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

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  1. The probable selection of Denis Leamy shows what the limitations of Kidney as coach. He is being too loyal to a trusted servant when all logic shows he should not be near 22 let alone the final 30. Jennings must travel, he is the only dedicated 7 Ireland have and his cameo in the Heino Cup final showed us how effective he can be coming off the bench.Re Stephen Ferris' injury progress: On twitter the big man seems very confident he'll be fit and firing. I think he is one of Ireland very truely World Class players. When he is fit is there a better all round 6 in world rugby? How would WoC accomodate a fit Ferris in their 22? I must, however, disagree on Leamy being the man to replace Ferris. Leamy has been in poor form since 2009, gives away too many penalties and hasnt been first choice for an uninspiring Munster backrow since the 6 nations. For me it would be a choice between Rhys Ruddock and Kevin McLaughlin to replace Fez if he doesnt make it. Personally (I will admit I do have a man crush on him!) I would go for Rhys Ruddock. Although he didnt see much game time in the last 2 months of the season I think he is the one player who can match Ferris raw power and aggression. He is also a very handy lineout option and a very mature player on the field (This season he was Leinsters youngest every captain!).

  2. Hi JSRFYou make some very good points. We’re working on the assumption that one of Ryan or Locky will be there as a 4/6 option, though it is entirely possible that both would travel in the event of a Ferris injury. You’re right, Locky would be a better replacement for Ferris if he wasn’t already selected. Rhys Ruddock is going to be some player, and his performance away to Racing Metro showed what he could do, but he just didn’t get enough gametime to make a bolt. He didn’t make the 43-man squad this afternoon, so I think it’s curtains for his chances unless a couple of further injuries change the picture.As for Ferris, this issue is one of the few unresolved within WoC – there is fierce internal debate over the 6 shirt, and with both protagonists hopelessly biased, we can only agree that BOTH are un-leave-out-able (fitness permitting). Which is a problem, since Jamie won't be dropped to move SOB backwards. If both Fez and SOB are in tip-top form, we suspect Wally might drop to the bench and SOB move across the scrum. This is unfortunate, since SOB is somewhat wasted at 7, but it’s probably the most efficient way to accommodate all three. Plus Wally would be a great man to bring off the bench (in truth they all would!).There is also the horses for courses argument – which carries water given they are different players! But we can’t shake the feeling that you’d be letting the opposition off the hook if they only had to face one or the other. Let’s see how Fez turns up, and then it’ll certainly merit a post of its own after we see them in action in August.It’s a nice problem to have, but a very important one to solve. What would you do?

  3. I'm in agreement with everything on this section… except! – on the 'will go' selection, I don't think even Kidney would take Leamy ahead of Jennings, would he? ;)If I had to allow Kidney one terrible selection in his panel based on his own loyalties to players etc then I would prefer to see Leamy go than Paddy Wallace, that's all I'll say! Horgan missing now though does open up an extra spot in the backline, I would have already had McFadden going along with Horgan so for Horgan's absence I think I'd be looking at putting (if fit) Geordan Murphy or Felix Jones in instead. The Horgan news is very depressing, would have been a great guy to have in the squad apart from what he would bring to the pitch.

  4. Hi there Czarak. I wish I was as optimistic! But we’re resigned to disappointment on this one. Leamy is a real Kidney favourite, and I just don’t think he really rates Jenno. If you look at the Six Nations, Jennings was in brilliant form for Leinster coming into it, and Leamy was coming off the back of the Toulon fiasco, but got the start against Italy. When Heaslip returned, he was retained on the bench, even though he didn’t offer anything particularly different to the three starting backrows. If I was a betting man I’d have Leamy on the plane. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings!As for Shaggy, it's pretty gutting news alright, and I think he would have been a great reserve to have. I think this probably opens the door for McFadden a bit, but I'll say no more because we'll have whole post on the outside backs this day next week…

  5. WoCI would actually change the combinations of the back row for the two big group games. I have a feeling Kidney will not do anything remotely near what I would do but (as always assuming full fitness):vs Australia:I would go 6-Fez 7-SOB 8-HeaslipIn my opinion Ferris is, as I have said before, truly world class. When he is fit he starts. SOB has had a brilliant first international season but I still think that Ferris as an international 6 is ahead of SOB. vs Italy:6:Ferris 7: Jennings 8: HeaslipWe need a genuine groundhog in this game to ensure we get quick ball. Kidney should not adapt the approach he took in the 6 nations as it played into Italy’s hands. Jennings would ensure we get quick ball and if we play with pace and intensity we should put them away fairly comfortably. SOB should come on the 30 minutes to go to cause havoc with his strong running line.

  6. Thanks Czarak, interesting selections. I must say I would find it very hard to omit Wallace from the starting line up for both the big group games. One thing is for sure: whatever five go will all have to share the workload. If Ireland are going to make a semi final, it will be four games against top line opposition and another two against lesser sides, so Kidney will have to use his resources wisely, and having a hard and fast pecking order is not going to cut it.

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