Way Off The Ball

Last night’s episode of Wednesday Night Rugby on Off The Ball was a dispiriting affair.  The outstanding sports show has the best interviewer in Irish sport – Eoin McDevitt – in the chair, and answering the questions was the genteel, insightful and always balanced Keith Wood.  And, eh, Gerry Thornley.

Gerry’s performance hit a new low ebb last night.  There had been flickers of his old self during the summer tour, but last night stamped out any dying embers.  He appeared positively affronted when McDevitt put it to him that the IRFU should be looking at lining up replacements now, rather than leaving it to nine months time.  He is only capable of seeing an upturn in Ireland’s fortunes, in spite of all evidence in front of him.  When Brian O’Driscoll’s eye-opening quotation about not really knowing who’s in charge of Ireland’s attack was put to him, he simply ummed and aahed, leaving Keith Wood to point out that this was a proper criticism, indeed a shot across the bough.

Then the hand-picked, selective statistics came out.  Ireland were top try scorers in the Six Nations!  Our attack is fine!  Yes, they were, but nine of the thirteen tries came in home games against Scotland and Italy.  The more pertinent statistic is that Ireland won two out of five games and remain maddeningly inconsistent and reactive.

The lowest point came when Keith Wood suggested Ireland should bring in Joe Schmidt to offer a different voice and bring something new to Ireland’s attack.  Thornley’s extraordinary response was that this would cut across Les Kiss.  Apparently we should be more concerned about upsetting the ego of Ireland’s already overworked defence coach than getting the best possible coaches to work with.  It’s hugely depressing that the leading rugby journalist in Ireland’s predominant rugby paper should be pussy-footing around the obvious issues like this.  Nobody wants our journalists to become a ‘head-on-a-plate’ raging mob, but asking the pertinent questions is the least we should expect.

WoC recalls a time when any Six Nations or Heineken Cup day began with reading Thornley’s previews in that day’s Times, be it on the couch or on the way to the ground.  It’s a sad decline from a once great writer.

Levels of Importance

If Kidney’s favourite mantra of the last six months has been the yawning chasm between test rugby and Heineken Cup rugby, the theme for the coming season has become clear this week; how much more important playing for your country is than for your province.  Similar, but subtly different.  Brian O’Driscoll – always the man to get the party line across to the media – underlined all this in an interview with Simon Hick on Monday night.  Being a provincial legend is all well and good, he said, but the players and fans – don’t forget the fans – have to remember that it’s playing for your country that’s the greatest honour and to which the greatest importance must be attached.

This season always looked like one in which the national team would strike back at the increasingly successful and popular provinces, and this is just another part of the process.   That’s the same process that sees a 30-strong group of players convening in Carton House this week for a bit of training and, it would seem, some manly chats about where the team is going and how to correct the slide.

There’s shades of ‘All Back to 2008’ about this.  When we last heard this sort of thing aired, it was when ROG said the players ‘needed to buy into the green shirt a bit more’ in the aftermath of Munster’s second string giving New Zealand a right good scare, just days after Ireland barely fired a shot against them.  And we all know what came next.  But can the old magic be conjured up again?

While it’s difficult to argue with the message in and of itself, it’s not the sort of thing that can be manufactured.  It’s all well and good telling the public that the green jersey is more important than the provincial one, but it can only be truly demonstrated on the pitch. And Sexton’s argument that the players must perform a notch better in green than with the provinces is perfectly fine, except that it is apparent that the coaching and tactics enable a much higher performance level with the provinces than with Ireland.  Wasn’t it Sexton himself who once said that he was “delighted to be back in an environment where you know exactly what the coaches want of you”?  We’ll leave it to you to guess which environment he was describing.

The first port of call for the IRFU is selling tickets to the upcoming November internationals, and they’re not an attractive bunch of fixtures.  Ireland play Fiji in Limerick and the dull, grinding Boks and Pumas will aim to do their thing at the Aviva.  It’s hard to look good against any of them and the public will expect wins against Argentina and Fiji.  Ireland must win all three to deliver a positive series and build momentum for the Six Nations.  Failure to do so and the pressure gets ramped up another notch.  This season has a ‘last days of Rome’ air about it for the national coaching ticket.

Penney Passes First Test

When Tony McGahan left Munster we gave him an average report card, deeming his leagacy a mixed one.  His currency, however, is diminshing by the week, because Rob Penney has hit the ground running so well.  Indeed, he’s already done the one thing McGahan couldn’t do in all his four years there: get Munster to buy in to his philosophy.

Consensus was that McGahan wanted Munster to play a more expansive game than they had done under Kidney, but you wouldn’t necessarily have known that from watching them on the pitch.  Indeed, if Martians landed on Thomond Park and asked us what McGahan’s Munster’s gameplan was, we would have found it difficult to explain to them.  Under Penney, it’s clear what’s going on.  Backs and forwards no longer look like complete strangers who just bumped into each other in the corridors before the game.  There’s an emphasis on keeping the ball alive, and in James Downey and Casey Laulala, the personnel are there to do it.

In a perverse sense, Penney has been fortunate that he could bed in his ideas in the absence of Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara.  Without wanting to denigrate two of the great players of this (or any) era, there was always a suspicion that they had too great an influence under McGahan’s reign.  When the pressure came on, Munster reverted to their way of playing the game; the way that brought them success under Kidney.  That meant ROG kicking territory and Paul O’Connell taking up the ball time and time again, but for little gain and sub-lightning-fast recycling.

Due to injury and player welfare requirements, both have been largely absent from Munster’s opening month, and the rest of the team have flourished in their absence, which is not to say they won’t be huge assets when they are back in the fold.  ROG is back already and O’Connell soon will be – but they’ll be being dropped into a successful, winning team, playing better than at any time in the last three years, as opposed to having to grab the team by the scruff of its neck, as would have been the case in the recent past.  The Munster camp looks a happy one.  They seem to be enjoying their rugby.  Just look at the re-energised O’Callaghan for proof.  Invisible and derided on this blog last year, he looks like Stakhanov reborn.

All that said, the real business starts now.  Next week, Munster go away to Ospreys (who have had a strange start to the season), and that’s followed up by the Leinster grudge match and the first Heineken Cup match away to Racing; a game which increasingly looks like the key to navigating the group.  Here’s three calls to ponder for Rob Penney:

1. The Back Row

One thing that hasn’t changed from last year is a lack of ball-carrying heft in the Munster pack, particularly in the absence of the injured James Coughlan, on whom they are already overly reliant for hard yards.  Dave O’Callaghan is putting his hand up for selection on the flank and CJ Stander has yet to arrive.  O’Mahony hasn’t played yet but has the sort of ball skills that look tailor made to Penney’s game.  Niall Ronan, Sean Dougall, Paddy Butler and Tommy O’Donnell are all in the picture too: tidy footballers all, but not in the Generation Ligind class.  What chance a backrow of O’Callaghan-Ronan-O’Mahony?  It would have plenty of football in it, but lacks for physicality and experience.  Penney must find the correct balance, which could bring Butler into the reckoning.

2. The Backline

WoC commented in its last seasonal review of Munster that they had good players to fill every shirt from 11-15, so there was no need for them to look as awful as they did.  This is being borne out.  Indeed they’ve so many good players that one is going to miss out.  Hurley is a particular favourite here at WoC; pace he may lack, but he’s big, strong and first and foremost, a proper footballer.  Howlett is captain, he plays 14.  Downey is inked in at 12.  It leaves Zebo, Earls and Laulala fighting for two jerserys, with Earls certain to start, but perhaps in the role he apparently hates.  All three look bang in form.  We’ve a feeling Zebo might just be the one to miss out, but this is a marginal call whichever way it goes and whoever misses out will get his chance at some stage.

3. Dun-dun-Dunnnnnnnnnn. Number 10.

O’Garawatch has never been such fun.  Losing his Ireland place crearly rankles; imagine if he lost his Munster starting jumper.  Picture the Sky cameras panning to his face in the Thomond Park stands.  Think of the media men sharpening their pencils.  Ian Keatley is knocking harder than ever, and looks better suited to the game Penney wants to play.  But you underestimate ROG at your peril, and we suspect both Leinster and Racing would still prefer to face Munster with Keatley at 10 than the wily old Corkman.  Keatley’s Heineken Cup starting debut is probably more likely to come at Thomond Park than in a hard away game.

Step aside, I’ll take it from here

Fridy night’s interpro between Ulster and Munster was a thriller; one of the best, most intense games we’ve seen in the Pro12 in some time.  Both sides had much to commend them, not least two great performances from full-backs Jared Payne and Denis Hurley, as well as their up-and-coming fly-halves.  This was surely both Keatley’s and Jackson’s best performances in their respective shirts.

In the end it came down to Munster looking to set up a winning drop goal, but not quite managing it.  They looked to have got themselves into position, but kept going through the forwards, presumably to get a little closer.  Then, driven backwards, the opportunity appeared to be fading, but they did, twice, get the ball into ROG’s hands but he couldn’t get his kick away on either occasion.

It made us wonder: should Keatley not have been the one in position to drop the goal?  Sure, ROG has form when it comes to last-minute drop goals, so his credentials are not in doubt.  But it was his first fifteen minutes of the season, and his general performance was showing plenty of rust, with two passes thrown to nobody particularly conspicuous.  Keatley, on the other hand, was playing well and kicking the ball sweetly.  He has now made his last 12 consecutive penalties and had already dropped two goals on the night.  He had his eye in.  Surely he was the man to drop the winning goal?

It reminded WoC of an incident at the end of the 17-17 draw between Ireland and France in Paris.  Late in the game with the scores level, Jamie Heaslip won a ruck penalty deep in his own half.  Ireland’s only chance of snatching the win was to boom the ball downfield far enough to get within drop-goal distance.  Sexton and Kearney have the biggest boots in the Irish team, but Paul O’Connell hit the default button, the one marked ‘Give the ball to ROG’, who gained about fifteen metres on the kick.

ROG is not a man to shy away from responsibility.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the best man for the job in hand either.  It’s something he, and the leaders in the Irish and Munster teams, have to get used to.

Rich Man’s World

At the tail end of last season, we posted on the demands of the English and French clubs (here and here) to make HEC qualification more “merit-based”. We rather sympathised with their issues with the Pro12, and largely agreed with the Anglo-French proposal.

They will be discussed today in Dublin, and the Premiership has dramatically raised the stakes with the announcement of their TV deal with BT Vision – this includes the Premiership, the Anglo-Welsh Cup and (crucially) HEC games involving English clubs from 2014 onwards. The ERC’s first reponse was to effectively say “You can’t do this”, but McCafferty et al appear to have read the small print and seem to be confident that they can – given the ERC announced Sky have right to all HEC games until 2018, clearly someone needs a good lawyer.  We’ve more questions than answers on the legal issues – if anyone has any insight into this, please share it with us in the comments section.

It’s an extremely provocative step from the English, leading to plenty of articles with the word “arrogance”, and rightly so. It’s worth noting they are dangling a portion of this cash in front of the Celtic unions, telling them “You are welcome to a slice, so long as you do things our way”. With the famous parsimony of the IRFU, and the cash-strapped nature of the WRU and SRU, the English will be hoping it’s enough to make them to go all weak at the knees and fold like a cheap suit in the face of the flashy Englishmen and their sterling.  It’s also an attack on their own union, the RFU, with whom they have long been at loggerheads.  It’s a grab at taking ownership of the European Cup out of the union’s hands and into their own.

BT haven’t exactly behaved with mild restraint either.  Talk of ‘owning a sport entirely’ is extraordinarily arrogant and misplaced, and the surety with which they talk about the end of the Heineken Cup is recklessly presumptuous.  Who the heck are these Johnny Come Latelys anyway?

Ultimately, while European qualification is in the picture, this one’s all about money and power (well, duh).  And what a grubby old business it is.  But while it is difficult to like the brashness and obvious greed of the Premiership chairmen, it’s also important to bear in mind the situation in which some of them find themselves. The clubs who don’t own their own ground perennially struggle to break even, and if they fall too far underwater, the union won’t be bailing them out – a look at Wasps’ near-death experience is instructive here. Last year only four Premiership clubs returned a profit.  Little wonder they’re looking for a greater share of the pie.  But as Gerry Thornley pointed out this week, in comparing Saracens’ head Nigel Wray’s comments about money with the meagre performance and attendances they delivered in the competition, they’re not necessarily entitled to it.

Word is that the Celtic nations are apoplectic over the TV deal, but are willing to compromise over the qualification rules.  Indications are the Irish and Welsh have put together a proposal to maintain the 24-team structure, with eight qualifying from each of the three major leagues.  We can only presume the Scottish and Italians are not behind this.  Ultimately, we wouldn’t be entirely surprised if the tournament ended up looking very close to the structure we outlined, with one guaranteed participant from each Pro12 union and meritocracy coming into play after that.

It all leaves the French Top 14 clubs with the casting vote.  Align themselves with the Premiership and the Celts pretty much have to fall in line or retreat to their Pro12 competition.  But while the French are in agreement with the English over qualification rules, they have not acted with anything like the same bullishness, and appear more than a little put out over the TV announcement deal.  We can’t imagine a powerful group like the Ligue Natioanle Rugby allowing the Englsih to dictate terms over the new format, and the French have always had a better relationship with their Celtic Cousins than Les Rosbifs.  The English continue to threaten an Anglo-French league as a viable option should the Celts not jump on board, but the French appear disinterested in such a format.  It could be that the Premiership solo run has lost them their most important prospective ally, leaving them looking more than a little isolated.

We suspect there is nothing the humble rugby punter (needless to say, not at the forefront of anyone’s thinking in all of this) would enjoy more than to see the Premiership clubs hoist by their own petard.  Oh to be a fly on the wall at today’s meeting.

Nevin Spence RIP

As a rugby weekend, this one started brilliantly with a thrilling interpro at Ravenhill on Friday night, but was overwhelmed by sadness.  The tragic news of the death of Nevin Spence along with his brother and father puts blogging, rugby and everything else into perspective, and we were knocked sideways by the awful story on Saturday night.  One of our first ever posts was a jokey, throwaway piece gently mocking Gerry Thornley’s choice of words for saying Spence had ‘timed his career perfectly’, in that he had burst on the scene just as D’arcy and Wallace’s careers were reaching an end.  Talk about being put into new context.  If Spence’s arrival appeared perfectly timed, his departure is entirely the opposite: tragically premature.  Here’s the piece, written at the tail end of his breakthrough season in which he had arrived at the fringes of the international set up.  It’s a reminder of just how excited we were by his talent, and gives pause for thought for what might have been.  Our thoughts at this time are with the Spence family, their friends and Nevin’s teammates at Ulster Rugby.  RIP.

On both the Munster and Leinster fan sites, there is currently a mooted plan to sing a round of ‘Stand Up For The Ulstermen’ at their respective home games this weekend.  We encourage those who plan to be in attendance to spread the word.

Friday Night Interpro at Ravers

This weekend sees the first interpro of the season, as Ulster take on Munster at Ravenhill on Friday.  If not quite ‘must see’, it’s the first game of the season that’s worth fixing your plans around.  Both teams have made promising starts with two wins apiece, including wins on the road that were contrary to expectations – well, ours anyway.  Both teams are, of course, under new coaching regimes and the early signs are positive in each case.  And each is allowed to field a couple more internationals under the player management programme.  So the phoney war is over and the real season is beginning.  It’s hard to know just how much can be read in to the first two games, such is the array of missing arsenal, so we’re hoping Friday’s game will allow us to infer a bit more about the direction these sides are heading in.

Have Munster got themselves a pair of centres?

It looks like it.  We’ve been a bit sniffy about Oooooooooooohhh James Downey in the past but while he may be a one-trick pony, it’s undeniably a good one.  Trucking the ball up in the 12 channel is one thing, but it’s Downey’s ability to offload that’s giving Munster’s attack shape.  What’s been particularly impressive is that the likes of Luke O’Dea are alive to the possibilities, and the whole Munster game plan looks joined-up for the first time in a long time.  Outside Downey, Laulala’s quick footwork and direct running look a potent threat, and he’s also keen to keep the ball alive.  He’s always been a quality footballer and, while his presence in the Munster 13 shirt might not be ideal for Keith Earls’ happiness index, he’s here and they might as well get the best of him.

Have Ulster got any fly-halves?

With Nick Williams starting very brightly and Robbie Diack reborn (apparently he’s ashamed of his performances last season and keen to make amends), our concerns over Ulster’s back row depth are receding.  Worries at fly-half remain, however.  Niall O’Connor has never really looked above Pro12 standard, so it’s a lot of pressure on young Paddy Jackson’s shoulders.  Does he have it?  His impact off the bench against the Ospreys has been enough to win him the starting jumper for the Munster game.  His opposite number is Ian Keatley (and a certain centurion ligind awaits on the bench), who has had a reasonably bright start to the season.  It’s a good opportunity to watch a couple of young Irish fly-halves who are looking for big seasons this year.

Donncha O’Callaghan – same-same but different?

Last season Stakhanov looked a fading force, devoid of power and no longer capable of the old manic energy that characterised his best days.  But his performance against Edinburgh was his best in years. Heck, he even carried and – no, really – passed the ball.  As a senior pro in a young-ish team, perhaps Penney is asking him to show more, well, seniority, and actually provide some leadership.  Apparently it’s not enough just to be really great craic – who knew?!  Can he roll back the years for one last hurrah, or was the Embra game a false dawn?  Oh, and congrats on the nipper, Donners!

Ulster – Northern Saffers or expanding their game?

Ulster’s Saffa-inspired gameplan got them to a Heineken Cup last season, but to stand still is to go backwards in modern rugby, so we anticipate they’ll have to expand a bit on the template in order to stay at that level this year.  They’ve a Kiwi coach now (albeit a gritty flanker type who was never known for his ball-playing ability) and Jared Payne brings a creative dimension to the full-back position that was missing last year.  Their back three on Friday is Trimble-Payne-Allen and Darren Cave is back in the team at 13.  It’s a backline with good strike threat, so let’s see if they’re prepared to play a few more phases and try and get the outside backs onto the ball and into space.

It’s a shame it’s not a week further out in the schedule, allowing the likes of O’Gara, Henry, Tuohy and O’Mahony the benefit of an additional week and a place in the First XV, but in any case, there’ll be plenty to chew over on Friday night at Ravers.

The Boshers Will Inherit The Earth

When Cornwallis surrended to George Washington at Yorktown, the band played “The World Turned Upside Down” – that’s a little how we feel here after the first two weeks of rugger on “these islands”, as John Hume might say.

In the Premiership, it’s a veritable try fest of exciting and invisive rugby – Quins have scored 11 tries in two games, one of them an absolute cracker against Wasps. Leicester have 10 tries, and there have been 8 try bonus points and 64 tries scored in 12 games – an average of over 5 per game. Even Ooooooooooooooooohh Manu Tuilagi is getting in on of end to end moves with multiple offloads and incisive lines of running.

Meanwhile in the Pro12, two of the most effective players for the Irish provinces have been Nick Williams and James Downey – two men not exactly known for their cultured approach to the game. At the RDS on Saturday, when Palla saw the team-sheets, he turned to Mrs Palla and said the Dragons 12 hadn’t been picked for his soft hands. Yet Andy Tuilagi, who might only be the 4th best player in his family, was highly effective and one of the Dragons main attacking options.  He even threw in a sidestep at one stage (and before you ask, not one of the Samoan variety).

On the stats front, the Pro12 has seen just 45 tries, an average of just under 4 – respectable, but skewed by the 3 teams with try bonus points under their belt: Scarlets, Dragons and Leinster. The other 9 teams have just 21 tries between them. Only one word we can think of for that – Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooohhh!

How Do You Solve A Problem Like Ian?

Saturday night saw another welcome development in the story of the precocious Ian Madigan.  Another Man of the Match display in a Pro12 game, and the try he set up for Fionn Carr showcased his luminous talent.  He has a fantastic, highly unusual (for Irish rugby) skillset: exceptional passing, breaking skills, eye for the tryline and now, solid place kicking [Aside: should Ferg be worried about this development?].  His weaknesses – game management and kicking from hand – are improving. Yes, we know he hasn’t successfully piloted a game through muck and rain in the style of the man he could potentially replace on the Ireland 22, Radge.  Last year he carved up the Pro12 and started his first Heineken Cup game, at home to Montpellier.  An international breakthrough seems inevitible this November.

But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify sitting him on the bench for the big games, no matter how well Jonny Sexton is playing.  It’s getting to the stage where Madigan needs to take the next step in his career – starting Heineken Cup games regularly.  WoC has been sniffy about complaints that Madigan ‘isn’t getting enough game time’ in the past, but this season, such is his quality, they will start to become relevant.  Some hard decisions will have to be made.

What is Joe to do? He has a settled and successful team on the pitch, the best 10 in Europe, but has a seriously talented younger chap kicking his heels on the bench. He needs to balance the present, the future, and the maximisation of his existing resources. Can he get Madigan into the team, and how?  Let’s look at the options:

  • Status Quo. In this scenario, Sexton starts the big games and Madigan the Pro12 ones when Deccie says Sexton has a headache. At the very least Madigan will need to be given significant minutes off the bench in Heineken Cup matches.
  • Sexton to 12. This was Deccie’s favoured ploy when he didn’t have the balls to drop Rog decided to play O’Gara and Sexton on the same pitch. To be fair, Sexton never looked uncomfortable, but yet, it never struck us as a viable long-term solution, and genuinely appeared as a sop to the bolshy Rog. Still, it fills what is aleady a problem position for Ireland, and is likely to become one for Leinster. Will Sexton, the best 10 in the Heineken Cup for the last two seasons and favourite to wear the Lions 10 jersey, be impressed with being taken out of the slot to accomodate the uncapped Madigan? In a word – no.
  • Madigan to 9. This has been floated before, most eloquently by the Mole, but Madigan, unlike Giteau, has never played 9. It’s worth a shot if you feel it’s a genuine long-term option, but Leinster and Ireland are well-served in this specialist position, and it would look like a sticking plaster solution to accommodate both men in one team.  And great as Madigan’s distribution is, passing from 10 is not the same as passing (and manging the tempo) from 9.
  • Madigan to 12.  With Ireland crying out for a silky distributor at 12, could Madigan, effectively, be the new Paddy Wallace?  He’d have even more space at 12 than at 10.  Ball-in-hand it looks a good fit, but the 12 channel is popoulated by monsters these days and while Madigan is a brave and competent defender, he probably lacks the sheer bulk to play there.
  • Madigan to 15. Really? With Bob and Isa Nacewa in the squad? And Andrew Conway as the resident promising youngster? Not a runner.
  • Stand Up And Fight. In this scenario, the incumbent (Sexton) gets unceremoniously benched for big games, and Madigan is thrown in to the first team. If Sexton becomes a bench-warmer at Leinster, he won’t be best pleased, and an iHumph-style flounce can’t be ruled out – could Sexy take over Rog’s red and green shirt?

No obvious solution then.  No doubt Ian Madigan is aware that he is working with the best coach of backs in Europe, and it’s almost certain that without Joe Schmidt coaching him, Madigan would not be as far in his development as he is.  It would be a wrench for him to leave all that behind, but this could be a summer for hard decisions.

Were he to look around, he would not lack for suitors.  Both Munster and Ulster would be in the picture.  Ulster are crying out for proven quality in the position and nobody knows how Paddy Jackson will go this season, while Niall O’Connor is squad player material.  At Munster, the world and its mother knows that a legend is nearing the end of his career, and while Keatley has started this season well, doubts remain as to his ability at the very top level.  Last year, you might have argued that Madigan’s skills could wither on the vine at those provinces, but the augurs are good under new coaching regimes.  Mads would most likely have offers from abroad too, probably including franchises from the Super XV, to which his game would be tailor-made.

Leinster would surely hate to see such a special talent slip through their fingers.  Somehow a way has to be found of getting him the necessary exposure to keep him happy and progressing at a suitable pace.  Talent this special is rare indeed.

Our Man in Carton House

Egg read a very interesting article by Peter O’Reilly over birthday cake on Sunday (he’s 21 again) – the crux of the article was how the bean-counters at Old Fart House are concerned that Ireland’s desperate brand of rugby might impact the bottom line. It’s a valid concern – €75 to see us bitchfight the Pumas? – but something we found equally as interesting was something that wasn’t elaborated upon in the piece – the fact that the 60-0 in Hamilton went unremarked upon at the AGM.

We wonder – is this because the IRFU see themselves as having a personal stake in Deccie, and that criticism of the national team’s results is inherently critical of the union. It’s classic amateur thinking – in a professional organisation, when a vacancy arises, the best candidate is appointed, and after that time, their success or failure depends largely upon how they perform in the role (all provisoed on the assumption they receive adequate support within the organisation and such).

Compare this thinking to how the RFU operated with Johnno. Now, we aren’t saying the RFU are amazingly effective, but they have been whipped into some form of professional shape by Woodward and by the need to negotiate on an equal footing with the businessmen who run the Premiership.

Johnno was hired to succeed Brian Ashton despite having limited coaching experience, but once he got the job and got his preferred backroom appointed, he was on his own with a remit to make England tough again. Results-wise he did ok, and certainly no worse than Deccie – he brought England to a Six Nations championship win and won his RWC11 group – but it was perceived that he was too close to the players and he wasn’t the man to lead England on. So he got canned. The RFU didn’t consider it their business to be embarrassed that they had to let go someone they appointed, they just moved on. Such is life.

In the case of Deccie, it appears to be acceptable to the union that he presides over the worst result in Irish rugby history and is reduced to taking pot-shots at one of the provinces for being unsupportive. All available evidence points to him being in an untenable position, yet the IRFU are content for him to continue as Ireland coach for this season.

It looks from the outside like they see their success as wrapped up in his. Are they reluctant to fire a coach who delivered a Grand Slam, just as they congratulated themselves on appointing him at the time it was won? Is it related to the fact that a selection committee still exist, where IRFU mandarins review Deccie’s plans for each game?  It seems highly unlikely that Deccie’s contract is going to be renewed, so why play the waiting game?  If Declan Kidney’s days are numbered, better to start moving forward now than wallow for another year in stagnation.  It’s a ruthless world out there.