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.

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12 Comments

  1. My team for the six nations

    R Kearneyy
    C Gilroy
    T Bowe
    G Darcy
    S Zebo
    J Sexton
    C Murray
    J Heaslip
    C Henry
    S O Brien
    D Ryan
    I Henderson
    M Ross
    R Best
    C Healy
    M Bent
    M McCarthy
    P O Mahony
    E Reddan
    P Jackson
    K Earls

  2. DaveF

     /  November 28, 2012

    Just one point on what you mentioned about O’Connell – as a Munster fan, his injury situation feels increasingly like what happened to Jerry Flannery http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/sport/2012/1128/1224327205948.html. I wonder if we’ll see him in red or green at all again. Hope i’m 100% wrong in worrying about that.

  3. If, and its a huge IF where the IRFU are concerned, RWC 2015 is all important (well the obsession with the rankings for the last month would suggest so) then neither BoD nor PoC should start again. They will not be around come RWC2015 and we simply have to get past them now. The Argentina and Fiji results offer a credible opportunity to do so if Il Dece has the b*lls. It goes without saying that RoG should not be involved even if we were playing in a RWC final tomorrow!

  4. Thomas

     /  November 28, 2012

    If all where fit I’d have Best as captain, he does nothing fancy, is a hard worker, level headed and perhaps our strongest defender. I hate to sound unimaginative, but for the captaincy we need someone with a defensive mindset, I think its the big disadvantage with Kearney and Sexton as captain (something I’ve heard lauded for the future).

    I think the internationals where mildly successful. I don’t get why so many are so down on the November series, they’re teams we only play ever other year or so and there’s always one big game. I also get the feeling that many are oblivious to how well O’Mahony has done, he looked good throughout, Chris Henry as well, there was a feeling that without Ferris and O’Brien we’d be facing down mediocrity, all things considered, it really wasn’t that bad, the argies didn’t show up though so we should be pretty tempered by that.

    As an aside, how rubbish are Wales and how can so many of their players (Priestland, Roberts, Jenkins to name a few) have gotten so bad so fast.

    • Len

       /  November 28, 2012

      Seems to be the curse of the Welsh that in recent times once they win a grand slam they implode shortly afterwards. If things stay as they are they’ll be fighting for the wooden spoon come the 6N.

    • zdm

       /  November 28, 2012

      POC and BOD absolutely still have a role to play with this squad – WoC touched on how England went from world beaters to wooden spoon candidates almost over night because they relied too heavily on an increasingly untouchable band of “rugby legends”.

      England more than any other country go to the same guys over and over again in the hope that the hype is reality – Andrew Sheridan has been dining off 2 good games for his whole career and England haven’t been able to settle on a fly half for the past 9 odd years due to the legend of Wilkinson’s drop goal in 2003. When a young pup comes in with all the potential and none of the credentials, he will sink or swim by the comparison – and 9 times out of 10, the needle gets in to his head that he can’t compete with that and he falls flat.

      As individual players, POC and BOD may be in the twilight of their careers but there has to be a succession to the guy behind – what hope would Henderson, for all his potential, have of coming in right now to fill POC’s boots? How much better would it be if POC was around for the next year or two to whisper in the horses ear when the line out is misfiring against France in Paris or the scrum is wheeling agains New Zeland?

      The team is full of quality players – some with the potential to be world beaters but as we saw against the Saffers, an extra element is needed – you need the guy who has been there before, dragged the team through in a tight situation.The mighty Ruan Pienaar or Ritchie McCaw becomes a little more manageable when the guy next to you can point out the scar on Piennars leg that he gave him with an old fashioned shoeing or can show you the video of him dumping McCaw on his ass like any other chump. Until the “new generation” has a few of these pinch hitters, they need the old guard – if not for their skills then definately for their wisdom.

  5. Rava

     /  November 28, 2012

    For me the important thing is we are no longer reliant on the leadership of BOD and POC. There was a time when it would have been doomsville if both were unavailable. If they come back from injury and are performing the best in their positions then they should be picked again but gone are the days when we need them on the pitch purely for their leadership.

  6. Leinsterlion

     /  November 28, 2012

    POC still could have a massive role IF he refines his game. He needs to cut out the really poor aspects of his game such as carrying the ball and deciding tactically how we are going to play. Our direction and tactics should come from Sexton and our ball carrying from the back row and in tight fro our props.
    If POC comes back into the team and tries his superman routine directing play and stealing carries from our ball carriers the team will suffer. POC needs to focus on setpiece and clearing out rucks. Carries should be a bonus. Ireland are at their most unthreatening when hes carrying the ball.
    As for Drico, Im disappointed Cave didnt get a look in. Earls was nothing more then mediocre. We have depth behind Drico but nothing more unfortunately. Cave should get a shot in the 6nations
    As for the Leadership argument for Drico and POC, I think its overrated. Robshaw made a boneheaded mistake but England Lost the game over the 80mins not 1 decision.

    • Xyz

       /  November 29, 2012

      Completely agree re Paulie, but who is there to point this out to him? He clearly wants to lead from the front and be involved in everything.

  7. Rich

     /  November 29, 2012

    Interesting point – i suppose the idea that experienced heads know when to push and when to pool, how and when to best motivate players. POC had that respect, that fear, that if he said he was going to smash the next thing that came near him, you knew he would. Thats the type of leadership i think of, the player or players who will take a team with them with a rollicking and a bit of fire. DOC is a senior player but never seems to say a word, does what he is told. No place in the squad anymore.

    ROG has and only ever will hinder Sextons progress. Knowing that even if you hit your stripes, have your outside backs running riot, when the clock hits 65mins you are moving to centre no matter what is a terrible feeling. He needs to go so Sexton can kick on and own that backline

    We will never replace like with like, we ll never replace POC or BOD – but we can develop a team. England have tried so long to replace Johnno and JW – never going to happen, but they can bring in new combinations to build on successful structures. Eg – Don t try new 1/2 backs with a new back row combo sounds obvious but happened regularly……….

  8. pete (buachaill on eirne)

     /  December 2, 2012

    Leinsterlion touches on something really important I think. As originally posted, Ireland used their backs to carry and their forwards to win ball. It gave sexton a lot more front foot ball as if Ireland made a half break the fatties tended not to pick and go for a 3 yard gain.

    I 100% believe this would not have happened had POC been playing. Whenever he plays he tries to get the pack do more, a forward orientated game has been inbuilt into him over the years at munster, effective in 09 not so anymore. He doesn’t have the ball skill or physicality to warrant touching the ball in open play, quite like Ross at Leinster, vital for the team but don’t let him have the ball as it will die with him.

    Ryan, tuohy, mccarthy, Henderson are guys who can play the more dynamic open game.

    In other news must say 2 things:

    1: delighted with how Murray played against Argentina. I have long. Given out about him but if he plays like that he is our perfect 9.

    2: earls is not a centre. Made so many errors over the 2 games, rarely wins the gain line in defence or attack, runs outside far too often.
    View his stats in the Argie game.

    Good post WoC

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