Meltdown

It feels like a bit of a strange World Cup for the Irish at this point – we are still over a week from our first (of many we hope) peak while the tournament goes supernova around us. We haven’t even managed to get the usual pat-on-the-head platitudes about being the best fans, since the general atmosphere has been fantastic.  Minnows have been largely competitive, and then there have been the headline games. The Japan-South Africa and New Zealand-Argentina games on the first weekend were fantastic, but last Saturdays epic was one of the truly great World Cup games.

We were going to write a great piece about England’s great capitulation, but Graham Henry covered it all so comprehensively, his piece was unimprovable. Henry was scathing and unsparing. England were poorly selected, afraid to play rugby and choked in the last 20 minutes, making terrible decisions both on and off the pitch. It was a great article. What came through was Henry’s absolute disdain for what we call the ‘rugby of fear’. Not for Henry the usual hoo-ha of ‘cup rugby’, which is translation for ‘kicking to the other team and hoping they make mistakes’. You go out to beat the other team by playing them off the park. If you have lineout and scrum dominance, he said in so many words, why on earth are you not playing rugby with the high quality first phase ball? It’s anathema to him.

For the record, we cannot understand the decision to go down the line at the end. Whatever about the match situation, whatever about the relative percentages of a rolling maul versus a moderately difficult kick for a 7-from-7 kicker, the fact is – a draw virtually ensures England qualify. At the very least, it means an injury-ravaged Welsh side need to win twice.

But whatever of the erroneous final decision to decline the kick at goal, the choking began well before that. You could say it began the moment Ben Youngs departed the pitch and England suddenly began to clam up. ‘All the good stuff was coming through Ben’, they seemed to say, ‘What do we do now?’ Indeed, you could argue the choking began even before kick off, with Lancaster’s selection. We were critical of it, and our concerns came to pass. It was a selection of fear. A team picked not to lose.  A selection to put doubts in the minds of his own players. A selection the Welsh will have picked up and said ‘these chaps are worried’. It was hardly surprising that those doubts seeped from Lancaster into his players’ heads in the fateful final half hour.

Demented Mole wrote a great analysis of Australia a couple of weeks back, noting in particular the decisiveness of Michael Cheika’s actions as head coach. It raised a key point. Coaches’ decisions will not always be correct, but in acting decisively they will partially mitigate even those they get wrong. The best coaches act decisively. Joe Schmidt, for example. Say what you want about Ireland being boring or mechanical, but the coach is absolutely decisive in how he has set them out play, and how he picks the team. But Lancaster lacks decisiveness, and you struggle to see what England are trying to do. Even over the complete RWC cycle, its tough to map out what England have been building towards (bar Japan 2019, as Lancaster is so fond of pointing out)

The Wales selection seemed like throwing away two years of work on a playing philosophy on the eve of his biggest gamem and his team have a well-earned reputation for lacking decisiveness in clutch situations. What does he do now? Persist with the new game plan, or go back to the old one? Can he decide? He somehow wound up with a team on the pitch with around 2/3 of the cap total he had planned four years ago, another symptom of squad mismanagement.

Worse still was how England managed to make things worse, not better, in the post match interviews. In the immediate aftermath, Robshaw appeared to implicate the kickers Farrell and Ford for the decision to go down the line, before changing his mind and taking all the responsibility himself. Lancaster then appeared not to back his captain, after four years of four square support for every decision Robshaw made on the pitch. Farrell said he would have kicked if asked. Mike Brown just sounded disgusted his forwards had given away so many penalties while he was busy doing everything at full back. It all contrasted so badly to a Wales side that was steadfastly unified in the face of extreme adversity,  led outstandingly by Captain Sam Warburton and his brave Lieutenant Alun-Wyn Jones. One side had enough clarity of purpose to attack an opponents weak point (one paced outside centre) with four half backs on the pitch – and it wasn’t England.

What really struck us was Richard Wigglesworth having a pop at Will Carling for calling Lancaster’s England a “classroom-oriented environment” where the players are treated as “schoolboys”. To us, it sounds fair enough, but it was the contrast between Carling’s England and Robshaw’s England that stood out. Bum Face was appointed England captain after a handful of caps by young coach Geoff Cooke, taking over a side considered to have a disciplinary problem (sound familiar?), who hadn’t tasted success since the Beaumont Slam in 1980, with a few wooden spoons in between. However, between Cooke and Carling, they had fashioned a side that won the a Grand Slam in 1991 (the first of three for Carling) then went mighty close to winning their home World Cup later that year. Carling might have been able to work with Moore, Ackford, Skinner, Guscott, etc, but there was no doubt who was running the show – Bum Face would learn on the job, but he and his coach fashioned one of the Northern Hemisphere’s great sides in the same period of time that Robshaw and Lancaster have led England to this point.

It feels from the outside that the whole show is in danger of falling apart, with the camp seemingly coming apart at the seams, and there’s some serious work to do this week if England are to avoid a calamitous early exit. They now face a strong, coherent and settled (remarkably, considering how long Cheika has been in the job) Australia side, and you can be sure Cheika won’t be letting his side drop their intensity. England will rally; they never roll over for anyone, and it will be another huge, close game which will most likely be decided in the last 20 minutes. But increasingly, it feels like if it comes down to the wire late in the match, Lancaster’s England, like Kidney’s Ireland in 2013, will find a way of losing.

To The Panic Stations!

Have England lost their nerve? England are going to take on Wales in their almost-knockout pool game this weekend with a midfield consisting of Owen Farrell, Sam Burgess and Brad Barritt. In that order. So that’s Barritt at 13 then. 

With Billy Vunipola also coming into the team it’s a whopping four changes from the team which performed pretty modestly against Fiji. Vunipola at least looked impressive off the bench (and Ben Morgan might be a smidgen injured) as did Slammin’ but Barritt was anonymous – in his favoured position.

Does it constitute a small bit of panic in the ranks? Stuart Barnes’ considered opinion was that a change in mindset rather than personnel was required, and that any move away from Ford at this stage opened the possibility of England crashing out. It appears a frankly remarkable move to about-turn on the Bath midfield axis which has driven England’s best performances over the last 12 months. Has George Ford’s stock really plummeted on the back of one faintly ponderous performance behind Ben Youngs’ sleepy service? And just what is it that the more mechanical Owen Farrell can really do so much better?
England scored 18 tries in the Six Nations with the Ford-Burrell-Joseph midfield. Burrell has been left at home, and of course Joseph’s injury denies England their best back. But it’s as if his absence has caused the coaches to say ‘well sod this anyway. Passing the ball around was hard enough with Joseph in the team, now we’ve no hope. Let’s switch to kick and bosh instead’. Henry Slade, meanwhile, holds tackle bags and Cipriani is at home.

It looks suspiciously like Lancaster has been sucked into the old classic that world cups require ‘cup rugby’, and that cup rugby mostly involves very little rugby at all. It’s a bit early to be tightening up to such a degree.

Most of all, though, it looks like a selection Wazza Gatland will be thrilled to see. Farrell at 10? Easy meat. Brad Barritt at 13? Dan Lydiate will line him up all day long. Surely the big Welsh oil tankers are better off being moved around? Certainly Sam Burgess has a bit about him and his his offloading game will have to be policed closely, but all told the number of threats is reduced. Anthony Watson? His best chance of getting the ball is from Welsh kicks. 

We had England down to win this match. But now we’re not so sure. Wales are a bit injured but if they can get something approaching parity in the scrums and lineouts – where England aren’t any great shakes either – and if Alun-Wyn Jones is fit enough, they might just edge this one. 

Either way, a titanic battle awaits, even if it won’t be all that pretty. Altogether now – Ooooooooooooooohhhhhh!!

Artists of the Floating World

The first weekend of the World Cup goes down as a huge success.  Well attended stadia full of raucous support, good rugby matches, Ireland looking good – and Japan.  Some are calling it the biggest upset in team sport… ever.  And they’re probably right.  Upsets in modern day rugby are hugely rare.  Even the thought of a supposedly top tier nation like Scotland toppling one of the giants would be fairly seismic.  For Japan to do so is simply out of this world.  What more can be said other than that it was unbelievable.

The victory was spectacular for so many reasons.  For the pugnacious refusal to lie down and be bullied by the Springboks.  Even when the Boks scored a try in the final quarter to amass a seven point lead, which looked to have ended the spirited fight, Japan responded – and spectacularly too.  For the bravery to go for the win rather than kick for the draw (though the kick was by no means a gimme so the draw wasn’t cast in stone).  For the even greater bravery to pass the ball along the gainline to set up the winning overlap.  And for the tactical acumen and cool-headed shrewdness shown in the heat of battle.  Not just in the final denoument, but in killing the ball deliberately (and cycnically!) when South Africa were camped on their line minutes previously.  A try for the Boks in that position would surely have won the game, but Japan had the wherewithal to kill the ball, suck up the three points and leave themselves in a position to go on and win.

But most of all, it was for the sheer skill and technique on view.  Smaller forwards Japan may have, but they showed that the skill of effective rucking is about accuracy and technique rather than big men simply bulldozing into rucks.  They supplied their jinky, pacey backline with a supply of quick ball that was enough to score three tries.  The handling skills in the backline were easily up to the task.

Much had been made in advance of the tournament of the work their scrum coach Marc del Maso has done to bring their scrum from being a shambles, to one of the best in the world.  It came to pass here as they won a scrum penalty in the dying minutes that kept the pressure on the Boks.  As if anyone needed telling, Eddie Jones is clearly some bit of stuff.  And this was his finest ever hour.

Muddy Wulliams made the point that the growth of the Top League in Japan and the benefits of more regular and higher-standard rugby raises all boats. Japan is a very rich country with well-resourced corporations putting money back into the sport – this means teams with such romantic names as Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers, NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes and Coca Cola West Red Sparks. While it would stick in the craw of AIL vets at Shanning and Garryowen, in rugby, money buys good stadia, full-time pros and Eddie Jones. While the status of the Top16 franchise in Japan (due to compete next year) is in flux, with Eddie Jones having thrown his hands up in despair and going to, ironically, the Stormers, its inevitable that it will happen some day. While Japan aren’t likely to become the new Argentina any time soon, they are equally unlikely to go 24 years without another RWC win.

Much like everyone watching we expect, WoC were running around their living rooms as if they were Japanese.  It would be nice to say ‘this is what the rugby world cup is all about’, but it’s not really.  This sort of thing simply never happens.  It made it all the sweeter, the greatest upset in the history of the sport.

The Pool of Death

There has to be at least one pool of death.  If we discount Italy, and it’s safe to do so, that leaves nine nations from the two principal global rugby tournaments fighting over eight quarter final places.  Add in the possibility of a wild-card nation like Samoa or Fiji turning up organised and motivated, and there’s scope for another.

In 2011, it was Scotland that found themselves edged out.  Before you start laughing at the notion of Scotland’s early exit being anything other than academic, recall that they lost to Argentina by a solitary point and had England on the rack for much of the match.  In fact, had they only to beat England they may well have done so, but they had to defeat them by seven or more, and as a result had to continue pressing on in a match they were leading.  England ran out lacklustre four-point winners.  In 2007, Ireland got lumped in with, and turfed out by, hosts France and a rampantly fired-up Argentina.

This time around, the quirky ranking system has left us with an absolutely dynamite pool involving Wales, England and Australia.  And as luck would have it, the PNC champions, Fiji, are in there too.  Just to make everything extra hard.  It’s a whopper.

Wales tend to do well in World Cups.  In 2003, they used the tournament to reignite themselves as a premier rugby nation and in 2011 they were brilliant for large parts of the competition and should have made the final.  They’re a steely, tough, physical side; efficient deployment of Warrenball is the name of the game.  They’ve a tendency to come up just short against the Southern Hemisphere big guns, but against their European comrades, they’re up with the best.  There’s little to choose between them, England and Ireland; look at the 2015 Six Nations log for proof.

But my word they are eviscerated by injury.  Already down Jonathan Davies, they have lost their metronomic plake kicker and foundation at the back, Leigh Halfpenny, as well as Rhys Webb, who was rapidly emerging as one of the game’s elite scrum halves.  To top this off, Alun-Wyn Jones – every bit as inspiration for Wales as Paul O’Connell is for Ireland – is struggling.  Assuming Jones pulls through in some shape or form, Webb looks the biggest loss.  Scott Williams is an able deputy for Davies.  Halfpenny can be replaced by Liam Williams (himself returning from – guess what? – injury) and they will lose little in attack, with Williams perhaps the more dangerous open-field runner.  And the place-kicking issue may not be as bad as feared, because Dan Biggar at fly-half is pretty accurate off the ground.

Scrum half will now be particularly interesting.  Don’t rule out the strange scenario where Mike Phillips returns from the dead as first choice, having been bumped entirely off the squad a few weeks back.  Given the size of his personality and influence around the squad, he’s hardy the kind of pick a coach would bring along to hold tackle pads, and it is reasonable to assume that in Webb’s absence, Gatland plays the experience card.  Phillips looked out of sorts against Ireland and is generally past his best, but the same issues didn’t stop Gatland picking him to start all three Lions tests two years ago.

England are the hosts, are in good health and have ambitions of overall victory.  Being hosts counts for a lot – Barnesy had it about right at the recent Sunday Times shindig in Lansdowne Road where he described it as being worth nine points a match. It’s hard to see the host nation bowing out in the group stages; the rule of thumb is that the hosts generally contest the final.  Anything less simply wouldn’t do.

The other big fish in the pond is Australia, current holders of the Rugby Championship.  Australian rugby hasn’t had it too good in recent years, and they reached something of a low ebb in losing a dire series against the Lions two years ago.  But since then, things have taken a turn for the better and they appear to have the right man in charge of them.  Irish fans, especially those from the blue bit, are familiar with Michael ‘Bull in a China Shop’ Cheika, and going by previous indiscretion levels around the squad, his ironclad style is just the requirement to get his best out of this group of players. .  The early signifiers are promising, not least a scrum that actually bossed New Zealand around in a big win, followed by a dismantling of a good Argentina side in the recent Championship.  And while Cheika is best known as a disciplinarian and all-round hard-nut, he is also a highly intelligent and universally respected rugby brain.

Here in WOC Towers, we were struggling to come to an agreement about how this one would pan out, but cursed injury to two of Wales’ best players has intervened, and now we’re aligned in thinking it’s hard to see Wales manufacturing the victory they need over either of the two heavyweights.  Palla had visions of the big three all beating each other and bonus points and cricket score-counts over Uruguay being required to settle the dispute.  And should that come to pass, England are well placed, because they go into their final game against Uruguay knowing just how many runs they have to score in the chase. But now we’re going for England and Australia to beat Wales and qualify.  But in what order?

England typically have Australia’s number, especially in Twickenham, but we’re going out on a limb and we’re tipping a Cheika-inspired Australia, having finally discovered a stable scrum, to wreak breakdown havoc and beat England. We are less than inspired by Lancaster’s use of the bench (Exhibit A – substitutions by numbers in the 2014 loss to France), and bringing on Wigglesworth, Farrell and Slammin’ Sam just seems wooden to us; why aren’t we seeing Care, Slade and Goode? Or Cipriani? Cheika might not have huge depth, but he knows how to use it better, and Genia, Cooper and Beale is a game-changing bench.

England have plenty going for them, not least a creative and explosive backline and a front-five that is typically English, but they lack one thing, and that’s a breakdown specialist on the flanks.  In this pool, they’re about to come up against no less than four of the world’s best ball-poaching opensides.  They’ve a hell of a job on getting the quick ball they need to get Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson running at space. They should do enough to beat Wales and Mike Philips the auxiliary blindside, but may come up short against the Wobs.  Matt Williams is concerned about the Aussies’ lack of any depth whatsoever – Kane Douglas is a squad member – but if their best players stay fit they have a side high on talent.  Think Stephen Moore, David Pocock, Michael Hooper, Matt Giteau and Israel Folau.

The big winner here is the humble punter.  The group stages often lack intensity.  The outcome in two pools is a foregone conclusion, and in the other (our pool) it is only the order of the qualifiers that needs to be resolved.  But here, we will see the World Cup hit boiling point early.  As early as the 26th September, when Wales take on England.  A week later England play Australia.  It’s knockout rugby come early.  And better yet, it’s a match with Anthony Watson and Israel Folau on the same pitch.

And what of Fiji? The PNC champions are here to upset the applecart and are apparently targeting Wales in their second game – it will be interesting to see how the Fijians approach the games. They are likely to contribute hugely to the opening game in a losing effort, but that might leave them vulnerable to a Wobbly bashing just 5 days later – a bonus point opportunity for Australia that Cheika is sure to gobble up. After that, it’s Wales, who were memorably beaten in 2007. However, less memorable was the 2011 tournament, were Wales beat them 66-0. Wales are vulnerable for sure, but if they are coming off a defeat to England, as we expect, this will be a virtual knockout for them – we think Fiji will come up short.

Just coming second in this pool is hard enough, but the carrot for winning it is huge.  The winners almost certainly face Scotland in the quarter-final and one of France, Ireland and Argentina in the semi-final.  Whoever gets the job done here has a great chance of going right to the end. We’re picking that team to be Australia.

Best World Cup Evah

Before we nail our Ireland preview to the metaphorical door of Wittenberg church that is tinterwebs, we need to consider just a couple of things:

  • The best teams in the world usually win the competition – obvious question marks surround the BNZ teams of 1995 and 2007 – the South African team that won so memorably in ’95 did very little else, and while the ’07 team peaked 24 months later when winning the Tri Nations and beating GivvusahugShawsie and 14 other red-clad men, but BNZ blew both in truth. However, no other champions weren’t the best team (either at the time or in retrospect) and indeed neither group of Springboks were unworthy champions.  Everyone associates the 2011 New Zealand winners with the nervous wreck that fell over the line in the final, but scroll back to the semi-final, quarter-final and pool stages and they were the best team in the tournament
  • Runners-up are not necessarily the second best team in the competition – this isn’t a league, remember. While the cream normally rises to the top, no-one is going to remember the 2003 Wobblies, 2007 English or 2011 French as vintage crops. Indeed, most in English rugby seem to have wilfully expunged the Ashton era from memory, and the French lost to Tonga and were an utter shambles rescued only by the leadership of Thierry Dusautoir, one of the all-time greats
  • Ireland have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals – and have really only had two tournaments you could judge a success, and 2011 only was one because we claimed a Southern Hemisphere scalp. That’s been our level, like it or not.  Put simply, Ireland’s record in these tournaments is pretty average at best, dire compared to our pretensions

So what was all that in aid of then? Well, let’s start on the third point – Ireland haven’t progressed beyond a quarter-final. It’s hard to pinpoint a time when Ireland were obviously among the best in the world – top 8 has been our level. Are we better than that now? Easy to say yes, clearly, on the back of our back-to-back Six Nations, but it’s not that simple. If we consider England, Wales and Ireland during the Schmidt era, games between the three have resulted in two wins each. In the last edition, the teams finished with the same number of points, with Ireland taking the gong on points difference. In our view there is a fly-paper between the sides.

If there is a fly-paper between them, there is a hardback book to the level the Southern Hemisphere showed during the Rugby Championship – it would be hard to see any of the Northern Hemisphere powerhouses living with the general standard produced during the summer. But – like we said – it isn’t a league. Ireland, quite obviously, aren’t the best team in the world, or anything close to it, but while that might preclude us wining the thing, it isn’t the end of the world (see: Lievremont, Marc – 2011). A semi final would constitute a “best tournament ever”, and seems to be something of a national obsession – and it’s achievable.

The major reason to think Ireland can reasonably consider this as a great chance to better their previous best is the draw. If Schmidt was asked to pick a top seed from BNZ, SA, England and France – he’d pick France. If he was asked to pick a third seed between Wales, Scotland, Italy and Tonga – I think he’d pick Italy. Aside from the fag-end of the Deccie era, we haven’t had any trouble with Italy since before Dorce’s international career. And Italy in Rome in the spring is one thing, Italy in a World Cup is another.  They travel terribly, and have been hopeless in World Cups.  It’s a dream pool, eminently winnable. And if we do, the only preferable quarter final opponent to the runner up to BNZ’s group is the one in South Africa’s – but still, at least we’re avoiding the one from England’s group. Compare a scenario where Ireland were drawn with England and Wales in the pool stages – would you be as confident? Hardly. So that’s great.

If Ireland win their pool and lose in the quarter finals, is that a success? No, quite frankly, it isn’t – we’ve done that, four years ago, and despite the best efforts of Gerry and co. to insist otherwise, it was a disappointment. The nature of the quarter final defeat made it worse, but there is no such thing as heroic defeat in a World Cup – just defeat. If we don’t win the pool, we play BNZ – and we won’t win, lets be honest with ourselves. So to make the semis and make the tournament a success (by our definition), the path is winning the pool and beating the runners up from the BNZ pool. Can we do it, and what comes next?

The Pool

We will beat Canada with the firsts, Romania with the dirt trackers and Italy with the firsts. No doubt. Move on.

What about France? The mere sight of a grizzled French prop sucking on a Gitanes or an athletic and good looking wing looking suggestively at Clare Balding used to make Paddy go weak at the knees and slack-jawed, allowing the tanned and self-confident Pierre to walk in multiple tries against us. But no longer – since the O’Leary game over four years ago, we haven’t lost to our bete-noir (thanks Gerry!). Deccie fought out two draws and Schmidt has beaten them twice. Nothing has been easy, but we still haven’t lost to them. Looking in more depth at the players in our squad, we have eleven who have never lost to the French (Madigan, Henry, Henshaw, Kearney Jr, McGrath, Murphy, Payne, Toner, Zebo, Henderson, O’Mahony), all of whom will have aspirations of being in the 23, and only Earls, Jackson and Ryan have never beaten them.

It’s a nice habit. Plus, for all the cliches about “not knowing what France will turn up”, we’re going to go out on a limb here and say that we know exactly what France will turn up – the rabble we have seen since Philippe Saint-Andre took over. They have finished fourth, sixth, fourth and fourth in their Six Nations and have a grand total of 1 (videprinter moment – ONE) win over teams that aren’t Scotland and Italy in competitive games in this entire RWC cycle. They are a directionless, shapeless excuse of a team that will be piloted by Freddy Michalak! We keep hearing about all this Herculean training they are doing, but listen – they were so woefully out of shape in recent years, it’s the least they need to avoid disgracing themselves.

The team are still – still! – constructed around the peerless Dusautoir, but the supporting cast, while individually excellent, just aren’t doing it in blue. The pack are huge, but what good is a huge pack if you can’t actually win any games on the back of it. For all the behemoth hugeness, they lack mobility.  Maestri, Atonio, Guirado – big men, but hardly sprightly, and not to be feared. What, on paper, is an impactful bench, is nothing of the sort – all we can remember is France hanging on at the end of games, not stepping on the gas. Constant chopping and changing in the backs has left us with Scott Spedding in the first team. If you cut them an even break, like England did in Twickers, they will run in a few tries, but play with accuracy and structure and you’ll beat them. Sure, it’s going to be tough going, and we’ll examine some of the micro issues in depth the week of the game, but we’re not buying any talking up of the French – this is the worst team they have had in memory, and we will beat them.

Knockouts

After that, we’ll be playing the runners up in the BNZ pool – likely Argentina. Ireland have been consistently ranked above Argentina in recent years, but for an odd reason: while we have hoovered up ranking points against Italy, Scotland and France, they have bled them by losing to BNZ, South Africa and Australia. Each year, they have got closer – and this year they hammered SA in Durban, having topped the Wobs in Mendoza the year before. They’ve been largely competitive, and had the best scrum in the competition for the last two years. It’s worth asking Schmidt what preparation he would prefer – playing and losing the RC or playing and winning in the 6N – there are arguments for both. And they will fancy beating us as well – they always do.

The UAR have for once done a good job, and have harvested players at home for the Super Rugby franchise that will start in 2016, with the majority of their squad now based at home. They are sprinkled with world class players (Ayerza, Creevy, Fernandez Lobbe, Sanchez, Imhoff) and are fit and rested. Similar to how Ireland will use their first three games to build up to France, Argentina play BNZ first and will use the games against Georgia, Tonga and Namibia to build up to play us.

At this juncture, this looks to us like a 50-50 match – both teams are in the bunch behind NZ, SA and Oz and around the standard of England and Wales. Still, this is what our tournament will come down to to cross the success/failure line – a one-off match with Argentina. Based on how Schmidt has prepared his teams to date, we’re backing him to pull this one off. We’re far out and injuries etc will surely have an impact, but from here, we reckon we can do it.

After that, we think Ireland will have met their match. A week after that, it’s the winner of the Group of Death (more of which anon) and for us, that’s as far as we go. A week out from Argentina facing a team who will likely have whacked Scotland pretty easily and taken off important players with 30 minutes to go. No shame, but we see a tired Ireland unable to go to the well three weeks in a row – this is a tough tournament and our best simply won’t be enough. And there is no shame in that – for this, remember, will be our best effort ever in a tournament in which we usually fall flat on our faces.

High Risk

By now we’ve all seen the squad, read the analysis and recoiled in horror at Hugh Farrelly’s devastating, chilling ‘six-step nightmare scenario’ that leads inevitably to Ian Madigan playing scrum half for the majority of the crucial pool match against France.  Yes, it’s all become very clear: Joe Schmidt has taken some serious risks with his 31 man squad selection.  So we’re here to run over each unit, and ask: what should Joe have done.  Y’know, to reduce the risks of something awful happening as a result of injury to one of our best players in the captain’s run.  Anyone who knows anything about the game knows that lads are forever getting injured in the captain’s run.

Front Row

Very risky stuff here.  Only two looseheads selected, one of whom isn’t even fit yet.  This is a high risk situation.  This would have been entirely alleviated had Schmidt drafted in David Kilcoyne.  Further risk reduction could have been achieved by also including Michael Bent in the panel.

Second Row

At first glance, Ireland look well stocked at second row with no less than four first-rate players to choose from.  But have you considered this scenario: O’Connell, Toner, Ryan and Henderson are all struck down with a mystery virus that hits only competent locks and makes them shrink to 1.5m tall overnight! With Rory Best’s arse identified as the source, Schmidt has no choice but to call up Paul Marshall and Strings to cover Chris Henry, our new tighthead lock. Hardly an ideal situation I’m sure you’ll agree.  Schmidt could have avoided this needless risk by selecting three additional locks: step forward Mike McCarthy, Dan Tuohy and Donncha O’Callaghan.

Back Row

Looks ok, doesn’t it?  But remember that Henry is covering the second row (see above) and things don’t look so pretty.  Schmidt should have given consideration to Clive Ross as additional cover.

Scrum Half

The big one.  The mega-risk.  Just two recognised scrum halves.  And Ian Madigan!  Schmidt was keen to tell us that Madser has been practicing scrum half in his mum’s garden all summer, but who is he kidding?  Not us!  And not Hugh Farrelly!  Hugh has already carefully outlined the unthinkable scenario, where Murray and Reddan get injured, leaving Madigan to throw passes from the base of the ruck for 70 minutes against France.  Now let’s dream of the alternative.  The third scrum half that isn’t: instead of Madigan we get Isaac Boss.  For 70 minutes against France.  Oooooohhh, that’s some soothing balm right there.  Feels better, doesn’t it?

Fly Half

We’ve heard it all so often: Ireland’s world cup is goosed if Jonny gets injured.  So why take the risk?  Why be so dependant on one player?  Schmidt should have just left Jonny at home and saved us all the worry about his occasionally jumpy hamstrings.  With little to choose between Madigan, Jackson and Keatley it wouldn’t matter a damn if one of them got injured.

Outside Backs

The only position where Ireland are well covered, thank goodness.  Even if all the wings get injured in the captain’s run, as appears likely, we can at least be assured that Jordi Murphy has experience there.  And, while few will recall such a little discussed fact, it should also be noted that Peter O’Mahony did once play on the wing in an AIL final.

We sign off with a simple plea to Paul O’Connell: just for goodness sake go easy on the lads in the captain’s run!

Faces That Fit(z)

It’s funny really – history will note that we lost our final home warm-up 16-10 to Cuddly Nemesis Wazza and his Welsh minions (giant minions), but the conversation, from the second Paul O’Connell expectedly eschewed the opportunity to take credit, moved on to the RWC15 squad announcement. Were Earls and Fitzgerald badly injured, or would they make the squad? Did Dave Kearney cement his place? Is Jordi Murphy a better option in the backline than Isaac Boss? How can we parlay some #OUTRAGE into the conversation?

One other thing that we left thinking was this: will, as looks inevitable, Iain Henderson force his way into the XV? And, is Sexton priming himself for a classic Irish outhalf World Cup meltdown? (joke) (sort of)

But anyway, the squad – for some reason we can’t understand, Ireland chose to submit the squad to World Rugby on the 31st, pre-deadline, then schedule a press conference to talk about it on the 1st. Inevitably, it leaked – so we’ve had a bit of time to digest it. There are three big calls – Andrew Trimble missing out, Tadgh Furlong being selected, and Darren Cave making it (indirectly) at the expense of Boss.

Most headlines were about Trimble, who was Irish rugby’s POTY exactly one year ago. And yet – it’s the least surprising. Schmidt himself talked about it before the Wales game – Trimble has played 34 minutes in eight months. And 80 minutes for Ulster on Friday wasn’t enough to convince the brains trust to include him. It might be dividing opinion, but it’s at least understandable. Trimble’s injury woes were compounded by some excellent showings by Dishy Dave and Earls in the warmups – Kearney Jr seems to be a lightning rod for criticism (“Daverage”) but he’s Ireland form wing right now, and we’d probably have him in the Test team. And while it’s easy to fulminate about Trimble’s exclusion – it’s tougher to argue against the inclusion of the guys who have made it – we have depth at wing. Brian Carney won’t be going to this World Cup.

All that said, given the injury histories of the wings that we have brought, and the attrition rate in modern rugby, at this point we still suspect Trimble will ultimately go to his third World Cup.

One person who will likely not go to a third World Cup whatever the circumstances is Isaac Boss – he played himself off the team against Scotland and now Ian Madigan will be the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency scrummie. True, it leaves us exposed should one of our scrum halves take a short-term knock. But a squad of just 31 means coaches have to take risks somewhere.  Look at Australia and Wales, and England; each have at least one position where they don’t have as much cover as they woudl like.  It’s a tight squeeze and every coach has to choose where to double down and where to hope for a bit of good fortune.

The man who will be going in Boss’ stead is, incredibly, Face Doesn’t Fit. Darren Cave came closest to the Ireland team in the lead up to the 2012 Six Nations when his BODness went down and he was in the form of his career. Then he got knacked, and Keith Earls got the gig and went well. That’s right – Keith Earls is an international standard outside centre. Since then, Cave hasn’t troubled the scorer in green – and after a disappointing tour to Argentina last summer his international career looked as good as over. However, with Dorce and Boss falling off a cliff, he’s suddenly back in favour as specialist centre backup – and in the first Welsh buildup game he played as well as he has ever done for Ireland. We called this one as a possibilty last week; Cave can cover both centre positions, and without him in the squad, midfield back-up was worryingly threadbare, especially at 12.  Madigan has enough to work on at out-half where he is a very real possibility for the matchday bench.  Still, one has to wonder about no less than four other Ulstermen who may be in the conversation in other circumstances – Bamm-Bamm and Olding if they had stayed fit, Stuart McCloskey if he happened to be a year older, and of course, nearly three years after his tragic passing, Nevin Spence. But Cave deserves his selection.  He was an unsung herop for Ulster last year and has consistently played to a good level, even if that level appears to fall just short of top class.

At first glance, the call to bring Tadgh Furlong as fifth prop seems needlessly risky and indeed, rather barmy. When we cranked back into gear after a lazy summer, our first post was about the front row. We thought we would be bringing six specialists – three for each side. Since Schmidt made it clear he was going for a 17-14 split, that has not looked like happening.  We thought that spelled good news for Michael Bent, given his ability to cover both sides of the scrum to moderate effect, but that hasn’t happened either.  The picture has been complicated by Cian Healy’s race to prove himself fit.  And a further development is that Marty Moore has also been injured.

But while, on the face of it, the Healy situation appears to require extra cover at loosehead, in fact it’s quite the opposite.  Management are obviously confident Healy will be fit – they’ve been monitoring him on an hourly basis, so let’s assume they’re well positioned to make the call. And if he’s fit the only thing he’s missing is match-time, which means he’ll need to get as much of it as possible in the first two quasi-warm-up games against Canada and Romania.  It means there’s no substantial part for a third loosehead.  On the tighthead side, Schmidt can comfortably rotate his three men over the first two games; on the loosehead side, he needs to get his main man up to speed.

We can bet Schmidt will want to get all 31 of his men on the pitch at some point, in order to keep up morale and unity.  If David Kilcoyne, say, was picked instead of Furlong, he’d simply be hanging around the hotel room.