Deep Blue vs The Hipster’s Choice

Even though rugby is on the verge of dying on its feet, with Tony Ward decreeing that the only solution is to cut each team by four players, make them wear armour and helmets, allow forward passes and pause for ads between phases, there is one gleaming white light on its horizon. A light that isn’t just white and gleaming, but well-mannered, good-looking and creative. That’s right – it’s the team formerly known as England (actually foemerly known aas St. Boshingtons), but now rebranded as the Harrow Globetrotters.

The gloriously-monikered chaps talk all proper, are upstanding gents, and, best of all, have this weird idea that scoring tries might, y’know, help win the game. England, who recently arrived at the Aviva bearing a centre partnership of Shontayne Hapless and Matt Banahan, are now the great entertainers of the Northern Hemisphere – they have become the hipster’s choice. On their way to Fallon & Byrne, the skinny jeans-wearing, moustachioed, pipe-smoking ironic glasses-donning denizens of hipsterdom proclaim their ironic love for England.  Truly, it was never meant to bwe this way.

“The Premiership is excellent to watch – I’m thinking of streaming BT Sport on my ThinkPad” they remark while their Jamaica Blue Mountain brews on the counter. “I love the way James Haskell quit his job and went to find himself abroad .. then came back a better person” they crow, as their independently-brewed Slovenian pilsner cools to 5.8 degrees in its specially shaped glass. “I’ve always expected that the England coaching staff would recognise that Danny Cipriani has more to offer than Stephen Myler” they opine while flicking through a dog-eared copy of Bernard Jackman’s ‘Blue Blood’.

Every year, we tell ourselves “this has not been a vintage Six Nations” although what we really mean is “it’s as un-watchable as ever” – it didn’t take the advent of modern defences for Northern Hemisphere rugby to be a forward-dominated bosh-fest on rubbish pitches. The difference is that, while in recent years we have tended to rely on the roller-coaster fortunes of Ireland  and of course the French, with their madcap coaching appointments and smouldering good looks, to provide some entertainment, this year the English are bringing the party.  Daft Punk are playing at their house.  You’ve got to set [their dashing midfield] up, set them up!

So England are the hipster’s choice, but how good are they really? They might score a bucket load of tries, but they also conceded three tries against Italy – three too many against a team piloted by Kelly Haimona – perhaps the worst yet in along series of terrible Italian imported outhalves. Even Craig Gower would have fancied himself against Haimona, and not just in an offal jim-jam contest. Or to put it another way – which coach would have slept sounder after England’s win over Italy – Joe Schmidt or Stuart Lancaster?

We’ll wager the way the rosy-cheeked bright-eyed youthfully vigourous English backs went out to bump up their points difference didn’t fill Lancaster with glee. Plenty of England teams have fed forty- and fifty-burgers to the Italians in Twickers, but none them did it while looking so pourous. Sure, it’s great fun, but we expect the recipe to beat the boring Irish in the Palindrome will fall less on the shoulders of George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson than on the beef of Dan Cole, George Kruis and James Haskell. Can they organise themselves well enough to defend the super-cohesive Irish rolling maul?  The impeccable manners of Chris Robshaw and the way he selflessly tackles his heart out forever, and the ability of Billy Vunipola to keep getting over the gainline and recycle quickly will just as important – this is going to be a tightly fought contest where each metre is fought out in the trenches.  The party stops here, it’s time to get down to seriously putrid rugby.

If England come out and throw the ball around, one could expect the ironclad Ireland defence to keep them out with ease and induce some lateral and directionless shuffling – or an intercept when the first forward is skipped for the centre behind him on static ball. England might have saved the northern hemisphere from eternal damnation in recent times, but they’ll probably need to be playing some decidedly non-vintage (or, if we are true to reality, “vintage Northern Hemipshere”) bosh-it-up-the-middle rugby to leave Deep Blue Schmidt’s hard drive with a win.

They have the capability to do it.  Don’t forget that for all the frothiness, it was their forward power more than anything else that dominated Wales in the opening match.  They suffocated the life out of the Valleysmen.  That is the template they’ll hope to bring to Dublin.  If Ireland’s maul is a weapon, the scrum is a concern, where Dan Cole and Joe Marler are black-belt scrummagers, and nobody needs reminding ofthe manner in which Marler milked penalties from Mike Ross in the Leinster v Harlequins double-header this season.

The backline will be busy, but perhaps not in the same way as against Italy.  Chances are the back three will have to catch a lot of kicks and Mike Brown’s absence will be felt.  Ben Foden is also injured and it leaves them playing Alex Goode at full-back.  Goode is a classy runner in open field (such that that ever occurs these days) but how will he, and the two inexperienced wings (with Jack ‘Tryless Wonder’ Nowell expected to replace Johnny May) go under aerial bombardment from Ireland’s halves?  Note to Jared Payne: don’t do anything silly now.

One thing is certain – it won’t be pretty. A second thing is certain – it will be a chess match. The maul, the kicking game, the scrum; these will be the decisive factors.  It could well come down to whoever best holds their nerve.  We’d back Johny Sexton over George Ford if it comes down to a shootout.

Our money is on the computer. Ireland to win.

Advertisements

Yes, but how did he present the ball?

Anyone who watched Leinster or Munster at the weekend will have suffered a double-dose of mediocrity from then Irish provinces. Leinster huffed and puffed and eventually secured five match points against a committed but limited Zebre side, while Munster snatched an improbable draw from a 12-point deficit late in the match against Scarlets.

None of that mediocrity, however, came from Luke Fitzgerald or Keith Earls, both of whom were excellent in their respective teams. The two players have had plenty of troubles with injuries but both are currently fit and in-form. Beating defenders, breaking tackles, bringing others into the game – yes, even that – and up to task defensively, these lads have the all-court game. Keith Earls has had his distribution and awareness questioned down the years, but as with his defending, it feels like one or two high-profile mistakes have caused everyone to forget the number of times he has passed to another player or shown quick hands. Witness his line break and superb pass back inside in Sunday’s game.

Given the circumstances, they’re probably the two best three-quarters in the country, certainly in attack. Is there anything to be said for getting at least one of them into the matchday squad for the remaining Six Nations matches, starting with Sunday’s titanic whompingly huge battle with th’auld enemy?

With the dust having settled on the France game and everyone in agreement that Ireland have played precisely no rugby whatsoever in the tournament so far, it looks like a stretch to expect an intense kick chase and a decent rolling maul to be enough to beat an England side that is in rude health and even has – for the first time since the likes of Mike Catt and Will Greenwood were around – a potentially dangerous midfield. England won’t leave the Aviva Stadium with less than 15 points, so Ireland will have to go out and play a bit to win.

But how? Ireland have a backline stacked with kick-catchers and straight-line runners and have barely crafted a line-break in the tournament so far. The centres have put in monumental defensive shifts, so credit is due, with tackle counts a flanker would be happy to stand over (insert your own joke about Peter O’Mahony here) against France, and while both have also gained metres by running straight and square, there’s been little in the way of guile. Surely one of Fitzgerald or Earls at outside-centre would offer a little more threat?

Another avenue into the team for one or other would be on the wing, where Simon Zebo has done little enough wrong, but hasn’t really been at his best this season. He’s been serviceable enough, and it might be harsh to drop him, but would Ireland benefit from having one of our cause celebres in his place?  We’d vote for change.

Failing that, the very least we can hope for is for just one of the gruesome twosome to get into the No.23 shirt. Felix Jones is a good player having a fine season, and doesn’t deserve to be dropped either, but he’s an ill-fitting reserve for a backline already stacked with full-backs.  If we’re chasing a try late in the game, who is more likely to do something game-changing?  Not Felix Jones.

Chances are, of course, that none of this will happen. Schmidt has now become the anti-Deccie when it comes to selection. While Kidney appeared to bend over backwards to get his favourite 15 players into the side regardless of how unbalanced it looked, Schmidt places a huge premium on the work done on the training paddock, and only in extreme cases will he parachute players into the team who haven’t gone through the strategy in Carton House. You can guarantee Joe won’t be too interested in who made a 50m line break or beat six tacklers. In fact he is probably more interested in how Fitzgerald presented the ball after running past everyone. As it happens, he did it pretty well, and a try followed. Let’s hope it counts in his favour.

The Twitter Apology

With all this new-fangled social media carry-on, the latest fad among rugby players is to take to twitter to publicly apologise to afflicted players for acts of foul play. Two recent proponents have been Pascal Pape, who took to the twitter machine to apologise to Jamie Heaslip for his knee in the back incident, and Ashley Johnson of Wasps, who performed a similar act of manly contrition after he took Dave Kearney out in the air in the ERCC a few weeks ago.

It’s all a bit glib for our tastes, frankly. If Pascal Pape is indeed sorry for his actions, he should say it directly to Jamie Heaslip, rather than taking to public fora to do so. It’s all very well publically showing yourself to be a jolly good fellow but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s all a bit of PR spin, and something the lawyers can point to in the disciplinary hearing to get a more lenient sentence. Who’s to say their coaches didn’t tell them to do it? As it happens, Pape’s ‘remorse’ got his ban reduced from 15 to 10 weeks. One thing that couldn’t have been in Pape’s favour is his disciplinary record, which stands at 28 career yellow cards and two reds. Nice going.

It also forces the hand of the injured party to be seen to be equally manly, and accept the apology in a display of solidarity in the name of rugger, or risk being seen to be a prancing prima donna better suited to roundball. Far better to appear gracious than get into some sort of unedifying spat. ‘No problems, old chap, it’s a physical game and these things happen’, replied Jamie Heaslip, or words to that effect. What he probably would have liked to say was ‘Listen here Pascal, I’m out of the Six Nations with three fractured vertebrae, so thanks for that. It’s a physical enough game as it is without deliberately kneeing other players in the back. Next time you’re entering a maul, try to keep the old knees down a bit so as to cause fewer spinal injuries.’

Those who appear to get the most out of these risible stunts are certain fans, who instantly get all excited and quickly begin to applaud everyone involved, and rejoice at the sheer manliness and jolly-hockeysticks bravado of it all. How noble of Pape! How gracious of Heaslip! How manly these chaps are! Truly, rugger is the king of sports, where you can break a chap’s back and all is forgiven because it’s all in such great spirit! But really, it’s little more than self-satisfaction; the reality is they’re patting themselves on the back for the magnificent act of being a fan of such a ruddy great sport. After all, this sort of boys-will-be-boys mateyness would never happen with soccer players, the filthy oiks!  Truly, they lack the appopriate levels of manliness!

But if people want to celebrate this most noble spirit of egregious foul play followed by easy apology-making, count us out. Leave it to the citing commissioners to dole out the punishments, and if there are apologies to be made, keep them private, rather than looking for kudos from the public.

Crouch, Grapple, Fall Over

Rugby is in trouble, if the vast amount of print and blog-space devoted to pieces lamenting the state of the modern game are anything to go by. We wrote about it ourselves recently, decrying a game that has become so systems based as to be robotic. The Guardian has a piece this week in which several players from bygone eras try to make sense of what the game they loved and played has become, and Alan Quinlan wrote a thoughtful piece along similar lines to our own, noting how players have become slaves to systems and individual flair has been wiped out of the game. Ireland’s stupefyingly dull but ultimately winning rugby in their last two games have rammed the message home.

It’s hard to argue with most of it, and at the very heart of things when it comes to pig-ugly awfulness lies the scrum. Let’s just come out and say it: the scrum is a blight on the game of rugby. What is supposed to be a means of re-starting the game after one team makes a mistake has somehow evolved into an interminable wait followed by an unwatchable, dangerous melange of pushing, grappling and, mostly, falling over; it’s become a licence for huge men to cheat and con the referee into thinking they’re doing the right thing, and a chance to milk penalties from the opposition. And worst of all, nobody understands it. How many times in the last year have you watched a scrum go down, heard the shrill blast of the referee’s whistle and then waited expectantly to see which arm he throws skywards, with no real idea which way it’s going to go. Have your team won a penalty, or conceded one? Who the hell knows?! It’s a random number generator. Northampton marched to a Heineken Cup final is 2011 on the back of a scrum that all commentators agreed was illegal, and yet they got away with it throughout the entire year, and beyond.

With two children apiece, both Egg and Palla are frequent users of the record and live-pause functions on their tellyboxes. Confession time. Palla will quite happily admit that if he’s a few minutes behind real time, he’ll use the endless scrum resets as a means to catch up. It’s easy: simply hold down the fast forward button (x6 works best)until you see the players are running again and the dreaded set piece is over. Another confession: when Leinster or Ireland have knocked on and their opponents are playing with advantage, Palla secretly wants them to get over the advantage line so at least he doesn’t have to endure yet another interminable scrum. Hoping one’s own team concede ground?! What has the world come to? But yes, it’s really become that dire.

The problem is that the more they try to fix the scrum, the more broken it becomes. Putting the defending team five metres behind the hindmost foot has had a detrimental effect. It was designed to make it a better attacking platform, but the unintended consequence has come to pass. It makes it such a good attacking platform that the defending team dare not offer it to the opposition; better to simply sink the scrum umpteen times and take your chances that you’ll break even in penalties over the course of a match. Sure, the ref hasn’t a clue what’s going on anyway.

The other consequence of the scrum is it slows the game down to a crawl. It takes an age to set up in the first place, and drags on interminably if it collapses a couple of times, which it usually does. This has other consequences, and brings us back to the points made by Quinlan and others. Punctuating a match with so many lengthy stoppages to set the scrum up (and, to a lesser extent, the lineout) allows the modern-day behemoth gym monkeys a chance to get their breath back. If we are concerned about the sheer size of players and the lack of flair on view in test rugby, every opportunity must be taken to speed the game up. It’s a faster game that tires out bigger men, and results in speedsters being given the opportunity to find mismatches and space into which to run. The scrum simply places a premium on huge, hulking 130kg monsters and further reduces the value of those who are lighter, fleeter of foot, or liable to throw the ball to another player.

The new scrum calls have, to be completely fair, marginally improved matters, but not to any great effect. Most scrums still collapse a number of times before a penalty or free-kick eventually results. This is a problem without an easy fix. We can’t provide a catch-all solution. What nobody wants is a reversion to uncontested scrums such as in rugby league. No, please, not that.

But one solution that might help would be to at least reduce the stakes of losing a scrum. The majority of technical scrum infringements should be downgraded from a penalty to a free-kick. It has never made sense that the simple error of slipping a bind – losing one’s grip while trying to grab a hold of modern day jerseys which are custom designed to be impossible to hold onto in the first place– should merit the same punishment as cynically killing the ball on your own five-metre line. If one team enjoys scrum dominance over another they can still exploit it by marching their opponents down the pitch, and using the platform to unleash their three-quarters, so the chances of this law denuding the importance of props would be slim. Besides, heavy set chaps would still be required to lift in the lineout. But it would at least reduce the multitudinous, seemingly random array of three-pointers that have begun to take on a disproportional importance in deciding the outcomes of rugby matches.

Wolverine Out

Ireland’s most indestructible player, Jamie ‘Wolverine Blood’ Heaslip, has finally been broken.  He will miss his second game out of three when England come to the Palindrome for Sunday brunch. Jamie has three cracked vertebrae thanks to the knee of Pascal Papé – we’ll be honest in saying we thought it was a yellow card at worst at the time, but Papé has been cited, and there would be some justice in seeing him having to sit out some games. Seeing it again last night on Against The Head, knowing that it broke three vertebrae in the afflicted man’s back, it did look a hell of a lot worse than on match-day.  Mind you, the old farts would probably be doing Beleaguered French Coach a favour if they forced him to bring in Romain Taofifenua.

This continues a horrendous run of injuries for Ireland in this sector. Luckily we are well-stocked, but of our top 6 backrow players (in our view) at the beginning of 2014, we’ve had to endure:

  • Stephen Ferris – unavailable for all games in 2014 (5) pre retirement
  • Sean O’Brien – unavailable for all games in 2014 (10) and 1 game in 2015
  • Chris Henry – unavailable for 3 games in 2014 and 2 in 2015
  • Rhys Ruddock – unavailable for 3 games in 2014 (we think) and 2 in 2015
  • Jamie Heaslip – unavailable for 1 game in 2015
  • Peter O’Mahony – unscathed! Perhaps it’s down to the singing, the grubber kicks, his sheer manliness – who knows, but maybe there’s a new Mr Indestructible in town

When Schmidt took over, our likely first choice backrow of Fez-SOB-Jamie never got a chance to play together, and the next best combo of POM-SOB-Jamie only 3 times so far (Oz and BNZ in 2013, France in 2015). POM-Henry-Heaslip leads the way with 5 (4 games in last years Six Nations and Samoa in the 2013 AIs) and has much to commend it, and was extremely effective last year.

For the visit of England, however, Henry and Heaslip (and Ferris obviously) won’t be around, O’Brien has just returned from injury, and Ruddock may or may not be back – and even if he was, it’s unlikely Schmidt would consider him. Only Peter O’Mahony is fully fit with lots of games under his belt. The other specialist backrows in the training squad are Jordi Murphy and Tommy O’Donnell, both of whom started against Italy and had strong games – Murphy made the bench for France ahead of TOD, much to the OUTRAGE of some.

Joe Schmidt essentially has two options for the England game – drop the natural number 8 (Murphy) straight into the team, or shuffle his deck and move O’Brien or O’Mahony to the back of the scrum, and bring in a flanker. Here are the options:

O’Mahony, O’Brien, Murphy: This is the likely Schmidt choice – everything is sacrificed to the system and in this case you have a natural 8 being dropped into the 8 slot. Murphy has started at 8 twice for Ireland, most recently in Rome, and this has the obvious advantage of not tinkering too much with a unit that has yet to see stability this tournament. On the other hand, is Jordi Murphy a good enough player to drop in against Billy Vunipola and an England unit that is settled and in good form?  Murphy is slightly undersized for a No.8 and very much a tyro at this level, while his season has been afflicted by injury and he has not yet hit last year’s form.

Deep Blue Probability Calculation Factor: Very Likely, with O’Donnell brought back into the squad as first reserve.

Henderson, O’Brien, O’Mahony: The obvious advantage here is bringing in the best player available. Henderson will be a second row going forward, and has had huge impact from the bench this tournament to date. Playing him at flanker might not be everyone’s preference for his career – but needs must and we would get a brilliant player into the team – and one who has international experience wearing 6 in the past, including a start in last year’s tournament. This would involve moving POM to 8, where he looks more natural than SOB – he has three starts there for Ireland, albeit 2 in North America in one in the Game That Never Happened in Hamilton. It might even give him greater scope to try grubber kicks with the outside of his boot.  We were advocates of O’Mahony as a long-term option at No.8 some time ago, but it’s been a while since he played there and has matured as a blindside long since. This selection also raises the question about who would cover second row on the bench – would Schmidt pluck Mike McCarthy from the Leinster bench? Or pick TOD and Murphy on the bench with Henderson covering lock – probably. This selection would be The People’s Choice, because everyone is really, really excited about Henderson, but it looks like something of a pipe dream.

Deep Blue Probability Calculation Factor: Does not compute.  Too jazzy by half.

O’Mahony, O’Donnell, O’Brien: This involves shifting SOB to 8 and bringing in specialist openside TOD. This is essentially a vehicle for getting the most natural 7 into the team, and a reflection on how well O’Donnell played against Italy – it involves moving Sean O’Brien back to number 8, a position he last started for Ireland over 4 years ago in Rome (his only start there). Given tackling machine Chris Robshaw is the opposition seven, we can’t see much point to this – except salving some of the OUTRAGE from last weeks selection.

Deep Blue Probability Calculation Factor: Computer says no. O’Brien has enough on his plate without playing out of position.

O’Mahony, O’Brien, Roger Wilson: In a parallel universe, if Darren Cave was allowed to pick the team, this would be the backrow to face England, and he could pick himself at 13 too.

Deep Blue Probability Calculation Factor: Face doesn’t fit.

In twelve months time the landscape at No.8 could look totally different, with the Jacks O’Donoghue and Conan rapidly emerging.  Both have carrying ballast in spades, but O’Donoghue has just one Pro12 start to his name and Conan is still learning to catch the ball.  Their time will come, but not yet.

Happiness Index

Ireland have beaten France by 18-11 to move a step-closer to a possible tournament decider with England. Beaten! France! Tournament decider! Grand Slam Fever! Ireland never beat France, so doing so should be a cause of unbridled celebrations, right? So why has the reaction to the victory been so muted? Shouldn’t we all be much happier?

The answer is fairly straightforward: because Ireland didn’t play particularly well. This is a hopeless French team, badly coached by Phillipe Saint-Andre and they were there for the taking. Ireland conjured not one single line break in the match, and indeed in the final 25 minutes found themselves almost totally on the back foot. It was hard to escape the feeling that had France started with Morgan Parra at 9 and maybe some of the front five reserves they brought on it could all have been very different. Ireland had been expected to win the match all week; they did so, but without any tries, or even a single decent attack, and they were hanging on a bit at the end. At the final whistle it was a feeling of sheer relief more than anything else.

Paul O’Connell pretty much nailed it in his post-match press conference. Ireland were in total control, had the French where they wanted them, but kept releasing the pressure valve. Popey’s favourite adage about giving a sucker an even break sprang to mind. Ireland simply didn’t execute. Paulie was frustrated.

Ireland are two from two, so it feels a bit churlish to start moaning, but they haven’t really played any rugby yet, and they will have to do so to beat England and Wales. One interesting facet of the post-match hullabaloo was a marked difference in how various punters thought Peter O’Mahony had played. The Munster flanker tends to divide opinion, so it’s not exactly a new thing, but there were those (us among them) who had him down as a man of the match contender, and others who felt he went missing in action. Sure, he posted another low tackle count, but he appeared to be very prominent around the pitch, in the second half at least.

But whatever you make of O’Mahony, one thing’s for sure: the chap can play a bit. In this game he fired one of the game’s best passes from first receiver out to the wing late in the first half. A pass! To a wing! Sounds a bit fancy, and this from a Munster man and everything. Has he no shame?  He also kicked the ball with the outside of his foot in the second half. Not many forwards can do that! Indeed, he’s not the only Irish forward who is comfortable distributing the ball. One of Matt O’Connor’s more effective tactical wrinkles this season has been his use of Devin Toner as a distributor, to the extent that Stuart Barnes has declared Toner the new Brodie Retallick. Jamie Heaslip has many talents, but not least among them is his ball-handling abilty, which is first rate.

But alas, we haven’t really seen any of that from Ireland so far, and there has been very little linking between backs and forwards as a result. The days of Ireland putting out eight donkeys in the pack who can only run over or into things is over, so perhaps it’s time to let them play a bit. And while we’re at it, what about getting the two centres to pass the ball just once or twice? You never know, it just might work.

At least we can all rest assured that the players and management will be keenly aware of all this. Schmidt has already identified that England’s win in Wales is far and above anything Ireland have put together so far, so the improvement will be required. Jonny Sexton will have another match under his belt in the meantime; so will Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy. It’s time to give it a lash.

How many is too many?

Ireland are in the unique position of welcoming back a number of world class players in one go after periods on the sideline of various length. It’s an unusual selection headache for the coaches as they ponder bringing some or all of their best players back into the team. The names themseleves – Jonny Sexton, Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien – would enhance any line up in world rugby (except Bath of course), but with the rustiness and shortage of match-fitness that comes with a lengthy injury layoff, the question is: how many such players can be absorbed in the team at any point?

Word on the ground is Ireland are set to start three of this fab four, with the fourth, Cian Healy, starting on the bench. It looks about right. Jamie Heaslip is back from a relatively short period off the pitch; indeed he has played through his injury in recent weeks and by all accounts could have done so against Italy if he really had to. Heaslip is the glue that binds together any Irish backrow these days; such is his versatility he performs the role that is lacking among the two flankers picked either side of them. Playing alongside O’Brien and O’Mahony, he will probably be asked for a day in the trenches, shoring up the breakdown and clearing rucks.

Jonny Sexton is in a strange situation, where has has been forced to sit out through a build-up of concussion incidents. He hasn’t been ‘injured’ as such, so his fitness probably isn’t in question but he will likely be lacking a bit of his match sharpness, but his presence alone on the pitch is a huge fillip. He’s a must-pick and management will look to keep him on for as long as possible. Madigan looks set to deputise, showing that while Schmidt preferred Keatley’s ‘steady-eddie’ approach from the start, he sees Madigan as his best impact replacement, whose less structured style can be of best use late in matches.

Healy and O’Brien are different cases, having been missing for much longer. The O’Brien situation is complicated somewhat by Heaslip’s injury; having one backrow operating at less than 100% is one thing, but selecting two is surely one too many? It is likely it wouldn’t happen if Schmidt did not feel he could rely on Heaslip to come through 80 minutes. Another possibility is that he can get away with it because his second row replacement, Henderson covers the backrow as well as second row. If he absolutely has to finish with a backrow of Hendo, O’Mahony and Murphy, then it’s not the end of the world.

Murphy you say? Well, yes – O’Donnell is a better like-for-like starter on the openside, but Murphy covers more positions from the bench. Tough gig, but then, this is, as ever, an uber-competitive line. Speaking of the bench, we still can’t say we are fully comfortable with Felix Jones being there – Jones is a specialist full-back, while the alternatives (Earls or Fitzgerald) cover virtually the entire 3/4 line plus full-back. Against Italy, Jared Payne getting injured necessitated moving Tommy Bowe to centre and playing Jones out of position. He’s clearly a player Schmidt fancies, and it’s tough to argue with the results, but it has the whiff of Deccie selecting Paddy Wallace to cover the entire backline.

No other changes are likely – and we still think selecting Mike Ross is short-sighted. Did he justify his selection against Italy? Absolutely. Do we think picking Marty Mooradze is a better bet? Completely, in both the short term (as Leinster have proved) and the long term (looking forward to RWC15 and beyond). France, in their only change, have promoted the huge Racing Metro loosehead Eddy Ben Arous – it’s injury enforced, but Ben Arous for 50 minutes plus Debaty for another 10 or so is going to ensure Ross will need to have an equally effective day at the office.

The real good news for Ireland is that Afrique du Sud’s Rory Kockott and Scott Spedding keep their places – we’d feel a lot less confident if it was Morgan Parra and Brice Dulin in the team, and the arm-flapping Bad Ben Youngs impersonations of Kockott and howitzer boot of Spedding should be easier to deal with for Ireland. The only team to really knock Joe Schmidt’s Ireland out of their comfort zone in 2014 were the ultra-ambitious Wobblies when they kept the game fast and loose  – the intelligent Parra and unstructured Dulin would be much more worrying.

Based on the teamsheets, you’d fancy Ireland, but <insert cliche about France here>.

Kasparov, Deep Blue, 1996

Two Six Nations ago, in their second Six Nations under Jacques Brunel, Italy beat Ireland and France, admittedly both at home. The draw for RWC15 had already been made, and these three, with all due respect to Canada Eh and Romania, would be in a round-robin playoff for qualification. If results were repeated, Italy would have topped the pool, and Ireland would have been one bonus point behind France in the scrap for second. Brunel had worked on expanding Italy’s game after succeeding <insert name of Southern Hemisphere rent-a-coach here>, and it was paying dividends – Italy looked like they might be a genuine threat for the rest of the cycle.

Wind the clock forward two years, and Brunel’s experiment has ended – in November, Italy responded to a terrible run of results by picking a Kiwi journeyman at outhalf and sticking it up the jumper. This was never a gameplan that was likely to unstick Ireland under Joe ‘Deep Blue’ Schmidt – and so it proved. Ireland dusted down the well-worn script for beating the Italians when they were under <Southern Hemisphere rent-a-coach> – disrupt the lineout, slowly overpower them up front, and make hay when they began to tire in the last quarter. The Italians even threw in the traditional yellow card. Eddie and Deccie negotiated such obstacles with ease, and so did Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.

The game was a snoozefest, and Ireland’s seemingly fervent desire not to show any of their hand led to the likes of Jared Payne and Henshaw being used to bosh it up the middle. Like the November formula, keeping it narrow was the watchword. O’Connell admitted Ireland allowed themselves to ease into the game slowly.  One would expect we will need to show a bit more against France, who will lap that kind of stuff up. In the pack, Jamie Heaslip is virtually certain to return, we will need to await a prognosis on the unfortunate Sean O’Brien, and DJ Church is less likely to make it. O’Brien’s injury puts the selectors in a bit of a pickle, because the game being against Italy was the perfect opportunity to give him a bit of a hit out before the France match.  But without that hit-out, do they now throw him in from the start against the French?  Or will he even be avilable?  If O’Brien doesn’t make it, its a choice between Tommy O’Donnell, who did very well deputising at the last moment, Jordi Murphy, first reserve 12 months ago, or something creative (and unlikely) like shoe-horning Iain Henderson into blindside while moving Peter O’Mahony across. Henderson’s ballast and skill off the bench gave Ireland real momentum in Rome, and one wonders if it’s merely a matter of time before he makes the starting team.

Right now, though, O’Donnell looks the natural choice.  Full credit to him, but the ease with which Ireland can replace a player of the calibre of Sean O’Brien without batting an eyelid shows (again) how systems and processes drive modern rugby, and in particular this Ireland set-up. It’s tough to imagine, say, Deccie’s Grand Slam Ireland being able to seemlessly replace, say, Wally and Fez with Shane Jennings and Denis Leamy without a noticable decline in production.  They were almost the opposite; dependant on signature players for big plays at key times in the heat of battle.

In the absence of Jonny Sexton, Conor Murray controlled the game nicely – what a player he is – but Keatley had a bit of a curate’s egg on his Six Nations debut. He took his goals well, and kicked better as time went on, but there were a couple of ugly errors in the first half, and Sexton’s general-ship was missed. We’ll need the cranky one back to be at our best. Ian Madigan came off the bench for a tasty cameo against tiring legs, and is probably inked into the number 22 shirt for the tournament – Keatley did fine, and he’ll start if Sexton goes down again, but Madigan’s unstructured threat is better off the bench.

To continue the RWC15 theme, the Italians look so far off being a threat to Ireland that it isn’t funny. The French, of course, are another kettle of fish. Right now, all the elements seem to be there, but it just doesn’t seem to be coming together for them – they didn’t show much against Scotland that would have us tossing and turning .. or maybe Scotland are better under Vern Cotter than they have been. Like Ireland, presumably PSA doesn’t want to show his full hand, given the team is, y’know (with some exceptions), Gallic and, y’know, mercurial and, y’know, French, the whole Scotland episode probably gives few pointers as to how next week will go.

The tournament has started with wins which would have been fully expected, without learning much, but the real direction of the tournament for Ireland and France will be decided on Saturday.

The Game Is On

The Wolfhounds snooze fest ultimately might have some major import when it comes to looking back on Ireland retaining their Six Nations crown, but probably not – nothing we learned was earth shattering. Sean O’Brien is fit again, NWJMB is just amazing, Ian Mad-dog isn’t totally reliable in a mucky boot fest, Sam Burgess is on a hiding to nothing (Dear Slammin’ Sam, take up the sport, and be international standard in three months. Hugs, Bruce & Stu) and Luke Fitzgerald will find a way to keep our nerves jangling.

But now that is (thankfully) in the rear view mirror, the real action begins – it’s just five days until we walk out in Rome, and the Milky Bar Kid has some selection quandaries. The odd dilemma, a few posers and some awkward questions. Last year, he decided on the team (15 and 23) that was going to win the Six Nations and largely stuck with it right the way through. This time around, it’s slightly different due to RWC15 being the ultimate target, but we can’t foresee a series with Schmidt road-testing players and combinations – he’ll do that in camp and stick to a squad that he thinks can execute his gameplan. Who will be the players tasked with this? We’ll start with the forwards and look at the backs separately – the backs have more obvious question marks, but with injuries and returnees the forwards aren’t completely cut and dried either.

Loosehead Prop: Last year, DJ Church was the starter with Jack McGrath the backup. Church, however, is injured and isn’t expected back before the England match in round 3, leaving McGrath as the starter and incumbent for the first 2 rounds. We can expect Healy to march straight back into the XV when he is fit – Schmidt might be one for competition for places, but only within the parameters of gameplan execution, and Healy is one of the cornerstones of the team and will start is fit. James Cronin of Munster, a most interesting player and much better than Dave Kilcoyne, in our untrained eyes, will provide backup early on.

Hooker: Like last year, Besty is the incumbent with Sean Cronin breathing down his neck and providing oomph and carrying from the bench. While Cronin has many virtues, the fact that he can’t throw or hook is kind of major at this level – Besty himself can get the yips, but any lineout weakness is more than compensated for by feral breakdown work (especially important in the absence of Chris Henry). The rather dodgy argument was put forward by Shaggy that, since neither hooker will play the full 80, and Cronin’s throwing is less bad when starting, is that he should be the starter. Not buying it – Besty to start, and it will stay that way until Cronin’s technicals improve.

Tighthead Prop: Now, this is most interesting. We presumed last week that Mike Ross, as Leinster’s third choice prop, simply could not start against Italy. But why would Schmidt pick Ross against the Saxons if he isn’t going to be in the 23? And if he is in the 23, why have him on the bench? Marty Moore seems ready, but we’ve an awful bad feeling Rosser will get the shirt – and it’s a major worry. Even if Ross does get picked, we can’t see him finishing the tournament as starter – our first 3 games are against the strongest 3 scrums, and there is a risk he gets mangled in one of them, forcing the change upon us. Italy are strong enough up front to have troubled Argentina and the Boks in the Autumn, and France and England can be monstrous and destructive on their day. It seems a waste of a pick not to let Moore get that experience, but we think Ross we start the tournament wearing 3, but finish out of the 23. We excorciated Deccie for staying loyal to certain players for too long, and if Schmidt picks Ross, it smells of Deccie-esque uber-loyalty. If it comes to pass, we better hope he has a damn good reason for it – because we don’t expect it to finish well.

Second Row: Here is a unit where Ireland are down to the bare bones. Thankfully, the bones consist of the best three players they have – captain and manic lunatic Paul O’Connell, Leinster’s best player this season Devin Retallick and hairy llama Iain Henderson. After that, it’s, er Mike McCarthy and Lewis Stevenson. Toner, as has been his habit, has improved on last year’s excellence, and is now a key leader for Leinster – he will start alongside the captain. Speaking of, O’Connell’s form is worryingly poor  – at the centre of the meek capitulation against Saracens, he looked his age and more. Still, you can’t expect anything less than 100% crazy aggression, and, back in the green, you suspect we’ll see the POC of the Autumn series – he is in a mental vortex culminating in RWC15 at which point he will retire from green, and that focus will be pushing him on. Then, when he tires, we can unleash the llama from the bench – it’s a lip smacking prospect, and this might be Ireland’s strongest unit, given Murray and Sexton have their own worries. Just pray for no injuries.

Backrow: Last year, Ireland’s backrow was the fulcrum of their success – Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry led the tournament in turnovers, and Jamie Heaslip was as excellent as ever. This time around, Henry is still recovering from an awful heart injury, but we do just about have Sean O’Brien back in the reckoning. Rhys Ruddock was the player of the Argentinian tour and kicked on again in November, so it’s not guaranteed that SOB will walk straight back into the team, but, as one of Ireland’s best players, surely the Tank will play if fit? We might not get 80 minutes out of him, for the first couple of games at least, but 50 will do. The bench selection is another interesting one, because Heaslip looks to still be slightly affected by his recent shoulder injury. If there is any doubt at all over Heaslip, then it could have a knock-on effect on whether O’Brien is thrown in so early.  Still, Jamie has had a couple of weeks since his last fixture so presumably the warewolf blood has kicked in and he’ll be fine.  The smart money would appear to be on a backrow of O’Mahony, O’Brien and Heaslip, with Ruddock on the bench.

It’s a strong and experienced pack, littered with Lions, and has more carrying threat than in November. On the flip side, our second row stocks are low, SOB is just back from injury, and, of course, the major worry is if Mike Ross starts. Jack McGrath’s recent humdrum form at Leinster could do with being Schmidt-ed as well, but hopefully his three week ‘rest’ will have allowed him to recharge his batteries.