Please! Can Second Rows Stop Getting Injured!

The latest news on Donnacha Ryan’s injury is not good – the phrase “last resort” has been used, and what we feared at the beginning of the season, a Jirry-esque spiral into perma-injury and ultimately retirement, now appears a distinct possibility. It’s a toe injury, which seemingly prevents him pivoting and leaves him unable to scrummage. What’s new, say the wags among you, but Ryan in 2012/13 was one of the few to enhance in reputation in the dark dog days of Deccie’s ticket. Ireland could do with having a full strength, snarling Ryan back fit and firing, especially for the world cup, but the probablility is receding.

If Ryan falls into the bucket of “not Paul O’Connell but an international calibre second row forward”, he shares that (hopefully huge) bucket with Big Dev, NWJMB (that’s Iain Henderson to newcomers) and Dan Tuohy. If all four were fit and in their best form, the Milky Bar Kid would have a serious selection dilemma and we’d all be talking about what great depth we have. Henderson is likely to be around the longest, and is the most naturally talented, but he’s just starting out in the row, and will get beefier. Toner has made incremental progress for five years now and was one of Ireland’s most consistent players last season. Tuohy is a guy who we feel got a bit of a bum deal from Deccie from 2010/11 to 2012/13 – he was the most dynamic of all the second rows playing in Ireland at the time, but got consistently overlooked for Donncha. Because we know what he can do. Or something.  Tuohy performed ably in the first game of the Six Nations last year but unfortunately got injured.

But now, three of the four lads in the our giant bucket are injured – Henderson had what seems to be elective surgery on his back, with a view to playing in the 6N and being fully fit for the RWC; Tuohy broke his arm after starting the season as one of Ulster’s standout players; and now Ryan’s very career seems to be hanging in the balance. Ireland have been left in the position that their starters from last year, O’Connell and Toner, are still around, but the guys ranked 3, 4 and 5 on the depth chart are out for November.  Sure, the World Cup and Six Nations are the most important upcoming milestones, but November is an important opportunity to test ourselves against two of the world’s best teams.  And Australia.

That effectively means Ireland are one injury away from having to start Mike McCarthy against the Wobblies and the Boks – he’s done well against the Boks before, but that was at the peak of his powers and he hasn’t been quite at that level since.  He doesn’t lack for beef, but we’d question whether he’s quick enough around the paddock to survive Oz. After that, it’s cover your eyes time. Dave Foley is probably next in line (and the bench option in case of injury to one of the incumbents or McCarthy).  He’s started Heineken Cup games at the business end of the tournament for Munster, and done reasonably well. Then it’s probably Mick Kearney, who is more one for the future than the present… and after that the cupboard is bare.  Think – yikes – Billy Holland, Lewis Stevenson or … Stakhanov! At that point, we’ve got past our #7 and #8 lock (Foley and Kearney). Most international sides would struggle.  But it won’t come to that, right?  Right?

An alternate solution to slumping that deep down the chart would be Schmidt saving himself one of his selection dilemmas in the back row and ask Rhys Ruddock to step forward. It wouldn’t be an ideal situation, leaving Ireland a touch underpowered. After all, he’s never played there. But he plays a bit like a second row.  It would be a bit like Ryan Jones filling in there for Wales.  Still, we’ve still to get three injuries for that to happen – and we’re hardly likely to get three second row injuries in a couple of weeks are we?  Are we?

Rationalization: our current Ireland lock depth chart:

  1. Paul O’Connell – Gerry calls him Superman. Level-headed coverage guaranteed. He’s great though
  2. Devin Toner – current incumbent and fair’s fair
  3. Iain Henderson – he’ll be in Ireland’s engine room through RWC23 at least, injury allowing, but he’s only just got Johann Muller’s shirt
  4. Donnacha Ryan – if he gets this toe sorted and returns the same player
  5. Dan Tuohy – great hands, a second row who doesn’t fear the pill – who knew?
  6. Mike McCarthy – heavy, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Against some teams
  7. Dave Foley – bit to go in his development, but played HEC for Munster in the row
  8. Mick Kearney – very far to go in his development, but he is improving. That’s something to cling to.
  9. Else – be afraid, be very afraid.
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  1. Mike

     /  September 25, 2014

    Ryan Caldwell… ?

    Only kidding (tho he is a good player). I think that Joe probably has Dave Foley further up the pecking order than i’d be comfortable with. Interesting to see how good Michael Kearney can be too. I think that Lewis Stevenson is better than he is given credit for. He is a big lump and can get around ok. Not saying he will get capped, but i’m not too worried from an Ulster perspective (yet). Stevenson and vd Merwe should go ok. Id be much more concerned if we had lost a few back rowers….

  2. Yossarian

     /  September 25, 2014

    Ed O’Donoghue has been lining up on the Queensland reds bench!?anyone got his number?

    • You know – Useless Ed might come into contention … he’s better than some of the names we have mentioned!

      • Mary Hinge

         /  September 25, 2014

        Didn’t Useless Ed get a call up for the Russians at RWC 2011 or was that another former Leinster second-row?

  3. connachtexile

     /  September 25, 2014

    Unfortunately your correct. Guys I’d have hoped that would have pushed through into the top level like Ian Nagle and Lewis Stevenson have nowhere near reached their hype level/potential that I expected. Others like Ben Marshall and Aidan Browne because of injuries haven’t broken through or haven’t done enough to be banging on the door. Munster as far as I know have a bunch of young bucks that people speak highly of but I think it’s a world cup to soon for them unless one of them does a conor murray like last time.

  4. Ireland's Answer (allthingsrugby1)

     /  September 25, 2014

    As ridiculous as this sounds but injury crisis’s can be good when you have good younger players coming through. It actually gives them a chance to play a couple of games in a row and really settle in a team.

    Blooding players at international level is so difficult for teams like Ireland. If we are not playing 1 or 12 of our starting team we can easily lose to the top 7 or 8 teams in the world so rotation isn’t really a possibility with only 11 games in a calender year coaches have to get their starting combinations out regularly too.

    I reckon Foley should be ahead of Big Mick. Mick will be subbing for Leinster while Foley due to injuries will be a regular in Munster’s big games.

    • Well, we did used to herald injury as being Irelnd’s best selector in the latter days of the Kidney era…

      Dave Foley has certainly become ‘one to watch’, with Ryan injured for the foreseeable he is now de facto first choice at Munster. If the team was picked tomorrow McCarthy would be picked but, as you rightly point out, Foley has the chance to get the jump on him over the next few weeks.

    • The notion that we can lose one player and lose to Scotland is slightly ridiculous alright.

      The “rotation isn’t a possiblity” line frequently was rolled out to justify Deccie picking the same players all the time – but we don’t really buy it. All the other teams somehow manage to build and develop their squads – what is to prevent us doing it?

  5. Ireland's Answer (allthingsrugby1)

     /  September 25, 2014

    But the majority of that is through injury. Look at NZ in 2011 no depth at ten due to Carter always being fit now with missing tournaments they’ve incredible depth.

    On the other side Heaslip never injured and we haven’t got another number 8 with ten caps.

    • You might be in danger of confusing cause and effect there.

      New Zealand had no depth in 2011 because they didn’t have any other terribly good fly halves (apart from Nick Evans and Luke McAllister but that’s another story). In fact New Zealand had actively tried to give chances to the likes of Colin Slade and even Beaver, because they were terrified of Carter getting injured, but neither of them were very good. Aaron Cruden at the time was very young and inexperienced at any level.

      But both he and Beauden Barrett have talent dripping from their ears and were bound to come good eventually regardless of whether Carter got injured.

      It’s a bit odd to be cursing that our best No.8 is always available and never injured. ‘Damn him to hell for being so reliable! If he was injured more often we could have picked someone not as good!’ Just what outstanding candidates would you have been lining up to replace him in any case? It’s not like we have many other international class 8’s begging to be picked – Roger Wilson, James Cawlin, Robin Copeland et al are good players, but not on Heaslip’s level.

      • Ireland's Answer (allthingsrugby1)

         /  September 25, 2014

        Yes but as I said when you rotate like NZ did between 07-11 players actually don’t get exposed unlike when your number one choice gets injured and your back up gets a proper chance in the team.

        Lads I wasn’t cursing that Heaslip is never injured. That is completely pathetic out of ye I was just pointing out that if does get injured we are screwed which is my overall point. If you have really good players who rarely get injured you are unlikely to rotate and allow another options to really develop in the position. I do not get why ye are being so defensive off Heaslip it was not a critique at all.

        Agreed our options aren’t as good but is giving Copeland, Wilson and Cauglan (a couple seasons ago) a run as 8 any difference to say giving Pj a run out at ten. The drop off from Sexton is colossal as is from Heaslip.

        • I jut don’t think you can manufacture depth by throwing lads in for a handful of caps. Guys who are talented enough will usually get their chance one way or the other. Certainly, it takes time to bed in at international level, but I don’t think the likes of Wilson or Coughlan would have been any closer to putting pressure on Heaslip even if they’d had a whole year in the jersey. I don’t want to be picking on those two because I’ve actually got a huge amount of time for them as players, but they’re that ‘provincial hero, but just short of test level’ type of player; like Shane Jennings, Leo Cullen, Damein Varley etc. As you say yourself ‘the drop-off from Heaslip is collosal’ – would that really be any different if Heaslip was injured for six months?

  6. Obviously I’m biased, but why exactly do you rate Foley ahead of Kearney – he’s got fewer Pro12 caps/starts, far fewer HEC caps, and is physically less developed despite being 3 years older? Am I missing some Dunsha-like unseen work?

  7. Yossarian

     /  September 25, 2014

    Developing a guy to international standard isn’t as simple as “just cap him and he’ll get there” the raw materials have to be there. Henderson is an example, clearly raw but clearly going to be good enough. Leinster have benn criticised for not developing a replacement for BOD. there are around 8 centres in the Leinster academy.anyone who has a sniff of the potential to be there has been given a chance and it’s a case of hopefully one coming good.
    Likewise second row. Leinster have about 3/4 in the academy of which they are hoping one or two will come good. Munster have a bunch in their academy as well and not sure who is knocking around Ulster/Munster.
    We are blessed with Heaslip being so durable as there hasn’t been a credible option at 8 in a long time. SOB may well have been one but really the raw materials have been thin on the ground.

    • connachtexile

       /  September 25, 2014

      I take your point but what about Jack Conan at Leinster? The bits I’ve seen would suggest he could be the real deal and Heaslips long-term successor.

    • Peat

       /  September 26, 2014

      Ulster have four young locks around the squad. James Simpson was promoted to a development contract this season, Alan O’Connor and John Donnan are still around the squad, and they took Alexander Thompson straight into the academy from school. Anyone with a sniff in other rounds.

  8. Gary B

     /  September 25, 2014

    Evaluating the performance of second rows is far beyond the knowledge and scope of this blog but it does make an interesting conversation piece. You would genuinely need an 80 minute player-cam to get a proper reflection of a lock’s game.

    I tend not to trust the general rugby-watching populations’ assessment of second rows’ ability and it holds true. The games has evolved but the old maxim of “the second row you don’t see is a good second row” still holds true to an extent. For example, people taking issue with Iain Henderson being more less conspicuous when he plays in the row. This is only natural. The role of the second row lies more in the set piece and the tight than at 6 where he can get his hands on the ball and make more tackles.

    Also, questioning Mike McCarthy’s athleticism? I have it on very good authority that Mike McCarthy is regarded as a freakish athlete in professional terms, far surpassing any other lock in the Irish set up in terms of speed, fitness and agility. Granted he has bulked up and may be carrying knocks but I doesn’t see him losing it that easily.

    I’m also slightly concerned about Dev’s bulk-up. This blog made the comparison with Alun Wyn Jones but this is comparing apples with oranges. Alun Wyn Jones was a 6 who bulked up to play lock. Dev’s always struggled with mobility and I don’t see this helping.

    • Amiga500

       /  September 25, 2014

      “The games has evolved but the old maxim of ‘the second row you don’t see is a good second row’ still holds true to an extent.”

      Stakhanov, is that you?

      A very good second row will often do much more than be limited to good work in the set piece and tight. That good work is the minimum requirement.

      If you look for evidence of their work where they should be working, and find none, then there is likely issues in the team – even if they are making headline runs or tackles.

    • Lots in here, thanks Gary!

      Great to have someone on here acclaiming the unseen work without even a shred of irony! But yes, I think it was Emmet Byrne who described second row as ‘the least specialised’ position, where if you can hit rucks and make tackles close to the ruck all day as well as adding some heft to scrums and mauls that’s 90% of it. Guys like Nathan Hines or Richie Gray do add a bit of value though, either through great handling ability (Hines) or being able to run with the ball (Gray)!

      McCarthy has played 6 in the past – indeed he was first brought into the squad to contend for the 4-6 role that we highlighted as being important for a World Cup squad given the requirement for doubling up in a few positions. So you’re right, he’s pretty athletic. Looking at him now though, I find it hard to believe he ever played on the flank! I do think he looked a bit heavy-legged with the extra bulk he put on. Though he got going in the end after a slow start to last year. Good player for sure, but he may find himself in the role of first reserve at Leinster this year.

      • SportingBench

         /  September 25, 2014

        At least he won’t get injured sitting on the bench so you should be happy!

        • Given the season so far I wouldn’t put it past anyone getting injured, bench or otherwise!

          • Gary B

             /  September 25, 2014

            You can joke about unseen work but how many times does a fantastic clear out at ruck time get highlighted? Or a tight five forward making consecutive rucks? I’m not calling for locks to revert to the days of Willie John and ignore the ball but the bread and butter of the position is the set piece and the tight. I’m ever so slightly dubious about Tuohy and Henderson’s credentials in this regard.

            As an aside, I would be devastated if Ryan was forced to retire. You’d struggle to find a more wholehearted player in an Ireland shirt and he has always brought naked aggression to the pitch, without resorting to cheap shots. Also, probably my favourite rugby interviewee. As you correctly point out, he was outstanding in that horrible final DK season and I get the feeling that he just played himself into the ground that year. I would be quite confident that he would feature highly on the list of Irish players who other countries hated playing against.

          • Yossarian

             /  September 25, 2014

            Gary the people who judge rugby on what Gerry T and the indo tell them might not value a second row but there are a knowledgeable support base who do. POC has a phenomenal work rate, it’s when he does the “flashy” stuff like carrying I worry with him but no one would doubt his overall contribution.(check out demented mole ruck marks to see his worth) now most casual observers would agree about POC without being sure what it is they like about him.
            I agree TV viewing doesn’t generally allow for a good analysis of second row play but the idea of “unseen work” going unnoticed are gone. Toners elevated position in most people eyes is a recognition of this.

  9. Mc Carthy was great Vs SA 2 years ago and was in flying form for Connacht but he hasn’t impressed me for Leinster since his move. I’ve met him before and while he’s built like a brick shit house he’s not very tall for a second row..6ft 4 and a half maybe. The poor lad was obviously told to put on a few kilos(which I didn’t think he needed to be honest) and it just hasn’t suited him. It’s also worth noting he’ll be 33 in a few weeks and has far more miles on the clock (at club level anyway) than his peers..Connacht drove him into the ground for 25 matches a season for a few good years and probably got rid of him (i.e. helplessly allowed him be cherrypicked!) at a good time in hindsight…Having said that he did very well off the bench Vs NZ last year when he had been written off by all, so I do feel he deserves another shot at the backup second row position.

  10. Robbie Diack – 6’5″ 18 stone. great l/o/ jumper. Tackles like a demon these days. Needs to improve his carrying as a back rower but he is pretty quick over the ground. He has played second row for Ulster on quite a few occasions and pretty seamlessly. As a stop gap, he would be pretty decent particularly as he is good 6 / 8 in his own right. Perhaps he should be on the list towards the bottom as a versatile squad player.

    • Mike

       /  September 27, 2014

      Still cant forgive him for being held up over the line against Leinster in the Rabo final by Sexton. A good athlete but he can be a bit soft at times.

  11. And just to continue the run, Ronald Raaymakers, Ulster’s short term replacement second row signing went off injured in his ITM Cup game over the weekend. It looked serious enough although no official word yet.

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