New Faces, Old Problems

Egg was excited and full of anticipation all day Saturday and on his way to the Palindrome – Deccie had picked a side in good form, South Africa were injury-hit and the 5:30 kickoff is very much conducive to pints and atmosphere. By two minutes into the second half, all the hope started to die – the Springboks had gotten over a listless and indisciplined first half and had decided to play like men. And Ireland had no answer. It ended up as a quiet whacking and bagging.

There were definite pluses in some individual performances, but the biggest issue with the current coaching ticket re-asserted itself – Ireland appeared to have no plan to actually win the game, and were devoid of cohesiveness and unresponsive when the stakes were raised. The familiar shuffling of the ball across the back line re-appeared, which South Africa easily defended until the inevitable mistake.  With the ball, they took the short-side option too often and found themselves getting isolated regularly.  They lacked the ball-carrying heft to get through South Africa, and never looked like they had the smarts to get around them.  With a defence coach in charge of attack, little wonder.

First the positives – Chris Henry and Mike McCarthy carried their provincial form into the international stage – both looked comfortable on the biggest stage and were Ireland’s most influential players. We’ve been hugely critical of their non-selection in the past, and this was why – McCarthy tackled himself to a standstill, and Henry’s breakdown work was quality. Both should now be treated as incumbents and allowed to hold on to the shirt against the Pumas – McCarthy alongside O’Connell should he be back, and Henry at openside in Sean O’Brien’s continued absence.

Simon Zebo did well at full-back – his boot wasn’t as consistently accurate as Bob’s (whose is?) but he was safe under the high ball and threatening in possession – he looked hungry and ran hard lines. Necessity was the mother of this invention, but he passed a tough test. New boy and gaelgoir Risteard O hOstrais had a good debut – he didn’t see the space he routinely finds in the HEC/Pro12, but he threw reasonably well, and was a nuisance at ruck time.

On the other side of the ledger, the major problem is Ireland’s gameplan, or lack thereof. The positive and purposeful way the Pumas beat Wales yesterday does not augur well for the next big assignment – Argentina will be confident and will feel if they can impose their set piece on Ireland, we may not have an answer. We saw this aspect of our play improve during the Six Nations, so we can only hope that will be the case again, and we will approach the Argentina game with something less muddled.  Best prepare for a repeat of the edgy, nervy abomination of a game exactly four years ago, only with a better Argentina.

On the personnel front, Jamie Heaslip will be disappointed with his first day as captain – his yellow card topped off a tough day at the office. The bench had virtually no impact – Reddan was powerless to speed things up behind a going-nowhere pack and Donncha’s frantic windmilling on the sideline was merely a prelude to a decimated scrum in his first action, and the O’Gara to 10/Sexton to 12 play is predictable and pointless.

In spite of the positive displays and close scoreboard, the buzzards seem to be circling around the carcass of the team right now – if we don’t beat the Pumas, Deccie will be the lamest of lame ducks and a 2012 that has been so positive for the provinces will end as a proper annus horribilis for the national side.

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Ireland v South Africa: Teamtalk

Deccie named his team for the South Africa game yesterday, and given we are missing 6 of our best players, all possible Lions (Best, O’Connell, Ferris, O’Brien, O’Driscoll, Kearney), it was pretty much the best we could do under the circumstances. Credit is due to Deccie here – we have given him stick in the past for excessive loyalty to particular players, but this XV is largely in-form and its exciting and refreshing, and is absent of the slightly stodgy feel of recent Ireland teams. Let’s hope its a (much belated) new leaf and not another example of injury being our best selector.

At full-back, its Simon Zebo who gets the nod – we’re pretty much ok with it – there aren’t too many better options, and it allows an experienced and in-form three-quarter line of Bowe-Earls-D’Arcy-Skrela to be picked. If Earls (say) had gone to 15, that would probably have resulted in that line looking like Bowe-Cave-D’Arcy-Zebo, which, while being equally hot, is much less experienced. The backline looks like it might have tries in it too, which, if it does not win us the game, should at least help to sell a few more tickets for the Pumas game. The halves pick themselves at this stage – we have to accept Eoin Reddan is just not going to be first choice, but Murray is in good form and his breaking threat could be a crucial factor.

In the backrow, Chris Henry finally gets recognition for his 18 months of excellence at openside flanker, Jamie Heaslip captains the side from 8, and Peter O’Mahony steps into the immense shoes of Fez on the blindside. For all Ireland’s army of blindsides, the only realistic alternative to this selection was throwing baby-faced NWJMB in – the bench will do for him, and those present in the Palindrome should note the “I was here when…” moment of his debut.

We touted Mike McCarthy as the horse for the Springbok course a few weeks ago, and Deccie’s refreshing break with Connacht-ignoring tradition should be widely applauded – McCarthy has been in great form for the Westerners and fully deserves his call-up – he has the type of meat we traditionally lack in that division and which is an essential of beating the Boks. He’ll be partnered by the worryingly out-of-form, but international revelation of last year, Donnacha Ryan – its a mean-looking second row, and it will need to be – Etzebeth and Kruger are simply monstrous.

Risteard O hOstrais will face off against his cousin Adriaan after kissing the blarney stone, drinking a pint of Guinness, repressing his emotions and completing the 3 year residency qualification – some have proclaimed it the end of days, but is he really any less deserving than the likes of Dion O Cuinneagean, who got shoehorned in on the Granny rule? Thankfully, both first choice props are fit, or even John Knox would be getting out the rosary beads.

The bench is pretty uninspiring, which isn’t that shocking given the injury list. Only Eoin Reddan looks capable of making an impact, and its sad Deccie hasn’t thrown caution completely to the wind – Dan Tuohy or Ryan Caldwell would assuredly offer more from the bench than O’Callaghan, and surely the ship has sailed on Ronan O’Gara’s international usefulness – blooding Paddy Jackson might have been the better option. [Note: Meyer’s preference for Morne ahead of Elton Jantjes has a similar feel]

And what of the Springboks? No surprise, its a beastly-looking pack that will be put in the right places by Ruan Pienaar, whose dual with Johnny Sexton for most influential player in Europe moves to the international stage. Looking at the beef quotient, there are significant Springbok advantages in the second row and the flanks – Alberts and Etzebeth are particularly huge. If the Bok bosh merchants get their bosh and boot game going, and the forwards start making holes, its difficult to see Ireland’s superior looking outside backs being the position to take advantage.

Like Ireland, South Africa are injury hit, low on confidence and in experimentation mode. The Boks aren’t quite there for the taking, but with a full-strength Irish side, you might be quietly confident. As it is, we have our best side possible on the pitch, but we feel the unrelenting physicality needed for this assignment might just be beyond a pack with a pretty green tinge to it. We’ll travel in hope on Saturday, but expect a Boks victory by between 7 and 10.

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

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

South Africa: Z Kirchner, JP Pietersen, J Taute, J de Villiers (capt), F Hougaard, P Lambie, R Pienaar; T Mtawarira, A Strauss, J du Plessis, E Etzebeth, J Kruger, F Louw, W Alberts, D Vermeulen.

Replacements: S Brits, CJ van der Linde, P Cilliers, F van der Merwe, M Coetzee, M Steyn, J de Jongh, L Mvovo.

What the Hell Is Going On In: The Welsh Regions?

It’s November, and we know what that means: internationals.  So while in Ireland the IRFU scrabble around to get 40,000 people to watch the Argentina game, across the water in Wales this is really the beginning of the season.  Not content with filling the three-week test calendar, they also have an additional game outside the test window, against Australia.  The same Australia they’ve already played five times in the last 15 months.  Suck that up, regions!

Deccie might look enviously at the prioritisation of the national team in Wales, where it’s the be all and end all for players, supporters and media alike, while the regions form little more than an extended training camp.  But it’s not a model we’d recommend the IRFU to try to replicate.

The latest indictment of the regional franchises was Cardiff’s feeble capitulation to Leinster last week.  Leo Cullen had no problem describing them as ‘soft in the tackle’, as they lost six tries in a scarcely believable first half.  At one point, David Kearney was put into an ocean of space straight through the middle of the pitch; the sort of gap you’d expect to appear after multiple phases of gainline-crossing rugby.  But this was only the second phase!  A try quickly followed after a couple of recycles.

This was no Cardiff B-team, but a line-up featuring their best players; Jamie Roberts, Alex Cuthbert and Sam Warburton included.  Indeed, it was Sam Warburton’s performance which raised the most concern.  Formerly a Lions captain in waiting, he was dominated by his opposite number, the relatively unheralded, but fast-improving academy player, Jordi Murphy.  Indeed, Leinster’s performance was characterised by greased-lightning-fast ball all night long, with Warburton barely leaving an impression at ruck-time.

If you were the Welsh coach, would you pick him?  Based on form you’d look straight past him to Ospreys’ brilliant Jason Tipuric, but Gatland will be aware it ain’t that simple and will expect to see Warburton and Roberts morph into the world-class international versions of themselves under his watch.  But can such a transformation consistently be achieved?  Good form isn’t a tap you can simply turn on and off.  Despite what some media types will try and tell you, there is no ‘Welsh way’, no magic in the air that makes the players suddenly invincible in the red jersey.  The team has obviously been superbly coached by Warren Gatland and Rob Howley, but with Gatland taking a year-long sabbatical to focus on the Lions, a stern test awaits this year for the Welsh team.

Even more concerning must be the long-term damage to Welsh rugby.  The regions play in half-empty, soul-less stadia and have been encumbered with a salary cap, in an effort to make the numbers somehow add up.  A great number of their players have decamped to the Top 14.  While players plying their trade in France is perhaps not the national crisis it’s perceived as on these shores, it does leave the regional sides rather short of quality.

The Welsh national team has had a glorious twelve months, but how long can it keep going?  Wales has a similar playing population to Ireland, and won’t always have the quality of player that it does at the moment.  Indeed, as little as two years ago, they were pretty abject.  When the national team splutters, they’ll have little to fall back on.  While we have lambasted the IRFU and Kidney for a lack of vision, at least Irish rugby is founded on solid ground.  Even when the national team is rubbish, the problems are fixable, and the provinces have consistently provided an outlet during taxing periods.  In Wales, the edifice may be more impressive, but it all seems to be precariously balanced on Warren Gatland’s shoulders.

Mythbusters Part Deux

In and around any international series, it has become inevitable that a number of bizarre viewpoints take on the status of hard facts, whether by being repeated by influential media personnel, through selective memories of those involved or good old-fashioned provincial bias.  Last season it was decreed that Ireland needed huge backs and that Sean O’Brien couldn’t play openside.  This year, a few more are circulating already.

Myth Number 1: Keith Earls can’t play 13

Perpetrators: A lot of people who don’t come from Limerick

Last week our comments section became weighed down with folk of the fixed opinion that ‘Keith Earls can’t/shouldn’t/isn’t a natural/isn’t a test class 13’.    Now, we don’t want to be picking a fight to our loyal readership, but we’re just not buying this one. 

Lets start by going back to last year when we posted this piece. Since then (in fact, pretty much since the World Cup), Earls has done everything asked of him.  He shone like a beacon amid Munster’s abysmal back play last season, all from the position of 13, and in spite of incompetence all around him. He threw in a shocker of a performance at home to Castres, but since that day has been excellent.  Remember the pivotal Ulster game in Thomond Park?  Earls was brilliant: he showed quick hands to get Zebo into the corner for his try and the highlight was his sumptuous pass to Felix Jones late in the second half, which looked to have put the full-back into open country, only for him to inexplicably drop the ball.

In the Six Nations he performed admirably in the role, in the absence of O’Driscoll, and generally won good reviews for his performances.  His good form in the role continued into this season, when he looked pin-sharp before his injury. The argument that he can’t actually do it is based on a few things: that Earls lacks the size to play the role, that he is a poor defender and that he lacks the distribution and awareness of space.

On the last point, we would direct anyone of this opinion to the video below, of a try in Ravenhill this season.  Yes, you can prove anything with a highlights reel, but in this try Earls touches the ball three times, and every touch shows such natural footballing intuition that it can only come from a player with keen awareness of space and good distribution.  His first is an expertly timed round the corner pass to put Billy Holland into a gap, his second a beautiful, fast pass in front of Laulala to open up the space out wide.  Does he stay take a moment to marvel at the splendour of his skill?  He does not, instead making a beeline to support the men out wide and gets on the end of Hurley’s inside pass to score a try.  It’s the sort of skillset that can’t be taught or manufactured.  It’s classic midfield play.

Then we have the size argument.  True, he is not a huge man.  Keith Earls tips the scales at 90kg.  That’s three kilos lighter than both Brian O’Driscoll and Fergus McFadden and four lighter than Wesley Fofana, who plays in the traffic-heavy 12 channel.  But more importantly, the size argument is frequently ill-deployed.  Most ‘Earls is not a 13’ campaigners are happy to continue to select him on the wing.  But in these days of George Norths and Tim Vissers, the wings are no more suitable for lightweights than the midfield.  Either you can defend well enough to play in the three-quarter line or you can’t, and we’d argue that Earls can.

There’s a sense that certain high profile bloopers have been over-played – compare and contrast the reactions to the Manu Incident in August 2011 and Gareth Maule’s burning of BOD a few weeks ago. Incident 1 has been re-treaded ad infitum (and we are as guilty as anyone in that regard), yet Incident 2 is written off as an obvious freak, something that will never happen again – which of course it probably was, since those things happen to everyone from time-to-time, even BOD. And Keith Earls.

Earls has shown in the last 12 months he has the football to play at 13, and he looks like he has the mental too – we’d pick him at 13 for this series, in spite of the form of Darren Cave – he’s one of our best players and its his best position.

Myth 2: Someone Other Than Jamie Heaslip Should Be Captain if Paul O’Connell isn’t Fit

Perpetrator: Many hacks, most notably Keith Wood

Brian O’Driscoll has been Ireland’s captain for over a decade. His on-field pack lieutenant for most of that period has been Paul O’Connell. Rory Best is the other key member of the leadership triumvirate for the national side. So who should lead the team if all 3 are out?

The first and most obvious requirement is that they are actually in the team in the first place, and are guaranteed their place, not just now but for the medium-term – there is little point in giving the armband to Dorce, no matter how well his is playing. So, on that basis, who are the contenders? We’ll go with Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton, Tommy Bowe or Rob Kearney – there are no other automatic selections with a fully-fit panel.

Fez, O’Brien and Kearney are injured, so they are out. Mike Ross is a key player in a key position, but is 32 and has shown no desire or aptitude for captaincy in the past – he’s out too, and Tommy Bowe, for all his qualities, is patently not major-general material. Which leaves Healy, Heaslip and Sexton.

We’d argue that Healy is just too individual and introspective to be the national captain – plus we aren’t sure he would want it. He’s a quiet and determined chap on the pitch, not quite a Johnno-esque over-the-top type – we don’t think he’s a candidate. Sexton is a key player and probable Lions outhalf, should now be a member of the inner sanctum, but he’s simply too cranky on the pitch to the the Man. His leadership qualities aren’t in doubt – look at his many inspirational performances for Leinster – but he has enough on his plate at out-half – keep him close, but don’t let him toss the coin. Which leaves Heaslip – a natural leader, captaincy experience, guaranteed his place on the team and a mature head with over 50 Test caps. He’s the only credible captain.

Woody’s contribution to the debate was to suggest Sexton or Peter O’Mahony. Sexton’s qualities are discussed above, but its simply madness to consider POM. The hype surrounding O’Mahony has done him no favours, resulting in unrealistic expectations, being shunted back and forth across the backrow, merely allowing top-class opponents (Ruchie, Adam Thompson) to highlight his weaknesses, and being rested at Deccie’s behest when playing might be in his longer-term interests. O’Mahony might make a brilliant Ireland captain in the future, but that day, if/when it comes, will be at least 5 years away – right now, he should be concentrating on getting a position, gaining experience, playing time and maturity, and listening to the Mole instead of Keith Wood.

Note: we aren’t totally down on the idea that a long-term view should be taken, but a balance needs to be struck. If we were only thinking about RWC19, why not go the whole hog and give Iain Henderson the armband?

Myth 3: Ireland’s Management Are In No Way Responsible for the Tighthead Crisis

Perpetrator: Largely Gerry Thornley

After Michael Bent’s incredible call-up to the Ireland squad shortly after landing in Dublin airport, its hard to know who was more incredulous – the fans or the player himself. However, after a bit of thought, its not clear what alternatives the management had – Deccie Fitz is notoriously injury prone, so a third tighthead was needed, and who else was there? Ronan Loughney is behind Nathan White in Connacht, and Stephen Archer is not at Pro12 level, never mind international.

So Bent gets the nod, which is fine. But how did this situation arise? Why simple, say Gerry et al – “there was a lot of investment made in Tony Buckley, which didn’t pay off”. Hmmmm, true, but only to a point. A more accurate and complete description would be “the IRFU and the Ireland management team made a lot of investment in Tony Buckley, which didn’t pay off”.

So Ireland’s Tighthead Crisis is not, after all, completely exogenous to management. In fact, they, to a degree, are responsible for the situation they now find themselves in. Mike Ross was completely ignored until he became last man standing (February 2011, after Mushy failed to make it 80 minutes in a Woflhounds game) and the November 2010 series was a travesty for tighthead development. Is it any wonder we find ourselves where we are?

Now, to be fair to Deccie, its not like there are piles of tightheads whose development he is ignoring – he only gets to ignore them when they make it into the Leinster/Ulster/Connacht teams. The blame for the lack of youngsters coming through lies largely at the door of 10 Lansdowne Road – at the blazers who run the IRFU. There is no scrum czar, no national director of scrummaging, and no development plan for promising tightheads. Adam Macklin played 8 in school, not because he couldn’t push in the scrum, because he is built like a tank and since, for safety reasons, you can’t scrummage at full power in the schools game, so Methody could best utilise him at 8 – if there was a professional director of scrummaging, he may have been far keener on Macklin playing in his proper position. Would he have been put at 8 in New Zealand?

We’re going to be stuck with this situation of digging up graves in the Southern Hemisphere to find Irish grannies until we put a proper professional development structure in place to develop props. As O’Reilly said yesterday, the amateur hour IRFU are an increasing anachronism in a professional game – time they did the likes of Macklin and Tadgh Furlong a favour and put their careers in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing.

Square Pegs, Round Holes

Yesterday we pored over Ireland’s options in the forward units, decrying a lack of beef available to replace the injured players.  But in the backline, there’s a whole other set of problems.  Rob Kearney and Brian O’Driscoll are injured, robbing the team of its captain and its mainstay at full-back, and best player over the last year.

With Geordan Murphy retired and Luke Fitzgerald and Gavin Duffy injured, Ireland don’t have much in the way of experienced back-ups at full-back.  Meanwhile, replacing BOD in the centre is not a task that comes easily to anyone.  Before looking at what options are available (and we do have some), here are a few important factors that need to be considered when trying to patch together a back division for next week’s test.

  1. South Africa kick a lot.  The Saffers love nothing more than booting the ball into orbit and sending their flying wings (with enormous flankers in hot pursuit) chasing after it.  Whoever is selected at full-back should know they’ll be in for a long day if they are not comfortable fielding high balls.  This does suggest a preference for a specialist at 15, as opposed to shoe-horning someone into the role.
  2. Gordon D’arcy will start.  D’arcy has copped a lot of flak for some less than eye-catching form in green, and he was pretty useless in the Six Nations.  But every time we think it’s safe to strike a line through his name he comes back again.  His form for Leinster since returning from injury has been excellent and merits selection for the first test in the series.
  3. Conor Murray will start.  From Stuart Barnes to the dogs on the street, just about everyone wants to see Sexton paired with his provincial team-mate Eoin Reddan, whose game is tailor made to get Johnny on the front foot and in control.  But Kidney and co., already mindful of a beef-deficiency, will stick with Conor Murray.  Before groaning loudly, it’s worth noting that Murray is playing reasonably well so far this season, his Paris horror-show aside.
  4. The Saffer back-line is big, but not monstrous.  Jean de Villiers is a big fellow but their biggest unit, Frans Steyn, is injured. But the South Africa back-line isn’t quite on the super-sized scale of the Welsh unit.  Nor are they likely to cut Ireland up with dashing moves and outrageous skill.  On top of all this, there’s some talk of experimentation and using the tour to build for the 2015 World Cup.  This is not a South Africa team to be feared.  Kidney and co. should concentrate on getting the best players they can on the pitch and not be too mindful of giving up a few kilos here and there.  The likes of Gordon D’arcy and Keith Earls punch well above their weight.
  5. Experience and players playing in their best position count for a lot.  We’d encourage Kidney to put as few square pegs in round holes as he can.  Against this, he has to balance up a requirement to ensure the backline isn’t too callow.  Darren Cave at 13, Felix Jones at 15 and Simon Zebo at 11 might sound exciting on paper, but it’s very raw, with three novices out of five in the back division.

With all that in mind, the options avilable, as we see them, are as follows.

The Specialists – 15 Jones, 14 Bowe, 13 Earls, 12 D’arcy, 11 Zebo/Trimble

Be Happy: Everyone is playing in their natural position and we’ve a proper full-back on the pitch, and one with an exciting counter-attacking game too.  Earls’ performances at 13 in the last 12 months should have convinced the doubters at this stage that he’s up to task – we were one of them ourselves.

Be Worried: Felix Jones is just back from a(nother) lengthy lay-off and has only had one start with Munster, at home to that European powerhouse Zebre.  He’ll have another this weekend, but it’s a massive risk to throw such an inexperienced and injury-prone player in at the deep end like that.  Earls himself is also recovering from injury and has not played since the Leinster game in Lansdowne Road.

The Strike Runners- 15 Earls, 14 Trimble, 13 Bowe, 12 D’arcy, 11 Zebo

Be Happy: why not just try and get all our best strike runners on to the pitch?  This would necessitate bringing Bowe off the wing, which would create room for both Trimble and Zebo, two wings in a rich vein of form.  Alternatively, Bowe and Earls could switch jumpers, with Bowe more reliable under the high ball.

Be Worried: Bowe may be solid under the high ball but once he catches it, he isn’t the best kicker in the world.  Reverting to Bowe at centre, then, and you’d have two players out of position, and Bowe hasn’t played 13 in a significant game in a long time, with perhaps too much weight being put on a good performance there for the Lions over three years ago.

The Cavemen- 15 Earls, 14 Bowe, 13 Cave, 12 D’arcy, 11 Zebo/Trimble

Be Happy: On the face of it, the most balanced selection, with Darren Cave coming into the centre.  He’s perhaps the most BOD-like 13 available.  That would allow Bowe to stay in his best position, while Earls would have to ready himself for an aerial onslaught.

Be Worried: Earls at 15 and an outside centre making his first test start.  And besides, what if Earls is injured?  Bringing Jones in would leave the backline way too inexperienced.

The Ooooooooooooohhh – 15 Hurley, 14 Bowe, 13 McFadden, 12 Downey, 11 Trimble

Be Happy: Ooooooooooohhh, those Saffers are awfully big chaps.  Let’s fight fire with fire and get our most physical, bosh-tastic backline out on the pitch.  We can almost hear Barnesy gearing up already.

Be Worried: Ireland don’t need to be any more dull to watch than they already are.