Meltdown

It feels like a bit of a strange World Cup for the Irish at this point – we are still over a week from our first (of many we hope) peak while the tournament goes supernova around us. We haven’t even managed to get the usual pat-on-the-head platitudes about being the best fans, since the general atmosphere has been fantastic.  Minnows have been largely competitive, and then there have been the headline games. The Japan-South Africa and New Zealand-Argentina games on the first weekend were fantastic, but last Saturdays epic was one of the truly great World Cup games.

We were going to write a great piece about England’s great capitulation, but Graham Henry covered it all so comprehensively, his piece was unimprovable. Henry was scathing and unsparing. England were poorly selected, afraid to play rugby and choked in the last 20 minutes, making terrible decisions both on and off the pitch. It was a great article. What came through was Henry’s absolute disdain for what we call the ‘rugby of fear’. Not for Henry the usual hoo-ha of ‘cup rugby’, which is translation for ‘kicking to the other team and hoping they make mistakes’. You go out to beat the other team by playing them off the park. If you have lineout and scrum dominance, he said in so many words, why on earth are you not playing rugby with the high quality first phase ball? It’s anathema to him.

For the record, we cannot understand the decision to go down the line at the end. Whatever about the match situation, whatever about the relative percentages of a rolling maul versus a moderately difficult kick for a 7-from-7 kicker, the fact is – a draw virtually ensures England qualify. At the very least, it means an injury-ravaged Welsh side need to win twice.

But whatever of the erroneous final decision to decline the kick at goal, the choking began well before that. You could say it began the moment Ben Youngs departed the pitch and England suddenly began to clam up. ‘All the good stuff was coming through Ben’, they seemed to say, ‘What do we do now?’ Indeed, you could argue the choking began even before kick off, with Lancaster’s selection. We were critical of it, and our concerns came to pass. It was a selection of fear. A team picked not to lose.  A selection to put doubts in the minds of his own players. A selection the Welsh will have picked up and said ‘these chaps are worried’. It was hardly surprising that those doubts seeped from Lancaster into his players’ heads in the fateful final half hour.

Demented Mole wrote a great analysis of Australia a couple of weeks back, noting in particular the decisiveness of Michael Cheika’s actions as head coach. It raised a key point. Coaches’ decisions will not always be correct, but in acting decisively they will partially mitigate even those they get wrong. The best coaches act decisively. Joe Schmidt, for example. Say what you want about Ireland being boring or mechanical, but the coach is absolutely decisive in how he has set them out play, and how he picks the team. But Lancaster lacks decisiveness, and you struggle to see what England are trying to do. Even over the complete RWC cycle, its tough to map out what England have been building towards (bar Japan 2019, as Lancaster is so fond of pointing out)

The Wales selection seemed like throwing away two years of work on a playing philosophy on the eve of his biggest gamem and his team have a well-earned reputation for lacking decisiveness in clutch situations. What does he do now? Persist with the new game plan, or go back to the old one? Can he decide? He somehow wound up with a team on the pitch with around 2/3 of the cap total he had planned four years ago, another symptom of squad mismanagement.

Worse still was how England managed to make things worse, not better, in the post match interviews. In the immediate aftermath, Robshaw appeared to implicate the kickers Farrell and Ford for the decision to go down the line, before changing his mind and taking all the responsibility himself. Lancaster then appeared not to back his captain, after four years of four square support for every decision Robshaw made on the pitch. Farrell said he would have kicked if asked. Mike Brown just sounded disgusted his forwards had given away so many penalties while he was busy doing everything at full back. It all contrasted so badly to a Wales side that was steadfastly unified in the face of extreme adversity,  led outstandingly by Captain Sam Warburton and his brave Lieutenant Alun-Wyn Jones. One side had enough clarity of purpose to attack an opponents weak point (one paced outside centre) with four half backs on the pitch – and it wasn’t England.

What really struck us was Richard Wigglesworth having a pop at Will Carling for calling Lancaster’s England a “classroom-oriented environment” where the players are treated as “schoolboys”. To us, it sounds fair enough, but it was the contrast between Carling’s England and Robshaw’s England that stood out. Bum Face was appointed England captain after a handful of caps by young coach Geoff Cooke, taking over a side considered to have a disciplinary problem (sound familiar?), who hadn’t tasted success since the Beaumont Slam in 1980, with a few wooden spoons in between. However, between Cooke and Carling, they had fashioned a side that won the a Grand Slam in 1991 (the first of three for Carling) then went mighty close to winning their home World Cup later that year. Carling might have been able to work with Moore, Ackford, Skinner, Guscott, etc, but there was no doubt who was running the show – Bum Face would learn on the job, but he and his coach fashioned one of the Northern Hemisphere’s great sides in the same period of time that Robshaw and Lancaster have led England to this point.

It feels from the outside that the whole show is in danger of falling apart, with the camp seemingly coming apart at the seams, and there’s some serious work to do this week if England are to avoid a calamitous early exit. They now face a strong, coherent and settled (remarkably, considering how long Cheika has been in the job) Australia side, and you can be sure Cheika won’t be letting his side drop their intensity. England will rally; they never roll over for anyone, and it will be another huge, close game which will most likely be decided in the last 20 minutes. But increasingly, it feels like if it comes down to the wire late in the match, Lancaster’s England, like Kidney’s Ireland in 2013, will find a way of losing.

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Deep Blue vs The Hipster’s Choice

Even though rugby is on the verge of dying on its feet, with Tony Ward decreeing that the only solution is to cut each team by four players, make them wear armour and helmets, allow forward passes and pause for ads between phases, there is one gleaming white light on its horizon. A light that isn’t just white and gleaming, but well-mannered, good-looking and creative. That’s right – it’s the team formerly known as England (actually foemerly known aas St. Boshingtons), but now rebranded as the Harrow Globetrotters.

The gloriously-monikered chaps talk all proper, are upstanding gents, and, best of all, have this weird idea that scoring tries might, y’know, help win the game. England, who recently arrived at the Aviva bearing a centre partnership of Shontayne Hapless and Matt Banahan, are now the great entertainers of the Northern Hemisphere – they have become the hipster’s choice. On their way to Fallon & Byrne, the skinny jeans-wearing, moustachioed, pipe-smoking ironic glasses-donning denizens of hipsterdom proclaim their ironic love for England.  Truly, it was never meant to bwe this way.

“The Premiership is excellent to watch – I’m thinking of streaming BT Sport on my ThinkPad” they remark while their Jamaica Blue Mountain brews on the counter. “I love the way James Haskell quit his job and went to find himself abroad .. then came back a better person” they crow, as their independently-brewed Slovenian pilsner cools to 5.8 degrees in its specially shaped glass. “I’ve always expected that the England coaching staff would recognise that Danny Cipriani has more to offer than Stephen Myler” they opine while flicking through a dog-eared copy of Bernard Jackman’s ‘Blue Blood’.

Every year, we tell ourselves “this has not been a vintage Six Nations” although what we really mean is “it’s as un-watchable as ever” – it didn’t take the advent of modern defences for Northern Hemisphere rugby to be a forward-dominated bosh-fest on rubbish pitches. The difference is that, while in recent years we have tended to rely on the roller-coaster fortunes of Ireland  and of course the French, with their madcap coaching appointments and smouldering good looks, to provide some entertainment, this year the English are bringing the party.  Daft Punk are playing at their house.  You’ve got to set [their dashing midfield] up, set them up!

So England are the hipster’s choice, but how good are they really? They might score a bucket load of tries, but they also conceded three tries against Italy – three too many against a team piloted by Kelly Haimona – perhaps the worst yet in along series of terrible Italian imported outhalves. Even Craig Gower would have fancied himself against Haimona, and not just in an offal jim-jam contest. Or to put it another way – which coach would have slept sounder after England’s win over Italy – Joe Schmidt or Stuart Lancaster?

We’ll wager the way the rosy-cheeked bright-eyed youthfully vigourous English backs went out to bump up their points difference didn’t fill Lancaster with glee. Plenty of England teams have fed forty- and fifty-burgers to the Italians in Twickers, but none them did it while looking so pourous. Sure, it’s great fun, but we expect the recipe to beat the boring Irish in the Palindrome will fall less on the shoulders of George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson than on the beef of Dan Cole, George Kruis and James Haskell. Can they organise themselves well enough to defend the super-cohesive Irish rolling maul?  The impeccable manners of Chris Robshaw and the way he selflessly tackles his heart out forever, and the ability of Billy Vunipola to keep getting over the gainline and recycle quickly will just as important – this is going to be a tightly fought contest where each metre is fought out in the trenches.  The party stops here, it’s time to get down to seriously putrid rugby.

If England come out and throw the ball around, one could expect the ironclad Ireland defence to keep them out with ease and induce some lateral and directionless shuffling – or an intercept when the first forward is skipped for the centre behind him on static ball. England might have saved the northern hemisphere from eternal damnation in recent times, but they’ll probably need to be playing some decidedly non-vintage (or, if we are true to reality, “vintage Northern Hemipshere”) bosh-it-up-the-middle rugby to leave Deep Blue Schmidt’s hard drive with a win.

They have the capability to do it.  Don’t forget that for all the frothiness, it was their forward power more than anything else that dominated Wales in the opening match.  They suffocated the life out of the Valleysmen.  That is the template they’ll hope to bring to Dublin.  If Ireland’s maul is a weapon, the scrum is a concern, where Dan Cole and Joe Marler are black-belt scrummagers, and nobody needs reminding ofthe manner in which Marler milked penalties from Mike Ross in the Leinster v Harlequins double-header this season.

The backline will be busy, but perhaps not in the same way as against Italy.  Chances are the back three will have to catch a lot of kicks and Mike Brown’s absence will be felt.  Ben Foden is also injured and it leaves them playing Alex Goode at full-back.  Goode is a classy runner in open field (such that that ever occurs these days) but how will he, and the two inexperienced wings (with Jack ‘Tryless Wonder’ Nowell expected to replace Johnny May) go under aerial bombardment from Ireland’s halves?  Note to Jared Payne: don’t do anything silly now.

One thing is certain – it won’t be pretty. A second thing is certain – it will be a chess match. The maul, the kicking game, the scrum; these will be the decisive factors.  It could well come down to whoever best holds their nerve.  We’d back Johny Sexton over George Ford if it comes down to a shootout.

Our money is on the computer. Ireland to win.

Pass the Parcel

Ireland look set to keep changes to a minimum today, with the returning Rory Best being brought into the front row and Gordon D’arcy is likely to squeeze in ahead of the increasingly impressive Stuart Olding at centre.

It’s the sort of selection we’ve become used to in Ireland where the pecking order of players remains relatively static. Sean Cronin is brilliant in the loose and Richardt Strauss is showing signs of returning to his best form, but Rory Best is one of the team’s foundations, so if he’s fit, he plays. Just throw the ball in straight, Rory!

It’s a similar story in Wales, where Gatland has stuck with what is recognisable as his best team. All the usuals are there and in spite of Liam Williams’ good form, it would take a crowbar to get Alex Cuthbert, George North or Leigh Halfpenny out of the team. Jamie Roberts and JJV Davies are longstanding as his preferred centre partnership and we all know how good they can be. In the backrow it’s the same. Everyone loves hipster’s choice Justin Tipuric for his electric line-breaks and incredible hands, but Sam Warburton is Gatland’s captain and a cornerstone of the team. Lydiate, Warburton and Faletau is enshrined as Gatland’s backrow of choice in Welsh rugby law.

Wales and Ireland have relatively small playing pools, so there can be a gulf between the best fifteen or twenty players, and the next best 10 or so. It means coaches tend to be more loyal to their players; sometimes to a fault in the case of Declan Kidney’s post-2009 selections (see: O’Leary, Tomas). Mike Phillips has done little or nothing in club rugby for years, but Gatland stuck with him throughout that period – until this season when Rhys Webb is finally ready to play test rugby.

Over in England and France, the pecking order in key positions in the team is altogether more fluid, and they’re not always the better for it. England are currently amid a mini-crisis. Has the gloss and sense of feelgood ever come off a team as quickly? From this perspective, their media appeared overconfident going into this series and the group of players available to them looked far from being world-beaters. Their death-by-a-thousand-cuts loss to New Zealand and tactically inflexible defeat to South Africa have brought them down to earth. ‘How long have we tied Lancaster down until again?’ Er, 2020.

Still, the thing for Lancaster is he can always change the team. They have such a depth of moderately talented players that if someone has a bad game or two, there’s always someone in decent enough form to put in his place. Danny Care was among England’s best players in the Six Nations and the thought of dropping him then seemed a world away. But memories are short and Care hasn’t been at his best so far this series. So he’s out! ‘Care’s out of form’, goes the line, ‘so we should play Youngs, Wigglesworth, one of the Dicksons, Shaun Perry, Andy Gomarsall or whoever, instead of him’. None of those players are as good as Danny Care – in fact only Ben Youngs gets even close – but never mind, let’s change it up anyway!

It leads to a pass-the-parcel approach to selection that isn’t necessarily all that beneficial. Lots of scrum-halves have had a stint in the England team and each has followed the same pattern: looks Tha Biz for a while, before not looking as good for a bit, finding themselves dumped out of the team, before the same pattern recurs for someone else and the original fellow finds himself recalled, and the cycle continues. If Conor Murray had two poor games on the trot – unlikely and all as that seems – the chances of him being thrown out of the team for Reddan, Marmion, Boss or Peter Stringer would be remote.

If things are bad at scrum half for England, they are worse again at centre, where this infurating approach has pretty much been in place since Will Greenwood retired. Riki Flutey, Jamie Noon, Anthony Allen, Ollie Smith, Shontayne Hape, Matt Banahan, and so on and so on the list of modest footballers who had a go at centre for a few games before the next chap came along is a long one.

In France the approach to selection is even worse, and has at times seemed to be something approaching a lottery. France have had a run of madcap selectors dating back to Bernard Laporte; scrum halves playing 10, seemingly outstanding players overlooked for tradesmen, world-class centres on the wing; they’ve had it all.

That said, there’s a time to make brave selectorial decisions, and if England really do have world cup winning aspirations, there are two things they absolutely must do. The first is pick Steffon Armitage, the world-class openside who has dominated the Heineken Cup with Toulon in recent seasons, and the other is to get Owen Farrell out of the team – for his own sake as well as that of the team – playing a player into form, when it doesn’t work, destroys the player (see: O’Leary, Tomas).

For some reason, the coach appears tied to the vastly overrated Farrell, but the case for George Ford as a long-term solution at 10 is compelling enough to give him a run in the team. Ford has a way to go before becoming a complete player, but he is capable of far more in attack already than Farrell ever will be. The team for Samoa has got this half-right at best. Ford starts at 10, but Farrell remains in the team at 12. The word was it was goal-kicking related, but they aren’t that different this season – Ford is 25/33 (76%) this season, while Farrell is 9/11 (82%), essentially there is one missed kick between them. So why is he there? It has the look of selection by committee.

Four Plus Two Nations

If this Six Nations has yet to produce any truly classic matches, it has at least risen above the torpor of the last couple of seasons – the three middle game weeks were appalling last season, for example.  The weather has been largely favourable and the standard of play has been decent, for the most part.  It has also provided us with a uniquely intriguing endgame, where four teams share the lead with two wins from the opening three games.  Talk about up for grabs; any of England, France, Wales and Ireland can win it – with all this competition it’s almost like the .. err .. Five Nations used to be.  The championship will almost certainly come down to two matches: England vs. Wales this weekend and France vs. Ireland, the last game in the tournament.  The match in Twickenham will rule out one of England and Wales, but provided Ireland and France can overcome the might of Italy and Scotland this weekend, they’ll join them on three wins and any of three teams will go into the final weekend as potential champions.

It’s hard to call.  England are probably marginal favourites.  They look the best team of the series and they have home advantage in their crucial game against Wales.  Wales themselves are the outsiders; they have yet to spark and look jaded, their points difference isn’t looking great and beating England in Twickenham looks tricky for them – despite them being the BEST TEAM EVER ©BBC.  Ireland have looked good (admittedly at a very narrow subset of competencies i.e. technical forward play), and their points difference is very healthy, but they have to win in Paris, which almost never happens (once in our lifetime).

But here’s the bizarre bit; totally misfiring, abject, awful, bickering France are in a pretty good position.  They have two games left against teams they habitually beat.  This weekend they travel to Murayfield.  Scotland may have won against Italy, but against the better sides they have been inept, accruing six points in aggregate against Ireland and England.  Even in third gear, presumably fighting with one another and relying on Picamoles to bail them out, France should win at a canter.  Then they play Ireland in Paris.  The last two matches between the sides have been drawn, but playing Ireland has a habit of bringing the best out in them.  Can even this rubbish French team find a faster tempo and run Ireland ragged as so many previous vintages have done?  Doubtful, but you never know – Ireland have a habit of standing off the handsome Mediterraneans like a bunch of hewn demi-Gods and letting them do whatever they want – and France like nothing better, apart from maybe a spooked New Zealander in a crucial World Cup game.

Aside: we really need to get out of that habit – when the RWC15 draw was made we said we had three years to learn how to beat France – we’ve made a good start, time to follow through.

For the sake of the championship one hopes France do not win.  Unless France find some inspiration from somewhere, they would be a most unworthy winner.  Indeed, it looks like their win over England could be the defining result of the championship, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can now see it bordered on the freakish.  England must be kicking themselves, especially after watching the tape of a mediocre Welsh side dispatch Les Bleus with ease.  Against England, France raced into a somewhat fortuitous early lead as England looked jittery and tentative – Jack Nowell in particular, but the bounces of the oval ball were pretty favourable to the home side.  However, England dominated the remainder of the match and were easily the superior side, fighting back to deservedly take the lead.  They had the game won, until an ill-advised switch at 9 (by England, the French switch was 100% advisable) and an extraordinary, totally unexpected and really quite brilliant try from Gael Fickou stole it at the death.  It was a try that never looked like coming, but it has given France something to play for, and has stopped England from racing away from the chasing pack.

What about Scotland and Italy? Last season looked like they might have taken a tentative step away from being perennial basement dwellers, but an ageing pack and still-too-young backs isn’t a good combination for Italy and useless coaching and mystifying selections isn’t working for Scotland. Transition, then, for both, a familiar state.

Still in the Hunt

Bosh! Ireland’s Grand Slam ambitions came unstuck at the hands of the Awesome Power of England’s pack – but it was a close-run thing, and it bore plenty of lessons for the tasks ahead for Team Schmidt.

Our success against Scotland and, particularly, Wales was predicated on potent mauling and successful counter-rucking. Problem was, on Saturday, Ireland didn’t try mauling with any regularity until the second half, and England protected their own ball aggressively at the breakdown. The decline in prominence of Peter O’Mahony from Ireland’s signature player of the first two weeks of the Six Nations (aside: when it became clear the BBC producers hadn’t got the memo about POM’s anthem-singing gusto, perhaps the writing was on the wall) was a direct result of the breakdown work of the English.

The set pieces were a success for Ireland, but England managed to restrict the influence of the scrum and lineout enough to ensure they wouldn’t be a platform for dominance. Ireland tended to use the lineout to go wide, in contrast to previous games, and it didn’t really work.

As well as our backrow have been playing, it seemed inevitable that we would one day lament the absence of Sean O’Brien and Fez. Saturday was the day – we didn’t have anyone capable of bulldozing a path through the middle, and we also lacked pace and penetration out wide. Oh for a Luke Fitzgerald, Tommy Bowe or even a Simon Zebo. Fitzgerald should at least be in the reckoning for Italy, and Zebo should have enough matchtime to be considered as well (if a lack of gametime truly is the reason he isn’t being considered) – indeed having Zebo on the bench might have given Ireland, at the very least, an X-factor they lacked in Twickers.

In the first half against Scotland, Ireland kicked pretty loosely – while the trundling Scots couldn’t take advantage, Mike Brown certainly did when we repeated the trick in Twickers. He was the games, and the tournament to dates, most influential player and his break set up the game-winning score for Danny Care. Joe Schmidt values accuracy of execution above all else, and Ireland didn’t do too well – 20+ tackles were missed, the ball was hoofed or chipped away aimlessly at times, and even the saintly BOD was attempting Hollywood offloads that didn’t stick.

In terms of the bench, it didn’t have the impact we needed, and even in its role as injury cover, wasn’t utilized. When Johnny Sexton appeared to get a knock with half an hour to go, Wee PJ stayed kicking his heels. Sure, Sexton is a key player in the team, but he is also human, and Sexton’s decision-making went down a notch in the closing quarter.

Yet in spite of all that, Ireland were in with a shout of a draw by the end (the lack of penetration in the team had surely killed off the chances of a win) – Joubert somehow called an Irish scrum for a scrum penalty that looked Ireland’s lifeline. They hung in there against the English physicality and intensity and nearly got their rewards. Admittedly, the prime butchery of at least 3 tries (Jonny May dropping the ball early on and eschewing a dive for the line for a turn inside just after Bob’s try, and the failure to take advantage of a 3-on-0 when under the posts) played a part, but you can’t control that. And the English defence was excellent – its worth doffing the cap to the Awesome Power of Courtney Lawes, who seemed to be everywhere in the last ten minutes.

So lots to work on – but some positives too. Its incredibly difficult to come to Twickers and win, and Ireland put themselves in a position to do so after 50 minutes. In terms of clear thinking under pressure, they coped poorly with the English aggression at ruck time and in defence, but never folded. The Monday morning review session might last until Tuesday, but you sense Ireland will learn from this defeat.

And don’t forget – Ireland are still top of the table in the race to win the actual Championship – something we don’t do very often. Unlike in 2009, when the Grand Slam was everything after years of coming close, the Championship without a Grand Slam will be an excellent achievement. With a home game against the wooden spoon staring-Italians to come, Ireland’s points difference advantage should be unassailable by the time they head to Paris in three weeks, meaning a win will open the Schmidt era as champions. We’d have taken that in January, and still will – this is the most hapless French team in memory, and the apparent bull-headed desire to stick by PSA until RWC15 also bids well for our chances in Blighty that year. If there ever was a year to win in Paris, this is it. Optimism-bashing alert – Irish rugby players tend to stand in awe of the mighty French with their chiselled jaws and excellent hair in Paris, and end up getting thumped – we need this mental hangup to disappear.

The last weekend will probably begin with both Ireland and France staring at silverware, as will the victor in next week’s BishBashBoshBowl between England and Wales. Make no mistake, England will feel they were in a real game on Saturday, and will be delighted with what looks like a big step in their development – and the irony of Ireland winning in Paris will be that we can win the Championship by doing something that Lancaster’s men couldn’t.

The White Orcs

Stuart Lancaster’s White Orcs are hosting Ireland on Saturday, and it’s Ireland’s most important match since their last important match, against Wales the previous Sunday.  That impressive win has set Ireland up for a tilt at the triple crown and it would be a great feeling if Ireland could lock down silverware halfway through the championship, especially with Italy coming up in round four.

What can we expect from these maginificent rose-clad yeomen?  Well, while Stuart Lancaster is building towards 2015 and has embedded a sense of humility in the playing pool, his team are built on pretty traditional English rugby values of solid work ethic and a reasonable dollop of ‘boot and bollock’.  They’ve a kicking 10 and a fairly brutish pack of forwards.  The backline looks inexperienced, but the two boys in the centres are great big fellows.

They’ve a problem at tighthead prop.  It’s almost as if the tighthead crisis baton has been passed over.  The awful news about Dan Cole having to take an indefinite hiatus from the game affects them grievously.  The next in line looks to be Bath’s David Wilson but he’s never looked like somebody who can be a real force at this level.  He’s from the Mike Ross school of natural fitness and he’s just back from injury.  Most likely he needs a good few matches to get up to match fitness.  The alternative is Henry Thomas, who plays for Sale but is a rookie at this, or any level.

Before we get too excited, he’s probably had more game experience than Marty Moore, but Marty Moore will be on the bench, not potentially starting.  It’s a problem.  Advantage Ireland in the scrum against England?  Wonders will never cease.  The Awesome Power of Dylan Hartley and The Awesome Power of Joe Marler round out the front row and both are having good series.  There’s depth at hooker where Tom Youngs is a fine player, but The Awesome Power of Mako Vinupola, while potentially explosive in the loose, proved a penalty-expensive replacement against France (and in the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions series).

England’s second row is big on physical attributes and athleticism.  The Awesome Power of Courtney Lawes and The Awesome Power of Joe Launchbury lack nothing in terms of physicality.  Do they have the heads for it?  When Paul O’Connell unleashes his unique brand of controlled chaos, with no ruck safe from his explosive clearing out, will these two inexperienced forwards be able for it? The Awesome Power of Courtney Lawes has form when it comes to disappearing when the heat is on, but then some day he won’t.  We’ve all seen the strength of the Irish maul, and presumably these two chaps will be looking to stop that at source.

In the backrow, there’s another key ingredient missing: Thoroughbred Racehorse Tom Croft.  The Awesome Power of Chris Robshaw and The Awesome Power of Tom Wood are fine players, but they’re both similar workers in the six-and-a-half mould.  Ideally you’d like one of them on the openside flank and Tom Croft on the other, to bring a real running threat.  But he’s not here, and Wood and Robshaw won’t lack for workrate.  One or both of them will be tasked with blasting Peter O’Mahony off the breakdown in what will be one of the more fascinating battles of the afternoon.  Can O’Mahony have another game where he comes up with three or four penalty turnovers to kill English momentum? If he does, Ireland should go on to win. Or is the least heralded of the Irish backrow, Chris Henry, the key man – he’s certainly started his belated international career well, and is the most natural in his position of the four flankers. The Awesome Power of Billy Vunipola is at No.8, and he’s been influential so far.  Like the best 8’s he barrows over the gainline, but crucially he can get his hands free and offload to those who can run lines off him.  He’ll need to be policed, but equally, his desire to offload can be a weakness – choke tackle anyone? Where is Stakhanov these days anyway?

Now, the scrum half.  Ah yes, our favourite Test Lion in Waiting.  We feel Danny Care owes us for making us look like eejits by playing his way out of the touring squad from the moment we declared him the starting test Lion.  Well, he’s repaying us and if there was a Lions match tomorrow, himself and Murray would be in the matchday squad.  He’s an instinctive player, something of an Eoin Reddan 2.0.  If he gets quick ball, he can supply the backline with a steady stream of super-fast passes all day long, as well as providing a lethal sniping threat.  There are few better at getting to the ruck at great speed and he has a penchant for quick taps.  Owen Farrell isn’t the most attacking fly-half but Care’s speed of distribution is dragging him kicking and screaming to the gainline.   But put him on the back-foot and and he’s not the best game-manager.  The Irish forwards know what they have to do – get Danny Care.  Ireland’s counter-ruck has been exceptional, and if they can muck up the service to Care that will be a huge battle won.

The backline is really inexperienced, but full of good players.  Consensus is that this is where Ireland can do some damage, but it won’t be as easy as it looks.  The midfield is a case of brains against brawn.  Ireland’s two 95-year old centres have seen everything (unless Bamm-Bamm plays, in which case he has hit everything), while Thirty-Six and The Awesome Power of Luther Burrell are big bruising athletes.  Twelvetrees is supposedly a classy footballer who can play 10 as well, but we haven’t seen too much of it this campaign, and against Munster he was the fulcrum for a lot of ordinary back play. Little known fact about the Awesome Power of Luther Burrell: he’s never been dropped by the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiions.

The back three we like.  Johnny May has gas and if he has his limitations, well, a winger with speed will always cause problems.  Jack Nowell looked like a nervous nelly on his debut in Paris and endured a bit of a nightmare, but he was more like his usual self against Scotland.  One try in the Boshiership this season is a pretty mediocre return, even for the Most Adventurous Team in England™, but he has a bit of football about him.  And the man at the back is the fantastic Mike Brown.  Looking at him in full flight and he never looks quite as classy as Ben Foden or Alex Goode, and yet he scores tries, counter-attacks, catches everything, beats defenders and breaks the line so at the end of the day you can’t argue with his selection.  He and Rob Kearney will have a right old ding-dong.

Ireland will line out more or less the same again.  We expect Donnacha Ryan to replace Tuohy on the bench and the rest to be as you were.  It appears that one of Bowe or Fitzgerald would have had a great chance of playing if they featured at the weekend, but they didn’t, so they won’t.  It’s a topic that’s being done to death, but we’d have made room for Simon Zebo, but it’s pretty clear by now that the Cork flyer is not in favour and will probably have to wait until the summer tour to press his case at test level.  Consensus is that Ireland will look to put it through the backline a bit more than they have done, as England will have a more potent maul defence than Wales or Scotland could muster.  It might prove to be wide of the mark, and with the options available out wide, Ireland may stick to the gameplan which has worked well so far. Plus we don’t think the English pack has anything like the granite heart that some of their predecessors had – the likes of Hartley, Lawes and Robshaw have been key forwards in teams humiliated by their Irish counterparts at HEC level in the recent past.  Dare we suggest for a third time that the weather might be dreadful??

Lobster Pot

Rugby is a 23-man game now, “they” say. And “they” are rarely wrong, and certainly not in this case, though it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. As recently as the 2007 RWC final, South Africa made just one permanent change, and that after 72 minutes (we aren’t counting Bismarck’s brief appearance as a blood sub for John Smit). Such a situation is unthinkable today, where coaches pick an eight man bench with a substitution policy in mind.

Even players are conditioned in such a way – one of major reasons for the Leicester Tigers relative lack of success this year is the inability of Dan Cole to burn himself out for 60 minutes then let Castro take over. For example:

  • In this years HEC, in the 4 games against Ulster and Montpellier, Dan Cole played 314 minutes and Fraser Balmain (!) 6 – Leicester lost twice, won in the last minute once, and needed a last minute Ryan Lamb drop goal to seal victory in the other game
  • In the 2012-13 HEC, in the 4 games against Toulouse and the Hairsprays, Cole played 235 minutes (58, 54, 60, 63) with Castro coming off the bench and totting up 85 minutes in total. Leicester won twice, drew once and topped the pool

The loss of Castro to France is a major driver in the lower effectiveness of the Tiger pack this year. And speaking of France, French props would self-destruct were they asked to do a full 80 these days.

Pack changes are now typically made with impact in mind, not what a withdrawn player has done, but what their replacement can do – fresh beef and grunt off the bench is the order of the day. Frequently big performers are asked to do what Cole was – give it all for 50-60 minutes – that’s their role in the 23. In the backline, a bit more thought is required – bench backs are not always there to provide relief, but to give options in case of injury or a change in gameplan – a classic example here would be Ulster’s use of Paul Marshall last season, where Pienaar stepped into the ten channel and provided a more structured game, while Wee PJ had a breather.

It’s a form of the classic cliche forwards win matches, backs decide by how much (aside: the American football equivalent of offence wins matches, defence wins championships was proven in brutal fashion late Sunday night) – your forward replacements roles are to continue whatever the starter was doing, but the backs have a more cerebral role. That’s simplified of course, but the principle stands.

One critical error that must be avoided when changing backs on the fly is losing momentum. Last year in Fortress Aviva, Ireland were 13-6 up on France after the hour and Conor Murray was bossing the game – the entrance of Eoin Reddan saw Ireland lose all momentum, and almost the game.

And there was another classic example in Le Bosh on Saturday night – England had started abysmally with Jack “Pat McGibbon” Nowell to the fore and quickly went 16-3 down. In 20 minutes either side of half-time oranges, they scored 18 points and for all intents and purposes had the game won – the first score was created by a cheeky tap penalty (scrum-halves always tap penalties cheekily, don’t they? They assuredly do) by Danny Care, and the last was a cheeky Naas Botha-esque zero-backlift drop goal by the same player.

England essentially had the game won, but fell victim to substitution by numbers – Care was hauled ashore for Lee Dickson. Dickson’s selection above Ben Youngs in the first place was perplexing, and his play took all the wind out of England’s sails – they went from snappy incisive ruck ball that made Owen Farrell look like Carlos Spencer on the gain line to hand-waving, flapping and rumbles. An English acquaintence described Dickson as a “lobster in a bucket” – waving his bound claws ineffectively while predictably moving in a small arc.

The change corresponded with the removal of the laughably ineffective Jean-Marc Doussain (didn’t it seem like Nyanga played scrum-half more than Doussain?) for Teen Wolf Maxime Machenaud – with England dawdling and France actually having someone who passed the ball from the base of the ruck, the dynamic of the game completely changed. France suddenly looked dangerous and the game seemed alive – it wasn’t guaranteed that France would win, but England sacrificed the initative voluntarily, and it might end up costing them the championship.

PS wouldn’t it be great if Machenaud wore Joe Namath’s fur coat – if you’re going to have hair like that, work it Maxime, work it

Say Hello to 2015

England’s game against Australia will make for intriguing viewing this weekend, not least because of the age profile of the side England have selected.  The team has an average age of sub-25 and there’s no one in the entire matchday panel older than 28.  The average number of caps is 14.  Neutrals should probably hope for an Australia win, because if this England team wins the hype will be unbearable.  World Cup Glory beckons!  Bring on the Kiwis!  SWING LOW!

Having said that, if this England team does beat an admittedly patchy Australia side, they can afford a little cautious optimism.  This is a side built with 2015 in mind.  For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it looks like this:

M Brown (Harlequins); C Ashton (Saracens), J Tomkins (Saracens), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester), M Yarde (London Irish); O Farrell (Saracens), L Dickson (Northampton), M Vunipola (Saracens), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Vunipola (Saracens).

Excitement abounds around the two Vunipolas.  As George Hamilton might say, the Vunipola brothers are not related.  Billy is a livewire carrier, possibly the No.8 England have been looking for since Nick Easter, er, got ignored for some reason.  And in the scrummaging merry-go-round it appears that Mako has benefitted from the new laws.  A liability at set piece in the Lions tour, if indeed he can show this to no longer be the case in the New Scrummaging World, then he can have a long test career.  Or up until the scrum engagement changes again, at least.

They’ll miss the unflappable Geoff Parling at lineout time for sure, but the second row combination of Launchbury and Lawes is bound to generate excitement.  There will be no quicker, more athletic second row in the November series, but are they men of substance?  Lawes is a product of massive overhype, but has spoken of maturing and no longer looking to make rugbydump hits, but play for the team. The jury’s still out.

On the flanks, we’d still prefer to see a little more specialisation.  Robshaw and Wood are grafters.  Both will make some yards, slow down some ball, make some tackles.  Wood will take a few lineouts.  Fine men and good players they undoubtedly are, but neither is outstanding at any one facet of the game.  He may have his detractors, but Tom Croft will be missed.  He gives England an explosive running threat out wide and coupling his absence with that of Manu Tuilagi, there’s a massive line-breaking threat removed from the side.

In the back division, England have been scratching around for years for a top class 12 (since Greenwood retired, arguably) – Stontayne Hapless never really ticked the boxes.  Billy Twelvetrees is big and strong, but also a smart footballer and a good offloader.  He could be that man.  Joel Tomkins plays outside him, and Marland Yarde is the latest speedster off the rank to be given a go on the wing.  A new one seems to explode on the scene every year before their form goes into a tailspin and disappear from view.  Will he be the new Tom Varndell/Paul Sackey/Ugo Monye/David Strettle/Topsy Ojo/Christian Wade?

With all the youthful verve on display, the key question might be: are Lee Dickson and Owen Farrell the men to put them into space?  Dickson is keeping Fotuali’i on the bench at Northampton, which counts for a huge amount, but we have never been especially impressed by him.  He tends to do a lot of flapping around the base, and can be seen waving his arms for eons before passing the ball.  Better than Ben Youngs?  Really?  Owen Farrell is a hardy competitor, but the feeling remains that until Freddie Burns makes an unarguable case for selection, England still lack a real playmaker for the role.

Anyway, the future starts here.  Possibly.  Maybe.  England have prematurely celebrated any number of false dawns since 2003.  Remember when they won in Paris with a very youthful Toby Flood and – brace yourself – Shane Geraghty cutting the French to ribbons?  The press corps got very excited. It didn’t last.

Six Nations Weekend Diary

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 braying bankrupt builders in Cheltenham). The paper is published on Wednesday’s in Britain.

Friday:

Mid-morning, and the England team is out, and it’s greeted with underhand smiles by the Irish – Manu is on the bench and they have an odd-looking backrow – nice! We can take these lot is the bullish feeling around Dublin – someone mentions the army of blindsides we brought to RWC07, and how the English backrow reminds them of it – shudders all round, and the conversation moves on. Billy Twelvetrees will be targeted, they say. Brad Barritt is a useless bosh merchant, they say.  We’re confident, they (quietly) say.

Deccie’s response at lunchtime is predictable – as we expected, no changes to the XV or the bench. Self-doubt is beginning to creep in, particularly when looking at the respective benches. Still, a quick vox pop of some wild-eyed, unkempt, white plastic bag-carrying punters outside the early house told us while there was occasional dissention, fans were largely in agreement with the selection:

Rev. Mervyn McBible (Ballymena): The absence of Andrew Trimble is a clear signal Declan Kidney has invited the apocalypse upon himself

Carroll O’Kelly-Ross (Blackrock): Simon Zebo is muck roysh – all backs should be Leinster anyway, loike?

George O’Connor (Cork Con): Where is Stephen Archer? Where is Danny Barnes? Where is ROG??

Saturday:

We awaken to more cautious optimism – the selections have sunk in, and pundits (in Ireland) seem unanimous – it’s going to be tough, but we can squeak through. The consensus is that Ireland have a better backrow, and are a bit smarter – watch out for Sean O’Brien, the key man.

Amazingly, there were other rugger games on this weekend, and, after last weekend’s rugby-a-rama, it was back to somewhat more average fare, particularly in Paris. Scotland cruised past an inept Italy, and looked like they had remembered how Jim Telfer taught rucking; and then France put in an truly desperate performance in front of some seriously unimpressed Parisians, George North’s try and Freddy Michalak’s disinterested hands and feet do the damage, and France are nought from two.

Any lessons to be learned? Well, we beat Wales, who beat France – good news, performance affirmation for Ireland. England beat Scotland easily, who beat Italy easily, who beat France – bad news, performance affirmation for England. Both teams might just be as good as they looked.

Sunday:

First things first, and a quick look outside tells us it’s not a nice day – grey, dank and rainy, precisely the kind of weather the English pack will have wanted. Our skill advantage in the backrow won’t be as marked with wet grubby ball and a looming set-piece contest.

The rain wouldn’t help the atmosphere either – the object is merely to get to the stadium before pneumonia sets in, rather than stop in three or four of Dublin 4’s finest watering holes along the way.  It’s a rather ominous feel – unlike the cliché of Irish teams who thrive at dirty in-your-face, muck-and-muller rugby, this more skilful and considered generation has always preferred dry tracks, where its catalogue of backline moves can be unleashed. News began filtering through to trudging wet fans that Brian O’Driscoll’s glamorous better half was now a Yummy Mummy – plus the new Daddy was still going to play – high fives all round!

The smiles, however, were short-lived. Ireland produced a catty and error-strewn performance – a first half of unforced errors and indiscipline gave way to a second half of aimless kicking as Ronan O’Gara struggled to replicate days of yore. By half-time, Ireland had accumulated nine unforced errors and one probable citing – Jamie Heaslip, Mike McCarthy and Gordon D’Arcy major culprits in spilling forward in most uncharacteristic fashion, and DJ Church taking a likely trip to the naughty step for the next game(s).

More crucial, though, was the injury to Johnny Sexton – a pulled hamstring on a seriously poor pitch (who schedules soccer matches four days before a rugby match in a country where it rains every other day?). On came the once-great O’Gara, who just doesn’t have the game for this level any more – his kicking from hand, formerly peerless, barely managed 15 metres from penalties, and was easily hovered up by the flawless English back three from open play. He was a turnover machine too – it’s not his fault he keeps getting picked, but any chance of an Irish win was lost when Sexton pulled up.

Simon Zebo was another who didn’t see half-time, and in fact he barely got his ankle-hugging socks dirty – limping off with a broken metatarsal that will keep him out for ten weeks i.e. the season. The final injury toll included Sean O’Brien, Donnacha Ryan, Bob Kearney and Brian O’Driscoll – not all pitch-induced, and, to be frank, the attritional fare against Wales was probably as much to blame as this game.

The English defensive line was expertly marshalled all day, with speed and hard tackling to the fore –  Ireland had barely a sniff of a break, and none close to the English 22. The scrum and maul got on top in the third quarter, and we were briefly level on the scoreboard, but the English bench, as we expected, made a big difference. We said in the build-up that Ireland needed to be more than seven points in front on the hour mark to win the game due to the strength of the English bench; they weren’t and without the ability to build on the platform the forwards were offering, they were squeezed to death.

Captain, and speaker of Classic English Rugby Voice, Chris Robshaw, was man of the match for his tackle count, but kicker and defensive rock Owen Farrell or either of the team’s full-backs, Alex Goode and Mike Brown, could have got it too. On the Irish side, O’Brien had a decent game, Peter O’Mahony was visible until he wilted, but that was it.

The crowd were as cranky as the team – Farrell was quite unsportingly heckled while kicking, and any attempt to start Swing Low was boo-ed out as if it was Dylan Hartley himself at the mike. With a poor performance, key players injured, nothing going right and a shot at a Grand Slam gone, it was not a good day for Irish rugby.

The English Are Coming

Topped pool in RWC11 with a 100% record, followed by disappointing defeat in the quarter-finals, heralding a rebuild of a tired team. Sound familiar? It should – Stuart Lancaster’s quiet revolution in England is gathering pace, and the scale of the re-build makes bringing in a couple of young wingers look positively tame in comparison.

Its worth noting of course that the Old Farts tried to entice a big name coach, and gave Lancaster a temporary contract through to the end of last season. Given the upturn in results (if not always performances), the meeja clamour became deafening, and Lancaster was duly handed the reigns through to RWC15. We should bear in mind what Napoleon said about lucky generals, for if Charlie Hodgson’s fingertips were an inch shorter, England could have lost to Scotland and Italy, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But they aren’t, and we are – and it’s Lancaster’s team.

The transformation from 15 short months ago is almost total – just three players started both the World Cup quarter-final and the opening game of the 2013 Six Nations (Ben Youngs, Chris Ashton and Dan Cole), although if Manu was fit, he would have made it a fourth. Also, and we are open to correction here, we don’t think one of the starting XV at the weekend had signed a professional contract when England memorably lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in 2003 – this is the first full generation switch since that win, and it’s a very important one. No-one who played with Johnno, Lawrence Bruno Nero and Wilko at their peak is on the team – and the influence of those greats has retreated. This generation does not feel constrained by a gameplan or identity they cannot relate to, and are comfortable playing a heads-up, adventurous style of rugger. We caught glimpses of this potential in the squad before, notably against Australia in November 2010, but it’s the dominant philosophy now.

We’re sure we aren’t alone when we say we had scoffed at the idea of Chris Robshaw as Lions captain as an evil Blighty construct up until very recently, but Robshaw has emerged as a worthy contender, and possibly favourite. His club, Quins, are reigning Premiership champions, are well-placed in the HEC (albeit partly down to using dastardly methods, such as “maximising their chances of winning” by choosing to play their home quarter-final… at home) and play a fresh and exciting brand of football. He has presided over this England side moving up from a confidence-shy, callow bunch of kids to a team with real prospects, and rode out the storm surrounding his tactical folly against the Boks admirably, showing real leadership. Robshaw might lack top-end pace, but he is a seriously hardworking player, and has yet to be “found out” as many predicted.  We still have a personal preference for a more specialised skillset in the Lions’ No.7 shirt, and hold on to our view of him as the ideal midweek captain, but he’s in the shake up for the big gig, no mistake.

How they make up the rest of their backrow will be intriguing.  Their No.8 Ben Morgan has been their best carrier, but looks to be out injured.  Tom Wood, one of the sport’s nice guys (despite playing for the Saints), is a highly effective ironclad blindside and lineout catcher, but word on the street is he’ll be pressed into action at No.8 where, as far as we can tell, he has little experience.  James Haskell would take the No.6 shirt.  Haskell is a player with ‘good face’ and speaks in English Rugby Voice, but he’s been in and out of the England setup down the years; he’ll produce a decent highlights reel but lacks real work ethic.  It’s a somewhat samey back row, made up of three six-and-a-halves.  The alternative is to bring in Wasps’ exciting and dynamic but inexperienced Billy Vunipola at No.8 and retain a better balance, but it seems Vunipola will be held in reserve.  Nick Easter – playing as well as ever – continues to be an unwanted man. Maybe he knows Wilkinson too well.

The second row is better balanced, with Leicester’s Geoff Parling running the lineout, and young Joe Launchbury – a massive find – offering an athletic, but physical presence in the herd of the pack. We especially enjoyed how Stephen Jones was scathing of his selection, campaigning for a raft of 34 year old scrappers in his place.  No English front-row is going to get beaten up, and there is plenty of bang-wallop on the bench, with the Vunipolas Mako and Billy, Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes on the bench.  And David Wilson!  What on earth is he still doing in the England team?!

England have two potential Lions scrum-halves in Ben Youngs and Danny Care, and it appears the competition is driving both to higher standards, with growing maturity being noted – and no matter who starts, there is a game-changer on the bench. Owen Farrell is a dead-eyed kicker (except in Thomond Park on wintery Saturday evenings obviously, when even the most mentally-strong of players metamorphasise into gibbering wrecks at the very sight of the tears of Irish print journalists) and improving at bringing his outside backs into play. Floody offers a bench alternative, and Freddy Burns is another talented youngster pushing for selection.

At centre, team fulcrum Tuilagi utterly destroyed the standout inside back line of this era (Caddah, Nonu, Smuth) last year with his physicality, pace and offloading skills. In Tuilagi’s absence, Billy 36 stepped in to give a man of the match performance inside old-fashioned bosh merchant Brad Barritt-Ooooooooooh – 36 could potentially drop out of the 23 for Dublin if Manu returns, which is an acknowledgment of England’s strength and depth. We suspect Lancaster would love the idea of a 36-Manu midfield, but the unheralded Barritt is the man who leads defensive alignment, and Manu, for all his strengths, is not the man to take over this duty, and the role may be considered too great a responsibility for Twelvetrees on his second cap.  Next on the depth chart is the much-hyped Jonathan Joseph; Guscott seems to think he is the best English centre since himself, and the second best ever, after himself.

Ben Foden is in most people’s Lions squads, yet Alex Goode and Mike Brown are the squad fullbacks right now – Foden has just returned from injury, and Lancaster has surprised us by leaving him out of the squad entirely.  Personally, we’d prefer to see Ireland face Goode than the classy Foden, but Lancaster is rewarding form, which is working well for him.  At wing, they’re going with another full-back, Mike Brown – which leaves them in a strong position to contend high balls -alongside Loathsome Chris Ashton (let us be fair and acknowledge at this point that most of the England squad seem like fine young chaps, and Ashton is an outlier, along with C-bomb Clark). Although not at his best by any means, Ashton will offer Ireland’s mini wings a different threat to the Welsh monsters – he plays off his 9 and 10, and if he is not tracked inside, he will be gone through the gap before you can say ‘Ian Humphreys defence’. Dave Strettle, Charlie Sharples, Christian Wade and Johnny May are just a few of the exciting alternatives.

So, to put that all together, England have a talented team, impressive depth, a clear vision and are well-coached and selected, with a question mark over the make-up of the backrow. There’s a humility and likeability around them that – let’s face it – not many previous vintages have had (except for Shawsy, Wilko and Josh Lewsey, who were gents, of course).  That’s good news for them with a home RWC in prospect, especially with the opportunity to knock a rival out at the group stages.  They might be feeling a little too plummy about themselves right now, given their rave reviews in the media, which would be no bad thing, but so far they haven’t given Ireland any ammunition.

For now, it’s vital Ireland pile the pressure on them with intensity and aggression the like of which they have yet to see. Amid the hallooing of their win over an infection-crippled New Zealand team, it has been largely forgotten that they lost at home to Australia and South Africa.  For Ireland to win, they will need to win the physical stakes, for this England side will cut you to shreds with a platform. Hassling the scrum halves is a necessity.  Both Youngs and Care are quick and lethally dangerous if given front-foot ball and a gap to run into, but we’ve seen that they can become flustered under pressure.  Ireland will be happy to have Conor Murray, a terrific defender, to patrol the fringes and, assuming O’Brien is picked at 7 again, he can expect to have another high tackle-count next to his name.  It’s a very different challenge to winning in Wales, and one we welcome for this Ireland side – England are going to be contenders at RWC15, and we should consider them a developmental benchmark at this stage of the game.

Johnny Sexton is (again) Ireland’s key man, alongside, of course, Mike Ross.  Sexton has the experience and poise to pilot Ireland through this game, and the reward for doing so is a cut at only a third Grand Slam in our history. But it won’t be easy, not at all.