Not BOD

It would be remiss of us not to sign off on this year’s Six Nations by talking about the successor to you-know-who. Brian O’Driscoll will never wear the Ireland shirt again, and he’s only the best player of the professional era – whoever takes over will be held to the standard set by some-bloke-called-Brian and it will not be easy for them. Indeed, amid the clamour for the shirt, it has to be remembered what a thankless task this will be.  The successful candidate must not only have the rugby skills to take over, he must have the mental strength to deal with not being BOD. Ask Andrew Trimble what it’s like not-being-BOD – while he lit up Le Stade in Ireland’s second winning effort there in 40 years, he lost out on the BOD-of-the-match award. It was a brilliant touch by the French to let BOD have the final word on his own career, but it illustrates the force of personality that Ireland are losing – one of the greats who transcended nations. Although, let’s face it, he has still been dropped by the Lions once more than the Awesome Power of Luther Burrell.

With the World Cup now 18 months away, the learning curve is steep – in the group stages alone, not-BOD will face Michele Campagnaro, one of the better young players on view this 6N and either Gael Fickou, an amazingly talented youngster, or Mathieu Bastareaud, an disgracefully out-of-shape waster who just happens to be extremely strong and explosive, and who seemingly always produces against Ireland. If not-BOD doesn’t win both those games, his next assignment will be marking Smuddy, and if he ins one of them, it’s Marcelo Bosch. Easy.

Any error or signs of not-being-BOD will be picked up upon by fans and meeja alike, with each likely to use the opportunity to row in behind the under-pressure player and support them through their difficult patch. Or maybe they’ll just call for their own provincial team-mate / personal favourite to be handed the 13 jersey. Hard to know really, although those thinking the latter is more likelyare just as cynical as us, and slightly more realistic.

No pressure then. So who is up for being not-BOD?

Robbie Henshaw (Connacht): It feels part of the narrative to call Henshaw “heir apparent” and even say he was “anointed by BOD” but we aren’t so sure about this. BOD’s words have been twisted and Henshaw is very raw at international, or any, level. He is undoubtedly talented, but is still only 20, without a huge body of work at outside centre in professional rugby behind him. That said, he is one of two outside centres actually in the current squad, and is likely to get significant game time in Argentina.  He’s a big, strong running lad and the closest thing we have to a JJV Davies/Burrell type centre.

Darren Cave (Ulster): The other 13 in the current squad. Angry, and who would blame him. I mean, everyone who interviews him asks him about his mate from home, Wotsisname from the Golf innit wiv the hot tennis bird in tow. When is Dazza going to get his time in the sun?! Now maybe – he has been one of the backbones of Ulster’s rise from Magners also-rans to European powerhouse – defensively solid, has added vision and great pass timing to his repertoire this year. Also likely to see some rugger this summer, he is now being thought of as a potential “stop-gap” while Henshaw matures, but he is only 26 and likely to keep improving.

Jared Payne (Ulster): Payne isn’t Irish yet, but he will be in July. Or August. Don’t know, but in time for the Georgia game, that’s for sure. He played lots of rugger at 13 for Auckland back in the Land of the Long Black Chokers but has spent nearly all his time at Ulster at full-back. He undoubtedly has brilliant sense of space and footwork, but his defence can occasionally be of the iHumph variety. And with Joe Schmidt’s obsession with detail, it’s tough to know if he’ll cut the mustard as a 13 candidate if he isn’t playing there week-in, week-out.  Much appears to depend on the shape and fitness of the Ulster back-three.  Word on the ground was that Anscombe’s plan was to play Payne at 13 this year, with Gilroy moving to full-back, but Bowe’s injury put paid to that notion, while Cave continues to be reliable in the 13 shirt.  We’ll see how they line out in the quarter-final against Saracens.

Keith Earls (Munster): Stop! He is good! In fact, he has more experience at outside centre at international level than the rest of the Irish squad put together, so there. And he did ok too, better than ok – we didn’t miss BOD in 2012 as much as we thought we would. Earls has two major problems though – he isn’t playing at centre for Munster, and his decision-making under pressure can be questionable. Re the former, he has a chance to rectify that now Casey Laulala is eschewing passion and pride for money – if he so desires, the Munster 13 shirt is his next season. Re the latter, extended time in camp with Joe Schmidt is maybe just what the doctor ordered – he might even learn how to pass.

Luke Roysh (Leinster): I knew it! Bias! A pro-Leinster conspiracy! Luke Fitzgerald is the most talented back produced by Ireland since BOD, but his international career has been in stall mode for five years. And he is stil only 26! Fitzgerald has the game for outside centre, no question, but he also has two major flaws – he isn’t playing at centre for Leinster, and he is injury-prone. Similar to Ireland, Leinster have a pressing need for a 13 as their one is moving from rugby into the sainthood business – perhaps this is the opportunity Fitzgerald needs to get his career back in the groove. He has experience with Schmidt, and plus he is from Leinster, so he’ll probably get picked anyway. *foam* *froth*

Fergus McFadden (Leinster): Another Leinster player! This is getting ridiculous, I mean there are two now in this list alone – what about the Ulster/Munster/Connacht quota for the national side! Ferg has actually worn the Irish 13 jersey before, against Wales in 2012, although it got ignominiously dumped on its back by JJV Davies en route to Wales upsetting the applecart, and he started his career there. But he has spent the last two years being exclusively a wing. He filled in at centre during the Six Nations just gone, and has the advantage of being in the inner sanctum. Still, a role as a versatile bench option feels more likely.

Stuart Olding (Ulster): Bear with us here. Sure, he’s been at 10 or 12 most of his short career. Sure, he’s injured. But he is a sumptuous and natural footballer with great vision, excellent passing skills, good defence and a sharp rugby brain. We have a funny feeling he will end up as a 13 (partly due to the existence of Wee PJ and Bamm-Bamm, partly because he is good enough to do so). Just saying. Maybe not now though.

Simon Zebo (Munster): A cursory glance at the interwebs will tell you that Zebo has the passing of Matt Giteau, the speed of Carlin Isles, the power of Manu Tuilagi, the defence of Jonny Wilkinson and the rugby brain of Dan Carter – it seems madness that Joe Schmidt won’t pick him, so maybe he is saving him for #thirteen. Note to Munster fans – THIS IS A JOKE! We think he  is great.

So there you have it, plenty of imperfect candidates to be not-BOD. We reckon Cave and Henshaw will each get an audition in Argentina, and Earls and Fitzgerald will be live contenders if they line out there for their provinces next season. Whoever does get the nod, it’s utterly essential that we give them all the support possible – they’ll need it for the one thing we do know is – they won’t be BOD.

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Levels of Importance

If Kidney’s favourite mantra of the last six months has been the yawning chasm between test rugby and Heineken Cup rugby, the theme for the coming season has become clear this week; how much more important playing for your country is than for your province.  Similar, but subtly different.  Brian O’Driscoll – always the man to get the party line across to the media – underlined all this in an interview with Simon Hick on Monday night.  Being a provincial legend is all well and good, he said, but the players and fans – don’t forget the fans – have to remember that it’s playing for your country that’s the greatest honour and to which the greatest importance must be attached.

This season always looked like one in which the national team would strike back at the increasingly successful and popular provinces, and this is just another part of the process.   That’s the same process that sees a 30-strong group of players convening in Carton House this week for a bit of training and, it would seem, some manly chats about where the team is going and how to correct the slide.

There’s shades of ‘All Back to 2008’ about this.  When we last heard this sort of thing aired, it was when ROG said the players ‘needed to buy into the green shirt a bit more’ in the aftermath of Munster’s second string giving New Zealand a right good scare, just days after Ireland barely fired a shot against them.  And we all know what came next.  But can the old magic be conjured up again?

While it’s difficult to argue with the message in and of itself, it’s not the sort of thing that can be manufactured.  It’s all well and good telling the public that the green jersey is more important than the provincial one, but it can only be truly demonstrated on the pitch. And Sexton’s argument that the players must perform a notch better in green than with the provinces is perfectly fine, except that it is apparent that the coaching and tactics enable a much higher performance level with the provinces than with Ireland.  Wasn’t it Sexton himself who once said that he was “delighted to be back in an environment where you know exactly what the coaches want of you”?  We’ll leave it to you to guess which environment he was describing.

The first port of call for the IRFU is selling tickets to the upcoming November internationals, and they’re not an attractive bunch of fixtures.  Ireland play Fiji in Limerick and the dull, grinding Boks and Pumas will aim to do their thing at the Aviva.  It’s hard to look good against any of them and the public will expect wins against Argentina and Fiji.  Ireland must win all three to deliver a positive series and build momentum for the Six Nations.  Failure to do so and the pressure gets ramped up another notch.  This season has a ‘last days of Rome’ air about it for the national coaching ticket.

Six Nations: We need to talk about Keet

Sorry, make that Respect Keet. We have got in trouble for not showing adequate respect to everyone’s favourite blond Limerickman, so Anon, if you are reading (despite promising you wouldn’t) your over-sensitive antennae might get a bit upset shortly, so look away now.

The key question for Ireland in this Six Nations is an impossible one to answer – how do you replace the irreplacable? Drico might be back in a while, but make no mistake, the hill has been browed, and it’s Operation Replacement.

We have been running our regular Thirteenwatch series for a few months now on the contenders for the sacred 13 shirt – in the very first one, we joked about how Deccie was going to play Keith Earls there no matter what. Now, after 6 rounds of HEC, we finally agree Earls is the man for the job, especially after Darren Cave’s misfortune.  The field has essentially narrowed to three: Earls, Bowe and McFadden.  None are naturals in the role, but Earls’ case is the most compelling.   McFadden has plenty to offer, but need not be excluded altogether – he should be included alongside Keet at 12.  Bowe has not played at all at centre, and is needed on the wing.  And Keet’s form is good – he threw in a howler against Castres, but the manner in which he bounced back against Northampton put him back in credit.

So Earls it is. Straightforward? No, not at all. We have some serious reservations about Respect Keet, but lets start with the positives. He has great feet, pace to burn and a serious eye for the tryline.  While he’s no BOD, not by a long shot, it’s worth dwelling for a while on what Earls will bring to the team.  A combination of McFadden and Earls would have serious gas – not something Ireland have had in midfield since D’arcy and O’Driscoll were in the flush of youth and at their peak, in the 2006 Autumn series when Ireland looked like world-beaters.  It would give defences something new to think about.  We’re not saying they’ll be better but it will offer a different kind of threat.

Now for the bad stuff.  When we see Earls, we are always reminded of the great Arrigo Sacchi’s opinion on Steven Gerrard:

“He is a great footballer, but not a great player. He lacks what I call knowing-how-to-play football.”

Earls has all the tools to be a great player for Ireland, but he just does not fully convince. The defensive errors Earls makes at 13 are worryingly consistent and similar (e.g. Leinster 2009, Fat Manu 2011). In addition, one does not see huge development in Earls game since his breakthrough season in 2009 – contrast with Bob Kearney, who has come back from injury a much more rounded player than before, and  is a much better player even than he was in 2009, the previous peak of his powers. We’re unsure if Earls will improve as a player, or whether he is getting adequate guidance in this department. Caveat: the chopping and changing positionally is a major hindrance here.

There is also the mental side of things. When Earls is not completely psychologically clued into a game, he can be desperate. On his Lions debut, his nerves were palpable 6,000 miles away, and he succumbed with his first Garryowen. Fast forward to October – he flagged in the press a few days before the Wales quarter-final that he was thinking ahead of the game at hand, missed 5 tackles out of 8, and was at fault for all 3 tries. While his enthusiasm, as evidenced by the Superstar quote, or talking about wanting to go out there and run around and have fun, is endearing, it’s also a bit concerning that a professional sportsman talks like a 10 year old. It’s a classic mental mistake – thinking about the outcome and not the process – and it’s one that is repeatedly made.

Now, breathe.

Let us say this. If Earls is going to be the man, he must play all 5 games, even though over the course of five hard games, we can more or less say he will throw in one shocker. It’s important people remember that it’s essentially his first test level start in the shirt, and it won’t always be smooth. It’s also imperative because of Earls’ unique circumstances i.e. his fragile mentality. Earls must be trusted, and it must be made clear to him in advance he is trusted – not a Deccie trait (according to Donncha’s autobiog) it must be acknowledged.

We have outlined our reservations, but from this moment on we are fully behind him.  It’s important everyone is 100% supportive of Keet at 13 – he needs it, and Ireland need it. No-one will be happier than us if he delivers in the shirt in the series.  If and when he does have a bad game – hopefully it happens early on so he can finish on a high note – he must be backed (to be fair, this is a Deccie trait). And all the better if he starts showing increasing maturity, and even some evidence of embryonic leadership qualities – a totem is bowing out, and a man of Earls talent would be a proud successor …. if he can marshall it effectively. Fingers and toes crossed…