Ireland’s forward pack had a most harrowing afternoon, bossed around by the (previously) most maligned pack in world rugby, milked for penalties at scrum-time, and then mauled over their own line. We’ve been cooking this one up in our mind for a while, but it all seemed to come to a head on Saturday – our pack lacks enforcers, and is composed of a bunch of really good and likeable guys.
Since the game went open, Ireland’s provincial academies have produced a consistent stream of well-rounded, talented and dedicated players – model professionals and model gentlemen to boot – exactly the type of well-spoken and thoughtful chap you’d like to see your daughter meet. The skills required for a young rugby players to get through a provincial academy are innate skills (obviously) but much, much more. They also require application, dedication, focus, intelligence and drive (in the career sense – the drive to work hard at a really uncertain profession, as opposed to punching the clock in an office like we do). It really takes a special type of young man to eschew all the charms of the drink-sodden student lifestyle to hit the pool at 6am – the sort of blue-collar player who in the past learned his trade on the job (in both a sporting and professional sense) simply isn’t going to apply at 18, and by 24, its all passed you by.
But has something been lost in the transition from players coming through the clubs to those coming from academy structures from the age of 18? In years past, the Darwinian and mucky nature of the Irish club game produced hard-nosed, hard-nut forwards who were raised not on a diet of nutrition plans and fitness programs, but beating the tar out of their bitter rivals on the field, then sinking twenty pints with them after. It produced a different sort of character to that which the pro game supplies. In France and England, they still have a little bit of that – think Yannick Forestier or Steve Borthwick – men who are equally comfortable (or more) at a coalface as in a classroom, but we’ve lost something. It has hit Munster particularly badly – whereas Ulster and Leinster traditionally picked the best from the best schools, Munster polished the rough diamonds they found in Shannon, Garryowen, Young Munster and Cork Con. Munster’s current generation of forwards just aren’t of the Claw and Axel variety, as much piano players as the piano shifters of yore.
Rog made the point in analysis that our players should have been milling into their opponents after POM was dumped on his head with 8 minutes to go, but the game was long gone by then – we’d much rather have seen them manufacture a schemozzle with 8 minutes gone to mark the Wallabies cards. You can’t imagine the like of Quinny allowing a game to slip away without finding a way to get his teammates’ blood boiling.
Couple of cases in point in our current pack. Take Besty. Besty is a great guy. We mean a great guy – when he originally missed out on Lions duty, he tweeted that we should be thinking of Nevin Spence instead of him. But Besty isn’t an on-pitch wild card the way, say, Jirry, was – it’s hard to imagine him fly-hacking Alexis Pallison or calling Thommo a fat c*nt. For Mike Ross, the ‘dark arts’ of the scrum we hear so much about are about the mechanics of the hit, not underhand digs or gouges. Jamie Heaslip, for all his undoubted qualities, doesn’t have anywhere near the rough-hewn and unpredictable edges of Mamuka Gorgodze, Francois Louw or Imanol Harinordoquoy.
Not that there is anything wrong with any of that of course, those three are excellent players, but for one reason or another, our current pack seem like great guys. From the DL, we really miss the uncontrollable physicality of Stephen Ferris – Palla and I were metres away from this – the aggression of Donnacha Ryan, and even the appetite for contact of NWJMB. Ryan Caldwell has slipped through the cracks, and Jirry, Wally and Denis Leamy are retired. It’s probably a generational thing, but we wonder have we lost something from times past that we just haven’t been able to replicate.