All That Glisters Is Not Gold

When one observes the state of the Irish international rugby team, one gets most depressed. One win in the tournament harks back to the late nineties, when we were genuinely rubbish. But are we as bad as results say we are? We don’t think we are over-reaching ourselves to say that, no, we aren’t. The players that make up the Ireland team do ok in their day jobs, for one. The reasons put forth for why we are so bad are as follows:

  • The coaching ticket don’t know what they are doing. This is the position most people with two eyes and a functioning brain hold. Conservative selection up to November 2012, before apparently flicking a switch and picking everyone in Ireland for the 2013 Six Nations, is one reason. Confusing roles for the support staff is another – what does Les Kiss do, for example? Does it actually change every series, or is that just his title. Does Mark Tainton have a role in our kicking game? If so, why has he held on to his job for so long when it is so bad? This is an entire other debate, but it appears that it will soon be over – Deccie might not be of a mind for falling on his sword, but someone will administer the last rites
  • We keep getting injuries. This is true – but it’s a mitigating factor, not a reason for our failure. At various stages of the Six Nations, we were missing six Lions (Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Paul O’Connell, Gordon D’Arcy, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald) and the presumed Lions outhalf for this years tour. It’s unfortunate, for sure, but Earls and Fitzgerald aren’t first choice, Luke Marshall deputized ably for Dorce, and, while it would have been nice to have Bowe available, Craig Gilroy had a decent tournament. On the flip side, Ferris’ physicality, and O’Connell’s leadership up-front were not adequately replaced – still, an international side should be able to wear the loss of two front-liners, no matter who they are. And anyway, don’t we have a Player Management System for this very purpose?
  • We had no luck. If Keith Earls had seen Drico, we would have been too far ahead of Scotland to lose! If we had just held on for ten more minutes, we would have beaten France! We had a flanker on the wing for 40 minutes against Italy! Yes, but he didn’t because he backed himself in a low percentage play (player fail), we didn’t because our bench made no impact (coaching fail) and Peter O’Mahony’s defensive positioning wasn’t exploited once (Italian coaching fail), and sure he spends most of his time on the wing anyway (insert smiley face icon). As Gary Player said, the more I practice, the luckier I get, and we don’t appear to practice, or have a proper plan to put into practice at least.
  • Referees hate us. This canard – the Irish coaching ticket are very fond of this one, as are their cheerleaders in the meeja. Gerry Thornley said after the 2011 Six Nations,  Messrs Poite, Pearson, Owen and Kaplan (with the, eh, help of Allan) gave them a raw deal. Really, in all our games but one, the referee was biased against us? Axel Foley was barely in the job two minutes when he was moaning about the men in the middle. It’s a road to nowhere, and it’s untrue at any rate – sure, you get bad decisions from time to time, but they will average out, and if your team commits more offences than the opposition, the penalty count is likely to be against them
  • There are shadowy people in the IRFU telling Deccie who to pick. Riiiiiiiiiiiiight Frankie. Do they meet in badly-lit underground carparks? And you are sure this isn’t just paranoid nonsense to mask the fact that you can’t admit that Deccie can be wrong, AND Ronan O’Gara is out of form? Oh, you are speculating – well, how about you speculate somewhere else instead of trying to masquerade as an expert
  • The end of the Golden Generation. Now, this is what we came here for. Let us examine this one in some more depth

The ‘Golden Generation’ in Irish rugby terms is generally taken to refer to the team which won three Triple Crowns in four years from 2004-2007, then collapsed spectacularly at the World Cup that year. The team was still mostly intact for the Grand Slam in 2009, but there was an infusion of new blood through the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris, Tomas O’Leary, Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe.

The contention is that the retirement of the ‘Golden Generation’, one-by-one, and their replacement by inadequate players following up is one of the reasons that we aren’t as competitive as we were back in their heyday.

To digress for a moment, our first hearing of the term ‘Golden Generation’ was in reference to the Portuguese soccer team that won World Youth Cups in 1989 and 1991 – this was the team of Rui Costa, Luis Figo and Paulo Sousa. At senior level, the team rarely bothered the scorer, a semi-final at Euro 2000 being the pinnacle of their achievement. It was in fact the next generation, spear-headed by Cristiano Ronaldo, that has brought Portugal to the level of consistent semi-finalists in international football (2006, 2008, 2012). The silver medal at Euro 2004 was mostly the younger team, but with Figo and Costa playing prominent roles in the team and squad.

So the Portuguese ‘Golden Generation’ actually achieved less than their ungarlanded successors. Interesting. The term ‘Golden Generation’ seems to imply something once-off, something that can never be repeated and must be milked for all its worth. After all, the supply of gold is fixed … oh wait, it isn’t!

So let us examine the first-choice Ireland team of 2007 versus the first-choice team of 2013. We will assume there are no injuries, and then examine the benches.

Front Row:

Marcus Horan, Jirry Flannery, John Hayes vs Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross. The Ireland scrum always seems to be on the point of collapse, and Hayes and Ross have toiled manfully at the coalface to prevent it for the best part of 13 years. Ross is more powerful and destructive, so we’re taking him. On the loosehead side, Healy on form is one of the best in Europe, whereas Horan was a wily operator who got by more on street smarts than talent. At hooker, it’s a great problem to have – Jirry was a better thrower and more dynamic in open play, whereas Besty is an excellent groundhog and a better scrummager. Verdict: 2013 props, and either hooker

Second Row:

Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan vs Paul O’Connell, Donnacha Ryan. No contest here – Ryan has a higher ceiling than DOC did, but his level now is rather similar to DOC in 2007. However, O’Connell is injury-ravaged and battling to get his career back on track now, whereas he was close to the peak of his powers in 2007. Verdict: Paul O’Connell (2007) with either of the others

Back Row:

Simon Easterby, David Wallace, Denis Leamy vs Stephen Ferris (if fit) / Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip. At the blindside, Fez is one of the few world-class players in Ireland, but is frequently injured and appears to be off to Japan in any case.  Peter O’Mahony is the chosen man at 6 in his absence.  Ferris is far and away the pick of the bunch, and we’d be more or less neutral between O’Mahony and Easterby; one a grafter, the other a footballer, both good in the lineout .  Neither of the sevens are classic opensides (plus ca change), but both are excellent players – we would be content to have either in our backrow. At the back of the scrum, we’d have Heaslip – Leamy had the skills for 8, but was really a converted blindside, Heaslip is a Test Lion, albeit one used as a ruck scrapper by Ireland. Verdict: Ferris if fit, otherwise neutral; either of the sevens, Heaslip

Half-backs:

Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara vs Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton. Good choice to have here, and four very different players. Stringer was the passer supreme, whereas Murray is in the breaking and game managing mould. Having said that, Strings most memorable moments (Biarritz 2006, Scotland 2009) cam from breaks, and Murray is a better passer than he is generally given credit for. We’d go for Murray on the basis that he offers a little more variety to the game. At outhalf, you have a Ligind versus a money-grabbing traitor. Or a one-dimensional boot merchant who can’t defence versus a triple Heineken Cup-winning best outhalf in Europe. ROG of 2007 or Sexton of 2013? We’d take either (which will prevent this piece being entirely about this choice as well). Verdict: Murray, either of the tens

Centre:

Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll vs Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll. One of the best centre partnerships of all-time. It’s pretty obvious that having them in their late 20s at their best is preferable to now, with a nod to the fact that the output, particularly of O’Driscoll, is still at a high level. Verdict: 2007 vintage

Back three:

Denis Hickie, Shane Horgan, Girvan Dempsey vs Simon Zebo, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney. Not much to choose between those two lineups, with the exception of left wing, where Hickie, along with Simon Geoghegan, was our best and most natural wing in our lifetime. On the right, Horgan was a supreme catcher and finisher, but Bowe hits the line exceptionally well, and brings just a shade more class.  When he is missing, Ireland’s try count inevitably declines. Both are good defenders and great fellows, but only Bowe is a nailed-on Lion when fully fit. At full-back, Dempsey is the better defender, and Kearney uses his boot more effectively in attack. Again, Kearney on form is a Lions class player, whereas Dempsey, for all his qualities, never quite convinced he was better than Geordan Murphy, his backup. Verdict: Hickie, Bowe, Kearney

Bench:

Simon Best, Rory Best, Malcolm O’Kelly, Neil Best, Isaac Boss, Paddy Wallace, Geordan Murphy vs Tom Court, Sean Cronin, Mike McCarthy, Peter O’Mahony / Chris Henry, Eoin Reddan, Paddy Jackson, Luke Fitzgerald / Keith Earls / Craig Gilroy / Fergus McFadden. Neither bench would be familiar with coming on to play a specific role, with both teams heavily dependent on the first XV. We have chosen Tom Court to cover both sides of the scrum to make the benches comparable, and hav gone with the management team’s preference for Paddy Jackson over Ian Madaigan as reserve out half, whatever the wisdom of it. Neither bench would especially fill one with confidence – the standouts would be Rory Best, Mal O’Kelly, Geordan Murphy (2007) and the myriad of back three players from the 2013 team. So, 2007 looks slightly higher in quality, with the caveat that Neil Best is nowhere near international class, and Paddy Wallace is not an outhalf. Verdict: Hobson’s Choice really, but 2007 by a nose.

Overall then, player for player, there’s little to choose between the groups of players.  It’s very hard to make the argument that the ‘Golden Generation’ of 2007 is markedly superior to the current group of players. Great players have retired, for sure, – 2007 is six years ago at this stage, and it would be strange if they hadn’t – but the replacements are players of arguably just as high a standard in almost all cases.  The so-called ‘Golden Generation’ were undoubtedly golden compared to what went before, but that’s not to say the next generation of players – no doubt inspired by seeing the likes of O’Driscoll, O’Connell and O’Gara in their youth – couldn’t be just as good.  There is no reason to assume they were a one off, and that Ireland couldn’t continue to produce talented footballers.  There is no lack of good players available to national team coaches, and a talent drain due to retirements cannot excuse recent performances.

Not so golden after all then, but headlines can’t make use of the term ‘Base Metal Generation’ or just ‘Generation’ as much can they?

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2012/13 Season Preview: Munster

The new season approacheth!  We’re going to start off by looking at Munster.   An infinitely fascinating season awaits.  New coach, new players and hopefully a new era for the men in red.

Last Season: on the face of it, not bad. Top of their HEC group with 6 from 6 (we think, although we haven’t heard in a while – perhaps one of our Munster friends can confirm) and 3rd in the Pro12. A gut-wrenching defeat to Ulster in the HEC quarters confirmed Munster’s slippage in the pecking order, and a frightful beating from the Ospreys finished what Toulon started last year – the end of Generation Ligind.

Unfortunately, by the standards set by GL, this was a disappointing season, especially due to the nature of the defeats. Also, Leinster and Ulster contesting the HEC final didn’t improve southern moods.

Out: Ludd McGahan (coach – to Wallabies); Tomas O’Leary (London Irish); Leamy, Micko, Fla, Wally (retired), Yellow Card Magnet Lifeimi Mafi (some crowd of boshers in France)

In: Rob Penney (coach – Canterbury); Oooooooooooooooohh James Downey (Northampton); Casey Laulala (Cardiff); CJ Stander (Springbok underage flanker bosh factory), Sean Dougall (Rotherham)

All change at Munster. The embers of Generation Ligind which flickered out in Toulon have been blown away by the Osprey and Ulster winds of change. Since Toulon we’ve seen the exits (mostly to retirement) of Jirry, John Hayes, Micko, Denis Leamy, Wally, Ian Dowling, Barry Murphy and Tomas O’Leary and the exit from top class rugger of Marcus Horan, Strings and Stakhanov. Paul O’Connell is still going strong, but Ronan O’Gara’s form in the second half of the season was the worst he had shown in a red shirt in over a decade. Of the ligindary imports, Mafi has gone and Dougie Howlett turns 34 next month and is returning from a major injury. Add in the uncertainty over Felix Jones’ return to top form and you’ve virtually lost a first choice XV in 18 months.

The boss has gone too – Tony McGahan joining Dingo Deans team at Club Qantas Wallaby. Despite calls for a southern hemisphere big name like Wayne Smith to come in for two years to rebuild the side then hand it to Axel, former Canterbury underage coach Rob Penney will be taking the reins. Penney has a reputation as a no-nonsense kind of guy, and is already ruffling feathers, of golden child Keith Earls in the first instance (more anon).

On the playing field, the recruitment ranges from the bizarre to the intriguing. Looking at the squad from last year, you would have plotted a re-build around a core of Mike Sherry, BJ Botha, POC, Donnacha Ryan, POM, Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo. The strongest links there are Botha, POC and Keith Earls – with any of these three missing, it’s hard to see Munster getting the necessary wins on the road.

In Earls case, he has stated that he is sick to the back teeth of being moved around the backline, and has staked a claim to the 13 jersey as his ambition. Which makes it all the odder that Munster have recruited, and not for peanuts, former BNZ-er Casey Laulala from Cardiff – Laulala can pretty much only play 13 (though he has some experience at 12 and 11) , and it seems unlikely they have picked him for the bench. Here’s what Rob Penney had to say on that particular issue:

“In my discussions with Keith, we’ve got the ability to manage his needs and the team’s needs. Look, he’s a dedicated, committed team person. He’s made it very clear what his preference is and I respect that immensely. What we’ll endeavour to do is meet a majority of his needs within what the team needs are and hopefully he can just embrace that and get on and play for this team as well as he can so that he can further his international aspirations down the track.”

Riiiight. So Laulala will start at 13 by the looks of things. Then there is CJ Stander – this is a guy who has been earmarked as a future Springbok for a long time, who has now upped sticks to Munster to be their project player. To say it’s odd is an understatement – with all due respect to Ireland, young Afrikaaners do not grow up dreaming of wet Tuesdays with Deccie in Carton House. The likelihood is Munster have thrown a large wad of cash at him, persuaded him to put his Bok career on ice for a few years, and slotted him where they could – into the vacant project player role in this case.

It could go either way. Best case – he gives Munster the kind of go-forward carrier they lacked last season, balances the backrow well with POM and Cawlin while at 7, or Ronan and POM/Cawlin while at 6, frees up Conor Murray to carry less and pass more, and helps bring through some youngsters like Paddy Butler. The impact Pedrie Wannenbosh had at Ulster is a good comparison. Worst case – he marks the clock for two years and goes home at the first opportunity with a fatter wallet. Lets hope it’s the former. We don’t want to sound negative on it, but Stander is inexperienced and a lot is being asked of him – he’s talented and a good fit, but there is some Sykes risk in him.  It’s an unusual signing for a club which has put so much store in foreign recruits buying into what Munster rugby is all about [J. de Villiers (2009)].  There appears little chance of that with Stander.

Coming into Munster’s perennial problem position of inside centre is Oooooooooooohh James Downey, from the Saints. There are high hopes for Downey, but we fear they are too high. Downey is a pretty effective player, but he is essentially a journeyman and a one-trick-pony, and spent large chunks of last season behind Tom May in the Northampton pecking order. Even if he does play like he did in 2010-11, having a crash ball bosh merchant at 12 does not really suit either the kind of game Rob Penney apparently favours, or the galaxy of pretty decent outside backs Munster have – Earls, Zebo, Hurley, Jones and Howlett would be better served with a Paddy Wallace type at 12.  We can only presume he’ll be used in the same way that Saints deployed him, where any attempt to go wide is preceeded by a Downey smash up the middle.

On the plus side, Munster have a settled and powerful front 5, and the aforementioned outside backs. A front row of du Preez, Varley/Sherry, Botha won’t step backwards much and gets around the park a bit. The set-pieces will be solid, especially when you consider the second row combo. There isn’t much depth there, but the starters have class. Frankie has been banging the Dave Kilcoyne drum for a while – hopefully Stephen Archer and him get the chance to accumulate some experience this year in the engine room. Both South African props are technically excellent and the Irish deputies should be spongeing up as much of them as they can.  The importance of O’Connell cannot be overstated.  He’s the lightning rod in the pack, and while he’s increasingly prone to injury, when fit he’s still the best lock in Europe.  Munster need him to be available with greater frequency.

In the back three, Denis Hurley will get a chance to nail down the 15 shirt before Jones returns, and Simon Zebo will look to add more defensive solidity and greater nuance to his explosive attacking game. Howlett is the elder statesman, but he has value to add as the master of on-pitch defensive positioning – he has so much to teach the likes of Zebo and Luke O’Dea, and should be milked dry.

[Aside – our points about the props and Howlett give an insight into what foreign players can bring – add in the influence Wannenbosh had on Chris Henry, and you see it’s not all about on-field matters]

If Conor Murray reverts to his first half of 2011 form and Stander (or Butler) give the backrow a power jolt, the only other question mark is at 10. The incumbent is the mighty Ronan O’Gara, now 35. O’Gara has been the fulcrum of the Munster side for 13 years, but is finally showing signs of ageing – his effectiveness dipped markedly in the second half of last season (admittedly after a very productive first half). A new coach with a new direction would appear to be the perfect time to trial a new man and a new gameplan (in fact, on the face of it, it’s so blindingly obvious as to be the favoured course of action), but the notoriously competitive Rog is unlikely to accept being backup, nor is he likely to be diplomatic about it. Ian Keatley is presently the number 2, but he has yet to convince he has it at the highest level.

How Penney manages the succession in this key position may determine his legacy – O’Gara will probably start the season like a train in his determination to hold on to the Munster jersey until he is 58 38, but Keatley is going to get his chance sooner rather than later. If you see a Munster team line out for a HEC game with O’Gara wearing 22, postpone all other tasks – it will invariably get interesting.

On the youngster front, JJ Hanrahan is the NKOTB – he is an outhalf at present, but was a centre before his under-20 RWC performances, and it will be interesting to see what type of exposure he gets, and where. Munster have not had a settled and solid 12 since Trevor Halstead, and Hanrahan may yet be the solution there. Luke O’Dea will get more exposure on the wing, and in the pack, look out for Next Big Thing Ian Nagle, improving blindside Dave O’Callaghan and still-promising Tommy O’Donnell.

Verdict: Rob Penney looks a shrewd appointment.  His credentials are based on the number of high quality players he successfully delivered to the Canterbury Crusaders from the feeder team, as well as posing good results in the ITM Cup.  He seems to be aware that his role at Munster is to rebuild the team, but knows that it’s a results business and that Munster fans are tired at seeing Leinster win trophies and worried about Ulster stealing a march on them.

Munster are some of the way down the re-building path thanks to Ludd’s last 18 months, but where Ludd took a piecemeal, sticky-plaster approach to squad development, Penney will surely deliver something more cohesive.  But huge challenges remain, particularly at out-half.  Not only will it determine the style of play going forward, but the ease of Penney’s tenure will be largely decided by O’Gara’s attitude to his inevitable easing out.

Developing a coherent gameplan looks like the first port of call for Penney. Munster have gone from a 10-man team to all-cylinders attack to a mushy ineffective hybrid of slow ruck ball, lateral back play and first-man-out rumbles into the tackler. We never quite felt McGahan brought his vision to bear on the Munster team. With what is now a relatively inexperienced group keen to learn and improve, Penney should see his brand of rugby enacted on the field of play.  They need a sense of playing identity back – a style that becomes readily identifiable as Munster.

The fans might settle for a season which shows the groundwork for future success has been well-laid, if green shoots show well. And after the string of painful defeats in McGahan’s last two years (Toulon, Quins, Ulster, Ospreys), Munster fans will want to see their team do themselves justice in the big games.

We think it will be a difficult year, but one looked back on as the foundations of something better in retrospect. We fancy Sarries to top the HEC pool, but not with ironclad confidence – catching them is certainly not beyond Munster, but it’s likely to need O’Gara in vintage form and O’Connell 100% fit.  How they fare on the road is the big question, and the schedule has sent them to Paris in the first week to face Racing.  With Sarries still to come, they may need to return with a win.  We’re tentatively going for an Amlin excursion (but no silverware) and a top half finish (but no playoff) in the Pro12 – the absence of Micko will make it more difficult for the dirt-trackers to scratch out the kind of wins they have been getting in the last three years.  It’s the tough work that pays off in the end, and this season is about tough work for Munster – luckily the fans are on board, and Penney is likely to get an extended honeymoon period. Let’s hope they stay on board if he starts p*ssing of Radge or Keith Earls!

The Cup, the Plate and the Bowl

A non-vintage Six Nations campaign is heading for a straightforward blitz-tournmanent style finale.  In the last week, Wales and France will meet to decide the championship winners (The Cup).  England and Ireland will play for the Plate, or third place, and Italy and Scotland will tough it out for the Bowl (or to avoid the wooden spoon).

The Cup

Some of the mythology around the enormous Welsh backline was exposed this weekend.  Mike Phillips got overly involved in a fight with the English backrow, and Wales never looked like getting around England, so they just kept trying to go through them.  Getting into a boshfest with the Kings of Bosh is a risky game, and Wales were in a tight spot for much of the afternoon.  In the end they had just enough class to win out, with one of their smaller backs, reserve centre Scott Williams (weighing in at a puny 97kgs) coming up with a dash of brilliance to win it.  The Triple Crown is in the bag, and they are in a good position to deliver the slam, with France coming to Cardiff.

Here in Ireland we love nothing more than fawning over the French.  We’re spellbound by their pristine blue shirts, intimidated by their scrummaging power, awestruck by their handling skills, and swooning over Morgan Parra’s classic good looks.  But for all their Gallic genius, they rarely play all that well.  Truth is, they’re masters of just doing enough (unless they are playing New Zealand).  Not much has really changed under the new coach.  Sure, the selection is consistent, but the mentality is harder to shift.  France sleepwalked through the first 25 minutes here, and while their two tries were brilliant, there was no sustained greatness.  Trouble is, they are usually good for one outstanding performance a series.  One of Ireland, England or Wales will get it.

The Plate

England: played three, two tries, both chargedowns.  They’ve Strettle, Ashton and Foden in the back three, but they can’t service them with three midfielders with the distribution skills of combine harvesters.  Brad Barritt fought gamely again, and he’s not a bad player, but the lines of attack are too predictable.  For all that they probably scored a good try at the death, and after last week’s bottling exploits for his club, we’d all have loved to see the theatre of the last-kick wide conversion from Toby Flood to save a draw.  Two players who won’t enjoy looking at the tape this morning are Courtney Lawes, whose upright carrying style led directly to the Welsh try, and Mike Brown, who failed to fix his man with the non-try scoring pass to Strettle, and gave him an awful lot to do, when a stroll in was possible.

Declan Kidney is starting to get the hang of this newfangled ‘bench’ thing that other people keep banging on about it.  We’d heard of it ourselves, but weren’t quite sure what it was.  Turns out you can replace players during the game, sometimes even improving the side by bringing off a guy who’s tiring or not playing great and putting another player in his position.  Who knew?  All the talk this week will be that Ryan and Reddan should be starting in Paris (they won’t).  Both players are getting a raw deal.  Ryan is clearly the superior player at 4 to O’Callaghan, and is probably among Ireland’s best performers in the series so far, and it appears Reddan has never really earned the trust of the management.  He started their two best performances last year, and was influential in both, but found himself overlooked ever since.  Dropping a young player like Murray after two poor performances is not an easy call, but you feel that if Ireland are to have any – any! – chance of winning, Reddan needs to play.

The Bowl

Hard times for Scotland, who have improved out of sight this year, without getting the results to show for it.  Their handling and offloading was terrific yesterday.  Management are culpable for some outrageously bad team selections.  How was it that Hogg, Laidlaw and Blair had to wait until the third game in the series to take to the pitch together? Still, credit needs to go to them for making the changes. Scotland look like a team who might just win a few … if they can just win one.

It’s proving a difficult season for Italy, who haven’t really improved as much as people are letting on.  They were much more competitive last year, when they should have beaten Ireland and Wales, and toppled France.  The wooden spoon beckons methinks, as Scotland look to have too much for them – thouh they can be a different proposition in Rome.

It’s not been a classic series so far by any means, which had us wondering when there last was a classic Six Nations. Wales’ and Ireland’s grand slams in 2008 and 2009 were up against mediocre post-World Cup fields (France were off experimenting).  The best in recent times is probably 2007’s tournament, when strong France and Ireland sides went toe to toe, with France securing the Championship with the last play of the game against Scotland.  It’s been a while…