Plus ca change

Jeremy Guscott yesterday revealed that he thinks interprovincial rivalries, as well as a lack of self-belief, have hindered Ireland. It’s all well and good to say the corpulent one has no idea what he is talking about, but it’s an interesting kite to fly, not least because most people had assumed the occasinally spiteful atmosphere between Leinster and Munster (for it can only be they to whom he is refering) had calmed down a little bit in recent years.  Guscott, the owner of several silk scarves, also observed that he didn’t think the entire group ‘were 100% behind some of the coaches’.  Some?  That can only be with reference to Declan Kidney and in particular that the Leinster players weren’t especially on message with his brand of rugby.

There’s more than a little truth to both points; certainly to look at Ireland in recent years, they haven’t always appeared a team playing as if their lives depend on it.  How many times have they sleepwalked into a series only to be cajoled into action in subsequent games by their wounded pride?   Certainly, when Leinster were cutting a dash on their way to back to back Heineken Cups under Joe Schmidt’s energising coaching, the body language of the players suggested they were weary and uninspired trying to execute Kidney’s more mundane gameplan.  In one interview with Matt Cooper on Newstalk Radio, Johnny Sexton was at pains to point out that what worked so well for Leinster might not have the same effect at test level so he was happy to play a different way for Ireland.  Unfortunately, his tone was a giveaway, suggesting he was trying to convince himself as much as anyone.

Then there’s the Ulster players who always appear to draw the short straw come selection time – up to and including this November series (for the majority of the game we won’t be discussing for a while, Tommy Bowe was the only Ulsterman on the field).  Men such as Rory Best and Stephen Ferris know of no way of playing other than at full tilt, but this Ulster group have a chippy air about them, and it would be no surprise if they too harboured grievances against management (current and previous) for the manner in which their colleagues appear to consistently miss out on selection.

Since Rob Kearney and the famous Enfield air-clearing, it’s been assumed that the Munster-Leinster divide has been successfully bridged and the longstanding issues put to bed.  However, such assumptions are perhaps premature.  The Enfield meeting is now five years into the past and much of the playing squad has changed in the meantime.  The Munster-Leinster rivalry may not be quite at the white-hot level when Felipe Contepomi was around or in the 2010 aftermath of the great power-shift, but it remains spicy.  Who knows if, privately, some of the Leinster players still harbour resentment over the POC-Dave Kearney incident last season, for example??

Johnny Sexton’s autobiography certainly hints at something that would imply the old rifts were still around.  He describes how several (presumably Munster) players commiserated ROG on getting dropped, but didn’t extend their congratulations to him on getting selected.  He said he knew there were certain players that he, more or less, couldn’t talk to in the squad, and this contributed to a pressurised environment in his early test career.  Does that sound like a united squad, with provincial alliances put to the side for teh greater good?  Not to us anyway. Maybe, just as Deccie did early in his Ireland coaching career, Schmidty needs to think about some way to get everything on the table and try and unite the group.

Self-Loathing Tendencies

Nobody does heartbreak like the Irish.  We are still SO cut up about Sunday – whatever about BNZ’s ruthlessness at the endgame, this team were brilliant and BNZ were blessed, utterly blessed. And the manner of the defeat – having it snatched from your grasp like that – is the worst bit. Sure, it was a (relatively) meaningless November international, but BNZ desperately wanted to win to preserve their oh-so-perfect year, and we did everything but win.

We aren’t sure we have emerged from the zombie-like PTSD, but we’ve got enough perspective to work out how much it hurts … relative to other heartache Ireland have put us through in recent years.  The list is long, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

  1. Argentina, World Cup 2007 This was horrendous. An awful tournament came to a jarring halt – toyed with by a team who hated us, and enjoyed their humiliation of us immensely. A complete non-performance that capped a month of them. The team were whacked and bagged so comprehensively, we felt like a boxer reeling from a barrage of punches. Expectations were high, disappointment even higher. Palla was there, having enjoyed a barmy Peak Of The Celtic Tiger blowout in Paris, drinking champagne from shoes and making our way home most ‘nights’ with the morning commuters.  That night though, barely able to speak, we went back to our mediocre lodgings and had an early night.
  2. BNZ, 2013 Can’t talk about it yet
  3. France, 2007 Palla sat in Croke Park for a good 30 minutes after the game, unable to move. To have come so close against our closest rivals for the championship, but to give it up when so much needed to go France’s way for that try to count – soul-destroying. But Vincent Clerc was a great player, the France team was excellent, and we nearly won despite being shorn of POC and BOD. Sure, it robbed us of a Grand Slam, but only in retrospect. Plus we took out England in spectacular fashion on the back of the pain
  4. Argentina, 1999 It wasn’t so much losing, as the manner of it. A rubbish game, and an utter lack of guile in the final minutes – the world had moved on and we were being left behind. The future looked bleak, coming on the back of a decade of defeats, and one worried about when we would ever see Ireland back at the top table. Simply awful.
  5. Australia, 1991 We weren’t old enough to appreciate the full pain of this one, but that’s not to say it wasn’t painful. There was a weird inevitability about it.  The scenes in Lansdowne Road were hairs on the back of the neck stuff, but this Ireland team couldn’t finish a packet of crisps.  Australia didn’t have long to score, but you just had the feeling they would.
  6. Wales, 2011 Ireland’s performances in the pool stages in New Zealand had blown the tournament wide open.  The team were playing brilliantly and clearly enjoying themselves. A path to the final had opened up with only Northern Hemisphere teams blocking the route. We thought Ireland had changed. But they hadn’t. It was like being stood up at a date with the girl of your dreams.  For Palla it was the most surreal of the lot.  Having been down in New Zealand and watched the pool games amid an ever-increasing feel-good factor, suddenly he was getting up at 8am to watch Ireland lose.  Had the previous four weeks been a weird dream?
  7. England, 2008 Forget the context of Eddie’s regime collapsing. Forget the lesson in game management Ireland got from Danny Cipriani. Forget the English joy at our hubris from 2007 being thrown back in our faces. And remember this – we lost by 23 points … and Lesley Vainikolo was playing for the team that beat us. Shameful.

Heartbreak Hotel

“It felt like open heart surgery out there, without the anaesthetic”

That was Seamus McEnaney after Monaghan’s heart-breaking All-Ireland football quarter-final loss to Kerry in 2007 – the Ulstermen had victory in sight but could just not get ot the finish line, and they were beaten.

That’s kind of how we feel right now – intensely proud but completely empty. And if we feel gut-wrenched, how must the players feel? Sean O’Brien – dominated the best player of the professional era and the best player currently playing rugby. DJ Church – snarled with coiled spring fury, obliterated opponents. Devin Toner – Devin Toner! – a collosus alongside another collosus, Paul O’Connell – intensity personified.  Jamie Heaslip made 21 tackles (videprinter moment) – twenty-one tackles! Bob seethed with energy and intensity from the anthems to the end – his pumping-up of his teammates going off the field at halftime made us sit up, this was new.

The Irish pack dominated their illustrious opponents, and blew open the game with a 19-point opening salvo (in 19 minutes – Egg remarked to his brother-in-law we were still on pace for 60-0) which saw metres gained in every phase, accuracy in execution, discipline and unrelenting physicality. Barnesy said before the game that Ireland needed to risk getting hammered to win – they threw everything into the breakdown and spent aggressive energy like it was going out of fashion – the alternative was letting BNZ play, and they weren’t letting it happen.

When BNZ edged back into the game, Locky came off the bench to inject even more manic intensity. The entire performance made us so proud to be Irish rugby fans, so glad to be part of it, but so torn up that we couldn’t take that final step to make history. Johnny Sexton missing a routine penalty, Jack McGrath earning Owens’ ire for what would have been the third last ruck of an epic close-out. BNZ got all their out of jail free cards at once.

To make this loss worth it, Ireland need to make it a stepping stone – we simply can’t wait until frustration and emotion builds up enough before we play like this. By all objective measures, this series has been not really any different to any of the previous November vintages – one win, and performance oscillating even more than ever (eight days before BNZ we got pushed around by the Wobblies in an insipid collapse, don’t forget) – but wejust can’t bring yourself to do any more than hold our head in our hands and feel like crying at the rank unfairness of the last acts of yesterday.  There has been some squad development and half an eye on the 2015 World Cup.  Jack McGrath made three appearances, two reserve tightheads got game time, Devin Toner’s credentials are established, Luke Marshall played a first class match and Dave Kearney and Robbie Henshaw got a taste of the action.  Three out-halves and three scrum halves got match-time, even if Madigan and Boss were restricted to brief cameos.

And yet, let us be cold about it – in possession on 79:30 on your opponents 10m line – you simply DO NOT lose. Come Monday morning and Joe Schmidt’s final video session of the year, you can guarantee that he won’t care how close they went. This is a results business, and no matter how proud we are of the team, and how epic the occasion was, we still lost. We still need to build that ruthlessness which BNZ showed from 79:35 onwards – let’s remember the hurt, and unleash it on Gatland and his bunch of f*cking Lions (you probably didn’t hear, but a Welsh-dominated Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions team won the Sky Sports Hype Challenge in June), St Boshingtons and the other three for a Grand Slam.

Maybe the team, when they look back, will view this as a springboard – this performance has set a bar, and that’s what they will be judged by. Let’s hope this goup’s goal is to play like that every week, and if they do – they will win nearly all the time.

P.S. the Palindrome finally stepped up to the mark. So the new stadium can heave just like the old model used to, we know that now.  Again, it feels like the setting of a bar. 

Free Your Inner Rodrigo Roncero

Ireland’s forward pack had a most harrowing afternoon, bossed around by the (previously) most maligned pack in world rugby, milked for penalties at scrum-time, and then mauled over their own line. We’ve been cooking this one up in our mind for a while, but it all seemed to come to a head on Saturday – our pack lacks enforcers, and is composed of a bunch of really good and likeable guys.

Since the game went open, Ireland’s provincial academies have produced a consistent stream of well-rounded, talented and dedicated players – model professionals and model gentlemen to boot – exactly the type of well-spoken and thoughtful chap you’d like to see your daughter meet. The skills required for a young rugby players to get through a provincial academy are innate skills (obviously) but much, much more. They also require application, dedication, focus, intelligence and drive (in the career sense – the drive to work hard at a really uncertain profession, as opposed to punching the clock in an office like we do). It really takes a special type of young man to eschew all the charms of the drink-sodden student lifestyle to hit the pool at 6am – the sort of blue-collar player who in the past learned his trade on the job (in both a sporting and professional sense) simply isn’t going to apply at 18, and by 24, its all passed you by.

But has something been lost in the transition from players coming through the clubs to those coming from academy structures from the age of 18? In years past, the Darwinian and mucky nature of the Irish club game produced hard-nosed, hard-nut forwards who were raised not on a diet of nutrition plans and fitness programs, but beating the tar out of their bitter rivals on the field, then sinking twenty pints with them after. It produced a different sort of character to that which the pro game supplies. In France and England, they still have a little bit of that – think Yannick Forestier or Steve Borthwick – men who are equally comfortable (or more) at a coalface as in a classroom, but we’ve lost something. It has hit Munster particularly badly – whereas Ulster and Leinster traditionally picked the best from the best schools, Munster polished the rough diamonds they found in Shannon, Garryowen, Young Munster and Cork Con. Munster’s current generation of forwards just aren’t of the Claw and Axel variety, as much piano players as the piano shifters of yore.

Rog made the point in analysis that our players should have been milling into their opponents after POM was dumped on his head with 8 minutes to go, but the game was long gone by then – we’d much rather have seen them manufacture a schemozzle with 8 minutes gone to mark the Wallabies cards. You can’t imagine the like of Quinny allowing a game to slip away without finding a way to get his teammates’ blood boiling.

Couple of cases in point in our current pack. Take Besty. Besty is a great guy. We mean a great guy – when he originally missed out on Lions duty, he tweeted that we should be thinking of Nevin Spence instead of him. But Besty isn’t  an on-pitch wild card the way, say, Jirry, was – it’s hard to imagine him fly-hacking Alexis Pallison or calling Thommo a fat c*nt. For Mike Ross, the ‘dark arts’ of the scrum we hear so much about are about the mechanics of the hit, not underhand digs or gouges. Jamie Heaslip, for all his undoubted qualities, doesn’t have anywhere near the rough-hewn and unpredictable edges of Mamuka Gorgodze, Francois Louw or Imanol Harinordoquoy.

Not that there is anything wrong with any of that of course, those three are excellent players, but for one reason or another, our current pack seem like great guys. From the DL, we really miss the uncontrollable physicality of Stephen Ferris – Palla and I were metres away from this – the aggression of Donnacha Ryan, and even the appetite for contact of NWJMB. Ryan Caldwell has slipped through the cracks, and Jirry, Wally and Denis Leamy are retired. It’s probably a generational thing, but we wonder have we lost something from times past that we just haven’t been able to replicate.

Overheard Conversations

Interprovincial Rivalry

In recent years, the growth of the provinces as entities independent of the national team has given rise to an intense rivalry, which borders on the farcical at times, and in the past certainly hasn’t helped build a good atmosphere around Team Ireland. But the banter at Ireland matches still has the possiblity to illustrate a healthy rivalry that doesn’t descend into the usual my-6.5-is-better-than-yours bickering.

Case in point: Egg was getting the DORSH to the game, when at Tara Street, some Ulster fans got on, a few beers on board, but not hammered, having fun if you will. The following exchange happened:

Ulster fan with thick Belfast accent: Any Leinster fans on the train?

Carriage (muted): Way-hay!

Ulster fan with thick Belfast accent: Any Munster fans on the train?

Carriage (less muted and slightly louder): Way-hay!

*laughter ensues as it appears Leinster fans are outnumbered*

*two seconds silence*

Ulster fan with thick Belfast accent: Youse are fuckin’ shite

*uproarious laughter from all*

Ulster fan with thick Belfast accent: And youse can have Robbie Diack if you want – he’s fuckin’ shite as well

Brilliant stuff.

Ill Communication

A commenter recently raised the issue that the Irish players don’t appear to talk to each other that much when on the pitch, raising the question as to how the team can execute a game plan without sufficient communication between each other.  It’s an interesting point.  Another result of apparent ill-communication is James Hook’s unfulfilled career path.  The Welshman is blessed with footballing talent, but by all accounts just doesn’t talk and boss his team around enough to control tough matches from fly-half.

In a recent conversation, a collaeague of WoC’s said he had been talking to a Kiwi who coaches at regional level.  Our colleague asked him what it was that differentiated the Kiwis from the other rugby nations.  His answer wasn’t their feral breakdown work, natural fitness or handling skills developed from playing the game as soon as they can run.  It was their communication.  Every Kiwi is coached to talk continually to the guy next to him.  The result is that the Kiwis invariably make good decisions in clutch situations.

Although derided as a nation with a history of choking, the Kiwis in fact have a habit of getting out of sticky spots.  How many times have Ireland brought them to the wire only for the BNZers to come up with a spirit-crushing score late in the game?  Saturday’s match against England was a case in point.  Their favourite referee Craig Joubert was whistling them off the park and their 14-point lead had been turned briefly into a deficit, but when the heat was on the Kiwis had the goods to score the winning points.

You’re Banned From This Historical Society.  You, Your Children and Your Children’s Children.  For Three Months.

Qantas have looked to come down hard on indiscipline under the new regime, but there’s something about yesterday’s news that they have suspended six of their players for the upcoming match against Scotland that looks like a fudge.  One can imagine Ewan McKenzie’s thinking:

‘Strewth!  The Badger and fourteen other galahs have only gone out and drunk twelve pints of Fosters in Copper Face Jacks three nights before the game.  They can’t get away with this.  I’ve gotta show them I’m tough on discipline.  Trouble is, I need the blaahdy dingbats to beat Ireland this Saturday.  Badger looks hungry for meat in training this week.  Maybe I can still look tough on discipline if I ‘suspend’ them for the flamin’ Scotland game instead, when I was going to rotate my team anyway.  Ewan, you bloody genius.  Nobody will notice a thing.’

Somewhere in Reading, an exiled bombshell is buried under a pile of Samoans with his face in the mud, thinking dark thoughts.

Lead Balloon

So that was good, wasn’t it? Ireland’s bright new dawn turned out to be, er, dreadful. Absolutely dreadful. The performance was up there with the worst of the dross we have seen over the past few years, and the four tries to nil margin told the full story. It’s hard to know where to begin with the post-mortem, but we’ll try and finish on a high note.

The forwards and the backs never showed up, a discernable gameplan to actually win the game was undetectable and the error count was astronomical. The pack provided no platform – none – the lineout was ropey, and the scrum got milked for penalties by Australia. Australia! Mike Ross’ woes in the scrum brought to mind something David Baddiel said about Matt le Tissier in the mid-90s “If he can weave so much magic with Francis Benali, imagine what he could do with Paul Gascoigne [for England]”. If Ross could get turned over so badly by James Slipper, imagine what’s going to happen when Tony Woodcock comes to town.

With no platform, the backs were always likely to struggle, but the absence of anything resembling a coherent attacking pattern was a major disappointment. Lateral shunting, aimless kicking (to Israel Folau!) – it had bad and very bad. Luke Marshall provided some attacking zest, but got done by the excellent Quade Cooper for the third Wobbly try (note: better players have been done by Cooper, and we should be persisting with young talent like Bamm-Bamm). Tommy Bowe was as bad as we have seen for Ireland – one-paced, poor lines (going inside when Bob needed him to go out in the first half), uncertain decision-making (his half-hearted low clearing kick to Cooper in the first half was lapped up by the clinical Wallabies to create a 4-on-2 and put in the Honey Badger) and unsure looking.

BOD has rarely been as bad and Johnny Sexton was poor even before going off for injury, looking below 100% fit, cranky even by his usual standards and distracted. Ian Madigan had a tough day at the office in the second half, and when he failed to make 10m from a kickoff it felt like every possible error had been made by Ireland. The gap in basic skill levels right across the field was alarming – sometimes it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our players … aren’t that good.

So where do Ireland go from here? The pack looked too lightweight – getting shunted around by a pack who were the laughing stock of world rugby three months ago is very concerning – imagine if South Africa or England were up next. But they seem simply too nice. Where is Ireland’s Bakkies Botha, Brad Thorn or Lionel Nallet – where is the enforcer? Or the player to simply create chaos, a Lewis Moody, Quinny or Jerry Flannery type.  Ireland missed Fez, clearly, but thinking about more realistic option in the near future, the aggression that Donnacha Ryan might bring something we didn’t show. The second row is light, and can’t carry very well. So when the lineout isn’t functioning, they are essentially redundant. The backrow got blown out of it – Michael Hooper’s domination of the breakdown and the Wallaby targeting of O’Brien – sounds familiar? – left Ireland with nothing to fall back on. Irishi fans burn with hatred for the likes of Botha, Dylan Hartley, Jamie Cudmore, Courtney Lawes, Rodrigo Roncero et al – anyone think any opposition fans despise any of our forwards? Doubt it. We aren’t advocating cheap shots and eye-gouging or anything, but where is our nasty streak?

And as for the scrum, there is a good case for Ross to be jettisoned – he looks tired and is struggling to get with the new scrum calls. At Leinster, Marty Moore has out-performed him, and a change simply has to be considered – Deccie Fitz has done ok against BNZ in the past, and if he is fit, he could come into play. The way we have seen our props perform this season, there is more risk attached to picking Ross than benching him.

Is there any good news? Not much unfortunately – we said before the series that the performances would count for more than results, given the schedule. And after Saturday, performances aren’t in positive territory – far from it. The video review on Monday might last until Wednesday there is that much to pore over. Looking to this weekend, we expect a better performance against BNZ, where another 17 point defeat will constitute something of a moral victory. But we can’t continue to veer from the sublime to the ridiculous – Joe Schmidt needs to start putting his stamp on this team and give it some direction.  Such things were never going to happen overnight, but nor is there any excuse for simply being so flat, and giving up such soft tries.

Allowing for the fact that a beaten-up pack won’t help with putting together attacking direction (ask the Scarlets), better imagination with ball in hand is needed. Barnesy wrote some word in the Jones Gazette yesterday which helped us think about what Ireland need to do:

“How do you get from the muddle of England’s back play to the consummate handling and running like of [BNZ]? You practise, and you .. trust the talent and free it to find ways to create space. It is the application to the attacking game that enables the execution and clinical finishing that seems such a formality to New Zeland. Running the right lines is not the mystery it seems if players have the time to practice what is in front of their eyes.”

Get practising boys – the scale of the task, if it wasn’t apparent before Saturday, is apparent now.

PS. How good was the Honey Badger?  And he stayed around on the pitch for ages after the game talking to his legions of admirers.  Badger got some meat!

The Horror!

Joke shop selection! Honeymoon over! Schmidt out!

Those are some the balanced reactions to Joe Schmidt – gasp – dropping Conor Murray for Eoin Reddan for the visit of the red-hot (when beating up on not-England) Wobblies. You can see what he is trying to do – put some pace on the ball and run at the Wallabies, but its a big surprise – we’d have gone for Murray. Sure, Reddan might have looked spritely against a beaten side, but he’s been pretty sub-standard most of the season and he can consider himself lucky.

Schmidt had a habit of picking Reddan for the big home games for Leinster, and its one he has continued in green. Murray hasn’t done a huge amount wrong, but Schmidt is playing the squad competition card, and its also clearly a horses-for-courses selection. Its also a massive risk, for not only is Reddan’s form unimpressive but has the potential to the fans hung up (again) on interprovincial rivalries.

The big guns roll back into the pack in the form of DJ Church, Paul O’Connell and Sean O’Brien – this is where Ireland look notably stronger than the Wobs and could be the winning of the game. Likewise, Luke Marshall and Johnny Sexton is an upgrade in quality and has a really nice balance.

Off the bench, Murray can make a difference, and Ian Madigan and Robbie Henshaw have been picked for their versatility. And its great to see Henshaw get rewarded for some sparkling form out Wesht.

The Wallabies are gaining confidence under Ewen McKenzie and the new team is taking shape – this won’t be easy, but it is winnable. Tingles.

Rob Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll, Luke Marshall, Fergus McFadden; Jonathan Sexton, Eoin Reddan; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross; Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell; Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip. Replacements: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Stephen Archer, Mike McCarthy, Kevin McLaughlin, Conor Murray, Ian Madigan, Robbie Henshaw.

Scapegoat!

If there is one man in Ireland who its easy to dump blame on, it’s Tom Court. Court joined Ulster in 2006, aged 26, with a little bit of Super Rugby experience. Back then, he played both sides, but ended up specializing on the loosehead side, and has blossomed (if that is the right word) into a very competent and useful player. He has been one of the standout looseheads in the last few years of Heineken rugby and has been a major factor in Ulster’s pack becoming the best in the Pro12.

He has wracked up a few Ireland caps as well – 32 to date – and got a Lions call-up, albeit a fortuitous one. But Court’s international career will be remembered for one thing – the demolition of our scrum at Twickers in 2012 when he came off the bench and played out of position. This narrative is hugely unfair – Court had soldiered manfully, a diligent filler-inner, providing cover from the bench for both sides of the scrum when needed, yet got dumped on when he needed support.

In a way it was understandable – Court is Australian and you won’t get anyone building him up in the media or pencilling him into the team, especially ahead of a domestic-born yeoman who agent is prominent on certain TV outlets. The man himself was dropped out of the Irish 23 for last years Six Nations for Dave Kilcoyne, but came right back in when DJ Church was on the naughty step – Kilcoyne might have been the better impact sub, but Court was clearly the better man to start.

And now Court is on his way and has joined Reading Samoa (we’ll have to stop calling them that – they are Irish-ing up to the max with iHumph, TOL, Jamie Hagan and now Court) on a 3-year contract. Our feeling is that Humph wasn’t for budging and for a man of his vintage (he turned 33 earlier this month), three years is a good deal, but it fits with how his Irish career has gone – and we wonder will Ulster not know what they had until it’s gone.

So where does it leave Ulster? And what about Ireland? Ulster first – they have two looseheads behind Court – Calum Black and Paddy McAlister. McAlister would be the better-known and was certainly the better prospect, but hasn’t returned from injury since coming on in the HEC final in 2012. Calum Black has stepped in and has done ok, without troubling Court. It would be fair to say neither are mapped by Joe Schmidt at present.

Which brings us on to Ireland. Here is how we would see the rankings of internationally mapped Irish looseheads right now:

  1. DJ Church. No competition
  2. Jack McGrath. Vaulted Killer Davecoyne in the squad pecking order due to some impressive performance this season, and was MOTM on his debut (albeit slightly romantically from Wardy – we’d have picked the much-maligned/warrior-who-never-takes-a-backward-step – delete as per prvincial leanings appropriate – POM).  Appears to be second in command.
  3. Tom Court. Sure, he might be easy to drop, but remains arguably the second best scrummaging loosehead against all but the most technical opponents.  Still in the picture.
  4. Dave Kilcoyne. The well-connected Munsterman did a good job for Ireland off the bench last year and looked to be progressing nicely, but hasn’t started the season as well. You probably haven’t heard, but Frankie is his agent.
  5. James Cronin. Highly exciting youngster, who impressed in a high profile cameo against Leinster. It will be interesting to see how he finishes the season – will he take Killer’s shirt?
  6. Marcus Horan. Wait, off that, Deccie has gone

So, as of next season, the odd man out Court will be sunning himself in Lahn. Well, in Reading. Which will leave the best four looseheads in Ireland playing in Munster and Leinster. If this were Australia, and the best four looseheads (I know, right, Australia having FOUR whole looseheads is a bit of a laugh, but bear with us) were playing at the Reds and the Brumbies, one of them would just be told, in no uncertain terms, he was a Waratah now.

The IRFU have talked a good game to date about the next step after banishing foreigners from rugger was to spread talent through the provinces better, most recently in Cummiskey’s uncharacteristically excellent interview in the Irish Times excellent November rugger magazine last week. Time to see if they will put their money where their mouth is. Peter Nucifora, if it is actually he, might have an input here too – and he probably won’t be recommending queueing them up in Munster and Leinster.

We think / have been told that while Healy and McGrath are contracted through next year, both Munstermen will be out of contract at the end of the year – Cronin will surely enjoy an upgrade on whatever he is on now if his upward curve continues, but how would Frankie feel about his other client being offered, say, a central contract … with Ulster. Can you imagine Dave Kilcoyne fitting in in Belfast? With Munster currently in some financial woe, perhaps that might be his best option. Unless he goes to London Irish too.

First Box Ticked

So the Schmidt era is off and running – the scoreline was certainly more impressive than the overall performance – Samoa might have been fed a 50-burger by the Big Bad Boks in their last game, but South Africa added 20 points in 20 minutes after Oooooooooooooooohh Alesana Tuilagi got sent off for straight-arming Jean de Villiers’ twin brother, but before that you need to go back to 2009 when France won 43-5 for a similar result against Samoa.

As for the performance itself, Ireland maintained their intensity for 80 minutes, played with increasing accuracy and precision. After an underwhelming first 40, Ireland got some patterns going in the second half and purred away. Sure, they were helped by injuries to key opponents, but you still have to go out and take advantage of it. Seeing an Ireland team finish strongly was an alien experience as well, and the replacements kicked the team on, as opposed to muddling it up. Positive.

In terms of selection, the irony is that the more progressive a pick was, the more of a success it was.

PJ at outhalf had a solid game, linked play well, kicked his goals in an assured fashion, and used his boot increasingly well tactically as the game went on. The Kildare Lewis Moody might seek contact as much as Shontayne Hapless, but he got through a mountain of work and was certainly more prominent than his more heralded colleague on the other wing. Sure, this might be as much as you can expect from him at this level, but that doesn’t mean  there is no place for it – he’s unlikely to be first choice when everyone is fit, but is a pretty good reserve to have.

At loosehead prop, Jack McGrath was responsible for giving Ireland a really good platform up front and was given man of the match on debut (albeit rather romantically from Wardy) – not bad. He reminded us of the impact (in a different way admittedly) another young Leinster loose-head prop made on Ireland debut a few years back. Who knows, this whole “competition for places thing” might even catch on. Chris Henry started the game well, and Ireland’s backrow even looked – whisper it – balanced until he was forced off with injury. His international career has been bedevilled by poorly-timed injuries and it’s a real shame, for he adds a different element to the other flankers in the squad.

Peter O’Mahony had a great game on the other flank.  Our main beef with him is that he can go long stretches of the game without involvement, but he showed a great nose for the action.  For the last try, he sniffed the turnover on the cards and quickly got into the role of scrum half and moved the ball at the first opportunity.  And Sean O’Brien, well, he’s just Sean O’Brien.

Pleasenst surprise of the day was Eoin Reddan, who we expected may be about to adopt the sort of role Chris Whittaker had for Australia – sitting on the bench for 80 minutes in every game.  But for all Murray’s brilliance, Eoin Reddan – on his day – is still the quickest in the country at getting the ball to 10, and has a role to play in the last 20 minutes of test matches.  Expect to see him around the 60 minute mark again against Australia.

On the other side of the ledger, the “sure we know what they can do” selections didn’t work – Mike Ross was under pressure for most of the game, Mike McCarthy looked too cumbersome for this level and gave away silly penalties, and Gordon D’Arcy was all over the place. Considering all three were picked for solidity, it was effectively a waste of three picks. How much worse could Ireland have been if say Marty Mooradze, Dan Tuohy and Stuart Olding were picked. For the Wobblies game, Luke Marshall and Paul “Minister for Passion” O’Connell will come in, but we’ll still be stuck with Ross. Thankfully, the Australia scrum won’t give him much bother, but then its straight into BNZ with the options either to pick him again, or dump in Deccie Fitz or Moore at the deep end.

However, the worst aspect of the entire day was the venue. When Ireland were under pressure in the first half, far from getting behind the team, the crowd spent its time engaging in Mexican waves, even while Tusi Pisi was lining up a shot at goal. Imagine if we were playing in, say, Twickenham, and the crowd cheered a wave while Johnny Sexton was lining up a kick – the horror! Then there was the sand section – the last game on this pitch was a couple of weeks ago when the soccer team played Kazakhstan, and the weather has been pretty clement – couldn’t we have prepared a better field of play? When the Palindrome was a library in previous times, we have always been assured that the Mass time kickoffs never suited us, and we preferred a drink-fuelled evening start. Well, we had one of those, and the crowd were disengaged and distracted.

Anyway, we don’t have the answers to that, but its mighty annoying.

Looking forward to Oz, it would be nice to see the upward curve continue – another cohesive and inventive performance will do that, break the cycle of one decent show a series, and give us something to build on for BNZ. The result itself will probably be dictated by how much space Quade Cooper gets and how we deal with it – if our defence plays like it did in the first half, we’re going to see Israel Folau and co dotting down multiple times. Consistency of performance has eluded this team for a long time, and that has to be priority one. If we lose, let us at least hope that we have made the Honey Badger and co work for it.

She’s Lost Control

Joe Schmidt’s first team, picked to deal with what will be a tough Samoa side on Saturday, looks to be more or less on message.  Usually in the November series there’s one game which allows the coach to use a raft of fringe players: think Kidney’s first game in charge against Canada, when he gave Keith Earls his first cap and Stephen Ferris announced himself as a blindside ready for test rugby, or Fiji last year when some Ulster players finally got a chance to show their ability.  That isn’t really the case this series, because Samoa have ascended to the ranks of the second tier, but nonetheless, Schmidt has taken the opportunity to give some matchtime to those around the fringes.

If it was the Kiwis, you can bet Sexton, O’Connell, Healy and O’Brien would all be playing, but instead we’ll be looking at Jackson, Toner, McGrath and Henry.  It’s a nice shake-up and, crucially, all the players brought in are in good form.

Jack McGrath has been excellent for Leinster this season, where the role of reserve loosehead is seen as a vital one, because they rarely play Healy for more than 55 minutes at a time.  He’s deservedly jumped ahead of David Kilcoyne in the queue – it’s a call that might aggrieve Munster fans, but Kilcoyne just hasn’t hit the form he had last season yet.  If he can get back to that level, he’ll undoubtedly be in the coach’s thinking.  When it comes to test rugby, if the call is between two inexperienced players, form should be the decider.

The tight five will have its work cut out for it, though, and outside McGrath’s dynamism and Best’s workrate, it isn’t the most mobile unit.  That said, Devin Toner is a richly deserved pick.  For a player who plays an honest, clean game, he has taken an awful lot of flak down the years, mostly, we think, becaue he doesn’t have ‘good face’.  It should be to the surprise of nobody that his progress has been incremental, but at 27 he now looks a test player, or a handy squad player at least.  Sure he’ll never have the sense of mania that Paul O’Connell can bring to a game, but for the crucial business of restart and lineout catching, he’s the next best thing, and his handling of the ball is surprisingly good.

The Mikes Ross and McCarthy can be considered fortunate starters.  Ross is struggling badly with the new scrum calls, which have thrown the understood scrummaging hierarchy on its head, and McCarthy has looked unfit for Leinster.  Dan Tuohy was a hard-luck story under the old coaching regime, and he’s entitled to feel hard done by again now, because his recent form has been sensational.  As for Ross, it seems an inevitability that his waning performance arc will cross over that of Marty Mooradze’s rising one at some point in the next twelve months; it’s not if, but when.  Probably just too soon though for this series.

Heaslip captains the side for this match, but Paul O’Connell has been announced as Ireland captain.  It’s a shrewd move by Schmidt. For a start, nobody in the land could argue O’Connell won’t do a great job.  It also puts to bed some of the ‘previous’ Schmidt has had with O’Connell, and should help to keep the group united in the event that – as seems likely – Munster don’t have a huge representation in the team.

Another positive call is Chris Henry, and it was nice to get some insight into why he’s been picked, with Schmidt citing his improved release-and-jackal technique, which has proved penalty-expensive if not at its best in the past.  How refreshing to have a coach who gives a little bit of technical detail to the public and show appreciation their understanding of the game, as opposed offering crumbs such as ‘fellas have put their hands up’. Henry looks a likely beneficiary of the new regime, because Schmidt appears to rate him highly, and has tended to see him as the key man to game-manage when he played in opposition to Leinster.

Madigan’s luckless start to the season continues, but Jackson is unarguably the right pick, for the same reasons as Jack McGrath is at loosehead.  The only contentious call in the backline is at first centre where Gordon D’arcy is preferred to Luke Marshall.  Egg isn’t happy about it, not one bit; we could go through the ins and outs of what each will bring, and mention D’arcy’s experience, but let’s face it, he’s in because of the beard.  How can you leave out a man with such a beard?

For once, this feels like an Irish game to look forward to, and probably is for the players too.  In recent years, it felt like the Leinster and Ulster players were happier in their provincial set-ups and that playing for the test side was an onerous experience for them.  In the last Six Nations the players looked like the weight of the world was on them.  The pendulum looks to have swung, for the Leinster players anyway.  They have hardly looked full of joy when playing O’Connor-ball over the last two months, and returning to Joe Schmidt’s methods will surely energise them, and should have the same effect on the rest of the panel who are experiencing his coaching for the first time.

And, finally, what of Schmidt’s no doubt very deliberately chosen words about having ‘lost control’ of Johnny Sexton?  Intriguing for sure, but were they aimed at his paymasters in the IRFU, who failed to contract the player when Schmidt was his coach at Leinster and was powerless to effect the situation?  Or was it a cautionary note to the likes of Sean O’Brien and Donnacha Ryan who are being courted by French clubs?  Probably a little of both.  The message is clear to all, though: we’re better off with our best players playing in Ireland.  Our own take is that with the size of French club squads, they don’t play that much more, but in the case of Johnny Sexton there has been something of a perfect storm; this being a Lions season combined with injuries to other fly-halves at his club has resulted in him having very little rest and playing an awful lot of matches.  For sure though, we’ll all be better off if O’Brien, Ryan and Murray are playing in Ireland next year.