Off The Plane

Ireland’s pre-season knockabout against Scotland in front of a half-full Palindrome will probably be forgotten rather quickly – we were ragged and loose and allowed the Scots to have a bit of fun at our expense. Vern Cotter will feel like it was something of a moral victory that his team piloted by Greg Tonks, carried by Mercurial David Denton and containing the first Scot to be capped as both a back and forward in over 100 years forced Ireland to look so vulnerable.

Joe Schmidt, on the other hand, got a look at a few of the faces on the fringes of his squad and some new combinations as well – and the RWC squad situation looks much clearer as a result.  This is the post where you can insert your own use of the well-worn phrases ‘Off The Plane’, ‘Fellas putting their hands up’.

In the forwards, the identity of the second row and back row are set in stone now – Dan Tuohy looked wild and unstructured and nothing like a ‘Schmidt player’ and is likely out of the picture, and the unlikely task for Jack Conan to dislodge Schmidt favourites Chris Henry and Jordi Murphy isn’t going to happen.

If we take five props, as seems likely, the 17 forwards will be:

  • Church, McGrath, Bent, Ross, Moore, Best, Cronin, Strauss
  • O’Connell, Toner, Henderson, Ryan
  • Heaslip, O’Brien, O’Mahony, Henry, Murphy

If we take six, Killer (who had a pretty useful outing, albeit with the traditional three penalties) and Nathan White look like the choices. Either way, they won’t be venturing too far from the training paddock – for if there is an injury to a front line prop, they are likely to be flown over pronto and parachuted straight onto the Test 23 bench.

We didn’t learn a whole lot from the halves – sure, Isaac Boss is slow to the ruck and ponderous when he gets there, but we knew that already. But Boss is going as third choice scrum-half, and the only alternative is Kieron Marmion, who is deemed to raw for the squad this time around. Knowing the premium Schmidt puts on players being in camp and around the group, the odds of Boss being usurped are low.  Boss is going to his third world cup.  Remarkable in many ways, but there you have it.

Madigan gave the traditional curates egg of a performance – flashes of Spencer-esque creativity, good off the tee but always culpable to brain farts. Nonetheless, he tipped the balance in favour of the positive.  His distribution in the lead-up to Zebo’s try was superb.  He appears to relish playing under Schmidty, and Schmidt seems to get the best of him. He’s going to go as bench outhalf, and after a miserable couple of years toiling under O’Connor, the World Cup could be a restorative event for him.

Among the outside backs, it got interesting.

It gave absolutely no-one any pleasure to see Dorce left so comprehensively marooned on the day he overtook the great Mike Gibson as Ireland’s longest serving player. The pace had long gone, the dancing feet have been going for a while, but it was sad to see the defensive reads and positional certainty be exposed by the likes of Tonks and Peter Horne. It felt to us like a waste of a pick (at this stage, Darren Cave can do everything Darce can, and more, so why bother?) before the game, but it’s clear now – there will not be any fairytale and Dorce will not be going to his fourth RWC. He undoubtedly feels he has more to offer, so let’s hope this season turns out to be productive for him – for Leinster.

Zeebs was named as Quinny’s man of the match, which was generous, if not outrageous. We would have gone for O’Brien or the excellent Jared Payne, but there you go. Zebo played well, was solid under the high ball, scored a nice try. He could be ahead of Felix Jones in the reckoning if Schmidt rates his obvious qualities as more relevant than his occasional tendency to error. Either way, you’d imagine he’s ahead of Fitzy, who looked to have reverted to the skittish trying-too-hard Fitzgerald of four years ago, well-taken try aside. While Earls and Zebo have looked assured and confident in this series so far, Fitzgerald was quite the opposite. The sight of Dishy Dave coming off the bench to good effect won’t be making him sleep much easier either. We’ll look at this one in more depth in a few days, but Fitzgerald could well be in a bit of bother.

Peter O’Reilly mentioned last Sunday that Dave Kearney has apparently been outstanding in training, and he certainly appeared tack-sharp in his cameo appearance.  We can expect to see him start the next match.  Kearney was a mainstay of Schmidt’s first season with Ireland but last year never got going with injury ruining his season.  He’s become something of a forgotten man but could be about to burst back on to the scene.

Team in Focus: Leinster

Last week we caught up with the domestic season so far, but it’s hard to escape the sense that the phoney war is now over and the serious business starts this Friday. This weekend the provinces reintegrate their full quotient of frontliners, Leinster take on Munster and Ulster face Connacht, and the following week the Heineken Cup kicks off.  We’re going to have an in-depth look at each of the Irish provinces, and we’ll look at the Heineken Cup groups after that.  We’re kicking off with European Champions, Leinster.

Last season: A+ all round. Joe Schmidt overcame a terrible opening month to deliver a second Heineken Cup in three years.  Unlike the first Cup triumph, Leinster were imperious throughout the competition; Schmidt reinvigorated a tired looking backline by introducing an offloading game that made them more potent than ever in attack, while retaining the hard-nosed winning mentality forged under Michael Cheika.

So far this season: Ticking over.  Five wins in the Magners League, but unsurprisingly, have yet to scale the heights of last year.

Prospects: Leinster will be looking to go one better than last season, which can only be done by winning both the Heineken Cup and the Pro12.  On the face of it their prospects couldn’t be healthier.  Joe Schmidt is fully settled in the role, and now tipped as the next Ireland coach, and a raft of players who made an impression last year will be a year older and more experienced: the likes of Rhys Rudock, Dom Ryan, Fergus McFadden and Eoin O’Malley will be looking to push on and start the big games this year. 

Back row is an area of notable strength, where Sean O’Brien has graduated to the status of global star, and Jamie Healsip will look forward to playing his natural game after a subdued World Cup.  Jennings, McLaughlin, Ryan and Ruddock will be toughing it out to to start alongside them.  With Ross and Healy, the scrum looks rock solid and the addition of Cronin at hooker means Leinster have solid cover for the outstanding Richardt Strauss.  In the backline, Rob Kearney is back to full fitness having had a sound world Cup and the returning Fionn Carr brings out-and-out pace, a missing ingredient since Disco Den’s retirement.  A relatively benign draw (Bath, Glasgow, Montpellier) in the group stages of the HEC puts Leinster in the position of joint tournament favourites, with Toulouse, to win the Cup.

It looks like an impossibly rosy picture – but a couple of clouds are looming.  Second row is a worry.  It is impossible to overrate the contribution of Nathan Hines to last year’s HEC win – the big man’s handling skills were crucial to the offlading game Leinster play, but he has been forced out by the IRFU.  Early indications are that Devin Toner is being groomed to start in his place this year.  At 208cm, Toner is a completely different player to Hines.  He played badly last season (his restart work is frequently appaling), but has started well this, and has a newfound, and badly needed, aggression about his play.  The middle of the lineout should be safe enough with him on the pitch, but Leinster will miss the power, and that bit of mongrel that Hines brought to bare on the team.  Much will depend on whether Toner steps up to the plate.

And what of the centres?  Brian O’Driscoll played the World Cup on one shoulder, and assuredly won’t get through a season unless he is given the chance to properly recover.  How he is handled by the Leinster management remains to be seen, but it must be possible that Leinster will have to cope without him for the early rounds of the Heineken Cup.  Gordon D’arcy has struggled for consistency for some time, and in a world of 110kg centres, looks decidedly small these days.  Shane Horgan is a grievous loss, and leaves Leinster without a big man in the backline.  It means we’ll be seeing more of Fergus McFadden, who was knocking hard on the door last year – this has to be his breakthrough season.  If the BOD-Dorce-Shaggy axis is M.I.A. for vast swathes of the season, it’s hard to see Leinster retaining the Cup, but at the same time they need to start safeguarding for the future.

There’s also the possibility of ‘second season syndrome’ for Joe, and the historical difficulty of retaining the Heineken Cup (only Leicester, in 2001, have done it).  What looked like an easy HEC draw became tougher when Leinster were sent to Montpellier in the opening week.

Forecast: Leinster should qualify from their group, but it may end up tougher than is anticipated.  Lose to Montpellier in opening week, and they’ll have to go to the Rec and win – a result they should get, but not easily.  The knockouts are impossible to predict this far out, but Leinster will be in the shake-down.  In the Pro12, there should be plenty of bitterness stored up by losing out to Munster last year, and Leinster will be looking to pip their rivals this time.  They should manage that, and the likelihood is that Leinster will win silverware in one of the two competitions this year – but a double will remain beyond them.

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