Still in the Hunt

Bosh! Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions came unstuck at the hands of the Awesome Power of England’s pack – but it was a close-run thing, and it bore plenty of lessons for the tasks ahead for Team Schmidt.

Our success against Scotland and, particularly, Wales was predicated on potent mauling and successful counter-rucking. Problem was, on Saturday, Ireland didn’t try mauling with any regularity until the second half, and England protected their own ball aggressively at the breakdown. The decline in prominence of Peter O’Mahony from Ireland’s signature player of the first two weeks of the Six Nations (aside: when it became clear the BBC producers hadn’t got the memo about POM’s anthem-singing gusto, perhaps the writing was on the wall) was a direct result of the breakdown work of the English.

The set pieces were a success for Ireland, but England managed to restrict the influence of the scrum and lineout enough to ensure they wouldn’t be a platform for dominance. Ireland tended to use the lineout to go wide, in contrast to previous games, and it didn’t really work.

As well as our backrow have been playing, it seemed inevitable that we would one day lament the absence of Sean O’Brien and Fez. Saturday was the day – we didn’t have anyone capable of bulldozing a path through the middle, and we also lacked pace and penetration out wide. Oh for a Luke Fitzgerald, Tommy Bowe or even a Simon Zebo. Fitzgerald should at least be in the reckoning for Italy, and Zebo should have enough matchtime to be considered as well (if a lack of gametime truly is the reason he isn’t being considered) – indeed having Zebo on the bench might have given Ireland, at the very least, an X-factor they lacked in Twickers.

In the first half against Scotland, Ireland kicked pretty loosely – while the trundling Scots couldn’t take advantage, Mike Brown certainly did when we repeated the trick in Twickers. He was the games, and the tournament to dates, most influential player and his break set up the game-winning score for Danny Care. Joe Schmidt values accuracy of execution above all else, and Ireland didn’t do too well – 20+ tackles were missed, the ball was hoofed or chipped away aimlessly at times, and even the saintly BOD was attempting Hollywood offloads that didn’t stick.

In terms of the bench, it didn’t have the impact we needed, and even in its role as injury cover, wasn’t utilized. When Johnny Sexton appeared to get a knock with half an hour to go, Wee PJ stayed kicking his heels. Sure, Sexton is a key player in the team, but he is also human, and Sexton’s decision-making went down a notch in the closing quarter.

Yet in spite of all that, Ireland were in with a shout of a draw by the end (the lack of penetration in the team had surely killed off the chances of a win) – Joubert somehow called an Irish scrum for a scrum penalty that looked Ireland’s lifeline. They hung in there against the English physicality and intensity and nearly got their rewards. Admittedly, the prime butchery of at least 3 tries (Jonny May dropping the ball early on and eschewing a dive for the line for a turn inside just after Bob’s try, and the failure to take advantage of a 3-on-0 when under the posts) played a part, but you can’t control that. And the English defence was excellent – its worth doffing the cap to the Awesome Power of Courtney Lawes, who seemed to be everywhere in the last ten minutes.

So lots to work on – but some positives too. Its incredibly difficult to come to Twickers and win, and Ireland put themselves in a position to do so after 50 minutes. In terms of clear thinking under pressure, they coped poorly with the English aggression at ruck time and in defence, but never folded. The Monday morning review session might last until Tuesday, but you sense Ireland will learn from this defeat.

And don’t forget – Ireland are still top of the table in the race to win the actual Championship – something we don’t do very often. Unlike in 2009, when the Grand Slam was everything after years of coming close, the Championship without a Grand Slam will be an excellent achievement. With a home game against the wooden spoon staring-Italians to come, Ireland’s points difference advantage should be unassailable by the time they head to Paris in three weeks, meaning a win will open the Schmidt era as champions. We’d have taken that in January, and still will – this is the most hapless French team in memory, and the apparent bull-headed desire to stick by PSA until RWC15 also bids well for our chances in Blighty that year. If there ever was a year to win in Paris, this is it. Optimism-bashing alert – Irish rugby players tend to stand in awe of the mighty French with their chiselled jaws and excellent hair in Paris, and end up getting thumped – we need this mental hangup to disappear.

The last weekend will probably begin with both Ireland and France staring at silverware, as will the victor in next week’s BishBashBoshBowl between England and Wales. Make no mistake, England will feel they were in a real game on Saturday, and will be delighted with what looks like a big step in their development – and the irony of Ireland winning in Paris will be that we can win the Championship by doing something that Lancaster’s men couldn’t.

Enter Axel

We joked back in May 2012 that “Penney is … a sacrificial lamb who will get to soak up all the ire of the fans by continuing Ludd’s work of the last 18 months and retiring the Liginds one by one and then buggering off to let Axel take over once the newbies have been transitioned in”.

Well, looks like we were right. While Penney was offered only a one year contract (technically, an optional extension), Axel is getting two, with an option of one more. Not that there is anything wrong with that in and of itself. Rugby is a business and its incumbent upon the chief executive(s) of any business to put in place the management/leadership structure that leads to the most success. If the Munster hierarchy have decided that Axel is better placed than Penney to deliver what Munster ultimately need (silverware) then they have their man in place.  Now he just has to go and do it.

Penney was brought in largely because of his work in Canterbury at underage and development level, and was charged with bringing the likes of Tommy O’Donnell, Mike Sherry and Peter O’Mahony up to Heineken Cup level and restore the team’s playing identity.  Much of that has been done, and he leaves Munster in a much better place than when he took over.  Axel Foley takes over a team with a winning mentality and a core of good players who will be around for years to come.  The core of his pack are of the right age profile, and where there are a couple of old lags in wind-down, succession looks to be being managed.  Paul O’Connell will be around until 2016 and BJ Botha will still be here next season and when he does retire, Stephen Archer should be ready to take over (presuming his development over the last 12 months continues).  Dave Foley has stepped up the rungs to ease O’Callaghan further out of the picture and Robin Copeland should smoothly take over from the evergreen James Coughlan, who continues to be productive.

The half-back situation is also positive, with Hanrahan on track to take over from Ian Keatley, and Penney has been wise not to rush this process.  He’ll be ready when he’s ready, and he’s having a fine campaign in the Pro12 in the meantime.

His main issue- as is the case for seemingly every Munster coach since the year dot – will be recruiting and developing capable centres to provide a threat and most importantly, bring the lethal strike runners Simon Zebo and Keith Earls onto the ball as much as possible.  Casey Laulala is heading for the exit and it looks increasingly like James Downey will be joining him.  Foley will need to recruit, and recruit well.

The real fascination will lie in what direction Foley will take the team.  Will he tear up the current script and start anew?  Or is he a ‘continuity’ man As tempting as it is to see the move as a coup d’etat on Foley’s part, it’s unlikely to be the case.  The other temptation is to buy the stereotype of Foley as the ultimate old-school Munster forward who will bring their game back to the dark ages.  “We’ve had 10 man rugby, now you’re playing 9-man rugby – when will this end?”  “When we find a number eight that can kick.”  But that looks over-simplified; Foley was a smart rugby player who got by on his ability to read of the game, and presumably brings those qualities to the table as a coach.

However, it does seem unlikely that he’s a disciple of Penneyball in all its wonderful purity.  He poured cold water on Ger Gilroy’s attempts to get him to say Munster’s success wasn’t always forward oriented on Newstalk last night. But while Munster never looked totally comfortable with Penney’s gameplan, it was hard to see exactly how else they could succeed.  Their pack isn’t really capable of grinding others into the dirt, but is big on mobility and athleticism.  The centres rather than the forwards were the main obstacles to it succeeding.  It’s probably the end to the idea of Donncha O’Callaghan hanging out on the wing looking for the ball, but hopefully some of the spirit of dynamic forward play will be retained.

He should also benefit from much goodwill from the public and media.  As a very fondly remembered player (the Leinster fans’ forum includes Axel Foley in every poll as a reference to Munster fans voting for him in every ‘greatest ever’ list), and the only Irish head coach at provincial level, the Munster faithful will be fully behind him, and he should have no trouble with a meeja who have been campaigning for him to get this gig since before Rob Penney took over.  This is one coach everyone wants to see succeed.  But as every coach knows, it’s a different pressure being the top man than one of the coaching team.

Let’s hope one of the brightest young Irish coaches around can build on Penney’s groundwork – and by Gawd it’s nice to see an Irishman coaching one of the provinces.

Brutally Honest Feedback

Joe Schmidt silently leads the first team off the bus. The first team stop, take a step and applaud the substitutes off the bus. The substitutes stand in line and applaud the coaches off the bus. The coaches take their place in line and applaud the driver off.

This is the New Ireland.

Entering the hotel, the players are assigned a ‘room buddy’ in addition to the room-mate. They walk their room buddy up to their room, hug them (back thumps optional, but mandatory for Munster players – both hugger and huggee), tweet them something nice, then have a cry together.

Down in the conference room, the players have to text five selected team-mates and tell them why they should play ahead of anyone else, and how they will stop The Awesome Power of Luther Burrell. The hubbub dies down, players avert their eyes, and the Milky Bar Kid takes the stage. The Brutally Honest Review Session ™ is about to start.

Joe: “Peter, great gusto with the anthem singing, but you were nearly a full octave out of tune. Plus you’ve made a schoolboy error – we’ll only have Ireland’s Call at the weekend, that’s where the passion should be directed”

Joe: “Paddy, you let Tommy hug you after your try – not on. What are you going to do when you’ve scored our sixth late on on Saturday but you’ve got The Awesome Power of Mako Vunipola on top of you? How will you shove him away then?”

Joe: “Rob and Dave – you’ve let some parody account become lame – if you are going to encourage the Twitterati, you need to ensure it’s a meme that will last longer than a week. Look at Frankie Sheahan’s account – it’s been laughable for years”

Joe: “Brian, you can’t keep letting biology beat you, it’s getting embarrassing that you are picking up bugs the week before a game. You’ll just have to ask science to stop.”

After sixty minutes of Brutally Honest Feedback ™, the players retire to the games room where they have to spend so long complimenting each other, even Andrew Trimble runs out of things to say.

This is the New Ireland.

The White Orcs

Stuart Lancaster’s White Orcs are hosting Ireland on Saturday, and it’s Ireland’s most important match since their last important match, against Wales the previous Sunday.  That impressive win has set Ireland up for a tilt at the triple crown and it would be a great feeling if Ireland could lock down silverware halfway through the championship, especially with Italy coming up in round four.

What can we expect from these maginificent rose-clad yeomen?  Well, while Stuart Lancaster is building towards 2015 and has embedded a sense of humility in the playing pool, his team are built on pretty traditional English rugby values of solid work ethic and a reasonable dollop of ‘boot and bollock’.  They’ve a kicking 10 and a fairly brutish pack of forwards.  The backline looks inexperienced, but the two boys in the centres are great big fellows.

They’ve a problem at tighthead prop.  It’s almost as if the tighthead crisis baton has been passed over.  The awful news about Dan Cole having to take an indefinite hiatus from the game affects them grievously.  The next in line looks to be Bath’s David Wilson but he’s never looked like somebody who can be a real force at this level.  He’s from the Mike Ross school of natural fitness and he’s just back from injury.  Most likely he needs a good few matches to get up to match fitness.  The alternative is Henry Thomas, who plays for Sale but is a rookie at this, or any level.

Before we get too excited, he’s probably had more game experience than Marty Moore, but Marty Moore will be on the bench, not potentially starting.  It’s a problem.  Advantage Ireland in the scrum against England?  Wonders will never cease.  The Awesome Power of Dylan Hartley and The Awesome Power of Joe Marler round out the front row and both are having good series.  There’s depth at hooker where Tom Youngs is a fine player, but The Awesome Power of Mako Vinupola, while potentially explosive in the loose, proved a penalty-expensive replacement against France (and in the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions series).

England’s second row is big on physical attributes and athleticism.  The Awesome Power of Courtney Lawes and The Awesome Power of Joe Launchbury lack nothing in terms of physicality.  Do they have the heads for it?  When Paul O’Connell unleashes his unique brand of controlled chaos, with no ruck safe from his explosive clearing out, will these two inexperienced forwards be able for it? The Awesome Power of Courtney Lawes has form when it comes to disappearing when the heat is on, but then some day he won’t.  We’ve all seen the strength of the Irish maul, and presumably these two chaps will be looking to stop that at source.

In the backrow, there’s another key ingredient missing: Thoroughbred Racehorse Tom Croft.  The Awesome Power of Chris Robshaw and The Awesome Power of Tom Wood are fine players, but they’re both similar workers in the six-and-a-half mould.  Ideally you’d like one of them on the openside flank and Tom Croft on the other, to bring a real running threat.  But he’s not here, and Wood and Robshaw won’t lack for workrate.  One or both of them will be tasked with blasting Peter O’Mahony off the breakdown in what will be one of the more fascinating battles of the afternoon.  Can O’Mahony have another game where he comes up with three or four penalty turnovers to kill English momentum? If he does, Ireland should go on to win. Or is the least heralded of the Irish backrow, Chris Henry, the key man – he’s certainly started his belated international career well, and is the most natural in his position of the four flankers. The Awesome Power of Billy Vunipola is at No.8, and he’s been influential so far.  Like the best 8’s he barrows over the gainline, but crucially he can get his hands free and offload to those who can run lines off him.  He’ll need to be policed, but equally, his desire to offload can be a weakness – choke tackle anyone? Where is Stakhanov these days anyway?

Now, the scrum half.  Ah yes, our favourite Test Lion in Waiting.  We feel Danny Care owes us for making us look like eejits by playing his way out of the touring squad from the moment we declared him the starting test Lion.  Well, he’s repaying us and if there was a Lions match tomorrow, himself and Murray would be in the matchday squad.  He’s an instinctive player, something of an Eoin Reddan 2.0.  If he gets quick ball, he can supply the backline with a steady stream of super-fast passes all day long, as well as providing a lethal sniping threat.  There are few better at getting to the ruck at great speed and he has a penchant for quick taps.  Owen Farrell isn’t the most attacking fly-half but Care’s speed of distribution is dragging him kicking and screaming to the gainline.   But put him on the back-foot and and he’s not the best game-manager.  The Irish forwards know what they have to do – get Danny Care.  Ireland’s counter-ruck has been exceptional, and if they can muck up the service to Care that will be a huge battle won.

The backline is really inexperienced, but full of good players.  Consensus is that this is where Ireland can do some damage, but it won’t be as easy as it looks.  The midfield is a case of brains against brawn.  Ireland’s two 95-year old centres have seen everything (unless Bamm-Bamm plays, in which case he has hit everything), while Thirty-Six and The Awesome Power of Luther Burrell are big bruising athletes.  Twelvetrees is supposedly a classy footballer who can play 10 as well, but we haven’t seen too much of it this campaign, and against Munster he was the fulcrum for a lot of ordinary back play. Little known fact about the Awesome Power of Luther Burrell: he’s never been dropped by the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiions.

The back three we like.  Johnny May has gas and if he has his limitations, well, a winger with speed will always cause problems.  Jack Nowell looked like a nervous nelly on his debut in Paris and endured a bit of a nightmare, but he was more like his usual self against Scotland.  One try in the Boshiership this season is a pretty mediocre return, even for the Most Adventurous Team in England™, but he has a bit of football about him.  And the man at the back is the fantastic Mike Brown.  Looking at him in full flight and he never looks quite as classy as Ben Foden or Alex Goode, and yet he scores tries, counter-attacks, catches everything, beats defenders and breaks the line so at the end of the day you can’t argue with his selection.  He and Rob Kearney will have a right old ding-dong.

Ireland will line out more or less the same again.  We expect Donnacha Ryan to replace Tuohy on the bench and the rest to be as you were.  It appears that one of Bowe or Fitzgerald would have had a great chance of playing if they featured at the weekend, but they didn’t, so they won’t.  It’s a topic that’s being done to death, but we’d have made room for Simon Zebo, but it’s pretty clear by now that the Cork flyer is not in favour and will probably have to wait until the summer tour to press his case at test level.  Consensus is that Ireland will look to put it through the backline a bit more than they have done, as England will have a more potent maul defence than Wales or Scotland could muster.  It might prove to be wide of the mark, and with the options available out wide, Ireland may stick to the gameplan which has worked well so far. Plus we don’t think the English pack has anything like the granite heart that some of their predecessors had – the likes of Hartley, Lawes and Robshaw have been key forwards in teams humiliated by their Irish counterparts at HEC level in the recent past.  Dare we suggest for a third time that the weather might be dreadful??

We need to talk about POM

The WoC equivalent of Godwin’s Law involves a certain divisive backrow forward from Cork – whatever we post on, it’s virtually inevitable that the comments box will descend into a debate about Peter O’Mahony. While his defenders saw him as a skillful and athletic lineout forward, his detractors saw an argument-fond workshy show pony. We considered him an excellent lineout merchant, a good open field runner with skilful hands who clearly offers leadership possiblities, but one whose tackling is poor and desire for snarling too high – if he met his potential he could be be Ireland’s Tom Croft or Imanol Harinordoquoy, and if not, our Jonathan Thomas.

To  further confuse the already-muddied water, his media street team (who were numerous) constantly cited his workrate, bravery and inability to take a backward step. Whatever you think about him, none of those are his strengths. His simply is not David Wallace, no matter what Conor George wanted, and the terms of the debate were just far too fluid to have a sensible conversation about it. And it still persists – Cummiskey in the Irish Times seemed to think he won man of the match in the Wales game for getting into two fights, which, to our eyes, simply didn’t happen.

We talked about his ‘Good Face’ in the past, but it’s now arguable that the ridiculous media narrative around him hs now gone full circle to the point where it almost undersells his ability.  Munster pishun, fighting, bravery?  It’ll get you so far, but what about the jackalling technique and brilliant handling ability?  Those things require, y’know, talent, right?  Credit to the Second Captains for cutting through the BS and jokingly talking about ‘Brand O’Mahony’ and how his ‘entourage’ would be in his ear, telling him to shout out the anthems tunelessly and loudly and to celebrate turnovers as if they were a try to enhance it.

The first two rounds of the Six Nations have marked the true international arrival of Peter O’Mahony, in his 20th and 21st caps. His first couple of seasons on the international scene corresponded with Ireland’s worst run since the 1990s, with the deepening crisis at the tail end of Deccie’s time in charge impacting all areas of the team. His first three starts were in three different positions, and the backrow unit rarely functioned well in the fag-end of the Deccie era. The team was used to the beef and skill of Fez and Wally, and O’Mahony was a completely different player – he wasn’t integrated at all well into the XV and not only did he rarely shine, but Jamie Heaslip’s performances went down a level as roles shifted.

That’s not to say he didn’t have his moments, and there was the odd good day amid the gloom, notably the draw at home to France (of which we performed an in depth analysis and found the backrow all showed up well, each man got through a pile of work, and O’Mahony did best – apart from Steve Walsh *swoon*).  It’s worth remembering that in that game Peter O’Mahony’s standout contributions were a couple of brilliant ruck turnovers as opposed to big runs in wide channels.  Sound familiar?  But it’s hard for anyone, let alone a rookie backrow only learning the international game, to look consistently good when the team is going nowhere and doesn’t look like it knows what it’s doing.

With the arrival of the Milky Bar Kid, O’Mahony has now a defined place in the team – positioned much closer to rucks, his breakdown work has formed the platform of Ireland’s success. He carries much less, and still isn’t a great tackler in either frequency or impact (he has notoriously never reached double figures in a test, but we don’t think this is as important as it is sometimes made out to be – in this Championship, he has kept pace with Henry and Heaslip’s numbers, which will do us). He has been simply brilliant, probably our best player, and has stepped into a lieutenant role in the team.  As captain for Munster this year, he has improved on the field in both play and conduct and it seems to bring out the best in him.

Equally noticable was his discipline – the shirt-grabbing rabble-rouser has been replaced by a focused and cold-eyed professional. Wales continually tried to rile him on Saturday but he never wavered once, concentrating instead on winning the game. He seemed .. coached .. odd as it might sound. The only moment when the old O’Mahony resurfaced was when he almost talked himself into a sin-binning when Barnes had asumed his punctilious hat.  [O’Connell was off the pitch at this point, with Heaslip assuming captaincy duties, and he probably should have smelt the danger and made himself present at the little chat and gagged O’Mahony.]  Twelve months ago, we still thought his place in the team was in question, but right now he should be forming the backbone of our team through to RWC19. Heck, even Leinsterlion has conceded that he’s at least average.  The backrow unit has improved beyond all recognition, yet its best player, possibly best two players, are out injured.

The game in Twickenham represents another great opportunity for O’Mahony to do his feet-planted-in-the-ground-bent-over-the-ball thing, as England lack a dedicated fetcher and rely on two six-and-a-halves in Robshaw and Wood to divvy up breakdown duties.  He’ll need to watch out for Dan Cole, though, who is a hell of a clearer-outer.  The rangy No.6 being dragged up from the ruck while the referee’s arm lifts to the sky in Ireland’s direction is fast becoming our favourite sight of the Six Nations.

And did you know this little discussed fact: he once played on the wing in an AIL final.  Fancy that!

In Schmidt We Trust

Doubtless many of our readers saw the notes taken by an anonymous scribe from a recent Joe Schmidt seminar which found themselves ‘going viral’, as it were, yesterday afternoon.  If you didn’t, you can see them here.

It made for fascinating reading, an insight into the workings of one of the great coaches in modern sport.  Anyone who witnessed Joe Schmidt’s talk to Leinster fans in the Laighin Bar will know he’s a fascinating, charismatic and humourous guy who can easily command the attention of a room of punters.  Whatever or wherever this seminar was, we wish we were there.

It’s abundantly clear from reading that Schmidt is a man whose eye for detail is unmatched, and his preparation meticulous.  Every error in training is pulled up, and any that are missed are pulled up later from video analysis.  Little wonder Brian O’Driscoll spoke of every single day being a learning experience with him as coach.

A few things struck us as especially interesting.  One was the unwillingness to buy into ‘received wisdom’ or media-spun catch-all narratives, such as the all-conquering mental strength of the Indomitable All Blacks.  His dissection of the two contrasting World Cup games against France was fantastic.  Not for a second was he accepting that the Kiwis were in any way more composed or prepared for trench warfare in 2011 than in 2007; they got away with winning because the referee let them cheat the whole game.  Anyone who watched that game will remember that they were allowed to not roll out of the tackle at almost every single ruck.

There was some nice insight into how he kept squad harmony at Leinster, with Eoin Reddan running the fines/punishments committee and a policy of every player shaking hands when they first meet each day, a tradition he brought over from Clermont (I thought the French kissed each other, but we’ll let it slide) and how Jamie Heaslip – who comes across as a show pony influential figure – makes a point of shaking the hand of every single academy player.

What always struck us about Joe Schmidt is that he has a great sense of which buttons to press based on the prevailing mood.  He describes how, no matter what has gone on earlier in the week, once it gets to Thursday everything he says to the players is positive.  One Schmidt post-match interview in particular game always stood out in our minds.  It was a match against Glasgow in Scotstoun in the Heineken Cup.  Leinster played dreadfully, but an Isaac Boss touchdown against the base of a post and some good fortune defending the lead late in the match was enough to secure a narrow win.  In the weeks before the game, a number of players had given interviews relaying just how tough Schmidt’s Monday morning video sessions were, and how players are accountable for every single action.  But rather than berate this genuinely pretty awful performance, all he would say to the press was how proud he was of the group to have dug in to secure a really hard-fought win.  It just seemed exactly the right note to strike; terrific management.  Long may he remain in this country.

Will he though? Surely the BNZ hierarchy are watching, but equally as surely, success (domestic and international) in the Northern Hemisphere simply isn’t seen as adequate preparation for the BNZ job. While it’s tempting to see him as the obvious successor to Hansen after 2015, he might have to wait until further down the line.  Anyone who read Ruchie’s book will get a keen sense of how insular (and we don’t mean that in a negative sense) rugger in BNZ is. If Schmidt wants to coach BNZ, as he must, he will have to do some time back home first.  If he has his sights set on the 2019-23 RWC cycle, he will want to be heading home for the 2018 SH season, at the very latest, and probably earlier. That gives us about two years to enjoy the ride – anyone fancy minding the William Webb Ellis from 2015 for a couple of years?

Best Served Cold

We’re certain we weren’t the only ones only dying for Ireland to hand Wales their hoops on Saturday – the teams have developed a rivalry which is, er, let’s say keen. It bugs the Irish players more than a little that, since both nations suffered such disastrous RWC07’s, Wales have won 3 Championships (with 2 Grand Slams) and made it to a RWC semi-final while we have bagged only the one Grand Slam and a quarter final. In the games between the sides, there has typically been little in it, with the exception of the RWC11 knock-out. The Ireland players wouldn’t consider themselves inferior to the Welsh in any way, and it’s a stain on their record that the Red Army Motorized Tank Division are more garlanded at this level.

Of course, that record includes Ireland’s catastrophic ’08 and ’13 seasons – fag ends of dead coaching reigns, and seasons where Wales delivered under Gatty. With Ireland now benefitting from a coaching bounce, it felt like the time to re-assert our surperiority. But how? Throw it around Baa-Baa’s style and run rings around their gargantuan backs – we will score one more than you? Sounds difficult. Shut down Plan A, mash them out of touch, maul them into submission and reduce them to a squabbling rabble by the end? Much better – the psychology of such a victory is double-edged – boost confidence and ruthlessness in the camp, and destroy the confidence of your rival. It’s classic Jose Mourinho – attack your opponent’s strength and break them down.  We said Ireland would win if it was a set-piece game, and we made it that.  There were 29 lineouts in all.

This was Ireland’s revenge, served ice cold. The Welsh camp was personified by the puce-faced loss of control of Mike Philips, the impotence of Sam the Eagle and Dirty Liam Williams forearm smash on Wee PJ. For the first time in years, Ireland have put together back-to-back performances – and it’s been based on ruthless execution and accuracy, dead-eyed concentration to the fore. There was real desire to do Wales for sure, but it wasn’t an emotional-high type performance like we are used to. It was like the Scottish one, but up a notch, and it bodes really well for the rest of the tournament.

Shane Horgan has mentioned it several times on the air; Joe Schmidt is what they call a ‘solutions provider’.  His method is to analyse the opposition in depth and provide his players with the means to beating them.  While he is famed for producing the sort of rugby with which Leinster beat Northampton in the 2011 Heineken Cup final, he is a pragmatist at heart, and when it comes to selection he picks not those he deems to be his best players, but those who can best execute the plan.

Peter O’Mahony’s deployment is a classic example of maximising use of resources.  O’Mahony’s weak point is his tackling, which is neither frequent nor powerful, but by deploying him at the ruck, Schmidt has both nullified his weakness and amplified his strength.  The sight of the No.6 bent over the ball winning yet another turnover penalty has become the iconic image of the series so far.  And the positive body language between he and Jamie Heaslip – two chaps who haven’t exactly dovetailed well in their careers to date – when he won a penalty to end Wales’ only sustained pressure in the first hour was noticeable.

Equally positive has been the performance of the wings.  Eyebrows were raised – and not just in Munster – when Simon Zebo was left out of the squad.  Dave Kearney and Andrew Trimble are more mundane talents, but they have rewarded their coach amply.  Both are playing superbly, to the manor born.  Leinster fans have gotten used to unexpected selection calls from Schmidt bearing fruit over the 80 minutes on the pitch; now the rest of the country will start to get the same feeling.

Another tick-mark in Schmidt’s copy book was the decision to replace O’Connell.  The iron-willed collossus was patently short of match-fitness, but gave his all for fifty-five minutes, as only he can.  Previous coaching tickets would have tried to bleed more out of him, but showing trust in the reserves is another great property of Schmidt.  He showed it in Clermont when he put a youthful Eoin O’Malley and Fergus McFadden in the team, and still went out to attack Les Jaunards and look to win the game.  And he showed it here, by taking O’Connell off early, and showing his trust in Dan Tuohy to step up to the mark.  Tuohy’s arm-break is unfortunate, so a return to action for Mike McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan could be timely.

From here, it’s over to Twickers, with zero tries and just nine points conceded. England have the biggest pack in the competition, but the like of Hartley, Cole, Lawes and Robshaw (the spine of the English pack) have found themselves humiliated by Irish opponents on their own turf in the last 12 months. Playing with this kind of focus and power, Ireland are not going to be frightened by the red rose, but this is the hardest game of the series to date. And there is silverware at stake – if Ireland win, it’s a first Triple Crown in five years, after four in six before that (we shudder at how the Triple Crown was dismissed as a virtual irrelevance ahead of the Scotland game in 2010 – hubris like that won’t happen again soon).

Just because it worked against Wales, doesn’t mean it’ll work against England, and Schmidt will make the necessary adjustments and changes to the approach; providing the players with the next solution, the one to beat England.  A powerful lineout maul and kicking game will not be enough this time, because England can match us in those areas.  This might be the game to try and put a little bit more through the backs.  Don’t be entirely surprised to see some ruthlessness from Schmidt.  Perhaps one of Bowe, Fitzgerald or Zebo will come into the team to provide a little more cutting edge.

This year has that feeling to it, you know.  The game against England is going to be an absolute ding-dong.  We cannot wait.

PS. We loved Gatland’s comment when asked about O’Mahony: ‘You can never underestimate the passion a Munster man will bring to a match’.  It seems that POM’s public image has even filtered through to the Welsh.  It wasn’t his flawless technique over the ball and exceptional skills in the lineout that dominated the game; it was his passion.

The Ha’Penney Place

So here we are in the middle of the Six Nations, the day before the pivotal game in Ireland’s campaign, about to blog about provincial concerns.  Hey, come back, readers!

The announcement that Rob Penney was to leave Munster came as a bit of a shock to the system.  It was one of those things we just expected to be ironed out, with a positive announcement emerging in the next month or so.  When there was talk of Penney’s contract being up in the air before Christmas, it looked like navigating qualification from the Heineken Cup pool would be critical.  With that box ticked, and the bonus of a home quarter-final secured, the rest looked like a formality.  Alas, no.  Penney is off, apparently to Japan where he has been offered a three-year deal and he has cited greater proximity to his native New Zealand as a reason for moving.

So, did he jump or was he pushed?  Yesterday’s statement, where he said ‘I just have to take this opportunity [in Japan]’ would indicate that Penney is driving the decision to leave.  But consider that he has only been offered a one year deal, and maybe he felt he wasn’t getting a great offer.  The one-year contract appears to have become the new PFO in rugby, a bet-hedging exercise from the paymasters that neither takes the drastic action of sacking the coach, nor particularly backs them to the hilt.  McGahan left Munster under similar circumstances.  With the future of European rugby and now the Pro12 shrouded in more doubt than ever, one can sympathise with those in charge of such matters, but all the recently contracted players signed on for two years and more, so Penney would surely have expected at least the same terms.

So where does it all leave Munster?  In a slightly odd position.  It looks like Penney is leaving a job half-done, and what direction the new coach takes them in will be interesting.  Penney had a pretty fixed idea on how to play the game, his Cantabrian rugby philosophy being somewhat dyed in the wool.  He spoke about the group being ‘un the put’ with regard to learning a new skills-based, high-mobility approach to attack, involving pods of tight forwards hanging out wide.  At times Munster struggled with it, but it looks as if he is departing just as the work was starting to bear fruit.

Munster find themselves top of the Pro 12, with 10 wins and just two losses, and after a careless opening weekend in the Heineken Cup, have navigated their group with ease.  While they may not have had to play especially well to win any of those matches, it’s worth casting one’s mind back to just what a rabble the team was in McGahan’s final season.  His final game was an embarrassing pasting at the hands of Ospreys in the Pro12 semi-final, by which stage he had reduced one of his best players, Conor Murray, into a confused mess who couldn’t seem to remember whether he was a scrum-half or a flanker.  Under Penney, a number of officer-class players have flourished, Murray included.  Peter O’Mahony’s rise has been swift, but it may be more instructive to look at Tommy O’Donnell, who was blown off the park in the decisive game of McGahan’s final season (the home defeat to Ulster in the Heineken Cup but has gone on to work his way to the fringes of the test team.

It looks like a decent body of work, but it’s hard to untangle how much of it to put down to the coach and how much to attribute to the group of players.  For all the good results, Penney’s Munster still struggle to execute the game plan he wants to play.  Occasionally it flickers into life; Earls’ superb team-try against Gloucester showcased Penneyball at its best, but for every moment of clarity, there are entire games where the passing across the backline is too substandard to get anything going.  At times they look doomed to remain ‘un the put’ until they can find a pair of centres who can pass the ball more than five metres.  For all the talk of Cantabrian total-rugby, Munster’s greatest asset is still their unyielding unwillingness to accept defeat, and ability to grind out wins.  Hey, what’s new?  Has this really come from the coach, or is to be attributed to the espirit de corps inherent in players like Paul O’Connell, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony?  Forget ball skills, feel the pishun!

The following quotation from Paul O’Connell is hardly a ringing endorsement:

“I think Rob leaving doesn’t make a massive difference. I think a lot of the bits around my decision to stay are still firmly there. You’d love to think and I hope Anthony would remain, whether it is as head coach or forwards coach. I suppose he is one of the main guys I would have worked with the most in Munster.”

Against all that, though, if the team is consistently winning matches, the coach has to get some credit.  Too often in the meeja, poor performances were put down to his tactics not being right for Munster, while good ones were down to the senior players taking the lead. Calls for ‘up-the-jumper’ rugby in the ‘Munster tradition’ appear misplaced, with the pack now totally diferent in make-up and skillset from that which Kidney and McGahan presided over.  The Quins and Clermont games looked like pure Penneyball, with Caey Laulala’s lines of running and offloading to the fore, but it was Rog and Paulie who got the credit. It feels like something isn’t quite right, and dark murmurs of Penney’s unhappiness with commentary from outside the camp refuse to go away. Still, he’d hardly care if he had a 2-year extension, and the assumed ironclad backing from the top brass.

So where next?  Get someone in who can continue on the Penney-ball path (who, exactly?) or rip up the last two years and start again?  No doubt the ROG-Axel ticket will be trumpeted in certain quarters, but is either coach really ready?  ROG has had precisely one season coaching and would almost certainly deem it to be too soon for him.  Axel, on l’autre hand, appears to have the backing of the players, and looks a solid bet for the main gig.  He missed out last time, so presumably now they give it to him or he goes.  What his relationship with Penney is like, or his views on Penneyball we don’t know, but in all likelihood we are about to find out.

Roll Out The Big Guns

If Gerry is to be believed (and, let’s face it, Gerry could only be more believable if he was wearing Joe Namath’s coat) Dorce and Paulie will be drafted back in to the Ireland XV for the boshfest with the marauding tank divisions of the Red Army.

O’Connell for Tuohy is a no-brainer – as good as Tuohy was last week, and he was very good, completely not making us look like fools for calling for his inclusion for 2.5 years, POC-Toner is a more balanced partnership. Tuohy offers some change-up off the bench, but we can’t help feeling NWJMB would be a better impact option, particularly given O’Connell won’t be withdrawn. Tactically, anyway (Graham Taylor moment from the Milky Bar Kid aside).

Inside some-bloke-called-Brian, the choice was far less clear cut – we’d have given Dorce the nod purely on experience and guile, but it’s not a slam dunk. Bamm-Bamm was one of our best players last weekend, and offers a more acute attacking threat than Grizzly Adams does. Dorce may have been brilliant against BNZ, and he may be enjoying an extended career Indian summer with Leinster, but his form since RWC11 in green has been patchy.

The rest of the 23 will be unchanged, which is reward for some good performances last week – Luke Roysh would probably have come into the team were he fit, and his absence leaves Ireland looking pretty blunt out wide. But then, this game is going to won and lost by how Ireland defend against the big and boshy Welsh three-quarter line when they truck it up the middle. It’s going to be exhausting and dirty, the weather is going to be pretty awful with rain and wind forecast and maybe it’s a game for Johnny Sexton to take the aerial route.  He’s bound to have had plenty of experience with Racing in teams booting the ball really high and sending monsters down the field to chase it (albeit, without much success on the scoreboard) – if the Welsh backs are running backwards they can’t run down your throat.  That’s the idea anyway.

Eddie O’Sullivan and the rest of the third division of panellists on Against the Head stressed the importance of Ireland improving the accuracy of ‘contestable’ kicks, so both Murray and Sexton will be mindful to give the chasers a better chance of winning the ball.  Against Scotland they kicked slightly too long on a number of occasions.  The chasers must also be sharp.  Trimble is great at getting to the pitch of the ball, but occasionally lets his opponent jink his way out of trouble.  With George North, such indiscretions will be severely punished.  He needs to pin his man down to the ground and once that’s accomplished, we expect the forwards to flood the ruck like nobody’s business to effect the turnover or penalty.

This fixture has a curious record of away wins so Ireland’s status as marginal favourites, which is presumably based on home advantage, doesn’t amount to much. We said before the tournament started that Mike Philips was one of the key men – as he goes, Wales often go. If he is prominent, we are in trouble. Get him harrassed and off his game, and we are in business. Anyone know a bevy of blondes we can put on the sideline to distract him?

Lobster Pot

Rugby is a 23-man game now, “they” say. And “they” are rarely wrong, and certainly not in this case, though it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. As recently as the 2007 RWC final, South Africa made just one permanent change, and that after 72 minutes (we aren’t counting Bismarck’s brief appearance as a blood sub for John Smit). Such a situation is unthinkable today, where coaches pick an eight man bench with a substitution policy in mind.

Even players are conditioned in such a way – one of major reasons for the Leicester Tigers relative lack of success this year is the inability of Dan Cole to burn himself out for 60 minutes then let Castro take over. For example:

  • In this years HEC, in the 4 games against Ulster and Montpellier, Dan Cole played 314 minutes and Fraser Balmain (!) 6 – Leicester lost twice, won in the last minute once, and needed a last minute Ryan Lamb drop goal to seal victory in the other game
  • In the 2012-13 HEC, in the 4 games against Toulouse and the Hairsprays, Cole played 235 minutes (58, 54, 60, 63) with Castro coming off the bench and totting up 85 minutes in total. Leicester won twice, drew once and topped the pool

The loss of Castro to France is a major driver in the lower effectiveness of the Tiger pack this year. And speaking of France, French props would self-destruct were they asked to do a full 80 these days.

Pack changes are now typically made with impact in mind, not what a withdrawn player has done, but what their replacement can do – fresh beef and grunt off the bench is the order of the day. Frequently big performers are asked to do what Cole was – give it all for 50-60 minutes – that’s their role in the 23. In the backline, a bit more thought is required – bench backs are not always there to provide relief, but to give options in case of injury or a change in gameplan – a classic example here would be Ulster’s use of Paul Marshall last season, where Pienaar stepped into the ten channel and provided a more structured game, while Wee PJ had a breather.

It’s a form of the classic cliche forwards win matches, backs decide by how much (aside: the American football equivalent of offence wins matches, defence wins championships was proven in brutal fashion late Sunday night) – your forward replacements roles are to continue whatever the starter was doing, but the backs have a more cerebral role. That’s simplified of course, but the principle stands.

One critical error that must be avoided when changing backs on the fly is losing momentum. Last year in Fortress Aviva, Ireland were 13-6 up on France after the hour and Conor Murray was bossing the game – the entrance of Eoin Reddan saw Ireland lose all momentum, and almost the game.

And there was another classic example in Le Bosh on Saturday night – England had started abysmally with Jack “Pat McGibbon” Nowell to the fore and quickly went 16-3 down. In 20 minutes either side of half-time oranges, they scored 18 points and for all intents and purposes had the game won – the first score was created by a cheeky tap penalty (scrum-halves always tap penalties cheekily, don’t they? They assuredly do) by Danny Care, and the last was a cheeky Naas Botha-esque zero-backlift drop goal by the same player.

England essentially had the game won, but fell victim to substitution by numbers – Care was hauled ashore for Lee Dickson. Dickson’s selection above Ben Youngs in the first place was perplexing, and his play took all the wind out of England’s sails – they went from snappy incisive ruck ball that made Owen Farrell look like Carlos Spencer on the gain line to hand-waving, flapping and rumbles. An English acquaintence described Dickson as a “lobster in a bucket” – waving his bound claws ineffectively while predictably moving in a small arc.

The change corresponded with the removal of the laughably ineffective Jean-Marc Doussain (didn’t it seem like Nyanga played scrum-half more than Doussain?) for Teen Wolf Maxime Machenaud – with England dawdling and France actually having someone who passed the ball from the base of the ruck, the dynamic of the game completely changed. France suddenly looked dangerous and the game seemed alive – it wasn’t guaranteed that France would win, but England sacrificed the initative voluntarily, and it might end up costing them the championship.

PS wouldn’t it be great if Machenaud wore Joe Namath’s fur coat – if you’re going to have hair like that, work it Maxime, work it