Three Nations

Hello everyone. It’s been .. checks watch .. a long time. Sorry, we’ve been marveling at how Stuart Lancaster has turned Leinster into Wasps (utterly contrary our predictions) and Les Kiss turning Ulster into Leinster. But now Ireland are back, and it’s <HYPE> time. It’s the Six Nations, when all predictions of a glorious festival of rugby get bogged down in a festoon of rain, French knock-ons and Scottish rifles aimed at toes. It will be as gritty as ever, but we loves it. Particularly when Ireland are looking so well set.

The Piano Shifters

For natural worriers like ourselves, we can’t help but notice that everyone is drooling over the Irish pack – the entire front row are being touted as Lions, the back row depth is ludicrous (Rhys Ruddock can’t make the 40 man tackle bag-heavy squad!) and most of the second rows are fashionable bolters. Where can it all go wrong?

The major areas of concern for us would be hooker and second row – with Sean Cronin’s injury and Strauss’ collapse in form, Besty will be backed up by James Tracy and Niall Scannell. Gulp. Asking one of your key men to play 80 minutes 5 times in 6 weeks, particularly when we have our two toughest games last, is a concern – without getting too far ahead of ourselves, let’s hope we are far enough ahead of Italy and France, in particular, to give 20 minutes to the freshers.

In the row, Devin Toner has quietly become indispensable. We reckon NWJMB and Ultan Dillane are a bit flashy to play together – indeed, it’s hard to see how Henderson can firmly nail down an international second row jersey while playing at blindside for Ulster – Henderson has been selected by Schmidt when fit, but you have to think Donnacha Ryan isn’t far away. Could Henderson or Ryan replicate Toner’s lineout, maul and scrummaging work if called upon? Maybe, but we reckon you’d notice Big Dev’s absence more than you think. Ultan Dillane isn’t yet a starter – if our memory serves us correct (since we didn’t post about it!), he had some fantastic moments against Canada, but also had some knock-ons and dumb penalties – not something Schmidt likes. Although at least with Toner, the dropoff isn’t as steep as for Besty, so at least he won’t have to play 400 minutes.

In the backrow, the first question appears to be who we leave out – although in such a highly attritional position, it’s unlikely a luxury we’ll have all series. Right now, we’d see Stander or SOB on the blindside (with the other on the bench), van der Flier at openside and Heaslip (as ever) at the base. For the moment, O’Mahony will have to content himself with singing passionately and making grown men scream like schoolgirls from the stands.

The Piano Players

For Besty above, read Conor Murray. Already operating at a high level, in the last twelve months Murray has been one of the best players on the planet.  Even the Kiwis rate him.  The dropoff from a probable Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions starter to Marmion and McGrath is like the north face of Eiger. Like Dillane, Marmion got some useful time against Canada, but when we got into their 22, they seemed to find it really easy to defend against him. We remain to be convinced unfortunately. As we remain with McGrath – he looked good with an armchair ride from the Leinster pack early this season, but his game fell apart when Leinster were struggling in Castres. McGrath is a young man just getting a consistent run of starts, and if he needs to be pitched in this series, its unlikely to work out well for anyone. Whoever plays on the blindside is going to have to guard Murray from Josh Strauss better than Munster did in the recent episode of the Passion of St Tibulus.

At outhalf, the usual applies. Sexton doesn’t play 80 minutes any more, and is very likely to miss an entire game. So let’s assume he plays 60% of the available gametime – are we concerned? Not really – Paddy Jackson is a more than adequate replacement .. with one caveat – he needs to cut out the clanger-per-game pattern we’ve seen from him in green, particularly if we need him against Wales or England – the margins will be too tight for that. Still, Jackson is a better outhalf than Finnocent, Cameeeee Lopez and Carlo Canna and about as good as George Ford, so let’s not devote an entire week of analysis to the fact that Madigan isn’t needed any more, shall we?

The biggest injury absentee in the backline is Jared Payne. Payne is an excellent defender and a pereceptive and dangerous open-field runner – we’d have him as our starting fullback, but he’s a nailed on starter either way – 15 or 13. And do we miss him? Of course we do, but we had more than adequate backups – Henshaw and Ringrose actually looks like one of the best partnerships in the hemisphere at the moment, and Luke Marshall is a perfectly serviceable backup for either. Choo Choo Stu is an exciting and different option we’d like to see more of, but he seems in the awkward spot that he is too predictable for international defences, but too unpredictable for Schmidt. The summer series is the time for him.

In the outside back division, we’re mentally preparing for Rob Kearney to start the tournament at 15 – we think it’s probably more likely to be Zebo, but best to prepare for the worst. Stuart Hogg and co will be furiously gameplanning for facing a fullback who can catch and kick. Else, it’s Zebo, Earls, Trimble – that’s pretty good really. Earls is having a stupendous season for Munster and Trimble remains as doughty as ever – BOSH!  Admittedly, after two injuries, we are into Gilroy-on-the-bench territory, but we’ve come a long way from the Brian Carney days.

The Piano Concerto

So basically, there are two men we absolutely cannot do without – Besty and Murray – and one that we’ll need to win the tournament – Toner. If we manage to keep the above three fit, we’ve every chance.

The team everyone is purring over is England, and why not? Thirteen wins in a row is damn good. Still, we’d be a little more sanguine on them – they have tons of players either out or just returning from injuries: Marler, Cole, Haskell, Robshaw, Vunipola x 2, Kruis, Launchbury, Watson. They have a deep squad, but that is a lot of change to wear, and we haven’t even mentioned their captain returning from a ban for thuggery a technical issue with his tackling. Cardiff in week two might be when the run stops for them – and incidentally gives Gatty the perfect excuse to BOSH this summer.

Without him, the Welsh are engaged in some good old-fashioned in-fighting – although they normally like to get that in whoever the coach is. Still, none of that mattered in 2013, and they have the players – Alun Wyn Jones is O’Connell’s spiritual successor, and we expect Warburton to be very influential. Scott and Liam Williams are excellent players, and they’ve competition in the halves. They’ll fancy themselves (quelle surprise) and they have the best fixtures, with Ireland and England at home.

Those two, and Ireland, are the contenders – again. And it will come down to the games between them .. and for Ireland, it will come down to the fitness of Besty, Murray and Toner. Our prediction is that if Besty and Murray play 350+ minutes, and Toner starts every game, we’ll win the tournament, probably through bonus points. Wales are most likely to disrupt that one – they tend to gather momentum as the series progresses, and we have them away in round four. That’s tough.

France are a disaster – for all the supposed improvements Noves has made, they’ll still pick 140kg props who cannot run, and second rows who consider giving away six penalties a game a disciplined performance. Offloads to no-one, backline moves 40m behind the gainline – it will be ugly, and potentially wooden spoon winning, with a trip to Rome in prospect. Scotland have potential (quelle surprise) but have found a way of shooting themselves in the foot under Cotter – they’ll keep that record up. Italy should be better organised under O’Shea, but have Ulster-itis: no decent forwards. The big three will beat up the small three. Again.

Let’s back the best coach (and the coach most fortunate with injuries to date): Ireland to stay fit and win the tournament by virtue of a bonus point garnered by some Ringrose genius in the last minute in Murrayfield.


Sins of Commission

We could (and maybe should) be sitting here today talking about how Ireland had just become the 3rd team to win a series in South Africa, joining a pantheon that include the 1974 Lions and the 1996 BNZ-ers, but we fell agonisingly short up in Jo’burg. Going into the game, we thought we had a fantastic chance to seal the series, but that managing the altitude would be the biggest challenge.

And so it proved. We were 16 points ahead with 20 minutes to go but lost by 6, utterly decimated in the last quarter by the rampaging Springboks. It had began to feel ropey when Ruan Combrinck scored – it was the beginning of tired tackling (and non-tackling) and would not have surprised someone aware a sea level team were playing at 1800m. We scored again of course, but the frustration was we were unable to stem the tide. Could we have done anything about it? Well yes, but there are sins of omission and sins of commission.

When we saw the Ireland 23, we said that the starters would give us a great opportunity to win this game, but we had concerns about the low octane bench. This was the sin of omission. Whatever the altitude, you are going to use your 5 replacement forwards – if our gameplan was to get ahead of SA and hang on, you want to see some forwards on your bench who can come in and go mad for 20 minutes, hit everything and maybe crash into some Springboks too. In recent times, two of our most effective impact replacements have been Nugget and Ultan Dillane – but we picked neither. Instead we had Strauss, who on all known form offered less than Cronin, and Donnacha Ryan, who is a super player, but no Dillane off the bench. Maybe a better option as a starter than Dillane, but wearing 19 is a different task. In the event, every one of our forward replacements had little, if not negative, impact (except maybe Flashheart).

That’s the piano shifters. In the ranks of the piano players the selection was fine (albeit with very little alternatives in the case of 21 and 22) but our non-use of the bench was perplexing – five collective minutes for the 3 of them, with O’Halloran riding the pine for the whole game. In Ellis Park, with the Boks rampant from minute 60, that’s unforgivable. What was required from 60 onwards was simply to tackle – our starting backs had gone from making, to soaking, to missing and they were spent. No-one expected Madigan and O’Halloran to come in and run length of the field tries, but merely to make a couple of tackles and offer some respite. Both are actually good defenders as well – no Jonny Wilkinsons but no iHumphs either.

You’ll have to forgive the negative tone because we’re still so frustrated at the missed opportunity, but it needs to be pointed out how excellent Ireland were in the first half. The major impact of the lack of oxygen seemed to be dozy decision-making from the South Africans, who gave Ireland cheap penalties by the sackful (which should have been punished by a yellow by half time) and Ireland made them pay. Paddy Jackson had a great first half, and Furlong’s destruction of the Beast was incredible. This felt like the day Furlong truly arrived as a test rugby player.  We almost – almost! – put them away, and each of the two missed penalties to get to 22-3 may have sealed the deal. It was a truly excellent display, until the environmental constraints got us.

Problem is now, Coetzee has maybe stumbled upon his best team – expect Warren Whitely and Ruan Combrinck to start in PE, and Damian de Allende and maybe even le Roux have been successfully played into form. We’ll have Stander back, but we’re down Henshaw and another backline rejig is in prospect. Although a centre partnership of Olding and Marshall looks light, we’d prefer that to moving Payne from the 15 shirt. If Schmidt is true to his word of giving everyone gametime, we’ll see Healy and O’Halloran as well. It would have been a nice luxury to be able to start them in a dead rubber Test, but it ain’t the case. Which is frustrating.

Keep The Boks Down

Hello? Is there anyone out there? Is no-one listening to us?? We wouldn’t blame you – we haven’t been saying much recently due to <kids> and <stuff>. Sorry – we’re doing our best. To those who recognised us on our double date in the terrace with the Leinster ultras for the Pro12 semi – we’re touched, and the Ulsterman will be back. And maybe they’ll even win! Maybe.

Anyway, enough about the provinces, what about Ireland? We are still taking it in – we beat South Africa … in South Africa … with 14 men … for an hour! And we beat them well. I know the Boks are in organisational disarray with a new coach and having finally (mostly) moved on from the 2009 Lions generation, but still. As this season went on, Ireland have looked increasingly tired and uninspired, and the performance was completely out of the blue.

We think Schmidt is a better coach than Eddie or Deccie, but there was a definite sense of the malaise which took hold of those camps in 2007 and 2011 setting in. Our defence was passive and narrow, our attack virtually non-existent and the coach, with his conservative selection against the likes of Italy and his seeming refusal to consider a more expansive attacking gameplan (“Jared has never trained at fullback”), seemed ready to hunker down.

But a couple of things were happening. The first was a dose of some Traditional Wigan Values. Ireland hired Andy Farrell back in January, but he was only allowed to work in Axel’s Breakfast Club until June, and he has only had 2 weeks with the players – but there was a marked increase in aggression and line speed. It felt from the outside that perhaps Ireland needed a fresh voice, and it is to Schmidt’s credit that he has the humility to hire a man like Farrell, who is not going to be shy about expressing his opinions. When Deccie went looking for new blood after Gert Smal left (temporarily then permanently) in 2012, he ended up with Axel, plus a re-shaken dogs dinner of a ticket with Kissy as both defence and attack coach – in contrast, Schmidt has been backed by the Union to spend big and get one of the best around – and the impact looks immediate.

The other big thing to happen has been injuries. Joe Schmidt’s first choice fullbacks in his tenure have been Bob Kearney, Felix Jones and Zeebs – all of whom were unavailable to tour. When Schmidt was asked in the squad presser (which was, something a bid bonkers really, 4 days after the squad announcement) about who would be fullback, he mentioned Stuart Olding, Tiarnan O’Halloran .. and one of his centres moving back, then talked about Henshaw specifically. We felt that Payne was simply not going to be moved from the 13 jumper.

The argument has always been that Payne is our defensive linchpin and we just have to keep him there or we are risking anarchy – but we never really bought that one. Firstly, the system should never be that dependent on personnel that we cannot consider moving one guy (if it is true that Payne never lined out at 15 during training in the 6N, that’s poor), and secondly, Robbie Henshaw is a pretty good outside centre – he plays there for Connacht and they just won the Pro12. We never thought we would lose much by moving Henshaw out one and switching Payne to fullback – Henshaw is also an excellent defender, and the extra space at 13 allows him to offer more than crashing up the middle. We would then have a few options at inside centre, all Ulstermen; McCloskey (not touring, but very similar to de Allende, and a man who gets metres every time .. but is too loose for Schmidt), Bamm-Bamm (Test experience at 12, good passer, excellent defender and a good kicking game .. but playing 13 for Ulster to accommodate the Bangor Bulldozer) and Olding (classic second five, but just back from injury) – none of which you’d say aren’t worth a look at the very least.

But we digress – injury struck, and Payne was the man picked to play 15, and it was a remarkable success, for him, for Henshaw and for Marshall, who looks like a Test match animal. One can only hope that this wasn’t a temporary injury-enforced change and that we will go back to basics in November (who could have foreseen that Payne would be a brilliant fullback eh?), but it’s had an impact on our attacking play, arguably introducing a greater element of unpredictability in all three positions. Its a pretty depressing thought that injury continues to be our best selector.

Of course, we also lost Sexton as well, but we didn’t notice that much – Paddy Jackson had a very good game, and even kicked (one of) his drop goals! We had worried before the game that one Jackson start in three years, in a meaningless RWC warm up, perhaps wasn’t the best way of preparing for an injury to your injury-prone outhalf, but Jackson stepped in effortlessly. He is, in our opinion, the best passer in the country, but he kicked 86% of possession, something very Schmidt/Sexton-y.

Now, to address the Stander red. We’ve watched it a few times, and we think it was a red card – it was dangerous play, and there was no need for Stander to turn his hip into Lambie’s head. As with Jared Payne vs Saracens a few years ago, as soon as we saw it, we thought ” uh-oh, the red might be in play here” – and if you think it is, you can argue it’s a harsh red, but can’t complain too much.

Back to the bigger picture – we won by 6 points having played an hour down a man – what’s that benchmarked to – a 15/20 point win? It was comprehensive, and South Africa were a rabble at the end, short on inspiration, leadership and guile. They just didn’t seem to understand what was happening. And they are already making their excuses, with Coetzee claiming Ireland weren’t interested in playing rugby – but surely that’s what a Springbok coach wants? A team who will try and take them on up front and let themselves be mashed into the turf by large tough men? This is a team who are there for the taking – and we should be winning this series from here.

Now, the good news is that it is looking like the only player we will be down is CJ Stander, and only for one match. Given we are down a useful XV of injured players, that’s a break we need to make the most of. Amazingly, three of our bench didn’t play (or need to play) in Cape Town, but will that wash at 1,700m? Certainly, we don’t expect any experimentation – while we were pretty disappointed with Schmidt’s Italy selection in the Six Nations, but this time we’re going to get into bed with the flat earthers and say that a must-win Test in Ellis Park is no place for making changes. If the Springboks find their feet in Jo’burg, the final Test could be a train wreck.

We expect Ruddock to slot in for Stander, with Sean Reidy on the bench (gulp) – we’d want to see Henderson at 6 with Dillane into the team, but it isn’t Schmidt’s style, and he seems to see Henderson as purely a second row. Else, as you were – the rest of the lads will be needed in PE. The Springboks are there to be beaten – let’s bloody beat them.

Stick It Up The Jumper

We may have advised Put Lum to put out the kids in Grenoble, but he inevitably didn’t, went full bore, and nearly won. The game itself was a stonker, a properly exciting show from two teams intent on scoring more points than the other. Connacht led by 16 and 10 points and were ultimately unlucky to lose a game they could easily have won.

The aftermath of the game brought forth lots of pats on the head for Connacht for “refusing to compromise” and “playing rugby their way” with the assertion that if only they had been more “pragmatic” they would have scraped through. Pragmatic of course being code for sticking it up the jumper.

It is telling that, for all Connacht’s success this season, which is based on Southern Hemisphere style multi-dimensional attack with plenty of forwards passing the ball and tons of offloads, they are being advised to tighten up in this stage of the season. Almost as if playing attacking rugby hadn’t actually won them any games. Now it’s time for the big boys Connacht, play some cup rugby.

Of course, close observers of rugby this season will be able to point to an actual cup that has already happened, some crucible where the concept of cup rugby – sticking it up the jumper, playing it narrow and “going through the phases” – could be tested .. the World Cup. And that of course was where teams that most exemplified cup rugby as described – England, Ireland and France – did so poorly. Wales won their key game only by throwing caution to the wind in the second half, and lost narrowly to Australia and South Africa (and England in the Six Nations) while playing Warren-ball.

And of course the teams with the most skill who went out to win games by scoring in multiples of 7 and not 3 were BNZ, Australia and Argentina. But .. y’know … cup rugby.

Next up for Connacht is a crucial Pro12 game, which can as good as seal playoff qualification, at home to the high priests of cup rugby – Axel Foley’s Munster. Foley was hired in a barrage of RTTMV headlines, and has delivered those values in spades, but unfortunately the game has moved on, and the dreadful spectacle of a prop with 15 international caps being unable to execute a 4-on-1 overlap was emblematic of their season.

If Connacht play close to their abilities, which involve passing and offloading and intelligence, and Munster continue to show all the skill and cohesion they’ve shown all season, Connacht will win. And despite it being late in the season, they won’t do it by taking the deadening advice of late as resorting to “cup rugby”, because that won’t work. And perhaps its a lesson Irish rugby could take to heart

The Brink of Disaster

Ireland’s Six Nations campaign has been described this week as “teetering on the brink of utter failure” (Cummiskey) and that we “need victories against Italy and Scotland to avoid a disastrous campaign” (Dorce). The second point is moot, since any year we lose to Italy it is disastrous anyway, but is the first true?

While missing Ross, Healy, Henderson, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Fitzgerald and Bowe, we drew at home to Wales, a team who we fancied to win the Six Nations, and the only Northern Hemisphere team have a successful RWC. The defeat to France was an awful spectacle and put our inability to score in lights. But then we went to Twickenham, and played quite well – we had three debutants (two starting), all of whom made big impressions – and with a little bit more composure in their 22 it could easily have been closer.

Stu McCloskey was dangerous with ball in hand, van der Flier started quietly, but grew into the game, finished strongly and should really have had a try had Ultan Dillane fixed Anger’s Mike Brown. Dillane himself was like Iain Henderson off the bench, an utter wrecking ball with huge carrying impact  – the English clearly hadn’t seen much of Connacht and were unaware that Irish forwards can occasionally run into space. Three successful debutants and, in reality, only only match point less than we expected at this point in the Championship. The defeat against France was grim, but potentially we could learn some lessons from it. Like the need to expand our attack maybe.

So, utter failure? Well, if we lose to Italy, it sure is, but that’s the case every year. It feels to us that, like a manic depressive, we have swung wildly across the spectrum of “we are going to win the World Cup” in September to “we have to make sure we beat Italy or it’s an UTTER FAILURE” in March. We are talking ourselves into a corner painting Italy as this must-win game – I mean it clearly must be won, but there is no doubt that it will be won. We could rest Ross (the Italy scrum got mullered against Scotland), Ryan (Dillane is hardly much of a step down anyway), Heaslip (Stander to 8 and Ruddock at 6), Sexton (Jackson in) and Payne (on the bench in case of emergencies) and probably still win easily. On the official Irish Rugby YouTube channel, Heaslip tried manfully to talk up Italy, but really didn’t do well, eventually stuttering to allow that it was a “pretty dark changing room” after the 2013 defeat.

In the event, it looks like we are going to revert to Plan A – stout defence and kick-ball – fit-again Jared Payne is likely to come back in at centre, with Henshaw going back to inside centre and Simon Zebo starting his second Six Nations game at full-back. Is this really the correct approach? Sure, McCloskey got panned by Schmidt for his offload in the third quarter, and is undoubtedly raw, particularly in his positioning, but it’s hard to argue he wasn’t effective – without a huge amount of sympathy from some of his teammates (the hospital pass from Kearney for example). We also have to ask about how we are going to score tries – against England we looked at our most effective in the third quarter when McCloskey and Earls were the focal points of our attack, hunting for space and creating go-forward ball – surely it’s worth another look? And we haven’t even got into the Payne-to-15 argument, but apparently, even with Rob Kearney most likely injured it is Simon Zebo and not Jared Payne that is being pencilled in for the 15 shirt.

Zebo’s return to the XV is welcome, because he brings pace that we are in dire need of in the backline, but a better backline might have had Zebo on the wing in place of Andrew Trimble, who has been ineffective in his first three matches, allowing for Payne at 15 and The Big Fella at 12. Admittedly, one of Italy’s few strengths is the Garcia-Campagnaro centre partnership, but if we were happy with McCloskey-Henshaw facing Farrell-Joseph, do we really think they can’t handle the Italians? Italy are a team that you can whack and bag early on, particularly at home – it doesn’t feel like a huge risk to keep the centres and try Payne at full back. One way or another Ireland will win if they play to anything like their potential.

The Lengthening of the Days

Schmidt announced his 35 man Six Nations training squad yesterday, and the newcomers – McCloskey, Stander, van der Flier and Dillane – have been rewarded for strong recent form. The internet was getting slightly #OUTRAGE-d as misplaced rumours swirled that Stander wouldn’t make it – Munster fans were particularly vocal in their opposition to Stander being picked, continuing a long tradition of opposition to project players being selected for Ireland (see Strauss, R.), but they were left disappointed as Schmidt continued his own tradition of picking the best available players (see Payne, J.).

Truth is, the squad didn’t really tell us much – 35 players were picked; DJ Church, Ross and Henry will be added later; and NWJMB, POM, Tuohy and Bowe were name-checked as being too crocked to be considered. The only notable absentee from the World Cup is Jordi Murphy, who has effectively been replaced by Stander. If anything, it’s a form call.  Stander has been explosive all season, Murphy has been playing poorly at Leinster.  The Mole had a good post-RWC piece on how Murphy might best move his career forward, and he has some thinking to do.

Garry Ringrose doesn’t make the squad, with management seemingly of a mind to keep him developing at Leinster before exposing him to this level.  He’s quite obviously a test player in waiting, and it would have quickened the pulse if he was selected, but romantic notions will have to be put aside for now.  Most likely he’ll be capped in the summer.

The big questions about the match day 23 selection are still out there, and how Ireland may (or may not) change their gameplan, and we’ll be looking at them over the next couple of weeks:

Who starts at tighthead against Wales in Ross’ absence – if it’s Furlong, and he performs well, Ross might never start for Ireland again.  Most likely it’ll be Nathan White, who stands accused of ruck inspecting, but is dependable in the scrum

The second row is a potential car crash – while England have Itoje, Kruis, Launchbury and Lawes and Wales have Charteris, Davies and AWJ, we’ll need to craft a serviceable second row from Toner (fine), McCarthy (in the form of his career, but still), Ryan (struggling to regain anything like his best form) and Dillane. Dillane is listed as being the same height and weight as Itoje, although a year older.  It will be fascinating to see if he can play a part, it’s possible to see him as an impact sub going in alongside the elder statesman (!) Toner on the hour mark.  We’re hopeful we’ll see more of Toner’s best Brodie Retallick impression as midfield distributor, especially as O’Mahony – the only other forward who tends to perform this role – is injured.

The roles of the in-form newbies. McCloskey and Stander are not just two of the form players in Ireland, but in Europe. Can Choo Choo Stu break up the Henshaw-Payne partnership? He’s certainly the most natural inside centre in the squad, is an intelligent footballer with an eye for space and has yet to find a ceiling. At number 8, Stander will have a job replacing Heaslip, who was one of Ireland’s best players in the RWC. There is an accepted wisdom that Heaslip will somehow benefit from competition, like he isn’t quite producing his best for Ireland, but our expectation is he’ll continue his quiet excellence, Stander or no Stander. CJ is in the mix for the available blindside slot with Rhys Ruddock, but Schmidt may just lean towards Ruddock for his lineout ability, which is one area where O’Mahony’s presence will be most keenly felt.  An impact bench role is the most likely starting point for Stander. Although maybe not against Wales – if Gatty unleashes his double openside trump card (do you do anything else with Justin Tipuric?) maybe it’s better to have O’Donnell there.

Interestingly, Ulster (i.e. Kissy, Schmidt’s mate) selected Jared Payne at fullback against Saracens – was it an understandable desire to keep a returning key man out of heavy traffic against a brilliant team, or something more? Rob Kearney is a very different full back from the likes of Ben Smith, Folau, le Roux, Hogg and Mike Brown and it’s hard to envisage him entering the line at first or second receiver and giving Ireland an extra attacking string to their bow. But then again, Schmidt has only ever selected Payne at outside centre.

We’ll be back with more ponderings, but isn’t it getting exciting? The Six Nations! We’ve won the last two, remember? The arrival of spring, and the inevitable slew of atrocious games. Oh and Ringrose OUTRAGE.

BNZ – the Standard Bearers

And so came to an end the greatest tournament the game has ever witnessed.  New Zealand won, comprehensively, devastatingly and deservedly, and in doing so served up the prototype for what great, thrilling and effective modern rugby involves.  In 2011 they were crowned champions, but they barely stumbled over the line and were blessed by the manner in which the final was refereed.  This time, liberated from the chokers tag, they not only won, but served to demonstrate that they are the best team in the world by a distance, and the greatest of the professional era.

They are fitting champions of a superb tournament.  Indeed, we can only profess ourselves to be surprised by the sheer brilliance of the rugby that was produced.  It was only six months ago that we were despairing of a modern game built on brawn, robotic systems and lacking in skill.  The last two world cups were pretty mediocre in terms of the rugby produced.  We foresaw more of the same here, a sort of turbo-charged Six Nations, but this proved way wide of the mark.  In fact, it was not just the Championship sides that performed such attractive rugby, but many of the Tier Two nations also, not least Canada, Fiji and of course, Japan – who would have made the knockouts but for some generous refereeing in Scotland-Samoa and, of course, scheduling.

One argument that can now be canned is that winning tournaments requires something certain commentators refer to as ‘cup rugby’.  For ‘cup rugby’, see a dull, monotonous game plan involving aerial kicking and one-out runners.  Long a bugbear of ours, it has never made sense that the sort of rugby required to beat an opponent in one form of competition would be different to that of another.  And yet the myth persists that a conservative gameplan is in fact necessary to go deep into knockout rugby competitions.  Hugo MacNeill, who spent the tournament ramming his feet down his throat on TV3, noted that in World Cups you need a Ronan O’Gara-style fly-half, while a Felipe Contepomi type was too outrageous for this rarefied atmosphere.  The august critic had obviously failed to notice that Contepomi holds a bronze medal for his part in Argentina’s 2007 showing while Ronan O’Gara had never made it beyond the quarter finals.

New Zealand remained true to their principles to the end, committed to offloading in the tackle and, especially, passing flat along the gainline.  They may have tightened up in the rain against South Africa, but they were still the more expansive of the two teams and won the try-count by two to nothing.  Ultimately they won the tournament because of their superior skill levels and supreme rugby intelligence.  They have no problem stacking their forwards in wide channels, and when the ball gets there they have the skill to execute.  This gives their strike runners the freedom to roam the pitch and punch holes wherever they may choose.  It’s the exact strategy Rob Penney looked to bring to Munster, but he was laughed out of town for it.  Apparently it wasn’t cup-winning rugby.

The finale of the tournament has a habit of making the group stages look like mere preliminaries, and so it is here.  The past is a foreign country and all that.  And how ridiculous some of it looks from this vantage point!  What, for example, were England thinking?  Watching New Zealand’s all-court game makes it all the more unthinkable that they left Henry Slade in the stands and Ford on the bench, while Sam Burgess and Owen Farrell trundled about witlessly.  Did they think they could win a World Cup against New Zealand with such a ponderous game-plan?  And were we perhaps kidding ourselves a little bit that Ireland could live with this glorious company with such a mechanical, predictable approach reliant on kick-chase and mauling?  Had we better luck with injuries, could we have beaten Argentina and put it up to Australia?  It seems a lot to ask, a high level to compete against.

One other important factor is injuries.  New Zealand, by and large, stayed fit and healthy for the tournament.  Australia also, though they struggled when they lost Pocock for the Scotland game; indeed, they were almost unrecognisable.  They also struggled in Giteau’s absence when he was hauled from the pitch early in the final.  Like it or not, injuries play a huge part in a team’s fate.  Wales’ tournament was undone by injuries, and Ireland’s too.  It’s well and good putting up a no-excuses culture, but if you were asked three weeks before the tournament if Ireland could win a quarter-final without Sexton, O’Connell, O’Brien et al, you’d have objectively said ‘no chance’.  The closing out against France gave us a reason to believe we might not be so badly affected, but it soon became apparent just how terrible that French side was.

The question for now is: will Ireland be able to learn the lessons from this World Cup?  We’ve already posted that we’re unlikely to overhaul our gameplan overnight based on one loss to Argentina, and nor should we.  Ireland are Six Nations champions and will be competitive in that competition again this year.  But we note with interest Gordon D’arcy’s observations that the problem is rooted not in the national team coaching or current crop of players but in the fundamental skills learned in players’ formative years.  A sea-change in mentality will have to occur at every level.  Fail to adapt now and we may forever be playing catch-up.

If the revolution is to come several years down the line, the immediate evolution of the national team should continue apace.  It should not be forgotten that it is the provinces which feed most directly into the national team, and where the players’ day-to-day habits are formed.  Last year was an abysmal one for Irish provincial rugby, and the only way is up.  Leinster were an eyesore, Munster were dreadful, Ulster choked yet again when it mattered and Connacht were a bright spot, but ran out of steam.  We are far removed from Matty Williams’ ideal of a four-pronged provincial base all playing in some sort of ‘Irish way’, that inherently prepares the players for test rugby.  In all likelihood we will never attain such a thing.

However, it is encouraging that Leinster managed 14 offloads in their win over Treviso at the weekend, but tougher tests await, and we will watch with interest as the season develops.  There are a slew of promising players currently performing well in the provincial sides; Stuart McCloskey, Garry Ringrose and Noel Reid among them.  Will they be ready for international rugby come the Six Nations?  Maybe, maybe not; McCloskey looks the closest to stepping up a level.  Nonetheless, it is vital that Ireland show some signs of heeding the lessons that this magnificent tournament has provided.

Where next for Ireland?

There’s nothing quite like the hand-wringing after a World Cup exit.  England are not just reviewing whether or not to appoint a new coach but the very process by which they appoint coaches.  It almost begs the question, who will review the reviewers?  Heaven knows what the fallout in France is like, because they have serious problems.  The decline of one of the great and most fun rugby nations has been sad indeed.

And so to Ireland, who will have their own self-lacerating episode to get under way, following yet another pre-semi-final exit from the Grand Shindig.  No doubt, Schmidt’s eye for detail on the training paddock and in team meetings will extend to the review of his own performance.  Schmidt admits to pragmatism and self-doubt, so he will question his every decision along the way and see if he could have done things differently.

The way the tournament has panned out with all four Rugby Championship teams making the semi-finals has delivered a perfectly formed narrative with a great big bow on it.  It leads to an easy and obvious analysis that the game is played at a different pace in the south and with a higher level of skill that the European teams simply cannot match.

On the evidence so far, this is more or less true, but it has led to the knock-on argument that Schmidt should radically overhaul Ireland’s playing style in order to compete with the likes of Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.  It’s an argument not without merit but it’s worth looking at in greater depth.

First of all, what is Ireland’s playing style?  More often than not it’s a relatively mechanical one in which aerial domination is king.  Both half-backs tend to kick high into the air and the likes of Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney’s principle roles are to reclaim these kicks.  Ireland confine most of their ball-in-hand play to rehearsed set pieces, from which they tend to get substantial reward.  Mauling, choke tackling and accurate breakdown work are also prominent.  However, they have shown, against Scotland in the Six Nations inparticular, an ability to keep ball in hand.  Against France, just two weeks ago, Ireland totally dominated possession and looked to put width on their game.  Indeed, even against Argentina, it was defence and not a lack of attacking nous that cost us.  Ireland scored two fine tries and 20 points in that match; had they defended better, that may have been enough to win.

It’s been argued in the last week that this is a gameplan devised to beat the likes of England, Wales and France but that it’s too limited to take on the better nations.  We’re not so sure.  And even so, most of the time, England, Wales and France are the opposition we face when we have to win – every spring in the Six Nations.  And nobody was complaining too much when we won the last two series.

We’re in the middle of the World Cup now, and as Demented Mole once put it, Ireland’s fans are like chefs, and work with seasonal produce.  We’re bang in the middle of The Grand Shindig right now, and the Six Nations seems a piddling consolation prize by comparison.  But memories are short, and come the spring we’ll remember what a big deal it is.  Ireland have won few enough Six Nations down the years, so we can’t really turn our noses up at them.

Besides, sticking all your chips on a tournament that comes around once every four years is a barmy strategy.  Stuart Lancaster has been pilloried for going on about 2019, so let’s not ourselves fall into the same trap.  It’s worth remembering that Ireland are out of the tournament because they lost precisely one rugby match.  Chances are we’ll have another quarter-final in four years time, but the idea of building a team with that one-off game in mind seems farcical.  There are so many imponderables and most of the things that will drive the result; form, injuries, the weather, team morale, are influenced by the hours, days and weeks leading up to it.  South Africa are in the semi-finals but they have arrived at their current selection and playing mid-tournament after a crisis-inducing loss to Japan in their first game.  So much for forward planning.

It also has to be remembered that Ireland play most of their competitive games in November and February, when conditions often dictate a duller gameplan.  The World Cup has been played largely on dry tracks, which has been a help to those more willing to run the ball, but in spring the matches are often played out on roly-poly pitches and in wind and rain. The first semi-final showed that sometimes the best teams need to play the conditions too. Ireland’s aerial bombardment was good enough to beat Australia last November.  Ok, it wasn’t in a World Cup, but anyone who thinks Australia weren’t there to win needs to watch the tape again; it was a game of thrilling intensity.

Another argument seems to be that “at Leinster Schmidt had them playing just like Argentina did, why has he gone away from that?”  A look at what’s going on in the provinces might be valuable at this point, just as it is to recall that at Leinster Schmidt had a midfield of Sexton, Darcy and O’Driscoll to work with, as well as a world-class offloader in the second row in Nathan Hines.  But last year he’d have looked at Munster and Leinster playing pig-ugly one-out rugby without pause for breath.  If the players are not able to pass or offload at provincial level, then what are the chances of getting them to do it at test level, where the space and time afforded are even less, and the pressure to execute even higher?  It can’t just be turned on like a tap, and Gordon D’arcy’s articles, where he has explained that Irish players are coached from an early age to support the carrier by hitting the ruck rather than looking for the offload, have been some of the most instructive reading of the last month.

Ireland do need to develop their attacking game, no question.  Perhaps we do not have ballers in the class of Fernandez Lobbe, Matt Giteau, Michael Hooper or Nicolas Sanchez, but last we checked Jonny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson and Jared Payne, among others, were all comfortable playing with the football. The skills are there, and we should look to trust them a little more.  But there’s no need to throw – or should that be Garryowen? – the baby out with the bathwater.

That Sinking Feeling

Irish fans have been left with a familiar feeling, as their team has once again bowed out before the semi-finals of a World Cup.  It was a heartbreaking, spirit-sapping defeat, one that leaves as many questions as answers.  Just why were Ireland so passive in defending the advantage line?  Might Ireland have pushed on had we drawn level with a late penalty, or had the Argentinians been reduced to 14 men for the last 20 minutes?  And might everything have been different if we had something more closely resembling a fully fit line-up to choose from?

We’ll never know, but chances are with our best team on the pitch the scoreline might have been closer, but Argentina’s ability to change the point of attack with ambition and accuracy would likely have caused too much trouble in any case.  They are a better footballing team than Ireland, and proved here that rugby really is a simple game.  For all the changes the game has seen in the last 20 years, the combination of fast ruck ball and accurate passing will go a long way towards winning rugby matches.

What frustrates more than anything though, is that this team has continued the long-standing trend of Irish team’s failing to arrive at the emotional intensity required for a world cup quarter-final.  Ireland have shown up and given their best for precisely one such game: the 1991 Gordon Hamilton match.  In 1995 we were trounced by France, and same again in 2003 when the team had put huge energy reserves into two very hard pool games.  In 2011, the team was out-thought and out-muscled by Wales, and here we were simply outplayed by an at times rampant Argentina.  Joe Schmidt is highly regarded for his ability to prepare teams for tournament rugby matches, but the feral aggression levels appeared to be stuck on the sidelines with O’Connell, O’Mahony and O’Brien.

Schmidt will be thorough in dissecting the defeat, but he’ll also question his own decisions at length too.  Jordi Murphy looked a curious pick at 6, and despite a couple of big plays, he was mostly on the fringes of the game.  Donnacha Ryan at 4 and Henderson at 6 would surely have brought a bit more aggression and presence to the breakdown – yet the pair never saw the pitch together, and Ryan only came in when the game was lost.  Meanwhile, the decision to start Cian Healy also has to be questioned.  Healy ‘forced’ his way into the team after a non-impacting appearance off the bench against Romania.  His pre-tournament injury has simply not allowed him to get any sort of form going, and there are shades of trying to play someone into form in a global tournament here; such strategies have a high chance of failure.  Jack McGrath was a huge step up in energy and impact when he came on.

At outhalf, Madigan went into the tournament as our designated finisher, a role he performed with aplomb against France, with Wee Jacko as Sexton’s backup (Keatley’s role in the Six Nations). However, in time, the waters got muddied and Madigan assumed both roles. So when Sexton was confirmed as down, Madigan was the natural replacement – but it didn’t quite work out, in attack or defence. Will Schmidt regret changing his planning? The lack of depth at centre also came back to bite – we picked only 3 specialists in our squad – Payne, Henshaw and Cave. After Jared Payne got injured, Earls stepped in and had a pretty good tournament in the group stages, but as the only player to start all games, he looked completely bushed by the time of the Argentina game, and the defensive solidity of Payne was sorely missed. Schmidt must be asking himself 2 things – why was Cave brought at all, and would there have been value in considering McCloskey or Luke Marshall in the summer camps?

And as for the Comical Ali injury updates (O’Mahony was walking around the changing rooms .. Payne has a bruised foot .. Sexton has been training fully), one sympathises with Schmidt – its not his job to fully brief the opposition – but the tone of briefings changed markedly from the open discussions from previous squad announcements and Six Nations. We can understand what they were trying to do (or not to do) but what was that about?

In the aftermath, much of the focus has been on the northern-southern hemisphere divide, and rightly so.  The gulf is somewhat cavernous, and at times the European sides appear to be playing a different game.  We can’t help but cast our minds back to some of the pieces we wrote about the State Of The Game around the time of the Six Nations.  Looking back, perhaps we were really  writing about the State Of The Northern Hemisphere, and just needed to watch more southern hemisphere football.  This world cup has, so far, been the greatest I can recall, vastly superior to 2007 and 2011 in any case.  It’s largely down to the brilliance of the Southern Hemisphere nations, as well as Japan.  The supposed tightening up and reduction of gameplans to kick ‘n’ bosh so beloved of Irish commentators, who have ascribed it the title ‘cup rugby’, has thus far failed to materialise.  New Zealand and Argentina refused to be dragged into trench warfare; why bother when you can use your superior skill to amass 100 points between you?  Is that not cup rugby?  And Michael Cheika spoke of his desire to keep playing the Australian way, even if it meant shooting themselves in the foot umpteen times. The two semi-finals are mouth-watering, and, sad as it is, the Northern Hemisphere sides (with the exception of the mighty Welsh) won’t be missed.

Leaders, and Being in the Lead

On Monday, we worried about what Ireland would lose in the knockouts when they were without O’Connell, O’Mahony, Sexton and O’Brien. Sexton is now back in the mix, but we talked about 252 caps managing the endgame. As the dust has settled though, one thing we are a bit more sanguine about is the leadership within the Ireland group.

A friend once told us that he met some person or other who had worked in the backroom staff of the New Zealand rugby team.  ‘What’s it like to be in the New Zealand dressing room before a match?’ he dutifully asked. Said the Kiwi: ‘It’s actually pretty quiet.  They don’t shout at each other.  They don’t need to.’

No surprise there.  If Sir Ruchie wanted to get his point across, we can’t picture him shouting and roaring.  If he had a message to get across to someone, we can picture him doing it in his polite, charming, Gatsby-esque way; the same way as he talks to referees that has kept him from getting yellow carded in spite of umpteen cynical ball-killing exploits at the breakdown.  No doubt a quiet, authoritative word from Sir Ruchie goes a long way with other players in the squad.

So it was with interest that we read Jamie Heaslip’s comments about the team’s half-time discussions during the Ireland v France game.  Plenty might have clicked on the link expecting to hear about the latest speech channelling the spirit of the Somme, a tear-stained battle-cry of ‘Let’s do it for Paulie’ – but no.  ‘We just problem-solved’, said Jamie.  ‘We worked out what gaps had to be filled and how we would fill them’.

Superb leadership.  In the absence of Sexton and O’Connell, we didn’t know for sure what the leadership group would have been, only that Heaslip was now captain. He was one of five players who played in Kidney’s first competitive match – also a victory over France – who also played on Sunday, the others being Besty, Bowe, Bob and Luke Fitzgerald. Leaving aside Fitzgerald, who essentially had a four year international hiatus, and you have the elder statesmen of the Irish team. Throw in Conor Murray (43 Tests over 4 years including 2 for the Lions, and also one of Munster’s key men), Devin Toner (30 extraordinarily consistent caps over 5 years), the once-in-a-lifetime talent of Iain Henderson and the pleasant surprise of how prominent Robbie Henshaw was, and the generations that are passing the torch are clearer. (and in a neat kind of #hashtag, one from each province there).

It’s especially encouraging because Ireland always appeared to be a team that is emotionally driven.  Better when we’re bitter, happy to be written off, uncomfortable with the favourites tag, all of that ultimately defeatist nonsense.   It’s not a winning mentality; it’s the sort of attitude that will yield one off performances but will capture little in the way of silver.  Kidney’s Ireland epitomised it.  One imagines such concepts are anathema to Kiwis, and Joe Schmidt in particular.  The Kiwis have the favourites tag every time they step on to a rugby pitch and have to learn to deal with it.  It’s a measure of how far this team have come in the last two years that they have become so clear-minded, narrowly-focussed and are developing a winning mentality.

It all augurs very well for the weekend. Even with our injury losses, which would have been crippling in the past, the strength of the systems that Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are based on meant that the performance against France stayed at high levels even as players got carried off. The major difference is that, instead of bringing players like Henderson and Henry off the bench – Cheika calls them “finishers”, which we like – our finishers will be Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock. Good players indeed, our standouts in victories against England and South Africa respectively last season, but not quite in the same class.

A month ago to the day, we said this about a prospective quarter final against Argentina:

At this juncture, this looks to us like a 50-50 match – both teams are in the bunch behind NZ, SA and Oz and around the standard of England and Wales. Still, this is what our tournament will come down to to cross the success/failure line – a one-off match with Argentina. Based on how Schmidt has prepared his teams to date, we’re backing him to pull this one off. We’re far out and injuries etc will surely have an impact, but from here, we reckon we can do it.

The only thing we would change there is that SA are a level below NZ and Australia. Clearly our injury situation is severe and the Pumas were mighty impressive in their performance against BNZ. Some are pointing to relative sloppiness against Tonga and Namibia, but we aren’t buying it – this is a top class team that will take some beating. The scratchy BNZ displays in later pool games have devalued the Argentinian performance to a degree, but they still have one of the best scrums around, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Tomas Cubelli and the magnificent Nico Sanchez, who can’t help but put us in mind of Den Caddah in his prime. But, that said, we certainly have the game, and the coach, to win.

But what we do think is that given our injury situation, given that our finishers aren’t of the quality they were against France, we need to be in front at half time, and particularly on the hour mark. Schmidt’s teams have made a habit of being in front at the break – in 26 games, Ireland have only behind only 6 times at half time, and they lost 4 of those games. In the ones they won from behind, they were only a point behind (France and second Argentina Test in 2014). We are good pace-setters who like to play the game on our own terms – in our Six Nations defeats in this period, we struggled to adapt when we needed to chase the scoreboard. Its a must that we don’t let Argentina dictate the game, and stay in front through the third quarter.

One other thing to consider is that we don’t know yet in this tournament is the relative strength of the best Northern Hemisphere teams (Wales, Ireland) and the second tier Southern Hemisphere teams (Argentina, South Africa). Luckily, we have a pointer for us on Saturday – Wales vs South Africa. We fancy Wales in this one, but we’ll be feeling a lot less sanguine about Ireland if the Springboks shake off Gatty’s men and end up winning by 10 points or so. If the Welsh make a game of it, or win, we’re more confident in our prediction that Ireland can finally break the quarter final glass ceiling.