Two Man Rucks and Other Stories

Joe Schmidt’s reign as Ireland coach properly kicks off on Saturday with a game against Samoa.  It’s the first of three tests in what is a daunting series.  Even determining what constitutes a passing grade for the series is hard work.  Ireland should beat Samoa.  Yes, Samoa are a much improved team these days, and yes, they’re even ranked higher than Ireland in the tabes, but with home advantage and better preparations, even if it’s a struggle Ireland start that game as favourites.  Lose that one and it’s a bad start.

Of course the opposite is true in the case of New Zealand.  Ireland have a habit of raising their game against the BNZers, but never win.  Ever.  Last time they came to Dublin, Ireland produced one of their better games under Kidney and only lost by 20.  The Kiwis are on a different planet right now (well, it is almost exactly halfway between world cups, so they’re bound to be coming to a peak) and any sort of performance against them will count as a positive.

But what about Australia?  They look more or less hopeless.  Awful against the Lions, weak-willed for much of the Rugby Championship, but there was that seven-try purging of Argentina and game Bledisloe Cup game to suggest that they could still have the goods to swat away a mid-pack team like Ireland.  But then they reverted to mush against England and in the process lost to a very inexperienced test side.  Momentum is probably the keyword here.  If Ireland can get off to a good start against Samoa, then expectations will build and the public will begin to feel we can take the Wobs.  Play poorly against Samoa, though, and we’ll start to get that sinking feeling.

We’re going to be optimistic, though.  The players should get a lift from the new coach coming in, and we have enough faith in Schmidt as a coach to believe he can deliver two wins in his first two games.  We think the Samoa game will be tight, and possibly hard to watch, but this Australia team is there for the taking, with the caveat that if we give Quade Cooper enough ball, he will hurt us.  Ireland’s injury troubles aren’t that dreadful.  Zebo and Earls are a loss, but they can put out their preferred front and back rows (mostly – but Fez ain’t gonna be back any time soon).  For sure, they need O’Connell and Sexton starting, and at their best, but neither is even close to ruled out yet.

Almost more important is the performance level.  With that in mind, on Against the Head on Monday night, a rare thing happened.  Rare for RTE anyway.  The panel provided some insightful, technical analysis.  For those used to the bluster of George Hook, and the subsequent requirement for everyone else to get dragged down to his level, listening to Eddie O’Sullivan – ever a man with an eye for detail, whatever you make of him – explain Schmidt’s predilection for the two-man ruck and what it means for the team was a breath of fresh air.  Few committed to the ruck means lots of runners and options out wide and in midfield, which is how Leinster repeatedly scythed opposition defences open.  But of course, it requires that said two individuals have to absolutely obliterate the ruck to ensure quick ball.  Fail to remove a David Pocock type jackalling over the ball and the rest of the chaps are standing in line waiting for the ball, and can’t get there before it’s too late.  Of course!  RTE tend to shy away from this sort of thing, obviously afraid it’s too technical for their audience, but the opposite is in fact the case.  Eddie made it crystal clear what the implications of putting two in the ruck are, and suddenly something that lots of people may not notice, or take for granted, becomes something to keep an eye on in the upcoming games.  Go Eddie.  And step forward habitual ruck-smashers Rory Best, Paul O’Connell and Jamie Heaslip for key roles in this department this November.

We’re all familiar by now with the aerial image of Ireland against New Zealand when there were multiple Irish forwards, and a back, and their fly-half ruck inspecting when there was not even one Kiwi in the picture.  It showcased a confused, tactically inept team.  We’re expecting different things from Schmidt’s Ireland – tactical cohesion and a playing style the players will enjoy, and profit from.

After the horrendous year Ireland have had so far, we’ll take it. If it’s good enough to beat Samoa, and at least make Australia win the game, that’s about par. If we can beat Australia, it will be a great platform to take into a Six Nations which looks pretty open. Three home wins there is currently baseline (oh, how the mighty have fallen) but that is where we have found ourselves.

In terms of personnel, Ireland look well able to play Schmidt’s high-tempo offloading game – the likes of O’Mahony, Jackson, Bowe and Murray should be comfortable with it, and we already know the Blue Meanies can do it. Following Ireland has been a frustrating experience in recent years, and playing for them hasn’t seemed to be much more fun – turn that around, get the new stadium finally rocking, win some games playing good rugger, and maybe even unite the fan base. No pressure Joe!

Captain Fantastic

There is plenty of speculation about who the Milky Bar Kid will hand his armband to. For some, it seems particularly relevant as it gives Schmidt the chance to prove he isn’t inherently biased towards the Blue Meanies and pick someone who isn’t from the Pale. This is nonsense of course, but doesn’t make it any less important. Deccie’s well-meaning attempt to position Ireland for RWC15 by picking Jamie Heaslip  as last season’s captain [Aside: Deccie always picked Leinstermen as Ireland’s permanent captain – BIAS!] didn’t quite work out, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to do it. We might be late to the party in planning for the tournament, but that should be our horizon here. So who are the contenders?

Some Bloke Called Brian.  He has done the state some service, they might say. But he’ll be gone in nine months, and is only coming back from injury.  His leadership is so great it’s almost hard for the captain to be in charge, as Heaslip found last season, but this being his last year, there is surely no point in handing the armband.

Paul O’Connell. Favourite, due to his totemic pack leadership credentials, but an injury doubt for the first game, which doesn’t help his chances. Many of his best recent performances – think first Lions test – haven’t come as captain and he seems to function best as a leader, but not the leader. You’ll get his on-pitch leadership anyway, so it probably matters less to him than to some outside the camp.  Would be a fine choice in any case.

Jamie Heaslip. Divided opinion when appointed last year – some considered it a brave choice by a previously unimaginative coach, some a foolhardy choice  of an “absolute knob” (C. George). Undoubtedly, it didn’t work out, amid a team imploding on-field and off. Healsip didn’t help himself by wearing headphones absent-minded and naive post-game comments. But surely remains a respected leader within the team, and his relationship with Schmidt is presumably stronger than that he had with Kidney, which always looked like an uneasy alliance.  Schmidt used him as captain any time Cullen wasn’t around, and if O’Connell is injured, Heaslip probably becomes the favourite. He is also incumbent, so choosing Heaslip won’t be as controversial for Schmidt as it was for Deccie.

Rory Best. The stalking horse. Besty has been mentioned by precisely nobody, but he is who we would appoint. He is already part of the squad’s leadership corps, has plenty of experience, and has recovered from last season’s half-annus horribilis. Best will be around past RWC15, and has played a key role in husbanding some of the exciting youngsters at Ulster who are also now exciting youngsters in green (Henderson, Jackson, Marshall, Gilroy). A fine man, whose character is reflected by his reaction to being omitted from the initial Lions squad – he used the opportunity to recall the memory of the tragic Nevin Spence, and opined there was more to life.

Peter O’Mahony. Munster captain, and an important member of the squad. Has been excellent in red this season, and we will hopefully see him concentrating on 8 from here on, although that muddles things at national level where he’s most likely to play at 6. But he’s only bedding into the role with Munster, and handing him the national captaincy on top of that may seem like too much burden all at once. Still, he is presumably Frankie’s choice, and that has to count for something right?

Sean O’Brien.  Not an obvious choice as he looks more wrecking ball than strategist, but his game has matured recently, highlighted by his outstanding breakdown work in recent months.  Unduobtedly a key player for the incoming coach, and arguably now the best player in the country, but is he ready to lead it?  Probably not, but a possible wild-card nonetheless.

Paddy Wallace. Go on Joe, for a laugh. The righteous indignation would have us rolling in the aisles.

Say Hello to 2015

England’s game against Australia will make for intriguing viewing this weekend, not least because of the age profile of the side England have selected.  The team has an average age of sub-25 and there’s no one in the entire matchday panel older than 28.  The average number of caps is 14.  Neutrals should probably hope for an Australia win, because if this England team wins the hype will be unbearable.  World Cup Glory beckons!  Bring on the Kiwis!  SWING LOW!

Having said that, if this England team does beat an admittedly patchy Australia side, they can afford a little cautious optimism.  This is a side built with 2015 in mind.  For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it looks like this:

M Brown (Harlequins); C Ashton (Saracens), J Tomkins (Saracens), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester), M Yarde (London Irish); O Farrell (Saracens), L Dickson (Northampton), M Vunipola (Saracens), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Vunipola (Saracens).

Excitement abounds around the two Vunipolas.  As George Hamilton might say, the Vunipola brothers are not related.  Billy is a livewire carrier, possibly the No.8 England have been looking for since Nick Easter, er, got ignored for some reason.  And in the scrummaging merry-go-round it appears that Mako has benefitted from the new laws.  A liability at set piece in the Lions tour, if indeed he can show this to no longer be the case in the New Scrummaging World, then he can have a long test career.  Or up until the scrum engagement changes again, at least.

They’ll miss the unflappable Geoff Parling at lineout time for sure, but the second row combination of Launchbury and Lawes is bound to generate excitement.  There will be no quicker, more athletic second row in the November series, but are they men of substance?  Lawes is a product of massive overhype, but has spoken of maturing and no longer looking to make rugbydump hits, but play for the team. The jury’s still out.

On the flanks, we’d still prefer to see a little more specialisation.  Robshaw and Wood are grafters.  Both will make some yards, slow down some ball, make some tackles.  Wood will take a few lineouts.  Fine men and good players they undoubtedly are, but neither is outstanding at any one facet of the game.  He may have his detractors, but Tom Croft will be missed.  He gives England an explosive running threat out wide and coupling his absence with that of Manu Tuilagi, there’s a massive line-breaking threat removed from the side.

In the back division, England have been scratching around for years for a top class 12 (since Greenwood retired, arguably) – Stontayne Hapless never really ticked the boxes.  Billy Twelvetrees is big and strong, but also a smart footballer and a good offloader.  He could be that man.  Joel Tomkins plays outside him, and Marland Yarde is the latest speedster off the rank to be given a go on the wing.  A new one seems to explode on the scene every year before their form goes into a tailspin and disappear from view.  Will he be the new Tom Varndell/Paul Sackey/Ugo Monye/David Strettle/Topsy Ojo/Christian Wade?

With all the youthful verve on display, the key question might be: are Lee Dickson and Owen Farrell the men to put them into space?  Dickson is keeping Fotuali’i on the bench at Northampton, which counts for a huge amount, but we have never been especially impressed by him.  He tends to do a lot of flapping around the base, and can be seen waving his arms for eons before passing the ball.  Better than Ben Youngs?  Really?  Owen Farrell is a hardy competitor, but the feeling remains that until Freddie Burns makes an unarguable case for selection, England still lack a real playmaker for the role.

Anyway, the future starts here.  Possibly.  Maybe.  England have prematurely celebrated any number of false dawns since 2003.  Remember when they won in Paris with a very youthful Toby Flood and – brace yourself – Shane Geraghty cutting the French to ribbons?  The press corps got very excited. It didn’t last.