Outrage Bingo Cards at the Ready

The moment we’ve all been waiting for has arrived; the Lions squad is out!

Ultimately it was a slightly underwhelming announcement with few of the fireworks some expected Gatland to provide.  The late bolts from flair players went largely unrewarded, and Simon Zebo, Christian Wade, Ian Madigan and James Hook will all have to look to national summer tours for rugby, injury call-ups notwithstanding.

We got much right in our predictions, and some things wrong.  Kearney snuck in the door as one of three specialist full-backs.  At centre they’ve chosen a strangely unbalanced crew, all 13s and only one 12.  Is Brian O’Driscoll being considered for the role of inside centre, or at least providing cover there?  How this pans out will be interesting.  As such, it’s even more surprising that no utility back has been selected.

The third tighthead – a position where we really struggled to identify a worthy player – went to Matt Stevens rather than Euan Murray.  Stevens looks somewhat past his best, but with Dan Cole and Adam Jones already universally agreed upon, the role of third man is of limited importance.

At fly-half, where Jonny Wilinson’s credentials were apparently re-considered at the last.  Farrell has survived the late challenge and travels as one of only two 10s.  He can consider himself a very lucky boy.  It leaves Jonny Sexton with a virtual walk-in to the test team.

Robshaw Misses Out

Picture the scene.  The English side you’ve captained have won four from four in the Six Nations, having beaten the All Blacks in November.  Your leadership of the team has been roundly praised.  Win your final game – a tricky one against a resurgent Wales in Cardiff – and you are a grand-slam winning captain in a Lions year.  In short, you are in the box seat; immortality beckons.

But the game in Wales is a disaster.  The Welsh – with a backrow containing two breakaways – play at a tempo that you cannot live with and the result is a hammering, 30-3.  It even swings the championship their way on points difference.  But at least the Heineken Cup to come, there is a chance of a reprieve, and your club has a manageable quarter-final, at home to a Munster side having a ho-hum season.  But unthinkably, you lose, somehow allowing the Munster players to dominate collisions and the breakdown.  Your own performance is totally dominated by some unknown fellow, Tommy Donnelly, or something.  How has this happened?  Suddenly, from Lions captain, you’re facing an anxious wait, and the best you can hope for is (Lions bingo moment) a stint as mideek captain, manning it up with the dirt trackers…

So it came to be that Chris Robshaw missed out on Lions selection.  And it’s hard to argue with Gatland’s selection.  In the event he’s chosen flankers with highly specialised talents, rather than hard working types who don’t excel in any particular area.  On the openside, he has breakdown specialist Warburton and exceptional link-man Justin Tipuric.  Both are specialist 7s.  On the blind side he’s given himself healthy variety with an outstanding ball-carrier in Sean O’Brien, a super-fit all-action tackling machine in Dan Lydiate and a superb linout operator with the added bonus of terrific pace in Tom Croft.

Croft has nothing like the work rate of Robshaw, but he is a technician in the set piece and his outside break and fend can occasionally result in 50m gains (you could even say that Croft’s pace will be needed on the hard grounds – scatch off another Lions bingo square).  It’s the specialist versus the generalist, and the specialist has won out.  England might be content to put out backrows made up of three identikit six-and-a-halves, but that sort of rugby is anathema to Gatty, and he’s been vocal on the topic for over a year now.

Reprieve for the Irish

On saturday we thought the papers selecting nine Irish Lions were being generous to themselves in the extreme.  We had it at seven.  In the end, we upped it to eight, making room for Conor Murray late in the day.  In the event they’ve got nine, one less than England but six more than Scotland.  It doesn’t square with the Six Nations table.  Gatland has essentially given these high quality players a reprieve: ‘Look, chaps’, he appears to be saying ‘the Six Nations was rubbish but you and I both know that Deccie was a busted flush and the team was a mess.  I know you’re better than that and we’re going to put all that behind us and teach these Aussies a lesson about rugby’.

With Wales having come up just short against Australia in every recent encounter he knows he needs to add some of the Irish (specifically Leinster) guile and craft to the square-and-straight approach favoured by Wales, in order to make the difference.  It looks like he’ll be going with the Welsh 12 and outside backs, plus Sexton and O’Driscoll – but don’t bet against Bowe squeezing in by Test time.  They’ll bring some subtlety to proceedings, creating space, running angles, bringing the big Welsh runners into play in a more subtle fashion, rather than just trying to bash holes and getting nowhere.

Among the Irish selected, a number will be likely test starters.  Sexton, Healy and BOD are in pole position, and the likes of O’Connell, O’Brien, Healsip and Bowe would have a very strong chance of making the test team once they bring their best form.

Those looking to complete a full house on their Lions Outrage bingo cards should be directed to English websites, where no doubt their low representation on the touring party will not be going down well.  At the height of Robshaw-mania mid-Six Nations, the Torygraph projected a Lions team with no less than seven English forwards.  This will not be coming to pass.  Further outrage is likely to be garnered on the tour itself, where much of the English look like midweek material.  Tom Youngs, Matt Stevens or Owen Farrell for the test team?  No thanks.

One of the English forwards going is Nice Guy Dylan H*****y – it’s heavily ironic for Rory Best, for after the Ulster evisceration of the Saints in Franklins Gardens, containing a total Hartley-domination by the Armagh man, you would have got very long odds on Hartley going and Best not. Best has essentially played himself off the plane with some desperate lineout work in recent months.  Hartley’s Northampton haven’t exactly been the toast of Europe this season, and he lost his England jumper to Tom Youngs – it’s hard to convince oneself he’s a richly deserving tourist.

Sam The Eagle is Captain

Gatland has looked past the huge experience and inspirational leadership of the two Irish candidates, Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, instead sticking by his Welsh captain Sam Warburton.  It looks a risky call.  There have been doubts over Warb’s form and fitness over the last twelve months (O’Driscoll and O’Connell are also regularly on the treatment table, it must be said) and it wasn’t long ago he was out of the Welsh starting team, dropped for the electric Tipuric.  It also appears he declined the opportunity to captain Wales in their final game, in a desire to focus on his own game.  Selfless act, taking one for the team, or a shirking of his duties?  In the event Wales played brilliantly and Warb was superb, so he probably deserves the benfit of any doubt.

It leaves the touring party looking very Welsh indeed.  Welsh coaches, Welsh captain, large Welsh contingent.  Given the large number of Welsh in the party, they might have responded better to a new, outsider’s voice.  Is there a risk of the tour group breaking into factions?  Gatland being Gatland, he doesn’t tend to pay lip service to politics (he once picked a team containing 13 Ospreys for Wales) and would be of the mind that his best man for the job is the best man for the job, and that’s that.

To be fair to Gatland, he has done his best to play down the significance of the role, even saying it will have no bearing on selection and he will happily pick a test team without his captain if that’s what’s required.  Nonetheless, those steeped in – Skyhype alert – the culture and history of the Lions will know the significance of captaining the touring party.  This is Sam’s moment, he must deliver on it in the matches themselves, which, although a sideshow to the main event of selection, can be worth a passing glance.

Liiiiiiions – The Back Division

‘Immortality’ is just 24 hours away according to the Skyhype machine.  You don’t even have to play well to be immortal these days, just getting named on a touring panel and playing a few non-test games in Australia on Wednesday nights is apparently enough.  But then we all know the truth – the endless speculation and selection of the squad, and ultimately of the test team is what the Lions is all about, as opposed to the matches, which the Lions almost always lose anyway.  So, with that in mind, on with the show…

Scrum Half: Mike Phillips, Ben Youngs, Conor Murray

The only certainty here is that Mike Phillips is traveling.  In spite of mucking around in the lower end of the Top 14, he appears able to show his class when the occasion demands it.  His performance against England in the Six Nations was a reminder that no other European scrum-half can dominate matches like he does.  Outside of Phillips, things get tricky. It looks like two from four between Greig Laidlaw, Conor Murray and the two Englishmen, Danny Care and Ben Youngs.  It all rather depends on what Gatland is looking for to compliment Phillips, who will doubtless start the test matches.  A like-for-like replacement?  That’d be Murray.  A totally different player to provide a Plan B?  Try Ben Youngs, who’s all about tempo.  An impact substitute?  Danny Care, who excels against tiring defences, would fit the bill.  Or someone who can provide versatility and cover 10 in midweek games?  Greig Laidlaw is the man.  We got a touch overexcited a few weeks back and proclaimed Care our test staring outhalf, prompting him into a series of eye-wateringly bad performances.  He may now miss out to his compatriot Youngs.  Conor Murray’s recent form probably just squeezes him onto the plane.

Outhalf: Jonny Sexton, Owen Farrell, James Hook

Jonny Sexton has been de facto test starting 10 for some time, and has hit form promptly on his return from injury.  Options to back him up have been troublingly lacking since Rhys Priestland went from crisis to injury – with the exception of the glorious, un-ageing Jonny Wilkinson. If Toulon had any notion of releasing their prize asset for a muckaround against New South Wales Country to give him a chance to prove his fitness to Graham Rowntree, he’d be on the plane. But they won’t, and he won’t be either.

Owen Farrell seems the likely beneficiary, despite his vast shortcomings as a fly-half.  On Sunday, one canny tweeter noted that he was the third best Lions-eligible fly-half on the pitch in Saracens’ gloomy defeat to Toulon.  He will be a fortunate tourist – it’s mad that an extra week watching videos of Gareth Edwards is considered better preparation than a Top 14 final, but hey, there you go.  With only two dedicated 10s traveling, a utility player will probably be included in the touring party.  The obvious name is James Hook, and Sky were only too happy to turn Friday night’s Amlin semi-final into the ‘Will James Hook Go On The Lions Show’.  Hook can play 10, 12, 13 and 15, has Lions experience, and speaks with a Welsh lilt – he fits the bill. He’s under pressure after an impressive late dash from Ian Madigan, but the Leinsterman may just miss out due to lack of experience, though he might be first reserve.

Centres: Jamie Roberts, Ooooooooooooooohh Brad Barritt, Brian O’Driscoll, Manu Tuilagi

Jamie Roberts, once fit, is a guaranteed starter, and there are a lack of test class options to back him up.  Brad Barritt is an iron-clad defender and little more, and will have ‘midweek’ written all over him.  Outside, it’s two from three between O’Driscoll, Tuilagi and the resurgent Jonathan Davies.  O’Driscoll’s leadership, class and partnership with Roberts are surely worth a last hurrah.  His form for Leinster is excellent.  Take your pick between Davies and Manu; we’d lean slightly towards the Ashton-lamper – and not just for that, his power and eye for a gap will discommode the Wallabies more than Davies defence and intelligent lines. Stephen Jones flew the highly interesting kite that BOD was being considering as the Test 12 – if that is the case, and with Hook in the squad, Davies might squeeze out Barritt.

Wings: Tommy Bowe, George North, Alex Cuthbert, Sean Maitland

An area of no little depth.  North will be a Lion, the rest are uncertain.  His compatriot Cuthbert mixed the downright awful with the outstanding in the Six Nations.  He can be a defensive liability or unplayable in attack, sometimes both in the same match.  Sean Maitland oozes Kiwi class and is at the core of Glasgow’s superb finish to the season.  Bowe has looked pin-sharp since returning and is proven class.  He probably just – just! – edges out Simon Zebo, who is a touch unlucky – he picked a bad time to look nervous on Saturday, but he’s probably only one injury from a call-up.  Tim Visser, an out of form Chris Ashton and a fastman like Cristian Wade are probably on the radar but just outside the squad.

Full Back: Stuart Hogg, Lee 0.5p

Rob Kearney excelled on tour in 2009, and was so good in 2012 that it seemed unthinkable he wouldn’t be on the tour.  His claims are looking shaky right now, and he is relying on Gatland bringing three specialist 15s.  Ahead of him Lee 0.5p was Six Nations player of the championship and Hogg is greased lightning and made for the hard Antipodean grounds.  Behind in the queue are a bunch of Englishmen; Goode, Brown and Ben Foden, another player who at his best would be a shoo-in, but is out of the picture.

For those not selected, it’s worth remembering that close to double figures of players were flown out as replacements in 2009, so all is not lost.  Modern rugby being as it is, a handful of players will suffer a heartbreaking injury between now and the opening test.  In 2009, Tom Croft was not even named in the original squad, with Alan Quinlan preferred, but we all know what happened to Quinny (remember it’s no fun being cited, folks), and in the end Crofty started all three tests and scored two tries in the first.  So the likes of Rory Best, Donnacha Ryan and Simon Zebo might get out there yet.

The Lions Tour – It’s Here

The Sky Sports montage of African lions cavorting around Uluru suddenly magically transports them to Sydney Opera House – they gradually fade away to leave an image of a slim-looking guy who bears a passing resemblence to a certain corpulent former England centre now on the Beeb dropping a goal. He in turn fades into a tearful Phil Vickery and a heartbroken Shawsie. Music turns into a deep minor key – flim moves on to a smiling Beast, tries by Tom Croft, BOD mouthing “bring it on”, injured players exiting stage left, Jacque Fourie showing a woozy Rog who is boss, and then finally a winning penalty from Morne.

Simon Lazenby can barely conceal his glee, it’s the Lions! Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions! Tearful tributes to a professional anachronism abound, the merits of old school touring are tarted up with sepia paint, Ian McGeechan has been wheeled out, and – finally – it’s squad announcement time. Tingles!!

We’re going to second guess Gatty and co. We have steadfastedly avoided naming a squad until now and instead skirted the issue by talking about Israel Folau and bolters and such. But we can avoid no longer. Egg will see which fatties are going to need their official jackets taken out, while later Palla is going to investigate which flash backs will be anxiously checking Australian import regulations on ylang-ylang tree oil.

Loosehead Props: Cian Healy, Gethin Jenkins, Mako Vunipola. Jenkins may tell Toulon to stuff their playoff matches and head off on the tour if called upon.  He’s been out of favour, but is such a good player he’s worth bringing, and then who knows?  It looks like a shootout between him and the explosive Healy to start the tests, with Vunipola a potential impact sub.  If Jenkins isn’t released by Toulon, the capable Ryan Grant will go.

Hookers: Ross Ford, Richard Hibbard, Tom Youngs. Hibbard and Youngs are nailed on. The third slot is pretty open, with Rory Best slowly unbolting over the last four months.  On a tour without many standout Scottish options, Gatty might take this opportunity to get one in and avoid more tears from Geech – Ford to go ahead of Rory Best and Dylan H*****y.

Tighthead Props: Dan Cole, Adam Jones, Euan Murray. Not much debate here – the only question was would Mike Ross have a good enough season to displace the three ogres. In the event, he hasn’t, and has looked extremely fatigued to boot. In fact, let’s hope Schmidty leaves him here instead of bringing him to North America.  Euan Murray has done little of late, but might travel on reputation.

Second Row: Ian Evans, Richie Gray, Alun Wyn Jones, Paul O’Connell, Geoff Parling. The above is all contingent on Gray being fit enough – if he isn’t, Joe Launchbury is the obvious one-for-one replacement. Donnacha Ryan has been usurped by his provincial colleague Paulie; it’s unlikely both will be picked. Evans and O’Connell are favourites for the test jumpers at this juncture, but Alun Wyn Jones added serious value to Wales’ Six Nations campaign once he returned from injury. Big Jim Hamilton had a great Six Nations, but, despite much shorter arms, Parling holds him off due to greater mobility and athleticism.

Blindside Flankers: Dan Lydiate, Sean O’Brien, Tom Wood. Media darling Crofty is squeezed out again – in an attritional position, he’ll probably end up out there at any rate. Fez probably would have toured were he fit, and Dan Lydiate takes that role, having returned from injury with the Dragons, and looked in acceptable nick. He’s a prototype 6 and worth the risk.  Wood and O’Brien can cover 8 if necessary, and O’Brien allegedly 7 as well.

Openside Flankers: Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton (c). Warburton will be Gatty’s go-to leader guy – he’s done the job before, and Gatland is fine with him not necessarily being first choice. And it’s no surprise he isn’t, for Justin Tipuric has been the stand-out openside this year. Honest Chris Robshaw misses out – he just hasn’t been good enough since his February displays, and the two selected are pure class, and highly specialised talents.

Number Eights: Toby Faletau, Jamie Heaslip. Faletau is nailed on, and favourite for the test jumper. We think Gatty will bring one other specialist 8, which makes it Heaslip vs Johnnie Beattie. Heaslip is simply in better form, and when he is allowed to play his natural role, has had a good season – his barnstorming performance on Saturday (15 carries for 124 metres and top of the tackle count) probably booked him his airline ticket.

That’s 21 forwards, and we think 16 backs will accompany them. It’s an unanswered question who will be in charge of fines on tour – tight five forwards usually revel in this role, is Ian Evans a contender?

Palla will be back later on to resolve the other big selection dilemmas facing Gatty:

  • Will La Rochelle release Lesley Vainikolo from their Pro D2 playoff commitments?
  • Can Donncha O’Callaghan oust George North for a wing slot?
  • If Graeme Morrison isn’t available, who is favourite for to back up Jamie Roberts?

El Madrigal o Juan del Zextonio por el semifinal contre Biarritz?

Remarkably, Leinster have a selection dilemma at fly-half for this weekend’s semi-final against Biarritz.  It’s a scenario that seemed almost unthinkable until recently: that Sexton, Leinster’s best player and on-field general may not be an automatic choice for an important European game.  Incroyable!

It’s testimony to the strides made by Madigan in the ten weeks where Sexton has been injured (and, admittedly, the fact that it’s the Amlin).  It’s not that long ago that Leinster fans were crying into their moccha-frappucinos over Sexton’s departure, but now the anguish has been replaced by a sort of cautious optimism (the signing of Kirchner notwithstanding).  Madigan has set about the last number of weeks as if on a crusade to prove wrong the preconceptions many pundits have of him.  Can’t place kick off the tee?  Try 85% and top scorer in the Pro 12.  Great at home, but can he manage tough away games?  Wins in Adams Park and Thomond Park sound hard enough.  Can’t kick out of hand?  That part of his game is rapidly improving.  It’s reached the point where Madigan and the Lions have been mentioned in the same sentence.  There was a bump in the road against Ulster, but he responded as well as possible.

If one was to argue that the returning player has to earn the shirt back from the incumbent, there’s a strong case for retaining Madigan for the Biarritz match, such is his form.  Indeed, factor in that Sexton is leaving at the end of the season, and the strength of the argument compounds itself.  Joe Schmidt has already hinted that with a six-day turnaround, he might favour a number of those who didn’t play on Sunday.  That would mean Madigan starting.

But for all that, those with short memories need to cast their minds back to just how good a player Sexton is.  We’re talking about the de facto Lions test outhalf here. Would Leinster have won the last two Heineken Cups without Sexton? Unlikely.  If anyone has really forgotten, Sexton provided them with a reminder against Zebre in his return.  He kicked all his goals, made several clean breaks and knitted the backline together.  It was business as usual.  While Madigan has an air of what-will-he-do-next about him that gets supporters out of their seats, Sexton’s cool authority is undoubtedly preferred by his team-mates when the heat is on.

It’s easy to have one’s head turned by hugely talented players, but there exists a gulf between players who catch the eye with tries and linebreaks and those who deliver silverware.  Contepomi was the latter, but it was only when Sexton entered the fray that Leinster made the leap into greatness.  Madigan is a hugely exciting, wonderful prospect, but it’s not yet clear if he’s the sort of player who can consistently win finals.  It would ultimately be cruel luck on Madigan to drop him after doing so much so well in recent weeks.  Indeed, if Madigan is making a late, late bolt onto Gatland’s radar, he almost certainly needs to start and excel this weekend to have any chance of being in the Lions squad, so it would probably drive a nail into that coffin.

Madigan will at least know that his time will come, and that next season he’ll be starting these sorts of games.  When the news that Jonny Sexton was leaving, a number of Leinster fans suggested giving Madigan the rest of the season to acclimatise.  As it transpired, with Jonny’s injury, he has been given plenty of opportunities, and taken them. He’ll get many more next season, when the pressure will ramp up again – it’s one thing to win in Adams Park, yet another to beat Clermont in Bordeaux.

But the whiff of silverware has a habit of shaping priorities, and the majority of diehard Blues will be looking for Leinster to put their best team out to redeem what’s been a difficult season.  There are two cups to play for and Schmidt will look to his cup-winning fly-half to win them.  Jonny Sexton should start against Biarritz.

Dear Bryan, fancy free entry into Coppers any night you want?

Leinster’s signing of Zane Kirchner hasn’t exactly inspired the troops – a fan base used to foreign backs like Pippo Contepomi and Isa Nacewa (both Leinster legends) just doesn’t like what they see in Kirchner. There was a desire for a gassy specialist wing to come in – Leinster have a lot of players who can play on the wing, but very few out-and-out wingers. A pre-injury Drew Mitchell would have been ideal, for example.

Kirchner is a full-back who has played in the 3/4 line – he has accumulated 24 caps for the Springboks but is primarily known for his Sideshow haircut and his propensity for occasional clangers. He has a massive boot and is a decent counter-attacker, but doesn’t exactly know where the whitewash is – he has 3 tries in 22 starts vs 47 in 81 for Bryan Habana, 14 in 41 for JP Pietersen and 5 in 13 for Gio Aplon. It’s safe to say Leinster fans are underwhelmed, but could they really have done any better?

With it being exactly mid-RWC cycle, you aren’t going to get All Black or Wallaby contenders going north, as they won’t get picked for the national side. The Boks are less shy about picking overseas-based players, so your market is essentially South Africa and Europe (acknowledging most Argentinian / Pacific Islander pros ply their trade in Europe).

Plus there are some differences between the market now, and the market when the provinces were picking up the likes of Dr Phil, Isa, Dougie Howlett, Jean de Villiers, Ruan Pienaar, BJ Botha, John Afoa and Rocky Elsom. The major one being the financial power of the French clubs vis-a-vis the poor mouth Irish.  Indeed, even the far-flung Japanese league has enough financial muscle behind it to lure big names.  And while the ‘Player Succession Rules’ appear to be trapped in a terminal limbo, we can at least infer that the IRFU is less enthused than ever about recruiting expensive overseas layers.  Digby Ioane has just effectively come on the market, but even if Leinster moved heaven and earth to try and sign him, there is no way they could afford him.  The French or Japanese would simply outbid for him; he can effectively name his price as one of the best wingers in the world.

If Leinster are in the market for, say, a world class outside back from South Africa, they are competing against Toulon and Racing Metro. So it goes like this:

  • Top Class: Bryan Habana, Digby Ioane. Forget about it, Toulon will outbid you. And if they don’t, there are half a dozen other French or Japanese clubs who will
  • International Class: JP Pietersen. If no French clubs are interested, you have a chance, but how likely is that? Pietersen is in his prime, has bags of experience and demands Springbok selection when fit. If there are interested French clubs you are struggling from day one
  • Super Rugby Class: Zane Kirchner. Kirchner is mostly in the Bok team these days and has never fully convinced at the highest level. If the best French clubs, those who compete in the HEC, aren’t too bothered you have a shot

So Leinster’s universe was basically South Africans who don’t own a Springbok shirt – not ideal.

Ulster will face a similar problem replacing John Afoa – what prop will turn down a French team to play Pro12 rugby when you can have a situation where you can get more money for playing 50 minute games in a top-class league? Take Zurib Kubriashvili for example, out of favour this season and leaving Toulon in the summer – leaving aside the umbilical link between Georgian props and the Top14, if he leaves Toulon, as it reported, would Ulster even be at the table when it comes to serious offers? They would be outbid by any interested French club, and it’s hard to sell dreary Belfast as an alternate to the South of France.  Rumour has it he’ll end up at Wasps, another club with some newfound financial clout behind them.

Irish provinces have had a decade of dining at the top table when it comes to world class talent, but that era is ending – Kirchner is a good player and everything, but let’s say Leinster rolled up the money and sent it in a big bag to Craig Gilroy (not currently a starter for Ulster when everyone is fit), would the fans be any less happy? Would Leinster be any worse off? And would it be worse for Irish rugby in the round? Clearly Ulster lose out, but they have a few wings and get some recompense. Just saying like.

[Disclaimer: this piece was written by Egg the Ulsterman]

 

Schmidt Ticks Every Box – Bar One

With each passing day it seems more and more inevitable that Joe Schmidt will be the next Ireland head coach.  He appears willing to stay the extra year up until the end of the 2015 World Cup, and Leinster have given him their blessing, and assured him they won’t stand in his way. BOD helpfully leaked that he might stay on if Schmidt gets the nod, and there is no other obvious contender already under the IRFU umbrella.

As an appointment, it makes sense on any number of levels.  Schmist’s credentials as head coach are impeccable.  Having delivered back-to-back Heineken Cups for Leinster, his ability to win silverware needs no embellishment on these pages.  Not only did he win with Leinster, however, he had the team playing with a swashbuckling, attack-minded and risk-taking style that was at odds with the bish-bash-bosh fodder offered up by most teams around them.  When Schmidt arrived, he stated his goal of making Leinster the best passing team in Europe.  It seemed an odd thing to say about a backline made up entirely of thoroughbread internationals, but he has been true to his word.  Players speak of learning something new every day at training, and Shane Horgan has described Schmidt’s conviction in how the game should be played.

He would surely bring the very thing that Kidney’s tenure ran out of in its later period – a clearly defined playing identity and attacking gameplan.  Kidney’s Ireland for the most part proved themselves an organised defensive unit, and were particularly effective in executing choke tackle turnovers, but it never appeared to the outsider that attack with ball in hand received the same attention.

Joe Schmidt, a Kiwi back himself in his playing days, lives and breathes attacking rugby, and his expertise is in sourcing and exploiting space on the rugby pitch.  His coaching style is based on improving accuracy with an emphasis on repetitions of moves until they become ingrained in the muscle memory.  When Luke Fitzgerald ran the length of the pitch to score against Bath, the space had been created for him because the passes to get the ball across the openside of the pitch were all at chest height in front of the catcher – nothing more complicated than that.

Whether he can transfer that accuracy to test level remains to be seen. Will his working methods transfer across to the international game where he sees the players less often, and muscle memory is less easy to build up?  One thing’s for sure – the IRFU will continue to assist him as they did Kidney with mid-season training camps, where he can take his players out of their provincial environments for a week.

If there is a wrinkle, it’s that Schmidt – like Kidney – has arrived with a certain amount of provincial baggage.  It’s reasonable to argue that this shouldn’t matter, and that the best man for the job is the best man for the job, but in an era where support and enthusiasm for Team Ireland is at a low ebb, the fact that Schmidt will be seen by many as Leinster-affiliated will do little to unify a fragmented support base, and is something the IRFU should be aware of.  But as seen in the early days of Kidney’s tenure, this can be overcome – only temporarily, however – by posting winning results. It’s also worth noting that at Leinster he had a squad that bought into his vision for the game, which enabled him to hit the ground running. Munster have had a difficult season adjusting to a style that doesn’t seem to fit, but then again the international contingent have been their standout players this year – the best players have the ability to adapt and thrive.

Hints as to what Schmidt’s coaching team will look like have been thin on the ground, but Kiss and Smal should be thanked for their time and moved on.  Fresh voices are the order of the day, and with Schmidt already familiar to the Leinster players in his squad, he should be looking to bring in at least one new voice.  With Schmidt an expert on back play, it’s hard to see how Les Kiss would retain anything like the significant role he had as Kidney’s right hand man.  The only leftover from the previous regime should be Axel Foley.  It makes sense to retain a young and well regarded Irish coach on the ticket, and would help to smooth over the Leinster-Munster divide somewhat.

How Ulster will feel about that is an interesting question, but the reality is that its the Leinster-Munster relationship that is the woodworm inside the edifice of Irish rugby – the irrationality and bitterness of the relationship was captured in Cite-gate last week (note: comments about Cite-gate will be deleted – this article is about Jow Schmidt). All rugby fans on the island will be hoping Schmidt’s Ireland can forge an identity of their own, a Team Ireland that fans can stand behind, playing rugby that they can be proud of, and (hopefully) bringing home silverware with the same frequency that the provinces do.

Knockout Blow

The sickening sight of Luke Marshall being removed from the field in Ulster’s game against Saracens with a suspected concussion was most sobering – a young man at the beginning of his career and full of promise had suffered a third concussion in four weeks, across three consecutive games. What were the long-term implications for his health?

Without conflating the two events, when former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster died at the age of 50 in 2002, the autopsy revealed his brain had been damaged a protein called tau, most commonly found in Alzheimers patients. Webster hadn’t got Alzheimers however, he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated head trauma.

The presence of the tau protein cannot be confirmed without cutting someone’s head open, so its usefulness as a diagnostic tool is limited. However, early symptoms of CTE are memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, poor impulse control, aggression, depression, and progressive dementia. Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy posthumously identified CTE in 34 of 35 former NFL players.

So it’s clearly an issue in the NFL – should rugby be concerned? You would think so anyway – the IRB states in no uncertain terms in its concussion guidelines that CONCUSSION MUST BE TAKEN EXTREMELY SERIOUSLY (in capitals).

We aren’t medical professionals (or lawyers) so we won’t be opining on how seriously it is taken, but we will share some of the practices in both sports used to identify and report concussions.

We think the sports are comparable, both are tremendously physical and aggression is ingrained. Helmet to helmet hits are allowed in certain circumstances in NFL, but head-to-head are not in rugby, but NFL players wear more protection. A South African survey conducted in 2008 found similar concussion rates across the two sports – we haven’t found a comparable survey since then, but it’s fair to say rugby has got more physical since then, as has, to be fair, the urgency of concussion issues at the IRB.

The NFL is better than rugby for statistics – PBS tracked reported concussive or head injuries by NFL teams, and noted 170 for the year, across 256 regular season and 11 playoff games. We could not find a similar list for rugby players.

The NFL numbers are based upon injuries reported by the teams, and it is suspected it is not an exhaustive list. For example, last season, Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson left the field following an (illegal) helmet-to-helmet hit against the Minnesota Vikings – he underwent sideline concussion tests and returned to the field. Johnson was not listed on the Lions injury list, but was quoted as saying “Yeah, he knocked me good. You could tell. It was obvious”. A month later, Johnson and the Lions issued a joint statement in which the player retracted his claims about being concussed and claims he mis-spoke. Johnson is not on the PBS list.

Now, of course, we can’t blame teams completely for this – players have admitted that they will hide symptoms to continue playing, and it’s hard not to understand why – can you imagine Brian O’Driscoll leaving the field under any circumstances whatsoever? Remember the England game in the Grand Slam year, and that huge hit from Felon Armitage?

In the NFL, players are assessed using the SCAT-2 sporting head trauma protocol. This is a series of tests, physical and cognitive, for which players are tested, and then are scored by sideline medical professionals, who then compare the score to a baseline – for example the same test done pre-season – then make a judgement about whether the player is fit to continue.

There are some questions surrounding this test:

  • The subjectivity element – there is no defined “cut-off”
  • The baseline test – is there a possibility this could be gamed?
  • The relative contributions of different tests – the ocular test is passed with a 100% score if the player spontaneously opens their eyes, whereas with the balance test it is extremely hard to fake a false pass – but both contribute equally

It should also be noted the SCAT-2 tests usually take 10-15 minutes – that’s a smaller portion of an NFL game due to advertisement breaks, change of possessions, time-outs and simply the nature of the game. In rugby 10-15 minutes is a virtual eternity. There have been suggestions to use alternative tests, such as the King-Devick test, which is used in MMA and boxing and takes only 40 seconds for a non-concussed person – someone with a concussion will struggle with this test and often cannot complete it.

Moving on to rugby, if a player has a suspected concussion or head injury, the IRB protocols are as follows:

  • Players suspected of having concussion must be removed from play and must not resume play in the match.
  • Players suspected of having concussion must be medically assessed.
  • Players suspected of having concussion or diagnosed with concussion must go through a graduated return to play protocol (GRTP).
  • Players must receive medical clearance before returning to play.

If a player has any suspected symptoms of concussion – physical, behavioural or cognitive – they are tested using the Pocket SCAT-2 protocols on the field of play – this test need not be carried out by a medical practioner. The pocket SCAT-2 is a series of five questions. If the player is unable to answer any of the five questions, they are then removed from the field of play and subjected to the full SCAT-2 tests, by a qualified medical practioner.

The five questions are as follows:

  • At what venue are we today?
  • Which half is it now?
  • Who scored last in this game?
  • Which team did you play last week/game?
  • Did your team win the last game?

This is the key difference with NFL – for all the weaknesses of a SCAT test, they are conducted by a medical professional in the event of a suspected brain injury. In rugby, the Pocket SCAT-2 questions are an interim step, not necessarily conducted by a medical practioner, and limited in scope. These questions do have the benefits of not being subjective and having no baseline, but it’s clearly less in-depth than the full SCAT-2 or other tests.

Perhaps this is appropriate, perhaps not – we would love to see the research behind the five pocket questions. But more importantly, we really hope we never see a Mike Webster in rugby, and that Luke Marshall returns a healthy and better player.

Lions Post #6: The Three Amigos

When Dingo Deans announced the names for the first Wallaby training camp, there were two big names missing – Quade Cooper was out of favour after some artistic differences with Dingo last year, and Kurtley Beale is indefinitely suspended from rugby by the ARU while he deal with some off-field issues.

Both these players, on form, are sumptuous and gifted attackers, and give Australia a big X-factor (thanks, Gerry). On the other hand, in tandem with James O’Connor, they are a handful to manage. Rather like Alex Ferguson in the 1980s when Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside were sacrificed for Steve Bruce and Neil Webb, Dingo is trading down on talent but up on camp harmony. At least that is the plan.

But it does weaken the Wallaby backline quite substantially – no team wouldn’t miss players of the calibre of Cooper or Beale. Or does it?

While the backline could be: Genia, Cooper, Ioane, Leali’ifano, AAC, O’Connor, Beale; it’s likely to look more like: Genia, O’Connor, Ioane, Leali’ifano, AAC, Folau, Barnes.

The replacements in the first XV could be Israel Folau and Berrick Barnes – not bad. Where is does make the Wallabies weaker is in the depth charts – after those, you have Jesse Mogg, then you are into the Pat McCabes and Ben Taupuis of this world.

The three amigos might have been broken up, but it appears the Wallabies might be able to manage without them – and probably be more likely to be twenty-three amigos.

Lions Captaincy Playoff

It was a good time to be an Irish rugby fan last week – after a chastening Six Nations, the country basked in the warm afterglow of Munster’s sack of the Stoop – it was the gift that kept on giving, with Harlequins stroppy mid-week press release vowing to identify the fans who sold their tickets classic “Munster in Europe” stuff.

The honeymoon extended into the build-up to the Munster-Leinster game, and the self-congratulation got dialled up to 11 – Shaggy decreed it the greatest club rugby rivalry in the world (Biarritz-Bayonne anybody?) and there was almost universal agreement that it had driven Irish rugby to greater levels. We’d agree with that to a point – on-field there is no doubt Munster’s achievements have driven Leinster, but off the field, the petty desire for some people to see everything through the provincial prism is most irritating, and that has been one of the legacies of the intensity of the rivalry from 2009-11. The match was billed in the Irish press as a virtual playoff for the Lions captaincy between Drico and Paulie in front of Gatty – we’d have loved to see the reaction of the press in Blighty had they got a sniff of that one.

The one thing that got overlooked in the sepia-tinged buildup to the game was this – only one team had a need for the points. Munster were out of the running for the Pro12 playoffs, and had one eye (and the wallet) on events in Montpellier in two weeks, whereas Leinster would like to secure a home semi-final. Plus Leinster have had a lock on this fixture for the last few years – we could see only one result.

And so it transpired – Munster played pretty well, then predictably faded after 60 minutes – O’Driscoll got over for Leinster and they duly saw it home. The exertions the previous Sunday took their toll on Munster, and no-one was too bothered about the win once the performance was decent – the Bananamen looming on the horizon was the bigger fish to fry.  It was an enjoyable game for this neutral (Egg) – it was certainly a level above the normal dross served up in the Pro12, and the skill level of the young Irish players on display was very impressive.

You might not have known it from Gerry’s match report, but the main talking point after the game was Paul O’Connell’s kick on Dave Kearney – to our eyes, it was clearly unintentional, but just as clearly reckless use of the boot. Kearney will be out for a few weeks, and we would be surprised if O’Connell isn’t as well – no-one wants to see him miss out on the semi-final, but, just like Brian O’Driscoll’s stamp on Simone Favaro last month, it appears to be an open-and-shut case.

It shouldn’t impact his Lions selection, but with Munster (and Ireland)’s propensity for being 50% of the team they are without him, O’Connell will certainly impact the game with Clermont Auvergne – and not in the way Irish rugby fans hoped.

Conundrums in Key Positions

The great thing about the Heineken Cup knockout stages is there is no comeback. Here’s it’s do or die. At a higher standard of play and with increased pressure, unlike Munster, Ulster were found wanting.

It was something of a bloodless coup for Saracens – Ulster never laid a glove on them and Saracens just powered their way into the semi-finals. You sensed they had an extra gear available if Ulster flicked a switch, but they never needed it. The only positive for Ulster was their dominant scrum, but when your lineout isn’t functioning and the opposition backrow are dominant, that won’t matter. As a game, it was more reminiscent of Ulster’s defeat two years ago to the Saints in Milton Keynes that last years epic in Thomond Park, and that’s a worry.

Ulster effectively played five knockout matches last season (Leicester and Clermont in the final pool matches, Munster, Embra and Leinster). In each of those, barring the final, they brought tremendous physical clout to the table, the zenith of which was the near-win in the Marcel Michelin. This time out, they couldn’t compete. Allied to that, their attacking game was poor – when Ruan Pienaar wasn’t aimlessly kicking the ball away, he was passing out to a deep Paddy Jackson and a deeper again Luke Marshall. It was meat and drink to Brad Barritt and co.

Anscombe called it pretty well in the post-match interview, saying you’ve to throw the kitchen sink at these matches and Ulster were a little tentative. At least he showed an understanding of knockout rugby, even if it was after the event and more could possibly have been done from the sidelines – the non-use of Paul Marshall was odd, especially considering neither half looked on top of their game, and the impact Stuart Olding had when he came in.

If one compares the back-row and inside backs to last year’s same stage, its quite obvious Ulster have stepped down a gear. In the back row you have Ferris/Henry/Wannenbosh versus Henderson/Henry/Williams. As fine a player as Iain Henderson is and will be, he’s nothing like the blindside Fez is – it’s nothing to be ashamed of, most aren’t. Henderson is a young second row playing in a position where Ulster have a need – he played well, and he’s good enough to be knocking on the door of the Ireland team in a position that is not his natural one, but Stephen Ferris, when fit, is one of the best blindside flankers in the world.

At the back of the scrum, Wannenburg is a more rounded player than Nick Williams – not quite as destructive with ball in hand, but a good linker and a runner of smart lines. Wannenburg was one of Ulster’s most influential players in their key games last year – he created two tries at home to Leicester with deft handling, and he scored the decisive try in their nervy semi-final win. In contrast, Saracens read Williams’ intentions easily and stopped him in his tracks with ease. Williams has been much more effective than Ulster fans (and Munster fans) expected, but he doesn’t look like a player who will thrive at this rarefied level.

We said at the beginning of the year we worried for Ulster’s depth in the backrow – Williams has had a season beyond the wildest dreams of Ulster fans, yet there is still a need for Roger Wilson to get fully fit and firing at his 2011 level. Fez is going to Japan, and unless Henderson switches to blindside full-time (unlikely), Robbie Diack is virtually the only other contender. Henry’s excellence aside, the unit is not that intimidating, and is very thin. Perhaps a sniff around a player lower in the pecking order at another province is in order.

Turning to the inside backs, you have iHumph/Wallace versus Jackson/Marshall. The two younger lads are terrific prospects, but Wallace brings a decade of experience and nous, and Ulster are a more potent attacking outfit with him in tow. Its very difficult incorporating two younger players next to one another into a team and not seeing a dropoff in consistency and performance – Wallace is a player who can bring out the best in those around him, and, for all Marshall’s class, he isn’t there yet.

As for Pienaar, he has looked increasingly jaded this year. Between World Cups (2011), Tri-Nations & Rugby Championships (Summers 2010-12), Ulster (Winters 2010/11-2012/13) and Super Rugby for the Sharks (Summer 2010), he hasn’t had a decent rest since the winter of 2009/10. If Humph can somehow get Pienaar a holiday from the RC this summer, Ulster would be hugely grateful, and Luke Marshall and Jackson will be a year older and more experienced, and have hopefully a refreshed Wallace for direction, and Olding putting pressure on their jumpers.

Ulster still have a chance for silverware this year, but, right now, it seems more likely to end trophy-less, with question marks around key positions in the off-season. If you factor in the rumors that John Afoa might be going back home, it gets worse. Ulster’s most influential players in their breakout season last year were Afoa, Muller, Fez, Henry and Pienaar. For next year they face the prospect of two of them leaving and a third rapidly burning out – these are not good developments.