Ludd McGahan Leaves A Mixed Legacy

Ludd McGahan’s departure from Munster won’t see too many tears shed among the Munster faithful.  He has never fully won over the fans in his time there, and for most it will be a case of ‘bring on the new era’.  His defenders will thank him for a good job, but won’t mind too much that he’s going deehn andah.

The truth of the matter is that McGahan’s task was a thankless, maybe even impossible one.  He took over Munster at a time when they were the dominant team in Europe, but had grown old together.  By his second season in charge, most of the core of his team were over the top of a pretty steep hill.  The only way was down.  Plus, he was taking over from Local Hero and Man of the People Declan Kidney.
To make matters worse, the previous management (of which he was a part, it must be said) had done little to manage succession.  Declan Kidney was hugely successful for Munster, but, as a coach, rarely looks too far beyond the next game.  As this superb dissection showed, during his time there, the academy produced next to no players of any quality.
Starter’s orders
The first few months of McGahan’s tenure went pretty swimmingly, though it’s hard to know how much to attribute to him, and how much was the continued good habits of a self-managing squad.  His first Heineken Cup game flirted with disaster, as Munster came within a whisker of losing at home to Montauban’s seconds, but they quickly got their act together, navigating the double header with Clermont Auvergne and dispatching Sale home and away.  They also nearly beat the All Blacks on a famous night in Thomond Park.  By now the Munster machine was purring.  They put together a stirring run of form in both competitions.  Even in the absence of their frontline players – traditionally a time for Munster to fold like a cheap suit – the likes of Mick O’Driscoll and Niall Ronan kept the show on the road.  The 22-5 beating of Leinster and the 43-9 crushing of the Ospreys in the quarter-final were arguably the very peak of their powers.  The Lions selection reflected their machine-like brilliance, and retaining the H-Cup appeared a formality.
Rise of the Blue Meanies Part I

Then something strange happened.  A thoroughly unfancied Leinster, fed on scraps of their horrendous press and the meeja’s Munster love-in, beat them 25-6 in the semi-final.  It was a game which effected a profound change on Irish rugby, and it took Tony McGahan and Munster a long time to recover. 

Over the next 21 months the rot set in.  The following year saw Munster win 9 out of 18 games in the Magners League, somehow squeezing into the newly minted semi-finals, where they were beaten by – not you again – Leinster in a game they never really threatened to win.  It was their third defeat of the season to their rivals – the first was a humiliating 30-0 thumping at a white-hot RDS, and the second a rare loss on their own Limerick patch.   In the Heineken Cup, Munster huffed and puffed, but made it to a semi-final, but  succumbed to a pretty ordinary Biarritz.  Sheer muscle was all Biarritz had, and Munster had nothing to stop it.
Goodbye Generation Ligind
Worse trouble was brewing: Generation Ligind were coming to the end of the road.  Marcus Horan and Denis Leamy’s powers were vastly reduced, John Hayes could give no more, Alan Quinlan was finished as a starter and Jirry Flannery was about to be ruined by injury.  Paul O’Connell was injured and Donncha O’Callaghan was never all that great in the first place.  Almost nothing had been done to ensure the next generation of would-be liginds was in place.
The chickens came home to roost in a disastrous campaign in 2010-2011.  Munster (and Ireland, crucially, for it tied Munster’s hand)  pinned their hopes on Tony Buckley to take over from John Hayes as the country’s premier only tighthead.  Buckley had come off the back of a successful summer tour, where he was one of few players to emerge with credit following an outstanding display of hard carrying and soft hands in New Plymouth.  But there was one problem: he couldn’t scrummage.  Munster lost carelessly to a poor London Irish side and, critically, to Ospreys, with Adam Jones winning the man of the match award without touching the football.  Faced with needing to win in Toulon, Munster went in to meltdown, turning in a shambolic performance and taking a thorough pounding.
Redemption!  Well, sort of
It looked grim for McGahan, and defeat at home to a young Harlequins side in the Amlin Cup was a nadir, but McGahan finally did what he should have done a long time ago and began to dispose of Generation Ligind.  In came some bright new things: Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony, Simon Zebo and Donncha Ryan.  The Magners League was secured in style, beating newly crowned European kingpins Leinster. In this season’s Heineken Cup, Munster are set fair with a home quarter final and potential home semi-final.  Their maul and lineout are back to something like they used to be, and the scrum rejuvenated by some prime Saffa beef.  But you can’t help but feel McGahan is something of a punch-bag.  When things were going badly, he took the blame; now they’ve picked up, new forwards coach and all round ligind Axel Foley gets the credit.
The natives still aren’t happy though.  Despite winning six from six in the group stages, there’s a feeling that Munster haven’t played terribly well.  They no longer dominate opponents, and tend to eke out wins.  Increasingly, the twin totems of Radge and POC drag the team kicking and screaming to victory.  But, hey – it was ever thus.  Remember Munster’s peak in 2008 & 2009?  It wasn’t all barnstorming victories.  Those with short memories might have forgotten fortunate wins at home to Clermont and Montauban in 2009, and a decidedly shaky semi-final against an unheralded Saracens side in 2008.
Rise of the Blue Meanies Part II
We think it’s fair to conclude that while McGahan hasn’t brought the house down, he has done a decent job in difficult circumstances.  The ire with which he’s regarded in some parts of Munster perhaps has more to do with what’s happening in the blue corner than his own.  Munster fans probably wouldn’t mind a spell of being a bit rubbish, if it didn’t coincide so totally with Leinster’r rise, both on and off the pitch.  When McGahan took over Munster, Leinster were seen as a bit of a joke.  If you’d told fans of either province how the next three seasons would pan out back in 2008, nobody would have believed you.
Back to the Future
We’ll be taking a detailed look at what the Munster job entails later this week.  For whoever comes in to the role, by far the biggest task will be replacing Radge, for two reasons.  First, they have to find someone capable of being as good as him, and there aren’t too many 10s out there that are his equal.  Secondly, at some point they have to phase him out (succession and all that).  As Deccie has found with Ireland, this is harder than it looks.  He has managed part one, but part two is harder.  Any time you lose with Radge on the bench, you can bet his legion of admirers will castigate you for it.  Radge himself is not likely to hand over the shirt too readily, and isn’t shy of doing his bidding in publicIf Munster can manage that most onerous of tasks (they may need to look overseas), they look to just about have enough talent coming through elsewhere to keep them competitive for the medium term.

The Cup, the Plate and the Bowl

A non-vintage Six Nations campaign is heading for a straightforward blitz-tournmanent style finale.  In the last week, Wales and France will meet to decide the championship winners (The Cup).  England and Ireland will play for the Plate, or third place, and Italy and Scotland will tough it out for the Bowl (or to avoid the wooden spoon).

The Cup

Some of the mythology around the enormous Welsh backline was exposed this weekend.  Mike Phillips got overly involved in a fight with the English backrow, and Wales never looked like getting around England, so they just kept trying to go through them.  Getting into a boshfest with the Kings of Bosh is a risky game, and Wales were in a tight spot for much of the afternoon.  In the end they had just enough class to win out, with one of their smaller backs, reserve centre Scott Williams (weighing in at a puny 97kgs) coming up with a dash of brilliance to win it.  The Triple Crown is in the bag, and they are in a good position to deliver the slam, with France coming to Cardiff.

Here in Ireland we love nothing more than fawning over the French.  We’re spellbound by their pristine blue shirts, intimidated by their scrummaging power, awestruck by their handling skills, and swooning over Morgan Parra’s classic good looks.  But for all their Gallic genius, they rarely play all that well.  Truth is, they’re masters of just doing enough (unless they are playing New Zealand).  Not much has really changed under the new coach.  Sure, the selection is consistent, but the mentality is harder to shift.  France sleepwalked through the first 25 minutes here, and while their two tries were brilliant, there was no sustained greatness.  Trouble is, they are usually good for one outstanding performance a series.  One of Ireland, England or Wales will get it.

The Plate

England: played three, two tries, both chargedowns.  They’ve Strettle, Ashton and Foden in the back three, but they can’t service them with three midfielders with the distribution skills of combine harvesters.  Brad Barritt fought gamely again, and he’s not a bad player, but the lines of attack are too predictable.  For all that they probably scored a good try at the death, and after last week’s bottling exploits for his club, we’d all have loved to see the theatre of the last-kick wide conversion from Toby Flood to save a draw.  Two players who won’t enjoy looking at the tape this morning are Courtney Lawes, whose upright carrying style led directly to the Welsh try, and Mike Brown, who failed to fix his man with the non-try scoring pass to Strettle, and gave him an awful lot to do, when a stroll in was possible.

Declan Kidney is starting to get the hang of this newfangled ‘bench’ thing that other people keep banging on about it.  We’d heard of it ourselves, but weren’t quite sure what it was.  Turns out you can replace players during the game, sometimes even improving the side by bringing off a guy who’s tiring or not playing great and putting another player in his position.  Who knew?  All the talk this week will be that Ryan and Reddan should be starting in Paris (they won’t).  Both players are getting a raw deal.  Ryan is clearly the superior player at 4 to O’Callaghan, and is probably among Ireland’s best performers in the series so far, and it appears Reddan has never really earned the trust of the management.  He started their two best performances last year, and was influential in both, but found himself overlooked ever since.  Dropping a young player like Murray after two poor performances is not an easy call, but you feel that if Ireland are to have any – any! – chance of winning, Reddan needs to play.

The Bowl

Hard times for Scotland, who have improved out of sight this year, without getting the results to show for it.  Their handling and offloading was terrific yesterday.  Management are culpable for some outrageously bad team selections.  How was it that Hogg, Laidlaw and Blair had to wait until the third game in the series to take to the pitch together? Still, credit needs to go to them for making the changes. Scotland look like a team who might just win a few … if they can just win one.

It’s proving a difficult season for Italy, who haven’t really improved as much as people are letting on.  They were much more competitive last year, when they should have beaten Ireland and Wales, and toppled France.  The wooden spoon beckons methinks, as Scotland look to have too much for them – thouh they can be a different proposition in Rome.

It’s not been a classic series so far by any means, which had us wondering when there last was a classic Six Nations. Wales’ and Ireland’s grand slams in 2008 and 2009 were up against mediocre post-World Cup fields (France were off experimenting).  The best in recent times is probably 2007’s tournament, when strong France and Ireland sides went toe to toe, with France securing the Championship with the last play of the game against Scotland.  It’s been a while…

Follow the Money, Jimmy

As a brief follow-up to our Ulster piece earlier in the week, we thought we would add one point, and address one raised several times in follow-ups.

Addition: the Bob Paisley Rule

We here at Whiff of Cordite are followers of the Bob Paisley Rule – that is, change from a position of strength. Make your adjustments on your own terms and don’t let events overtake you (like when Bob Paisley jettisoned European Footballer of the Year Keggy Keegle for young Kenny Dalglish and improved his already all-conquering Liverpool side).
Humph has ticked this box at Ulster by recognising a potential weakness and addressing it pre-emptively. This stands in contrast to, say, Ludd at Munster. We’ll be posting on Ludd’s rather mixed legacy shortly, but he put off changing a successful Munster side until he was forced to i.e. after Toulon tore them a new one. His work since has been better, but he has never given the impression of having caught up with himself or being in control of the transition.

Follow-up: Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

More than once after the Ulster piece, people brought up money – how were Ulster able to develop so quickly, and sign such superstars? The Rory McIlroy blank cheque rumour came up, as did talk of some “private funding” – both nonsense. When considering Ulster budget, there are some important points to note:
  • Time lag. Contracts, by their very nature, are backward looking. Thats why Conor Murray, until very recently, was on an Academy contract, and the man he was keeping on the bench, Tomas O’Leary, was on a central one worth multiples of Murray’s. Murray’s contract was based on potential, O’Leary’s on a Lions selection in 2009. Ulster’s team, if you exclude centrally contracted and overseas players, are, for the most part, young and have no great record of success. Thus, they are cheaper. For example, Dan Tuohy is probably on a fraction of Donncha’s wage, yet has been much more effective this season.
  • Central Contracts. This is a particularly muddy issue that is deliberately shrouded in mystery.  The IRFU acts as paymaster for a number of Irish international players, but the hows and why’s of who has one and who doesn’t are puzzling in the extreme.  Brian O’Driscoll has one, of course, and so does Paul O’Connell.  No surprise there.  But so does Paddy Wallace.  Denis Leamy, Munster’s reserve flanker, recently signed a new one, in a piece of news which surprised everyone.  Sean O’Brien doesn’t have one.  Neither does Eoin Reddan.  The extent to which the IRFU directly pay the players from the various provinces is shrouded in mystery.
  • Hard currency. Leinster and Munster players get paid in Euros, but Ulster players get paid in sterling. The Belfast equivalent of a Dublin €100k salary is about £60k, that is €70k at current market rates. Ulster players generally cost less due to being in the sterling zone.
  • Imports. Now let’s address the overseas players issue. It’s fair to say Ulster’s cadre of foreigners are of a higher class than Leinster or Munster – Ulster have 3 genuine stars and a former Springbok captain. But do they cost much more and give Ulster an unfair advantage? Let’s have a look:
    • John Afoa: Afoa is a world class tight head prop. World class tight heads props are worth their (considerable) weight in gold, and are remunerated accordingly, with something akin to danger money added on. Afoa would be on a comparable wage to Mike Ross and BJ Botha
    • Johann Muller: Muller is a World Cup winning former Springbok captain. But he was never a starter in his Bok career or even a regular on the bench, and he is in his early 30s. As such, Muller is not a top dollar player – its conceivable he is paid less than Nathan Hines was
    • Pedrie Wannenburg. Ulster’s back row bosher is a regular try scorer and his offloads in the HEC this year were both delicious and unexpected. But in reality, he is a bit of a journeyman, and the Boshiership is crammed with players like Wannenburg. Suffice to say, he’s not going to be shooting the lights out in the payslip department
    • Simon Danielli: Is rubbish
    • Ruan Pienaar & Jared Payne: Are top class. Here is where Ulster have an advantage. Leinster and Munster each have one genuine superstar – Nacewa and Howlett. Ulster have 1.5 – Pienaar is one of the best players in the world, but Payne is not there yet. Payne wasn’t considered to be on the All Black radar despite his exploits with Auckland. Still, he has the potential to be explosive and could yet work out to be Ulster’s Isa Nacewa

So, Ulster players are younger and are thus on less money, and get paid in sterling. On the flip side, they have Jared Payne against, say, Matt Berquist or Save Tokula.

We don’t think the overall wage bill is any higher than Leinster or Munster.

Super Rugby – WoC Fantasy Contest

Our homework this spring is to know more about Super Rugby. It might be skillful and entertaining without much boshing, aimless kicking or inept gameplans, but that doesn’t mean that we in the Northern Hemisphere should snear at it.

So we are setting up a Fantasy League on Fox Sports excellent flamin’ website, so log in, set up a team and join our league (code 1890-6547).

In the interests of full disclosure, Egg Chasers team is below, and its heavily long South Africans for a reason I’m not really clear on:

Six Nations: Round Three Preview

Ireland v Italy

This is a game Ireland should really win, and win comfortably.  Italy may have given England a fright a fortnight ago, but they are no great shakes on the road, and until they find a fly-half from somewhere they’re not going to trouble teams outside their home ground.  The trouble is that Ireland tend to give them a bit too much respect.  Last season – admittedly in the Flaminio, Deccie picked a horrendously out-of-form Tomas O’Leary at scrum-half, seemingly in a bid to counter the Italian forwards.  The result was that Ireland almost lost – Italy were a restart away from winning.  Ireland need to be bullish here and go wide early and often.  They should forget about nonsense like ‘earning the right to go wide’ and simply play the game at the highest pace they can.  Get Sexto flat on the gainline and put the ball through the hands.  Do that and Italy will start to fall off tackles, and tries will come.

A more likely outcome is that Ireland start slowly, butcher a couple of chances and get sucked in to a war of attrition.  Ireland will probably grind Italy down by a score or two but they should be looking to put this team away.

Verdict: Ireland to win by around 10-12 points.

England v Wales

Judging by the tone of some of the previews of this game, you would be expecting Wales to win by 2 scores or more – Barnesy has said England should be fearful, and the Grauniad were running pieces from the Welsh team of the mid-1980s boasting about how they didn’t respect any of the English players, with a clear line running through to today’s callow and ordinary Red Rose side.

Still, this is Twickers, and England don’t lose by much here – save for the Boks the November before last, they haven’t been far behind on the scoreboard in a long time.

All that said, the Welsh team look far too strong, a combative and skillful pack are getting ball to the destructive backs, which eventually leads to scores. The key to stopping Wales is to slow down the ball and get Mike Philips in a dogfight – this ensures the centres get the ball while static instead of going forward. And the key to beating them is to use their strength against them – have their relatively immobile backs turning around and drifting across by aggressive rucking and carrying then varying the attack with kicking behind, skip passes and hard lines.

Do England have the tools for this? Yes, in the form of Lawes, Wood, Morgan, Dickson, Cipriani, Tuilagi and an intelligent ball-playing 12. Lancaster’s team, however, is unlikely to contain any of those.

Verdict: Wales by 3-5 if Morgan plays and 7-10 if Dowson plays.

Scotland v France

An admirable ballsy selection by Robbo here – teenager Stuart Hogg is rewarded for his entertaining and effective cameo against Wales. John Barclay is back and with 2 genuine opensides in the team, expect Scotland to try and make this a dogfight at ruck time.

Mini Greig Laidlaw holds the 10 jersey and concerns about his defence against the giant French backrow and centres might have led to the re-instatement of Ooooooooooooooohhh Graeme Morrison – its hard to think of any other reason to pick him to be brutally honest.

Even if France do manage to be dragged down to Scotland’s level, its difficult to see them not prevailing. France have quality everywhere and a bench packed with high-class operators and Julien Dupuy. In the unlikely event of them finding themselves in trouble, the replacements will make the difference.

Verdict: We’ll be surprised if France need to go higher than third gear, and certainly don’t expect them to if they are in front. France by 9ish.

Ulster Says … All Round to Humph’s for some Plotting!

It is with interest that we have read about and watched the shenanigans in Ulster of late – Brian McLaughlin is being binned after three largely succesful years as head coach – sorry, he is “being offered long-term stability” as, er, assistant to Gary Longwell in the coaching staff.  The full sordid affair is laid bare in this cringe-inducing press conference:

Humph is being rightly panned for the ramshackle nature of the announcement, which stands in great contrast to the majority of his work as director of rugby at Ravenhill. However, this Ulster fan sees some method in the apparent madness – since 2007, Ulster have been on a journey which they hope will culminate in bringing the HEC back to Belfast – I’m sure no-one needs reminded that’s where it first landed on Irish shores – and they need a boost to get there.

Let’s start this tale in October 2006 – Ulster are reigning Celtic League champions, and have opened their Heineken Cup campaign with a 30-3 stuffing of Toulouse. The HEC itself is enjoying a well-sodden winter in Limerick and Ulster have genuine ambitions of adding it to the Celtic League trophy come May.

Fast forward 12 months later – Ulster have only won one more HEC game, endured a disappointing finish to the CL and have lost coach Mark McCall after being thumped by Gloucester at Former Fortress Ravenhill. By Christmas, they are bottom of the CL and at their lowest ebb. The province that swept all before them in the 1980s were now worse than Connacht. It was Time Zero.

Into this mess walked Matty Williams, a man whose perfect teeth and blow-dried hair couldn’t fail to make a difference. The players were wracked by failure and crushed under the pressure of trying to live up to Munster. Matty came in, with his familiar sunny disposition – a bit of “come on lads, you aren’t that bad, have some fun” got Ulster stabilised. The playing staff were decimated by the summer exodus in 2008, but Williams managed to hold on to Paddy Wallace, Andrew Trimble and Rory Best – the Ulstermen who, along with young Stephen Ferris, would constitute the core of the side and give some much-needed continuity.

Williams’ next season was fairly underwhelming, but it was clear that Ulster seemed to have got the ship moving in the right direction – Matty’s job was essentially done. There was genuine shock when he got the boot for the Humph/Longwell/Doak/McLaughlin axis, but it was exactly what Ulster needed – a structure was put in place that would work to build the club off the pitch and in the Academy, and it was being run by a cult hero. The identity of the provincial set-up was now firmly one of Ulster, with the management, the coaching staff and the backbone of the team all local, and driven by the memory of 1999.

Upgrade work at Ravenhill, better (albeit, not good) marketing efforts to attract a wider fan base, using the available financial muscle and squad upgrades were Humph’s job. Nurturing a crop of highly talented youngsters was Longwell and Doak’s job; and picking the team and winning games was McLaughlin’s. But it was fairly clear where the power lay – and he was upstairs watching his brother in the 10 shirt.

Every season under McLaughlin, Ulster have improved on the pitch. In his first HEC, they won in England (when Andrew Trimble out-Bathed Bath) and but for playing Stade a day late in front of nobody may have picked up the extra point they needed to sneak into the knockout stages. The next year, they beat Biarritz, did the double over Oooooooooooooooohh Bath, and made the quarter-finals for the first time since they won the thing. A regret-laden defeat to Northampton was the perfect preparation for this year.

Until the absolutely stinking draw was made that is – Clermont and Leicester would be the teams Ulster would have to beat. No-one had much confidence in their ability to make it through, but two of the most memorable performances by an Irish province in Europe (and that’s saying something) were clocked up en route to another quarter-fnal passage.

Off the pitch, progress was also made – Humph secured development funding from the Northern Assembly for Ravenhill, and recruitment has been stellar – Muller, Wannenbosh and Pienaar came last summer and gave the team beef and intelligence. John Afoa is this years marquee signing and is phenomenally good. Longwell and Doak have sent up some excellent players, with Spence, McAllister, Paul Marshall and Gilroy already in the first team, and Luke Marshall, Gaston, Jackson and Henderson sniffing the bench.

It’s this confluence which may have forced Humph’s hand on McLaughlin. This season, Ulster were dire until after the RWC. The training was apparently rudimentary and the patterns listless until the core of the team returned from New Zealand. McLaughlin, without his lieutenants, was an uninspring leader – fans were unhappy and feared the start of the HEC.

The feeling at Ravenhill seems to be that McLaughlin was flattered by Saffa experience and class, and young Irish fearlessness and leadership. The burning desire to win trophies may have left the amiable McLaughlin odd man out. While being Pure Ulster was a virtue back in 2009, now the need is for something different – something of the proven class that a real top-class coach can bring and take a team to the next level, like Joe Schmidt in Leinster for example.

Which is the crux of the matter. As Brian Clough famously said about Alex Ferguson:

“He hasn’t got two of what I have got, and I’m not talking about balls”

Ulster have one HEC, and it has an asterisk – there were no Boshiership teams competing in 1999. Leinster and Munster have two, and infinititely more pedigree.

Ulster can just about live with Leinster winning HECs, but Munster is another thing. To be blunt about it, Ulster Rugby, as an institution, has no respect for Munster Rugby. That’s why they can go down to Thomond Park and win, even in their darkest days in 2008. And it’s also why they are the most dangerous opponent Munster could have drawn in this years quarter-final. It was no co-incidence that the pressure of not being as succesful as Munster blew up the team of 2006.

Now, they want two of what Munster have. And they don’t see Brian McLaughlin as a coach holding the HEC. His methods are not perceived as being at the zenith of European rugby, and thats what Ulster want. Leinster got Schmidt in to take them to the next level, now it’s on Humph to get his man. He’ll want a Vern Cotter, or maybe a Fabien Galthie – someone who can grab this undoubtedly talented team and get two of what Deccie has.

Humph is piling the pressure on himself, but he won’t mind that one bit. Plus, as he knows, it’s better than Radge and Axel piling it on.

Mythbusters!

One of our readers sent us a question on Facebook last week – wow, we really feel we’ve arrived now that we can write that! It was none other than Ronan Lyons, and he asked us:

I’ve stumbled on to an opinion and would like to pass it by some people who actually understand and watch rugby. Have there been two Sean O’Briens over the last 18 months? The one that played up to and including the match against Australia in RWC, who steam-rolled all before him, and the one who has played from the Wales game on, a good player but not one to set the world alight.

We, and others, chipped in with a few possible reasons: that Seanie is maybe a bit knackered, and that, to an extent, teams have found ways of curbing his impact, in particular by tackling him low around the ankles.  The most pertinent reason, though, was that O’Brien has had to defer some of his carrying duties to get involved in the dirty work in and around the ruck area.  Ireland essentially have three carriers in the backrow, and one of them has to sacrifice their natural game.  In New Zealand, it was Jamie Heaslip who did this, but against Wales two weeks ago, he had a hugely effective game carrying the ball, while O’Brien appeared to be playing the role of ‘fetcher’.
The answer being inextricably linked to the make-up of Ireland’s backrow gives us an opportunity to look at two myths that keep coming up around the make-up of the Irish team.
Myth 1. Ireland need a ‘genuine openside’.  Without one, our backrow will always struggle.
Myth 2. Ireland’s backs are too small.  We should we be putting larger fellows into midfield to compete with the likes of Wales.
Both these myths are reactionary, after recent Irish defeats – both to Wales, as it happens.  In the World Cup quarter-final Sam Warburton wreaked havoc at the breakdown, continually slowed down the Irish ball, which stopped their attack at source.  Quick ball is the lifeblood of any team, and as we tend to drone on, you could have world class backs from 9 to 15, but if you don’t got quick ball, you won’t see them do much.
Fast forward to now and Wales’ giant three-quarter line have smashed apart Ireland and Scotland.  France also have a pretty large back line.  Ireland have had ten years of success with quick-footed, diminutive centres (Drico, Dorce and, errrr, Paddy Wallace), and the next in line have similar stature (Earls, McFadden, O’Malley).  Is it time for Ireland to look at a new approach and draft in bigger men to play centre?
Waiter!  Fetch me some world class 7s on a plate!
The claim that Ireland would be improved by a terrific 7 isn’t without merit.  Ireland’s backrow isn’t balanced, for sure.  It’s all carriers and no groundhog.  Of course we’d love a world class fetcher in there.  But amid the clamour from various media pundits (George Hook is like a broken record ) a few key imperatives need to be borne in mind.
You can only play what you have available.   The best natural 7 in the country is Shane Jennings, at Leinster.  He is a fine provincial player, but even his most ardent fans (we would count ourselves among them) would struggle to make a case for him as a first rate international player.  He is in the Leinster Heineken Cup team about 50% of the time these days.  Dominic Ryan looks to have some of the key components of a 7, but he’s what we would call a ‘six and a half’, a guy who has some attributes of a 6, and some of a 7.  Peter O’Mahony has filled the 7 jersey for Munster, but he’s definitely more of a 6 – he’s too tall to be a dedicated groundhog, though he is a fine breakdown operator.  We can’t simply manufacture world-class opensides overnight. 
Contrary to popular belief, not every successful team has a genuine 7. New Zealand have McCaw, Wales have Warburton, and so on, but World Cup finalists and Six Nations favourites France don’t.  Indeed, the French seem to have a totally different view of how the backrow should look, and it’s worked out well enough for them.  They typically set up with a ball-carrier at number 8 (Picamoles, Harinordoquy), and on either flank (it normally doesn’t matter which) station a lineout forward (Bonnaire, Harinordoquy, Jean Bouilhou at Toulouse) and a wrecking ball (Dusatoir, Gorgodze at Montpellier).  Sometimes the guy playing on the openside is the guy you’d think would be on the blindside.  Sometimes they switch positions.  It can get a bit confusing but one thing’s for sure, there ain’t no dedicated fetcher in the French team.
The solution?  It’s the gameplan, stupid.  Each of Ireland’s starting backrowers are great players in their own right, and none of the alternatives at 7 look good enough to unseat the incumbents.  The question is, how can Ireland get the best out of them?    We’d suggest they try reduce the number of one-out-from-the-ruck rumbles in to contact, and to offload the ball a lot more than they’re currently doing.  This keeps the ball off the floor, and reduces the number of times Ireland have to fight off the likes of Sam Warburton at rucks.  
On top of that, it’s a great counter to the low ‘chop tackles’ that defenders are employing to take down the likes of O’Brien and Ferris.  The chop tackles leave the carrier with his arms free to get the offload away.  That’s the cost of tackling low – and if you don’t make the defender pay it, you’re giving him a free lunch.  Leinster have had huge success with their offloading game, where Sean Cronin and Richard Strauss are experts at timing trailer runs onto offloads from Jamie Heaslip, Nathan Hines (last year) and latterly, Rob Kearney.  Ulster have developed their game in this direction too – witness Wannenbosh’s sumptuous offload leading to Craig Gilroy’s try against Leicester. 
If Ireland are to adopt this approach they’ll need more tight forwards who can handle the ball – Dan Tuohy would be a real option here, and Sean Cronin would need to be sprung from the bench more readily.  Of course, you can’t offload every time, and it goes without saying that Ireland need to be phenomenally aggressive when it comes to clearing out rucks – this is something all the provinces excel at; the personnel are there to do it.
Where the deuce is the beef?!
With BOD injured and Dorce pushing on, Ireland’s midfield is in need of renovating anyway – and after the Wales game there have been no shortage of calls to beef it up with size.  Bowe to 13 is one much-touted option (Fankie and Brent are in favour), while Oooooooooooohh James Downey is a possibility as a crash-ball 12.  A few wrong-headed shouts for O’Brien or Ferris to convert to centre have even been seen on internet fora.  It seems the nation is suddenly obsessed with the size of the Irish backs – there’s even a thread on boards.ie called ‘Can Ireland play good attacking rugby in the future without huge centres?’
Size Isn’t Everything.  That’s what she said.  But again, Ireland have to cut their cloth to what’s available.  The only big options at centre are Tommy Bowe and James Downey.  There are no Jamie Roberts’ or Aurelien Rougeries just lying around gathering dust.  Bowe has very little experience at 13 – which is considered the hardest to defend on the pitch – and has enough to worry about at the moment with his patchy form.  As for Downey, well if he was good enough for international rugby it’s highly unlikely he’d be sitting on the Northampton bench behind Tom May. Just because players are big doesn’t make them good.  Roberts, Davies and Rougerie are great centres not because they’re big, but because they’re good footballers.  Simon Danielli has similar physical stats to George North – but nothing in the way of his skill levels.  Good back play is still about football skills and lines of running – look where England have got over the last decade with any number of beefcake boshers in the backline.  Lesley Vainikolo anyone?  Matt Banahan?  Altogether now: Ooooooooooooooooooohhhh!
Erm, it’s the gameplan again, stupid. 
People need to forget about what we haven’t got, and look a bit more at what we have.  As we noted a few weeks ago, a  midfield of McFadden and Earls would have plenty of running threat, and plenty of pace.  We need to build a plan of attack, and build it around the players’ strengths, not retreating behind fears about the size of players.  As the always incisive Emmet Byrne said on Off the Ball last week, we need to look at how we can hurt teams with what we have, instead of just hoping our defence will squeeze enough mistakes out of the opposition.  
It’s much the same with all our problems: the unbalanced backrow, the uncertainty at half-back, the size of our centres, the unchanging selections: they’d all be a lot less problematic if we played with a clearly identifiable, cohesive and well executed gameplan that everyone on the team bought into.

Boorish, Self-Serving, Sychophantic and Biased: It’s the Irish Rugby Meeja

What is it with the Irish rugby media? For every Matty and Franno dishing out insightful comment and insider info, there is a Frankie getting paid by the Irish taxpayer to praise his clients. Every time Quinny gives us genuinely interesting comment from an ex-pro’s perspective, Tom McGurk informs us in turn that he is the link between the Irish rugby team and the public. The good and the awful co-exist in an uneasy compromise between treating the viewer/reader like a fool and like an intelligent consumer.

The empty rhetoric and pointless warblings of some of our esteemed scribes after the Welsh game were especially rank. Let’s take three examples in detail


Own Agendas / Provincial Bias

When Farmer Farrelly opined that Rory Best has become a key player for Ireland, we nodded in agreement – we wanted him to be the new captain after all, and he is Paulie’s second in command – no mean feat in a pack of big personalities.

The problem was the preceding paragraphs. Farrelly had started off by saying Deccie had too much loyalty to certain players. We couldn’t agree more. But to see that he was tiresomely referring only to Leinster players (and Tommy Bowe, who had just refused to join Munster), we sighed. Again. The funniest was saying Jonny Sexton needed to return Deccie’s loyalty – after all, he had started just one game in a row, and note the following series of events, starting with Sexton’s debut against Fiji in November 2009, after which he retained the shirt against the Boks the next week

  • DROPPED 1 – for the 2010 Six Nations, Rog took over for the first 2 games, then Sexton came back in for the final 3
  • DROPPED 2 – for the All Black game in June Rog had the shirt, then Sexton came back in against Australia. That November, Sexton retained the shirt for all the big games, but…
  • DROPPED 3 – he lost it again in the following years 6N after the defeat to France. Sexton came back into the side for the final game against England, and held the shirt for the France games in August
  • DROPPED 4 – Rog took over for the England game. In the RWC, Sexton started against Australia
  • DROPPED 5 – then Rog came back into the side against Italy and Wales

Hardly the type of loyalty that needs urgent repaying, whatever you opinions on who should wear the 10 shirt. This parochialism is a huge issue in Irish rugby, but you would think our journalists would know better.


Give The Proles the Message

In case our Anonymous friend thinks we are unfairly targetting the Farmer, let’s move on to his polar opposite, suave sunglasses-donning D4 bon viveur Gerry Thornley. Thornley is our inspiration, and a thoroughly great read when on form. Form is scratchy these days however, and when he isn’t moaning about Pearson penalizing the Munster forwards in Toulon, or France getting to the World Cup final, he is worshipping at the altar of Deccie.

Last season, in return for uncannily getting the starting XV right for every match in the Six Nations, Gerry helpfully explained the logic behind each selection. Sometimes he even went beyond the call of duty in his enthusiasm to get Pope Benedeccie’s message across, assuring us that Paddy Wallace was on the bench to cover fullback, and as such was a better choice than, say, Gavin Duffy or Felix Jones. Equally, Ireland, as well as having the correct selection at all times, had no disciplinary issues. Au contraire:

“Messrs Poite, Pearson, Owen and Kaplan (with the, em, help of Allan) gave them a raw deal.”

So of the 5 referees, 4 were biased. As they say, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Woodward and Bernstein would be proud.

Gerry lost his place to Fangio for the RWC, and contented himself with maintaining that Ireland’s attacking game was in great shape and anyone who suggested to the contrary was as blind as Dave Pearson.

And so, back to the Six Nations, and Gerry was again the blue-eyed boy, getting the team selection bang on. We’re not suggesting that there was any relation to his supine review of the game, but safe to say gameplan, selection and coaching did not get any mention. Pulitzer’s all round!


The Lunatics Take Over the Asylum

To be fair to Gerry, he may have pedalled the official line, but at least he did it in a considered and well-spoken fashion. Another well-known pundit opted for the aimless ridiculous ranting ploy – the one and only George Hook. Hooky had an immediate diagnosis for Ireland’s problems after the Welsh game – the back row. So far, so ok. What the plan then George? Well, said our hero, Jamie Heaslip spends too much time in the papers, so time to ditch him and bring in a proper openside. Ok, don’t like the personal attack bit, but go on … who should come in? Harrison Brewer. Harrison Brewer, everyone in Ireland asked? That would be Harrison Brewer, who is still in school, and starred for Terenure in last years Junior Cup. Oh dear. And who is apparently a centre. Dear oh dear.

The craziness is not limited to Hooky, the froth on the message boards is far more voluminous (and stupid) than on HEC weekends, and its generally of Farmer Farrelly standard: play _________ because he has the pishun/schooling/soundness plus he is from the same province as me. But Hook stokes this crap – people recycle his every moronic utterance and claim it as their own, adding to the general atmosphere of stupidity following any Irish defeat. RTÉ have clearly (as is their right) decided on ditching sensible rugby commentary in favour of entertainment.

So Frankie, any thoughts on your man of the match?

 “Thanks Miles/Mark/Ryle/Conor. I certainly do. David Wallace may have been fairly quiet by his own high standards and was substituted after 50 minutes, but the clincher for me is that he is my client, and therefore man of the match.”

The above is paraphrased, but happened in January last year. Wally is a hero of ours and he had the grace to look bemused when presented with his magnum of Magners. Frankie was on the ether again a few weeks ago, labelling Peter O’Mahony (another client) the player of the HEC group stages. His logic – well, didn’t he get two man of the match awards? He did indeed. Guess who he got them from?


A Few Bad Apples

So between personal agendas, prostrating to all, engaging the vocal chords before the brain and enriching oneself, are all Irish meeja types the same? Thankfully not. It would be remiss of us to wrap this article up without mentioning those who we enjoy reading and listening to, those whose considered opinions deserve a (much) higher billing than they currently get. Take it away:

  • Quinny. His new column in the Irish Times is a revelation, giving you a proper insight into the life of a pro, the inner thoughts, the nagging doubts, and the drivers of success. He’ll get better the further removed he is from the playing sphere
  • Keith Wood. Talks and thinks like he plays – rarely putting a foot wrong. You can see why he captained every team he played in, the man oozes intelligence and ambition. And he scored a drop goal for Ireland! From hooker!!
  • Shaggy. When we saw his name down as an RTE pundit, we groaned. Current player, platitudes, bland. But he is much more than that. He is smart enough to know he needs to offer something more, and his random stories from the playing field always make you think
  • Emmett Byrne. Byrne can be hard to understand and talks too fast, but he is the only pundit who has ever led us to think we would have half a chance of understanding the technical dynamics of forward play (both of us are willowy backs at heart)
  • Matty and Franno. What can we say? Guided us through the RWC with proper analysis of matches, as opposed to rants about Deccie/Rog/Drico/losing the will to live. The contrast between RTE’s “isn’t it great for the people of Christchurch” and Setanta’s “Craig Joubert’s display was a disgrace to rugby” post-final analysis was stark
  • Biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey. Ok, so his first 20 columns were about his mates who worked in the City, but he finally ended up giving really rounded pieces about the life of a run of the mill 9-5 pro. He appears on Sky from time to timew, but they give him a children’s table to make everyone laugh. Eschew the City, Bob, come back to our screens!
  • Conor O’Shea. O’Shea has an impressive depth of rugby knowledge and his thoughtful leadership has really shone through at Quins. Frequently looks bemused by the tantrums and abuse from McGurk and Hook, he is a rare bright spot at RTÉ.
  • Brendan Fanning. Fangio might hail from the Sindo, but he does some real writing too – for the Grauniad and for his excellent blog. He was Deccie’s pet during the RWC, but he wasn’t peddling the right lines, so now contents himself with writing perceptive and intelligent critiques.

Brad Thorn Ticks Every Box

st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }The news that Brad Thorn’s signing for Leinster is virtually a done deal will certainly get the tongues wagging around the RDS, and beyond.  Brad Thorn is a World Cup winner, a world class Gruntmeister General in the second row, and as anybody who witnessed his interview in the aftermath of losing the Super 15 final will attest, seems an awfully nice fellow to boot.  He arrives for just a few months, but Leinster will be hoping that he can bring the sort of physicality and handling ability that made Nathan Hines a cornerstone of the team.  He’s an old dog of war at 37, but given the ‘strongman’ nature of the position, age is no real barrier to success.
He’ll provide Leinster with strength in exactly the position where they’re weak, and provides it in the nick of time too, because numbers (and pedigree) in the second row are looking particularly low.  Leinster’s Hines-free second row hasn’t really been tested yet this season, but it will be, and soon.  Think of a possible semi-final in the Auvergne or a final against Toulouse, and it shouldn’t be hard to see just how valuable this guy will be.
Anyone wondering just how much an emergency it is only needs to glance over Leinster’s second-row roster from the start of the season, and what’s happened since:
Leo Cullen (Inj.) – captain and stalwart, but has looked off the pace this season, possibly due to playing through pain barrier, but it’s just as possible he’s starting to wind down.  Opted for surgery on his achilles tendons during Six Nations window, hoping to be back for the HEC quarter final, but there are no guarantees.
Devin Toner – a minor revelation this year having flattered to deceive in the past.  Looks to be playing with a bit more fire in his belly (but it will take more than bellyfire to become the next Barishnakov) – he’s more of a middle of the lineout jumper than a bruising No.4.
Damien Browne (Inj.) – something of a journeyman, but has worked out reasonably well, featuring in Schmidt’s ‘away’ team.  Has the bulk required of a No.4 but assuredly does not have the footballing skills of a top end player. Playing him requires playing McLaughlin at 6, shifting SOB to 7, and resulting in a somewhat unbalanced back row. Struggling a little with a shoulder injury, and while he has continued playing, will require a recovery period at some stage
Steven Sykes (Cut!) – signed from Natal Sharks as replacement for Hines.  The mystery man failed to settle in Dublin and has been allowed to go back to his former club.
Mark Flanagan – performed very capably away to Cardiff, and could have a more prominent role in the coming weeks, but still only in his first year out of the academy and not ready for consecutive starts in the Pro12.
Kevin McLaughlin – the flanker has the lineout skills to pack down in the second row if required, but it’s seen as an emergency option by management.
Just two senior locks are currently available, and one of them is playing hurt.  Besides, as we’ve all ‘learned’ recently, Browne is the only one who specialises in scrummaging on the tighthead side.  It’s pretty clear that another body is urgently required.  But, the question will be asked, is it for the good of Irish rugby that Leinster are bringing in a ‘ringer’ to solve their injury crisis, rather than give some local talent its fling?  After all, this sort of move will be ruled out by the new NIE laws.
One alternative touted by some is that Leinster could recruit an Irish player from one of their friendly neighbours – as it appears they’ll have to do from 2013 on.  But this is pretty much a non-runner.  The majority of players are cup-tied at this stage of the season, and the idea of Munster sending, say, Ian Nagle up the road on loan to their rivals to dig them out of a hole seems far fetched.  Besides, it appears from how little he’s featured this season (one start, four sub appearances) that Munster don’t consider him ready for sustained exposure just yet.
The truth is that this does no harm whatsoever to Irish rugby.  First of all, Leinster are replacing one NIE player (Sykes) with another, so they are still operating within the IRFU rules.  More importantly, no Irish players’ development will be held back by this move.  Thorn will presumably pack down alongside Devin Toner, and while Leo Cullen may return in time for the HEC quarter-final, there are no guarantees that he will get his place back.  Cullen’s days as an international are assuredly over, and it’s up to Toner to keep his level up and get himself picked.  Damien Browne may feature a little less, him being the most Thorn-like, but he is carrying an injury that needs to be managed in any case – besides, he’s hardly being tagged as a future Ireland international, and has probably seen more HEC action than was planned anyway.
Those of an excitable bent will cry that Mark Flanagan should be given his chance to shine, but he is nowhere near ready for this level.  He has three Leinster starts to his name, and has not even been training full-time with the squad, instead concentrating on completing his degree.  Anyone who thinks throwing him in at the deep end of a HEC knockout game would be good for him needs to re-think their understanding of player development (hint: it’s not just about ‘getting enough gametime’, as often trumpeted on internet fora). 
The idea that Ireland could miss out on the next great second row because Brad Thorn turns up to solve an injury crisis for a few months is pretty proposterous.  Bring on the Brad.

Wayne and Dave Take a Trip to Paris

Ok, we know it probably wasn’t really Dave Pearson’s fault, but everyone (in France anyway) is blaming him, so we just couldn’t resist it…

After last week’s successful trip to Dublin, Wayne and Blind Dave go to Paris for the weekend. They wrap up warm because of the cold. Just before they go out for the night, Dave gets cold feet and calls Wayne outside.

Wayne: What is it Dave?
Dave: Its cold. Too cold to go out. Stayin’ in.
Wayne: Are you sure? Why? – you went outside an hour and a half ago and said it was fine.
Dave: Yeah I know
Wayne: And all these people have come to see you – you don’t want to let them down after last week do you?
Dave: No
Wayne: And remember you said how irresponsible stewarding and short notice to paying punters was a factor in the riots that followed the Metallica concert in Utar Pradesh in November? You said you’d never let that happen on your watch.
Dave: Yeah I know.

Wayne: So we’ll go out then – you’ve wrapped up warm, and that nice Ryan chap is lighting a fire for you over there
Dave: No. Postponed

*Wayne walks away and tells the players*

Dave: Kick-off!

Oh Blind Dave!!