Five Years of Hurt

That was a tough series for Ireland wasn’t it? And we won it – the first and second test wins in Argentina. Argentina is a tough-ass place to go in June – long journey, different seasons, no-one, no-one, speaks English, plied with Malbec, tough local backrow forwards smelling blood looking to make a name. And all after a seriously intense season – we’ll remember this year for the Championship win in Joe Schmidt’s first season, but when Paul O’Connell comments on the intensity of the Schmidt regime from day one, you can be sure, its physically and mentally demanding. Its ten months since Schmidt first got his hands on these players, and in this, the final action of the season, he has made sure he has got his pound of flesh, with no let-off in the demands – as high as ever.

And rightly so – in the weekend England assured us that they will be RWC contenders (with Chris Ashton’s WINNING try! What? They lost? So why did he do that stupid dive? … never mind .. prick), South Africa showed us the standards we will need to attain, and we don’t have long to get there – no wonder the Milky Bar Kid is in a rush. Fatigue can wait, there are trophies to win – and its not the Guillermo Brown Cup he cares about.

So short-term, results-wise, the tour was a success and Joe Schmidt got more time with the squad. What about the longer term planning for RWC15? Well, we learned four things from this tour:

  1. In the month Fez retired, Rhys Ruddock showed his credentials as an international backrow – with SOB already awaiting re-integration to a high-functioning unit, this is a “good problem” for Schmidt. With injury rates as they are, having Ruddock (and Diack and Murphy) around is useful
  2. Brian O’Driscoll and Dorce’s partnership will be very tough to replace – more of this later
  3. There is room for Zimon Zeebs in a Joe Schmidt technocrat rugby team – we finally got a glimpse of his game-breaking in the second test. Andy Trimble and Little Bob are a little samey if you want to beat the best, Zebo can offer the *groans* X-factor that we might need. Although, we scored plenty of tries in the Six Nations – we aren’t fully bought into the idea that we need flair for flairs sake, but Zebo is a great player and its great to see him involved
  4. Rodney Ah Here. Ah here

Now, to the centres. We said ahead of the tour the biggest to-do was to start the post-BOD process. After a decade of Dorce-and-BOD plenty, we might be realizing how tough its going to be to replace not just the greatest player in our history, but his reliable sidekick as well – any player wearing 13 is already going to be damned by “well, he isn’t Brian” comment, but then any breakdown in communication with their centre partner will be magnified into a “well, where is Dorce” situation.

Darren Cave played well in the first test, but had a bit of a shocker in Tucuman – the Irish midfield was pourous looking all game, and then not having the pace to finish off the try felt terminal for his international ambitions – even for us used to the one-paced Dorce/BOD combo, Cave looked like he was running in clay. Outside him, Ferg was gamey but doesn’t really have the distributive skills for an international 13. Bamm-Bamm was withdrawn early in the first test with (another) possible concussion, and hasn’t quite got a Plan B into his game yet. So we are 0 from 3 when it comes to new centres – and, as we said before the tour, the point of the tour was really to start this process, so its basically been a bit of a fail in that regard, and the games before RWC15 are slipping by.

The next to audition cohort is likely to go be Kiwi attacking talent with dodgy defence Jared Payne, pure-bred rosey cheeked bosh merchant Robbie Henshaw, and creative youngster Stuart Olding, who will all likely get a callup in November, and hopefully gametimes – its getting very late for experimentation, but desperate times etc.

Its very easy to say we need to get behind BOD (and soon to be Dorce’s) successors, but we need to know who they are first – we sucked deeply on the addictive weed that was BOD to get our Championship win, but we are liable to pay now, and time before RWC15 is short. In 2012, we exhorted folk to stand behind Keith Earls, be aware he was likely to make a few defensive clangers, but give him time to grow in the 13 jersey – we did, and he did, but then he was clearly the best option. Now its not as clear.

If we were betting folk, and we wouldn’t ever do something that is so abonimable to God, we think Joe might decide on a Dorce/Keith Earls centre partnership for the RWC and play it in the Six Nations – they are known international quantities and dovetailed well in 2012, and they are the lowest risk to meet a short-term need. If there is a player to play their way into that base scenario, its probably Payne – Olding is likely to be backup fodder until he breaks into the Ulster starting XV, and Henshaw is very raw. Which makes the whole “future” debate essentially about RWC19 – for RWC15, we just need to get something in place, and quickly.

Cnetre-wise, all we can say after Argentina is that Ferg is an emergency option (at best), Cave probably doesn’t have it and Marshall needs to put his health first. Mind you, no-0ne said this was going to be easy.

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Future Now

So in the longer term, the day of Ireland’s first test win on Argentinian soil will probably be remembered less than Humph leaving Ulster for Gloucester (!) – we’ll get back to that later this week. The game, if it was memorable for anything, will be remembered as 1 CE, the first of the post-BOD era. Given we’re already on RWC15 countdown, its damn important we get someone comfortable in the jersey pronto.

First up was Darren Cave. How did he do? Fine actually – the defensive system looked good, he did the simple things well (except that Rivelino-style banana kick), he brought those around him into play, he threatened the line and he didn’t look out of place in the shirt. There is no point judging him by O’Driscoll standards, or even by Manu or Smuddy standards, as some seem so keen to do – he’s clearly not at that level. What he is is competent and solid – and that’s what he showed. Cave himself doesn’t seem to expect to last beyond this tour in the shirt, but, right now, he’s the best option there – Henshaw is injured and has little experience, Luke Roysh has that worrying perma-injury thing going on that often precedes retirement, the Kildare Lewis Moody hasn’t started a game of note at 13 in years and Jared Payne is both still Kiwi and a rare starter at 13. Keith Earls is the likeliest possible challenger, if he starts there for Munster next year. Time, perhaps, to start dialing down our expectations, begin appreciating what Cave can do, rather that point out who he isn’t.

One of the other winners was Robbie Diack, who, one awful piece of butchery aside, had a good day at the office, and certainly outshone Jordi Murphy – that is significant, as, the 2007 Blindside Army aside, Ireland have taken 5 backrow forwards to the last few tournaments. You would think Heaslip, POM, SOB and Chris Henry are inked in, which leaves 1, and 2 at most, places left. Murphy and Diack are battling it out with Rhys Ruddock for those slots (save for a bolter) – and, given Murphy might struggle for starts in big games next season, Diack might have stolen a march on him.

Aside from that – Simon Zebo looked eager but occasionally naive, Iain Henderson to the manor born, Mike Ross flogged and Johnny Sexton imperious – what’s new. While its great to see Zebo back, other wingers were more prominent – Andy Trimble looked (unsurprisingly) better versed in what Schmidt wingers do, and Miguel Montero simply looked monstrous – Zebo has more work to do to get himself in the RWC15 frame. Hendy was so awesome that Big Dev, possibly Ireland’s find of the season, might find himself back on the bench – his soft hands to set Jack McGrath piling into some Puma forwards at high velocity were gorgeous. The future has arrived.

The jury is split between whether we’ll see wholesale changes or a similar lineup, but assuredly the Milky Bar Kid won’t be impressed with the error count – too many missed tackles and a bit passive at times – end of season mental fatigue maybe. Ho hum, and maybe we’re just trying to read a little too much into these games at the fag end of a wondrous season.

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.

Oh Captain, My Captain

Brian O’Driscoll was announced as Ireland captain for the November series yesterday.  But, at the risk of commiting heresy, we must ask: is he the right man for the job?  The answer is still a ‘yes’, but it’s worth taking some time to think through.

Time waits for no man, as they say, and just as the clock has ticked past the point where Ronan O’Gara should be an international selection, so too it will reach the point where BOD is no longer the best 13 in the country.  That day may not necessarily coincide with the day the great man retires, and could even precede it.  At some point the time may come when BOD has to be left out of the Ireland team.

It’s worth casting an eye over the form-book.  BOD has played poorly in Leinster’s two Heineken Cup games this season.  Against Exeter he was guilty of taking insufficient care of the ball, while against Scarlets he showed a rare moment of hesitancy in defence to allow Gareth Maule to skate in for a try.  Going further back, he had a fairly indistinguished summer tour in a green shirt.  Casting back slightly further, he did have a stellar Heineken Cup final, with his memorable break and offload to Sean O’Brien the highlight of the match.  The old magic has not disappeared.

The alternatives for the position are Ulster’s Darren Cave and in particular Keith Earls, who played well there in the Six Nations and has made little secret of his desire to play in the 13 shirt and not on the wing.  The pity of it is that Earls has been injured over the past fortnight, and has missed an opportunity to put huge pressure on O’Driscoll.  He had started the season with great gusto.

Any pressure is further diluted by Rob Kearney’s absence, which is likely to see Earls deployed at full-back in any case.  Kearney is close to irreplaceable (particularly keeping in mind the nature of Ireland’s opponents in this series), so taking another of Ireland’s totems out of the backline would leave Ireland looking a bit callow in that division.

BOD is the greatest player ever to pull on the green jersey, and his experience, leadership, class and nose for the tryline should not be discarded lightly.  He still has much to bring to test rugby, so long as his legs are functioning.  Peter O’Reilly wrote that even dead, you could strap him to his horse and send him into the ranks of the enemy.  But even the greatest of men should not be picked based on what they have achieved in the past.  We endorse his selection as captain for this series, but he should not be considered an automatic selection.  Thirteenwatch has not gone away just yet.

Thirteenwatch – Part Three

The Six Nations is closer than you might think.  Just two rounds of HEC sit between here and the Grande Old Dame of World Rugby, so it’s time for one last look at the thirteen shirt.  We’ll be looking at it again before the Six Nations, of course, but as part of a wider look at the whole team.  Here’s how we’re calling it…

Eoin Griffin (Connacht)

Out of contention. Probably a co-incidence but nothing has gone right since Gerry wrote one of his hagiographies on him.  Undoubtedly a talented lad but Connacht’s lamentable run has taken it out of even their better players.  Needs to be given a little rest and told everything is going to be ok.  Poor lamb.
BOD Rating: come back next year 4/13 (-1)

Eoin O’Malley (Leinster)

Challenge has faded a bit in spite of some classy moments.  The sight of him being smashed out of the way by Beaver (at the Aviva) has been hard to shake from the memory.  Showed nice touches off the bench against Ulster, but needs to get selected for at least one HEC game in the next fortnight to stay in the hunt.
BOD Rating: will be wearing green, but probably with the Wolfhounds 8/13 (-1)

Fergus McFadden (Leinster)

We are still not sold on Fergus as an outside centre, but he has had a good few weeks.  Rock-solid place-kicking is a string to the bow, and while his partership with D’arcy is a bit boshtastic, his familiarity with the Wexford man will do his chances no harm. Plus he is already in the squad – which gets him past Deccie Hurdle One. In the shake-up for sure. 
BOD Rating: a tough cookie, and full of hard yards. 8/13 (+2)

Darren Cave (Ulster)

Another try on Friday night, but the lack of televisual coverage precludes us from commenting on his performance.  This Friday night against Leicester represents a huge shop window for him.  If Paddy Wallace were to return the Ulster backline he could even some good attacking ball, especially if Pwal is outside a Marshall/Pienaar combo. What possibilities!
BOD Rating: Interview in today’s Sunday Times displayed a man who’s after the shirt.  Indications are Deccie’s a fan.  9/13 (unch.)

Danny Barnes (Munster)

Has been largely out of the picture since loss of form and Earls’ return. Colonel Sanders Toland was screaming for his call-up in his bizarre article last week (Ian Whitten??) but its not going to happen for a while yet.
BOD Rating: Six Nations will be spent playing for Munster 3/13 (-1)

Keith Earls (Munster)

When it comes to us and Keith, it’s… complicated.  Defensively frail, low on confidence and not a particularly brilliant footballer, but the boy has gas and, with a far better try-count than LukeFitz or Andy Trimble, we recognise the value of his outstanding finishing ability.  We also feel he’s been hard done by in how much he’s been moved around.  This season, he returns from injury only to find himself back in the centre, after playing wing all last year.  In truth, we’ve never fancied him as a 13, but we do have to accept he’s played pretty well these last few weeks.  In the Scarlets game he showed up well in spite of playing outside Mafi, who was having a mare.  Against Connacht, he showed deft hands – not usually his strongest suit – to send Scanlon over for a great try, and against Treviso his quick feet and hard line got him a nice try.  We’ve been resigned all along to Deccie picking Earls in the 13 slot, but it might not be as bad a decision as it looked a couple of months ago. We doubt he is the best long-term option, but he deserves a shot.
BOD Rating: we have to hand it to him, he’s not doing badly there. Has probably earned a shot at the jersey 9/13

Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster) and Tommy Bowe (Ospreys)

We’d have liked to have seen one or both of these play 13 over the last few weeks, but it looks like it’s not going to happen at this stage.  Luke’s resurgence has been one of the big positives of the year, and one facet of Earls conversion to centre will be to squeeze himself or Trimble into the XV.
BOD Rating: with zero minutes in the position this season, it’s not feasible 5/13 (-2)

Notes for Deccie: With Donncha O’Callaghan bumped from the Munster second row, maybe you could find a slot for him at 13.  You might just do that?  We were joking Deccie.  You were on the blower to Gaffney and he’s in favour?  Erm…

Thirteenwatch: Round Deux

If our first Thirteenwatch was a case of ‘plenty of options, but none stand out’, this week there were a few intriguing developments.  Seconds out, round two…
Eoin Griffin (Connacht)

Taken to school by the world class Toulouse backline, and looked more or less what he is – a rookie learning his trade.  Still has a long way to go to get to international class, but we still have high hopes for the future.
BOD Rating: will have learned valuable lessons from the weekend’s mauling. 5/13 (-2)

Eoin O’Malley

Drafted into the Leinster team on the back of McFadden’s dead leg, and grabbed his chance, scoring two tries, and performing well in all facets of the game. A genuine outside centre with distribution skills and a great step, he is also a throwback to the times when centres were small chaps with quick feet and good skills and not 110kg boshing machines – he reminds us a bit of Matthew Tait.  The question is: does he have the physicalty for international rugby?
BOD Rating: the best performer in the shirt at the weekend, albeit against poor opposition.  Needs to maintain that perfromance level and he will get more chances to stake his claim. 9/13

Fergus McFadden (Leinster)

Injured with a dead leg this weekend, his hopes of a run at 13 have receded as O’Malley took his chance
BOD Rating: more likley to feature at 12 or on the wing, we reckon. 5/13 (-1)

Darren Cave (Ulster)

Another fine performance, full of hard running and good lines.  Caused Leicester plenty of problems, but Ulster couldn’t get over the tryline despite the huff and puff. 
BOD Rating: Upward curve continues, though, like McFadden, Cave just lacks that spark of magic.  9/13 (+1)

Danny Barnes (Munster)

An error-stren performance which will have done little for his confidence.  Given the shepherd’s hook very early in the second half, and had to watch Will Chambers take his place to huge effect.  Can expect to be warming the bench for the Scarlets double header.
BOD Rating: a long way off international level on this form 4/13 (-2)

Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster)

Superb performance on the wing, and looks to have his mojo working fully again.  Skills would appear to transfer to centre.  Perhaps a call to Chez Schmidt to gently encourage him to give Luke some gametime at 13 is in order.
BOD Rating: great to see the old Luke back, but we’d need to see him at centre before we get excited 7/13 (unch.)

Notes for Deccie: A visit to the RDS to see young Eoin O’Malley wouldn’t be a bad idea, Deccie.  The RDS, Deccie, it’s in south Dublin.  You know it Deccie, BOD and Jamie play there.  Keith is still injured Deccie.  Telling McGahan you’re still the boss down there and to stick him at centre won’t help, Deccie.  I wouldn’t advise it, Deccie.  No, Deccie, no!

 

Thirteenwatch: Episode 1

With his BODness out for this year’s Six Nations, in the absence of an Ireland backs coach, we’re stepping up our responsibilities and getting on the hunt for Ireland’s next 13, as a favour for Deccie.  We’re not even asking for a reward, it’s just our way of giving a little bit back – that’s the sort of guys we are. 

This week each of the provinces had an Irishman in the 13 shirt.  We were watching closely to see how they got on, and we’ll be back to update episodically over the next few months.

Eoin Griffin (Connacht)

Plenty of promise here.  Griffin made the crucial break for the first Connacht try, before perfectly executing the two-on-one to put O’Halloran in the corner.  He has plenty of gas, but is still a bit raw – witness his killing of the space when put into a wide channel shortly after Duffy’s try.  O’Driscoll would have straightened the line to give his wing the best chance of scoring. 

BOD Rating: not international class yet, but one for the future. 7/13

Fergus McFadden (Leinster)

Made yards in contact, but his partnership with Dorce looks flawed.  Both men want to plough into the nearest defender and neither really has great distribution skills, which makes for a one-dimensional, dare we say it, almost Ooooooooooohhhh! partnership.  Fergus was better than the badly-out-of-form Dorce, but still looks more of a 12 to us.

BOD Rating: needs a more complementary partner if he is to replace BOD. 6/13

Darren Cave (Ulster)

Less heralded than teammate Nevin Spence, but is getting the nod for Ulster at the moment, and is probably the form contender.  It was a day for the fatties in Ravenhill, but Cave put in a good shift against a quality opponent in Rougerie and was involved in the Ulster try.

BOD Rating: Cave is no BOD, but can expect to be in the shake up for caps if he keeps up this vein of form. 8/13

Danny Barnes (Munster)

Munster’s backline never really sparked this weekend, and was largely dominated by Saints’ potent mix of boshers up the middle and Ben Foden’s classy running.  Barnes showed some neat touches on the ball, and played a big part in Munster’s second try, but still has much to learn, particularly in defence where his passive line-speed allowed Foden and Ashton to create a superb try in the first half.

BOD Rating: still learning the position, but will get plenty of game time this year 6/13

Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe (Leinster & Ospreys)

Neither played 13, but both looked sharp as a tack, and will be contenders for the shirt if they get a run there.  Given Leinster’s misfiring centres, Luke could be due a run in the 13 shirt.

BOD Rating: need to see if they get a run in the 13 shirt, but if either or both get a chance, they would be strong contenders 7/13

Notes for Deccie: Early days Deccie, but if you’re starting Dorce you may want to think twice about partnering him with McFadden.  Yes, Deccie, we know Earls will be back in February.  No, Deccie, I don’t think that’s a good idea.  On the wing, Deccie, where he can score tries.  Come back, Deccie…