Job Done

Six tries, no injuries and some minor selection dilemmas for the visit of the real minnows next week – virtually everything you’d want out of a game against Georgia really. We blogged on Friday about the very few thing we might be able to take from the game, and so it came to pass. The match followed a very familiar pattern of good team vs. minnow: low-scoring first half followed by floodgates opening as the pressure takes its toll on the little ‘un.

In general, the pack will be happy they did their job and the backline less so.  The much-vaunted Georgian scrum seems to be better on paper than in actuality, as a few canny punters predicted would be the case.  Ireland weren’t on top in the scrum, but they were ok there, comfortable in the lineout and strong in the maul.  They found plenty of gaps to exploit.  They created umpteen chances but found their finishing a bit off, in the first half in particular.

The front row will be reasonably happy.  Rosser needed to get some game-time because … er … just because, right. He managed 46 minutes of difficult scrums and one hilarious mini line break before giving way to Rodney Ah Here. The most relevant thing from the weekend for Ross was probably the pillaging the Wobbly front row took in Paris, followed by the incompetence of the backups, who were milked by the French. We’d almost feel comfortable letting Ah Here loose on the Wobs (who have resolved to play a few new faces), but Rosser it will be. And he’ll be better after yesterday.

Dave Kilcoyne enjoyed a slightly less troublesome time than Rosser, had one even better run and scored a try. Job done, and a decent showing against tough opponents. Took one step towards an RWC plane ticket, did Killer.  Scoring tries is not bread and butter for props, but it’s a handy habit to have and Kilcoyne chips in with plenty.

In the row, Dave Foley was man of the match and out-shone his partner Mike McCarthy. McCarthy appears to be a good scrummaging second row [citation needed!] but his star is very much on the wane, and has been since his man-of-the-match award against South Africa two years ago.  Calling Foley ashore early was a probable sign a bench slot on Saturday has been earned, and his performances this year warrant it.  In the backrow, all three men showed up reasonably well, with Dom Ryan especially busy on his debut.  None shot the lights out, though, and we suspect all will drop out of the team for the Wobs match.

In the back division, it was a case of good top ‘n’ tail, poor middle.  Felix Jones had a fine match and both half-backs played well but the entire three-quarter line was pretty middling.  If Schmidty wasn’t happy with depth at centre before, he certainly isn’t now – Dorce and Darren Cave did very little of note in the 80 and only a spicy cameo from Stuart Olding (admittedly against tired and run-out opponents) brightened up the Milky Bar Kid’s options there. If Henshaw is now nailed on to start, who his partner is will be interesting – if Payne is fit, he looks set to continue, but what if he isn’t? D’arcy is most likely to get the call, but he looked rusty here.  No doubt there will be a clamour for Stuart Olding and on the evidence of his glitzy cameo here, it’s not hard to see why.  In retrospect, we may have learned more from starting him, but hindsight is always 20-20.

If this series was to be Simon Zebo’s  time to shine, he’s running out of time. The jet-heeled Corkman controversially (at the time anyway) lost out to Andrew Trimble and Little Bob last Six Nations and was a minor cause celebre – he hasn’t exactly set the world afire and you think if there were better options then Craig Gilroy to choose from, he might lose his place for the Wobbly game. In particular, his moment of trying a redux of his ankle flick instead of jumping on the ball will have been noted by Joe Schmidt – this is the type of play from wingers that will have him spitting bullets. Zebo has clearly taken Schmidt’s feedback of the last 12 months on board, but in his case, there is more to do.

Georgia Team Out!

Stop press! The team for Sunday’s game is out – and, hilariously, Gerry was one player wrong. Seems Joe is a little tougher to read than Deccie. It’s essentially a warm-up for the Canada/Romania games in the RWC where the firsts get a rest and the rest get a run-out – but there are a few interesting calls nonetheless:

  • The most notable first teamer picked is Rosser – the big man needs game time to get to optimal conditioning for the Wobbly front row (stop sniggering at the back) and he’ll definitely get a work-out here. It’s mildly concerning that (i) it takes game time to get him going – what if he comes to the RWC undercooked? (ii) Ross has now started every test under Schmidt – this is into Hayes territory, and (iii) our backups are injured or not good enough to take his shirt.  But hey, what’s new?
  • While Dave Kilcoyne is the nominal third loosehead right now, we think James Cronin is a better player and might finish the year as incumbent at Munster -although the Irish Times Top 50 has them just one place apart, which tells us just how close it is!  Fascinating stuff!  No doubt Joe Schmidt is using it as a guide to selection.  If Killer comes out of a game against Georgia intact, that’s a big plus for him.  His scrummaging will be properly tested here.
  • Paulie, Lighthouse Toner and NWJMB are virtually nailed on for the RWC squad (Henderson is currently out after pre-RWC elective surgery) – there is one more definite second row slot up for grabs, and if Dave Foley carries his ERCC form into Sunday and out-shines Mike McCarthy, he’ll put himself into the conversation.  He’s a good, athletic lock with decent mobility and can carry reasonably well, and is certainly worth a look here.
  • In the absence (not enforced – but is it ever?) of Jamie Heaslip, Robbie Diack will wear the 8 shirt. Or, more to the point, Robin Copeland is (at best) third choice 8. Diack showed well in Argentina, and is clearly in the mix for one of the multi-functional backrow RWC slots, with (but still likely behind) Jordi Murphy, Dom Ryan and Rhys Ruddock. With Murphy to return as more specialised cover for the No.8 jersey, Copeland has missed his chance to gain some ground.  Truth be told, his problems begin with CJ and end with Stander.  There is no crowbarring the prime Bok out of the Munster team and Copeland has found his chances to impress limited as a result.
  • When asked on Sky Sports before the Bok game about whether he was happy with his depth at centre, Joe Schmidt sighed, hummed and hawed, and said “yes and no” i.e. No. He’ll clearly be feeling better since, but he still feels options need exploring. Angry Darren Cave gets another go after a pretty disappointing summer tour – and we’ll hopefully see Stuart Olding get good gametime as well
  • Dom Ryan gets a test debut and it’s merited on early season form.  He had become something of a forgotten man over the last two seasons, but with a run of fitness and form he has reminded us of his talents and knack of scoring tries.

It’s a pretty mobile pack with plenty of good handlers and carriers and lots of athleticism.  Coupled with the no-brainer selection of Reddan and Madigan and a pair of flyers out wide, all signals point towards a looser, faster game plan than we saw against South Africa, which seems sensible against a Georgia team that is likely to be beefy upfront but will struggle in a more open contest.  The appointment of Eoin Reddan as captain also looks shrewd.  Marmion has his champions, but Reddan is still very much second choice and still awfully good, albeit well behind the peerless Murray.  It’s a chance to remind him that he’s still a key part of the squad even if his future gametime is likely to be of the same order as Chris Whittaker enjoyed when he was first reserve to George Gregan.

Here’s the team:

IRELAND (v Georgia): Felix Jones (Munster); Craig Gilroy (Ulster), Darren Cave (Ulster), Gordon D’Arcy (Leinster), Simon Zebo (Munster); Ian Madigan (Leinster), Eoin Reddan (Leinster, capt); Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Richardt Strauss (Leinster), Mike Ross (Leinster); Dave Foley (Munster), Mike McCarthy (Leinster); Dominic Ryan (Leinster), Tommy O’Donnell (Munster), Robbie Diack (Ulster).

Replacements: Seán Cronin (Leinster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), Rodney Ah You (Connacht), Devin Toner (Leinster), Robin Copeland (Munster), Kieran Marmion (Connacht), Ian Keatley (Munster), Stuart Olding (Ulster).

Go easy.

Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Four

The Game: Ireland 14-10 Georgia, 15 September 2007

What it Defined: the decline of the Eddie O’Sullivan era and the 2007 World Cup catastrophe

The State of Play

Ireland are travelling to the world cup in rude health, with a fully fit squad and sky-high expectations.  In short, Irish rugby has never had it so good.  The team is settled and the age profile of the team is optimal, with all its key leaders in the 25-29 bracket.  They have played a lot of very good rugby over the previous twelve months.  In the November internationals they reach new peaks, comfortably beating South Africa and Australia and thrashing the Pacific Islands.  The Six Nations is thrilling, heartbreaking, but ultimately encouraging.  Ireland lose it on points difference to France, but most commentators agree Ireland are the best team in Europe.

Huge credit is given to (and lapped up by) their one-man-band of a coach, Eddie O’Sullivan.  Uninterested in delegating and something of a control freak, he has full control of all elements of the team.  Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is the conditioning of the players, which has seen Ireland shed its long-held reputation as a 60-minute team.  Much is made of their visits to the cryotherapy chambers in Spala, Poland, where the players sit in sub-sub-zero temperatures for short periods of time, which improves the recovery speed of the muscles.  When a bunch of photographs of the players messing on the beach goes viral, the nation marvels at these specimens; tanned and toned, muscles rippling.  To reflect the coach’s achievements he is handed a four-year contract before the World Cup has even begun.

But there are a couple of problems looming, though nobody is overly concerned yet.  After the Six Nations, both Munster and Leinster limp out of the Heineken Cup in the quarter finals.  It means it’s a long time without high-intensity matches.  The summer tour to Argentina sees Ireland lose twice, and draws clear lines of demarcation between the first XV, “Eddie’s Untouchables”, who don’t travel and the rest of the squad, the tackle-bag holders, who do. The tour was ominous – granted, the first XV weren’t there, but the ease with which Argentina dispatched Ireland was a worry.

And Ireland’s pre-tournament preparation did not go well.  They’ve played poorly, losing to Scotland and only beating Italy in Ravenhill thanks to a highly dubious last-minute try.  The idea of playing a club side, Bayonne, once in camp in France, backfires, with the locals delighting in the role of hired hands set out to soften the opposition up for the main fight with France.  O’Driscoll is punched off the ball and leaves the match with a fractured cheekbone.  Eddie’s squad is rather lopsided, with a wealth of blindsides, but no specialised cover at 7 or 8.

The first game of the tournament sees Ireland play badly against Namibia, the tournament’s lowest ranked side. Eddie picked his Untouchables, with a view to playing them into form – they win 32-17, but it’s an inauspicious start – France and Argentina would put 150 points on the Namibians collectively, yet Ireland actually lost the second half 14-12.

Now the alarm bells were ringing – it was Georgia next, and any opportunity to play some of the dirt-trackers was gone as the imperative was to get the first XV back to life. This was the last opportunity before the real games come, against hosts France, and a fired-up Argentina side which has blown the tournament open by beating France in the opening game.

The Game

The first half is a pedestrian affair.  Ireland get a try, through Rory Best, but David Wallace is sent to the sin-bin and Georgia score the resulting penalty to trail 7-3 at half-time.  Then things go pear-shaped.  Peter Stringer throws a floaty pass towards O’Driscoll, and it’s intercepted for a try.  The body language between O’Driscoll and Stringer as the try is scored is not indicative of a team which is enjoying its rugby.  Girvan Dempsey replies with a try in the corner, which Ronan O’Gara converts to give Ireland a 14-10 lead.  But they cannot put the Georgians away, and as the game enters the last ten minutes it is the minnows who are piling on the pressure.  Winning the physical battle, they pick, drive and maul their way towards the line.  Indeed, they get over the whitewash, but Denis Leamy’s body is under the ball, and Ireland breathe again.

Ireland win 14-10, but it is the closest any established nation has come to such humiliation – had the Georgians showed a bit more poise and not attempted a swathe of miracle drop goals in the second half, the victory was there for the taking.  Ireland’s form is now beyond crisis point.  They have also failed to secure a bonus point, meaning if they lose to France and beat Argentina they could still go out.  The tournament is shaping up to be a disaster – Ireland appear poorly conditioned (but how, when they looked so good?) and Eddie has been forced to stick rigidly to his first team in an effort to play them in to something approaching form, but it hasn’t happened.

This half of WoC (Palla) remembers watching the game through his fingers.  With flights booked to Paris for the following week, it simply didn’t bear thinking about that the long awaited trip could be to see two dead rubbers in the French capital.

The Aftermath

The rest of the World Cup panned out with the inevitability of an unfolding horror story.  Ireland did up their game to an extent against France, but ran out 25-3 losers, two classic poacher’s tries by – who else? – Vincent Clerc enabling the hosts to pull away on the scoreboard.  It left Ireland needing not only to beat Argentina, but win by more than seven and score four tries in the process.  It never looked like happening, and Argentina dominated the match, winning 30-15.  In the first half, when David Wallace, of all people, was gang tackled and driven back 20 metres, it was clear the jig was up.  Juan Martin Hernandez was the game’s dominant figure, dropping three goals with all the fuss of someone buying a pint of milk.

Ireland went home humiliated, having entered the tournament as one of the favourites.  It was an astonishing fall from grace.  What had gone wrong?  Any number of theories were put forward, with the rumour mill going into overdrive.  Ronan O’Gara – having played with all the conviction of a man struggling to remember if he’d left the iron on at home – was having personal problems.  Geordan Murphy had packed his bags after being dropped from the bench for the French game.  Brian O’Driscoll and Peter Stringer had come to blows after the Georgia game.  It went on and on, and was very ugly – the intrusion into certain players lives was completely unnecessary, and quite shocking.

Other reasons with more foundation were offered up.  What was clear was that the players were poorly conditioned for test rugby.  Sure, they looked great on the beach, but they weren’t battle hardened.  The preparation was flawed, and once the team started underperforming, Eddie was unwilling to change the team – save for Peter Stringer, who became something of a fall guy.  The players were miserable in a poor choice of hotel in Bordeaux and became bored and irritable.

Frankie Sheahan offered an interesting nugget in a recent Sunday Times article: he felt the coaches had become too concerned with player statistics.  Certain players were being absolved from blame for particular outcomes because they had hit so many rucks, or made so many tackles.  He felt it contributed to an ‘I’m alright, Jack’ mentality within the squad.  When he talked to Rodrigo Roncero at the post-match dinner, Frankie asked him if the Argentina camp had relied on individual performance statistics.  ‘No’, Rodrigo replied, ‘we don’t care how many tackles a player makes, whether it’s 1 or 100, so long as somebody makes the tackle when it has to be made’.  It spoke of a coach whose philosophy had reached its sell-by date.

The strangest thing was that when the players returned to their provinces, the majority found their form again quickly.  Ronan O’Gara went back to Munster and immediately played as well as he had ever done.  Indeed, he piloted them to the Heineken Cup that year, while Leinster won the Magners League.  The players themselves were at a loss to explain it all.  Shane Horgan recently recalled irate fans demanding answers as to why they had been so poor, and his thoughts were: ‘You want answers?  I’m the one who wants answers!’

Eddie had one more Six Nations to put things right, but by now he was a busted flush.  He belatedly and reluctantly let a bang-in-form Jamie Heaslip have a game, and was rewarded with a performance (but no victory) in Paris, but the final two games saw Ireland lose at home to Wales and get thrashed by a Danny Cipriani-inspired England.

Eddie did the decent thing and resigned, leaving the team at a pretty low ebb.  There was only one choice of replacement: the man who had led Munster to two Heineken Cups in three years, and a coach his polar opposite in almost every way: Declan Kidney. The players were crying out for a new approach, and they were going to get one.

World Cup Heroes No.1: Mamuka Gorgodze

Georgia will be heading home after the first round, but will do so having achieved much.  They comfortably beat a reasonable Romania side, ran Scotland close and deserved a far better scoreline (and more recovery time beforehand) against England.  They owe much to the man they call Gorgodzilla, their superb flanker, serial MOTM award-getter and arguably the outstanding loose forward of the group stages.  Mamuka Gorgodze has been wearing the No.7 shirt on his back, but to watch him, you suspect he’s a man on whom the subtleties of openside vs. blindside play are entirely lost.  Whatever number he’s wearing, Gorgodzilla sees it as his mission to get his mitts on the ball as much as possible, smash any rucks when he isn’t the ball-carrier and cut down as many opponents as he can manage in 80 minutes.  He’s no headless chicken though – he’s a good footballer with nice hands and an ability to put others around him into space.  He also has an eye for the try-line and so it was no surprise to see him cross the whitewash for the pivotal try against Romania.

So, to our first, sadly soon departing, Whiff of Cordite World Cup Hero, we salute Gorgodze – he’s 118kg of pure Georgian mongrel and he’d walk into most top tier nations’ teams.  Top 14 forwards will sleep less easy once he heads back to Montpellier.

World Cup Preview: Georgia and Romania

Group B Opposition: Argentina, England, Scotland

Pedigree: The World Cups started too late for Romania, who were a force in the amateur game, regularly winning against the Six Nations sides. They have been left behind since the late 1980s and the dawn of professionalism / being allowed to leave the country after Ceacescu was strung up with piano wire. Georgia were a success in 2007, thrashing Namibia and holding Argentina to 6-3 at half time, while the memory of Ireland beating them by no more than a held-up TMO decision will remain seared into the collective conciousness of Irish rugby forever.

Players to watch: Your appreciation for these two sides essentially boils down to one question: do you like scrummaging?  The Top 14 is awash with Georgian props, and at least two of them, Clermont’s Zirakashvili and Toulon’s Kubriashvili, are world class. The good news for Georgia is that they have more than just a scrum, and in brutish Montpellier flanker Mamuka Gorgodze, they have a backrow beast who will wreak havoc wherever possible. Romania’s star asset is the tough and – let’s face it – dirty Perpignan hooker Marius Tincu. Watch your eyes, chaps.
Good tournament: Romania will be looking to escape with their dignity intact. Georgia, however, will be looking for a win over Romania, and to make life awkward for the big boys.

Bad tournament: Letting the scoreboards run up too easily will upset either of these feisty nations.

Prospects: Rugby’s popularity in Georgia is thought to be a result of its proximity to an ancient traditional game called ‘Lelo Burti’ (pictured right; it translates as ‘field ball’) where a non-specific number of large men from neighbouring villages compete to carry a heavy ball over the opposing village’s river creek. And, back in the day, they used decrepit old Soviet tractors as scrum machines. Notice is thus served of how Georgia intend to play in New Zealand. They’ll be hoping for rain lashed boggy pitches, and as many scrums as possible.

The fixture list has given them a good chance of causing an upset.  They have Scotland up first, and indications are that they are targeting them for a serious shock. The Scots are entering the World Cup somewhat undercooked, and would want to be mindful, or their river creek could be in jeopardy.

It should be noted that Georgia are the 7th best team in Europe, and Scotland are 5th at best – plus 9 of the squad (all forwards, surprisingly) play regular Top 14 rugby – they aren’t no-hopers by any stretch of the imagination. And they are coached by former Scotland coach Richie Dixon, who was enticed to Tbilisi after the notoriously penny-pinching SRU handed him his cards in 2009 – it’s just too good a story not to happen, isn’t it?

For Romania, things look less promising. A few years back, they knocked off Italy, and again ran them close in France 2007, but they have regressed. Their route to the World Cup was something of a struggle, including a loss at home to Portugal, before ultimately overcoming Uruguay to qualify.  If they can keep the scores down, and get a few players noticed by some upwardly mobile French clubs it will be an achievement.

Verdict: Georgia will beat Romania, and while they won’t beat Scotland, they’ll give them a right good scare. Romania will go home empty handed.