Blood, Sweat and Tears

Well. What about that? Ireland finally exploded into life in this tournament and it had everything great about the Schmidt era – strong systems, disciplined defending and accurate rugby – allied to the old school emotional highs of previous glory days. As Ireland’s players dropped like flies, the team, every time, stepped it up another level – the collective desire reaching higher and higher pitch. The so-called replacements managed to make the team even better, and the controlled fury displayed by the likes of NWJMB and Chris Henry would do the stricken O’Connell proud.

As the game went on, Ireland somehow got better and better – what started out with Peter O’Mahony continued throughout the game with Besty and Sean O’Brien, and was picked up and returned with interest by the replacements. The most incredible thing was the response to losing 2 gold-plated Irreplaceables and our best player of the tournament was how we didn’t collapse, but took the adversity, and turned it around on the French. By full time, Ireland had their fourth biggest victory over France of all time, their first double digit win in 40 years, and it could have been more.

The Mole opined on this forum a few weeks ago that he thought Henderson was better than Fez – certainly his tackle on Bernard le Roux was Ferris-esque, and on a big man too. He was truly unstoppable, as was Chris Henry in his cameo. With O’Connell, Henderson’s level of play is clearly now on a different and higher level, but its the intangibles you would worry about replacing. Munster and Ireland are typically 30% better (we’ve done the science) with O’Connell on the pitch – while the team has a strong leadership corps, O’Connell is still the heartbeat. By the same token, despite O’Mahony being our best player for the first 50 minutes, we lost nothing with Chris Henry. With Henry, its more of a step sideways to a different kind of player than a step down. Yet O’Mahony is Munster captain, and we have lost that.

And a word for Ian Madigan – you are coming on to replace Jonny Sexton – a Test Lion starter, one of the best outhalves on the planet. You’ve spent the last two years stuck behind a Kiwi journeyman at provincial level and had to listen to everyone telling you that you are the poor mans Carlos Spencer – and extravagantly talented player who cannot control a game. Well, way to answer them – the second half was bossed by Madigan in a performance we would be hailing as world class if was produced by Sexton, or Carter, or Sanchez. His emotions at the end of the game reflected how we all felt – immense pride, and definitely a few tears.

The mid-game losses were severe – Sexton was vomiting on the pitch, and it looked to us like a whiplash injury. With his history of head trauma, this is very bad news. There official story is that it was muscular, and we really hope that is the case. The alternative could be career-threatening .. as O’Connell’s injury looked to be. Tearing a muscle off the bone requires long-term rehabilitation, and one wonders if his Toulon adventure is still on the cards. Finally, up to the point he went off, O’Mahony was everywhere – the rock of our defensive lineout, he’s a massive loss.

The French, as *ahem* predicted by us, were atrocious  – Picamoles was a force of nature in the first half but in attacked they offered nothing bar speculative Scott Spedding penalties. We saw Flaky Freddie, and even Dusautoir was mishandling. This, of course, was entirely predictable – anyone with a set of functioning eyes could have seen Saint-Andre’s (lack of) coaching leading the team to this point. The team was unstructured, directionless and shapeless for four years, and chickens are coming home to roost. Despite all the claptrap we read last week about them, France were as bad as expected:

  • They have never been in better shape. Really? I would hate to see them in worse shape – wilting after an hour, they had nothing in the tank at the end
  • They are a united camp after spending months together. They were a collection of individuals, like they have been for the entire PSA reign
  • You never know what team will turn up. You do – they haven’t beaten Ireland or Wales in this RWC cycle
  • They prefer World Cups to Six Nations. Another cracker – this must be why they won the 6N in 2007 before crashing out of the RWC to a rubbish England team and then finished runners-up in 2011 before enduring a miserable RWC in which they made the final almost by default.

Thankfully, Barnesy never bought into this rubbish and stated unequivocally France were hopeless. He was in a sad minority. They will lose to a spluttering BNZ by 20 points.

The flip side of this is that, while we’ve beaten them so comprehensively, we have paid a massive price for doing so. When the emotional high dies down, you wonder would you have preferred to have played as badly as we did against Italy and lost, but have Sexton, O’Connell, O’Mahony and O’Brien (following his reaction to Pascal Pape, a dirty dirty player, giving him an impromptu prostate massage) for the quarter final. That’s a loss of 252 Test caps and 3 Test Lions – a huge price to pay. And, indeed, the successive highs were themselves driven by the losses – a counterfactual with O’Connell and Sexton present for 80 minutes could well end with a similar result without such a huge investment of emotional energy.

That experience is what we’ll struggle to replace. Joe Schmidt’s systems are so strong that the likes of Madigan, Henry, Henderson and McGrath can come straight off the bench with no negative impact on team performance. But it will be very different with upheaval in the camp (minimum three players being replaced), a diminished bench and the loss of 252 caps from managing the endgame. Factor in the investment in emotional energy expended and this will be a long tough tiring week for the squad, ahead of a really hard game. But for the moment, we’re still on a high.

Group of Dearth

The latter stages of the World Cup have started to take shape as the pools head towards their denouement with only the BNZ pool more or less sorted. In that pool, the standard of rugby has been strong, with BNZ creaking in the second quarter but putting in one of the best 20 minutes of football seen yet in their opening game with Argentina. The Pumas, for their part, have looked invigorated after four years of the Championship – in previous World Cups they have looked like a Northern Hemisphere team, full of forward power and strong kicking games, but here they look like a combination of South African forwards and Australian backs. And, speaking of huge forwards, Georgia have been cowed by no-one and the sight of their brutish pack staring bemused at the haka was one for the ages – we couldn’t think of a team less likely to be intimidated. Gorgodzilla has been a force of nature, and his emotional response to being named MOTM * on Friday night was what the development of Tier 2 rugby should be about.

Here in Ireland we have never quite got to grips with the concept that the pool stages of the world cup are for the most part a warm up exercise, and that the real business starts in the quarter finals.  In all except the freakish Pool of Death, the two teams coming out of each pool have been flagged well in advance, and so – even with South Africa’s early abberation – everything has panned out as expected.  The only thing down for decision in the vast majority of world cup pools dating back to whenever, is the fight between first and second, which isn’t always of great consequence.  In 2011, Ireland placed too much importance on having beaten Australia in the pool.  It was a fine performance and tactically shrewd, but ultimately immaterial.  In the quarter finals, when winning really mattered, Ireland fluffed their lines and Australia, who had come second in the pool, advanced to the semi-finals.

The only pool with no teams yet qualified (mathematically anyway) is the South Africa one. In reality, the Springboks are home and hosed – the defeat against Japan woke the squad up, and with Meyer privately briefing against Jean de Villiers’ twin for crimes against the gameplan in that defeat, the defeat and the captain’s injury has allowed Meyer to let yoof have its fling. Damian de Allende and the ginormous Lood de Jager have come in for JdV and Victor Matfield – the physical comparison with Scotland seemed unfair at times, and their pure beastliness will take them far but the team still feels a little callow at this point. Even if Wales lose to the Wobs, as seems likely, they might fancy a cut off these Boks. Second place will come down to Samoa-Scotland – if the Scots win, they are through, if Samoa win Japan will get through with a bonus point win against the USA. Whatever about (largely made-up) Celtic brotherhood, we for one will be cheering heartily for Samoa on Saturday.  But with Samoa a disorganised shambles, the Scots should coast into the quarter finals.

In the Pool of Death, England have had the huge misfortune to come up against two of the best coaches in the world coaching intelligent and focused teams, at just the wrong time. Australia followed up on Wales’ triumph with a scintillating display of scrummaging, backrow brilliance and creativity out wide – England’s props were taken out of the firing line before the hour mark! We’ll have a scapegoat watch on England later in the week, but few would have lived with the Wobblies on Saturday night. Fiji were also hotly tipped to cause an upset of one of the big three – in the event, they didn’t really come close, with just too much inaccuracy against good teams, but man they can play when they want to.

And what then of Ireland’s pool? The only one without any Southern Hemisphere skill or Pacific Island magic has largely stunk the tournament out, to be frank. The pool has been peppered with low standard and forgettable games, with Ireland-Italy merely being the latest – all three French games have been desperately poor quality. Canada have brought some of the effervescent Tier 2 buzz that have characterised the tournament, to be fair. The pool carries a faint whiff of the English pool in the last tournament – chock full of European teams (and Argentina in their previous Northern Hemisphere iteration) – the pool was defined by forward power and was eminently forgettable, barring the amusing off-field tales concerning the England players. When it came to the knockouts, both Argentina and England were dumped out without too much bother – and they weren’t lamented.

The nagging worry at this point is that the general lack of inspiration present proves fatal to Ireland and France in the next round when they will be abruptly exposed to high class rugby, with New Zealand and Argentina waiting, probably two of the best three sides to this point.

The Italian game at the weekend was, by some distance, the worst performance of the Joe Schmidt era – this is a very limited Italian side, yet Ireland somehow managed to make Simone Favaro and Edoardo Gori look like Schalk Burger and Aaron Smith. Schmidt’s success has been built on forcing mistakes from opponents through an extremely accurate kicking game, intelligent rucking and watertight defence – all three elements were conspicuous by their absence on Sunday. If it wasn’t for Italy’s inability to run a lineout (and O’Mahony’s defensive excellence – he may have been called Ireland’s Bakkies Botha last week (!) but could Bakkies have made that tackle? I don’t think so) today’s conversation would be very different, and much more fraught.

Expect the usual commentary about us playing badly being a good thing because <cup rugby> and <complacency>. In truth, cup rugby doesn’t involve kicking the ball away and hanging on by your fingertips, and you’d have thought that three games into a World Cup, we wouldn’t need a reminder of what is at stake. But there is good news – the expected return of Jared Payne and Bob will beef up our defence and kicking game, and it pretty tough to see Conor Murray playing this badly again. The lack of form shown so far this year by Sexton and O’Brien is a concerning issue – and while Schmidt might be tempted to turn to Chris Henry, we urgently need Sexton to show some of his best form.

Another positive is that this France team thrive on one thing and one thing only – beef in the tight. The set piece has been a continual strength, even against Italy, and that is unlikely to change. If our rucking work improves and our defence is a little less passive, we have it well within our werewithall to keep them out – add in how vulnerable they looked to DTH van der Merwe, and you might just expect the likes of Earls to look threatening .. if Ireland manage to get the ball to him. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater – if Ireland tighten up on the basics, they will beat an unstructured and poorly-coached France team, and that’s what they should concentrate on. Forget not knowing which French side will show up, let’s worry about ensuring the correct Ireland side show up – the one which kicks and rucks well.

* This being the first RWC in the mass social media era has been both good and bad – it’s been good for the fans worldwide who can now read the likes of Dorce and Charlie Morgan, whose forensic brilliance has been brought global by new meeja. The bad: the nonsensical MOTM system. Around the 50 minute mark of every game, a WR gnome nominates three players who are then voted upon by ver people. This horseshit system got the result it deserved on Saturday night, when Joe Launchbury was named MOTM in the aftermath of one of the great World Cup performances … by his opponents. Gorgodzilla is a rare exception.


It feels like a bit of a strange World Cup for the Irish at this point – we are still over a week from our first (of many we hope) peak while the tournament goes supernova around us. We haven’t even managed to get the usual pat-on-the-head platitudes about being the best fans, since the general atmosphere has been fantastic.  Minnows have been largely competitive, and then there have been the headline games. The Japan-South Africa and New Zealand-Argentina games on the first weekend were fantastic, but last Saturdays epic was one of the truly great World Cup games.

We were going to write a great piece about England’s great capitulation, but Graham Henry covered it all so comprehensively, his piece was unimprovable. Henry was scathing and unsparing. England were poorly selected, afraid to play rugby and choked in the last 20 minutes, making terrible decisions both on and off the pitch. It was a great article. What came through was Henry’s absolute disdain for what we call the ‘rugby of fear’. Not for Henry the usual hoo-ha of ‘cup rugby’, which is translation for ‘kicking to the other team and hoping they make mistakes’. You go out to beat the other team by playing them off the park. If you have lineout and scrum dominance, he said in so many words, why on earth are you not playing rugby with the high quality first phase ball? It’s anathema to him.

For the record, we cannot understand the decision to go down the line at the end. Whatever about the match situation, whatever about the relative percentages of a rolling maul versus a moderately difficult kick for a 7-from-7 kicker, the fact is – a draw virtually ensures England qualify. At the very least, it means an injury-ravaged Welsh side need to win twice.

But whatever of the erroneous final decision to decline the kick at goal, the choking began well before that. You could say it began the moment Ben Youngs departed the pitch and England suddenly began to clam up. ‘All the good stuff was coming through Ben’, they seemed to say, ‘What do we do now?’ Indeed, you could argue the choking began even before kick off, with Lancaster’s selection. We were critical of it, and our concerns came to pass. It was a selection of fear. A team picked not to lose.  A selection to put doubts in the minds of his own players. A selection the Welsh will have picked up and said ‘these chaps are worried’. It was hardly surprising that those doubts seeped from Lancaster into his players’ heads in the fateful final half hour.

Demented Mole wrote a great analysis of Australia a couple of weeks back, noting in particular the decisiveness of Michael Cheika’s actions as head coach. It raised a key point. Coaches’ decisions will not always be correct, but in acting decisively they will partially mitigate even those they get wrong. The best coaches act decisively. Joe Schmidt, for example. Say what you want about Ireland being boring or mechanical, but the coach is absolutely decisive in how he has set them out play, and how he picks the team. But Lancaster lacks decisiveness, and you struggle to see what England are trying to do. Even over the complete RWC cycle, its tough to map out what England have been building towards (bar Japan 2019, as Lancaster is so fond of pointing out)

The Wales selection seemed like throwing away two years of work on a playing philosophy on the eve of his biggest gamem and his team have a well-earned reputation for lacking decisiveness in clutch situations. What does he do now? Persist with the new game plan, or go back to the old one? Can he decide? He somehow wound up with a team on the pitch with around 2/3 of the cap total he had planned four years ago, another symptom of squad mismanagement.

Worse still was how England managed to make things worse, not better, in the post match interviews. In the immediate aftermath, Robshaw appeared to implicate the kickers Farrell and Ford for the decision to go down the line, before changing his mind and taking all the responsibility himself. Lancaster then appeared not to back his captain, after four years of four square support for every decision Robshaw made on the pitch. Farrell said he would have kicked if asked. Mike Brown just sounded disgusted his forwards had given away so many penalties while he was busy doing everything at full back. It all contrasted so badly to a Wales side that was steadfastly unified in the face of extreme adversity,  led outstandingly by Captain Sam Warburton and his brave Lieutenant Alun-Wyn Jones. One side had enough clarity of purpose to attack an opponents weak point (one paced outside centre) with four half backs on the pitch – and it wasn’t England.

What really struck us was Richard Wigglesworth having a pop at Will Carling for calling Lancaster’s England a “classroom-oriented environment” where the players are treated as “schoolboys”. To us, it sounds fair enough, but it was the contrast between Carling’s England and Robshaw’s England that stood out. Bum Face was appointed England captain after a handful of caps by young coach Geoff Cooke, taking over a side considered to have a disciplinary problem (sound familiar?), who hadn’t tasted success since the Beaumont Slam in 1980, with a few wooden spoons in between. However, between Cooke and Carling, they had fashioned a side that won the a Grand Slam in 1991 (the first of three for Carling) then went mighty close to winning their home World Cup later that year. Carling might have been able to work with Moore, Ackford, Skinner, Guscott, etc, but there was no doubt who was running the show – Bum Face would learn on the job, but he and his coach fashioned one of the Northern Hemisphere’s great sides in the same period of time that Robshaw and Lancaster have led England to this point.

It feels from the outside that the whole show is in danger of falling apart, with the camp seemingly coming apart at the seams, and there’s some serious work to do this week if England are to avoid a calamitous early exit. They now face a strong, coherent and settled (remarkably, considering how long Cheika has been in the job) Australia side, and you can be sure Cheika won’t be letting his side drop their intensity. England will rally; they never roll over for anyone, and it will be another huge, close game which will most likely be decided in the last 20 minutes. But increasingly, it feels like if it comes down to the wire late in the match, Lancaster’s England, like Kidney’s Ireland in 2013, will find a way of losing.

To The Panic Stations!

Have England lost their nerve? England are going to take on Wales in their almost-knockout pool game this weekend with a midfield consisting of Owen Farrell, Sam Burgess and Brad Barritt. In that order. So that’s Barritt at 13 then. 

With Billy Vunipola also coming into the team it’s a whopping four changes from the team which performed pretty modestly against Fiji. Vunipola at least looked impressive off the bench (and Ben Morgan might be a smidgen injured) as did Slammin’ but Barritt was anonymous – in his favoured position.

Does it constitute a small bit of panic in the ranks? Stuart Barnes’ considered opinion was that a change in mindset rather than personnel was required, and that any move away from Ford at this stage opened the possibility of England crashing out. It appears a frankly remarkable move to about-turn on the Bath midfield axis which has driven England’s best performances over the last 12 months. Has George Ford’s stock really plummeted on the back of one faintly ponderous performance behind Ben Youngs’ sleepy service? And just what is it that the more mechanical Owen Farrell can really do so much better?
England scored 18 tries in the Six Nations with the Ford-Burrell-Joseph midfield. Burrell has been left at home, and of course Joseph’s injury denies England their best back. But it’s as if his absence has caused the coaches to say ‘well sod this anyway. Passing the ball around was hard enough with Joseph in the team, now we’ve no hope. Let’s switch to kick and bosh instead’. Henry Slade, meanwhile, holds tackle bags and Cipriani is at home.

It looks suspiciously like Lancaster has been sucked into the old classic that world cups require ‘cup rugby’, and that cup rugby mostly involves very little rugby at all. It’s a bit early to be tightening up to such a degree.

Most of all, though, it looks like a selection Wazza Gatland will be thrilled to see. Farrell at 10? Easy meat. Brad Barritt at 13? Dan Lydiate will line him up all day long. Surely the big Welsh oil tankers are better off being moved around? Certainly Sam Burgess has a bit about him and his his offloading game will have to be policed closely, but all told the number of threats is reduced. Anthony Watson? His best chance of getting the ball is from Welsh kicks. 

We had England down to win this match. But now we’re not so sure. Wales are a bit injured but if they can get something approaching parity in the scrums and lineouts – where England aren’t any great shakes either – and if Alun-Wyn Jones is fit enough, they might just edge this one. 

Either way, a titanic battle awaits, even if it won’t be all that pretty. Altogether now – Ooooooooooooooohhhhhh!!

Artists of the Floating World

The first weekend of the World Cup goes down as a huge success.  Well attended stadia full of raucous support, good rugby matches, Ireland looking good – and Japan.  Some are calling it the biggest upset in team sport… ever.  And they’re probably right.  Upsets in modern day rugby are hugely rare.  Even the thought of a supposedly top tier nation like Scotland toppling one of the giants would be fairly seismic.  For Japan to do so is simply out of this world.  What more can be said other than that it was unbelievable.

The victory was spectacular for so many reasons.  For the pugnacious refusal to lie down and be bullied by the Springboks.  Even when the Boks scored a try in the final quarter to amass a seven point lead, which looked to have ended the spirited fight, Japan responded – and spectacularly too.  For the bravery to go for the win rather than kick for the draw (though the kick was by no means a gimme so the draw wasn’t cast in stone).  For the even greater bravery to pass the ball along the gainline to set up the winning overlap.  And for the tactical acumen and cool-headed shrewdness shown in the heat of battle.  Not just in the final denoument, but in killing the ball deliberately (and cycnically!) when South Africa were camped on their line minutes previously.  A try for the Boks in that position would surely have won the game, but Japan had the wherewithal to kill the ball, suck up the three points and leave themselves in a position to go on and win.

But most of all, it was for the sheer skill and technique on view.  Smaller forwards Japan may have, but they showed that the skill of effective rucking is about accuracy and technique rather than big men simply bulldozing into rucks.  They supplied their jinky, pacey backline with a supply of quick ball that was enough to score three tries.  The handling skills in the backline were easily up to the task.

Much had been made in advance of the tournament of the work their scrum coach Marc del Maso has done to bring their scrum from being a shambles, to one of the best in the world.  It came to pass here as they won a scrum penalty in the dying minutes that kept the pressure on the Boks.  As if anyone needed telling, Eddie Jones is clearly some bit of stuff.  And this was his finest ever hour.

Muddy Wulliams made the point that the growth of the Top League in Japan and the benefits of more regular and higher-standard rugby raises all boats. Japan is a very rich country with well-resourced corporations putting money back into the sport – this means teams with such romantic names as Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers, NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes and Coca Cola West Red Sparks. While it would stick in the craw of AIL vets at Shanning and Garryowen, in rugby, money buys good stadia, full-time pros and Eddie Jones. While the status of the Top16 franchise in Japan (due to compete next year) is in flux, with Eddie Jones having thrown his hands up in despair and going to, ironically, the Stormers, its inevitable that it will happen some day. While Japan aren’t likely to become the new Argentina any time soon, they are equally unlikely to go 24 years without another RWC win.

Much like everyone watching we expect, WoC were running around their living rooms as if they were Japanese.  It would be nice to say ‘this is what the rugby world cup is all about’, but it’s not really.  This sort of thing simply never happens.  It made it all the sweeter, the greatest upset in the history of the sport.

The Pool of Death

There has to be at least one pool of death.  If we discount Italy, and it’s safe to do so, that leaves nine nations from the two principal global rugby tournaments fighting over eight quarter final places.  Add in the possibility of a wild-card nation like Samoa or Fiji turning up organised and motivated, and there’s scope for another.

In 2011, it was Scotland that found themselves edged out.  Before you start laughing at the notion of Scotland’s early exit being anything other than academic, recall that they lost to Argentina by a solitary point and had England on the rack for much of the match.  In fact, had they only to beat England they may well have done so, but they had to defeat them by seven or more, and as a result had to continue pressing on in a match they were leading.  England ran out lacklustre four-point winners.  In 2007, Ireland got lumped in with, and turfed out by, hosts France and a rampantly fired-up Argentina.

This time around, the quirky ranking system has left us with an absolutely dynamite pool involving Wales, England and Australia.  And as luck would have it, the PNC champions, Fiji, are in there too.  Just to make everything extra hard.  It’s a whopper.

Wales tend to do well in World Cups.  In 2003, they used the tournament to reignite themselves as a premier rugby nation and in 2011 they were brilliant for large parts of the competition and should have made the final.  They’re a steely, tough, physical side; efficient deployment of Warrenball is the name of the game.  They’ve a tendency to come up just short against the Southern Hemisphere big guns, but against their European comrades, they’re up with the best.  There’s little to choose between them, England and Ireland; look at the 2015 Six Nations log for proof.

But my word they are eviscerated by injury.  Already down Jonathan Davies, they have lost their metronomic plake kicker and foundation at the back, Leigh Halfpenny, as well as Rhys Webb, who was rapidly emerging as one of the game’s elite scrum halves.  To top this off, Alun-Wyn Jones – every bit as inspiration for Wales as Paul O’Connell is for Ireland – is struggling.  Assuming Jones pulls through in some shape or form, Webb looks the biggest loss.  Scott Williams is an able deputy for Davies.  Halfpenny can be replaced by Liam Williams (himself returning from – guess what? – injury) and they will lose little in attack, with Williams perhaps the more dangerous open-field runner.  And the place-kicking issue may not be as bad as feared, because Dan Biggar at fly-half is pretty accurate off the ground.

Scrum half will now be particularly interesting.  Don’t rule out the strange scenario where Mike Phillips returns from the dead as first choice, having been bumped entirely off the squad a few weeks back.  Given the size of his personality and influence around the squad, he’s hardy the kind of pick a coach would bring along to hold tackle pads, and it is reasonable to assume that in Webb’s absence, Gatland plays the experience card.  Phillips looked out of sorts against Ireland and is generally past his best, but the same issues didn’t stop Gatland picking him to start all three Lions tests two years ago.

England are the hosts, are in good health and have ambitions of overall victory.  Being hosts counts for a lot – Barnesy had it about right at the recent Sunday Times shindig in Lansdowne Road where he described it as being worth nine points a match. It’s hard to see the host nation bowing out in the group stages; the rule of thumb is that the hosts generally contest the final.  Anything less simply wouldn’t do.

The other big fish in the pond is Australia, current holders of the Rugby Championship.  Australian rugby hasn’t had it too good in recent years, and they reached something of a low ebb in losing a dire series against the Lions two years ago.  But since then, things have taken a turn for the better and they appear to have the right man in charge of them.  Irish fans, especially those from the blue bit, are familiar with Michael ‘Bull in a China Shop’ Cheika, and going by previous indiscretion levels around the squad, his ironclad style is just the requirement to get his best out of this group of players. .  The early signifiers are promising, not least a scrum that actually bossed New Zealand around in a big win, followed by a dismantling of a good Argentina side in the recent Championship.  And while Cheika is best known as a disciplinarian and all-round hard-nut, he is also a highly intelligent and universally respected rugby brain.

Here in WOC Towers, we were struggling to come to an agreement about how this one would pan out, but cursed injury to two of Wales’ best players has intervened, and now we’re aligned in thinking it’s hard to see Wales manufacturing the victory they need over either of the two heavyweights.  Palla had visions of the big three all beating each other and bonus points and cricket score-counts over Uruguay being required to settle the dispute.  And should that come to pass, England are well placed, because they go into their final game against Uruguay knowing just how many runs they have to score in the chase. But now we’re going for England and Australia to beat Wales and qualify.  But in what order?

England typically have Australia’s number, especially in Twickenham, but we’re going out on a limb and we’re tipping a Cheika-inspired Australia, having finally discovered a stable scrum, to wreak breakdown havoc and beat England. We are less than inspired by Lancaster’s use of the bench (Exhibit A – substitutions by numbers in the 2014 loss to France), and bringing on Wigglesworth, Farrell and Slammin’ Sam just seems wooden to us; why aren’t we seeing Care, Slade and Goode? Or Cipriani? Cheika might not have huge depth, but he knows how to use it better, and Genia, Cooper and Beale is a game-changing bench.

England have plenty going for them, not least a creative and explosive backline and a front-five that is typically English, but they lack one thing, and that’s a breakdown specialist on the flanks.  In this pool, they’re about to come up against no less than four of the world’s best ball-poaching opensides.  They’ve a hell of a job on getting the quick ball they need to get Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson running at space. They should do enough to beat Wales and Mike Philips the auxiliary blindside, but may come up short against the Wobs.  Matt Williams is concerned about the Aussies’ lack of any depth whatsoever – Kane Douglas is a squad member – but if their best players stay fit they have a side high on talent.  Think Stephen Moore, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Matt Giteau and Israel Folau.

The big winner here is the humble punter.  The group stages often lack intensity.  The outcome in two pools is a foregone conclusion, and in the other (our pool) it is only the order of the qualifiers that needs to be resolved.  But here, we will see the World Cup hit boiling point early.  As early as the 26th September, when Wales take on England.  A week later England play Australia.  It’s knockout rugby come early.  And better yet, it’s a match with Anthony Watson and Israel Folau on the same pitch.

And what of Fiji? The PNC champions are here to upset the applecart and are apparently targeting Wales in their second game – it will be interesting to see how the Fijians approach the games. They are likely to contribute hugely to the opening game in a losing effort, but that might leave them vulnerable to a Wobbly bashing just 5 days later – a bonus point opportunity for Australia that Cheika is sure to gobble up. After that, it’s Wales, who were memorably beaten in 2007. However, less memorable was the 2011 tournament, were Wales beat them 66-0. Wales are vulnerable for sure, but if they are coming off a defeat to England, as we expect, this will be a virtual knockout for them – we think Fiji will come up short.

Just coming second in this pool is hard enough, but the carrot for winning it is huge.  The winners almost certainly face Scotland in the quarter-final and one of France, Ireland and Argentina in the semi-final.  Whoever gets the job done here has a great chance of going right to the end. We’re picking that team to be Australia.

Best World Cup Evah

Before we nail our Ireland preview to the metaphorical door of Wittenberg church that is tinterwebs, we need to consider just a couple of things:

  • The best teams in the world usually win the competition – obvious question marks surround the BNZ teams of 1995 and 2007 – the South African team that won so memorably in ’95 did very little else, and while the ’07 team peaked 24 months later when winning the Tri Nations and beating GivvusahugShawsie and 14 other red-clad men, but BNZ blew both in truth. However, no other champions weren’t the best team (either at the time or in retrospect) and indeed neither group of Springboks were unworthy champions.  Everyone associates the 2011 New Zealand winners with the nervous wreck that fell over the line in the final, but scroll back to the semi-final, quarter-final and pool stages and they were the best team in the tournament
  • Runners-up are not necessarily the second best team in the competition – this isn’t a league, remember. While the cream normally rises to the top, no-one is going to remember the 2003 Wobblies, 2007 English or 2011 French as vintage crops. Indeed, most in English rugby seem to have wilfully expunged the Ashton era from memory, and the French lost to Tonga and were an utter shambles rescued only by the leadership of Thierry Dusautoir, one of the all-time greats
  • Ireland have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals – and have really only had two tournaments you could judge a success, and 2011 only was one because we claimed a Southern Hemisphere scalp. That’s been our level, like it or not.  Put simply, Ireland’s record in these tournaments is pretty average at best, dire compared to our pretensions

So what was all that in aid of then? Well, let’s start on the third point – Ireland haven’t progressed beyond a quarter-final. It’s hard to pinpoint a time when Ireland were obviously among the best in the world – top 8 has been our level. Are we better than that now? Easy to say yes, clearly, on the back of our back-to-back Six Nations, but it’s not that simple. If we consider England, Wales and Ireland during the Schmidt era, games between the three have resulted in two wins each. In the last edition, the teams finished with the same number of points, with Ireland taking the gong on points difference. In our view there is a fly-paper between the sides.

If there is a fly-paper between them, there is a hardback book to the level the Southern Hemisphere showed during the Rugby Championship – it would be hard to see any of the Northern Hemisphere powerhouses living with the general standard produced during the summer. But – like we said – it isn’t a league. Ireland, quite obviously, aren’t the best team in the world, or anything close to it, but while that might preclude us wining the thing, it isn’t the end of the world (see: Lievremont, Marc – 2011). A semi final would constitute a “best tournament ever”, and seems to be something of a national obsession – and it’s achievable.

The major reason to think Ireland can reasonably consider this as a great chance to better their previous best is the draw. If Schmidt was asked to pick a top seed from BNZ, SA, England and France – he’d pick France. If he was asked to pick a third seed between Wales, Scotland, Italy and Tonga – I think he’d pick Italy. Aside from the fag-end of the Deccie era, we haven’t had any trouble with Italy since before Dorce’s international career. And Italy in Rome in the spring is one thing, Italy in a World Cup is another.  They travel terribly, and have been hopeless in World Cups.  It’s a dream pool, eminently winnable. And if we do, the only preferable quarter final opponent to the runner up to BNZ’s group is the one in South Africa’s – but still, at least we’re avoiding the one from England’s group. Compare a scenario where Ireland were drawn with England and Wales in the pool stages – would you be as confident? Hardly. So that’s great.

If Ireland win their pool and lose in the quarter finals, is that a success? No, quite frankly, it isn’t – we’ve done that, four years ago, and despite the best efforts of Gerry and co. to insist otherwise, it was a disappointment. The nature of the quarter final defeat made it worse, but there is no such thing as heroic defeat in a World Cup – just defeat. If we don’t win the pool, we play BNZ – and we won’t win, lets be honest with ourselves. So to make the semis and make the tournament a success (by our definition), the path is winning the pool and beating the runners up from the BNZ pool. Can we do it, and what comes next?

The Pool

We will beat Canada with the firsts, Romania with the dirt trackers and Italy with the firsts. No doubt. Move on.

What about France? The mere sight of a grizzled French prop sucking on a Gitanes or an athletic and good looking wing looking suggestively at Clare Balding used to make Paddy go weak at the knees and slack-jawed, allowing the tanned and self-confident Pierre to walk in multiple tries against us. But no longer – since the O’Leary game over four years ago, we haven’t lost to our bete-noir (thanks Gerry!). Deccie fought out two draws and Schmidt has beaten them twice. Nothing has been easy, but we still haven’t lost to them. Looking in more depth at the players in our squad, we have eleven who have never lost to the French (Madigan, Henry, Henshaw, Kearney Jr, McGrath, Murphy, Payne, Toner, Zebo, Henderson, O’Mahony), all of whom will have aspirations of being in the 23, and only Earls, Jackson and Ryan have never beaten them.

It’s a nice habit. Plus, for all the cliches about “not knowing what France will turn up”, we’re going to go out on a limb here and say that we know exactly what France will turn up – the rabble we have seen since Philippe Saint-Andre took over. They have finished fourth, sixth, fourth and fourth in their Six Nations and have a grand total of 1 (videprinter moment – ONE) win over teams that aren’t Scotland and Italy in competitive games in this entire RWC cycle. They are a directionless, shapeless excuse of a team that will be piloted by Freddy Michalak! We keep hearing about all this Herculean training they are doing, but listen – they were so woefully out of shape in recent years, it’s the least they need to avoid disgracing themselves.

The team are still – still! – constructed around the peerless Dusautoir, but the supporting cast, while individually excellent, just aren’t doing it in blue. The pack are huge, but what good is a huge pack if you can’t actually win any games on the back of it. For all the behemoth hugeness, they lack mobility.  Maestri, Atonio, Guirado – big men, but hardly sprightly, and not to be feared. What, on paper, is an impactful bench, is nothing of the sort – all we can remember is France hanging on at the end of games, not stepping on the gas. Constant chopping and changing in the backs has left us with Scott Spedding in the first team. If you cut them an even break, like England did in Twickers, they will run in a few tries, but play with accuracy and structure and you’ll beat them. Sure, it’s going to be tough going, and we’ll examine some of the micro issues in depth the week of the game, but we’re not buying any talking up of the French – this is the worst team they have had in memory, and we will beat them.


After that, we’ll be playing the runners up in the BNZ pool – likely Argentina. Ireland have been consistently ranked above Argentina in recent years, but for an odd reason: while we have hoovered up ranking points against Italy, Scotland and France, they have bled them by losing to BNZ, South Africa and Australia. Each year, they have got closer – and this year they hammered SA in Durban, having topped the Wobs in Mendoza the year before. They’ve been largely competitive, and had the best scrum in the competition for the last two years. It’s worth asking Schmidt what preparation he would prefer – playing and losing the RC or playing and winning in the 6N – there are arguments for both. And they will fancy beating us as well – they always do.

The UAR have for once done a good job, and have harvested players at home for the Super Rugby franchise that will start in 2016, with the majority of their squad now based at home. They are sprinkled with world class players (Ayerza, Creevy, Fernandez Lobbe, Sanchez, Imhoff) and are fit and rested. Similar to how Ireland will use their first three games to build up to France, Argentina play BNZ first and will use the games against Georgia, Tonga and Namibia to build up to play us.

At this juncture, this looks to us like a 50-50 match – both teams are in the bunch behind NZ, SA and Oz and around the standard of England and Wales. Still, this is what our tournament will come down to to cross the success/failure line – a one-off match with Argentina. Based on how Schmidt has prepared his teams to date, we’re backing him to pull this one off. We’re far out and injuries etc will surely have an impact, but from here, we reckon we can do it.

After that, we think Ireland will have met their match. A week after that, it’s the winner of the Group of Death (more of which anon) and for us, that’s as far as we go. A week out from Argentina facing a team who will likely have whacked Scotland pretty easily and taken off important players with 30 minutes to go. No shame, but we see a tired Ireland unable to go to the well three weeks in a row – this is a tough tournament and our best simply won’t be enough. And there is no shame in that – for this, remember, will be our best effort ever in a tournament in which we usually fall flat on our faces.

High Risk

By now we’ve all seen the squad, read the analysis and recoiled in horror at Hugh Farrelly’s devastating, chilling ‘six-step nightmare scenario’ that leads inevitably to Ian Madigan playing scrum half for the majority of the crucial pool match against France.  Yes, it’s all become very clear: Joe Schmidt has taken some serious risks with his 31 man squad selection.  So we’re here to run over each unit, and ask: what should Joe have done.  Y’know, to reduce the risks of something awful happening as a result of injury to one of our best players in the captain’s run.  Anyone who knows anything about the game knows that lads are forever getting injured in the captain’s run.

Front Row

Very risky stuff here.  Only two looseheads selected, one of whom isn’t even fit yet.  This is a high risk situation.  This would have been entirely alleviated had Schmidt drafted in David Kilcoyne.  Further risk reduction could have been achieved by also including Michael Bent in the panel.

Second Row

At first glance, Ireland look well stocked at second row with no less than four first-rate players to choose from.  But have you considered this scenario: O’Connell, Toner, Ryan and Henderson are all struck down with a mystery virus that hits only competent locks and makes them shrink to 1.5m tall overnight! With Rory Best’s arse identified as the source, Schmidt has no choice but to call up Paul Marshall and Strings to cover Chris Henry, our new tighthead lock. Hardly an ideal situation I’m sure you’ll agree.  Schmidt could have avoided this needless risk by selecting three additional locks: step forward Mike McCarthy, Dan Tuohy and Donncha O’Callaghan.

Back Row

Looks ok, doesn’t it?  But remember that Henry is covering the second row (see above) and things don’t look so pretty.  Schmidt should have given consideration to Clive Ross as additional cover.

Scrum Half

The big one.  The mega-risk.  Just two recognised scrum halves.  And Ian Madigan!  Schmidt was keen to tell us that Madser has been practicing scrum half in his mum’s garden all summer, but who is he kidding?  Not us!  And not Hugh Farrelly!  Hugh has already carefully outlined the unthinkable scenario, where Murray and Reddan get injured, leaving Madigan to throw passes from the base of the ruck for 70 minutes against France.  Now let’s dream of the alternative.  The third scrum half that isn’t: instead of Madigan we get Isaac Boss.  For 70 minutes against France.  Oooooohhh, that’s some soothing balm right there.  Feels better, doesn’t it?

Fly Half

We’ve heard it all so often: Ireland’s world cup is goosed if Jonny gets injured.  So why take the risk?  Why be so dependant on one player?  Schmidt should have just left Jonny at home and saved us all the worry about his occasionally jumpy hamstrings.  With little to choose between Madigan, Jackson and Keatley it wouldn’t matter a damn if one of them got injured.

Outside Backs

The only position where Ireland are well covered, thank goodness.  Even if all the wings get injured in the captain’s run, as appears likely, we can at least be assured that Jordi Murphy has experience there.  And, while few will recall such a little discussed fact, it should also be noted that Peter O’Mahony did once play on the wing in an AIL final.

We sign off with a simple plea to Paul O’Connell: just for goodness sake go easy on the lads in the captain’s run!

Faces That Fit(z)

It’s funny really – history will note that we lost our final home warm-up 16-10 to Cuddly Nemesis Wazza and his Welsh minions (giant minions), but the conversation, from the second Paul O’Connell expectedly eschewed the opportunity to take credit, moved on to the RWC15 squad announcement. Were Earls and Fitzgerald badly injured, or would they make the squad? Did Dave Kearney cement his place? Is Jordi Murphy a better option in the backline than Isaac Boss? How can we parlay some #OUTRAGE into the conversation?

One other thing that we left thinking was this: will, as looks inevitable, Iain Henderson force his way into the XV? And, is Sexton priming himself for a classic Irish outhalf World Cup meltdown? (joke) (sort of)

But anyway, the squad – for some reason we can’t understand, Ireland chose to submit the squad to World Rugby on the 31st, pre-deadline, then schedule a press conference to talk about it on the 1st. Inevitably, it leaked – so we’ve had a bit of time to digest it. There are three big calls – Andrew Trimble missing out, Tadgh Furlong being selected, and Darren Cave making it (indirectly) at the expense of Boss.

Most headlines were about Trimble, who was Irish rugby’s POTY exactly one year ago. And yet – it’s the least surprising. Schmidt himself talked about it before the Wales game – Trimble has played 34 minutes in eight months. And 80 minutes for Ulster on Friday wasn’t enough to convince the brains trust to include him. It might be dividing opinion, but it’s at least understandable. Trimble’s injury woes were compounded by some excellent showings by Dishy Dave and Earls in the warmups – Kearney Jr seems to be a lightning rod for criticism (“Daverage”) but he’s Ireland form wing right now, and we’d probably have him in the Test team. And while it’s easy to fulminate about Trimble’s exclusion – it’s tougher to argue against the inclusion of the guys who have made it – we have depth at wing. Brian Carney won’t be going to this World Cup.

All that said, given the injury histories of the wings that we have brought, and the attrition rate in modern rugby, at this point we still suspect Trimble will ultimately go to his third World Cup.

One person who will likely not go to a third World Cup whatever the circumstances is Isaac Boss – he played himself off the team against Scotland and now Ian Madigan will be the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency scrummie. True, it leaves us exposed should one of our scrum halves take a short-term knock. But a squad of just 31 means coaches have to take risks somewhere.  Look at Australia and Wales, and England; each have at least one position where they don’t have as much cover as they woudl like.  It’s a tight squeeze and every coach has to choose where to double down and where to hope for a bit of good fortune.

The man who will be going in Boss’ stead is, incredibly, Face Doesn’t Fit. Darren Cave came closest to the Ireland team in the lead up to the 2012 Six Nations when his BODness went down and he was in the form of his career. Then he got knacked, and Keith Earls got the gig and went well. That’s right – Keith Earls is an international standard outside centre. Since then, Cave hasn’t troubled the scorer in green – and after a disappointing tour to Argentina last summer his international career looked as good as over. However, with Dorce and Boss falling off a cliff, he’s suddenly back in favour as specialist centre backup – and in the first Welsh buildup game he played as well as he has ever done for Ireland. We called this one as a possibilty last week; Cave can cover both centre positions, and without him in the squad, midfield back-up was worryingly threadbare, especially at 12.  Madigan has enough to work on at out-half where he is a very real possibility for the matchday bench.  Still, one has to wonder about no less than four other Ulstermen who may be in the conversation in other circumstances – Bamm-Bamm and Olding if they had stayed fit, Stuart McCloskey if he happened to be a year older, and of course, nearly three years after his tragic passing, Nevin Spence. But Cave deserves his selection.  He was an unsung herop for Ulster last year and has consistently played to a good level, even if that level appears to fall just short of top class.

At first glance, the call to bring Tadgh Furlong as fifth prop seems needlessly risky and indeed, rather barmy. When we cranked back into gear after a lazy summer, our first post was about the front row. We thought we would be bringing six specialists – three for each side. Since Schmidt made it clear he was going for a 17-14 split, that has not looked like happening.  We thought that spelled good news for Michael Bent, given his ability to cover both sides of the scrum to moderate effect, but that hasn’t happened either.  The picture has been complicated by Cian Healy’s race to prove himself fit.  And a further development is that Marty Moore has also been injured.

But while, on the face of it, the Healy situation appears to require extra cover at loosehead, in fact it’s quite the opposite.  Management are obviously confident Healy will be fit – they’ve been monitoring him on an hourly basis, so let’s assume they’re well positioned to make the call. And if he’s fit the only thing he’s missing is match-time, which means he’ll need to get as much of it as possible in the first two quasi-warm-up games against Canada and Romania.  It means there’s no substantial part for a third loosehead.  On the tighthead side, Schmidt can comfortably rotate his three men over the first two games; on the loosehead side, he needs to get his main man up to speed.

We can bet Schmidt will want to get all 31 of his men on the pitch at some point, in order to keep up morale and unity.  If David Kilcoyne, say, was picked instead of Furlong, he’d simply be hanging around the hotel room.

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.


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