Be Kind Rewind

In October 2009 with the Palindrome a mere nine months from opening, the blazers confirmed that the opening fixture would indeed be a rugger game. Given the small window in which it could be played (after opening but before the soccerball merchants pitched up in August), it was somewhat inevitable that the biggest names would not be involved.

So what they pencilled in was a combination interprovincial, where Munster/Connacht would play Leinster/Ulster. At the time (Autumn 2009), Munster were the kingpins of Irish rugger.  Despite Leinster being HEC champions, Munster were still considered the daddies of Irish rugby, and match-for-match had probably been the best team in the previous years HEC. They backboned the Irish Grand Slammers and that summers Lions team and were still recognisable as the Liginds. They were confident and comfortable in their own skin – no need to hype up someone with two semi-decent Pro12 outings as the next big thing when you had the real big thing in the first XV. The idea was to pair them with Connacht, traditionally the weakest Irish province, and let them chukka off against the rest.

Given there were no big names available (all on holidays), the players were picked from the Academies and sub-academies. The game itself was a complete mismatch – but in the opposite way to senior level – it was Leinster/Ulster won 68-0 and scored 10 tries. So despite the fact Leinster (then still under Mike Cheika) were far from the finished article, and Ulster were at the bottom of a trough, their collective youngsters were far, far better than those of Munster and Connacht. Initial warning sign? Maybe, but that might be being overly prescriptive with history – the acceptance at the time was that only a handful of these players might make the transition to the top level at any rate. So who were they?

Leinster/Ulster:

15. Sam Coghlan Murray (Leinster)
14. Craig Gilroy (Ulster)
13. Alex Kelly (Leinster)
12. Luke Marshall (Ulster) Captain
11. Andrew Boyle (Leinster)
10. Paddy Jackson (Ulster)
9. Peter du Toit (Leinster)
1. James Tracy (Leinster)
2. Jonny Murphy (Ulster)
3. Martin Moore (Leinster)
4. Iain Henderson (Ulster)
5. Robert Hynes (Leinster)
6. Steven Lecky (Ulster)
7. Mark McGroarty (Leinster)
8. David McGuigan (Ulster)
Replacements
16. Paddy Carroll (Leinster)
17. Andy Warrick (Ulster)
18. Mark Fallon (Leinster)
19. Paddy Marks (Ulster)
20. Conor Spence (Ulster)
21. Cathal Marsh (Leinster)
22. Michael McAuley (Ulster)

Connacht/Munster:

15. Callum Boland (Connacht)
14. Tadhg Leader (Connacht)
13. Daniel Horgan (Munster)
12. Ben Sargent (Munster)
11. Shane Leydon (Connacht)
10. Johnny Holland (Munster)
9. Mark Dolan (Connacht) Captain
1. Aaron Spring (Connacht)
2. Kieran Stokes (Munster)
3. Paul Mullen (Munster)
4. Rob O’Herlihy (Munster)
5. David O’Mahony (Munster)
6. Shane Buckley (Munster)
7. Aaron Conneely (Connacht)
8. Danny Qualter (Connacht)
Replacements
16. James Rael (Munster)
17. Sean Wooton (Connacht)
18. Ian Mullarkey (Munster)
19. David Heffernan (Connacht)
20. Ronan Barry (Munster)
21. Gareth Quinn-McDonogh (Munster)
22. Jack Costigan (Munster)
23. Cathal Quinn (Munster)

Not many familiar names there, unless you are a hard-core fan. But there aren’t no familiar names – second row NWJMB is now a full international and will backbone the Irish pack for the next decade plus. Craig Gilroy was the star of the November series, scoring the first try against the Pumas and adding real vigour to Ireland’s attack. Paddy Jackson (24 appearances for Ulster) and Luke Marshall (18 appearances, and spent most of last season injured) would be full internationals too, if the IRFU hadn’t signed such a restrictive agreement with Aviva. In the event, they have lined up for an ‘Ireland XV’, but will certainly expect to feature in the Six Nations.

There’s quite a drop-off in visibility after that, with none of the rest of them having as much as strung together a few Pro12 games (the next most established is probably Leinster academy prop Martin Moore who has 5 replacement appearances in the Pro12).  Yet the big 4 are contending for international recognition. And, as we’re sure some of you have noted, all four are from Ulster. We had heard plenty of rumours at the time about the great crop of apples being grown in the Ulster orchard, but here is some intriguing evidence of it – all four provinces contributed the cream of their 18-20 year olds for this game, and the only four to make it to the top at a very young age are all from Ulster. Food for thought indeed, and worth another look in 2 years time to note progress…

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New Generals

When reviewing the Autumn series on Tuesday, Gerry referred to a new officer class in the Irish team, and it’s interesting to note that the Argentina performance was produced in the absence of the three men who drove the success of the Irish team from 2004-2009 – Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara. But our question is – is there a new officer class emerging in the Irish side, or is there, in fact, a new general class coming through to replace the Holy Trinity of the noughties?

It looks increasingly like the end is near for all three, and we are at the stage where the value of selecting any of them is at least up for debate. Take Paul O’Connell – he may be the rock upon which the Munster pack is built, but for Ireland, perhaps a ball-handling lock would suit the team better, and his injury situation is increasingly worrying.  And what of O’Driscoll? Keith Earls might not have had a great November series, but based on this season’s form, he or Darren Cave would get into the XV ahead of BOD. For what it’s worth, we’d still pick a fully-fit POC and BOD for this Six Nations, but it’s worth pausing to ask whether the value of what they brings to the team offset the negative value to the side of selecting them (i.e. reducing the influence of the new generals)?  And as for the next Six Nations?  It’s entirely probable none will be available.

It’s an intriguing question to ask whether the Argentina performance could have been produced with any of the above in the side. We would contend possibly not – the Leinster-centric gameplan executed by Sexton and enabled by Heaslip would not have been realised had O’Connell been on the pitch – as captain he would have gravitated towards something different, and the step-ups shown by the likes of Ryan and Murray may not have happened if the mega-personalities of POC and BOD been on the field, and O’Gara’s best is long past.

If the new general corps in the Ireland side consists of Rory Best, Donnacha Ryan, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney; they are ably assisted by an emerging new officer corps – Cian Healy, Chris Henry, Conor Murray, Sean O’Brien, Fez, Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe, and with the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson, Craig Gilroy and Luke Marshall in the next generation of players to come in, it looks like Ireland’s transition from the Grand Slam team of 2009 into a serious side is nearing completion.

Deccie hasn’t always handled the transition well, and the player turnover does not necessarily reflect progressive selection or any great vision on Kidney’s part.  Injury has all too often been Ireland’s best selector, and if certain key players had not been unfit this November, the tone of this piece could be quite different.  But in fairness to the head coach, he did talk in the first week in camp about the importance of the next generation of leaders stepping up and taking more responsibility.

Looking at the XV from the Argentina game, only Jamie Heaslip [then a coltish fist-pumping youngster selected for 4 starts], Gordon D’Arcy [2 starts] and Tommy Bowe [5 starts] survive from the Grand Slam team – thats 64 starts by 12 players in the 5 games of the 2009 Six Nations worth of experience lost. It’s a huge turnover, but one which appears to be reaching fruition – successful teams all have a myriad of on-field generals backed up by a strong officer corps – just look at how England have floundered in the absence of generals since 2003.

In fact, for comparitive purposes, le’ts look at that England side of RWC03 (and try not to get too carried away) – the generals were Vickery, Johnno, Dallaglio, Dawson, Wilkinson and Greenwood with an officer corps of Thompson, Hill, Back, Tindall, Lewsey and Robinson. That’s 6 generals in key positions surrounded by 6 officers, with the likes of Moody, Corry and Catt in reserve if even more was needed. This team had reached a point where they were virtually self-coaching – the groundwork of the preceding years had seen to that – but they were only 5 years out from a 76-0 beating by Australia.  That’s the level Ireland must aspire to (the on-field leadership, not the 76-0 drubbing, that is!).

It’s all enough to put paid to the idea that Ireland are in decline because the so-called ‘golden generation’ have moved on.  The talent pool is there, and probably wider than ever.  If Ireland can get the majority of players fit for the Six Nations, some very good players might not be in the starting team – players like Keith Earls, Peter O’Mahony and Richardt Strauss.  Eddie never had such depth available.

It’s imperative that the players have the right environment in which to blossom and that the coach gives them licence to play a progressive, exciting brand of rgby that’s fun to watch and to play.  The type of game we saw against Argentina.  It’s worth noting that in the match stats, no forward carried the ball for more than 10m in the entire match.  The majority of ball-carries were made by the backline, with Sexton, D’arcy and Gilroy rampant.  Conor Murray took contact just once.  The forwards played for the backs, and not for themselves.  Murray plyed for Sexton, and played brilliantly, his running used to create space for the 10, and not to eke out yards around the fringes.  The difference between this and the unending one-out rumbles into contact in the South Africa match is stark.  Sexton seemed to have three options running off him every time he touched the ball.  We haven’t seen Ireland play like this before.  Did a sea-change occur?  Did Heaslip and Sexton use their newfound seniority to affect a change in approach?  We can’t know, but we wouldn’t rule it out.

Sexton’s role is particularly important here.  He has been consistently the best fly-half in Europe over the last three seasons in the Heineken Cup, where he is the focal point of all that Leinster do. But with Ireland, Kidney has been content to use him as simply another cog in his spluttering machine; shunting him to first-centre and pairing him with a running scrum-half.  Commentators at one remove from Irish rugby – Stuart Barnes, for example, find this a mind boggling use of a player they consider to be a world-class talent.  We would hope that Sexton’s emergence as a New General entitles him to play the game he is best at.

If Ireland continue in the direction they are going, they can have a similar team makeup to the 2003 England team – it might just start to feel like the RWC15 cycle might be beginning in earnest.  Of course, it’s just as possible that come the Six Nations, Ireland will revert to the tripe they’ve been serving up more often than not.  It’s vital that the likes of Sexton must not see their newly elevated status within the squad being diluted when O’Connell, O’Driscoll and Best return.

Phew. Let’s Try Again

We’ve pulled this morning’s post after huge objections from the galleries. We fully accept we were wrong, and stand corrected – our followers and commenters are our lifeblood, and we bow to their greater knowledge, and issue a full mea culpa to National Treasure Rala. Next time he’s in need of some free puff pieces, Conor George-style, he can call us.

Unlike most countries, Ireland’s blazers (who gave themselves a self-congratulatory 5 pages in the Bok match programme) ignore the (professional) RWC as a marker in the national teams development, preferring their school chums favourite tournament – the braying old Six Nations.

Thus after 2007, Ireland endured Eddie’s swansong, and after RWC11, while other countries started afresh with a 4 year plan, the IRFU stumbled around the like amateurs they are with a contract through to the 2013 Six Nations. The year 2012, once the glow of the Argentina game fades, will be recalled as a year marked by operational disasters and on-field listlessness as the team slumped into the last months of Deccie’s contract. Organisational mishaps have followed Ireland around and been allowed to fester.

When Deccie came on board, he brought a crisp and fresh management team with defined roles – Les Kiss and Gert Smal were a breath of fresh air and for all the talk of Deccie getting the luck that Eddie didn’t, the famous Gary Player quote deserves to be recalled – the more Ireland practised the luckier they got, and a fully deserved Grand Slam was delivered through innovation and hard work. Post RWC11, that coaching team has evolved into something of a dogs dinner – Les Kiss gets shunted around, Gert Smal’s role is unclear, and Axel Foley and Greg Feek get drafted in and out to fill in gaps.

The nadir was the Mick Kearney’s first week as team manager in January 2012 – his first act was to get slapped down by the IRB for suggesting Barnes had admitted Fez’s tackle shouldn’t have been penalised in the Wales game. It was not the most auspicious start to his new job, but was symptomatic of a set-up which was seemingly intent on continuously criticising match officials.

The penny-pinching that characterised Ireland’s efforts in the dawn of professionalism reared its head again this year. For the end-of-season tour to NZ, a small squad was selected despite the inevitability of injuries – no lessons were learned from 2010 when armies of players came out one at a time. Before the final test in Hamilton, the players had to check out of their hotels in advance to save a nights room charge, and Paddy Wallace was grabbed from a Portuguese beach and fast-tracked into the side, with wholly predictable results.

The story in the Sunday Times last week where O’Reilly revealed the turkeys at Lansdowne Road might be on the verge of voting for Christmas is long delayed. The appointment of a professional director of rugby with a meaningful role would be a hugely welcome development – the present structure in Ireland is not fit for the purpose of producing consistently well-prepared and successful sides. The idea that Deccie has to sit in front of some amateur volunteers and justify his selection and tactics for a Test match is a sepia-tinged anachronism in this, the 18th year of professional rugby – we have been critical of Deccie for his selection and tactics, but we don’t envy him for having to deal with the old farts of Lansdowne Road. Without brushing over the work these unpaid volunteers do, this is a job for a professional.

Perhaps the most important function of the new role would be managing the relationship between provinces and national team.  The head coach having to enforce the Player Welfare rules with provincial coaches has surely not helped Ireland’s cause over the last season or so, particularly as the dichotomy between their relative performances has emerged.  We’ve said before that Ireland going down the road of Country vs. Province can only end in failure, and that remains the case.  Taking the head coach out of the firing line might also negate the need for the media to peddle this agenda, which has become especially trying.  At one point in the last month an interview with Eoin Reddan was headlined ‘Reddan Defends Provincial Success’.  Such silliness has to end.

Cultural Learnings of the November Internationals

Once again, we are utterly perplexed about this Ireland side? Are they the dynamic and creative team that overwhelmed and ran up a record score against (an admittedly tired and disinterested) Argentina? Or are they the lamentable and unsure bunnies who rolled over for the Springbok pack to tickle their collective bellies? The wild swings in performance level continue, and there is little point in trying to reach concrete conclusions about a group who frustrate and delight at the same time, so let’s just try and piece together what parts of the mystery are less enigmatic and which are as puzzling as ever.

What we Learned From the November Series

Yoof, Innit.  And not before time. Declan Kidney has taken quite a bit of heat for his reluctance to involve younger players who aren’t from Munster, and Craig Gilroy showed the potential that exists in throwing younger chaps who have yet to nail down a provincial shirt in at the deep end. Against Argentina, Gilroy offered an entirely new threat to that posed by other Irish backs – a geniunely pacy winger who is elusive in contact and runs intelligent lines. Within 10 minutes of his full debut he had a try in his pocket and the Irish rugby fans at his feet – a star in the making. It won’t be long either until his young colleagues Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall and Iain Henderson are in the full side – the imminent retirement of Radge, succession questions at inside centre and need for a top class dynamic lock will see to that. The sons of Ulster might be arriving at just the right time to give Deccie’s reign a jolt of electricity that it sorely needs

Goodnight Sweetheart. In the two big games Ireland played, the man who used to boss the best in Europe around came on for a 10 minute cameo, and on both occasions, produced plays so lamentable that if they were produced by someone at the other end of his career we would hear nothing but their unsuitability to international rugby. Kicking the ball away when your team needs a try and chipping it into the grateful hands of an opposition player (leading to a try) illustrate that the great man’s international career is at an end. [As a side note, we loved how the RTE commentators studiously overlooked the errors on both occasions.]  It demonstrated a streak of selfishness, trying the million dollar play to grab the potential headlines, when he should have been playing the team game.  For 10 years, his decision-making was flawless, now it’s going-to-gone.  He has nothing more to offer, and it’s sad to see it end like this. In the pack, Donncha O’Stakhanov might have been the first sub (and only sub for 15 minutes) introduced against the Pumas, but his international career is surely over. For all the sterling service he has given, he doesn’t offer anything like he used to, or like the alternatives do, even (especially?) in the absence of Paul O’Superman. Let them move on with some dignity.

Provincial Form Counts, At Last. For the last two years, Chris Henry and Mike McCarthy have been doing the grunt work on the provincial circuit and proving themselves capable against the best teams in Europe, but for no international reward. With the injury jinx hitting Deccie’s usual servants, opportunities arose and were grasped with both hands. Competition for places is crucial in any setup, and the folly of ignoring the players playing best in their position in previous series has been laid bare by the ease with which this pair stepped up to international level.

Murray and Sexton can play together.  Conor Murray has endured a difficult twelve months and, outside him, Johnny Sexton has cut a frustrated figure for Ireland.  Too often, Murray’s first thought is to run, and his second to pass.  Sexton is the sort of general who demands centre stage – ‘give me the ball and I will direct things’.  Against Argentina, Murray was excellent.  His running was used as a strength, sucking in defenders, but rather than use it to run up blind alleys, he created space, and time, and Sexton used it to glorious effect.  The Leinster fly-half has a clear run at the Lions No.10 shirt, and no other player is even remotely in the picture.

Old fashioned wingers still at a premium.  The modern game this, how is his defence that, is he big enough the other.  It’s reassuring to see that a willowy wing who can change direction quickly is still an invaluable commodity in a world where 110kg monsters occupy every channel.  Gilroy’s electric feet and finisher’s pace are terrifically old-fashioned.  A couple of other impish speedsters are coming up on the radar in Irish rugby; Luke O’Dea and Andrew Conway.  Any rugby fan with a beating heart can only wish to see more of this unique brand of genius.

What we still don’t know

Are Ireland any good?  The series finished on a high with a memorable victory and a great performance.  But we know all too well the problem with this team, and it precludes us from getting too excited.  The pattern of occasional brilliance, usually when painted into a corner surrounded by swathes of mediocrity remains unbroken.  No team is properly consistent at test level – even New Zealand blow cold now and then – but it’s hard to think of too many whose performance graph waves so violently as Ireland’s.  Maybe Wales.  It’s only when we see how Ireland perform in Cardiff in the Six Nations that we can get any more clarity.  That’s a couple of months away.  Until then, the Irish team remains as enigmatic as ever.

Is Kidney on his last legs? For a decade, Declan Kidney has built success upon success with a relatively simple formula – enable key players with big personalities to play to their strengths, and let the silverware flow. His coaching style is hands-off with an impenetrable exterior masking a completely impenetrable interior. The formula worked well in Munster and with an Ireland team backboned by sons of Munster, but has struggled to adapt well to a Leinster-dominated team more used to something more expansive and highly instructive coaching. If Kidney can adapt his approach to cater for a side where the established players are Leinster and the young guns Ulster-based (where Deccie’s cute hoorism is particularly denigrated), he might be able to move the team on. The signs are both good (Johnny Sexton admitted the November camp was the best he’d been involved in) and bad (who exactly coached what?) at the same time. Deccie essentially needs a Grand Slam or he’s gone – it looks highly unlikely, but it would be foolish to say completely impossible.

Who will be Lions captain? At times this series looked like an attempt by players to play themselves off the plane.  Sam Warburton’s credentials are receding by the second and while Chris Robshaw has always looked more midweek captain than test team leader, his wrong-headed decision-making against South Africa gave his critics some easy ammunition.  None of the obvious Irish candidates, Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll, Rory Best or Rob Kearney were fit.  Jamie Heaslip advanced his credentials to a moderate degree in the Argentina game, while Johnny Sexton looks increasingly like a real candidate for the role.  We’ve always suspected he’s a touch too cranky for the manly chats with the referee, but he is a natural leader and one of few players nailed on for a test start.

Who will win the Six Nations?  Open season.  Can Ireland stop flattering to deceive?  Will Wales bounce back from their run of defeats or have they had their moment?  What of England?  They look close to being a good team, but it’s always just out of reach.  France had the best series of any of the Northern hemisphere, winning all three games with a rejuvenated Michalak at 10 and a lip-smacking backrow of Ouedraogo (finally!), Nyanga and Picamoles.  But they must travel to Dublin and London, so it’s a tough campaign for them. And besides, it’s France, so they could be rubbish againin six months time.

What happens back at the provinces?  Those with especially short memories might have forgotten that before November, Donnacha Ryan was having an anonymous season on the blindside with Munster.  He needs to get back to playing in his best position regularly.  Hopefully the arrival of CJ Stander will facilitate this.  Up North, Craig Gilroy’s return to regular starter is a pressing requirement – on the evidence of November, the mind boggles that Timble is picked ahead of him, but Trimble is in for his defence in a backline that contains shorties like Paddys Jackson and Wallace and occasional revolving door Jared Payne.  If Anscombe succumbs to pressure to advance Luke Marshall’s education with Heineken Cup starts, this would actually facilitate Gilroy’s advancement, as Marshall, as well as being an expansive gainline merchant, is a big (ish) heavy chap.

Is Keith Earls the Odd Man Out?  Keith Earls singularly failed to grab his chance at 13, and could find himself struggling for selection in the Six Nations, when BOD will be back.  His much-stated desire to play 13 should preclude his selection on the wing, where one of Gilroy and Zebo will have to miss out in any case.  He could be in a tight spot … unless BOD continues to do his best to play himself off the team!

Oh, Them Again

The build-up to this game has focused strongly on the history of needle and grudge between the sides.  However, the absence of Roncero, O’Gara, Ledesma, Leamy and Contepomi might mean we can move on and – who knows – a game of rugby could briefly break out amid the sledging and shady breakdown activities.  Argentina have evolved – post 2007, their sights have been set a lot higher than scrapping out with Ireland for the leftovers from the top table. Their debut season in the Rugby Championship was impressive and will have given them much tougher tests than Ireland have had this season.  They’re battle-hardened and cohesive.

The Puma tour to date has consisted of a surprisingly easy win in the Millennium Stadium, followed by a surprisingly heavy defeat to the French in Lille. The Welsh defeat to Samoa has reduced the value of the first a little, but taking a beating rom France doesn’t look too bad in light of their evisceration of the Wallabies the previous week. Ireland, of course, were limply defeated by the Springboks, then played a meaningless non-Test rout of Fiji the week after – they’ll either be raring to go or as drab and unimaginative as ever.  Probably both.

We can expect a punishing battle up front with the heavyweight Argentinian tight 5  – Mike Ross apparently managed to do enough in 53 minutes against Fiji to convince Deccie he is still the rightful heir to the great John Hayes, upon whose watch the Ireland scrum rarely creaked like it has of late (right, folks?), and the Corkman should be able to take the Puma pressure upfront. We hope what must have been a bizarre week for Ross finishes on a high.  However, Ireland have two relatively light locks and this could be a tougher test for them than the Boks provided – Eben Etzebeth is still a nipper and Juandre Kruger something of a journeyman.

The winning of the game will likely be in the backrow and halves, and specifically in the battle of the captains – Jamie Heaslip against Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe. Whichever of these two is more prominent is likely to be the one in the winning side. Fernandez Lobbe produced perhaps his best performance in the Puma shirt against Wales and will take some stopping – but stop him and it’s half the battle. From an Irish perspective, we’d like to see Peter O’Mahony more prominent. Worries about his physical readiness for Test rugby are still gnawing at us. Chris Henry has deserved his extended chance in the 7 shirt, and we also want to see something specific from him – staying on the pitch for 80 minutes. In the HEC quarter-final against Munster and the Fiji game, he got binned for ruck offences – but at this level you need to be a little cuter. It’s pointless to tell him be to be Ruchie, but perhaps he should try to be Chris Robshaw – tough and nuggety, but someone who will grind away for the entire 80.

Ireland have the advantage in the quarterback department – El Mago may be ludicrously talented, but he’s barely got his shirt dirty since his finest hour in 2007, and in any case, he’ll start at fullback with Nicolas Sanchez at 10. In contrast, since Hernandez’ finest hour, Johnny Sexton has three HEC winners medals and an ever-increasingly scrapbook of memorable moments – if Ireland can control the set piece and breakdown, Sexton will win the game.

Outside the halves, it could be about keeping your hands warm. Argentina will assuredly send up a few bombs to test the green and fresh Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy – if the kicks are accurate the ensuing rucking will be furious and work in the Pumas favour, if they are not and the tyros get space to run, Ireland could be in business. Ireland’s kicking game in the absence of Bob has in general been pretty average and we don’t expect anything different on Saturday – but with Argentina not having the same strike runners out wide as Ireland do, it’s unlikely to be punished.

So, what do we expect? The Argentinian pack is superior to Ireland’s, but the Irish backs are more threatening. If Ireland somehow manage to get a lot of good ball, they should have enough talent to win, but if it descends into muck and rucks, it will be Argentina’s to lose. The best kicker in the Puma squad is Martin Bustos Moyano, but its Santiago Fernandez who will probably stand over the kicks – and he ain’t got the mental.

We are wavering, but in close contests, the team with a definable gameplan and confidence in its execution normally prevails – there is one team like that in this game .. and it ain’t Ireland. Still, we travel in hope, and wouldn’t it be funny to see the bed-wetting in the press if a certain apple-cheeked Corkman came off the bench to drop a winning goal after, I don’t know, say 41 phases? RADGE!!!

Ireland: S Zebo; T Bowe, K Earls, G D’Arcy, C Gilroy; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; D Ryan, M McCarthy; P O’Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip (capt).

Replacements: S Cronin, D Kilcoyne, M Bent, D O’Callaghan, I Henderson, E Reddan, R O’Gara , F McFadden.

Argentina: J M Hernandez; G Camacho, M Bosch, S Fernandez, J Imhoff; N Sanchez, M Landajo; M Ayerza, E Guinazu, M Bustos; M Carizza, J F Cabello; J M Fernandez Lobbe (capt), J M Leguizamon, L Senatore.

Replacements: A Ceevy, N Lobo, F Gomez Kodela, T Vallejos Cinalli, T Leonardi, N Vergallo, G Tiesi, M Montero.

Note: if Ireland lose they will be ranked in the third tier for the RWC draw, but Argentina are much closer to being safely in the top 8 already – if they lose by less than 15 points, they are likely to still make it – it’s all here. The prime advantage of being seeded second is avoiding the hosts, England – as the Mole will explain.

Tap and … Oh No

England were left to rue ‘poor decisions’ in their 14-20 defeat to Australia.  The focus was on a number of three point opportunities turned down in the second half, in particular scrum half Ben Youngs’ decision to take a quick tap-and-go.  Indeed, England passed up four kickable penalties in a bid to get the seven points they needed to get ahead on the scoreboard, rather than reducing arrears to three.

The quick-tap has become a means for commentators make themselves look very clever indeed.  ‘Poor decision, you should always go for the three points in test rugby’, they quickly tut-tut as soon as the move breaks down.  Or ‘Oh, terrific stuff there from [pint sized scrum half] there, he spotted the defence was napping, took a tap and go and now [whoever] have seven points instead of three.  Three cheers for [pint sized scrum half]!’

On Saturday, England scored a try from a quick tap penalty by Danny Care, with Tuilagi sneaking in the corner (good play), but left three points on the pitch when Ben Youngs took a tap that amounted to nothing (bad play).

It’s too simplistic to say the quick tap is a good idea when it comes off and a poor one when it fails.  Really, the decision to do this has to come from the management team.  Either Lancaster gives the likes of Youngs and Care enough rope to call it as they see it (‘heads-up’ rugby if you like) and accept that sometimes it will work out and sometimes it won’t, or he imposes a ban on tap penalties within kickable range – or he tailors his allowance for the tactic on a game-by-game, or situation-specific basis.  No player can exactly predict the future, so there will always be a risk attached to any such play.  As a coach, you live with it or you stamp it out.

In general, with our fondness for intuitive, heads-up rugby, we’d be a fan of the tactic and enjoy both Danny Care’s and Ben Youngs’ ability to put pace on the game when they’re really on form, and we’d be hesitant to overly criticise Youngs for his effort on Saturday. England have bigger problems, primarily that they don’t appear to know what they are doing – the rumours that Manu will be moved to the wing for the Bok game is mystifying, we aren’t sure in what universe he is a better winger than Charlie Sharples.

Anyway, back to the point at hand – here are some of the more memorable quick taps in recent times:

Best Quick Tap: ROG vs. South Africa, November 2004, Lansdowne Road.  ‘Go and talk to your team’, the ref allegedly told the South African captain John Smit.  So he did.  And while he was delivering the message with his back to the action, the cute hoor ROG tapped, went and got over the tryline for what turned out to be the crucial score.  The Saffers never forgave the apple-cheeked Corkman.

Worst Quick Tap: Peter Stringer vs. England, March 2006, Twickenham.  In a topsy-turvy game, midway through the first half Ireland won a penalty 30 metres out in front of the sticks.  It looked like a welcome three points was about to be bagged, but Strings seemed to spot a mismatch out wide and attempted a tap-and-difficult-cross-kick to the left wing, the sort of thing best left to those who can actually kick the ball.  He overcooked it and it went out of play for a lineout to England.  Ireland eventually won with Shaggy’s famous try.

Playing Favourites

In the build-up to last week’s game against Fiji, Gerry Thornley mentioned not once, but twice that the selection of Mike Ross was due to managment’s unhappiness with his performance versus South Africa, where he conceded two scrum penalties before being substituted late in the game.  The articles are here and here and the quotations are as follows:

The selection is also notable for retaining Mike Ross ahead of Michael Bent, which suggests that management want more from their established tighthead than was shown last week.

The selection of Mike Ross to start again at tighthead rather than have a longer look at Michael Bent suggests the management were less than thrilled with the performance of Ross last week, when he was called ashore after conceding a costly couple of scrum penalties.

Now, we know Gerry Thornley has a direct line to the management, and we know Kidney uses him as a vehicle to get his message through to the public.  So it’s pretty safe to assume that this is not just Gerry throwing out a mad opinion, and that he is entirely correct: management were unhappy with Ross’ performance and asked him to prove himself in the Fiji game, and Thornley is to get the message out there.  Besides, it’s so left-field a notion that surely no journo, fan or otherwise would even think of it, unless they were told it was the case.  Wasn’t Mike Ross the player we were supposed to be having late night vigils for both before and since the Twickenham Debacle?

This being the case, this is some pretty shoddy man management.  Mike Ross is being singled out for Ireland’s multiple woes against South Africa.  Management are happy to go public, through the media, with criticism of his performance – and his alone.  Nice.  It’s particularly unedifying because Ross is a player we know Kidney has never been a huge fan of.  It was under Kidney’s watch that Ross’ Munster contract was allowed to lapse, and Ross only got into the Ireland team when all other possibilities (Hayes, Buckle and Court) were exhausted.  It smacks of hanging him out to dry at the first available opportunity.

Mike Ross has been a one-man bailout to the Irish management.  When their only plan for tighthead succession to The Bull (Tony Buckle) was doomed to failure, he came along, through none of management’s doing or planning, and saved their bacon.  He has held the Irish scrum up manfully, and occasionally destructively [e.g. England 2010], since the 2010 Six Nations and has become a key player.  Think for a moment where we’d be if Mike Ross were not around.  And this is how he is treated for giving away a couple of scrum penalties after an exhausting 70 minute shift, and against a Springbok loosehead fresh off the bench.  That’s not to say, of course, that he deserves a free ride if he plays rubbish, but have we really reached that stage because of a couple of poor scrums?  Incroyable.

Another prop being shabbily treated for his role in performing a thankless task is Tom Court.  Court has been Ireland’s unheralded ‘filler-inner’ for four years, taking his place in the number 17 shirt because he can just-about scrummage on the tighthead side, as well as being a fairly competent loosehead.  He endured a wretched experience against the English front row in Twickenham, but most right-minded folk would agree he was asked to do a job of which he is not capable.  On the loosehead side, he has never let anyone down.

Ever since, his form with Ulster – where a huge emphasis is being placed on the set piece – has been rock solid, and he has played solely at loosehead.  And with 23-man squads finally arriving into the international game, he can take his place on the bench solely having to focus on one role – loosehead forward.  Except that he’s been instantly demoted for David Kilcoyne, a nipper with literally a handful of starts with Munster.  Thanks for the dig-out Tom, but now that you might get a chance to show what you can do in your best position, we’re going to go with this other fella who’s started two Heineken Cup pool matches.  Kilcoyne is a decent player and has started the season well enough, but if Healy went off injured after 30 minutes against Argentina, would you prefer him or Court holding up the left-hand side of the scrum against the brutalising Puma front row?  I’ll take Tom Court, thanks.

Every coach has his favourites, and against that, every coach has players he only seems to pick out of necessity.  Safe to say, Mike Ross and Tom Court are not among Kidney’s favourites.

It’s Only Fiji

‘Only Fiji’ might have been a wash, but at least Ireland looked purposeful and inventive. We suspect less exposure to the coaching staff is a good thing, as it allowed the Ulsters youngsters to do their thang with youthful fearlessness and lack of experience. It’s glib to say we didn’t learn anything – England certainly managed to take things from beating Only Fiji a week ago by less than we did with their full team – but it certainly was less than ideal.

Ireland would have loved a more testing run out to be able to infer a little more into their young team’s performances, but they got what they deserved in one sense – the IRFU’s lamentable decision not to hand out caps for the game was at least partly responsible for Fiji’s decision to take a night off tackling. Another major factor for the opposition, and it’s hard to know how any squad would react, was the untimely passing of one of their members -no doubt the tragic death of Maleli Kunavore was on their minds.

Still, the sight of a natural wing (Craig Gilroy) was exciting on a visceral level. In recent years, Ireland have made a habit of making wings out of centres – Shane Horgan, Luke Fitzgerald and Andrew Trimble for example (Dorce made the opposite journey) – and it’s refreshing to see a born winger in full flight. When you see the silky running and nimble footwork of a genuine wing, you feel your heartrate quickening – think Vinny Clark or Bryan Habana in full flight. Gilroy did enough to push Trimble hard for his slot for the Pumas game.  Given Trimble’s more limited, power-based game, it can only be a matter of time before he finds his Ulster shirt under threat as well.

The biggest loser of the night was, oddly, the other winger, Ferg.  He played well and scored two tries, but in comparison to Gilroy, he looked like what he is – a centre playing out of position. Plus, not only did Gilroy look a better wing, but they way Luke Marshall settled effortlessly in to the scene was another flashing light. Both McFadden and Marshall will likely displace Dorce and PWal in their favoured 12 shirt at the same time at provincial level, but Marshall showed he is a long-term threat to Ferg’s presumed succession to Dorce in green.

Continuing on the Ulster theme., Paddy Jackson did enough to warrant a bench slot against the Pumas – he is a natural talent and chose the right option nearly all the time. The only pity is that his placekicking ran awry after such a confident start.  There is little value in persisting with a tired and disinterested ROG – it may come down to just how cross management are with him for his careless kick-away against South Africa.

On the down side, it was predictable disappointing to see Fiji reverting to dirty high and late tackles (and ball-squeezing) when things weren’t going their way – the tip tackle on Murray could have been disastrous had he not got his hand down and the late hit on Paddy Jackson was horrible. There was quite a bit of niggle in the game at the end, and it would have been disappointing to see a red card flashed… but not surprising.

Also, the actions of the tiny, but vocal, militant minority in booing Jamie Heaslip off the field was needless, small-minded and a timely reminder of the nasty inter-provincial bitterness still bubbling beneath the surface in Ireland. These people do not represent anyone but themselves, and the reaction of the vast majority of fans was warm and proud.  Besides, Heaslip’s skill in putting McFadden away for the first try of the second half showcased his great ability, while his breakdown work was excellent as usual.  He’d a good night as captain.  Next up, Fernandez Lobbe.

Finally, there was some grumbling on Twitter about Ulster fans’ somewhat parochial take on the game.  On this occasion, we [this is the Leinster half of WoC writing this paragraph] can forgive them a somewhat one-eyed view.  Up north there is a strong sense that Ulster’s revival has not been recognised by the national team management, and whether coinidentally or not, a number of their best players persistently come out the wrong side of marginal selection calls against Munster players (think Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry, Paul Marshall, Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy and latterly Tom Court).   It’s been a while since they could celebrate a good Irish performance with so many of their home grown players in the XV (8 by the final whistle) – a little over-exuberance is understandable!

Talking Bout My Generation! (and Donncha)

As should be custom by now, Deccie delighted and infuriated, mostly in equal measure this time. For all the excitement and anticipation of the young Ulster backs, there is a Donncha O’Callaghan starting for Ireland – again!

The team for Ireland, or the Ireland XV if you don’t want to piss off Aviva, is young and largely untainted by the type of trundling dross mostly served up in green for the last 2 years – the hope is that the 10-12-13 don’t listen to their coaches and play as they would for Ulster. It’s a pity Paul Marshall wasn’t picked as well – it’s difficult to see why Murray was preferred, particularly as he is likely to start against the Pumas, and we have loads of 9s.

Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy all make their debuts, and they could all concievably go to the next 3 World Cups – the future is now, and it brings to 4 the number of young Ulster debutants in this series – due credit to Deccie here.

The front row contains Mike Ross, which is a risk – we saw what happened in Twickers if he gets crocked, and this isn’t exactly the World Cup final. Perhaps Michael Bent just isn’t fit enough for 80 minutes of international rugger, but he’s surely able for 50 against a cobbled-together team ranked way below us? Dave Kilcoyne will make his first start – he’s held up manfully against more powerful opponents in this years HEC, hopefully he goes well.

NWJMB continues his meteoric rise and gets his first start for Ireland – he’s joined in the pack by the hugely-deserving John Muldoon (you’d expect Henry to come back in next week), captain Jamie, Dan Tuohy and … Donncha O’Callaghan. It’s mysterious how DOC hasn’t been thanked for his service and packed up – at this stage of his career, he doesn’t bring much to the table, not even leadership qualities – recall how Devin Toner had to call the lineouts on his debut. Expect Dan Tuohy to be the far more visible second row, as he has been at HEC level for a very long time now.

Ironically, the more experimental the side is, the more confident you’d be of them playing well, as they have had less time with Ireland’s concrete coaching team to get the spontaneity coached out of them. Fiji got caned in Twickers, and anything less than a comfortable win with a few tries (we have only 2 since the Scotland game) will be a disappointment – but we think we’re going to go well.

The team in full:

D Hurley; F McFadden, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, S Cronin, M Ross, D O’Callaghan, D Tuohy, I Henderson, J Muldoon, J Heaslip

R Strauss, C Healy, M Bent, D Ryan, C Henry, P Marshall, J Sexton, S Zebo

The Un-Bolters

Come Lions selection, everyone loves the ‘late bolter’, the yet-to-be-established young gun that makes a last minute dash for selection through club form.  What larks!

But even more fascinating can be the case of the un-bolter, who makes a long, protracted, graceless descent from nailed-on-selection to being left at the airport or, at best, being forced to muck in with the dirt-trackers.

Currently, a whole host of Warren Gatland’s Welsh darlings are making a huge bid for non-selection. The regional-franchise scene is in the toilet, so it’s typically only when the Welsh national side gathers that they get any sort of form together.  But this singularly failed to happen against Argentina, and we’ve already voiced our concerns about the sustainability of Wesh rugby’s current success.

Chief among the unbolters are Sam ‘Captain in Waiting and All Round Good Bloke’ Warburton and Toby ‘Dynamic Ball Carrier’ Felatau.  Both looked set to be test starters not three months ago, but they have brought their useless club form to the international ticket and are currently playing their way to a summer relaxing on the beach.  Rhys ‘Rugby’s Toto Schillachi’ Priestland is another whose credentials are on the slide – on the evidence of this season its hard to believe he was considered on a par with Johnny Sexton a few months ago.  It’s worth pausing for a quick reminder of some classic un-bolters from the recent tours.

2009 – Ryan Jones and  Danny Cipriani

In the 2008 Six Nations Ryan Jones captained Wales to a hugely impressive Grand Slam.  While he had looked a bit lumbering in the past, here he brought his A-game to the table for the whole series.  Like Warburton, he was also quite clearly a jolly fine chap, and was inked in by many (notably head cheerleader Stephen Jones) as the likely Lions captain.  His form promptly went into a tailspin, culminating in ‘leading’ the Ospreys to a 43-9 thrashing in Thomond Park.  He was left out of the original party, eventually making it out as a replacement for Stephen Ferris, only to be sent home immediately with an injury.

In the same Six Nations, England debuted their hotshot new 10, Wass wunderkind Danny Cipriani.  He cut Ireland to shreds in the final match and a star was born.  The Lions had their 10!  Several indiscretions, a broken ankle and a botched international comeback later, and Cippers was nowhere near contending a place on the tour.

2005 – The Irish Back Division

Between 2001 and 2004, Ireland’s ‘Golden Backline’ came into being, and oozed class from every pore.  Piloted by ice-veined Munster outhalf Ronan O’Gara, with a dashing all-Leinster three-quarter line of Hickey-D’arcy-O’Driscoll-Horgan, it was topped off by Leicester’s uber-graceful full-back Geordan Murphy.  In the 2004 Six Nations, they ran amok, with D’arcy winning Player of the Tournament and BOD already inked in as Lions captain.  The centre pairing terrified defences in green and blue and were seen as the Lions best attacking weapon.  But in 2005, it all went flat and just about all of the backs lost form.  Ireland surrendered tamely at home to France and went down meekly to Wales in Cardiff, and the crisp back play of previous series was conspicuously absent.

Somehow, they all made it on to the plane to New Zealand, abetted by Woodward’s decision to pick everybody an over-inflated squad, but none, bar possibly Shane Horgan, made any impact (though BOD had a legitimate excuse) on the doomed tour, padding out their time with the dirt trackers, with ROG and Dorce having a particularly miserable time.

So who else is in line to un-bolt?

Mike Phillips is an obvious contender – he’s sitting in the naughty step in Bayonne and isn’t first choice at national level any more – without much rugby to judge him on, he won’t be inked-in Test starter for long. The saintly BOD is looking pretty human these days, and hasn’t returned from injury anything like the player we know he can be – any more Maule-ing and he could be out of the picture even as a Phil Vickery thanks-for-the-memories style tourist.