ROG shoots his mouth off Epsiode #473

After Ireland’s win against Australia in the World Cup, Ronan O’Gara came out to meet the media, and said he’d be retiring after the tournament.  Of course, he had no intention of doing so.  It was a brazen attempt to draw attention to himself at a time when he was out of the starting team – as Fangio put it, ‘Forget about the team, let’s talk about me.’
Well, he’s at it again.  The latest interview with Hugh Farrelly of Dolphin Charlie George of the Echo Terry Reilly of the Examiner has all the hallmarks of ROG doing what ROG does – his bidding in public.  He’s now gone for a complete U-turn from his World Cup antics – this time he’s saying he’s going to play for ever and ever and ever.  Or at least until he’s 38.  Even if Deccie did choose not to select Rog, you’re left with the impression that if he’ll just turn up anyway.
He’s pretty chuffed with his own form is ROG, and why not?  After all, he’s had a fine season with Munster, driving them to the knockout stages with some late-late dramatics for show.  He clearly still has it.  But truth be told, his Six Nations didn’t really catch fire, and in his cameo appearances he didn’t do a huge amount of note.  Against Italy his only contributions were to miss touch with a penalty and throw a pass to nobody.  Besides, anyone who saw the physical shifts demanded of Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell will quickly realise that the test arena is no place for 38-year old fly-halves with defensive shortcomings.

Anyway, go on:

“I concentrated on making the most of the opportunities I got, be that five minutes, 20 minutes or 25 minutes and I always felt that I was maybe five minutes away from getting the start. I was coming in with 20 minutes to go and doing well. In my mind the time had to come when I would be given the chance to win matches with 80 minutes.”

“It was gut-wrenching. I especially thought I would start the Wales game given I was the incumbent”

Never mind that the game he was incumbent for didn’t actually go especially well. This is the latest in a line of such interviews by O’Gara.  Mid-Six Nations he appeared to undermine the meritocracy of team selection by suggesting that Sexton was only selected to give him confidence and build for the future.  At this stage, ROG’s constant courting of the media spotlight is becoming tiresome.
It’s a pretty unedifying spectacle to see Ireland’s record cap-holder and the greatest fly-half of the professional era having to resort to his media chums to exhort the coach to select him. When you see ageing sports stars raging against the dying of the light, it can begin to smack of desperation – witness Brett Favre’s embarrassing denouement in Minnesota, or Michael Schumacher trundling around the track in his Mercedes, insisting his talent can drag it to the front of the grid. And Farmer Farrelly’s lapdog impression is also quite undignified.

“Even with the torment that I have experienced in the last few months, I know that there is more to my international story.”

No other player, in or out of the team, feels the need to give these sort of ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ interviews.  Imagine if Sexton described his ‘torment’ at not making the starting team, or if Rob Kearney spent an interview talking about how he was playing ‘above international level’.  They would be savaged, and rightly so.  If ROG is playing as well as he says he is, why not just let his boots do the talking?  We all know he can continue to make a contribution – just get on with it.

In a week when two great Irish internationals were forced to retire due to injury, it’s increasingly a luxury to be able to retire on your own terms, as Quinny pointed out on Wednesday.  It’s something O’Gara would do well to bear in mind.

El Grande Bob Caso y Jirry estan Terminado

The past week has seen the retirement of 2 of our favourite players – Jerry Flannery and Bob Casey. Both were characters whose careers spanned eras of huge change and development in Irish rugby.
Let’s start with Jirry, a man who, by all accounts, was the life and soul of every party. One of Egg’s funniest memories was the queue outside Flannery’s of Camden Street after that HEC semi-final in 2006. You see, Paul O’Connell had said on TV afterwards that the lads were going to Flannery’s after… Jerry Flannery’s… in Limerick. No wonder the punters were disappointed, although his X Factor audition a few weeks later more than made up for it.
At this stage, Fla was in his first season at the top, having just replaced TV’s favourite client-praiser, Frankie, as Munster starting hooker, and was a relatively unknown quantity. Shortly over 3 years later, he was a hero of two HECs, a Grand Slam, and a certain Lion. Yet a freak injury before the tour left for Seth Efrica ruled him out of that tour, and a series of abortive comebacks later, contributed to ending his career.
In an era of durable, long-lived and iconic hookers like John Smit, Williams Servat and Thommo (who Jirry memorably called a fat ****), Flannery burned brightly for just four seasons. But what seasons they were – Flannery’s hair, superman pose, quality and controlled aggression perfectly captured the era in Munster and Irish rugby, and he will be missed.  He was something of a wild man, but could seemingly switch from loo-la to dead-eyed technician as soon as the next lineout rolled along – and make no mistake, his lineout throwing was peerless.  It is in keeping with his character that he didn’t want to be seen as a cripple turning up to training to do another day of rehab, instead quitting with his head held high. Interesting way to go out too, replete with a thinly veiled dig at Mick Galwey.  He can have no regrets, though in the interests of mirth, we should direct you here for one of his less proud moments.  
He was part of a proud Irish hooking tradition, following on from Ciaran Fitzgerald, Terry Kingston, Woody and Shane Byrne and passing the baton on to Rory Best. It’s a position where Ireland have been notably blessed, but Jirry was one of the greats.
As for Biiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey, he never quite seemed to make the grade at the highest level. Back at the 1999 World Cup, amazingly from this distance, Bob and Drico were the two bright young things in Gatty’s squad (Dorce having just missed out). Drico managed to put the tournament behind him, but Bob never got much of a look-in after Lens.
When you consider that his competition during the last decade and a bit consisted of Mal O’Kelly, Gallaimh, Jeremy Davidson, Paul O’Connell, Stakhanov and Gary Longwell, it’s probably not surprising he never played much, but he was unfortunate to play in an era when being an Exile was not a good thing for your international career. Eddie never capped him, and Deccie only picked him in the Churchill Cup. To be fair, he didn’t have the mobility required of a modern lock, even if he was somewhat of a cause celebre for Hooky for a while in the middle of the noughties.
What he did offer was excellent lineout work and leadership skills – with Nick Kennedy, he led the best defensive lineout in the Premiership and captained London Irish in their most successful era. He was a link back to the history and culture of the club as the on-pitch product became increasingly Samoan. Perhaps Tomás O’Leary can become his spiritual successor at Irish – his presence and class will be sorely missed, not only by our polls, but by rugby fans everywhere. Let’s hope he goes into broadcasting – he has dabbled in the Irish Times and on Sky – for no other reason than the hilarious child’s table Sky put him at.
We wish them the best.

It’s all Jamie Hagan’s Fault for Moving to Leinster

Amid the fallout from Ireland’s Twickenham debacle, one regular lament in the meeja is Jamie Hagan’s move to Connacht.  It goes thus: Ireland could have had another tighthead prop to call on had Jamie Hagan stayed with Connacht this year, instead of moving back to his home province, Leinster.

Hagan was a highly durable near-constant in the Connacht front-row (50 appearances in two seasons), and has found himself marginalised at Leinster, where he has to contend not only with Mike Ross, but also Kiwi prop Nathan White.  Had he stayed at Connacht , he would have had the pleasure of going up against Toulouse, Glaws and Quins props and earning his corn as a Heineken Cup level scrummager, miraculously emerging unscathed from those encounters, instead of togging out for Leinster A in the British & Irish Cup.

The reality of course, is totally different, on any number of counts.  Let us expel a number of myths. 
Jamie Hagan has made a bad career choice.  No he hasn’t.  He has come to Leinster to work with Greg Feek and Mike Ross, the men responsible for turning Leinster’s scrum from a wet blanket that Toulouse pushed around in the 2010 HEC semi-final to something altogether more solid, and occasionally destructive.  The hope is that he will emerge from this a better technical scrummager and a player Leinster can trust to start in high-stakes games.  With all due respect to Connacht’s coaching ticket, we are given to believe it does not feature someone of Feek’s calibre on the books.  His chances of improving to the level required in a technical position are far greater at Leinster.
Leinster are stockpiling, and Hagan is languishing in the reserves.  Leinster have a plan for Jamie Hagan – he is not simply languishing in the A team. They are working with him to improve his scrummaging and fitness.  Those with short memories would do well to recall that Mike Ross barely featured in his first season at Leinster – he spent the year in the gym, where Michael Cheika demanded he get fit enough to get around the paddock.  The following season the Mike Ross we know and love today emerged.
Jamie Hagan has had very little gametime with Leinster.  Another story that doesn’t hold up.  Of Leinster’s three foremost tighthead props, the playing time this season is as follows:
  • Jamie Hagan – 9 starts, 7 sub appearances, 634 minutes
  • Mike Ross – 9 starts, 2 sub appearances, 660 minutes
  • Nathan White – 6 starts, 11 sub appearances, 561 minutes
Hardly banished to the sidelines.  One of those starts was in the Heineken Cup, in the final pool match against Montpellier.  It looked, to us anyway, like a signal that Hagan was firmly in Leinster’s plans, and he did well to hold his own against Leleimalefaga, one of Europe’s more gargantuan looseheads.
Had Jamie stayed at Connacht the Twickers debacle wouldn’t have happened.  Hardly.  If Jamie Hagan had six HEC starts to his name with Connacht, and 13 more in the Pro12, he would still not have made the matchday squad for Ireland v England.  The current 22-man squad rule, daft as it is, means Tom Court would still have made the bench, because he can, in theory, scrummage on both sides. Its also worth noting that being shunted around the Sportsground by Joe Marler and Jean-Baptiste Poux is hardly something that benefits one career – ask Court about Alex Corbisiero and see what he says.
In fact, he might not have made the training squad – after all, he never did before.  Even when he was winning positive reviews at Connacht, Irish management never gave him much encouragement.  He has a grand total of two Ireland A caps, both earned as a replacement in 2011 – Declan Fitzpatrick and Tony Buckley the starters at 3 in the two games.
It’s easier to stand out in an ordinary side like Connacht.  Everyone wants to see the positive in you when you play in a wholehearted, but usually losing team.  If the scrum sinks three times in a match but you make three big carries, chances are people will remember the carries.  At Leinster, teams come to the RDS knowing their opponent has fewer weaknesses.  If they sense one, they will look to extract everything out of it.  The scrum was identified as such on Friday night by the Ospreys, who milked it, and won a tight match.  Hagan was among those culpable.  There’s still work to be done – plenty of it behind the scenes with Greg Feek.

Cordite Awards: Six Nations 2012

Rounding up our Six Nations review series, we have the much anticipated and always highly coveted Cordite Awards to hand out.  Drum roll, if you please:

Harry Houdini Award for Materialising out of Thin Air: Ben Morgan. Despite his four years at the Scarlets and numerous attempts by English chaps to persuade him to un-Welsh himself, Ben Morgan officially appeared on the London rugby hacks radar at the precise moment Stuart Lancaster named him in his squad. With the aid of all sorts of “Who is Ben Morgan?” pieces, the big-boned double man of the match made himself known to the Great British Public in style. Perhaps this “RaboDirect Pro12” thing will catch on.

Simon Shaw Award for Rolling Back the Years: Julien Dupuy. Dupuy’s previous high point came when opposition players and fans mistook him for a starvation-rations version of Andy Goode inside the burger-feeding real version at Leicester. One move to pink and a dirty gouge later, Dupuy officially became a dickhead. How we laughed then when his come-back to the France jersey was so poor that people assumed it was a trick PSA was put up to by Biarritz folk irked by the prospect of being worse than Bayonne. Good riddance.

James Downey Award for Uncomplicated Centre Play: Brad Barritt. The favourite for this title was Dr Roberts, but after running into space against Italy, he was disqualified. Alberto Sgarbi and Gonzalo Canale showed a bit too much grá for passing the pill, Wesley Fofana too much neat footwork and Dorce too much puke, it came down to a straight fight between Oooooooohh Graeme Morrison and Ooooooooohh Brad Barritt. Barritt wins purely because of Morrison’s trash-talking against Ireland – he should have let his boshing do the talking.

Jonah Lomu Award for Try of the Tournament: Richie Gray. How can this not bring a smile to your face. The tallest and heaviest man on the pitch breaks through 2 tackles 40 metres out, accelerates, then throws an outrageous dummy to Rob Kearney and gases in. What a player.

WG Grace Award for Services to Initials: JJV Davies. It feels so good to use a players initials, like you are back in school. Programmes for Ireland still speak of Robert D.J. Kearney and Brian G. O’Driscoll. It feels proper, like a pipe and monocle, and appeals to our traditional side. Welshmen called Davies or Jones generally need this extra addendum to their names, but only Jon Davies gets to be cool as well. Or maybe he just wants to disassociate himself from the dross his namesake talks on BBC.

Stephen Jones Award for Balanced Coverage: John O’Sullivan. Gerry has made a determined pitch to be the most biased reporter in Ireland, sniffily calling England’s tries in Paris “lucky” (like Ireland’s weren’t), refusing to give any credit to Wales (the “best worst of a mediocre bunch”) for winning the Slam, and bitterly hoping Stuart Lancaster doesn’t get the England job (he’s “doing too good a job”). But his colleague in Tara Street gets this gong for a ludicrous interview with DJ Church. After Blind Dave charitably didn’t bin Healy for barging over Vincent Clerc, O’Sullivan took it upon himself to obliviate the prop for any blame in the incident. Encouraging Healy to say he didn’t mean it, O’Sullivan then helpfully pointed out it happened not because Healy was a prop and being a bollocks of a lazy runner, like props are sometimes; but because Francois Trinh-Duc’s pass to Clerc wasn’t good enough. Come. On.

Visual Aid of the Tournament: Gerry Thornley. We love this, we really do. Gerry’s time-out signal on 0:53. Genius

The Cristian Dior Award for Services to Fashion: Jeremy Guscott.  The magnificent purple scarf-cravat donned by Guscott pitch-side as England was that of a man who knows a thing or two about sartorial elegance.  It brought to mind Bart Simpson’s comment as Homer was leaving the house in his white country suit and stetson: ‘As much as I hate that man right now, you just gotta love that [scarf].’

Tracey Piggott Award for Complete No Brainer: Will Warren Gatland be Lions Coach?  Hmm, let’s see, his competitors won two games between them, Wazza won all five of his, his team are the best coached, selected and fittest of the bunch.  He was a key man on the last tour and as a Kiwi, will be used to sticking it to the Aussies and getting under their skin.  We think he might have a chance.

Cordite rose-smelling team of the series: Rob Kearney, Alex Cuthbert, JJV Davies, Wesley Fofana, George North, Owen Farrell, Mike Phillips, Alex Corbisiero, Rory Best, Dan Cole, Richie Gray, Ian Evans, Stephen Ferris, Chris Robshaw, Ben Morgan

Cordite stinking team of the series: Mike Brown, Sean Lamont, Aurelien Rougerie, Gordon D’Arcy, Max Evans, Tobias Botes, Tomas O’Leary, Allan Jacobsen, Dirty Biter Hartley, Tom Court, Donncha O’Callaghan, Tom Palmer, Phil Dowson, A/N Other x2

Gold Watches: Julien Bonnaire, William Servat, Donncha O’Callaghan, Gordon D’Arcy, Dan Parks, Lionel Nallet

See you next year: Danny Cipriani, Dominic Ryan, Richardt Strauss, Jean-Marcel Buttin, Tim Visser, James Ambrosini.

Ireland’s Six Nations: Tha Playas

We’ve had our rant about the team’s general performance and management’s selection policy, but how about the players themselves, at an individual level.  Unsurprisingly, as with the series itself, it was a pretty mixed bag.  A handful distinguished themselves, a few more weren’t at their best, and the sorry affair in Twickenham looked like the end of the road for a handful of great servants to Irish rugby.

Outstanding achievement in the field of excellence: Rob Kearney, Stephen Ferris

Two players reborn after lengthy injury.  We have a slight man-crush on Ferris, and it predates him taking his top off vs. France.  Rob Keaney looked full of vim and vigour, and arguably topped his 2009 Lions form.  Both look captaincy material in the long term, and are certainties for the Lions squad, and probables for the test team. Both are peerless as ultra-physical blindsides / safe-as-houses fullback in the Northern Hemisphere.

Critics answered: Keith Earls, Johnny Sexton

There were plenty of doubts around Keith Earls’ ability to play centre, and we had our own, in spite of ultimately endorsing the selection.  He showed himself to be mostly up to task, and was Ireland’s most potent line-breaker.  Who knows, paired with an inside centre with a semblance of attacking threat, he might have done either better. His homework is to expand his peripheral vision and watch some videos of Smuddy, BOD and Jacque Fourie – he can do better at bringing his outside backs into play. Jonny Sexton finally took ownership of the shirt.  He wasn’t spectacular, but defended his channel manfully and his form with placed ball was finally up to task – he missed one easy kick in Paris, but otherwise kicked well. He needs to improve his tactical kicking – it’s not his strongest suit, but Ireland demand better.

Solid performers: Tommy Bowe, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Paul O’Connell, Conor Murray, Eoin Reddan

Tommy Bowe got among the tries, but Ireland need to get him much more involved than he is – to be fair, Bowe knows it as well. He certainly missed BOD and an in-form 12 to pop those little passes to him – he doesn’t yet seem to trust Earls.  Rory Best captained the side manfully, and got himself two tries; he’s now one of the side’s most important figures. The lineout wasn’t up to its usual standards, and Besty needs to takle some of the blame here. Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan had their moments in mixed campaigns – Murray needs to stop over-complicating the game, he looks like he has the early symptoms of O’Leary disease, though unlike his predecessor he has good passing technique. Reddan is a solid performer, but as soon as Paul Marshall is at international level, he’s likely yo be ditched by Deccie (again). Paul O’Connell and Mike Ross’ injuries had a huge impact on the side, and not in a good way – they are, and will be, key men.

We need to see more: Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien, Andrew Trimble

None of the above disgraced themselves, but all four will have designs on making the Lions tour next year, and for one reason or another, weren’t at their best.  Cian Healy was outstanding against Scotland, but fairly quiet by his standards for much of the tournament – we’d like to see him operate at a higher level and start assuming a lieutenant role. Jamie Heaslip got through a fair amount of donkey work and won his share of turnovers but a player of his ability needs to show a bit more.  A number 8 who isn’t getting over the gainline is not a luxury Ireland can afford.  Sean O’Brien suffered from being played out of position and cut a slightly frustrated figure, despite a good tackle count.  Meanwhile Andy Trimble took his two tries brilliantly, but never quite showed the Ulster form that had propelled him into the team.  As with Tommy Bowe, he needs to come off his wing and look for a few more touches of the ball – but stay outside if an overlap looks on! Its a 3/4 line in flux, Trimble still deserves time to show what he can do.

The best is yet to come: Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Sean Cronin, Fergus McFadden

Four players we need to see a bit more of, and all of them knocking pretty hard.  Donncha Ryan belatedly got his chance to start and grabbed it – the pity was he wasn’t given it sooner.  Peter O’Mahony had a solid debut, but was a victim of Deccie’s rigid pecking order, and went back to the bench.  McFadden and Cronin need to be used off the bench earlier by Kidney, at the very least, and it would be nice if McFadden could get some time at 12 – Ryan should now be a mainstay and the other three should be marked for a minimum of a test start in New Zealand, form permitting of course.

End of the line: Donncha O’Callaghan, Tom Court, Gordon D’arcy, Tomas O’Leary, and possibly, maybe, Ronan O’Gara

O’Callaghan and D’arcy we’ve been over already.  O’Leary’s pass is just not up to standard – he needs a fresh start somewhere out of the limelight – his confidence is shot to pieces and he was cruelly exposed against England.  Tom Court was unfortunate to be asked to perform a task for which he is simply not equipped – it is surely time to explore some new options, such as they are.

Now, the last one – ROG.  Controversial for sure, so let us tread carefully here.  ROG is now very much the second choice 10, and we’re slightly baffled by Deccie’s tactic of shunting Sexton to 12 to bring him on.  Truth be told, he didn’t make much of a splash in any of his cameos this Six Nations, though he’s obviously still very much a class player.  We wouldn’t retire a player as great as ROG without careful consideration, but it might be worth just starting to think about the season after next when he will no longer be around to call upon.  It won’t be too long until we’re back in the uncomfortable position of having only one test fly-half, unless we can pre-empt it a bit, and expose someone like Ian Madigan to test rugby.  It could be worth putting ROG in the ‘Break Glass In Case of Emergency’ box, and maybe giving him the summer off – is it really necessary to fly a 35 year old across the world to sit on the bench in three tests?  For now let’s just say we’re putting the idea out there, but not with any real conviction behind it yet.  It’s dependant on a big end-of-season finish from Madigan for starters.

Some Good, Mostly Bad, Time for a New Broom

So, the dust is settling on Ireland’s worst Six Nations since 2008 with a mirror image of an ending – a merciless beating in Twickers. It was a peculiar trajectory: awful at the beginning, pretty good in the middle, before a dire ending undid any sign of improvement.  A similar outcome, of course, led to the ditching of Steady Eddie and the launch of the good (and tight) ship Deccie. That’s unlikely this time, but it’s pretty clear we are not going in the right direction – our worst world ranking since 4 years ago comes at the precise time that the provincial game is at its strongest. What is happening?

Since beating South Africa in 2009, Ireland have 5 wins from 19 games against top 8 opposition (Wales, England 6N 2010, Argentina Nov 2010, England 6N 2011, Australia RWC 2011) – that’s a pretty poor record for a team with higher pretensions and solid recent history. That’s as bad a record as Scotland, against whom we’re 2-2 in the same period. Is that our new level?

We don’t like moaning (even though we have done a bit of it in the last few months), so we are going to start with the positives of this years tournament, then look at the negatives, then look at what we want to see going forward.

All in the Game

Tactically, the team looks to have moved forward. The shake-up in the coaching staff looks to have re-energised the gameplan. Ireland’s agressive new-look defence looks effective and coherent, and the Randwick Loops and shovelling of 2010 have become a more thoughtful and incisive animal – albeit one whose teeth are not quite sharp enough to make regular line-breaks. We need to see more runners on the shoulder of carriers, more off-loading, and more players comfortable with a modern high-tempo game. Seventy centimetre round-the-corner carries aren’t where its at.

The ten debate is over and the Five Year Overnight Success

Rather like the 2004 Six Nations, when 5 starts by Radge put the Humph firmly in the back seat, Johnny Sexton’s robust defence and slick distribution are beginning to look at home in the green ten jersey, and his place kicking stats are no longer a worry (22 from 28 for the series). Rog’s bench impact got progressively lower (in truth, he didn’t really impact any of the games), and the great man appears to have resigned himself to finally being in the departure lounge. His defiant raging against the light throughout 2011 has been great fun, but we have to say it’s a relief that Ireland can move on – the partisan foaming from both sides about the shirt is pretty depressing to be truthful. Sexton’s tactical kicking needs to be better, but he should relax now he is in possession.

Five years of incremental improvement and “unseen work” paid off for Donnacha Ryan, who has arrived as an international footballer and should be a key man all the way to RWC15. His aggression at ruck time, appetite for the pill and tackle count have shone a mirror uncomfortably on the so-called master of this work. Ryan had to wait for Paulie to get crocked before he could get his chance, but he was one of Ireland’s players of the tournament. He can still improve – he isn’t very big for a second row, and its hard to imagine Tom Palmer or Big Jim Hamilton being tossed asunder like a rag doll in the manner Ryan was by Bradley Davies.

Key Irish Lions

The papers from Blighty are full of breathless talk about whether Ooooooooohh Tom Croft or Dan Lydiate will wear the Lions 6 jersey, but it’s likely to be neither. Stephen Ferris has the pace of Croft over 10 metres, tackles more destructively and as prolifically as Lydiate and has the type of twitch power generally unknown outside cultures where matches are preceded, not succeeded, by manic dancing. Fez is a unique player in every sense, and gives Ireland a menace that they have never had, and will not likely have again. What a player, and what a Lion he will be, providing his knee holds up.

This time last year, Rob Kearney was recovering from injury, watching his replacement at Leinster inspire the troops to a breathless HEC victory, doubtlessly feeling rather uncomfortable about it all. Twelve months of tough work later, Bob is a better player than he has ever been – safe as a rock at full-back, showing real open field running prowess, and adding subtle handling and running more intelligent lines to the mix. The standout full-back of the tournament, Kearney is another in pole position for a Lions shirt, and is rising to the challenge of becoming one of this team’s leaders in this RWC cycle.

You-know-who, himself, some bloke called Brian

Gerry has used a lot of embarrassing names for Mr O’Driscoll in the last few months, but when your greatest player of all time is on the verge of retirement, it’s nice to know that other players can play outside centre after all. Keith Earls had a decent tournament at 13 in, eh, Brian’s absence, showing surprisingly strong defensive nous and real threat with ball in hand. Earls still looks like a winger playing centre, as evidenced by his poor peripheral vision of support runners, but he made a damn fine fist of it. The debate on who the long-term 13 is can begin, safe in the knowledge the world doesn’t actually end when Brian O’Driscoll isn’t on the team.

As well as his play at outside centre, Ireland took some steps to replace Drico’s leadership. O’Connell and Best did a good job in adversity for much of the tournament, but Drico’s absence was keenly felt in some troubling episides – the Twickenham collapse, the inability to see out a winning position against Wales and the loss of a large lead in Paris.  The challenge is now to grow a new officer class to replace those stepping up. DJ Church needs to step up and take his place in this tier, as do Heaslip, Sexton, Bowe and Kearney – Ireland weren’t dragged kicking and screaming to 3 Triple Crown’s and a Grand Slam by Drico alone, but brought smoothly there by an on-field brains trust of O’Connell, Foley, Wallace, Stringer, O’Gara, D’Arcy, O’Driscoll and Horgan. More guys need to assume the mantle as senior players.

All of which at least means the ship is afloat – just. But we have been left wondering about why the captain isn’t more concerned about the state of the engines, the rudder and the hull. Let’s look at what wasn’t so good.

No Excuses

Deccie’s pally-wals in the media will be ready with the litany of excuses: the referees shafted us, the France abandonment derailed our season, we had bad  injuries, other teams got lucky and we didn’t.  None stands up to scrutiny.  Ireland appears to be at war with the refereeing body, and has been for some time.  This season we had Deccie’s ‘disgust’ with Pearson’s performance in Paris and Foley ranting after the Scotland match.  It’s a dangerous business to be getting into, and we don’t seem to be getting anywhere with it: it provides a culture of excuses and victimhood.  As for injuries, sure, BOD and POC were huge losses, but Wales won a slam with greater injury woes.  They had Sam Warburton for fewer games than Ireland had POC and came to Dublin without four of their preferred tight forwards.  England had to cope without Manu Tuilagi for half the tournament, lost their only 10 with any experience to injury and were never able to call on Courtney Lawes.  And the France abandonment was a stroke of good fortune, not bad – it gave Ireland a chance to go back there with a bit of momentum after beating Italy.

Rotting corpse of Competitive Squads

Now, let’s note what we did not achieve: a win of any decent hue, an away win, a respectable finish, squad development. How did that happen? We feel like we are going over and over the same point again, but it has to be made – Ireland’s selection policy is ridiculously conservative, and getting more so. The same faces that are trusted by Pope Benedeccie refuse to go away even when that trust is no longer warranted.  Form no longer gets even so much as a look-in and a rigid queuing order reigns supreme.  If you’re wondering why the Heineken Cup success of the provinces doesn’t translate to the international level, well, part of the reason is that it’s treated in selection as being irrelevant. 

Donncha O’Callaghan has been a Deccie favourite since he was U-19 coach in 1998, presumably for the much-vaunted hard work he carries out. Well, sorry, it’s not that hard. Or effective. Donncha’s tackle count was miniscule throughout the tournament, his carrying non-existent and his clearing of rucks laughably underpowered. The trust put in an ailing O’Callaghan was just not repaid – the man has been a great servant of Irish rugby down the years, but he doesn’t offer anything like enough any more. But even when Donnacha Ryan was so obviously superior, he was still left on the bench.  One wonders what the likes of Dan Tuohy thinks of all this, playing much superior rugby on a consistent basis all season, yet over-looked equally as consistently. O’Callaghan has started more matches under Deccie than any other player, but surely we can’t put him up against Sam Whitelock (again). Can we?

When Conor Murray unfortunately injured his knee, and with Isaac Boss on compassionate leave in NZ, Tomas O’Leary was the coach’s automatic pick to back up Eoin Reddan (whom they have never trusted). Although the alternative, Paul Marshall, is a player so much better as to be playing a different sport altogether right now, you weren’t that surprised to see Deccie return to a man he still can’t help but love. And it backfired in spectacular fashion in Twickers. Eoin Reddan wasn’t playing well behind a beaten-up pack, but at least he can pass the ball. He was given the shepherds hook after less than 50 minutes on Saturday for TOL, in a game with a wet ball where our scrum was getting minced. That is, where a knock-on virtually guarantees a penalty against us. O’Leary threw 3 complete stinkers of passes – to O’Brien, to Ryan’s feet after skipping (unintentionally we think) the first receiver and one above Tommy Bowe’s face from 3 metres away – all were fumbled and led to penalties from the scrum. In addition, his inability to deal with a kick behind led directly to the English penalty try. It was a complete waste of a pick. Any other scrum half, any one, would have given more, and been more useful in the long term.

Gordon D’Arcy started the Six Nations reasonably well, but finished it .. well, finished. Dorce is a smart guy, and you knew looking at his face on Saturday, that he knew as well as anyone that the jig was up. Inside centre is a position where we actually have all sorts of options, from Fergus McFadden (on the bench!) to Nevin Spence to Paddy Wallace to Oooooooooohh James Downey, but we persevered cruelly with a man who has given so much service in an odd 3-act international career instead of moving on. It defies reason, respect for the player and shows a real lack of intelligence.

Even more perplexing was the decision to replace him with a fly-half.  Fergus McFadden plays for Leinster. At centre. The Leinster coaches see him all the time. And play him at centre. Yet the national management, who see him a handful of times a year, insist that the HEC-winning coaches in D4 are wrong, and Ferg is a winger. To the point where your inside centre is playing like a drain, and you have the man who has taken his place for several games at provincial level on the bench, yet you prefer to save him to play 5 minutes instead of Andy Trimble, and move your 10 out one. Your ten who has never played there. When you have a centre on the bench. Come on. This is just lunacy.

Selection Box

Ireland started 19 players in 5 games. All 4 changes were injury-enforced, and would almost certainly not have been made had misfortune not intervened. The folly of this policy was underlined in the second half at Twickenham – Ireland had nothing to give in a fourth game in four weeks. The idea of blooding some of the young talent from the provinces against Italy or Scotland appeared not to have crossed the mind of the management, and we were left with men who “gave up”, according to Andrew Trimble. Maybe Trimble is on to something – their bodies gave up for them. Who benefits from it? Certainly not the players, not the teams, not the unions or the fans.

Why is it that Warren Gatland can throw seemingly unmapped players like Jason Tipuric on to the international stage and watch them thrive, while Irish management approach starting a player who has less than ten caps as if handling dynamite?  Donncha Ryan is 28, for Gawd’s sake, but Deccie wouldn’t start him until injury – Ireland’s best selector – insisted on it.

Scrum Troubles

Even if Ireland were at their absolute best, they live in a permanent state of being one proppping injury from oblivion.  Sure enough, it happened in Twickers, and once Ross departed the field… well, we all saw what happened.  Tight-head is a position we have no depth, and the 22-man international squads left Kidney in a position where he had to replace Ross with Tom Court – a loosehead, and an ordinary one at that.  Everyone has been keen to absolve Deccie of any blame for that misfortunate, and fair enough – but it’s worth casting your mind back to November 2010, when Ross was afforded not a single minute of gametime, with Buckle, Hayes and – oh, hello! – Tom Court being selected instead.  It was only when Buckle got injured ahead of the Six Nations that Kidney was practically forced to put Ross in to the team.  Kidney kicked Ross out of Munster, and you got the feeling he never especially wanted to pick him for Ireland until he all but had to.

The Land of the Long History of Beatings

The frustrating thing about all this is that we wanted to see a better structure from Ireland this year, more evidence of a gameplan and better execution. Which we got. But the whole effort has been spoiled by gormless selection and a management seemingly unable to look past the past. Well, they have to now. Gerry is already feverishly saying that the upcoming tour of NZ means we have “less scope” for change, but surely the opposite, if anything, applies. Einstein had something to say about doing the same thing and expecting different results, and he was kind of smart. We have the core of a very decent side there, but it’s struggling to come out amidst the dead stench surrounding the larger group.  The current selection policy breeds complacency, and there are several players who look to be operating in a comfort zone: Jamie Heaslip, DJ Church, Tommy Bowe and Sean O’Brien would all benefit from a bit of hot breath on their necks.  It’s time for a new broom to sweep through the squad.

Here is what we want to see in New Zealand:

Unquestionably, the most naturally talented player of his generation is Luke Fitzgerald. After a stunning start to his international career, the wheels started wobbling with his insistence on playing full-back last year, then fell off with his exclusion from the RWC squad. Still, this is a player who is only 24 with bags to offer. Ireland need to bring him back into the reckoning, be it at 11, 12 or 13 (we think he is the future at 13 for what its worth) and utilise him. He is untainted by the Twickers debacle and is hungry and eager. Ensure he isn’t too hungry and ease the man back into the setup.

Impact from the Subs

So, what would you rather see if DJ Church pulls up after 30 minutes in Wellington? Good old Tom Court? Or young Paddy McAllister, bounding on, eager to test himself against Owen Franks? Or perhaps it’s Ronan Loughney, the closest thing to an ambi-scrummaging prop we have.  One of the second rows crocks lame just after half time – who is more likely to come in and have an effect, Donncha O’Callaghan or, say, Dan Tuohy, a man whose ability with ball in hand is unmatched by any other lock in the country. Even Evil Ryan Caldwell would at least be guaranteed to make Whitelock and Williams think for a while, and create some havoc. We’re chasing the game with 15 minutes to go and Jonny Sexton stubs his big toe. Radge to kick the corners? It has its merits, but what about Ian Madigan, the Rabo’s second highest try-scorer who offers something completely different, and unusual by Irish standards? Sure, his place-kicking is untested, but Ferg is a natural, and he is playing 12, remember? Who is that on the bench, is that young Dorce to relieve a wrecked Andrew Trimble. Or is it Craig Gilroy or Simon Zebo, consistently holding their own at HEC level? The idea is the same everywhere here, give youth and vigour its head. Doing the same old stuff isn’t going to work, let’s move into the next generation, just like England and Wales have. 

We’re miles behind already, so it’s time to play catch-up – a slew of youngsters should provide the back-up. The camp is clearly in need of an injection of new blood. Paul Marshall, Tiernan O’Halloran and Devin Toner can take over from Tomas O’Leary, Gavin Duffy and DOC. What’s more, there are players who haven’t been flogged this season, and have bundles of energy to burn. Luke Fitz (see above), Dominic Ryan (injured), Nevin Spence (injured), Felix Jones (injured) have all come back into first team reckoning of late – they should be hitting their peak and not the wall in May, and could have a real impact. Not only will we have fresh players to come in after the inevitable injuries, but they might actually learn from playing Israel Dagg, Kieran Read et al.

What about the ‘NIE’ players

Oh wait, we can’t bring them, that’s right. The clue is in the ‘N’ – it stands for ‘Non’ in Non-Ireland Eligible. So, ok, Rosser might get injured, and Afoa and Botha can’t play. What should we do? It’s a textbook situation for what the roundly-panned IRFU rules are being brought in for. The provinces haven’t produced a tight-head of note since the start of the professional era. But they haven’t produced none either, and we’ve been busy capping Mushy and Tom Court at tight-head. Amid all the halooing about Jamie Hagan not getting games at Leinster, it has been forgotten that he left Connacht to get to work with the Leinster (and Ireland) scrum doctor Greg Feek and technician Mike Ross, and emerge an improved scrummager, and to get mapped internationally. He should be encouraged – bring him along, and maybe one of Adam Macklin and Stephen Archer as well. Introduce them to the setup, and see if any of them look like stepping up.

One thing is for sure, if we adopt the same policy we adopted at the Six Nations, we’re going to get hammered 3 times. So what is there to lose? Well, the habits of a lifetime for starters…..

The Grand Slam, The Birdie Putt and the Wooden Spoon

The Grand Slam

‘Tis a biggie alright.  Wales are the Six Nations’ all-or-nothing men.  World Cup disaster in 2007?  Wales, I’ll stick you down for a large helping.  Blazing a trail in 2008 with an outstanding slam?  Yes, indeedy.  How about mid-table mediocrity for the next three years, Wazza?  Ah sure, go on. Following their World Cup success with a Grand Slam would count as an all too rare bit of consistency, and there’s a feeling that this Welsh side is built for a less fleeting spell of greatness.

They certainly have a robustness that 2008’s high-class but flaky geniuses didn’t.  If they don’t quite have the silken touch of the likes of Williamses Martyn and Shane or James Hook and Gavin Henson in form they have never looked remotely like repeating, they certainly have power.  They haven’t looked as good as they did in the opening week in Dublin over the last couple of games, but they should have enough bosh to get the job done.  Oooooooooooooooohhh Wales – who’d have thunk it?

France can be all or nothing themselves, but usually all within the one match.  PSA has had a miserable tournament, winning few friends with his Anglo-centric rugby philosophy and fewer still with some poor results.  His team look jaded and uninspired, but the squad has been given a shake-up.  It’s highly unlikely they’ll win, but a bit of fresh enthusiasm – hopefully from the likes of Ouedraogo and the exciting teenage Clermont full-back Jean Marcel Buttin – might just rouse them from their slumbers.

Verdict: Wales to secure the slam.

The Birdie Putt

Two teams looking to finish ahead of par with a win.  Both teams started terribly, but have improved as the show has gone on.  The winner will finish second in the log, and can feel pretty good about the tournament, but for the loser it’s a fair-to-middling season if you’re England and a middling-to-poor one if you’re Ireland.

Hopes are for a decent game between the two sides finishing well.  England’s gameplan isn’t that different to the side which flunked out of the World Cup.  Their carriers still run hard and straight, and Owen’s primary ploy looks to be the inside pass.  It’s readable enough stuff, but they have a handful of threats: Ben Morgan (a player we’ve liked for some time) is a fine carrier, Manu Tuilagi will fancy a cut at Ireland’s midfield and Tom Croft, while he isn’t the best 6 in the world by a long shot, can do damage in wide channels.  Not all that surprisingly, England have found their confident voice again – it doesn’t take much for these guys to believe their own hype.

If Ireland can hit the rucks and use a similar defensive line to that which we saw in Paris, they should have the class in the backline to win.  Expect to see Stephen Ferris smash anything that moves in the middle of the field, while Heaslip and O’Brien will be employed closer to the ruck.  And forget the overrated Rhys Priestland: Sexton v Farrell is the shootout for 10 of the series.

Vedict: Ireland to finsh first in the match and second in the tournie.

The Wooden Spoon

Lordy, this could make for grim viewing.

Verdict: Scotland to squeeze out a win.  Expect a cagey don’t-lose-it-whatever-you-do approach from both sides.

Les Kiss Me Quick

Before the start of the Six Nations, we did a litle bit of exploring into Ireland’s coaching structure v2.0. We weren’t too impressed with the notion that divvying up attack duties between the defence, video and kicking coaches was a good idea. We described it as a patched-up coaching team, but also acknowledged how important this aspect of the team was for Ireland, and thought it would be the difference between a good and bad championship.

Additionally, Gert Smal cried off injured with a mystery eye problem (we’re unsure if it’s the same one Dave Pearson has) and Axel Foley was borrowed from Munster to take over the forwards. Of the 2009 Dream Team, only Deccie and Les Kiss remained, and yet Ireland look invigorated by the new approach.

Attack: in the committee we trust

Amazingly, a Holy Trinity of videos, tees and defence is a better attack coach than Gaffney.   It didn’t look too hot on paper, and took 120 minutes of rugby to start to come together, but Ireland’s attack is much improved.  The Randwick Loop and lateral shovelling that characterised 2010 and 2011 have been replaced by a much sleaker animal.

It’s not that complicated. Ireland have a pod of forwards in front of a bank of backs who are coming onto the ball from deep, and at pace.  What makes the whole thing work is nothing so mysterious as accurate passing.  Johnny Sexton’s distribution has been excellent, and those around him have been up to task, and not all of them have two numbers on their back.  It was Stephen Ferris who put Trimble away for his try against Scotland, and Peter O’Mahony went scrum half at one stage in the second half and spun a wristy, accurate pass out in front of Sexton who was at least 15m away.  Some skillset.

Defence: something had to give

Yes, we have conceded more tries, but have much of that is down to the absence of “himself ” (Copyright Gerry Thornley) and how much to the defence coach double jobbing? We’ll never know, but JJV Davies second try would surely not have happened with Drico at 13 (and with two good shoulders).

It’s somewhat inevitible that defence would suffer a little with Kiss that little bit stretched.  Hopefully he will have enough time in his busy schedule to give the otherwise outstanding Rob Kearney a few lessons in cover tackling.

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Forwards: Axel’s stock on the rise
Naturally, it’s hard to know exactly how much to credit Foley with, but it’s pretty plain that Ireland’s set piece and breakdown work have improved noticeably from the opening game against Wales.
We were legitimately concerned about Ireland’s lineout going into the Scotland game, and according to Keith Wood, Donnacha Ryan was very nervous early in the week over the added burden of lineout calling.  That the set piece worked so well is a feather in the cap for Axel (as well as credit to Ryan himself).  Similarly, Ireland’s scrum was dominant for much of the match.  Scotland are no heavyweight scrummagers, but it continued a decent campaign for the front row.  L’icing sur la cake was the tidy set-piece try from Best – precisely the sort of set piece move that brings a smile to the coach’s face when executed so efficiently (though Muddy Wulliams says it’s an old Ulster trick).
Among the many ills of the Welsh game was a lack of aggression at the ruck.  This, too, has been successfully banished in the last three games, with the most visible improvement being in Paris, when Ireland looked almost feral at the breakdown – a little too feral for Dave Pearson’s liking perhaps, but still.
It all augurs well for Foley himself.  Nobody’s actually sure whether or not Smal is returning to the fold, and it’s pretty obvious the IRFU see Foley performing this role at some stage in the future.  His credentials as head coach of Munster next season have been given a timely shot in the arm.

On to Twickers…

All in all then, a pretty good report card. Ireland look to be going places for the first time in three years. The performance graph is positive, with each performance being better than the last for four games in a row now (starting from a low base, admittedly); in stark contrast to the long swathes of dire-ness followed by one stand-out performance.

What we would like to see in Twickers is simple: the same aggressive up-and-in defence that will force England’s boshers into contact (not that they would look for space anyway), but crucially, lets Ireland dictate the first tackle. England’s carriers run pretty straight (Oooooooooooohhh!) and Farrell’s primary option seems to be the inside pass – it should be pretty readable stuff.  If Ireland can repeat the ferocity of our rucking against France, they have a good chance. We have piles more invention in attack than England, but, as always, need to match them up front to earn the right to show it.

There’s a lot at stake in Twickenham.  If Ireland pull off a win, it’s a decent championship and a proper upward curve heading into the series in New Zealand. But lose and it’s Ireland’s worst campaign since the one where Eddie walked – seems harsh to say it, but losing to Wales has left us in that position.

It will still take a monumental effort to get a win on the summer tour, especially at the end of a long, tough season. Last time we went over there, we were forced to play Ed O’Donoghue – let’s hope the big players stay fit. Oh, and if Deccie would pick our best XV for once that would be nice too.

Five things we learned from this week’s Six Nations

Another week, another set of bogus predictions from the Whiff of Cordite boys.  I only hope all our loyal readers have been going to the bookies to lay exactly what we’ve been forecasting.  Wales to cut loose, Ireland to win a tight game and France to beat England.  Erm…

Ireland’s attack: now with 40% more penetration

Before the tournament, the one thing we asked – begged! – for was to see Ireland’s attack improve.  Credit to Deccie and Kiss; they have delivered.  Ireland look a threat with ball in hand now, and the flat, lateral play that characterised Ireland over the last couple of seasons has been largely dispatched – 13 tries in four games, and no fewer than two in any match, tells its own story.  It said a lot that even after a nervy, ponderous start, Ireland were willing to go to the corner with an early penalty, and take the game to the Scots.  It’s been a collective effort, but two players who deserve particular credit are Rob Kearney and Keith Earls.  Kearney’s counter-attacking has been a joy to watch, and Keith Earls has shown himself to be up to the job at 13.

Wales slam-in-waiting has echoes of Ireland in 2009

Wales have effectively won the Championship, barring a ridiculous set of results next week.  Their journey to the Grand Slam has been reminiscent of Ireland in 2009 – opening with an impressive flourish in the first match, before regressing a little with every game.  Ireland relied on an accurate kicking game, while Wales have fallen back on their power.  It’s almost as if they’ve bought into the press’ fawning over the size of their backline. No side that wins a Six Nations deserves to be sniffily treated, and less so one that wins a Grand Slam, as Wales surely will.  They are the best selected, best coached, and it would appear, fittest, team in the competition, but this is not a vintage championship.  Ireland, and indeed England, will not see them as especially superior, and are entitled to have some regrets.

Just how awesome is Richie Gray?

Very is the answer. Watching Scotland on Saturday was a little bit like watching Italy in recent times, when one player is just so much better than all his team-mates. Gray was physically and metaphorically head and shoulders above anyone else in a navy shirt, and indeed many in green. His try was a thing of beauty – Bob Kearney is getting some stick for buying Gray’s dummy, but Gray combined the dummy with a subtle change of angle and pace, and it was that, as much as anything, which did for Kearney. At times you felt he should step in at 10 to give Wee Greig a break – he most probably has the skills for it.

Gallic shrugs for all

It’s pretty clear France aren’t very engaged in this tournament. We thought they would stroll it, so mea culpas all round, but they just don’t seem too bothered. When they look like they might be embarrassing themselves, they step it up for a while (last quarter vs. Scotland, third quarter vs. Ireland, last 10 minutes vs. England), but generally aren’t too concerned. Why might this be? Well, PSA was roundly congratulated for his continuity, contrasting with Lievremont’s selections, but that has a flip side. Firstly, they were all physically and emotionally drained after the RWC. Secondly, the team’s key players are from Toulouse, Clermont and Biarritz – three teams with key months ahead, for differing reasons.

The rumour mill is already rife that Yachvili (and the FFR) would prefer to be with Biarritz to save them from relegation rather than devote time to Les Bleus. At the other end, Clermont are aiming for a unique double – and expect to see the Aurelien Rougerie we are used to and not the ponderous and disinterested passenger of the 6N when Les Jaunards pitch up in Lahndan in April. It’s not that the national jersey means nothing, it’s that these men can only give so much; and being a Basque, Catalan or Auvergnat is equally as important as being French.

And by the by, for a nation which professes to be in love with the drop goal, they’ve been utterly useless at them in this competition.

Lancaster’s investment in youth has paid off

England might have looked desperate at times, but they have done what they have needed to do, and, but for Mike Brown’s inability to fix a man, would be playing for the Championship this weekend. Lancaster tore up the tired old script and gave youth its head, and he has been rewarded. England are improving with every game, and it’s down to Owen Farrell (20), Manu Tuilagi (20), Ben Morgan (23), Alex Corbisiero (23), Chris Robshaw (23) and Brad Barritt (25). The youngsters are beginning to look comfortable in their surroundings, and England look in decent shape all of a sudden.

The test will of course come in adversity. Johnno tore up a pretty successful playbook after getting hockeyed by Ireland last year, and the result was a farcical RWC. England have their nemesis of recent times, a rejuvenated Ireland, up next, then a three test tour of South Africa at the end of a draining season. If their performances hold up, they don’t ship any heavy beatings, and they get two wins (or one if it comes in SA) from those four, England will have come through a very tough time to get to a pretty good place.

Six Nations: Round Four Preview

Wales v Italy

This is a no-brainer right? Right. Wales have won every game and are at home to an Italian side who have lost every game.

England showed the way for the rest of the world how to trouble Wales – tempt them into a bosh-fest. With Mike Philips at scrum half, there is every chance of dragging to a dogfight, tightening up space in the midfield, leaving Jamie Roberts too tempted by contact, and emasculating Davies, North and Halfpenny with no ball.

It’s a gameplan which might have appealed to Italy of two years ago but Novo Italia don’t do 10 man rugby any more – they toss the ball around with gay abandon and utter ineffectiveness. The lack of a fly-half worthy of the description is a major impediment, and they won’t come anywhere close to winning a game without one.

Only complacency is Wales’ enemy here, and there is a chance they could really go to town in the 4th quarter, like Ireland did, but they may empty the bench with Les Bleus in mind.

Verdict: Wales at a canter, by 20 points at least.

Ireland v Scotland

The Stade de Farce re-schedule and high-quality game means Scotland are coming into this game somewhat under the radar. All the talk has been about Tommy Bowe, Ireland’s aggressive defence then heroic resistance, followed by injuries to Paulie and Conor Murray. No-one has talked about Scotland, which is the way they will like it – from the soundbites coming from their camp, they seem confident they can win.

Scotland’s two Genuine Opensides (TM) will not only have Hook and McGurk drooling, but they will have Ireland worried – John Barclay did a serious job on them two years ago. In addition, Big Jim Hamilton and Slim Richie Gray will be licking their lips at the prospect of a lineout featuring no 4-jumper, or experienced caller.  Scotland’s lineout stats are the best in the tournament, and Ireland’s are the worst – and that was before O’Connell got injured.  The ball carrying ability of Healy, Best and the back-row is matched by Ford, Gray and Denton.

Ireland have a tradition under Deccie of having difficulty peaking for successive games. They will have in mind that England at Twickers will be draining, and may aim to go wide early and get some daylight on the scoreboard to facilitate third gear for the last quarter. The expansive approach will suit Scotland, and we fear inaccurate execution could let them grow into the game.

The Irish bench has been a real strength up to now, but we have been forced to start our best subs, and you can’t see McCarthy and O’Leary having the same impact that Ryan and Reddan have brought with them. Also, Radge’s corner kicking is effectively out of the equation given Paulie’s absence.

Verdict: We are intrigued by this Scottish team, and we think they will do someone over soon. Probably not Saturday though. Probably. Expect the Leinster half backs to drag Ireland over the line by less than a score.

France v England

Le Crunch.  Les Bleus v Les Rosbifs.  Le Marsaillaise.  Le Stade de France.  L’artiste dans le side of the pitch painting le picture.  Le vin rouge.  Le champagne rugby.  Les deux fairly ordinary teams based on championship form so far. 

France were much vaunted before the tournament began (including by us), but they have been fleeting, playing only in fits and starts.  They beat Italy without much of the ball, were decidedly fortunate to beat Scotland, and then were careless against Ireland, coughing up two turnover tries (one an intercept) and falling 11 points behind despite pretty much owning the football.  They’ve addressed things by replacing their stuttering halfbacks with the more prosaic talents of Beauxis and Julien Dupuy, and seem set to give it a bit of boot and bollock, as is PSAs wont.

This is the fixture where England tend to outperform, and they seem surprisingly chuffed with themselves after losing at home to Wales.  Lancaster has done a reasonable job so far but needs to learn how to use his bench i.e. don’t!  Under no circumstances should Dowson and an out-of-form Youngs have been introduced to disrupt England’s momentum.  They were unlucky in the end, and looked to have scored a potential equalising score at the death, but just two tries, both from chargedowns, in three games tells its own story.

Don’t expect a classic.

Verdict: We have France down for a narrow win here.  Expect the scores to rack up in multiples of three, but France may just have a single match-winning try in them.