(Hashtag) Ireland’s Tighthead Crisis

Ok, well, it mightn’t be a crisis, we don’t know that for sure. In fact, we reckon it won’t, but one fact remains indisputable – the man who has started the last 25 Tests for Ireland at tighthead prop is now third choice at his province. That’s not good.

Did you know that since the dawn of professional rugby, only four tightheads have started a Six Nations match for Ireland?  It’s going to become five this season.  Shit just got real.

Let’s rewind a little to the Autumn Internationals of 2010 – that was the point when John Hayes finally ran out of steam after being flogged, almost literally, to death. The indefatigable Bull had been Ireland’s starter for an incredible 11 years, and the progression management consisted of the following:

  1. Identify Mushy Buckley as Hayes’ successor in 2007
  2. Wring hands as Mushy fails to make a dent on Hayes’ starting slot at Munster
  3. Watch Mushy make an impressive top class starting debut in BNZ in the Tour of the Long List of Blindsides in 2010, albeit in a game with few scrums
  4. Cover eyes with hands during 2010 Autumn Internationals
  5. Wring hands further as Mushy repeatedly gets injured and *still* can’t get Hayes out of the Munster team even as Hayes get frogmarched backwards in green

When Buckley lasted 40 minutes in the Wolfhounds game four years ago, the management’s patience snapped and that was that – the previously ignored Mike Ross, of whom it was clear Deccie wasn’t a fan, was in, and acted as a one-man bailout machine, immediately solidifying the Ireland scrum, even sporadically turning it into an attacking weapon! Phew, problem solved.

Of the 44 Tests since then, Ireland have let themselves get into that situation again – we are at exactly the same point in the RWC cycle, and the starters in the interim period have been:

  • Mike Ross (41 Tests)
  • Mushy Buckley (2 Tests) – vs Scotland in RWC11 warm-up, and Russki in RWC11
  • Deccie Fitzpatrick (1 Test) – vs BNZ in the 2012 Tour

Ross started both games in the 2013 summer tour when the opponents were the scrummaging powerhouses of, er, the USA and Canada. He started against Samoa in the November series. He also started both tours in Argentina, who *are* scrummaging heavyweights with the next choice being Rodney Ah Here, so that’s understandable, at least. He started against Georgia – Georgia! – to prepare him for the scrummaging powerhouse of the Wobblies. To be fair to the management, they were undone by injuries in November.  Moore had been out since early on in the season, and they gave every indication that Nathan White would be given a prominent role, only for him to succumb to injury too.  Now, there are always reasons to start Ross, sometimes very good ones, but the risk is that, like with Hayes, we end up that the player just goes over a cliff.

When the Ross-anchored Leinster scrum got shunted around by Quins in December, it looked like he was over the cliff-edge. Happily, Marty Moore has returned in the nick of time and transformed the Leinster scrum, with help from Tadgh Furlong who has cemented his status as first reserve. It’s tough to see how Ross can start for Ireland. He is still in the extended squad, but if he is behind two Irish eligible players at provincial level, it seems a long shot that he is the test starter.  Furlong has been deemed not quite ready for test level yet, and is not in the extended training squad.

So who will start for Ireland? The answer, surely, is Marty Mooradze – Moore is a very strong scrummager and a more dynamic version of Ross around the park. was Ross’s backup at last years Six Nations, playing 110 minutes in total, and looked decent off the bench. But still, it’s a step up, and his last act in an Ireland shirt was to be ploughed backwards by Debaty, Guirardo and Slimani in the final scrum, only to be let off the hook by Dreamboat Walsh and a bit of good luck as the ball popped out of the French scrum and they had to play it.

And who will make the bench?  Either Ross or Nathan White. Could it be that Ireland put out two tightheads with no test starts between them and one of whom has yet to even get a cap?  Indeed, it’s very probable.  If we were to graph Ross’ career graph it would look something like this: unwanted, unwanted, unwanted, Ireland’s most important player, unwanted.

It’s likely that Moore will have a few wobbles against some experienced streetwise operator, probably a dirty Frenchman or filthy Italian, but he should be fine on the whole. And we will know who our starting RWC15 tighthead will be. And while Mike Ross was a stopgap solution that fell into Deccie’s lap, Moore should have a decade-long career and has been groomed for this very situation.  His time has arrived.  Still, it’s mildly concerning that the men most likely are barely capped, and we’ve got ourselves into a situation where an oft-flogged starter packs in eight months before the tournament … again.  Then again, Michael Bent is in the squad too, so there’s always that.

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46 Comments

  1. Gunna haveta give Moore, White and Furlong game time at some point. No point in waiting any longer, so get them going sooner rather than later. Ross has been a linchpin, and isn’t out of the team by any stretch of the imagination. But the longer this is put off, the worse it’s going to get.

  2. No, no, no… *White* will start the 6 nations at TH, and do a more-than-decent job. Further out than that, Moore will start one warm-up game and one game against a minnow in the World Cup, and then the odd Autumn international against Samoa, while White will start every meaningful game for several years until his form falls off a cliff due to age, which I reckon could be around or about autumn 2018/spring 2019.

    And then the dance begins again…

    • You really think White will be starting for Ireland at the age of 37 when Moore, Furlong, Ah You and Archer will all be between 26 and 30?

      • Eh… no… it was a comment on how we generally manage such matters, intended humourously. I think, or rather I hope, that we’ve learned from history this time when it comes to flogging aging props to death without proper succession planning. I just wouldn’t bet on it, this being Ireland, and Irish rugby at that.

        But for the record, I’d definitely have a 37-year-old White over an any aged Ah You, and Archer is a degree-of-magnitude worse again.

        • Billy

           /  January 29, 2015

          You clearly didn’t see Archer last weekend – boshs, sidesteps, offloads, dominant scrummaging! It’s a new dawn!

        • Apologies. There is so much bias with Irish rugby fans that sarcasm often floats over my head when someone is talking about a player from the team they support. That would be the way of previous Irish teams, but I doubt Schmidt would do the same. WC19 should be when Moore and Furlong are coming towards their prime. They’ll be some force to be reckoned with.

  3. SgtUnruly

     /  January 29, 2015

    I actually think Furlong may turn out to be the best of them long term.

    • cp

       /  January 29, 2015

      I’d be with you on that, and have been banging that drum for a while now.

      But realistically his time will come post RWC. Our depth chart now is Moore, Ross, White, D Fitz. Barring an injury crisis, he has next to no chance of making an Ireland appearance this year.

      • Amiga500

         /  January 29, 2015

        Bronson Ross is better than Fitzpatrick.
        He is also Irish qualified (mum).

        He held up the Ulster scrum vs. Toulon and looks decent in open field.

        • What is wrong with an indigenous TH at Ulster? First Afoa, now Herbst and even Bronson Ross has a kiwi background. Surely there has got to be TH that could step up from the AIL.

          • Amiga500

             /  January 30, 2015

            Afoa? Who replaced that well known Irishman BJ Botha…?

            Simon Best retired in 2007. Deccie Fitz had already played for Ulster in 2006. Yet Ulster brought in foreigners straight away. Deccie wasn’t up to it then and nothing has changed since.

            There has been a need for a TH to “step up” for years. But nowerdays the searches don’t seem to go beyond RBAI, Methody and Campbell for kids to enter the academy.

            Although thats not entirely Ulster’s fault. The AIL standard is too far below the Pro12 for the coaches to have any confidence in using it as a proving ground. Which is something the IRFU need to look at. Cut the AIL to about 12 teams, unionise them, make the league a professional/semi-professional mix and have a real stepping stone from club to province.

            Neither will happen though – schools rugby dominates underage thinking and too many old boys will never change the club scene.

          • jacothelad

             /  February 1, 2015

            There is. He is called Chris Taylor but the lackofbrains at Ravenspan have deemed that they don’t want him. These are the same guys who told Craig Gilroy that he ‘would never make it as a pro player.’ There is also Ricky Lutton who is injured. Sadly, it is a part of life at Ulster that the majority of potentially good players leave to go to university in Scotland or England rather than to attend the largely unwelcoming funhouse that is Queen’s University and are thus lost to the game in Ireland.

    • Very possibly. Unless Ross turns the thing around provincially and nationally in the coming weeks and months I could see Furlong heading across the Irish Sea in the Autumn in his place.

  4. Bueller

     /  January 29, 2015

    Totally unconvinced by Marty Moore as a rugby player. Hoping he proves me wrong as the alternatives aren’t exactly world beaters either!

    • gullit3962

       /  January 29, 2015

      Really?big tackle count, counter rucks, tidy when he gets the ball and his scrummaging is improving. what is it you are looking for in a tight head?

      • toro toro

         /  January 30, 2015

        Yeah, the only way to be unconvinced on his showing so far is to not watch, or not know what you’re watching.

  5. Gratuitous dig at Bent lads. We should be past that.

    • connachtexile

       /  January 29, 2015

      You beat me to it. Can’t we stop with the digs?

    • garzoo

       /  January 29, 2015

      Pretty much everyone has admitted he’s a good player now, that doesn’t mean we can’t all make gags from time to time. Same goes for Ah Here

  6. Cian

     /  January 29, 2015

    Hmmm. Might it be time to cut Kidney a bit of slack for the lack of succession planning for the Bull, seeing as Saint Joe has ended up in almost the same situation? It seems to have been accepted around here for a while that Deccie almost deliberately engineered the crisis last time around.

    • Deliberately engineered is a bit much? Merely poor planning.

    • osheaf01

       /  January 29, 2015

      Kidney’s surely to blame for the current crisis as well, isn’t he?

    • garzoo

       /  January 29, 2015

      Schmidt has been unlucky with injuries. Moore got plenty of game time in the last 6 nations and he would have gotten more in Autumn, as would White. It would be interesting to see the number of players who have played for Schmidt in his 1st year and a half vs Kidney’s 1st year and a half

    • Billy

       /  January 29, 2015

      Agreed with Cian. We’re in a lot better situation TH-wise now than 5ish years ago when the only first choice prop at the provinces was Hayes. Ross was stuck behind Wright, White or Clint Newlands or whoever else. White and Ah You weren’t yet qualified. Dec Fitz was stuck behind Botha/Afoa in Ulster, when not injured. Note how many of those are non-Irish. You cannot hold Kidney responsible for that. The lack of depth was an policy issue rather than a selection issue.

      Prioritising Ireland has sorted out our depth charts in most positions, especially TH, even if it has been to the detriment of the provinces.

      • Cian

         /  January 29, 2015

        Exactly, Billy. Schmidt has had more injuries to deal with at TH, but Deccie had a complete dearth of options in the provinces, and whatever we might think ourselves the IRFU say that dealing with such an issue is not the head coach’s remit. In fact, it could be argued that succession planning in general is way down a HC’s list of priorities. Imagine Henshaw had failed to make the step up (quite conceivable). Would Joe be excoriated for failing to implement a foolproof BOD succession plan?

        • The other thing to remember is that Schmidt is concerned only with this six nations, not next years or the year after that. If he believes he needs to start Ross in every single game this year to win the six nations again and reach a semi final in the World Cup then he definitely will.

  7. Wolfhounds team out: Ross starting, White on the bench. Now that could mean that Moore is nailed on for Italy, but equally it could mean he won’t be in the 23 at all. Still think Mooradze will start, Whiff?

    • Billy

       /  January 29, 2015

      Interesting one – I’m reading from it that, bar an absolute shocker, Ross is in the 23 next weekend… After that – no idea…

  8. SportingBench

     /  January 29, 2015

    Succession planning is difficult. Sometimes it is easy to think giving someone caps = experience and they will become international standard with enough practise but the truth is if they aren’t up to a certain standard they will get hammered at international level and the lesson will be wasted. The solution isn’t to simply play someone and pray they improve. While some of the games Ross has started in recent years might have been used to “develop other options”, there have been good reasons not to such as the primary objective of the summer was to look at options in the centre replacing a certain someone and that would be more difficult with additional disruption elsewhere. The recent examples of both Buckley and Fitzpatrick show that a prospect doesn’t automatically turn into good with the addition of games and the Wobblies have some very experienced props who still can scrummage. The problem Ireland have had at TH both now and then is that the many of the understudy options have either been injured or simply not yet at the sufficient level to play international rugby. I suspect, given the importance of the TH position neither Joe nor Deccie were willing to throw a game just to give a TH whom they don’t rate some experience. More than other positions it is important for props to demonstrate they can do the basics at scrum time before they are pitched into international level.

  9. Yossarian

     /  January 29, 2015

    Leinster to be fair have been doing their bit to develop Irish options on both sides of the scrum. Any half decent school boy got an academy spot over the past few years and you see Byrne, jack o’connel and the above mentioned all come through. They are doing same in second row now and hopefully should see leinster produce their first indigenous second row since dev. The overseas restriction on the provinces means they should all be doing it and Irish options should begin to emerge in time.(ulster seem to be doing it as well)

    • connachtexile

       /  January 29, 2015

      All the provinces are doing it Yossarian. At Connacht Ultan Dillane at 21 is now a bone fide squad player and if any of you guys wanna see a future Irish International Second Rower check out Cian Romaine.
      Munster have Sean McCarthy who looks like a prospect and Ulster have a lad called Taggart I think who is meant to be Ulster’s answer to Devin Toner.

      • Agree on Dillane and Romaine but wouldn’t be so sure on McCarthy and if Madigan gets a run without getting injured he’ll pass McCarthy out. And Taggart is a 7 not a 2nd row

        • gullit3962

           /  January 29, 2015

          Agree all the provinces have stepped it up.(some more than others, Munster a bit behind) The restrictions on overseas players(3+project 4th) working well. Even connacht who aren’t technically subject to the restriction are doing it.

      • jacothelad

         /  February 1, 2015

        There is a very promising Ulster second row who is 6’9″ or 10″ but just like Chris Taylor, he is not considered. Instead the Ulster coaching staff – (meh) prefer to continue to ignore 20 / 21 year old prospects and while I wouldn’t ever advocate the sackingg of anyone, McComb and Stevenson are pretty awful. Alan O’Connor is however the real deal and is going to get better and better. This is of course without mentioning Henderson

  10. Wolfhound starting place is a great opportunity for Ross and Darce to prove they’re still Test material. Darce’ll could have his work cut out, trying to keep Burgess contained… Knowing the latter’s power I dunno what to think about Earls being our other centre. His tackling has always left me a tad underwhelmed……

  11. hulkinator

     /  January 29, 2015

    The prop crisis was probably a blessing. It forced Irish rugby to get their act together when it comes to developing props. Now there is a healthy flow of props in the country. Loosehead is very strong and tightheads are rarer and take longer to develop which is why only Moore (discounting the NIQs) has come through for Ireland in recent years.

    Looking beyond Moore, Furlong is a year younger and has massive potential. That they’re 23 and 22 compared to Mike Ross (35) tells you all you need to know about the barren years. Moore and Furlong are the start of a new generation of tightheads in Ireland. Hopefully we should be able to produce 1 quality tighthead every 2 years which should mean Ireland will always have a strong scrum.

  12. pete (buachaill on eirne)

     /  January 29, 2015

    In all fairness Joe gave Martin Moore a fair bit of time in the 6Nations (although no starts) but then when he could have kicked on that summer, he was injured. Then he had a chance in the Autumn, but he was injured. This is the first time since this time last year that Martin Moore has been available to Ireland. He could have had an extra 5 caps by this stage.

    Nathan White was the same Autumn just gone, with Moore out he would have got at least the Georgia game and possibly bench time too.

  13. andrew097

     /  January 29, 2015

    Its been the same for the last forty years crisis in the front row when somebody pops up.
    there is a bit of “they have to learn on the job”.
    Can go back to Sean Lynch suddenly turning up to save the day for the Lions. in 71
    If you have a problem in the scrum you just have to keep training do forty scrums on Monday and Tuesday twenty on Wed rest Thurs plus Fri and the 12 or so during the game will be a doddle. But you must scrum as eight, its a unit skill no backrow forwards with heads up leaving the prop with no support. and If their blindside slips his bind to drive into the TH drag him off and tell the Ref if he keeps up that dangerous play you are going to be dug out of him. There scrum sorted. Oh somebody should learn to hook, quick ball from a scrum can be seven points in the 22

    • If it really is that simple could you please make sure the refs get your memo?

      • Forget the refs, someone give this post to Joe and the provincial coaches, problem solved.

    • jacothelad

       /  February 1, 2015

      The reason why France and England produce good tight heads is that they take scrummaging very seriously from school level upwards. In Ireland, scrummaging is virtually banned in schools so top schools use guys who are often better suited to hooking or 6 and 7 because as they don’t need to scrummage, they can run about like backs. The real fat lads get ignored.

  14. Watching from Sydney

     /  January 30, 2015

    I love WoC but this seems like a complete non story. Our first choice tight head moving to 3rd choice Leinster is a good news story. We are gIning some depth as his star starts to wane a little.

  15. El Greco

     /  January 30, 2015

    I think the pack going backwards like an Italian tank at Twickers in ’12 has to be a nadir. Wouldn’t it be great to parachute in a TH with 40 caps under his belt for his first start? Everyone has to start somewhere even Hayes looked green at the beginning FFS!
    I think Mooradze will have a fine career – let him get his first few 6N games under his belt and take it from there.

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