The Slow Fade

Rugby careers come to an end in one of two ways; through injury, or on occasion, on a player’s own terms. Cases of the former are increasingly rare. Ronan O’Gara and – just about – Brian O’Driscoll are two appointed a retirement date and quit. The list of recent retirements through injury – serveral in their recent 20’s, others more fortunate to have had a longer career, is lengthy.

One thing notable about O’Driscoll and O’Gara is that they went out at the top. Ok, Radge had lost his place in the Ireland team, but there was no shame in that, and his swansong was a top-tier match (and performance) against Clermont Auvergne in a Heineken Cup semi-final. BOD’s last outing was in a Pro12 final and he was in the national team to the last breath.

Plenty of others have a final season in which they ‘wind down’ their career. Leo Cullen and Mal O’Kelly retreated to the role of first reserve in their final season and appeared to perform sort of ‘handover’ role.

One player who sadly won’t be going out at the top is Donncha ‘Stakhanov’ O’Callaghan, Ireland’s joker in the pack, who once pulled down Ian McGeechan’s trousers while on the Lions tour. When Saturday’s team was announced journeyman Billy Holland was selected on the bench behind O’Connell and Foley, depriving fans of the chance to see O’Callaghan’s windmilling technique on the touchline. If Ryan were fit, it means O’Callaghan would conceivably be fifth on the depth chart. But this is no final wind-down season for Stakhanov. He has a contract until 2016; he signed the contract in late 2013 when he was still in or around the Irish set-up (though it is a Munster contract and not a central one, whatever that really means).

It must be a strange time for the player, who has been there and done it all; 94 Ireland caps, played all games in the grand slam, four caps for the Lions (where he famously pulled down Ian McGeechan’s trousers), two Heineken Cup wins with Munster … but most recently found himself lining out for Munster A, where last weekend he packed down alongside Sean McCarthy and took on Tom Denton and Gavin Thornbury of Leinster A. At least they won 18-8, which is something I suppose.  What must it be like for a player who has scaled such heights, played in the biggest of games, to find himself overlooked for Billy Holland and playing with the A’s?  That’s show business for you.  One day, you’re the most important guy who ever lived.  The next day, you’re some schmo working in a box factory.

While it’s natural to wonder whether O’Callaghan is the most expensive fifth-choice lock in world rugby, it’s also hard not to feel some sympathy for the once stalwart lock whose decline has been inexorable. By all accounts, O’Callaghan is a hard worker and a good character and not one to feel sorry for himself – after all, this is the man who pulled Ian McGeechan’s trousers down on the Lions tour. And to be fair to the old dog, he adapted surprsingly well to Penney’s second-rows-on-the-wing tactics.  He can’t be faulted for effort, or trouser-removing japery, but theold energy levels just aren’t there, and he doesn’t have much else to fall back on. The chances of an Indian summer feel slim, and it looks like a long, slow fade out to Donncha O’Callaghan’s career.

Also, did we mention that he once pulled down Ian McGeechan’s trousers on the Lions tour?

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Renaissance Man

Donncha O’Callaghan is the classic workhorse of a rugger team – for Munster and Ireland, he has consistently tackled himself to a standstill, while taking a back seat to the like of Paul O’Connell (and even Micko) when it comes to leadership and taking the team forward.

For a man who is among the most decorated in Irish history (2 HECs, Grand Slam, 2 Lions tours, 90Ireland caps), the general impression is of a follower, a man who needed the Axels and Paulies of this world to step up on his behalf.

This impression has, ironically, been fed by the man who coached him to his finest moments – master mind-bender Deccie. Deccie never tires of telling us how valuable Donncha is to the cause, how we are lucky – nay, blessed – to have not only Paul O’Connell and Micko, but Donncha as well! And his most famous faint praise of O’Callaghan has become the most notorious – that Donncha is in the team for his “unseen work”. We’re not sure what it is either, but it was used to mask declining tackle counts and effectiveness on the ground.

For his continued selection in Irish XVs for the last two years, Donncha has become something of a bête noire on these pages, mocked as Stakhanov – a reference to the way he is inevitably described by all and sundry – the dedicated pack mule who can take a back seat when it comes to decision making and tactics.

Broader skillsets from the likes of Dan Tuohy and Mike McCarthy were ignored for the safe option of Donncha, and it became somewhat of a yardstick for conservatism in selection. Recall as well Devin Toner having to call the lineouts on his debut, and the reason for our frustration becomes clearer.

By the end of last season, O’Callaghan looked a busted flush – short of impact, short of physicality and short of the kind of carrying ability modern locks can bring to the game – he had lost his Munster and Ireland jersey to Donnacha Ryan.

But a strange thing has happened – Rob Penney has come in to Munster with a vague idea of playing a different game than the traditional bish bash bosh they are famed for, and he has had his difficulties in implementation. Paul O’Connell has spent long spells injured and Ronan O’Gara has increasingly resorted to playing an old style kick for territory. The third survivor of the 2006 breakthrough, Donncha, has been a most impressive adherent to the new plan.

O’Callaghan derided himself as “Johnny Robot” for slavishly following coaches instructions, but this is remarkable – a man who rarely strayed more than 1 metre from a ruck regularly pops up on the wing and has even attempted a few offloads. In addition, he has actually upped the stakes physically – carry the ball into contact even slightly too upright, and Donncha will engineer a Munster scrum quicker than you can say “over-used phrase to describe forcing the opposition into a maul and getting the put-in to the resultant scrum”.

What’s more, the famed leadership qualities we assumed weren’t present have begun to assert themselves. In the build-up to the Embra game, Donncha was highly visible in the press telling all who would listen that, for all the grumbling about Rob Penney’s tactical revolution, it was the Munster players who weren’t executing, and blaming the boss was the easy way out. He delivered a powerful message to his underperforming colleagues – that the type of performance seen against Cardiff was simply unacceptable, and the onus was on them to deliver.

Munster have never been short of characters to deliver this kind of message – Jirry, POC, Quinny, Axel or Radge for example – but to see O’Callaghan deliver it was still something of a stunner.

So perhaps his bosses down the years have missed something of a trick when it comes to O’Callaghan, and it took a new broom in Munster to eke out hitherto-unseen leadership qualities. Or maybe he feels he needs to show example to some of his forwards. Or maybe he’s just having an Indian summer and Penney told him to do the presser.

Either way, it’s a most interesting and welcome development.  It’s also in stark contrast to the supposed leadership qualities being brought to bear by the other experienced campaigner in the team.  You guessed it: Radge!  Picked in the team for his wealth of experience, quite what he was doing kicking out at second rows we cannot know.  It wasn’t the first time this season ROG’s attitude towards the outcome of a game has looked somewhat feckless.  It might not be the worst thing for Munster if he is banned from the final pool game, or the Six Nations opener for that matter.

Memo to Mike McCarthy: ‘Become O’Connell’

Lordy.  Talk about timing.  Obviously there’s never a good time for the premier lock in Europe to get injured, but coming just after Ireland appeared to get their season in motion, already without Brian O’Driscoll, captain and all round supremo Paul O’Connell is ruled out for the rest of the Six Nations through injury.  Just three games into his tenure, playing some of his best rugby ever, it’s desperately unlucky on a personal level, but worse still for Ireland.  Conor Murray will also miss the remainder of the campaign.  Again, it’s bad news, and awful for him personally, but it’s one position where we do have an able replacement, who was knocking hard for selection in any case.

Two vs. Four

Donnacha Ryan, already not so much knocking on the selectorial door as smashing his way through it, finally gets his chance, right?  Wrong!  Himself and Donncha O’Callaghan surely cannot be paired together, despite what Gerry says.  Both are front-jumpers (jumping at ‘2’) and neither has any real experience running the lineout.  The only time they were paired at Munster saw London Irish decimate the set piece and win the game.  In fact, if anything, the luckless Ryan is even more likely to miss out on a test start, because Deccie will baulk at having to change two second rows when he already has to change one.  Stakhanov O’Callaghan’s incredible fortune looks set to continue.

For this reason, the clamour to see Ulster’s impressive Dan Tuohy called up is misplaced (though he should be in the squad already).  He, like Ryan, is a front-jumping tighthead-lock, and it’s Muller that runs the lineout up north.

Ireland need a middle of the lineout jumper (jumping at ‘4’) who has experience calling the lineout. It’s one position we just don’t have that much depth.  Stalwart squad men Leo Cullen and Mick O’Driscoll are either injured and/or winding down towards retirement.  The only two options are Connacht’s Mike McCarthy and Leinster’s skyscraping Devin Toner.  Deccie has opted for McCarthy, and he’s a fine player enjoying another good season.  Athletic and full of aggression, all he has to do now is simply take the step up to becoming Paul O’Connell – easy!  He’ll have O’Callaghan alongside him, who could make anything up to eight tackles to help him out.

There’s always Biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey, who at least has the same physique as Big Jim Hamilton, but its hardly fair to deny Mike Ross the title of heaviest forward, and anyway, Big Bob struggles to get in to the London Samoa team these days.

Personally, we would have plumped for Big Dev, given his towering presence in the lineout, vastly improved performances this season, and how he has outperformed Richie Gray on both occasions when they went head-to-head against Glasgow in the HEC this year – but it’s much of a muchness, and every time we’ve seen McCarthy (not enough, perhaps) he has impressed us.  Plus, he’ll up the handsome quotient in the pack.

Verdict: in spite of the morning’s papers anticipating an all-Donn(a)cha, second row, we’re anticipating O’Callaghan and McCarthy starting together, Ryan once again on the bench.

Knock-on Effects .. for the Paddys and the Jocks

If Ryan’s chances of starting have taken a dent, Peter O’Mahony’s have increased.  POM is a light, tall fellow that’s easily thrown in the air, and has done well at the tail of Munster’s lineout this season.  Already probably deserving of a start in this game, Deccie may well see him as a good option to share the lineout burden.  It’s worth noting that Scotland have perhaps the best (maybe second to France) defensive lineout in the tournament, with Richie Gray a phenomenal ball-thief at the front, and Big Jim Hamilton adept in the middle.  A dedicated aerial specialist in the backrow would do no harm.

This would give the Irish pack a very French look, with 2 lumps in the second row and atheletic and talented lineout-enabled forwards in the backrow. Scotland picked 2 genuine opensides (TM) and nullified the French backrow well 2 weeks ago, but Robbo might be tempted to pick a lump at 6 (Kelly Brown and Alasdair strokosh would be ideal, but are injured) to really target the raw Irish lineout.

Verdict: Peter O’Mahony to start.  A somewhat out of form Sean O’Brien to miss out. Robbo to stick with 2 groundhogs, to the delight of Gormless George.


Oh Captain My Captain

The obvious choice here is Rory Best.  Already a longstanding member of the team-leaders panel, he emerged during the World Cup as a key figure in the pack (and a great player).  The only thing that might persuade Deccie to overlook him is the sheer weight already on his shoulders.  He will have the responsibility of throwing to an already struggling lineout now without its main man.  Maybe it’d be asking too much of him.  If that line of thinking did prevail, the armband would fall to one of Rob Kearney, Stephen Ferris or Jamie Heaslip.  Heaslip is usually the most talkative in huddles, but he rarely wears the armband at Leinster, and its unlikely he’ll wear it for Ireland.

Ferris and Kearney’s outstanding form alone makes them compelling, but its our old mate Bob would strikes us as the better option. ‘Twas a 10-cap Kearney who famously spoke up at the Enfield meeting, and by all accounts he is held in high regard by his colleagues.

In truth, any of the group would appear built for the role, and Deccie would do well to empower this group, and probably Sexton as well (like ROG, too cranky for the captaincy, but clearly a leader) with the role of leading the team.

Verdict: Best to captain, with Kearney his able lieutenant

Scrum Half

Little doubt that Reddan will now be the starting nine, but the call-up of Tomas O’Leary raised more than a few eyebrows.  Isaac Boss surely would have got the call, but is in New Zealand for personal reasons.  The folly of not calling up Paul Marshall in the first place has now come back to bite – this is classic stubborn Kidney.

Anyone who has watched Tomas and Paul in action this season will see two players at the opposite ends of the spectrum.  Marshall has been a key figure for Ulster, often coming off the bench, and has pushed his way into the starting line-up in recent weeks.  O’Leary meanwhile, had some reasonable cameos early on, but has reverted to his pre-World Cup form.  He is nowhere near operating at test level.  This is a terrible call by Kidney, which sees him, once again, playing favourites.

Ulster will be delighted that the Marshall-Pienaar axis can continue to develop; at least someone benefits from this deeply wrong-headed decision by Deccie.

Verdict: Unthinkably, O’Leary will be in an Irish matchday 22.  Wowsers.

Six Nations: Vive La Revolution!

Pope Benedeccie I announced his team for the opening Six Nations match and there weren’t many surprises. The 22 is picked almost entirely from the World Cup squad, with the only newbie being Peter O’Mahony taking his place on the bench. Good for Frankie’s day job anyway. Not one of those ‘promoted’ from the Wolfhounds game made the final call. Well, what else were you expecting?
This was not a selection to get the pulses racing, but, truth be told, it was never going to be. As we flagged earlier this week, Ireland’s fate this season rests more on their ability to deliver a more potent gameplan in attack than with rafts of new personnel. There were only ever four starting berths where there was uncertainty, and even that was minimal. We knew all along Earls was going to get the nod, and made our peace with this decision. There are some outraged voices out there over this selection, but with no overwhelmingly obvious choice, Earls is a good bet. Yes, his defence is a concern, no, he’s not a natural centre, but those who lament Kidney’s conservatism (count us in) can at least be consoled by the notion that it’s a choice built for attack.
Sexton and Murray starting was pretty well flagged. Great and all as ROG is playing, few expected Kidney to give him a start in this one given his age. It’s in everyone’s interests to give Sexton and Murray an extended run in the side, and hope they can provide Ireland with a stable half-back pairing for years to come. Both undoubtedly have the talent to do so. Reddan can count himself unlucky, but he has been poor on his two most recent outings.
Which bring us to … Donncha … our old friend, selected at 4.. What can we say? It’s clearly a selection based on incumbency rather than form or potential contribution to the team or building for RWC15.
We have moaned about Donncha in the past, but have still advocated his selection, based on his partnership with Paulie and a lack of viable alternatives.
Neither argument now holds water. Donnacha Ryan has usurped him at Munster, started 5 HEC games, 4 alongside Paulie, in a campaign where Munster have gone 100% and earned a home quarter-final. Dan Tuohy started all 6 alongside the very Paulie-esque Johann Muller in a campaign where Ulster demolished Leicester and nearly turned over Clermont in Clermont. Both have earned rave reviews for their performances.
Either is a superior option than Donncha, who is more underpowered than ever, cannot pass, rarely gets across the gainline with ball in hand, and rarely prevents an opponent getting past the gainline. Ok, so he is an expert at “unseen work” (Egg and Palla wish they could trot out that line come appraisal time) and also at the choke tackle, which is clearly top of the list of priorities.
We would argue that if indeed Ireland’s game is to be remodelled around more ball-in-hand attacking, that more players comfortable with handling the ball are required: Ryan and especially Tuohy are vastly superior in this respect. Ryan is playing in the form of life, and at 28 is in or around his prime. Is he going to be 30 by the time he starts a test match?
It’s worth bearing in mind that this is a massively depleted Wales side, and Ireland should win comfortably with or without Donncha. Vexingly, the likelihood is Donncha will be picked for Paris … where he will be shredded. The man has been a loyal servant who has been a part of every triumph this team has had, but his time has gone. Paulie’s provincial partner, Ryan, should have started, with Tuohy on the bench.

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Second Row

This week and next, we’ll be looking at the likely runners and riders for Ireland’s World Cup 30, taking it unit-by-unit. On Monday we studied the front row, now we look at the second row.

How many will go? In 2003, Ireland took four and in 2007 three. We think three plus one back row/second row option is likely this time around.

Who is certain to travel? Ireland’s first choice second row partnership has been set in stone since 2004. Paul O’Connell is a key man and the pack leader – Ireland will need him at his best to progress beyond the quarter-finals. Beside him will be Donncha O’Callaghan. WoC is sick of seeing Donners perform impressively in good team performances and anonymously in bad ones – his leadership skills are non-existent for a man of his experience (Devin Toner calling the lineouts on his debut?) and as for his penalty count… With a string of nondescript performances preceding a few swashbuckling ones, he reminds us of the role Paul Collingwood played for the England cricket team in his latter days. We would love to have seen some variety in the 4 shirt recently, but twas not to be. These 2 are already past security at Dublin Airport.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? Firstly, lets discuss the owner of the number 18 shirt. The contenders here are Leo Cullen and Mick O’Driscoll. In November, Micko was probably a nose in front, and deservedly so – he added real get-around-the-park dynamism to his game in the first half of last season. But after Christmas, when Paulie came back, Micko fell out of favour and lost momentum. At the same time, Leo Cullen improved on a rather scrappy and lumbering first half of season, and personified solidity and, rather surprisingly, showed no little skill in a storming last month of the season.

Deccie has also had a look at Devin Toner and Biiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey (Go Irish!), but neither has any chance of making the squad, due to being tall-but-not-very-good and an immobile Premiership lump respectively. Cullen is 90% certain to take his place on the bench and play 8 seconds against Italy.

The second row cum back row slot is a straight fight between Donnacha Ryan and Kevin McLaughlin. In Ryan’s favour is the fact he has played second row before for Ireland and that he is more of a 4 than a 6 – McLaughlin is definitely more of a 6. For Locky, its that he has played in bigger and higher intensity games this season than anything Ireland are likely to face in this World Cup, unless they come across NZ. Locky is being pencilled in by some as the future for Leinster and Ireland at lock, more due to a lack of options than anything else, but we think Deccie will go with Ryan’s experience and greater suitability for the position.

However, WoC has a better idea. What about bringing an in-form lock forward who offers something different to all the names previously mentioned. Someone who can bring Richie Gray / Sam Whitelock-esque ball-playing skills to the party. Dan Tuohy has been far more effective than Ryan this season, and has excelled playing alongside Johann Muller, which is very similar to playing with Paulie or Leo. Second row could soon be a bit of a problem position for Ireland, and we see little to lose by bringing a man who has done it in the HEC this season, and who could be an Ireland regular very soon.

Any bolters? McLaughlin is probably the most obvious one – in January the idea of him even being in contention at second row was rather fantastical. Tuohy has picked up injuries at unfortunate times.

Should go: Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Leo Cullen, Dan Tuohy
Will go: Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Leo Cullen, Donnacha Ryan