Keep The Boks Down

Hello? Is there anyone out there? Is no-one listening to us?? We wouldn’t blame you – we haven’t been saying much recently due to <kids> and <stuff>. Sorry – we’re doing our best. To those who recognised us on our double date in the terrace with the Leinster ultras for the Pro12 semi – we’re touched, and the Ulsterman will be back. And maybe they’ll even win! Maybe.

Anyway, enough about the provinces, what about Ireland? We are still taking it in – we beat South Africa … in South Africa … with 14 men … for an hour! And we beat them well. I know the Boks are in organisational disarray with a new coach and having finally (mostly) moved on from the 2009 Lions generation, but still. As this season went on, Ireland have looked increasingly tired and uninspired, and the performance was completely out of the blue.

We think Schmidt is a better coach than Eddie or Deccie, but there was a definite sense of the malaise which took hold of those camps in 2007 and 2011 setting in. Our defence was passive and narrow, our attack virtually non-existent and the coach, with his conservative selection against the likes of Italy and his seeming refusal to consider a more expansive attacking gameplan (“Jared has never trained at fullback”), seemed ready to hunker down.

But a couple of things were happening. The first was a dose of some Traditional Wigan Values. Ireland hired Andy Farrell back in January, but he was only allowed to work in Axel’s Breakfast Club until June, and he has only had 2 weeks with the players – but there was a marked increase in aggression and line speed. It felt from the outside that perhaps Ireland needed a fresh voice, and it is to Schmidt’s credit that he has the humility to hire a man like Farrell, who is not going to be shy about expressing his opinions. When Deccie went looking for new blood after Gert Smal left (temporarily then permanently) in 2012, he ended up with Axel, plus a re-shaken dogs dinner of a ticket with Kissy as both defence and attack coach – in contrast, Schmidt has been backed by the Union to spend big and get one of the best around – and the impact looks immediate.

The other big thing to happen has been injuries. Joe Schmidt’s first choice fullbacks in his tenure have been Bob Kearney, Felix Jones and Zeebs – all of whom were unavailable to tour. When Schmidt was asked in the squad presser (which was, something a bid bonkers really, 4 days after the squad announcement) about who would be fullback, he mentioned Stuart Olding, Tiarnan O’Halloran .. and one of his centres moving back, then talked about Henshaw specifically. We felt that Payne was simply not going to be moved from the 13 jumper.

The argument has always been that Payne is our defensive linchpin and we just have to keep him there or we are risking anarchy – but we never really bought that one. Firstly, the system should never be that dependent on personnel that we cannot consider moving one guy (if it is true that Payne never lined out at 15 during training in the 6N, that’s poor), and secondly, Robbie Henshaw is a pretty good outside centre – he plays there for Connacht and they just won the Pro12. We never thought we would lose much by moving Henshaw out one and switching Payne to fullback – Henshaw is also an excellent defender, and the extra space at 13 allows him to offer more than crashing up the middle. We would then have a few options at inside centre, all Ulstermen; McCloskey (not touring, but very similar to de Allende, and a man who gets metres every time .. but is too loose for Schmidt), Bamm-Bamm (Test experience at 12, good passer, excellent defender and a good kicking game .. but playing 13 for Ulster to accommodate the Bangor Bulldozer) and Olding (classic second five, but just back from injury) – none of which you’d say aren’t worth a look at the very least.

But we digress – injury struck, and Payne was the man picked to play 15, and it was a remarkable success, for him, for Henshaw and for Marshall, who looks like a Test match animal. One can only hope that this wasn’t a temporary injury-enforced change and that we will go back to basics in November (who could have foreseen that Payne would be a brilliant fullback eh?), but it’s had an impact on our attacking play, arguably introducing a greater element of unpredictability in all three positions. Its a pretty depressing thought that injury continues to be our best selector.

Of course, we also lost Sexton as well, but we didn’t notice that much – Paddy Jackson had a very good game, and even kicked (one of) his drop goals! We had worried before the game that one Jackson start in three years, in a meaningless RWC warm up, perhaps wasn’t the best way of preparing for an injury to your injury-prone outhalf, but Jackson stepped in effortlessly. He is, in our opinion, the best passer in the country, but he kicked 86% of possession, something very Schmidt/Sexton-y.

Now, to address the Stander red. We’ve watched it a few times, and we think it was a red card – it was dangerous play, and there was no need for Stander to turn his hip into Lambie’s head. As with Jared Payne vs Saracens a few years ago, as soon as we saw it, we thought ” uh-oh, the red might be in play here” – and if you think it is, you can argue it’s a harsh red, but can’t complain too much.

Back to the bigger picture – we won by 6 points having played an hour down a man – what’s that benchmarked to – a 15/20 point win? It was comprehensive, and South Africa were a rabble at the end, short on inspiration, leadership and guile. They just didn’t seem to understand what was happening. And they are already making their excuses, with Coetzee claiming Ireland weren’t interested in playing rugby – but surely that’s what a Springbok coach wants? A team who will try and take them on up front and let themselves be mashed into the turf by large tough men? This is a team who are there for the taking – and we should be winning this series from here.

Now, the good news is that it is looking like the only player we will be down is CJ Stander, and only for one match. Given we are down a useful XV of injured players, that’s a break we need to make the most of. Amazingly, three of our bench didn’t play (or need to play) in Cape Town, but will that wash at 1,700m? Certainly, we don’t expect any experimentation – while we were pretty disappointed with Schmidt’s Italy selection in the Six Nations, but this time we’re going to get into bed with the flat earthers and say that a must-win Test in Ellis Park is no place for making changes. If the Springboks find their feet in Jo’burg, the final Test could be a train wreck.

We expect Ruddock to slot in for Stander, with Sean Reidy on the bench (gulp) – we’d want to see Henderson at 6 with Dillane into the team, but it isn’t Schmidt’s style, and he seems to see Henderson as purely a second row. Else, as you were – the rest of the lads will be needed in PE. The Springboks are there to be beaten – let’s bloody beat them.

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Dear Bryan, fancy free entry into Coppers any night you want?

Leinster’s signing of Zane Kirchner hasn’t exactly inspired the troops – a fan base used to foreign backs like Pippo Contepomi and Isa Nacewa (both Leinster legends) just doesn’t like what they see in Kirchner. There was a desire for a gassy specialist wing to come in – Leinster have a lot of players who can play on the wing, but very few out-and-out wingers. A pre-injury Drew Mitchell would have been ideal, for example.

Kirchner is a full-back who has played in the 3/4 line – he has accumulated 24 caps for the Springboks but is primarily known for his Sideshow haircut and his propensity for occasional clangers. He has a massive boot and is a decent counter-attacker, but doesn’t exactly know where the whitewash is – he has 3 tries in 22 starts vs 47 in 81 for Bryan Habana, 14 in 41 for JP Pietersen and 5 in 13 for Gio Aplon. It’s safe to say Leinster fans are underwhelmed, but could they really have done any better?

With it being exactly mid-RWC cycle, you aren’t going to get All Black or Wallaby contenders going north, as they won’t get picked for the national side. The Boks are less shy about picking overseas-based players, so your market is essentially South Africa and Europe (acknowledging most Argentinian / Pacific Islander pros ply their trade in Europe).

Plus there are some differences between the market now, and the market when the provinces were picking up the likes of Dr Phil, Isa, Dougie Howlett, Jean de Villiers, Ruan Pienaar, BJ Botha, John Afoa and Rocky Elsom. The major one being the financial power of the French clubs vis-a-vis the poor mouth Irish.  Indeed, even the far-flung Japanese league has enough financial muscle behind it to lure big names.  And while the ‘Player Succession Rules’ appear to be trapped in a terminal limbo, we can at least infer that the IRFU is less enthused than ever about recruiting expensive overseas layers.  Digby Ioane has just effectively come on the market, but even if Leinster moved heaven and earth to try and sign him, there is no way they could afford him.  The French or Japanese would simply outbid for him; he can effectively name his price as one of the best wingers in the world.

If Leinster are in the market for, say, a world class outside back from South Africa, they are competing against Toulon and Racing Metro. So it goes like this:

  • Top Class: Bryan Habana, Digby Ioane. Forget about it, Toulon will outbid you. And if they don’t, there are half a dozen other French or Japanese clubs who will
  • International Class: JP Pietersen. If no French clubs are interested, you have a chance, but how likely is that? Pietersen is in his prime, has bags of experience and demands Springbok selection when fit. If there are interested French clubs you are struggling from day one
  • Super Rugby Class: Zane Kirchner. Kirchner is mostly in the Bok team these days and has never fully convinced at the highest level. If the best French clubs, those who compete in the HEC, aren’t too bothered you have a shot

So Leinster’s universe was basically South Africans who don’t own a Springbok shirt – not ideal.

Ulster will face a similar problem replacing John Afoa – what prop will turn down a French team to play Pro12 rugby when you can have a situation where you can get more money for playing 50 minute games in a top-class league? Take Zurib Kubriashvili for example, out of favour this season and leaving Toulon in the summer – leaving aside the umbilical link between Georgian props and the Top14, if he leaves Toulon, as it reported, would Ulster even be at the table when it comes to serious offers? They would be outbid by any interested French club, and it’s hard to sell dreary Belfast as an alternate to the South of France.  Rumour has it he’ll end up at Wasps, another club with some newfound financial clout behind them.

Irish provinces have had a decade of dining at the top table when it comes to world class talent, but that era is ending – Kirchner is a good player and everything, but let’s say Leinster rolled up the money and sent it in a big bag to Craig Gilroy (not currently a starter for Ulster when everyone is fit), would the fans be any less happy? Would Leinster be any worse off? And would it be worse for Irish rugby in the round? Clearly Ulster lose out, but they have a few wings and get some recompense. Just saying like.

[Disclaimer: this piece was written by Egg the Ulsterman]

 

Square Pegs, Round Holes

Yesterday we pored over Ireland’s options in the forward units, decrying a lack of beef available to replace the injured players.  But in the backline, there’s a whole other set of problems.  Rob Kearney and Brian O’Driscoll are injured, robbing the team of its captain and its mainstay at full-back, and best player over the last year.

With Geordan Murphy retired and Luke Fitzgerald and Gavin Duffy injured, Ireland don’t have much in the way of experienced back-ups at full-back.  Meanwhile, replacing BOD in the centre is not a task that comes easily to anyone.  Before looking at what options are available (and we do have some), here are a few important factors that need to be considered when trying to patch together a back division for next week’s test.

  1. South Africa kick a lot.  The Saffers love nothing more than booting the ball into orbit and sending their flying wings (with enormous flankers in hot pursuit) chasing after it.  Whoever is selected at full-back should know they’ll be in for a long day if they are not comfortable fielding high balls.  This does suggest a preference for a specialist at 15, as opposed to shoe-horning someone into the role.
  2. Gordon D’arcy will start.  D’arcy has copped a lot of flak for some less than eye-catching form in green, and he was pretty useless in the Six Nations.  But every time we think it’s safe to strike a line through his name he comes back again.  His form for Leinster since returning from injury has been excellent and merits selection for the first test in the series.
  3. Conor Murray will start.  From Stuart Barnes to the dogs on the street, just about everyone wants to see Sexton paired with his provincial team-mate Eoin Reddan, whose game is tailor made to get Johnny on the front foot and in control.  But Kidney and co., already mindful of a beef-deficiency, will stick with Conor Murray.  Before groaning loudly, it’s worth noting that Murray is playing reasonably well so far this season, his Paris horror-show aside.
  4. The Saffer back-line is big, but not monstrous.  Jean de Villiers is a big fellow but their biggest unit, Frans Steyn, is injured. But the South Africa back-line isn’t quite on the super-sized scale of the Welsh unit.  Nor are they likely to cut Ireland up with dashing moves and outrageous skill.  On top of all this, there’s some talk of experimentation and using the tour to build for the 2015 World Cup.  This is not a South Africa team to be feared.  Kidney and co. should concentrate on getting the best players they can on the pitch and not be too mindful of giving up a few kilos here and there.  The likes of Gordon D’arcy and Keith Earls punch well above their weight.
  5. Experience and players playing in their best position count for a lot.  We’d encourage Kidney to put as few square pegs in round holes as he can.  Against this, he has to balance up a requirement to ensure the backline isn’t too callow.  Darren Cave at 13, Felix Jones at 15 and Simon Zebo at 11 might sound exciting on paper, but it’s very raw, with three novices out of five in the back division.

With all that in mind, the options avilable, as we see them, are as follows.

The Specialists – 15 Jones, 14 Bowe, 13 Earls, 12 D’arcy, 11 Zebo/Trimble

Be Happy: Everyone is playing in their natural position and we’ve a proper full-back on the pitch, and one with an exciting counter-attacking game too.  Earls’ performances at 13 in the last 12 months should have convinced the doubters at this stage that he’s up to task – we were one of them ourselves.

Be Worried: Felix Jones is just back from a(nother) lengthy lay-off and has only had one start with Munster, at home to that European powerhouse Zebre.  He’ll have another this weekend, but it’s a massive risk to throw such an inexperienced and injury-prone player in at the deep end like that.  Earls himself is also recovering from injury and has not played since the Leinster game in Lansdowne Road.

The Strike Runners- 15 Earls, 14 Trimble, 13 Bowe, 12 D’arcy, 11 Zebo

Be Happy: why not just try and get all our best strike runners on to the pitch?  This would necessitate bringing Bowe off the wing, which would create room for both Trimble and Zebo, two wings in a rich vein of form.  Alternatively, Bowe and Earls could switch jumpers, with Bowe more reliable under the high ball.

Be Worried: Bowe may be solid under the high ball but once he catches it, he isn’t the best kicker in the world.  Reverting to Bowe at centre, then, and you’d have two players out of position, and Bowe hasn’t played 13 in a significant game in a long time, with perhaps too much weight being put on a good performance there for the Lions over three years ago.

The Cavemen- 15 Earls, 14 Bowe, 13 Cave, 12 D’arcy, 11 Zebo/Trimble

Be Happy: On the face of it, the most balanced selection, with Darren Cave coming into the centre.  He’s perhaps the most BOD-like 13 available.  That would allow Bowe to stay in his best position, while Earls would have to ready himself for an aerial onslaught.

Be Worried: Earls at 15 and an outside centre making his first test start.  And besides, what if Earls is injured?  Bringing Jones in would leave the backline way too inexperienced.

The Ooooooooooooohhh – 15 Hurley, 14 Bowe, 13 McFadden, 12 Downey, 11 Trimble

Be Happy: Ooooooooooohhh, those Saffers are awfully big chaps.  Let’s fight fire with fire and get our most physical, bosh-tastic backline out on the pitch.  We can almost hear Barnesy gearing up already.

Be Worried: Ireland don’t need to be any more dull to watch than they already are.

What’s the hell is going on at… Ulster

Concern is growing for Ulster after another meek defeat in the AAA-Bank12.  A feeble 17-9 defeat left them empty handed from their trip to Glasgow, and leaves them 8th in the table, just 2 points ahead of Connacht and nine points behind the team in fourth place, which happens to be Glasgow.

It’s a worrying state of affairs for a team that finished third in what looked to be a breakthrough season last time around.  Last year’s Ulster were characterised by the number of tight victories they squeezed out, many of them won late in the day by Ruan Pienaar; this year’s model look to have lost that ability.  They are, admittedly, missing the ice-veined Suthifrikan, who is currently injured.  Another being badly missed is Jared Payne, the outstanding Kiwi signed to play full-back, who is out for the season.  Their troubles began in losing three in a row during the World Cup, amid a general sense that their much vaunted youngsters hadn’t quite grasped their opportunity, and they just haven’t got going at all yet.

The Glasgow match was the second week in a row that Ulster were in the game for the most part (the previous one being Leicester), before losing a try late in the day.  This time it was due to poor alignment and organisation, with Trimble allowing a gap for David Lemi to breeze into.  It’s also Ulster’s second week in a row without a try, and their attack is becoming an issue.  For a team with a relatively heralded backline, their attaking play has been littered with errors; poor passes, dropped ball, and little or no cutting edge in the opposition’s 22. 

Marshall is a good scrum half, albeit not in the Pienaar class, and with a tendency to box kick too often (well, he is an Irish scrum half, so what’s new?).  iHumph will never be everyone’s cup of tea, but he is at least an inventive touch player. In the absence of Paddy Wallace (recovering from a broken finger), the centre combination of Spence and Cave is full of hard running, but it’s all a bit boshtastic – they miss the subtlety that Paddy brings to their game.  Andy Trimble has plenty of gas and power outside them, but he’s spending his time trying to step through heavy traffic – someone needs to try and put him into some space.

A backline often lives and dies by the backrow in front of it – after all, you could have Ma’a Nonu and BOD in midfield, but if you can’t get them any quick ball, they would look ordinary.  Casting a glance over Ulster’s loose trio, it does look as if this is where their problems lie.  Ferris is outstanding, but all of Diack, Wannenberg, Henry or Falloon are in the ‘decent but not great’ category.  More often than not, the Ulster backrow looks imbalanced, with three contact-magnets trying to bosh their way through midfield.  They look better when Faloon, a good link man, plays well, but he needs to start performing with a bit more consistency.

The Heineken knock-outs look a step beyond Ulster this year (it probably requires them to beat Leicester 4-0 at home and get something from the trip to Clermont), and the Magners League playoffs look a long way off at the moment.  Ospreys are showing no sign of letting up, Leinster and Munster will surely stay in the top four, Glasgow are going well and Scarlets look to be up and running with all their internationals back.  It has all the hallmarks of being a(nother) disappointing season up north.