Stand-In Stand-Off

Peter O’Mahony’s ligindary feats on the wing well documented at this stage, with Triminjus only needing the most obtuse invitation to drop into dinner party conversations that he once played there in an AIL final, but he may have to start looking over his shoulder. When it comes to stand-in feats of extraordinary and unlikely versatility, there is a new sherriff in town. Step forward his Munster colleague Conor Murray in what must be a slow news week in rugby circles.

With JJ Hanrahan injured, Munster have only Ian Keatley available to play 10 in their Heineken Cup semi-final gainst Toulon, and if anything should happen to him, it appears that Murray is the closest thing they have to a backup. His credentials for the role are impeccable. According to The Indo’s Ruaidhri O’Connor he – get ready Triminjus– played there in the AIL for Garryowen (though not in a final, so maybe O’Mahony still wins that Top Trump contest), has been practicing his goal kicking in recent warm-ups, but most significantly of all, he worked with Neil Jenkins on the Lions tour. Neil Jenkins! Worked with! Lions Tour! Give the man the 10 jersey and proclaim him the new RADGE!

The alternative being considered by Penney is apparently Johne Murphy, the less said about which the better.

It’s a bit of a peculiar position for Munster to find themselves in, but so long as Ian Keatley can hop on one foot it’s unlikely to amount to anything terribly meaningful. Having three senior fly-halves is a luxury the Irish provinces haven’t had since Jeremy Manning traded his role as third choice at Munster (behind the never-injured ROG and classy utility back Paul Warwick) for Newcastle. It’s worth recalling that in the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, Geordan Murphy was nominally the third-choice 10. Leinster and Ulster were blessed to have the likes of Isa Nacewa and Paddy Wallace (and latterly Stuart Olding) who could perform functionally at 10 if required.

The scrum-half filling in at 10 is more of a French tradition, whereas in Ireland it’s usually the 12 (Wallace, Olding) or the 15 (Murphy, Nacewa, Warwick) who tends to take up the role in emergencies, although Tomas O’Leary once gave a decent 10 minutes against Italy while ROG was in the sin-bin for boldness. Munster’s preference for crash-ball 12s in James Downey and Denis Hurley means that isn’t an option, while Felix Jones doesn’t fit the bill of fly-half at all. Conor Murray, all round footballer that he is, does indeed look the best choice. And did I mention that he once played there in the AIL for Garryowen, and that he worked with Neil Jenkins on the Lions tour?

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Team in Focus: Munster

Last season: A curate’s egg.  For the first time, Munster failed to make it out of their HEC group, and were lamentable in their pivotal game in Toulon.  The sight of their scrum being shunted around the park and a collective loss of discipline appeared to mean the jig was up for McGahan.  But Munster salvaged a difficult year with a Magners League win, with particular satisfaction derived from beating their rivals to secure it.  The long and painful transition to a new era spearheaded by the likes of Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Felix Jones looks to have begun.

Season so far: business as usual, with five wins from seven in the Pro12. From a rudimentary scan of headlines in the Indo, Peter O’Mahoney appears to have cured the lepers and turned water into wine.

Prospects: This is a huge season for Munster, with one overriding objective: re-establishing themselves in Europe.  The Heineken Cup has always been the lifeblood of the province, and despite finishing with silverware last year, for most fans the season was a disappointment.  Failing to get to the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup just shouldn’t happen to Munster, and it never happened to the liginds.

It’s an objective that looks increasingly difficult.  Munster have been drawn with Northampton, beaten finalists last year, and travel to Castres (second in the Top 14) in Week Two.  A much-fancied Scarlets side makes up the group.

What sort of Munster team will be put out to face these sides?  A pretty unfamilar one, all told.  Generation Ligind, essentially the pack and halves that delivered two Heineken Cups, has all but passed into the next world.  Quinny has gone, Hayes and Horan will be bit part players, Flannery’s future is less certain than ever and David Wallace’s injury robs them of their primary carrier.  Dennis Leamy, no longer anything like the powerful, aggressive player of four years ago, may not make the team and Peter Stringer is now third – maybe fourth – choice scrummie. Stalwarts like Donncha are starting to fade, and the production line is not quite what it should be – Munster under-20s are poor, and have been passed out by Connacht.

The front row will likely be du Preez, Varley and Botha.  The success of the scrum entirely depends on Botha staying fit and in form.  His last season at Ulster was marred by injury and mediocrity; Munster will hope they have the 2009 version.  A creaky Munster scrum is nothing new, of course, but they are used to putting out top class second and back rows.

Paulie can still mix it with the best, and is fit and flying – he was missed hugely in the early stages of the HEC last year. Micko has been performing very creditably (and at a level above Donncha) for two years now – his experience will be a useful asset, though he may take a back seat to allow the likes of Donnacha Ryan is and Ian Nagle more gametime. Nagle is a prospect, but still a little underpowered, but is – he’s unlikely to feature at HEC level this year, but we are hoping Ludd gives him some Rabo action.

Moving back, the glory days of the Quinny-Wally-Axel axis are a dim and distant memory – the 2012 unit is likely to be Ryan/Leamy-O’Mahony-Coughlan.  Ryan seemed to finally break into the first team last year and played fairly well on World Cup duty with Ireland, but the jury is still out – he has only one HEC start, and that was in defeat to London Irish.  Coughlan is an honest, hard-working journeyman, but struggles against the better sides.  Peter ‘the son Hugh Farrelly never had’ O’Mahony is the wildcard – Munster fans had better hope he’s half as good as Farrelly thinks he is – otherwise they’ll be taking on Saints with the ineffectual Niall Ronan at openside. Paddy “Slievenamon” Butler was a barnstorming underage number 8 a few years back, but he hasn’t made it past first base yet – we’re hopeful he can breakthrough for some Rabo games at least.

At half, Conor Murray will likely own the 9 shirt for big games, unless Tomás gets back to 2009 form – and we aren’t optimistic on that front. ROG still has the fire, no doubt there, but he’s 34 now. As one of rugby’s most forthright, intelligent (and divisive) men, he will be aware managing succession is crucial to sustained success, but don’t expect him to be helping Keatley into the 10 jumper just yet.  Munster’s hopes will rest on ROG’s ability to turn dirty, slow ball into scores. Again. It’s not code red yet, but this looks like a potential problem position for Munster in two years’ time unless Keatley can prove himself HEC standard.

Outside the halves, it’s a huge pity that Felix Jones is injured; he added much to Munster’s attack in the second half of last season.  At centre – a problem position last season – Tuitupou has been swapped for Will Chambers, signed from Queensland Reds.  It should be an improvement (lets face it, Chambers would have to be pretty bad to be worse than Tuitupooooooooooooooohh), but a lot rests on the young shoulders of Danny Barnes.  There’s Lifeimi Mafi too, who was superb in the ML final last year, but hopeless (and pretty dirty) for most of the campaign. Keith Earls has class with ball in hand, but moving him around is guaranteed to maximise defensive mistakes – Ludd and Axel (and Keith) need to decide what they want him to be – he looks a winger to us, but many in the Cork Con Mafia media are convinced otherwise.

All told, it’s not a side to strike fear into top-class opponents the way the 2004-2009 vintage did.  Northampton will fancy themselves in the opening week visit to Thomond Park.  Munster will be relying more than ever on the great warriors Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara to navigate them through the tough games – it may be too much to ask.

Forecast: We think Munster will ultimately come second to Northampton.  The two will probably trade wins, and Thomond Park will remain a fortress, but Munster will probably need to get two wins on the road, and we just can’t see it.  In the Pro12, Munster’s ability to consistently churn out results against weaker sides will stand to them, and it’s impossible to see the semi-finals without them.  Another tilt at silverware is inevitable, but they may come up just short this time.

Kidney Shows Capacity for Surprise

We did not see it coming.  Tomás O’Leary, the blue-eyed boy, coached by Uncle Deccie since he was a schoolboy, given every chance – every chance – to play himself into any kind of form, is not going to the World Cup. Nor is fellow 2009 Grand Slammer and test Lion Luke Fitzgerald. The perils of trying to second guess Deccie are there for all to see. Just when you think you have him read, he pulls a huge surprise out of the bag, and backs it up with impenetrable nonsense at the press conference.

First of all, credit where it’s due. They are two seismic calls, and both are correct.  Tomás O’Leary played like a broken footballer on Sturday, to the point where he was simply a liability.  He needs to go back to Munster and start again from scratch – you find form against the Dragons and Glasgow’s of this world, not against France. In his place comes Conor Murray, a superb ball player who can travel, not just as back up, but as Ireland’s premier 9 – the tournament is now his oyster.

Luke Fitzgerald’s situation is more complicated.  He showed some sparkle in the warm up games, not least with two dashing breaks against France (he certainly outplayed Keith Earls). But dedicated full-back cover for Rob Kearney is essential, so Murphy simply had to go – although in a remarkable twist, he is only going due to this (we almost cried ourselves seeing his face). Fergus McFadden also merits his place on the plane, even if we didn’t see much of him over the last few weeks. He provides invaluable cover at centre as well as on the wing. Plus, you know what you’ll get from him, something that cannot be said for Fitzgerald in his current state. Then there’s Trimble, who is on fire. Luke just got squeezed out, and Earls may have been closer to the chop than anyone ever thought. Lets leave it at this – all of the backs on the plane have had better seasons than Luke, so on that basis, he deserves to be at home.

Elsewhere, Buckle edged out Hayes in the cripple-fight for the chance to get shunted around by the Russian pack, and Leamy and Ryan, as expected, swelled the ranks of touring blindsides, now a regular feature of Irish World Cups. We must accept that Jennings didn’t do enough when given his chance, and although McLaughlin deserved a better shot, he would not rectify the imbalance of the squad. Ryan’s selection is as a 4/6, which becomes interesting/superfluous when one reads of Fez training in the second row (and by Lord, how we need power there).

We are of the opinion that the three loss streak has played a part in this. Ireland sleepwalked through 50 minutes on Saturday, and it’s entirely possible Deccie’s intention is, at least to some extent, to light a fire under the players and jolt them into action. He’s certainly done that to us anyway – even if we predicted it. Kind of.

Anyway, hats off to the 30 going – your names are in lights below.  Fush and chups all round (2 fush for Mushy).

Ireland Rugby World Cup Squad 2011

Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster)
Isaac Boss (Terenure College/Leinster)
Tommy Bowe (Ospreys)
Tony Buckley (Sale Sharks)
Tom Court (Malone/Ulster)
Sean Cronin (Leinster)
Leo Cullen (Blackrock College/Leinster)
Gordon D’Arcy (Lansdowne/Leinster)
Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster)
Stephen Ferris (Dungannon/Ulster)
Jerry Flannery (Shannon/Munster)
Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster)
Jamie Heaslip (Naas/Leinster)
Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster)
Denis Leamy (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Fergus McFadden (Old Belvedere/Leinster)
Geordan Murphy (Leicester Tigers)
Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster)
Sean O’Brien (Clontarf/Leinster)
Donncha O’Callaghan (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Paul O’Connell (Young Munster/Munster)
Brian O’Driscoll (UCD/Leinster) Captain
Ronan O’Gara (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Eoin Reddan (Lansdowne/Leinster)
Mike Ross (Clontarf/Leinster)
Donnacha Ryan (Shannon/Munster)
Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster)
Andrew Trimble (Ballymena/Ulster)
Paddy Wallace (Ballymena/Ulster)
David Wallace (Garryowen/Munster)

World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 2

It sort of crept up on us. One minute it was the middle of the summer and the next Ireland were playing an international rugby match.  Declan Kidney named his team at luncheon yesterday, and true to form, trying to infer a whole lot from it is like trying to pick up mercury with a fork.   It’s hard to reason that the selection advances or hinders anyone’s possibilites of touring.
First of all, there is good news that Rob Kearney, Jerry Flannery and Tomas O’Leary are back in action and fit for selection.  Expect to see Kearney and O’Leary feature heavily over the next four weeks – both are seen by management as key First XV players, and both need the gametime badly.  Given Flannery’s history of aborted comebacks, management might be more careful with regards to him, but we expect he will be dying to get out and play.

Now for the spots still up for grabs:

  • This was possibly Conor Murray’s best chance of seeing action, and his touring chances could be receding.  There have been indications he is not considered as close to the squad as we had hoped, and this is another.
  • In the backline it’s a big opportunity for McFadden to show what he can do.  He’s pretty adept at 13 as well as 12 – we all know how well he played last year, he just needs to take up where he left off.
  • Don’t worry too much about Niall Ronan’s surprise appearance.  The Lunsterman had a pretty ineffectual season last year, and won’t be anywhere near the final squad.  He’s just keeping the shirt warm – Jennings is available for selection next week and Wally and SOB will be in the mix too, so Ronan will be thanked for his time and bundled back home.
  • Confession time – we know next to nothing about Mike McCarthy, though we understand he had a good seaon last year for Connacht.  He’s probably behind Locky and Donncha Ryan in the shake-up for the 4/6 spot (although Brendan Fanning suspects otherwise), but we look forward to seeing him
  • Ligind watch: the entire Munster 2008 front row is on the bench – we could see a very poignant triple substitution around the 60 minute mark
Finally, it’s great to see Leo Cullen captain the side, the 100th man to lead out his country.  The Wicklow lock has been harshly treated in the past, and while he may not be the most eye-catching player, he is a fine captain, firm but polite in dealing with referees, and he knows when to talk and when to walk away.

And, regarding the game itself, it could be a scrappy affair (read: GRIM). Scotland look to have a slightly stronger pack out and should just about shade it.

Did somebody order a Power of Four wristband?

On tuesday, Egg Chaser took a look at the forwards he expects to be jostling for position on the flight down under. It’s still a long way off, so we’re not all going to agree. One commenter even made a case for Mushy Buckley as a Lion, so at the risk of upsetting any Johne Murphy fans out there, here we go with the backs…

Scrum half

Pole Position: Ben Youngs is exactly the sort of scrum half you’d want to take on the Aussies.  Struggled a little in the latter portion of the season but has plenty of time to iron out the kinks in his game.

Look out for: Conor Murray. The Munster scrum half had a breakthrough lat year, and looks every inch the complete player. Should be Ireland’s first choice nine next season.

Needs to improve: The 2009 Lions Mike Philips and Tomas O’Leary will need to get their mojo back to be in the mix.

Too late for: Eoin Reddan will be pushing over the hill by 2013.

Fly half

Pole Position: Jonny Sexton looks by far the most complete and reliable of the options.  Needs to bring consistency to his game at test level, and the shirt is his.  Toby Flood would provide ample back-up.

Look out for: George Ford is already causing excited mutterings among England fans, who wouldn’t overhype a player lightly.  He is just 18, but served notice of his considerable talent in the recent U20 World Cup.

Needs to improve: James Hook has talent in abundance and wants to play more at fly-half but must learn to boss the game to be a Lions 10.

Too late for: The 2009 fly halves ROG and Stephen Jones will be past their best by the time 2013 rolls around.

Centres

Pole Position: Brian O’Driscoll will have to have the shirt torn from his back.  His body may give up before 2013, but for now he is still in poll position.  No inside centre currently stands out.

Look out for: Manu Tuilagi is the man who could take over from BOD.  He has some work to do on his defence, but looks explosive with the ball.  Fergus McFadden will be the established Ireland 12 by this stage and should be pushing for a spot.
It’s early days for two very young players who should make big strides between now and then: Scottish centre Mark Bennett has just signed for Clermont and is hoped to be the quality centre Scottish rugby has lacked for so long, while Luke Marshall will become a key player at Ulster next year.

Needs to improve: If Jamie Roberts can regain the form he showed in 2009, he is a nailed on tourist. But he has never looked the same player since.

Too late for: Possibly BOD and almost certainly Dorce.

Back Three

Pole position: Generally the most unpredictable, as form plays a huge part. On the left wing, Keith Earls and Max Evans look the most likely, while on the right it is hard to see Ashton and Bowe being displaced.  Ben Foden looks the real deal at 15, though Rob Kearney can challenge if he recovers from injury and adds greater variety to his counterattacking game.

Look out for: Lee 0.5p has been bedevilled by injuries, but if he can get back on track he can be world class.  Llanelli’s starlet George North also looks set to make a big impression, while Tim Visser becomes Scottish qualified next year, and if he can take his try-scoring exploits to test level will certainly be a Lion.

Needs to improve: Luke Fitzgerald endured a difficult season and needs to get back to his pre-injury form. If Oooooooooohhh Matt Banahan can add pace, a sidestep, softer hands, a brain and defensive positioning to his bulk, he could contend for a spot on the plane.

Too late for: Lee Byrne will be pushing 32, while it looks a tour too far for Shane Williams.

After the Six Nations next season, we’ll revisit and see how our Lions Ladder is looking.  No doubt we’ll try to rewrite history to make it look like we were right all along.

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Scrum Halves

Last week we looked at the forwards, and this week we turn our attention to the backs. As per previous posts, we think a 16-14 split is how Deccie is going to go, and we are breaking the forwards down into three scrum halves, five inside backs (fly halves and centres) and six outside backs.

How many will go? Three. We can’t see any deviation here. Ireland tend not to do Pienaar types who can play multiple positions, so we will bring three specialists.

Who is certain to travel? Unless he is struck by lightning, Ponderous Tomás is on the plane, and even if he was, Deccie might bring him anyway. WoC reckons Deccie saw David Pocock in action in November 2009, and pencilled TOL in for the Aus game two years  in advance. 18 months of hot stepping, ugly passing and injuries have not changed a thing – O’Leary is Deccie’s first choice 9.

Eoin Reddan also appears secure, despite being as inconsistent as ever. When Reddan is good, like in the second half of the HEC final, he is the best we have, but when he is bad, like against Toulouse, he is terrible. However despite having neither the best defence (O’Leary), best pass (Stringer, up to recently anyway), best break (Boss) or best kicking (Murray), he is the best composite player, and deserves to be first choice.

O’Leary and Reddan can start learning the words to the second verse of Ireland’s Call.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? A three-way fight here, between three imperfect candidates. Firstly, the Passer. Peter Stringer is now a veteran, and is beginning to play like one. His pass, when it is on song, still fizzes with dangerous possibility, but it is increasingly erratic and unreliable. Even McGahan doesn’t see Strings as a big game player any more. He is odds-against at this stage.

Next, the Future. Since the time Tony McGahan finally bowed to the clarion calls of the more thoughtful of the Munster faithful and gave Conor Murray his chance after the liginds had bowed out of the HEC, he has been a revelation. Wristy pass, physicality, good game management and great box-kicking. The kid appears to have it all. However, it must be acknowledged he hasn’t played any rugby close to test-level intensity i.e. the HEC or international level. It is a huge risk to take an essentially untested player to the World Cup.

Finally, the Mullet. Hugo “Isaac” Boss has been an effervescent presence at Leinster, with his solidity and experience gelling together Joe Schmidt’s “away” HEC team. However, as the season went on, opportunities seemed to dry up, and given that Deccie hasn’t given him game time this season (although he is named in the extended squad anounced on Friday), Boss is another more possible than probable.

Of the three above, Murray is possibly just about favourite to make the trip now. It’s becoming ever more difficult to make a case for Stringer, and Boss seems to be at the back of the queue. However, Boss should be seriously considered. Not just for his play this season, but also for his partnership with Reddan. At Leinster, the pair have the happy knack of improving the team when they interchange – they offer different threats and dovetail very effectively – they are an off-the-shelf scrum-half team ideal for tournament play.

Were it down to us we would definitely take Murray and Reddan, and have a look at how O’Leary and Boss pitch up in August.  If O’Leary can show something like his 2009 form, he would be on our plane, but it is a long time since he has looked the part – right now we would have Boss in poll position.

Any bolters? Murray, of course. The Munster fan sites have been touting him for a while, and he hasn’t disappointed from the moment he got the red 9 shirt. His Ireland underage colleague Paul Marshall has looked spritely this season, but is a little light – this is a year too soon for him.

Should go: Isaac Boss, Eoin Reddan, Conor Murray
Will go: Tomás O’Leary, Eoin Reddan, Conor Murray

John Hayes, Your Country Needs You!

As the season rumbled to a close, Whiff of Cordite managed the miracle of being in two places at one time (well, there are two of us I suppose) to get a view of all the action. Some things we noticed:

Munster deserved the Cup. They have struggled on the big occasion this season, but their consistency in the league is admirable. They played the final with an intensity Leinster couldn’t dredge up after their heroics last week. McGahan deserves some credit for switching his selecion policy mid-season to putting faith in youth, and a number of gems have been unearthed. Top of the class is Conor Murray, who, it could be argued, should not only travel to New Zealand, but be Ireland’s starting 9.

John Hayes is going to the World Cup. Munster’s scrum has improved beyond all recognition in the last couple of months, and the big Bruff man has surely seen off the non-challenge of Tony Buckley for a spot on the RWC plane. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the somewhat rejuventaed Marcus Horan could join him – swallow dive and off-the-ball hit notwithstanding.

The Flying Fattie still has it. Rupeni Caucaunibuca is one player we really hope to see in the World Cup. Spare tyre or otherwise, the sight of this huge man running the length of the pitch in the final moments of Toulouse’s semi-final win was surely the moment of the weekend. A shout-out to rugby genius Maxime Medard is also in order.

Thank heavens for Schalk Brits. Amid the Premiership drudge-fests at least there’s Schalk to keep up the fun-quotient. Saracens’ ridiculously dynamic hooker put in a man-of-the-match performance to swing an otherwise drab final for his side. He lit the place up, and his try-saving tackle on Alesana Tuilagi was the stuff of greatenss. South Africa are missing a trick if both he and Richardt Strauss are sitting at home this September, as is likely.

As for Montpellier‘s fairytale adventure, we’ll be having a closer look at just how the second-favourites for relegation at the start of the season have found themselves in the Top 14 Final a little later in the week.