Super Rugby … showtime

After a ludicrously-conference-based season (4 bonus points for having a week off?) with an NFL style random fixture computer, SANZAR got what they wanted: 2 teams from each country in the play-offs, and the best 6 teams in the competition. The haplessness of the Lions wasn’t their fault, the expansion Rebels were always fun, and the what-will-we-do-with-Argentina question was punted into touch for another few years.

And now it’s even better – the teams which made up the top 4 since Easter are in the semi-finals. All Northern Hemisphere fans should look forward to this – the skill levels and intensity won’t be matched in many games this season.

Egg Chasers young brother (Óg Chaser?) went to Rebels-Reds in Melbourne a few weeks back, and he said the most notable thing about the match was no-one, including Quade Cooper, knew what Quade Cooper was going to do next. Except the Reds outside backs. That kind of unpredictablility is very hard to maintain a defensive line against for 80 minutes, and offers the Reds (and the Wallabies) huge attacking possibilities.

The Blues only lost by 6 when they came to Suncorp at the beginning of May, 2 games into a 4 game losing streak, which they arrested with 2 scratchy wins, including against the injury-stricken Waratahs last weekend. They have been consistently inconsistent this year, and we would be pretty surprised if they held out a Reds side that has the look of a team on a mission.

In the other semi-final, there is another team on a mission. The Crusaders have not played at home at all this season due to the Christchurch earthquake, and apparently the longest time they have spent in one place since February is 8 days. And yet they keep on winning. Richie McCaw and Dan Carter will start, and rumour has it the South African officials will let Carter be tackled. The Stormers won the South African conference on the back of a mean defence, but never quite convinced in attack – they were out-scored by all the other South African teams, except the Lions.

One of the side-stories around this game (at least up here) is the presence of Saracens’ hooker Schalk Brits on the Stormers bench. Brits is great fun, but you have to ask why the only fallback they have in the probablity/event of McCaw and Kieran Read making hay at the breakdown is a hooker just off the plane? We fancied the Stormers before the play-offs began, but are edging towards the Crusaders now…

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What the hell is going on at… Stade Francais

Phew. It all got a little too desperate for comfort at Stade Francais.  Just off the back of a miserable season (11th in the Top 14 and controversially denied an Amlin Cup at the death), they were saved from bankruptcy and spared relegation by the last minute intervention of appropriately named technology firm director Thomas Savere.  Under French league rules, clubs have to balance the books or face relegation – so Stade had to find €6.6m from somewhere or face deomtion to the third tier of French rugby.  They appeared to have the cash ‘dans le sac’ previously but a deal with a shady-sounding Canadian investment firm fell apart amid accusations of fraud, with Stade now suing the company, and three people arrested so far.
As to whether Savare will continue in the extravagant style of former President Max Guazzini’s remains to be seen.  Guazzini’s marketing hasn’t been to everyone’s taste: outrageous strips, pink goalposts, Gloria Gaynor songs and homoerotic calendars are at odds with the Anglo-Irish ideology of rugby (basically large men kicking lumps out of each other and hoofing the ball back and forth), but Whiff of Cordite has always saluted the glitzy approach.  After all, if you come from Paris, home to the two bottle lunch and one of the style, art and romance capitals of the world, and your rivals were from provincial backwaters down south, why not play the glamour card?  And why not get Sergio Parisse and co. to strip off for a calendar and get the gay community behind the team?  The theme of ‘Paris against the provinces’ has followed Stade around since their first final meeting with Bordeaux’s Stade Bordelais in 1899.
Besides, it’s not as if they didn’t get results.  Guazzini ressurected Stade after 50 years floating around the lower divisions, establishing them as the most succesful team in France this century.  Since 2000 they have won the coveted Bouclier four times (once more than Toulouse), most recently in 2007 playing a high octane brand of rugby built around stellar half backs Agostin Pichot and Juan Martin Hernandez.  Christophe Dominici, Fabien Galthie and Diego Dominguez are among the greats to have recently donned the pink, while Parisse (now captain) and Rodrigo Roncero are still on the books.  But the current squad looks a pale shadow of former championship-winning sides.  And with the swanky two-kisses-only denizens of Paris at best ambivalent about rugger, the newly-minted success of old school Racing Metro means they are no longer the only club in the city with lofty ambitions.
What Michael Cheika makes of it all is anyone’s guess.  But he has his own problems and faces a disciplinary hearing on 19 July for comments made after the Amlin fiasco.  If he can re-establish Stade as a force to be reckoned with in France and Europe from this low ebb it will surpass even his achievements with Leinster.

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Summary

So, after an exhaustive 2 week process, we have whittled Ireland’s RWC hopefuls down to 2 sets of 30 – Deccie’s and ours. Somewhat suprisingly, given Deccie’s chronically odd selections, we have 26 names in common.

We have amended our thoughts silghtly at hooker after a vigourous debate below the line – Jerry should go if his is fully fit and firing, just like Fez and blog friend and favourite Rob Kearney.

The disgreements are as follows:

  1. Dan Tuohy-Donnacha Ryan. Given Dan has missed the cut for the initial 43 man squad, he must be out of the reckoning. Given this, its a choice between Ryan and Kevin McLaughlin (and Biiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey if life were funnier). Ryan is probably better suited to second row than Locky, so we tentatively agree with Deccie at this stage of the selection process.
  2. Denis Leamy-Shane Jennings. This is a straight choice between a classic openside and a brawling spoiler who can play 6 and 8. Jennings is coming back from injury but adds something extra to the loose forward division whereas Leamy can’t get past James Coughlan into the Munster team. This looks a no-brainer, but Deccie and Denis go back a long way. 
  3. Tomás O’Leary-Isaac Boss. Speaking of going back a long way, Deccie loves Tomás so much, he gave him his HEC debut at outside centre back in the day. As soon as O’Leary’s pass wasn’t absolutely abysmal, he displaced Strings as first-choice Munster scrummie. And when O’Leary’s pass is functioning, he is a pretty good player. Unfortunately for all, it isn’t right now. And he is injured. Boss has most of O’Leary’s qualities and is in form and should go. But we all know he won’t.
  4. Paddy Wallace-Fergus McFadden. Here we have another Deccie favourite against an in-form and upcoming rival. Wallace, as we have said before, takes a lot of heat, but is a quality distributing 12 and has the potential to add a different dimension to our centre play. But he is out of form and coming back from injury. McFadden has had a good season, albeit often not at centre, and just about deserves to go ahead of Paddy. Ooooooooooooooohh James Downey has had an even better season, but is off the radar, and probably doesn’t have the calibre anyway.

We welcome any additional thoughts, and full squads are below:

Deccie WoC
Prop Cian Healy Cian Healy
Prop Mike Ross Mike Ross
Prop Tom Court Tom Court
Prop John Hayes John Hayes
Hooker Rory Best Rory Best
Hooker Sean Cronin Sean Cronin
Hooker Jerry Flannery Jerry Flannery
Second Row Paul O’Connell Paul O’Connell
Second Row Donncha O’Callaghan Donncha O’Callaghan
Second Row Leo Cullen Leo Cullen
Second Row Donnacha Ryan Dan Tuohy
Back Row Stephen Ferris Stephen Ferris
Back Row David Wallace David Wallace
Back Row Jamie Heaslip Jamie Heaslip
Back Row Sean O’Brien Sean O’Brien
Back Row Denis Leamy Shane Jennings
Scrum Half Tomas O’Leary Isaac Boss
Scrum Half Eoin Reddan Eoin Reddan
Scrum Half Conor Murray Conor Murray
Fly Half Ronan O’Gara Ronan O’Gara
Fly Half Jonathan Sexton Jonathan Sexton
Centre Gordon D’Arcy Gordon D’Arcy
Centre Brian O’Driscoll Brian O’Driscoll
Centre Paddy Wallace Fergus McFadden
Outside Back Tommy Bowe Tommy Bowe
Outside Back Keith Earls Keith Earls
Outside Back Luke Fitzgerald Luke Fitzgerald
Outside Back Andrew Trimble Andrew Trimble
Outside Back Rob Kearney Rob Kearney
Outside Back Geordan Murphy Geordan Murphy

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Outside Backs

Phew, we are finally there. After naming 24 who we would bring and 24 who Deccie will (guess which category Denis Leamy fits into), we get to the last line – the piano players.

How many will go? Six we think – Ireland are well-stocked out wide, so there should be need to do an Eddie and bring a Brian Carney to hold tackle bags. There are going to be some quality players, and Gavin Duffy, left disappointed.

Who is certain to travel? Because of the competition in this sector, there are only two nailed-on certainties to go – Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls. Bowe is the classiest footballer in the squad, apart from Him, and all Ireland’s attacking invention appears to come through him (or Him) these days – he pops up everywhere in the line and his intelligent handling opens gaps for the rest of the backline. We heart him. Earls is another key component of the backline – his defence and open-field running are top class, and even Ludd McGahan seems to have worked out he isn’t a centre.

In addition to the above, Lukey Roysh and Andrew Trimble, B.Div. (2011) are around 95% sure of going. In Luke’s case, its scarcely deserved – his form this season has been poor, especially after the statements he was making in August about being the Leinster and Ireland 15. An easy case can be made that there are six players in better nick than he is – he’s a lucky boy that form is firmly below familiarity in Deccie’s list of priorities. Trimble has gone from strength to strength this year, and is finally becoming better known for his try-scoring than his God-bothering. After out-Bathing Bath last year, this season was less spectacular, but more consistent and ultimately fulfilling. He could be starting.

These four can start learning how to say “If you love Samoa so much, why don’t you play for them” in Maori, for sledging Mils Muliaina and Jerome Kaino in the final.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? Here’s where the fun starts. Even with the unfortunate Shane Horgan out of the equation, Deccie will have to pick two from Gavin Duffy, Felix Jones, Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden (if he doesn’t fit in at centre) and Geordan Murphy. And if Ian Dowling wasn’t forced to retire hurt, this list would contain no extra names.

Even though Bob can’t pass the ball, there is a place in the squad for a rock solid full back with a huge boot, especially with one eye on Italy and half an eye on the Boks in the quarter finals. Presumably he will get enough game time to prove his fitness in August, and if he can manage to jog from one end of Grafton Street to the other. he is on the plane.

Which leaves 1 from 4. Three full backs and a wing/centre. Of the full backs, Felix Jones in undoubtedly in the best form, but he has never played HEC or international rugby, and would represent a gamble. Gavin Duffy plays consistently at a lower level, but he has RWC experience (seriously!) and would represent Connacht’s only tourist if he made it, as Sean Cronin will be a Leinster man in September. Geordan Murphy is injured, but on form adds an extra counter-attacking dimension to the 15 shirt – he would be the horse for the Australia course if he was at 100%. Similar to Kearney, we expect Murphy to get good game time in August to get his fitness up, which doesn’t bode well for Jones and Duffy – its hard to see them getting a chance to make a case for their inclusion.

McFadden offers more versatility and is to some extent a known quantity. You will see him getting a wing shirt ahead of Fitzy or Trimble in August if he is in the mix in this position.

Any bolters? Felix Jones has been great since he came back, and is deservedly in the shake-up, albeit distinctly unfortunate with the stellar names ahead of him in the queue. In most other countries, Craig Gilroy would qualify as a bolter too, but we have too many options for that.

Should go (fitness permitting): Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney, Geordan Murphy, Andrew Trimble (note: we have selected McFadden at centre – if he is overlooked there, we would have him in ahead of Fitzgerald). Jones should be ahead of Duffy on the standby list.
Will go (fitness permitting): Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney, Geordan Murphy, Andrew Trimble

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Inside Backs

The penultimate post in the series looks at the fly-half and centres quandry.  Egg Chaser will wrap things up on Friday by looking at the back three.

How many will go? Two fly halves, three centres.

Who is certain to travel? It will come as little surprise to Ronan O’Gara, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy when Deccie informs them that they are going down under.  These four can purchase their copy of Ki Te Whaoiao’s An Introduction to Maori Culture and Society.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? Dedicated outside centre cover is thin on the ground.  If the unthinkable were to happen to Brian O’Driscoll and he should miss a game it is likely that one of the outside backs, probably Tommy Bowe or Keith Earls would step in to the breach.

One man who is likely to go as cover for Dorce and the two fly-halves is Paddy Wallace.  A couple of high profile mistakes and the images of his face being mashed in the 2009 Six Nations have made Paddy a bit of a punchbag among Irish rugby fans, but the truth is that he is a classy distributing centre, and one of the best passers of the ball in the country.

He was in Eddie’s 2003 and 2007 squads as a reserve out-half (the reserve in 2007), and his ability to cover 10 and 12 and offer an alternative ‘second five-eighth’ option at 12 gives Kidney another way of playing.  So far so good.  But the truth is that he is not even close to being an international 10.  If Sexy and ROG were both to get injured, Ireland may as well pack up and go home – the notion that Wallace should be brought to cover this remote eventuality is a nonsense.  Even more nonsensical is the idea that Wallace covers full-back.  A certain esteemed Irish Times journalist has repeatedly peddled this line, and it has been used to justify Paddy’s selection as half-time orange provider throughout the Six Nations, but it is hard to think of any attributes of a modern 15 that Wallace possesses.

So his value should be measured on his ability at 12.  And we like Wallace as a 12, but he has not had the best of seasons with Ulster or Ireland.  Menwhile, Fergus McFadden offers cover across the three-quarter line and is coming off the back of a superb season with Leinster, even if he is not yet a consistent starter in the big games.  Tigerish in contact, with enough gas to play on the wing, and the ability to place-kick, he should be taking his place on the plane in September.

A final option, and an increasingly fashionable one, is playing a big man at 12 to bosh up the middle.  After all, didn’t BOD mesh wonderfully with Jamie Roberts on the Lions tour?  The man to play this role for Ireland would be Ooooooooooooooohhh James Downey.  WoC was surprised to see Downey show reasonable hands for Northampton in the HEC semi-final, and felt we had perhaps underestimated him.  The feeling remains that he is probably not quite up to international level, though this is one option that would have been worth exploring before now.  Downey didn’t make the 43-man training squad this week, so the ship has probably sailed.

We think Deccie will plump for Wallace, with the fly-half cover working in his favour, but it is possible (particuarly in light of Shaggy’s injury) that Fergus could still make it as a utility back, more of which anon…

Any bolters? Nevin Spence had made a bolt with a string of impressive performances for Ulster, and is unfortunate to be ruled out through injury.  His time will come.

Should go: Ronan O’Gara, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Fergus McFadden
Will go: Ronan O’Gara, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Paddy Wallace

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Scrum Halves

Last week we looked at the forwards, and this week we turn our attention to the backs. As per previous posts, we think a 16-14 split is how Deccie is going to go, and we are breaking the forwards down into three scrum halves, five inside backs (fly halves and centres) and six outside backs.

How many will go? Three. We can’t see any deviation here. Ireland tend not to do Pienaar types who can play multiple positions, so we will bring three specialists.

Who is certain to travel? Unless he is struck by lightning, Ponderous Tomás is on the plane, and even if he was, Deccie might bring him anyway. WoC reckons Deccie saw David Pocock in action in November 2009, and pencilled TOL in for the Aus game two years  in advance. 18 months of hot stepping, ugly passing and injuries have not changed a thing – O’Leary is Deccie’s first choice 9.

Eoin Reddan also appears secure, despite being as inconsistent as ever. When Reddan is good, like in the second half of the HEC final, he is the best we have, but when he is bad, like against Toulouse, he is terrible. However despite having neither the best defence (O’Leary), best pass (Stringer, up to recently anyway), best break (Boss) or best kicking (Murray), he is the best composite player, and deserves to be first choice.

O’Leary and Reddan can start learning the words to the second verse of Ireland’s Call.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? A three-way fight here, between three imperfect candidates. Firstly, the Passer. Peter Stringer is now a veteran, and is beginning to play like one. His pass, when it is on song, still fizzes with dangerous possibility, but it is increasingly erratic and unreliable. Even McGahan doesn’t see Strings as a big game player any more. He is odds-against at this stage.

Next, the Future. Since the time Tony McGahan finally bowed to the clarion calls of the more thoughtful of the Munster faithful and gave Conor Murray his chance after the liginds had bowed out of the HEC, he has been a revelation. Wristy pass, physicality, good game management and great box-kicking. The kid appears to have it all. However, it must be acknowledged he hasn’t played any rugby close to test-level intensity i.e. the HEC or international level. It is a huge risk to take an essentially untested player to the World Cup.

Finally, the Mullet. Hugo “Isaac” Boss has been an effervescent presence at Leinster, with his solidity and experience gelling together Joe Schmidt’s “away” HEC team. However, as the season went on, opportunities seemed to dry up, and given that Deccie hasn’t given him game time this season (although he is named in the extended squad anounced on Friday), Boss is another more possible than probable.

Of the three above, Murray is possibly just about favourite to make the trip now. It’s becoming ever more difficult to make a case for Stringer, and Boss seems to be at the back of the queue. However, Boss should be seriously considered. Not just for his play this season, but also for his partnership with Reddan. At Leinster, the pair have the happy knack of improving the team when they interchange – they offer different threats and dovetail very effectively – they are an off-the-shelf scrum-half team ideal for tournament play.

Were it down to us we would definitely take Murray and Reddan, and have a look at how O’Leary and Boss pitch up in August.  If O’Leary can show something like his 2009 form, he would be on our plane, but it is a long time since he has looked the part – right now we would have Boss in poll position.

Any bolters? Murray, of course. The Munster fan sites have been touting him for a while, and he hasn’t disappointed from the moment he got the red 9 shirt. His Ireland underage colleague Paul Marshall has looked spritely this season, but is a little light – this is a year too soon for him.

Should go: Isaac Boss, Eoin Reddan, Conor Murray
Will go: Tomás O’Leary, Eoin Reddan, Conor Murray

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Back Row

Wednesday’s post on the second row generated quite a bit of comment, so today we turn our attention to the back row.  Typically a strength of Irish teams, 2011 will be no different.  Indeed, there will be plenty of fine backrows sitting at home this September – Roger Wilson, James Coughlan, Dominic Ryan and Rhys Ruddock are all a fair way off contending a spot.
How many will go? We see it as five dedicated backrows as well as the 4/6 option, as discussed here.
Who is certain to travel? Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and David Wallace can start thinking about what rain gear to pack – they are going.  If – and it is a big if – Stephen Ferris can pronounce himself fit, he is on the plane, and would put Ireland in the ridiculous position of having four world class back rows and only three starting places to put them in.
Who is scrapping out for the last spots? A fit Ferris would leave just one spot available.  And while the back row is home to Ireland’s greatest depth, it is utterly crucial Declan Kidney gets the decision of who to bring in the last slot correct.  Most indicators would point to Denis Leamy getting the nod.  He’s a hardened, experienced international and a Kidney favourite who made all the Six Nations matchday squads.  The other main contender, Shane Jennings, has never appeared to be held in high regard by the Irish coaching staff.  If Leamy goes and Jennings doesn’t, it will be a grievous error.  Shane Jennings must go to New Zealand, and here’s why:
  1. Form. Leamy has had a poor season, was a leading figure in Munster’s discipline problems, and found himself dropped to the bench for the ML playoffs.  By contrast, Jennings was consistently excellent for Leinster, never more so than in the second half in Cardiff.
  2. Backrow balance.  If Leamy travels, Ireland’s backrow options will consist of a Number 8, an atypical ball-carrying openside and four blindsides.  Ireland’s ambition of playing running rugby without a specialist groundhog to produce that all-important quick ruck ball is highly unusual – it’s a core principal that if you want to run the ball, somebody has to dedicate himself to winning it on the floor.  There has to be room for the option of playing an out and out 7 for certain games, or at least unleashing one from the bench, and Jennings is the man for the job. 
  3. Plan B. Jennings would offer Ireland a different way of playing – a Plan B if you like.  He would also be crucial to slowing down opposition ball. Leamy is simply a lesser version of Stephen Ferris.
  4. If we do bring four blindsides and no genuine openside, it would be spine-chillingly reminiscent of Eddie’s ill-fated 2007 squad.  He left Heaslip and Gleeson at home and brought a raft of 6’s.  Whiff of Cordite will break out in a cold sweat if we feel we are repeating the same mistakes all over again, and we’re already nervous about several ‘untouchables’ in the XV…

What if Ferris doesn’t make it?  Kidney will probably have Jennings on standby if Ferris doesn’t make it.  We would see Leamy as the best fit as a replacement for Ferris’ power, so he would be our standby.  So, were this the case, we would end up in the same place as Kidney, even if we got there by a different route.  We would feel a little for James Coughlan, though – he has outplayed Leamy in 2011, but the suspicion remains that it is too late in the day for him to make the step up to international standard.

Any bolters?  With options stacked, it’s been hard for bolters to jump the queue.  Rhys Ruddock is highly rated by the coaching ticket, but didn’t get enough game time at the tail end of the seson to make a charge.

Should go: Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace, Sean O’Brien, Stephen Ferris, Shane Jennings.  On standby: Denis Leamy
Will go: Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace, Sean O’Brien, Stephen Ferris, Denis Leamy.  On standby: Shane Jennings

Super Duper Rugby

This weekend is the last weekend of the Super Rugby season, and the last two play-off places are still to be decided, as is which team gets a bye to the semi-finals, along with the Reds.

Currently, the table looks like this:

1. Reds 62
2. Stormers 58
3. Crusaders 57
4. Blues 56
5. Bulls 53
6. Sharks 53

7. Waratahs 52

Six weeks ago, the top six looked set in stone, and it consisted of everyone above except the Bulls. However, like the vampire which keeps coming back to life, six wins on the trot, including two on the road against the Stormers and Sharks, have rocketed them right back into contention. This weekend, the Sharks fly up to Pretoria hoping that last week’s sloppy draw next door in Jo’burg was a blip. If the Bulls win as expected, the Waratahs can sneak into the top six with a win against the hapless Brumbies in Sydney. The Blues have stuttered badly in recent weeks, losing four on the spin, but would be expected to beat the Highlanders at home. We can’t see the Reds losing to the Chiefs, or the Stormers and Crusaders not winning away to the Cheetahs and home to the Hurricanes respectively.

Any win for the Stormers will ensure second place as they have more wins than the Crusaders (it’s wins before points difference for tie-breakers). Is the Reds do lose, the Stormers have a chance to top the table.
We reckon the playoffs could pan out something like this:
Round 1:
Bulls beat Blues
Crusaders beat Waratahs
Round 2:
Stormers beat Crusaders
Reds beat Bulls
Final:
Stormers beat Reds

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Second Row

This week and next, we’ll be looking at the likely runners and riders for Ireland’s World Cup 30, taking it unit-by-unit. On Monday we studied the front row, now we look at the second row.

How many will go? In 2003, Ireland took four and in 2007 three. We think three plus one back row/second row option is likely this time around.

Who is certain to travel? Ireland’s first choice second row partnership has been set in stone since 2004. Paul O’Connell is a key man and the pack leader – Ireland will need him at his best to progress beyond the quarter-finals. Beside him will be Donncha O’Callaghan. WoC is sick of seeing Donners perform impressively in good team performances and anonymously in bad ones – his leadership skills are non-existent for a man of his experience (Devin Toner calling the lineouts on his debut?) and as for his penalty count… With a string of nondescript performances preceding a few swashbuckling ones, he reminds us of the role Paul Collingwood played for the England cricket team in his latter days. We would love to have seen some variety in the 4 shirt recently, but twas not to be. These 2 are already past security at Dublin Airport.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? Firstly, lets discuss the owner of the number 18 shirt. The contenders here are Leo Cullen and Mick O’Driscoll. In November, Micko was probably a nose in front, and deservedly so – he added real get-around-the-park dynamism to his game in the first half of last season. But after Christmas, when Paulie came back, Micko fell out of favour and lost momentum. At the same time, Leo Cullen improved on a rather scrappy and lumbering first half of season, and personified solidity and, rather surprisingly, showed no little skill in a storming last month of the season.

Deccie has also had a look at Devin Toner and Biiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey (Go Irish!), but neither has any chance of making the squad, due to being tall-but-not-very-good and an immobile Premiership lump respectively. Cullen is 90% certain to take his place on the bench and play 8 seconds against Italy.

The second row cum back row slot is a straight fight between Donnacha Ryan and Kevin McLaughlin. In Ryan’s favour is the fact he has played second row before for Ireland and that he is more of a 4 than a 6 – McLaughlin is definitely more of a 6. For Locky, its that he has played in bigger and higher intensity games this season than anything Ireland are likely to face in this World Cup, unless they come across NZ. Locky is being pencilled in by some as the future for Leinster and Ireland at lock, more due to a lack of options than anything else, but we think Deccie will go with Ryan’s experience and greater suitability for the position.

However, WoC has a better idea. What about bringing an in-form lock forward who offers something different to all the names previously mentioned. Someone who can bring Richie Gray / Sam Whitelock-esque ball-playing skills to the party. Dan Tuohy has been far more effective than Ryan this season, and has excelled playing alongside Johann Muller, which is very similar to playing with Paulie or Leo. Second row could soon be a bit of a problem position for Ireland, and we see little to lose by bringing a man who has done it in the HEC this season, and who could be an Ireland regular very soon.

Any bolters? McLaughlin is probably the most obvious one – in January the idea of him even being in contention at second row was rather fantastical. Tuohy has picked up injuries at unfortunate times.

Should go: Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Leo Cullen, Dan Tuohy
Will go: Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Leo Cullen, Donnacha Ryan

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Front Row

Over the next fortnight we’ll be looking at the likely runners and riders for Ireland’s World Cup 30, taking it unit-by-unit.  Starting with the front row…

How many will go? While some teams will take five props, we can see Ireland taking only four, as was the case in 2007.  Put simply, we just don’t have that many good ones to justify a fifth.  We are expecting a 16-14 split of forwards and backs accordingly, though we cannot rule out 17-13 with five props.  Three hookers will certainly travel.

Who is certain to travel? Ireland’s Six Nations front row of Cian Healy, Rory Best and Mike Ross are all on the plane.  Ambipropsterous Tom Court and Leinster-bound hooker Sean Cronin can also consider themselves as good as selected.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots?  At hooker, it’s a question of fitness of one Jerry Flannery.  The great Limerick man is Ireland’s best thrower, but he has endured a torrid time and hasn’t really played any rugby of note for two seasons, so even if passed fit would represent a huge gamble, and the risk of him breaking down again would surely be high.  If he doesn’t make it, there seems little doubt that Damian Varley will go in his place.  Varley is a doughty competitor but his throwing has been so poor of late, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Kidney gambled on Jirry if he can establish his fitness in the August warm-up games.  We expect him to be named in the initial panel, but it’s likely that Varley will end up replacing him in New Zealand. 

The fourth prop slot looks a straight shootout between the feckless Buckley and the long past-it Hayes.  The Bruff man was more Dairy Cow than Bull this season, but rolled back the years for a last hurrah in the Magners League playoffs, and looks to have done just enough to hold off Buckle, whose season promised so much and delivered so little.  Given Court’s ability to play both sides, the fourth prop could conceivably be a loosie, in which case the somewhat rejuvenated Marcus Horan would probably get the nod, though his antics in the ML final are unlikely to have impressed.

So, we think Hayes is on the plane, which really serves to underline just how important Mike Ross is to the team – if he is injured, Ireland’s challenge withers.  If Deccie does decide he needs a fifth prop, we would expect a loosehead, Marcus Horan, would be the man to join the party, but we are not expecting it to happen.

Any bolters? Mike Sherry finished the season impressively, but the World Cup has come too early for him.

Should go: Mike Ross, Cian Healy, Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Tom Court, John Hayes, Damian Varley

Will go: Mike Ross, Cian Healy, Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Tom Court, John Hayes, Jerry Flannery (fitness permitting)