Daddy, or Chips? Or Both?

With our swollen injury list and a lack of convincing cause celebre in the provinces (who are largely playing like drains), there is a dearth of the traditional interprovincial bickering selection dilemmas. Ross vs Moore – Moore injured. Toner vs Henderson – Henderson injured. O’Brien vs Henry vs O’Mahony (a potentially delicious dilemma) – O’Brien injured. Sexton vs O’Connor – O’Connor injured. Zeebs vs Dave Kearney – Dave Kearney injured, Zeebs qualifies for next round of the bicker-off vs Craig Gilroy.

Which leaves us with but one biggun – centre. It looked like a straight shootout to wear the ICONIC NUMBER 13 JERSEY ™, but rumours are circulating that with Darcy sort-of carrying a knock, and Ireland already looking at fielding several players who are only recently recovered or less than 100% fit (Henry, Kearney and Ross spring to mid) that D’arcy won’t be risked and the possibility of both Henshaw and Payne playing together has been raised.

If so, it’s an unusual call.  Debuting one player in the midfield would be one thing; two at the same time, and possibly putting both into positions with which they are unfamiliar (if it is to be 12 Henshaw, 13 Payne) would be asking a lot of both.  Surely better to have Darcy’s experience alongside whichever is to be the chosen one?  If Payne were to play inside centre presumably it would to be to benefit from his distribution, with Henshaw outside him.  But that would be equally odd because Ireland have two options who are both playing well in that very role this season; Stuart Olding and Ian Madigan.  Why shoehorn Payne into the role when specialists are available?

Henshaw is a big chap whose best attributes are his athleticism. The bludgeon, they say. But it’s not that simple – it rarely is. Henshaw is skillful enough in space to have spent time at full-back and plenty of big centres have been more piano players than shifters – Yannick Jauzion or Shontayne Hape for example. Sorry, not the last one – but someone like Manu Tuilagi is less of a bosh merchant than Barnesy will have you believe.  We’ve no idea how Henshaw’s skills would transfer to 12, but he’s a strong tackler and a hard runner, so he has at least some of the attributes.

The outside centre is the key defensive link in the backline, and the reality is that both are relative newcomers to Ireland’s defensive system.  Schmidt will have some knowledge of how Payne fits in from Agent Kiss’ undercover role at Ravers and from recent training camps – the fact Payne is still in contention likely speaks to some degree of confidence from the brains trust (© Gerry) that he can do the job to some degree.

That said, it’s pretty obvious Payne has not fitted in easily at 13 for Ulster – if he had, there is probably a good chance he would be inked in already for Ireland. Peter O’Reilly made the point this weekend that playing outside Stuart McCloskey is hardly conducive to making much of an impact – we aren’t quite buying that one, but we do recognise that, without Ruan Pienaar, an already half-injured Wee PJ is standing miles behind Paul Marshall (to catch errant passes?) and the space outside is getting compressed. Payne outside Murray/Sexton is a much tastier proposition – and if Payne gets the space he routinely exploits from 15 for Ulster at 13, that’s excellent news. But will he?  Playing the Boks can be a suffocating experience.

One thing’s for sure, Payne’s birthplace won’t come into it.  Schmidt got visibly annoyed in the spring about having to field questions about picking naturalized foreigners like Robbie Diack and Rodney Ah Here  – he rightfully says that naturalization rules are what they are, and he will pick the best players available for Ireland. If it comes down to a cigarette paper between Payne and Henshaw, accent will not come into it. While a bias of commentators and fans towards the “real” Irishman are understandable, and as a nation we are still a bit queasy about the naturalisation laws, it won’t be a factor for the Milky Bar Kid.

We have been wavering all week – on Saturday, we were slightly in the Henshaw camp, but O’Reilly wrote a good piece extolling what Payne could bring to Ireland – it’s easy to forget in the blizzard of negative coverage of his Ulster 13 experience, possibly coloured by his sending off against Saracens, that he is a fantastic footballer, good enough to play underage for BNZ and shine as an attacking threat in Ulster teams containing Tommy Bowe, Paddy Wallace and Ruan Pienaar.

The first game is against the mighty Springboks, who have selected a centre partnership of Jean de Villiers (not his twin, who showed up at Munster) and Jan Serfontein – two excellent footballers and two big men. Are we going to bludgeon through them? Unlikely – we are waifs in comparison. Are we going to play around them? Possibly – but more likely with Payne. Can they bludgeon through us? Definitely – Henshaw minimises this risk. Can they play around us? Definitely – Serfontein is an excellent footballer with an eye for a gap who has long been tipped for Bok caps – that’s a risk no matter who plays.  Whatever way we set up the midfield, it’s a bloody hard game.  Are we about to get a curveball and find Henshaw and Payne thrown in together?  From this vantage point, it would make it all the harder.


Cold November Rain

Wow. Isn’t this exciting – we haven’t engaged in a proper spat of inter-provincial bickering since … February? By the time March came along, Ireland were gathering pace en route to a Championship and it seemed churlish, then it was all a bit half-hearted when Argentina came along. But now it’s here – yay!  November internationals!

But seriously, Schmidt’s first season was incredible – nearly beating BNZ, then winning the Championship. Like Deccie, who had an incredibly effective beginning to his tenure, the challenge will be backing that up with a second season – one that will effectively ends in a World Cup. Also like Deccie, the Milky Bar Kid got part of his success from a bounce from a previous season that didn’t reflect the real quality in the team – merely a previous coaching regime that had run its course. Eddie’s control freakery gave way to Deccie’s delegation to the players; which was in turn replaced by Schmidt’s technical coaching brilliance. Can the initial bounce be backed up?

One can reasonable expect some reversion to the mean this season, and retaining the Six Nations will be something they haven’t done since 1949 (although they shared in 1983 when going for a repeat, they would have finished second under today’s rules). While we should be realistic about what expectations for this season are – two wins in November, four in the Six Nations are the par score for this group – they have set their own standards. Also, its worth being aware that the players were grumbling about the tough schedule Schmidt put them through in Argentina – its unlikely that will drop off, and some degree of fatigue is a risk. Plus you-know-who has left a gaping hole in the team.

Two wins in the coming weeks means beating Australia or the Boks – all indications are the Wobbly game wil be the one targeted (like BNZ last year) and, given the injuries we have, and the scratchy form of the provinces, its a tough ask. Still – it makes sense to go for Oz – beating the Boks is tough enough, but without your primary ball carriers it’s virtually impossible – and we have lost DJ Church, Sean O’Brien, Iain Henderson and Andrew Trimble. That said, it’s not all bad – O’Brien missed the entire Six Nations, Henderson was a sub in that tournament and Church and Trimby would be adequately replaced by Tommy Bowe and Jack McGrath. Puts pressure on depth though, doesn’t it.

The first choice pack pretty much picks itself given the missing list – McGrath, Besty, Ross, Toner, O’Connell, POM, Henry, Heaslip. Only one man different from the 6N pack, but Besty is struggling for form, Ross needs matchtime to get up to speed, and Chris Henry hasn’t quite been at his best of late. Sean Cronin will provide decent bacup, another strong carrier and potential for weapons-grade impact late in matches, and will start one game minimum, but the rest of the forward squad ranges from the potential of Rhys Ruddock to the dicky lungs of Rodney Ah Here.

We’d ideally like to see a couple of names pitched in to see if they sink or swim – the likes of James Cronin, Dave Foley and Dom Ryan might have something to offer to the squad in a RWC year – they might sink without trace,  but at least we’d know – and we know what Dave Kilcyone, Mike McCarthy and Robbie Diack can do – and it’s not of the highest level. Ryan will most likely have to wait for the Georgia game but Cronin and Foley could make the bench against South Africa.  Two of Ah Here, Stephen Archer and Tadgh Furlong are likely to get the dubious honour of scrummaging against the monstrous Georgians – gulp.

In the backline, Conor Murray and J-Sex are miles ahead of their backups. The vigils for Sexton’s hamstring can begin now. Ian Keatley got rewarded for some decent early season form over a semi-fit Wee PJ but we suspect Ian Mad-Dog is Schmidt’s number 2, though he has only started at 10 once this season.  One suspects they’ll do whatever possible to get Sexton on the pitch. In RWC terms, Eoin Reddan and Kieran Marmion are pretty much on the plane – but we’d like to see Marmion get a start and see how he does – against Georgia he might be behind a pack being marched backwards early on.

And now, ah yes – time for the centres. We know this – Dorce will start against the Boks and Stuart Olding will see gametime at some point. Who will play outside? The concensus seems to have settled on Robbie “bosh” Henshaw (largely because BOD says it is so), but O’Reilly thinks Schmidt will value Jared Payne’s distribution and running angles more that the directness of the Connacht man. It certainly makes sense not to give Jean de Villers and Jan Serfontein what they eat for breakfast, but Payne has been pretty rubbish at 13 for Ulster. One suspects Schmidt won’t let the two guys shoot out on the field – there simply isn’t enough time for that – he’ll make his selection and stand by it. If it’s to be Payne or if it is to be Henshaw, let’s all make an effort, similar to the 2012 Six Nations when Keet Earls played the entire tournament there, to not jump down his throat each time he Isn’t BOD.

Provided they are fully fit, Bob and Tommy Bowe will be inked into the team – Trimble is a big loss but Bowe is a pretty decent replacement to have. The other wing spot, in shades of a more innocent era (2012), appears to be between Craig Gilroy and Simon Zeebs. Schmidt doesn’t appear to be a massive fan of Zebo, while Gilroy looks to have returned to some impressive form this year after his career stalled last season.  Nonetheless, while Zebo hasn’t been quite as stellar with ball-in-hand, he appears to be putting a lot of effort into working really, really hard and brings a decent kicking game; he might just shade it.  Zebo and Bowe for Trimble and Dave Kearney; it might be injury-enforced but Ireland don’t appear to be losing too much in the trade.

We already know Joe Schmidt is an excellent coach and Ireland have excellent players – if the success or failure of this series comes down to the Wobbly game, he’ll be up against another excellent coach and a team of excellent players. In a RWC year, its a good judge of where we are at, and how the team is shaping up – for you can be sure we won’t have a full deck in 11 months time.