The Steve Walsh Show, and Ireland’s Backrow

Before we go through this game minute-by-minute, first let’s ask what the press made of the contribution of our back-row? The Sunday Times plaudits went to Peter O’Mahony – O’Reilly rates him highest (8, with 7’s for Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip), crediting his impressive all-round game while Denis Walsh had POM as man of the match. The Sindo had Sean O’Brien in contention for the gong (with Murray). The press in Blighty made no mention of our hotly-debated backrow, restricting themselves to managing to staying awake as two bald men fight over a comb while ENGLAND sniff a Grand Slam.

Based on the live Saturday viewing, we thought POM had his best game to date for Ireland, SOB was the highest class of the unit (what about that kick!) and Heaslip played with authority and continued his personal upturn in form in a green shirt. But will the statistics back it up? With due trepidation, we get reviewing ….

After cracking open two bottles of wine (Valpolicella Ripasso, in case you were wondering) and re-playing the entire game, stripping out Steve Walsh’s contributions, we have to say that the backrow appeared to work – it may not look conventional, but collectively they functioned well. All three men played well for the first time this series, and it was about as good as we have looked in that unit since Fez broke down.

We graded every action as:

  • +2: big play
  • +1: positive play
  • 0: neutral
  • -1: bad play
  • -2: awful play – a cross-field kick in your own 22 that goes straight to an opponent, for example

There are several things to note about our findings:

  1. Steve Walsh bestrode the match like a collossus – the man dominated the game, his tanned and ripped torso was rarely off-screen and he even refereed well – there was a clanger of a penalty on each side, but they balanced out. There was no shoving over of players, a la Conrad Smuth, but we were left in no doubt who was in charge – this was the Steve Walsh Show
  2. Morgan Parra’s passing was terrible – we have a lot more sympathy with Freddy than we did on first look, although he was rubbish too
  3. The volume of ruck inspecting by green shirts was ridiculous – either they don’t know what they are doing, or they do, and it’s rubbish. You would often have two green shirts in a ruck vs one blue, with two other green shirts inspecting – how can 11 men expect to break a 14-man defensive line?
  4. Donncha O’Callaghan’s tears during ‘Ireland’s Call’ were emotional. All the talk was of BOD, but this was likely Stakhanov’s last appearance in Lansdowne Road as well – whatever your opinion of him, 95 caps is a tremendous return and he will retire one of the most decorated players in our history. Hat tip.

What about her eyes the results, you say?

Well, looks like we picked the right week to stop sniffing glue.  All three men contributed hugely.  Our numbers have Peter O’Mahony scoring the most points by a cigarette paper, largely down to big turnovers (which got bonus points), but all three scored between 22 and 24 points – there’s some margin of error of course, and another review might place either of the other two in pole position, and we are sure people will disagree with some of our findings.  By the by, if we missed anything significant, please let us know.  We can attest to how tricky it is to capture every nuance of the match, especially in tight phases.

O’Mahony was the tidiest player, with only one error. He produced big plays when needed, two massive turnovers standing out, and (notably) didn’t start  any silly fights. His lineout work was good, and he tackled well.

Heaslip, as we suspected, was the groundhog/blindside groundhog – not always first to the ruck, but the most effective when he got there. Missed tackles were costly for Heaslip – two in two minutes against Kayser didn’t look good. As captain, we reviewed Heaslip’s decision-making (without awarding points) – with power comes responsibility. He was decisive and authoritative and looked, for the first time, a real leader. He trusted Jackson and the team seemed united and cohesive.

O’Brien was the most impactful player, and we feel we probably undersold his all-action excellence, but you live and die by the numbers. If you factor in the points earned for kicking and chasing, O’Brien scored the lowest pure back-row points, but he was almost Parisse-esque in his ubiquity at times.

Mauling was one of the big success stories of the day and all three were prominent, with good body positions and lots of aggression.  We awarded points for anyone who was in a maul which moved forwards, and there were plenty of them.  Heaslip in particular appears to excel at this element of the game, but all three were part of a huge mauling success.

All three players effectiveness declined in the second half, in tandem with Ireland’s in general. Some tables are below for your viewage.

NB: does not include Steve Walsh

NB: does not include Steve Walsh

NB: Steve Walsh's actions are broken down in the pdf file at the bottom

NB: Steve Walsh’s actions are broken down in the pdf file at the bottom

The complete analysis is below – feedback is welcomed and assumed, particularly from those who tweeted us at half-time from their high horse, assuming we’d make up stats to ensure O’Mahony wasn’t recognised – we expect a mea culpa below the line.

So, our preceonceptions turned out more or less correct.  Heaslip is the closest thing to an openside we have, but relies not so much on being the first man to the ruck, like a classic seven, but more on being the strongest man at the ruck.  O’Mahony plays like a No.8, and O’Brien is a carrying machine.  The numbers may be a jumble, but we seem to get away with it.

But one thing stuck out beyond all others.  Well though the three of them played, they were no match for Steve Walsh.  The tan, the arms, the demeanour, the chatty style, the mad new TMO rules he invented on the spot.  It’s Walsh’s world, the rest of us just live in it.

The full breakdown of every action is in the link below:

Backrow Stats – All Actions

Are you the best coach in the world?

This post is from our regular column in the Irish Post, the highest-selling newspaper for the Irish in Britain (which these days includes businessmen, lawyers and doctors, as well as Glasgow-bound day-tourists singing bigoted songs). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain.

SO what now then? There is the slimmest sliver of a chance that Kidney’s contract will be renewed, and there are two factors at play: the conservatism of the Union, and the two remaining opponents in the Six Nations.

Starting with the two opponents, the key variable in Deccie’s favour is that both will be in our pool at RWC15 in England — France and Italy. If Ireland produce a commanding (and winning) display against the French, and slap Italy down in the manner of, say, 2007, any conservative waverers on whatever amateur committee decides these things will have a stick to grab hold of, and argue that Kidney’s Ireland are, in fact, well-placed to do well in the next World Cup.

And it’s the amateur conservatism that is important here — for we must consider what happens next. If Deccie refuses to resign (and why should he?), he has a contract until the end of the season, meaning that the lamest of lame duck coaches could be taking Ireland on a development tour to North America. The likes of Iain Henderson, Robbie Henshaw and Luke Marshall — who will be on or close to the first team in RWC15 — will essentially have a wasted summer, in development terms.

That Kidney badly wants to stay in the role is not in doubt. Forget his recent — and typical — unwillingness to give a straight answer to the question, and read between the lines of his actions instead.

Kidney’s current approach to selection and the captaincy has all the hallmarks of a man throwing money down in a casino, knowing he has little to lose. Having been wilfully conservative in matters of selection up until as recently as last summer, the 60-0 defeat in New Zealand appears to have flicked a switch in his head.

Now he’s changed the captain, thrown a 10 with place-kicking issues into an away test match for his debut, jettisoned Ronan O’Gara and persisted with media darling Craig Gilroy in spite of superior options being available — Luke Fitzgerald has a superior kicking and defensive game and is a good attacker, and Andrew Trimble is ahead in the Ulster pecking order due to his defence and workrate.

It looks like a slightly over-eager attempt to position himself as a forward-looking coach who has one eye on 2015, and therefore may just be the man to lead the team there. The trouble is none of it has worked so far.

What will happen in parallel? Will one of the Union’s amateur committees, and not the one who will be studying the recommendations of the professional review group (PRG, which has yet to meet) from last year, meet in the interim to decide who will be the manager from next season?

Or will they, like the English RFU, outsource the appointment to some expert group? If they don’t, can you imagine the top coaches, Vern Cotter or Fabien Galthie for example, explaining to a blazer how they plan to move forward with the team. Unlikely.

Appointment by those within means appointment from within, which means handing the reins to Mike Ruddock or Joe Schmidt. Ruddock has an under-20 RWC in June, and Schmidt has indicated next season will be his last in this hemisphere — neither is an easy transition, though the case for Schmidt is so strong as to be undeniable, and the Union should do everything it can to secure him for the role.

The path of least resistance actually seems to be to keep Kidney on, and hope for an upturn in performances — it’s stunning to think that such a lack of decisiveness might exist at the top of Irish professional rugby, but it’s not being run by professionals.

In fact, when we think about the process that is (probably) about to begin, it’s worth taking a step back and recalling the way the coaches of the Irish national side have been appointed since professionalism in 1995:

• Brian Ashton: chance phone call from his agent to Pat Whelan, hawking the “best coach in the world” — the Union took the bait, Murray Kidd was sent packing, and Ashton was given a SIX-YEAR contract. He stayed for one

• Warren Gatland: Gatty had spent time in Galway in the early 1990s, and he was flown over from NZ to coach Connacht after the Union balked at Eddie O’Sullivan’s request for contract stability. When Ashton was hastily disposed of, Gatty (one of only two provincial coaches in situ, a huge issue for Ashton) was promoted to the big gig

• Eddie O’Sullivan: Dagger joined Gatty’s team as attack coach in 2000, and the gradual improvement in performances was credited to the native rather than the Kiwi. After a(nother) November defeat to New Zealand, the Union changed ships — silverware followed

• Declan Kidney: Deccie was Eddie’s number two for a couple of seasons, but that was never going to work — that experience allowed him to press for his own coaching team, which delivered first time up. But Deccie himself only got the nod after a trawl of available Southern Hemisphere coaches revealed nought.

When we consider that the man (Whelan) who piloted the first appointment of the professional era, that of Ashton, is likely to be involved in the next one, we aren’t filled with confidence.

What should happen is the roles in-scope of a national coach should be defined, as should the targets and reporting structure (which should be to the director of rugby sanctioned by the PRG) — then a suitable candidate sought.

The entire process is fundamentally flawed — no one knows what Deccie’s job targets are, no one can say what the new coaches should be doing, and the edifice that has taken Irish rugby through the first generation of professional players is crumbling.
Right now, all work is still being conducted by amateurs — as well-meaning as they might be, it ain’t gonna work in this day and age.

Kidney Axes ROG

Roy Keane used to say that he always knew that when the end came, it wouldn’t be pretty.  And so it was as Declan Kidney swung the axe and almost certainly ended the test career of Ireland’s most capped player; the divisive, cantankerous, chippy, bullishly self-confident but unquestionably brilliant Ronan O’Gara.

Sport can be cruel in many ways, and watching one of Ireland’s most respected players of all time decline to such an abject level over the last two weeks has not made for pleasant viewing.  It has been obvious for some time that ROG has been in decline, and while his street team of media apologists would have you believe the opposite, this day has been looming since the middle of last season.  We have a few observations on the matter:

1. On rugby terms, it’s the right decision.  Yes, it’s awful for ROG personally to have it end like this: it’s sad that his final act of any significance was a loopy, harebrained crossfield kick that ultimately consigned Ireland to a sorry defeat in Murrayfield.  But there’s no room for sentiment on this one.  It would have been the right decision to bring Madigan into the fold at the start of the Six Nations, and it’s still the right decision now.  To jettison ROG mid-tournament looks awful, but the (Kidney) clock cannot be turned back.  Decisions can only be made for the next game, not the last, so it’s the right decision, however awfully it has been made.

It was, though, the wrong decision to keep him in the 23 since the summer, and for that Kidney should be roundly castigated.  The whole situation is a mess of the coach’s making, succession planning at its absolute worst.  The failure to grasp before now that O’Gara was no longer a test player amounts to a costly blunder.

2. ROG should have retired after the 2011 loss to Wales. The danger of playing on too long is that you sully your legacy.  There will be articles about the end of the ROG era this week, but the ROG era ended with the 2011 World Cup.  His noteworthy contributions to test matches since that dismal quarter-final are… what exactly?  He has not started a game in that time, while Sexton has authoritatively claimed ownership of the shirt.  His tenacity and self-belief are admirable, but it has tipped over into a slightly sad sight over the last two series, when it has been clear he’s no longer capable at this level.  It was the right time to go, and he should have done it. For all those saying ROG deserves to go out on his own terms; well that was his chance and he turned it down.

3. Kidney – the man for 2015.  Or so he’d have you think.  Declan Kidney’s selection policy has swung from archly conservative to ‘throwing in ver yoof’.  It’s hard not to be a touch cynical and see it has him positioning himself as a coach with an eye on the 2015 world cup, presiding over a young team.  A transitional coach, if you will.  It’s like a switch has been flicked.  First the change of captaincy, now he’s thrown ROG over the side of his sinking ship to try and keep it afloat.  While in and of itself it’s the right decision (see number one above) it’s a bit hard to stomach the manner in which Deccie has done business.

4. Madigan is there on merit.  While all the airspace will be taken up by ROG, it shouldn’t be forgotten that his replacement deserves his place in the squad.  He picked up rave reviews for his performance in the untelevised win over the Dragons on Friday night, where he kicked three from four from out wide, and continues a hot streak of form.  He is the form 10 in the country and looks to have the stuff for test rugby, albeit with a weak kicking game from hand.  It’s appeared up to now that he is not the fly-half Kidney is looking for, but his form must count for something.  He deserves his chance, at least off the bench.

5. Remember the good times.  Forget the awful cross-kick and the 10m kicks to touch, and remember ROG as he deserves to be remembered.  The cheeky try against South Africa.  The cross-field kick to Shaggy. The try in the corner in Croker against France.  Converting Shaggy’s try in Twickenham to make it a four point game.  Too many penalties and conversions to mention.  We have also heard, but require confirmation, that he once scored a drop goal of some importance.

6. The Cork Con Mafia can go for a lie down.  If ROG has been one of the greatest ever Irish internationals, he has also been one of the most protected, with an army of media campaigners in place to avoid reference to his bad performances, and remind us of the failings of his rivals.  Right up to this week they were still at it.  The poor fellows must be exhausted, as their task has taken on Sisyphean proportions in recent months.  Take a lie down, chaps, and think of Peter O’Mahony.

Fat Lady Tuning Up

That’s all folks, as they say. The Declan Kidney era as Ireland coach is over following a clueless second half capitulation against a limited Scottish side in Murrayfield. As the game went on, the paucity of Ireland’s play became clearer and clearer, and the endgame was difficult to watch.  Afterwards it was a case of ‘how did that happen?’  Even Scotland’s head coach Scott Johnson seemed astonished that his team had won.  Ireland made all the line-breaks, had 70% of the ball in spite of a hopeless lineout and shaky scrum, and should have had a 17-point lead at half time.  Instead they handed Scotland the initiative and lost the game, almost entirely by default.  It seemed an unloseable game but Ireland contrived to do so.

It leaves Declan Kidney in a spot where his position has become untenable.  This series was his bid for a new contract and with this defeat, his chances go up in smoke.  Ireland have one win from three, and now face a partially resurgent France, against whom their record is dire, and a potential wooden-spoon-off in Rome.  There seems no chance the IRFU will deem the current performance level worthy of another two years, and the 2015 World Cup.  The momentum generated against Argentina and Wales has been duly squandered.  It’s the same old story, the umpteenth episode over four years of mediocrity.

We have been supportive of Jamie Heaslip’s captaincy to date, but Ireland lacked decisive leadership on and off the field. We’ll come to Heaslip later, but the management did not have a good day. Paddy Jackson was parachuted into the starting lineup and Ian Madigan was left out of the initial matchday training squad – Jackson had a good game in open play, his swift hands releasing Luke Marshall (twice) and Keith Earls in the first half, but 1 from 4 is not good enough from the tee at this level. When the defiant Ronan O’Gara came on, he was woeful – kicking possession away and setting up Scotland’s final penalty with a head-fryingly stupid cross-kick. Not even Conor George will manage to spin that one.  It pains us to see a great career end this way. As for Madigan, he may not have started many big games at 10, but he has form, experience and confidence, and should have seen action in June or November (as should Jackson) – we can see why Kidney didn’t play him given his limited exposure, but it was Kidney who has elected not to give him that exposure.

When players don’t have experience to fall back on, they should at least have form, so they feel confident playing their own game.  But Jackson was just back from injury, hadn’t been playing well, and has struggled with placed ball this season.  It was a lot to ask of him.  The oversight in not ensuring he took place kicks against Zebre last Friday looks borderline criminal now.  At test rugby, where teams prepare to the nth degree, how can Ireland have left such a critical element of the game as kicking points to chance?  What to do for the next game?  Pray for Sexton, presumably.

But, back to PJ for a second – in the first-half, Ireland eschewed shots at goal, almost as if they were aware Jackson wasn’t the greatest kicker. Then in the second half, they elected to go for it from harder places on the field, but after what seemed like lengthy debate – the lack of confidence in the kicker should not have been perceptible to someone watching, but it was. Confidence ebbed from the team the longer Scotland stayed in it. To wrap up this section, we should mention that the other debutant, Luke Marshall, had an excellent game.

By half-time yesterday, Ireland should have been out of sight. Prime butchery from Keith Earls and ponderous rumbling inside the 22 meant we went in just 3-0 up despite utterly dominating. Scottish defence was good, but at this level, that shouldn’t matter if you are camped in the 22 for most of a half.

Then in the second half, when Craig Gilroy got over, it looked like Ireland would kick on and win, but they didn’t. Jackson missed touch from a penalty and, a few phases later, Wee Greig was knocking over 3 points, and we began to get concerned. Second Half Syndrome was about to strike again – the moment the Scottish got a foothold in the game, Ireland lost their discipline; the lineout continued to be a shambles, and, when Tom Court went off, the scrum – already creaking a bit – collapsed.

Scotland lapped it up – having defended well, we invited them back into the game, they took their chances, and they ended the game bullying Ireland. Dave Kilcoyne showed why he wasn’t starting, and the Irish pack is just a bit powder puff when the noose tightens. In times gone by, Ireland’s forwards were immovable objects, but, even allowing for the absence of Paul O’Connell, Fez and DJ Church, we are rather lightweight.

The backrow were impressive on the front foot in the first half, but lost shape entirely in the second. We’re losing patience with seeing Peter O’Mahony prominent in every handbags episode, but not in every defensive last stand when the opposition get the ball.  He has much to offer and has had a good series up until this match, but the faux-hardman act is becoming exhausting.  Someone needs to have a word in his ear.  Iain Henderson had a good cameo off the bench, and should be putting POM’s place under pressure. Sean O’Brien was Ireland’s best player, but the penalty he gave away was one of the stupidest in living memory.

Heaslip himself had his best game for Ireland in a while, with good metres gained and some feral clear-out work, but his leadership wasn’t there – he seems ill-at-ease with the responsibility, hesitant over major decisions and he does not inspire the confidence of his troops. He has also become oddly penalty expensive, never a feature of his game in the past.  To be a leader, you need followers, and Heaslip doesn’t have any.  His shell-shocked post-match interview in which he described Ireland as being ‘in a good place, but a mixed place’ showed how uncomfortable he is in the role; it was as if the words were coming out of his mouth without him really knowing what they were, or what they signified.

What’s most worrying is that Ireland don’t seem to have the ability to stem the flow when momentum swings against them.  All games have an ebb and flow, as teams exchange dominance over the course of 80 minutes.  In all three matches in this series, Ireland have found themselves under the kosh in the second half, but have been powerless to turn it around – or even to hang in there and effectively limit the damage.  The longer each game goes on, the worse Ireland seem to get.  Once Scotland got back to 8-6, we tweeted that we had ‘that sinking feeling’ – we never felt confident that Ireland would soak up the pressure and regain control.  To this end, it has not helped that Ireland’s reserves have been so useless.  None of ROG, Reddan, Toner or Kilcoyne provided much in the way of impact – in fact, the contrary was the case as momentum got away from us with scary speed.

This group looks rudderless on and off the pitch, and it’s simply time for a change.  Kidney has to accept responsibility for too many failed decisions this campaign; his decision to install Heaslip as captain looked a good one, but it has backfired.  It was a momentum-based decision, to carry some of the good vibes from November forward; a positive move, but now that the momentum has been squandered, where does it leave the team?  His blind spot towards Ian Madigan and oversight with regard to place kicking amounts to a blunder.  The regime is all but over.

Caution Swinging In Wind At Carton House

In a move which is going to rock the nation, Declan Kidney has selected Paddy Jackson at 10 ahead of one-time stalwart Ronan O’Gara. The team line-up also features a debut for Ulster’s Luke Marshall, a wing slot for Keith Earls, and a surprising, but not illogical, return to the side for Tom Court, who leapfrogs Munster’s David Kilcoyne.

We’ve reservations about the 10, but it’s a positive, forward-looking selection, and not before time.  Had Kidney been more far-sighted in any series up to now we mightn’t be in such a precarious position, but we are where we are, so we may as well enjoy the rollercoaster ride.

The news will be dominated by ROG’s snub. It’s a call on a par with his now legendary move to bring Tomas O’Leary and Denis Hurley in for Peter Stringer and Shaun Payne, which resulted in Munster winning the Heineken Cup in style. Will this have the same effect?

If making Jamie Heaslip captain and keeping Craig Gilroy in the team gave the impression that Kidney has been emboldened by having entered the last-chance saloon, this decision certainly confirms it. No more Mr. Conservative; when you’ve nothing to lose you may as well gamble with abandon. Two debutants in midfield in a Six Nations game? Last year’s Kidney would have baulked. But now he knows his only chance of an extension is to appear to be tomorrow’s man, and he’s going for it.  All that said, ROG in his scurrent form could no longer be seen as a safe option, and would arguably have been a bigger gamble.  But perception will be that Kidney has ‘gambled’ on Jackson.

Taking the key call at face value, Kidney just couldn’t start ROG in this match. The overwhelming majority of pundits were happy to put forward the ‘blind faith’ argument, that ROG was ROG and would therefore play well by a sort of ROG-O-Magic that rewinds the clocks to 2008. But any reasoned analysis showed that wasn’t likely. The player has been in decline for some time now (and we re-iterate that there is no disgrace in that – there are not many other almost-36 year old skinny-limbed 10s playing test rugby).

There are shades of Tomas O’Leary’s pre-World Cup here. O’Leary only had to play a notch above terrible in the last warm-up match against France to get himself to the World Cup, but couldn’t even do that. Similarly, on Saturday night against Scarlets, ROG just had to turn up and show something – ANYTHING! – to get himself into the 10 shirt, but couldn’t  If O’Gara had picked up a mild cold on Saturday afternoon and sat out the game, he’d be starting this weekend. When he was demoted for Sexton, it was because Sexton played himself onto the team; here ROG has played himself out.

Which brings us to the other element of the decision – the replacement, Paddy Jackson. Jackson hasn’t exactly been kicking the door down to get picked as a test starter. His form has been patchy since November, while Madigan has been resurgent since returning to the more familiar role of fly-half at Leinster. Jackson has presumably got the nod because he has played more at Heineken Cup level (seven starts, including a final, versus Madigan’s five, of which four were at full-back), was in camp in November when Madigan was not, and offers a more structured game than the mercurial Madigan. In short he’s more of a Kidney player.

Whether he’s a better player, or the right man for this game, remains to be seen. Madigan has 70 appearances for Leinster, and has 15 tries to his name in that time. It’s a heck of a premium to put on some time in camp and a handful of H-Cup appearances, none of which Jackson has particularly dominated, compared with Madigan’s form, exceptional passing range, place-kicking, try-scoring and temperament.  One mind-boggling element of the whole thing is that Ulster were not instructed to let Jackson take over place-kicking duties against Zebre last Friday night.  It’s something he’s struggled with this season and he will be asked to step up to a more pressurised environment and convert penalties on Sunday.

It all rather brings to mind the line in Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’, where David Byrne says “And you may ask yourself, How did I get here?”. Everyone with eyes in their head could see ROG was on his way out over the last 12 months – whatever lines we were fed by pundits – but the decision to prepare for this day was continually kicked down the road. It was patently obvious in the summer that Ian Madigan should have been in the touring party, and it was as clear as night follows day that Madigan and Jackson should have got gametime in November.  Take it away, David Byrne: “And you will say to yourself: My God!  What have I done!”

Now a young fly-half is in at the deep end. It’s not the first time this has happened; management delayed promoting Mike Ross right up until the moment all other options were exhausted. If Madigan had been in camp in November, perhaps Kidney would trust him to play the more structured game he wants – but he wasn’t, and it’s Jackson who has got the nod.

Is this the end for ROG?  Probably.  If Jackson plays well, he can cement his place in the 23 when Sexton returns.  Once Kidney drops the hatchet on one of his staples, they rrely make any sort of meaningful return (Stringer played precisely zero minutes in the three H-Cup knockout matches in 2008 after being dropped), and should a new coach arrive next season, it’s hard to see him having a place for a 36 year old 10.

Moving on to the rest of the changes, Earls at wing is probably the least contentious – you could make a strong case for Luke Fitzgerald or Andrew Trimble, but Earls looked good against England, and Scotland fall off tackles – he offers us a chance to impose ourselves on the game by running at the Scots. It’s a marginal call, but a good one.

Luke Marshall’s selection has been long-flagged – Kidney is a fan, fast-tracking him into the November camp like he was from Cork. Niggly injuries have prevented him taking Paddy Wallace’s place in Ulster, but all indications were that he was ahead of the veteran before he broke a finger prior to the Glasgae game in January. Marshall’s pace, hands and distribution are good, and his defence solid, although his kicking game is ordinary. He may be about the only specialist 12 still standing, but we think he’s a good, and forward-looking, choice – the real deal, a player who can have a long career in the shirt and is not just a stop gap.

There appears to be some contention about Tom Court’s selection, but, for us, the only questionable aspect is that he was behind Dave Kilcoyne up to now. Court has been one of Ulster’s best players this season, and their scrum has destroyed all-comers. We thought that if O’Gara played, Court simply had to play to enable a strong scrum to try and generate three-pointers; whereas if Madigan played, the more mobile Kilcoyne was the better bet. But since Jackson more or less splits the difference between the two in terms of style, it makes more sense to judge the two against each other, and given the value placed on scrummaging ability, Court is simply better than Kilcoyne right now.

IRELAND (Possible): Kearney; Gilroy, O’Driscoll, Marshall, Earls; Jackson, Murray; Court, Best, Ross, O’Callaghan, Ryan, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Heaslip (capt). Replacements: Kilcoyne, Cronin, Fitzpatrick, Toner, Henderson, Reddan, O’Gara, Fitzgerald

P.S. we posted about Ulster’s incredible recent crop of youngsters in reference to the opening Aviva game a while back – there will be four full caps among the Ulstermen come Saturday, and only NWJMB Iain Henderson will be without a Test start.

Last Throw of the Dice

Declan Kidney’s decision to overlook Ian Madigan for the Irish training squad flies in the face of logic, and suggests the coach is hunkering down with his tinfoil hat on.

Last week we blogged our opinions on the matter of who should start for Ireland, so let’s not go over that ground again.  For now, let’s assume ROG is starting and was always going to, and have nothing more to say on the matter.  Except to note that he played rubbish on Saturday night and that the theory that he is just a touch ring-rusty is increasingly difficult to support.  But he’s starting, so that’s that.

The choice for ROG’s back up was between Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson and Ian Keatley.  All three featured for their provinces this weekend, in what we hoped would be a beauty parade for at least a place in the matchday squad.  But if it was a beauty parade, the ugly sisters have walked away with the sashes and flowers.

Ian Keatley played full-back for Munster, where it was required that ROG get some match-time at 10.  Once that was the case, his chances were always somewhere between slim and none.

Paddy Jackson played his first game for Ulster since returning from injury.  His form has been scratchy for a couple of months now, and Ruan Pienaar has taken over kicking duties, following Jackson’s struggles with placed ball.  He piloted Ulster to a comfortable win over a por Zebre side, in which they performed reasonably.  Jackson had an ordinary enough game, and Pienaar took the place-kicks.

At Leinster, Madigan had a very productive outing.  He kicked four from five conversions, in keeping with his kicking stats over the course of the season.  He ran the Leinster backline efficiently, made one lovely line break and – most importantly – curbed his enthusiams to try and do too much on his own.  It bears mention that Treviso were hopeless, but he was among the best players on show.  He did everything that could have been asked of him.

Deccie’s seletion effectively says ‘I don’t care how the lads played this weekend, I’m picking this team anyway’.  By omitting his most in-form 10 he is rendering form an irrelevance, and confirming a long-held hunch in most people’s minds that he just doesn’t like Ian Madigan as a player.  It’s also a call that gives his critics – such as they are in a supine national media – such easy ammunition it’s almost unbelievable.  They say in politics, you should never do anything to confirm a stereotype people have of you – well, Deccie has done exactly that here.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Deccie to pick Madigan in the training squad, let him run around a bit, and go ahead and pick Rog and PJ and justify it by saying he judged them the best options given form in training. He might have never intended to pick Madigan, but optics mean a lot. Kidney has opted for the other course, of sticking his fingers in his ears and doing what he wants and not caring what anyone thinks.

The match in question – away to Scotland – is looking increasingly like the stuff of potential nightmares.  Losing is far from inconceivable, and this decision could be fatal as far as Kidney’s career as head coach goes.  The ship is going down, but the captain will be stubborn to the last.

Ten Questions

Despite what our learned friends in the print media might say, Ireland have a selection issue at out-half. Jonathan Sexton is unquestioned (except by our unlearned friends in the print media) number one, but is a major doubt for the Scotland game.  Working on the assumption that he will be injured, as seems most likely, who should play in his absence is unclear. Ronan O’Gara has been backup since RWC11, but his performance graph has been going south for province and country since then, culminating in his worst performance in a green shirt last Sunday.

Management have, up to now, eschewed the opportunity to give gametime to any of the promising young out-halves currently playing for the provinces, bar Paddy Jackson getting the chance to mow down Fiji for the “Ireland XV”. This is not just us writing with the benefit of hindsight, and those with memories that stretch as far as nine months ago will recall the clamour for Ian Madigan to travel to New Zealand after a season in which he was arguably the standout 10 in the Pro12.  Now, they have a serious problem, for the only man they have trusted for ten minute cameos for the last 15 months is no longer a Test-level outhalf, and the incumbent is sick. And that problem is entirely and completely of their own making. Games against Scotland and Italy in last year’s Six Nations, or in a summer tour where ranking points were not an issue and a win was never likely anyway, or against Argentina in November, were tailor-made for limited gametime for the youngsters to ease them into Test level.

Now, the choice is to dump them in at the deep end against Scotland, or persist with a legendary, but no longer effective player – not a choice we would like to have.

It’s been a consistent theme in the last three years that the management corps have declined opportunities to blood new players until absolutely forced to (by injury, typically) e.g. Mike Ross or Sean O’Brien – two players who have made a huge impression at this level. And it’s not like this policy has paid off in silver; Ireland haven’t challenged for the Six Nations since 2009, and were rather easily swatted aside by Wales in the World Cup quarter-finals.  Narrow selection policy and short-term goal setting have been the rocks on which the current regime looks to be perishing.

So now we’re in a right old pickle for the game in Murrayfield, with not only a starting place, but a reserve to be chosen from four candidates.  Before we go through the options, we are happy to declare upfront that the sole objective is to win the game, and to select the fly-half to give ourselves the best chance of doing that – not with the best chance of winning the 2015 World Cup, or beating New Zealand in 2036.  Ireland need a win here, pure and simple:

The Safe Option (Or is it?): Ronan O’Gara. One hundred and twenty-seven caps. Let’s repeat: one hundred and twenty-seven – that’s incredible. O’Gara is the only player to have played in all 14 Six Nations tournaments, and, until recently, retained the apple cheeks and innocent look that so endeared him to Mario Ledesma and Rodrigo Roncero. But is he really so safe?  All the caps in the world count for little if the player’s level has fallen over the cliff-edge.  Peter Stringer has many more caps than Conor Murray, but it doesn’t make him a safer selection for next week’s match.  The test rugby arena is no longer a place for slight 35-year olds fly-halves.

ROG’s last start for Ireland was in the World Cup quarter-final – he didn’t have a good day then, and he has slowed down since. His boot is now Arwel Thomas-esque, as is his tackling. He has experience and self-belief, but unfortunately the old magic has gone. You could apply Enoch Powell’s famous political dictum to him and, for that, we are profoundly disappointed. It’s also worth asking how ROG could hurt the opposition. Scotland’s only dangermen are in their back three – loose kicking to them is likely to put Ireland on the back foot, and it’s questionable as to whether Ireland should be kicking much at all in this game.

On the plus side, his place kicking remains reliable.  If pressed into action, at least he is unlikely to play as poorly as against England, and Scotland’s defensive system is probably less likely to put him under the sort of pressure England’s did.  But to turn that question on its head, is he the man to best exploit the weaknesses in that defensive system?

The Nordie Option: Paddy Jackson is three months younger than Owen Farrell, and fully two years younger than O’Gara was when he played his first HEC final, but has seven Heineken Cup starts (including a final) to his name, and has been the Chosen One of Ulster rugby for a long time and looked the part in the uncapped match against Fiji. Alas, he has rather wilted in the last two months, and has yet to prove himself a reliable place-kicker, but has mostly impressed this year.

He has often been babysat through matches by Ruan Pienaar and Pwal, but has begun to take on more responsibility, until his current trough of form. Murray has a similar style to Pienaar, and a combination with Jackson might be a good one.  Jackson was injured last Saturday and is not expected to play this weekend either, which makes it very difficult to see Kidney turning to him.  That said, he has the advantage of being in camp already, which may stand to him.

The Giteau Option: Ian Madigan is the most exciting of the bunch – he has an eye for the tryline, and at his best, moves a backline around with a slickness that has Leinster fans purring. He has yet to come near displacing Johnny Sexton (although we expect he’ll start next season in the 10 shirt), but his distribution and breaking game is ideal for taking on a Scotland side who fall off tackles for fun. England and even a lacklustre Italy punched numerous holes through their pourous midfield.  A fast paced running game is the obvious way to beat this Scotland side, rather than kicking to their solid lineout and giving them the opportunity to bring their back three into play.

Madigan has endured an up-and-down season, having been press-ganged into an unfamiliar role at full-back, but has got back to his best form since returning to fly-half.  His place kicking stats are also strong this year, at over 80%, and he nailed six from six at the weekend in a winning performance in Cardiff.

Counting against him is a loose kicking game and erratic decision making, while his line-kicking from penalties is inconsistent and a lack of big game experience.  He has just one Heineken Cup start at fly-half, against an already-out Montpellier, so test rugby would be a major step up in intesnsity from what he is used to.  He has spent less time in camp than Jackson, having been overlooked in November and returned to Leinster promptly this Spring.  And we don’t get the feeling Deccie is that big a fan.  He has overlooked Madigan for both this year and last year’s Wolfhounds games (for Jackson and Keatley respectively).

You might hear “You can’t throw Madigan into Murrayfield”, but it’s not that strong an argument – the Embra stadium is a library, and Madigan is familiar with it from the Pro12. With serious reservations – there are no perfect solutions to this mess, folks – Madigan would be our choice to start, based on hope that his talent will overcome a lack of experience.

The Help: Ian Keatley has done well when deputising for O’Gara so far this season in Munster, but Rob Penney sees both players every day, and has yet to prefer Keatley for a big game. Piloted Munster to their inevitable five-try win against Racing, but has a tendency to suffer from the yips with his place-kicking.  His skillset looks reasonably well equipped to take on Scotland, with a decent breaking game, and strong defensive credentials, but does he have enough class for test rugby?  Firm outsider, but he is the only one of the youngsters with Test starts on his CV (albeit against the USA and Canada).

The Ray Lewis Option: Johnny Sexton may have damaged his hamstring on Sunday, but maybe he should consult Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis – the veteran tore his triceps in October (normal recovery time: 6 months) but was back in 10 weeks to lead his team to the Superbowl. Bill Simmons of Grantland (think Conor George, except American, likeable, respected, intelligent, knowledgeable, well-spoken, a good writer and with good teeth) called him a cheat for it – but if Lewis could sort Sexton out with some deer antler spray, he might be back for Murrayfield. And it’s not like the IRB are serious about PEDs, so he’d probably get away with it too.

So which way is it going to go?  We expect Deccie to stick with ROG, and while Jackson would probably be Decie’s preferred reserve, his injury just might cost him that chance, with the in-form Madigan best placed to be the beneficiary.  Undoubtedly, this weekend’s round of Pro12 games represent something of a beauty parade, and with Leinster at home to Treviso, Madigan has a good opportunity to press his case.  Can he ensure he doesn’t try to do too much on his own?

Each of the four contenders comes with a hazard warning, but given the weakness of the Scottish midfield, we have a preference for Madigan to start with the insurance policy of ROG on the bench.  We know Kidney to be a conservative, but faced with deteriorating performances from the likes of Stringer, O’Leary and Fitzgerald in the past, he has shown an ability to make surprising, seemingly-out-of-nowhere, ruthless decisions.  Could this be one such occasion?  Probably not.  Deccie will most likely stick his chips on ROG to have just enough wiles to sneak a win against pretty ordinary opposition, so long as he knows he has Sexton to return for the more arduous French game.

Whatever fly-half Kidney chooses, we’d like to see a joined-up selection that shows an intent to hurt Scotland, not merely to scrape by.  With that in mind, his choice of loosehead – between Tom Court and David Kilcoyne – is also important.  Scotland’s scrum is no better than average, and Court is the more destructive scrummager of the two.  If Ireland do pick ROG – as we expect them to – they should look to attack the Scottish scrum and milk it for three pointers, giving ROG the platform to work the scoreboard.  If, on l’autre hand, Kidney were to take a risk on Madigan, David Kilcoyne’s energy and pace in the loose would dovetail best, putting an emphasis on playing the game at a high tempo.   Anyone care to wager against ROG and Kilcoyne starting?

Six Nations Preview

This post is from our regular column in the Irish Post, the highest-selling newspaper for the Irish in Britain (which these days includes businessmen, lawyers and doctors, as well as dead-eyed brickies in Cricklewood). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain, and our columns will be re-produced on the blog on Fridays.

It’s that time of year again: Hooray Henrys braying in the finest hostelries of Dublin 4, sour-faced Welsh fans complaining their team didn’t win by enough, and Cedric Heymans and Clement Poitrenaud in the smoking area of Coppers late on a Saturday night. It’s the Six Nations.

And it’s a fresh-feeling version of the old tournament as well – it seems pretty open, and all countries are well on the World Cup 2015 trail (well, all except the usual suspects, Ireland and Scotland) with their cycles into the second year. France and England in particular look much improved from last year, when the Welsh rode their World Cup 2011 semi-final all the way to a third Grand Slam in seven years. Yet it was low-quality fare in general – only the Taffs will have been content with their form.

Now, let’s look forward to the next five weekends of John Inverdale-filled fun. We’ll start with the French. Phillipe Saint-Andre has now begun to put his stamp on the team, having stated that it was time they “switched generations” – the Servats, Bonnaires and Yachvilis are out and the likes of Louis Picamoles, Yannick Nyanga and Maxime Machenaud are in. The most visible change is, of course, the rebirth of Freddy Michalak.

It’s seven years since the flawed genius last electrified this tournament and, it’s safe to say, he owes it – what a feeling of unfinished business he must have.  England grabbed the November headlines with their stunning victory over New Zealand, but France were the best in Europe – they hammered an Aussie team that wiped a purple-clad England, and ground down a fine Samoa team. They’ll probably lose in Twickenham (plus ca change) but win the tournament, with Wesley Fofana the star of the competition.

Speaking of Twickers, the red-blooded, upstanding chaps in the white jerseys have a nice look about them. Stuart Lancaster is now full-time in the job and their squad is sprinkled with exciting youngsters that might just light up their home World Cup in two-and-a-half years – Joe Launchbury, the Vunipolas (Mako and Billy), Freddy Burns and Manu Tuilagi for example. They still struggle for consistency, which is to be expected, but won’t see too much to fear. A win in Dublin looks an ask, but four wins would constitute a good tournament. And the performances will surely be better than the abominations against Scotland and Italy they produced last time. England are serious contenders and look like they will be right through to 2015.

Unlike Ireland.

The IRFU’s amateur-era blazers are saddled with a coach who is one loss in Wales away from being the lamest of lame ducks. Finishing a largely-disastrous 2012 on a high, Declan Kidney is into the final few months of his contract and Ireland are six months away from starting our World Cup cycle – is it any wonder we flatter to deceive when we get there?

This is make-or-break time for Kidney; he badly wants a new contract, but it is time to show if he can lead this team in the right direction. Post-2009, Ireland can’t seem to break a pattern of one-off performances and maddening inconsistency.

The feelgood factor is at least reasonably high after an autumn in which a team shorn of its older generation of leaders tore Argentina apart. But can Ireland overcome the twin distractions of Brian O’Driscoll being stripped of the captaincy and Jonny Sexton leaving for Racing Metro?

Memories of Ireland’s lacklustre starts in recent series and three desperate losses in a row against the Welsh mean we can’t be confident about getting a win in the Millennium, and until Ireland beat France, we remain unconvinced the team has the mental strength to do so. We’re forecasting three wins and another curate’s egg of a tournament. It won’t be enough to save Kindney, so it’ll be back to the coaching drawing board 18 months after everyone else.

Speaking of the Welsh, it’s hard to know what to make of them. After looking chock-full of Lions this time last year, it’s hard to pick their starters this time out. Rhys Priestland is injured and inspirational captain Sam Warburton should be benched on form.

Worst of all, they’re missing their five (five!) best second rows and ironclad blindside Dan Lydiate. And yet – even missing all of the above and Lions coach Warren Gatland, they could get their act together. They have a solid front row and giant, skilful backs, but Rob Howley doesn’t fill us with confidence – three wins, and discontent in the Valleys.

As for Italy and Scotland, we cannot get too excited. Jacques Brunel has the Azzurri playing some silky stuff while making progress. But until they find some half-backs of passable quality, all their grunt is in vain.  Scotland replaced Andy Robinson with the serially unimpressive Scott Johnson after Tonga felt their sporrans in November and, despite the wooden spoon playoff being in Murrayfield this year, we think (and hope, for Sergio Parrisse’s sake) the Italians will do it.

Of course, this is a Lions year, which adds an extra dimension. Four years ago, Ireland had an unprecedented number of tourists as St Ian McGeechan tried to bring the Munster spirit, and half their team, to the tour. This time last year, the Lions-in-waiting team was festooned with Welsh, but they have the most to lose –the likes of Warburton, Mike Phillips and even George North could easily play themselves out of test contention.

It’s the English who look to have most to gain – any of the aforementioned nippy youngsters, plus Danny Care and Chris Robshaw could all be on the plane by Easter if they bring their recent club form to the white shirt. Robshaw is even a potential captain, even if he may not quite have the pace for the hard Australian ground. The hope, of course, is that the likes of Sean O’Brien, Rory Best, Donnacha Ryan and O’Driscoll hit enough form to join already-on-the-plane Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Sexton and Rob Kearney.

So then, France to win it all, but no Grand Slam and no Triple Crown, with Scotland at the bottom – you heard it here first!

Tipping Point

Egg read Ruchie’s book on a boring journey of late, and he found the post-RWC07 discussions illuminating. Obviously, Ruchie, Graham Henry and everyone connected with NZ rugby was devastated and disappointed with the defeat to France, both the manner of it and when it happened (quarter-finals). New Zealand had a goal of winning the World Cup and failed. So what were the next steps? The NZRU works on cycles based on the World Cup, so the Union set a goal (winning RWC11 at home) then asked how best to achieve that.

The Union then invited applications and pitches for coaches to do that. Robbie Deans applied, as did Graham Henry. Henry, though, applied as a team, with Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, with a 4-year plan (diversify coaching expertise within the team, Grand Slam tour of the NH in 2008, retain Tri-Nations, win RWC11). Deans was a better head coach candidate than Henry, but Henry came with a better plan, and got the job.

The key thing was NZRU had metrics by which to judge performance, and criteria by which to judge applicants. In Ireland, we don’t have that. We used to roll from Six Nations to Six Nations, a state of affairs which only ended when Deccie got the job – he started in the 08/09 season and got yearly, season-based contracts. His latest 2-year extension was signed in summer 2011, just before the RWC.

Ireland had an ok tournament – they beat Australia, but fell at the quarter-finals to Wales. We aren’t sure if Kidney had a target from the Union, but, if he did, you would think it was a semi-final appearance. But we don’t know, and he had a new deal anyway. So now, Kidney has 6 months left on his contract, and this tournament is about whether he will lead Ireland into RWC15 or not. If we win a Grand Slam, or just miss out, like 2007, that’s going to be Deccie. If not, who knows who it will be. Either way, we are 2 years behind everyone else come November.

Last year’s Six Nations was a write-off for Ireland – just two wins, over Scotland and Italy, a creditable draw in Paris and a pair of horrendous defeats to Wales and England, notable for a passive gameplan and a mashed scrum respectively. More importantly, squad development was negligible – Ireland picked just 19 players, with all changes injury-enforced. Stalwarts like Donncha O’Callaghan and Gordon D’Arcy, who will be long gone by RWC15, played every game, and Ronan O’Gara, who has also played his last RWC game, remained a key squad member.

Since then, development has got better in spite of more horrible results, notably a 60-0 thumping in Hamilton – the likes of Chris Henry, Richardt Strauss, Mike McCarthy, Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy have shown they have what it takes for Test level rugby, and the generation of Ryan, Sexton, Heaslip and Kearney have taken ownership of the team. A near-miss in the second test in NZ was unlucky, then a merry thumping of Argentina improved the mood somewhat. But, the fact remains, last years Six Nations was a huge missed opportunity – and its not like playing the same old faces results in a successful tournament.

Now, this isn’t completely Kidney’s fault – we don’t know if his bosses mandate him to concentrate on the Six Nations, or the RWC. Does he have license to use the first Six Nations after the RWC for squad development? You would suspect not, and, even if he did, would he, given his personal goal is to get a new contract in the space of 2 Six Nations and 1 November series? Unlikely. The nature of how the IRFU award contracts mitigates against that – the extension in 2011 was unrelated and uncorrelated to achievement in the RWC, and it doesn’t help the coach plan in a 4 year cycle.

The squad looks deep and talented right now (with 2 exceptions we will discuss below) and well set for a build into England 2015, with a good blend of youth and experience across the team. In the front row, Kidney has the luxury of auditioning candidates for bench roles at loose-head prop and hooker with the knowledge they have some Test experience and will be able to do a job. Cian Healy and Rory Best are incumbents, but there is depth, and occasionally competition.

Tighthead prop is a war zone – Mike Ross was in management cross-hairs in November for not putting the toilet seat up (or something), but the cupboard is bare. Michael Bent started off promisingly against the Boks, but has regressed to such an extent that serially-crocked Deccie Fitz is considered more reliable. After that, it’s the Scarlets’ favourite prop Stephen Archer and backpedalling Jamie Hagan – not good.

In spite of missing Paul O’Connell and Dan Tuohy through injury, Ireland’s second row resources are strong – Ryan and McCarthy had a great November, and willing winger Stakhanov is having his best season since 2009. If more injuries befall this sector, Devin Toner and NWJMB are available – neither are at Test level yet, but it’s not scraping the barrel. Even Ryan Caldwell is an option.

In the back-row, Fez is a long-term injury loss, yet we can still afford to have the likes of Roger Wilson and James Cawlin nowhere near the matchday squad. This unit is a strength, if badly-balanced – the absence of Chris Henry from the starting lineup against Wales is a criminal offence – the man has been just about the best openside in the HEC in the last 12 months, and offers badly-needed groundhog abilities.  It reinforces the feeling that we stumble across our best selections when injury forces the coach’s hand.  An unbalanced back-row has proved our Achilles heel very recently; but has that key learning been absorbed?

The halves pick themselves by now, and Conor Murray has able deputies in the 2 Leinster scrummies and Paul Marshall. Murray’s delivery was excellent against Argentina, and he is having a good season. Outhalf is a weakness on the depth front – Sexton might be the best outhalf in the Northern Hemisphere, but he killed Bambi we can only hope the Racing business is not a distraction, for we have nothing else. The great Radge is past the stage of relevance at HEC level, never mind Test, and it’s too much to expect him to revert to 2009 form – an outhalf who will be contributing through RWC15 should be given a chance to get some experience, be it Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan or Ian Keatley.

The centre partnership is still as you were – neither will be around in 2.5 years time, but no-one has yet demanded their shirt, with the possible exception of Luke Marshall, who we feel might have started a game or 2 were he not on the treatment table. Keith Earls has had a solid season at 13 for Munster, but didn’t take his chance in November – he’s still first deputy to You-Know-Who, but still deputy for now. Ferg is another option at centre, as are Dave McSharry and Darren Cave.

Wing is where we have the nicest selection issue – our best and most consistent wing of the Kidney era, Tommy Bowe, is out, but we can still afford to have Luke Fitzgerald and Ferg out of the twenty-three. We think Gilroy and Zebo are uber-exciting, but maybe both a bit too similar – we’d have like to seen Fitzy picked for Wales, but it’s a good problem to have.

With Bob back in the mix, the 15 shirt is nailed down. Simon Zebo provided a creditable alternative in November, and Robbie Henshaw has come right up to the cusp of the squad. Jared Payne will be eligible in 18 months too – this is another position of strength for Ireland.

So how will they do, in the latest make-or-break tournament? The France and England at home schedule is one which served us well in 2007 and 2009 – we always feel we can beat Wales on our day, and Scotland and Italy are bunnies right now. All of which is both a blessing and curse, for anything less than 4 wins isn’t good enough.

It all hinges on the Wales game – win, and we have momentum going into the England game, and should be beginning to whisper about France meaning Grand Slam. Lose, and we’re pretty much cooked – we could end up with just 2 wins and 2 home defeats. The Puma game in November carried hints of a new style, dictated by that new leadership corps, the Sexton, Heaslip, Ryan, Kearney group. It is essential Ireland take that up and go into these games with a coherent plan, for if we don’t, we are snookered. The lack of a definable “Ireland” style has undoubtedly contributed to our inconsistency, where we can go from nearly beating NZ to losing by a record margin in a week.

Another habit we want to break is the slow-starting one – against Wales, New Zealand and South Africa last year, we began series as if in a trance, and never recovered poise. If we lose to Wales, Deccie is basically a lame duck, and who knows how the season is going to pan out. Win, and as we said above, possibilities are endless.

If we can do both of the above (win, with a definable style), we are showing development as a team, and perhaps Kidney is the man to being us through to RWC15. If we do win 4 games with a near-miss on the other one, that’s definite progress, and something to build on. We may be behind the rest in this cycle (except Scotland), but a good tournament will go a long way to changing that.

It’s a pity the first match is the key one – a nice little trip to Embra to start would be perfect, but it’s pretty much win or bust from this Saturday. Regretably, we are leaning towards bust as the more likely outcome – a one-off performance against a disinterested Puma XV does not override the dross which preceded it in 2012. In addition, we have picked a side with no openside flanker to go in against a Welsh team with 2 of the best in the Northern Hemisphere. Wales will try and kick the ball long and in-play and force us into a succession of rucks. Given Henry isn’t playing, we will need to go into the game with a clear and executable gameplan in order to win – that seems unlikely to us, based on recent history.

The next game, home to England, is an obvious bounceback opportunity – we have a good record in recent years against the English and owe them one for Court-gate in Twickers last year. The English side is young and exciting, but ours is experienced and occasionally clinical – we think it has the makings of a memorable win. We’ll beat Scotland, but then lose to the French – we’ve a serious mental block against them, and the new-look snazzy bleus will fancy themselves – home loss. A wrap-up win in Rome on Paddy’s weekend will draw the curtain on the memorable but over-long Declan Kidney era, and it’s back to the drawing board for RWC15.

Ireland Team Announced

Deccie named his team for Ireland’s opening Six Nations game in the Millennium today and it contained few surprises. From the Argentina game in November, the changes are:

  • Fit-again Bob in for the injured Tommy Bowe, with Simon Zebo reverting to wing
  • Fit-again BOD takes back the hallowed 13 shirt from Keith Earls, who didn’t stake a strong claim for it in the Autumn
  • Fit-again Rory Best comes in for injured Richardt Strauss (this change would have happened anyway, in our opinion)
  • Fit-again Sean O’Brien is preferred to Chris Henry, with Peter O’Mahony moving to openside

So, to summarize, 4 of the apostles who were injured are now fit again and come back in. Ireland look more experienced and familiar as a result, and at least its interesting.

Are these the right calls? Not for us.

Wales, like last year, will look to kick long and in-field and contest every breakdown feverishly with twin groundhogs Justin Tipuric and Sam Warburton – and we are going in without an openside. Henry, who has been far and away the best 7 in Ireland for the last 2 years with a good November series under his belt, is on the bench. We risk losing the breakdown battle and initiative to a Welsh team with a backline who can punish you – this is a poor selection.

On the wing, we have gone for the young and exciting option – we’ll get plenty of opportunities to see Gilroy and Zebo with ball in hand as they run back Welsh bombs, that’s for sure. But we feel their skillsets are very similar – both are out and out touchline huggers, pacy with an eye for the tryline. Zebo is better at finding space, while Gilroy’s dancing feet and NFL-style pirouettes make him slippery in contact. Neither is adept and coming off their wing looking for that killer line to break through, or even to bosh into contact and set up a move. Bowe is brilliant at this, and Andy Trimble performs this role for Ulster, but we would have picked Luke Fitzgerald, who looks electric on his return from injury, over Gilroy.

But that’s a marginal call – we can see why Gilroy has been selected. The flanker call, on the other hand, is a  clanger – we are giving the Welsh free reign at ruck-time. If we have a gameplan to keep the ball in hand and away from their breakdown-dominating flankers, great, because we’ll need one.

The subs bench contains Declan Fitzpatrick, who has played around 120 minutes this season – there was no other option, as anyone who saw the Wolfhounds scrum accelerating backwards on Friday will understand. Michael Bent needs to spend some time with Leinster and get back on track.

The team in full:

15 Rob Kearney 14 Craig Gilroy 13 Brian O’Driscoll 12 Gordon D’Arcy 11 Simon Zebo 10 Jonathan Sexton 9 Conor Murray 1Cian Healy 2 Rory Best 3 Mike Ross 4 Mike McCarthy 5 Donnacha Ryan 6 Peter O’Mahony 7 Sean O’Brien 8 Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin 17 David Kilcoyne 18 Declan Fitzpatrick 19 Donncha O’Callaghan 20 Chris Henry 21 Eoin Reddan 22 Ronan O’Gara 23 Keith Earls