Five Years of Hurt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Not BOD

It would be remiss of us not to sign off on this year’s Six Nations by talking about the successor to you-know-who. Brian O’Driscoll will never wear the Ireland shirt again, and he’s only the best player of the professional era – whoever takes over will be held to the standard set by some-bloke-called-Brian and it will not be easy for them. Indeed, amid the clamour for the shirt, it has to be remembered what a thankless task this will be.  The successful candidate must not only have the rugby skills to take over, he must have the mental strength to deal with not being BOD. Ask Andrew Trimble what it’s like not-being-BOD – while he lit up Le Stade in Ireland’s second winning effort there in 40 years, he lost out on the BOD-of-the-match award. It was a brilliant touch by the French to let BOD have the final word on his own career, but it illustrates the force of personality that Ireland are losing – one of the greats who transcended nations. Although, let’s face it, he has still been dropped by the Lions once more than the Awesome Power of Luther Burrell.

With the World Cup now 18 months away, the learning curve is steep – in the group stages alone, not-BOD will face Michele Campagnaro, one of the better young players on view this 6N and either Gael Fickou, an amazingly talented youngster, or Mathieu Bastareaud, an disgracefully out-of-shape waster who just happens to be extremely strong and explosive, and who seemingly always produces against Ireland. If not-BOD doesn’t win both those games, his next assignment will be marking Smuddy, and if he ins one of them, it’s Marcelo Bosch. Easy.

Any error or signs of not-being-BOD will be picked up upon by fans and meeja alike, with each likely to use the opportunity to row in behind the under-pressure player and support them through their difficult patch. Or maybe they’ll just call for their own provincial team-mate / personal favourite to be handed the 13 jersey. Hard to know really, although those thinking the latter is more likelyare just as cynical as us, and slightly more realistic.

No pressure then. So who is up for being not-BOD?

Robbie Henshaw (Connacht): It feels part of the narrative to call Henshaw “heir apparent” and even say he was “anointed by BOD” but we aren’t so sure about this. BOD’s words have been twisted and Henshaw is very raw at international, or any, level. He is undoubtedly talented, but is still only 20, without a huge body of work at outside centre in professional rugby behind him. That said, he is one of two outside centres actually in the current squad, and is likely to get significant game time in Argentina.  He’s a big, strong running lad and the closest thing we have to a JJV Davies/Burrell type centre.

Darren Cave (Ulster): The other 13 in the current squad. Angry, and who would blame him. I mean, everyone who interviews him asks him about his mate from home, Wotsisname from the Golf innit wiv the hot tennis bird in tow. When is Dazza going to get his time in the sun?! Now maybe – he has been one of the backbones of Ulster’s rise from Magners also-rans to European powerhouse – defensively solid, has added vision and great pass timing to his repertoire this year. Also likely to see some rugger this summer, he is now being thought of as a potential “stop-gap” while Henshaw matures, but he is only 26 and likely to keep improving.

Jared Payne (Ulster): Payne isn’t Irish yet, but he will be in July. Or August. Don’t know, but in time for the Georgia game, that’s for sure. He played lots of rugger at 13 for Auckland back in the Land of the Long Black Chokers but has spent nearly all his time at Ulster at full-back. He undoubtedly has brilliant sense of space and footwork, but his defence can occasionally be of the iHumph variety. And with Joe Schmidt’s obsession with detail, it’s tough to know if he’ll cut the mustard as a 13 candidate if he isn’t playing there week-in, week-out.  Much appears to depend on the shape and fitness of the Ulster back-three.  Word on the ground was that Anscombe’s plan was to play Payne at 13 this year, with Gilroy moving to full-back, but Bowe’s injury put paid to that notion, while Cave continues to be reliable in the 13 shirt.  We’ll see how they line out in the quarter-final against Saracens.

Keith Earls (Munster): Stop! He is good! In fact, he has more experience at outside centre at international level than the rest of the Irish squad put together, so there. And he did ok too, better than ok – we didn’t miss BOD in 2012 as much as we thought we would. Earls has two major problems though – he isn’t playing at centre for Munster, and his decision-making under pressure can be questionable. Re the former, he has a chance to rectify that now Casey Laulala is eschewing passion and pride for money – if he so desires, the Munster 13 shirt is his next season. Re the latter, extended time in camp with Joe Schmidt is maybe just what the doctor ordered – he might even learn how to pass.

Luke Roysh (Leinster): I knew it! Bias! A pro-Leinster conspiracy! Luke Fitzgerald is the most talented back produced by Ireland since BOD, but his international career has been in stall mode for five years. And he is stil only 26! Fitzgerald has the game for outside centre, no question, but he also has two major flaws – he isn’t playing at centre for Leinster, and he is injury-prone. Similar to Ireland, Leinster have a pressing need for a 13 as their one is moving from rugby into the sainthood business – perhaps this is the opportunity Fitzgerald needs to get his career back in the groove. He has experience with Schmidt, and plus he is from Leinster, so he’ll probably get picked anyway. *foam* *froth*

Fergus McFadden (Leinster): Another Leinster player! This is getting ridiculous, I mean there are two now in this list alone – what about the Ulster/Munster/Connacht quota for the national side! Ferg has actually worn the Irish 13 jersey before, against Wales in 2012, although it got ignominiously dumped on its back by JJV Davies en route to Wales upsetting the applecart, and he started his career there. But he has spent the last two years being exclusively a wing. He filled in at centre during the Six Nations just gone, and has the advantage of being in the inner sanctum. Still, a role as a versatile bench option feels more likely.

Stuart Olding (Ulster): Bear with us here. Sure, he’s been at 10 or 12 most of his short career. Sure, he’s injured. But he is a sumptuous and natural footballer with great vision, excellent passing skills, good defence and a sharp rugby brain. We have a funny feeling he will end up as a 13 (partly due to the existence of Wee PJ and Bamm-Bamm, partly because he is good enough to do so). Just saying. Maybe not now though.

Simon Zebo (Munster): A cursory glance at the interwebs will tell you that Zebo has the passing of Matt Giteau, the speed of Carlin Isles, the power of Manu Tuilagi, the defence of Jonny Wilkinson and the rugby brain of Dan Carter – it seems madness that Joe Schmidt won’t pick him, so maybe he is saving him for #thirteen. Note to Munster fans – THIS IS A JOKE! We think he  is great.

So there you have it, plenty of imperfect candidates to be not-BOD. We reckon Cave and Henshaw will each get an audition in Argentina, and Earls and Fitzgerald will be live contenders if they line out there for their provinces next season. Whoever does get the nod, it’s utterly essential that we give them all the support possible – they’ll need it for the one thing we do know is – they won’t be BOD.

Thirteenwatch – Part Three

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

Eoin Griffin (Connacht)

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

Eoin O’Malley (Leinster)

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

Fergus McFadden (Leinster)

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

Darren Cave (Ulster)

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

Danny Barnes (Munster)

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

Keith Earls (Munster)

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

Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster) and Tommy Bowe (Ospreys)

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

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

Thirteenwatch: Round Deux

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

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

Eoin O’Malley

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

Fergus McFadden (Leinster)

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

Darren Cave (Ulster)

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

Danny Barnes (Munster)

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

Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster)

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

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

 

Thirteenwatch: Episode 1

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

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

Eoin Griffin (Connacht)

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

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

Fergus McFadden (Leinster)

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

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

Darren Cave (Ulster)

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

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

Danny Barnes (Munster)

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

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

Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe (Leinster & Ospreys)

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

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

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

 

Kidney Shows Capacity for Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland Rugby World Cup Squad 2011

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

World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 2

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

Now for the spots still up for grabs:

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

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

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Inside Backs

The penultimate post in the series looks at the fly-half and centres quandry.  Egg Chaser will wrap things up on Friday by looking at the back three.

How many will go? Two fly halves, three centres.

Who is certain to travel? It will come as little surprise to Ronan O’Gara, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy when Deccie informs them that they are going down under.  These four can purchase their copy of Ki Te Whaoiao’s An Introduction to Maori Culture and Society.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? Dedicated outside centre cover is thin on the ground.  If the unthinkable were to happen to Brian O’Driscoll and he should miss a game it is likely that one of the outside backs, probably Tommy Bowe or Keith Earls would step in to the breach.

One man who is likely to go as cover for Dorce and the two fly-halves is Paddy Wallace.  A couple of high profile mistakes and the images of his face being mashed in the 2009 Six Nations have made Paddy a bit of a punchbag among Irish rugby fans, but the truth is that he is a classy distributing centre, and one of the best passers of the ball in the country.

He was in Eddie’s 2003 and 2007 squads as a reserve out-half (the reserve in 2007), and his ability to cover 10 and 12 and offer an alternative ‘second five-eighth’ option at 12 gives Kidney another way of playing.  So far so good.  But the truth is that he is not even close to being an international 10.  If Sexy and ROG were both to get injured, Ireland may as well pack up and go home – the notion that Wallace should be brought to cover this remote eventuality is a nonsense.  Even more nonsensical is the idea that Wallace covers full-back.  A certain esteemed Irish Times journalist has repeatedly peddled this line, and it has been used to justify Paddy’s selection as half-time orange provider throughout the Six Nations, but it is hard to think of any attributes of a modern 15 that Wallace possesses.

So his value should be measured on his ability at 12.  And we like Wallace as a 12, but he has not had the best of seasons with Ulster or Ireland.  Menwhile, Fergus McFadden offers cover across the three-quarter line and is coming off the back of a superb season with Leinster, even if he is not yet a consistent starter in the big games.  Tigerish in contact, with enough gas to play on the wing, and the ability to place-kick, he should be taking his place on the plane in September.

A final option, and an increasingly fashionable one, is playing a big man at 12 to bosh up the middle.  After all, didn’t BOD mesh wonderfully with Jamie Roberts on the Lions tour?  The man to play this role for Ireland would be Ooooooooooooooohhh James Downey.  WoC was surprised to see Downey show reasonable hands for Northampton in the HEC semi-final, and felt we had perhaps underestimated him.  The feeling remains that he is probably not quite up to international level, though this is one option that would have been worth exploring before now.  Downey didn’t make the 43-man training squad this week, so the ship has probably sailed.

We think Deccie will plump for Wallace, with the fly-half cover working in his favour, but it is possible (particuarly in light of Shaggy’s injury) that Fergus could still make it as a utility back, more of which anon…

Any bolters? Nevin Spence had made a bolt with a string of impressive performances for Ulster, and is unfortunate to be ruled out through injury.  His time will come.

Should go: Ronan O’Gara, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Fergus McFadden
Will go: Ronan O’Gara, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Paddy Wallace

Decisions, decisions…

The injuries situation at Leinster is causing Whiff of Cordite a few butterflies this week. Having rotated the squad so well all season, and having everyone fit and fighting for the final push for silverware, the last thing Joe Schmidt needed was to see His Bodness and Strauss, for whom we have no experienced replacement, go down injured against Ulster. The good news is that Strauss is passed fit, while they’ll wait until the last minute on BOD. Expect him to start. Happily for Joe, he has a few positive selection dilemmas to mull over before friday’s team announcment. Here’s a look at the tight calls and how we see them going.

Loosehead Prop: Cian Healy vs Heinke van der Merwe

The thinking goes that van der Merwe is the stronger scrummaging prop, and after his phenomenal half hour against Toulouse, could be the better option to nullify the scrum, generally accepted to be Northampton’s strongest weapon. That said, witness Daan Human’s comments regarding Healy’s improvement at the coalface. We expect Healy’s dynamism around the park to swing it for him.

Verdict: Healy to start, vd Merwe to finish

Back row: Kevin McLaughlin vs Shane Jennings

Arguably the toughest call of the lot, and one that rather depends on where Joe decides to fight his battles. Locky gives a tail lineout option and is a hard, abrasive player, whereas Jennings does his best work on the ground and is a key leader, especially in defence. We feel the backrow is more balanced with Jenno in the team, and his presence allows the Tullow Tank to cut loose with ball in hand. A sub-plot is that Northampton’s own lineout-tail backrow, Tom Wood, is out, but it’s hard to know which player’s cause that helps.

Verdict: Almost too tough to call, but Jenno may just get the call.

Scrum Half: Eoin Reddan vs Isaac Boss

Two curates eggs go head-to-head for the 9 jumper. Joe has tended to use Reddan at home and Boss away. So what about a neutral ground? Reddan remains frustratingly inconsistent, and played poorly against Toulouse, but looked sharp when he came on against Ulster. Boss’ physicality has given Leinster a great option, but we expect Reddan’s zippier pass (when he’s on song!) to get him the nod. Boss is also carrying a niggle, which may just tip the scales in Reddan’s favour.

Verdict: Reddan to start, but Boss to play at least 20 if fit

Left wing: Luke Fitzgerald vs Fergus McFadden

Another tough call. Luke is still nowhere near his best, and his performance against Ulster was headed for 3/10 until his superb try reminded us of what he can do. Fergus, on the other hand, appears to be willing to run through walls to show Joe he deserves to be a starter. Phenomenal in contact and showing plenty of gas, not to mention his place kicking, he is looking increasingly hard to leave out. However, Fitz remains the greater gambreaking threat and we suspect Joe may persevere with him one more time in the hope that he eventually comes right.

Verdict: Fitz to get the nod, but can consider himself a fortunate starter

The team will be announced at noon on friday. In Joe we trust.