Three Nations

Hello everyone. It’s been .. checks watch .. a long time. Sorry, we’ve been marveling at how Stuart Lancaster has turned Leinster into Wasps (utterly contrary our predictions) and Les Kiss turning Ulster into Leinster. But now Ireland are back, and it’s <HYPE> time. It’s the Six Nations, when all predictions of a glorious festival of rugby get bogged down in a festoon of rain, French knock-ons and Scottish rifles aimed at toes. It will be as gritty as ever, but we loves it. Particularly when Ireland are looking so well set.

The Piano Shifters

For natural worriers like ourselves, we can’t help but notice that everyone is drooling over the Irish pack – the entire front row are being touted as Lions, the back row depth is ludicrous (Rhys Ruddock can’t make the 40 man tackle bag-heavy squad!) and most of the second rows are fashionable bolters. Where can it all go wrong?

The major areas of concern for us would be hooker and second row – with Sean Cronin’s injury and Strauss’ collapse in form, Besty will be backed up by James Tracy and Niall Scannell. Gulp. Asking one of your key men to play 80 minutes 5 times in 6 weeks, particularly when we have our two toughest games last, is a concern – without getting too far ahead of ourselves, let’s hope we are far enough ahead of Italy and France, in particular, to give 20 minutes to the freshers.

In the row, Devin Toner has quietly become indispensable. We reckon NWJMB and Ultan Dillane are a bit flashy to play together – indeed, it’s hard to see how Henderson can firmly nail down an international second row jersey while playing at blindside for Ulster – Henderson has been selected by Schmidt when fit, but you have to think Donnacha Ryan isn’t far away. Could Henderson or Ryan replicate Toner’s lineout, maul and scrummaging work if called upon? Maybe, but we reckon you’d notice Big Dev’s absence more than you think. Ultan Dillane isn’t yet a starter – if our memory serves us correct (since we didn’t post about it!), he had some fantastic moments against Canada, but also had some knock-ons and dumb penalties – not something Schmidt likes. Although at least with Toner, the dropoff isn’t as steep as for Besty, so at least he won’t have to play 400 minutes.

In the backrow, the first question appears to be who we leave out – although in such a highly attritional position, it’s unlikely a luxury we’ll have all series. Right now, we’d see Stander or SOB on the blindside (with the other on the bench), van der Flier at openside and Heaslip (as ever) at the base. For the moment, O’Mahony will have to content himself with singing passionately and making grown men scream like schoolgirls from the stands.

The Piano Players

For Besty above, read Conor Murray. Already operating at a high level, in the last twelve months Murray has been one of the best players on the planet.  Even the Kiwis rate him.  The dropoff from a probable Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions starter to Marmion and McGrath is like the north face of Eiger. Like Dillane, Marmion got some useful time against Canada, but when we got into their 22, they seemed to find it really easy to defend against him. We remain to be convinced unfortunately. As we remain with McGrath – he looked good with an armchair ride from the Leinster pack early this season, but his game fell apart when Leinster were struggling in Castres. McGrath is a young man just getting a consistent run of starts, and if he needs to be pitched in this series, its unlikely to work out well for anyone. Whoever plays on the blindside is going to have to guard Murray from Josh Strauss better than Munster did in the recent episode of the Passion of St Tibulus.

At outhalf, the usual applies. Sexton doesn’t play 80 minutes any more, and is very likely to miss an entire game. So let’s assume he plays 60% of the available gametime – are we concerned? Not really – Paddy Jackson is a more than adequate replacement .. with one caveat – he needs to cut out the clanger-per-game pattern we’ve seen from him in green, particularly if we need him against Wales or England – the margins will be too tight for that. Still, Jackson is a better outhalf than Finnocent, Cameeeee Lopez and Carlo Canna and about as good as George Ford, so let’s not devote an entire week of analysis to the fact that Madigan isn’t needed any more, shall we?

The biggest injury absentee in the backline is Jared Payne. Payne is an excellent defender and a pereceptive and dangerous open-field runner – we’d have him as our starting fullback, but he’s a nailed on starter either way – 15 or 13. And do we miss him? Of course we do, but we had more than adequate backups – Henshaw and Ringrose actually looks like one of the best partnerships in the hemisphere at the moment, and Luke Marshall is a perfectly serviceable backup for either. Choo Choo Stu is an exciting and different option we’d like to see more of, but he seems in the awkward spot that he is too predictable for international defences, but too unpredictable for Schmidt. The summer series is the time for him.

In the outside back division, we’re mentally preparing for Rob Kearney to start the tournament at 15 – we think it’s probably more likely to be Zebo, but best to prepare for the worst. Stuart Hogg and co will be furiously gameplanning for facing a fullback who can catch and kick. Else, it’s Zebo, Earls, Trimble – that’s pretty good really. Earls is having a stupendous season for Munster and Trimble remains as doughty as ever – BOSH!  Admittedly, after two injuries, we are into Gilroy-on-the-bench territory, but we’ve come a long way from the Brian Carney days.

The Piano Concerto

So basically, there are two men we absolutely cannot do without – Besty and Murray – and one that we’ll need to win the tournament – Toner. If we manage to keep the above three fit, we’ve every chance.

The team everyone is purring over is England, and why not? Thirteen wins in a row is damn good. Still, we’d be a little more sanguine on them – they have tons of players either out or just returning from injuries: Marler, Cole, Haskell, Robshaw, Vunipola x 2, Kruis, Launchbury, Watson. They have a deep squad, but that is a lot of change to wear, and we haven’t even mentioned their captain returning from a ban for thuggery a technical issue with his tackling. Cardiff in week two might be when the run stops for them – and incidentally gives Gatty the perfect excuse to BOSH this summer.

Without him, the Welsh are engaged in some good old-fashioned in-fighting – although they normally like to get that in whoever the coach is. Still, none of that mattered in 2013, and they have the players – Alun Wyn Jones is O’Connell’s spiritual successor, and we expect Warburton to be very influential. Scott and Liam Williams are excellent players, and they’ve competition in the halves. They’ll fancy themselves (quelle surprise) and they have the best fixtures, with Ireland and England at home.

Those two, and Ireland, are the contenders – again. And it will come down to the games between them .. and for Ireland, it will come down to the fitness of Besty, Murray and Toner. Our prediction is that if Besty and Murray play 350+ minutes, and Toner starts every game, we’ll win the tournament, probably through bonus points. Wales are most likely to disrupt that one – they tend to gather momentum as the series progresses, and we have them away in round four. That’s tough.

France are a disaster – for all the supposed improvements Noves has made, they’ll still pick 140kg props who cannot run, and second rows who consider giving away six penalties a game a disciplined performance. Offloads to no-one, backline moves 40m behind the gainline – it will be ugly, and potentially wooden spoon winning, with a trip to Rome in prospect. Scotland have potential (quelle surprise) but have found a way of shooting themselves in the foot under Cotter – they’ll keep that record up. Italy should be better organised under O’Shea, but have Ulster-itis: no decent forwards. The big three will beat up the small three. Again.

Let’s back the best coach (and the coach most fortunate with injuries to date): Ireland to stay fit and win the tournament by virtue of a bonus point garnered by some Ringrose genius in the last minute in Murrayfield.

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  1. Aengus

     /  January 31, 2017

    Hi Whiff long time reader first time commenting. Glad to see you guys back writing I was worried yet another great rugby blog had faded off the internet. Keep the new posts coming.

  2. ruckinhell

     /  January 31, 2017

    Think you’re being a bit harsh on the backup hookers; being debutants shouldn’t automatically mean that they are unselectable, especially Scannell who has faced the majority of the Scottish pack three times in three months and come off a winner each time, twice away from home. We’ll miss the high octane impact of Cronin from the bench but the two lads can both do a job.

    Wales are the one team who I think are being written off by many pundits- they have all the ingredients for a top side, it’s more a question of the quality of cooking by Howley. That ridiculous pineapple haircut makes it even harder to take him seriously. The sad reality of coaching is that players you once revered slowly become comical figures 😦

    • Howley had them seriously motoring in 2013 – they were brilliant by the end of the series. I think you can discount November (and regional) form – they are a different beast at this time of year

  3. Both Tracey and Scannell had absolute horror shows with their line outs v Castres and Racing respectively. For this reason, I would have called up Strauss, as set piece functionality is THE bottom line. Joe however obviously thinks the young fellas are up to whatever cameos they might have to play. I hope he’s right.

  4. bwt

     /  February 1, 2017

    Oh gawd – this post obviously tempted fate.
    Sexton is gone and we’ll be lucky to see him play 60+ mins over the entire tournament. Jackson is a good back-up, but he could well be targeted by the Scots or any other back row. If he doesn’t last 80, or gets injured, then our goose is cooked.
    Keatley is not test class and Scannell is not experienced at outhalf, nevermind up to 6 nations standard. It’s foolish to not even consider Madigan.

    • Any time an outhalf goes down, there will be a temptation to call up Madigan – but you have to accept that he chose to step outside the system – you are calling up Madigan AND potentially not discouraging others to take a similar path. Hence Easterby’s waspish (and probably needless) response to pleas to call Madigan up yesterday.

      Now, if Sexton and Jackson go down for the duration, maybe its a different story!

  5. This notion of Madigan being “overlooked” or “punished” is, IMO, totally overblown. He had a match in France last weekend and so couldn’t have taken part in the full two weeks prep like the rest of them. As Ireland coach Joe always gave Mads a fair shake in the past, and I see nothing indicating, that this has changed. Jacko proved his mettle in the first Test in SA (his performance in the 3rd one left a little bit to be desired though). Give him his chance and let him get on with it. Joe will have Keatley ready to do whatever’s necessary if he has to come on. COYBIG!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Its the narrative that refuses to go away isn’t it? What a waste of a week of Six Nations talk

      • Ná bí mar sin! We’ve still got three days to go!!! To change the subject: what did you think of Gatland rocking up in Carton House the other day? Or should we not talk about the Lions either? 🙂

        • He’s just doing his job. Though I do suspect they stopped drills and started pumping some iron or something.

          Ultimately, what happens in training isn’t relevant – the tournament itself will be the major factor for Gatland. That, and who isn’t injured!

  6. George

     /  February 1, 2017

    Ah Whiff you’re a sight for sore eyes – great to see you back, keep the articles coming! Looking forward to some excellent 6N reading

  7. D6W

     /  February 1, 2017

    Welcome back. Was about to delete the site from my favourites.

    I know this post was written before news of Sextons injury forcing him out of Scotland game. But now we are looking at Jackson starting, which is fine. But Keatley now backup 10? C’mon, surely time to pick up phone to Madigan.

    • Depends … if Sexton isn’t available for Wales or England then yes. But I don’t see us needing him for Italy or France. And Scotland is the borderline type fixture where you take a gamble on the integrity of the system that keeps players at home

      • TopsyTurvy

         /  February 1, 2017

        You are writing everyone off way too easily there Whiff.
        France will be a dogfight as it always is. Italy will target us as will Scotland. It’s not that we have jumped up a massive gap to reach the dizzy heights of NZ. They took their eye off the ball for the game in Chicago and we seized the opportunity unbelievably well like we never could before.
        France beat us last year! Sure, we have them at home but most likely without Sexton and probably with a few other casualties. 2016 had two ice-breaker achievements in there but outside of those two (Let’s not forget that the Saffers were anyones for the taking as Italy proved) and the Oz game we didn’t do anything to justify the hype. I hope I am way off but I see this being a lot tougher than you and others suggest.
        We could possibly be playing for a winner takes all slam on Paddies weekend but it’s not impossible to think that we could have 2/3 losses already at that stage.

        By the way. Welcome back!!! You’ve been missed

        • I’d be surprised if we lost again to France. The defeat last year was the worst performance of the Schmidt era by far, and they still just about scraped over the line – in Paris!

          They’ve deep problems – like for all the furore over picking a Saffer journeyman like Spedding, its not like there are tons of young French lads sniping for his jersey.

          And their pack has lost the leaders of the 07 and 11 RWCs and has replaced them with big unfit lumps. Noves is a better coach than PSA, but his last years in Toulouse were grim

      • D6W

         /  February 1, 2017

        I think Madigan should be treated as a special case as was sexton. Not because he is that good, but rather that he was completely mis-managed by MOC, and had nowhere to go within Irish system. For Scotland and Italy I would have thought Jackson with scanned on bench was sufficient. But when they started talking about keatley on bench yesterday, surely Madigan should have come into play before that option.

        • Are we still talking about MOC mismanaging Madigan? At some stage he has to take responsibility for his own career – he was the one who decided to go to Bordeaux for more money than Munster

          • D6W

             /  February 2, 2017

            Harsh to say he went for money. A choice between an up and coming team that wanted him as a first choice and had stated aim to play attacking rugby versus a team going nowhere who were playing dull rugby coached by a coach who did not seem to value creative players. Not to mention fans who seemed to have a particular dislike for him. Not a choice at all. Anyway i do not want to keep banging Madigan drum, just got a bit riled by the talk of keatley on bench.

            Actually I disagree that Scannell to inexperienced to be in Murrayfield 23. If Carberry can come on against all blacks, the surely Scannell can come on against Scots. Not to mention having him able to cover both oh and centres gives greater options on other bench picks.

          • Carbery is a specialist outhalf – Scannell is not. That’s our concern

          • SportingBench

             /  February 2, 2017

            All this Madigan talk misses the fact that he isn’t exactly tearing up trees over in France. He’d have a stronger case if he was. I though him going to France wasn’t a bad move if he transformed his potential into actual consistent performance but I am not seeing it. As WOC says, he has to start taking responsibility and his performances just aren’t forcing anyone’s hand.

  8. andrew097

     /  February 2, 2017

    Think Scotland is a banana skin, we might be guilty of looking beyond them but they won’t be. Any tight win will do out of Murrayfield

    • I think we are simply a better team. And also – until you see them stop losing tests they should win, I can’t have any faith in them

      • krustie92

         /  February 2, 2017

        Munster have beaten Glasgow thrice this season. That’s the better part of Scottish team beaten by the some lesser fraction of the Irish team. I don’t think its unfair to extrapolate from that Ireland should be a level or two beyond Scotland.

  9. andrew097

     /  February 2, 2017

    I,m still scarred by ten years of losing there and every year expecting a handy win.

    • Bushmills

       /  February 2, 2017

      We must be the same age. Four years at a Scottish university in the 90’s and forced to suffer the annual capitulation in front of the locals.

      Great to have you back Whiff. In the age of the Tweet, reading some well penned thoughts is now an even greater joy.

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