The Milky Bars are on Me!

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.

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  1. ruckinhell

     /  September 30, 2013

    Did I see Iain Henderson go off with a rather nasty looking hand injury against Treviso? Him and POC are a mouthwatering combo for November. Also good to see Best hitting his jumpers and Payne looks like the ready made replacement for You Know Who once he qualifies in December for Ireland.

  2. Yeah Henderson shipped a knock no injury report from Ulster yet. Payne also a doubt.
    Surprised Devon Toner didn’t get a mention here he’s been in outstanding form so far this season.

    As good as Paul Marshall can look, especcially the pace he can play at, he’s a little too high error and this would probably be highlighted on an international pitch. We’d be totally screwed if Murray got injured.

    I player cam’d O’Mahoney during the Munster game at the weekend and the guy just doesn’t get involved enough. He did well for the try but he just seems a player who is more for the highlights reel than the hard work. I would have expected an international to stand out like a sore thumb on what was a limited squad on both sides but he didn’t. The man of the match has become something of a joke on RTE.

    • Yes, Devin Toner has had a terrific start to the season. Looks like he is starting to put everything together, and has years ahead of him. We were focusing on those likely to be first picks for Ireland here, and Toner isn’t quite there yet, but we’ll run our eyes over those making a case for promotion later in the week, and he’ll get his dues.

      • Have to agree with the Toner comment, was at the game on Friday and for me he had a really strong, impactful game, barring one carry where he took at a standing start and got shunted backward. Would have been my man of the match as much as I dislike that award!

        I’ve been particularly impressed with his tackling and clearing out so far this season. Previously he would have tackled the man and let them fall into him thus giving gain line advantage, in the two home games I’ve been at, his tackles were far more aggressive and positive – really pushing the tackled player back and making positive defensive gain. Very impressed.

        He is still quite a distance behind POC, D Ryan and probably NWJMB (he’s just phenomenal) but I wouldn’t have him behind McCarthy. Granted they are quite different but Toner has put on some bulk, really cleaned up some of his technique and, with the change in scrum laws, seems to be less and less of a liability in the scrum. In fact he made a positive impression in the scrum at the weekend as well.

        What I’d really like to see out of him now is prolonged form and consistency in the lineout (where I think he’s taken over the calls but stand to be corrected on this) – there were a few missed lineouts at the weekend but I would put the blame on Cronin as they looked too high and over thrown.

    • Leinsterlion

       /  September 30, 2013

      New season same drum for me to bang on, Diack should be in the frame for six (behind SOB obviously) over POM. POM hasnt delivered. He isnt gritty enough to be a 6, and he isnt a physical monster to make up for his lack of hardness. If POM is starting at 6 in November and beyond we are in trouble.

      As for Toner, he’s too tall and gangly to ever be an effective of long term international, he will be/is a Leinster legend but his frame precludes him from being anything other than a 4th/5th choice international imo.

      • abitofshoepie

         /  September 30, 2013

        Agree here, Diack is really under-rated, been a super player for a few years, apart from his unbelievable inability to just put the ball down for a certain try in last season’s final

  3. Oh and Heaslip might have looked good for Leinster, but he unfortunately didn’t play good (yes English is my first language). Hopefully just a bit rusty but him and Robnoxious both had a howler by their high standards.

  4. So, all being well starting fifteen might look like this:
    CH, RB, MR
    POM, SOB,
    CM, JS
    SZ, LM, BOD, TB, RK

    Your comment about lack of cover at 8 is spot on, Heaslip is world class but we could really do with some good competition for him. 6 would be a bit of a concern for me as well. I’d dearly love to see Kevin McLaughlin get a chance, he was my player of the season for Leinster last year – his level didn’t drop once & he does so much hard, unglamorous stuff.

    Who would be cover for Ross at tighthead? Young Moore had a good game at the weekend but is really unproven, how are the other irish qualified tightheads doing around the other provinces?

    Backline I think has a great mix of guile/experience and gas. To think Gilroy could come in, Henshaw will be scratching around, Madigan, Jackson, Olding, McFadden, etc. etc. Very positive indeed.

    Another question springs to mind, will Earls get near the 23 given the upcoming talent that are largely specialists in one position, do we still need his jack of all, master of none skillset?

    • Amiga500

       /  September 30, 2013

      Lack of cover at 8?

      Roger Wilson is a more than decent 8…

      • therealspratt

         /  October 1, 2013

        The guy has been outstanding of late, a real renaissance for him. Now whether that could translate into being brought back into the Irish fold…

    • Amiga500

       /  September 30, 2013

      Deccie Fitz has been playing a decent bit (and doing all right) so far up in Ravenhill. Ricky Lutton hasn’t been letting anyone down either in his gametime.

      But next week against the Ospreys promises to be a much, much tougher scrummaging test than anything to date. We’ll know more after that whether either of the two have a genuine case to present to Joe Schmidt. [John Afoa might come back in – in which case we’ll only see one of them.]

    • Amiga500

       /  September 30, 2013

      Re. Keet – well… Gilroy has played a few times at full back now and obviously can cover wing. Henshaw can play full-back and centre, Madigan can cover 10,12 and 15 – as can Keatley…

  5. As ever, the commenters below the line here are in a hurry to declare that this is the end for Earls… Or “Keet”, a hilarious nickname which will surely never get old. This despite his having played brilliantly in Treviso (perhaps the only Munster player to merit that adverb from that game: cutting the Treviso defence to shreds and running for a whopping 128 metres) and very well (at 13, shock horror!) against Dragons, including an error-free passing game. One might even guess that they hadn’t watched him play so far this season. The idea that Henshaw has overtaken him is, frankly, laughable; if you think Earls’ hands aren’t good enough for international rugby, then you clearly haven’t watched Henshaw play, because his are cack. He could potentially be behind Gilroy in the wing pecking order by November, although that will depend on HEC form, but he won’t be behind him for the 23 jersey, simply because Gilroy doesn’t cover 13 and neither does Madigan. It’ll be hugely entertaining to witness the cognitive dissonance in certain of the more vociferous Leinster circles when Joe Schmidt picks him for Ireland.

    Oh, and Whiff, POM isn’t the incumbent openside. He’s the incumbent blindside. O’Brien is the incumbent openside.

    I also wouldn’t be too worried about lack of cover at 8. Heaslip isn’t world class by any reasonable standard. Offhand he is, at a very optimistic, in with a shout for sixth best in his position, comfortably behind Read, Parisse, Picamoles, Vermeulen, and Lobbe. I’d probably have Faletau ahead of him as well. The drop-off to the next-best option, which is probably O’Mahony off the back of his performances there over the summer, is not so great as some might think. Playing 8 forces him to get involved in the game all the time, which is why I’ve been disappointed to see him at 6, hanging out on the wing in the first two games.

    • anoonamous

       /  October 1, 2013

      I’m a big fan of Earls. He burst on to the scene as a very good winger but has become a jack of all trades, master of none in recent seasons. He has stated his preferred position is 13 and I’d love to see him succeed there as we need people to step up. We seem to have a lot of youngsters vying for the back 3. Maybe he could start the Samoa at 13. He needs to be a nailed on starter for Munster’s big games at outside centre this year which begs the question, what do Munster do with LuaLua? I would see him and madigan as best options for covering the backline.
      I still don’t know what to make of POM. I think I am falling foul of over correcting for Frankie and his media chums in that I am making POM out to be worse in my head because they keep telling me he’s brilliant even when he has had a rather mediocre game. In an ideal world I’d have Fes, SOB & Heaslip with POM providing cover but (I hope I’m wrong!) I think we’ve seen the last of poor Stephen. I think I’d start with POC, Henderson & Ryan in the team with McCarthy and POM providing cover for the locks and back row.

    • Interesting comments, thoughtless, giving the lie to your moniker.

      Largely agree on Earls. Folk have short memories, and it was only this time last year Earls looked set to have a storming season at 13, and appeared to have become very comfortable there. Remember that amazing try in Ravenhill last season which had shades of ‘if I touch it three times, I score’ about it? It didn’t pan out that way for a number of reasons, but that doesn’t mean he can’t play there full stop. I think folk concentrate too much on what he CAN’T do and need to focus more on what he CAN. Surely his superb ability to run onto the ball and make linebreaks is well served at 13, no? And his passing is far from as terrible as people make out. He has his issues there, for sure – he can be very blinkered at times – but so does every other candidate for the role in nine months time. One to watch with interest this season. He’s had a very stop-start couple of years, I really hope he can put it all together this year.

      • I can’t agree, I think if Earls persists at attempting to make himself a 13 it will be to the detriment of his international career.

        A mate of mine who coaches at a reasonable level believes Earls has the hallmarks of a player who was allowed to run riot at underage. One of the kids my mate coached last year could pretty much run the pitch on demand but rather than use him to tonk teams he set a rule of beat one player and pass or your subbed off.

        The blinkered running, illustrated during the Italy game last SIx Nations at its worst will be a difficult thing to solve now. He isn’t a great passer, he hasn’t a great rugby brain, but at his best he’s a world class finisher.

        Another stop-start season at 13 for Munster and he could find himself behind Bowe, Zebo, Dave Kearney and Gilroy in the international pecking order if he isn’t there already (and maybe Fitz if he can stay injury free for 5 minutes).

        Jared Payne is the most likely incumbent 13 which is a sad state of affairs, as we’ll have to stop sneering the Brits for all the South Africans, Americans, Samaon’s etc. they play.

      • Scrumdog

         /  October 1, 2013

        Earls defensive capability and contesting of ball is where the doubt is…not his footballing abilities or speed.
        Ireland needs a ‘Ferris type’ at 6 or the man himself to return to win ball and get over the advantage line.
        Possibly SOB at 6, Heaslip at 8 and Henry/Jennings at 7 would be the closest Ireland can get to a balanced backrow without Fez. Henderson future may be at 8 ? .

  6. Paddy o

     /  September 30, 2013

    A few things that lead onto each other here – Schmidt’s big-game gameplan has often (though not always) seen o’brien start at 7, then move across to 6 as the game develops. He usually starts with muscle and then moves towards mobile, with Jennings coming in to play that role. He did this in some of his cup finals and since he has already re-iterated the idea that every international game is a cup final, I would say that is a tactic he is likely to replicate internationally. Henry, O’Donnell, Jennings and sooner or later Murphy and Dom Ryan will compete for the mobile open side substitute role. The starting 6 is likely to be big, abrasive and gritty as more important qualities than (for want of a better word) skill (or at least what people perceive to be skill). I would suggest that puts McLaughlin, Henderson, Muldoon, Ruddock, Diack, Don Ryan?, not forgetting Ferris (he says while crossing fingers and toes) all in the frame as relatively legitimate starting options and competition for O’Mahony. The cupboard is more bare at 8 both in terms of competition and back-up to Heaslip and neither Coughlan or Wilson are spring chickens, though there are others too.

    The points being….and I know this is old ground….surely O’Mahony would be best utilised at 8, where he gives either: good cover, good competition, or a good rotation option depending on how high you rate him I suppose.

    Secondly, if O’Brien is to be used in this kind of way, then management of his playing schedule would be very, very helpful. O’Brien strikes me as the kind of man who sometimes would need to be protected from himself you’d imagine (further evidence being playing the 6 nations last year with a bad thumb injury, which has only come to light recently). His contract for me is the priority of all those close to renewal – he is likely to be the key to the style of play.

    The final point is that this gameplan may lend itself towards using Henderson from the bench as an impact sub for the second row (only as cover for blindside in event of injury). I, like you guys, would be really keen to see him playing as much as possible, but equally suspect Anscombe would be happy with the sub role to ease him in, given his quotes recently about making sure we don’t break the kid. Perhaps I’m making assumptions about schmidt’s plans that are wide of the mark though – I personally (and this ain’t a sleight at Heaslip, who has surely proven himself enough by now) like o’brien as an 8! Either way though, I’m always the optimist – that false Dawn gets me every time. I recommend embracing that outlook, despite the inevitable days of pain.

    Think you are right about Jackson at the moment – he has been doing a lot of very good stuff, opening holes for players to run through or patiently building phase (just as he always does) but he does need to get control of the old kicking yips.

    Very last point is that (though I would be a big fan of Best) some credit for Ulster’s forward play should go the way of Herring too. Very little talk of him, but has impressed me from day 1 of last season and I am led to believe he is Ireland eligible, though there are plenty of options in that position.

    • Amiga500

       /  October 1, 2013

      Herring is IQ.

      Henderson is already a better 6 than O’Mahony in pretty much every facet of the game and this gap will only widen. POM is overhyped – don’t let Frankie and chums kid you otherwise. Henderson is also is improving his performances at lock – last year was maybe a year too early for him to be in the tight 5. I’d definitely have him in my team in 2nd or back row.

      Other options of interest for the future are TO’D and Murphy at openside with SOB coming back to the blindside. TO’D is unfortunate to get injured – I reckon Joe would have had a look at these two in the November games.

      Another young 7 who holds promise is Sean Doyle – missed most of last year with a leg break but been decent on initial showings so far.

  7. Jimb

     /  October 1, 2013

    Re keet, Henshaw is raw no doubt but has bags of potential and with greater physique and strength than keet is way ahead in terms of his ‘ceiling’. Schmidt is, rightly, much more likely to look at Henshaw in the autumn and Keet’s Ireland days look numbered if everyone is fit. Marshall and Bowe are both options at 13 which Schmidt is likely to be more interested in over keet too.

    POM is way off being an international 8. If heaslip really is 6th best in the world, where is POM on that list? SOB has played there for the Lions and is the back up option which may leave the door open at 6 (and 7) but there are plenty of promising young back rows at Leinster whom Schmidt is familiar with too. Thinking about it, in terms of contracts, SOB has to be the priority for the irfu as he is world class in all 3 positions in the back row. Let heaslip head for France if its a choice between them.

    Rob Kearney is the big question. Schmidt was never the biggest fan and he seemed to favour Nacewa at 15 when all were available. Kearneys form has been pretty abysmal since he returned and the Lions trip doesn’t seem to have changed much. Zebo and Gilroy are options he may look at. Henshaw’s move to 13 helps his cause at least.

    • Why would Schmidt have Marshall or Bowe covering 13? They’re both going to be starting in different positions, 12 and 14, and he’ll presumably want them in those positions because those are their best positions, because reshuffling an entire backline mid-game is hugely disruptive, and because Bowe only has one international appearance in the position and Marshall has about three provincial appearances there. Notwithstanding those stupendously obvious points, it’s not entirely clear to me why Earls’ “days are numbered” (sinister *dum dum DUM* here). Schmidt picked him in his extended training squad and if he’s in good form for Munster, as he appears to be and which he was when fit last season, he’s right in the mix for a place in the XIII.

      Assuming we see 11. Zebo, 14. Bowe, and 15. Kearney (big assumption, but let’s continue for the sake of argument), his immediate contenders would appear to be Gilroy, Trimble, McFadden, Fitzgerald, and Henshaw. I wouldn’t see any of those players as clearly ahead of Earls, and I would consider Earls to have the best international pedigree (although Fitz’s Lions Test start makes him a credible contender there; unfortunately he’s constantly broken and doesn’t seem to be able to score tries at international level). Trimble would be my best bet to overtake him if he maintains his unbelievable form of last season. The notion that Schmidt will pick Henshaw because he has a “higher ceiling” is nonsense. We have literally no idea what Henshaw’s ceiling is, but right now, he is not as good a player as Earls in every aspect of the game bar under the high ball and in terms of physical strength. To illustrate the point about us not knowing his ceiling, I would point to 2008/09, when Earls was playing stunning rugby at 21, good enough to get called up to the Lions. (And all while playing 13 for Munster! Impressive for such a terrible centre, really.) And yet by your logic, a young player whose ceiling was perceived to be so high by Sir Ian McGeechan, Warren Gatland, et al. has a lower ceiling than Robbie Henshaw, who’s done what, exactly?

      I probably shouldn’t engage in these arguments, but it is the single most tiresome piece of internet received wisdom that Earls is crap or, amongst those who are more sanguine about him, that he’s a good winger but can’t play 13. The reality is that the man is an extraordinary talent who has flaws in his game (like most players), who’s had terrible problems with injuries, and who’s had serious confidence issues. All that said, anyone who’s watched Munster play consistently over the last five years will tell you that he is a phenomenal talent who performs well in every position he’s asked to play. Anyone who’s watched Ireland with both of their eyes open will attest to that too, even if he has been patchy and made bad errors sometimes. His strike rate and his excellent 6 Nations in 2012 should be enough to show that.

      (Tip of the hat to the WoC lads for going to bat for Earlsy on various occasions, incidentally, a brave move online!)

      “POM is way off being an international 8. If heaslip really is 6th best in the world, where is POM on that list?”

      Au contraire, he is in fact already an international 8. Has three caps there. As for your question, which I presume isn’t rhetorical, lower than 6th? I don’t see your point.

      “SOB has played there for the Lions and is the back up option which may leave the door open at 6 (and 7) but THERE ARE PLENTY OF PROMISING YOUNG BACK ROWS AT LEINSTER whom Schmidt is familiar with too.”

      …I’ll just leave this here for you to contemplate.

  8. Patrick O'Riordan

     /  October 1, 2013

    Jackson may yet come good but I agree that his kicking percentage so far this year means that he definitely isn’t a candidate for the back-up 10 slot (of course, the goal kicker doesn’t need to be a 10, but Ireland don’t have any other reliable kickers who aren’t 10s and who are assured of their place)

  9. Surely the biggest issue is whether Schmidt will have the time (as in, time with the players as a group in training generally, not just ahead of the AIs) to bring the style that has suited Leinster so well to the national team. The gameplan looks like a great fit for the players we have, but getting it functioning took an awful lot of training focus on core skills and handling.

    If the coaches of the other provinces have some buy-in and ensure their own training methods also work on this sufficiently (which they should be doing anyway) then we have a chance. But, if not, the whole thing might be a damp squib.

    As for our best team – in the dreamland where everyone including Ferris is fit, it probably looks something like:

    Healy, Best, Ross
    ?, O’Connell
    Ferris, Heaslip, O’Brien
    Zebo, Luke Marshall, BOD, Bowe

    B: Strauss/Sherry, Kilcoyne (though this is up for grabs), …Fitzpatrick?, ?, O’Mahony, ?, Madigan, ?

    Bit of fence-sitting from myself, but to elaborate, second row is POC plus one, obviously, but everyone has issues:

    – Ryan is neither an international standard lineout forward or scrum forward, and his exceptional work in the loose can be undermined by these facts. His lineout work is fine when POC is one hand but as a pair they leave us more vulnerable in the scrum than we would be otherwise.
    – McCarthy fits the bill, style-wise, as a complement to POC, is probably the strongest scrummager and is also very strong in the loose, but his lineout work is substandard.
    – DOC is on the wane, but still handy at scrum time and, while not great in the lineout per se, has long made himself a competitive number two jumper
    – Tuohy is hard and can carry, part of a bullish Ulster scrum (and breakdown effort) but isn’t a great lineout forward either, though overall (like McCarthy) stylistically he amounts to a decent complement to O’Connell
    – Toner we all know about, I harbour some hope he’s on a (proportionately) long arc to international standard, he does keep improving and I’m not going to write him off, but let’s see

    That leaves the baby elephant in the room, Henderson. I’m delighted to give an up-to-date dispatch from Ravenhill, where I’ve been on false-promise watch, saying that all evidence so far points to him being really, actually as good as he looks. In which case, the sky’s the limit and it is certainly worth giving him a go. HOWEVER Ulster’s scrum is beastly at (nearly) all times and (based mostly on his still-slender build, for a pro rugby forward) although it hasn’t really suffered when he’s played at lock I would worry he might not yet be at the international standard there.

    So, very interesting there.

    Beyond that, we’ve still a tight head crisis, while Peter O’Mahony is potentially a great player so I’ve kept him in, but I share the concerns about his workrate. Sub scrumhalf is also a worry, I’m not sold on any of the candidates, while I don’t know who is best suited to being the bench outside back (but McFadden has a good shout due to his effectiveness in multiple positions).

    • Amiga500

       /  October 1, 2013

      Peter Stringer for sub-scrum half!!!

      G’wan the baldies!!! 😀

  10. Yossarian

     /  October 1, 2013

    Mike Ross form this season is very worrying. Struggled against Grant in Glasgow and the jones boys against Ospreys. Didn’t exactly look amazing against cardiff either. Tight head prop yet again set to determine an Irish International season.
    I get as optimistic as the next man when it comes to a new season but in key positions we are very weak tight head(mentioned above) and back up 9.i am not a big Murray fan(his style isn’t what i like in a 9,prefer an Aaron Smith type) but he is so far and away our best international scrum half it is scary.anythinh happens to him and we can kiss away any early season optimism.

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