Lions Post #4: Wallaby Opensides

Newsflash (from a few weeks ago): David Pocock is out of the Lions series. Result! Sure weren’t the Wallabies clueless when he pulled out of the World Cup pool game with Ireland? Yes, they were, but that time they brought in blindside Ben McCalman who played in a backrow so unbalanced it made Deccie blush.

This time out, they have serious depth at openside – such that Pocock’s place was, if not quite under pressure, then at least ably backed up by Michael Hooper and Liam Gill.

Hooper is a classic pilfering groundhog in the Heinrich Brussow mould – squat and tough to dislodge, while Gill, as a taller man, is a great linker as well as a ruck-disruptor. Both have looked at home in the Wallaby shirt, and the competition with one another (and previously Pocock) looks to be driving them to high performance levels.

In the wild card corner, there’s George Smith, newly-returned from Japan and playing fantastically well – it would be a great story if he were to play a part, and he’d become the first man to play in 2 series against the Lions. Dingo has ruled it out though… for now. Colby Faingaa – brother of the useless hooker/centre twins (and Irish qualified) is the ‘youthful promise’ option.

The concensus Dahn Undah was that Dingo was going to start Pocock with Hooper on the bench to bring in as a second openside to create havoc as the Lions tired – there would be a lock on the bench to cover blindside, with the underrated Scott Higginbotham able to cover 8 [Aside: don’t worry Deccie, using the bench tactically is unlikley to catch on]. That plan still holds, but with Hooper and Gill as the names – unlike in RWC11, Australia will be able to cope without Pocock.

The knock-on effect is that Gatland’s assertion that his team will need a specialist openside to beat Australia still holds, and spells good news for the rejuvenated Sam Warburton, and in particular the exceptional Justin Tipuric, whose game looks tailor made for the hard ‘Strine grounds. The hugely admirable Chris Robshaw might just miss out on the test jersey.

Why Hasn’t Kidney Resigned?

In the wake of Ireland’s loss against Italy, we tweeted that Declan Kidney should have the good grace to resign later in the week. It wasn’t just hot headedness in the aftermath of a painful defeat, and we stand over it. But it hasn’t happened. Kidney’s initial reaction made it seem like it was going to – he said he’d have to think about whether he even wanted a contract, but since then he’s been defiant.  He followed that up by saying he knows what he can bring to the role, and has dug teams out of holes before.  We won’t go into the myriad daft reasons being invented by his media champions in an attempt to cobble together an argument for Kidney to be kept on, but let’s just say that anyone who thinks ‘corporate knowledge’ of a group of players is enough of a reason to give out a new contract is teetering on delusional.

Kidney appears to be angling for a new contract and is not going to go down without a fight.  It’s not exactly the most dignified end to his Irish managerial career, and by all accounts it will be the end.  By sticking around and looking for a new deal, he’s putting out a message that this year’s Six Nations campaign (fifth place, one win, one draw, three losses) is an acceptable performance, when it quite obviously is not.  While one can have sympathy with Kidney over the mounting injury toll on his squad, taking a step back and looking at how the series unfolded, it is clear that it was run in a most shambolic manner.  Almost every press release issued from camp seemed to result in 48 subsequent hours of backtracking, while the oversight in failing to ensure Jackson took placed kicks in the week before his test debut against Scotland amounts to a seroius blunder and with every passing week, the non-selection of Ian Madigan appears to look more and more ridiculous.  Even without such obvious catastrophes, there appears to be a malaise within the squad, and some fresh ideas and a new voice are needed.

There’s something terribly Irish and parochial about hanging around in your post long after your usefulness has expired.  How often have we seen our TD’s and councillors clinging to power when they should have resigned?  Ireland’s previous coach, Eddie O’Sullivan, is generally derided as an aloof, egotistical character, but he did at least recognise when his number was up.  He resigned within no more than four days of his last Six Nations match, a hammering in Twickenham against a Cipriani-inspired England.  He had three years remaining on his contract, but he knew he’d made a mess of things at the end, and it was time for a change, and he fell on his sword.  Kidney is not even in that position – he’s looking for a new contract as some sort of endorsement of recent performances.

O’Sullivan had injury troubles in his final campaign, and some bad luck too, but there was no media clamour looking to line up the excuses for him.  He lost Gordon D’arcy in his first match, and in the final game in Twickenham he had a patched-up backline on the field, with Shane Horgan and Andrew Trimble playing the majority of the match in the centre, and a very green Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney, along with a newly recalled Tommy Bowe in the back three.  Against Wales, when Ireland lost narrowly, Shane Horgan was inches from scoring a try but couldn’t quite stretch out his arm far enough to score.  Ireland finished the series with two wins, one more than Kidney achieved this time around.  The game was up and the coach quit.  Kidney should do the same.

All That Glisters Is Not Gold

When one observes the state of the Irish international rugby team, one gets most depressed. One win in the tournament harks back to the late nineties, when we were genuinely rubbish. But are we as bad as results say we are? We don’t think we are over-reaching ourselves to say that, no, we aren’t. The players that make up the Ireland team do ok in their day jobs, for one. The reasons put forth for why we are so bad are as follows:

  • The coaching ticket don’t know what they are doing. This is the position most people with two eyes and a functioning brain hold. Conservative selection up to November 2012, before apparently flicking a switch and picking everyone in Ireland for the 2013 Six Nations, is one reason. Confusing roles for the support staff is another – what does Les Kiss do, for example? Does it actually change every series, or is that just his title. Does Mark Tainton have a role in our kicking game? If so, why has he held on to his job for so long when it is so bad? This is an entire other debate, but it appears that it will soon be over – Deccie might not be of a mind for falling on his sword, but someone will administer the last rites
  • We keep getting injuries. This is true – but it’s a mitigating factor, not a reason for our failure. At various stages of the Six Nations, we were missing six Lions (Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Paul O’Connell, Gordon D’Arcy, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald) and the presumed Lions outhalf for this years tour. It’s unfortunate, for sure, but Earls and Fitzgerald aren’t first choice, Luke Marshall deputized ably for Dorce, and, while it would have been nice to have Bowe available, Craig Gilroy had a decent tournament. On the flip side, Ferris’ physicality, and O’Connell’s leadership up-front were not adequately replaced – still, an international side should be able to wear the loss of two front-liners, no matter who they are. And anyway, don’t we have a Player Management System for this very purpose?
  • We had no luck. If Keith Earls had seen Drico, we would have been too far ahead of Scotland to lose! If we had just held on for ten more minutes, we would have beaten France! We had a flanker on the wing for 40 minutes against Italy! Yes, but he didn’t because he backed himself in a low percentage play (player fail), we didn’t because our bench made no impact (coaching fail) and Peter O’Mahony’s defensive positioning wasn’t exploited once (Italian coaching fail), and sure he spends most of his time on the wing anyway (insert smiley face icon). As Gary Player said, the more I practice, the luckier I get, and we don’t appear to practice, or have a proper plan to put into practice at least.
  • Referees hate us. This canard – the Irish coaching ticket are very fond of this one, as are their cheerleaders in the meeja. Gerry Thornley said after the 2011 Six Nations,  Messrs Poite, Pearson, Owen and Kaplan (with the, eh, help of Allan) gave them a raw deal. Really, in all our games but one, the referee was biased against us? Axel Foley was barely in the job two minutes when he was moaning about the men in the middle. It’s a road to nowhere, and it’s untrue at any rate – sure, you get bad decisions from time to time, but they will average out, and if your team commits more offences than the opposition, the penalty count is likely to be against them
  • There are shadowy people in the IRFU telling Deccie who to pick. Riiiiiiiiiiiiight Frankie. Do they meet in badly-lit underground carparks? And you are sure this isn’t just paranoid nonsense to mask the fact that you can’t admit that Deccie can be wrong, AND Ronan O’Gara is out of form? Oh, you are speculating – well, how about you speculate somewhere else instead of trying to masquerade as an expert
  • The end of the Golden Generation. Now, this is what we came here for. Let us examine this one in some more depth

The ‘Golden Generation’ in Irish rugby terms is generally taken to refer to the team which won three Triple Crowns in four years from 2004-2007, then collapsed spectacularly at the World Cup that year. The team was still mostly intact for the Grand Slam in 2009, but there was an infusion of new blood through the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris, Tomas O’Leary, Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe.

The contention is that the retirement of the ‘Golden Generation’, one-by-one, and their replacement by inadequate players following up is one of the reasons that we aren’t as competitive as we were back in their heyday.

To digress for a moment, our first hearing of the term ‘Golden Generation’ was in reference to the Portuguese soccer team that won World Youth Cups in 1989 and 1991 – this was the team of Rui Costa, Luis Figo and Paulo Sousa. At senior level, the team rarely bothered the scorer, a semi-final at Euro 2000 being the pinnacle of their achievement. It was in fact the next generation, spear-headed by Cristiano Ronaldo, that has brought Portugal to the level of consistent semi-finalists in international football (2006, 2008, 2012). The silver medal at Euro 2004 was mostly the younger team, but with Figo and Costa playing prominent roles in the team and squad.

So the Portuguese ‘Golden Generation’ actually achieved less than their ungarlanded successors. Interesting. The term ‘Golden Generation’ seems to imply something once-off, something that can never be repeated and must be milked for all its worth. After all, the supply of gold is fixed … oh wait, it isn’t!

So let us examine the first-choice Ireland team of 2007 versus the first-choice team of 2013. We will assume there are no injuries, and then examine the benches.

Front Row:

Marcus Horan, Jirry Flannery, John Hayes vs Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross. The Ireland scrum always seems to be on the point of collapse, and Hayes and Ross have toiled manfully at the coalface to prevent it for the best part of 13 years. Ross is more powerful and destructive, so we’re taking him. On the loosehead side, Healy on form is one of the best in Europe, whereas Horan was a wily operator who got by more on street smarts than talent. At hooker, it’s a great problem to have – Jirry was a better thrower and more dynamic in open play, whereas Besty is an excellent groundhog and a better scrummager. Verdict: 2013 props, and either hooker

Second Row:

Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan vs Paul O’Connell, Donnacha Ryan. No contest here – Ryan has a higher ceiling than DOC did, but his level now is rather similar to DOC in 2007. However, O’Connell is injury-ravaged and battling to get his career back on track now, whereas he was close to the peak of his powers in 2007. Verdict: Paul O’Connell (2007) with either of the others

Back Row:

Simon Easterby, David Wallace, Denis Leamy vs Stephen Ferris (if fit) / Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip. At the blindside, Fez is one of the few world-class players in Ireland, but is frequently injured and appears to be off to Japan in any case.  Peter O’Mahony is the chosen man at 6 in his absence.  Ferris is far and away the pick of the bunch, and we’d be more or less neutral between O’Mahony and Easterby; one a grafter, the other a footballer, both good in the lineout .  Neither of the sevens are classic opensides (plus ca change), but both are excellent players – we would be content to have either in our backrow. At the back of the scrum, we’d have Heaslip – Leamy had the skills for 8, but was really a converted blindside, Heaslip is a Test Lion, albeit one used as a ruck scrapper by Ireland. Verdict: Ferris if fit, otherwise neutral; either of the sevens, Heaslip

Half-backs:

Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara vs Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton. Good choice to have here, and four very different players. Stringer was the passer supreme, whereas Murray is in the breaking and game managing mould. Having said that, Strings most memorable moments (Biarritz 2006, Scotland 2009) cam from breaks, and Murray is a better passer than he is generally given credit for. We’d go for Murray on the basis that he offers a little more variety to the game. At outhalf, you have a Ligind versus a money-grabbing traitor. Or a one-dimensional boot merchant who can’t defence versus a triple Heineken Cup-winning best outhalf in Europe. ROG of 2007 or Sexton of 2013? We’d take either (which will prevent this piece being entirely about this choice as well). Verdict: Murray, either of the tens

Centre:

Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll vs Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll. One of the best centre partnerships of all-time. It’s pretty obvious that having them in their late 20s at their best is preferable to now, with a nod to the fact that the output, particularly of O’Driscoll, is still at a high level. Verdict: 2007 vintage

Back three:

Denis Hickie, Shane Horgan, Girvan Dempsey vs Simon Zebo, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney. Not much to choose between those two lineups, with the exception of left wing, where Hickie, along with Simon Geoghegan, was our best and most natural wing in our lifetime. On the right, Horgan was a supreme catcher and finisher, but Bowe hits the line exceptionally well, and brings just a shade more class.  When he is missing, Ireland’s try count inevitably declines. Both are good defenders and great fellows, but only Bowe is a nailed-on Lion when fully fit. At full-back, Dempsey is the better defender, and Kearney uses his boot more effectively in attack. Again, Kearney on form is a Lions class player, whereas Dempsey, for all his qualities, never quite convinced he was better than Geordan Murphy, his backup. Verdict: Hickie, Bowe, Kearney

Bench:

Simon Best, Rory Best, Malcolm O’Kelly, Neil Best, Isaac Boss, Paddy Wallace, Geordan Murphy vs Tom Court, Sean Cronin, Mike McCarthy, Peter O’Mahony / Chris Henry, Eoin Reddan, Paddy Jackson, Luke Fitzgerald / Keith Earls / Craig Gilroy / Fergus McFadden. Neither bench would be familiar with coming on to play a specific role, with both teams heavily dependent on the first XV. We have chosen Tom Court to cover both sides of the scrum to make the benches comparable, and hav gone with the management team’s preference for Paddy Jackson over Ian Madaigan as reserve out half, whatever the wisdom of it. Neither bench would especially fill one with confidence – the standouts would be Rory Best, Mal O’Kelly, Geordan Murphy (2007) and the myriad of back three players from the 2013 team. So, 2007 looks slightly higher in quality, with the caveat that Neil Best is nowhere near international class, and Paddy Wallace is not an outhalf. Verdict: Hobson’s Choice really, but 2007 by a nose.

Overall then, player for player, there’s little to choose between the groups of players.  It’s very hard to make the argument that the ‘Golden Generation’ of 2007 is markedly superior to the current group of players. Great players have retired, for sure, – 2007 is six years ago at this stage, and it would be strange if they hadn’t – but the replacements are players of arguably just as high a standard in almost all cases.  The so-called ‘Golden Generation’ were undoubtedly golden compared to what went before, but that’s not to say the next generation of players – no doubt inspired by seeing the likes of O’Driscoll, O’Connell and O’Gara in their youth – couldn’t be just as good.  There is no reason to assume they were a one off, and that Ireland couldn’t continue to produce talented footballers.  There is no lack of good players available to national team coaches, and a talent drain due to retirements cannot excuse recent performances.

Not so golden after all then, but headlines can’t make use of the term ‘Base Metal Generation’ or just ‘Generation’ as much can they?

Testing Times at Leinster

Last week, it felt like the gloom around Leinster rugby was never going to lift.  It’s been a harrowing few weeks for Leinster fans, who have had to watch on as Johnny Sexton has signed for Racing Metro, before most of the first choice backline got wiped out in the Six Nations.  The latest setback was Isa Nacewa announcing that he is set to retire from the game at the end of the year, and return to Auckland.  Suffice to say, Nacewa has been hugely important and frequently outstanding for Leinster, performing two key roles; one as a key player in their Heineken Cup team, and the other as a vital leader of the backline of the often youthful Pro12 team when the big boys are off in Carton House.

With Andrew Conway and Fionn Carr leaving at the end of the season, and Luke Fitzgerald’s injury liable to carry over into next autumn, Leinster are suddenly short of numbers in the back three.  There’s Rob Kearney, Dave Kearney and utility man Fergus McFadden; after that it’s a steep drop off to the likes of Darren Hudson among others, who are still in the academy.  It looks like Leinster will be given licence to sign a high profile replacement for Nacewa, and the guessing games have already begun as to who that will be, but notwithstanding that at least one younger player is going to have to make a step up to Pro12 level regular.

We recently posted outlining a number of younger Leinster players who have been knocking on the door over the last couple of seasons, and must now kick it down.  One was Dave Kearney who is liable to be the biggest beneficiary of Nacewa’s departure.  He’s had a mixed, injury afflicted season, but is set to be a first team regular for at least the rest of the season and must make the most of his opportunity.  He is a good footballer with much to commend him, but suffers a trait seemingly shared by Leinster back three players of late: he doesn’t score many tries.  For all Leinster’s potency in attack, they lack a real chalk-sniffing try-machine in the mould of Simon Zebo.  While Nacewa’s all-round game was marvellous, Leinster need not replace like with like, and might be wiser looking to bring in something they don’t really have; a wide man with out and out finisher’s pace.  It surely couldn’t hurt.

One knock-on effect of the accumulation of departures in the back division is likely to be a pleading with O’Driscoll, and perhaps Cullen, to stick around for one more year, in order to execute a smooth handover to the likes of Eoin O’Malley and Devin Toner as much as anything else.  Indeed, if next season has a look of being marked down in the press as – hate this word – “transitional”, it should at least make for interesting watching, with Ian ‘The Hair’ Madigan taking his bow as The Man at fly-half.  His rich seam of form could not have been better timed, coming just in the wake of the announcement of Sexton’s departure, and he gave another showcase of his outstanding line-running abilities on Saturday night, again making a mockery of Kidney’s determination to omit him from selection for Ireland.

The game was a battle for the top spot in the league, and as a result could have serious consequences, which gave it an intensity far above most Pro12 turkey-shoots at the RDS.  Madigan thrived in the spotlight, making a number of superb breaks, and one outrageous, and almost certainly foolhardy chip from inside his own tryline, which improbably came off as he regathered and immediately offloaded.  He then conjured up the winning try with a trademark step off his right foot to ghost through the defence.  Dude sure has a touch of the maverick genius about him.  He also nailed six from six with the boot.  He looks like he’s having fun out there.

And then there’s the barnet, and what a strange thing it is too.  But Madigan looks set to be the next darling of the fans and media at Leinster, and we expect to see his profile utilised by the marketing men in Donnybrook.  Perhaps this time next year people will be going to their local barber and asking for ‘a Madigan’.

He looks not so much the heir to Johnny Sexton’s throne as a throwback to the days when Felipe Contepomi played fly-half and you were never sure quite what was going to happen next.  It should be worth buying a season ticket for, but whether he can deliver the sort of assured performances on the road which have elevated Sexton to the level of best fly-half in Europe will be the acid test for the man.  Best just to buckle up and brace yourself for a white-knuckle ride.

The She-Wolves

Ireland’s womens team (the she-wolves?) completed a memorable maiden Grand Slam in a Milan field barely fit for purpose on Sunday  – our knowledge of the women’s setup is shamefully lamentable, so we tapped up Sarah Lennon to tell us about the backdrop to all this fun and games.

It has been ten years since Ireland’s women’s team won their first 6 Nations game, in the tournament’s second season. Prior to this, there was a Home Nations tournament, but changes to the tournament were made to closer reflect the structure of the men’s game – France and Spain made up the other two berths. Ireland’s maiden win was against the Spanish (las lobas?), who were later shown the door after a decision to mirror the men’s tournament saw the introduction of Italy.

It hasn’t been an easy journey for the Irish women to get here, and while all the recent adulation is completely deserved, it is an indictment of the self-obsessed Irish media that it was only when the women were on the cusp of a Triple Crown against Scotland (against the backdrop of a less than stellar tournament from the senior men) that they suddenly turned their focus to the Irish women’s team.

While there was coverage on the IRFU and RTE websites of the opening game against Wales, it didn’t make major waves. It should have, as it represented Ireland’s first win in Wales in eight seasons. The following match saw Ireland take on England, the perennial champions of this tournament, and a staggering 25-0 win raised quite a few eyebrows. Despite it bring a weakened English team due to player rotation ahead of the Rugby 7s World Championships, it represented an outstnding victory, equivalent to the lads beating New Zealand by a similar margin.

Next was a trip to Scotland to play for the Triple Crown … with no coverage online or on TV. The 30-3 scoreline failed to demonstrate the tough nature of the win, but with the Triple Crown in the bag, the press and broadcast media sat up and paid attention. The next game (home vs France) was streamed on the RTE player (television coverage proving impossible as it clashed with the U-20’s and their sponsored jersies) and then finally, the Grand Slam decider made the cut for RTE proper (being subject to mindless analysis from Frankie surely made the she-wolves feel on a par with the men), the first time that the Irish women had appeared on Irish television. They had appeared on British television before though, in a World Cup game against England – that was on Sky Sports, a commercial broadcaster without a public service remit.

The many women who have competed for their country down the years will all share a portion of Ireland’s history-making . None more so than former captain Sarahjane Belton who made it into the 2006 World XV and was forced to retire in 2008. Belton’s pride was obvious as she sat on an RTE panel during the historic broadcast last Sunday.

In many ways the women’s game represents completely the supposed heirarchy of rugby in Ireland. Although it may say ‘UCD’ beside Brian O’Driscoll’s name in the programme, you’re unlikely to see him kitted out at the Belfield Bowl, however the women who lifted the 6 Nations trophy last Sunday can be seen on any given Sunday in their club strips at Annacotty,  Anglesea Road, Stradbrook or Shaw’s Bridge.

As things stand there are no international matches between each 6 Nations tournament, with the exception of the odd friendly with the aforementioned disenfranchised Spanish. There is an annual Inter-pro with three games for each side and the traditional decider between Leinster and Munster – these are generally a warmup for the Six Nations in November / December meaning that the Provincial/International season is around three months long. The rest of the year the women represent their club sides in league and cup matches. The system is a throwback to the amateur days of rugby, and of course the women are amateur and juggle the onerous training schedule with day jobs and college, in some cases in the UK.

The commitment and dedication shown by the women to the cause hasn’t always been reflected in investment by the IRFU. Some of the current squad will tell of having to buy their own jersies or pay for their own flights to represent their country in the not so distant past. That’s changed now , with protocols agreed in advance of travelling to Wales, Scotland and Italy after last season’s disgraceful trip to Pau. On that occasion, the IRFU accepted ‘some responsibility’ for an overnight, 17-hour trip, with the women arriving only a few hours prior to kickoff.

There is a good feeling about the Ireland women right now and television broadcasts of the homecoming also contained the news of a large investment programme from the IRFU. The women have put themselves in a position to qualify for the Rio Olympics and would be the only Irish team there, as the men will not be in attendance. The Olympics will represent another stage for many of this Grand Slam team and can only serve to continue the growth of the sport in Ireland – plus Rio will be a BLAST for any travelling fans! Player numbers are on the rise with new teams springing up everywhere, particularly in Leinster –  Old Belvedere fielded a J2 team this season with player numbers many men’s teams would envy.

Having taken major steps forward, it is imperative that RTE and the IRFU build on the support they have given to the sport this season. It would be a massive boon if the 6 Nations matches were scheduled for broadcast next season from the off. There is no doubt that winning the Grand Slam and the associated publicity, along with the hoped–for Olympic qualification, will encourage newbies to take up the sport. A recent underage girls blitz in Naas rugby club saw dozens of teams competing, many of whom were from non-traditional ruby backgrounds. Development through these avenues, an increase in playing numbers alongside support from the union and media, and the Irish women can build on this success and compete at the highest stage towards 2016 and beyond.

With thanks to Sarah Lennon.  Give her a follow on twitter here.

Second Half Syndrome

An odd and recurring feature of Ireland’s play in recent times is the late-game collapse whereby the team just runs out of puff around the hour mark and cannot be revived. Sure, no joined-up 23-man gameplan has something to do with it, but it’s still intriguing, and worth looking at.

The first question to ask is, are Ireland’s players simply unfit, in what would be a throwback to the old days when beer-soaked Irishmen could not sustain a test match beyond the 60th minute.  But it doesn’t hold up.

Examining the provinces, Munster have virtually trademarked late-game revivals, and the tear-soaked endgames where Northampton, Castres, London Irish, Embra (to name but a few in recent years) have succumbed to the will of the men in red in the red zone are classic examples. Leinster in recent seasons have at times slowed up in second halves, but usually as a result of being out of sight by half time (Bath, Cardiff last season), and when the going is tough, are usually adroit at seeing out the final quarter. Ulster have less of a record, but the defensive shift in Thomond Park stands out, and they will (assuredly) have more as time goes on.

So the constituent players frequently grow in stature in the fourth quarter, yet the national collective wilt – what does that tell you? The most obvious conclusion is that the provincial coaches are more productive with their use of their bench – frequently selecting players for their off the bench impact and using them intelligently.

Leinster have specialist high-impact reserves in Heinke van der Merwe, Sean Cronin and Isaac Boss, and they form a crucial part of the gameplan, and the likes of Paul Marshall has frequently given Ulster pep off the bench.  Ireland have struggled with this aspect of the game under both Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney, and substitution strategy (such as it is) seems perfunctory and forced rather than planned.  The idea of an entire front row playing 80 full minutes in the modern era would be guffawed out of town by France, England or South Africa, but Ireland are still at it.

We crunched the numbers from the beginning of 2011 against in full Tests (i.e. not USA, Russia or the A game vs Fiji), and it’s stark:

  • In 15 Six Nations games, Ireland’s first half record is W11 L4 (losses: Italy in Rome 2011 & 2013 and England in Twickers 2012 and Fortress Aviva 2013), while their second half record is W4 D1 L10 (wins: Italy and England 2011, Italy and Scotland 2012. draw: England 2013)
  • Essentially, we have been ahead of France and Wales at half-time in every Six Nations game since 2011
  • In the 12 other games (3 RWC11, 4 RWC warm-ups, 3 games in NZ, 2 November internationals), Ireland’s first-half record is W5 D1 L6 (wins vs Scotland in RWC warm-up, Italy in RWC, NZ in Christchurch, SA & Argentina last November and draw vs Australia in RWC) and the second half record is a very similar W5 L7 (wins vs France in 2 RWC warm-ups, Australia and Italy in RWC, and Argentina in November)

The difference between Six Nations and non-Six Nations games is notable, but perhaps one driver is that over for all games, the difference get worse over time, so the inclusion of this years Six Nations skews the stats a little. Here are the games broken down by year:

  • In 2011, Ireland were W6 D1 L5 at half time, and W6 L6 after half-time
  • In 2012, Ireland were W5 L3 at half time, and W2 L6 after half-time
  • In 2013 to date, Ireland were W3 L2 at half time, and D1 L4 after half-time

An obvious and heartening corollary is this – the next Ireland coach has one really really easy win – get the team (and by team we mean the 23) playing for 80 minutes and results will (assuredly) improve – Ireland would have challenged for the Six Nations championships for the last three years if games ended at half-time, and would have a win in New Zealand under their belts.

This is something of the frustration of following Ireland – we show the ability to live with the best, but they show the ability to let us blow out and then slap us down. What is the difference? Do Ireland lack that extra 2% that the best teams have? If they do, a fresh and better-defined coaching staff might help us get there – the tired mish-mash at present is (assuredly) not working.

Upon Sober Reflection

We said before the tournament that four wins would constitute a good year, with three the minimum requirement. In the event, Ireland finished well below that watermark, with one win and one draw. That the win was against the eventual champions was scant consolation, and we can be thankful we didn’t meet the confident incisive Welsh of Week Five, instead the cowed losers of Week One.

The final indignity was the tactical ineptitude of Rome where Plan A – box-kicking until the cows come home – was dealt with with ease by the Azzurri, then Plan B – errrrr, kicking them? – didn’t work either, and their forwards pummeled us to win with ease. A fair reflection of the dominance of the Italian pack would have been a 20 point margin. In the event, the inability of the Italians to press home their advantage, and their inability to stop throwing the ball forward spared us the shame of finishing last, but no-one will be boasting about that.

For sure, unavailability of certain players played a part – the lineout was shambolic in Paul O’Connell’s absence, and the tendency of our forwards to powder-puffery would surely have been dealt with by Fez. Likewise, having Johnny Sexton in Murrayfield might have made the difference. It’s hard to think of any Irish player who will feel he can be satisfied with his overall contribution. Some of the players playing their first tournament, particularly Luke Marshall and Iain Henderson, will be proud of themselves as well.

The indisciplined and brainless rabble who finished the championship are far from where they should be given the on-field and off-field resources available to this side – the team in Rome looked essentially uncoached, and it’s quite clear a new broom is sorely needed. The prospect of promoting Les Kiss or Anthony Foley from within looks wildly misjudged.  Surely a new set of voices, untainted by the recent spirit-crushing shambles, with fresh ideas and a different mindset are required?  The line being peddled by Kidney’s apologists, that the current management have ‘valuable corporate knowledge’ that shouldn’t be thrown out is laughable.  What value is corporate knowledge when you keep losing?  Indeed, the very lack of preconceptions for a new coach coming in sounds much more appealing.

The player management system would appear to have reached the end of its current life cycle as well – Johnny Sexton bemoaned the lack of rugby he could play earlier in the year due to its strictures, and the spate of injuries surely speaks to some level of sub-optimal conditioning. While some degree of control over player game-time is desirable, the strings need to be loosened significantly.  At the very least a review of this is required, with a view to understanding whether the players gain anything a t all from playing so little.

Likewise, the central contracting system is just unclear and divisive – criteria are muddled, and a broader view is needed in this, the 18th season of professional rugby. We know as little as everybody else as to how these contracts are given out.  The system was perfect to entice English-based players home in the late 1990s, and protect what was then a handful of international class players, but something more malleable is needed now.  The situation where the IRFU are negotiating with an injured player – recently the case with Ferris, Fitzgerald and some time ago with Denis Leamy – is only going to become more commonplace, and a more flexible system is needed to accomodate this.  It cannot be that players recovering from serious injury are just cut loose from the system, although some levity is required here too, and the IRFU has a responsibility to manage its finances correctly.

Speaking of English-based players in the late 1990s, the last defeat to Italy, as we outlined here, was something of a watershed in Irish rugby, and contributed the IRFU to be pro-active about professionalism – here’s hoping this one can turn out to be a turning point as well, and be the catalyst to moving Irish rugby’s governance and structures in line with best professional practice. We could do a lot worse than copying the system in New Zealand – we may not have the history and strength in depth they have, but their structures produce success at all levels (underage, Super Rugby, international) and they want to be the best they can at all times. We should as well.

Luck Running Out

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 pint-sized jockeys flanked by airline executives). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain.

When you’re hot you’re hot they say, and when you’re not you’re not. And right now Declan Kidney is not. Indeed the poor fellow can’t catch a break. His Ireland team have become experts at losing winning positions, while the mounting injury toll makes next week’s trip to Rome especially daunting. Italy looked resurgent in Sunday’s game against England and will take confidence from the way they took the game to the White Orcs. It’s their best chance for a two win series in some time. For Ireland, defeat would mean a probable, almost unthinkably awful, wooden spoon.

How has it come to this? It was a campaign that promised much – don’t they all? – but Ireland have stumbled from crisis to crisis and, unfortunately, from injury to injury. The old adage is that it’s better to be a lucky general than a good one, but right now Kidney is neither.

He can’t do much about Ireland’s savage injury toll. With these matters it’s tempting to say that everyone else has the same experience, but this appears to be far from the case. England have the odd injury, but appear to be getting more players available for selection the longer the tournament goes on. Last week they brought long term absentee Tom Croft back into action. The rest of the teams are in relatively good health.

Ireland, by contrast, have been missing no less than four wings at various points over the series, with Fergus McFadden the latest to be ruled out. He joins a long list of casualties, including injured-again Johnny Sexton, Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo and Gordon D’arcy. Meanwhile, several other players will be walking wounded this week, and Donnacha Ryan appears to be playing through the pain barrier.

On this we can have some sympathy with Kidney and his team but those looking to excuse results in light of the injuries need to remember the almost freakish good luck Kidney had in his most celebrated achievements.  In the 2009 grand slam, Ireland could select the XV they wanted in every single match.  Indeed, Kidney had the luxury of rotating his squad to make four changes in the penultimate game of the series, a potentially trick tie in Scotland.  It was canny management, bringing vital squad players like Rory Best, Peter Stringer and Denis Leamy into the thick of things, to make them feel a greater part of the action.  And the changes were only in positions where Kidney knew the selections were marginal in the first place, and that he wasn’t losing much by changing.  It had the desired effect in ensuring minds were focussed on the trip to Murrayfield, and the danger that some players might be thinking ahead to the week after, a Grand slam finale in Cardiff, was averted.  It also succeeded in getting up Jamie Heaslip’s nostrils, and coaxing a huge contribution out of him when he came off the bench in Murrayfield (as an early injury replacement, as it happens).  But what a luxury to be able to do it!  Almost unthinkable that it could happen under today’s circumstances.

The good fortune extended beyond injuries, not least in the final dénouement, where Gavin Henson was passed over for the chance to kick a winning penalty, not so much based on a lack of ability, but seemingly because he was such a pain even his team-mates didn’t want to have to have to endure his preening should he convert the kick.  Instead, the ball was given to Stephen Jones, fatigued after 80 minutes of rugby and never with the biggest boot in the first place.  His kick fell just short and the rest, as they say, was history.

Kidney’s other great achievement, his tactically astute win over Australia in the World Cup was also a case of stars lining up for the coach.  Australia suffered two very late injuries, with Benn Robinson, their only capable scrummager, and David Pocock, their breakdown-dominating openside, ruled out just hours before kick-off.  This was compounded by the rain pouring down on Eden Park.  Cian Healy and Mike Ross had their finest moments for Ireland, laying waste to the Australian scrum, and without Pocock, Australia were clueless in loose play, walking into one choke tackle after another.  But just weeks later, the full scale of how Ireland would struggle to cope against a breakdown-marauding No.7 was baldly exposed, when Sam Warburton dominated that facet of the game in the quarter-final.  Had Pocock played, how differently might things have panned out?

Sympathy is further eroded by how Kidney has deployed his able-bodied men.  It’s one thing having to withdraw players due to injury, but the removal of Conor Murray from the fray with 20 minutes to go on Saturday’s game against France looks like the last nail in the coffin of Kidney’s coaching tenure.  Murray was controlling the game, with his accurate box-kicking consistently resulting in territorial gains for Ireland, but he was pulled ashore and replaced by Eoin Reddan.  It was all the more baffling, because Kidney has never shown any inclination to favour Reddan in the past.  There have been plenty of games that looked made for Reddan’s skillset, but he has invariably been overlooked.  Then he is called into action on a rainy day when the gameplan was entirely at odds with the strengths Reddan brings to proceedings.

When your luck runs dry, it seems, the temptation is to make wild, miscalculated gambles.  It’s been that sort of series, and unfortunately for Ireland, none of them have come off.

Lions Post #3: Our Friends in the North

Given the rather protracted downturn in fortunes of the Scottish rugger team, in the last two Lions squads Jocks have been pretty thin on the ground. In 2005, of the 51 players who went out at any point (51!), just four were Scottish, and of the 46 2009 Lions, there were once again just four Scots, with two of those (Ross Ford and Mike Blair) late replacements for injured Liginds (Jirry and Tomás O’Leary).

This time round, it looks like the Scots might do a little better than four – while the team isn’t tearing up any trees, some individual performances are good:

  • Ross Ford: there isn’t any hooker making an undeniable claim for a shirt – Ford is good in the loose, offloads well, and offers something a little different
  • Ryan Grant: Loosehead is very competitive, but Grant has played his part in a solid Scottish set-piece, while his defence has been excellent
  • Euan Murray: ARE THERE ANY TESTS ON A SUNDAY??
  • Richie Gray: the blonde bomber hasn’t been as prominent as he was last year, but, as modern mobile locks go, he’s pretty much the best available
  • Nathan Hines: Hines isn’t playing for Scotland since retiring a year ago, but he’s been hugely prominent for Clermont Auvergne as they tear it up in the HEC – Australia must be wondering how he slipped through the cracks
  • Johnnie Beattie: carrying well, and the standard of play in the Top14 seems to have benefitted him. Number eight is competitive, but nobody’s hooting the lights out, so he’s in the mix
  • Wee Greig Laidlaw: No, really! Laidlaw is the best kicking scrummie, although he offers zero breaking threat. He can play outside as well and versatility is a plus on attritional tours
  • Sean Maitland: has a touch of Kiwi class about him, a really intelligent player with excellent defence. There aren’t many wings demanding a shirt, and Maitland is as likely as any to go
  • Tim Visser: scores tries for fun at Pro12 level and continues to impress at international level, in attack more so than defence.  Like Maitland, he is in the mix because the wing situation is so fluid with Bowe out and Ashton playing like a bag of nails
  • Stuart Hogg: pretty much inked in to tour, if you believe Inverdale. He’s certainly the form pick at the moment, but Rob Kearney, Leigh Halfpenny, Ben Foden and Alex Goode could yet have their say
  • Graeme Morrison: boshing inside centres are in fashion these days, and if Brad Barritt gets injured … nah, we’re only messing!

In truth a lot of those look more possible than probable, and even then the more likely lads have a midweek look about them.   We have Gray pencilled in provided he recovers from injury and Stuart Hogg looks made for the hard Antipodean grounds.  Ford could be the odd man out at hooker, placed on standby for the second tour in a row (last time he made it out and started the third test).  His fate could depend on what sort of view Gatland takes of Dylan Hartley.  We think at least one of Maitland or Visser will sneak on to the plane, where there is suddenly a shortage of form players.  Laidlaw and Beattie will be close, but neither is a sure thing.  Sundays or otherwise, Murray’s star has waned and Ryan Grant, again, looks more likely to be on standby than getting picked in the first draft.

The most interesting one is Nathan Hines.  There are no tighthead locks who offer his imperious combination of regal handling skills and grunt in the tight.  He reneged on his Top 14 commitments last time to go on the tour, but appears to feel he has unfinished business in that regard, so may not do so again.

Pass it, would you?

One area of our weekend’s analysis that led us to a bit of further study was the absence of any degree of passing from the Irish backrow.  Collectively they scored a whopping one point for passing.  O’Mahony got an offload away and O’Brien put a nice pass into Rob Kearney who kicked well from the space afforded him, but one point was scratched off for O’Brien’s failed offload to Murray which turned the ball over to France.

It’s been a long held view of ours that Ireland have never developed any sort of game where forwards are trusted to pass or offload the ball, with the carrier invariably hitting the deck promptly and anyone in support waiting to hit (or inspect!) the ruck rather than take a possible pass.  It’s in stark contrast with the way Leinster played over the last few seasons, in particular when Nathan Hines – a superb ball player – was in the side.

Do the stats back up such a view?  Oh me oh my, yes.  We looked at the number of passes given by forwards over the course of the Six Nations so far.  Ireland come out bottom of the table, but what’s particularly eye-catching is just how far they are behind even the second-last team.  Anyone wondering how Ireland have failed to turn pressure into points in the opposition’s 22 has a pretty good clue: Ireland’s forwards’ inability or unwillingness to pass the ball makes them an easy read for defenders.

It’s a scathing indictment of Ireland’s attack that their forwards pass so little, especially so given they have a backrow of O’Mahony, Heaslip and O’Brien.  Heaslip and O’Mahony in particular are exceptionally skilful players and how more cannot be made of their skillsets is staggering.  Are there mitigating circumstances?  Well, you could argue that the weather has been pretty awful, with both home games swept away in a deluge, but the conditions haven’t exactly been tropical for any of the other teams either.  Ireland lack tight forwards who are naturally good handlers, and it’s a pity Dan Tuohy’s season has been broken up by injury, because he is probably the best we have – not that he’d have been picked in any case.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been watching to see Italy top the log.  Their commitment to moving the point of attack has been admirable, even if they lost their way in the middle of the series.  Sergio Parrisse’s total alone over three games is higher than all of Ireland’s.  England finish a surprising second, but their total is skewed by their performance against Scotland when they were feeling adventurous.  They’ve shut up shop since, settling for three-pointers to win games, although they have the highest number of passes by reserves, reinforcing the suggestion that their bench has been a significant factor in putting them on the verge of a slam.

To compound the misery, bear in mind that this is probably the lowest quality Six Nations in living memory, despite a good first weekend, dominated by treacly rugby played on roly-poly pitches.  The potential grand slammers can barely score a try.  It puts Ireland at the bottom of the bottom in terms of a desire to play attacking, incisive rugby.

The full horror is shown in the tables below.  Read each entry as the number of passes given by the team on the left in their match against the team above.

Source: ESPN

Source: ESPN