Leaders, and Being in the Lead

On Monday, we worried about what Ireland would lose in the knockouts when they were without O’Connell, O’Mahony, Sexton and O’Brien. Sexton is now back in the mix, but we talked about 252 caps managing the endgame. As the dust has settled though, one thing we are a bit more sanguine about is the leadership within the Ireland group.

A friend once told us that he met some person or other who had worked in the backroom staff of the New Zealand rugby team.  ‘What’s it like to be in the New Zealand dressing room before a match?’ he dutifully asked. Said the Kiwi: ‘It’s actually pretty quiet.  They don’t shout at each other.  They don’t need to.’

No surprise there.  If Sir Ruchie wanted to get his point across, we can’t picture him shouting and roaring.  If he had a message to get across to someone, we can picture him doing it in his polite, charming, Gatsby-esque way; the same way as he talks to referees that has kept him from getting yellow carded in spite of umpteen cynical ball-killing exploits at the breakdown.  No doubt a quiet, authoritative word from Sir Ruchie goes a long way with other players in the squad.

So it was with interest that we read Jamie Heaslip’s comments about the team’s half-time discussions during the Ireland v France game.  Plenty might have clicked on the link expecting to hear about the latest speech channelling the spirit of the Somme, a tear-stained battle-cry of ‘Let’s do it for Paulie’ – but no.  ‘We just problem-solved’, said Jamie.  ‘We worked out what gaps had to be filled and how we would fill them’.

Superb leadership.  In the absence of Sexton and O’Connell, we didn’t know for sure what the leadership group would have been, only that Heaslip was now captain. He was one of five players who played in Kidney’s first competitive match – also a victory over France – who also played on Sunday, the others being Besty, Bowe, Bob and Luke Fitzgerald. Leaving aside Fitzgerald, who essentially had a four year international hiatus, and you have the elder statesmen of the Irish team. Throw in Conor Murray (43 Tests over 4 years including 2 for the Lions, and also one of Munster’s key men), Devin Toner (30 extraordinarily consistent caps over 5 years), the once-in-a-lifetime talent of Iain Henderson and the pleasant surprise of how prominent Robbie Henshaw was, and the generations that are passing the torch are clearer. (and in a neat kind of #hashtag, one from each province there).

It’s especially encouraging because Ireland always appeared to be a team that is emotionally driven.  Better when we’re bitter, happy to be written off, uncomfortable with the favourites tag, all of that ultimately defeatist nonsense.   It’s not a winning mentality; it’s the sort of attitude that will yield one off performances but will capture little in the way of silver.  Kidney’s Ireland epitomised it.  One imagines such concepts are anathema to Kiwis, and Joe Schmidt in particular.  The Kiwis have the favourites tag every time they step on to a rugby pitch and have to learn to deal with it.  It’s a measure of how far this team have come in the last two years that they have become so clear-minded, narrowly-focussed and are developing a winning mentality.

It all augurs very well for the weekend. Even with our injury losses, which would have been crippling in the past, the strength of the systems that Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are based on meant that the performance against France stayed at high levels even as players got carried off. The major difference is that, instead of bringing players like Henderson and Henry off the bench – Cheika calls them “finishers”, which we like – our finishers will be Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock. Good players indeed, our standouts in victories against England and South Africa respectively last season, but not quite in the same class.

A month ago to the day, we said this about a prospective quarter final against Argentina:

At this juncture, this looks to us like a 50-50 match – both teams are in the bunch behind NZ, SA and Oz and around the standard of England and Wales. Still, this is what our tournament will come down to to cross the success/failure line – a one-off match with Argentina. Based on how Schmidt has prepared his teams to date, we’re backing him to pull this one off. We’re far out and injuries etc will surely have an impact, but from here, we reckon we can do it.

The only thing we would change there is that SA are a level below NZ and Australia. Clearly our injury situation is severe and the Pumas were mighty impressive in their performance against BNZ. Some are pointing to relative sloppiness against Tonga and Namibia, but we aren’t buying it – this is a top class team that will take some beating. The scratchy BNZ displays in later pool games have devalued the Argentinian performance to a degree, but they still have one of the best scrums around, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Tomas Cubelli and the magnificent Nico Sanchez, who can’t help but put us in mind of Den Caddah in his prime. But, that said, we certainly have the game, and the coach, to win.

But what we do think is that given our injury situation, given that our finishers aren’t of the quality they were against France, we need to be in front at half time, and particularly on the hour mark. Schmidt’s teams have made a habit of being in front at the break – in 26 games, Ireland have only behind only 6 times at half time, and they lost 4 of those games. In the ones they won from behind, they were only a point behind (France and second Argentina Test in 2014). We are good pace-setters who like to play the game on our own terms – in our Six Nations defeats in this period, we struggled to adapt when we needed to chase the scoreboard. Its a must that we don’t let Argentina dictate the game, and stay in front through the third quarter.

One other thing to consider is that we don’t know yet in this tournament is the relative strength of the best Northern Hemisphere teams (Wales, Ireland) and the second tier Southern Hemisphere teams (Argentina, South Africa). Luckily, we have a pointer for us on Saturday – Wales vs South Africa. We fancy Wales in this one, but we’ll be feeling a lot less sanguine about Ireland if the Springboks shake off Gatty’s men and end up winning by 10 points or so. If the Welsh make a game of it, or win, we’re more confident in our prediction that Ireland can finally break the quarter final glass ceiling.


Oh, Them Again

The build-up to this game has focused strongly on the history of needle and grudge between the sides.  However, the absence of Roncero, O’Gara, Ledesma, Leamy and Contepomi might mean we can move on and – who knows – a game of rugby could briefly break out amid the sledging and shady breakdown activities.  Argentina have evolved – post 2007, their sights have been set a lot higher than scrapping out with Ireland for the leftovers from the top table. Their debut season in the Rugby Championship was impressive and will have given them much tougher tests than Ireland have had this season.  They’re battle-hardened and cohesive.

The Puma tour to date has consisted of a surprisingly easy win in the Millennium Stadium, followed by a surprisingly heavy defeat to the French in Lille. The Welsh defeat to Samoa has reduced the value of the first a little, but taking a beating rom France doesn’t look too bad in light of their evisceration of the Wallabies the previous week. Ireland, of course, were limply defeated by the Springboks, then played a meaningless non-Test rout of Fiji the week after – they’ll either be raring to go or as drab and unimaginative as ever.  Probably both.

We can expect a punishing battle up front with the heavyweight Argentinian tight 5  – Mike Ross apparently managed to do enough in 53 minutes against Fiji to convince Deccie he is still the rightful heir to the great John Hayes, upon whose watch the Ireland scrum rarely creaked like it has of late (right, folks?), and the Corkman should be able to take the Puma pressure upfront. We hope what must have been a bizarre week for Ross finishes on a high.  However, Ireland have two relatively light locks and this could be a tougher test for them than the Boks provided – Eben Etzebeth is still a nipper and Juandre Kruger something of a journeyman.

The winning of the game will likely be in the backrow and halves, and specifically in the battle of the captains – Jamie Heaslip against Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe. Whichever of these two is more prominent is likely to be the one in the winning side. Fernandez Lobbe produced perhaps his best performance in the Puma shirt against Wales and will take some stopping – but stop him and it’s half the battle. From an Irish perspective, we’d like to see Peter O’Mahony more prominent. Worries about his physical readiness for Test rugby are still gnawing at us. Chris Henry has deserved his extended chance in the 7 shirt, and we also want to see something specific from him – staying on the pitch for 80 minutes. In the HEC quarter-final against Munster and the Fiji game, he got binned for ruck offences – but at this level you need to be a little cuter. It’s pointless to tell him be to be Ruchie, but perhaps he should try to be Chris Robshaw – tough and nuggety, but someone who will grind away for the entire 80.

Ireland have the advantage in the quarterback department – El Mago may be ludicrously talented, but he’s barely got his shirt dirty since his finest hour in 2007, and in any case, he’ll start at fullback with Nicolas Sanchez at 10. In contrast, since Hernandez’ finest hour, Johnny Sexton has three HEC winners medals and an ever-increasingly scrapbook of memorable moments – if Ireland can control the set piece and breakdown, Sexton will win the game.

Outside the halves, it could be about keeping your hands warm. Argentina will assuredly send up a few bombs to test the green and fresh Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy – if the kicks are accurate the ensuing rucking will be furious and work in the Pumas favour, if they are not and the tyros get space to run, Ireland could be in business. Ireland’s kicking game in the absence of Bob has in general been pretty average and we don’t expect anything different on Saturday – but with Argentina not having the same strike runners out wide as Ireland do, it’s unlikely to be punished.

So, what do we expect? The Argentinian pack is superior to Ireland’s, but the Irish backs are more threatening. If Ireland somehow manage to get a lot of good ball, they should have enough talent to win, but if it descends into muck and rucks, it will be Argentina’s to lose. The best kicker in the Puma squad is Martin Bustos Moyano, but its Santiago Fernandez who will probably stand over the kicks – and he ain’t got the mental.

We are wavering, but in close contests, the team with a definable gameplan and confidence in its execution normally prevails – there is one team like that in this game .. and it ain’t Ireland. Still, we travel in hope, and wouldn’t it be funny to see the bed-wetting in the press if a certain apple-cheeked Corkman came off the bench to drop a winning goal after, I don’t know, say 41 phases? RADGE!!!

Ireland: S Zebo; T Bowe, K Earls, G D’Arcy, C Gilroy; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; D Ryan, M McCarthy; P O’Mahony, C Henry, J Heaslip (capt).

Replacements: S Cronin, D Kilcoyne, M Bent, D O’Callaghan, I Henderson, E Reddan, R O’Gara , F McFadden.

Argentina: J M Hernandez; G Camacho, M Bosch, S Fernandez, J Imhoff; N Sanchez, M Landajo; M Ayerza, E Guinazu, M Bustos; M Carizza, J F Cabello; J M Fernandez Lobbe (capt), J M Leguizamon, L Senatore.

Replacements: A Ceevy, N Lobo, F Gomez Kodela, T Vallejos Cinalli, T Leonardi, N Vergallo, G Tiesi, M Montero.

Note: if Ireland lose they will be ranked in the third tier for the RWC draw, but Argentina are much closer to being safely in the top 8 already – if they lose by less than 15 points, they are likely to still make it – it’s all here. The prime advantage of being seeded second is avoiding the hosts, England – as the Mole will explain.

Dwarf throwing, Retirements, Eye-Gouges and Fudged Drop Goals: We rate your World Cup

We’ve pored over Ireland’s exit in some detail.  Here’s a run through the other nations who’ll have fancied their chances to do well.

Scotland: Failed to Qualify from Group
Poor wee Scotland.  Pipped by both England and Argentina by last-gasp tries.  Against Argentina they managed to work a drop goal opportunity to win it, but hurried the kick.  Against England they probably would have won had they not needed to win by more than seven and seek a try themselves when in front on the scoreboard.  They manned up impressively in both games, but the reason they failed to qualify is available in just one statistic: no tries in their final three group games.  They have plenty of grunt in the pack and can keep teams like England on the back foot for long periods, but they just can’t buy a try.  Their backs moving the ball look slower and less accurate than most AIL teams.

Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Sleepy. Time to wake up and learn to catch and pass the ball properly.

Argentina: Quarter Final exit to New Zealand
Worthy recipients of the medal for bravery and courage in the face of unlikely odds.  A shadow of the force of 2007, but their great warriors Ledesma, Albacete and Contepomi refused to go quietly, even if they couldn’t conjure up the same quality as four years ago, with Juan Matin Hernandez a notable absentee.  Should have beaten England and squeezed through against Scotland at the death, and can take real pride in their showing against New Zealand.  They came up with the try of the tournament, with Conters showing a touch of his fading genius, and held the Kiwis tryless for three quarters of the game.  Not bad considering Lobbe was injured and Nigel Owens was shafting them at every opportunity.

Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Happy. Can go home knowing the left nothing behind them.

Italy:  Failed to Qualify from Group
Italy have become an obstinate side at the Flaminio, but the task for the next coach will be getting them to perform on the road.  Showed up well against Russia with slick hands and fast-paced attack, but in their final win-or-bust pool game, their surrender to Ireland was meek and indisciplined.  They talked a good game, with Castro declaring himself ‘ready for war’, but when the moment came they were blown away by Ireland’s greater arsenal.  Somehow, somewhere, a 10 has to be found who can organise their backs and dictate the play.  Until then, they’ll continue to struggle.

Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Grumpy.  Need to keep composure when things go awry.

South Africa: Quarter-final exit to Australia 
Rather unlucky to lose to Australia, but they couldn’t cross the whitewash and paid the price. They brought physicality and certainty to the tournament, and in Francois Steyn, had perhaps the player of the group stages. The problem was, without him, they really showed their limitations. Short of the ability to kick penalties from the halfway line, and without his creativity at 12, they ended up spending 75 minutes camped in the Aussie 22 and losing 11-9. Schalk Burger was immense all tournament, and they played better against Oz than Wales or Samoa, but when you can’t score you can’t win.
Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Bosh-ful – kicking, no creativity, physicality – they are England with discipline basically

England: Quarter-final exit to France 
Where do we start? The scarcely-deserved victories over Scotland and Argentina?  The late and nasty tackles?  The lack of ambition? The stupidity of some of the penalties they gave away? The chambermaid incident? A huge pity that Johnno bottled it and let the running game of last November fade into nothingness, for there are some quality players in this side. It may sound harsh, but they brought nothing to the tournament. It appears Johnno has taken them as far as he can, perhaps its time for a new beginning?
Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Sleazy Sneezy – go home unlamented
Samoa: Failed to qualify from group
After beating the Wallabies during the summer/winter, Samoa went into the tournament very much on the Welsh and Saffa radar, and any chance of being taken lightly was gone. And they duly weren’t, with both sides playing very sensibly against the Islanders and winning. Samoa themselves rarely took the handbrake off and paid the price. Having said that, they didn’t exactly get the rub of the refereeing green, and generally played well – for example, they might have won Group B (the group of dearth). And although Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu might have a point about IRB bias, he didn’t exactly make it very well, did he?
Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Dopey – had the talent to go further, but go home frustrated

World Cup Quarter Finals 2: Squeaky-bum time

Okay, so we;re nought from two after this morning’s matches, but that’s not going to stop us having another go at it for tomorrow’s gmaes.

The top half of the draw is giving us a sneak preview of next years Quilmes/Castle/Fosters/Steinlager Quad-Nations (or whatever its going to be called) – although South Africa won’t usually play Australia in weather this bad, and Argentina won’t have as short a journey next time.

South Africa-Australia:

The clash of the kind-of titans – two teams that should stand to benefit from Dan Carter’s injury, but that have enough weaknesses to make you think twice about actually backing them. South Africa topped Pool D with a 100% record, but didn’t really convince against either Wales or Samoa, scraping wins with experience and self-belief as much as anything. Australia flashed against Italy, but then got beaten up by Ireland, and cruised past the minnows.

The Boks were quite content to let Wales and Samoa have the ball and contest the tackle furiously in their own 22 and defend aggressively and physically. In the last ten minutes of both games, they looked strong and confident. But we aren’t quite sure that will work against the best backline in the tournament (by far, now that Carter is injured). Australia will look to David Pocock to snaffle some ball, and try to bring Beale and O’Connor into the line to work their magic.

When Berrick Barnes was being pencilled into the Wallaby team, we were feeling good about predicting them to edge it, but its Pat McCabe, so we aren’t as sure. We think the Boks are going to miss Frans Steyn, especially for his long-range goal threat, and if Schalk Burger isn’t the most visible forward on the field, Australia should have enough to score 2 tries and scrape home. Wallabies by two. Maybe.

New Zealand-Argentina:

Panic stations – its here! The Rugby World Cup knock-out stages. Sans Dan Carter – disaster. Consequently, there are 3 things New Zealand want from this game:

  • Colin Slade needs to start looking world-class, very quickly. There is huge pressure on the young lad, and this is going to be the easiest game of the remainder of the competition – anything sub-par and it could be Weepu at 10 for the semi
  • Ruchie and Kieran Read to get 60 high intensity minutes and avoid aggravating their injuries – without these two, NZ aren’t going to win
  • No more casualties, especially to the centres – Ma’a Nonu has been one of the players of the tournament up to now, and Smuddy and SBW have shown real class

Now, they obviously need a win too. That’s pretty much guaranteed, but don’t expect a blow-out – New Zealand aren’t familiar with the knock-out format, and they will be content to feel their way back post-Carter and professionally put away the Pumas. Paradoxically, fireworks and a stroll will make them more nervous than an up-the-jumper mudfest. Argentina will savour the stage, but without Fernandez Lobbe and Hernandez, and with their gnarled front-rowers beginning to look their age, it is a step too far. NZ by 20.

PS. we’re one step closer to a France v New Zealand final, with New Zealand missing Ruchie and Dan Carter.  We’re expecting the host nation to implode with anxiety if such an eventuality comes to pass.

World Cup Preview: Argentina

Group B Opposition: England, Scotland, Georgia, Romania

Pedigree: The newest rugby superpower, and at this level, it has been at Ireland’s expense. Lyon in 1999 and Adelaide in 2003 were close, but we got panned in 2007. In that respect, we weren’t alone – France were beaten twice, and the extent of the Pumas’ quality in France was illustrated by the air of disappointment that surrounded them only finishing 3rd.

Players to watch: If a Martian landed on Earth and demanded to know what a prop forward was, WoC would put forward the redoubtable Rodrigo Roncero – always fun to watch and a master of the dark arts. Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe provide the class in the backrow, and Santiago Fernandez has been a revelation at Montpellier this year – we hope to see him re-produce his regular season form.  Meanwhile, Leinster fans may even get to see what Mariano Galarza actually does on a rugby pitch.

Good Tournament: Argentina are top seeds in this group, and will plan to beat England, then continue their hex on the French in the quarter-final and reach successive semi-finals.

Bad Tournament: Losing to the Scots, something of a bogey team for Argentina, and going home early.

Prospects: Argentina go into a tournament with respect, for the first time. Four years on from 2007, its hard to credit that virtually nobody had them coming through the group. In the event, they were one of the best teams in the competition, regretably freezing against the Boks.

To an extent, the objective is now different. In 2007, the team played with a controlled nationalistic fervour to show the world they meant business, and demanded to be seen as equals. This time around, the generals of 2007 (with the exception of Pichot and Hernandez) may still be there, but with a new generation being gradually infused, retrenchment is the order of the day. The lack of regular engagements precludes a definite judgement on where they stand, but they seem to be a level below four years ago.

The set-piece still bristles with menace and intent, and the two back-rows mentioned above are among the best around, but the backline isn’t quite together yet. In the halves, Dr Phil is a flaky 10 and Vergallo has yet to fulfil his promise. Ouside those two, its more perspiration than inspiration. As usual, European rugby sustains the Argentinian team and Bustos Moyano and Agulla have impressed since coming North, however, the aptly-named Marcelo Bosch is more typical of the approach. Also, its going to be interesting to see who kicks goals – while Contepomi wouldn’t be regarded as the best under pressure, Bustos Moyano scored 283 points for Montpellier, and nailed many a pressure kick.

The attritionary nature of this pool will suit Argentina’s pack, but having England first may be a disadvantage – last time out they improved as the tournament went on, and the leathering of France in the 3rd place playoff was the most complete display of any team. It’s likely to come down to a Scotland-Argentina showdown for second place here, and Scotland have the misfortune of being first up for the huge Georgians … just before they play the Pumas.

Verdict: Vigourous debate is ongoing at Cordite Towers. Firstly, we both agree that England should take them. Regarding second place, Palla Ovale points to Scotland’s impressive record against the Pumas (better than Ireland, France and England), whereas Egg Chaser sees a much stronger XV taking on a Scotland team harrowed by the Georgians (much like Ireland in 2007) and putting them out of their misery. Egg’s (slightly) greater conviction just carries the day, but NZ will whack and bag them in the quarters.