ve become used to in Ireland where the pecking order of players remains relatively static. Sean Cronin is brilliant in the loose and Richardt Strauss is showing signs of returning to his best form, but Rory Best is one of the team’s foundations, so if he’s fit, he plays. Just throw the ball in straight, Rory!

It’s a similar story in Wales, where Gatland has stuck with what is recognisable as his best team. All the usuals are there and in spite of Liam Williams’ good form, it would take a crowbar to get Alex Cuthbert, George North or Leigh Halfpenny out of the team. Jamie Roberts and JJV Davies are longstanding as his preferred centre partnership and we all know how good they can be. In the backrow it’s the same. Everyone loves hipster’s choice Justin Tipuric for his electric line-breaks and incredible hands, but Sam Warburton is Gatland’s captain and a cornerstone of the team. Lydiate, Warburton and Faletau is enshrined as Gatland’s backrow of choice in Welsh rugby law.

Wales and Ireland have relatively small playing pools, so there can be a gulf between the best fifteen or twenty players, and the next best 10 or so. It means coaches tend to be more loyal to their players; sometimes to a fault in the case of Declan Kidney’s post-2009 selections (see: O’Leary, Tomas). Mike Phillips has done little or nothing in club rugby for years, but Gatland stuck with him throughout that period – until this season when Rhys Webb is finally ready to play test rugby.

Over in England and France, the pecking order in key positions in the team is altogether more fluid, and they’re not always the better for it. England are currently amid a mini-crisis. Has the gloss and sense of feelgood ever come off a team as quickly? From this perspective, their media appeared overconfident going into this series and the group of players available to them looked far from being world-beaters. Their death-by-a-thousand-cuts loss to New Zealand and tactically inflexible defeat to South Africa have brought them down to earth. ‘How long have we tied Lancaster down until again?’ Er, 2020.

Still, the thing for Lancaster is he can always change the team. They have such a depth of moderately talented players that if someone has a bad game or two, there’s always someone in decent enough form to put in his place. Danny Care was among England’s best players in the Six Nations and the thought of dropping him then seemed a world away. But memories are short and Care hasn’t been at his best so far this series. So he’s out! ‘Care’s out of form’, goes the line, ‘so we should play Youngs, Wigglesworth, one of the Dicksons, Shaun Perry, Andy Gomarsall or whoever, instead of him’. None of those players are as good as Danny Care – in fact only Ben Youngs gets even close – but never mind, let’s change it up anyway!

It leads to a pass-the-parcel approach to selection that isn’t necessarily all that beneficial. Lots of scrum-halves have had a stint in the England team and each has followed the same pattern: looks Tha Biz for a while, before not looking as good for a bit, finding themselves dumped out of the team, before the same pattern recurs for someone else and the original fellow finds himself recalled, and the cycle continues. If Conor Murray had two poor games on the trot – unlikely and all as that seems – the chances of him being thrown out of the team for Reddan, Marmion, Boss or Peter Stringer would be remote.

If things are bad at scrum half for England, they are worse again at centre, where this infurating approach has pretty much been in place since Will Greenwood retired. Riki Flutey, Jamie Noon, Anthony Allen, Ollie Smith, Shontayne Hape, Matt Banahan, and so on and so on the list of modest footballers who had a go at centre for a few games before the next chap came along is a long one.

In France the approach to selection is even worse, and has at times seemed to be something approaching a lottery. France have had a run of madcap selectors dating back to Bernard Laporte; scrum halves playing 10, seemingly outstanding players overlooked for tradesmen, world-class centres on the wing; they’ve had it all.

That said, there’s a time to make brave selectorial decisions, and if England really do have world cup winning aspirations, there are two things they absolutely must do. The first is pick Steffon Armitage, the world-class openside who has dominated the Heineken Cup with Toulon in recent seasons, and the other is to get Owen Farrell out of the team – for his own sake as well as that of the team – playing a player into form, when it doesn’t work, destroys the player (see: O’Leary, Tomas).

For some reason, the coach appears tied to the vastly overrated Farrell, but the case for George Ford as a long-term solution at 10 is compelling enough to give him a run in the team. Ford has a way to go before becoming a complete player, but he is capable of far more in attack already than Farrell ever will be. The team for Samoa has got this half-right at best. Ford starts at 10, but Farrell remains in the team at 12. The word was it was goal-kicking related, but they aren’t that different this season – Ford is 25/33 (76%) this season, while Farrell is 9/11 (82%), essentially there is one missed kick between them. So why is he there? It has the look of selection by committee.

It’s Alive!!!

The best test of last weekend (and November so far) was the France-Australia showdown in the Stade de France. In the gold corner were a Wallaby team coming in on the back of the traditional single-digit victory over Wales (but they were SO close this time – if only they didn’t <insert brain freeze here> they’d always beat the Southern Hemisphere sides) and in the blue corner a French team that is impossible to predict to any degree whatsoever – any result between a 10 point French win and a 40 point Wallaby win (as per two years ago) was a possibility. The relevance for Ireland was obvious – not only are the Wobs the next victims in the Joe Schmidt I-always-said-he-was-the-best-coach-in-the-world Ireland bandwagon, but the French are the team we’ll need to beat if the easier path to an historic RWC semi-final is to be realized.

In Ireland, we have a complicated relationship with the French – we disdain the way their club sides roll over away from home, lecture them on culture and passion, encourage them to be more like us in kicking corners and showing discipline; yet simultaneously go weak-kneed at Yoann Huget’s expressive eyebrows and wet ourselves at the prospect of being on the receiving end of a Wes Fofana piece of brilliance. In recent years, we’ve turned around our addiction to defeat – draws in 2012 and 2013 were bested by that incredible win in the Stade de France in March. Amazingly, we haven’t been beaten by France since Tomas O’Leary played himself off the RWC11 plane with that suicide pass in the Palindrome; and only once in the last 9 meetings (W2 D2 L5) have we lost by double digits.

Madcap French coach ™ Philippe Saint-Andre broke the habit of a lifetime and actually picked the same side as a week before – this was both surprising and concerning – is there something to worry about all of a sudden? Seems like there was – the French came out to bash the Aussies up front and stop them getting the kind of quick ball they could have fun with. The front row not only did their thing, but introduced the monstrous Samoan-Frenchman Uini Atonio to the world – we hold our hands up and confess to not watching much Atlantique Stade Rochelais – but we missed a phenomenally strong carrier and a destructive scrummager. Uh-oh.

Also, the French love a beefy second row to smash rucks and add a chunk of power to the scrum. Yoann Maestri has often flattered to deceieve a little – he never quite plays as well as he looks. On Saturday, he did, and had the Australian forwards scattered asunder on several occasions – the French urgently needed an injection of ugly brawn to the pack, and Maestri may have come of age at just the wrong time for us. Above all though, was the sustained excellence of Thierry Dusautoir – like Paul O’Connell, who brings the Munster and Ireland teams up about 30% every time he plays, Dusautoir carries the French to a high level and keeps them there. The man who haunts even Ruchie’s dreams is their key man.

Equally, the imposition of the Waratahs defensive system to the Wobblies wasn’t going to plan – the non-Tahs were struggling and the French outhalf Camille Lopez was carrying the ball right to the gain-line and through them. Lopez has been seen as the future for a couple of years now but has either been held back or got injured - he might look like a student bum looking for summer work on a vineyard, but he plays like a ballerina and had les bleus purring. He even laid a couple of eggs on restarts to remind us he is at heart an enigmatic Gallic superhero, who probably smokes 20 a day and sups beer at half-time, a la Bernard Hinault. Incredibly, this was his first game in le Stade, as it was for Teddy Thomas, who scored a brilliant individual try.

For Ireland, it was all a bit nerve-shredding. Because it looked to be dying on its feet, but IT’S ALIVE, and it has the power to dash our RWC dreams with one insouciant flick of its incredibly good-looking tail.  But let’s not forget the coach is still a lunatic, and who would safely put money on even ten of the starting fifteen making it to the World Cup team.  Camille Lopez won’t have it all his own way over the next twelve months and they could be back to fiddling around with second-raters before we know it.

In terms of the short-term goals, the Wobblies look there for the taking. Cheiks has said he is targeting the sagging behemoth that is England, and 5 or 6 changes are likely (including Portly returning in some capacity). Unlike against the Boks, we will have no qualms about mixing it with their forwards, so a subtly different gameplan is possible – and judging by the defensive shenanigans in evidence Saturday, less boot and more passing might be in order. But not that much more – it’ll be up to Ireland to keep the game structured; the looser it gets the better it suits the Wobs.  Some variation on the tried and tested formula of smashing the breakdown with ruthless accuracy and utilising Sexton and Murray’s ability to guide the team aroud the right parts of the pitch looks to be in order.  Ireland might use their attacking maul a bit more.  It worked a treat in the Six Nations and the Wobs are the sort of team against whom it can be harnessed to good effect.  We have a great chance to go 3-for-3 this November and end the year in 3rd in the rankings, but the medium-term goal of an RWC semi-final just got a little more complicated.

Job Done

Six tries, no injuries and some minor selection dilemmas for the visit of the real minnows next week – virtually everything you’d want out of a game against Georgia really. We blogged on Friday about the very few thing we might be able to take from the game, and so it came to pass. The match followed a very familiar pattern of good team vs. minnow: low-scoring first half followed by floodgates opening as the pressure takes its toll on the little ‘un.

In general, the pack will be happy they did their job and the backline less so.  The much-vaunted Georgian scrum seems to be better on paper than in actuality, as a few canny punters predicted would be the case.  Ireland weren’t on top in the scrum, but they were ok there, comfortable in the lineout and strong in the maul.  They found plenty of gaps to exploit.  They created umpteen chances but found their finishing a bit off, in the first half in particular.

The front row will be reasonably happy.  Rosser needed to get some game-time because … er … just because, right. He managed 46 minutes of difficult scrums and one hilarious mini line break before giving way to Rodney Ah Here. The most relevant thing from the weekend for Ross was probably the pillaging the Wobbly front row took in Paris, followed by the incompetence of the backups, who were milked by the French. We’d almost feel comfortable letting Ah Here loose on the Wobs (who have resolved to play a few new faces), but Rosser it will be. And he’ll be better after yesterday.

Dave Kilcoyne enjoyed a slightly less troublesome time than Rosser, had one even better run and scored a try. Job done, and a decent showing against tough opponents. Took one step towards an RWC plane ticket, did Killer.  Scoring tries is not bread and butter for props, but it’s a handy habit to have and Kilcoyne chips in with plenty.

In the row, Dave Foley was man of the match and out-shone his partner Mike McCarthy. McCarthy appears to be a good scrummaging second row [citation needed!] but his star is very much on the wane, and has been since his man-of-the-match award against South Africa two years ago.  Calling Foley ashore early was a probable sign a bench slot on Saturday has been earned, and his performances this year warrant it.  In the backrow, all three men showed up reasonably well, with Dom Ryan especially busy on his debut.  None shot the lights out, though, and we suspect all will drop out of the team for the Wobs match.

In the back division, it was a case of good top ‘n’ tail, poor middle.  Felix Jones had a fine match and both half-backs played well but the entire three-quarter line was pretty middling.  If Schmidty wasn’t happy with depth at centre before, he certainly isn’t now – Dorce and Darren Cave did very little of note in the 80 and only a spicy cameo from Stuart Olding (admittedly against tired and run-out opponents) brightened up the Milky Bar Kid’s options there. If Henshaw is now nailed on to start, who his partner is will be interesting – if Payne is fit, he looks set to continue, but what if he isn’t? D’arcy is most likely to get the call, but he looked rusty here.  No doubt there will be a clamour for Stuart Olding and on the evidence of his glitzy cameo here, it’s not hard to see why.  In retrospect, we may have learned more from starting him, but hindsight is always 20-20.

If this series was to be Simon Zebo’s  time to shine, he’s running out of time. The jet-heeled Corkman controversially (at the time anyway) lost out to Andrew Trimble and Little Bob last Six Nations and was a minor cause celebre – he hasn’t exactly set the world afire and you think if there were better options then Craig Gilroy to choose from, he might lose his place for the Wobbly game. In particular, his moment of trying a redux of his ankle flick instead of jumping on the ball will have been noted by Joe Schmidt – this is the type of play from wingers that will have him spitting bullets. Zebo has clearly taken Schmidt’s feedback of the last 12 months on board, but in his case, there is more to do.

Georgia Team Out!

Stop press! The team for Sunday’s game is out – and, hilariously, Gerry was one player wrong. Seems Joe is a little tougher to read than Deccie. It’s essentially a warm-up for the Canada/Romania games in the RWC where the firsts get a rest and the rest get a run-out – but there are a few interesting calls nonetheless:

  • The most notable first teamer picked is Rosser – the big man needs game time to get to optimal conditioning for the Wobbly front row (stop sniggering at the back) and he’ll definitely get a work-out here. It’s mildly concerning that (i) it takes game time to get him going – what if he comes to the RWC undercooked? (ii) Ross has now started every test under Schmidt – this is into Hayes territory, and (iii) our backups are injured or not good enough to take his shirt.  But hey, what’s new?
  • While Dave Kilcoyne is the nominal third loosehead right now, we think James Cronin is a better player and might finish the year as incumbent at Munster -although the Irish Times Top 50 has them just one place apart, which tells us just how close it is!  Fascinating stuff!  No doubt Joe Schmidt is using it as a guide to selection.  If Killer comes out of a game against Georgia intact, that’s a big plus for him.  His scrummaging will be properly tested here.
  • Paulie, Lighthouse Toner and NWJMB are virtually nailed on for the RWC squad (Henderson is currently out after pre-RWC elective surgery) – there is one more definite second row slot up for grabs, and if Dave Foley carries his ERCC form into Sunday and out-shines Mike McCarthy, he’ll put himself into the conversation.  He’s a good, athletic lock with decent mobility and can carry reasonably well, and is certainly worth a look here.
  • In the absence (not enforced – but is it ever?) of Jamie Heaslip, Robbie Diack will wear the 8 shirt. Or, more to the point, Robin Copeland is (at best) third choice 8. Diack showed well in Argentina, and is clearly in the mix for one of the multi-functional backrow RWC slots, with (but still likely behind) Jordi Murphy, Dom Ryan and Rhys Ruddock. With Murphy to return as more specialised cover for the No.8 jersey, Copeland has missed his chance to gain some ground.  Truth be told, his problems begin with CJ and end with Stander.  There is no crowbarring the prime Bok out of the Munster team and Copeland has found his chances to impress limited as a result.
  • When asked on Sky Sports before the Bok game about whether he was happy with his depth at centre, Joe Schmidt sighed, hummed and hawed, and said “yes and no” i.e. No. He’ll clearly be feeling better since, but he still feels options need exploring. Angry Darren Cave gets another go after a pretty disappointing summer tour – and we’ll hopefully see Stuart Olding get good gametime as well
  • Dom Ryan gets a test debut and it’s merited on early season form.  He had become something of a forgotten man over the last two seasons, but with a run of fitness and form he has reminded us of his talents and knack of scoring tries.

It’s a pretty mobile pack with plenty of good handlers and carriers and lots of athleticism.  Coupled with the no-brainer selection of Reddan and Madigan and a pair of flyers out wide, all signals point towards a looser, faster game plan than we saw against South Africa, which seems sensible against a Georgia team that is likely to be beefy upfront but will struggle in a more open contest.  The appointment of Eoin Reddan as captain also looks shrewd.  Marmion has his champions, but Reddan is still very much second choice and still awfully good, albeit well behind the peerless Murray.  It’s a chance to remind him that he’s still a key part of the squad even if his future gametime is likely to be of the same order as Chris Whittaker enjoyed when he was first reserve to George Gregan.

Here’s the team:

IRELAND (v Georgia): Felix Jones (Munster); Craig Gilroy (Ulster), Darren Cave (Ulster), Gordon D’Arcy (Leinster), Simon Zebo (Munster); Ian Madigan (Leinster), Eoin Reddan (Leinster, capt); Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Richardt Strauss (Leinster), Mike Ross (Leinster); Dave Foley (Munster), Mike McCarthy (Leinster); Dominic Ryan (Leinster), Tommy O’Donnell (Munster), Robbie Diack (Ulster).

Replacements: Seán Cronin (Leinster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), Rodney Ah You (Connacht), Devin Toner (Leinster), Robin Copeland (Munster), Kieran Marmion (Connacht), Ian Keatley (Munster), Stuart Olding (Ulster).

Go easy.

Georgia – that sounds familiar

Yawn. Isn’t this uncomfortable – an Irish series without people having anything to argue about. Even the Thornley Gazette tried to start a pointless argument with its inane click-bait Top 50 nonsense, but it didn’t work. The selection debates for the game are either for fringe RWC players or simply to try out new players and combinations – we’ll post on those when the team is out tomorrow.

But, to remind people what we are actually facing, we are going to re-blog a piece we did a few years ago on the last time Ireland played Georgia – it was part of a series on particular games Ireland played in the professional era. Swallow hard, chaps, here we go:

 

The Game: Ireland 14-10 Georgia, 15 September 2007

What it Defined: the decline of the Eddie O’Sullivan era and the 2007 World Cup catastrophe

The State of Play

Ireland are travelling to the world cup in rude health, with a fully fit squad and sky-high expectations.  In short, Irish rugby has never had it so good.  The team is settled and the age profile of the team is optimal, with all its key leaders in the 25-29 bracket.  They have played a lot of very good rugby over the previous twelve months.  In the November internationals they reach new peaks, comfortably beating South Africa and Australia and thrashing the Pacific Islands.  The Six Nations is thrilling, heartbreaking, but ultimately encouraging.  Ireland lose it on points difference to France, but most commentators agree Ireland are the best team in Europe.

Huge credit is given to (and lapped up by) their one-man-band of a coach, Eddie O’Sullivan.  Uninterested in delegating and something of a control freak, he has full control of all elements of the team.  Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is the conditioning of the players, which has seen Ireland shed its long-held reputation as a 60-minute team.  Much is made of their visits to the cryotherapy chambers in Spala, Poland, where the players sit in sub-sub-zero temperatures for short periods of time, which improves the recovery speed of the muscles.  When a bunch of photographs of the players messing on the beach goes viral, the nation marvels at these specimens; tanned and toned, muscles rippling.  To reflect the coach’s achievements he is handed a four-year contract before the World Cup has even begun.

But there are a couple of problems looming, though nobody is overly concerned yet.  After the Six Nations, both Munster and Leinster limp out of the Heineken Cup in the quarter finals.  It means it’s a long time without high-intensity matches.  The summer tour to Argentina sees Ireland lose twice, and draws clear lines of demarcation between the first XV, “Eddie’s Untouchables”, who don’t travel and the rest of the squad, the tackle-bag holders, who do. The tour was ominous – granted, the first XV weren’t there, but the ease with which Argentina dispatched Ireland was a worry.

And Ireland’s pre-tournament preparation did not go well.  They’ve played poorly, losing to Scotland and only beating Italy in Ravenhill thanks to a highly dubious last-minute try.  The idea of playing a club side, Bayonne, once in camp in France, backfires, with the locals delighting in the role of hired hands set out to soften the opposition up for the main fight with France.  O’Driscoll is punched off the ball and leaves the match with a fractured cheekbone.  Eddie’s squad is rather lopsided, with a wealth of blindsides, but no specialised cover at 7 or 8.

The first game of the tournament sees Ireland play badly against Namibia, the tournament’s lowest ranked side. Eddie picked his Untouchables, with a view to playing them into form – they win 32-17, but it’s an inauspicious start – France and Argentina would put 150 points on the Namibians collectively, yet Ireland actually lost the second half 14-12.

Now the alarm bells were ringing – it was Georgia next, and any opportunity to play some of the dirt-trackers was gone as the imperative was to get the first XV back to life. This was the last opportunity before the real games come, against hosts France, and a fired-up Argentina side which has blown the tournament open by beating France in the opening game.

The Game

The first half is a pedestrian affair.  Ireland get a try, through Rory Best, but David Wallace is sent to the sin-bin and Georgia score the resulting penalty to trail 7-3 at half-time.  Then things go pear-shaped.  Peter Stringer throws a floaty pass towards O’Driscoll, and it’s intercepted for a try.  The body language between O’Driscoll and Stringer as the try is scored is not indicative of a team which is enjoying its rugby.  Girvan Dempsey replies with a try in the corner, which Ronan O’Gara converts to give Ireland a 14-10 lead.  But they cannot put the Georgians away, and as the game enters the last ten minutes it is the minnows who are piling on the pressure.  Winning the physical battle, they pick, drive and maul their way towards the line.  Indeed, they get over the whitewash, but Denis Leamy’s body is under the ball, and Ireland breathe again.

Ireland win 14-10, but it is the closest any established nation has come to such humiliation – had the Georgians showed a bit more poise and not attempted a swathe of miracle drop goals in the second half, the victory was there for the taking.  Ireland’s form is now beyond crisis point.  They have also failed to secure a bonus point, meaning if they lose to France and beat Argentina they could still go out.  The tournament is shaping up to be a disaster – Ireland appear poorly conditioned (but how, when they looked so good?) and Eddie has been forced to stick rigidly to his first team in an effort to play them in to something approaching form, but it hasn’t happened.

This half of WoC (Palla) remembers watching the game through his fingers.  With flights booked to Paris for the following week, it simply didn’t bear thinking about that the long awaited trip could be to see two dead rubbers in the French capital.

The Aftermath

The rest of the World Cup panned out with the inevitability of an unfolding horror story.  Ireland did up their game to an extent against France, but ran out 25-3 losers, two classic poacher’s tries by – who else? – Vincent Clerc enabling the hosts to pull away on the scoreboard.  It left Ireland needing not only to beat Argentina, but win by more than seven and score four tries in the process.  It never looked like happening, and Argentina dominated the match, winning 30-15.  In the first half, when David Wallace, of all people, was gang tackled and driven back 20 metres, it was clear the jig was up.  Juan Martin Hernandez was the game’s dominant figure, dropping three goals with all the fuss of someone buying a pint of milk.

Ireland went home humiliated, having entered the tournament as one of the favourites.  It was an astonishing fall from grace.  What had gone wrong?  Any number of theories were put forward, with the rumour mill going into overdrive.  Ronan O’Gara – having played with all the conviction of a man struggling to remember if he’d left the iron on at home – was having personal problems.  Geordan Murphy had packed his bags after being dropped from the bench for the French game.  Brian O’Driscoll and Peter Stringer had come to blows after the Georgia game.  It went on and on, and was very ugly – the intrusion into certain players lives was completely unnecessary, and quite shocking.

Other reasons with more foundation were offered up.  What was clear was that the players were poorly conditioned for test rugby.  Sure, they looked great on the beach, but they weren’t battle hardened.  The preparation was flawed, and once the team started underperforming, Eddie was unwilling to change the team – save for Peter Stringer, who became something of a fall guy.  The players were miserable in a poor choice of hotel in Bordeaux and became bored and irritable.

Frankie Sheahan offered an interesting nugget in a recent Sunday Times article: he felt the coaches had become too concerned with player statistics.  Certain players were being absolved from blame for particular outcomes because they had hit so many rucks, or made so many tackles.  He felt it contributed to an ‘I’m alright, Jack’ mentality within the squad.  When he talked to Rodrigo Roncero at the post-match dinner, Frankie asked him if the Argentina camp had relied on individual performance statistics.  ‘No’, Rodrigo replied, ‘we don’t care how many tackles a player makes, whether it’s 1 or 100, so long as somebody makes the tackle when it has to be made’.  It spoke of a coach whose philosophy had reached its sell-by date.

The strangest thing was that when the players returned to their provinces, the majority found their form again quickly.  Ronan O’Gara went back to Munster and immediately played as well as he had ever done.  Indeed, he piloted them to the Heineken Cup that year, while Leinster won the Magners League.  The players themselves were at a loss to explain it all.  Shane Horgan recently recalled irate fans demanding answers as to why they had been so poor, and his thoughts were: ‘You want answers?  I’m the one who wants answers!’

Eddie had one more Six Nations to put things right, but by now he was a busted flush.  He belatedly and reluctantly let a bang-in-form Jamie Heaslip have a game, and was rewarded with a performance (but no victory) in Paris, but the final two games saw Ireland lose at home to Wales and get thrashed by a Danny Cipriani-inspired England.

Eddie did the decent thing and resigned, leaving the team at a pretty low ebb.  There was only one choice of replacement: the man who had led Munster to two Heineken Cups in three years, and a coach his polar opposite in almost every way: Declan Kidney. The players were crying out for a new approach, and they were going to get one.

Joe Knows

Ireland 29 South Africa 15.  It was a win of such accurate execution, discipline and adherence to a superb gameplan that it’s almost impossible to say anything interesting or worthwhile about it.

Seventeen injured players became eighteen on the morning of the game as Chris Henry fell foul of a virus. Never mind, Ireland won anyway, by 29-15 and Rhys Ruddock played so well it was almost a relief to have something we could level at Schmidt: ‘Why the hell was this guy not in the team in the first place?’

We said that pre-emptively criticising Joe Schmidt’s selections was a bad idea, but for some reason we went ahead and did it anyway. And once again we find ourselves in the hole. His seemingly experimental midfield worked a treat with Henshaw in particular exceptionally robust at 12, and with a touch of class to boot. His kick behind the defence to set up the platform for Ruddock’s try was sublime.  Payne also contributed in defence and his best moment in attack was a great support line off the peerless Rob Kearney.  Richadt Strauss’ selection on the bench raised a few eyebrows, but he had a superb impact when he replaced Sean Cronin.  Joe knows.

The story of the game everyone knows; Ireland’s lineout and scrum creaked badly but they made up for it by pulverising the breakdown and being more accurate and better disciplined than their opponents. They had less territory and less possession than South Africa, but made better decisions and executed better when it mattered. The half-backs dominated their opponents.  They worked the scoreboard with impressive regularity, while South Africa missed their opportunities to do so, and in the last 20 minutes of the first half they had plenty.

Ireland’s record against The Other Two southern hemisphere nations isn’t bad – on their own turf anyway, but few wins have been as convincing or with such sound foundations. Ireland have had scalps before, but usually as a backlash against previous rubbish performances and wounded pride. Not so here.

A special mention for the half-backs. Before last year’s Six Nations we remarked that Sexton and Murray had world-class ability, but now was the time to unleash their ‘test match animal’ and become not fleetingly great players, but those who consistently dominate test matches. The call has been met, and arguably both are now operating at the peak of their powers. Sexton has tended to prefer playing with a ‘servant’, a scrum half who sees his job as being to give him the ball. Eoin Reddan has understood this role and executed it superbly at Leinster, but Conor Murray is no junior partner. It’s taken them a while to gel, but now they have done so the results are, and will continue to be, astonishing. It’s a half-back pairing for the ages.

The glass suddenly looks not so much half-full as brimming over. Injuries? Who cares? Australia? Let’s take them. We’ve a shot at a three-win series. The possibilities are huge. There’s no need to urge the team to ‘front up’ or ‘grasp the nettle’ because we know that under this coach, cold hard detail, accuracy and execution of an appropriate gameplan will be used to deconstruct the opposition. It looks increasingly like the best coach in the world is coaching the Ireland team. Momentum is being built and a world cup is less than twelve months away. These are heady times.

What Fresh Madness Is This?

Joe Schmidt has named his team to face South Africa.

There has been some talk of Australia being the main focus this month and the team bears this out to some extent. With most of the positions picking themselves with injury to key players removing any would-be hard calls, the only position where there is a real decision to make is the midfield. And it’s there that Schmidt has taken a somewhat experimental route, with the rumoured Henshaw-Payne axis coming to pass.  No, folks, it wasn’t a ruse to wind up the Indo, hilarious as that would have been.

It sure is an odd one, because Gordon D’arcy is fit and ready to go and the obvious selection was the experienced Wexford man alongside one or other of Payne and Henshaw. Another more plausible possibility would be to bring in Olding or Madigan at 12, if D’arcy is indeed less than 100% fit, since both have been playing there, and playing well too, this season. There’s probably a specific gameplan wedded to the selection, and we’ll just have to wait and see what that is. Word on the ground is they trained well together while Dorce was recovering.  Henshaw’s a big strong lad, but probably not used to defending the traffic-heavy 12 channel. And Payne still looks a better full-back than a centre, though his footballing class is not in doubt. Our major concern is that both of them are playing in positions which are not their best.  On their first test starts.  Against South Africa.

The selection of Felix Jones on the bench is odd, even allowing for specialist 15 cover for Bob’s recently-crocked status. Simon Zebo has started a test there, and Payne and Henshaw have spent plenty of time there as well. Wing cover (Craig Gilroy) or even an extra playmaker (Stuart Olding) might have given the bench more game-breaking pizzazz, on the off-chance we are still in it after 60 minutes.

Criticising Schmidt’s selections before matches has tended to be a losing trade, and we have come out the wrong side of it ourselves too many times, and really should know better. To give two examples, against Clermont Auvergne we questioned the wisdom of picking Jennings and Boss, and in last year’s Six Nations we disagreed with the decision to retain the same first team for the Italy game, when the opportunity to freshen things up and rest some bodies for the French match looked appealing. On both occasions, Schmidt’s selections were vindicated. We also harrumphed a bit over Simon Zebo’s omission from the Six Nations, but nobody could argue with the outcome, and Simon Zebo’s attitude since has shown all the hallmarks of someone who is hungry to learn and improve.  So let’s hope that after the game we’re declaring this new midfield as a masterstroke.

Winning this match looks beyond Ireland, and to be fair, that applies no matter how the midfield is set up. The injury list is simply more than our squad can take. As well as 17 unavailable players, it’s hard to see just how sharp Rob Kearney, Mike Ross and Chris Henry can be. Ross, in particular, can hardly be expected to last the full match, which means Rodney Ah Here will have to play at some stage, possibly for as many as 20 minutes. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Daddy, or Chips? Or Both?

With our swollen injury list and a lack of convincing cause celebre in the provinces (who are largely playing like drains), there is a dearth of the traditional interprovincial bickering selection dilemmas. Ross vs Moore – Moore injured. Toner vs Henderson – Henderson injured. O’Brien vs Henry vs O’Mahony (a potentially delicious dilemma) – O’Brien injured. Sexton vs O’Connor – O’Connor injured. Zeebs vs Dave Kearney – Dave Kearney injured, Zeebs qualifies for next round of the bicker-off vs Craig Gilroy.

Which leaves us with but one biggun – centre. It looked like a straight shootout to wear the ICONIC NUMBER 13 JERSEY ™, but rumours are circulating that with Darcy sort-of carrying a knock, and Ireland already looking at fielding several players who are only recently recovered or less than 100% fit (Henry, Kearney and Ross spring to mid) that D’arcy won’t be risked and the possibility of both Henshaw and Payne playing together has been raised.

If so, it’s an unusual call.  Debuting one player in the midfield would be one thing; two at the same time, and possibly putting both into positions with which they are unfamiliar (if it is to be 12 Henshaw, 13 Payne) would be asking a lot of both.  Surely better to have Darcy’s experience alongside whichever is to be the chosen one?  If Payne were to play inside centre presumably it would to be to benefit from his distribution, with Henshaw outside him.  But that would be equally odd because Ireland have two options who are both playing well in that very role this season; Stuart Olding and Ian Madigan.  Why shoehorn Payne into the role when specialists are available?

Henshaw is a big chap whose best attributes are his athleticism. The bludgeon, they say. But it’s not that simple – it rarely is. Henshaw is skillful enough in space to have spent time at full-back and plenty of big centres have been more piano players than shifters – Yannick Jauzion or Shontayne Hape for example. Sorry, not the last one – but someone like Manu Tuilagi is less of a bosh merchant than Barnesy will have you believe.  We’ve no idea how Henshaw’s skills would transfer to 12, but he’s a strong tackler and a hard runner, so he has at least some of the attributes.

The outside centre is the key defensive link in the backline, and the reality is that both are relative newcomers to Ireland’s defensive system.  Schmidt will have some knowledge of how Payne fits in from Agent Kiss’ undercover role at Ravers and from recent training camps – the fact Payne is still in contention likely speaks to some degree of confidence from the brains trust (© Gerry) that he can do the job to some degree.

That said, it’s pretty obvious Payne has not fitted in easily at 13 for Ulster – if he had, there is probably a good chance he would be inked in already for Ireland. Peter O’Reilly made the point this weekend that playing outside Stuart McCloskey is hardly conducive to making much of an impact – we aren’t quite buying that one, but we do recognise that, without Ruan Pienaar, an already half-injured Wee PJ is standing miles behind Paul Marshall (to catch errant passes?) and the space outside is getting compressed. Payne outside Murray/Sexton is a much tastier proposition – and if Payne gets the space he routinely exploits from 15 for Ulster at 13, that’s excellent news. But will he?  Playing the Boks can be a suffocating experience.

One thing’s for sure, Payne’s birthplace won’t come into it.  Schmidt got visibly annoyed in the spring about having to field questions about picking naturalized foreigners like Robbie Diack and Rodney Ah Here  – he rightfully says that naturalization rules are what they are, and he will pick the best players available for Ireland. If it comes down to a cigarette paper between Payne and Henshaw, accent will not come into it. While a bias of commentators and fans towards the “real” Irishman are understandable, and as a nation we are still a bit queasy about the naturalisation laws, it won’t be a factor for the Milky Bar Kid.

We have been wavering all week – on Saturday, we were slightly in the Henshaw camp, but O’Reilly wrote a good piece extolling what Payne could bring to Ireland – it’s easy to forget in the blizzard of negative coverage of his Ulster 13 experience, possibly coloured by his sending off against Saracens, that he is a fantastic footballer, good enough to play underage for BNZ and shine as an attacking threat in Ulster teams containing Tommy Bowe, Paddy Wallace and Ruan Pienaar.

The first game is against the mighty Springboks, who have selected a centre partnership of Jean de Villiers (not his twin, who showed up at Munster) and Jan Serfontein – two excellent footballers and two big men. Are we going to bludgeon through them? Unlikely – we are waifs in comparison. Are we going to play around them? Possibly – but more likely with Payne. Can they bludgeon through us? Definitely – Henshaw minimises this risk. Can they play around us? Definitely – Serfontein is an excellent footballer with an eye for a gap who has long been tipped for Bok caps – that’s a risk no matter who plays.  Whatever way we set up the midfield, it’s a bloody hard game.  Are we about to get a curveball and find Henshaw and Payne thrown in together?  From this vantage point, it would make it all the harder.

Cold November Rain

Wow. Isn’t this exciting – we haven’t engaged in a proper spat of inter-provincial bickering since … February? By the time March came along, Ireland were gathering pace en route to a Championship and it seemed churlish, then it was all a bit half-hearted when Argentina came along. But now it’s here – yay!  November internationals!

But seriously, Schmidt’s first season was incredible – nearly beating BNZ, then winning the Championship. Like Deccie, who had an incredibly effective beginning to his tenure, the challenge will be backing that up with a second season – one that will effectively ends in a World Cup. Also like Deccie, the Milky Bar Kid got part of his success from a bounce from a previous season that didn’t reflect the real quality in the team – merely a previous coaching regime that had run its course. Eddie’s control freakery gave way to Deccie’s delegation to the players; which was in turn replaced by Schmidt’s technical coaching brilliance. Can the initial bounce be backed up?

One can reasonable expect some reversion to the mean this season, and retaining the Six Nations will be something they haven’t done since 1949 (although they shared in 1983 when going for a repeat, they would have finished second under today’s rules). While we should be realistic about what expectations for this season are - two wins in November, four in the Six Nations are the par score for this group – they have set their own standards. Also, its worth being aware that the players were grumbling about the tough schedule Schmidt put them through in Argentina – its unlikely that will drop off, and some degree of fatigue is a risk. Plus you-know-who has left a gaping hole in the team.

Two wins in the coming weeks means beating Australia or the Boks – all indications are the Wobbly game wil be the one targeted (like BNZ last year) and, given the injuries we have, and the scratchy form of the provinces, its a tough ask. Still – it makes sense to go for Oz – beating the Boks is tough enough, but without your primary ball carriers it’s virtually impossible – and we have lost DJ Church, Sean O’Brien, Iain Henderson and Andrew Trimble. That said, it’s not all bad – O’Brien missed the entire Six Nations, Henderson was a sub in that tournament and Church and Trimby would be adequately replaced by Tommy Bowe and Jack McGrath. Puts pressure on depth though, doesn’t it.

The first choice pack pretty much picks itself given the missing list – McGrath, Besty, Ross, Toner, O’Connell, POM, Henry, Heaslip. Only one man different from the 6N pack, but Besty is struggling for form, Ross needs matchtime to get up to speed, and Chris Henry hasn’t quite been at his best of late. Sean Cronin will provide decent bacup, another strong carrier and potential for weapons-grade impact late in matches, and will start one game minimum, but the rest of the forward squad ranges from the potential of Rhys Ruddock to the dicky lungs of Rodney Ah Here.

We’d ideally like to see a couple of names pitched in to see if they sink or swim – the likes of James Cronin, Dave Foley and Dom Ryan might have something to offer to the squad in a RWC year – they might sink without trace,  but at least we’d know – and we know what Dave Kilcyone, Mike McCarthy and Robbie Diack can do – and it’s not of the highest level. Ryan will most likely have to wait for the Georgia game but Cronin and Foley could make the bench against South Africa.  Two of Ah Here, Stephen Archer and Tadgh Furlong are likely to get the dubious honour of scrummaging against the monstrous Georgians – gulp.

In the backline, Conor Murray and J-Sex are miles ahead of their backups. The vigils for Sexton’s hamstring can begin now. Ian Keatley got rewarded for some decent early season form over a semi-fit Wee PJ but we suspect Ian Mad-Dog is Schmidt’s number 2, though he has only started at 10 once this season.  One suspects they’ll do whatever possible to get Sexton on the pitch. In RWC terms, Eoin Reddan and Kieran Marmion are pretty much on the plane – but we’d like to see Marmion get a start and see how he does – against Georgia he might be behind a pack being marched backwards early on.

And now, ah yes – time for the centres. We know this – Dorce will start against the Boks and Stuart Olding will see gametime at some point. Who will play outside? The concensus seems to have settled on Robbie “bosh” Henshaw (largely because BOD says it is so), but O’Reilly thinks Schmidt will value Jared Payne’s distribution and running angles more that the directness of the Connacht man. It certainly makes sense not to give Jean de Villers and Jan Serfontein what they eat for breakfast, but Payne has been pretty rubbish at 13 for Ulster. One suspects Schmidt won’t let the two guys shoot out on the field – there simply isn’t enough time for that – he’ll make his selection and stand by it. If it’s to be Payne or if it is to be Henshaw, let’s all make an effort, similar to the 2012 Six Nations when Keet Earls played the entire tournament there, to not jump down his throat each time he Isn’t BOD.

Provided they are fully fit, Bob and Tommy Bowe will be inked into the team – Trimble is a big loss but Bowe is a pretty decent replacement to have. The other wing spot, in shades of a more innocent era (2012), appears to be between Craig Gilroy and Simon Zeebs. Schmidt doesn’t appear to be a massive fan of Zebo, while Gilroy looks to have returned to some impressive form this year after his career stalled last season.  Nonetheless, while Zebo hasn’t been quite as stellar with ball-in-hand, he appears to be putting a lot of effort into working really, really hard and brings a decent kicking game; he might just shade it.  Zebo and Bowe for Trimble and Dave Kearney; it might be injury-enforced but Ireland don’t appear to be losing too much in the trade.

We already know Joe Schmidt is an excellent coach and Ireland have excellent players – if the success or failure of this series comes down to the Wobbly game, he’ll be up against another excellent coach and a team of excellent players. In a RWC year, its a good judge of where we are at, and how the team is shaping up – for you can be sure we won’t have a full deck in 11 months time.

Who is going to carry the ball?

With the two rounds of European Rugby out of the way, focus turns to the November internationals. As usual, a daunting program looms, with South Africa, Australia and Georgia coming to town. Two wins will be the pass mark.

Ireland have injuries aplenty, the two most damaging of which are Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien, unquestionably two of Ireland’s small set of world class players, and crucially, two of their best ball carriers. Ireland have decent replacements for each. Jack McGrath is a stalwart on the loosehead side of the scrum and both Chris Henry was a constant in Ireland’s Six Nations winning campaign, when Ireland were also without O’Brien. Both bring much to the game, but neither can quite replicate the sort of explosive ball carrying and ability to win the contact battle that Healy and O’Brien provide. Leinster’s struggles are probably a reasonable barometer for how hard it is to get momentum without your best carriers available.

The loss of two such warriors is compounded by the loss of Iain Henderson for Ulster, who is the closest thing to O’Brien and Healy in his ability to break tackles, and also Andrew Trimble, who, although a wing, is a strong carrier who has been used to punch holes in the middle of the pitch. Bosh!

The problem is magnified by the fact that Ulster and Munster’s two primary ball-carrying forwards are non-Ireland eligible. Nick Williams is Ulster’s go-to-man for the hard yards (which is quite another issue), while Munster have identified CJ Stander as their best carrier, and his form has been frankly awesome in recent weeks. Do Ireland have enough carriers to make the necessary metres to take the game to Australia, and more problematically, South Africa? Will the lack of Healy and O’Brien force Schmidt into certain selections in his pack? Or in the centres?

We’ve used the ESPN stats from the last two weeks to try and let the stats do the work.

Here’s the file: forwards_metres.  It’s the usual ESPN table format.  The focus here is on columns E to H and T to W, but that’s not to say the players didn’t do other stuff as well!  The guys in red are NIE.

Three things immediately stand out.

  1. Jamie Heaslip is the man. Over the two ERCC games, Heaslip has managed over 40 carries for an aggregate gain over 100m, the full length of a rugby pitch. Heaslip is in outstanding form and will be Ireland’s number eight for all three games. He’s not the most conventional number eight, or the most powerful, but his supreme footwork enables him to avoid the bigger hits and eke out metres where others would be running into a brick wall.  The issue that might arise is against South Africa whose sheer brawn is so suffocating he might not be able to find the space to get a run at soft shoulders.
  2. CJ Stander is the man. As if you need telling. Stander carried for an immense 110m against Sale, and again impressed with 42m with ball in hand against Sale, more than double anyone else in the pack. But he can’t play for Ireland.  Yet.
  3. Ulster have lacked a ball carrier. No Henderson, and Williams struggling; Ulster’s problem is that they have found themselves snaffled on the gainline. Roger Wilson showed up well off the bench against Leicester, but against Toulon no forward made more than 12m, which explains everything about why Ulster lost the game.

Ok, so that’s the obvious stuff, what about the auxiliary carriers, and what might it mean for Ireland

  1. If Heaslip is Leinster’s primary man, Sean Cronin is his lieutenant. Nobody can time a run onto the ball as well as this chap, which enables him to make clean breaks and beat defenders, and his technical deficiencies will continue to be accommodated by O’Connor as long as he can carry for an average of 30m a match. The question is: would Schmidt consider him ahead of Best in order to bolster his cabal of ball-carriers? Best’s lineout throwing has been poor for Ulster, and he has never been an effective carrier, but does bring power to the scrum and an exceptional ability around the ruck. Best would generally be seen as a nailed-on starter and a pack leader, and it would be a brave man to go into trench warfare against South Africa without him, but there may be a case for Cronin based on the current situation.
  2. Tommy O’Donnell is the new Chris Henry. We asked earlier in the season if O’Mahony, O’Donnell and Stander play together, who will hit the rucks? Answer: Tommy O’Donnell. Although a naturally strong carrier, O’Donnell has carried much less than his backrow partners in both games, and has appeared to do so closer to the ruck too. A recent journal.ie interview saw him chatting a lot about his role around the breakdown, slowing down ball, ‘living in the ruck’, and all that. It shows all the hallmarks of someone who has sacrificed his carrying game to do the dirty work; in effect, becoming more like Chris Henry. Which, ironically in this instance, will probably hurt his international ambitions.
  3. Peter O’Mahony offers good value with the ball. We know he likes to operate a bit further from the ruck where he can get his fend going, but O’Mahony’s carrying stats will encourage Schmidt. He made around 20m in each game, and like Sean Cronin was very much lieutenant to the primary ball-carrier. The only player who could realistically take the No.6 jersey from him is Rhys Ruddock, who has had a mixed bag, showing up well against Wasps, with a notable carrying performance, but anonymous in Castres. Throw in O’Mahony’s lineout game and abilty to win breakdown turnovers and he looks fairly nailed on for the jersey, but will probably be used to carry more than in the Six Nations.
  4. Jack McGrath for loosehead. He may not have Cian Healy’s quotient of fast-twitch muscle fibres, but McGrath is a useful carrier, as well as being generally decent in the set piece. He carried over 10m in each game. Both Munster looseheads have shown up better when introduced off the bench, and until one of them (probably Cronin) pulls away from the other, their jostling for position is probably letting McGrath pull the gap out when it comes to national selection.
  5. Paul O’Connell should leave the carrying to others – as has been suggested in certain quarters before,. While it seems churlish to be criticising the great O’Connell for anything, 5m gained over an aggregate 17 carries suggests that O’Connell should probably let O’Mahony, Stander or whichever loosehead is on the pitch have the ball instead. Toner hasn’t exactly been bursting through tackles either, so until Henderson presents himself again in the new year, Ireland can’t expect the second row unit to chip in with many metres. But it was ever thus – and quite often by our own design.

Based purely on individual merits, you’d write down the starting Irish pack as being McGrath, Best, Ross, O’Connell, Toner, O’Mahony, Henry and Heaslip. Schmidt will employ Heaslip as his primary ball-carrier, and ask O’Mahony and McGrath can help him out by chipping in with 20-ish metres each. Is that enough? If not, the case for Sean Cronin and Tommy O’Donnell becomes stronger, particularly for Cronin, though O’Donnell appears to have adapted his role somewhat.

And with a lack of heft in the pack, we need to ask if our preference for midgety centres can be continued – Dorce is decent at making metres after the tackle with his feet, but he isn’t exactly built like Mathieu Boshtereaud. Having someone bigger, like Robbie Henshaw, outside might take some workload off the forward carriers – Jared Payne certainly isn’t going to use opposition players as speed bumps. Any dreams of a second-five-eighth type inside-centre, such as Olding or Madigan, may have to be shelved for the moment.  All this, of course, is compounded by the loss of Trimble – with most of the putative replacements of the dancing-feet variety, we might need to press the square peg of Tommy Bowe into the round hole that is boshing up the middle.

One thing’s for sure: Jamie Heaslip’s going to have have a heavy workload over the next month.

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