Doom und Gloom

The Six Nations starts this weekend, and for Irish fans, the air is one of almost pervasive doom and gloom.  Leinster, Ulster and Munster are all out of the Champions Cup and the wounds from the passive defeat to Argentina in the World Cup are still raw.  Throw in injuries to a handful of Ireland’s best players and this being the first series without Paul O’Connell and it doesn’t get any better.  Then there’s the front-loaded schedule which pits Ireland into their three toughest matches first.  Wales, then France in Paris, and then England.  Yeeshk.

It’s certainly a challenging series, and the first major business is getting a functioning team on the pitch.  Ireland have a number of personnel issues, but foremost among them are the tight five and the form of their half-backs.  With Cian Healy, Mike Ross, and Iain Henderson injuried and Paul O’Connell no more, it’s going to be a relatively new-look tight five.  Rory Best, Jack McGrath and Devin Toner pick themselves at this rate, while the remaining two berths are likely to be filled by Nathan White (the two Leinster tightheads probably not quite ready to start) and Mike McCarthy, whose form at least is  a major plus. Well, a plus. But can he be effective at this level? He’s been dining out on his performance against South Africa in 2012 for a while, whereas Ryan always looked the part in green – but then he’s playing like a drain. One way or another, we’ve gone from this area being one of relative strength to one of glaring weakness in six months.

No such selection issues at halfback, but rather concerns of form.  Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton have been two of the key ingredients in Ireland’s Six Nations triumphs, but both have looked – not quite off the pace – just a shade off their usual peerless selves over the last couple of months.  They are still the halves that any of the coaches would love to have in their arsenal, but the concern remains that should either misfire, Ireland’s coaches don’t really have enough confidence in the reserves to take them off in clutch situations. Or indeed, who the reserves are – is it still Reddan and Madigan? Or has Jackson’s much superior form vaulted him on to the bench?

In the back row, the major selection question is where Passion’s CJ Stander (Criosti Eoin Seasamh?) will fit in once he has Dion O Cuinneagan-ed the national anthem. Heaslip might get bombs thrown at him about “workrate” and “attitude” but he was one of Ireland’s best players in the World Cup, and has been pretty decent for Leinster. We just can’t see Schmidt going from having him as his captain to dropping him altogether. So do we play Stander out of position just to get him in the team? Maybe, but Schmidt hasn’t much of a record of that – more likely we see an all-Leinster OUTRAGEous back row of Ruddock-O’Brien-Heaslip with Stander or O’Donnell on the bench. But we’re fine with that – it’s a backrow to strike fear into the toned sinews of England’s David Pocock – James Haskell (of which more below).

When it comes to outside backs, the number Jared Payne wears on his shirt will drive whether or not Choo Choo Stu gets the nod to start. Payne wore 15 in Ulster’s last 2 ERC games and looked excellent – for the first one we weren’t sure if it was Kissy being reluctant to throw his returning star into the heavy traffic of the Saracens midfield, but once he lined out there in the secnod it seemed a ply. For the first time since Deccie took over, Bob is under pressure for his shirt – Payne is a fullback primed for use as a counter attacking weapon, and his selection would signify a probable shift in the gameplan. Kearney is by no means shot – he’s actually younger than Payne – but he isn’t doing much at Leinster whereas Payne is like a limousine in open field.

And if Payne is picked at fullback, it means there is a centre slot up for grabs – and what better solution than to move Henshaw to his natural position outside and employ McCloskey in his natural position inside. Seems too obvious doesn’t it?

Looking further afield, the mood in Ireland is in stark contrast to the newfound ebullience in the England camp where everything is sweetness and light, while Wazza’a Wales must rightly feel that with their turbo-charged midfield back roaring that they will rediscover the cutting edge that was the difference between winning and losing narrowly to Australia and South Africa in the World Cup.

Still, might be better to leave them at it.  For the Welsh, it was ever thus, and Ireland may just find themselves blessed to have them first up, and in Dublin.  Wales have a well earned reputation for sleepwalking through the first game of a series, and to have them at home in round one is almost certainly the best possible way to face up to them.

As for England, well, they’ll be fascinating to watch under Eddie Jones, but don’t bet the farm on them necessarily being all that good.  Forget any sort of stylistic overhaul, or a return to the short-passing game they almost, nearly, thought about bringing to the World Cup before changing their minds.  Jones has instead staked his chips on making his England nastier and less jolly-hockeysticks-gentlemanly than Lancaster’s team.  But it’s still largely the same team that performed so dismally in the World Cup, and the maligned master-of-none Chris Robshaw is still a starter.  And the much vaunted ‘proper No.7′?  That’ll be the Gun Show, a man born to wear the number 6.5 jersey if ever there was one.  Jones’ first major decision is a high-stakes gamble on Dylan Hartley proving himself able to keep ice in the mind in the heat of battle as team captain.  It has every chance of not coming off.  Jonno’s England were similarly spiky in nature, but more often than not it teetered over the brink into daft indiscipline and mostly amounted to rashes of silly penalties and sin-bin episodes. Mind you, at least Jones is a proper coach. England will be competitive as usual, but perhaps miracles can wait.

France, meanwhile, are unlikely to have applied a magical fix to their deeply entrenched structural problems and abject lack of fitness, despite Gerry’s assertions that they are waiting in the long grass for us. Let’s hope it isn’t too long or Yoann Maestri will be even lazier than usual.  Guy Noves’ Toulouse were useless in the last few years, and he appears an unlikely moderniser – bottom half beckons.  And as for Scotland, well, hope springs eternal that they may one year get their act together, but they find a way of extinguishing the feelgood factor every spring.  Should they lose to England in the opening week, expect heads to drop, and watch them limp through the rest of the tournament.

So what of it all then? Well, the thing we need to remember about the Six Nations is that there aren’t any Southern Hemisphere teams in it – so Ireland are unlikely to be filleted the way Argentina did early and late on in Cardiff. And indeed four of the six limped out of the World Cup, and a fifth had the scheduling of Japan’s fixtures contribute mightily to their progress. The only one that came home with their heads held high were Wales, who were mighty value for their quarter final place. The Welsh have home fixtures against the recent bottom-dwellers of France, Italy and Scotland, and could well rack up enough points to ensure a fourth victory will suffice for the Championship – they are our pick. Ireland will do better than the naysayers imagine – four wins is eminently achievable and disgrace unlikely. The flip side of tougher games first means you can come out targeting a score fest against Italy and Scotland for glory – we’d take that, but we reckon we might be behind grinning Gatty come March.

Oh, and the final piece of good news is that a handful of will-they-won’t-they contracts have been tied up in the last few weeks, and hopefully will take a weight off the minds of the likes of Earls, Murray and Zebo.  After an abject winter with the provinces, the Six Nations may be just the tonic needed to rejuvenate the players.

The Lengthening of the Days

Schmidt announced his 35 man Six Nations training squad yesterday, and the newcomers – McCloskey, Stander, van der Flier and Dillane – have been rewarded for strong recent form. The internet was getting slightly #OUTRAGE-d as misplaced rumours swirled that Stander wouldn’t make it – Munster fans were particularly vocal in their opposition to Stander being picked, continuing a long tradition of opposition to project players being selected for Ireland (see Strauss, R.), but they were left disappointed as Schmidt continued his own tradition of picking the best available players (see Payne, J.).

Truth is, the squad didn’t really tell us much – 35 players were picked; DJ Church, Ross and Henry will be added later; and NWJMB, POM, Tuohy and Bowe were name-checked as being too crocked to be considered. The only notable absentee from the World Cup is Jordi Murphy, who has effectively been replaced by Stander. If anything, it’s a form call.  Stander has been explosive all season, Murphy has been playing poorly at Leinster.  The Mole had a good post-RWC piece on how Murphy might best move his career forward, and he has some thinking to do.

Garry Ringrose doesn’t make the squad, with management seemingly of a mind to keep him developing at Leinster before exposing him to this level.  He’s quite obviously a test player in waiting, and it would have quickened the pulse if he was selected, but romantic notions will have to be put aside for now.  Most likely he’ll be capped in the summer.

The big questions about the match day 23 selection are still out there, and how Ireland may (or may not) change their gameplan, and we’ll be looking at them over the next couple of weeks:

Who starts at tighthead against Wales in Ross’ absence – if it’s Furlong, and he performs well, Ross might never start for Ireland again.  Most likely it’ll be Nathan White, who stands accused of ruck inspecting, but is dependable in the scrum

The second row is a potential car crash – while England have Itoje, Kruis, Launchbury and Lawes and Wales have Charteris, Davies and AWJ, we’ll need to craft a serviceable second row from Toner (fine), McCarthy (in the form of his career, but still), Ryan (struggling to regain anything like his best form) and Dillane. Dillane is listed as being the same height and weight as Itoje, although a year older.  It will be fascinating to see if he can play a part, it’s possible to see him as an impact sub going in alongside the elder statesman (!) Toner on the hour mark.  We’re hopeful we’ll see more of Toner’s best Brodie Retallick impression as midfield distributor, especially as O’Mahony – the only other forward who tends to perform this role – is injured.

The roles of the in-form newbies. McCloskey and Stander are not just two of the form players in Ireland, but in Europe. Can Choo Choo Stu break up the Henshaw-Payne partnership? He’s certainly the most natural inside centre in the squad, is an intelligent footballer with an eye for space and has yet to find a ceiling. At number 8, Stander will have a job replacing Heaslip, who was one of Ireland’s best players in the RWC. There is an accepted wisdom that Heaslip will somehow benefit from competition, like he isn’t quite producing his best for Ireland, but our expectation is he’ll continue his quiet excellence, Stander or no Stander. CJ is in the mix for the available blindside slot with Rhys Ruddock, but Schmidt may just lean towards Ruddock for his lineout ability, which is one area where O’Mahony’s presence will be most keenly felt.  An impact bench role is the most likely starting point for Stander. Although maybe not against Wales – if Gatty unleashes his double openside trump card (do you do anything else with Justin Tipuric?) maybe it’s better to have O’Donnell there.

Interestingly, Ulster (i.e. Kissy, Schmidt’s mate) selected Jared Payne at fullback against Saracens – was it an understandable desire to keep a returning key man out of heavy traffic against a brilliant team, or something more? Rob Kearney is a very different full back from the likes of Ben Smith, Folau, le Roux, Hogg and Mike Brown and it’s hard to envisage him entering the line at first or second receiver and giving Ireland an extra attacking string to their bow. But then again, Schmidt has only ever selected Payne at outside centre.

We’ll be back with more ponderings, but isn’t it getting exciting? The Six Nations! We’ve won the last two, remember? The arrival of spring, and the inevitable slew of atrocious games. Oh and Ringrose OUTRAGE.

Book Review: No Borders

No Borders: Playing Rugby For Ireland is Tom English’s history of Irish rugby, told by the players and coaches.  Whiff of Cordite was sent a free review copy, and this is our review.

The book starts with the Jack Kyle era and finishes with the 2015 Six Nations.  English provides narration along the way, but for the most part the book is made up of the players’ own versions of events.  English lets all the main players speak in their own words and keeps himself off the stage.   The players’ words shape the story, charting Irish rugby’s chequered history from the troubles to peace, from amateurism to professionalism and from failure to a sort of success.

It’s a ripping read.  I must confess I didn’t start at the beginning and finish at the end, but read in a random order, starting with the bits that were of most fascination: in my case the 2007 World Cup and the breaking of professionalism in the 1990s.  There’s interest in every chapter.

Plenty of the material will be familiar to readers of these pages, and depending on your age, plenty of it will be new to you.  As children of the early 1980s, we were too young for the two triple crowns of that era but can remember plenty of the awfulness which followed.  The abiding memories of that era are of Ireland valiantly taking the game to teams before the inevitable late-game surrender.  The Six Nations was an event in Chez Ovale in Bray, and poor Papa Ovale seemed an eternal optimist.  Palla has distant memories of once making a 2p bet with him that France would beat Ireland, and feeling conflicted as the second half saw Ireland lose an enormous lead and France got their multi-phase groove on.  The folly of youth!  Another year, now old enough to know better than to cheer for the enemy in pursuit of a tuppence, we have slightly clearer recollection of a Five Nations in which Ireland led all four games at the hour mark, only to return three losses and a draw with Wales.  Ah, great days they were.

English’s book serves as a reminder of a few things.  The first is just what a quirky sport rugby is in Ireland.  Largely played in a handful of areas in the country; Belfast grammar schools, Dublin private schools, a handful of schools in Cork and – who could forget? – earthy types in Limerick.  Somehow, the elements all have to come together in the green shirt, and more often than not they do. For all the failings of Irish rugby, the players rarely did anything other than try their hearts out.  Trevor Ringland and several other Ulster players give terrific insight into what it was like for Ulster protestants to play rugby for Ireland, especially during the troubles.

The second is just how… there really is no other way around this… terrible Irish rugby has been for most of its history.  Think this season is bad because we lost to Argentina and Munster and Leinster are a bit rubbish?  Try re-winding twenty years.  Thought Kidney’s Ireland were a bit hit and miss, only showing their best when able to feed off emotion after everyone had written them off?  Well, they were only keeping up the traditions of a century before them.  Even the good days feel like a mere temporary blip before normal service is resumed.  Ireland’s triple crown in 1982 is immediately follwed by a winless campaign.  1985’s triumph only proves a cue for Mick Doyle to buy into his own press and isolate the players.  For the most part, Ireland’s history is of being poorly prepared for matches and having teams backboned a handful of warrior heroes but generally lacking enough great players and general fitness to beat the best sides.  And it’s one of being repeatedly hammered in Paris, of course.

There’s no end of great storytelling here.  The uneasy journey from amateurism – days when the players would call into the chipper for a ‘one-and-one’ on the eve of a Triple Crown decider  –  to professionalism is brilliantly captured.  The old farts in the IRFU – a consistent theme throughout the book, it must be said – were militantly anti-professionalism, to the point of farce.  Tony Ward wins the Player of the Five Nations, but is told he cannot pose for the cameras as there is a sponsor involved.  The World Cup is treated with fear, and the IRFU bans the team from training in advance of it.  At times it seems less point of principle, and verges on a ‘they can’t have what we never had’ mentality.  Meanwhile, the advent of professionalism appears to the players through their TV sets, as every ad break is saturated with the Kiwi players advertising farm machinery.

The 1990s are relentlessly grim.  Murray Kidd is an angry ant, and is followed by Brian Ashton who, it must be said, is reticent and fair-minded about where he went wrong.  But go wrong he did, trying to get Ireland to play like his Bath team and failing to get the players to buy in to his ideas.  Things finally take a turn for the better when Gatland comes along, though he takes a while to get going and has to endure the Lens debacle before turning the tide.  Indeed, he is almost down to his last chips, but plays a winning hand in famously blooding ROG, Stringer et al against Scotland.  The players enjoy his pragmatism and more consistent approach to selection, but interestingly, don’t appear terribly put out when he gets the axe in spite of a terrific final Six Nations in which Ireland win four matches.  For the first time ever, it’s the backs who are the kingpins, and they see technical supremo Eddie O’Sullivan as the man who can best improve them.  When Brian O’Driscoll first appears, he is  like a beacon of light, and it’s clear to everyone just what a star he is almost immediately.

The tension between Gatland and O’Sullivan simmers on the pages, and it’s not the only time Eddie’s quotations seems at odds with the words of others.  The 2007 World Cup fiasco makes for fascinating reading.  Eddie is still clinging to his idea that all the team needed was a couple more warm-up games, but it’s clear from the players words that the problems ran far deeper.

There’s plenty of comedy in there too.  Neil Francis gives expectedly sweary copy (‘that fucker Eales is untouchable’) and takes the credit for the tactical smarts in the almost-win against Australia in 1991.  Andrew Trimble describes trying to get some meaningful critique out of Uncle Deccie on the numerous occasions he is dropped from the team, but can’t get anywhere.  And you can picture Cian Healy pulling his dad’s car around the beach as a teenager.  Needless to say, the amateur days feature plenty of revelry and regular trips to O’Donoghue’s for post-match recovery aids.

Finishing up in 2015 means we get a happy ending, but this sort of book can only ever finish ‘in media res’, or ‘in the middle of things’ to those less versed in the classics.  Which means, if history is anything to go by, Ireland’s next failing can only be around the corner.

No Borders is a terrific read, recommended to any Irish rugby fan.

A Return to Traditional Wigan Values

Munster’s European campaign hit the buffers at the weekend after a feeble defeat to Stade Francais Paris.  In spite of playing against 14 men for the entire second half, it was Stade who glossed the scoreline and ran away with the match.

There were shades of this last season when Munster’s hopes depended on them going to Saracens and winning, but the effort was similarly toothless.  It feels like something of a tipping point among their fanbase with regard to their affection for the coaching ticket headed up by Anthony Foley, with most fans angry and unsympathetic – no much surprise given how they have been blamed by Foley and his chums in the meeja for not coming in enough numbers to see the team.

So what went wrong?  Pretty much everything.  CJ Stander, who was about the only player who performed close to his level, afterwards admitted that although the team talked at half time about what they had to do – play at pace and make the extra man count – they just didn’t do it.  He described them as lacking energy, walking to lineouts.  That speaks to a lack of belief and stomach for the fight, and Alan Quinlan was unsparing in his post-match criticism.

Another who launched a scathing attack on management was none other than Johne Murphy, but for many that sounded like a hatchet job, a chance that Murphy was only dying to take to get one over on a coach who never really took to him.  But if indeed that is indeed the case, it raises a point worth thinking about.  Murphy, as we all know, came in for personal criticism in the infamous player-assessment email that was accidentaly distributed just a few weeks into Foley’s tenure, which is presumably a factor in his bitterness towards Foley.  But he wasn’t the only one, so are there other players around the squad who still harbour resentment towards the coach?  It certainly doesn’t appear as if the team are playing for their lives, or for the coach’s future – Simon Zebo’s performance in Paris smacked of a man with the south of France on his mind, and both Earls and Donnacha Ryan are not fulfilling expectations as two of the go-to veterans of the team.

Quinlan, in his article for the Indo yesterday, came up with the left-field suggestion that the province should dial 021-DECCIE and bring back the auld cute hoor for a renaissance.  After all, Deccie won two Heineken Cups and knows the province inside out.  It seems a bizarre idea, though.  They already have a coach – a whole team of them in fact! – who are hugely passionate about the province, and who know everything there is to know about Munster rugby. But it’s not really what they need – that being an experienced hand with a good technical skillset.

And seemingly the IRFU are ain agreement – the lads need a bit of help, and so they’re sending their latest hire, Andy Farrell, down south to work as a ‘consultant’ for the rest of the season.  It’s a major decision, not least because it’s obviously been foisted upon Foley and his backroom chums and doesn’t reflect all too well on them.  It’s a decent idea in theory – a voice from outside the province is certainly needed – but in practice it’s hard to know how much he’ll be able to add, especially if it’s a source of tension within the camp.  One thing’s for sure, Farrell is a strong character and will try to impose his will on the team.  Be prepared for a return to, erm, traditional Wigan values.

The sense that Munster are reaping what they sowed in appointing this group is inescapable. We blogged back in spring 2014 on Axel’s appointment and his ALL-MUNSTER ticket. While much of the critical commentary went as far as a damp Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium esque fawning over a “return to traditional Munster values”, we had some concerns:

“His main issue- as is the case for seemingly every Munster coach since the year dot – will be recruiting and developing capable centres to provide a threat and most importantly, bring the lethal strike runners Simon Zebo and Keith Earls onto the ball as much as possible.  Casey Laulala is heading for the exit and it looks increasingly like James Downey will be joining him.  Foley will need to recruit, and recruit well.” In fact – Foley has not only recruited badly (Tyler Bleyendaal, journeyman Andrew Smith) but he’s allowed JJ Hanrahan to leave, has converted Denis Hurley into the new Ma’a Nonu Shontayne Hape, and has presided over the catastrophic decline in form of Ian Keatley.

“One must say, it’s a big gamble – every member of the coaching staff will be making a step up to a position they have never been in before. Most coaching tickets you see appointed have a few grizzled veterans or older hands in there to offer continuity. The gamble Munster are taking is that Axel provides the continuity and the chaps with familiar faces and accents will takes to Munster like ducks to water, ensuring a seemless transition.” The gamble has failed pretty comprehensively, no doubt about it, and the appointment of Farrell is more evidence.

And perhaps most cutting from a fans perspective:

“He can expect an easier ride in the media than Penney got, because there will be huge goodwill behind him, and, how shall we put this, most of the key pundits are great pals with him!  But Munster fans will be as demanding as ever, and he’ll be expected to at least hit the marks Rob Penney did over the last two years.” Funny, this one turned out to be on the money

Anyway, it looks like a no-win situation for Foley – no improvement, and he’ll get the blame, they do better, and Farrell gets the credit. And an upturn in results is possible as the fixtures look relatively kind, albeit with the potential for (more) serious humiliation:

  • ERC: Stade Francais (H) – after last week, even a losing bonus point will be seen as a victory of sorts, but a victory is conceivable – Stade have only won one away game all year and have succumbed to the might of .. um .. Brive and Agen
  • ERC: Treviso (A) – surely they won’t lose .. surely!
  • Zebre (A) – see above
  • Ospreys (H)
  • Glasgae (A) – two tough fixtures, but during the Six Nations both will be denuded to an extent Munster clearly won’t, with only one player (Conor Murray) currently a lock in the Irish 23
  • Treviso (A)
  • Dragons (H)
  • Zebre (H) – 3 wins in a row would be your baseline expectation here

So not impossible that by Easter, Munster are back in the top 4 of the league with ERC qualification assured and with some sort of momentum garnered .. for which Farrell gets the credit. Foley’s team are most certainly dead ducks, and it remains to see whether the man himself is as well – both Ulster and Leinster have sacked coaches late in the season and wound up scrambling to get a coaching team in place.

That said, they’ll need to get several of the units on the pitch working far better.  The scrum has been awful all season, and there’s little that can be done at this stage short of winding back BJ Botha’s clock by five years.  The second row has been remarkably poor considering they have three internationals to choose from, and CJ Stander has been virtually a one man band in the backrow.  As for Ian Keatley, his haywire season took another nosedive on Saturday; all the more remarkable as he was man of the match against Ulster the previous week.  Meanwhile Simon Zebo’s mind appears to be halfway to Toulouse.  At least they can console themselves that they won’t lose too many players for the Six Nations.

A Welcome With Open Arms

Ireland’s new defence coach is… Andy Farrell.  Farrell won’t join until after this year’s Six Nations but has a contract which will take him up until after the 2019 World Cup. Welcome aboard, Andy!

It’s an appointment that’s interesting for a handful of reasons.  First of all, rather than drip-feeding the appointment out to the usual conduits in the media in advance so that they could get the broader public used to the idea, the news arrived as, well, news.  It’s hard to remember the last time any bit of news arrived hot off the press.  Even mundane stuff like team selections have been fed to Thornley and his chums for the last number of years almost without exception.

Another interesting element is that Andy Farrell does not appear to have been born in any of the following countries: New Zealand, Australia or South Africa.  Lordy!  What’s all this about?  Irish rugby has long adopted the stance that the southern hemisphere is the place where the best coaches come from, and it is they who they tend to employ.  There’s some history of English coaches – think Brian Ashton, which went well, right? – working in Ireland but not much.  The Irish public as a rule has little respect for the English way of playing.  English rugby is perceived on this isle (and beyond, to be fair) as being a samey, unimaginative sort of game, built on a forward pack which is powerful, but not Bok-powerful and sprinters on the wings but nobody who really has the imagination or skill level to give them the ball.

Andy Farrell goes even a step beyond that, completing a terrific hat-trick of associations that will immediately prove off-putting: Saracens, rugby league and the English World Cup effort.  That’s the holy trinity right there.  Rightly or wrongly, for who really knows, Farrell found himself being fingered with the decision to about-turn on England’s catch-and-pass gameplan and the move to revert to a more traditional bosh-and-kick strategy which backfired dismally and proved itself to be embarrassingly out of step with the approach of the better countries in the tournament.  Meanwhile, any mention of the word Saracens is enough to make Irish rugby fans groan. He’s also being blamed by angels like Bruce Craig for sending Slammin’ Sam back to Souths with his tail between his legs.

None of that will matter much to Schmidt however, who will see Farrell as a hard-nosed and experienced operator.  It won’t have gone unnoticed that Ireland’s defence – while generally the bedrock that has delivered two Six Nations – was passive and meek in the games against Italy and Argentina in the world cup.  Farrell might trade off some of Ireland’s love of the choke tackle for more aggressive line-speed.  Saracens’ famous wolf-pack defence, led with some degree of ferocity by Jacques Burger, focuses on the simple dynamic of coming up in a hard, straight line at such speed that they can suffocate teams at source.  Paul Gustard has been heralded for its implementation but Farrell had the team working in a similar fashion before moving on to Team England.  Farrell is also credited with the generally decent defence put up by the Lions in 2013.  While the games were so terrible only the pro-Gatland elements of the UK media will remember much of the specifics, for sure they didn’t win the series based on their attack, so the defence has to have been halfway decent.

There is of course one other English coach with a league background who has found himself in the position of having to coach his son – Mike Ford. Ford was, we believe, Ireland’s first ever defence coach (certainly the first decent one if not the first actual one) – it was an appointment that went well for both Ford and Ireland. Farrell is basically Ford minus a decade in his background and understanding of the game.

The final bit of intrigue was the confirmation that Brian O’Driscoll has become a sort of Twitter oracle whose every utterance becomes news in and of itself.  Part of the reporting of the news is that Brian O’Driscoll has endorsed the appointment.  Other recent events on which BOD has commented include Adam Ashley-Cooper and Ian Madigan’s moves to Bordeaux and the potential elevation of Garry Ringrose to the national team.  All have become news stories.  Perhaps an ‘Endorsed by Brian O’Driscoll on Twitter’ badge should be handed out to all those who receive his kudos.  He anticipates that under Farrell’s tutelage, Ireland would show good line-speed and kick-chase.  Dull and all as that sounds, it’s the bread and butter of defending.

Amply Balmed

As we’ve written many times, when European rugby hits you hard, you must apply the soothing balm of the Pro12.  The first half of this season has been perhaps the worst in living memory for the Irish provinces in the main shindig, so the seasonal interpros had a heightened sense of importance.

These matches have been washouts in previous editions.  With coaches hindered by limited access to their frontline players, they have tended to pick a strong side for their home match and a team of bunnies for their away tie, creating a series of foregone conclusions in the process.  Not this time, as all of Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster needed the points badly.  Leinster are out of Europe and the Pro12 is Connacht’s primary target anyway, and while Munster and Ulster still have aspirations of qualifying for the knockouts, the best either can realistically achieve is to qualify as runner-up, which brings with it an away quarter final.  They know they can ill afford to coast along in the Pro 12.

With the stakes high, it is Leinster who have come out the most amply balmed.  Indeed, it’s been a fabulous Christmas period for Les Bleus, with other results going their way to boot; Scarlets lost to Cardiff, and Glasgow lost twice to Edinburgh.  Munster beating Ulster also helped.  They can go top and open a gap with their game in hand.

If not exactly half-full, the Leinster glass is at least starting to look less than totally empty.  The team appears to have found a bit of shape and edge in attack, and it can’t be entirely by chance that they have conceded the least number of points in the league.  Their defence over the Christmas period was exemplary, giving up just seven points on aggregate to Munster and Connacht, and some of the handling against Connacht was impressive considering the conditions.

A couple of standout performers deserve mention.  Sean O’Brien is probably the best player on the island and when he is fit makes an incalculable difference to any team.  He performed explosively over the Christmas period, giving a ferocious 55 minutes against Munster and a blistering cameo in the last half hour against Connacht.  There is no other player that combines his ability both in the breakdown and carrying at close quarters, and, er, regathering his own chips over the defence off the back of scrums.  Ireland and Leinster are a different team when they have access to his wrecking-ball talents.  If Leo Cullen and Joe Schmidt could magically protect one player from injury it would be he.

Another is Garry Ringrose.  Munster and Ulster fans may be scoffing at the hype emanating from the ‘Dublin meeja’, as ROG once put it, and while anointing the 20 year old to the Ireland 13 jersey is perhaps premature, there is no doubt that Ringrose is going to be an international player, and surely no question that he is blessed with a rare and natural talent.  While it was his sensational try-creating break that will be remembered, he also defended his channel manfully against Munster, and backed up the performance against Connacht with two more line-breaks and a generally sound showing on a day which wasn’t exactly made for skinny-hipped outside centres.  There’s nothing like the anointing of a new local hero to get a bit of giddiness going on the terraces, and the RDS now has its next potentially great outside centre to celebrate.

Two more young guns who we are going to be seeing a lot more of are Josh van der Flier and Ross Molony.  Van der Flier is enjoying a breakout season and combines great presence at the breakdown with a good carrying game, a similar kind of player to Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell (whose return to fitness, incidentally, will be a huge benefit to Munster over the coming weeks).  Molony is a second row with a big couple of months ahead of him.  As Demented Mole pointed out, Leinster are going to be without their starting second rows for much of the Six Nations period and have little in the way of depth.  Mike McCarthy has finally brought his best form to the blue shirt and is likely to be brought back into the national team set up this spring; O’Connell is gone and Henderson is injured, and while it was hoped Donnacha Ryan would return from injury at his 2012 best, that just hasn’t happened.  Molony and the underwhelming Tom Denton are likely to be partnering up for the five or six games in that window.  He made two vital lineout steals against Munster which have got him noticed.

Things are looking up, admittedly from a low base, but with the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to reflect on a European campaign in which a new and totally inexperienced coaching ticket was only finding its feet, and where the bulk of players in the team were coming off the back of an exhausting and mentally draining World Cup.  With fresh energy, and fresh names in the team, the season can still be turned around, and perhaps that process has already begun.

Free Pass

In the aftermath of Connacht’s win at Thomond Park, Murray Kinsella did a fantastic piece of analysis on Connacht’s skillset – and one worth reading if you haven’t done so yet. It has been a consistent feature of Connacht’s play this season – good on-pitch awareness and skillful play executed well. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the other provinces, who continue to stink the place out.

The most pungent right now is Munster, who followed up the defeat to Connacht with a lamentable defeat away to the Dragons. Without a doubt, missing their best two players (POM and Conor Murray) is a big blow for Munster, but the on-pitch ineptitude was pretty shocking – bar a questionable (at best) TMO decision, they never looked like beating either Connacht at home or the Dragons away. And, with all due respect to our Western Brethren and Stephen Jones’ local Pro12 muckers, that’s quite a come down for Munster.

So, you’d think everyone would be up in arms about it, asking tough questions about where they are going? What the gameplan is? Whether such an abundance of turnovers and gormless attacking is worthy of criticism? Not a bit of it – on Second Captains yesterday and in the IT today, Gerry was at pains to pin Munster’s issues on a host of extraneous factors:

  • “The Dragons have a decent home record and Rodney Parade isn’t an easy place to go” – cut me some slack, provinces would view this as a chance for 5 points in recent years
  • “Munster suffering more than anyone from fans’ post-RWC hangover” – not sure of the science behind this, but in 2007 and 2011, Munster seemed rejuvenated by having their Irish players back
  • “We know how hard Limerick has been hit during the recession” – not downplaying the impact of a savage recession, but it’s been pretty much nationwide, and the economy has been improving for three years now
  • “The 7.45 kick-off on a Saturday night in December isn’t helpful.” – really? A few years ago, Gerry was complaining that Munster didn’t get enough Saturday night kickoffs due to “English arrogance”

When we talk with Munster fans, we hear a very different suite of concerns, and we can’t help but feel a concerted effort is being made to avoid asking tough questions of our native coaches. When Rob Penney was Munster coach, Wednesday Night Rugby on Off The Ball with the now-SC team was at times a long diatribe against Penney’s selection/tactics from Thornley and Wood, yet there was nary a mention of any questions for the coach to answer when McDevitt had Gerry on yesterday. Equally, when Matt O’Connor was Leinster coach, he was the lightning rod (correctly, certainly by his second season) for criticism. Now, it’s just a collection of things that Foley can do nothing about – although there is a pretty coherent argument that dropping attendances are directly related to the faire on offer, which is not being explored.

Thing is – no-one wants to just beat up on people just for the sake of it, particularly when they have the status the likes of Axel and Leo Cullen have, but if we want our native coaches to develop, we surely need to hold them to account honestly. And in a world where Pat Lam has the likes of Denis Buckley and Ally Muldowney playing like All Blacks (sorry for using the term, but we feel it is appropriate here), Foley really should be doing better with the players he has, many of whom Lam would kill for. Time for some honest discussion.

Willie Anderson on the VCR

While idly thinking about how terrible Leinster were on Sunday, something popped into our head – was this the end of the great Leinster side? A few names are already gone – Dorce, BOD, Cullen, Jennings – and we’re certainly long past the peak. The difficulty about managing this type of decline is having to do a huge amount in a small period of time.

Consider the Munster Liginds – their peak was, ironically, the year Leinster finally broke through – 2009. They were European champions, the best team in Europe and the backbone of a cracking Lions side. But less than 2 years later, their shark-jumping moment happened – a 32-16 thumping in Toulon (then European novices) that was notable for how shocking it was to see such a great team eviscerated. That kicked off the gradual process of putting the Liginds out to seed, albeit not before winning that years Pro12, with the young Conor Murray to the fore.

Three years later, Munster made the HEC semi-final, also playing Toulon, but with only five of the players from 2011. There were still Liginds on the payroll – O’Connell, O’Callaghan – along with a few stopgaps – Downey, Dougall – but, amazingly, only 12 of that team are still at Thomond, and just one played in the first Toulon game five years ago. An incredible amount of change.

  • Toulon 32-16 Munster (Jan 2011): Warwick; Howlett, Earls, Tuitupou, J Murphy; O’Gara, Stringer; Du Preez, Varley, Hayes, O’Callaghan, O’Connell, Coughlan, Wallace, Leamy. Replacements used: Mafi, O’Leary, Darragh Hurley, Sherry, Buckley, O’Driscoll, Ronan, D Ryan.
  • Toulon 24-16 Munster (April 2014): Jones, Earls, Laulala, Downey, Zebo, Keatley, Murray, Kilcoyne, Varley, Botha, Foley, O’Connell, Stander, Dougall, Coughlan. Replacements used: Denis Hurley, Hanrahan, Cronin, Casey, O’Callaghan, O’Donnell
  • Players playing in both games (5): Earls, Cawlin, Varley, O’Connell, O’Callaghan
  • Players from 2011 currently playing for Munster (1): Earls

The same weekend as Toulon ended the Ligind, Leinster beat Racing Metro with 13 players who are still on the payroll (Nacewa, Fitzgerald, Sexton, Boss, Healy, Strauss, Ross, Ruddock, O’Brien, McFadden, Reddan, Toner, Ryan) and Ulster beat Biarritz with 7 men who are still plying their trade in Belfast (Trimble, iHumph, Pienaar, Best, Tuohy, Falloon, Henry) as well as BJ Botha.

Are Leinster facing the Munster scenario, where only one player is around in five years time? Or the ‘Leinster’ one, where the bedrock of the team is already on the books? Much of that in theory relates to the age profile – you’d look for your core 25-30 year olds to backbone that transition and help bring through the younger cohort. Looking at the 2011 Munster team, there is a dearth of players like that – something the Mole has looked at in the past.

Looking at the list of Leinster players (Heaslip didn’t play in that match – I know, weird – but was and is a key player from that era who remains on the books), the concern is not perhaps the age profile but injury-afflictions. The main age-related concerns are the two scrum halves, now more fitfully effective than ever, Nacewa and Mike Ross.  Heaslip can’t go on forever but is astonishingly durable and could conceivably go on for another three seasons – although Nick Easter might think that’s a low estimate.  Mike Ross is in decline, but with not one but two internationals – three if you count Mike Bent – waiting to take over from him, that position doesn’t appear to be a major concern.  The scrum half position is a live issue, though, and it remains very much in the balance whether Luke McGrath is technically good enough to be a Heineken Cup starter in the future.

What was worryingly evident on the pitch on Saturday was a lack of on-pitch leadership. Leinster’s biggest problem is that each of Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, Jonny Sexton, Rob Kearney and Richardt Strauss appear to be struggling under the weight of accumulated injuries.  Healy and O’Brien are two of Ireland’s most dynamic and explosive players, destructive ball carriers blessed with fast-twitch muscle fibres.  Their like is rarely produced.  However, neither has been able to be at their best over… what…  two to three seasons at this stage as a result of numerous injuries.  Jonny Sexton has had concussion issues and has yet to reclaim his usually regal form since his extended layoff.  On Sunday he was unrecognisable as the player we know.  Luke Fitzgerald’s class remains, but he’s another who is injured more often than not. Ian Madigan might be an important member of Joe Schmidt’s squad, but it’s reasonable to say he needs to spend at least as much time specialising and developing his own game as he does stepping into the officer corps. And there would have been Kevin McLoughlin too, profoundly underrated and at his best a hugely influential presence.  That’s your 25-30 class right there – guys who may only have seen Willie Anderson through the medium of video – but none at this point are where Leinster need them to be.

It’s worth mentioning of course that they are all just back from the World Cup, and fatigue is one possible issue – something Dorce highlighted today. That said, only Sean O’Brien of the above would be happy with his RWC performances – Ireland’s on-pitch leaders were largely from Munster (O’Connell, O’Mahony, Earls) or Ulster (Best, Henderson), and the 25-30 Leinster men were curiously absent when talking about Ireland’s standouts (Heaslip was the best Leinster player on view in our opinion).

This was to be the generation of leaders who would take over from the previous one; the O’Driscoll-Darcy-Cullen-Horgan-Jenno generation.  But if this group of players is taken out of the equation, for whatever reason, it’s a step down in terms of quality and experience to the next group of would-be leaders.  One man who has long been inked in as a future captain is Rhys Ruddock.  Tough and willing to put his body where others wouldn’t, he is an obvious contender, but he is only making his way back from injury himself.  But who else?  Leinster have a number of somewhat enigmatic talents such as Noel Reid, Jordi Murphy and Sean Cronin; players whose ability isn’t in question, but it’s not clear they have the credentials to become the spiritual successors to Gordon D’arcy, Shane Jennings and Bernard Jackman.  It looks a way off for the time being. Garry Ringrose looks nailed on, but ask BOD during the Gary Ella era how much difference at outside centre can make on his own.

We can all agree that Leinster are unlikely to be troubling the horses in Europe this season, but there is always the soothing balm of the Pro12.  Last year Leinster were hopeless in this competition, and it was that which did for Matt O’Connor (not the style of play as stated by Shaggy in the Sunday Times – Leinster fans were quite happy when Cheika was winning trophies without troubling the whitewash).  Leo Cullen will be expected to deliver Leinster to the semi-final stages and hopefully to go and win it.  But then this year it’s likely to be a soothing balm for pretty much everyone.  It seems unlikely that any of Munster, Glasgow, Ospreys, Scarlets or Ulster will be still alive at the pointy end of things in the ERC.  There’s only so much soothing balm to go around, and not all wounds can be balmed sufficiently.  But such a challenge will only be mounted if their key 25-30 year old leaders are at their best.  Leinster desperately need Healy, O’Brien, Kearney and Sexton to overcome their current issues and regain their effectiveness.  Failure to do so and this transition could be longer, and deeper, than anyone has probably considered.

Nothing to Celebrate

It’s been a grim and tragic weekend in Europe, and rugby’s relevance has been put in perspective. The games in France were postponed, and only Toulouse in the ERC were demanded to play – incorrectly in our view. As for us, we’ve been a bit bogged down with the Mini Eggs and Petit Pallas, but, in lieu of a full article, we tweeted our predictions for Europe on Friday. And we weren’t positive – we expected all three provinces in the ERC to go out before the knockouts – nothing about the on-pitch action has compelled us to change that call.

Ulster look hopelessly weak in the backrow – in three of this weekend’s six games, backrow forwards won MOTM, and backrow forwards are often the difference between the best sides and the pretenders. Win the breakdown and you win the etc. In a key position like number 8, Ulster will be fielding Nick Williams in direct opposition to Louis Picamoles and Billy Vunipola – ouch. Plus they have so little depth, they have been flaking around the AIL, giving Steven Mulholland a start against the Dragons – to say it didn’t work would be an understatement. Ulster have been linked with Victor Vito – it would be better if a transfer was somehow arranged for one of the quality Irish number 8s – but one way or another, they don’t have much hope with Diack and Williams in the first team.

Four years ago, when Ulster’s run of knockout HECs began, in the absence of Fez they fielded a backrow of Diack, Henry (only a couple of seasons into his conversion from 8), Wannenburg in a shuddering defeat to the Saints – Courtney Lawes physically dominated Ulster single handedly, and that type of superiority can be expected when Toulouse and Globo Gym come calling. While Saracens may have continued a recent inability to get a fourth bonus point try in Saturday’s facile victory over Toulouse, it is hard to envisage Ulster being in a position to take advantage of such sloppiness. Only Oyonnax can realistically be beaten over two legs.

As for Leinster, our thoughts were that we didn’t see a path to four wins for them, and with more than 140 characters, we’d truthfully have said that three looked like an ask. Now, following a desperately poor home thumping by Wasps, the goal becomes winning any game in this extremely difficult pool – away to Bath then two games against Toulon are all unlikely games to win. When Bath come calling in early January, they may be desperate for points against an already eliminated Leinster – don’t bet on that being won either. In addition to the quality of the teams in the pool, Leinster have to deal with the fact that Bath and Wasps feel they owe Leinster one after last year – and the joy of the Wasps players was obvious.

Even Jonny Sexton’s return was unable to galvanise Leinster, and indeed it might have been his worst professional display since he was packed back to St Mary’s seven year ago – leadership within the squad was sorely lacking and Cullen has some serious work to do. For all Jamie Heaslip’s qualities, his captaincy credentials have to be questioned.  It is well and good leading by example, and we imagine he is thoroughly respected within the squad, but there are times when a bit of blood and thunder are called for too.  The players still seem insistent that the squad are in a good place and a performance is just around the corner – a mantra that has been consistent for over a year. Perhaps it’s time to accept that isn’t the case and something urgently needs to change to break the malaise.  It was telling that after Dave Kearney’s untimely slip let Wasps in fdor a desperately soft try, not one player came over to him individually.  It’s at such times that leaders need to step forward, but nobody did.  Troubling stuff.

Munster at least won their game, but in front of a sparse crowd, the rugby on offer was dire, with error after error, and a bonus point only secured against the weakest team in the competition in the 74th minute. CJ Stander looked about the only decent player on the pitch. We felt on Friday that Munster would struggle to qualify while missing Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony. Last season, any time they were down two of O’Connell, O’Mahony and Murray, the level of performance was well lower.  Add to the loss column Tommy O’Donnell and, sadly again, Mike Sherry and things are looking grim indeed.  If we assume that Munster win their home games and beat Treviso away, bringing the pool down to bonus points, its going to be really tough to secure the necessary points without being at their best – which they clearly aren’t. Plus, at Saturday’s level of performance, they are unlikely to win all their home games. Next weekend in Paris will tell us a lot – a scoreline/performance like Saracens in January and the jig is likely up for Munster this year. It will be an incredibly emotional occasion for Paris and for Stade, and warning lights should be flashing.

On the bright side, we thought Connacht would win five games and get a home QF in the Euro Vase – even though they are 18 points ahead of the Hairsprays in the Rabo, this competition still carries a significant carrot. The Premiership sides should be favoured, based on last years engagement levels from the French, but Connacht have a good draw (the Siberian trip may have been arduous, but you’d be surprised how positive these things can be for team morale; the team that sleeps in the dugout together under a mountain of blankets stays together) and are playing better than at any time we can remember. Thank goodness for them.

BNZ – the Standard Bearers

And so came to an end the greatest tournament the game has ever witnessed.  New Zealand won, comprehensively, devastatingly and deservedly, and in doing so served up the prototype for what great, thrilling and effective modern rugby involves.  In 2011 they were crowned champions, but they barely stumbled over the line and were blessed by the manner in which the final was refereed.  This time, liberated from the chokers tag, they not only won, but served to demonstrate that they are the best team in the world by a distance, and the greatest of the professional era.

They are fitting champions of a superb tournament.  Indeed, we can only profess ourselves to be surprised by the sheer brilliance of the rugby that was produced.  It was only six months ago that we were despairing of a modern game built on brawn, robotic systems and lacking in skill.  The last two world cups were pretty mediocre in terms of the rugby produced.  We foresaw more of the same here, a sort of turbo-charged Six Nations, but this proved way wide of the mark.  In fact, it was not just the Championship sides that performed such attractive rugby, but many of the Tier Two nations also, not least Canada, Fiji and of course, Japan – who would have made the knockouts but for some generous refereeing in Scotland-Samoa and, of course, scheduling.

One argument that can now be canned is that winning tournaments requires something certain commentators refer to as ‘cup rugby’.  For ‘cup rugby’, see a dull, monotonous game plan involving aerial kicking and one-out runners.  Long a bugbear of ours, it has never made sense that the sort of rugby required to beat an opponent in one form of competition would be different to that of another.  And yet the myth persists that a conservative gameplan is in fact necessary to go deep into knockout rugby competitions.  Hugo MacNeill, who spent the tournament ramming his feet down his throat on TV3, noted that in World Cups you need a Ronan O’Gara-style fly-half, while a Felipe Contepomi type was too outrageous for this rarefied atmosphere.  The august critic had obviously failed to notice that Contepomi holds a bronze medal for his part in Argentina’s 2007 showing while Ronan O’Gara had never made it beyond the quarter finals.

New Zealand remained true to their principles to the end, committed to offloading in the tackle and, especially, passing flat along the gainline.  They may have tightened up in the rain against South Africa, but they were still the more expansive of the two teams and won the try-count by two to nothing.  Ultimately they won the tournament because of their superior skill levels and supreme rugby intelligence.  They have no problem stacking their forwards in wide channels, and when the ball gets there they have the skill to execute.  This gives their strike runners the freedom to roam the pitch and punch holes wherever they may choose.  It’s the exact strategy Rob Penney looked to bring to Munster, but he was laughed out of town for it.  Apparently it wasn’t cup-winning rugby.

The finale of the tournament has a habit of making the group stages look like mere preliminaries, and so it is here.  The past is a foreign country and all that.  And how ridiculous some of it looks from this vantage point!  What, for example, were England thinking?  Watching New Zealand’s all-court game makes it all the more unthinkable that they left Henry Slade in the stands and Ford on the bench, while Sam Burgess and Owen Farrell trundled about witlessly.  Did they think they could win a World Cup against New Zealand with such a ponderous game-plan?  And were we perhaps kidding ourselves a little bit that Ireland could live with this glorious company with such a mechanical, predictable approach reliant on kick-chase and mauling?  Had we better luck with injuries, could we have beaten Argentina and put it up to Australia?  It seems a lot to ask, a high level to compete against.

One other important factor is injuries.  New Zealand, by and large, stayed fit and healthy for the tournament.  Australia also, though they struggled when they lost Pocock for the Scotland game; indeed, they were almost unrecognisable.  They also struggled in Giteau’s absence when he was hauled from the pitch early in the final.  Like it or not, injuries play a huge part in a team’s fate.  Wales’ tournament was undone by injuries, and Ireland’s too.  It’s well and good putting up a no-excuses culture, but if you were asked three weeks before the tournament if Ireland could win a quarter-final without Sexton, O’Connell, O’Brien et al, you’d have objectively said ‘no chance’.  The closing out against France gave us a reason to believe we might not be so badly affected, but it soon became apparent just how terrible that French side was.

The question for now is: will Ireland be able to learn the lessons from this World Cup?  We’ve already posted that we’re unlikely to overhaul our gameplan overnight based on one loss to Argentina, and nor should we.  Ireland are Six Nations champions and will be competitive in that competition again this year.  But we note with interest Gordon D’arcy’s observations that the problem is rooted not in the national team coaching or current crop of players but in the fundamental skills learned in players’ formative years.  A sea-change in mentality will have to occur at every level.  Fail to adapt now and we may forever be playing catch-up.

If the revolution is to come several years down the line, the immediate evolution of the national team should continue apace.  It should not be forgotten that it is the provinces which feed most directly into the national team, and where the players’ day-to-day habits are formed.  Last year was an abysmal one for Irish provincial rugby, and the only way is up.  Leinster were an eyesore, Munster were dreadful, Ulster choked yet again when it mattered and Connacht were a bright spot, but ran out of steam.  We are far removed from Matty Williams’ ideal of a four-pronged provincial base all playing in some sort of ‘Irish way’, that inherently prepares the players for test rugby.  In all likelihood we will never attain such a thing.

However, it is encouraging that Leinster managed 14 offloads in their win over Treviso at the weekend, but tougher tests await, and we will watch with interest as the season develops.  There are a slew of promising players currently performing well in the provincial sides; Stuart McCloskey, Garry Ringrose and Noel Reid among them.  Will they be ready for international rugby come the Six Nations?  Maybe, maybe not; McCloskey looks the closest to stepping up a level.  Nonetheless, it is vital that Ireland show some signs of heeding the lessons that this magnificent tournament has provided.

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