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.

The Other Guy Must Have Died Or Something

Twickenham is no place to throw in a young lad. Or maybe it is – Joe Schmidt has picked two debutants in the XV to face England on the Cabbage Patch on Saturday. Choo Choo Stu McCloskey has been met with benign eyelid flutters as the entire country says “I told you so”, while Josh van der Flier has been met with #OUTRAGE by around a quarter of the country for taking the shirt rightfully belonging to Tommy O’Donnell. And Ultan Dillane will join the fray with 25 minutes to go, giving us three debutants against a serious rugby country. Conservatism eh?

While McCloskey is clearly the form inside centre in Ireland (if not Europe), it has taken the injury to Jared Payne for him to get into the team, and Dillane is of course simply the next best fit second row; but van der Flier has leapfrogged both the TOD and Rhys Ruddock to wear the 7 shirt – and that’s certainly the biggest surprise of the selection. Gerry dropped a hint last week that VDF had jumped above the TOD, but we thought the be-leathered one had one too many tequilas the night before.  O’Donnell can count himself unlucky – 20 tackles against France shouldn’t be overlooked – but it’s hard not to be excited about van der Flier’s potential.

The best thing about the picks are that it gives some sense of Ireland trying something to actually win the game. Groundhog VDF will be in direct opposition to the chiselled cheekbones, perfect teeth and rippling muscles of Tim Nice-but-Dim, and students of rugby will recall how Pocock, Hooper and Warbs utterly destroyed England at the breakdown in the RWC. Now VDF is nowhere near the league of those gents at this point, but it’s a selection to target a weakness. Equally picking McCloskey at 12 offers a way to put Owen Farrell, England’s second five-eighth and playmaker, on the back foot and rattled, preventing him focusing on his real job – getting Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph into space.

At the very least it’s a selection that will give England new problems to think about, and some that perhaps they weren’t expecting.  And commentators such as Quinlan and Horgan are never done reminding us that the arrival of a couple of young upstarts in the starting team can create a buzz about the place.  It also should help to debunk a couple of myths about Joe Schmidt.  Derided in some quarters as an overly conservative strategist and selector, it’s something that doesn’t necessarily chime with a broader view of his career.  The Clermont team he coached and particularly the Leinster side he led to consecutive Heineken Cups were frequently thrilling to watch.  In Schmidt’s second season, his Leinster side also eschewed the much fabled offload, but such was the accuracy of their gainline-passing game they didn’t need to do it.  The current Irish game-plan, long on kick-chase was largely forged in the successful November series in 2014, when Ireland were shorn of ball-carriers through injury and as a result their best means of gaining metres was through reclaiming kicks.  It worked superbly, and its success was carried into the last Six Nations, but has perhaps grown stale in the last couple of series, and the time is nigh for some evolution.

We’re ravaged by injuries, and the English bench looks tough, but Healy and Ruddock are no slouches. We’re getting a bit optimistic. We should know better really.

Ireland team: Bob; Trimble, Henshaw, McCloskey, Earls; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Besty, Ross; Ryan, Toner; Passion, van der Flier, Heaslip.

Replacements: Strauss, DJ Church, White, Dillane, Ruddock, Reddan, Madigan, Zeebs

 

No Place for Young Men

Well, hello everyone. We were sentenced to three weeks solitary confinement on Twitter by The Man for under-use of the phrase “you never know which France will turn up”. In the event, and as expected, we did know, but Ireland lacked the accuracy and gumption to beat them. Every ruck was like a war zone, Ireland were stuck narrow and when they did get wide, there was a paucity of ideas and accuracy.

It’s been a tough start to the series – the scrum has been poor, the lineout average, and the breakdown a lottery. Ireland’s successive championships have been based on strong defence and swift and accurate counter-rucking without over-committing, with the regular supply of fast ball has enabled Schmidt’s men to dictate the terms of engagement. The defence is still excellent, but Ireland have lost the ability to score points, with only three coming in 80 second half minutes.

Under Schmidt, Ireland have frequently been very strong after half-time, scoring tries in the first 10 minutes of the second half against England, France, South Africa (2014) and England, France (RWC), Argentina (2015). That strength hasn’t been present in this tournament, and the bench hasn’t been able to turn the loss in momentum. Without a doubt, injuries have hit us badly – Healy, Ross, Henderson, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Sexton, Payne, Dishy Dave, Earls, Fitzgerald and Zebo have all missed time at some point – that’s the guts of a team. And of course Some Ginger Bloke From Limerick has retired.

We’re not really sure that the much-discussed tactics aren’t working any more as much as Ireland can’t execute. The team feels tired, perhaps in need of new strings, but probably not a complete re-cast.

Now Ross is back, he simply has to come into the team and steady the scrum – and we should really think about giving Furlong some game time at some point. For the home games? Perhaps facing Mako Vunipola for 25 minutes isn’t the right time – or perhaps it is. When we hear ROG say “Twickenham is no place to throw a guy in”, we instinctively get a little suspicious – both Furlong and White are professional rugby players who live for occasions like this, the real question should be: do we think White or Furlong is better equipped to handle Vunipola? If it’s a tie, pick Furlong, he’s younger and will be around for the next number of years. Just like BOD’s Twitter, the messenger shouldn’t be equated with the message.

In the row, it’s simply hands over the eyes and hoping for the best – Ryan hasn’t been playing at all well enough to inspire anything like confidence, but perhaps Ultan Dillane will do well. With England dispensing with the Awesome Power of Courtney Lawes for the much more frightening Awesome Power of Maro Itoje, this is a huge test. The backrow haven’t really gelled yet this tournament, despite the emergence of the passionate one – indeed Stander has emerged as our primary ball carrier, and we’ve been a little over-reliant on him to say the least. There is an element of “give it to the big guy”, Stander is actually effective at carrying but since everyone else just falls over at the first contact, it’s pretty predictable. He made plenty of metres against Wales, but the French got to him and he averaged a second-row-esque 70cm per carry.  And of course when Stander, or anyone else, gets tackled, we haven’t been able to clear out rucks effectively. Perhaps it’s time to pick wingers for their rucking? While we’re on the topic, the selection of McFadden for Paris was predictably ineffective – he missed tackles, passed poorly and the game passed him by. We have legitimate concerns about Craig Gilroy’s tackling and positioning, but it’s no worse than Ferg’s right now – and he know where the try line is. Schmidt bottled that selection, and it hopefully doesn’t happen again. In any case, with Zebo and Earls back in contention for the weekend, McFadden can be safely dispatched to Leinster.

We disgress. A backrow of Stander, O’Donnell and Heaslip should be able to cope with England’s battery of 6.5’s – plenty of #unseenwork in there, and having Rhys Ruddock (still only 25!) to come off the bench feels good to us. The huge hole at second row (Lawes would likely be our number one lock, but can’t make the England 23) means we are unlikely to win the forward battle, but we shouldn’t get completely mauled either. The game feels to us like one of those ones that will be close on the scoreboard, but the result never really in doubt, 16-9 or something, like a (slightly) higher-class version of the Calcutta Cup.

The game might be more notable for it being Choo Choo Stu’s big chance – Jared Payne has been defensively excellent for Ireland, a real lynchpin, but he looks unlikely to make it. The obvious move would be to put Henshaw out one and bring in the big McCloskey. Ironically, bringing in what looks like a classic crash ball merchants is likely to add a new dimension to Ireland’s attack. McCloskey instinctively looks for space and is an intelligent heads-up footballer. We don’t think we’ll lose as much defensively stepping down from Payne to Henshaw as some people think either. Still, probably not the winning/losing of the game.

Once we get Twickenham out of the way, we’d like to see the likes of van der Flier or Ringrose given a look – while they look physically not 100% ready for the likes of England away, are we really saying we don’t think they could cope with Scotland or Italy at home? Equally, it feels like the time to give Paddy Jackson a start. Jackson’s Irish career has never really got going, with an extremely tough baptism in the fag end of the Deccie era – if Sexton thought it tough taking over from ROG and feeling the semi-public opprobrium that came with it, imagine how it was for a 21 year old Jackson with less than a year as Ulster starter – followed by a loss of form in 2014/15 that led to him losing out of both Keatley and Madigan that series. But with Maddog on his way to France, and Sexton seemingly in a state of perma-recovery from a knock, it seems likely he’ll be Ireland’s starting outhalf at some point in the future. Again, Scotland and Italy at home – what’s the real risk to giving him a pick? Now that the chance of a three-peat is virtually gone, and without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, let’s try and expand our options

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 573 other followers