Captain Lancaster

Huzzah! Leinster have a new “senior coach”! Who’ll report to the “head coach” – Leo Cullen. And it’s none other than … drum roll … Stuart Lancaster, last seen sloping off the rugger scene after England’s disastrous RWC15. Which is interesting. In the Steve Davis sense.

Thing is, Nucifora has taken a few public pops at everyone Leo Cullen, making it pretty clear he thinks Leinster should have appointed a bigger, more experienced name – so the fact he is getting some external help isn’t really that much of a surprise. Indeed, Graham Henry popped by to look sullen in a long training jacket for two weeks this summer – and was impressed by the ruck-hitting ability of Leinster’s wingers Joey Carbery, for one. So a more experienced name coming in was to be expected.

But, taking a broader view of Leinster in the post-Schmidt era, the best word to describe their football would be: muddled. They don’t seem to know how they want to play, and have seemingly lost the ability to catch and pass the football. Matt O’Connor put big emphasis on empowering the players after years of Cheika and Schmidt micro-strategising, but that didn’t work out. Cullen came in last season, at least one season before planned, and had a steep learning curve. The squad is deep and stacked, but it feels like the team don’t really know what they are doing, and haven’t (yet) bought into Cullen’s vision. They just don’t seem to be able to get it done (except against Ulster).

If you were to make an argument for what Leinster actually needed, you would say a strong technical coach, someone to work on their skills and give them the tools to execute on-field. What you would say they don’t need is a delegator to come in and talk in broad brushes about culture or whatever. England under Lancaster seemed to change tactics annually and centre partnership by series and were an utter dogs dinner by the time the big gig came around. It’s hard to actually define what Lancaster brings to the table. And for a group that feels like it is begging for clarity and a mission, that’s a bit worrying.

Lancaster’s main contribution to English rugby was a much heralded change to the culture within the squad, creating a jolly-hockeysticks-upstanding-chaps atmosphere where previously they were a dwarf-throwing shambles.  Or so it seemed at the time, but that’s been largely discredited since Eddie Jones came in and named Dylan Hartley as captain and reverted to a no-one likes us, we don’t care mentality.

Since the England shindig fell apart Lancaster has had stints with Atlanta Falcons, British Cycling’s world-class performance programme, the English FA and Counties Manukau.  Make of that what you will.  Soaking up experience at the sharp end of sports science or running out to get coffees for Brailsford et al?  Who really knows?

That said, when Gregor Townsend was attack coach for Scotland, they hadn’t scored a try in about a year when he left the setup. He got the top job at Glasgae, set about creating an exciting and dynamic attacking unit and is now going back as big kahuna next summer. So maybe Lancaster will show us insights we didn’t know he possessed in the deadening corporate chatshow that was his England team. Here’s hoping.

Off With You!

A new season is here.  Hello everyone!  Let’s all start with an essay entitled ‘What we did on our Holidays’.

While a look at the upcoming season (Which non-scoring wings will Leinster start this year?  Who are the latest pairing to be tried in the centres for Munster? Is Robbie Diack still on the bench? Can Connacht do it again?) is in order, the first dramatic talking point looks to be the non-renewal of Ruan Pienaar’s contract.  It’s a staggering bit of decision-making from the IRFU and to these eyes, totally wrongheaded.

It’s borne of the directives on recruitment of foreign players, rolled out to great fanfare (and bemusement) back in 2013, and which have been selectively enforced ever since. The non-scoring Zane Kirchner has (mystifyingly) been allowed to keep Irish non-scoring wings kicking their heels while doing very little to justify paying him, and we lost count of the number of extensions BJ Botha managed to winkle out. Yet the IRFU say they cannot give Pienaar another contract because Ulster now have to fill the 9 shirt with an Irishman.

It looks a wrong decision on so  many levels.  For a start, simply vacating the number 9 shirt is not going to elevate the indigenous scrum halves at Ulster to a higher level.  The player who is next in line at the province is Paul Marshall, who is clearly not in the picture for test recognition, ranking number 5 in the depth chart on his best days, and mostly lower.  He’s a decent Pro12 player, but that’s just not good enough for Ireland, and never will be, no matter how much gametime he gets. After that, its Dave Shanahan and Angus Lloyd – now it’s possible that one of this pair will improve to such an extent that will be better than (a then 35 year old) Pienaar in three years, but it’s far less likely if Pienaar is half heartedly flinging passes to a deep-lying Lionel Beauxis to welt into orbit than working with them every day.

Furthermore, it’s easy to argue that Pienaar’s presence has benefitted Irish rugby, and would continue to do so, through his stewarding of Paddy Jackson.  On this year’s summer tour, much was made of Jackson’s emergence as a player of test quality, finally giving us a reliable replacement for Jonny Sexton.  But how much does Jackson’s development owe to playing alongside so assured and consummate a performer as Ruan Pienaar? Put it this way, would Jackson be at his current performance level if Pienaar left for Toulon two years ago when offered a blank cheque? Jackson has now reached maturity, and no longer requires a scrum half to take pressure off him, as might have been the case in the past, and any 10 will tell you that the better the passes they receive from the 9, the better they are likely to play.

A look at the bigger picture also reveals the rules that have dictated Pienaar must leave to be somewhat anachronistic – and have only been half applied in the past anyway.  They were devised when Ireland had three strong provinces and one extra; Connacht were exempt.  The idea was that across the three provinces we would have two Irish players playing regularly in each position.  But with Connacht no longer an add-on and now winning trophies and contributing players to the national team, the rules don’t really make sense any more, at least in their old form.  I make it that there are three scrum halves vying for the vacant spot as Conor Murray’s deputy for Ireland; Luke McGrath, John Cooney and Kieran Marmion.  Two of those are playing with Connacht, the other with Leinster.  It’s hard to see what Ruan Pienaar’s presence at Ulster can possibly be doing to hamper their development.

But worst of all, it just feels like shabby treatment of a great player and person.  There does not appear to be any consideration for the fact that, after seven years, Pienaar and his family have laid down roots here, and wanted to stay (was willing to for less than he could have earned on the open market) and ultimately move into coaching.  It feels like he’s been treated as a commodity, a tick in the box marked ‘non-indigenous player’ and nothing more.  When those Top 5 Foreign Imports lists are drawn up in future years you can guarantee that Pienaar’s name will be up there with the Doug Howletts and Felipe Contepomis.  He has been world class for Ulster, a lynchpin.  He deserves better treatment than this, and it’s a decision that is unlikely to benefit Irish rugby either.

Gerry thinks it’s down to the presence of Jamison Gibson-Park in D4, and it’s probably a factor. But, as hass been said, if the IRFU are prioritising an opportunistic free agent as a potential Irish cap in 3 years over a man and a player like Ruan Pienaar, it’s a great shame, and doesn’t say much for them.

Sins of Commission

We could (and maybe should) be sitting here today talking about how Ireland had just become the 3rd team to win a series in South Africa, joining a pantheon that include the 1974 Lions and the 1996 BNZ-ers, but we fell agonisingly short up in Jo’burg. Going into the game, we thought we had a fantastic chance to seal the series, but that managing the altitude would be the biggest challenge.

And so it proved. We were 16 points ahead with 20 minutes to go but lost by 6, utterly decimated in the last quarter by the rampaging Springboks. It had began to feel ropey when Ruan Combrinck scored – it was the beginning of tired tackling (and non-tackling) and would not have surprised someone aware a sea level team were playing at 1800m. We scored again of course, but the frustration was we were unable to stem the tide. Could we have done anything about it? Well yes, but there are sins of omission and sins of commission.

When we saw the Ireland 23, we said that the starters would give us a great opportunity to win this game, but we had concerns about the low octane bench. This was the sin of omission. Whatever the altitude, you are going to use your 5 replacement forwards – if our gameplan was to get ahead of SA and hang on, you want to see some forwards on your bench who can come in and go mad for 20 minutes, hit everything and maybe crash into some Springboks too. In recent times, two of our most effective impact replacements have been Nugget and Ultan Dillane – but we picked neither. Instead we had Strauss, who on all known form offered less than Cronin, and Donnacha Ryan, who is a super player, but no Dillane off the bench. Maybe a better option as a starter than Dillane, but wearing 19 is a different task. In the event, every one of our forward replacements had little, if not negative, impact (except maybe Flashheart).

That’s the piano shifters. In the ranks of the piano players the selection was fine (albeit with very little alternatives in the case of 21 and 22) but our non-use of the bench was perplexing – five collective minutes for the 3 of them, with O’Halloran riding the pine for the whole game. In Ellis Park, with the Boks rampant from minute 60, that’s unforgivable. What was required from 60 onwards was simply to tackle – our starting backs had gone from making, to soaking, to missing and they were spent. No-one expected Madigan and O’Halloran to come in and run length of the field tries, but merely to make a couple of tackles and offer some respite. Both are actually good defenders as well – no Jonny Wilkinsons but no iHumphs either.

You’ll have to forgive the negative tone because we’re still so frustrated at the missed opportunity, but it needs to be pointed out how excellent Ireland were in the first half. The major impact of the lack of oxygen seemed to be dozy decision-making from the South Africans, who gave Ireland cheap penalties by the sackful (which should have been punished by a yellow by half time) and Ireland made them pay. Paddy Jackson had a great first half, and Furlong’s destruction of the Beast was incredible. This felt like the day Furlong truly arrived as a test rugby player.  We almost – almost! – put them away, and each of the two missed penalties to get to 22-3 may have sealed the deal. It was a truly excellent display, until the environmental constraints got us.

Problem is now, Coetzee has maybe stumbled upon his best team – expect Warren Whitely and Ruan Combrinck to start in PE, and Damian de Allende and maybe even le Roux have been successfully played into form. We’ll have Stander back, but we’re down Henshaw and another backline rejig is in prospect. Although a centre partnership of Olding and Marshall looks light, we’d prefer that to moving Payne from the 15 shirt. If Schmidt is true to his word of giving everyone gametime, we’ll see Healy and O’Halloran as well. It would have been a nice luxury to be able to start them in a dead rubber Test, but it ain’t the case. Which is frustrating.

Keep The Boks Down

Hello? Is there anyone out there? Is no-one listening to us?? We wouldn’t blame you – we haven’t been saying much recently due to <kids> and <stuff>. Sorry – we’re doing our best. To those who recognised us on our double date in the terrace with the Leinster ultras for the Pro12 semi – we’re touched, and the Ulsterman will be back. And maybe they’ll even win! Maybe.

Anyway, enough about the provinces, what about Ireland? We are still taking it in – we beat South Africa … in South Africa … with 14 men … for an hour! And we beat them well. I know the Boks are in organisational disarray with a new coach and having finally (mostly) moved on from the 2009 Lions generation, but still. As this season went on, Ireland have looked increasingly tired and uninspired, and the performance was completely out of the blue.

We think Schmidt is a better coach than Eddie or Deccie, but there was a definite sense of the malaise which took hold of those camps in 2007 and 2011 setting in. Our defence was passive and narrow, our attack virtually non-existent and the coach, with his conservative selection against the likes of Italy and his seeming refusal to consider a more expansive attacking gameplan (“Jared has never trained at fullback”), seemed ready to hunker down.

But a couple of things were happening. The first was a dose of some Traditional Wigan Values. Ireland hired Andy Farrell back in January, but he was only allowed to work in Axel’s Breakfast Club until June, and he has only had 2 weeks with the players – but there was a marked increase in aggression and line speed. It felt from the outside that perhaps Ireland needed a fresh voice, and it is to Schmidt’s credit that he has the humility to hire a man like Farrell, who is not going to be shy about expressing his opinions. When Deccie went looking for new blood after Gert Smal left (temporarily then permanently) in 2012, he ended up with Axel, plus a re-shaken dogs dinner of a ticket with Kissy as both defence and attack coach – in contrast, Schmidt has been backed by the Union to spend big and get one of the best around – and the impact looks immediate.

The other big thing to happen has been injuries. Joe Schmidt’s first choice fullbacks in his tenure have been Bob Kearney, Felix Jones and Zeebs – all of whom were unavailable to tour. When Schmidt was asked in the squad presser (which was, something a bid bonkers really, 4 days after the squad announcement) about who would be fullback, he mentioned Stuart Olding, Tiarnan O’Halloran .. and one of his centres moving back, then talked about Henshaw specifically. We felt that Payne was simply not going to be moved from the 13 jumper.

The argument has always been that Payne is our defensive linchpin and we just have to keep him there or we are risking anarchy – but we never really bought that one. Firstly, the system should never be that dependent on personnel that we cannot consider moving one guy (if it is true that Payne never lined out at 15 during training in the 6N, that’s poor), and secondly, Robbie Henshaw is a pretty good outside centre – he plays there for Connacht and they just won the Pro12. We never thought we would lose much by moving Henshaw out one and switching Payne to fullback – Henshaw is also an excellent defender, and the extra space at 13 allows him to offer more than crashing up the middle. We would then have a few options at inside centre, all Ulstermen; McCloskey (not touring, but very similar to de Allende, and a man who gets metres every time .. but is too loose for Schmidt), Bamm-Bamm (Test experience at 12, good passer, excellent defender and a good kicking game .. but playing 13 for Ulster to accommodate the Bangor Bulldozer) and Olding (classic second five, but just back from injury) – none of which you’d say aren’t worth a look at the very least.

But we digress – injury struck, and Payne was the man picked to play 15, and it was a remarkable success, for him, for Henshaw and for Marshall, who looks like a Test match animal. One can only hope that this wasn’t a temporary injury-enforced change and that we will go back to basics in November (who could have foreseen that Payne would be a brilliant fullback eh?), but it’s had an impact on our attacking play, arguably introducing a greater element of unpredictability in all three positions. Its a pretty depressing thought that injury continues to be our best selector.

Of course, we also lost Sexton as well, but we didn’t notice that much – Paddy Jackson had a very good game, and even kicked (one of) his drop goals! We had worried before the game that one Jackson start in three years, in a meaningless RWC warm up, perhaps wasn’t the best way of preparing for an injury to your injury-prone outhalf, but Jackson stepped in effortlessly. He is, in our opinion, the best passer in the country, but he kicked 86% of possession, something very Schmidt/Sexton-y.

Now, to address the Stander red. We’ve watched it a few times, and we think it was a red card – it was dangerous play, and there was no need for Stander to turn his hip into Lambie’s head. As with Jared Payne vs Saracens a few years ago, as soon as we saw it, we thought ” uh-oh, the red might be in play here” – and if you think it is, you can argue it’s a harsh red, but can’t complain too much.

Back to the bigger picture – we won by 6 points having played an hour down a man – what’s that benchmarked to – a 15/20 point win? It was comprehensive, and South Africa were a rabble at the end, short on inspiration, leadership and guile. They just didn’t seem to understand what was happening. And they are already making their excuses, with Coetzee claiming Ireland weren’t interested in playing rugby – but surely that’s what a Springbok coach wants? A team who will try and take them on up front and let themselves be mashed into the turf by large tough men? This is a team who are there for the taking – and we should be winning this series from here.

Now, the good news is that it is looking like the only player we will be down is CJ Stander, and only for one match. Given we are down a useful XV of injured players, that’s a break we need to make the most of. Amazingly, three of our bench didn’t play (or need to play) in Cape Town, but will that wash at 1,700m? Certainly, we don’t expect any experimentation – while we were pretty disappointed with Schmidt’s Italy selection in the Six Nations, but this time we’re going to get into bed with the flat earthers and say that a must-win Test in Ellis Park is no place for making changes. If the Springboks find their feet in Jo’burg, the final Test could be a train wreck.

We expect Ruddock to slot in for Stander, with Sean Reidy on the bench (gulp) – we’d want to see Henderson at 6 with Dillane into the team, but it isn’t Schmidt’s style, and he seems to see Henderson as purely a second row. Else, as you were – the rest of the lads will be needed in PE. The Springboks are there to be beaten – let’s bloody beat them.

Stick It Up The Jumper

We may have advised Put Lum to put out the kids in Grenoble, but he inevitably didn’t, went full bore, and nearly won. The game itself was a stonker, a properly exciting show from two teams intent on scoring more points than the other. Connacht led by 16 and 10 points and were ultimately unlucky to lose a game they could easily have won.

The aftermath of the game brought forth lots of pats on the head for Connacht for “refusing to compromise” and “playing rugby their way” with the assertion that if only they had been more “pragmatic” they would have scraped through. Pragmatic of course being code for sticking it up the jumper.

It is telling that, for all Connacht’s success this season, which is based on Southern Hemisphere style multi-dimensional attack with plenty of forwards passing the ball and tons of offloads, they are being advised to tighten up in this stage of the season. Almost as if playing attacking rugby hadn’t actually won them any games. Now it’s time for the big boys Connacht, play some cup rugby.

Of course, close observers of rugby this season will be able to point to an actual cup that has already happened, some crucible where the concept of cup rugby – sticking it up the jumper, playing it narrow and “going through the phases” – could be tested .. the World Cup. And that of course was where teams that most exemplified cup rugby as described – England, Ireland and France – did so poorly. Wales won their key game only by throwing caution to the wind in the second half, and lost narrowly to Australia and South Africa (and England in the Six Nations) while playing Warren-ball.

And of course the teams with the most skill who went out to win games by scoring in multiples of 7 and not 3 were BNZ, Australia and Argentina. But .. y’know … cup rugby.

Next up for Connacht is a crucial Pro12 game, which can as good as seal playoff qualification, at home to the high priests of cup rugby – Axel Foley’s Munster. Foley was hired in a barrage of RTTMV headlines, and has delivered those values in spades, but unfortunately the game has moved on, and the dreadful spectacle of a prop with 15 international caps being unable to execute a 4-on-1 overlap was emblematic of their season.

If Connacht play close to their abilities, which involve passing and offloading and intelligence, and Munster continue to show all the skill and cohesion they’ve shown all season, Connacht will win. And despite it being late in the season, they won’t do it by taking the deadening advice of late as resorting to “cup rugby”, because that won’t work. And perhaps its a lesson Irish rugby could take to heart

Trophy Time in de Wesht

Wasn’t there a reason it was last weekend Leinster and Munster tried to lose to one another in the Aviva? Isn’t there some important driver as to why they always play just after the Six Nations? There is some reason why we have to endure forests of self-congratulatory articles about the “biggest rivalry in rugby” and such at this time of year, but we just can’t put our fingers on it.

Anyway, it was pretty important in the context of the Pro12, and that’s absolutely the only competition happening right now. Yes sir, nothing else of note going on. Except of course the European Challenge Cup, which for some reason only Connacht get to play in – which seems a bit unfair on Ulster, Munster and Leinster, but there you go. Connacht are going to Grenoble this weekend, and, in truth, are in a bit of a pickle.

Grenoble are about the only French team who bother their hole about this competition, which can surely only be down to the Irish connection – just like Clermont fans had never thought of wearing the team’s colours before playing Munster (right Gerry?), French teams had never thought they could win away until Birch turned up. Montpellier made a fatal error by qualifying for the knockout stages this season, but they won’t over-estimate Cardiff again in a hurry.

If Connacht do win, they get to play a “glamour” (everything is relative) semi-final at the dog track against Quins (or Reading Samoa), but for all the nice pats on the head about O’Shea or Biiiiiiiiiig Bob going back to Ireland, that would be a darn tough game – English clubs are dominating Europe this year. And after that it would be a final against another bunch of proud yeoman – Glaws or Sale probably. Tough run in.

It’s worth asking if, given Connacht’s injury list, particularly in the halves, whether a more plausible route to a trophy is not going through the Premiership’s midtable fillers but through .. um .. Leinster and co in the Pro12.

Still, that path is a little tricky too. There are 3 rounds to go, and a lot of games between the top six still to come, but Leinster, Connacht and Glasgae look pretty much guaranteed playoff slots, with Ulster, Scarlets and Munster in for the final place. You can easily see a scenario where Connacht end up with a home playoff game; this probably hinges on them beating Munster at home.

Pat Lam has delivered an incredible season so far for Connacht, and a trophy would be a fine way to top it off – it’s a measure of how sure-footed they have been and how fantastic their rugby has been that not getting one would feel like a minor disappointment. The major target at the beginning of the year was qualification for something called the “European Champions Cup”, which we’ve never heard of, but it’s been sealed.

After spending hours delving through tinterwebs researching this competition, it appears there are also quarter finals this weekend in it – the English clubs look in the driving seat, and in spite of the confusing semi-final permutations, Saracens are our bet to de-throne Toulon and give Stephen Jones a big smile on his face.

Anyway, getting back to the important stuff – if Lam wants to bring some silverware to Galway, maybe he should think about throwing the kids in on Saturday. Sure, it would prompt a bout of hand-wringing about “integrity of the competition” but it’s not like the French care about it, and when the big clubs change the rules to suit themselves, integrity is a damaged concept anyway. Time to take a dive, Connacht.

Anaesthesia in the Aviva

Leinster edged Munster out at the Palindrome at the weekend.  It was a hard-fought, but low-quality affair and rather than both sides looking for the killer blow, in the last 10 minutes it felt as if each was diving to the canvas offering the other the victory. If it were boxing, you’d be asking about suspicious betting patterns.

For all the hype that accompanies these matches, they aren’t always all that great, and you have to go back to 2011 when Ronan O’Gara landed a last-minute touchline penalty to secure a thrilling 24-23 win for the last classic match between the sides.  This content of this one will be quickly forgotten, but the result was important.

Munster really, really needed the win to keep in the hunt for the semi-finals and having come up short, they appear condemned to finishing outside the top four and, worryingly, finishing fourth of the Irish provinces and finding themselves scratching around for European rugby next year.  For Leinster, and for all the handwringing over their performance level, they find themselves at the top of the Pro12.  Top of the world Ma!

Still, don’t let that mask their failings here.  Leinster tried to play a bit, but their exiting from their own half was dreadful, relying on a malfunctioning box-kicking game which tended to give the ball back to Munster no more than 15 metres away from where Leinster had it.  It was feeble stuff.  As for the lineouts; simply awful.  And what of Cian Healy, or at least the imposter who has replaced him; a player who shows little familiarity with the game of rugby?  Whatever about competing with Jack McGrath, soon he will be under pressure from Michael Bent.  Something has gone badly wrong.

Leinster were ultimately saved by the surehanded Jonny Sexton, who gave a streetwise performance and found impressive distance with his line-kicking, and Jamie Heaslip who frequently gave examples of textbook tackling technique.  At this stage in his career, it occurs to me that his durability is a result of his technical excellence, allowing him to take collisions on his terms.  Rhys Ruddock also put up a good show, and won the match-winning penalty with a trademark breakdown turnover.  With Leinster running out of ideas in attack, they were content to live off Munster’s mistakes to eke out the winning scores. And there were plenty of them.

Munster’s leading light was Conor Murray, who, like Sexton, looks like his old self after a post-World Cup slump, and Johnny Holland performed pretty well for a rookie at this level – helped by Murray in a Pienaar/Jackson 2012/13 type of way.  He was certainly better than his replacement Ian Keatley, who appears to have had a total crisis of confidence, leaving his game in a shambolic state. Foley, in a rather mealy-mouthed fashion, talked about him being “experienced” and “an international” in the aftermath, both of which are true, but at this point he looks behind a guy with about 144 minutes of Pro12 experience in the pecking order. He needs a fresh start, be it a new DOR (Mick Bradley – honk!) or a new team.

Time was that in the aftermath of these matches, an online bloodbath would take place between the two sets of fans, nitpicking over refereeing decisions (which were appalling in many cases) and what-ifs, but nowadays each group turns inwards to lament the rubbishness of their performance.  Leinster fans knew they got out of jail in the final 10 minutes, when they were truly totally lacking in composure, while Munster fans continued to grieve over a wretched season.

They must surely have watched through their fingers as David Kilcoyne butchered a three-man overlap to run into the nearest tackler.  If ever one moment encapsulated the failings of a team this was it!  It’s next to or near impossible imagining a Connacht player, let alone an Argentinian or an All-Black, making the same appalling decision.  Being able to fix the defender and pass to the man outside in a two (or four!) on one situation should be a basic minimum for a professional player, regardless of shirt number.  Sad to say it, but the team as a whole does not have anything like the required skill level, and it does not appear that management are interested in fostering a culture where skill is highly valued.  It’s all ‘contact’, ‘passion’ and ‘manning up’.  Pat Lam speaks an entirely different language.

That’s why they’re sixth in the league, with a huge game to come on the dog track in 10 days – huge for next season and huge to arrest a decline that seems never-ending. On one hand, you have a Connacht team shorn of half backs and think this is an opportunity for Munster, but then, every time you think Munster can’t do any worse they go off and shoot themselves in the foot once again. With Munster these days, they are hoping against hope in spite of the coaching ticket. Connacht seem to be like Wales, where Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny can get crocked and the newbies come in to a well-coached and slick setup with very little impact on performance. It’s increasingly difficult to see how Munster conjure up a winning performance – which would leave them with a high-stakes ERC playoff in Musgrave Park against Embra. Surely that can’t be lost too?

Debrief

So that’s that for another year.  England won, Ireland fell to third with just two wins and the world has finally stopped believing that France are unpredictable, maverick or even remotely decent.  Wales gave Ireland and England too big a headstart, and Scotland again flattered to deceive.  Italy were wretched.

All in all, it was a modest enough championship.  The business of deciding a winner was wrapped up a week in advance and the only drama in the last week was seeing whether England could secure a grand slam.  France were game, but ultimately not good enough, and the result was never really in doubt.

The rugby wasn’t as bad as feared.  The early rounds were diabolical, certainly.  The Ireland v France match was one of the most boring test matches on record, and it seemed appropriate that it should be effectively decided by a 10 minute scrum.  Wales v France wasn’t much better, and Scotland v England also stank the house out.  But thereafter, things improved.  England and Ireland played out an entertaining match, and Ireland looked to vary their game a bit more in the final two rounds, while England’s tussles with Wales and France weren’t too hard on the eye either.  It wasn’t quite the spirit of the World Cup, but it was better than in many recent seasons.

It can’t be entirely coincidental that the better games took place in March when the weather was a bit better.  February tends to be a dire month weather-wise, and if a single tweak was to be made to the rugby calendar, we would suggest a bold move in pushing back the start of the Six Nations by four weeks.  We don’t expect any such thing to happen, of course, as the tournament seems to be a commercial lock-down no matter how turgid the spectacle on offer, and the powers that be tend to be reluctant to change anything.

The Guardian surmised that with the ‘emergence’ of Billy Vunipola and a collection of high quality halfbacks, the Lions in 2017 will fancy they can beat New Zealand, but such expectations appear laughable.  The summer tour will reveal much.  There has been no new evidence that the Northern Hemisphere have come close to bridging the divide to the far more dynamic southern nations, and no amount of Eddie Jones talking up a 3-0 whitewash of Australia will change that.  Jones bullishness is great in so far as it goes, but talk is cheap, actions will be required, and such an outcome looks unlikely.  Last we checked Michael Cheika was still in situ down under.

Indeed, the fact that England could turn their World Cup disaster on its head with such apparent smoothness almost degrades the competition.  From laughing stock to European champions?  They didn’t even change much on the pitch, as the squad was still largely the same as that over which Lancaster presided.  Come on down Chris Robshaw and James Haskell, the tournament’s pre-eminent six-and-a-halves.  Who needs Armitage anyway?  But it’s worth remembering that Lancaster’s tenure wasn’t a total waste of time, and that his England team had gone close to winning the championship twice in his tenure.  They just lost their way in the big one.  All they needed was a bit of clarity of purpose – which they entirely lacked in the World Cup – and an injection of a bit of the old dog to set them back on the right path.

And what about Ireland?  Well, it was a middling championship in every sense of the word.  Third place, two wins, two losses and a draw.  Beating England in Twickenham always looked a tall order, but they must surely regret the game in Paris.  Even Scotland beat this utterly abject French side, and Ireland had enough chances to put them away, but couldn’t land the killer blow.  It was a performance symptomatic of their worst ills under Schmidt; lacking imagination, trying to barrage their way over the line using one out rumbles, and unwilling to pass out of the tackle.  It was a rubbish performance in a rubbish match.

Some of the selections were a bit iffy, and while it might be churlish to complain after a campaign in which five Irish players debuted, the sight of Fergus McFadden trundling into the fray instead of Stuart McCloskey was dispiriting.  It appears that for all McCloskey’s superb Ulster form, Schmidt doesn’t quite trust him.

Oddly enough, the last two games, from which he left out the country’s best offloader out of the panel altogether, were the ones in which Ireland did look to offload the ball, at least more than usual (i.e. at least once).  But it’s all well and good playing that way against Scotland and Italy when the championship is over, and quite another doing it when the games are clutch and against better opponents.  It feels a bit like Schmidt has wrung as much as he can out of his current template and a major evolution is required to get Ireland back to the pointy end of things.  It would be foolish to underestimate his ability to deliver the goods.  At Leinster, he changed the team from being an offloading side in his first season to one which didn’t offload but passed aggressively on the gainline in his second.  He won the Heineken Cup on both occasions.

One such advancement is surely on the way on the defensive side of things.  Ireland have become leaky without the ball, frequently too narrow and prone to soaking metres and tries out wide, and Andy Farrell’s arrival cannot come soon enough.  With Farrell comes the possibility that Ireland will completely change how they defend – possibly bringing something more like England and Wales’ hard-up approach to defending.  It has got to be worth a look.  The tour to South Africa is daunting but they have problems of their own.  They lack a coach and a fly half – two pretty important things – and while the summer tour is often a ‘last men standing’ affair, the prospect of Henderson, O’Brien, O’Mahony and others returning from injury means Ireland could be heading down there in better health than was the case in either the World Cup or the Six Nations.

Sure We Know What He Can Do

Ireland today announced their team to play Six Nations powerhouse Italy, and it’s a pretty deflating selection in the backline for those of us who thought we might see some fresh faces during this campaign. For the Italy match is “must-win”, as it should be – Ireland should always beat Italy, to be frank. But with that line of thinking, so is the Scotland game, for it will be necessary to win to avoid finishing fifth – and that’s no time to be changing faces.

One can be certain that we will defend well, and that we will not lose – and one can only hope that the accuracy and delivery that the players feel is within grasp can be delivered and we win handsomely as opposed to falling over the line. Something like England’s performance vs Italy, and not the French one.

While Henshaw-Payne has been our first choice centre partnership, and is the defensive bedrock of the team, the enforced absence of Rob Kearney seemed like an opportunity to leave the centres as they were against England and select Payne at 15, the position in which he has performed best at Ulster. Stuart McCloskey had a promising debut with ball in hand, and one would have hoped the Italians would be easier meat than England – whatever about George Ford being roadkill, imagine a panting Kelly Haimona (sorry) when he runs out of gas after 10 minutes. Still, Henshaw-Payne is at least defensible.

On the other hand, Simon Zebo at full-back and McFadden on the bench are respectively confusing and mystifying. Zebo has clearly established himself as Schmidt’s second choice in the position at this point, but he has yet to show much aptitude for the position and has barely played there for Munster. He is a player that we should have on the team, but probably for a misfiring and slowing Andrew Trimble, not (effectively) for McCloskey. And Ferg has simply offered nothing this season, either for Leinster or in his extended cameo against France, to suggest he can contribute.

With Ian Madigan again selected on the bench, Paddy Jackson is unlikely to get a look-in this tournament, despite being virtually certain to be second-choice when Mad-dog decamps to Bordeaux this summer. Although at least we’ll get to see what Kieran Marmion can do.

To turn the oft-repeated mantra about the energy new kids bring on its head, we can only hope the return of familiar faces doesn’t portend a return to the tired and supine performance we saw in Paris. But thankfully this is Italy, and we will win – but it feels like an opportunity missed.

Ireland: Zeebs; Trimble, Payne, Henshaw, Earls; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Besty, Ross; Ryan, Toner; Stander, van der Flier, Heaslip. Subs: Strauss, Healy, White, Dillane, Ruddock, Marmion, Madigan, McFadden

The Brink of Disaster

Ireland’s Six Nations campaign has been described this week as “teetering on the brink of utter failure” (Cummiskey) and that we “need victories against Italy and Scotland to avoid a disastrous campaign” (Dorce). The second point is moot, since any year we lose to Italy it is disastrous anyway, but is the first true?

While missing Ross, Healy, Henderson, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Fitzgerald and Bowe, we drew at home to Wales, a team who we fancied to win the Six Nations, and the only Northern Hemisphere team have a successful RWC. The defeat to France was an awful spectacle and put our inability to score in lights. But then we went to Twickenham, and played quite well – we had three debutants (two starting), all of whom made big impressions – and with a little bit more composure in their 22 it could easily have been closer.

Stu McCloskey was dangerous with ball in hand, van der Flier started quietly, but grew into the game, finished strongly and should really have had a try had Ultan Dillane fixed Anger’s Mike Brown. Dillane himself was like Iain Henderson off the bench, an utter wrecking ball with huge carrying impact  – the English clearly hadn’t seen much of Connacht and were unaware that Irish forwards can occasionally run into space. Three successful debutants and, in reality, only only match point less than we expected at this point in the Championship. The defeat against France was grim, but potentially we could learn some lessons from it. Like the need to expand our attack maybe.

So, utter failure? Well, if we lose to Italy, it sure is, but that’s the case every year. It feels to us that, like a manic depressive, we have swung wildly across the spectrum of “we are going to win the World Cup” in September to “we have to make sure we beat Italy or it’s an UTTER FAILURE” in March. We are talking ourselves into a corner painting Italy as this must-win game – I mean it clearly must be won, but there is no doubt that it will be won. We could rest Ross (the Italy scrum got mullered against Scotland), Ryan (Dillane is hardly much of a step down anyway), Heaslip (Stander to 8 and Ruddock at 6), Sexton (Jackson in) and Payne (on the bench in case of emergencies) and probably still win easily. On the official Irish Rugby YouTube channel, Heaslip tried manfully to talk up Italy, but really didn’t do well, eventually stuttering to allow that it was a “pretty dark changing room” after the 2013 defeat.

In the event, it looks like we are going to revert to Plan A – stout defence and kick-ball – fit-again Jared Payne is likely to come back in at centre, with Henshaw going back to inside centre and Simon Zebo starting his second Six Nations game at full-back. Is this really the correct approach? Sure, McCloskey got panned by Schmidt for his offload in the third quarter, and is undoubtedly raw, particularly in his positioning, but it’s hard to argue he wasn’t effective – without a huge amount of sympathy from some of his teammates (the hospital pass from Kearney for example). We also have to ask about how we are going to score tries – against England we looked at our most effective in the third quarter when McCloskey and Earls were the focal points of our attack, hunting for space and creating go-forward ball – surely it’s worth another look? And we haven’t even got into the Payne-to-15 argument, but apparently, even with Rob Kearney most likely injured it is Simon Zebo and not Jared Payne that is being pencilled in for the 15 shirt.

Zebo’s return to the XV is welcome, because he brings pace that we are in dire need of in the backline, but a better backline might have had Zebo on the wing in place of Andrew Trimble, who has been ineffective in his first three matches, allowing for Payne at 15 and The Big Fella at 12. Admittedly, one of Italy’s few strengths is the Garcia-Campagnaro centre partnership, but if we were happy with McCloskey-Henshaw facing Farrell-Joseph, do we really think they can’t handle the Italians? Italy are a team that you can whack and bag early on, particularly at home – it doesn’t feel like a huge risk to keep the centres and try Payne at full back. One way or another Ireland will win if they play to anything like their potential.