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!

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27 Comments

  1. Even if it is just another one of the once-every-five-games big performances, which have characterised the Kidney era, it is great for the players to remember what it is like to play modern rugby and win. Good for their group confidence, and hopefully no more than a blip on Kidney’s exeunt.

    Smart at the breakdown, incisive running with good support lines – it was like watching the provinces in their pomp. It was also fantastic to finally see Murray allowed play a game to his strengths: his fringe attacking, sucking in defenders before distributing, which was on show on Saturday, is exactly what he is best at and should be encouraged to do (my criticism has never been of him but of the management forcing him to do things he doesn’t do well yet – box kicking – and failing to try and improve his service from the deck).

    Once again, injuries are the best thing to happen us for the November internationals, forcing the management to blood players: all of whom stepped up to the plate. Apart from the awesome McCarthy and the nusiance Henry – finally we have an openside playing openside – Strauss, Henderson, Jackson, Marshall and, crucially, Bent look like they have stake a real claim that hopefully cannot be ignored.

    None more so than Gilroy. It was great to see him finally put in a place to deliver on the talent he has shown the past two seasons. How he was ignored for the NZ tour – looking at one or two of the players brought – is another question. He was better than Zebo last season and – on the basis of the past two weeks – remains that way. Zebo is also a precocious talent, and could be a great option at fullback given more time there (Kidney deserves kudos for that call, even if he should have started against Fiji).

    ROG’s 22 ‘drop away’ at the end said it all. If the management won’t do the decent thing, it would be nice to think he would finally show some humility and retire, rather than running his reputation into the ground.

    The future is looking bright. All we need now is a management team that can ensure this talented bunch of players are allowed to deliver on their potential.

    • toro toro

       /  November 26, 2012

      There are several Deccies leaving?

      • Glad you studied Latin, as well as pedantry at school: there is nothing like a Jesuit education. By exeunt, I meant the management team.

      • To expand: apart from Kiss (who should be encouraged to go back to his excellent work with the defense), it is hard to see who you would retain (not counting Feek as part of the management team).

      • Xyz

         /  November 27, 2012

        That was excellent nit picking.

      • toro toro

         /  November 27, 2012

        Why, thank you.

        Pfft, Jesuits. This finely-honed triviality-engine could only be the handiwork of the Holy Ghost fathers;)

  2. Redhanded

     /  November 26, 2012

    If BOD and Kearney are fit then Deccie will certainly have a few challenges how to fit some of his favoured few into the team. Maybe he will have both Keet and BOD in the centre?

    Given the press plaudits for Gilroy, even Deccie’s lapdogs in the press may raise an eyebrow if Gilroy is the one to lose out for the 6N.

    While Deccie never fails to remind us that the HEC shouldn’t be considered equivalent to internationals, results in the remaining 4 HEC games may come into it.

    Should Munster disappoint and fail to qualify, credulity will be stretched to breaking point if Radge, DOC and the other marginal selections still have a red hue.

  3. Jimbob

     /  November 26, 2012

    A few things are certain;
    – Ireland have depth – we’re still very thin at TH but we have viable options everywhere else; this bodes very well for the future.
    – Murray can play; constantly improving,it’s about knowing what’s required from him and consistency – he’s not far away from being a very good starting SH.
    – Deccie’s man management is awful – the treatment of Court and Ross was horrendous.Tuohy has been relatively ignored as have other youngsters who should at least have been training.
    – Ireland’s inconsistency is still very apparent – Strong first half against the Boks followed by an aimless second getting nowhere near the line then racking up the scores against two uninterested opponents.

    I’m concerned that Deccie doesn’t actually require a grand slam to retain his job; I reckon a strong 2nd place finish could do it for him. As little faith as I have in him,I have even less faith in the IRFU to break the bank and get a top coach signed on – even if they do, will they be smart enough to offer a deal until post RWC15 and not renew before the tournament?

  4. Alan

     /  November 26, 2012

    Has anyone done a before and after of the “journalists'” articles? Tony Ward goes from lamenting Ireland’s lack of depth one week to praising Irelands talented next generation another. Brilliant reactive insight there…

    Ireland should be able to have a serious crack at the six nations. Bar France, the rest are crap, and we have France in Dublin. This should involve the establishment of the likes of Gilroy/Zebo, and as such dropping Earls if BOD is fit AND in form. Earls should live and die alongside his desire for the 13 jersey – Gilroy and Zebo are out and out wingers, and one should start. ROG and (although rejuvenated to an extent) DOC should be released to Munster to make room for the new guys – in all liklihood Touhy and Jackson. ROG as aforementioned is tarnishing his stellar Irish career by clinging on this long.

    D’Arcy needs more competition. After a good display by L.Marshall, he put in a top performance in green. We do not have a ready made replacement yet, but the rapid advancement and success of Gilroy should show the management that L.Marshall/Hanrahan will not crash and burn if fast tracked. Let the emphasis rest heavily on ‘should.’ perhaps Declan has seen the light? Attacking rugby, the form provincial players playing well, a young gun or two playing well (and God forbid, one wasn’t even from Munster!!) – it all seems so different to this time a month ago or so, when the squad was picked, and Gilroy wasn’t even in it. Go figure..

  5. Len

     /  November 26, 2012

    Good article lads. Reading the other replies it looks as if there is a certain amount agreement regarding some of the points you raised. Everyone (myself included) seems happy to have seen Murray finally display the kind of game that confirms his selection, the only question that remains is can he do the same consistently and against opposition where we don’t have total pack dominance?

    Again I agree that DOC has to hang up the boots the international boots and leave it to the likes of Henderson (need to see him in the second row), Touhey or even Toner (who has to cement his place in the Leinster team this season or his chance will be gone). I fear we may also have seen the last of ginger hulk, I would worry that this latest injury may be the finale straw (but seeing as its him I’m not fully writing him off just yet).

    The real bonus from the AI was the emergence of the young guns like Gilroy, Zebo (as a full back), Jackson and Marshall. You’d feel that 11 and 15 are Gilroy’s and Zebo’s to loose at this stage. Earls again failed to really shine in the 13 jersey in the way he has at 11. I’d be tempted to promote Cave up for some of the six nations games behind BOD (assuming he’s fit and playing well enough). I think we need a longer look at him against proper opposition.

    Time must be called on the career of the greatest Irish outhalf for the sake of his legacy. He’s been a great servant to Irish rugby and central to all of the big wins we’ve had in the last decade but now looks a shadow of his former self and seems to be running out of ideas. He’s playing second fiddle to Keatley at Munster and if he continues for much longer he could even himself behind Hanrahan. The one problem here is that ROG doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who will bow to public pressure. I think he’ll go when he decides and I worry that management/IRFU/Munster are afraid to say anything/do anything to change that. I also fear that while Decci is still there ROG will continue to occupy a spot on the bench.

    As to Kidney I don’t think a grand slam will be necessary for him to be kept. I think the IRFU could go down the route of better the devil you know (at a renegotiated price) than the devil you don’t. While it still looks like Decci is on count down to retirement I wont believe it until I hear it form the man himself. Plus who will we get for the same money or less?

  6. Leinsterlion

     /  November 26, 2012

    We are at the bedding in period between WC cycles(or rather, should be). Its all well and good to say “the future is here” after another once off performance to save DK’s skin, with a few(not many) young players. It now seems that the blazers wont give Irish fans succour, and end this regime, so we are locked into another WC cycle.
    If, on the off chance the IRFU is reading this. Contracts tend to run between big tournaments in the sporting world, not a year and a half either side with lame duck head coach.Below are quotes( stolen from a pro kidney piece) from the weekend that sums up why Irish rugby is constantly lurching from debacle to half decent performance to debacle.

    “Kidney will have hopefully welcomed back his fit-again stars by then. He is after all, in a business that demands Six Nations success and those imperatives will deter him from further experimentation.”
    (begs the question of why he has waited until injury forced his hand to make changes)
    “You cannot do that really, the financial model of the whole thing is the Six Nations. That is what the pressure comes from, that is what makes the money, so we have to all time trying to get the balance.”
    “At least Kidney had a smile on his face on Saturday evening, albeit a wry one when asked if he had the luxury of long-term planning.
    “No I don’t,” replied the soon to be out of contract coach. “I don’t at the moment anyway.”

    If someone new or DK(please dont) is given a contract, have it run until the end of the WC no further,so we wont be faced with the same situation in 2015. Are we destined to have horrible WC performances in the name of short term adequacy forevermore?

    • Bowe Gathers

       /  November 26, 2012

      Great article lads, and totally agree with you LeinsterLion – common sense must be at a premium in the IRFU, like Deccie himself. I still feel seriously short changed by this Irish regime. We’ve had all these uncapped players for minimum two years now, and it took a massive injury crisis (copyright Gerry) for them to get within a sniff of the team. I don’t care about our placing, or 7 try romps, the hunger the new squad members brought shows how deep this malaise is. We have a serious amount of individual talent that ought to take us past the likes of England and, recently, the Aussies as well, but the only consistent feature of this team is that they are less than the sum of their parts.

      Even things living in ponds are aware that this is the administration’s fault. It’s impossible to see how such talented players turn into sideways shuffling shit shippers when confronted with a green jersey (honourable exception for Mike McCarthy). I keep hearing that we don’t have the money to fire Kidney – why? Why is this? I was under the impression that we were going through a renaissance of sorts in the provinces with season tickets galore even out West. There’s merchandise everywhere, we’re the only professional sport on the island and those jolly corporate types in Aviva have given us literally millions to paint Landsdowne Road Dart station yellow. Am I being naive? Where is the money going, and will it really break the bank to get a top class coach in? Or to ask Deccie to do the dacent thing and jump ship with Andy?

      So, yes it was cracking the thump the Argies, and yes Gilroy was a ray of light given our recent back play. Yes it’s good to see Murray and Sexy gelling, good to see fire in our new second row partnership, good to see that Earls still can’t pass, but as a wing why should he have to? It’s encouraging that D’Arcy looked rejuvenated, that Henry can play at the top level and that NWJMB’s reign of terror has only just begun. But the truth is that until the admin changes we’re all going down on this ship, slowly, painfully and without Celene Dion to comfort us. Rant over and out.

  7. LarryMilne

     /  November 26, 2012

    Great performance, but is it really much different to slotting England in the 2011 Six Nations, suffocating Australia at the World Cup or even the middle test of this summer’s New Zealand tour? Hard to say, although I would point out one difference – those other three games, amongst our handful of decent performances since the start of 2010, were built on energy and fury, specifically playing at a tempo that our opponents couldn’t really keep up with (first two) or were knocked off-kilter by (All Blacks).

    Saturday’s game was much more clinical than any of those in terms of the core skills. We really were fizzing in terms of combined pace (in every sense), clear thinking and accuracy. In the England match we were exciting, but only finished with two tries when we should have put fifty points on them. I won’t fault what we did against Australia – it wasn’t the peak of attacking rugby, but that’s not the point. The 2nd Kiwi test looked like a team playing for their mates, etc, rather than a well-oiled rugby machine.

    So, one could argue that this is a genuine improvement on anything that has come in the past few years, that while those other performances showed the players are able to take a performance to the highest level of test match rugby, Saturday showed that we have the skills and strategy to do more than just spoil and fight and not make errors when we get there. If I was Deccie that’s what I’d be saying, anyway.

    But the problem for many supporters, including pretty much all my friends who follow rugby and the majority of contributors to internet fora such as this, is that we’re all expecting the run of sluggish, clueless performances to resume pronto, or at least fear as much, leaving Saturday’s performance, and others like it, as the rare diamond in the coal shed.

    It’s no surprise to me that we currently have the players to hand out at least our fair share of biffings, if not a few more, to other top rugby nations. We’re in a good place in terms of talent but this has been woefully under- and mis-used. And for that I think Kidney has to bear ultimate responsibility. I don’t expect endless Grand Slams, or World Cups, or number one rankings. I do expect us to make the most of what we have and, in the times when we have good players, to have a good team. The current coach has mostly failed to bring that to the table, for whatever reasons, and really should not continue beyond his current contract.

  8. jlo37

     /  November 26, 2012

    Its harder to get off the Irish team than it is to get on it!!

  9. Don

     /  November 27, 2012

    I think theres a massive knee-jerk reaction. Everyone is praising how we played and it was good, a definate step in the right direction.
    But would we have done so well if Argentina had shown up? Yeah, you can only beat what is in front of you, but I dont buy that line. I like a proper test of skill to properly judge a team, two sets of professionals going at it hammer and thongs. I think the boys had braced themself for war and when it didnt happen you could almost see the smiles and the thought bubbles saying ‘Fuck it lads, they forgot a match is on lets stick it to them’.
    If this is overly negative I am sorry; Three years of tripe will do that to you.
    Even after this though, even if everyone and their mother on this Island cries for more Deccie, four more years! four more years!, I want a change of coach. If we are going to bring in a new team then I would like a new coach with new good ideas which he can communicate clearly and precisley, telling the team exactly what he wants to see.
    I wonder if we could steal Vern Cotter from Clermont….

  10. Bushmills

     /  November 27, 2012

    My hope is that the core of newish players who proved they can cut it at this level are deemed the incumbents and that the returning injured big names don’t just walk back into the team. If we are to build on the success of new players “blooded” in this series we must use them to drive competition for places throughout the team.

    Consider the psychology. Mike McCarthy is retained alongside Ryan and POC is on the bench. Kidney says to McCarthy in the dressing room “you had better have the game of your life today because the Lions captain is not happy sitting there watching you”. McCarthy plays like a man possesed and on 55 mins POC comes on with a fire in his belly not seen for years.

    As opposed to POC is back in the starting XV and McCArthy thinks “well that was fun while it lasted” and hopes for a spot on the bench.

    I’m not saying drop POC, just an example. You could use the scenario for Best/Strauss, O’Mahoney/Ferris/O’Brien, Kearny/Zebo.

    I was deliberate not to include Henry because he has proven his value as an international open side and others need to do battle for the 6 shirt. Also Earls did not make a case for 13 to thwart the return of BOD, and sadly it’s hard to see Cave getting a proper shot in the Six Nations.

    My other wish is that Luke Marshall gets a start alongside BOD against Italy or Scotland to see how he fares on a further step up in intensity.

    • Agree with all of that.

      Its not going to happen but Cave really deserves a shot in the 6 Nations – he didn’t exactly grasp his chance against Fiji with both hands…but Earls unfortunately did not kick on.

      It would also be great to see Marshall given a shot. However, one of the major positives from this series for me was the return of the Darce after a few mediocre years.

      He is finally being used very effectively by Ireland. He always gets over the game line every time, sucking in a couple of defenders and creating space. His offloading on Saturday created scores. The crucial thing is how he is deployed. If you are giving him slow ball off a messy breakdown (as is usually the case with Ireland), he is swamped.

      He’s not the future but it is good he is again playing at such a high level. Given BOD’s absence and the failure to bring through other internationals yet, we need Darcy to perform. Marshall, McFadden and Hanrahan certainly give hope for the future though.

  11. Rich

     /  November 28, 2012

    I just can t see Cave getting a chance. D’arcy played very well vs Arg and BOD will be back for 6 nations. The boy has been treated pretty poorly but so have a lot of others. Earls has taken some flack for me but i always want him to get a gap or be on the shoulder of an offload – but he never is. The boy just does nt have it at that level, he does nt have the hands, the physicality or the awareness to be an international centre, and Gilroy, Bowe, Trimble and Zebo are all better wingers than him. Too many chances. POM had a storming game, again, i doubted him but he stood up and carried well early on when we needed it. We need pressure on Heaslip at 8 – whilst i appreciate his role as Captain is different and he has more to be thinking about – he was nt quite in top gear. Reckon thats the only position we don t have healthy comp

  12. Jlo37

     /  November 28, 2012

    Unfortunately I doubt Deccie visits this site. No doubt the old fogies will come straight back into the side to give us the same old same old. But then as Alan Hansen famously said “You’ll never win anything with kids”. In all rugby, not just Ireland, great store seems to be put on experience. With the exception of the All Blacks that seems to be experience of loosing.

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