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.

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62 Comments

  1. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Strauss on the bench instead of Cronin. He is much more solid at set piece, and against Italy that could be very important. Especially in the first game where they will be well up for it, and we could be rusty.

    • Agreed – maybe not quite as dynamic as Cronin, centre extraordinare but highly dependable in the set piece which will be crucial against Italy

      • Unlikely to happen for Strauss – if Cronin starts, Best will at least be on the bench, if Best starts (which seems likely) then you want the gamebreaker (Cronin) on the bench. To be honest there’s only one position – 3 – genuinely up for grabs, with a few more (7, 9, wing) which will be decided by player fitness. The lack of any real debating points is probably a good sign – remember the end of the Deccie Days when suggesting [insert no-mark from your home province here] was a reasonable suggestion as he couldn’t be any worse than the incumbent.

        • D6W

           /  February 3, 2015

          Agree. Best and Strauss are like for like without much between them, although Best has edged ahead in the reckoning of late. Better to have Cronin come on after 50~60 minutes to run at a tiring defence.

          • Hooker is one of the position’s I’d be least worried about. Best is first choice, we just have to hope/assume his throwing in will hold up. It’s is true that Strauss’s hooking and throwing in are more consistent than Nugget’s. To be fair to the latter though, he has shown signs of improvements this season in this department in both Blue and Green. The set-pieces when he is on are no longer a source of worry, IMO. Ross at three? I think Marty Moore and particularly Tadhg Furlong have put in massive performances for Leinster in recent months. If Joe nevertheless decides to go with Ross, then I reckon he has good reasons for it and defer to his better judgment.

          • I think a lot of people are in that bucket

          • colmanstanley

             /  February 3, 2015

            ‘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).’

            Do you really believe that or do you have the white tinted shades on? As good as Best is at the breakdown, arguably best hooker in the world in that department, his throwing has lost games. I would start Strauss who lets not forget is very handy around the park. Against Aus in particular Best’s deprived us of clean go forward ball to launch some of Schmidt and Jonny’s famed first/second phase moves.

            I also disagree about Toner. He had a very poor start to the season and is only recently getting back to last year’s form. Hendo, IMO, regardless of Toner’s form, is a class above.

  2. I’m sure I’m not the only one, but I’m really worried about our backrow.

    POM has been playing like he was 2-3 yrs ago, plenty of aggression but not much else in terms of a genuine 6 (c) LeinsterLion – maybe for Ireland he’ll revert to last yrs 6 nations/AI form
    Heaslip could miss the games, or at least not last the 80
    SO’B is only getting to full fitness and definitely won’t last the 80.

    So bench is crucial – Ruddock will be rusty at best, may not be fit at worst following his injury.
    Dom Ryan is good for a couple of smashes well behind the gainline but doesn’t carry with any great aplomb. He is usually good for a turnover at ruck but unless he gets in and over perfectly he never really causes much disruption on opposition ball.

    After them, who’s left – Diack maybe for 6, Conan is a massive risk at 8, Tommy O’Donnell a bit underpowered at 7, Jennings not fit/getting old as well.

    After our starting 6, 7, and 8 the step down to the next batch is absolutely massive, and whilst some will prove themselves over time, leading into the 6 nations it’s a huge ask of them.

    • I’d be looking at Murphy rather than Ryan. Murphy has come back from injury and got himself back up to speed very quickly. Dippy had a great start to the season but I think Murphy offers more across the board.

    • connachtexile

       /  February 3, 2015

      I think we’re forgetting that Henderson can happily play at 6 if asked. With that in mind I’d rather have someone who is a seven like TOD or Murphy with Henderson covering 6 if something happened to POM. If something happened to Heaslip Henderson comes on at 6 and POM moves over to eight so it doesn’t unduly weaken us.

      • We thought about this, but POM hasn’t played 8 in an age, and he’ll be up against Parisse – that’s a tough matchup

        • Amiga500

           /  February 3, 2015

          Its always going to be a tough match up – unless you have a dedicated 8 on the bench then the unit as a whole is just going to have to up their game to compensate.

          6. POM
          7. SOB
          8. Dr Dre

          Henderson (4/5/6)
          Ruddock (6/7?/8)

          Of the starters, both SOB and POM can play 8, SOB can play 6 and although not historically the most frequent tackler in the world, I’m sure POM could do a job at 7 if instructed to.

          Its pretty flexible really.

          • We had initially thought Jordi Murphy on the bench for that very reason actually – specific 8 cover, with Henderson covering the flanks

        • O’Mahony played 8 in, literally, his last game.

  3. Er, lads, Ruddock isn’t in the squad. Personally I’d put TOD at 7 and then launch SOB and NWJMB from the bench.

  4. TOD or Murphy for 7. If Heaslip isn’t fit then Murphy at 8 and SOB at least on the bench.

    Ruddock just had a broken arm and SOB can’t play a full 80min. Ryan is a possible option, but I reckon Murphy and TOD are ahead of him.

    • Ryan took a lot of lineout ball for the wolfhounds did he not? I think he put I a good enough shift to start at 7 against Italy, or 6 if Pom takes 8 if heaslip is injured.
      Personally think there’s an argument to start Cronin and bench Best, then reverse that against France.

  5. Agree that POC had a fairly poor December heading into January and thought he was looking pretty jaded (word was he was also carrying around a shoulder injury). He gave away two penalties in quick succession against Sale and I thought it was going to be more of the same. But he won a steal at a breakdown and after that seemed more emboldened as the game wore on.

    I think part of the issue was the way he’s being played. He pops up at first receiver and carries a stupid amount for Munster. It was never his biggest strength and the optics aren’t great as a result. Hopefully with Ireland he’ll be used more sensibly and we’ll see the best of him again.

    • That *infuriates* me – you have people like Stander/Copeland clearing out rucks for a one-out POC rumble for 20cm

      • Pete

         /  February 3, 2015

        I second this, it utterly brainless rugby. I hate all the huff and puff and macho manliness of it when it is horrifically poor. It’s been one of my biggest bug bearers with Munster and Ireland for ages.

        When he does he get smashed I almost glad so people/coaches/he will see that outside of the lineout he should rarely touch the ball (similar to Mike Ross)

      • kevin

         /  February 3, 2015

        Key failing of Deccie’s dreadul Ireland. DOC and POC carrying everything while O Brien, Ferris and Heaslip hit rucks….TOL delaying the pass for ten minutes just in case anyone decided to take it at pace

      • osheaf01

         /  February 4, 2015

        It’s my standout memory of Munster’s attempt at “catchup” rugby during the 2009 semi; painfully slow ruck ball followed by one-out POC rumble stopped dead 5m behind the gainline. 6 years on they’re still doing it. It’s worse than brainless. What’s that quote about insanity and different results?

    • Paddy

       /  February 3, 2015

      You have to question the guys giving it to him or if it’s the game plan then the coach. They were missing a few ball carriers tbf.

      It wasn’t just the Saracens game for me. I thought he made a few too many uncharacteristic mistakes in the Clermont game at home too(only caught the first 50 mins).

      • connachtexile

         /  February 3, 2015

        I think they need a strong Scrumhalf. Murray refuses to pick POC the ball plenty of times when he calls for it while Williams and Sheridan always do they probably don’t have the same strength of personality to refuse him.

      • It must be embedded in gameplan (for whatever reason) cos it happens so often but, yeah, there’s probably something to that point about the distributor. A sign of Murray’s coming-of-age as a decision maker a few seasons ago was that he STOPPED giving it to POC every time he called for it.

  6. Paddy

     /  February 3, 2015

    AFAIK Healy is targetting Leinsters game against NGD the Sunday after the France game and I think Ruddock is too.

    Assuming Heaslip is fit I’d say we’re looking at a backrow of POM Murphy/TOD Heaslip with SOB on the bench.

    I’ve no clue what’s going to happen at TH or OH. So he’ll probably stick with Ross and Madigan.

    SH depends on who’s fit and indications are that it’ll be Murray.

    Same centres and back 3 from the AIs with maybe Fitz to bench.

    • Xyz

       /  February 3, 2015

      I too would have SOB on the bench. Through the mists of somnolence surrounding my memory of the Wolfhounds game I thought he was looking less effective well before he came off. I’d rather have a fully functioning Seanie come on with 20 to go than see the back row weakened in the 10 minutes before half time. Also, Seanie and Hendo coming on at the same time – how exciting is that?

      At this stage I think Fitz is looking so cursed that if I saw him on the same plane as me I’d get off sharpish.

  7. An idea doing the rounds, i.e. Madser didn’t shine against the Wolfhounds and as a result this could lead to Keatley starting against Italy, is way of the mark, IMO. Whatever about Madigan’s lack of time at ten for Leinster since the onset of the MO’C regime, he steered Ireland to victory against the Eagles and the Kanucks on the Summer tour 2013, helped close out our 6 Nation’s winning victory in Paris last Spring, had a more than decent tour in Argentina, and gave a good account of himself in the Autumn Series. In other words under Joe wearing Green he has performed (the Quade Cooper and Ryan Crotty tries in Lansdowne in the Autumn Series 2013, for which he was not wholly responsible, notwithstanding). I would expect that to continue on Saturday in Rome.

    • Stephen

       /  February 3, 2015

      To be fair, he was entirely responsible for not listening to SOB and allowing Crotty the space to get in.

      • D6W

         /  February 3, 2015

        There are lots of Madigan critics (and haters) out there who are always ready to highlight and jump on every mistake he makes. And no doubt he has not played well in last few games. But can any player stand up spotless to the amount of scrutiny Madigan gets?

        • osheaf01

           /  February 4, 2015

          I’m a Munster fan; yes, they’re 2 big defensive errors, but he’s young and he will learn. He’s still a fantastic talent and I can see him and JJ vying for the fly-half spot for the guts of the next decade. His only flaw, I can see, is that he almost tries too hard and takes too much on himself.

      • Amiga500

         /  February 3, 2015

        and he hung Luke SkyMarshall out to dry on the Cooper try by not at least trying to block relevant space.

  8. Billy

     /  February 3, 2015

    “Ian Mad-dog isn’t totally reliable in a mucky boot fest” – seriously? Do you want to make any more apologies for him? Were the conditions even that bad? It didn’t seem to affect Slade in any case.

    How about, “Ian Mad-dog isn’t totally reliable when his pack isn’t dominant and he is playing against an organised defence and has to do anything other than run the ball and kick goals”.

    Also, not sure where the Dev hype train has come from..? I put it down to Stuart Barnes going into overdrive during the Leinster-Ulster game and everyone following suit.

    Jack McGrath is a concern for me and I reckon he is having slight second-season syndrome after a great 2013/14 season. While Ross has been castigated over his scrummaging, McGrath has been part of the same struggling front row and has struggled as much if not more than Ross at times. Also, for all his work rate, the quality of his contributions often disappoints. He is not as impactful in his carrying or tackling as I would hope an international loosehead would be. I would take 8 Healy carries to 16 McGrath carries any day.

    • You’re comparing the best loosehead in the world in Healy to a very capable, emerging test quality loosehead in McGrath – not really fair and McGrath had a fantastic AI campaign, suffering from fatigue at the moment due to sheer workload but the class is there (albeit not quite at Healy’s level but then who is?)

      • Amiga500

         /  February 3, 2015

        Healy got a lot of stick in his early years for scrummaging – just because he was so young when playing at a very high level.

        McGrath is a bit better in the scrum than Healy was, but not as pronounced in the loose. Give the kid time.

      • Lop12

         /  February 3, 2015

        McGraths had a few weeks off recently you might have noticed so I would say rust rather than fatigue to blame for last Friday night!!!

      • Billy

         /  February 3, 2015

        My issue is more that McGrath seems to have regressed slightly. There was a time last season when he looked like he could legitimately put Healy under pressure for his spot and now Healy looks sorely missed. he could be knackered, he could be carrying an injury but he is not kicking on and he has been poor for an extended period IMO.

        I’ve never really rated Madigan and I’ve been pretty vocal on the subject here and every game I see him play 10 only seems to strengthen my argument – world-class goal kicker, very good footballer, not at the races as a 10. What irks me is that his fans seem so entrenched they struggle to recognise even his most obvious flaws. Blaming the conditions for his performance – give me a break

    • D6W

       /  February 3, 2015

      While none of your concerns are unfounded, the fact is that McGrath and Madigan are the best players available for the Italy game in their respective positions. And agree that Dev is over-hyped, but he is definitely worth his place on the team these days.

      • Some spectacular begging the question there. “The fact is” that ian Madigan is the best player available in his position… Actually, no, the fact is that Ian Keatley is the best player available in his position! Whew, didn’t realise it was so easy to be 100% definitively right in an argument, must use this one again in future.

        Like many others, including my good chum Billy above, I have reservations about whether Ian Madigan is actually the best 10 available. Those reservations are based primarily on his pronounced deficiencies as a tactical kicker. He is, by and large, technically inept and tactically unaware in terms of kicking from hand; I cannot think of an international fly-half who is worse. The game last weekend re-confirmed my long-standing opinion of this limitation in his game, with one particularly sterling example of him kicking coming off first-phase, when he executed so poorly the ball bounced ten metres in from the touchline and directly in front of the English left winger. It would have made a fine kick-pass.

        Despite noises to the contrary from his coaches, I’ve not noted any improvement in his kicking from hand over the last years. Notwithstanding O’Connor’s press line, he clearly shares that belief, which explains why Madigan almost never plays 10 under him.

        For all Ian Keatley’s flaws (and there are many), when he is on form he can execute all the required skills of a top-level out-half. Even when Ian Madigan is on form, he cannot kick particularly well from hand. Given the fact that Madigan is not in form (at least not at 10), it should not be a cast-iron certainty that he starts this weekend. There’s a huge amount of condescension implicit in Leinster fans asserting over and over that he’s a better player than the alternative suggested by the poor benighted Munster fans, and that they simply need to learn to appreciate that “fact”.

        All that being said, I fully expect Joe to take a careful look at all the contenders and pick Ian Madigan anyway. And if it does happen that way, that’ll be fine, I’ll root for him and he’ll likely do fine in a very well-coached Ireland team, but I’ll be disappointed that the player in better form didn’t get the nod, because I think that itself is important.

        P.S. Jack McGrath has been minced in the scrum nearly all season, but it’s nevertheless a “fact” that he’s better than his challengers… Not even open to dispute, Doubtless Jordi Murphy’s four offloads against Castres make it a fact that he’s better than his competitors also.

        • curates_egg

           /  February 4, 2015

          Neither Ians is in good form at 10.
          Keatley has continued his hit and miss form. Madigan simply hasn’t had any consistent game time there, and what time he has had has not been convincing.
          You protest too much.

          Keatley is undeniably a better kicker from hand; Madigan is undeniably a better running outhalf (and place kicker).
          It should all come down to which is better for the game plan on the day: you would hope we won’t be relying on place kicks to beat Italy.
          Against France, where Sexton will not play IMO, place kicks could be more important…but then again, so will kicking from hand.
          It is really not a straightforward call.

          Dexies suggests today Keatley might get the nod because of familiarity with Murray.

        • D6W

           /  February 4, 2015

          And how will you rationalise Joe Schmidt picking the 2nd best 10 available? Will he be wrong? Or showing some sort of bias?

    • Donal

       /  February 3, 2015

      Please don’t let this turn into the Irish Times comment section.

  9. munstermicko

     /  February 3, 2015

    Peter wont be able to play at Eight. He will have two much pashun tears in his eyes to see straight and attack off the base. He not a great multitasker is our Peter.Thats why joe has him playing “blindside” on the team.

    Burgerboy, with his ability who shows his ability to carry and tweet simultaneously,will be a loss.

    Team to face the D’italiens will be

    1:jackie mcgrath
    2.Rory Best
    3.Martina Moore
    4: Pailie the Ligind
    5:Devina Toner
    6: pashun O Mahoney
    7:Tommy O Donnell
    Seana O Brien
    (;Murray
    10:Tonu Wards Pet
    11:Zeeboh
    12: Robbie Leinsterbound
    13:Leticia Fitzgerald
    14Tommy Bowwwweee
    15 Roberta Kearney

    • Stephen

       /  February 3, 2015

      You’re not funny.

      • Personally I’m delighted LeinsterLion’s Munster-supporting separated-at-birth twin has finally been located. Mazeltov, boys! – there’s a book deal and a movie in this for you! 😉

        • munstermicko

           /  February 3, 2015

          I’m not trying to be funny ye ghoul.

          Im dead serious about this time. Theres nearly as much pashun flowing through my veins than their is red diesel in my private car engine.

          When is joe naming the team? I assume its tomorrow?

          I still have nightmares on the last time we went to D’italy, Peter the Winger, Bod tapdancing on people and how they served de beer in little baby glasses.

          • Amiga500

             /  February 3, 2015

            Alright Micko – hows she cuttin?

            If yer headin the pub for the game – can i get a lift in the back of the linkbox?

      • Hes very funny. WOC guest writer ❓

    • Leticia Fitzgerald – Should that not read Lucinda?…..

      • Leticia or Lucinda he shouldnt get on the plane with the rest of the squad. Hes likely to spontaneously combust.

        • Munstermicko

           /  February 4, 2015

          I only had a go at one novel. Me and the Ballyhooley RFC’s epic circumnavigation to the NZ world cup by packhorse, unicycle and canoe. We left after the 2008 Hcup final still cut from victory celebrations to ensure we could get there in time and even stopped in South Africia for the 2009 lions tour as the halfway point session.

          Publishers didnt like all the carryone with the ewes once we got to New Zealand, a bit racey so it was, so it never got published

          Rumour going around that Keatley getting the nod over Tony Wards pet at number 10 and Jordi going in at seven. Looks like Peter will have to move back to 8 after all

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