The Mystery of the IRFU Succession Rules

Around a year ago, the IRFU announced its ‘succession rules’, whereby it would restrict non-Irish qualified players to one per field position across the provinces, and operate on a ‘one-contract-and-out’ basis.  The idea was to ensure at least two Irish-eligible players were playing first team rugby in each position across the three major provinces.  They were announced to general bafflement among a public that has become deeply loyal to their province of choice.  The IRFU hosted a twitter Q&A session, where they gave infuriatingly vague replies to fans who were wondering what on earth was going on, but failed to generate any goodwill or provide satisfactory responses.  It was one of the biggest PR gaffs the union has made in recent memory, up there with their ticket pricing policy for the November 2010 internationals.

Curiously – or maybe not so curiously – since the initial furore which greeted announcement, we’ve had radio silence on the issue.  Isa Nacewa was allowed to sign a one-year extension, apparently at odds with the rules; keeping him in Leinster until 2014, a year after the rules are apparently meant to come in. And today, Ulster announced Johann Muller was staying until the end of next season.

In the case of Nacewa and, especially, Muller, both are keeping young Irish players out of the team, seemingly at odds with the rules – both might be the highest-profile NIQs in their position, but we simply don’t know if that was a criterion in their contract offer.

Confused?  You’re not the only one.

The quietude around the rules has led people to ask: are they still going ahead?  We’re in the dark as much as anyone else over this.  It would be no surprise if they were quietly folded away and put to bed without any fanfare or announcement.  Another possibility is that the IRFU maintains they’re going ahead, with vigorous affirmations of the importance of adherence, but only enforces them selectively – that is to say, in actuality they don’t enforce them at all, but pretend they do in order to save face.

It looks like this will come to a real head quite soon, as Munster and Ulster’s NIQ tighthead props are making noises about leaving.  Tighthead prop was really the only position the rules were brought in to cater for, because as everyone knows, Mike Ross is the only Irish-qualified prop starting important games for his province, and it’s the only position where Ireland are so dependent on one player.

At Munster, BJ Botha is rumoured to be moving to Toulon, where he has been offered a two-year contract, while Ulster’s John Afoa has mentioned in a recent interview that he plans to return to New Zealand at the end of his contract, which expires in the summer of 2014.

Under the succession rules, Munster would be precluded from recruiting a foreign tighthead for next season, since NIQ players must be replaced by Irish eligible players once their contract has lapsed.  Ulster, similarly, would not be allowed to recruit an NIQ player the following season, once John Afoa departs.  But does anyone really believe the IRFU will hamper the provinces so severely?  It strikes us as unlikely.

The foremost Irish tightheads at Munster and Ulster are Stephen Archer and Declan Fitzpatrick.  Neither would be fit for the purpose of mounting a challenge for the Heineken Cup.  Fitzpatrick can lock a scrum, but is rarely match-fit, while Archer struggles to cope with even moderately technical opponents in the set-piece.  If both provinces are to have aspirations of beating the better French or English sides, some recruitment will be required.

The only Irish-eligible tighthead who looks a remotely plausible signing is Worcester’s Belfast-born John Andress.  Ploughing away in the Worcester front row may not sound like the stuff of greatness, but the Aviva Premiership is a set-piece-heavy league, packed with hardy scrummagers (Andress’ regular opponents in the scrum would include the likes of Soane Tongauiha, Alex Corbisiero, Marcos Ayerza and Joe Marler – not exactly wallflowers).

Andress has had something of a journeyman career so far, but has amassed plenty of gametime since he moved to England.  He made 44 appearances in the Championship for Exeter Chiefs, before moving up a level to the Premiership with Harlequins in 2009.  He made 30 starts for Harlequins over two seasons before returning to the Chiefs, but found his path to the first team blocked on returning.  He’s started 10 games and made eight further appearances from the bench for Worcester this season.  He might find his opportunities slightly more limited in the rest of the season, with Euan Murray having pitched up at Sixways.  That he has never been deemed essential by some fairly mediocre clubs is a mark against him, but his CV is several notches up from that of Archer or Fitzpatrick.

His is a solid body of work, and his career path looks suspiciously similar to that of Mike Ross.  That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be as good as Mike Ross, but at 29, he should be coming into his prime as a scrummager.  If the IRFU do decide to persist with their ill-conceived succession rules, he can expect his value to increase sharply.

But even if Andress is the answer – and there’s no guarantee he would be – there’s only one of him, and two provinces for whom the issue of recruitment is pressing.  If the IRFU is going to go ahead with its ill-advised move, and enact it to the letter, it is going to have to choose between Munster and Ulster and seriously weaken one of them.

Prop recruitment in general has been a mixed bag among the provinces in recent years.  Botha has delivered good value for both Ulster and Munster over five highly productive seasons, while Afoa has been consistently outstanding for Ulster.  Nathan White, as a stop-gap for Leinster and now at Connacht, is another success story.  But then there are the Clint Newlands, Peter Borlases and latterly, Michael Bents, whose careers in Ireland have been stillborn.

Even if Ulster and Munster are given the licence to recruit, there are no guarantees of quality, and competition for the best will be fierce from the Top 14 in particular, where clubs think nothing of having six first-rate props on their books, and rotating them over the season – the best props coming from the Southern Hemisphere will get hoovered up by the French clubs, as will the French ones (obviously) and the Georgians. The English ones aren’t going to come to Ireland. So, essentially, to replace Afoa and Botha with NIQ props will not only break the IRFU’s own rules, but be hugely expensive into the bargain, as we will be competing with Toulon, Clermont and Racing Metro.

Bent Cops

One of the more endearing/bizarre (delete as appropriate) stories of last November was the ascension of Michael Bent from the Dublin Airport arrivals hall to the bench to face up to the Springboks in the Palindrome, with the now de rigeur hurley forcd into his hand for a photo-shoot, to show just how Oirish he really is. We, and most commentators, acknowledged at the time that Deccie didn’t have many other options.

The theme of Ireland having a tighthead crisis has been going on for so long as to be a constant source of white noise in any selection debate. John Hayes soldiered manfully for a decade, and delivered a relatively solid set piece as the foundation for piles more silverware than Ireland had ever won before (and not just because the Triple Crown was a metaphorical trophy until recently), but behind him, there wasn’t much. The IRFU plucked Mushy Buckley from the Munster undergrowth in 2008-ish and decreed him the next big thing – the player had many promising moments, but ultimately was a huge let-down – Hayes played far longer than was humane, and the occasional filling-in of Tom Court was just that – filling in.

Once Mushy failed to make half-time in the pre-2011 Six Nations Wolfhounds game, patience finally snapped – he was out of the picture. Luckily for everyone, Mike Ross at Leinster had developed into a fine tighthead under Greg Feek – he could always scrummage, but his all-round game and conditioning improved beyond all recognition. The Ireland scrum became a weapon like never before – the filleting of the England pack in the Aviva in 2011 was as surprising as it was enjoyable.

Unfortunately, Ross is human, and tires occasionally, as we have discussed before.  It’s essential for Ireland to have some credible backup (i.e. not Buckley). The alternatives are:

  • Deccie Fitzpatrick – classic scrummager, good debut on tour, but too injury-prone to rely on
  • Jamie Hagan – struggling to convince he can scrummage well enough at Pro12 level, never mind the HEC
  • Stephen Archer – struggling to convince he can scrummage well enough at AIL level, never mind the Pro12
  • Michael Bent – just landed, but comes with a good rep from Tarananki in New Zealand

Bent’s call-up resulted in more than a little frothing at the mouth, with George Hook getting especially apoplectic with rage live on air.  But tempers were clamed – as they so often are – by the sight of the big fella playing and scrummaging well. On his first appearance on this island, in green, he came on for an exhausted Mike Ross against the Springboks and acquitted himself well – the scrum looked solid and his first action was to win a scrum penalty. Two further substitute appearances followed – against a bunny Fiji side mourning the death of a team-mate and not really bothering to turn up, and a tired Puma team who were spectacularly dismantled early on. Neither gleaned much useful information.

Then, after the RWC15 draw, there were the usual flurry of potential Ireland teams named – this is a fool’s errand of course, but it’s a bit of fun and generally an interesting debate. All of them had one thing in common – Bent at tighthead – and why not, since its pretty clear that, akin to the Hayes/Buckley succession plan, that all the national teams eggs are in the Bent basket when it comes to Mike Ross’s long-term replacement. But how realistic is that?

After rounds three and four of the HEC, Ross was given some time off, and Bent got his chance in the December interpros against Ulster and Connacht. He endured a difficult time. Against Ulster, he was milked for scores by the Ulster pack, and his opposite number and international fall-guy Tom Court was man of the match. Then in the RDS against Connacht, he had another shaky outing, and was called ashore shortly after being wheeled by Connacht academy graduate Denis Buckley. Worrying signs, and a curius performance graph.

Of course, Bent isn’t some greenhorn plucked from obscurity and asked to man up – he came through the Taranaki youth system, spent 10 years going up through the grades and eventually made 11 Super Rugby appearances (5 starts) for the Hurricanes and was Taranaki player of the year for 2012 after a productive ITM Cup campaign. That’s a promising CV – but not a home run one. If Super Rugby is somewhat analogous to the HEC, then the ITM Cup is probably at a level slightly better than the Pro12. We will confess, we haven’t seen much ITM Cup action, but if it’s comparable to the Currie Cup (which you would imagine it is – second level professional rugby), it’s probably of the standard of the better Pro12 games.

So Bent comes across as a decent Pro12 standard 26-year old prop, with a reputation for being able to play both sides, after a handful of SR appearances. By co-incidence, another prop came over to Ireland aged 26, with an ambipropstrous reputation (although considered primarily a tighthead at the time) and a handful of SR appearances – Tom Court, in 2006. Both arrived from relative obscurity and neither were mapped internationally.

Of course, the comparison is somewhat moot – Court only took up rugger a couple of years before coming over, while Bent, as a Kiwi, has presumably been steeped in it since birth – Bent shouldn’t have a learning curve like Court did. But the comparison is valid at one level – you don’t arrive in Ireland from second tier rugby and immediately become international class. Bent has some good qualities, but is very much a work in progress. If he is to lock the Ireland scrum for RWC15, he would want to be Leinster’s first choice HEC tighthead by the beginning of the 2014-15 season – that gives him 1.5 years to gain experience, develop further and get to that level – which isn’t that much time really. Even allowing for Ross’s relatively advanced years, he doesn’t have that much rugby behind him – only six full seasons. The idea that he will fade away and Bent step in may be a little presumtuous.

Now, where were we going with this? Ah yes, Ireland’s tighthead crisis. There is a lot of focus and pressure on Michael Bent for a number of reasons – the unusual nature of his call-up, and Ireland’s traditional lack of resources in his position. But expectations have to be tempered a little as well – if Bent is to be the RWC15 tighthead, he needs to be better than Mike Ross in 1.5 years – is that realistic? Maybe, but let him bed in in a new country and gain experience at provincial level first.

To get back to Court, it is only now (ironically, after Deccie has decided Dave Kilcoyne is better than him), after 6 seasons, that Court is realising his potential – and he has been first choice in Ulster for a long time. It was unfortunate that Bent’s first game was against a man who has matured into quite a wily operator, but the mirror held up by Court is an instructive one – Court’s level (HEC and occasionally international class) should be where we expect Bent to get to – anything more will be a bonus. And if RWC15 comes too soon for Bent, be patient – he will only be 33 when RWC19 comes along. Just because he isn’t ploughing opposition scrums right now doesn’t mean he will be the new Peter Borlase or Clint Newland …. or even the new Tony Buckley for that matter.

Mythbusters Part Deux

In and around any international series, it has become inevitable that a number of bizarre viewpoints take on the status of hard facts, whether by being repeated by influential media personnel, through selective memories of those involved or good old-fashioned provincial bias.  Last season it was decreed that Ireland needed huge backs and that Sean O’Brien couldn’t play openside.  This year, a few more are circulating already.

Myth Number 1: Keith Earls can’t play 13

Perpetrators: A lot of people who don’t come from Limerick

Last week our comments section became weighed down with folk of the fixed opinion that ‘Keith Earls can’t/shouldn’t/isn’t a natural/isn’t a test class 13’.    Now, we don’t want to be picking a fight to our loyal readership, but we’re just not buying this one. 

Lets start by going back to last year when we posted this piece. Since then (in fact, pretty much since the World Cup), Earls has done everything asked of him.  He shone like a beacon amid Munster’s abysmal back play last season, all from the position of 13, and in spite of incompetence all around him. He threw in a shocker of a performance at home to Castres, but since that day has been excellent.  Remember the pivotal Ulster game in Thomond Park?  Earls was brilliant: he showed quick hands to get Zebo into the corner for his try and the highlight was his sumptuous pass to Felix Jones late in the second half, which looked to have put the full-back into open country, only for him to inexplicably drop the ball.

In the Six Nations he performed admirably in the role, in the absence of O’Driscoll, and generally won good reviews for his performances.  His good form in the role continued into this season, when he looked pin-sharp before his injury. The argument that he can’t actually do it is based on a few things: that Earls lacks the size to play the role, that he is a poor defender and that he lacks the distribution and awareness of space.

On the last point, we would direct anyone of this opinion to the video below, of a try in Ravenhill this season.  Yes, you can prove anything with a highlights reel, but in this try Earls touches the ball three times, and every touch shows such natural footballing intuition that it can only come from a player with keen awareness of space and good distribution.  His first is an expertly timed round the corner pass to put Billy Holland into a gap, his second a beautiful, fast pass in front of Laulala to open up the space out wide.  Does he stay take a moment to marvel at the splendour of his skill?  He does not, instead making a beeline to support the men out wide and gets on the end of Hurley’s inside pass to score a try.  It’s the sort of skillset that can’t be taught or manufactured.  It’s classic midfield play.

Then we have the size argument.  True, he is not a huge man.  Keith Earls tips the scales at 90kg.  That’s three kilos lighter than both Brian O’Driscoll and Fergus McFadden and four lighter than Wesley Fofana, who plays in the traffic-heavy 12 channel.  But more importantly, the size argument is frequently ill-deployed.  Most ‘Earls is not a 13’ campaigners are happy to continue to select him on the wing.  But in these days of George Norths and Tim Vissers, the wings are no more suitable for lightweights than the midfield.  Either you can defend well enough to play in the three-quarter line or you can’t, and we’d argue that Earls can.

There’s a sense that certain high profile bloopers have been over-played – compare and contrast the reactions to the Manu Incident in August 2011 and Gareth Maule’s burning of BOD a few weeks ago. Incident 1 has been re-treaded ad infitum (and we are as guilty as anyone in that regard), yet Incident 2 is written off as an obvious freak, something that will never happen again – which of course it probably was, since those things happen to everyone from time-to-time, even BOD. And Keith Earls.

Earls has shown in the last 12 months he has the football to play at 13, and he looks like he has the mental too – we’d pick him at 13 for this series, in spite of the form of Darren Cave – he’s one of our best players and its his best position.

Myth 2: Someone Other Than Jamie Heaslip Should Be Captain if Paul O’Connell isn’t Fit

Perpetrator: Many hacks, most notably Keith Wood

Brian O’Driscoll has been Ireland’s captain for over a decade. His on-field pack lieutenant for most of that period has been Paul O’Connell. Rory Best is the other key member of the leadership triumvirate for the national side. So who should lead the team if all 3 are out?

The first and most obvious requirement is that they are actually in the team in the first place, and are guaranteed their place, not just now but for the medium-term – there is little point in giving the armband to Dorce, no matter how well his is playing. So, on that basis, who are the contenders? We’ll go with Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton, Tommy Bowe or Rob Kearney – there are no other automatic selections with a fully-fit panel.

Fez, O’Brien and Kearney are injured, so they are out. Mike Ross is a key player in a key position, but is 32 and has shown no desire or aptitude for captaincy in the past – he’s out too, and Tommy Bowe, for all his qualities, is patently not major-general material. Which leaves Healy, Heaslip and Sexton.

We’d argue that Healy is just too individual and introspective to be the national captain – plus we aren’t sure he would want it. He’s a quiet and determined chap on the pitch, not quite a Johnno-esque over-the-top type – we don’t think he’s a candidate. Sexton is a key player and probable Lions outhalf, should now be a member of the inner sanctum, but he’s simply too cranky on the pitch to the the Man. His leadership qualities aren’t in doubt – look at his many inspirational performances for Leinster – but he has enough on his plate at out-half – keep him close, but don’t let him toss the coin. Which leaves Heaslip – a natural leader, captaincy experience, guaranteed his place on the team and a mature head with over 50 Test caps. He’s the only credible captain.

Woody’s contribution to the debate was to suggest Sexton or Peter O’Mahony. Sexton’s qualities are discussed above, but its simply madness to consider POM. The hype surrounding O’Mahony has done him no favours, resulting in unrealistic expectations, being shunted back and forth across the backrow, merely allowing top-class opponents (Ruchie, Adam Thompson) to highlight his weaknesses, and being rested at Deccie’s behest when playing might be in his longer-term interests. O’Mahony might make a brilliant Ireland captain in the future, but that day, if/when it comes, will be at least 5 years away – right now, he should be concentrating on getting a position, gaining experience, playing time and maturity, and listening to the Mole instead of Keith Wood.

Note: we aren’t totally down on the idea that a long-term view should be taken, but a balance needs to be struck. If we were only thinking about RWC19, why not go the whole hog and give Iain Henderson the armband?

Myth 3: Ireland’s Management Are In No Way Responsible for the Tighthead Crisis

Perpetrator: Largely Gerry Thornley

After Michael Bent’s incredible call-up to the Ireland squad shortly after landing in Dublin airport, its hard to know who was more incredulous – the fans or the player himself. However, after a bit of thought, its not clear what alternatives the management had – Deccie Fitz is notoriously injury prone, so a third tighthead was needed, and who else was there? Ronan Loughney is behind Nathan White in Connacht, and Stephen Archer is not at Pro12 level, never mind international.

So Bent gets the nod, which is fine. But how did this situation arise? Why simple, say Gerry et al – “there was a lot of investment made in Tony Buckley, which didn’t pay off”. Hmmmm, true, but only to a point. A more accurate and complete description would be “the IRFU and the Ireland management team made a lot of investment in Tony Buckley, which didn’t pay off”.

So Ireland’s Tighthead Crisis is not, after all, completely exogenous to management. In fact, they, to a degree, are responsible for the situation they now find themselves in. Mike Ross was completely ignored until he became last man standing (February 2011, after Mushy failed to make it 80 minutes in a Woflhounds game) and the November 2010 series was a travesty for tighthead development. Is it any wonder we find ourselves where we are?

Now, to be fair to Deccie, its not like there are piles of tightheads whose development he is ignoring – he only gets to ignore them when they make it into the Leinster/Ulster/Connacht teams. The blame for the lack of youngsters coming through lies largely at the door of 10 Lansdowne Road – at the blazers who run the IRFU. There is no scrum czar, no national director of scrummaging, and no development plan for promising tightheads. Adam Macklin played 8 in school, not because he couldn’t push in the scrum, because he is built like a tank and since, for safety reasons, you can’t scrummage at full power in the schools game, so Methody could best utilise him at 8 – if there was a professional director of scrummaging, he may have been far keener on Macklin playing in his proper position. Would he have been put at 8 in New Zealand?

We’re going to be stuck with this situation of digging up graves in the Southern Hemisphere to find Irish grannies until we put a proper professional development structure in place to develop props. As O’Reilly said yesterday, the amateur hour IRFU are an increasing anachronism in a professional game – time they did the likes of Macklin and Tadgh Furlong a favour and put their careers in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing.

PJ, Hold This Tackle Bag Would You?

Late last week and over the weekend, Deccie caught up on his provincial rugby for the last three months and reached some disturbing conclusions, and has made some additions to the Irish squad to reflect the newsflow.

Firstly, it would appear that the news from Frankie and Gerry wasn’t entirely accurate – it turns out it’s Ulster who have won every game this season and who are playing the best rugby. Secondly, there have been injuries to a few of the apostles – notably Rory Best and Drico. On the plus side, Ireland’s Tighthead Crisis showed signs of resolution with Deccie Fitz managed to go an hour without getting injured, and Michael Bent’s plane touching down without incident in Dublin airport. So, to give credit where it is due, even belatedly, the additions to Ireland’s squad give it a much fresher and more form-based look.

In the half backs, Paul Marshall and Paddy Jackson come into the squad. Marshall has been inventive and snappy from the base this year and his call-up is well-deserved. With Murray and Reddan both playing well, it’s unlikely he will start a game, but he does offer something genuinely different off the bench.  Plus, he knows Ruan Pienaar inside out, so a bench slot isn’t completely out of the question, though the Fiji game looks his best chance. One out, Paddy Jackson is the form 10 in Ireland, the peerless Sexton aside, and has 16 years on Rog – a no-brainer for a cap would you say? Clearly, but placating the once-great O’Gara is as important to the coaching set up now as it was three years ago when Johnny Sexton made his debut – if that takes precedence over success at RWC15, Rog will continue as first reserve.

Two exciting young wings get the nod – Tiarnan O’Halloran and Craig Gilroy. Both have started the season well, though Gilroy has had to make do with a role as first reserve to Tommy Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble. However, with the afore-mentioned pair, plus  Simon Zebo, Ferg and explosive up-and-coming wing Donncha O’Callaghan ahead on the pecking order, starts for the Ireland XV against Fiji are probably the best they can hope for.

At hooker, Sean Cronin is in to cover Rory Best and his provincial team-mate, Risteard O’Strauss; but it’s the position next to him that has created the most heat. A mere 24 months on from a 4-game series where the starting tightheads were John Hayes, Mushy and Tom Court, Ireland have had to resort to calling up a guy who said last Thursday:

They are not saying that [a callup] is going to happen, I’ve just to get over there and play a bit of footy for Leinster first before they can even look at me. It does sound pretty positive, but obviously I’ve got to prove myself first before they can look at me seriously.

Obviously, indeed. Or not. Let’s just hope he’s no Peter Borlase. By means of comparison, Bent comes over after 11 Super Rugby appearances (5 starts) for the Hurricanes, with a reputation for being slightly ambi-propsterous and a solid scrummager. Tom Court came over at the same age after three Super Rugby appearances for the Reds and a similar ability to play both sides. Court has since specialised as a loose-head, and, to be truthful, if we have resorted to poaching players from New Zealand club rugby, we’d take Test-able substitutes as an outcome. Bent comes straight off the back of a productive ITM Cup, so he is at least battle hardened and match-ready  It’s a remarkable call-up, but not necessarily in a bad way; a little creative thinking never hurt.  Some commentators may argue that it’s a kick in the teeth to the likes of Jamie Hagan or Stephen Archer, but neither player is anywhere close to the level required for test rugby.

Deccie Fitzpatrick is the other tighthead selected – there has never been any issue with his technical abilities, but staying injury-free has proved a challenge. His stints in New Zealand this summer were solid, and he’s likely to be the bench tighthead for the Springbok game.

Ian Madigan heads the list of those unlucky not to get the call.  Earlier this season he seemed to be on the cusp of an international breakthrough, but has been pressed into action at 15, where he’s mixed the good with the bad.  It’s not his best position, and it’s allowed Paddy Jackson to get the jump on him.  We’ve already posted on the tough decisions that lie ahead for Madigan, and it will be interesting to see how he responds to this non-call.  Felix Jones returned to action and must be in the management’s thoughts, but perhaps the South Africa game comes just too soon for him.  It would be no surprise to see him later in the series.