Lions Post #1: Who is Israel Folau?

As soon as the Northern Hemisphere hacks land in Australia, they’ll be catching up on their reading, and they will all be experts on Israel Folau. For now, they have no idea who he is, but he’s likely to be a factor in the Lions series – he’s being used shamelessly by the ARU to promote union, and with the Lions on their way, he’ll be on billboards all over west Sydney and beyond. Plus he’s a pretty useful player.

At present, he is a full back or wing – he wants to play 13 if he stays in union, but the Wallabies will probably see him as a wing. He picks good times to come off his wing into the line, has a good step and excellent hands – think Chris Ashton but 6′ 5″, built like Fez and not a swan-diving tool. He started off like as a league fullback, then did a year in AFL – you might be thinking ‘useless bosh merchant’, but he has an excellent kicking game as a result.

Given the capital, both reputational and economic, invested in him, you would be sure he’ll play some involvement in the Lions series if he settles in union – he is reputedly on A$ 700,000 a year, and is being used as a marketing tool in soccer, league and AFL areas. The Waratahs sold 2,000 season tickets the week after he signed on, and he is generating great excitement.

How good is he? In warm-up games, he has scored and created plenty of tries, but his defence looks pretty ropey – his tackling technique is good, and is AFL-esque (very few front-on tackles required) but his positioning is what Gerry might call “decidedly rusty”.

If he picks that up, he’s going to be a real threat – the Wallabies are playing a far less expansive game than they did in 2010/11, and Folau offers try-scoring potential if (again) he settles in the sport. So, one to keep an eye on for the next few months – you’ll be miles ahead of the so-called experts merely by being aware of his existence at this point.

PS when Lesley Vainikolo was fast-tracked into the England team by Stephen Jones, we couldn’t help but chortle at the fact he barely knew the rules. Therefore, it would be remiss of us not to show the below clip – in a pre-season game against the Crusaders, Folau intentially batted the ball out of play in goal, which is allowed in league. Result: penalty try, and his team-mates explaining the rules of union to him (0:26 below). Only one word for that: OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOHHH!!!

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Fat Lady Tuning Up

That’s all folks, as they say. The Declan Kidney era as Ireland coach is over following a clueless second half capitulation against a limited Scottish side in Murrayfield. As the game went on, the paucity of Ireland’s play became clearer and clearer, and the endgame was difficult to watch.  Afterwards it was a case of ‘how did that happen?’  Even Scotland’s head coach Scott Johnson seemed astonished that his team had won.  Ireland made all the line-breaks, had 70% of the ball in spite of a hopeless lineout and shaky scrum, and should have had a 17-point lead at half time.  Instead they handed Scotland the initiative and lost the game, almost entirely by default.  It seemed an unloseable game but Ireland contrived to do so.

It leaves Declan Kidney in a spot where his position has become untenable.  This series was his bid for a new contract and with this defeat, his chances go up in smoke.  Ireland have one win from three, and now face a partially resurgent France, against whom their record is dire, and a potential wooden-spoon-off in Rome.  There seems no chance the IRFU will deem the current performance level worthy of another two years, and the 2015 World Cup.  The momentum generated against Argentina and Wales has been duly squandered.  It’s the same old story, the umpteenth episode over four years of mediocrity.

We have been supportive of Jamie Heaslip’s captaincy to date, but Ireland lacked decisive leadership on and off the field. We’ll come to Heaslip later, but the management did not have a good day. Paddy Jackson was parachuted into the starting lineup and Ian Madigan was left out of the initial matchday training squad – Jackson had a good game in open play, his swift hands releasing Luke Marshall (twice) and Keith Earls in the first half, but 1 from 4 is not good enough from the tee at this level. When the defiant Ronan O’Gara came on, he was woeful – kicking possession away and setting up Scotland’s final penalty with a head-fryingly stupid cross-kick. Not even Conor George will manage to spin that one.  It pains us to see a great career end this way. As for Madigan, he may not have started many big games at 10, but he has form, experience and confidence, and should have seen action in June or November (as should Jackson) – we can see why Kidney didn’t play him given his limited exposure, but it was Kidney who has elected not to give him that exposure.

When players don’t have experience to fall back on, they should at least have form, so they feel confident playing their own game.  But Jackson was just back from injury, hadn’t been playing well, and has struggled with placed ball this season.  It was a lot to ask of him.  The oversight in not ensuring he took place kicks against Zebre last Friday looks borderline criminal now.  At test rugby, where teams prepare to the nth degree, how can Ireland have left such a critical element of the game as kicking points to chance?  What to do for the next game?  Pray for Sexton, presumably.

But, back to PJ for a second – in the first-half, Ireland eschewed shots at goal, almost as if they were aware Jackson wasn’t the greatest kicker. Then in the second half, they elected to go for it from harder places on the field, but after what seemed like lengthy debate – the lack of confidence in the kicker should not have been perceptible to someone watching, but it was. Confidence ebbed from the team the longer Scotland stayed in it. To wrap up this section, we should mention that the other debutant, Luke Marshall, had an excellent game.

By half-time yesterday, Ireland should have been out of sight. Prime butchery from Keith Earls and ponderous rumbling inside the 22 meant we went in just 3-0 up despite utterly dominating. Scottish defence was good, but at this level, that shouldn’t matter if you are camped in the 22 for most of a half.

Then in the second half, when Craig Gilroy got over, it looked like Ireland would kick on and win, but they didn’t. Jackson missed touch from a penalty and, a few phases later, Wee Greig was knocking over 3 points, and we began to get concerned. Second Half Syndrome was about to strike again – the moment the Scottish got a foothold in the game, Ireland lost their discipline; the lineout continued to be a shambles, and, when Tom Court went off, the scrum – already creaking a bit – collapsed.

Scotland lapped it up – having defended well, we invited them back into the game, they took their chances, and they ended the game bullying Ireland. Dave Kilcoyne showed why he wasn’t starting, and the Irish pack is just a bit powder puff when the noose tightens. In times gone by, Ireland’s forwards were immovable objects, but, even allowing for the absence of Paul O’Connell, Fez and DJ Church, we are rather lightweight.

The backrow were impressive on the front foot in the first half, but lost shape entirely in the second. We’re losing patience with seeing Peter O’Mahony prominent in every handbags episode, but not in every defensive last stand when the opposition get the ball.  He has much to offer and has had a good series up until this match, but the faux-hardman act is becoming exhausting.  Someone needs to have a word in his ear.  Iain Henderson had a good cameo off the bench, and should be putting POM’s place under pressure. Sean O’Brien was Ireland’s best player, but the penalty he gave away was one of the stupidest in living memory.

Heaslip himself had his best game for Ireland in a while, with good metres gained and some feral clear-out work, but his leadership wasn’t there – he seems ill-at-ease with the responsibility, hesitant over major decisions and he does not inspire the confidence of his troops. He has also become oddly penalty expensive, never a feature of his game in the past.  To be a leader, you need followers, and Heaslip doesn’t have any.  His shell-shocked post-match interview in which he described Ireland as being ‘in a good place, but a mixed place’ showed how uncomfortable he is in the role; it was as if the words were coming out of his mouth without him really knowing what they were, or what they signified.

What’s most worrying is that Ireland don’t seem to have the ability to stem the flow when momentum swings against them.  All games have an ebb and flow, as teams exchange dominance over the course of 80 minutes.  In all three matches in this series, Ireland have found themselves under the kosh in the second half, but have been powerless to turn it around – or even to hang in there and effectively limit the damage.  The longer each game goes on, the worse Ireland seem to get.  Once Scotland got back to 8-6, we tweeted that we had ‘that sinking feeling’ – we never felt confident that Ireland would soak up the pressure and regain control.  To this end, it has not helped that Ireland’s reserves have been so useless.  None of ROG, Reddan, Toner or Kilcoyne provided much in the way of impact – in fact, the contrary was the case as momentum got away from us with scary speed.

This group looks rudderless on and off the pitch, and it’s simply time for a change.  Kidney has to accept responsibility for too many failed decisions this campaign; his decision to install Heaslip as captain looked a good one, but it has backfired.  It was a momentum-based decision, to carry some of the good vibes from November forward; a positive move, but now that the momentum has been squandered, where does it leave the team?  His blind spot towards Ian Madigan and oversight with regard to place kicking amounts to a blunder.  The regime is all but over.

Caution Swinging In Wind At Carton House

In a move which is going to rock the nation, Declan Kidney has selected Paddy Jackson at 10 ahead of one-time stalwart Ronan O’Gara. The team line-up also features a debut for Ulster’s Luke Marshall, a wing slot for Keith Earls, and a surprising, but not illogical, return to the side for Tom Court, who leapfrogs Munster’s David Kilcoyne.

We’ve reservations about the 10, but it’s a positive, forward-looking selection, and not before time.  Had Kidney been more far-sighted in any series up to now we mightn’t be in such a precarious position, but we are where we are, so we may as well enjoy the rollercoaster ride.

The news will be dominated by ROG’s snub. It’s a call on a par with his now legendary move to bring Tomas O’Leary and Denis Hurley in for Peter Stringer and Shaun Payne, which resulted in Munster winning the Heineken Cup in style. Will this have the same effect?

If making Jamie Heaslip captain and keeping Craig Gilroy in the team gave the impression that Kidney has been emboldened by having entered the last-chance saloon, this decision certainly confirms it. No more Mr. Conservative; when you’ve nothing to lose you may as well gamble with abandon. Two debutants in midfield in a Six Nations game? Last year’s Kidney would have baulked. But now he knows his only chance of an extension is to appear to be tomorrow’s man, and he’s going for it.  All that said, ROG in his scurrent form could no longer be seen as a safe option, and would arguably have been a bigger gamble.  But perception will be that Kidney has ‘gambled’ on Jackson.

Taking the key call at face value, Kidney just couldn’t start ROG in this match. The overwhelming majority of pundits were happy to put forward the ‘blind faith’ argument, that ROG was ROG and would therefore play well by a sort of ROG-O-Magic that rewinds the clocks to 2008. But any reasoned analysis showed that wasn’t likely. The player has been in decline for some time now (and we re-iterate that there is no disgrace in that – there are not many other almost-36 year old skinny-limbed 10s playing test rugby).

There are shades of Tomas O’Leary’s pre-World Cup here. O’Leary only had to play a notch above terrible in the last warm-up match against France to get himself to the World Cup, but couldn’t even do that. Similarly, on Saturday night against Scarlets, ROG just had to turn up and show something – ANYTHING! – to get himself into the 10 shirt, but couldn’t  If O’Gara had picked up a mild cold on Saturday afternoon and sat out the game, he’d be starting this weekend. When he was demoted for Sexton, it was because Sexton played himself onto the team; here ROG has played himself out.

Which brings us to the other element of the decision – the replacement, Paddy Jackson. Jackson hasn’t exactly been kicking the door down to get picked as a test starter. His form has been patchy since November, while Madigan has been resurgent since returning to the more familiar role of fly-half at Leinster. Jackson has presumably got the nod because he has played more at Heineken Cup level (seven starts, including a final, versus Madigan’s five, of which four were at full-back), was in camp in November when Madigan was not, and offers a more structured game than the mercurial Madigan. In short he’s more of a Kidney player.

Whether he’s a better player, or the right man for this game, remains to be seen. Madigan has 70 appearances for Leinster, and has 15 tries to his name in that time. It’s a heck of a premium to put on some time in camp and a handful of H-Cup appearances, none of which Jackson has particularly dominated, compared with Madigan’s form, exceptional passing range, place-kicking, try-scoring and temperament.  One mind-boggling element of the whole thing is that Ulster were not instructed to let Jackson take over place-kicking duties against Zebre last Friday night.  It’s something he’s struggled with this season and he will be asked to step up to a more pressurised environment and convert penalties on Sunday.

It all rather brings to mind the line in Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’, where David Byrne says “And you may ask yourself, How did I get here?”. Everyone with eyes in their head could see ROG was on his way out over the last 12 months – whatever lines we were fed by pundits – but the decision to prepare for this day was continually kicked down the road. It was patently obvious in the summer that Ian Madigan should have been in the touring party, and it was as clear as night follows day that Madigan and Jackson should have got gametime in November.  Take it away, David Byrne: “And you will say to yourself: My God!  What have I done!”

Now a young fly-half is in at the deep end. It’s not the first time this has happened; management delayed promoting Mike Ross right up until the moment all other options were exhausted. If Madigan had been in camp in November, perhaps Kidney would trust him to play the more structured game he wants – but he wasn’t, and it’s Jackson who has got the nod.

Is this the end for ROG?  Probably.  If Jackson plays well, he can cement his place in the 23 when Sexton returns.  Once Kidney drops the hatchet on one of his staples, they rrely make any sort of meaningful return (Stringer played precisely zero minutes in the three H-Cup knockout matches in 2008 after being dropped), and should a new coach arrive next season, it’s hard to see him having a place for a 36 year old 10.

Moving on to the rest of the changes, Earls at wing is probably the least contentious – you could make a strong case for Luke Fitzgerald or Andrew Trimble, but Earls looked good against England, and Scotland fall off tackles – he offers us a chance to impose ourselves on the game by running at the Scots. It’s a marginal call, but a good one.

Luke Marshall’s selection has been long-flagged – Kidney is a fan, fast-tracking him into the November camp like he was from Cork. Niggly injuries have prevented him taking Paddy Wallace’s place in Ulster, but all indications were that he was ahead of the veteran before he broke a finger prior to the Glasgae game in January. Marshall’s pace, hands and distribution are good, and his defence solid, although his kicking game is ordinary. He may be about the only specialist 12 still standing, but we think he’s a good, and forward-looking, choice – the real deal, a player who can have a long career in the shirt and is not just a stop gap.

There appears to be some contention about Tom Court’s selection, but, for us, the only questionable aspect is that he was behind Dave Kilcoyne up to now. Court has been one of Ulster’s best players this season, and their scrum has destroyed all-comers. We thought that if O’Gara played, Court simply had to play to enable a strong scrum to try and generate three-pointers; whereas if Madigan played, the more mobile Kilcoyne was the better bet. But since Jackson more or less splits the difference between the two in terms of style, it makes more sense to judge the two against each other, and given the value placed on scrummaging ability, Court is simply better than Kilcoyne right now.

IRELAND (Possible): Kearney; Gilroy, O’Driscoll, Marshall, Earls; Jackson, Murray; Court, Best, Ross, O’Callaghan, Ryan, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Heaslip (capt). Replacements: Kilcoyne, Cronin, Fitzpatrick, Toner, Henderson, Reddan, O’Gara, Fitzgerald

P.S. we posted about Ulster’s incredible recent crop of youngsters in reference to the opening Aviva game a while back – there will be four full caps among the Ulstermen come Saturday, and only NWJMB Iain Henderson will be without a Test start.

Power of Three Plus One

Gatty has a history of throwing verbal bombs around (the Welsh hate the Irish more than anyone, for example), and he was at it again last week. The rambunctuous Kiwi, and Lions head coach, claimed that the dastardly English players were making his life more difficult by – gasp – playing better than their Welsh, Scottish and Irish counterparts. His reason? The Aussies have a particular like for poking fun at the whinging Poms, and it would make his life more difficult if he had to pick loads of the English.

This deserves greater scrutiny for a number of reasons – do they, does it matter, and why was he saying it anyway?

Gatland is a Kiwi hooker who played for New Zealand (though not as an All Black) – he’s a proud New Zealander, and with that comes the absolute conviction that you know more about rugby than anyone. Stick your head above the parapet and claim otherwise, and they’ll ruthlessly target you until they are proven right. Ask Quade Cooper – after the Wallabies won the 2011 Tri-Nations, the Kiwis realized they were actually a genuine threat for the RWC, and ruthlessly targeted their key player, NZ-born charmer Cooper, until he mentally broke. Head coach Smiler Henry condoned the shocking public abuse being doled out to Cooper, and it still leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth.

That’s how New Zealand reacts to challenges, but not Australia. Australians are a sunny, optimistic bunch, yet they know they have no right to beat the likes of New Zealand and South Africa, or even England. They feel that, when they do so, they do it through hard work and intelligent play, but they have no divine right to do so. Sure, the Aussies don’t like the Whinging Poms, but remember when England pitched up in Australia for RWC03 as not only challengers, but favourites? The equivalent to the Cooper public destruction was a hand-painted sign saying “Boring Rugby Team Trains Here” outside their base. Is that it? The Aussies make a big play of their English rivalry, but deep down enjoy the joust and challenge as much as winning.

If a Lions team pitched up with 20 English on the plane, or 5, the Aussie reaction wouldn’t be much different. They would respect the best players the Northern Hemisphere has to offer, and concoct a specific plan to beat them – again, they would see themselves as having no innate right to win, but as having a (big) challenge to overcome. They’d have as much fun poking at the Welsh and the English.

Plus there is the matter of the character of the current English team – no Big Bad Johnno, no metronomic Wilko, no trash-talking Matt Dawson. The Stuart Lancaster-coached England player is typically humble, quiet, driven and moderately talented. Even Chris Ashton made a point of commiserating with Simon Zebo as he limped off the pitch last week. They are hard to hate, and easy to respect. One senses the Aussies would see them as a worthy and fun adversary – it’s hard to imagine that Brad Barritt would get much traction as Public Enemy Number One.

So why would Gatty feel the need to specifically take a shot at the English, even under the questionable guise of team-building? The Lions concept is all about the Power of Four and all in it together – it’s pretty dumb to risk alienating half your squad before you’ve even announced it just to pre-empt some imaginary Wallaby response. Gatty has been at pains to differentiate himself from Graham Henry, the only other Southern Hemisphere Lions coach, whose tour in 2001 descended into Power of Austin Healey as the nations split up.  He’s claiming he’s really a Northern Hemisphere coach since he has spent so long here, and in fact, he is in a unique position to straddle the rugger globe, which is why he’s the perfect Lions coach!

But all he has really done has written the headline for the like of Stephen Jones if something goes wrong, and made life more difficult for himself. Would you really pick a squad on the basis that it would annoy the opposition less? Gatty would do well to remember the atmosphere in the last Lions tour – Geech spent years talking up the Lions concept and engendered the team and group dynamic which we are going to need to win a series, and Gatty made that one little bit harder with his comments this week.

Last Throw of the Dice

Declan Kidney’s decision to overlook Ian Madigan for the Irish training squad flies in the face of logic, and suggests the coach is hunkering down with his tinfoil hat on.

Last week we blogged our opinions on the matter of who should start for Ireland, so let’s not go over that ground again.  For now, let’s assume ROG is starting and was always going to, and have nothing more to say on the matter.  Except to note that he played rubbish on Saturday night and that the theory that he is just a touch ring-rusty is increasingly difficult to support.  But he’s starting, so that’s that.

The choice for ROG’s back up was between Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson and Ian Keatley.  All three featured for their provinces this weekend, in what we hoped would be a beauty parade for at least a place in the matchday squad.  But if it was a beauty parade, the ugly sisters have walked away with the sashes and flowers.

Ian Keatley played full-back for Munster, where it was required that ROG get some match-time at 10.  Once that was the case, his chances were always somewhere between slim and none.

Paddy Jackson played his first game for Ulster since returning from injury.  His form has been scratchy for a couple of months now, and Ruan Pienaar has taken over kicking duties, following Jackson’s struggles with placed ball.  He piloted Ulster to a comfortable win over a por Zebre side, in which they performed reasonably.  Jackson had an ordinary enough game, and Pienaar took the place-kicks.

At Leinster, Madigan had a very productive outing.  He kicked four from five conversions, in keeping with his kicking stats over the course of the season.  He ran the Leinster backline efficiently, made one lovely line break and – most importantly – curbed his enthusiams to try and do too much on his own.  It bears mention that Treviso were hopeless, but he was among the best players on show.  He did everything that could have been asked of him.

Deccie’s seletion effectively says ‘I don’t care how the lads played this weekend, I’m picking this team anyway’.  By omitting his most in-form 10 he is rendering form an irrelevance, and confirming a long-held hunch in most people’s minds that he just doesn’t like Ian Madigan as a player.  It’s also a call that gives his critics – such as they are in a supine national media – such easy ammunition it’s almost unbelievable.  They say in politics, you should never do anything to confirm a stereotype people have of you – well, Deccie has done exactly that here.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Deccie to pick Madigan in the training squad, let him run around a bit, and go ahead and pick Rog and PJ and justify it by saying he judged them the best options given form in training. He might have never intended to pick Madigan, but optics mean a lot. Kidney has opted for the other course, of sticking his fingers in his ears and doing what he wants and not caring what anyone thinks.

The match in question – away to Scotland – is looking increasingly like the stuff of potential nightmares.  Losing is far from inconceivable, and this decision could be fatal as far as Kidney’s career as head coach goes.  The ship is going down, but the captain will be stubborn to the last.

Six Nations Weekend Diary

This post is from our regular column in the Irish Post, the highest-selling newspaper for the Irish in Britain (which these days includes businessmen, lawyers and doctors, as well as braying bankrupt builders in Cheltenham). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain.

Friday:

Mid-morning, and the England team is out, and it’s greeted with underhand smiles by the Irish – Manu is on the bench and they have an odd-looking backrow – nice! We can take these lot is the bullish feeling around Dublin – someone mentions the army of blindsides we brought to RWC07, and how the English backrow reminds them of it – shudders all round, and the conversation moves on. Billy Twelvetrees will be targeted, they say. Brad Barritt is a useless bosh merchant, they say.  We’re confident, they (quietly) say.

Deccie’s response at lunchtime is predictable – as we expected, no changes to the XV or the bench. Self-doubt is beginning to creep in, particularly when looking at the respective benches. Still, a quick vox pop of some wild-eyed, unkempt, white plastic bag-carrying punters outside the early house told us while there was occasional dissention, fans were largely in agreement with the selection:

Rev. Mervyn McBible (Ballymena): The absence of Andrew Trimble is a clear signal Declan Kidney has invited the apocalypse upon himself

Carroll O’Kelly-Ross (Blackrock): Simon Zebo is muck roysh – all backs should be Leinster anyway, loike?

George O’Connor (Cork Con): Where is Stephen Archer? Where is Danny Barnes? Where is ROG??

Saturday:

We awaken to more cautious optimism – the selections have sunk in, and pundits (in Ireland) seem unanimous – it’s going to be tough, but we can squeak through. The consensus is that Ireland have a better backrow, and are a bit smarter – watch out for Sean O’Brien, the key man.

Amazingly, there were other rugger games on this weekend, and, after last weekend’s rugby-a-rama, it was back to somewhat more average fare, particularly in Paris. Scotland cruised past an inept Italy, and looked like they had remembered how Jim Telfer taught rucking; and then France put in an truly desperate performance in front of some seriously unimpressed Parisians, George North’s try and Freddy Michalak’s disinterested hands and feet do the damage, and France are nought from two.

Any lessons to be learned? Well, we beat Wales, who beat France – good news, performance affirmation for Ireland. England beat Scotland easily, who beat Italy easily, who beat France – bad news, performance affirmation for England. Both teams might just be as good as they looked.

Sunday:

First things first, and a quick look outside tells us it’s not a nice day – grey, dank and rainy, precisely the kind of weather the English pack will have wanted. Our skill advantage in the backrow won’t be as marked with wet grubby ball and a looming set-piece contest.

The rain wouldn’t help the atmosphere either – the object is merely to get to the stadium before pneumonia sets in, rather than stop in three or four of Dublin 4’s finest watering holes along the way.  It’s a rather ominous feel – unlike the cliché of Irish teams who thrive at dirty in-your-face, muck-and-muller rugby, this more skilful and considered generation has always preferred dry tracks, where its catalogue of backline moves can be unleashed. News began filtering through to trudging wet fans that Brian O’Driscoll’s glamorous better half was now a Yummy Mummy – plus the new Daddy was still going to play – high fives all round!

The smiles, however, were short-lived. Ireland produced a catty and error-strewn performance – a first half of unforced errors and indiscipline gave way to a second half of aimless kicking as Ronan O’Gara struggled to replicate days of yore. By half-time, Ireland had accumulated nine unforced errors and one probable citing – Jamie Heaslip, Mike McCarthy and Gordon D’Arcy major culprits in spilling forward in most uncharacteristic fashion, and DJ Church taking a likely trip to the naughty step for the next game(s).

More crucial, though, was the injury to Johnny Sexton – a pulled hamstring on a seriously poor pitch (who schedules soccer matches four days before a rugby match in a country where it rains every other day?). On came the once-great O’Gara, who just doesn’t have the game for this level any more – his kicking from hand, formerly peerless, barely managed 15 metres from penalties, and was easily hovered up by the flawless English back three from open play. He was a turnover machine too – it’s not his fault he keeps getting picked, but any chance of an Irish win was lost when Sexton pulled up.

Simon Zebo was another who didn’t see half-time, and in fact he barely got his ankle-hugging socks dirty – limping off with a broken metatarsal that will keep him out for ten weeks i.e. the season. The final injury toll included Sean O’Brien, Donnacha Ryan, Bob Kearney and Brian O’Driscoll – not all pitch-induced, and, to be frank, the attritional fare against Wales was probably as much to blame as this game.

The English defensive line was expertly marshalled all day, with speed and hard tackling to the fore –  Ireland had barely a sniff of a break, and none close to the English 22. The scrum and maul got on top in the third quarter, and we were briefly level on the scoreboard, but the English bench, as we expected, made a big difference. We said in the build-up that Ireland needed to be more than seven points in front on the hour mark to win the game due to the strength of the English bench; they weren’t and without the ability to build on the platform the forwards were offering, they were squeezed to death.

Captain, and speaker of Classic English Rugby Voice, Chris Robshaw, was man of the match for his tackle count, but kicker and defensive rock Owen Farrell or either of the team’s full-backs, Alex Goode and Mike Brown, could have got it too. On the Irish side, O’Brien had a decent game, Peter O’Mahony was visible until he wilted, but that was it.

The crowd were as cranky as the team – Farrell was quite unsportingly heckled while kicking, and any attempt to start Swing Low was boo-ed out as if it was Dylan Hartley himself at the mike. With a poor performance, key players injured, nothing going right and a shot at a Grand Slam gone, it was not a good day for Irish rugby.

Ten Questions

Despite what our learned friends in the print media might say, Ireland have a selection issue at out-half. Jonathan Sexton is unquestioned (except by our unlearned friends in the print media) number one, but is a major doubt for the Scotland game.  Working on the assumption that he will be injured, as seems most likely, who should play in his absence is unclear. Ronan O’Gara has been backup since RWC11, but his performance graph has been going south for province and country since then, culminating in his worst performance in a green shirt last Sunday.

Management have, up to now, eschewed the opportunity to give gametime to any of the promising young out-halves currently playing for the provinces, bar Paddy Jackson getting the chance to mow down Fiji for the “Ireland XV”. This is not just us writing with the benefit of hindsight, and those with memories that stretch as far as nine months ago will recall the clamour for Ian Madigan to travel to New Zealand after a season in which he was arguably the standout 10 in the Pro12.  Now, they have a serious problem, for the only man they have trusted for ten minute cameos for the last 15 months is no longer a Test-level outhalf, and the incumbent is sick. And that problem is entirely and completely of their own making. Games against Scotland and Italy in last year’s Six Nations, or in a summer tour where ranking points were not an issue and a win was never likely anyway, or against Argentina in November, were tailor-made for limited gametime for the youngsters to ease them into Test level.

Now, the choice is to dump them in at the deep end against Scotland, or persist with a legendary, but no longer effective player – not a choice we would like to have.

It’s been a consistent theme in the last three years that the management corps have declined opportunities to blood new players until absolutely forced to (by injury, typically) e.g. Mike Ross or Sean O’Brien – two players who have made a huge impression at this level. And it’s not like this policy has paid off in silver; Ireland haven’t challenged for the Six Nations since 2009, and were rather easily swatted aside by Wales in the World Cup quarter-finals.  Narrow selection policy and short-term goal setting have been the rocks on which the current regime looks to be perishing.

So now we’re in a right old pickle for the game in Murrayfield, with not only a starting place, but a reserve to be chosen from four candidates.  Before we go through the options, we are happy to declare upfront that the sole objective is to win the game, and to select the fly-half to give ourselves the best chance of doing that – not with the best chance of winning the 2015 World Cup, or beating New Zealand in 2036.  Ireland need a win here, pure and simple:

The Safe Option (Or is it?): Ronan O’Gara. One hundred and twenty-seven caps. Let’s repeat: one hundred and twenty-seven – that’s incredible. O’Gara is the only player to have played in all 14 Six Nations tournaments, and, until recently, retained the apple cheeks and innocent look that so endeared him to Mario Ledesma and Rodrigo Roncero. But is he really so safe?  All the caps in the world count for little if the player’s level has fallen over the cliff-edge.  Peter Stringer has many more caps than Conor Murray, but it doesn’t make him a safer selection for next week’s match.  The test rugby arena is no longer a place for slight 35-year olds fly-halves.

ROG’s last start for Ireland was in the World Cup quarter-final – he didn’t have a good day then, and he has slowed down since. His boot is now Arwel Thomas-esque, as is his tackling. He has experience and self-belief, but unfortunately the old magic has gone. You could apply Enoch Powell’s famous political dictum to him and, for that, we are profoundly disappointed. It’s also worth asking how ROG could hurt the opposition. Scotland’s only dangermen are in their back three – loose kicking to them is likely to put Ireland on the back foot, and it’s questionable as to whether Ireland should be kicking much at all in this game.

On the plus side, his place kicking remains reliable.  If pressed into action, at least he is unlikely to play as poorly as against England, and Scotland’s defensive system is probably less likely to put him under the sort of pressure England’s did.  But to turn that question on its head, is he the man to best exploit the weaknesses in that defensive system?

The Nordie Option: Paddy Jackson is three months younger than Owen Farrell, and fully two years younger than O’Gara was when he played his first HEC final, but has seven Heineken Cup starts (including a final) to his name, and has been the Chosen One of Ulster rugby for a long time and looked the part in the uncapped match against Fiji. Alas, he has rather wilted in the last two months, and has yet to prove himself a reliable place-kicker, but has mostly impressed this year.

He has often been babysat through matches by Ruan Pienaar and Pwal, but has begun to take on more responsibility, until his current trough of form. Murray has a similar style to Pienaar, and a combination with Jackson might be a good one.  Jackson was injured last Saturday and is not expected to play this weekend either, which makes it very difficult to see Kidney turning to him.  That said, he has the advantage of being in camp already, which may stand to him.

The Giteau Option: Ian Madigan is the most exciting of the bunch – he has an eye for the tryline, and at his best, moves a backline around with a slickness that has Leinster fans purring. He has yet to come near displacing Johnny Sexton (although we expect he’ll start next season in the 10 shirt), but his distribution and breaking game is ideal for taking on a Scotland side who fall off tackles for fun. England and even a lacklustre Italy punched numerous holes through their pourous midfield.  A fast paced running game is the obvious way to beat this Scotland side, rather than kicking to their solid lineout and giving them the opportunity to bring their back three into play.

Madigan has endured an up-and-down season, having been press-ganged into an unfamiliar role at full-back, but has got back to his best form since returning to fly-half.  His place kicking stats are also strong this year, at over 80%, and he nailed six from six at the weekend in a winning performance in Cardiff.

Counting against him is a loose kicking game and erratic decision making, while his line-kicking from penalties is inconsistent and a lack of big game experience.  He has just one Heineken Cup start at fly-half, against an already-out Montpellier, so test rugby would be a major step up in intesnsity from what he is used to.  He has spent less time in camp than Jackson, having been overlooked in November and returned to Leinster promptly this Spring.  And we don’t get the feeling Deccie is that big a fan.  He has overlooked Madigan for both this year and last year’s Wolfhounds games (for Jackson and Keatley respectively).

You might hear “You can’t throw Madigan into Murrayfield”, but it’s not that strong an argument – the Embra stadium is a library, and Madigan is familiar with it from the Pro12. With serious reservations – there are no perfect solutions to this mess, folks – Madigan would be our choice to start, based on hope that his talent will overcome a lack of experience.

The Help: Ian Keatley has done well when deputising for O’Gara so far this season in Munster, but Rob Penney sees both players every day, and has yet to prefer Keatley for a big game. Piloted Munster to their inevitable five-try win against Racing, but has a tendency to suffer from the yips with his place-kicking.  His skillset looks reasonably well equipped to take on Scotland, with a decent breaking game, and strong defensive credentials, but does he have enough class for test rugby?  Firm outsider, but he is the only one of the youngsters with Test starts on his CV (albeit against the USA and Canada).

The Ray Lewis Option: Johnny Sexton may have damaged his hamstring on Sunday, but maybe he should consult Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis – the veteran tore his triceps in October (normal recovery time: 6 months) but was back in 10 weeks to lead his team to the Superbowl. Bill Simmons of Grantland (think Conor George, except American, likeable, respected, intelligent, knowledgeable, well-spoken, a good writer and with good teeth) called him a cheat for it – but if Lewis could sort Sexton out with some deer antler spray, he might be back for Murrayfield. And it’s not like the IRB are serious about PEDs, so he’d probably get away with it too.

So which way is it going to go?  We expect Deccie to stick with ROG, and while Jackson would probably be Decie’s preferred reserve, his injury just might cost him that chance, with the in-form Madigan best placed to be the beneficiary.  Undoubtedly, this weekend’s round of Pro12 games represent something of a beauty parade, and with Leinster at home to Treviso, Madigan has a good opportunity to press his case.  Can he ensure he doesn’t try to do too much on his own?

Each of the four contenders comes with a hazard warning, but given the weakness of the Scottish midfield, we have a preference for Madigan to start with the insurance policy of ROG on the bench.  We know Kidney to be a conservative, but faced with deteriorating performances from the likes of Stringer, O’Leary and Fitzgerald in the past, he has shown an ability to make surprising, seemingly-out-of-nowhere, ruthless decisions.  Could this be one such occasion?  Probably not.  Deccie will most likely stick his chips on ROG to have just enough wiles to sneak a win against pretty ordinary opposition, so long as he knows he has Sexton to return for the more arduous French game.

Whatever fly-half Kidney chooses, we’d like to see a joined-up selection that shows an intent to hurt Scotland, not merely to scrape by.  With that in mind, his choice of loosehead – between Tom Court and David Kilcoyne – is also important.  Scotland’s scrum is no better than average, and Court is the more destructive scrummager of the two.  If Ireland do pick ROG – as we expect them to – they should look to attack the Scottish scrum and milk it for three pointers, giving ROG the platform to work the scoreboard.  If, on l’autre hand, Kidney were to take a risk on Madigan, David Kilcoyne’s energy and pace in the loose would dovetail best, putting an emphasis on playing the game at a high tempo.   Anyone care to wager against ROG and Kilcoyne starting?

Dereliction of Duty

If last weekend was the party, this was the comedown.  Three rubbish games: Ireland lost in a match whose quality was dictated by the conditions, France reneged on their great tradition amid one of the most abhorrent international performances in memory, and Italy just couldn’t dredge up the energy to back up their opening-week victory.  We finished the weekend feeling deflated.

The French team’s dereliction of duty to their history and their public was matched only by that of Ireland’s national broadcaster.  RTE’s rugby footage has long been a hot topic of discussion, with the boorish George Hook becoming a particularly trying, oafish presence on our screens.  Worse still, he seems to drag the rest of the pundits – the majority of whom are coherent and intelligent – down to his level by repeatedly shouting over them and maintaining that his pre-match prediction – no matter how wide of the mark – was in fact entirely correct.

But complaining about Hook is about as productive as complaining about the weather.  What was so infuriating about RTE’s presentation of Ireland’s defeat on Sunday was the total absence of any sort of discussion of Ronan O’Gara’s performance.  Just so we’re clear, the once great O’Gara turned in an awful display.  In conditions which could comfortably described as ‘O’Gara-friendly’, his kicking from hand was woefully inaccurate, with his penalties down the line scarcely gaining more than 15 metres.  His passing was similarly abject and his management of the game – so fabled down the years – was dreadful.  He fared better with the placed boot, knocking over two difficult penalties but missing a third, which would have reduced the deficit to three points.  Ultimately, it was sad to see a great, even legendary player reduced to such a shabby level, and underlines the danger of players hanging on for too long.  The old adage of the boxer taking on one too many fights sprang to mind.

The outcome won’t have been too much of a surprise to anyone who has watched Munster this season, where ROG’s game has declined sharply.  We have been of the opinion that ROG can no longer be a force at test level throughout the season.  At 35, this is no disgrace, and his status as a player of the age is secure in any case.  So we weren’t feeling all that glowy when Sexton departed the field injured after 20 minutes, unlike Donal ‘Tremenjus’ Lenihan, who assured us the situation was made for ROG and that he was a marvellous reserve to have.

When such a claim is made, and the outcome does not turn out as the commentator has predicted, the viewing public deserve some explanation as to why it has transpired thus, but Tremenjus wouldn’t say a word against his clubmate.  When ROG sliced a penalty out to touch, Tremenjus said we should have Kearney kicking instead.  But surely this is the very thing that ROG was brought on to do – one of the reasons he was such a good reserve in the first place.  Having Kearney kicking for the line – unless tight to the right touchline – would be entirely without precendent.  ROG’s missed kick at goal was greeted by Tremenjus with the sole observation that ROG had ‘struck it well’ – something even O’Gara would disagree with, given he missed.

Now let’s be fair to ROG here, and note that there were plenty of poor performances in the team.  Sexton’s tactcial kicking had been poor before coming off (though his touchfinders were long and accurate).  Jamie Heaslip performed badly, knocking on twice and conceding penalties (though he led the tackle count).  O’Mahony and especially Healy seemed more intent on fighting than playing footy.  The tight forwards generally did their job well enough, winning scrums and dominating the maul.  O’Brien played well.  It wasn’t a day for the chaps with two numbers on their backs, but Earls was the only one who looked a threat, and Ireland’s attacking shape looked pretty ragged from the start.  Kearney looks out of form and lost the aerial battle to England’s cannily selected full-back-heavy back three, who executed a simple kick-chase game far better than Ireland.

But in the post-match finale, ROG’s performance took on the status of the elephant in the room.  Amid Hook’s bleatings (which, incidentally, were being disproved as he spoke by the stats rolling across the bottom of the screen), and the panel discussion of where the match was lost, two words were conspicuous by their absence: ‘Ronan’ and ‘O’Gara’.  Now, nobody wants to see a centurion test legend get pulled apart on television, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that ROG is a protected species.  On Friday night, on his Newstalk show, Hook was happy to criticise Sexton’s – wait for it – game management in front of a live audience in Cork Con’s club bar, and claimed that Ireland would have won more comfortably had O’Gara been playing in the second half in Cardiff a week prior. So, when ROG’s supposedly superior game management was shown up to be not so superior after all, why was he not asked about it?

What makes it especially galling is that Jonathan Sexton, as a budding international in his second Six Nations season, had to endure scathing criticism from the panel, in particular after a mixed bag of an appearance as a substitute in a narrow win in Murrayfield, when Tremenjus pilloried the player for attempting to keep position and pass to his own team-mates rather than kick to opposing ones.  It may be stretching the point, but we wouldn’t be surprised if the agenda-driven media environment played some part in his recent decision to play his club rugby in Paris – he certainly would have been (rightly) lambasted was it him coming off the bench to produce such an aimless performance.

But, worst of all, it insults the audience.  The viewers have eyes and brains in their heads.  They could see what happened.  ROG was not solely responsible for the loss, but it was abundantly clear that he cannot play to the required level for test rugby any more.  This needed to be said, but it wasn’t.  In a cringe-inducing, self congratulatory round-table interview in the Irish Times a couple of years ago, McGurk and chums described themselves as the link between the team and the public, and appeared to see their role as one of imparting nuggets of wisdom to a public in need of educating.

Therein lies the rub.  When we read the comment box on this blog, or look at the increasing amount of great fan-writing available, or engage with other rugby fans on twitter or – even better – attend a rugby match or chat about the game with our mates in some sort of hostelry that purveys liquid refreshments, it is obvious that the Irish rugby public are passionate, opinionated and knowledgable.  We are aware that not everyone who tunes in to a Six Nations game is as obsessive about the game as many of those who read our pages, but the point holds.  Perhaps if RTE saw their role as not so much educating the hoi polloi about rugby as serving an intelligent community, we’d get the sort of analysis we deserve.  Getting rid of Hook, and putting Shane Horgan and Alan Quinlan centre stage, would be a start.

The English Are Coming

Topped pool in RWC11 with a 100% record, followed by disappointing defeat in the quarter-finals, heralding a rebuild of a tired team. Sound familiar? It should – Stuart Lancaster’s quiet revolution in England is gathering pace, and the scale of the re-build makes bringing in a couple of young wingers look positively tame in comparison.

Its worth noting of course that the Old Farts tried to entice a big name coach, and gave Lancaster a temporary contract through to the end of last season. Given the upturn in results (if not always performances), the meeja clamour became deafening, and Lancaster was duly handed the reigns through to RWC15. We should bear in mind what Napoleon said about lucky generals, for if Charlie Hodgson’s fingertips were an inch shorter, England could have lost to Scotland and Italy, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But they aren’t, and we are – and it’s Lancaster’s team.

The transformation from 15 short months ago is almost total – just three players started both the World Cup quarter-final and the opening game of the 2013 Six Nations (Ben Youngs, Chris Ashton and Dan Cole), although if Manu was fit, he would have made it a fourth. Also, and we are open to correction here, we don’t think one of the starting XV at the weekend had signed a professional contract when England memorably lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003 – this is the first full generation switch since that win, and it’s a very important one. No-one who played with Johnno, Lawrence Bruno Nero and Wilko at their peak is on the team – and the influence of those greats has retreated. This generation does not feel constrained by a gameplan or identity they cannot relate to, and are comfortable playing a heads-up, adventurous style of rugger. We caught glimpses of this potential in the squad before, notably against Australia in November 2010, but it’s the dominant philosophy now.

We’re sure we aren’t alone when we say we had scoffed at the idea of Chris Robshaw as Lions captain as an evil Blighty construct up until very recently, but Robshaw has emerged as a worthy contender, and possibly favourite. His club, Quins, are reigning Premiership champions, are well-placed in the HEC (albeit partly down to using dastardly methods, such as “maximising their chances of winning” by choosing to play their home quarter-final… at home) and play a fresh and exciting brand of football. He has presided over this England side moving up from a confidence-shy, callow bunch of kids to a team with real prospects, and rode out the storm surrounding his tactical folly against the Boks admirably, showing real leadership. Robshaw might lack top-end pace, but he is a seriously hardworking player, and has yet to be “found out” as many predicted.  We still have a personal preference for a more specialised skillset in the Lions’ No.7 shirt, and hold on to our view of him as the ideal midweek captain, but he’s in the shake up for the big gig, no mistake.

How they make up the rest of their backrow will be intriguing.  Their No.8 Ben Morgan has been their best carrier, but looks to be out injured.  Tom Wood, one of the sport’s nice guys (despite playing for the Saints), is a highly effective ironclad blindside and lineout catcher, but word on the street is he’ll be pressed into action at No.8 where, as far as we can tell, he has little experience.  James Haskell would take the No.6 shirt.  Haskell is a player with ‘good face’ and speaks in English Rugby Voice, but he’s been in and out of the England setup down the years; he’ll produce a decent highlights reel but lacks real work ethic.  It’s a somewhat samey back row, made up of three six-and-a-halves.  The alternative is to bring in Wasps’ exciting and dynamic but inexperienced Billy Vunipola at No.8 and retain a better balance, but it seems Vunipola will be held in reserve.  Nick Easter – playing as well as ever – continues to be an unwanted man. Maybe he knows Wilkinson too well.

The second row is better balanced, with Leicester’s Geoff Parling running the lineout, and young Joe Launchbury – a massive find – offering an athletic, but physical presence in the herd of the pack. We especially enjoyed how Stephen Jones was scathing of his selection, campaigning for a raft of 34 year old scrappers in his place.  No English front-row is going to get beaten up, and there is plenty of bang-wallop on the bench, with the Vunipolas Mako and Billy, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes on the bench.  And David Wilson!  What on earth is he still doing in the England team?!

England have two potential Lions scrum-halves in Ben Youngs and Danny Care, and it appears the competition is driving both to higher standards, with growing maturity being noted – and no matter who starts, there is a game-changer on the bench. Owen Farrell is a dead-eyed kicker (except in Thomond Park on wintery Saturday evenings obviously, when even the most mentally-strong of players metamorphasise into gibbering wrecks at the very sight of the tears of Irish print journalists) and improving at bringing his outside backs into play. Floody offers a bench alternative, and Freddy Burns is another talented youngster pushing for selection.

At centre, team fulcrum Tuilagi utterly destroyed the standout inside back line of this era (Caddah, Nonu, Smuth) last year with his physicality, pace and offloading skills. In Tuilagi’s absence, Billy 36 stepped in to give a man of the match performance inside old-fashioned bosh merchant Brad Barritt-Ooooooooooh – 36 could potentially drop out of the 23 for Dublin if Manu returns, which is an acknowledgment of England’s strength and depth. We suspect Lancaster would love the idea of a 36-Manu midfield, but the unheralded Barritt is the man who leads defensive alignment, and Manu, for all his strengths, is not the man to take over this duty, and the role may be considered too great a responsibility for Twelvetrees on his second cap.  Next on the depth chart is the much-hyped Jonathan Joseph; Guscott seems to think he is the best English centre since himself, and the second best ever, after himself.

Ben Foden is in most people’s Lions squads, yet Alex Goode and Mike Brown are the squad fullbacks right now – Foden has just returned from injury, and Lancaster has surprised us by leaving him out of the squad entirely.  Personally, we’d prefer to see Ireland face Goode than the classy Foden, but Lancaster is rewarding form, which is working well for him.  At wing, they’re going with another full-back, Mike Brown – which leaves them in a strong position to contend high balls -alongside Loathsome Chris Ashton (let us be fair and acknowledge at this point that most of the England squad seem like fine young chaps, and Ashton is an outlier, along with C-bomb Clark). Although not at his best by any means, Ashton will offer Ireland’s mini wings a different threat to the Welsh monsters – he plays off his 9 and 10, and if he is not tracked inside, he will be gone through the gap before you can say ‘Ian Humphreys defence’. Dave Strettle, Charlie Sharples, Christian Wade and Johnny May are just a few of the exciting alternatives.

So, to put that all together, England have a talented team, impressive depth, a clear vision and are well-coached and selected, with a question mark over the make-up of the backrow. There’s a humility and likeability around them that – let’s face it – not many previous vintages have had (except for Shawsy, Wilko and Josh Lewsey, who were gents, of course).  That’s good news for them with a home RWC in prospect, especially with the opportunity to knock a rival out at the group stages.  They might be feeling a little too plummy about themselves right now, given their rave reviews in the media, which would be no bad thing, but so far they haven’t given Ireland any ammunition.

For now, it’s vital Ireland pile the pressure on them with intensity and aggression the like of which they have yet to see. Amid the hallooing of their win over an infection-crippled New Zealand team, it has been largely forgotten that they lost at home to Australia and South Africa.  For Ireland to win, they will need to win the physical stakes, for this England side will cut you to shreds with a platform. Hassling the scrum halves is a necessity.  Both Youngs and Care are quick and lethally dangerous if given front-foot ball and a gap to run into, but we’ve seen that they can become flustered under pressure.  Ireland will be happy to have Conor Murray, a terrific defender, to patrol the fringes and, assuming O’Brien is picked at 7 again, he can expect to have another high tackle-count next to his name.  It’s a very different challenge to winning in Wales, and one we welcome for this Ireland side – England are going to be contenders at RWC15, and we should consider them a developmental benchmark at this stage of the game.

Johnny Sexton is (again) Ireland’s key man, alongside, of course, Mike Ross.  Sexton has the experience and poise to pilot Ireland through this game, and the reward for doing so is a cut at only a third Grand Slam in our history. But it won’t be easy, not at all.

The Mystery of the IRFU Succession Rules

Around a year ago, the IRFU announced its ‘succession rules’, whereby it would restrict non-Irish qualified players to one per field position across the provinces, and operate on a ‘one-contract-and-out’ basis.  The idea was to ensure at least two Irish-eligible players were playing first team rugby in each position across the three major provinces.  They were announced to general bafflement among a public that has become deeply loyal to their province of choice.  The IRFU hosted a twitter Q&A session, where they gave infuriatingly vague replies to fans who were wondering what on earth was going on, but failed to generate any goodwill or provide satisfactory responses.  It was one of the biggest PR gaffs the union has made in recent memory, up there with their ticket pricing policy for the November 2010 internationals.

Curiously – or maybe not so curiously – since the initial furore which greeted announcement, we’ve had radio silence on the issue.  Isa Nacewa was allowed to sign a one-year extension, apparently at odds with the rules; keeping him in Leinster until 2014, a year after the rules are apparently meant to come in. And today, Ulster announced Johann Muller was staying until the end of next season.

In the case of Nacewa and, especially, Muller, both are keeping young Irish players out of the team, seemingly at odds with the rules – both might be the highest-profile NIQs in their position, but we simply don’t know if that was a criterion in their contract offer.

Confused?  You’re not the only one.

The quietude around the rules has led people to ask: are they still going ahead?  We’re in the dark as much as anyone else over this.  It would be no surprise if they were quietly folded away and put to bed without any fanfare or announcement.  Another possibility is that the IRFU maintains they’re going ahead, with vigorous affirmations of the importance of adherence, but only enforces them selectively – that is to say, in actuality they don’t enforce them at all, but pretend they do in order to save face.

It looks like this will come to a real head quite soon, as Munster and Ulster’s NIQ tighthead props are making noises about leaving.  Tighthead prop was really the only position the rules were brought in to cater for, because as everyone knows, Mike Ross is the only Irish-qualified prop starting important games for his province, and it’s the only position where Ireland are so dependent on one player.

At Munster, BJ Botha is rumoured to be moving to Toulon, where he has been offered a two-year contract, while Ulster’s John Afoa has mentioned in a recent interview that he plans to return to New Zealand at the end of his contract, which expires in the summer of 2014.

Under the succession rules, Munster would be precluded from recruiting a foreign tighthead for next season, since NIQ players must be replaced by Irish eligible players once their contract has lapsed.  Ulster, similarly, would not be allowed to recruit an NIQ player the following season, once John Afoa departs.  But does anyone really believe the IRFU will hamper the provinces so severely?  It strikes us as unlikely.

The foremost Irish tightheads at Munster and Ulster are Stephen Archer and Declan Fitzpatrick.  Neither would be fit for the purpose of mounting a challenge for the Heineken Cup.  Fitzpatrick can lock a scrum, but is rarely match-fit, while Archer struggles to cope with even moderately technical opponents in the set-piece.  If both provinces are to have aspirations of beating the better French or English sides, some recruitment will be required.

The only Irish-eligible tighthead who looks a remotely plausible signing is Worcester’s Belfast-born John Andress.  Ploughing away in the Worcester front row may not sound like the stuff of greatness, but the Aviva Premiership is a set-piece-heavy league, packed with hardy scrummagers (Andress’ regular opponents in the scrum would include the likes of Soane Tongauiha, Alex Corbisiero, Marcos Ayerza and Joe Marler – not exactly wallflowers).

Andress has had something of a journeyman career so far, but has amassed plenty of gametime since he moved to England.  He made 44 appearances in the Championship for Exeter Chiefs, before moving up a level to the Premiership with Harlequins in 2009.  He made 30 starts for Harlequins over two seasons before returning to the Chiefs, but found his path to the first team blocked on returning.  He’s started 10 games and made eight further appearances from the bench for Worcester this season.  He might find his opportunities slightly more limited in the rest of the season, with Euan Murray having pitched up at Sixways.  That he has never been deemed essential by some fairly mediocre clubs is a mark against him, but his CV is several notches up from that of Archer or Fitzpatrick.

His is a solid body of work, and his career path looks suspiciously similar to that of Mike Ross.  That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be as good as Mike Ross, but at 29, he should be coming into his prime as a scrummager.  If the IRFU do decide to persist with their ill-conceived succession rules, he can expect his value to increase sharply.

But even if Andress is the answer – and there’s no guarantee he would be – there’s only one of him, and two provinces for whom the issue of recruitment is pressing.  If the IRFU is going to go ahead with its ill-advised move, and enact it to the letter, it is going to have to choose between Munster and Ulster and seriously weaken one of them.

Prop recruitment in general has been a mixed bag among the provinces in recent years.  Botha has delivered good value for both Ulster and Munster over five highly productive seasons, while Afoa has been consistently outstanding for Ulster.  Nathan White, as a stop-gap for Leinster and now at Connacht, is another success story.  But then there are the Clint Newlands, Peter Borlases and latterly, Michael Bents, whose careers in Ireland have been stillborn.

Even if Ulster and Munster are given the licence to recruit, there are no guarantees of quality, and competition for the best will be fierce from the Top 14 in particular, where clubs think nothing of having six first-rate props on their books, and rotating them over the season – the best props coming from the Southern Hemisphere will get hoovered up by the French clubs, as will the French ones (obviously) and the Georgians. The English ones aren’t going to come to Ireland. So, essentially, to replace Afoa and Botha with NIQ props will not only break the IRFU’s own rules, but be hugely expensive into the bargain, as we will be competing with Toulon, Clermont and Racing Metro.