(Hashtag) Ireland’s Tighthead Crisis

Ok, well, it mightn’t be a crisis, we don’t know that for sure. In fact, we reckon it won’t, but one fact remains indisputable – the man who has started the last 25 Tests for Ireland at tighthead prop is now third choice at his province. That’s not good.

Did you know that since the dawn of professional rugby, only four tightheads have started a Six Nations match for Ireland?  It’s going to become five this season.  Shit just got real.

Let’s rewind a little to the Autumn Internationals of 2010 – that was the point when John Hayes finally ran out of steam after being flogged, almost literally, to death. The indefatigable Bull had been Ireland’s starter for an incredible 11 years, and the progression management consisted of the following:

  1. Identify Mushy Buckley as Hayes’ successor in 2007
  2. Wring hands as Mushy fails to make a dent on Hayes’ starting slot at Munster
  3. Watch Mushy make an impressive top class starting debut in BNZ in the Tour of the Long List of Blindsides in 2010, albeit in a game with few scrums
  4. Cover eyes with hands during 2010 Autumn Internationals
  5. Wring hands further as Mushy repeatedly gets injured and *still* can’t get Hayes out of the Munster team even as Hayes get frogmarched backwards in green

When Buckley lasted 40 minutes in the Wolfhounds game four years ago, the management’s patience snapped and that was that – the previously ignored Mike Ross, of whom it was clear Deccie wasn’t a fan, was in, and acted as a one-man bailout machine, immediately solidifying the Ireland scrum, even sporadically turning it into an attacking weapon! Phew, problem solved.

Of the 44 Tests since then, Ireland have let themselves get into that situation again – we are at exactly the same point in the RWC cycle, and the starters in the interim period have been:

  • Mike Ross (41 Tests)
  • Mushy Buckley (2 Tests) – vs Scotland in RWC11 warm-up, and Russki in RWC11
  • Deccie Fitzpatrick (1 Test) – vs BNZ in the 2012 Tour

Ross started both games in the 2013 summer tour when the opponents were the scrummaging powerhouses of, er, the USA and Canada. He started against Samoa in the November series. He also started both tours in Argentina, who *are* scrummaging heavyweights with the next choice being Rodney Ah Here, so that’s understandable, at least. He started against Georgia – Georgia! – to prepare him for the scrummaging powerhouse of the Wobblies. To be fair to the management, they were undone by injuries in November.  Moore had been out since early on in the season, and they gave every indication that Nathan White would be given a prominent role, only for him to succumb to injury too.  Now, there are always reasons to start Ross, sometimes very good ones, but the risk is that, like with Hayes, we end up that the player just goes over a cliff.

When the Ross-anchored Leinster scrum got shunted around by Quins in December, it looked like he was over the cliff-edge. Happily, Marty Moore has returned in the nick of time and transformed the Leinster scrum, with help from Tadgh Furlong who has cemented his status as first reserve. It’s tough to see how Ross can start for Ireland. He is still in the extended squad, but if he is behind two Irish eligible players at provincial level, it seems a long shot that he is the test starter.  Furlong has been deemed not quite ready for test level yet, and is not in the extended training squad.

So who will start for Ireland? The answer, surely, is Marty Mooradze – Moore is a very strong scrummager and a more dynamic version of Ross around the park. was Ross’s backup at last years Six Nations, playing 110 minutes in total, and looked decent off the bench. But still, it’s a step up, and his last act in an Ireland shirt was to be ploughed backwards by Debaty, Guirardo and Slimani in the final scrum, only to be let off the hook by Dreamboat Walsh and a bit of good luck as the ball popped out of the French scrum and they had to play it.

And who will make the bench?  Either Ross or Nathan White. Could it be that Ireland put out two tightheads with no test starts between them and one of whom has yet to even get a cap?  Indeed, it’s very probable.  If we were to graph Ross’ career graph it would look something like this: unwanted, unwanted, unwanted, Ireland’s most important player, unwanted.

It’s likely that Moore will have a few wobbles against some experienced streetwise operator, probably a dirty Frenchman or filthy Italian, but he should be fine on the whole. And we will know who our starting RWC15 tighthead will be. And while Mike Ross was a stopgap solution that fell into Deccie’s lap, Moore should have a decade-long career and has been groomed for this very situation.  His time has arrived.  Still, it’s mildly concerning that the men most likely are barely capped, and we’ve got ourselves into a situation where an oft-flogged starter packs in eight months before the tournament … again.  Then again, Michael Bent is in the squad too, so there’s always that.

Advertisements

Tenwatch

Three years ago, when BOD went down, we started a #thirteenwatch series – we joked at the outset that Deccie would take a careful look at all the contenders and pick Keith Earls anyway. In the event, when Face Doesn’t Fit got injured himself in January, Deccie’s decision was made for him – Cave was edging the shirt on form, but Deccie, 2012 edition, wasn’t one for taking a punt – this was the year of zero non injury-enforced changes. Anyway, Earls it was, and it was the right call – he had a good series and justified Deccie’s call. This year, the equivalent debate is at number ten – and will the Milky Bar Kid take a careful look at the contenders and pick Ian Madigan anyway?

Based on Joe Schmidt’s Ireland career to date, no one player is indispensable – any personnel loss has been ridden with ease, and this has included the likes of DJ Church, Sean O’Brien, Chris Henry, BOD and Tommy Bowe at different times – all have been replaced from within the squad without a huge discernible impact on performances and results. While it’s tempting to think Schmidt is an alchemist who can turn provincial base into national gold, he’s just the ultimate pragmatist – the system is everything, and every cog knows his role to a tee. The provincial academy system isn’t perfect, but it does tend to produce mature, driven and intelligent players (the type who are happy to go for a 10k run at 6am when they are 17) – this is a boon for Schmidt as even square peg backups (Rhys Ruddock the openside flanker?) tend to be able to slot into round holes in the system. However, if you were to peg any Ireland players as indispensable, you’d stick that label on Paul O’Connell and Jonny Sexton – both among the best in their position worldwide, anchors of a Lions series win (admittedly an ugly and scrappy one against a rubbish team) and pretty much impossible to replicate.

In O’Connell’s case, Iain Henderson, while a very different player, is likely to be the next giant of Irish second row play (metaphorically of course – Big Dev hasn’t gone away you know), but he isn’t there yet. In Sexton’s case, there is a cadre of players who are all of a pretty similar standard right now behind him – none offer quite the same combinastion of tactical brain, passing skill or on-field leadership, and none are currently making and ironclad case to be his backup. And it’s not just an academic question either – Sexton has been stood down and his return is at the mercy of the French medical system. Repeated concussions mean that training of any sort has yet to be possible, and the earliest return date is the 14th of February – when Ireland have the small matter of France at home and before which Ireland face Italy in Rome.   Given the importance of Sexton to the national team, and the fact that this is a World Cup year, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of not seeing Sexton in green until August. Schmidt is looking for not just a reserve, but a test starter.

In Joe Schmidt’s first season, the situation in November coalesced that if Sexton went down, Paddy Jackson would step in and start at 10, as was the case against Samoa, but that Ian Madigan offered a better bench option as he covered other positions in the backline – he was in the 23 for the Wobblies and BNZ. When it came to the Six Nations, Jackson had edged in front, manning the bench in four Six Nations games to Madigan’s one. Jackson was first choice at Ulster, while Madge was having a difficult season at Leinster and was stuck on the bench behind Gopperth.  The view in April was that Jackson would start in Argentina, and it looked like he would have a chance to cement his place as Sexton’s backup. Meanwhile, Munster’s Ian Keatley was further down the pecking order.

In the second half of this year, its tightened up considerably – Jackson went down with a back injury (related to his kicking style) and missed the Argentina tour.  Meanwhile, Madigan sparked into form in the Pro12 playoffs, albeit playing in the centre.  He played both games in Argentina and emerged in credit as Ireland secured two hard-fought, if workmanlike wins.

Jackson returned for Ulster’s ERCC campaign, but has looked rusty, and missed out on the squad for the November series. He has spent more time recuperating, but looked something like his old self in the RDS on Saturday – playing flat on the gainline and bringing the backline into the game well early on, but he faded from view as Leinster gradually got on top. His biggest problem is he is still not kicking goals – something that is recovery driven, for now anyway, although his place kicking has often been shaky.  Ireland do not have a Ruan Pienaar in the team, and the 10 will be required to kick the all-important two- and three-pointers.

This November, Madigan started for Ireland against Georgia and was in the 23 for the big games. He again played well in those matches, even winning the crucial penalty turnover to win the game against Australia.  He has recently been getting some extended gametime at outhalf for Leinster, and it’s fair to say its been a bit of a curates egg. He has been standing a mile behind the gainline and is struggling to get the Leinstertainment thing going. As ever, his tactical kicking – judging when to kick and executing well – is a way off the highest level, and this is the biggest black mark in his game.

We have the feeling that at this stage of his career, Madigan may never develop into a strong ‘controlling 10’, but he is outstanding at certain aspects of the game.  Keatley and an in-form Jackson are probably more rounded footballers, more Sexton-like, but neither offers the same game-breaking ability or explosiveness.  Even at provincial level, when the ERCC kicks back in and Matt O’Connor has full jurisdiction on team selection, it will be interesting to see if he reverts to Jimmy Gopperth – it would certainly seem the logical MOC choice for a trip to Wasps and their gargantuan pack. But it is also worth noting the Madigan’s goal kicking is not juist the best of the bunch but exceptional bny any standard – perhaps even better than Sexton’s (we can’t locate Sexton’s Top14 stats for a complete comparison – feel free to educate us):

  • Madigan 90.3%: Pro12 36/38 ERCC 20/24
  • Keatley 79.7%: Pro12 33/41 ERCC 14/18
  • Jackson 76.7%: Pro12 17/22 ERCC 6/8

Ian Keatley has been something of the ugly duckling of this bunch – given his career path it’s pretty tempting to dismiss him as a modestly talented journeyman. Indeed, until very recently, he’s been painted merely as a placeholder between Munster ligind Rog and future Munster ligind JJ Hanrahan – a filler-inner until Hanrahan is ready. In reality, since Keatley took over as Munster starter, he has continually improved and is playing at a level few – and not us – would have predicted possible two years ago. He still has a tendency to disappear out of games a little, but he is a solid option, and has the advantage of being Conor Murray’s regular partner.

Based on Joe Schmidt’s Spanish Inquisition-esque ruthless pragmatism, he will select whoever fits the system best – right now that seems likely to be Madigan, who is familiar with Schmidt’s methods and is effectively the incumbent. But it isn’t set in stone – this time last year, Madigan seemed likely to be backup for the Six Nations, but Paddy Jackson edged ahead in January. Jackson, nearly three years younger than Madigan and five younger than Keatley, has a more impressive body of work at that age that either of the contenders (it’s easy to forget how young he is – he is a month older than Ronan O’Gara was on the occasion of that Scotland game, and a year and a half younger than Sexton was when he got his first Ireland start), and seems likely to improve further as time time goes on – but in the here and now, he feels like a coltish and unreliable option. Plus he is coming back from an injury and re-modelling his kicking action to prevent further injury. We’d have him in third place at this moment.

Has Keatley done enough to oust Madigan?  At provincial level, you could certainly make that argument – Madigan has yet to be selected at 10 for a European game this season. Part of that is down to backline injuries and Madigan’s ability to fill other positions, but it makes it more difficult for Schmidt to pick him at 10 if he hasn’t been playing there in the important provincial matches.  It’s very easy to blame that on Matt O’Connor, but O’Connor is a professional rugby coach who sees Madigan every day, and is yet to be convinced that Madigan is the best outhalf he has. If Sexton was fit, we’d be 100% certain that Madigan would be in the 23 – but don’t rule out Schmidt picking Keatley to start and keeping Madigan in his 23. It’s still odds-against at this moment, but Keatley is pretty close right now.  It’s still all up for grabs, with two rounds of European matches to show what they can do.

Selection Bias

The news that Joe Schmidt had to field questions about selection bias left us more than a little surprised.  The issue appears to have sprouted from ill-advised and certainly ill-timed comments from Denis Leamy in the lead-up to the France match.  The questions were dispatched consummately by Schmidt, who effectively put the accusations of provincialism back on those asking the questions.  Too right!

Certainly, Joe Schmidt picked a lot of players from Leinster over the championship, including some who aren’t consistently first choice for their province.  There is certainly an argument that he picked players he could trust to enact his gameplan, which may have given those familiar with his methods a head-start, but to say he picked based on the colour of the players’ provincial jerseys is a nonsense.

Besides, Ireland are champions, so the head coach’s decisions are vindicated, whether or not they were popular beforehand.  We ourselves made some negative noises around the selection for the Italy game, but after Ireland won handsomely we were put back in our box, and we acknowledged as such.  Same goes for Denis Leamy.  One has to ask what those asking the questions are looking for exactly.  Ireland have won precious few Six Nations championships, and while it would be nice to think we could win them with exactly equal allocations from each province, or by ‘rotating’ in up-and-coming players in a variety of positions to develop them for the World Cup, it’s almost certainly an impossibility.  Others have said that the margins of victory were so tight that the coach should still be criticised.  Again, it would be nice to have won more comfortably in Paris, but given how seldom we have done it, insisting we should dish out a hammering seems a bit unrealistic.  It’s pretty churlish stuff altogether.

There have been some protests that those defending Schmidt’s selections are the same as those who bemoaned Gatland’s Welsh bias on the Lions tour.  Maybe so, but they are totally missing the point. To them we say this: who really, besides the players, gives two hoots about whether the Lions won or lost?  We’d gladly sell you 20 Lions tour wins for one victorious Six Nations.  The most important thing about the Lions tour is the team selection and how many Irish get into it; the matches are mostly putrid and boring.  Anyone out there buy the commemroative DVD to re-live the glory of the 2-1 win over the worst Australia team in 30 years this Christmas?  Can anyone even remember anything from the first two tests, apart from some chap falling when taking a kick in the last minute?  Us neither.  So, sure, we raged against Gatland and are still bitter over his dropping of O’Driscoll, but that’s because it’s more important that O’Driscoll’s feelings aren’t hurt than the Lions winning the series.  For Ireland things are different; winning is the be all and end all.

Moments of the Season Part II

Yesterday, we had Egg Chaser’s moments of the season; today Palla Ovale takes us through the moments he won’t be forgetting for a while.  Yes, Cardiff features.

Leinster’s kids take it to Clermont.  The sight of emergency wing Fergus McFadden breaking the line off the back of a scrum on Leinster’s 10m line away to Clermont was the moment Joe’s gameplan had fully arrived at Leinster.  The move broke down as Sexton’s offload could’t quite find Nacewa and Leinster eventually lost the match, but the coach, shorn of all his Lions backs, had not only put faith in youth, but sought to have a cut in a stadium where nobody wins – it set the template for a magical season.

Sergio Parisse after Italy v France.  Whiff of Cordite sees nothing to be ashamed of in having a man-crush on Sergio Parisse.  And the sight of the great Italian No. 8 reduced to tears following his team’s historic victory over France in the Six Nations in Rome was a a truly special moment indeed.  In truth Italy should have won three games in this year’s series – they have learned to compete for 80 minutes, now they just need to find composure in clutch situations.  And a consistent place kicker.
Besty’s Inside Ball.  Ulster sparkled against Northampton with some eye-catching back play until the second half, when the Saints crushed their set piece.  Spence, iHumph and Trimble all caused the Northampton defence real trouble with slick handling and hard running.  But what was this?  Is that – it can’t be? – Rory Best giving the most subtly disguised inside pass into Andy Trimble’s midriff to split the Saints’ defence and set up a try?

Cullen holds the pass.  Yes, we had to mention that second half, and while Sexton’s tries, Hines getting over in his last HEC game for Leinster and The Penalty Scrum all stood out, the sight of Leo Cullen, of all people, somehow holding Strauss’ slightly inacurate offload encapsulated the performance.  Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, surely Leo would have dropped it, but this was 40 minutes of rugby when Leinster were simply irresistable.  A few rumbles later and Hines was over.

Keep your eye on: Mike Ross, scrum nerd, being substituted

Thankfully, Whiff of Cordite has never been involved in the business end of a scrum, preferring instead to stand far away and not think too much about it. Luckily, we have located a total geek who knows a hell of a lot about the coalface. Step forward … Mike Ross:

“It’s basic physics at the end of the day and the focus is on the pack as a whole. I know it’s difficult in terms of their (backrow) defensive duties but speaking as a frontrow, it makes a huge difference if you have them staying down and giving that weight until the scrum finishes. A lot of teams will wait for the opposing backrow to stand up and they will come again; once they have you moving it is too late to come back from that.”

Impressive. Ross was renowned at Quins for spending huge amounts of time studying the opposition front row, and he has taken that approach with him to Leinster and Ireland. The proof of this pudding can often be seen in the eating – the early destruction of the English scrum at the Palindrome a case in point (about which more anon).

What we here at WoC find extremely interesting is how he gleans information on the opposing front row and passes it on to his replacement when he gets substituted. We first noticed this during the 6 Nations – instead of seeing the familiar sight of the Bull trundling off and Mushy trundling on, passing with a low 5, we saw Rosser stop Tom Court and talk to him for 30 seconds, replete with actions. A once-off? Why nay, didn’t he do the same thing with Stan Wright in the Toulouse match! Plus it seemed like Wright was listening (unlike Court) – as well he should. And last week, he more or less demonstrated Court’s technique on the Dog Barbecuer 30 minutes into the Ulster game.

We salute Mike Ross, scrum nerd, and leave the last word to him:

“I didn’t sleep well that night or for a couple of days afterwards. Before that I don’t think I gave away a penalty try in eight years. I was fairly raging afterwards.”