With the two rounds of European Rugby out of the way, focus turns to the November internationals. As usual, a daunting program looms, with South Africa, Australia and Georgia coming to town. Two wins will be the pass mark.
Ireland have injuries aplenty, the two most damaging of which are Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien, unquestionably two of Ireland’s small set of world class players, and crucially, two of their best ball carriers. Ireland have decent replacements for each. Jack McGrath is a stalwart on the loosehead side of the scrum and both Chris Henry was a constant in Ireland’s Six Nations winning campaign, when Ireland were also without O’Brien. Both bring much to the game, but neither can quite replicate the sort of explosive ball carrying and ability to win the contact battle that Healy and O’Brien provide. Leinster’s struggles are probably a reasonable barometer for how hard it is to get momentum without your best carriers available.
The loss of two such warriors is compounded by the loss of Iain Henderson for Ulster, who is the closest thing to O’Brien and Healy in his ability to break tackles, and also Andrew Trimble, who, although a wing, is a strong carrier who has been used to punch holes in the middle of the pitch. Bosh!
The problem is magnified by the fact that Ulster and Munster’s two primary ball-carrying forwards are non-Ireland eligible. Nick Williams is Ulster’s go-to-man for the hard yards (which is quite another issue), while Munster have identified CJ Stander as their best carrier, and his form has been frankly awesome in recent weeks. Do Ireland have enough carriers to make the necessary metres to take the game to Australia, and more problematically, South Africa? Will the lack of Healy and O’Brien force Schmidt into certain selections in his pack? Or in the centres?
We’ve used the ESPN stats from the last two weeks to try and let the stats do the work.
Here’s the file: forwards_metres. It’s the usual ESPN table format. The focus here is on columns E to H and T to W, but that’s not to say the players didn’t do other stuff as well! The guys in red are NIE.
Three things immediately stand out.
- Jamie Heaslip is the man. Over the two ERCC games, Heaslip has managed over 40 carries for an aggregate gain over 100m, the full length of a rugby pitch. Heaslip is in outstanding form and will be Ireland’s number eight for all three games. He’s not the most conventional number eight, or the most powerful, but his supreme footwork enables him to avoid the bigger hits and eke out metres where others would be running into a brick wall. The issue that might arise is against South Africa whose sheer brawn is so suffocating he might not be able to find the space to get a run at soft shoulders.
- CJ Stander is the man. As if you need telling. Stander carried for an immense 110m against Sale, and again impressed with 42m with ball in hand against Sale, more than double anyone else in the pack. But he can’t play for Ireland. Yet.
- Ulster have lacked a ball carrier. No Henderson, and Williams struggling; Ulster’s problem is that they have found themselves snaffled on the gainline. Roger Wilson showed up well off the bench against Leicester, but against Toulon no forward made more than 12m, which explains everything about why Ulster lost the game.
Ok, so that’s the obvious stuff, what about the auxiliary carriers, and what might it mean for Ireland
- If Heaslip is Leinster’s primary man, Sean Cronin is his lieutenant. Nobody can time a run onto the ball as well as this chap, which enables him to make clean breaks and beat defenders, and his technical deficiencies will continue to be accommodated by O’Connor as long as he can carry for an average of 30m a match. The question is: would Schmidt consider him ahead of Best in order to bolster his cabal of ball-carriers? Best’s lineout throwing has been poor for Ulster, and he has never been an effective carrier, but does bring power to the scrum and an exceptional ability around the ruck. Best would generally be seen as a nailed-on starter and a pack leader, and it would be a brave man to go into trench warfare against South Africa without him, but there may be a case for Cronin based on the current situation.
- Tommy O’Donnell is the new Chris Henry. We asked earlier in the season if O’Mahony, O’Donnell and Stander play together, who will hit the rucks? Answer: Tommy O’Donnell. Although a naturally strong carrier, O’Donnell has carried much less than his backrow partners in both games, and has appeared to do so closer to the ruck too. A recent journal.ie interview saw him chatting a lot about his role around the breakdown, slowing down ball, ‘living in the ruck’, and all that. It shows all the hallmarks of someone who has sacrificed his carrying game to do the dirty work; in effect, becoming more like Chris Henry. Which, ironically in this instance, will probably hurt his international ambitions.
- Peter O’Mahony offers good value with the ball. We know he likes to operate a bit further from the ruck where he can get his fend going, but O’Mahony’s carrying stats will encourage Schmidt. He made around 20m in each game, and like Sean Cronin was very much lieutenant to the primary ball-carrier. The only player who could realistically take the No.6 jersey from him is Rhys Ruddock, who has had a mixed bag, showing up well against Wasps, with a notable carrying performance, but anonymous in Castres. Throw in O’Mahony’s lineout game and abilty to win breakdown turnovers and he looks fairly nailed on for the jersey, but will probably be used to carry more than in the Six Nations.
- Jack McGrath for loosehead. He may not have Cian Healy’s quotient of fast-twitch muscle fibres, but McGrath is a useful carrier, as well as being generally decent in the set piece. He carried over 10m in each game. Both Munster looseheads have shown up better when introduced off the bench, and until one of them (probably Cronin) pulls away from the other, their jostling for position is probably letting McGrath pull the gap out when it comes to national selection.
- Paul O’Connell should leave the carrying to others – as has been suggested in certain quarters before,. While it seems churlish to be criticising the great O’Connell for anything, 5m gained over an aggregate 17 carries suggests that O’Connell should probably let O’Mahony, Stander or whichever loosehead is on the pitch have the ball instead. Toner hasn’t exactly been bursting through tackles either, so until Henderson presents himself again in the new year, Ireland can’t expect the second row unit to chip in with many metres. But it was ever thus – and quite often by our own design.
Based purely on individual merits, you’d write down the starting Irish pack as being McGrath, Best, Ross, O’Connell, Toner, O’Mahony, Henry and Heaslip. Schmidt will employ Heaslip as his primary ball-carrier, and ask O’Mahony and McGrath can help him out by chipping in with 20-ish metres each. Is that enough? If not, the case for Sean Cronin and Tommy O’Donnell becomes stronger, particularly for Cronin, though O’Donnell appears to have adapted his role somewhat.
And with a lack of heft in the pack, we need to ask if our preference for midgety centres can be continued – Dorce is decent at making metres after the tackle with his feet, but he isn’t exactly built like Mathieu Boshtereaud. Having someone bigger, like Robbie Henshaw, outside might take some workload off the forward carriers – Jared Payne certainly isn’t going to use opposition players as speed bumps. Any dreams of a second-five-eighth type inside-centre, such as Olding or Madigan, may have to be shelved for the moment. All this, of course, is compounded by the loss of Trimble – with most of the putative replacements of the dancing-feet variety, we might need to press the square peg of Tommy Bowe into the round hole that is boshing up the middle.
One thing’s for sure: Jamie Heaslip’s going to have have a heavy workload over the next month.