The Other Guy Must Have Died Or Something

Twickenham is no place to throw in a young lad. Or maybe it is – Joe Schmidt has picked two debutants in the XV to face England on the Cabbage Patch on Saturday. Choo Choo Stu McCloskey has been met with benign eyelid flutters as the entire country says “I told you so”, while Josh van der Flier has been met with #OUTRAGE by around a quarter of the country for taking the shirt rightfully belonging to Tommy O’Donnell. And Ultan Dillane will join the fray with 25 minutes to go, giving us three debutants against a serious rugby country. Conservatism eh?

While McCloskey is clearly the form inside centre in Ireland (if not Europe), it has taken the injury to Jared Payne for him to get into the team, and Dillane is of course simply the next best fit second row; but van der Flier has leapfrogged both the TOD and Rhys Ruddock to wear the 7 shirt – and that’s certainly the biggest surprise of the selection. Gerry dropped a hint last week that VDF had jumped above the TOD, but we thought the be-leathered one had one too many tequilas the night before.  O’Donnell can count himself unlucky – 20 tackles against France shouldn’t be overlooked – but it’s hard not to be excited about van der Flier’s potential.

The best thing about the picks are that it gives some sense of Ireland trying something to actually win the game. Groundhog VDF will be in direct opposition to the chiselled cheekbones, perfect teeth and rippling muscles of Tim Nice-but-Dim, and students of rugby will recall how Pocock, Hooper and Warbs utterly destroyed England at the breakdown in the RWC. Now VDF is nowhere near the league of those gents at this point, but it’s a selection to target a weakness. Equally picking McCloskey at 12 offers a way to put Owen Farrell, England’s second five-eighth and playmaker, on the back foot and rattled, preventing him focusing on his real job – getting Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph into space.

At the very least it’s a selection that will give England new problems to think about, and some that perhaps they weren’t expecting.  And commentators such as Quinlan and Horgan are never done reminding us that the arrival of a couple of young upstarts in the starting team can create a buzz about the place.  It also should help to debunk a couple of myths about Joe Schmidt.  Derided in some quarters as an overly conservative strategist and selector, it’s something that doesn’t necessarily chime with a broader view of his career.  The Clermont team he coached and particularly the Leinster side he led to consecutive Heineken Cups were frequently thrilling to watch.  In Schmidt’s second season, his Leinster side also eschewed the much fabled offload, but such was the accuracy of their gainline-passing game they didn’t need to do it.  The current Irish game-plan, long on kick-chase was largely forged in the successful November series in 2014, when Ireland were shorn of ball-carriers through injury and as a result their best means of gaining metres was through reclaiming kicks.  It worked superbly, and its success was carried into the last Six Nations, but has perhaps grown stale in the last couple of series, and the time is nigh for some evolution.

We’re ravaged by injuries, and the English bench looks tough, but Healy and Ruddock are no slouches. We’re getting a bit optimistic. We should know better really.

Ireland team: Bob; Trimble, Henshaw, McCloskey, Earls; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Besty, Ross; Ryan, Toner; Passion, van der Flier, Heaslip.

Replacements: Strauss, DJ Church, White, Dillane, Ruddock, Reddan, Madigan, Zeebs

 

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No Place for Young Men

Well, hello everyone. We were sentenced to three weeks solitary confinement on Twitter by The Man for under-use of the phrase “you never know which France will turn up”. In the event, and as expected, we did know, but Ireland lacked the accuracy and gumption to beat them. Every ruck was like a war zone, Ireland were stuck narrow and when they did get wide, there was a paucity of ideas and accuracy.

It’s been a tough start to the series – the scrum has been poor, the lineout average, and the breakdown a lottery. Ireland’s successive championships have been based on strong defence and swift and accurate counter-rucking without over-committing, with the regular supply of fast ball has enabled Schmidt’s men to dictate the terms of engagement. The defence is still excellent, but Ireland have lost the ability to score points, with only three coming in 80 second half minutes.

Under Schmidt, Ireland have frequently been very strong after half-time, scoring tries in the first 10 minutes of the second half against England, France, South Africa (2014) and England, France (RWC), Argentina (2015). That strength hasn’t been present in this tournament, and the bench hasn’t been able to turn the loss in momentum. Without a doubt, injuries have hit us badly – Healy, Ross, Henderson, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Sexton, Payne, Dishy Dave, Earls, Fitzgerald and Zebo have all missed time at some point – that’s the guts of a team. And of course Some Ginger Bloke From Limerick has retired.

We’re not really sure that the much-discussed tactics aren’t working any more as much as Ireland can’t execute. The team feels tired, perhaps in need of new strings, but probably not a complete re-cast.

Now Ross is back, he simply has to come into the team and steady the scrum – and we should really think about giving Furlong some game time at some point. For the home games? Perhaps facing Mako Vunipola for 25 minutes isn’t the right time – or perhaps it is. When we hear ROG say “Twickenham is no place to throw a guy in”, we instinctively get a little suspicious – both Furlong and White are professional rugby players who live for occasions like this, the real question should be: do we think White or Furlong is better equipped to handle Vunipola? If it’s a tie, pick Furlong, he’s younger and will be around for the next number of years. Just like BOD’s Twitter, the messenger shouldn’t be equated with the message.

In the row, it’s simply hands over the eyes and hoping for the best – Ryan hasn’t been playing at all well enough to inspire anything like confidence, but perhaps Ultan Dillane will do well. With England dispensing with the Awesome Power of Courtney Lawes for the much more frightening Awesome Power of Maro Itoje, this is a huge test. The backrow haven’t really gelled yet this tournament, despite the emergence of the passionate one – indeed Stander has emerged as our primary ball carrier, and we’ve been a little over-reliant on him to say the least. There is an element of “give it to the big guy”, Stander is actually effective at carrying but since everyone else just falls over at the first contact, it’s pretty predictable. He made plenty of metres against Wales, but the French got to him and he averaged a second-row-esque 70cm per carry.  And of course when Stander, or anyone else, gets tackled, we haven’t been able to clear out rucks effectively. Perhaps it’s time to pick wingers for their rucking? While we’re on the topic, the selection of McFadden for Paris was predictably ineffective – he missed tackles, passed poorly and the game passed him by. We have legitimate concerns about Craig Gilroy’s tackling and positioning, but it’s no worse than Ferg’s right now – and he know where the try line is. Schmidt bottled that selection, and it hopefully doesn’t happen again. In any case, with Zebo and Earls back in contention for the weekend, McFadden can be safely dispatched to Leinster.

We disgress. A backrow of Stander, O’Donnell and Heaslip should be able to cope with England’s battery of 6.5’s – plenty of #unseenwork in there, and having Rhys Ruddock (still only 25!) to come off the bench feels good to us. The huge hole at second row (Lawes would likely be our number one lock, but can’t make the England 23) means we are unlikely to win the forward battle, but we shouldn’t get completely mauled either. The game feels to us like one of those ones that will be close on the scoreboard, but the result never really in doubt, 16-9 or something, like a (slightly) higher-class version of the Calcutta Cup.

The game might be more notable for it being Choo Choo Stu’s big chance – Jared Payne has been defensively excellent for Ireland, a real lynchpin, but he looks unlikely to make it. The obvious move would be to put Henshaw out one and bring in the big McCloskey. Ironically, bringing in what looks like a classic crash ball merchants is likely to add a new dimension to Ireland’s attack. McCloskey instinctively looks for space and is an intelligent heads-up footballer. We don’t think we’ll lose as much defensively stepping down from Payne to Henshaw as some people think either. Still, probably not the winning/losing of the game.

Once we get Twickenham out of the way, we’d like to see the likes of van der Flier or Ringrose given a look – while they look physically not 100% ready for the likes of England away, are we really saying we don’t think they could cope with Scotland or Italy at home? Equally, it feels like the time to give Paddy Jackson a start. Jackson’s Irish career has never really got going, with an extremely tough baptism in the fag end of the Deccie era – if Sexton thought it tough taking over from ROG and feeling the semi-public opprobrium that came with it, imagine how it was for a 21 year old Jackson with less than a year as Ulster starter – followed by a loss of form in 2014/15 that led to him losing out of both Keatley and Madigan that series. But with Maddog on his way to France, and Sexton seemingly in a state of perma-recovery from a knock, it seems likely he’ll be Ireland’s starting outhalf at some point in the future. Again, Scotland and Italy at home – what’s the real risk to giving him a pick? Now that the chance of a three-peat is virtually gone, and without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, let’s try and expand our options

 

Doom und Gloom

The Six Nations starts this weekend, and for Irish fans, the air is one of almost pervasive doom and gloom.  Leinster, Ulster and Munster are all out of the Champions Cup and the wounds from the passive defeat to Argentina in the World Cup are still raw.  Throw in injuries to a handful of Ireland’s best players and this being the first series without Paul O’Connell and it doesn’t get any better.  Then there’s the front-loaded schedule which pits Ireland into their three toughest matches first.  Wales, then France in Paris, and then England.  Yeeshk.

It’s certainly a challenging series, and the first major business is getting a functioning team on the pitch.  Ireland have a number of personnel issues, but foremost among them are the tight five and the form of their half-backs.  With Cian Healy, Mike Ross, and Iain Henderson injuried and Paul O’Connell no more, it’s going to be a relatively new-look tight five.  Rory Best, Jack McGrath and Devin Toner pick themselves at this rate, while the remaining two berths are likely to be filled by Nathan White (the two Leinster tightheads probably not quite ready to start) and Mike McCarthy, whose form at least is  a major plus. Well, a plus. But can he be effective at this level? He’s been dining out on his performance against South Africa in 2012 for a while, whereas Ryan always looked the part in green – but then he’s playing like a drain. One way or another, we’ve gone from this area being one of relative strength to one of glaring weakness in six months.

No such selection issues at halfback, but rather concerns of form.  Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton have been two of the key ingredients in Ireland’s Six Nations triumphs, but both have looked – not quite off the pace – just a shade off their usual peerless selves over the last couple of months.  They are still the halves that any of the coaches would love to have in their arsenal, but the concern remains that should either misfire, Ireland’s coaches don’t really have enough confidence in the reserves to take them off in clutch situations. Or indeed, who the reserves are – is it still Reddan and Madigan? Or has Jackson’s much superior form vaulted him on to the bench?

In the back row, the major selection question is where Passion’s CJ Stander (Criosti Eoin Seasamh?) will fit in once he has Dion O Cuinneagan-ed the national anthem. Heaslip might get bombs thrown at him about “workrate” and “attitude” but he was one of Ireland’s best players in the World Cup, and has been pretty decent for Leinster. We just can’t see Schmidt going from having him as his captain to dropping him altogether. So do we play Stander out of position just to get him in the team? Maybe, but Schmidt hasn’t much of a record of that – more likely we see an all-Leinster OUTRAGEous back row of Ruddock-O’Brien-Heaslip with Stander or O’Donnell on the bench. But we’re fine with that – it’s a backrow to strike fear into the toned sinews of England’s David Pocock – James Haskell (of which more below).

When it comes to outside backs, the number Jared Payne wears on his shirt will drive whether or not Choo Choo Stu gets the nod to start. Payne wore 15 in Ulster’s last 2 ERC games and looked excellent – for the first one we weren’t sure if it was Kissy being reluctant to throw his returning star into the heavy traffic of the Saracens midfield, but once he lined out there in the secnod it seemed a ply. For the first time since Deccie took over, Bob is under pressure for his shirt – Payne is a fullback primed for use as a counter attacking weapon, and his selection would signify a probable shift in the gameplan. Kearney is by no means shot – he’s actually younger than Payne – but he isn’t doing much at Leinster whereas Payne is like a limousine in open field.

And if Payne is picked at fullback, it means there is a centre slot up for grabs – and what better solution than to move Henshaw to his natural position outside and employ McCloskey in his natural position inside. Seems too obvious doesn’t it?

Looking further afield, the mood in Ireland is in stark contrast to the newfound ebullience in the England camp where everything is sweetness and light, while Wazza’a Wales must rightly feel that with their turbo-charged midfield back roaring that they will rediscover the cutting edge that was the difference between winning and losing narrowly to Australia and South Africa in the World Cup.

Still, might be better to leave them at it.  For the Welsh, it was ever thus, and Ireland may just find themselves blessed to have them first up, and in Dublin.  Wales have a well earned reputation for sleepwalking through the first game of a series, and to have them at home in round one is almost certainly the best possible way to face up to them.

As for England, well, they’ll be fascinating to watch under Eddie Jones, but don’t bet the farm on them necessarily being all that good.  Forget any sort of stylistic overhaul, or a return to the short-passing game they almost, nearly, thought about bringing to the World Cup before changing their minds.  Jones has instead staked his chips on making his England nastier and less jolly-hockeysticks-gentlemanly than Lancaster’s team.  But it’s still largely the same team that performed so dismally in the World Cup, and the maligned master-of-none Chris Robshaw is still a starter.  And the much vaunted ‘proper No.7′?  That’ll be the Gun Show, a man born to wear the number 6.5 jersey if ever there was one.  Jones’ first major decision is a high-stakes gamble on Dylan Hartley proving himself able to keep ice in the mind in the heat of battle as team captain.  It has every chance of not coming off.  Jonno’s England were similarly spiky in nature, but more often than not it teetered over the brink into daft indiscipline and mostly amounted to rashes of silly penalties and sin-bin episodes. Mind you, at least Jones is a proper coach. England will be competitive as usual, but perhaps miracles can wait.

France, meanwhile, are unlikely to have applied a magical fix to their deeply entrenched structural problems and abject lack of fitness, despite Gerry’s assertions that they are waiting in the long grass for us. Let’s hope it isn’t too long or Yoann Maestri will be even lazier than usual.  Guy Noves’ Toulouse were useless in the last few years, and he appears an unlikely moderniser – bottom half beckons.  And as for Scotland, well, hope springs eternal that they may one year get their act together, but they find a way of extinguishing the feelgood factor every spring.  Should they lose to England in the opening week, expect heads to drop, and watch them limp through the rest of the tournament.

So what of it all then? Well, the thing we need to remember about the Six Nations is that there aren’t any Southern Hemisphere teams in it – so Ireland are unlikely to be filleted the way Argentina did early and late on in Cardiff. And indeed four of the six limped out of the World Cup, and a fifth had the scheduling of Japan’s fixtures contribute mightily to their progress. The only one that came home with their heads held high were Wales, who were mighty value for their quarter final place. The Welsh have home fixtures against the recent bottom-dwellers of France, Italy and Scotland, and could well rack up enough points to ensure a fourth victory will suffice for the Championship – they are our pick. Ireland will do better than the naysayers imagine – four wins is eminently achievable and disgrace unlikely. The flip side of tougher games first means you can come out targeting a score fest against Italy and Scotland for glory – we’d take that, but we reckon we might be behind grinning Gatty come March.

Oh, and the final piece of good news is that a handful of will-they-won’t-they contracts have been tied up in the last few weeks, and hopefully will take a weight off the minds of the likes of Earls, Murray and Zebo.  After an abject winter with the provinces, the Six Nations may be just the tonic needed to rejuvenate the players.