T minus 400 – Part Two

Yesterday we had the forwards, today the backs. With 17 forwards picked we’re most likely looking at 14 backs; that’ll be three dedicated 9s, two out-halves, and two full-backs, leaving room for just seven three-quarters. It’s all a bit of a squeeze, favouring players who can switch a bit between roles. Last time around, Luke Fitzgerald was left at home in favour of Fergus McFadden and Paddy Wallace. Neither was as talended as Luke, but between them they could cover all the jerseys from 10 to 15 so it was them that went to Fergburger with the Farmer.

Scrum Half

First, the easy part. This unit is as close to nailed down as anything can be 10 months out from the tournament: Peter Stringer, Duncan Williams and Ian Porter. Williams to start the matches with Stringer on to freshen things up against tiring defences.

On the plane: Murray, Reddan and Marmion. Also in the picture: at a stretch, Isaac Boss

Fly Half:

Jonny Sexton is a sure thing, and behind him the pecking order has undergone a bit of a reshuffle. Paddy Jackson has been short of form and is now injured for six weeks. It leaves him with a lot of ground to make up on Ian Madigan. Madge had a fine series and is increasingly confident at test level. But can he get enough time at 10 at Leinster to cement his gains? Then there’s Ian Keatley, consistently solid for Munster, but maybe just a rung off the top in terms of pure talent – Keatley has the advantage of playing with Conor Murray, whereas to this point, PJ has been outside Paul Marshall. Once Ruan Pienaar makes his return, there is every chance Jackson reverts to his springtime form, and is back to challenging Madigan. But at the moment it’s Madigan’s to lose.

On the plane: Sexton. Likely to join him: Ian Madigan. Also in the running: Paddy Jackson, Ian Keatley.

Centres

Ok, now it gets tricky. Based on the most recent squad, the likely centres are D’arcy, Olding, Payne and Henshaw. The only certainty appears to be that Robbie Henshaw is going; he played 12, he played 13, he showed he has the goods; he’s in. After that, it gets a bit cloudy and will remain so until at least after the Six Nations. Jared Payne’s injury meant he missed the chance to nail down the 13 shirt, but he looks a likely bet to be a regular from here on in. Intrigue abounds at inside centre; Gordon D’arcy had two poor games and may just have slipped down the pecking order, but if anyone can hang on in there and squeeze into the squad it’s D’arcy. Then there’s Stuart Olding. The Ulster centre oozes talent, and was a bit unlucky that a lack of gametime at Ulster meant we didn’t see more of him this series, but his star is on the rise and it seems only a matter of time before he starts a high-profile test at 12. His ability to cover 10 if we’re in a jam also means he can effectively fill the 2011-Paddy Wallace role. There we have it, Stuart Olding, the new Paddy Wallace. Let the hype roll on. McCloskey is a possible bolter whose progress will be closely monitored, while Noel Reid and Mr. Face Doesn’t Fit appear further down the depth chart.

On the plane: Henshaw. Likely to join him: Darcy, Payne, Olding. Also in the picture: McCloskey, Cave, Reid

Wings

Four centres would leave room for just three wings. It’s a heck of a tight squeeze. Tommy Bowe will surely travel and Andrew Trimble, assuming he gets back from injury and starts playing well, has a huge amount of credit from the Six Nations. He’s a Schmidt darling. Then it’s a bunfight between the incumbent, Simon Zebo and a cadre of players at a similar sort of level; Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Craig Gilroy. Really, who knows.  Things tend to be abit more fluid in the wide positions, with form generally dictating more than in other positions.  Kearney made a try-scoring return with Leinster this weekend (that’s right, he scored a try!) while McFadden’s versatility counts for something.  Two players who could completely change the dynamic if they get fit are Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald, but at this stage we’re saying it so often we’re like a broken record. We almost can’t remember a time when either Earls or Fitz was consistently fit. All we can do is hope for the best, but Schmidt is unlikely to take any risks; if it’s a choice between a fully-fit Dave Kearney and a bit-injured Keith Earls, he’ll go with the man who’s ready to play.

On the plane: Bowe. Likely to travel: Trimble, Zebo. Also in the picture: D. Kearney, McFadden, Gilroy. Potential game-changers if they can stop being injured for once: Earls, Fitzgerald

Full Back

Rob Kearney is a no-brainer. On the face of it, Felix Jones is more or less a sure thing to go as his deputy, but it may not be as cut and dried as that. Jones is a fine player who had a great game against Georgia, but the fact that Henshaw, Payne and even Zebo and Olding can all fill in at full-back may leave him with more of a fight to get on the plane than you might think. It’s not inconceivable that Joe could give the last place to a fourth wing given the options he has at full-back. But for now, Jones is probably likely to squeeze in; he must be desperate to do so after missing out so unfortunately last time.

On the plane: R. Kearney. Likely to travel: Jones

The question marks at centre could very well drive the composition of the rest of the backline – with Henshaw and Payne likely travellers and Olding likely to go if progress continues, it comes down to a yes/no on Dorce. Based on the Autumn series, Darcy offers neither a line breaking threat, nor a passing threat, and his size is increasingly a misnomer in the age of the giants. But he’s been written off before and has doggedly stuck around. If D’arcy hangs in there, we are potentially picking one from Dave Kearney, McFadden, Gilroy, Earls, Fitz and Jones. However, if the coach feels that D’arcy simply can’t do the job at this level any more, he could bring an extra wing with centre experience – McFadden or Earls for example – and Jones as a specialist fullback to allow the first three centres to concentrate on being centres. D’arcy is the pivot around which the potential RWC dreams of a range of players appear to hang.

T Minus 400 – Part One

Following the November series / Autumn internationals / over-marketed “Irish” drink owned by London-based multinational series, Ireland now have the following games left on their pre-RWC schedule:

  • 5 Six Nations games (Italy, France, England, Wales, Scotland)
  • The Barbarians in the Debt Star in May
  • four World Cup warm-ups (Wales x 2, Scotland, England)

Ignoring the money-spinner in Thomond, and taking the reasonable case that Joe Schmidt will have his RWC15 squad close to finalised before the warm-ups, that gives Ireland’s players 400 minutes to cement their place in the squad .. or not, in some cases. We can’t, of course, ignore that possibility that someone will play themselves out of the squad in August, as did the unfortunate Tomas O’Leary four years ago, but then again it’s unlikely Joe Schmidt will persist for someone so badly out of form for so long that it becomes feasible. What is more likely, given the attrition rate in general, and even for the well-managed Irish players in recent years – only Jamie Heaslip of the notional first XV has avoided injury in Schmidt’s time – is that certain players will need to prove their fitness in the warm-ups. But that’s an unknown. For now, anyway. And the warm-ups themselves might result in injuries – Wally, and then Jirry (in training) were casualties in 2011.

It seems a good time to review what the composition of that squad might look like – and there is very little scope for experimentation left, so it’s unlikely we’ll see many changes from here (injuries, as ever, excepted)

This time out, the RWC squad will be 31, with the extra player presumably designed to be a tighthead prop – 23 man matchday squads in international rugger are an innovation from this cycle. In the three previous World Cups, Ireland have gone for splits of 17-13 (2003) and 16-14 (2007 & 2011). A working assumption of a split of 17-14 seems like a good starting point. Based on previous picks, we can expect the following:

  • 3 hookers
  • 5 props (1 more than in 2007 and 2011)
  • 4 second rows
  • 5 backrows (note: do not need all to be specialist blindsides)
  • 3 scrummies
  • 2 fly halves
  • 3 centres
  • 4 wingers
  • 2 full backs

While some Irish players, particularly in the backline, are multi-functional in nature, they are not necessarily viewed as Swiss army knives by the coach. For example, while Mad-dog might provide bench cover in several positions, most indications from Schmidt are that he is seen primarily as a fly-half. Equally, Ferg has played centre for Ireland (most recently in Argentina) and provided bench cover for centre during the Six Nations, but was used exclusively as a wing in Schmidt’s final season at Leinster, and started his 8 tests prior to Tucuman on the wing. It feels unlikely that he’ll fall into the centre bucket, but is really a wing who can cover centre if necessary.

Let’s have a look:

Hooker: Besty and Sean Cronin are miles ahead of the pack and are on the plane – Besty is a key lieutenant on the team, valued for his work in the scrum and at rucks; and Cronin is a very different player, an excellent carrier who offers dynamism, if not quite the same technical attributes as Best. Both players are prone to the yips – there was genuine surprise when Cronin, the hooker, was able to … er … hook effectively against the Boks; and Besty’s radar has the habit of going down for games at a time – even resulting in his omission from the original 2013 Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions squad. After that, Risteard O hOstrais is next in line, and had a good November series coming back from injury. Damien Varley stepped in for Jirry in 2011, and he’s the most Best-like replacement – questionable throwing, good scrummager and brilliant breakdown merchant. He’s injured right now, but could be in the mix. With Mike Sherry’s perma-injury problems showing no sign of abating, Rob Herring, who did well in Argentina, hs some credit in the bank but has been a marginal figure at Ulster this season. One bolter is Duncan Casey, whose lineout stats this year are exceptional.  He didn’t even make November’s training squad – but it’s early days for him and Ireland’s lineout wasn’t any great shakes this series, so his throwing could make him a valuable option.  If he keeps on playing like he is, he could come into the reckoning.  But currently, all signs point towards Best, Cronin and Strauss.

On the plane: Besty, Cronin. Most likely for final seat: Strauss Also in the picture: Varley, Casey, Herring, Sherry

Prop: The flogging of Mike Ross continues unabated – he’s started every game under Joe Schmidt, and his importance of the team is illustrated by the 80 minutes he played against the Wobblies. However, it’s worth noting that the next two best tightheads were injured, and by all accounts the plan was to reduce his workload until injury stepped in. Rodney Ah Here was his backup both in Argentina and this November but, if fit, Marty Moore should be the number two to Ross. Of the other options, Nathan White had been pencilled in for Ah Here’s role until he got crocked, Deccie Fitz might be the best scrummager in Ireland (bar none) but struggles for 20 minute shifts these days, and Stephen Archer is behind Ah Here, which isn’t saying much. On the other side, DJ Church and Jack McGrath are on the plane.  It could be Schmidt picks two specialist tightheads and uses McGrath as the filler inner in case of tighthead emergencies. Dave Kilcoyne had a good series and has probably put some clear blue water between himself and James Cronin at international level – even if Cronin out-wrestles him by the end of the year, Schmidt will put some value on his being involved in the camp up to this point.

On the plane: Ross, Moore, Healy, McGrath Most likely for final seat: Killer Also in the picture: Cronin, White, Ah Here, Archer, Fitzpatrick

Second Row: The incumbents are the mighty, manic Paul O’Connell and the ever-improving Devin Toner – this pair are on the plane. Next up, its Iain Henderson, the new Willie John McBride. Henderson is laid up having taken elective surgery to be in prime nick for the RWC – taking one of Ulster’s best players out for 4 ERC games, when the backups are average, shows his importance to Ireland. We expect Henderson to slot straight into the Six Nations 23, and perhaps even start a game – Henderson still likely has bulking out to do, but, of Irish locks of the same height (198cm) he is already 6kg heavier than Dave Foley (4 years older), 1kg heavier than Dan Tuohy (7 years older) and 2kg heavier than O’Connell (13 years older). And all that while being the best ball carrier in the unit, and a skillful and influential player already. The kid is a phenomenon. The last place is a shootout between that aforementioned Foley and Tuohy, the possibly sometime returning Donnacha Ryan and the slowly sagging Mike McCarthy. If Ryan comes back from injury the player he was 3 years ago, he’s red hot favourite – at this stage however, the question seems to be if he comes back at all, not what type of player he comes back as. McCarthy has been slowly regressing since that performance against the Boks two years ago, and appears unlikely to reverse that career graph. Dan Tuohy was unfortunate (in our view) to miss out on the RWC11 squad, and offers something that the others don’t – good hands and a handy eye for the tryline. However, Foley feels like he is a nose ahead right now – if he keeps up this seasons form, he is favourite. You would have a slight qualm about dropping him in against the big second rows Italy and France like to field – Will Skelton treated him like a speedbump on Saturday – but he’s 4th choice, hopefully that won’t be necessary.

On the plane: O’Connell, Toner, Henderson Most likely for final seat: Foley or Tuohy Also in the picture: Ryan, McCarthy

Back Row: At one point, we seemed like we  might have a mighty fight over the last slot in this unit, but if we bring five players, it looks like we know who they are. Rhys Ruddock was our best player in the Argentina tour, and stepped into the stricken Chris Henry’s shoes with aplomb, putting in two excellent displays against two very tough (and different) opponents. He appears to have put himself in an excellent position to be on the plane. And speaking of Henry, if he comes back from a frightening brain injury, he’s likely to travel as well – Henry is one of the very few players than Joe Schmidt has specifically tailored a gameplan for (the 2012 HEC final) and was a huge influence in the Six Nations. But little can be taken for granted with such a serious condition; Ulster have said they are ‘hopeful he will return to professional rugby’, so it’s a case of fingers crossed for now.  Moving on to more clear-cut matters: Jamie Heaslip – he’s in, and Peter O’Mahony – he’s in too. Which leaves one of the few world class players in our ranks – Sean O’Brien. If fit, he is most certainly not only going, but playing. But he’ll have been out for so long, he will have to show that he’s capable of being the same player as previously.  So assuming the best for our two injured men, that’s the five – simples. Now, this is a very tough and attritional position, so, to be frank, we’d be pleasantly surprised if we get to September with all five ready to play. So hope remains for the rest. Of those, Jordi Murphy, backup during the Six Nations, is probable first reserve. Another in contention would be Tommy O’Donnell, who looks close to his form of 2013, although not making it off the bench against Oz didn’t speak volumes to the coaches confidence in him. Robbie Diack has had a steady start to his international career, albeit an unspectacular one – to be frank, it’s difficult to see us winning the tournament if we are this far down the depth chart. Dom Ryan and Robin Copeland, a genuine number 8, saw gametime in November too, and got some good reviews, but both are likely to be thinking about provincial starts before the World Cup is in their mind.

On the plane: Heaslip, O’Mahony, Ruddock Fitness permitting: O’Brien, Henry Also in the picture: Murphy, O’Donnell, Diack, Ryan, Copeland

So that’s the forwards, and, of the 17 slots up for grabs, we reckon 14 are pretty much decided, injuries allowing. That’s a pretty good and stable base to be building from. Our eyes and brains are getting tired now, so we’ll be back tomorrow with the backs, where we have a bit more uncertainty.  We have question marks at inside centre, and wing is a position where there is scope to take form into account a little more, plus we have two giant elephants in the selectorial room – no, not Ah Here and Deccie Fitz, but Keith Earls and Luke Roysh – their performances could range anywhere between ‘never play again this season’ or ‘break into the Ireland team’ – we simply have no idea. But we’ll talk more about that tomorrow.

I Heart 2006

Ten months before a World Cup and Ireland have done what looked unthinkable given their injury list – beaten Australia and South Africa, eaten a minnow for breakfast and risen to third in the world rankings. And all with Neil Best in the team … phnar, phnar, but yes, the comparisons with 2006 are so obvious it’s almost incumbent upon every commentator to remind us of the awfulness that followed. But the bad portents of RWC07 can be ignored for now and we can bask in the excellence of this series – three wins from three and a couple of handy finds. On the flip side, we might be highly effective at it, but we still only have one dimension – kick-chase and defend is wot won it, with nary a decent carrier or creative influence in sight. The 2007 Springboks with a fly half, if you will. There’s homework for 2015.

The big plusses from the series (apart from the wins) in terms of players were the emergence into international football of Robbie Henshaw and the continued progression of Rhys Ruddock, and the development of Conor Murray and Jonny Sex-bomb into the best pairing in the hemisphere.  Henshaw’s bulk in midfield was most un-Irish given our addiction to micro-centres and he mixed his game well, using the boot effectively and looking to the manor born at this level – he looks the 13 for the Six Nations .. unless of course he steps inside to accomodate Jared Pyane.  On l’autre hand, a pair of humdrum showings from Dorce that suggested nothing less than the end for a fantastic player, and the scatty, wayward performances from Zeebs, who mixed sublime finishing with poor decision-making, probably failed to convince Joe that he is the man he’s looking for. He had his moments, but with Trimble, McFadden and Dave Kearney all likely to be putting pressure on in the Six Nation, Zebo probably didn’t do quite enough.

On Saturday, Ireland put the Wobs away with a helter-skelter performance in a thrilling match. The first half was barmy, with unstructured and slightly manic play to the fore.  At times it was reminiscent of last year’s visit of Australia, as Ireland couldn’t get a handle on their attacking speed, but forunately Ireland had a 17 point headstart to work with.  Once the second half settled into Schmidt-ball, Ireland had reduced a team blessed with the creative brains of Phipps, Foley, Genia, Cooper, Toomua, Beale and Folau to boshing it up the middle. In truth, we were relatively fortunate to come away with the win – when 10-0 up, Nick Phipps got all Ben Youngs and crabbed across the field for 5 metres before being swallowed up, when a quick pass would have led to a certain score with a five-on-one outside him. The very next phase, he O’Leary-ed the ball directly to Tomy Bowe’s breadbasket when they had a three-on-one.  It was a 14 point turnaround. In a game decided by a questionable penalty call by Glen Jackson, that’s the winning of it right there.

After going 17 points up, Ireland decided the thing to do was pile on the agony and out-Wobbly the Wobblies – attempting crazy offloads and offering up cheap possession went predictably awry. One suspects the 15 minutes from 17-32 in this game will be the ones on Joe Schmidt’s mind all winter – the combination of taking the eye off the ball and the harrassment of Ireland’s halves by the phenomenal Michael Hooper (surely he will challenge Ruchie’s captaincy caps record if he stays fit – that’s how good he is) led to Murray and Sexton’s radar going temporarily off, and nullifying Ireland’s one dimension. Schmidt won’t want that happening again.

A word on the forward-pass try.  It seemed beyond ridiculous.  We are not so blind to the laws of physics that we fail to understand that passes thrown with running momentum can drift forward relative to the ground, but when the scrum half throws a ball from the back of the ruck he has no forward momentum; if it finishes in front of him, it has gone forward.  It looked a terrible call from the TMO and calls into question what the point of him being there was.

Anyhow, enough of that.  If we are to go into the World Cup with a mind to win it, as we surely (and rightly) should be doing, we’ll need to bring more to the table. The selection and gameplan was pretty much dictated by injuries, but it’s simply essential that DJ Church, Iain Henderson, Sean O’Brien and Andy Trimble get back in the setup as soon as possible to give us the tools to beat the best Southern Hemisphere teams at their peak.  Ireland had a superb series and tactically, Schmidt got it absolutely right, extracting pretty much everything he could out of the players available to him.  He recognised we didn’t have our best carriers fit, so instead Ireland looked to gain territory through a strong kicking game, with a huge emphasis on regathering up-and-unders.  No team coached by Schmidt will ever be lax at the breakdown, and if Ireland lacked carriers, they had a backrow stacked with breakdown menaces.  That was enough on this occasion.

With O’Brien and Healy hopefully back in the spring, Ireland will surely look to vary their game.  Without them it’s impossible, as any sort of expansive game starts first and foremost with front-foot ball.  But if the pair can return to form and fitness, there may be knock-on effects in the back division.  Outside Sexton, it seems like the Henshaw half of the pairing can be nailed to the teamsheet. There’s a shirt up for grabs beside him.  Ian Madigan showed in this series that he has the temperament for international rugby, although we still have the feeling that even if Matt O’Connor sees him as a 12, Schmidt is reluctant to.  Stuart Olding’s cameo against Georgia gave a glimpse of his rare talent, and he remains the best bet to be the next long-term 12.  He was unfortunate to get injured early this season and, similarly to Madigan, his versatility may count against him as he moves around the backline.  If he can deliver a productive couple of months for Ulster, hopefully consistently in one position, he may find himself in the starting team come the Six Nations.

Pass the Parcel

Ireland look set to keep changes to a minimum today, with the returning Rory Best being brought into the front row and Gordon D’arcy is likely to squeeze in ahead of the increasingly impressive Stuart Olding at centre.

It’s the sort of selection we’ve become used to in Ireland where the pecking order of players remains relatively static. Sean Cronin is brilliant in the loose and Richardt Strauss is showing signs of returning to his best form, but Rory Best is one of the team’s foundations, so if he’s fit, he plays. Just throw the ball in straight, Rory!

It’s a similar story in Wales, where Gatland has stuck with what is recognisable as his best team. All the usuals are there and in spite of Liam Williams’ good form, it would take a crowbar to get Alex Cuthbert, George North or Leigh Halfpenny out of the team. Jamie Roberts and JJV Davies are longstanding as his preferred centre partnership and we all know how good they can be. In the backrow it’s the same. Everyone loves hipster’s choice Justin Tipuric for his electric line-breaks and incredible hands, but Sam Warburton is Gatland’s captain and a cornerstone of the team. Lydiate, Warburton and Faletau is enshrined as Gatland’s backrow of choice in Welsh rugby law.

Wales and Ireland have relatively small playing pools, so there can be a gulf between the best fifteen or twenty players, and the next best 10 or so. It means coaches tend to be more loyal to their players; sometimes to a fault in the case of Declan Kidney’s post-2009 selections (see: O’Leary, Tomas). Mike Phillips has done little or nothing in club rugby for years, but Gatland stuck with him throughout that period – until this season when Rhys Webb is finally ready to play test rugby.

Over in England and France, the pecking order in key positions in the team is altogether more fluid, and they’re not always the better for it. England are currently amid a mini-crisis. Has the gloss and sense of feelgood ever come off a team as quickly? From this perspective, their media appeared overconfident going into this series and the group of players available to them looked far from being world-beaters. Their death-by-a-thousand-cuts loss to New Zealand and tactically inflexible defeat to South Africa have brought them down to earth. ‘How long have we tied Lancaster down until again?’ Er, 2020.

Still, the thing for Lancaster is he can always change the team. They have such a depth of moderately talented players that if someone has a bad game or two, there’s always someone in decent enough form to put in his place. Danny Care was among England’s best players in the Six Nations and the thought of dropping him then seemed a world away. But memories are short and Care hasn’t been at his best so far this series. So he’s out! ‘Care’s out of form’, goes the line, ‘so we should play Youngs, Wigglesworth, one of the Dicksons, Shaun Perry, Andy Gomarsall or whoever, instead of him’. None of those players are as good as Danny Care – in fact only Ben Youngs gets even close – but never mind, let’s change it up anyway!

It leads to a pass-the-parcel approach to selection that isn’t necessarily all that beneficial. Lots of scrum-halves have had a stint in the England team and each has followed the same pattern: looks Tha Biz for a while, before not looking as good for a bit, finding themselves dumped out of the team, before the same pattern recurs for someone else and the original fellow finds himself recalled, and the cycle continues. If Conor Murray had two poor games on the trot – unlikely and all as that seems – the chances of him being thrown out of the team for Reddan, Marmion, Boss or Peter Stringer would be remote.

If things are bad at scrum half for England, they are worse again at centre, where this infurating approach has pretty much been in place since Will Greenwood retired. Riki Flutey, Jamie Noon, Anthony Allen, Ollie Smith, Shontayne Hape, Matt Banahan, and so on and so on the list of modest footballers who had a go at centre for a few games before the next chap came along is a long one.

In France the approach to selection is even worse, and has at times seemed to be something approaching a lottery. France have had a run of madcap selectors dating back to Bernard Laporte; scrum halves playing 10, seemingly outstanding players overlooked for tradesmen, world-class centres on the wing; they’ve had it all.

That said, there’s a time to make brave selectorial decisions, and if England really do have world cup winning aspirations, there are two things they absolutely must do. The first is pick Steffon Armitage, the world-class openside who has dominated the Heineken Cup with Toulon in recent seasons, and the other is to get Owen Farrell out of the team – for his own sake as well as that of the team – playing a player into form, when it doesn’t work, destroys the player (see: O’Leary, Tomas).

For some reason, the coach appears tied to the vastly overrated Farrell, but the case for George Ford as a long-term solution at 10 is compelling enough to give him a run in the team. Ford has a way to go before becoming a complete player, but he is capable of far more in attack already than Farrell ever will be. The team for Samoa has got this half-right at best. Ford starts at 10, but Farrell remains in the team at 12. The word was it was goal-kicking related, but they aren’t that different this season – Ford is 25/33 (76%) this season, while Farrell is 9/11 (82%), essentially there is one missed kick between them. So why is he there? It has the look of selection by committee.

It’s Alive!!!

The best test of last weekend (and November so far) was the France-Australia showdown in the Stade de France. In the gold corner were a Wallaby team coming in on the back of the traditional single-digit victory over Wales (but they were SO close this time – if only they didn’t <insert brain freeze here> they’d always beat the Southern Hemisphere sides) and in the blue corner a French team that is impossible to predict to any degree whatsoever – any result between a 10 point French win and a 40 point Wallaby win (as per two years ago) was a possibility. The relevance for Ireland was obvious – not only are the Wobs the next victims in the Joe Schmidt I-always-said-he-was-the-best-coach-in-the-world Ireland bandwagon, but the French are the team we’ll need to beat if the easier path to an historic RWC semi-final is to be realized.

In Ireland, we have a complicated relationship with the French – we disdain the way their club sides roll over away from home, lecture them on culture and passion, encourage them to be more like us in kicking corners and showing discipline; yet simultaneously go weak-kneed at Yoann Huget’s expressive eyebrows and wet ourselves at the prospect of being on the receiving end of a Wes Fofana piece of brilliance. In recent years, we’ve turned around our addiction to defeat – draws in 2012 and 2013 were bested by that incredible win in the Stade de France in March. Amazingly, we haven’t been beaten by France since Tomas O’Leary played himself off the RWC11 plane with that suicide pass in the Palindrome; and only once in the last 9 meetings (W2 D2 L5) have we lost by double digits.

Madcap French coach ™ Philippe Saint-Andre broke the habit of a lifetime and actually picked the same side as a week before – this was both surprising and concerning – is there something to worry about all of a sudden? Seems like there was – the French came out to bash the Aussies up front and stop them getting the kind of quick ball they could have fun with. The front row not only did their thing, but introduced the monstrous Samoan-Frenchman Uini Atonio to the world – we hold our hands up and confess to not watching much Atlantique Stade Rochelais – but we missed a phenomenally strong carrier and a destructive scrummager. Uh-oh.

Also, the French love a beefy second row to smash rucks and add a chunk of power to the scrum. Yoann Maestri has often flattered to deceieve a little – he never quite plays as well as he looks. On Saturday, he did, and had the Australian forwards scattered asunder on several occasions – the French urgently needed an injection of ugly brawn to the pack, and Maestri may have come of age at just the wrong time for us. Above all though, was the sustained excellence of Thierry Dusautoir – like Paul O’Connell, who brings the Munster and Ireland teams up about 30% every time he plays, Dusautoir carries the French to a high level and keeps them there. The man who haunts even Ruchie’s dreams is their key man.

Equally, the imposition of the Waratahs defensive system to the Wobblies wasn’t going to plan – the non-Tahs were struggling and the French outhalf Camille Lopez was carrying the ball right to the gain-line and through them. Lopez has been seen as the future for a couple of years now but has either been held back or got injured – he might look like a student bum looking for summer work on a vineyard, but he plays like a ballerina and had les bleus purring. He even laid a couple of eggs on restarts to remind us he is at heart an enigmatic Gallic superhero, who probably smokes 20 a day and sups beer at half-time, a la Bernard Hinault. Incredibly, this was his first game in le Stade, as it was for Teddy Thomas, who scored a brilliant individual try.

For Ireland, it was all a bit nerve-shredding. Because it looked to be dying on its feet, but IT’S ALIVE, and it has the power to dash our RWC dreams with one insouciant flick of its incredibly good-looking tail.  But let’s not forget the coach is still a lunatic, and who would safely put money on even ten of the starting fifteen making it to the World Cup team.  Camille Lopez won’t have it all his own way over the next twelve months and they could be back to fiddling around with second-raters before we know it.

In terms of the short-term goals, the Wobblies look there for the taking. Cheiks has said he is targeting the sagging behemoth that is England, and 5 or 6 changes are likely (including Portly returning in some capacity). Unlike against the Boks, we will have no qualms about mixing it with their forwards, so a subtly different gameplan is possible – and judging by the defensive shenanigans in evidence Saturday, less boot and more passing might be in order. But not that much more – it’ll be up to Ireland to keep the game structured; the looser it gets the better it suits the Wobs.  Some variation on the tried and tested formula of smashing the breakdown with ruthless accuracy and utilising Sexton and Murray’s ability to guide the team aroud the right parts of the pitch looks to be in order.  Ireland might use their attacking maul a bit more.  It worked a treat in the Six Nations and the Wobs are the sort of team against whom it can be harnessed to good effect.  We have a great chance to go 3-for-3 this November and end the year in 3rd in the rankings, but the medium-term goal of an RWC semi-final just got a little more complicated.

Job Done

Six tries, no injuries and some minor selection dilemmas for the visit of the real minnows next week – virtually everything you’d want out of a game against Georgia really. We blogged on Friday about the very few thing we might be able to take from the game, and so it came to pass. The match followed a very familiar pattern of good team vs. minnow: low-scoring first half followed by floodgates opening as the pressure takes its toll on the little ‘un.

In general, the pack will be happy they did their job and the backline less so.  The much-vaunted Georgian scrum seems to be better on paper than in actuality, as a few canny punters predicted would be the case.  Ireland weren’t on top in the scrum, but they were ok there, comfortable in the lineout and strong in the maul.  They found plenty of gaps to exploit.  They created umpteen chances but found their finishing a bit off, in the first half in particular.

The front row will be reasonably happy.  Rosser needed to get some game-time because … er … just because, right. He managed 46 minutes of difficult scrums and one hilarious mini line break before giving way to Rodney Ah Here. The most relevant thing from the weekend for Ross was probably the pillaging the Wobbly front row took in Paris, followed by the incompetence of the backups, who were milked by the French. We’d almost feel comfortable letting Ah Here loose on the Wobs (who have resolved to play a few new faces), but Rosser it will be. And he’ll be better after yesterday.

Dave Kilcoyne enjoyed a slightly less troublesome time than Rosser, had one even better run and scored a try. Job done, and a decent showing against tough opponents. Took one step towards an RWC plane ticket, did Killer.  Scoring tries is not bread and butter for props, but it’s a handy habit to have and Kilcoyne chips in with plenty.

In the row, Dave Foley was man of the match and out-shone his partner Mike McCarthy. McCarthy appears to be a good scrummaging second row [citation needed!] but his star is very much on the wane, and has been since his man-of-the-match award against South Africa two years ago.  Calling Foley ashore early was a probable sign a bench slot on Saturday has been earned, and his performances this year warrant it.  In the backrow, all three men showed up reasonably well, with Dom Ryan especially busy on his debut.  None shot the lights out, though, and we suspect all will drop out of the team for the Wobs match.

In the back division, it was a case of good top ‘n’ tail, poor middle.  Felix Jones had a fine match and both half-backs played well but the entire three-quarter line was pretty middling.  If Schmidty wasn’t happy with depth at centre before, he certainly isn’t now – Dorce and Darren Cave did very little of note in the 80 and only a spicy cameo from Stuart Olding (admittedly against tired and run-out opponents) brightened up the Milky Bar Kid’s options there. If Henshaw is now nailed on to start, who his partner is will be interesting – if Payne is fit, he looks set to continue, but what if he isn’t? D’arcy is most likely to get the call, but he looked rusty here.  No doubt there will be a clamour for Stuart Olding and on the evidence of his glitzy cameo here, it’s not hard to see why.  In retrospect, we may have learned more from starting him, but hindsight is always 20-20.

If this series was to be Simon Zebo’s  time to shine, he’s running out of time. The jet-heeled Corkman controversially (at the time anyway) lost out to Andrew Trimble and Little Bob last Six Nations and was a minor cause celebre – he hasn’t exactly set the world afire and you think if there were better options then Craig Gilroy to choose from, he might lose his place for the Wobbly game. In particular, his moment of trying a redux of his ankle flick instead of jumping on the ball will have been noted by Joe Schmidt – this is the type of play from wingers that will have him spitting bullets. Zebo has clearly taken Schmidt’s feedback of the last 12 months on board, but in his case, there is more to do.

Georgia Team Out!

Stop press! The team for Sunday’s game is out – and, hilariously, Gerry was one player wrong. Seems Joe is a little tougher to read than Deccie. It’s essentially a warm-up for the Canada/Romania games in the RWC where the firsts get a rest and the rest get a run-out – but there are a few interesting calls nonetheless:

  • The most notable first teamer picked is Rosser – the big man needs game time to get to optimal conditioning for the Wobbly front row (stop sniggering at the back) and he’ll definitely get a work-out here. It’s mildly concerning that (i) it takes game time to get him going – what if he comes to the RWC undercooked? (ii) Ross has now started every test under Schmidt – this is into Hayes territory, and (iii) our backups are injured or not good enough to take his shirt.  But hey, what’s new?
  • While Dave Kilcoyne is the nominal third loosehead right now, we think James Cronin is a better player and might finish the year as incumbent at Munster -although the Irish Times Top 50 has them just one place apart, which tells us just how close it is!  Fascinating stuff!  No doubt Joe Schmidt is using it as a guide to selection.  If Killer comes out of a game against Georgia intact, that’s a big plus for him.  His scrummaging will be properly tested here.
  • Paulie, Lighthouse Toner and NWJMB are virtually nailed on for the RWC squad (Henderson is currently out after pre-RWC elective surgery) – there is one more definite second row slot up for grabs, and if Dave Foley carries his ERCC form into Sunday and out-shines Mike McCarthy, he’ll put himself into the conversation.  He’s a good, athletic lock with decent mobility and can carry reasonably well, and is certainly worth a look here.
  • In the absence (not enforced – but is it ever?) of Jamie Heaslip, Robbie Diack will wear the 8 shirt. Or, more to the point, Robin Copeland is (at best) third choice 8. Diack showed well in Argentina, and is clearly in the mix for one of the multi-functional backrow RWC slots, with (but still likely behind) Jordi Murphy, Dom Ryan and Rhys Ruddock. With Murphy to return as more specialised cover for the No.8 jersey, Copeland has missed his chance to gain some ground.  Truth be told, his problems begin with CJ and end with Stander.  There is no crowbarring the prime Bok out of the Munster team and Copeland has found his chances to impress limited as a result.
  • When asked on Sky Sports before the Bok game about whether he was happy with his depth at centre, Joe Schmidt sighed, hummed and hawed, and said “yes and no” i.e. No. He’ll clearly be feeling better since, but he still feels options need exploring. Angry Darren Cave gets another go after a pretty disappointing summer tour – and we’ll hopefully see Stuart Olding get good gametime as well
  • Dom Ryan gets a test debut and it’s merited on early season form.  He had become something of a forgotten man over the last two seasons, but with a run of fitness and form he has reminded us of his talents and knack of scoring tries.

It’s a pretty mobile pack with plenty of good handlers and carriers and lots of athleticism.  Coupled with the no-brainer selection of Reddan and Madigan and a pair of flyers out wide, all signals point towards a looser, faster game plan than we saw against South Africa, which seems sensible against a Georgia team that is likely to be beefy upfront but will struggle in a more open contest.  The appointment of Eoin Reddan as captain also looks shrewd.  Marmion has his champions, but Reddan is still very much second choice and still awfully good, albeit well behind the peerless Murray.  It’s a chance to remind him that he’s still a key part of the squad even if his future gametime is likely to be of the same order as Chris Whittaker enjoyed when he was first reserve to George Gregan.

Here’s the team:

IRELAND (v Georgia): Felix Jones (Munster); Craig Gilroy (Ulster), Darren Cave (Ulster), Gordon D’Arcy (Leinster), Simon Zebo (Munster); Ian Madigan (Leinster), Eoin Reddan (Leinster, capt); Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Richardt Strauss (Leinster), Mike Ross (Leinster); Dave Foley (Munster), Mike McCarthy (Leinster); Dominic Ryan (Leinster), Tommy O’Donnell (Munster), Robbie Diack (Ulster).

Replacements: Seán Cronin (Leinster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), Rodney Ah You (Connacht), Devin Toner (Leinster), Robin Copeland (Munster), Kieran Marmion (Connacht), Ian Keatley (Munster), Stuart Olding (Ulster).

Go easy.

Georgia – that sounds familiar

Yawn. Isn’t this uncomfortable – an Irish series without people having anything to argue about. Even the Thornley Gazette tried to start a pointless argument with its inane click-bait Top 50 nonsense, but it didn’t work. The selection debates for the game are either for fringe RWC players or simply to try out new players and combinations – we’ll post on those when the team is out tomorrow.

But, to remind people what we are actually facing, we are going to re-blog a piece we did a few years ago on the last time Ireland played Georgia – it was part of a series on particular games Ireland played in the professional era. Swallow hard, chaps, here we go:

 

The Game: Ireland 14-10 Georgia, 15 September 2007

What it Defined: the decline of the Eddie O’Sullivan era and the 2007 World Cup catastrophe

The State of Play

Ireland are travelling to the world cup in rude health, with a fully fit squad and sky-high expectations.  In short, Irish rugby has never had it so good.  The team is settled and the age profile of the team is optimal, with all its key leaders in the 25-29 bracket.  They have played a lot of very good rugby over the previous twelve months.  In the November internationals they reach new peaks, comfortably beating South Africa and Australia and thrashing the Pacific Islands.  The Six Nations is thrilling, heartbreaking, but ultimately encouraging.  Ireland lose it on points difference to France, but most commentators agree Ireland are the best team in Europe.

Huge credit is given to (and lapped up by) their one-man-band of a coach, Eddie O’Sullivan.  Uninterested in delegating and something of a control freak, he has full control of all elements of the team.  Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is the conditioning of the players, which has seen Ireland shed its long-held reputation as a 60-minute team.  Much is made of their visits to the cryotherapy chambers in Spala, Poland, where the players sit in sub-sub-zero temperatures for short periods of time, which improves the recovery speed of the muscles.  When a bunch of photographs of the players messing on the beach goes viral, the nation marvels at these specimens; tanned and toned, muscles rippling.  To reflect the coach’s achievements he is handed a four-year contract before the World Cup has even begun.

But there are a couple of problems looming, though nobody is overly concerned yet.  After the Six Nations, both Munster and Leinster limp out of the Heineken Cup in the quarter finals.  It means it’s a long time without high-intensity matches.  The summer tour to Argentina sees Ireland lose twice, and draws clear lines of demarcation between the first XV, “Eddie’s Untouchables”, who don’t travel and the rest of the squad, the tackle-bag holders, who do. The tour was ominous – granted, the first XV weren’t there, but the ease with which Argentina dispatched Ireland was a worry.

And Ireland’s pre-tournament preparation did not go well.  They’ve played poorly, losing to Scotland and only beating Italy in Ravenhill thanks to a highly dubious last-minute try.  The idea of playing a club side, Bayonne, once in camp in France, backfires, with the locals delighting in the role of hired hands set out to soften the opposition up for the main fight with France.  O’Driscoll is punched off the ball and leaves the match with a fractured cheekbone.  Eddie’s squad is rather lopsided, with a wealth of blindsides, but no specialised cover at 7 or 8.

The first game of the tournament sees Ireland play badly against Namibia, the tournament’s lowest ranked side. Eddie picked his Untouchables, with a view to playing them into form – they win 32-17, but it’s an inauspicious start – France and Argentina would put 150 points on the Namibians collectively, yet Ireland actually lost the second half 14-12.

Now the alarm bells were ringing – it was Georgia next, and any opportunity to play some of the dirt-trackers was gone as the imperative was to get the first XV back to life. This was the last opportunity before the real games come, against hosts France, and a fired-up Argentina side which has blown the tournament open by beating France in the opening game.

The Game

The first half is a pedestrian affair.  Ireland get a try, through Rory Best, but David Wallace is sent to the sin-bin and Georgia score the resulting penalty to trail 7-3 at half-time.  Then things go pear-shaped.  Peter Stringer throws a floaty pass towards O’Driscoll, and it’s intercepted for a try.  The body language between O’Driscoll and Stringer as the try is scored is not indicative of a team which is enjoying its rugby.  Girvan Dempsey replies with a try in the corner, which Ronan O’Gara converts to give Ireland a 14-10 lead.  But they cannot put the Georgians away, and as the game enters the last ten minutes it is the minnows who are piling on the pressure.  Winning the physical battle, they pick, drive and maul their way towards the line.  Indeed, they get over the whitewash, but Denis Leamy’s body is under the ball, and Ireland breathe again.

Ireland win 14-10, but it is the closest any established nation has come to such humiliation – had the Georgians showed a bit more poise and not attempted a swathe of miracle drop goals in the second half, the victory was there for the taking.  Ireland’s form is now beyond crisis point.  They have also failed to secure a bonus point, meaning if they lose to France and beat Argentina they could still go out.  The tournament is shaping up to be a disaster – Ireland appear poorly conditioned (but how, when they looked so good?) and Eddie has been forced to stick rigidly to his first team in an effort to play them in to something approaching form, but it hasn’t happened.

This half of WoC (Palla) remembers watching the game through his fingers.  With flights booked to Paris for the following week, it simply didn’t bear thinking about that the long awaited trip could be to see two dead rubbers in the French capital.

The Aftermath

The rest of the World Cup panned out with the inevitability of an unfolding horror story.  Ireland did up their game to an extent against France, but ran out 25-3 losers, two classic poacher’s tries by – who else? – Vincent Clerc enabling the hosts to pull away on the scoreboard.  It left Ireland needing not only to beat Argentina, but win by more than seven and score four tries in the process.  It never looked like happening, and Argentina dominated the match, winning 30-15.  In the first half, when David Wallace, of all people, was gang tackled and driven back 20 metres, it was clear the jig was up.  Juan Martin Hernandez was the game’s dominant figure, dropping three goals with all the fuss of someone buying a pint of milk.

Ireland went home humiliated, having entered the tournament as one of the favourites.  It was an astonishing fall from grace.  What had gone wrong?  Any number of theories were put forward, with the rumour mill going into overdrive.  Ronan O’Gara – having played with all the conviction of a man struggling to remember if he’d left the iron on at home – was having personal problems.  Geordan Murphy had packed his bags after being dropped from the bench for the French game.  Brian O’Driscoll and Peter Stringer had come to blows after the Georgia game.  It went on and on, and was very ugly – the intrusion into certain players lives was completely unnecessary, and quite shocking.

Other reasons with more foundation were offered up.  What was clear was that the players were poorly conditioned for test rugby.  Sure, they looked great on the beach, but they weren’t battle hardened.  The preparation was flawed, and once the team started underperforming, Eddie was unwilling to change the team – save for Peter Stringer, who became something of a fall guy.  The players were miserable in a poor choice of hotel in Bordeaux and became bored and irritable.

Frankie Sheahan offered an interesting nugget in a recent Sunday Times article: he felt the coaches had become too concerned with player statistics.  Certain players were being absolved from blame for particular outcomes because they had hit so many rucks, or made so many tackles.  He felt it contributed to an ‘I’m alright, Jack’ mentality within the squad.  When he talked to Rodrigo Roncero at the post-match dinner, Frankie asked him if the Argentina camp had relied on individual performance statistics.  ‘No’, Rodrigo replied, ‘we don’t care how many tackles a player makes, whether it’s 1 or 100, so long as somebody makes the tackle when it has to be made’.  It spoke of a coach whose philosophy had reached its sell-by date.

The strangest thing was that when the players returned to their provinces, the majority found their form again quickly.  Ronan O’Gara went back to Munster and immediately played as well as he had ever done.  Indeed, he piloted them to the Heineken Cup that year, while Leinster won the Magners League.  The players themselves were at a loss to explain it all.  Shane Horgan recently recalled irate fans demanding answers as to why they had been so poor, and his thoughts were: ‘You want answers?  I’m the one who wants answers!’

Eddie had one more Six Nations to put things right, but by now he was a busted flush.  He belatedly and reluctantly let a bang-in-form Jamie Heaslip have a game, and was rewarded with a performance (but no victory) in Paris, but the final two games saw Ireland lose at home to Wales and get thrashed by a Danny Cipriani-inspired England.

Eddie did the decent thing and resigned, leaving the team at a pretty low ebb.  There was only one choice of replacement: the man who had led Munster to two Heineken Cups in three years, and a coach his polar opposite in almost every way: Declan Kidney. The players were crying out for a new approach, and they were going to get one.

Joe Knows

Ireland 29 South Africa 15.  It was a win of such accurate execution, discipline and adherence to a superb gameplan that it’s almost impossible to say anything interesting or worthwhile about it.

Seventeen injured players became eighteen on the morning of the game as Chris Henry fell foul of a virus. Never mind, Ireland won anyway, by 29-15 and Rhys Ruddock played so well it was almost a relief to have something we could level at Schmidt: ‘Why the hell was this guy not in the team in the first place?’

We said that pre-emptively criticising Joe Schmidt’s selections was a bad idea, but for some reason we went ahead and did it anyway. And once again we find ourselves in the hole. His seemingly experimental midfield worked a treat with Henshaw in particular exceptionally robust at 12, and with a touch of class to boot. His kick behind the defence to set up the platform for Ruddock’s try was sublime.  Payne also contributed in defence and his best moment in attack was a great support line off the peerless Rob Kearney.  Richadt Strauss’ selection on the bench raised a few eyebrows, but he had a superb impact when he replaced Sean Cronin.  Joe knows.

The story of the game everyone knows; Ireland’s lineout and scrum creaked badly but they made up for it by pulverising the breakdown and being more accurate and better disciplined than their opponents. They had less territory and less possession than South Africa, but made better decisions and executed better when it mattered. The half-backs dominated their opponents.  They worked the scoreboard with impressive regularity, while South Africa missed their opportunities to do so, and in the last 20 minutes of the first half they had plenty.

Ireland’s record against The Other Two southern hemisphere nations isn’t bad – on their own turf anyway, but few wins have been as convincing or with such sound foundations. Ireland have had scalps before, but usually as a backlash against previous rubbish performances and wounded pride. Not so here.

A special mention for the half-backs. Before last year’s Six Nations we remarked that Sexton and Murray had world-class ability, but now was the time to unleash their ‘test match animal’ and become not fleetingly great players, but those who consistently dominate test matches. The call has been met, and arguably both are now operating at the peak of their powers. Sexton has tended to prefer playing with a ‘servant’, a scrum half who sees his job as being to give him the ball. Eoin Reddan has understood this role and executed it superbly at Leinster, but Conor Murray is no junior partner. It’s taken them a while to gel, but now they have done so the results are, and will continue to be, astonishing. It’s a half-back pairing for the ages.

The glass suddenly looks not so much half-full as brimming over. Injuries? Who cares? Australia? Let’s take them. We’ve a shot at a three-win series. The possibilities are huge. There’s no need to urge the team to ‘front up’ or ‘grasp the nettle’ because we know that under this coach, cold hard detail, accuracy and execution of an appropriate gameplan will be used to deconstruct the opposition. It looks increasingly like the best coach in the world is coaching the Ireland team. Momentum is being built and a world cup is less than twelve months away. These are heady times.

What Fresh Madness Is This?

Joe Schmidt has named his team to face South Africa.

There has been some talk of Australia being the main focus this month and the team bears this out to some extent. With most of the positions picking themselves with injury to key players removing any would-be hard calls, the only position where there is a real decision to make is the midfield. And it’s there that Schmidt has taken a somewhat experimental route, with the rumoured Henshaw-Payne axis coming to pass.  No, folks, it wasn’t a ruse to wind up the Indo, hilarious as that would have been.

It sure is an odd one, because Gordon D’arcy is fit and ready to go and the obvious selection was the experienced Wexford man alongside one or other of Payne and Henshaw. Another more plausible possibility would be to bring in Olding or Madigan at 12, if D’arcy is indeed less than 100% fit, since both have been playing there, and playing well too, this season. There’s probably a specific gameplan wedded to the selection, and we’ll just have to wait and see what that is. Word on the ground is they trained well together while Dorce was recovering.  Henshaw’s a big strong lad, but probably not used to defending the traffic-heavy 12 channel. And Payne still looks a better full-back than a centre, though his footballing class is not in doubt. Our major concern is that both of them are playing in positions which are not their best.  On their first test starts.  Against South Africa.

The selection of Felix Jones on the bench is odd, even allowing for specialist 15 cover for Bob’s recently-crocked status. Simon Zebo has started a test there, and Payne and Henshaw have spent plenty of time there as well. Wing cover (Craig Gilroy) or even an extra playmaker (Stuart Olding) might have given the bench more game-breaking pizzazz, on the off-chance we are still in it after 60 minutes.

Criticising Schmidt’s selections before matches has tended to be a losing trade, and we have come out the wrong side of it ourselves too many times, and really should know better. To give two examples, against Clermont Auvergne we questioned the wisdom of picking Jennings and Boss, and in last year’s Six Nations we disagreed with the decision to retain the same first team for the Italy game, when the opportunity to freshen things up and rest some bodies for the French match looked appealing. On both occasions, Schmidt’s selections were vindicated. We also harrumphed a bit over Simon Zebo’s omission from the Six Nations, but nobody could argue with the outcome, and Simon Zebo’s attitude since has shown all the hallmarks of someone who is hungry to learn and improve.  So let’s hope that after the game we’re declaring this new midfield as a masterstroke.

Winning this match looks beyond Ireland, and to be fair, that applies no matter how the midfield is set up. The injury list is simply more than our squad can take. As well as 17 unavailable players, it’s hard to see just how sharp Rob Kearney, Mike Ross and Chris Henry can be. Ross, in particular, can hardly be expected to last the full match, which means Rodney Ah Here will have to play at some stage, possibly for as many as 20 minutes. It doesn’t bear thinking about.