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.

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34 Comments

  1. No mention of Dillane..a possible joker in the pack. Is he just a nod to Connacht’s form or is Joe serious enough to throw him in. Starting McCarthy is anti progressive in a building year. Yeah -I appreciate the importance placed in the 6N by the IRFU paymasters but could we have a look at Furlong/ Dillane at this level. The midfield ATL is spot on and Payne at 15 Zebo to cover on bench with no Kearney in sight please. I’ll give you your Leinster backrow on condition that Stander and Ryan bench. 3 wins and mid table mediocrity for us. I’d dream bigger with a fit young WJM and POM and a firing pair of half backs. Will we become the new Welsh -delighted to get out of our provinces and into Joe’s bosom? Does Joe have the courage to drop an untouchable 15? How much will Farrell Snr have to say about selection?
    England to win the 6N (new coach syndrome)

    • connachtexile

       /  February 3, 2016

      McCarthy is playing out of his skin at the moment so would definitely have in the starting XV in front of Dillane or Ryan. As for Stander on the bench I’d rather have TOD or VDF to match the two sevens that Wales are putting out. Whoever wins the breakdown in this will win the game.

      • SportingBench

         /  February 3, 2016

        If you are good enough you are old enough, similarly for MMC if you are good enough then you are young enough.If none of the young guns can can get in there ahead of McCarthy by right then they need to go away and develop some more. Over promoting is as bad as holding back.

    • curates_egg

       /  February 3, 2016

      I thought Dillane was an LH lock? If so, it is not really a choice between him and McCarthy. Given we will likely have White as tighthead, there is absolutely no way we can go without a tighthead lock specialist…quite apart from the fact that McCarthy has been Leinster’s best player this season.

      • Dillane has played most at 4 but he’s played both sides of the second row.
        I think he played 5 v the Brive pack in France
        I see plenty of media outlets banging the McCarthy drum. Has McCarthy really been Leinster’s best player this year? VdF for me but hardly a vintage year. The Pro 12 has been mingin’ quality this year. I’d rather see depth built this year. I don’t see us winning on Sunday TBH, But I’d rather see a punt taken on youth.

        • laraxwell

           /  February 3, 2016

          Correction -I read 2 reports Dillane played at 4 v Brive in one and at 5 in the other

  2. Xyz

     /  February 3, 2016

    Bit harsh on Scotland there, I thought they were the most competitive of the 6N sides in the WC quarters.

    • Amiga500

       /  February 3, 2016

      But should have been beaten by Japan in the group – and would have but for fixture scheduling….

      • Yeah, that 35-point victory sure would have been a loss if it happened two days later.

        WC scheduling is a bit of a pain (our backloaded group did us no favours whatsoever) but that’s a ridiculously certain assertion, though I suspect you know that.

        Scotland look handy IMO and the tournament is more five and one now, rather than four and two (Italy in a terrible place).

    • SportingBench

       /  February 3, 2016

      Scotland were only in the quarters because the ref missed a knock on against Samoa.
      True, they put it up to a complacent Aus but that was a single game they looked competitive and they still lost.
      They aren’t terrible but I think their RWC performance is being overblown in many parts.

    • They were, unquestionably. But I feel that every spring Scotland turn up with some reason or other why they will finally make the long awaited breakthrough – be it Glasgow going well, or some decent performance in the autumn or a new Dutchman on the wing or whatever – abd it never seems to materialise in the Six Nations.

    • scrumdog

       /  February 4, 2016

      I think Scotland will do well this 6N and they will win on Saturday v England.

  3. Amiga500

     /  February 3, 2016

    Meh on Zebo. I’d have let him run to France.

    X-factor my balls. Gets the ball, runs a little, does his stupid little half sidestep where he moves about 0.5″ laterally and then gets nailed.

    Give me Gilroy, Dave Kearney or Matt Healy any day.

    • JT64

       /  February 3, 2016

      Agreed. Overrated tosh. #X-factor my eye. People need to stop listening to Goebbels Thornley 😀

  4. Topsy

     /  February 3, 2016

    Paddy Jackson on the bench for sure

    • Topsy

       /  February 3, 2016

      And I don’t think Joe will hesitate to use him if Sexbomb isn’t going well

  5. Any word on previous rumours that Schmidt is very wary of the six-day turnaround and has planned changes in mind, rather than a first XV times two?

    Also, on England – you are right to point out some possible weaknesses, but in part it’s a lot of the same players because Lancaster got most things right (until bottling selection come the crunch). One area where they will have a massive advantage is the new coach mystery factor: rugby is highly analytical but, until his team play a couple of games, no-one will really have a clue what EJ is planning. Could be helpful for them. And I’d ignore most of the gumpf he’s feeding the press – clearly he knows fine rightly that “Proper 7” stuff is mostly nonsense and he’s just saying it because he likes to give a ballsy front and doesn’t mind dealing in fan-pleasing disinformation (win on all fronts from his pov, I’d say – keep the punters happy and give the opponents nothing).

    However I agree with you guys and have Wales as favourites for the title.

  6. Daire

     /  February 3, 2016

    Funny all the England 6.5 comments when we have rarely played a 7 in recent years. Let’s be honest, if Haskell is a 6.5, O’Brien is a 6.2 – albeit a far superior player. Particularly with Wales having two openside specialists I would have a backrow against them of O’Brien-O’Donnell-Heaslip with either Ruddock or Stander on the bench (preferably the latter).
    I’ve never been convinced by McCarthy, but if Ryan is playing as badly as is being repeated, I don’t see another option – is Dillane ready? Tbh Given the Connacht games I’ve seen, Muldowney would probably shade it to be alongside Toner in my team.
    Like many others I hope to see no Kearney’s in the 23, although I fear we will see one (or even both).
    I’m more worried about Murray hitting form than Sexton because PJ has come on in leaps and bounds this season, including improving his kicking and overall influence on a game. Whereas the drop in quality at 9 is arguably much greater That said, Sexton on form is still rightly first pick, and I don’t think Murray has actually been playing that badly.

  7. If McCloskey isn’t involved, which I’ve pretty much resigned myself to realising he wont be, then its proof no matter how good you play you won’t start ahead of anyone unless injury strikes. The kind of thing Eddie and Kidney got a hammering for.

    Also I know hes only back from injury but how good was Denis Buckly last weekend? given Healey’s sudden decline might be best if hes called up soon.

    • curates_egg

       /  February 3, 2016

      I’d like us to finish the 6 Nations having played McCloskey at least once at 12, Henshaw at least once at 13, Payne at least once at 15, Stander at least once at 8 (I personally don’t get the clamour for playing Stander at 6). Does all that have to happen in the first game? Not for me.

    • McCloskey will be involved. Just maybe not a starter, I think that’s fair enough.

      • If he doesnt start he wont play. Joe would never use his last substitue spot as a specialist centre. If a winger has to go off (and one of ours always does) then we’d have to reshuffle the entire backline. Much easier for him to have a Zebo/Earls/D.Kearney who can cover 15 and wing spot on the bench.

        • labrecha1

           /  February 3, 2016

          What if a centre has to go off and Zebo, Earls and Kearney are on the bench? Earls in? Not sure about that. Therfore he may have McCloskey in, can he play both inside and outside?

          • It’ll be Earls. Although he would have perferred Fitzgerald for this role originally. Its been shown that Joe likes to have the player in camp for awhile before playing him. The only exception being Payne but thats due to BOD retiring more than anything.

          • Earls in the centre at Test level. I would have thought that idea went out the window in the course of the Argies match in Cardiff. Or did I miss something?……

          • Cian

             /  February 4, 2016

            If the idea of the Kearneys as test level defenders in any wide channel is still viable after the Argentina game, then I think it’s safe to say no lessons whatsoever have been learned from it.

    • scrumdog

       /  February 4, 2016

      Buckley and Best would guarantee some breakdown ball. O’Brien lacks the pace and the hands to be a link man… time to slot VDF in at Seven. Ruddock actually was brilliant v S. Africa at openside a season or two ago..his one and only game in that position. Much of Ireland’s attacking troubles stem from slow delivery of ball to Sexton and we drift across the field or are forced to kick.If Sexton had a 9 who could pass like Stringer we’d be in business!
      By the way, Sexton, for his own health, should be coached on how to tackle and keep his head out of the way and stop trying to wrap players twice his size! Cant remember when Sexton last played a full 80 mins for Ireland let alone Leinster. Bravery is one thing but skill is another!

      Hopefully we offer different defensive systems to pressure Wales mentally and not just offer the drift.

      Rob Kearney and Zebo should should be dropped from the squad…their counter attacks run straight into contact. Zebo does not seem to ever come out on top in 1v1 against opposing winger.

  8. “CJ Stander (Criosti Eoin Seasamh?)”

    Is one of the best things I’ve read in a while.

  9. Tommy Kennedy

     /  February 3, 2016

    Lads slightly off topic but given so much was made of the N.H teams style of rugby during the world cup would be better to play this in May when the weather is better instead of Feb-March. Move the club fixtures forward and you’d also allow international teams longer periods together like the southern hemisphere internationals have as the summer tour would be directly after the six nations.

  10. andrew097

     /  February 3, 2016

    Just see nothing in Irish teams or players to suggest mid table is a given. Three of the four teams have been patchy at best and embarrassing at other times. The big named players have had no form so no reason why they will suddenly play well. If fact most looked like they need to be shunted out the door until they decide they really, really want to play for Ireland or not.
    Too many look as if they think they own the jersey rather then just mind it. A young Argentinian side out played them, out skilled them and out thought them. That side also changed the way they played in just about twenty months. If Argentina can do that the players should be looking in the mirror and changing things now. Instead we have looked at a limp bunch whose reaction was to mope into their club sides rather then to spark in to life as an act of defiance and self respect.
    I think selection is all. Enough old heads need to go to break the complacency nobody should be comfortable in that jersey.

  11. I’ve rapidly come to the conclusion that the sanest thing to do with Eddie Jones is not to believe a word out of his mouth. He’s a man who likes a little mind game or two and has already had been given ample reason not to trust the media. I’m sure he says a lot of true things, but discerning which bit’s true and which bit’s not is beyond me. At the very least take a pinch of salt.

    I also think pleasing the fans is the last thing on his mind. Hartley and Ashton’s a pretty aggressive two finger salute there. His mind’s taken up by winning, winning, winning, finding a new suit as the first one was awful and winning.

  12. Punk Anderson

     /  February 4, 2016

    Ireland v Wales, opening round of 2012 6N, in Dublin on a Sunday…..Wayne Barnes cards Stephen Ferris for a tip tackle, setting up a Leigh Halfpenny penalty in the final minute for a 23-21 Welsh victory.

    History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes (?) Could see it playing it out similarly this weekend.

    Nary a word about Italy, so I will add a few…chances we will be asking at tournament’s end why specifically is Conor O’Shea taking over the Italy coaching job, and the long odds associated with it?

  13. I’ve watched the bookies move from Ire -4 to Ire -1 during the week. Ireland were available at 7/4 at one stage and evens is the fare available now. After today’s selection, I expect Wales to start favourites. Hard to be over critical of Joe with injuries. I am happy that Marmion moves ahead of Reddan.
    Zebo is a better 15 than wing but would have preferred Payne there with the 33+ stones midfield most of us would like to see. But really not alot he could’ve done with the back 5 available to him TBH -rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic more like.

  14. Why Joe is choosing to play a number of players out of their favoured positions to keep his scheme in place is slight worrisome. Payne especially. Of greater worry is Z-factor at 15. I have no confidence in him. My heretofore blind allegiance to In Joe We Trust is wavering just a fraction.

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