The filthy cheating Celtalians with their uncompetitive cheating league might be facing financial oblivion at the hands of the man who paid Beaver to eat out in Bath, but the competition itself is beginning to boil up nicely – the big three Irish provinces are up near the top of the table, and, as Joe Schmidt will be happy about, his big guns are successfully being incorporated into his arsenals.
His squad members (the 23, not the tackle bag-holding 40+ he has named) who are back in the groove looked in pretty good nick. Dare we start to become optimistic about an international rugby season for the first time in a long time?
At the Oar Dee Esh, some bloke called Brian came back and looked classy and assuredly assured – this might be Schmidt’s only season with Drico in green, and the succession will be difficult to manage (since he can’t play the strongest candidate until next September), but he’s going to be a key man. Jamie Heaslip looked good for Leinster too, and Ian Madigan finally got some good game-time at outhalf – Le Johnny will be Schmidt’s clear number one, but good backup is critical in such a pivotal position, especially if Johnny arrives at the Six Nations fatigued and at risk of injury.
As good as Paddy Jackson did with ball in hand, and as much-improved as his tactical kicking was, Ireland simply cannot carry a place-kicker with a 60% record – the margins at international level are too small. Inside PJ, Paul Marshall looks snappy and buzzes around eagerly – Conor Murray is far and away the best scrum-half in Ireland (and possibly further afield) but Marshall looks the best impact option from the bench. Then outside PJ, Luke Marshall is not only back and healthy, but is purring like a Rolls-Royce – he said after the Treviso game Ulster were just getting out of third gear, and if he can improve on how he is playing, he will walk back into the green 12 shirt. Where this leaves Stuart Olding and Paddy Wallace is another question – but that’s for Anscombe.
Rory Best finished last season a shadow of the player he has been, but Ulster’s scrum and, crucially, lineout have been strong – and NWJMB has been playing in the second row. Ireland haven’t had a man in that position who can beat defenders and pass the ball since …. *wracks brains* Davy Tweed? Joke. Obviously. We think ever. Donnahca Ryan and Mike McCarthy represent the competition. Ryan apepared to be playing hurt for much of last season and lost his mojo, but his aggression will be invaluable if he can rediscover his best form.
Further back, Chris Henry got knacked last year just when Deccie could have done with him, but he’s going to an option for Ireland. As is the incumbent openside, O’Mahony, with his elusive running and passing skills, looks a far more natural number 8 (and much-needed competition for that jumper) but he started at 6 for Munster, and as captain. He led well, scored a try (and was brave and never took a backward step © Irish Time sports staff) and will be a really important player for his province this season. Schmidt has never shied away from picking O’Brien at seven, so playing on the blindside needn’t hinder O’Mahony’s chances of holding his starting shirt for Ireland.
Even more encouraging for Schmidt was the sight of Paul O’Connell toddling on for the last 20 minutes – the Munster and Ireland packs are much more effective with the ginger giant in situ – he will be needed if Ireland are to win any of their November games. The prospect of POC and Ian Henderson lining out together for Ireland has us drooling.
With Tommy Bowe, Bob and DJ Church also getting starts, and Conor Murray expected to be available for the MMA game next week, Schmidt will be happy how his starters are shaping up. If SOB and Flogged Mike Ross limber on in the same game (and limber off naturally), the milky bar kid will be smiling from ear to ear. Maybe Mike Ross will try and have another cut at beating his man on the outside – what could possib-li go wrong?
Now – let’s have nobody get injured between now and November.