Bent Cops

One of the more endearing/bizarre (delete as appropriate) stories of last November was the ascension of Michael Bent from the Dublin Airport arrivals hall to the bench to face up to the Springboks in the Palindrome, with the now de rigeur hurley forcd into his hand for a photo-shoot, to show just how Oirish he really is. We, and most commentators, acknowledged at the time that Deccie didn’t have many other options.

The theme of Ireland having a tighthead crisis has been going on for so long as to be a constant source of white noise in any selection debate. John Hayes soldiered manfully for a decade, and delivered a relatively solid set piece as the foundation for piles more silverware than Ireland had ever won before (and not just because the Triple Crown was a metaphorical trophy until recently), but behind him, there wasn’t much. The IRFU plucked Mushy Buckley from the Munster undergrowth in 2008-ish and decreed him the next big thing – the player had many promising moments, but ultimately was a huge let-down – Hayes played far longer than was humane, and the occasional filling-in of Tom Court was just that – filling in.

Once Mushy failed to make half-time in the pre-2011 Six Nations Wolfhounds game, patience finally snapped – he was out of the picture. Luckily for everyone, Mike Ross at Leinster had developed into a fine tighthead under Greg Feek – he could always scrummage, but his all-round game and conditioning improved beyond all recognition. The Ireland scrum became a weapon like never before – the filleting of the England pack in the Aviva in 2011 was as surprising as it was enjoyable.

Unfortunately, Ross is human, and tires occasionally, as we have discussed before.  It’s essential for Ireland to have some credible backup (i.e. not Buckley). The alternatives are:

  • Deccie Fitzpatrick – classic scrummager, good debut on tour, but too injury-prone to rely on
  • Jamie Hagan – struggling to convince he can scrummage well enough at Pro12 level, never mind the HEC
  • Stephen Archer – struggling to convince he can scrummage well enough at AIL level, never mind the Pro12
  • Michael Bent – just landed, but comes with a good rep from Tarananki in New Zealand

Bent’s call-up resulted in more than a little frothing at the mouth, with George Hook getting especially apoplectic with rage live on air.  But tempers were clamed – as they so often are – by the sight of the big fella playing and scrummaging well. On his first appearance on this island, in green, he came on for an exhausted Mike Ross against the Springboks and acquitted himself well – the scrum looked solid and his first action was to win a scrum penalty. Two further substitute appearances followed – against a bunny Fiji side mourning the death of a team-mate and not really bothering to turn up, and a tired Puma team who were spectacularly dismantled early on. Neither gleaned much useful information.

Then, after the RWC15 draw, there were the usual flurry of potential Ireland teams named – this is a fool’s errand of course, but it’s a bit of fun and generally an interesting debate. All of them had one thing in common – Bent at tighthead – and why not, since its pretty clear that, akin to the Hayes/Buckley succession plan, that all the national teams eggs are in the Bent basket when it comes to Mike Ross’s long-term replacement. But how realistic is that?

After rounds three and four of the HEC, Ross was given some time off, and Bent got his chance in the December interpros against Ulster and Connacht. He endured a difficult time. Against Ulster, he was milked for scores by the Ulster pack, and his opposite number and international fall-guy Tom Court was man of the match. Then in the RDS against Connacht, he had another shaky outing, and was called ashore shortly after being wheeled by Connacht academy graduate Denis Buckley. Worrying signs, and a curius performance graph.

Of course, Bent isn’t some greenhorn plucked from obscurity and asked to man up – he came through the Taranaki youth system, spent 10 years going up through the grades and eventually made 11 Super Rugby appearances (5 starts) for the Hurricanes and was Taranaki player of the year for 2012 after a productive ITM Cup campaign. That’s a promising CV – but not a home run one. If Super Rugby is somewhat analogous to the HEC, then the ITM Cup is probably at a level slightly better than the Pro12. We will confess, we haven’t seen much ITM Cup action, but if it’s comparable to the Currie Cup (which you would imagine it is – second level professional rugby), it’s probably of the standard of the better Pro12 games.

So Bent comes across as a decent Pro12 standard 26-year old prop, with a reputation for being able to play both sides, after a handful of SR appearances. By co-incidence, another prop came over to Ireland aged 26, with an ambipropstrous reputation (although considered primarily a tighthead at the time) and a handful of SR appearances – Tom Court, in 2006. Both arrived from relative obscurity and neither were mapped internationally.

Of course, the comparison is somewhat moot – Court only took up rugger a couple of years before coming over, while Bent, as a Kiwi, has presumably been steeped in it since birth – Bent shouldn’t have a learning curve like Court did. But the comparison is valid at one level – you don’t arrive in Ireland from second tier rugby and immediately become international class. Bent has some good qualities, but is very much a work in progress. If he is to lock the Ireland scrum for RWC15, he would want to be Leinster’s first choice HEC tighthead by the beginning of the 2014-15 season – that gives him 1.5 years to gain experience, develop further and get to that level – which isn’t that much time really. Even allowing for Ross’s relatively advanced years, he doesn’t have that much rugby behind him – only six full seasons. The idea that he will fade away and Bent step in may be a little presumtuous.

Now, where were we going with this? Ah yes, Ireland’s tighthead crisis. There is a lot of focus and pressure on Michael Bent for a number of reasons – the unusual nature of his call-up, and Ireland’s traditional lack of resources in his position. But expectations have to be tempered a little as well – if Bent is to be the RWC15 tighthead, he needs to be better than Mike Ross in 1.5 years – is that realistic? Maybe, but let him bed in in a new country and gain experience at provincial level first.

To get back to Court, it is only now (ironically, after Deccie has decided Dave Kilcoyne is better than him), after 6 seasons, that Court is realising his potential – and he has been first choice in Ulster for a long time. It was unfortunate that Bent’s first game was against a man who has matured into quite a wily operator, but the mirror held up by Court is an instructive one – Court’s level (HEC and occasionally international class) should be where we expect Bent to get to – anything more will be a bonus. And if RWC15 comes too soon for Bent, be patient – he will only be 33 when RWC19 comes along. Just because he isn’t ploughing opposition scrums right now doesn’t mean he will be the new Peter Borlase or Clint Newland …. or even the new Tony Buckley for that matter.

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29 Comments

  1. Fellas, there already isn’t enough coffee in Africa to make my first day back at work palatable, and now this…

    I broadly agree with the article’s central thesis, but that’s not dragging down my mood – it’s the overall Irish TH picture that hurts. More real and present danger that our scrum cornerstone could (will) be an exposed, open wound targeted by all and sundry (subject to a couple of specific injuries, of course). When a match gets to “opposition knock on and win a penalty” territory one is totally screwed. Oh, this is depressing. Sometimes I lament our scrum half situation, thinking it’s our great weakness as a rugby nation generally and a bit of an unfortunate muddle at present. But that’s nothing on the current tight head roster. Systemic failure par excellence.

  2. pete (buachaill on eirne)

     /  January 2, 2013

    I never knew he was so young. This gives me huge hope that he could develop in to something quite good given time and good quality training.

    He did look very good against S.Africa, scrummaging and then some effective carrying and then looked appalling against Ulster.

    We have only seen him in a small number of games so I guess the jury is still out, I will wait until I have seen another few months of him before I make a ‘primary’ judgement

    Good article lads

  3. Anonymous

     /  January 2, 2013

    The second rows may have played a part in him getting filleted in the interpros (Toner played tight head 2nd row!) v his previous games for Ireland and Leinster (McCarthy and Browne were the tight head 2nd rows). Also Court was scrummaging legally – Rolland penalised him on his first scrum against Munster for the same thing (unfortunately Lacey isn’t v competent!).

    On the tight head roster, there are 2 very promising players at Leinster in Moore and Furlong.

    • Add Macklin in Ulster to that – with a bit of luck the new IRFU DoR will put promising tightheads in some special category for delicate development

      • offiah

         /  January 3, 2013

        Yes for Macklin but he is more a converted 8. Moore and Furlong are tight heads from birth!
        I’m a big believer that props are born not converted!

        There has been a shift in recent years (law changes have contributed) to a more traditional tight head of between 1.8m to 1.9m and c120kg.
        Hayes and Buckley are huge men – 1.94m and 1.96m and over 120kg (Buckley is 138kg!). Both are converted back 5 players. It was all about the winning the hit. It’s abit more techical now and the gap is much tighter. If they were French they would of ended up as tight head 2nd rows. We can produce huge 2nd rows!

        Macklin is 1.85m and a little light at 114kg. Hagan is 1.91m and 120kg, maybe a little too leggy. Furlong and Moore are still very young (20 and 21) so they have room for growing. Furlong is 1.83m and 115kg and Moore is 1.8m and 123kg. Moore looks the real deal, I’d like to see more of him in 2013.
        Bent is 1.85m and 118kg, whereas Ross is 1.88m and 127kg.

        • To clarify on Macklin, he is a prop, but he played 8 in the Schools Cup as Methody had a spare prop but needed heft in the backrow – the entire idea of doing that shows the need for a collective plan for props

    • True he had Toner behind him at Ravenhill but, if I am not mistaken, Ben Marshall was the tight 2nd row against Connacht. The Connacht performance was arguably more worrying (from Bent’s perspective) than Ulster. He was handed his proverbial by a mediocre Connacht scrum (without the Toner behind him excuse). The jury is definitely still out but it makes Thornley’s (Kidney-proxy) mistreatment of Ross and ridiculous hailing of Bent in November seem all the more like the guff it seemed at the time.

      The referee was Clancy by the way, not Lacey. Clancy is shocking. Lacey is not.

      • SASP

         /  January 4, 2013

        Marshall is a novice and a bit lightweight (although a decent player) and was partnered by Toner in the 2nd Row. Connacht had Swift and Naoupu who are a really powerful duo. I also think Buckley is underrated for a young guy. He is short and strong similar to Domingo (but obviously not in his class). This gives him a huge advantage and makes it easy to get under the TH.
        It should be remembered that Leinster imported Brad Thorn last season to help Ross out against the better scrums they were likely to face late on in the HCUP.

      • SASP, I agree that Marshall can also be used as ‘an excuse’. My problem, writing after Edinburgh game, is that I have now watched Bent scrummage in 3 games for Leinster, with 3 different second rows behind him. I have yet to see us win or gain an advantage in a scrum with him on. This is a major cause for concern. He was not against the first Connacht or Edinburgh front rows even. I can give him time and want him to work out but his start has been really poor.

  4. ITM Cup standard is generally higher than the Pro12 in the backs, while being lower in set-piece forward play. Of course Pro12 scrum-standards aren’t particularly high these days, with only a few destructive scrummagers on the circuit (Jones, Court, ??). It looks like Bent is on or about the level of Nathan White, who took a drubbing from Paul James last year, but has otherwise held up reasonably well. So, sub-international level, and likely to get found out against a quality loose-head.

    Encouragingly, he’s still young, and he won’t yet have had time to adapt to the crime-pays culture of scrum refereeing up here (chapeau to Mr Poite for that). Also, if he plays for Ireland, he will have some powerful second rows behind him in McCarthy, O’Callaghan or Tuohy, who will give him more support than Toner or the inexperienced Marshall.

  5. B

     /  January 2, 2013

    I haven’t fully made up my mind about Bent yet but he was as you say dealt with quite well by D Buckley and the Connacht pack is not exactly a set of world beaters so even allowing for Toner behind Bent that is a worry imo. Secondly what Bent’s cv fails to mention is that he had been leapfrogged by a relative kid in the past two seasons and that a number of his super rugby games were pre-season, ie of limited value. While it seems likely this guy (toomaga-allen I think it was) could be a future nz international he is a kid nonetheless.

  6. Len

     /  January 2, 2013

    Good to see ye back. I don’t think we need to start worrying yet with regards to Bent. He’s only had a few matches for Leinster and mostly with a reduced strength pack. Give the Leinster coaches some time with him and put a decent second row behind him and I think things will improve. What it does highlight is what you were saying about Browne being first choice due to the need for extra heft in the scrum and toners lack in this regard. Which brings us back to the old question of whether or not Toner will make it?

    • Amiga500

       /  January 2, 2013

      Personally, I think the ship that is Dev’s career is starting to sail and he is in real danger of not being on it… Unfortunate for the man, but it is what it is.

    • And another one Len. How long do we wait for Bent to scrummage? Another second row tonight and a full strength pack.

  7. Connachtexile

     /  January 2, 2013

    As usual you left out the Connacht guys. Ronan Loughney who is capped internationally at TH for Ireland and Nathan White who will be IQ after next season making him eligible to be our TH for Ireland in 2015. While Loughney might not have enough dog in him for international level White is a wily operator and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him pick up a good few caps. There’s also Andress at Worchester.

    Part of me thinks this is EOS’s fault as he never gave Hayes back-ups a chance like Peter Bracken to see what he could do at that level. It might have meant less Buckley for a season or two.

    • We pondered including Loughney, but left him out as he is behind White. White himself wasn’t considered as he is yet to be Irish. We do acknowledge that White has had a good year – but he made little impression at Leinster. He’s pretty far off international class right now.

      Andress is something of a journeyman, but is having his best season yet – but in a struggling Worcester side. Timmy Ryan is another in that bracket.

      • Paddy Logan

         /  January 2, 2013

        Andress might be a journeyman, but he is playing regularly in the boshership so should be in the mix.

        I was disappointed with how poorly the Ulster front-row of Black, Herring and Macklin went against, an admittedly v strong, Munster trio. So I was ready for some payback when Court packed down against Archer in the last quarter. Surprisingly, Court shipped 2 pens, for boring (I think) and Archer held up pretty well. I like the line you use in the blogpost but I would have swapped the comments about Archer with those against Jamie ‘the concertina’ Hagan, who looks a long way off even RDP standard.

        A theme for Leinster of late has been the pace at which the scrum retreats when Toner is in the engine room, regardless of who is at tight-head. Perhaps Archer went well because ‘Stakhanov’ was packing down behind him. This would explain why the Ireland set up are so fond of DOC and why Schmidt is patently not that fond of Toner.

        Overall, i agree with your thesis that Bent is nowhere near as bad as his Nightmare before Xmas at Ravers suggests, but he certainly is far from International class which makes his caps all the more difficult to stomach. Hopefully he will get up to speed quickly, although I fear that the RDP is not the place to do so.

      • Spikes

         /  January 2, 2013

        I don’t think Timmy Ryan can be bracketed with Andress, who is starting regularly in a set-piece oriented league. I wish him nothing but the best, but Tim Ryan can’t even get on the bench for the Dragons, whose scrum is a noted liability. Worryingly for Tim, the Dragons are talking about needing to bring in another “top class international tighthead”.
        http://www.southwalesargus.co.uk/sport/10127976.Dragons_boost_playing_budget_for_next_season/
        He’s a great asset in the loose, but either he’s foul of some WRU directive or his scrummaging is still an issue at the top level. Buckley syndrome all over again?

  8. @Paddy – gerat points. Andress is the sort of player who will have to find a gainful employer in Ireland to get considered for the natioonal team. If BJ Botha leaves Munster, and the rules about one foreigner per position are brought in (this has gone very quiet, incidentally, and makes us wonder if they are being quietly retracted while nobody notices) then Munster could come looking for him. He is certainly getting more high-level exposure than any IQ tighthead other than Ross, and for all the boshiership’s laws, the set piece is generally stiff enough.

    Archer recently gave away five consecutive scrum penalties against the Scarlets’ – the Scarlets! – at which point we more or less put a line through him, but his performance against Ulster was more encouraging. Hagan is faring little or no better, and doesn’t appear to have made any improvement since coming to Leinster. No doubt that your point on the second row heft makes a huge difference is most pertinent and too often overlooked. Anyone wondering how a plodder like Damien Browne gets picked for Leinster just has to think about this facet of the game and they have their answer.

    • @Whiff and @Paddy – The problem with trying to assess Archer is his inconsistency. Is he a bad player who has good days or a decent player who has some bad days?
      He’s had some nightmares (like that Scarlets game or against Leinster ‘A’) and he’s clearly not up to HCup level scrummaging yet but he’s also had decent outings. He had productive night in Cardiff in November, he’s scrummaged for two penalty tries this season and he stood up well to Court at the weekend. When you have all those performances mingled in together it makes it even harder to discern if he’s any good or not.
      He hasn’t turned 25 yet so it would be premature to write him off yet, when he’s still a few years away for the prime years for a tighthead. The problem with TH is getting the requisite experience without being a total liability to the team.

      With Hagan, hindsight is 20-20, but it seems like the move to Leinster was premature. He’s proven himself more than Archer to date but his number of starts is dropping bellow Archer now and Bent’s arrival doesn’t bode well for him in terms of gametime. Again, he’s not a write off, but he might need to get out of Dublin for a while.

    • AgentSmith

       /  January 4, 2013

      @Whiff – Regarding the Scarlets game, in fairness to Archer the scrum was still very bad when he went off and Botha came on. If Botha couldn’t improve it, then i wouldn’t lay the blame completely at his feet. Marcus Horan, who is a spent force, was playing loosehead in that game, and it was a second string 2nd row.

  9. Connachtexile

     /  January 2, 2013

    After Archer got his ass handed to him a week or two ago by an academy Leinster A pack I’ve written him off. Yes he was good against Ulster but the difference in the packs was huge. If it was a level playing field I think Court would be the one picking up the kudos. As for Hagan he did really well at Connacht before kinda disappearing at Leinster. He strikes me as the type of player who needs to be playing week in week out to get the best out of him.

  10. Yes, let’s keep clam & carry on…

    Great to have you back guys, hope you had a lovely Christmas which was not unduly soured by Fergburger the Grinch.

    To the matter at hand. Yes, there’s been an interesting/worrying disparity in Bent’s performances so far but I’d be of the opinion that is early doors. Also I do think the quality of your second row in the scrum does need to be considered. Another reason to worship at the altar of Big Bad Brad. Swoon. Sidenote: read Sir Ruchie’s biog to see that he too is a paid up member of the cult of Thorny

    There’s a number of options outlined above but hardly anyone knocking down the door. I think ignoring players based abroad is doing no-one any favours, particularly at this stage.

    I’d be interested in what people think the national management need to do here, particularly in terms of tighthead triage. For me, in the long-term we obviously need to be scouting and develop props from a younger age. I also wonder if the academy set-up is beneficial for this position, given the later development in question. And obviously, time spent without a national scrum coach was ridiculous. Is ridiculous? What’s Feek’s story, does he have the role? And if so should it be someone full-time, even though I rate him highly, as do many.

    I was wondering if there is any merit to a tight-head training camp or something, like a higher level Route 66 project Leinster did. Should these guys discussed above be worked with more in attempt to deal with a glaring issue in the Irish squad or is everything that can be learned learned from watching them week in week out? There is a strong possibility I’m over-thinking this

    • Thanks Kate, many happy returns. Lots of interesting points raised here, and I’m not sure how many we are qulified to answer.

      Prop development is definitely something we’ve failed at as a nation. The two tightheads we have in the national team at the moment were both developed outside Ireland. There’s certainly a need to get young props more playing minutes, and it looks like the AIL is being under-utilised here. Keith Wood regularly bangs this drum on Off The Ball. Demented Mole has written some very good pieces on English and French rugby, and in particuar how they have high quality and professional second tiers in which players (especially props) can learn their trade at a good level before graduating to the big league, and how we don’t really have such a thing.

      Our understanding is that Feek is the national scrum coach, but only on a series-by-series basis. The coaching team has a real sticky-plaster look to it at the moment, and that goes beyond the scrum.

      At some level there was a ‘Prop Idol’ project to try and get more young players to consider playing prop. I can’t remember whether it was a national or a Leinster thing. Perhaps someone who knows a bit more than us could help out here and let us know if it added any value, or is still ongoing.

      • Absolutely I think the AIL is underused, not for the first time Keith Wood & I are in agreement. Maybe I’ll start referring to him as Fester a la GT. Except I won’t. Cos it’s weird and make me cringe. And as always the Mole is bang on that the gulf between the AIL/ 2nd tier rugby being an issue. I’m not convinced the academy set up works for forwards, particularly props. Early developers like Church are the exception rather than the norm. Just bulking them up is not the answer.

        Regarding the coaching ticket, I think a lot of the focus is on Kidney Must Go rather than the overall ramshackle state of the whole thing. I wonder how much of it is by Kidney’s design and how much by the IRFU & their seeming inability to get positions filled by appropriate personnel in a timely manner. I think a lot of the issue is with the latter and it doesn’t get as much attention as it should cos it’s easier just to point to the Kidney Clock.

  11. jojo

     /  January 3, 2013

    its been mentioned there a few times regarding how toners a poor scrummager and brownes bulk improves the scrum. And i agree i do think this is probably smidts thinking, however, if you watch the difference when he’s on its actually minimal.

  12. Quarters

     /  January 3, 2013

    The problem with the AIL as a training ground for props is the lack of knowledge. Academy tight heads presumably benefit hugely from working with the scrum coaches, something they would get with the AIL teams. The problem with the academy is presumably game time. Having four or five THs makes it difficult to give them all enough game time

  13. Third Leinster game I have watched Bent play and he has yet to have one good scrum: not a single one! In this time, he has had 3 different second rows behind him, so I simply do not by the guff that it is someone else’s fault. I am willing to give the guy time (despite the very poor start he has had) but this is the most inauspicious start ever. It makes a complete mockery of Kidney and Thornley’s attempts to big him up and dumb Ross down. Again, don’t get me wrong, I hope Bent comes good.

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