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 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.


  1. Super post lads. The Welsh beat us by working out how best to do it with what they had, not by becoming clones of us. Trouble is…look who our coach is….is he hardwired to do do anything other than what he has always done?

  2. Good stuff lads .. well written and honest IMHO – cheers.

  3. Great comments here. I was talking to my brother about Bowe at 13, but you're bang on, it's such a touch position to manage. I've had enough of Dorce which I why I was so excited to see McFadden on… I reckon once Earls and him pair up and become more fluent we'll see a change.

  4. Nicely done, and a constructive addition to the conversation about the Irish national rugby gameplan. You couldn't have written a better follow up to your article about the unenlightening analysis from the mainstream commentators!

  5. The media really did go into overdrive after both defeats to Wales. The open side question raised after the World Cup was simply stunning given Heaslip won 4 turnovers and Warburton won a grand total of zero! Having subjected myself to re watching that match we butchered 3 tries in the first half and probably 2 more in the second and gifted them 3 easy tries. The real questions need to be aimed at Mr Kiss, firstly I would say he was been Irelands best coach under Kidneys tenure, but time and time again we have seen in the past year teams make easy yards in our midfield which occurred with and without BOD so his absence can not explain it. This phenomenon got me thinking, the only solution I could find is that Kiss has abandoned the long used Ireland tactic of having one of the back row (usually Wallace) defend between the out half and the 12. This was usually a tactic to help ROG defend but I would suggest we go back to it now even if our 10 can defend. How many crucial tries have we conceded off set piece through the midfield? Employing this “minder” would allow to knock midfield runners backwards and give us the chance of a turnover, if D’Arcy makes the tackle then SOB can be the second man in and win the ball. Yes I know leaving a back rower in midfield leaves us short somewhere else but to me it is an obvious solution to D’Arcy’s ailing powers and the diminished defensive abilities of our 13. The second point around the thinking that all teams need big back to win at international level can be disproven by this backline: Genia, Cooper, Ioane, Barnes, JOC, Mitchell, Beale. None of these guys are big but they have great skills and a game plan, and in all fairness they are the best attacking team in the world by a country mile. An Irish backline of Murray, Sexton, Trimble, McFadden, Earls, Bowe, Kearney isn’t as creative as the Aussie one but with the correct game plan they could cause havoc for every side in the 6 nations.On a side note did you guys read Stephen Jones eulogy about Dan Lydiate yesterday in the Times? He is clearly Jones’ new pet project (funnily enough they come from the same club) and has been anointed as the best 6 in the world!! Is it just me or is he another Joe Worsley? He can tackle all day long, gives the odd carry but doesn’t have much else to his game.

  6. Thanks for the comments guys. Glad you've enjoyed the piece.@JLPagano – that is the question. He's never been the sort of coach to really get teams playing exciting rugby. A bit of pace on the ball on saturday would be a start.@JSRF interesting theory on 'ROG's minder', you could definitely be on to something. Someone on the 'Ask Franno' secgment on The Breakdown last night observed that we tend to concede a lot of tries in the wide channels… but we do soak yards in the middle of the park. Are we too busy looking for choke tackles when we need to just dump the carrier on his backside? One to mull over.As for Stephen Jones… I couldn't dredge up the energy to get through a piece on England v Wales. I call the set of players he decides are brilliant the 'Stephen Jones Club'. It's an esteemed group: Duncan Bell, James Haskell, Lesley Vainikolo (Next Big Thing) and Gavin Henson among them. We can add Lydiate to the list I guess. One player who is most certainly not a member is Cian Healy, who Jones has inexplicably decided is just not any good. A bizarre man.

  7. sometimes you select size in the centres and you get Jamie Roberts, other times you get Sean Lamont *shudder*

  8. Great blog lads. Hadn't noticed that Boards thread, but remember some calls there for Sean O'Brien at centre during the World Cup. It's a great place for hyperbole and provincial baiting but will come back here for decent analysis and commentary. Cheers, keep up the good work.

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