All That Glisters Is Not Gold

When one observes the state of the Irish international rugby team, one gets most depressed. One win in the tournament harks back to the late nineties, when we were genuinely rubbish. But are we as bad as results say we are? We don’t think we are over-reaching ourselves to say that, no, we aren’t. The players that make up the Ireland team do ok in their day jobs, for one. The reasons put forth for why we are so bad are as follows:

  • The coaching ticket don’t know what they are doing. This is the position most people with two eyes and a functioning brain hold. Conservative selection up to November 2012, before apparently flicking a switch and picking everyone in Ireland for the 2013 Six Nations, is one reason. Confusing roles for the support staff is another – what does Les Kiss do, for example? Does it actually change every series, or is that just his title. Does Mark Tainton have a role in our kicking game? If so, why has he held on to his job for so long when it is so bad? This is an entire other debate, but it appears that it will soon be over – Deccie might not be of a mind for falling on his sword, but someone will administer the last rites
  • We keep getting injuries. This is true – but it’s a mitigating factor, not a reason for our failure. At various stages of the Six Nations, we were missing six Lions (Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Paul O’Connell, Gordon D’Arcy, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald) and the presumed Lions outhalf for this years tour. It’s unfortunate, for sure, but Earls and Fitzgerald aren’t first choice, Luke Marshall deputized ably for Dorce, and, while it would have been nice to have Bowe available, Craig Gilroy had a decent tournament. On the flip side, Ferris’ physicality, and O’Connell’s leadership up-front were not adequately replaced – still, an international side should be able to wear the loss of two front-liners, no matter who they are. And anyway, don’t we have a Player Management System for this very purpose?
  • We had no luck. If Keith Earls had seen Drico, we would have been too far ahead of Scotland to lose! If we had just held on for ten more minutes, we would have beaten France! We had a flanker on the wing for 40 minutes against Italy! Yes, but he didn’t because he backed himself in a low percentage play (player fail), we didn’t because our bench made no impact (coaching fail) and Peter O’Mahony’s defensive positioning wasn’t exploited once (Italian coaching fail), and sure he spends most of his time on the wing anyway (insert smiley face icon). As Gary Player said, the more I practice, the luckier I get, and we don’t appear to practice, or have a proper plan to put into practice at least.
  • Referees hate us. This canard – the Irish coaching ticket are very fond of this one, as are their cheerleaders in the meeja. Gerry Thornley said after the 2011 Six Nations,  Messrs Poite, Pearson, Owen and Kaplan (with the, eh, help of Allan) gave them a raw deal. Really, in all our games but one, the referee was biased against us? Axel Foley was barely in the job two minutes when he was moaning about the men in the middle. It’s a road to nowhere, and it’s untrue at any rate – sure, you get bad decisions from time to time, but they will average out, and if your team commits more offences than the opposition, the penalty count is likely to be against them
  • There are shadowy people in the IRFU telling Deccie who to pick. Riiiiiiiiiiiiight Frankie. Do they meet in badly-lit underground carparks? And you are sure this isn’t just paranoid nonsense to mask the fact that you can’t admit that Deccie can be wrong, AND Ronan O’Gara is out of form? Oh, you are speculating – well, how about you speculate somewhere else instead of trying to masquerade as an expert
  • The end of the Golden Generation. Now, this is what we came here for. Let us examine this one in some more depth

The ‘Golden Generation’ in Irish rugby terms is generally taken to refer to the team which won three Triple Crowns in four years from 2004-2007, then collapsed spectacularly at the World Cup that year. The team was still mostly intact for the Grand Slam in 2009, but there was an infusion of new blood through the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris, Tomas O’Leary, Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe.

The contention is that the retirement of the ‘Golden Generation’, one-by-one, and their replacement by inadequate players following up is one of the reasons that we aren’t as competitive as we were back in their heyday.

To digress for a moment, our first hearing of the term ‘Golden Generation’ was in reference to the Portuguese soccer team that won World Youth Cups in 1989 and 1991 – this was the team of Rui Costa, Luis Figo and Paulo Sousa. At senior level, the team rarely bothered the scorer, a semi-final at Euro 2000 being the pinnacle of their achievement. It was in fact the next generation, spear-headed by Cristiano Ronaldo, that has brought Portugal to the level of consistent semi-finalists in international football (2006, 2008, 2012). The silver medal at Euro 2004 was mostly the younger team, but with Figo and Costa playing prominent roles in the team and squad.

So the Portuguese ‘Golden Generation’ actually achieved less than their ungarlanded successors. Interesting. The term ‘Golden Generation’ seems to imply something once-off, something that can never be repeated and must be milked for all its worth. After all, the supply of gold is fixed … oh wait, it isn’t!

So let us examine the first-choice Ireland team of 2007 versus the first-choice team of 2013. We will assume there are no injuries, and then examine the benches.

Front Row:

Marcus Horan, Jirry Flannery, John Hayes vs Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross. The Ireland scrum always seems to be on the point of collapse, and Hayes and Ross have toiled manfully at the coalface to prevent it for the best part of 13 years. Ross is more powerful and destructive, so we’re taking him. On the loosehead side, Healy on form is one of the best in Europe, whereas Horan was a wily operator who got by more on street smarts than talent. At hooker, it’s a great problem to have – Jirry was a better thrower and more dynamic in open play, whereas Besty is an excellent groundhog and a better scrummager. Verdict: 2013 props, and either hooker

Second Row:

Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan vs Paul O’Connell, Donnacha Ryan. No contest here – Ryan has a higher ceiling than DOC did, but his level now is rather similar to DOC in 2007. However, O’Connell is injury-ravaged and battling to get his career back on track now, whereas he was close to the peak of his powers in 2007. Verdict: Paul O’Connell (2007) with either of the others

Back Row:

Simon Easterby, David Wallace, Denis Leamy vs Stephen Ferris (if fit) / Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip. At the blindside, Fez is one of the few world-class players in Ireland, but is frequently injured and appears to be off to Japan in any case.  Peter O’Mahony is the chosen man at 6 in his absence.  Ferris is far and away the pick of the bunch, and we’d be more or less neutral between O’Mahony and Easterby; one a grafter, the other a footballer, both good in the lineout .  Neither of the sevens are classic opensides (plus ca change), but both are excellent players – we would be content to have either in our backrow. At the back of the scrum, we’d have Heaslip – Leamy had the skills for 8, but was really a converted blindside, Heaslip is a Test Lion, albeit one used as a ruck scrapper by Ireland. Verdict: Ferris if fit, otherwise neutral; either of the sevens, Heaslip

Half-backs:

Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara vs Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton. Good choice to have here, and four very different players. Stringer was the passer supreme, whereas Murray is in the breaking and game managing mould. Having said that, Strings most memorable moments (Biarritz 2006, Scotland 2009) cam from breaks, and Murray is a better passer than he is generally given credit for. We’d go for Murray on the basis that he offers a little more variety to the game. At outhalf, you have a Ligind versus a money-grabbing traitor. Or a one-dimensional boot merchant who can’t defence versus a triple Heineken Cup-winning best outhalf in Europe. ROG of 2007 or Sexton of 2013? We’d take either (which will prevent this piece being entirely about this choice as well). Verdict: Murray, either of the tens

Centre:

Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll vs Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll. One of the best centre partnerships of all-time. It’s pretty obvious that having them in their late 20s at their best is preferable to now, with a nod to the fact that the output, particularly of O’Driscoll, is still at a high level. Verdict: 2007 vintage

Back three:

Denis Hickie, Shane Horgan, Girvan Dempsey vs Simon Zebo, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney. Not much to choose between those two lineups, with the exception of left wing, where Hickie, along with Simon Geoghegan, was our best and most natural wing in our lifetime. On the right, Horgan was a supreme catcher and finisher, but Bowe hits the line exceptionally well, and brings just a shade more class.  When he is missing, Ireland’s try count inevitably declines. Both are good defenders and great fellows, but only Bowe is a nailed-on Lion when fully fit. At full-back, Dempsey is the better defender, and Kearney uses his boot more effectively in attack. Again, Kearney on form is a Lions class player, whereas Dempsey, for all his qualities, never quite convinced he was better than Geordan Murphy, his backup. Verdict: Hickie, Bowe, Kearney

Bench:

Simon Best, Rory Best, Malcolm O’Kelly, Neil Best, Isaac Boss, Paddy Wallace, Geordan Murphy vs Tom Court, Sean Cronin, Mike McCarthy, Peter O’Mahony / Chris Henry, Eoin Reddan, Paddy Jackson, Luke Fitzgerald / Keith Earls / Craig Gilroy / Fergus McFadden. Neither bench would be familiar with coming on to play a specific role, with both teams heavily dependent on the first XV. We have chosen Tom Court to cover both sides of the scrum to make the benches comparable, and hav gone with the management team’s preference for Paddy Jackson over Ian Madaigan as reserve out half, whatever the wisdom of it. Neither bench would especially fill one with confidence – the standouts would be Rory Best, Mal O’Kelly, Geordan Murphy (2007) and the myriad of back three players from the 2013 team. So, 2007 looks slightly higher in quality, with the caveat that Neil Best is nowhere near international class, and Paddy Wallace is not an outhalf. Verdict: Hobson’s Choice really, but 2007 by a nose.

Overall then, player for player, there’s little to choose between the groups of players.  It’s very hard to make the argument that the ‘Golden Generation’ of 2007 is markedly superior to the current group of players. Great players have retired, for sure, – 2007 is six years ago at this stage, and it would be strange if they hadn’t – but the replacements are players of arguably just as high a standard in almost all cases.  The so-called ‘Golden Generation’ were undoubtedly golden compared to what went before, but that’s not to say the next generation of players – no doubt inspired by seeing the likes of O’Driscoll, O’Connell and O’Gara in their youth – couldn’t be just as good.  There is no reason to assume they were a one off, and that Ireland couldn’t continue to produce talented footballers.  There is no lack of good players available to national team coaches, and a talent drain due to retirements cannot excuse recent performances.

Not so golden after all then, but headlines can’t make use of the term ‘Base Metal Generation’ or just ‘Generation’ as much can they?

New Generals

When reviewing the Autumn series on Tuesday, Gerry referred to a new officer class in the Irish team, and it’s interesting to note that the Argentina performance was produced in the absence of the three men who drove the success of the Irish team from 2004-2009 – Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara. But our question is – is there a new officer class emerging in the Irish side, or is there, in fact, a new general class coming through to replace the Holy Trinity of the noughties?

It looks increasingly like the end is near for all three, and we are at the stage where the value of selecting any of them is at least up for debate. Take Paul O’Connell – he may be the rock upon which the Munster pack is built, but for Ireland, perhaps a ball-handling lock would suit the team better, and his injury situation is increasingly worrying.  And what of O’Driscoll? Keith Earls might not have had a great November series, but based on this season’s form, he or Darren Cave would get into the XV ahead of BOD. For what it’s worth, we’d still pick a fully-fit POC and BOD for this Six Nations, but it’s worth pausing to ask whether the value of what they brings to the team offset the negative value to the side of selecting them (i.e. reducing the influence of the new generals)?  And as for the next Six Nations?  It’s entirely probable none will be available.

It’s an intriguing question to ask whether the Argentina performance could have been produced with any of the above in the side. We would contend possibly not – the Leinster-centric gameplan executed by Sexton and enabled by Heaslip would not have been realised had O’Connell been on the pitch – as captain he would have gravitated towards something different, and the step-ups shown by the likes of Ryan and Murray may not have happened if the mega-personalities of POC and BOD been on the field, and O’Gara’s best is long past.

If the new general corps in the Ireland side consists of Rory Best, Donnacha Ryan, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney; they are ably assisted by an emerging new officer corps – Cian Healy, Chris Henry, Conor Murray, Sean O’Brien, Fez, Keith Earls and Tommy Bowe, and with the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson, Craig Gilroy and Luke Marshall in the next generation of players to come in, it looks like Ireland’s transition from the Grand Slam team of 2009 into a serious side is nearing completion.

Deccie hasn’t always handled the transition well, and the player turnover does not necessarily reflect progressive selection or any great vision on Kidney’s part.  Injury has all too often been Ireland’s best selector, and if certain key players had not been unfit this November, the tone of this piece could be quite different.  But in fairness to the head coach, he did talk in the first week in camp about the importance of the next generation of leaders stepping up and taking more responsibility.

Looking at the XV from the Argentina game, only Jamie Heaslip [then a coltish fist-pumping youngster selected for 4 starts], Gordon D’Arcy [2 starts] and Tommy Bowe [5 starts] survive from the Grand Slam team – thats 64 starts by 12 players in the 5 games of the 2009 Six Nations worth of experience lost. It’s a huge turnover, but one which appears to be reaching fruition – successful teams all have a myriad of on-field generals backed up by a strong officer corps – just look at how England have floundered in the absence of generals since 2003.

In fact, for comparitive purposes, le’ts look at that England side of RWC03 (and try not to get too carried away) – the generals were Vickery, Johnno, Dallaglio, Dawson, Wilkinson and Greenwood with an officer corps of Thompson, Hill, Back, Tindall, Lewsey and Robinson. That’s 6 generals in key positions surrounded by 6 officers, with the likes of Moody, Corry and Catt in reserve if even more was needed. This team had reached a point where they were virtually self-coaching – the groundwork of the preceding years had seen to that – but they were only 5 years out from a 76-0 beating by Australia.  That’s the level Ireland must aspire to (the on-field leadership, not the 76-0 drubbing, that is!).

It’s all enough to put paid to the idea that Ireland are in decline because the so-called ‘golden generation’ have moved on.  The talent pool is there, and probably wider than ever.  If Ireland can get the majority of players fit for the Six Nations, some very good players might not be in the starting team – players like Keith Earls, Peter O’Mahony and Richardt Strauss.  Eddie never had such depth available.

It’s imperative that the players have the right environment in which to blossom and that the coach gives them licence to play a progressive, exciting brand of rgby that’s fun to watch and to play.  The type of game we saw against Argentina.  It’s worth noting that in the match stats, no forward carried the ball for more than 10m in the entire match.  The majority of ball-carries were made by the backline, with Sexton, D’arcy and Gilroy rampant.  Conor Murray took contact just once.  The forwards played for the backs, and not for themselves.  Murray plyed for Sexton, and played brilliantly, his running used to create space for the 10, and not to eke out yards around the fringes.  The difference between this and the unending one-out rumbles into contact in the South Africa match is stark.  Sexton seemed to have three options running off him every time he touched the ball.  We haven’t seen Ireland play like this before.  Did a sea-change occur?  Did Heaslip and Sexton use their newfound seniority to affect a change in approach?  We can’t know, but we wouldn’t rule it out.

Sexton’s role is particularly important here.  He has been consistently the best fly-half in Europe over the last three seasons in the Heineken Cup, where he is the focal point of all that Leinster do. But with Ireland, Kidney has been content to use him as simply another cog in his spluttering machine; shunting him to first-centre and pairing him with a running scrum-half.  Commentators at one remove from Irish rugby – Stuart Barnes, for example, find this a mind boggling use of a player they consider to be a world-class talent.  We would hope that Sexton’s emergence as a New General entitles him to play the game he is best at.

If Ireland continue in the direction they are going, they can have a similar team makeup to the 2003 England team – it might just start to feel like the RWC15 cycle might be beginning in earnest.  Of course, it’s just as possible that come the Six Nations, Ireland will revert to the tripe they’ve been serving up more often than not.  It’s vital that the likes of Sexton must not see their newly elevated status within the squad being diluted when O’Connell, O’Driscoll and Best return.

El Grande Bob Caso y Jirry estan Terminado

The past week has seen the retirement of 2 of our favourite players – Jerry Flannery and Bob Casey. Both were characters whose careers spanned eras of huge change and development in Irish rugby.
Let’s start with Jirry, a man who, by all accounts, was the life and soul of every party. One of Egg’s funniest memories was the queue outside Flannery’s of Camden Street after that HEC semi-final in 2006. You see, Paul O’Connell had said on TV afterwards that the lads were going to Flannery’s after… Jerry Flannery’s… in Limerick. No wonder the punters were disappointed, although his X Factor audition a few weeks later more than made up for it.
At this stage, Fla was in his first season at the top, having just replaced TV’s favourite client-praiser, Frankie, as Munster starting hooker, and was a relatively unknown quantity. Shortly over 3 years later, he was a hero of two HECs, a Grand Slam, and a certain Lion. Yet a freak injury before the tour left for Seth Efrica ruled him out of that tour, and a series of abortive comebacks later, contributed to ending his career.
In an era of durable, long-lived and iconic hookers like John Smit, Williams Servat and Thommo (who Jirry memorably called a fat ****), Flannery burned brightly for just four seasons. But what seasons they were – Flannery’s hair, superman pose, quality and controlled aggression perfectly captured the era in Munster and Irish rugby, and he will be missed.  He was something of a wild man, but could seemingly switch from loo-la to dead-eyed technician as soon as the next lineout rolled along – and make no mistake, his lineout throwing was peerless.  It is in keeping with his character that he didn’t want to be seen as a cripple turning up to training to do another day of rehab, instead quitting with his head held high. Interesting way to go out too, replete with a thinly veiled dig at Mick Galwey.  He can have no regrets, though in the interests of mirth, we should direct you here for one of his less proud moments.  
He was part of a proud Irish hooking tradition, following on from Ciaran Fitzgerald, Terry Kingston, Woody and Shane Byrne and passing the baton on to Rory Best. It’s a position where Ireland have been notably blessed, but Jirry was one of the greats.
As for Biiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey, he never quite seemed to make the grade at the highest level. Back at the 1999 World Cup, amazingly from this distance, Bob and Drico were the two bright young things in Gatty’s squad (Dorce having just missed out). Drico managed to put the tournament behind him, but Bob never got much of a look-in after Lens.
When you consider that his competition during the last decade and a bit consisted of Mal O’Kelly, Gallaimh, Jeremy Davidson, Paul O’Connell, Stakhanov and Gary Longwell, it’s probably not surprising he never played much, but he was unfortunate to play in an era when being an Exile was not a good thing for your international career. Eddie never capped him, and Deccie only picked him in the Churchill Cup. To be fair, he didn’t have the mobility required of a modern lock, even if he was somewhat of a cause celebre for Hooky for a while in the middle of the noughties.
What he did offer was excellent lineout work and leadership skills – with Nick Kennedy, he led the best defensive lineout in the Premiership and captained London Irish in their most successful era. He was a link back to the history and culture of the club as the on-pitch product became increasingly Samoan. Perhaps Tomás O’Leary can become his spiritual successor at Irish – his presence and class will be sorely missed, not only by our polls, but by rugby fans everywhere. Let’s hope he goes into broadcasting – he has dabbled in the Irish Times and on Sky – for no other reason than the hilarious child’s table Sky put him at.
We wish them the best.