The Steve Walsh Show, and Ireland’s Backrow

Before we go through this game minute-by-minute, first let’s ask what the press made of the contribution of our back-row? The Sunday Times plaudits went to Peter O’Mahony – O’Reilly rates him highest (8, with 7’s for Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip), crediting his impressive all-round game while Denis Walsh had POM as man of the match. The Sindo had Sean O’Brien in contention for the gong (with Murray). The press in Blighty made no mention of our hotly-debated backrow, restricting themselves to managing to staying awake as two bald men fight over a comb while ENGLAND sniff a Grand Slam.

Based on the live Saturday viewing, we thought POM had his best game to date for Ireland, SOB was the highest class of the unit (what about that kick!) and Heaslip played with authority and continued his personal upturn in form in a green shirt. But will the statistics back it up? With due trepidation, we get reviewing ….

After cracking open two bottles of wine (Valpolicella Ripasso, in case you were wondering) and re-playing the entire game, stripping out Steve Walsh’s contributions, we have to say that the backrow appeared to work – it may not look conventional, but collectively they functioned well. All three men played well for the first time this series, and it was about as good as we have looked in that unit since Fez broke down.

We graded every action as:

  • +2: big play
  • +1: positive play
  • 0: neutral
  • -1: bad play
  • -2: awful play – a cross-field kick in your own 22 that goes straight to an opponent, for example

There are several things to note about our findings:

  1. Steve Walsh bestrode the match like a collossus – the man dominated the game, his tanned and ripped torso was rarely off-screen and he even refereed well – there was a clanger of a penalty on each side, but they balanced out. There was no shoving over of players, a la Conrad Smuth, but we were left in no doubt who was in charge – this was the Steve Walsh Show
  2. Morgan Parra’s passing was terrible – we have a lot more sympathy with Freddy than we did on first look, although he was rubbish too
  3. The volume of ruck inspecting by green shirts was ridiculous – either they don’t know what they are doing, or they do, and it’s rubbish. You would often have two green shirts in a ruck vs one blue, with two other green shirts inspecting – how can 11 men expect to break a 14-man defensive line?
  4. Donncha O’Callaghan’s tears during ‘Ireland’s Call’ were emotional. All the talk was of BOD, but this was likely Stakhanov’s last appearance in Lansdowne Road as well – whatever your opinion of him, 95 caps is a tremendous return and he will retire one of the most decorated players in our history. Hat tip.

What about her eyes the results, you say?

Well, looks like we picked the right week to stop sniffing glue.  All three men contributed hugely.  Our numbers have Peter O’Mahony scoring the most points by a cigarette paper, largely down to big turnovers (which got bonus points), but all three scored between 22 and 24 points – there’s some margin of error of course, and another review might place either of the other two in pole position, and we are sure people will disagree with some of our findings.  By the by, if we missed anything significant, please let us know.  We can attest to how tricky it is to capture every nuance of the match, especially in tight phases.

O’Mahony was the tidiest player, with only one error. He produced big plays when needed, two massive turnovers standing out, and (notably) didn’t start  any silly fights. His lineout work was good, and he tackled well.

Heaslip, as we suspected, was the groundhog/blindside groundhog – not always first to the ruck, but the most effective when he got there. Missed tackles were costly for Heaslip – two in two minutes against Kayser didn’t look good. As captain, we reviewed Heaslip’s decision-making (without awarding points) – with power comes responsibility. He was decisive and authoritative and looked, for the first time, a real leader. He trusted Jackson and the team seemed united and cohesive.

O’Brien was the most impactful player, and we feel we probably undersold his all-action excellence, but you live and die by the numbers. If you factor in the points earned for kicking and chasing, O’Brien scored the lowest pure back-row points, but he was almost Parisse-esque in his ubiquity at times.

Mauling was one of the big success stories of the day and all three were prominent, with good body positions and lots of aggression.  We awarded points for anyone who was in a maul which moved forwards, and there were plenty of them.  Heaslip in particular appears to excel at this element of the game, but all three were part of a huge mauling success.

All three players effectiveness declined in the second half, in tandem with Ireland’s in general. Some tables are below for your viewage.

NB: does not include Steve Walsh

NB: does not include Steve Walsh

NB: Steve Walsh's actions are broken down in the pdf file at the bottom

NB: Steve Walsh’s actions are broken down in the pdf file at the bottom

The complete analysis is below – feedback is welcomed and assumed, particularly from those who tweeted us at half-time from their high horse, assuming we’d make up stats to ensure O’Mahony wasn’t recognised – we expect a mea culpa below the line.

So, our preceonceptions turned out more or less correct.  Heaslip is the closest thing to an openside we have, but relies not so much on being the first man to the ruck, like a classic seven, but more on being the strongest man at the ruck.  O’Mahony plays like a No.8, and O’Brien is a carrying machine.  The numbers may be a jumble, but we seem to get away with it.

But one thing stuck out beyond all others.  Well though the three of them played, they were no match for Steve Walsh.  The tan, the arms, the demeanour, the chatty style, the mad new TMO rules he invented on the spot.  It’s Walsh’s world, the rest of us just live in it.

The full breakdown of every action is in the link below:

Backrow Stats – All Actions

Are you the best coach in the world?

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 Glasgow-bound day-tourists singing bigoted songs). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain.

SO what now then? There is the slimmest sliver of a chance that Kidney’s contract will be renewed, and there are two factors at play: the conservatism of the Union, and the two remaining opponents in the Six Nations.

Starting with the two opponents, the key variable in Deccie’s favour is that both will be in our pool at RWC15 in England — France and Italy. If Ireland produce a commanding (and winning) display against the French, and slap Italy down in the manner of, say, 2007, any conservative waverers on whatever amateur committee decides these things will have a stick to grab hold of, and argue that Kidney’s Ireland are, in fact, well-placed to do well in the next World Cup.

And it’s the amateur conservatism that is important here — for we must consider what happens next. If Deccie refuses to resign (and why should he?), he has a contract until the end of the season, meaning that the lamest of lame duck coaches could be taking Ireland on a development tour to North America. The likes of Iain Henderson, Robbie Henshaw and Luke Marshall — who will be on or close to the first team in RWC15 — will essentially have a wasted summer, in development terms.

That Kidney badly wants to stay in the role is not in doubt. Forget his recent — and typical — unwillingness to give a straight answer to the question, and read between the lines of his actions instead.

Kidney’s current approach to selection and the captaincy has all the hallmarks of a man throwing money down in a casino, knowing he has little to lose. Having been wilfully conservative in matters of selection up until as recently as last summer, the 60-0 defeat in New Zealand appears to have flicked a switch in his head.

Now he’s changed the captain, thrown a 10 with place-kicking issues into an away test match for his debut, jettisoned Ronan O’Gara and persisted with media darling Craig Gilroy in spite of superior options being available — Luke Fitzgerald has a superior kicking and defensive game and is a good attacker, and Andrew Trimble is ahead in the Ulster pecking order due to his defence and workrate.

It looks like a slightly over-eager attempt to position himself as a forward-looking coach who has one eye on 2015, and therefore may just be the man to lead the team there. The trouble is none of it has worked so far.

What will happen in parallel? Will one of the Union’s amateur committees, and not the one who will be studying the recommendations of the professional review group (PRG, which has yet to meet) from last year, meet in the interim to decide who will be the manager from next season?

Or will they, like the English RFU, outsource the appointment to some expert group? If they don’t, can you imagine the top coaches, Vern Cotter or Fabien Galthie for example, explaining to a blazer how they plan to move forward with the team. Unlikely.

Appointment by those within means appointment from within, which means handing the reins to Mike Ruddock or Joe Schmidt. Ruddock has an under-20 RWC in June, and Schmidt has indicated next season will be his last in this hemisphere — neither is an easy transition, though the case for Schmidt is so strong as to be undeniable, and the Union should do everything it can to secure him for the role.

The path of least resistance actually seems to be to keep Kidney on, and hope for an upturn in performances — it’s stunning to think that such a lack of decisiveness might exist at the top of Irish professional rugby, but it’s not being run by professionals.

In fact, when we think about the process that is (probably) about to begin, it’s worth taking a step back and recalling the way the coaches of the Irish national side have been appointed since professionalism in 1995:

• Brian Ashton: chance phone call from his agent to Pat Whelan, hawking the “best coach in the world” — the Union took the bait, Murray Kidd was sent packing, and Ashton was given a SIX-YEAR contract. He stayed for one

• Warren Gatland: Gatty had spent time in Galway in the early 1990s, and he was flown over from NZ to coach Connacht after the Union balked at Eddie O’Sullivan’s request for contract stability. When Ashton was hastily disposed of, Gatty (one of only two provincial coaches in situ, a huge issue for Ashton) was promoted to the big gig

• Eddie O’Sullivan: Dagger joined Gatty’s team as attack coach in 2000, and the gradual improvement in performances was credited to the native rather than the Kiwi. After a(nother) November defeat to New Zealand, the Union changed ships — silverware followed

• Declan Kidney: Deccie was Eddie’s number two for a couple of seasons, but that was never going to work — that experience allowed him to press for his own coaching team, which delivered first time up. But Deccie himself only got the nod after a trawl of available Southern Hemisphere coaches revealed nought.

When we consider that the man (Whelan) who piloted the first appointment of the professional era, that of Ashton, is likely to be involved in the next one, we aren’t filled with confidence.

What should happen is the roles in-scope of a national coach should be defined, as should the targets and reporting structure (which should be to the director of rugby sanctioned by the PRG) — then a suitable candidate sought.

The entire process is fundamentally flawed — no one knows what Deccie’s job targets are, no one can say what the new coaches should be doing, and the edifice that has taken Irish rugby through the first generation of professional players is crumbling.
Right now, all work is still being conducted by amateurs — as well-meaning as they might be, it ain’t gonna work in this day and age.

Peter O’Mahony, the Rage Virus and Statistics

Ireland’s backrow is most confusing in its current iteration – it appears unbalanced (what’s new), consisting of an 8, a 6.5 and a 6/7/8 (delete as appropriate), and appears unable to grab a game by the scruff of the neck.  Far from the traditional roles one associates with the 6, 7 and 8, Ireland’s appears to be a jumble of roles.  Now, we’re not against fluidity of systems, but given Ireland’s recent results, it has to be asked – does the current backrow work?  For the record it looks like this:

No.6 Peter O’Mahony

Typical role of number 6: tackle anything that moves, truck dirty slow ball around the corner and try to turn it into quicker ball, add ballast to mauls, possible tail of lineout option

Prototype: Dan Lydiate, Stephen Ferris

Role of O’Mahony (as we understand it). Standing wide between the centres, looking to join up the play and make rangy breaks in midfield by handing off defenders.  Important part of lineout.

No. 7 Sean O’Brien

Typical role of number 7: arrive first at as many rucks as possible, win turnovers, track ball carriers, take and give offloads to bring continuity to play

Prototype: Sir Ruchie, David Pocock, Justin Tipuric

Role of O’Brien (as we understand it): primary ball carrier. Relied upon to repeatedly carry slow ball over the gainline and deliver huge tackle count in defence.

No.8 Jamie Heaslip

Typical role of number 8: set up attacks off the base of scrum, carry ball, usually allowed a little more free reign to stand wide from ruck to get ball in space, should have good hands, often a lineout option

Prototype: Sergio Parisse, Louis Picamoles

Role of Jamie Heaslip (as we understand it): used primarily in tight, where he is depended upon to clear rucks and win turnovers.  Seldom asked to carry the ball.

It’s certainly a far cry from, say, Wales’ uber-traditional backrow where the 6 (Lydiate / Jones), 7 (Warburton / Tipuric) and 8 (Felatau) are outstanding in the traditional primary roles.  As a unit, Ireland’s backrow performed well against Wales, were hopelessly outmuscled against England and did enough against Scotland to deliver sufficient clean ball and go-forward to win the game, which failed to happen for various reasons.  Looking at the individuals, we’d say O’Mahony was good against Wales, ordinary against England and poor against Scotland.  Heaslip was good against Scotland, poor against England and average against Wales.  O’Brien has probably been our best forward, heroically committed and hardworking – with the caveat that he has given away too many penalties.

Any time we try to have a rational debate, it degenerates quickly into bitter provincial bickering – Munster folk will point to Jamie Heaslip’s relative lack of visibility while Leinster and Ulster folk will decry Peter O’Mahony’s lack of impact, and lament the absence of the glorious Fez. Sean O’Brien is largely spared criticism, thankfully, for if we agreed on nothing, this would be a most depressing state of affairs.  The oddly fitting roles probably don’t help here.  We expect our 6 to be a tackling machine, and our 8 to be making big plays, but neither seems to be the case.

The statistics from ESPN Scrum bear out the above thesis.

Carrying: Heaslip has carried for 27 cumulative metres over three matches.  O’Mahony and O’Brien have over 90m each, with O’Mahony averaging over 4m a carry.  He made an eye-catching 65m from nine carries in his best game of the series, against Wales.  Carrying the ball further away from the ruck allows him more space to make metres, while O’Brien is asked to carry slow ball repeatedly.  He has made 44 attempted carries so far.

Tackling: O’Brien appears something of a workaholic, adding a huge tackle count to his carrying ability.  He has 28 successful tackles to his name.  Heaslip, as we’d expect given his responsibility close to the ruck, leads the tackle count on 30.  O’Mahony’s tackle count is somewhat dwarfed by the other two, on 13 over three games, again reflecting his tendency to  play further out from the ruck.

Discipline: O’Mahony has a reputation as a penalty machine, but he’s only cost his team two so far this series.  O’Brien has never shaken off his tendency not to roll away quickly enough in the tackle area, and has coughed up six penalties.  Heaslip – usually a well disciplined player – has cost his team five penalties so far.

Lineout: This has not been a vintage series for the Irish lineout, but O’Mahony’s skills have seen him claim seven catches.  Heaslip gets thrown up reasonably often too – he’s won four, and O’Brien has two.

ESPN doesn’t provide numbers on what Donncha O’Callaghan fans might refer to as the unseen work – clearing rucks, shoving hard in a maul, winning a choke tackle turnover, slowing down opposition ball at a ruck.  Nor do the stats on ESPN tell the whole story of any action.  Keith Earls’ break and non-pass gave him huge metres carried, but many of them were thrown away by failing to the right thing once he’d done the hard bit. 

For this weeks France game, we are going to go through with a fine tooth comb (rather like the Mole did for kicking against England and chart (and, crucially, grade in terms of positive impact) each action of each backrow forward, specifically:

  • Tackles
  • Carries (number and metres)
  • Rucking (clearing out and otherwise)
  • Lineout takes and steals
  • Other good actions: Linebreaks, key passes, turnovers won, tries
  • Other bad actions: Turnovers lost, penalties, free-kicks, missed tackles

We expect that O’Brien will have the most tackles and carries, and Heaslip the most ruck clearances, and we don’t expect to see the same quantity of dog-work from O’Mahony. If he is to stand in wider channels let’s hope he can make his ball skills and rangy carrying ability tell and deliver serious metres in open space and keep the play alive.  In general we’d prefer to see him involved in the action more than he is, but we know he’s capable of coming up with big plays.  We’ve a suspicion his yardage is a little flattered by his standing so wide, so we’ll see if that’s borne out.  One thing’s for sure, he’s a very different player to what his astonishing media profile suggests; we’re far from convinced that he’s a no-backward-step warrior that he’s portrayed as in the press, and we’ve already aired our Good Face theory.

We have to come out and admit that we find O’Mahony to be a most curious player. He can do the hard things brilliantly – zipping passes like Strings in his peak, and taking balls from the air or off his bootlaces with consumate ease. Yet, for a blindside, his tackling is largely absent, his carrying inconsistent, and his breakdown work unseen (to coin a phrase). In short, we think he doesn’t work hard enough.  He’s yet to deliver 10 tackles in a match in any of his eight starts for Ireland, and in four games has combined single digit metres with single digit carries.  On his day, however, he can be impactful, as in this season’s win against Wales. 

He has not yet been forced to nail down a jumper for Munster, never had his attitude and play questioned, and never really been subject to any media criticism whatsoever. The Mole opined that some time at the coalface nailing down a position and learning about himself might be the best thing for him – we feel he just coasts too much, but that seems to be out of tune with a lot of opinions, so we felt this was a puzzle worth delving a little deeper into.

What we’d like to see from Heaslip is an improvement in his carrying, which looked pretty marshmallowy in the first two games of the Six Nations, before improving against Scotland.  And as for O’Brien, well, we’d almost like to see him carry less.  If he’s making over 20 carries in a match it’s a surefire sign that Ireland’s Plan A of Give The Ball to O’Brien has been jettisoned for Plan B: Give the Ball to O’Brien.

More than simply analysing each player’s individual performances, we want to try and gain some understanding as to whether Ireland’s backrow functions as a unit.  It’s highly unconventional in that the role of the players is so at odds with what we traditionally expect from each shirt number.  Are we suffering as a result of that?  Are we getting the best out of the three players?  Do we have the right men selected?  Would we be better off with a more traditional 6 and 7, allowing Heaslip to carry more ball as he did three years ago?  Is his carrying good enough to merit that role?

So on Sunday night we’ll sit down with a bottle of wine and pour over the tape.  By far the biggest issue we expect to have is that O’Mahony and Donnacha Ryan look rather similar.  Let’s hope we can tell them apart enough to get some accurate stats.  Results will be up early next week.

Lions Post #2: Two Englishmen

Rather than go through a formulaic 36-man theoretical squad every week, with references to ‘being on the plane’ or ‘in the departure lounge’ we’re going to pepper the next few weeks with occasional Lions-related musings.

This week we’ve come to the realisation that two doughty Englishmen have come to the fore in competitive positions, and we have them inked in to our would-be test team.

The first, to the surprise of nobody, is their upstanding captain Chris Robshaw.  Hmmm, I hear you say.  A one paced openside, who brings none of the linking play of Justin Tipuric or the explosive power and try-scoring of Steffon Armitage.  Fair comments all, but Robshaw is just such an excellent fellow that he has to captain the team.  He strikes us as the sort of hard-working man of integrity and all round jolly handsome chap that will unite the band of brothers behind him on tour.  This fellow never gives up, and is all heart.  Remember the Lions maxim: it’s not just about being a good player, it’s about being a good tourist.  Robshaw at 7 with the explosive carrying of O’Brien at 6 looks like the best balancing act on the flanks.  We retain huge admiration for Tipuric, who would provide a real alternative in the backrow, but the fleet-footed Welshman may have to be sprung from the bench.  If Robshaw’s form slipped, well, judging by the type of upstanding yeoman he is, he’d take it on the chin and lead the midweek team to some really impressive wins over Western Force seconds, or whoever it is they’re playing.

The second is a less obvious choice.  In fact he’s not even starting in the England team!  But that’s how good this England team are these days (don’t worry we’re only kidding).  But it’s true, he’s not in the starting team, for some reason.  Yes, it’s Danny Care, reserve England scrum half.  And oh me oh my, how good he is.  When he came off the bench against France, we suddenly noticed a most subtle change in England: instead of immediately hoofing the ball in the air, they started running with – and even passing! – the football.  I know, I know, hard to believe.  It looked to our eyes to have everything to do with Care’s super-swift arrival at the ruck and super-smooth passing.  It enabled England to up the tempo and take the game away from France.  He’s the perfect foil for Johnny Sexton at 10, and the thought of the two combining to destroy the Wallabies is giving us great excitement.

Kidney Axes ROG

Roy Keane used to say that he always knew that when the end came, it wouldn’t be pretty.  And so it was as Declan Kidney swung the axe and almost certainly ended the test career of Ireland’s most capped player; the divisive, cantankerous, chippy, bullishly self-confident but unquestionably brilliant Ronan O’Gara.

Sport can be cruel in many ways, and watching one of Ireland’s most respected players of all time decline to such an abject level over the last two weeks has not made for pleasant viewing.  It has been obvious for some time that ROG has been in decline, and while his street team of media apologists would have you believe the opposite, this day has been looming since the middle of last season.  We have a few observations on the matter:

1. On rugby terms, it’s the right decision.  Yes, it’s awful for ROG personally to have it end like this: it’s sad that his final act of any significance was a loopy, harebrained crossfield kick that ultimately consigned Ireland to a sorry defeat in Murrayfield.  But there’s no room for sentiment on this one.  It would have been the right decision to bring Madigan into the fold at the start of the Six Nations, and it’s still the right decision now.  To jettison ROG mid-tournament looks awful, but the (Kidney) clock cannot be turned back.  Decisions can only be made for the next game, not the last, so it’s the right decision, however awfully it has been made.

It was, though, the wrong decision to keep him in the 23 since the summer, and for that Kidney should be roundly castigated.  The whole situation is a mess of the coach’s making, succession planning at its absolute worst.  The failure to grasp before now that O’Gara was no longer a test player amounts to a costly blunder.

2. ROG should have retired after the 2011 loss to Wales. The danger of playing on too long is that you sully your legacy.  There will be articles about the end of the ROG era this week, but the ROG era ended with the 2011 World Cup.  His noteworthy contributions to test matches since that dismal quarter-final are… what exactly?  He has not started a game in that time, while Sexton has authoritatively claimed ownership of the shirt.  His tenacity and self-belief are admirable, but it has tipped over into a slightly sad sight over the last two series, when it has been clear he’s no longer capable at this level.  It was the right time to go, and he should have done it. For all those saying ROG deserves to go out on his own terms; well that was his chance and he turned it down.

3. Kidney – the man for 2015.  Or so he’d have you think.  Declan Kidney’s selection policy has swung from archly conservative to ‘throwing in ver yoof’.  It’s hard not to be a touch cynical and see it has him positioning himself as a coach with an eye on the 2015 world cup, presiding over a young team.  A transitional coach, if you will.  It’s like a switch has been flicked.  First the change of captaincy, now he’s thrown ROG over the side of his sinking ship to try and keep it afloat.  While in and of itself it’s the right decision (see number one above) it’s a bit hard to stomach the manner in which Deccie has done business.

4. Madigan is there on merit.  While all the airspace will be taken up by ROG, it shouldn’t be forgotten that his replacement deserves his place in the squad.  He picked up rave reviews for his performance in the untelevised win over the Dragons on Friday night, where he kicked three from four from out wide, and continues a hot streak of form.  He is the form 10 in the country and looks to have the stuff for test rugby, albeit with a weak kicking game from hand.  It’s appeared up to now that he is not the fly-half Kidney is looking for, but his form must count for something.  He deserves his chance, at least off the bench.

5. Remember the good times.  Forget the awful cross-kick and the 10m kicks to touch, and remember ROG as he deserves to be remembered.  The cheeky try against South Africa.  The cross-field kick to Shaggy. The try in the corner in Croker against France.  Converting Shaggy’s try in Twickenham to make it a four point game.  Too many penalties and conversions to mention.  We have also heard, but require confirmation, that he once scored a drop goal of some importance.

6. The Cork Con Mafia can go for a lie down.  If ROG has been one of the greatest ever Irish internationals, he has also been one of the most protected, with an army of media campaigners in place to avoid reference to his bad performances, and remind us of the failings of his rivals.  Right up to this week they were still at it.  The poor fellows must be exhausted, as their task has taken on Sisyphean proportions in recent months.  Take a lie down, chaps, and think of Peter O’Mahony.

Less than Fourteen, More than Two

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 recalitrant MPs under the illusion they matter). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain.

When it’s a Lions year, you’ll always have the people who see every game as a Lions audition – doesn’t matter who wins, they say, it’s who put their hand up. Everything is seen through the prism of Gatty’s beady eyes – it’s like that scene in Moneyball, where Brad Pitt has a massive magnetic board with players names on it – you can envisage Lions Man moving the magnetic strip with ‘Stuart Hogg’ on it from the ‘Possibles’ column into ‘Probables’ – James O’Connor couldn’t cope with his pace, he’ll murmur.

Lions Man isn’t prone to rational thinking either – it’s only the last performance that matters, forget everything that went before. Jamie Heaslip’s Lions experience is irrelevant, sure he couldn’t prevent Ireland losing in Murrayfield, he’ll say, as he throws Heaslip’s magnetic strip on to the floor, where it languishes with ‘Ronan O’Gara’ and ‘Lesley Vainikolo’.

So how will Lions Man be feeling about the Irish prospects right now? Typically, the Irish slay each other with an orgy of inter-provincial bickering, but put up an impregnable, united front against the Brits (of all hues) when it comes to Lions selections. You’ll have Blackrock College’s finest simultaneously derisively referring to Conor Murray as the poor man’s Isaac Boss when referencing his selection for Ireland, while extolling his similarities to Fourie du Preez when he’s up against Ben Youngs for a seat in Qantas business class.

The last Lions tour was an odd experience for us Irish, for when Geech picked every able-limbed Irishman (and a few others as well) to tour the highveldt, we had nothing to moan about. All we could do was sagely agree with leaving Tom Croft at home while laughing at the depth of Stephen Jones’ indignation that one of his favoured few was staying at home (initially anyway).

But this time it’s going to be different – Ireland are heading to a wooden spoon playoff in the Six Nations, the provinces are struggling to maintain the high standards they have set for themselves in Europe this season, and likely tourists are getting crocked at very inconvenient times. We should steel ourselves for righteous anger – it will be nothing like the 14 tourists of 2009, in fact a number as low as three is a possibility.

As there are only a handful of relevant games left for Irish players to make an impression (two more rounds of the Six Nations, plus the HEC knock-out stages), who is set fair for to star in montages featuring a slim Jeremy Guscott dropping goals, and who can safely book that trip to Vegas?

On the Plane:

Sean O’Brien: Ireland’s best player in their first three games, O’Brien has come back from injury as good as he ever was – he’s Ireland’s best carrier, their most prolific tackler and their only reliable weapon. The farm will be on its own for June.

Johnny Sexton: unless Sexton doesn’t recover from injury, he has enough credit banked. Owen Farrell is his only serious rival for the Test shirt.

Brian O’Driscoll: the only question around the former Lions captain is whether he will be current Lions captain. Once he came back looking so lean and driven, his slot was assured.

One Last Push:

DJ Church: Cian Healy’s suspension could not have been more badly timed – he has been the standout loose-head this season, but Joe Marler, Gethin Jenkins and Ryan Grant are having useful series, and Paul James and Maku Vunipola might come into the reckoning – three are likely to go, but it’s a scrap Healy wasn’t expecting.

Rory Best: the lineout has mis-fired disastrously. Best’s work at the breakdown is feverish – he’s Ireland’s best groundhog – and his scrummaging could be useful against an average Wallaby front row, but he’s only on the plane by default right now – step up required

Depends on Gatty’s Mood:

Jamie Heaslip: tends towards less visibility in a green shirt than a blue one due to the differing requirements of his role. Has a lot on his plate at the moment with captaincy, and hasn’t been concentrating on himself. Might pay when it comes to Lions selection.

Donnacha Ryan: has grown into one of Ireland’s leaders despite being first choice for less than a year. Needs more visibility and physicality, and a prominent performance in the Stoop in April will help, but Gatty has a plethora of options here – if he likes Ryan, he’s in; if he likes the others, he’s out.

Mike Ross: Ireland’s scrum feels solid right now, and that’s down to Ross. Not as destructive as some, but he’s a technician and the Wallaby props aren’t. Again, this one will come down to Gatty’s personal preference.

Conor Murray: Murray is an excellent young player, and is improving all the time. His box-kicking is still average, but his threat around the flanks give his fly-half time to play. Both English scrummies are likely tourists, and Murray might be playing off against Mike Phillips for a ticket.

Struggling For Air:

Rob Kearney: we never thought we’d say this, but Kearney is in Lions contention on reputation only. He’s been rather fallible on his return, and on form is behind Leigh Halfpenny, Stuart Hogg, Alex Goode, and even full back-cum-wing Mike Brown. Kearney needs to turn it around fast.

Tommy Bowe: Bowe looked the complete wing before he crocked himself, but he might not play a high-profile game before the tour, having already ruled himself out of Ulster’s HEC quarter final. If he does go, it’s on experience only.

Potential Bolters:

Iain Henderson: NWJMB is one injury away from starting for Ireland. He’s exciting, versatile and has bags of potential. Gatty isn’t shy about throwing youngsters in – if Hendy gets himself noticed, don’t rule it out.

Craig Gilroy: Gilroy is in the dubious position of being written into the Lions squad by none other than Stephen Jones. Jones might be an idiot, but he’s an influential one, so if Gilroy has another stellar performance, he’s a possible.

See You in Vegas:

Stephen Ferris: on his day, Fez is unplayable – an absolute monster with no natural peers in this Hemisphere. Problem is, that destructiveness works both ways. With no return date yet, another Lions tour is unlikely.

Paul O’Connell: captain last time around, O’Connell won’t be touring if he isn’t playing. And he isn’t playing. Second row is a crowded space, and there is no need for Gatty to return to an increasingly injury-prone player, no matter how good he was at his peak.