The Lengthening of the Days

Schmidt announced his 35 man Six Nations training squad yesterday, and the newcomers – McCloskey, Stander, van der Flier and Dillane – have been rewarded for strong recent form. The internet was getting slightly #OUTRAGE-d as misplaced rumours swirled that Stander wouldn’t make it – Munster fans were particularly vocal in their opposition to Stander being picked, continuing a long tradition of opposition to project players being selected for Ireland (see Strauss, R.), but they were left disappointed as Schmidt continued his own tradition of picking the best available players (see Payne, J.).

Truth is, the squad didn’t really tell us much – 35 players were picked; DJ Church, Ross and Henry will be added later; and NWJMB, POM, Tuohy and Bowe were name-checked as being too crocked to be considered. The only notable absentee from the World Cup is Jordi Murphy, who has effectively been replaced by Stander. If anything, it’s a form call.  Stander has been explosive all season, Murphy has been playing poorly at Leinster.  The Mole had a good post-RWC piece on how Murphy might best move his career forward, and he has some thinking to do.

Garry Ringrose doesn’t make the squad, with management seemingly of a mind to keep him developing at Leinster before exposing him to this level.  He’s quite obviously a test player in waiting, and it would have quickened the pulse if he was selected, but romantic notions will have to be put aside for now.  Most likely he’ll be capped in the summer.

The big questions about the match day 23 selection are still out there, and how Ireland may (or may not) change their gameplan, and we’ll be looking at them over the next couple of weeks:

Who starts at tighthead against Wales in Ross’ absence – if it’s Furlong, and he performs well, Ross might never start for Ireland again.  Most likely it’ll be Nathan White, who stands accused of ruck inspecting, but is dependable in the scrum

The second row is a potential car crash – while England have Itoje, Kruis, Launchbury and Lawes and Wales have Charteris, Davies and AWJ, we’ll need to craft a serviceable second row from Toner (fine), McCarthy (in the form of his career, but still), Ryan (struggling to regain anything like his best form) and Dillane. Dillane is listed as being the same height and weight as Itoje, although a year older.  It will be fascinating to see if he can play a part, it’s possible to see him as an impact sub going in alongside the elder statesman (!) Toner on the hour mark.  We’re hopeful we’ll see more of Toner’s best Brodie Retallick impression as midfield distributor, especially as O’Mahony – the only other forward who tends to perform this role – is injured.

The roles of the in-form newbies. McCloskey and Stander are not just two of the form players in Ireland, but in Europe. Can Choo Choo Stu break up the Henshaw-Payne partnership? He’s certainly the most natural inside centre in the squad, is an intelligent footballer with an eye for space and has yet to find a ceiling. At number 8, Stander will have a job replacing Heaslip, who was one of Ireland’s best players in the RWC. There is an accepted wisdom that Heaslip will somehow benefit from competition, like he isn’t quite producing his best for Ireland, but our expectation is he’ll continue his quiet excellence, Stander or no Stander. CJ is in the mix for the available blindside slot with Rhys Ruddock, but Schmidt may just lean towards Ruddock for his lineout ability, which is one area where O’Mahony’s presence will be most keenly felt.  An impact bench role is the most likely starting point for Stander. Although maybe not against Wales – if Gatty unleashes his double openside trump card (do you do anything else with Justin Tipuric?) maybe it’s better to have O’Donnell there.

Interestingly, Ulster (i.e. Kissy, Schmidt’s mate) selected Jared Payne at fullback against Saracens – was it an understandable desire to keep a returning key man out of heavy traffic against a brilliant team, or something more? Rob Kearney is a very different full back from the likes of Ben Smith, Folau, le Roux, Hogg and Mike Brown and it’s hard to envisage him entering the line at first or second receiver and giving Ireland an extra attacking string to their bow. But then again, Schmidt has only ever selected Payne at outside centre.

We’ll be back with more ponderings, but isn’t it getting exciting? The Six Nations! We’ve won the last two, remember? The arrival of spring, and the inevitable slew of atrocious games. Oh and Ringrose OUTRAGE.

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Book Review: No Borders

No Borders: Playing Rugby For Ireland is Tom English’s history of Irish rugby, told by the players and coaches.  Whiff of Cordite was sent a free review copy, and this is our review.

The book starts with the Jack Kyle era and finishes with the 2015 Six Nations.  English provides narration along the way, but for the most part the book is made up of the players’ own versions of events.  English lets all the main players speak in their own words and keeps himself off the stage.   The players’ words shape the story, charting Irish rugby’s chequered history from the troubles to peace, from amateurism to professionalism and from failure to a sort of success.

It’s a ripping read.  I must confess I didn’t start at the beginning and finish at the end, but read in a random order, starting with the bits that were of most fascination: in my case the 2007 World Cup and the breaking of professionalism in the 1990s.  There’s interest in every chapter.

Plenty of the material will be familiar to readers of these pages, and depending on your age, plenty of it will be new to you.  As children of the early 1980s, we were too young for the two triple crowns of that era but can remember plenty of the awfulness which followed.  The abiding memories of that era are of Ireland valiantly taking the game to teams before the inevitable late-game surrender.  The Six Nations was an event in Chez Ovale in Bray, and poor Papa Ovale seemed an eternal optimist.  Palla has distant memories of once making a 2p bet with him that France would beat Ireland, and feeling conflicted as the second half saw Ireland lose an enormous lead and France got their multi-phase groove on.  The folly of youth!  Another year, now old enough to know better than to cheer for the enemy in pursuit of a tuppence, we have slightly clearer recollection of a Five Nations in which Ireland led all four games at the hour mark, only to return three losses and a draw with Wales.  Ah, great days they were.

English’s book serves as a reminder of a few things.  The first is just what a quirky sport rugby is in Ireland.  Largely played in a handful of areas in the country; Belfast grammar schools, Dublin private schools, a handful of schools in Cork and – who could forget? – earthy types in Limerick.  Somehow, the elements all have to come together in the green shirt, and more often than not they do. For all the failings of Irish rugby, the players rarely did anything other than try their hearts out.  Trevor Ringland and several other Ulster players give terrific insight into what it was like for Ulster protestants to play rugby for Ireland, especially during the troubles.

The second is just how… there really is no other way around this… terrible Irish rugby has been for most of its history.  Think this season is bad because we lost to Argentina and Munster and Leinster are a bit rubbish?  Try re-winding twenty years.  Thought Kidney’s Ireland were a bit hit and miss, only showing their best when able to feed off emotion after everyone had written them off?  Well, they were only keeping up the traditions of a century before them.  Even the good days feel like a mere temporary blip before normal service is resumed.  Ireland’s triple crown in 1982 is immediately follwed by a winless campaign.  1985’s triumph only proves a cue for Mick Doyle to buy into his own press and isolate the players.  For the most part, Ireland’s history is of being poorly prepared for matches and having teams backboned a handful of warrior heroes but generally lacking enough great players and general fitness to beat the best sides.  And it’s one of being repeatedly hammered in Paris, of course.

There’s no end of great storytelling here.  The uneasy journey from amateurism – days when the players would call into the chipper for a ‘one-and-one’ on the eve of a Triple Crown decider  –  to professionalism is brilliantly captured.  The old farts in the IRFU – a consistent theme throughout the book, it must be said – were militantly anti-professionalism, to the point of farce.  Tony Ward wins the Player of the Five Nations, but is told he cannot pose for the cameras as there is a sponsor involved.  The World Cup is treated with fear, and the IRFU bans the team from training in advance of it.  At times it seems less point of principle, and verges on a ‘they can’t have what we never had’ mentality.  Meanwhile, the advent of professionalism appears to the players through their TV sets, as every ad break is saturated with the Kiwi players advertising farm machinery.

The 1990s are relentlessly grim.  Murray Kidd is an angry ant, and is followed by Brian Ashton who, it must be said, is reticent and fair-minded about where he went wrong.  But go wrong he did, trying to get Ireland to play like his Bath team and failing to get the players to buy in to his ideas.  Things finally take a turn for the better when Gatland comes along, though he takes a while to get going and has to endure the Lens debacle before turning the tide.  Indeed, he is almost down to his last chips, but plays a winning hand in famously blooding ROG, Stringer et al against Scotland.  The players enjoy his pragmatism and more consistent approach to selection, but interestingly, don’t appear terribly put out when he gets the axe in spite of a terrific final Six Nations in which Ireland win four matches.  For the first time ever, it’s the backs who are the kingpins, and they see technical supremo Eddie O’Sullivan as the man who can best improve them.  When Brian O’Driscoll first appears, he is  like a beacon of light, and it’s clear to everyone just what a star he is almost immediately.

The tension between Gatland and O’Sullivan simmers on the pages, and it’s not the only time Eddie’s quotations seems at odds with the words of others.  The 2007 World Cup fiasco makes for fascinating reading.  Eddie is still clinging to his idea that all the team needed was a couple more warm-up games, but it’s clear from the players words that the problems ran far deeper.

There’s plenty of comedy in there too.  Neil Francis gives expectedly sweary copy (‘that fucker Eales is untouchable’) and takes the credit for the tactical smarts in the almost-win against Australia in 1991.  Andrew Trimble describes trying to get some meaningful critique out of Uncle Deccie on the numerous occasions he is dropped from the team, but can’t get anywhere.  And you can picture Cian Healy pulling his dad’s car around the beach as a teenager.  Needless to say, the amateur days feature plenty of revelry and regular trips to O’Donoghue’s for post-match recovery aids.

Finishing up in 2015 means we get a happy ending, but this sort of book can only ever finish ‘in media res’, or ‘in the middle of things’ to those less versed in the classics.  Which means, if history is anything to go by, Ireland’s next failing can only be around the corner.

No Borders is a terrific read, recommended to any Irish rugby fan.

A Return to Traditional Wigan Values

Munster’s European campaign hit the buffers at the weekend after a feeble defeat to Stade Francais Paris.  In spite of playing against 14 men for the entire second half, it was Stade who glossed the scoreline and ran away with the match.

There were shades of this last season when Munster’s hopes depended on them going to Saracens and winning, but the effort was similarly toothless.  It feels like something of a tipping point among their fanbase with regard to their affection for the coaching ticket headed up by Anthony Foley, with most fans angry and unsympathetic – no much surprise given how they have been blamed by Foley and his chums in the meeja for not coming in enough numbers to see the team.

So what went wrong?  Pretty much everything.  CJ Stander, who was about the only player who performed close to his level, afterwards admitted that although the team talked at half time about what they had to do – play at pace and make the extra man count – they just didn’t do it.  He described them as lacking energy, walking to lineouts.  That speaks to a lack of belief and stomach for the fight, and Alan Quinlan was unsparing in his post-match criticism.

Another who launched a scathing attack on management was none other than Johne Murphy, but for many that sounded like a hatchet job, a chance that Murphy was only dying to take to get one over on a coach who never really took to him.  But if indeed that is indeed the case, it raises a point worth thinking about.  Murphy, as we all know, came in for personal criticism in the infamous player-assessment email that was accidentaly distributed just a few weeks into Foley’s tenure, which is presumably a factor in his bitterness towards Foley.  But he wasn’t the only one, so are there other players around the squad who still harbour resentment towards the coach?  It certainly doesn’t appear as if the team are playing for their lives, or for the coach’s future – Simon Zebo’s performance in Paris smacked of a man with the south of France on his mind, and both Earls and Donnacha Ryan are not fulfilling expectations as two of the go-to veterans of the team.

Quinlan, in his article for the Indo yesterday, came up with the left-field suggestion that the province should dial 021-DECCIE and bring back the auld cute hoor for a renaissance.  After all, Deccie won two Heineken Cups and knows the province inside out.  It seems a bizarre idea, though.  They already have a coach – a whole team of them in fact! – who are hugely passionate about the province, and who know everything there is to know about Munster rugby. But it’s not really what they need – that being an experienced hand with a good technical skillset.

And seemingly the IRFU are ain agreement – the lads need a bit of help, and so they’re sending their latest hire, Andy Farrell, down south to work as a ‘consultant’ for the rest of the season.  It’s a major decision, not least because it’s obviously been foisted upon Foley and his backroom chums and doesn’t reflect all too well on them.  It’s a decent idea in theory – a voice from outside the province is certainly needed – but in practice it’s hard to know how much he’ll be able to add, especially if it’s a source of tension within the camp.  One thing’s for sure, Farrell is a strong character and will try to impose his will on the team.  Be prepared for a return to, erm, traditional Wigan values.

The sense that Munster are reaping what they sowed in appointing this group is inescapable. We blogged back in spring 2014 on Axel’s appointment and his ALL-MUNSTER ticket. While much of the critical commentary went as far as a damp Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium esque fawning over a “return to traditional Munster values”, we had some concerns:

“His main issue- as is the case for seemingly every Munster coach since the year dot – will be recruiting and developing capable centres to provide a threat and most importantly, bring the lethal strike runners Simon Zebo and Keith Earls onto the ball as much as possible.  Casey Laulala is heading for the exit and it looks increasingly like James Downey will be joining him.  Foley will need to recruit, and recruit well.” In fact – Foley has not only recruited badly (Tyler Bleyendaal, journeyman Andrew Smith) but he’s allowed JJ Hanrahan to leave, has converted Denis Hurley into the new Ma’a Nonu Shontayne Hape, and has presided over the catastrophic decline in form of Ian Keatley.

“One must say, it’s a big gamble – every member of the coaching staff will be making a step up to a position they have never been in before. Most coaching tickets you see appointed have a few grizzled veterans or older hands in there to offer continuity. The gamble Munster are taking is that Axel provides the continuity and the chaps with familiar faces and accents will takes to Munster like ducks to water, ensuring a seemless transition.” The gamble has failed pretty comprehensively, no doubt about it, and the appointment of Farrell is more evidence.

And perhaps most cutting from a fans perspective:

“He can expect an easier ride in the media than Penney got, because there will be huge goodwill behind him, and, how shall we put this, most of the key pundits are great pals with him!  But Munster fans will be as demanding as ever, and he’ll be expected to at least hit the marks Rob Penney did over the last two years.” Funny, this one turned out to be on the money

Anyway, it looks like a no-win situation for Foley – no improvement, and he’ll get the blame, they do better, and Farrell gets the credit. And an upturn in results is possible as the fixtures look relatively kind, albeit with the potential for (more) serious humiliation:

  • ERC: Stade Francais (H) – after last week, even a losing bonus point will be seen as a victory of sorts, but a victory is conceivable – Stade have only won one away game all year and have succumbed to the might of .. um .. Brive and Agen
  • ERC: Treviso (A) – surely they won’t lose .. surely!
  • Zebre (A) – see above
  • Ospreys (H)
  • Glasgae (A) – two tough fixtures, but during the Six Nations both will be denuded to an extent Munster clearly won’t, with only one player (Conor Murray) currently a lock in the Irish 23
  • Treviso (A)
  • Dragons (H)
  • Zebre (H) – 3 wins in a row would be your baseline expectation here

So not impossible that by Easter, Munster are back in the top 4 of the league with ERC qualification assured and with some sort of momentum garnered .. for which Farrell gets the credit. Foley’s team are most certainly dead ducks, and it remains to see whether the man himself is as well – both Ulster and Leinster have sacked coaches late in the season and wound up scrambling to get a coaching team in place.

That said, they’ll need to get several of the units on the pitch working far better.  The scrum has been awful all season, and there’s little that can be done at this stage short of winding back BJ Botha’s clock by five years.  The second row has been remarkably poor considering they have three internationals to choose from, and CJ Stander has been virtually a one man band in the backrow.  As for Ian Keatley, his haywire season took another nosedive on Saturday; all the more remarkable as he was man of the match against Ulster the previous week.  Meanwhile Simon Zebo’s mind appears to be halfway to Toulouse.  At least they can console themselves that they won’t lose too many players for the Six Nations.

A Welcome With Open Arms

Ireland’s new defence coach is… Andy Farrell.  Farrell won’t join until after this year’s Six Nations but has a contract which will take him up until after the 2019 World Cup. Welcome aboard, Andy!

It’s an appointment that’s interesting for a handful of reasons.  First of all, rather than drip-feeding the appointment out to the usual conduits in the media in advance so that they could get the broader public used to the idea, the news arrived as, well, news.  It’s hard to remember the last time any bit of news arrived hot off the press.  Even mundane stuff like team selections have been fed to Thornley and his chums for the last number of years almost without exception.

Another interesting element is that Andy Farrell does not appear to have been born in any of the following countries: New Zealand, Australia or South Africa.  Lordy!  What’s all this about?  Irish rugby has long adopted the stance that the southern hemisphere is the place where the best coaches come from, and it is they who they tend to employ.  There’s some history of English coaches – think Brian Ashton, which went well, right? – working in Ireland but not much.  The Irish public as a rule has little respect for the English way of playing.  English rugby is perceived on this isle (and beyond, to be fair) as being a samey, unimaginative sort of game, built on a forward pack which is powerful, but not Bok-powerful and sprinters on the wings but nobody who really has the imagination or skill level to give them the ball.

Andy Farrell goes even a step beyond that, completing a terrific hat-trick of associations that will immediately prove off-putting: Saracens, rugby league and the English World Cup effort.  That’s the holy trinity right there.  Rightly or wrongly, for who really knows, Farrell found himself being fingered with the decision to about-turn on England’s catch-and-pass gameplan and the move to revert to a more traditional bosh-and-kick strategy which backfired dismally and proved itself to be embarrassingly out of step with the approach of the better countries in the tournament.  Meanwhile, any mention of the word Saracens is enough to make Irish rugby fans groan. He’s also being blamed by angels like Bruce Craig for sending Slammin’ Sam back to Souths with his tail between his legs.

None of that will matter much to Schmidt however, who will see Farrell as a hard-nosed and experienced operator.  It won’t have gone unnoticed that Ireland’s defence – while generally the bedrock that has delivered two Six Nations – was passive and meek in the games against Italy and Argentina in the world cup.  Farrell might trade off some of Ireland’s love of the choke tackle for more aggressive line-speed.  Saracens’ famous wolf-pack defence, led with some degree of ferocity by Jacques Burger, focuses on the simple dynamic of coming up in a hard, straight line at such speed that they can suffocate teams at source.  Paul Gustard has been heralded for its implementation but Farrell had the team working in a similar fashion before moving on to Team England.  Farrell is also credited with the generally decent defence put up by the Lions in 2013.  While the games were so terrible only the pro-Gatland elements of the UK media will remember much of the specifics, for sure they didn’t win the series based on their attack, so the defence has to have been halfway decent.

There is of course one other English coach with a league background who has found himself in the position of having to coach his son – Mike Ford. Ford was, we believe, Ireland’s first ever defence coach (certainly the first decent one if not the first actual one) – it was an appointment that went well for both Ford and Ireland. Farrell is basically Ford minus a decade in his background and understanding of the game.

The final bit of intrigue was the confirmation that Brian O’Driscoll has become a sort of Twitter oracle whose every utterance becomes news in and of itself.  Part of the reporting of the news is that Brian O’Driscoll has endorsed the appointment.  Other recent events on which BOD has commented include Adam Ashley-Cooper and Ian Madigan’s moves to Bordeaux and the potential elevation of Garry Ringrose to the national team.  All have become news stories.  Perhaps an ‘Endorsed by Brian O’Driscoll on Twitter’ badge should be handed out to all those who receive his kudos.  He anticipates that under Farrell’s tutelage, Ireland would show good line-speed and kick-chase.  Dull and all as that sounds, it’s the bread and butter of defending.

Amply Balmed

As we’ve written many times, when European rugby hits you hard, you must apply the soothing balm of the Pro12.  The first half of this season has been perhaps the worst in living memory for the Irish provinces in the main shindig, so the seasonal interpros had a heightened sense of importance.

These matches have been washouts in previous editions.  With coaches hindered by limited access to their frontline players, they have tended to pick a strong side for their home match and a team of bunnies for their away tie, creating a series of foregone conclusions in the process.  Not this time, as all of Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster needed the points badly.  Leinster are out of Europe and the Pro12 is Connacht’s primary target anyway, and while Munster and Ulster still have aspirations of qualifying for the knockouts, the best either can realistically achieve is to qualify as runner-up, which brings with it an away quarter final.  They know they can ill afford to coast along in the Pro 12.

With the stakes high, it is Leinster who have come out the most amply balmed.  Indeed, it’s been a fabulous Christmas period for Les Bleus, with other results going their way to boot; Scarlets lost to Cardiff, and Glasgow lost twice to Edinburgh.  Munster beating Ulster also helped.  They can go top and open a gap with their game in hand.

If not exactly half-full, the Leinster glass is at least starting to look less than totally empty.  The team appears to have found a bit of shape and edge in attack, and it can’t be entirely by chance that they have conceded the least number of points in the league.  Their defence over the Christmas period was exemplary, giving up just seven points on aggregate to Munster and Connacht, and some of the handling against Connacht was impressive considering the conditions.

A couple of standout performers deserve mention.  Sean O’Brien is probably the best player on the island and when he is fit makes an incalculable difference to any team.  He performed explosively over the Christmas period, giving a ferocious 55 minutes against Munster and a blistering cameo in the last half hour against Connacht.  There is no other player that combines his ability both in the breakdown and carrying at close quarters, and, er, regathering his own chips over the defence off the back of scrums.  Ireland and Leinster are a different team when they have access to his wrecking-ball talents.  If Leo Cullen and Joe Schmidt could magically protect one player from injury it would be he.

Another is Garry Ringrose.  Munster and Ulster fans may be scoffing at the hype emanating from the ‘Dublin meeja’, as ROG once put it, and while anointing the 20 year old to the Ireland 13 jersey is perhaps premature, there is no doubt that Ringrose is going to be an international player, and surely no question that he is blessed with a rare and natural talent.  While it was his sensational try-creating break that will be remembered, he also defended his channel manfully against Munster, and backed up the performance against Connacht with two more line-breaks and a generally sound showing on a day which wasn’t exactly made for skinny-hipped outside centres.  There’s nothing like the anointing of a new local hero to get a bit of giddiness going on the terraces, and the RDS now has its next potentially great outside centre to celebrate.

Two more young guns who we are going to be seeing a lot more of are Josh van der Flier and Ross Molony.  Van der Flier is enjoying a breakout season and combines great presence at the breakdown with a good carrying game, a similar kind of player to Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell (whose return to fitness, incidentally, will be a huge benefit to Munster over the coming weeks).  Molony is a second row with a big couple of months ahead of him.  As Demented Mole pointed out, Leinster are going to be without their starting second rows for much of the Six Nations period and have little in the way of depth.  Mike McCarthy has finally brought his best form to the blue shirt and is likely to be brought back into the national team set up this spring; O’Connell is gone and Henderson is injured, and while it was hoped Donnacha Ryan would return from injury at his 2012 best, that just hasn’t happened.  Molony and the underwhelming Tom Denton are likely to be partnering up for the five or six games in that window.  He made two vital lineout steals against Munster which have got him noticed.

Things are looking up, admittedly from a low base, but with the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to reflect on a European campaign in which a new and totally inexperienced coaching ticket was only finding its feet, and where the bulk of players in the team were coming off the back of an exhausting and mentally draining World Cup.  With fresh energy, and fresh names in the team, the season can still be turned around, and perhaps that process has already begun.