And the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor goes to ……

Mick O’Driscoll!

Hardly a name that will be remembered by generations of Irish rugby fans. But it should be – Micko is a stalwart of the professional era, and reached a significant milestone on Saturday night when he earned his 200th cap for Munster, fittingly as captain, in his 12th season (he spent 2 years in Catalunya from 2003-05). The domestique of Irish rugby, he puts in the dirty minutes in an empty Rodney Parade and unquestioningly returns to the bench when Thomond Park fills up for big European nights. It’s Farrelly-esque to say that someone never gives less than 100% and never lets anyone down, but it is appropriate for Micko.

Micko’s professionalism and durability is remarkable, and he most certainly will be able to retire saying he made the most of his talent. It’s worth noting that Micko has never been first choice in his Munster career, being stuck behind Gaillimh, John Langford, Paulie, Stakhanov O’Callaghan and recently Donnacha Ryan, yet the majority of his 200 caps have been as a starter, which shows the trust that multiple coaches have put in Micko to lead the Celtic/Magners/Rabo league dirt trackers.

His best years were assuredly the 3 seasons from 2008-2011 where he led Munster to 2 league titles, consistently out-performed Stakhanov and famously played on an almost-but-not-quite night against New Zealand, when he was simply sensational, leading a team shorn of 10 internationals to within minutes of a stunning victory over a team containing Cory Jane, Joe Rokocoko, Kieran Read and, errrr, Thomas the Tank Engine’s brother (Ooooooohhh!!).

The moment that we will never forget is in 2009, when Munster lifted the Magners League trophy. The occasion was set to a desperately disappointing backdrop, being in the shadow of that defeat to Leinster, but Micko led the troops to yet another win, and, fittingly, was invited by provincial captain Paulie to lift the trophy. The class of the occasion was only matched by the Paul Derbyshire moment after the 2011 win.

Of the 23 players used by Ireland to win the 2009 Grand Slam, only 1 played zero minutes – Micko; yet you never would have worried if either of the second rows had pulled up injured (well, maybe a little if Paulie got hurt), such was his reliability. And if he owed his place to Mal O’Kelly’s errant timekeeping as much as his own qualities, well that’s not his lookout.  He did come off the bench in both HEC finals, but, unsurprisingly, and uncomplainingly, didn’t start either. For such a committed player in a notoriously dirty position, it’s also worth noting that his recent yellow card against Treviso was only his second ever and his first in 6 years, playing and thriving in a physical side not renowned for their discipline.

If only there was some term to convey the almost mythical, fabled, nature of his contribution… 

Mick O’Driscoll – we salute you!

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Memo to Mike McCarthy: ‘Become O’Connell’

Lordy.  Talk about timing.  Obviously there’s never a good time for the premier lock in Europe to get injured, but coming just after Ireland appeared to get their season in motion, already without Brian O’Driscoll, captain and all round supremo Paul O’Connell is ruled out for the rest of the Six Nations through injury.  Just three games into his tenure, playing some of his best rugby ever, it’s desperately unlucky on a personal level, but worse still for Ireland.  Conor Murray will also miss the remainder of the campaign.  Again, it’s bad news, and awful for him personally, but it’s one position where we do have an able replacement, who was knocking hard for selection in any case.

Two vs. Four

Donnacha Ryan, already not so much knocking on the selectorial door as smashing his way through it, finally gets his chance, right?  Wrong!  Himself and Donncha O’Callaghan surely cannot be paired together, despite what Gerry says.  Both are front-jumpers (jumping at ‘2’) and neither has any real experience running the lineout.  The only time they were paired at Munster saw London Irish decimate the set piece and win the game.  In fact, if anything, the luckless Ryan is even more likely to miss out on a test start, because Deccie will baulk at having to change two second rows when he already has to change one.  Stakhanov O’Callaghan’s incredible fortune looks set to continue.

For this reason, the clamour to see Ulster’s impressive Dan Tuohy called up is misplaced (though he should be in the squad already).  He, like Ryan, is a front-jumping tighthead-lock, and it’s Muller that runs the lineout up north.

Ireland need a middle of the lineout jumper (jumping at ‘4’) who has experience calling the lineout. It’s one position we just don’t have that much depth.  Stalwart squad men Leo Cullen and Mick O’Driscoll are either injured and/or winding down towards retirement.  The only two options are Connacht’s Mike McCarthy and Leinster’s skyscraping Devin Toner.  Deccie has opted for McCarthy, and he’s a fine player enjoying another good season.  Athletic and full of aggression, all he has to do now is simply take the step up to becoming Paul O’Connell – easy!  He’ll have O’Callaghan alongside him, who could make anything up to eight tackles to help him out.

There’s always Biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey, who at least has the same physique as Big Jim Hamilton, but its hardly fair to deny Mike Ross the title of heaviest forward, and anyway, Big Bob struggles to get in to the London Samoa team these days.

Personally, we would have plumped for Big Dev, given his towering presence in the lineout, vastly improved performances this season, and how he has outperformed Richie Gray on both occasions when they went head-to-head against Glasgow in the HEC this year – but it’s much of a muchness, and every time we’ve seen McCarthy (not enough, perhaps) he has impressed us.  Plus, he’ll up the handsome quotient in the pack.

Verdict: in spite of the morning’s papers anticipating an all-Donn(a)cha, second row, we’re anticipating O’Callaghan and McCarthy starting together, Ryan once again on the bench.

Knock-on Effects .. for the Paddys and the Jocks

If Ryan’s chances of starting have taken a dent, Peter O’Mahony’s have increased.  POM is a light, tall fellow that’s easily thrown in the air, and has done well at the tail of Munster’s lineout this season.  Already probably deserving of a start in this game, Deccie may well see him as a good option to share the lineout burden.  It’s worth noting that Scotland have perhaps the best (maybe second to France) defensive lineout in the tournament, with Richie Gray a phenomenal ball-thief at the front, and Big Jim Hamilton adept in the middle.  A dedicated aerial specialist in the backrow would do no harm.

This would give the Irish pack a very French look, with 2 lumps in the second row and atheletic and talented lineout-enabled forwards in the backrow. Scotland picked 2 genuine opensides (TM) and nullified the French backrow well 2 weeks ago, but Robbo might be tempted to pick a lump at 6 (Kelly Brown and Alasdair strokosh would be ideal, but are injured) to really target the raw Irish lineout.

Verdict: Peter O’Mahony to start.  A somewhat out of form Sean O’Brien to miss out. Robbo to stick with 2 groundhogs, to the delight of Gormless George.


Oh Captain My Captain

The obvious choice here is Rory Best.  Already a longstanding member of the team-leaders panel, he emerged during the World Cup as a key figure in the pack (and a great player).  The only thing that might persuade Deccie to overlook him is the sheer weight already on his shoulders.  He will have the responsibility of throwing to an already struggling lineout now without its main man.  Maybe it’d be asking too much of him.  If that line of thinking did prevail, the armband would fall to one of Rob Kearney, Stephen Ferris or Jamie Heaslip.  Heaslip is usually the most talkative in huddles, but he rarely wears the armband at Leinster, and its unlikely he’ll wear it for Ireland.

Ferris and Kearney’s outstanding form alone makes them compelling, but its our old mate Bob would strikes us as the better option. ‘Twas a 10-cap Kearney who famously spoke up at the Enfield meeting, and by all accounts he is held in high regard by his colleagues.

In truth, any of the group would appear built for the role, and Deccie would do well to empower this group, and probably Sexton as well (like ROG, too cranky for the captaincy, but clearly a leader) with the role of leading the team.

Verdict: Best to captain, with Kearney his able lieutenant

Scrum Half

Little doubt that Reddan will now be the starting nine, but the call-up of Tomas O’Leary raised more than a few eyebrows.  Isaac Boss surely would have got the call, but is in New Zealand for personal reasons.  The folly of not calling up Paul Marshall in the first place has now come back to bite – this is classic stubborn Kidney.

Anyone who has watched Tomas and Paul in action this season will see two players at the opposite ends of the spectrum.  Marshall has been a key figure for Ulster, often coming off the bench, and has pushed his way into the starting line-up in recent weeks.  O’Leary meanwhile, had some reasonable cameos early on, but has reverted to his pre-World Cup form.  He is nowhere near operating at test level.  This is a terrible call by Kidney, which sees him, once again, playing favourites.

Ulster will be delighted that the Marshall-Pienaar axis can continue to develop; at least someone benefits from this deeply wrong-headed decision by Deccie.

Verdict: Unthinkably, O’Leary will be in an Irish matchday 22.  Wowsers.

Better When We’re Bitter

Well, that’s more like it, isn’t it?  It wasn’t quite enough to secure the win, but a draw in Paris was far better than what most of us expected.  It will ultimately go down as a disappointment, because Ireland put themselves in a position to win, but when it’s reviewed with a bit of context, it will go down as one of their better days under Kidney.  Here’s five things we learned from today’s game.

1. Bob Kearney and Stephen Ferris will be senior players on the Lions Tour

Amid all the Wales love this season and Lions-domination predictions, when for example Farmer Farrelly had 13 (thirteen!) Welshmen (and no Leinster players) on his Lions team, two of Ireland’s most important players have set extremely high standards.

Bob Kearney has always been the safest full-back in the air, but he has added really intelligent counter-attacking, line speed and leadership to his repertoire. Coming from a place where his replacement as Leinster fullback had inspired Leinster to a sparkling HEC, Bob has returned as a phenomenally good player. With Ben Foden off form, Little Leigh Halfpenny not a natural fullback and Stuey Hogg just out of nappies, Bob will go on his second Lions tour as a key player.

Meanwhile … Fez … what can we say. When Lionel Beauxis lined up what would have been the match winning drop today, we’re pretty sure he didn’t expect a forward to be the one on top of him, least of all Ireland’s huge enforcer and primary wrecking ball Stephen Ferris. Yet Fez was the man who batted him down. Fez! The quickest man over 10 metres in Ulster, the man’s power is simply incredible. He has twitch muscular strength of Samoan standard (Oooooooohhhh) yet has shown the softest hands in the Ireland team this series. The man is a freak and is the most Southern Hemisphere type player playing in the Six Nations. He’d walk into the New Zealand team, and will walk into the Lions team as well (sorry, Tom Croft).

Paul O’Connell, meanwhile, will be in the shake-up for the captaincy.  Age has not dimmed his ability to conjure up a sort of maniacal energy in the middle of the pack.

2. Les Kiss had a successful week at the office

Ireland’s line-speed in defence was vastly improved this week, and the benefit was reaped early and often.  In the first half hour in particular, Ireland had France in all sorts of trouble.  Any attempt they made to go wide was snaffled out with man-and-ball tackles from Ireland’s backrow and midfield.  Sexton and Ferris come in for particular credit here for their aggression and technique.  The choke tackle may be predictable at this stage, but it’s still effective and still wins turnovers.

3. Some semblance of a gameplan has emerged

Ireland didn’t have that much ball to play with, but they are starting to play with a bit more attacking shape.  We’re still not convinced management are getting enough out of the group of players in attack, but they are looking a lot more cohesive.  Sexton is having a lot of success running a line from very deep behind the ruck – almost to the point where you think he’s going to drop a goal (he mentioned in the Sunday Times that he’s seen Quade Cooper use it to great effect).  He’s comfortable carrying the ball towards the gainline and his ability to throw long, accurate passes takes out midfield blitz defenders.

4. Our strengths are our weaknesses and our weaknesses are our strengths

Ireland were arguably a functioning lineout away from winning the game.  Ireland’s centres stood up to the threat posed by France’s thoroughbreds and caused them some trouble themselves.  Come again?  Surely that’s the wrong way round.  Given the calibre of personnel running the lineout, it was alarmingly awful today, and wasn’t great against Italy either.  We would be surprised if it wasn’t fixed next week – it will need to be, because Scotland’s defensive lineout is perhaps the best in the Six Nations.

D’arcy and Earls were perceived as a massive weakness before the tournament, but they’ve been effective so far.  D’arcy’s still got quick feet that can make ground in traffic, even if he rarely makes clean breaks these days.  Earls, meanwhile, has been defensively good (one missed tackle and an admittedly crucial stupid fly hack that led to the French try aside) and the way he put Bowe through for the try… well you’d almost think he was a natural centre. 

5. Ireland need to back this up against Scotland

It’s not really something that you should dwell on, lest you get frustrated again, but Ireland’s annoying post-Grand Slam habit of one big performance a tournament is well-documented at this stage. Rubbish in the humdrum games, only to pull a huge performance out of the bag when nobody expects it.  The show in Paris yesterday was Ireland’s best against the Bleu Meanies in years, but can they follow it up against Scotland? With a six day turnaround, we can expect changes at 4, 7, 9 and possibly the introduction of Ferg somewhere in the 3/4 line to give some much-needed recovery to the front-liners – Donncha’s unseen work can be particularly wearying.

This should add a sense of urgency to Ireland because, let’s be honest, it’s primed for an ambush. You feel for Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony as they will be expected to hit the ground running. Yet Ryan will face one Richard James Gray, the most exciting second row talent to emerge in these islands since Alun Wyn Jones Paul O’Connell; and O’Mahony will be expected by goons like McGurk and Hook to produce a Brussouw-esque groundhog performance facing not one but two genuine opensides (we’ve checked and they’re genuine) in Ross Rennie and John Barclay. Good luck.

It’s going to be a tough day at the office, but lets not deflate this bubble too much!

Your coaches … give them to me, now

Having looked backwards in some detail at the Munster and Ulster progress in the last few years, it seems logical to have a look forward, especially in the context of the vacant hot-seats in Belfast and Limerick Cork Limerick. Both provinces will be linked with the usual posse of out-of-work-for-ages supremos e.g. John Kirwan, unavailable pipe-dreams e.g. Conor O’Shea and Desperate Dans e.g. Eddie.

But which job would a man want if both were offered? In fact, how do both jobs stack up? Lets get down and dirty and take a 3 year horizon.

Squad (Re-)Building

Ulster: Ulster’s squad has some tidy Saffers, a couple of Irish superstars and a cadre of young and hungry Irish talent. The squad should be expected to remain pretty settled in the medium term, and should form a good base to work with.   Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson are coming back next season, which represents an endorsement of the province.  The major risk is the IRFU following through on the blame-the-foreigners act – Muller, Pienaar and Afoa would be virtually impossible to replace.  Delivering greater strength in depth is the first call of duty for a new coach; Ulster don’t have the calibre of reserves that Munster and Leinster can call upon.

Munster: A long to-do list beckons, in spite of the work done by McGahan in the last year. Has Rog three years left? Unlikely, even if he was that way inclined (which we doubt). How does one manage the transition from one of the greatest Irish fly halves in history to … er … Ian Keatley? Tough. First job on the list is pruning a bloated squad – the likes of Duncan Williams, Billy Holland and Scott Deasy are among the likely candidates for the chop / N18 to Galway.

Expectation Levels:

Ulster: High, but realistic. Ulster will demand some silverware in 3 years – a Rabo in year 1 or 2 followed by a HEC is the likely target. After two successive quarter-finals, a move into the Munster/Leinster league of being perennial knock-out stage merchants is the next step, as well as earning a home QF.

Munster: Sky-high, and not always realistic. Such is the level of success attained by the Liginds that the Munster faithful demand a HEC quarter-final and a challenge for the Rabo every year as a bare minimum.  Even if the new coach achieves that, they will not be considered a success without a HEC. We could poke fun by talking about honesty of effort and backs to the wall, but that guff belongs to Farrelly – it’s achievements that count in Thomond Park.

Set-up and Coaching:

Ulster: Still training at Newforge, and awaiting the sort of dedicated training centre and professional backup that Munster and Leinster enjoy at UL and UCD. The irony of Ireland’s leading sports science research mostly coming from Ulster (largely due to the GAA) is not lost on Humph etc. Ulster’s support staff and specialist coaches need beefing up, although a new coach may bring some of those.

Munster: Top facilities at UL, but half the squad is based in Cork – the bi-location is not ideal. The real problem for a prospective coach is, ironically given its where Munster have improved so markedly this season, the forwards coach (assuming here Axel is not the new head coach). Any new coach will have to accept Axel as forwards coach whether they want him or not – that said, he appears fit for purpose.

External Influence:

Ulster: Humph is a hands-on kind of guy, but one suspects that once the new coach and his team are in place, they will be left to it. Brian McLaughlin was left alone until Humph knew he was being replaced. The Ravenhill faithful will support the new coach unconditionally, for the first year at least, given he has the Humph seal of approval. There will be pressure to succeed, but there will not be interference. The rugby media in Ulster are generally rather tame, and without a record of success in a while, everything is still taken as a bonus.

Munster: Axel is regarded as the man in waiting by the suits and the fans (why do you think Ludd was only offered a 1 year deal?) – if things go badly, sections of the crowd will be looking for the coach’s head, and for Axel to step in. Is a top-name coach going to be interested in coming in for a couple of years, when he knows he’ll be moved on after that?  Now try transitioning Radge out of the team – the fans will only be on one side. The media can be fawning, but it’s conditional – if the Liginds like you, you’re in, otherwise, you’re out.

Conclusion:

It’s pretty obvious which job is more appealing to a big name coach, and it’s not the Munster one. In fact, it’s arguable that there are no positives for a non-Munster coach going in (other than the prestige of managing a great franchise), and that anyone with sense wouldn’t touch the job with a bargepole. That being as it is, the Munster hierarchy may be best off appointing Axel a year before they intended to and give him the best backs coach and coaching team they can get. Is it true Eddie is free (don’t snigger, he is an excellent technical backs coach)?

Up in Ulster, the possiblities are myriad – once you meet Humph’s criteria. One suspects Humph will want a young and hungry coach who will bring a new approach and ambition to the squad, like Joe Schmidt at Leinster. A big name like Wayne Smith may bring too much pressure and the risk of going off-message – better to get someone who Humph can trust and who will understand the task at hand. Someone like, say, Matt Sexton? As a former hooker, Sexton could take the forwards and bring in an experienced backs coach to help out. Someone like Eddie (we told you to stop sniggering).