Mild Concern

Ahead of this weekend, we were feeling pretty good about the Irish provinces re the Heineken Cup (RIP). Ulster and Munster had home draws, which is such a huge factor in the competition, and Leinster, while facing a seriously daunting trip to Toulon, had won the Six Nations the week before. So Rob Penney said anyway.

But now, we aren’t feeling so hot. Maybe it’s natural caution now that the quarter-finals are basically on top of us, maybe it’s the freak dust storm that dumped what looked like Rodney Parade on Egg’s car, or maybe it was the performances of the three major provinces on Saturday night. Before the games, we would have said Ulster are very likely to win (vs Globo Gym), Munster will probably win (vs boring bosh merchants Toulouse) and Leinster will be competitive (vs giants Toulon, who surely should walk out to this).  It’s hard to ever be too confident of winning away from home in the knockout matches.

Starting with Ulster (and why not, given I’m from Ulster, wearing an Ulster shirt and having recurring dreams about Fez driving Chris Ashton ten foot under Ravers), there is simply no excuse for losing to Cardiff. Sure, Matthew Rees was back, and, sure, they had a point to prove. But they were placed lower than all sides but Treviso and the Zebras, and are so rubbish, they aren’t going to get into Europe next season. Conceding 22 unanswered points in 30 minutes with virtually your first choice pack is just unforgivable. Now, we don’t doubt Ulster are going to turn up on Saturday – with the new Ravers being launched and with Saracens as your opponents, you will never lack for motivation – but playing so poorly and losing to such a poor team a week out is sloppy at best. Confidence dented.

Next to Munster. Back after the group stages, we thought Munster would be able for Toulouse, but now we aren’t so sure. There isn’t much doubt they will up the ante for the HEC, but nearly three months of strolls in the park for this team seem to have knocked their base intensity levels. With just two of Saturday’s team involved for Ireland (and based on Saturday, none of those left out can have many complaints – Killer incurred Elaine’s ire, Tommy O’Donnell was comprehensively outplayed by Shane Jennings and Simon Zebo, while threatening going forward, wasn’t exactly Donncha O’Callaghan at ruck time or Jonny Wilkinson in defence), the collective couldn’t cope when Leinster pushed on in the third quarter.

Toulouse, playing in the Top14, won’t lack for high-level preparation, and, if their domestic away form is woeful, they had a big away win against Globo Gym in the pool stages. However, the biggest concern is how Munster are going to score tries. For all their technical excellence, they won’t be mauling Louis Picamoles and co all over the Debt Star; BJ Botha will find Gurthro Steenkamp slightly less accomodating than Michael Bent; and a 10-12 of Keatley and Hurley just isn’t going to get anything going (and if it isn’t going to be Hurley at 12, why play him there a week before?). Watching the clunky attempts to get the ball to Zebo and Keith Earls, we wish Munster would just take a punt on JJ Hanrahan – he really can’t do any worse at either position than the incumbents. Munster are crying out for a centre who can pass the ball more than a few metres.  They have lethally dangerous runners out wide, but their best opportunities to run were given too them by Leinster’s kicking game gave rather than the Munster centres.  Perhaps Toulouse won’t be so generous.

As for Leinster, they have the benefit of so many of them being involved with Ireland – the teamwork didn’t look as clunky as it usually does coming out of international windows, and the confidence levels were high. Still, if they kick as poorly as they did to Munster when their opponents will include in their number Drew Mitchell, Felon Armitage and Matt Giteau, they can forget any notions of a third HEC in four years. And if DJ Church isn’t fit, well, forget any notions of a third HEC in four years. Toulon’s squad is just so talented and deep, Leinster’s best hope is to play the kind of heads-up, accurate, opportunistic rugger that Joe Schmidt espouses, then hope the stars align elsewhere (i.e. Toulon players remember they hate each other) – they’ll need to be hyper-accurate. And three of the linchpins of their recent hyper-accuracy are either sitting with their feet up in BNZ, tending the farm in Carlow, or crying themselves to sleep in Paris. Leinster will need to be a whole lot better than they were on Saturday to derail the Toulon Express.

So, to be blunt, we are worried. Very worried.  Worry, worry, worry.

[Please note that Egg Chaser is an Ulsterman, and therefore always worries, no matter how positive the picture.]

Advertisements

Interpro for Show, HEC for the Pro

The pervading narrative in the build-up to the Leinster-Munster game this weekend has been the opportunity for some Munster players on the fringe of the Ireland squad to show their now-garlanded Irish team-mates what is what. But while this makes a nice story, the prospect of Dave Kilcoyne burning up a whilrwind in the Aviva won’t make a whole lot of difference to the outcome of Munster’s upcoming actual big game – the home tie with boring bosh merchants Toulouse.

The reality about the over-played rivalry thing is that Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer haven’t been as good as Jack McGrath and Martin Moore this season, while Simon Zebo admits himself that:

“I’d be the first to say I can be inefficient there and sometimes don’t do too much at the breakdown . . . I’m not a Donncha O’Callaghan or a Paul O’Connell. I don’t hit as many rucks as they do. But when the ball does go wide, I need to be just as efficient as they are in securing ball . . . going forward I’d have no issues and I’d back myself every time. But there are definitely little parts I can iron out so at the back end I can be a better player.”

So while Simon Zebo goes off to think about unlesahing his inner Donncha O’Callaghan (we all have one, right?), Tommy O’Donnell can consider himself unlucky but there isn’t much between himself, Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy and NWJMB (at blindside) and the selections reflected that.  But that’s really all there is to it.  For all the chat about representation, it comes down to a couple of bench picks that were marginal calls.

The timing of the game in the week before the Heineken Cup knockouts is always something of a double-edged sword. It guarantees that each side will put out most of the frontliners (unlike, say the Christmas interpros), but neither side is particularly keen to delve into the playbook to give much away to the following week’s opponents. It tends to lead to full-blooded encounters, with both sides eager to get a good hit-out, but games which can be short on quality.  “Don’t give them anything lads, but whatever you do, don’t show Toulon any of that passing stuff we’ve been working on.  Just truck it up if you have to”.

If Penney and Axel are doing their jobs, they won’t want Munster to spend too much emotional energy this weekend, but save the majority of the hunger for next Saturday’s brunchtime (© G. Thornley) kickoff. Toulouse are far from the swashbuckling, French-majority team that wowed Europe for the guts of a decade – they are more like Toulon, a bruising behemoth of a side littered with South Africans. While they might be scratching around the lower reaches of the Top Quatorze playoffs on paper, it’s very tight and a top 2 position can’t be ruled out, if a win at Oyannax can be secured in three weeks. Plus Toulouse retain a bit of an institutional grá for the HEC – and they bulldozed down Globo Gym in Lahn during the group stages. They will be dangerous.

Munster are still well set to take Toulouse, who are not to be feared, as Connacht will attest to, particularly with Nigel “41 phases” Owens in possession of the whistle. That said, it will be a high intensity, bosh-friendly encounter, and while Munster’s pack is technically excellent, it is still rather light. If Penney and Axel are serious about targetting Europe, perhaps withdrawing the pack lieutenants on 60 minutes and potentially giving up the Leinster game to go for Europe.

At least Munster are favourites for their tie. For, with a daunting trip to Toulon in prospect, Leinster will be thinking the same thing, and don’t be surprised to see a few “injuries” before Saturday as they give some of the players involved with Ireland some down time ahead of Toulon. If Toulon are tougher opponents, Leinster are more battle-hardened than Munster with most of their panel having played test rugby over the last few weeks.

So sure, it might be fun to feed the Irish rugby media some nice bitter-rivalry style scraps from the table but it’s next week that’s going to determine how successful this year is for Leinster and Munster. And the provinces have that luxury as well – for Toulon and Toulouse, both the Top Quatorze and Europe are relevant, and, in a delicious piece of scheduling, they will be throttling the life out of each other in a boring drop goal contest at the Felix Mayol this weekend.

Getting the Chip Back

Rob Penney’s comments about Munster ‘playing the Six Nations champions’ have managed to drive the media narrative for the upcoming Leinster v Munster battle this Saturday. And why not? Everyone loves a good soundbite and Penney, who is out the gate this June and has probably lost any appetite he had for toeing the line on IRFU politics, has handed one to the meeja on a plate.

We wrote a lengthy piece a couple of years back outlining how the ‘chip on the shoulder’ has been passed around the provinces. Traditionally it was a Munster thing, as they perceived the old selection regime, where the national team was picked by a so-called Big Five, routinely left Munster under-represented. But once The Munster Brand went supernova in the early-noughts, it was Leinster who fostered the spirit of righteous indignation as they came to be held up as the opposite of everything that was great about Munster, when in fact they weren’t all that terrible. And latterly, it was Ulster who were running with the baton. Something of an afterthought among the Irish media, they didn’t seem to get much credit for their excellent recent results and under Kidney’s regime, couldn’t get many of their players selected for Ireland. Remember “Ulster are the better team but Munster are the better province” and “a win for Ulster (over Munster) will be bad for Irish rugby”?

So, is this the moment where Munster re-apply for ownership of the shoulder-chip? Have we gone full circle, with Munster taking back what is rightfully theirs? It’s too early to say for sure, but they look to have a pretty chippy feel about them for this match, and no doubt Penney is trying to stir the pot a little. Again, why not, and while Gerry Thornley’s assertion that ‘there is no more dangerous team in the world with a chip on their shoulder than Munster’ is way OTT, every little helps. It seems only natural that the like of Tommy O’Donnell, David Kilcoyne and Simon Zebo are coming into this game with a huge point to prove.

We not only had Penney’s comments, but Axel Foley chimed in when asked if he would be giving his players extra motivation by asking them to show Schmidt why they should have been picked. Foley’s response was that he didn’t expect he’d need to.

Another interesting comment by Foley was that he would consider playing Keith Earls at 13 ‘because we want to see more Munster players picked for Ireland’. It seemed an odd thing to say, and it would be something of a surprise if Foley saw his Munster team as a breeding ground where he could experiment with players’ roles with a view to getting them into the Ireland team, as opposed to a self-contained entity. He has bigger fish to fry, surely? Well, yes, and as one commentator pointed out, he is probably not being as generous to the national team as he appears. With Laulala leaving in the summer and no replacement coming in as yet, it’s looking like Keith Earls is the best – possibly only – contender to play there next season, which is undoubtedly the real motivation behind persuading him to play 13.

It’s been a while since we saw a really chippy, indignant Munster (probably dating back to Deccie’s first term – by 2008-09 they were a strong and confident Rolls-Royce), so it’ll be interesting to see how the look suits them. The game itself will ultimately define how successful Penney’s better-when-we’re-bitter strategy is. Fail to show up, and they’ll look like the Emperor’s New Clothes, but such occasions are rare in this derby match. Another tight, scrappy, full-blooded affair seems most likely – odds on disciplinary ramifications are low, but then again, some incidents have escaped being cited in recent years, apparently.

One thing’s for sure though: if Penney and Foley want to build a siege mentality from within, they’re unlikely to get much help from the meeja. We expect The RTE Munster-mania Show to roll out the big guns on Saturday, with every kick-chase drooled over and every pass that goes to hand lauded as setting up a potential try-of-the-season.

Not BOD

It would be remiss of us not to sign off on this year’s Six Nations by talking about the successor to you-know-who. Brian O’Driscoll will never wear the Ireland shirt again, and he’s only the best player of the professional era – whoever takes over will be held to the standard set by some-bloke-called-Brian and it will not be easy for them. Indeed, amid the clamour for the shirt, it has to be remembered what a thankless task this will be.  The successful candidate must not only have the rugby skills to take over, he must have the mental strength to deal with not being BOD. Ask Andrew Trimble what it’s like not-being-BOD – while he lit up Le Stade in Ireland’s second winning effort there in 40 years, he lost out on the BOD-of-the-match award. It was a brilliant touch by the French to let BOD have the final word on his own career, but it illustrates the force of personality that Ireland are losing – one of the greats who transcended nations. Although, let’s face it, he has still been dropped by the Lions once more than the Awesome Power of Luther Burrell.

With the World Cup now 18 months away, the learning curve is steep – in the group stages alone, not-BOD will face Michele Campagnaro, one of the better young players on view this 6N and either Gael Fickou, an amazingly talented youngster, or Mathieu Bastareaud, an disgracefully out-of-shape waster who just happens to be extremely strong and explosive, and who seemingly always produces against Ireland. If not-BOD doesn’t win both those games, his next assignment will be marking Smuddy, and if he ins one of them, it’s Marcelo Bosch. Easy.

Any error or signs of not-being-BOD will be picked up upon by fans and meeja alike, with each likely to use the opportunity to row in behind the under-pressure player and support them through their difficult patch. Or maybe they’ll just call for their own provincial team-mate / personal favourite to be handed the 13 jersey. Hard to know really, although those thinking the latter is more likelyare just as cynical as us, and slightly more realistic.

No pressure then. So who is up for being not-BOD?

Robbie Henshaw (Connacht): It feels part of the narrative to call Henshaw “heir apparent” and even say he was “anointed by BOD” but we aren’t so sure about this. BOD’s words have been twisted and Henshaw is very raw at international, or any, level. He is undoubtedly talented, but is still only 20, without a huge body of work at outside centre in professional rugby behind him. That said, he is one of two outside centres actually in the current squad, and is likely to get significant game time in Argentina.  He’s a big, strong running lad and the closest thing we have to a JJV Davies/Burrell type centre.

Darren Cave (Ulster): The other 13 in the current squad. Angry, and who would blame him. I mean, everyone who interviews him asks him about his mate from home, Wotsisname from the Golf innit wiv the hot tennis bird in tow. When is Dazza going to get his time in the sun?! Now maybe – he has been one of the backbones of Ulster’s rise from Magners also-rans to European powerhouse – defensively solid, has added vision and great pass timing to his repertoire this year. Also likely to see some rugger this summer, he is now being thought of as a potential “stop-gap” while Henshaw matures, but he is only 26 and likely to keep improving.

Jared Payne (Ulster): Payne isn’t Irish yet, but he will be in July. Or August. Don’t know, but in time for the Georgia game, that’s for sure. He played lots of rugger at 13 for Auckland back in the Land of the Long Black Chokers but has spent nearly all his time at Ulster at full-back. He undoubtedly has brilliant sense of space and footwork, but his defence can occasionally be of the iHumph variety. And with Joe Schmidt’s obsession with detail, it’s tough to know if he’ll cut the mustard as a 13 candidate if he isn’t playing there week-in, week-out.  Much appears to depend on the shape and fitness of the Ulster back-three.  Word on the ground was that Anscombe’s plan was to play Payne at 13 this year, with Gilroy moving to full-back, but Bowe’s injury put paid to that notion, while Cave continues to be reliable in the 13 shirt.  We’ll see how they line out in the quarter-final against Saracens.

Keith Earls (Munster): Stop! He is good! In fact, he has more experience at outside centre at international level than the rest of the Irish squad put together, so there. And he did ok too, better than ok – we didn’t miss BOD in 2012 as much as we thought we would. Earls has two major problems though – he isn’t playing at centre for Munster, and his decision-making under pressure can be questionable. Re the former, he has a chance to rectify that now Casey Laulala is eschewing passion and pride for money – if he so desires, the Munster 13 shirt is his next season. Re the latter, extended time in camp with Joe Schmidt is maybe just what the doctor ordered – he might even learn how to pass.

Luke Roysh (Leinster): I knew it! Bias! A pro-Leinster conspiracy! Luke Fitzgerald is the most talented back produced by Ireland since BOD, but his international career has been in stall mode for five years. And he is stil only 26! Fitzgerald has the game for outside centre, no question, but he also has two major flaws – he isn’t playing at centre for Leinster, and he is injury-prone. Similar to Ireland, Leinster have a pressing need for a 13 as their one is moving from rugby into the sainthood business – perhaps this is the opportunity Fitzgerald needs to get his career back in the groove. He has experience with Schmidt, and plus he is from Leinster, so he’ll probably get picked anyway. *foam* *froth*

Fergus McFadden (Leinster): Another Leinster player! This is getting ridiculous, I mean there are two now in this list alone – what about the Ulster/Munster/Connacht quota for the national side! Ferg has actually worn the Irish 13 jersey before, against Wales in 2012, although it got ignominiously dumped on its back by JJV Davies en route to Wales upsetting the applecart, and he started his career there. But he has spent the last two years being exclusively a wing. He filled in at centre during the Six Nations just gone, and has the advantage of being in the inner sanctum. Still, a role as a versatile bench option feels more likely.

Stuart Olding (Ulster): Bear with us here. Sure, he’s been at 10 or 12 most of his short career. Sure, he’s injured. But he is a sumptuous and natural footballer with great vision, excellent passing skills, good defence and a sharp rugby brain. We have a funny feeling he will end up as a 13 (partly due to the existence of Wee PJ and Bamm-Bamm, partly because he is good enough to do so). Just saying. Maybe not now though.

Simon Zebo (Munster): A cursory glance at the interwebs will tell you that Zebo has the passing of Matt Giteau, the speed of Carlin Isles, the power of Manu Tuilagi, the defence of Jonny Wilkinson and the rugby brain of Dan Carter – it seems madness that Joe Schmidt won’t pick him, so maybe he is saving him for #thirteen. Note to Munster fans – THIS IS A JOKE! We think he  is great.

So there you have it, plenty of imperfect candidates to be not-BOD. We reckon Cave and Henshaw will each get an audition in Argentina, and Earls and Fitzgerald will be live contenders if they line out there for their provinces next season. Whoever does get the nod, it’s utterly essential that we give them all the support possible – they’ll need it for the one thing we do know is – they won’t be BOD.

Selection Bias

The news that Joe Schmidt had to field questions about selection bias left us more than a little surprised.  The issue appears to have sprouted from ill-advised and certainly ill-timed comments from Denis Leamy in the lead-up to the France match.  The questions were dispatched consummately by Schmidt, who effectively put the accusations of provincialism back on those asking the questions.  Too right!

Certainly, Joe Schmidt picked a lot of players from Leinster over the championship, including some who aren’t consistently first choice for their province.  There is certainly an argument that he picked players he could trust to enact his gameplan, which may have given those familiar with his methods a head-start, but to say he picked based on the colour of the players’ provincial jerseys is a nonsense.

Besides, Ireland are champions, so the head coach’s decisions are vindicated, whether or not they were popular beforehand.  We ourselves made some negative noises around the selection for the Italy game, but after Ireland won handsomely we were put back in our box, and we acknowledged as such.  Same goes for Denis Leamy.  One has to ask what those asking the questions are looking for exactly.  Ireland have won precious few Six Nations championships, and while it would be nice to think we could win them with exactly equal allocations from each province, or by ‘rotating’ in up-and-coming players in a variety of positions to develop them for the World Cup, it’s almost certainly an impossibility.  Others have said that the margins of victory were so tight that the coach should still be criticised.  Again, it would be nice to have won more comfortably in Paris, but given how seldom we have done it, insisting we should dish out a hammering seems a bit unrealistic.  It’s pretty churlish stuff altogether.

There have been some protests that those defending Schmidt’s selections are the same as those who bemoaned Gatland’s Welsh bias on the Lions tour.  Maybe so, but they are totally missing the point. To them we say this: who really, besides the players, gives two hoots about whether the Lions won or lost?  We’d gladly sell you 20 Lions tour wins for one victorious Six Nations.  The most important thing about the Lions tour is the team selection and how many Irish get into it; the matches are mostly putrid and boring.  Anyone out there buy the commemroative DVD to re-live the glory of the 2-1 win over the worst Australia team in 30 years this Christmas?  Can anyone even remember anything from the first two tests, apart from some chap falling when taking a kick in the last minute?  Us neither.  So, sure, we raged against Gatland and are still bitter over his dropping of O’Driscoll, but that’s because it’s more important that O’Driscoll’s feelings aren’t hurt than the Lions winning the series.  For Ireland things are different; winning is the be all and end all.

The World Cup Starts Here…ish

With the 2014 Six Nations out of the way, the 2015 World Cup suddenly comes into distant view.  It’s not on tomorrow, we don’t need to have our 30 man squad pencilled in today, but the process of building towards this giant of a tournament begins now; or at least, it begins with a pretty-much optimal summer tour of two tests in Argentina. After that, it’s three tests in November (South Africa, Georgia and the Wobblies), then the Six Nations, then … er … that’s pretty much it. So that’s 10 tests between now and then, and 20% of them are in June (and, at the risk of underestimating Georgia 2007 style, that’s counting them as a full test). For those who will say “ah, but, what about our warm-up games?”, we say that its surely impossible that Joe Schmidt will still be looking to play some favourites into form a month before the tournament.  Those will be about battle-hardening the players.

This summer schedule is perfect because the games are hard but winnable.  By the summer, the Irish players are pretty fatigued and often injured, especially if the provinces end up fighting it out for silverware, which they usually do.  Anyone fancy two or even three games against a box-fresh New Zealand team?  Or muscling it out against the Springboks?  Us neither.  Argentina will be using these games as the springboard for their Rugby Championship, so they’ll mean business, but all said and done, they’re a decent team but no world-beaters.  Ireland can have justifiable hopes of winning the series as well as furthering the development of a handful of options with an eye on 2015.

Much has been made of Schmidt’s unchanging teamsheet over the course of the Six Nations.  He mentioned a target of starting over 20 players but in the end only started 18. He did play 28, which, when you include extra front rows and so forth means we are already getting pretty competitive in terms of the RWC15 squad.  We suspected a ‘loss of nerve’ in the lack of rotation before the Italy game, but such assumptions proved a mile off the mark.  And while the likes of Denis Leamy appear to have a bee in their bonnet over World Cup development, the truth is that a number of the next wave of players have seen their development furthered over the course of the championship and winning the Six Nations is the best development the players could possibly have got.

Both Marty Moore and Jack McGrath played in all five matches, and were entrusted with finishing the match in Paris, a huge responsibility. Tommy O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy both experienced test rugby, Iain Henderson started a test match and Sean Cronin was used as a valuable impact replacement, and not a reserve only to be brought on when a wing gets injured.  It feels about 100 years ago now, but Dan Tuohy made a belated impact at test level when given a start against Scotland.

Looking through the playing squad, there is only one player who will definitely not be going to the World Cup, and we all know who it is.  The search for O’Driscoll’s successor starts now and while none of the options are equal to the great man, nor do they have to be.  Remember, this is Schmidt’s Ireland where cohesion and attention to the minutiae are king.  Someone like Darren Cave or Fergus McFadden, apparently solid but unspectacular (remind you of perceptions of a certain Ulster wing currently revising opinions?), could excel under Schmidt’s tutelage.  Robbie Henshaw is seen as the coming man by many, and could well be the long term successor, but it’s not clear he’s ready just yet.  Jared Payne is the wild card, but he doesn’t qualify as Irish until the November series. Joe name-dropped Cave and Henshaw in his post-game France interview and maybe they will get one start each in Argentina.

Two other players should be strongly considering devoting themselves to playing outside centre: Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls. “Keith Earls, haven’t we been over that?”, you say.  Well, yes, it hasn’t always worked but those with working memories will remember that Earls has had more good days than bad at 13. Indeed, he played a whole Six Nations in the position in 2012 and had a good series in a bad team.  With Casey Laulala leaving Munster and no replacement signed, and with the wings hugely competitive at national level, Anthony Foley should be trying to persuade Earls to make a huge push to play outside centre full time.  Meanwhile, up the M7 (or the M9, depending on how you see it), BOD’s retirement leaves Leinster with as big a hole to fill as Ireland, and Luke Fitzgerald and Fergus McFadden are the two men most likely to do so.  Again, with such stiff competition for places on the wing, both should be persuadable to give it a go.

The age profile of the rest of the team looks good, and there is no need to panic and pick an inexperienced team which will lose to Argentina.  That said, options need to be developed at tighthead prop and inside centre, starting this summer.  Gordon D’arcy and Mike Ross should be in the World Cup party, but Ireland need to be ready for a scenario where they aren’t.  Ageing players’ levels can fall away quicker than you expect once they go over the hill.  Both were excellent this Six Nations, but in 18 months who knows?  The IRFU pleaded with John Hayes to stay on until the World Cup, only for his game to collapse in the twelve months before it and he ended up not even making the squad.  Better to plan for being without them and if we still have them, all the better.

Fortunately, options are available and the summer tour is the time to use them.  Marty Moore’s development has been rapid and he should start at least one match in the summer tour. It was a little frightening how Vincent Debaty, experienced but not a renowned scrummager, shunted him all around Le Stade, but he is a young man and will learn from the harrowing experience.  On the next rung is the vastly improved Stephen Archer, who should tour and get at least one runout off the bench.  At inside centre, a cloud hangs over Luke Marshall’s future due to his recent concussion; if he can overcome this issue, it is obvious that he should start at least one match in Argentina and he would be a short odds bet to be first choice for next year’s Six Nations.  If he doesn’t it leaves Ireland in a bit of a pickle, at least until his provincial team-mate Stuart Olding recovers from serious injury.  Olding looks the real deal, a natural footballer, but it will be next season before we get to see him again.

Schmidt will also have to decide if it makes sense to bring a possibly exhausted Johnny Sexton to Argentina.  In all likelihood, and judging on Schmidt’s recent coments, this will depend on Racing Metro’s involvement in the Top 14 playoffs.  Sexton has had a huge workload over the last 24 months and may be best off being allowed a proper recovery period, which would afford Schmidt the opportunity to see how Jackson and Madigan cope with the pressure of starting a hard away game.

The summer also looks a good opportunity to rehabilitate a few names who were absent from this Six Nations. Donnacha Ryan and Stephen Ferris are two forgotten men, but both are back from injury and if they can stay fit and recover their best form, they are among our best players.  Ferris would bring a ying to O’Mahony’s yang as they are almost the polar opposite of each other, in as much as two blindside flankers can be.  It would give Ireland serious options in the backrow, essential in a World Cup where the intensity scales up week after week.  Needless to say, Earls, Fitzgerald and Bowe are in the same camp and all three should be pretty fresh going into the summer tour, while others will be starting to fatigue.  And hopefully Simon Zebo can put his head down and get himself in the frame, because the rugby world is a brighter place when he’s playing.

Ireland are in a splendid position; starting the World Cup run-in as Six Nations champions, with renewed vigour and a sense of clarity.  It’s always better to adapt and change from a strong position rather than leaving it until it’s out of necessity, but such things are easier said than done.  In 2009, Kidney was in a similar place, but was a little too reticent to expand Ireland’s game and playing panel, and momentum was squandered; it was a game of catch up until the World Cup and he was lucky Mike Ross fell into his lap.  Wales, in this year’s Six Nations, have missed the same opportunity and now find themselves on the back foot.  There’s always a good reason to keep things as they are, but often a better one to change.

Unsung Heroes

How appropriate that the winning act in Ireland’s victorious Six Nations campaign was a turnover by Chris Henry and Devin Toner – previously unheralded guys who were given an opportunity by Joe Schmidt and swam at this level. Henry epitomises the new Ireland – where players sacrifice all for the team. Ireland won this championship because they were the best team – the Irish collective was built on the commitment to excellence of the new coaching ticket, and every player in the squad bought into it entirely.

It’s becoming hackneyed to talk of Ireland’s “unsung heroes” (how many times do you get sung before you can’t be unsung any more?) and this usually refers to the consistent excellence of the likes of Devin Toner, Chris Henry, Dave Kearney and Andrew Trimble. They are the contingent who Schmidt brought into the first team from the fringes of the squad, often ahead of more championed alternatives, and generated much heat for doing so. Let’s look at them:

  • Toner has found himself the target of derision and doubt many times in his career. Despite accumulating 100+ Leinster caps, his elevation to the XV was perceived to be Leinster-centrism from Joe Schmidt. Yet he was the surprise package of the November series and he looked of international standard. In recent years, he has improved year on year and this is no different. Yet, the perception was (and is) that if Ryan and McCarthy were fully fit, Toner would be nowhere near the XV, but he ends as one of Ireland’s players of the series. He has been a key man in adding grunt to a light pack, and will be hard to shift.
  • Henry – soldiering away at Ulster and one of the most influential players at HEC level for a few years now. Yet he is 29 and plays in a position where we are stacked. But Schmidt saw something he liked (at Leinster, where he devised his HEC2012 final gameplan around nullifying Henry’s influence) and he was in. He was the workhorse of the backrow trio, tackled himself to a standstill (we are too lazy to add up, but we expect him to be Ireland’s #1 tackler over the series). It’s easy to say he will make way for O’Brien and Ferris if and when they are back, but he has been one of Ireland’s players of the series, for his consistency, and was especially effective in the away games
  • Dave Kearney and, especially, Trimble – perceived as 5th and 6th best wingers at the start of the season (at best) – even now, most people would pick a fully fit Tommy Bowe over both, but they’ve done little wrong, and Trimble was Ireland’s best player in their win in Paris. Sure, Simon Zebo is more electric, no doubt about it, but read the below from Trimble in November, when he was outside the circle (H/T the Mole) – does this describe Simon Zebo? What about Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls or Tommy Bowe? Hard to know, but Andrew Trimble, after 50 caps, looks here to stay:
    “I’m more conscious now of the type of winger that Joe is looking for. He’s looking for someone who is accurate, who is physically dominant, who knows their role inside out and performs a lot of small areas of the game very, very well … He demands so much from his players. Joe isn’t overly concerned about a winger that breaks a gain-line and scores tries from halfway. He looks for a winger who does the simple stuff very well, presents the ball at ruck time accurately all the time, accuracy in kick-chase and reception. Every little thing. He has to do everything to make the team tick.”  

This is the new Ireland – the players are selected on their ability to execute the coach’s gameplan – and the team is paramount. No Ireland player was as explosive or as individually influential as Danny Care, Mike Brown or Joe Launchbury, but it isn’t those guys who are champions. Ireland had few noticable weaknesses, unlike the other championship contenders. England struggled any time their backup scrum-half was on the pitch, and would surely have won the Grand Slam had hand-flapping Lee ‘Rock Lobster’ Dickson not been introduced in Paris, and their 10-12 axis managed to create the grand total of one try in five games for two flying wingers. Wales had a weak collection of half-backs and an inflexible gameplan, and France a court jester of a coach, poor backups and a generally unfit pack.

Casting your mind back to how low Ireland had sunk this time 12 months ago is illuminating – beaten up in Rome, with a coach long since past his sell-by date and with a distinctly un-fortress-like fortress. The new ticket has brought a unified direction and purpose, a commitment to being the best, confidence, and a newly-loved team with an atmospheric home ground. Miracle worker? Well, it’s amazing what some strong leadership and a new direction will do – Ireland are a team that mirror their coach’s personality on the field.

Think about who was Ireland’s player of the championship, and there’s no obvious choice. Every player, from 1-23, contributed something. After two games, we’d have picked O’Mahony, but he had quiet games in Twickers and Le Stade and missed Italy. Henry? Certainly up there for consistency. Trimble? As important as anyone. O’Connell? Manic, and another brilliant leader, but quiet in Twickenham. Sexton? Got the Bernhardt Langers with him kicks in Paris, but scored four tries, and at crucial moments. BOD? Rolled back the years. But Jamie Heaslip would be our choice because he was among the top performers in all five games and had a huge all-round impact and influence (see Workrate  by Henry, C.) – but we wouldn’t argue with any of the above.  If anyone out there still doesn’t see what Healsip’s value to the team is, well, they’re not worth listening to.

That consistency and collective drive was the most impressive turnaround. Ireland have a quite magnificent coach, a squad of intelligent and skillful young men, and some big guns to come back. There is no reason why, with the RWC15 draw we have, we shouldn’t be putting ourselves up there with England as the main threat to BNZ and the Boks next autumn.  And while Ireland didn’t win a Grand Slam, there is a certain satisfaction to be derived from winning the championship on points difference.  Ireland have finished level on points with the champions in the recent past, but always came out second best on this metric.  Not this time, though, and the real differentiator between Ireland’s and England’s points differential was the thorough beating we handed out to Wales, which everyone can feel happy about. And the key reason England didn’t thrash Wales as well was consistently giving away kickable penalties to keep Wales in the game – something we happily avoided all tournament.  George Hook and others may lament the rules, but Ireland weren’t top of the log by accident.

To briefly talk about the game itself, it was torture. France turned up in a big way – Maxime Machenaud was class, Picamoles, Bastareaud unstoppable and the back three threatened with every touch. Ireland were superb for the middle 40 minutes, but the final 20 were horrible.  We eked out a 9 point lead after 55 minutes, but wilted under the pressure of the French desire and our own poor execution. Only a poor place kick from Doussain, prime butchery of a simple pass from Pape and a lucky scrum call right at the end got us over the line. It was the game was the best of the tournament and for pure bloody-mindedness, we just about deserved it. Some of the highlights:

  • The Sexton try in the second half. A spectacular break from Trimble and a brilliant piece of play from BOD – realising he wasn’t getting in, he plotted a path to recycle and we got in right under the posts. POC’s super-fast pick and drive from the ruck was a classic example of a huge carry for small gain – it crucially kept the momentum going.  And after seeing the way Sexton shanked the conversion, touching down under the posts was the winning of the game
  • Mike Ross destroying Thomas Domingo – Ross had an average year up to the Six Nations but has been totemic. Perhaps he just needed a bit of time to get to grips with the new scrum dynamics.  Seeing off a man like Domingo before halftime is one for the headstone.  Poor old Rosser remains totally undervalued – by ourselves as much as anyone else.  We wanted to see more of Marty Moore, but after the last ten minutes in Paris it’s clear just how far the young man has to go to get to Ross’ venerated level.
  • Dreamboat getting pedantic with the TMO right at end about whether it was forward out of Pape’s hands.  With Super Forward Pass-a-Rama Rugby in his DNA, he really, really wanted to give the try.  Triminjus, in his despair, said to no-one in particular “Come on man!”
  • Brice Dulin. Despite us being on the receiving end, a vintage full-back display from the little Frenchman. With him and Willie le Roux, little guys at 15 are back in vogue
  • Our favourite: the touching moment on the field after the game as Rog and Shaggy talked with Andrew Trimble about his journey from international outcast to golden boy.  The delight of the two retirees to see the “real Andrew Trimble” was palpable and the honesty with which Trimble discussed his struggles was captivating. The obvious delight the Leinsterman and Munsterman had for the Ulsterman was a joy to watch – you sensed McGurk was about to interrupt and ruin the moment, but thankfully he didn’t

However, it would be remiss not to point out that Ireland could still be an awful lot better at closing out tight, crucial matches.  We certainly couldn’t be accused of showing composure in the final ten minutes, and, in many ways, we were worse than in the BNZ game in November.  Courage, determination, incredible will to win; we ticked all of that, but not composure.  We’ve earned a tag of being chokers down the years and here, once again, we choked at least a little bit. In Paul O’Connell’s pitch-side interview post-game, he was furious about how we finished and mentioned it more than once – this is another positive.  In 2009 in Wales we stopped playing rugby in the final 20 minutes and lost our discipline, but somehow still won.  Here we stopped playing rugby, repeatedly kicking the ball to the French back three who were comfortable in finding ways to return it for profit, but maintained our discipline, at least until our scrum collapsed.  Maybe we’re getting there by degrees.  On this occasion it was enough to win.  The curious thing is that the provinces are all good closer-outers, with Munster regarded as world beaters in clutch situations.  But as we said in our pre-match post, the weight of history can be as hard to beat as the opponent.

Finally, what is there left to say about Brian O’Driscoll that hasn’t already been said?  The curious thing was that there was more BOD-related fanfare for his second-last match than his last, but that’s because there was a championship on the line which was the main media focus, and that’s exactly how he would have wanted it.

We are the champions, my friends.  Enjoy it.

The Spectre of Historical Bamboozling

When New Zealand won the 2011 World Cup in outrageously fortuitous circumstances, we gave them some credit in spite of the dubious manner of their victory.  The reason was because they not only had to beat France, but the weight of history too, after so many diabolical chokes.  In similar circumstances, Ireland must beat France in Paris this weekend.  On the evidence of the tournament so far (and what better evidence is there to go on?) Ireland are a vastly better team, a better coached and selected team, more unified, fitter and more skilful and should be strong favourites for the win.  Their greatest obstacle is the weight of history; that so many visits to Paris have ended in sorry defeat and that this will affect the mentality of the players.  Ireland have a well-earned reputation as the nearly men of international rugby, and their inability to beat France more often is the prosecution’s Exhibit B (you know what exhibit A is).

The build-up this week will feature and has featured lots of phrases such as French unpredictability, the difficulty of winning in Paris, backlashes and France having one big performance in them – Gerry has even rolled out 1982 in the case for the defence.  The job for Joe Schmidt is to get such thoughts out of the players’ minds, and surely there is nobody better able to do so.  Schmidt’s modus operandi is to hand players the solution to beating opponents.  How many times have we heard that he is obsessed with process, detail and accuracy.  If the players can get previous defeats in Paris out of their minds, and focus on exploiting the French team’s weaknesses (and there are many) they will win the game, and the championship.  One thing that came out of the recent Q&A that went viral was Schmidt’s unwillingness to accept ‘received wisdoms’ and we cannot envisage how he will be in any way daunted by Ireland’s miserable record in Paris.  Focus on the process!

[Note: another was, ironically, Schmidt’s reluctance to give the 2011 BNZ team any credit for the final – he claimed they had choked worse than 2007 and were indebted to an even bigger choke – from Joubert]

Listen to, say, Keith Wood describe playing the French in Paris and he talks about a whirlwind of pace; just as you clear your lines, the French take a quick lineout, you spend the first 20 minutes without the ball as the French create ruck after ruck, phase after phase, attack after attack.  But them days is gone; the chances of Ireland struggling to handle this French team’s pace in the first 20 minutes would appear almost non existent.  Phillipe Saint Andre has stuck to his selectorial guns and excluded Morgan Parra and Francois Trinh-Duc, so a sudden upping of their slow-motion grindathon rugby is off le carte. Our catalogue of betes noires from the noughties – Clerc, Servat, Pelous, Harinordoquoy, Heymans, Jauzion, Poitrenaud – are nowhere to be seen.

We can also expect plenty of rumours of player power and a French revolt, but again, where can it come from?  Some sort of dressing room coup seemed to take place in the World Cup, when the hapless Lievremont was in place, but the leadership corp of strong personalities who were in place then are all gone – none of Imanol Harinordoquy, Julien Bonnaire, William Servat, Dmitri Yachvili or Thierry Dusautoir are in the current squad.  Pascal Pape is the current captain and he does not have the demeanour of a man about to wrest the controls from the coach.  Heck, the man looks like he got out of bed five minutes before kick-off.

Paul O’Connell talked after the Italy game of the respect they showed Italy, and how the result came from that; well, this week, it’s important we show a healthy lack of respect for France.  If anything, in the past, we appear to have shown too much respect for them.  So many defeats appear to have been borne out by standing off the French, apparently seduced by their good looks and Galois-smoking coolness. Gerry’s oft-repeated warning about kicking loosely to their back three is as much a love letter as anything else.

Look a little closer, though, and that’s maybe not quite the case, not in the last decade anyway.  While Ireland’s record in Paris clearly points to some sort of inferiority complex, it is not so much that they are beaten out the gate; more that reactions to on-pitch events have let us down.  Recent visits to Paris have more often than not been notable for Ireland starting really well and even taking the game to the home side.  The matches have typically slid away from Ireland due to a game-changing moment going against us, or some sort of utterly wretched point-gun-at-foot-and-pull-trigger incident, or panic setting in at the first sign of momentum shifting against us.  Even the pretty abject 2012-vintage Ireland took the game to France and stormed into an early lead, before a lucky French try brought them back into the game, which was eventually drawn.

And while a scoreline of 33-10 in 2010 looks like a classic French drubbing, for the first 30 minutes Ireland were the better side, and should have scored after Gordon D’arcy’s break and chip-and-chase bounced cruelly.  Ireland paid for a daftly selected bench and were forced to bring on Paddy Wallace for the stricken Rob Kearney and had to change around most of their backline.  The pendulum swung France’s way and first Jirry Flannery, and then DJ Church, had hugely expensive moments of madness.

2008 was similar again.  Ireland were badly stuttering in the Last Days of Eddie, but they attacked France from the first moment, but gave Vincent Clerc a couple of soft jog-in tries and a freakish Cedric Heymans try appeared to put France out of sight.  But Ireland refused to lie down.  Jamie Heaslip had finally been given a start by a reluctant Eddie O’Sullivan and was outstanding, as Ireland fought back to almost win at the death.

And who could forget the 2006 bonkers-fest?  Again Ireland played most of the rugby, but just couldn’t stop punching themselves in the face, and allowed France to score a bunch of utterly ridiculous, boneheadedly farcical tries.  Geordan Murphy’s reputation of not having a ‘happy hunting ground’ in Paris was sealed here, as he endured a nightmare.  This was the game where Neil Francis gave a somewhat raw Tommy Bowe zero out of ten.  But again, Ireland refused to lie down.  Trimble replaced Bowe and was superb as Ireland countered with no less than four second half tries and had France hanging on at the end.

Ireland need to foster the same attacking spirit as they have in the past.  The key to winning will be maintaining cool heads in the face of pressure and the inevitable occasional hometown decision. Ireland should be better than France in every other respect.  A performance on a par with those delivered against England or Wales will be good enough – and more.  A win for Ireland and the sceptre of historical bamboozling can be slain.

Psychiatrists Couch

The secretary comes into the waiting room. She spots the torrid wreck on the sofa and says “the doctor will see you now”. The patient uneasily walks in and lies on the coach. “Thanks Dr Freud” they say, “we need this”.

Dr Freud: So tell me about your dream, Ireland

Ireland: Well, I keep seeing these muscular, dark-eyed stubbly geniuses in my dreams. They are so silky, fashionable and effortlessly cool. They make me feel so inadequate.

Dr Freud: What do these men say?

Ireland: They don’t even look at me. They simply go about their business. And it’s such a stylish and enigmatic business. I end up so weak-kneed that I just kick loosely to their Rolls-Royce like outside backs and they run riot as we invite them to do what they want to us. They glide past me like shadows. Such good-looking long-haired shadows. *sniffs*

Dr Freud: Let’s be more specific. Tell me about the good-looking ones.

Ireland: Well, there’s Emile N’Tamack running in try after try in the Parc des Princes. Then Philipe Saint-Andre in Durban, laughing at our heavy-legged attempts to shake off altitude. That Freddy guy, toying with our minds as he shreds our confidence and defence. Vincent Clerc – he’s the worst – he makes us cry before he even gets level with us. And Cedric Heymans – smoking a Gitanes outside Coppers, our women on his arms – so suave.

Its so unfair Doctor, we try so hard, but they don’t respect us. They are full of self-confidence and look down on our mental frailties. They ruined our holidays in South Africa, Australia and then France. They won’t let us have the ball.

Dr Freud: Hold on. Do they sing?

Ireland: They do. They sing such a manly, raucous song – a song of revolt, of brotherhood, of liberty and of great red wine. It makes our pair of dirges sound even worse. It makes them grow, I swear. Listen for yourself, you’ll find yourself saying eminense grise when talking about Yannick Jauzion.

Dr Freud: Ah! The French!

Ireland: Yes. the French. *sobs* All I can see is a tattered tricolore flying over Paris in ’89, General de Gaulle strutting down the Champs Elysee in ’45, Eric Cantona’s poetry about seagulls and trawlers and Vincent Cassel’s chiselled cheekbones. Their orange sauce is to die for!

Dr Freud: This is a severe case of inferiority complex. Sure, their unstructured backline play of the 1970s and 1980s made you look like the bunch of fat amateurs you were, but things have changed – I mean, you can beat everyone else.

Ireland: Except the All Blacks.

Dr Freud: Don’t call them that! And leave it – this session is only an hour.

Ireland: Ok. Go on.

Dr Freud: You have knocked off the Springboks a few times, Australia semi-regularly, England more often than not since the Millennium, that Scotland hoodoo has gone. I mean, it’s not 2006 any more – they aren’t even that good.

Ireland: What? But all I read is about how dangerous they are when cornered – that Wesley Fofana is like Christopher Dean.

Dr Freud: Listen, their forwards are out of shape and trot from ruck to ruck with the stamina of the bastard lovechild of CJ van der Linde and Matt le Tissier. Their captain is injured. The nincompoop coach has done nothing since Sale Sharks – Sale Sharks! – and has managed to fall out with his two best players. I mean – look at them – look! They hate each other. How can you say you can’t beat them?

Ireland: *mumbling* but … Medard’s chops … Szarszewski’s hair … Huget’s beard

Dr Freud: Forget all that – the referee on Saturday has more testosterone in his little finger than the French team have in their staring XV. Let me call in my assistant.

The doctors assistance enters the room.

Joe: Get up off the floor, you gibbering wreck. This is insane – all those great players are gone. The Saint-Andre guy – he’s ruining the team! You guys have a gameplan and are well-coached – these guys are a shambles. Here’s what we are doing – we are forgetting any mental hangups and concentrating on process. We will design a gameplan to beat a flawed and uninterested team, and we will beat them. I could not care less what has happened in the past. This is a professional sport, and we are going to win. Text all your friends with one reason why we will win, then come back to me on Saturday.

Ireland: Are we nearly done here? I’ve a puff piece to do with Gerry for Saturday.

Joe: Gerry! Do not under any circumstances speak to that man – we’ve to foster a healthy lack of respect for France. And think about this: you get their respect by beating them. They’ll like you, and might even be friends. If you are serious about getting pulling lessons from Parra, make him want to go out with you. Now, where is O’Mahony – I need to tell him he’ll turn to stone if he looks Walsh in the eye.

*curtains fall*

The truth is, Ireland’s rugby relationship with the French mirrors exactly our national hangups – we would like our society to be more open, more egalitarian and with better trains, we want to be more fashionable, eat better food and drink better wine. We look at France and see not the clapped-out third gear country of now, but a gleaming idealist paradise, with great-looking citoyens.

For all that we protest that we a modern country now with the Troubles and the banana-republic capers behind us, the reality is we don’t believe it ourselves. If we can begin to beat the French on the field, who knows where it might lead in the sphere of national development. The DORSH might even start to run regularly and on-time! Let’s start that journey on Saturday. Allez les verts! Wait, I’m over-respecting their romantic and expressive language … darn, how do we stop!

Perfect Day

Well, wasn’t that nice? Brian O’Driscoll got the send off he deserved – an emotional Palindrome stood to applaud Ireland’s best player of the professional era for what seemed like a really long time. It had got kind of awkward – everyone was standing around smiling, delighted to have the opportunity to thank one of the greats, without reservation or glances at watches. A full ten minutes after the full-time whistle had blown, not a seat had been vacated as Ireland’s rugby fans paid homage. The umbilical cord between players and fans which was severed by the move from the rickety old Lansdowne Road 7 years ago seemed restored by 20 minutes of  soppy cheering at every glimpse of BOD on the big screen.

It was one of those “I was there” days, and O’Driscoll graced the stadium with a performance stamped with his personality. We have been fortunate to see such a day – not every player gets to end on his own terms – just look at some of O’Driscoll’s illustrious team mates from the Golden Generation:

  • Wally: carried off in agony on a stretcher in a meaningless RWC11 warm-up
  • Jirry: aborting comebacks until enough was enough
  • Rog: the conductor, sent into the wilderness following a shambolic performance in Murrayfield 12 months ago
  • Shane Horgan slid quietly out of view for Ireland before injury finished his career
  • Even knowing the end is coming in advance doesn’t always work out.  Denis Hickie pre-announced his retirement, but the the finale came it was in the abominable 2007 World Cup and nobody was in the mood for kiss-blowing goodbyes

At least John Hayes got a Thomond Park goodbye, but his Ireland career finished with even Mushy ahead in the queue; he missed the World Cup squad and that was that.

On Saturday, it helped too that the performance and game were so good – Ireland went out to win by a lot and ended the day 39 points up on the scoreboard. Devin Toner had possibly his best game yet (saying something), Eoin Reddan came off the benchset and set the tempo to greased lightning, and Johnny Sexton even pulled off the first successful Randwick Loop in years. Somewhere, Alan Gaffney is saying “I told you so”.

The bench contributed three tries and really iced the cake – in recent years the 60th minute has marked the time for Ireland to wilt and let the opposition dictate the pace of the game. Here they kicked on powerfully and professionally. Even Sergio Parrisse and Sandro Zanni would have made little difference, though undoubtedly Italy had one eye on next week by the end.

It was also a vindication of Schmidt’s selection, of which we were critical before the game.  Our concern was that without freshening things up, Ireland might have found their eyes flickering forward to Paris, but the focus was razor-sharp.  It’s a frequent occurance that a Schmidt selection raises eyebrows, but after the game it all seems to make perfect sense.  Will we never learn?

O’Driscoll himself did speak an uncomfortable truth after the game – that this will all count for very little if we lose in Paris. Ireland’s mental weakness in the face of the Gitane-smoking, stubble-faced, suave Frenchman will be thoroughly uninteresting to Joe Schmidt – the reality of the situation is that this French team are appalling and we simply must beat them and win the Championship. If we go out and lose in Le Stade, we’ll still remember the fond farewell we gave BOD, but he’ll still retire with just one Championship – nowhere near enough for a player who has contributed more than anyone in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 20 years, except possibly Johnno.

Even among fans, it seems there is still too much deferance to French rugby.  We should fear the backlash, apparently.  But what can France lash back with?  And wasn’t the Scotland game supposed to be the backlash to the previous rubbish performance?  And the one before that etc.?  They play at  glacial tempo, and the likelihood of them suddenly unleashing their inner Jauzion-Clerc-Heymans seems so remote as to be fanciful.  Schmidt, however, would appear to be just the man to cut through any such sentiment and ensure that Ireland have a healthy lack of respect for their opposition.  Heck, even Kidney’s stuttering 2012-13 vintage Ireland managed two draws with this lot.

BOD, and we, would prefer silverware to happy-clappy love-ins and we have put ourselves in a position to slay two ghosts – the too-long hangup about the French and choking within sight of the finish line [don’t mention the grand slam, we choked utterly in that game].  Let’s get the great man some more pots to show off in his dotage.