Santa Baby

We’re going to look at the forthcoming season for each of the provinces  in the next couple of weeks, but hot on the heels of our summer series and particularly the conclusions, we thought we’d put together a wish-list of sorts for Ireland – what we would like to see from the national team this year.

The Irish team to find a direction and a purpose

We’ve talked about this a bit already – the Ireland team is fragmented and aimless at present. The relationship with the provinces is fraught and the team suffers from a lack of vision at all levels. Lets hope that next year we see this begin to change. We won’t re-hash our arguments of earlier in the week, but you can read all about it here.

The death of the phrase “honesty of effort”

The idea that trying really really hard is something aspirational for Ireland is something that just refuses to go away. For us, it smacks of the kind of give-it-a-lash-sure-we’ll-drink-them-under-the-table-anyway attitude that prevailed for so long. We hate to state the obvious, but the players who play for Ireland are professional – it’s their job to play rugby. If they find they can’t be bothered, they will lose their jobs. Most are ambitious, and thus doing their best is a starting point.

As it should be. If this Ireland team are to have an ethos, it should be the pursuit of excellence and winning. We want the Irish rugby squad to have an ethos of being the best and asking how they achieve that. The identity and drive should be similar to the All Blacks – the aim should be to be the best. At present, playing skillful, intelligent and heads-up rugby is the way to achieve  that – so let’s do it.

This misty-eyed vision of Irish rugby possessing something special just because we try hard belongs in the amateur era, and should be challenged at all times. In fact, we’re sure the wooden spoon-accumulating teams of the 1990s also tried really hard, but they weren’t successful because they weren’t very good. Let us forget the guff and concentrate, eyes open, on winning.

A decline in inter-provincial bickering

One of the most marked features of the last decade, and particularly the last three years, has been the rise is embittered rants directed between the provinces. Friendly rivalry but collective purpose has taken a back seat to partisan and destructive thoughtlines, which are having a progressively corrosive effect on the national team.

Consider the “Jamie Heaslip needs a kick up the hole” meme which did the rounds among non-Leinster fans for much of last season – the value of Heaslip was seen in his absence in Hamilton, and the purpose of the inital argument was merely to push forward lesser players of other provinces (note this section is being written by Egg, our resident Ulsterman, and should thus be exempt from Leinster-centric criticism). Any kind of objective assessment could conclude nothing but Jamie Heslip is Ireland’s best number 8 by a stretch. If we want to rotate and get other players test experience, great, let’s do it. But let’s do it for that reason, not because Heaslip is personally not your cup of tea.

So besides “think of the children” type hand-wringing, what can be done? Loads actually – and much of it by the IRFU and national setup. One might cringe at the “Team England” setup they have in Twickers, but the English team have an identity – they aren’t merely the best of Leicester, Sarries and Saints (or whoever), unlike Ireland. Why can’t the IRFU make its employees take part in accessible family days? Or rotate the Carton House sessions around the country – bring in Adare Manor, Inchydoney or Galgorm Manor? Bringing the players to the fans might sound corny, but it works. And imagine the reaction to the Sexton/O’Gara debate to see the pair of them posing together for pics with children, and having the craic – its tempers some bitterness already, and makes the Irish setup something more than a vehicle for provincial box-ticking.

Some way of making the Six Nations less Hooray Henry would be good as well – we understand there are bills to be paid, but is there a reason why Six Nations tickets are virtually hereditary? The Irish team are distant from the fans, and thus it’s easy for a provincial identity to dominate. Why can Fan Zones not be set up in (say) Georges Dock, the Titanic Quarter or other public areas to show games on big screens and provide a family-friendly access point?

The IRFU to embrace social media

This is easy, and embarrassingly obvious. Compared to the provinces, the use of modern media by the IRFU is laughably poor. They are virtually never on Twitter and Facebook for example. The Supporters Club is a joke – for your €50 you get a fridge magnet and a drum, then nothing – not even an e-mail to say your membership is ready for renewal. If there are returned tickets, you might get a communication, but you usually don’t. Its pretty easy to communicate events, results (of teams at all levels), messages etc – the fusty image of the IRFU is well-deserved, and moving into the 21st century might dispel some of the cigar smoke.

When we see (and be certain, we will) swathes of empty seats at the November internationals, we should ask why haven’t the IRFU shifted them? Price is a factor, but some of the answer certainly lies in fans not knowing they are there – paying money for a SC subscription and not being told tickets are available is frankly Stone Age. And even if people don’t want to pay to see the Pumas, run competitions for free tickets on social media sites, radio, internet – its a no-brainer. Fill the stadium already!

Caps for Connacht

Consider Fionn Carr (2009-11) or Gavin Duffy and Mike McCarthy this year. What do they have in common? That they haven’t picked up as many caps as their form deserved, and that they played for Connacht.

Now, let’s say you are younger player and are behind an established player in your province. You can expect start 6-8 Pro12 games a year, but are essentially waiting on an injury to stake a claim to the jersey. You are offered the chance to join Connacht – what do you say? Right now you say no. But what if you knew you could go for a pre-defined period (12 or 24 months, not a permanent move) and play 14-16 Pro12 games and 2-4 HEC/Amlin games, and would be in Ireland contention?

You might re-consider. It might benefit the likes of Luke Marshall, Paddy Butler or Jack Cooney to spend some time in Connacht, but it would amount to career suicide at present. If you could earn Ireland call-ups by playing well, then return to your home province as a genuine contender to start, it changes the dynamic – it widens the player pool, gives players experience, and broadens the national teams appeal. Connacht’s current squad is thin, and is padded out by Pacific Islanders in any case – we’re pretty sure they would welcome the cream of other provinces developing youngsters for a season or two.

Luke Fitzgerald

This is a player who peaked three years ago and has been bedevilled by uncertainty and injury ever since. Yet he is also the most naturally talented of his generation. It would be a crying shame if his boundless potential was not completely realised, and he is talented enough to be the recipient of some special project plan – the national setup and Leinster need to work out how best to utilise his ability in the long term, and plan accordingly.

Obviously, Fitzgerald himself needs to be on board too – he has spoken out before about wanting to be a fullback, but he needs to be informed that, at present, he is 3rd choice (at best) and is behind the last two ERC players of the year – a career at full-back is not going to happen. Whether it’s at 12, 13 or 11, the natural talent that he has needs to be nurtured … assuming he comes back from injuries the same player.



  1. Giuseppe

     /  August 16, 2012

    “Jamie Heaslip needs a kick up the hole” I’m pretty certain I said that in the comments on here! I feel so proud….

    On that I’m happy to acknowledge that he’s our best No 8 by some distance but I do think we should be blooding a few other players in that position. At the moment we don’t really have a great deal of options if Mr Heaslip gets injured!

  2. Giuseppe

     /  August 16, 2012

    On the fan zones, if the FAI / 3 mobile can can fill Georges Dock with people in the pi$$ing rain to see the soccer team (who, lets be honest, aren’t the most exciting team to watch). I can’t see why O2 can’t do something similar, at least for the 6N. As someone who lives in that part of town and has been to a lot of stuff there, it’s a nice little venue. Fire up a big screen, charge people a fiver a head or something and head in and have the craic. It could be a nice little attraction for visiting fans that don’t have tickets too!

  3. toro toro

     /  August 16, 2012

    Wasn’t Seán O’Brien ERCPOTY two years ago, rather than Isa Chríost? Fine and versatile player, but even a confidence-deprived Luke is probably ahead of him in the depth chart at 15…

  4. Bowe Gathers

     /  August 16, 2012

    Spot on as usual. Please send the social media section to the IRFU via the nearest carrier pigeon or engraved stone tablet you can find, it’s long overdue.

  5. KeithEarlsisnota13.

     /  August 16, 2012

    Spot on I was thinking the Ifru need to get more integrated with the fans,the all blacks did this recently with a game against Counties and Aukland,A game against the combined Dublin clubs at RDS,and them same aroung the other provinces for example would be a way to bring in punters for a day out and a light workout for fringe players as well as boosting the AIL’s

    As to Luke Fitzgerald,a move abroad and a chance to stake a claim for the 13 jersey at another club until BOD retires should be the way forward for him.

  6. HenryFitz

     /  August 16, 2012

    To ‘Jamie Heaslip needs a kick up the hole’ add ‘Keith Earls is not a 13’.

  7. Radge Fan

     /  August 16, 2012

    I find the comments that Ireland should be winning more as annoying as the ‘lets give it a lash attitude’. Maybe we’re just not good enough. Some of you guys probably think that Analaise Murphy is a loser because she came 4th in her Olympic races, or that those that who got bronze medals were only ‘giving it a lash’ and with better coaching would have won gold!

    As for Heaslip – one swallow doesn’t make a summer. His performance in the 2nd test was missed in the 1st & 3rd Test in NZ.

    ‘Keith Earls is not a 13’ – Penney has told Earls he sees him as a 13 – you’ll need to get over it. As for Connacht players getting caps – if they are good enough they will – Cronin did. The time to cap Carr & Hagan internationally will be when they are both making the HC squad for Leinster, not some charity cap when they were playing for Connacht.

    • Lad – you do know Heaslip didn’t actually play in the 3rd test right?

      And you do know Penney intimated Laulala was going to start as 13 this season? Quote: “In my discussions with Keith, we’ve got the ability to manage his needs and the team’s needs. Look, he’s a dedicated, committed team person. He’s made it very clear what his preference is and I respect that immensely. What we’ll endeavour to do is meet a majority of his needs within what the team needs are and hopefully he can just embrace that and get on and play for this team as well as he can so that he can further his international aspirations down the track.”

      So you don’t think Fionn Carr in 2009 was playing better than, say, Ian Dowling in 2009? And Dowling’s caps in the USA were because he had a better season than Carr?

  8. Dave

     /  August 17, 2012

    Interesting Santa letter lads. I have a feeling you may be disappointed come Christmas morning though!

    You have rightly pointed out that the IRFU are in the dark ages as far as social media are concerned, Jesus they have Jim Sherwin doing some of the videos on their site! Anyway save for the odd Twitter update they do not seem to participate in drumming up any publicity or attempting to get the fans on board at any level. It would be welcome to see the Irish team camp in Waterford or Donegal or somewhere other than the usual Carton House. In fairness to Munster and Leinster they have started to do this with open days in Carlow and Tralee recently, nothing of the sort from the national setup though.

    The corrosive bickering that goes on is generally confined to the Net thankfully bar the usual anecdotal stuff you will hear (which i have no doubt happens). I don’t think it effects the players that much to be honest, least of all the younger ones. The likes of Leamy and Radge who had a fair few dust ups with Leinster during the years, are nearing the end or have retired. A few follows on the Twitter machine and you will see that there is a fairly active inter-provincial social scene between players.

    On “Jamie Heaslip needs a kick up the hole”, he does need a kick up the hole, because he is by some stretch the best number 8 we have, but he has not come close to the form that he is capable of since he injured his ankle a few seasons ago. What the kick up the hole would be I don’t know, drop him – maybe not, but certainly a bit of a word wouldn’t go astray. The same could have been said of O’Callaghan until Ryan legitimately won the jersey from him. Some players have become a little complacent due to the shallow player pool that we have and also the conservative nature of the coach. For instance D’Arcy wouldn’t be 100% sure of his place in the Leinster team but he is nailed on at international level, thats all SNAFU.

    The one thing that I would put on my Santa list would be, clarity of purpose. Oh and two world class centres, a tight head prop, an outhalf and a partridge in a pear tree.

    • Jamie Heaslip gets through a mountain of work in every game. In his younger days, his critics accused him of spending too much time in wide channels. Now he stays closer to the tight, he is criticised for not making enough searing breaks. Whilst I agree he did not hit top form last season, the idea that he needs ‘a kick up the hole’ to get there is misguided, as it was not for the want of trying. He is Ireland’s most adept breakdown forward and his ability to poach turnovers and win ruck penalties is exemplary. What he brings to the team was put into context when he was missing from the third test in New Zealand and Peter O’Mahony had the proverbial stinker in his place.

      All that said, I’d like to see him get back some of that ‘explosiveness’ with ball-in-hand and with Sean O’Brien missing for the first few months of this season, Leinster will probably look to get him slightly wider and on the ball a bit more.

      • Dave

         /  August 19, 2012

        Ya I’m still not convinced that he is fully over his ankle injury. Perhaps a kick up the hole is not exactly the most subtle way of expressing my thoughts on Heaslip, but I certainly think he has been a bit off the pace he set a few years ago. I like to try to pick a world 15 every so often and he has fallen down the pecking order on that. For me the best No.8 in the world (in fact the best player in the world) is Kieran Read. He has everything, football, pace, nous and skill. Heaslip has all of these things too but perhaps due to the imbalance in our backrow he has been unable to produce his best game, by as you said, looking after ruck ball and applying himself at the coalface. That said he hasn’t been as dominant for Leinster either.

        His absence in the backrow for the third test is being cited for proof of his worth to the team, and unfortunately, also to point out that Peter O’Mahony is not an international No.8 yet. The loss and nature of it can hardly be purely down to Heaslip’s absence nor can it be due to O’Mahony’s presence. There was far more at play, first and foremost the unfathomable notion that they had to have their bags packed before kick-off, and, well its been trashed out enough already.

        My main point is that competition within the squad must grow, however we may never be at the stage where we have two players in each position where one can put pressure on the other. Surely the best motivation is competition for places. If we don’t have that and a player isn’t performing to the best of their ability, perhaps they need a kick up the hole?

  9. Exiled

     /  August 17, 2012

    Rage Fan,

    I just spent ages writing a response and lost it when i refreshed so forgive me if I’m brief on detail:

    1) Annalise Murphy has publicly gone on record about how badly she felt during her final race when she realised she was not going to medal and told the public / press that bringing home the silverware in Rio is her priority. I’d prefer this attitude to Declan Kidney or Gerry Thornley’s (ever notice that you never see them in the same place…)

    2) Heaslip – you’re right lets see how he does this season. Last season was pretty good.

    3) I think the whole country heard Rob Penney grind his last molar into sand when he was responding to the Earls’ interview. Yes he’s a straight talker, but he left himself a gargantuan out (“needs of the team” etc), lets see how many games Keet starts at 13 and how many Laulala starts.

    4) in general, do you not feel that you are perpetuating the “give it a lash” attitude by accepting not good enough results? Provincially we’ve been performing for years, the school system is pretty well aligned with the provincial game, and we’ve got broadly the same population as BNZ – why shouldn’t we be playing to win?

  10. It wasnt purely interpro bickering that had us, well me anyway, questioning Keet as a 13, he did a fine job of that himself with his positioning and piss-poor passing. However, time and exposure there has shown he could play there long term. I would question the logic of learning this in Tests though.

    • HenryFitz

       /  August 17, 2012

      Earls played centre for Munster for the best part of two seasons. He could obviously play there. The discovery was that he could also do it competently for the national side, which could not be known without experiment.

      • Yes – I think we have to draw a line under this ‘Keith can’t play 13’ thing. There were rightful reservations before last season, but his distribution and spatial awareness came on a ton last year. Watch the quick handed pass that put Felix Jones into serious space (until Felix dropped it) in the quarter-final against Ulster for proof.

        The question now is not so much can Earls play 13 as will he play there given the squad at Munster this year. Judging by Penney’s comments you’d have to think he sees Laulala as his first choice 13 with Earls having to make do on the wing. It’s a hard call – leave a talented player in Laulala on the bench or risk marginalising one of his best players. We’ve already discussed it recently here.

  11. Xyz

     /  August 17, 2012

    How’s that decline in inter-pro bickering working out for you so far?

  12. Spike

     /  August 18, 2012

    First, congrats on another excellent article to get us through the dog days.
    The “honesty of effort” point is worth repeating. Given our playing pool, trying smarter seems a better plan than trying harder – particularly when we’re not going to win many arm wrestling contests at international level.

  13. Radge Fan

     /  August 19, 2012

    whiff – you do know why Heaslip’s is sometimes referred to as Houdini!

    Penney did not intimate who was going to start at 13 this season. However, he has told Keith that he sees him as a 13 and Laulala has mentioned that his secondary positions are 12 & wing but his primary position is 13.

    Ian Dowling was playing at a much higher level than Fionn Carr who got his chance at the Churchill Cup along with Sexton & McFadden. Anyway it looks as if Kidney did know better and judged Carr correctly.

    1) What was Annalise Murphy’s coach and the sailing correspondent of the Irish Times saying about Annalise’s performance. Were they saying how badly they felt about her performance.

    2) Heaslip had one good game. He was fairly ordinary otherwise.

    3) See my note above. If Rob Penney was grinding his molars its because the press keep asking him that question. At least we know that Casey is willing to play 11 & 12 as 13.

    4) I don’t think we have a ‘Give it a lash’ attitude. I just don’t think we have the same strength & depth in our team that NZ has (mind you, they are not much use at hurling & gaelic football either) and we certainly don’t have the same physicality/athleticism as many of the south sea islanders have that make up a large numbers of the ABs.

  14. Chris

     /  August 20, 2012

    IRFU social media is rubbish, on twitter most days they just re-tweet the clubs tweets with nothing exciting or engaging from a national perspective.

    Re: Luke Fitzgerald, he does have a huge swag of natural talent but Leinster need to be the ones who step up and decide how to utilise him and get him to his best, his confidence needs to grow along with the refinement of his skills for him to be deadly for Ireland. I see him as 11 personally.

    So are boys aren’t as good as the New Zealanders but are they a bunch who are 60 points worse? I don’t think so. Yes we gave it a good shot in the 2nd test but an aspirational team ethos would have led to thoughts of winning the third test and driven the squad to success, or at the very least another close encounter. Whether we had picked the right squad to do it is another question!

    I agree with the national team to find direction and purpose, unfortunately I don’t see this happening until Kidney “moves on”, could be a tough old season being an Irish supporter again, maybe Santa can sort something out for us all!

  15. Ben

     /  August 20, 2012

    I’m a member of the Supporters Club and I have to say your depiction of it is entirely inaccurate. They hold a ticket sale every year and have done for several seasons now. I’ve been lucky in several of the sales and got tickets as a dierct result of being a member.

    I’ve gone to some of the Q&A sessions and on one of the Twickenham trips they organise. Also been to the mathc day event last year with Quinny b4 the game and two of the lads after. Really well organised and great to have team players up after the game.

    Easy to critisize but at last have the facts lads.

    I don’t think every thing the iRFU does is brilliant but you are also wrong on social media. They have over 100,000 followers on twitter and tweet more than ust news stuff nearly every day. In fact I think they are the 2nd most followed after the All Blacks. Ppl don’t folow if it is boring.

    • Egg here Ben – I’m a member and see none of these benefits – perhaps you are doing something I am not – I get zero communication. I just checked my mail and my last one was 29/4/11 announcing tickets were sold out for the RWC warm-ups.

      The IRFU twitter might be popular, but it is dire – its all RTs and press releases. Twitter is not used as a vehicle for publicising events, competitions, meets and greets – they maintain a presence but its largely perfunctory. We follow all the major unions on Twitter, and find the IRFU stale.

  16. HenryFitz

     /  August 21, 2012

    What I want from the new season is for the IRB to finally clean up the mess around the tackle area. The directive against sealing-off is applied almost totally at random, and is a neck ahead of the timing of ‘tackler, release’ as the simplest way for a referee to entirely change the outcome of a game through incompetence or bribery.

    Pretty much every ruck involves a clearing player going to ground. Why? Because the farce-inducing directive at the tackle-area is that the tackler does not have to go through the gate. The only way for clearers to ensure that the tackler won’t interfere with possession by standing up over the ball is to drive straight to ground to clear him out of the tackle area. If you don’t, you end up playing the ref lottery with random outcomes like the tackler scampering away with his ill-gotten pill or a penalty for the formation of a ruck microseconds earlier. (Random swings of the refometer accounted for a 6 point difference in one of Ireland’s NZ tests and actually threatened to gift victory to Scotland against France earlier this year.) So, the first thing that any clearing players in a ruck should do, if they’re doing their job properly, is to go straight to ground, either immediately killing the contest, or, what’s worse for them, forming a ruck-like entity where they’re contesting on the ground, and depending on the whims of the ref, the opposition can still get their grubby fingers on the ball. Correlates of this moronic lese-tackler privilege is that you now see pretend-tacklers obstructing ahead of the ball before falling (completely coincidentally) into the ‘I’m trapped, ref’ position.

    First thing the IRB have to do to end this nonsense is to make everyone go through the gate, as of old. Then at least some rucks will involve legality. Second thing is to encourage refs to penalise players who do not attempt to regain their feet after contact. Three well-muscled men lying on top of each other to protect the ball is popular with followers of certain lifestyles, but it definitely isn’t a ruck. Third thing is to force players who want to compete with their hands in a ruck to step beyond the ball. I realise this last will never happen, but one can but dream.

  17. The idea of a quasi-loan system to Connacht has been mentioned elsewhere on more than one occasion, but while I was in favour of it a while back, now I’m not so sure.

    The other 3 provinces agreed “in principle” (whatever that means) to facilitate movement of players to Connacht. I have no idea if that is happening. Sure with players like White and Faloon moving to Connacht it would seem to be the case, but how do we know these aren’t just really good bits of recruitment by Connacht? There’s no information coming out from any source about this.

    A loan system would help individual players ambitions, yes, but it’s too fleeting to help Connacht in the long run. Connacht have had enough of trying to rebuild every two years and are now focusing on IE players who don’t necessarily have a yearning to come over then return when the time is right. I could be wrong but I think Connacht have a good chance of re-signing the likes of Dave McSharry, Mick Kearney, Dave Moore, Eoghan Grace and others, the idea of them ‘moving back’ isn’t as big a threat as it has been in the past with other players. Players such as Nagle & Hanrahan have been mentioned in terms of a quick season in Connacht, but to be honest I think Connacht no longer find that kind of deal appealing.

    This year we have the B&I Cup, which will be a big step for our Inter-pro winning underage teams, but also exactly what they need to prove themselves ready for the next stage. We’ll be in a better position to bring our own players through. Because of the B&I Cup our squad has finally broken the 40-man mark for the first time (and only 3 Pacific Islanders – one already IE – so not such a huge padding) which is a nice thing to have.

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