Unsung Heroes

How appropriate that the winning act in Ireland’s victorious Six Nations campaign was a turnover by Chris Henry and Devin Toner – previously unheralded guys who were given an opportunity by Joe Schmidt and swam at this level. Henry epitomises the new Ireland – where players sacrifice all for the team. Ireland won this championship because they were the best team – the Irish collective was built on the commitment to excellence of the new coaching ticket, and every player in the squad bought into it entirely.

It’s becoming hackneyed to talk of Ireland’s “unsung heroes” (how many times do you get sung before you can’t be unsung any more?) and this usually refers to the consistent excellence of the likes of Devin Toner, Chris Henry, Dave Kearney and Andrew Trimble. They are the contingent who Schmidt brought into the first team from the fringes of the squad, often ahead of more championed alternatives, and generated much heat for doing so. Let’s look at them:

  • Toner has found himself the target of derision and doubt many times in his career. Despite accumulating 100+ Leinster caps, his elevation to the XV was perceived to be Leinster-centrism from Joe Schmidt. Yet he was the surprise package of the November series and he looked of international standard. In recent years, he has improved year on year and this is no different. Yet, the perception was (and is) that if Ryan and McCarthy were fully fit, Toner would be nowhere near the XV, but he ends as one of Ireland’s players of the series. He has been a key man in adding grunt to a light pack, and will be hard to shift.
  • Henry – soldiering away at Ulster and one of the most influential players at HEC level for a few years now. Yet he is 29 and plays in a position where we are stacked. But Schmidt saw something he liked (at Leinster, where he devised his HEC2012 final gameplan around nullifying Henry’s influence) and he was in. He was the workhorse of the backrow trio, tackled himself to a standstill (we are too lazy to add up, but we expect him to be Ireland’s #1 tackler over the series). It’s easy to say he will make way for O’Brien and Ferris if and when they are back, but he has been one of Ireland’s players of the series, for his consistency, and was especially effective in the away games
  • Dave Kearney and, especially, Trimble – perceived as 5th and 6th best wingers at the start of the season (at best) – even now, most people would pick a fully fit Tommy Bowe over both, but they’ve done little wrong, and Trimble was Ireland’s best player in their win in Paris. Sure, Simon Zebo is more electric, no doubt about it, but read the below from Trimble in November, when he was outside the circle (H/T the Mole) – does this describe Simon Zebo? What about Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls or Tommy Bowe? Hard to know, but Andrew Trimble, after 50 caps, looks here to stay:
    “I’m more conscious now of the type of winger that Joe is looking for. He’s looking for someone who is accurate, who is physically dominant, who knows their role inside out and performs a lot of small areas of the game very, very well … He demands so much from his players. Joe isn’t overly concerned about a winger that breaks a gain-line and scores tries from halfway. He looks for a winger who does the simple stuff very well, presents the ball at ruck time accurately all the time, accuracy in kick-chase and reception. Every little thing. He has to do everything to make the team tick.”  

This is the new Ireland – the players are selected on their ability to execute the coach’s gameplan – and the team is paramount. No Ireland player was as explosive or as individually influential as Danny Care, Mike Brown or Joe Launchbury, but it isn’t those guys who are champions. Ireland had few noticable weaknesses, unlike the other championship contenders. England struggled any time their backup scrum-half was on the pitch, and would surely have won the Grand Slam had hand-flapping Lee ‘Rock Lobster’ Dickson not been introduced in Paris, and their 10-12 axis managed to create the grand total of one try in five games for two flying wingers. Wales had a weak collection of half-backs and an inflexible gameplan, and France a court jester of a coach, poor backups and a generally unfit pack.

Casting your mind back to how low Ireland had sunk this time 12 months ago is illuminating – beaten up in Rome, with a coach long since past his sell-by date and with a distinctly un-fortress-like fortress. The new ticket has brought a unified direction and purpose, a commitment to being the best, confidence, and a newly-loved team with an atmospheric home ground. Miracle worker? Well, it’s amazing what some strong leadership and a new direction will do – Ireland are a team that mirror their coach’s personality on the field.

Think about who was Ireland’s player of the championship, and there’s no obvious choice. Every player, from 1-23, contributed something. After two games, we’d have picked O’Mahony, but he had quiet games in Twickers and Le Stade and missed Italy. Henry? Certainly up there for consistency. Trimble? As important as anyone. O’Connell? Manic, and another brilliant leader, but quiet in Twickenham. Sexton? Got the Bernhardt Langers with him kicks in Paris, but scored four tries, and at crucial moments. BOD? Rolled back the years. But Jamie Heaslip would be our choice because he was among the top performers in all five games and had a huge all-round impact and influence (see Workrate  by Henry, C.) – but we wouldn’t argue with any of the above.  If anyone out there still doesn’t see what Healsip’s value to the team is, well, they’re not worth listening to.

That consistency and collective drive was the most impressive turnaround. Ireland have a quite magnificent coach, a squad of intelligent and skillful young men, and some big guns to come back. There is no reason why, with the RWC15 draw we have, we shouldn’t be putting ourselves up there with England as the main threat to BNZ and the Boks next autumn.  And while Ireland didn’t win a Grand Slam, there is a certain satisfaction to be derived from winning the championship on points difference.  Ireland have finished level on points with the champions in the recent past, but always came out second best on this metric.  Not this time, though, and the real differentiator between Ireland’s and England’s points differential was the thorough beating we handed out to Wales, which everyone can feel happy about. And the key reason England didn’t thrash Wales as well was consistently giving away kickable penalties to keep Wales in the game – something we happily avoided all tournament.  George Hook and others may lament the rules, but Ireland weren’t top of the log by accident.

To briefly talk about the game itself, it was torture. France turned up in a big way – Maxime Machenaud was class, Picamoles, Bastareaud unstoppable and the back three threatened with every touch. Ireland were superb for the middle 40 minutes, but the final 20 were horrible.  We eked out a 9 point lead after 55 minutes, but wilted under the pressure of the French desire and our own poor execution. Only a poor place kick from Doussain, prime butchery of a simple pass from Pape and a lucky scrum call right at the end got us over the line. It was the game was the best of the tournament and for pure bloody-mindedness, we just about deserved it. Some of the highlights:

  • The Sexton try in the second half. A spectacular break from Trimble and a brilliant piece of play from BOD – realising he wasn’t getting in, he plotted a path to recycle and we got in right under the posts. POC’s super-fast pick and drive from the ruck was a classic example of a huge carry for small gain – it crucially kept the momentum going.  And after seeing the way Sexton shanked the conversion, touching down under the posts was the winning of the game
  • Mike Ross destroying Thomas Domingo – Ross had an average year up to the Six Nations but has been totemic. Perhaps he just needed a bit of time to get to grips with the new scrum dynamics.  Seeing off a man like Domingo before halftime is one for the headstone.  Poor old Rosser remains totally undervalued – by ourselves as much as anyone else.  We wanted to see more of Marty Moore, but after the last ten minutes in Paris it’s clear just how far the young man has to go to get to Ross’ venerated level.
  • Dreamboat getting pedantic with the TMO right at end about whether it was forward out of Pape’s hands.  With Super Forward Pass-a-Rama Rugby in his DNA, he really, really wanted to give the try.  Triminjus, in his despair, said to no-one in particular “Come on man!”
  • Brice Dulin. Despite us being on the receiving end, a vintage full-back display from the little Frenchman. With him and Willie le Roux, little guys at 15 are back in vogue
  • Our favourite: the touching moment on the field after the game as Rog and Shaggy talked with Andrew Trimble about his journey from international outcast to golden boy.  The delight of the two retirees to see the “real Andrew Trimble” was palpable and the honesty with which Trimble discussed his struggles was captivating. The obvious delight the Leinsterman and Munsterman had for the Ulsterman was a joy to watch – you sensed McGurk was about to interrupt and ruin the moment, but thankfully he didn’t

However, it would be remiss not to point out that Ireland could still be an awful lot better at closing out tight, crucial matches.  We certainly couldn’t be accused of showing composure in the final ten minutes, and, in many ways, we were worse than in the BNZ game in November.  Courage, determination, incredible will to win; we ticked all of that, but not composure.  We’ve earned a tag of being chokers down the years and here, once again, we choked at least a little bit. In Paul O’Connell’s pitch-side interview post-game, he was furious about how we finished and mentioned it more than once – this is another positive.  In 2009 in Wales we stopped playing rugby in the final 20 minutes and lost our discipline, but somehow still won.  Here we stopped playing rugby, repeatedly kicking the ball to the French back three who were comfortable in finding ways to return it for profit, but maintained our discipline, at least until our scrum collapsed.  Maybe we’re getting there by degrees.  On this occasion it was enough to win.  The curious thing is that the provinces are all good closer-outers, with Munster regarded as world beaters in clutch situations.  But as we said in our pre-match post, the weight of history can be as hard to beat as the opponent.

Finally, what is there left to say about Brian O’Driscoll that hasn’t already been said?  The curious thing was that there was more BOD-related fanfare for his second-last match than his last, but that’s because there was a championship on the line which was the main media focus, and that’s exactly how he would have wanted it.

We are the champions, my friends.  Enjoy it.

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Captain Fantastic

There is plenty of speculation about who the Milky Bar Kid will hand his armband to. For some, it seems particularly relevant as it gives Schmidt the chance to prove he isn’t inherently biased towards the Blue Meanies and pick someone who isn’t from the Pale. This is nonsense of course, but doesn’t make it any less important. Deccie’s well-meaning attempt to position Ireland for RWC15 by picking Jamie Heaslip  as last season’s captain [Aside: Deccie always picked Leinstermen as Ireland’s permanent captain – BIAS!] didn’t quite work out, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to do it. We might be late to the party in planning for the tournament, but that should be our horizon here. So who are the contenders?

Some Bloke Called Brian.  He has done the state some service, they might say. But he’ll be gone in nine months, and is only coming back from injury.  His leadership is so great it’s almost hard for the captain to be in charge, as Heaslip found last season, but this being his last year, there is surely no point in handing the armband.

Paul O’Connell. Favourite, due to his totemic pack leadership credentials, but an injury doubt for the first game, which doesn’t help his chances. Many of his best recent performances – think first Lions test – haven’t come as captain and he seems to function best as a leader, but not the leader. You’ll get his on-pitch leadership anyway, so it probably matters less to him than to some outside the camp.  Would be a fine choice in any case.

Jamie Heaslip. Divided opinion when appointed last year – some considered it a brave choice by a previously unimaginative coach, some a foolhardy choice  of an “absolute knob” (C. George). Undoubtedly, it didn’t work out, amid a team imploding on-field and off. Healsip didn’t help himself by wearing headphones absent-minded and naive post-game comments. But surely remains a respected leader within the team, and his relationship with Schmidt is presumably stronger than that he had with Kidney, which always looked like an uneasy alliance.  Schmidt used him as captain any time Cullen wasn’t around, and if O’Connell is injured, Heaslip probably becomes the favourite. He is also incumbent, so choosing Heaslip won’t be as controversial for Schmidt as it was for Deccie.

Rory Best. The stalking horse. Besty has been mentioned by precisely nobody, but he is who we would appoint. He is already part of the squad’s leadership corps, has plenty of experience, and has recovered from last season’s half-annus horribilis. Best will be around past RWC15, and has played a key role in husbanding some of the exciting youngsters at Ulster who are also now exciting youngsters in green (Henderson, Jackson, Marshall, Gilroy). A fine man, whose character is reflected by his reaction to being omitted from the initial Lions squad – he used the opportunity to recall the memory of the tragic Nevin Spence, and opined there was more to life.

Peter O’Mahony. Munster captain, and an important member of the squad. Has been excellent in red this season, and we will hopefully see him concentrating on 8 from here on, although that muddles things at national level where he’s most likely to play at 6. But he’s only bedding into the role with Munster, and handing him the national captaincy on top of that may seem like too much burden all at once. Still, he is presumably Frankie’s choice, and that has to count for something right?

Sean O’Brien.  Not an obvious choice as he looks more wrecking ball than strategist, but his game has matured recently, highlighted by his outstanding breakdown work in recent months.  Unduobtedly a key player for the incoming coach, and arguably now the best player in the country, but is he ready to lead it?  Probably not, but a possible wild-card nonetheless.

Paddy Wallace. Go on Joe, for a laugh. The righteous indignation would have us rolling in the aisles.

Wazza’s World

Neil Francis said on Sunday that he would bet the house on Gatland naming a test backrow of his three Welsh golden boys Dan Lydiate, captain Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau.  It’s the backrow which dominated in the World Cup and the 2012 Six Nations, and seemingly the one Wazza would have left the northern hemisphere with designs on picking.

But in a unit of the team where competition for places which was fiendishly competitive to begin with, such a selection would fly in the face of current form.  Being an all-Welsh combination, it would also have the potential – from our viewpoint on the outside, anyway – to split the squad into factions.  Will it come to pass?

We’ve been trying to get inside Gatland’s head a little bit to resolve this one and it’s not easy.  We can use the fact that the first test is one Saturday from now to try and accrue tidbits of information, but even that is tricky.  Gatland will want to keep everyone – not least his own players – guessing as to what the test team will be until it’s announced.  Essentially, we have absolutely no idea what the backrow will be.  But here’s what little we can piece together.

1. Warburton is the captain, Gatland will want him in the team.

Yes, Wazza has said he wouldn’t necessarily pick his captain if others were playing better, but he’ll really, really want to not have to do that.  If nothing else, it would show up the mistake in naming him captain in the first place.  He’s made Warburton his leader and won’t want to go into battle without him.  He looked off the pace on Saturday but you can ink him down for saturday’s match because Gatland is going to give Warbs every chance to play himself into some form.  But this is last chance saloon stuff, with not one but two outstanding rivals for the test jumper, with Tipuric and O’Brien both showing electric form.

2. Heaslip ahead by a nose?

When Jamie Heaslip was called off the pitch after 50-something minutes, and replaced by Faletau, it put him in the box seat for saturday’s match.  Faletau started on Saturday and played 30 minutes yesterday, so he’s due a rest.  If Jamie can bring another good performance against the Waratahs, a test place is likely to follow, after Faletau failed to impress against the Reds.  Jamie’s captaincy woes of the Six Nations appear to be behind him and he has found some great form over the last two months.

3. Pay close attention to the No.6 jersey for the Waratahs match

Tom Croft has sat out the last two games after a mediocre showing against Western Force, so it’s his ‘turn’ to play 6 against the ‘Tahs.  But if Neil Francis is right, and Dan is the man for Gatland, he is way short of gametime and needs another match.  In short, if he is to start the first test, he has to play on Saturday.  If you see Dan Lydiate’s name on the teamsheet tomorrow, then take it that it’s a done deal and he’s in the test team.  If Croft is picked then Lydiate’s hopes recede and barring a spectacular performance from the gazelle-like Leiceter man – not impossible, but he hasn’t done much of note yet – Sean O’Brien becomes the likely test blindside.

This can go one of three ways:

1. The Sad Ending

Franno is right, and Gatland picks Lydiate, Warburton and Felatau.  Quite frankly, you would want to have pretty good reasons for leaving an in-form Sean O’Brien out of any team, but you’d need to have very strong convictions to pick two chaps ahead of him who aren’t playing especially well – and are perhaps not even fully match fit.  Expect the Irish media to go ballistic, but that might be the least of Gatland’s worries.  There’s every chance such a selection would result in discord in the camp and a splitting of the group into factions.  It would stink of the test team being picked before the plane even touched down in Hong Kong, and that nothing anybody did in the meantime could have made any difference.  Put simply, they would have to win the first test or there would be hell to pay.

2. The Mega Happy Ending

Form is king and Gatty picks the backrow which started yesterday; O’Brien, Tipuric and Heaslip.  After all, they’ve been the three most impressive performers and have the look of a balanced unit.  We’ve long been admirers of the sensational Justin Tipuric, and if selected, we’ve a sneaking suspicion he could go home from the tour a superstar.

3. The Scooby Doo Ending

Tom Croft plays against the ‘Tahs, wins six lineouts against the throw and makes not one, not two, but three of his trademark 50m line breaks in the outside centre channel, prompting Stuart Barnes to faint in the commentary box through sheer Oooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-ness and Crofty forces himself into the test team where he promptly retreats into his shell, makes four tackles, wins one lineout and carries three times for a gain of five metres.

The Steve Walsh Show, and Ireland’s Backrow

Before we go through this game minute-by-minute, first let’s ask what the press made of the contribution of our back-row? The Sunday Times plaudits went to Peter O’Mahony – O’Reilly rates him highest (8, with 7’s for Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip), crediting his impressive all-round game while Denis Walsh had POM as man of the match. The Sindo had Sean O’Brien in contention for the gong (with Murray). The press in Blighty made no mention of our hotly-debated backrow, restricting themselves to managing to staying awake as two bald men fight over a comb while ENGLAND sniff a Grand Slam.

Based on the live Saturday viewing, we thought POM had his best game to date for Ireland, SOB was the highest class of the unit (what about that kick!) and Heaslip played with authority and continued his personal upturn in form in a green shirt. But will the statistics back it up? With due trepidation, we get reviewing ….

After cracking open two bottles of wine (Valpolicella Ripasso, in case you were wondering) and re-playing the entire game, stripping out Steve Walsh’s contributions, we have to say that the backrow appeared to work – it may not look conventional, but collectively they functioned well. All three men played well for the first time this series, and it was about as good as we have looked in that unit since Fez broke down.

We graded every action as:

  • +2: big play
  • +1: positive play
  • 0: neutral
  • -1: bad play
  • -2: awful play – a cross-field kick in your own 22 that goes straight to an opponent, for example

There are several things to note about our findings:

  1. Steve Walsh bestrode the match like a collossus – the man dominated the game, his tanned and ripped torso was rarely off-screen and he even refereed well – there was a clanger of a penalty on each side, but they balanced out. There was no shoving over of players, a la Conrad Smuth, but we were left in no doubt who was in charge – this was the Steve Walsh Show
  2. Morgan Parra’s passing was terrible – we have a lot more sympathy with Freddy than we did on first look, although he was rubbish too
  3. The volume of ruck inspecting by green shirts was ridiculous – either they don’t know what they are doing, or they do, and it’s rubbish. You would often have two green shirts in a ruck vs one blue, with two other green shirts inspecting – how can 11 men expect to break a 14-man defensive line?
  4. Donncha O’Callaghan’s tears during ‘Ireland’s Call’ were emotional. All the talk was of BOD, but this was likely Stakhanov’s last appearance in Lansdowne Road as well – whatever your opinion of him, 95 caps is a tremendous return and he will retire one of the most decorated players in our history. Hat tip.

What about her eyes the results, you say?

Well, looks like we picked the right week to stop sniffing glue.  All three men contributed hugely.  Our numbers have Peter O’Mahony scoring the most points by a cigarette paper, largely down to big turnovers (which got bonus points), but all three scored between 22 and 24 points – there’s some margin of error of course, and another review might place either of the other two in pole position, and we are sure people will disagree with some of our findings.  By the by, if we missed anything significant, please let us know.  We can attest to how tricky it is to capture every nuance of the match, especially in tight phases.

O’Mahony was the tidiest player, with only one error. He produced big plays when needed, two massive turnovers standing out, and (notably) didn’t start  any silly fights. His lineout work was good, and he tackled well.

Heaslip, as we suspected, was the groundhog/blindside groundhog – not always first to the ruck, but the most effective when he got there. Missed tackles were costly for Heaslip – two in two minutes against Kayser didn’t look good. As captain, we reviewed Heaslip’s decision-making (without awarding points) – with power comes responsibility. He was decisive and authoritative and looked, for the first time, a real leader. He trusted Jackson and the team seemed united and cohesive.

O’Brien was the most impactful player, and we feel we probably undersold his all-action excellence, but you live and die by the numbers. If you factor in the points earned for kicking and chasing, O’Brien scored the lowest pure back-row points, but he was almost Parisse-esque in his ubiquity at times.

Mauling was one of the big success stories of the day and all three were prominent, with good body positions and lots of aggression.  We awarded points for anyone who was in a maul which moved forwards, and there were plenty of them.  Heaslip in particular appears to excel at this element of the game, but all three were part of a huge mauling success.

All three players effectiveness declined in the second half, in tandem with Ireland’s in general. Some tables are below for your viewage.

NB: does not include Steve Walsh

NB: does not include Steve Walsh

NB: Steve Walsh's actions are broken down in the pdf file at the bottom

NB: Steve Walsh’s actions are broken down in the pdf file at the bottom

The complete analysis is below – feedback is welcomed and assumed, particularly from those who tweeted us at half-time from their high horse, assuming we’d make up stats to ensure O’Mahony wasn’t recognised – we expect a mea culpa below the line.

So, our preceonceptions turned out more or less correct.  Heaslip is the closest thing to an openside we have, but relies not so much on being the first man to the ruck, like a classic seven, but more on being the strongest man at the ruck.  O’Mahony plays like a No.8, and O’Brien is a carrying machine.  The numbers may be a jumble, but we seem to get away with it.

But one thing stuck out beyond all others.  Well though the three of them played, they were no match for Steve Walsh.  The tan, the arms, the demeanour, the chatty style, the mad new TMO rules he invented on the spot.  It’s Walsh’s world, the rest of us just live in it.

The full breakdown of every action is in the link below:

Backrow Stats – All Actions

Peter O’Mahony, the Rage Virus and Statistics

Ireland’s backrow is most confusing in its current iteration – it appears unbalanced (what’s new), consisting of an 8, a 6.5 and a 6/7/8 (delete as appropriate), and appears unable to grab a game by the scruff of the neck.  Far from the traditional roles one associates with the 6, 7 and 8, Ireland’s appears to be a jumble of roles.  Now, we’re not against fluidity of systems, but given Ireland’s recent results, it has to be asked – does the current backrow work?  For the record it looks like this:

No.6 Peter O’Mahony

Typical role of number 6: tackle anything that moves, truck dirty slow ball around the corner and try to turn it into quicker ball, add ballast to mauls, possible tail of lineout option

Prototype: Dan Lydiate, Stephen Ferris

Role of O’Mahony (as we understand it). Standing wide between the centres, looking to join up the play and make rangy breaks in midfield by handing off defenders.  Important part of lineout.

No. 7 Sean O’Brien

Typical role of number 7: arrive first at as many rucks as possible, win turnovers, track ball carriers, take and give offloads to bring continuity to play

Prototype: Sir Ruchie, David Pocock, Justin Tipuric

Role of O’Brien (as we understand it): primary ball carrier. Relied upon to repeatedly carry slow ball over the gainline and deliver huge tackle count in defence.

No.8 Jamie Heaslip

Typical role of number 8: set up attacks off the base of scrum, carry ball, usually allowed a little more free reign to stand wide from ruck to get ball in space, should have good hands, often a lineout option

Prototype: Sergio Parisse, Louis Picamoles

Role of Jamie Heaslip (as we understand it): used primarily in tight, where he is depended upon to clear rucks and win turnovers.  Seldom asked to carry the ball.

It’s certainly a far cry from, say, Wales’ uber-traditional backrow where the 6 (Lydiate / Jones), 7 (Warburton / Tipuric) and 8 (Felatau) are outstanding in the traditional primary roles.  As a unit, Ireland’s backrow performed well against Wales, were hopelessly outmuscled against England and did enough against Scotland to deliver sufficient clean ball and go-forward to win the game, which failed to happen for various reasons.  Looking at the individuals, we’d say O’Mahony was good against Wales, ordinary against England and poor against Scotland.  Heaslip was good against Scotland, poor against England and average against Wales.  O’Brien has probably been our best forward, heroically committed and hardworking – with the caveat that he has given away too many penalties.

Any time we try to have a rational debate, it degenerates quickly into bitter provincial bickering – Munster folk will point to Jamie Heaslip’s relative lack of visibility while Leinster and Ulster folk will decry Peter O’Mahony’s lack of impact, and lament the absence of the glorious Fez. Sean O’Brien is largely spared criticism, thankfully, for if we agreed on nothing, this would be a most depressing state of affairs.  The oddly fitting roles probably don’t help here.  We expect our 6 to be a tackling machine, and our 8 to be making big plays, but neither seems to be the case.

The statistics from ESPN Scrum bear out the above thesis.

Carrying: Heaslip has carried for 27 cumulative metres over three matches.  O’Mahony and O’Brien have over 90m each, with O’Mahony averaging over 4m a carry.  He made an eye-catching 65m from nine carries in his best game of the series, against Wales.  Carrying the ball further away from the ruck allows him more space to make metres, while O’Brien is asked to carry slow ball repeatedly.  He has made 44 attempted carries so far.

Tackling: O’Brien appears something of a workaholic, adding a huge tackle count to his carrying ability.  He has 28 successful tackles to his name.  Heaslip, as we’d expect given his responsibility close to the ruck, leads the tackle count on 30.  O’Mahony’s tackle count is somewhat dwarfed by the other two, on 13 over three games, again reflecting his tendency to  play further out from the ruck.

Discipline: O’Mahony has a reputation as a penalty machine, but he’s only cost his team two so far this series.  O’Brien has never shaken off his tendency not to roll away quickly enough in the tackle area, and has coughed up six penalties.  Heaslip – usually a well disciplined player – has cost his team five penalties so far.

Lineout: This has not been a vintage series for the Irish lineout, but O’Mahony’s skills have seen him claim seven catches.  Heaslip gets thrown up reasonably often too – he’s won four, and O’Brien has two.

ESPN doesn’t provide numbers on what Donncha O’Callaghan fans might refer to as the unseen work – clearing rucks, shoving hard in a maul, winning a choke tackle turnover, slowing down opposition ball at a ruck.  Nor do the stats on ESPN tell the whole story of any action.  Keith Earls’ break and non-pass gave him huge metres carried, but many of them were thrown away by failing to the right thing once he’d done the hard bit. 

For this weeks France game, we are going to go through with a fine tooth comb (rather like the Mole did for kicking against England and chart (and, crucially, grade in terms of positive impact) each action of each backrow forward, specifically:

  • Tackles
  • Carries (number and metres)
  • Rucking (clearing out and otherwise)
  • Lineout takes and steals
  • Other good actions: Linebreaks, key passes, turnovers won, tries
  • Other bad actions: Turnovers lost, penalties, free-kicks, missed tackles

We expect that O’Brien will have the most tackles and carries, and Heaslip the most ruck clearances, and we don’t expect to see the same quantity of dog-work from O’Mahony. If he is to stand in wider channels let’s hope he can make his ball skills and rangy carrying ability tell and deliver serious metres in open space and keep the play alive.  In general we’d prefer to see him involved in the action more than he is, but we know he’s capable of coming up with big plays.  We’ve a suspicion his yardage is a little flattered by his standing so wide, so we’ll see if that’s borne out.  One thing’s for sure, he’s a very different player to what his astonishing media profile suggests; we’re far from convinced that he’s a no-backward-step warrior that he’s portrayed as in the press, and we’ve already aired our Good Face theory.

We have to come out and admit that we find O’Mahony to be a most curious player. He can do the hard things brilliantly – zipping passes like Strings in his peak, and taking balls from the air or off his bootlaces with consumate ease. Yet, for a blindside, his tackling is largely absent, his carrying inconsistent, and his breakdown work unseen (to coin a phrase). In short, we think he doesn’t work hard enough.  He’s yet to deliver 10 tackles in a match in any of his eight starts for Ireland, and in four games has combined single digit metres with single digit carries.  On his day, however, he can be impactful, as in this season’s win against Wales. 

He has not yet been forced to nail down a jumper for Munster, never had his attitude and play questioned, and never really been subject to any media criticism whatsoever. The Mole opined that some time at the coalface nailing down a position and learning about himself might be the best thing for him – we feel he just coasts too much, but that seems to be out of tune with a lot of opinions, so we felt this was a puzzle worth delving a little deeper into.

What we’d like to see from Heaslip is an improvement in his carrying, which looked pretty marshmallowy in the first two games of the Six Nations, before improving against Scotland.  And as for O’Brien, well, we’d almost like to see him carry less.  If he’s making over 20 carries in a match it’s a surefire sign that Ireland’s Plan A of Give The Ball to O’Brien has been jettisoned for Plan B: Give the Ball to O’Brien.

More than simply analysing each player’s individual performances, we want to try and gain some understanding as to whether Ireland’s backrow functions as a unit.  It’s highly unconventional in that the role of the players is so at odds with what we traditionally expect from each shirt number.  Are we suffering as a result of that?  Are we getting the best out of the three players?  Do we have the right men selected?  Would we be better off with a more traditional 6 and 7, allowing Heaslip to carry more ball as he did three years ago?  Is his carrying good enough to merit that role?

So on Sunday night we’ll sit down with a bottle of wine and pour over the tape.  By far the biggest issue we expect to have is that O’Mahony and Donnacha Ryan look rather similar.  Let’s hope we can tell them apart enough to get some accurate stats.  Results will be up early next week.

Fat Lady Tuning Up

That’s all folks, as they say. The Declan Kidney era as Ireland coach is over following a clueless second half capitulation against a limited Scottish side in Murrayfield. As the game went on, the paucity of Ireland’s play became clearer and clearer, and the endgame was difficult to watch.  Afterwards it was a case of ‘how did that happen?’  Even Scotland’s head coach Scott Johnson seemed astonished that his team had won.  Ireland made all the line-breaks, had 70% of the ball in spite of a hopeless lineout and shaky scrum, and should have had a 17-point lead at half time.  Instead they handed Scotland the initiative and lost the game, almost entirely by default.  It seemed an unloseable game but Ireland contrived to do so.

It leaves Declan Kidney in a spot where his position has become untenable.  This series was his bid for a new contract and with this defeat, his chances go up in smoke.  Ireland have one win from three, and now face a partially resurgent France, against whom their record is dire, and a potential wooden-spoon-off in Rome.  There seems no chance the IRFU will deem the current performance level worthy of another two years, and the 2015 World Cup.  The momentum generated against Argentina and Wales has been duly squandered.  It’s the same old story, the umpteenth episode over four years of mediocrity.

We have been supportive of Jamie Heaslip’s captaincy to date, but Ireland lacked decisive leadership on and off the field. We’ll come to Heaslip later, but the management did not have a good day. Paddy Jackson was parachuted into the starting lineup and Ian Madigan was left out of the initial matchday training squad – Jackson had a good game in open play, his swift hands releasing Luke Marshall (twice) and Keith Earls in the first half, but 1 from 4 is not good enough from the tee at this level. When the defiant Ronan O’Gara came on, he was woeful – kicking possession away and setting up Scotland’s final penalty with a head-fryingly stupid cross-kick. Not even Conor George will manage to spin that one.  It pains us to see a great career end this way. As for Madigan, he may not have started many big games at 10, but he has form, experience and confidence, and should have seen action in June or November (as should Jackson) – we can see why Kidney didn’t play him given his limited exposure, but it was Kidney who has elected not to give him that exposure.

When players don’t have experience to fall back on, they should at least have form, so they feel confident playing their own game.  But Jackson was just back from injury, hadn’t been playing well, and has struggled with placed ball this season.  It was a lot to ask of him.  The oversight in not ensuring he took place kicks against Zebre last Friday looks borderline criminal now.  At test rugby, where teams prepare to the nth degree, how can Ireland have left such a critical element of the game as kicking points to chance?  What to do for the next game?  Pray for Sexton, presumably.

But, back to PJ for a second – in the first-half, Ireland eschewed shots at goal, almost as if they were aware Jackson wasn’t the greatest kicker. Then in the second half, they elected to go for it from harder places on the field, but after what seemed like lengthy debate – the lack of confidence in the kicker should not have been perceptible to someone watching, but it was. Confidence ebbed from the team the longer Scotland stayed in it. To wrap up this section, we should mention that the other debutant, Luke Marshall, had an excellent game.

By half-time yesterday, Ireland should have been out of sight. Prime butchery from Keith Earls and ponderous rumbling inside the 22 meant we went in just 3-0 up despite utterly dominating. Scottish defence was good, but at this level, that shouldn’t matter if you are camped in the 22 for most of a half.

Then in the second half, when Craig Gilroy got over, it looked like Ireland would kick on and win, but they didn’t. Jackson missed touch from a penalty and, a few phases later, Wee Greig was knocking over 3 points, and we began to get concerned. Second Half Syndrome was about to strike again – the moment the Scottish got a foothold in the game, Ireland lost their discipline; the lineout continued to be a shambles, and, when Tom Court went off, the scrum – already creaking a bit – collapsed.

Scotland lapped it up – having defended well, we invited them back into the game, they took their chances, and they ended the game bullying Ireland. Dave Kilcoyne showed why he wasn’t starting, and the Irish pack is just a bit powder puff when the noose tightens. In times gone by, Ireland’s forwards were immovable objects, but, even allowing for the absence of Paul O’Connell, Fez and DJ Church, we are rather lightweight.

The backrow were impressive on the front foot in the first half, but lost shape entirely in the second. We’re losing patience with seeing Peter O’Mahony prominent in every handbags episode, but not in every defensive last stand when the opposition get the ball.  He has much to offer and has had a good series up until this match, but the faux-hardman act is becoming exhausting.  Someone needs to have a word in his ear.  Iain Henderson had a good cameo off the bench, and should be putting POM’s place under pressure. Sean O’Brien was Ireland’s best player, but the penalty he gave away was one of the stupidest in living memory.

Heaslip himself had his best game for Ireland in a while, with good metres gained and some feral clear-out work, but his leadership wasn’t there – he seems ill-at-ease with the responsibility, hesitant over major decisions and he does not inspire the confidence of his troops. He has also become oddly penalty expensive, never a feature of his game in the past.  To be a leader, you need followers, and Heaslip doesn’t have any.  His shell-shocked post-match interview in which he described Ireland as being ‘in a good place, but a mixed place’ showed how uncomfortable he is in the role; it was as if the words were coming out of his mouth without him really knowing what they were, or what they signified.

What’s most worrying is that Ireland don’t seem to have the ability to stem the flow when momentum swings against them.  All games have an ebb and flow, as teams exchange dominance over the course of 80 minutes.  In all three matches in this series, Ireland have found themselves under the kosh in the second half, but have been powerless to turn it around – or even to hang in there and effectively limit the damage.  The longer each game goes on, the worse Ireland seem to get.  Once Scotland got back to 8-6, we tweeted that we had ‘that sinking feeling’ – we never felt confident that Ireland would soak up the pressure and regain control.  To this end, it has not helped that Ireland’s reserves have been so useless.  None of ROG, Reddan, Toner or Kilcoyne provided much in the way of impact – in fact, the contrary was the case as momentum got away from us with scary speed.

This group looks rudderless on and off the pitch, and it’s simply time for a change.  Kidney has to accept responsibility for too many failed decisions this campaign; his decision to install Heaslip as captain looked a good one, but it has backfired.  It was a momentum-based decision, to carry some of the good vibes from November forward; a positive move, but now that the momentum has been squandered, where does it leave the team?  His blind spot towards Ian Madigan and oversight with regard to place kicking amounts to a blunder.  The regime is all but over.

Kidney’s Positive Step

Kidney’s training squad announcements rarely amount to much of a news day; in general everyone is invited to the party, and while it occasionally gives fans a chance to grumble over a stray omission (Paul Marshall and Fionn Carr in the past) the squad is usually intended to give away as little as possible.

In terms of personnel today’s announcement is little different.  Thirty-nine players are named, and while it’s good to see the likes of Ian Madigan and Robbie Henshaw included, given the size of the group, it’s impossible to derive anything meaningful from it.

However, the announcement that Jamie Heaslip will captain the Ireland team is a bit of news.  For the first time in almost a decade, Brian O’Driscoll will be on the Ireland team, but not the captain.  He says he’s ‘hugely disappointed’ and that the captaincy meant a lot to him.  Incidentally, the call was suggested by one of our many astute followers in the comment box recently.

It’s a positive move from Kidney for two reasons.  The first is player succession.  Brian O’Driscoll will not be going to the World Cup in 2015, and with a high degree of probability, won’t be around next season.  He’s yet to fully come back from his current injury layoff and is a doubt for the Exeter match this weekend (although likely to play, we understand).  It’s better to try to establish the next captain now than to wait until BO’D isn’t around.  It’s planning for the future, when he won’t be there; something Kidney’s critics – and that includes us – feel he hasn’t done enough of in his tenure.  Besides, having BO’D around to lean on will do Jamie no harm whatsoever as he grows into what is still a new role for him.

The second is continuity.  Sticking with Heaslip for the job signals a determination to carry forward the positive momentum generated in November, especially in the wins over Fiji and Argentina.  Heaslip is not everyone’s cup of mocha frappucino, and his debut as captain against South Africa did not go very well, but Kidney and Schmidt have only ever shown complete trust in him.  He enters the Six Nations in good form with Leinster and is a keystone of the pack.  It sets a positive tone, and one that we hope will be backed up with the remaining selections; in particular that Gilroy, Zebo and the in-form Fitzgerald will be considered for the wing positions, rather than Earls, who is not playing there and has been vocal about why, and – of huge importance – that the style in which Conor Murray played, and created space for Sexton to exploit in the win over Argentina, will be repeated in the Spring.

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.

In the jungle, the mighty jungle … Part 1

Today and Thursday we’ll run through the the potential Lions team to play against Australia in 2013. We’re going to start with who we see in pole position, who to watch for, who needs to improve and who will be too old. I’m going to cup the testicles of the forwards and ask them to cough today, and Palla will be giving the backs a thorough probing on Thursday.

As time goes on, we plan to re-visit our team, and presumably try to rationalize why we got it so wrong.

Unlike backs who can burst into the first team and stay there, forwards tend to improve incrementally. Hence most bolters are backs – we expect that any forward who could tour would be in first team by now – don’t expect too many shocking names below.

Front Row:

Pole position: Gethin Jenkins, Dylan Hartley, Dan Cole. Jenkins might be 33 in 2013 but he is still the best loose-head in the NH, although Cian Healy will be hard on his heels by then. Healy’s international team-mate Mike Ross is probably better than Cole now, but won’t be in 2013. Hartley could be captain but for his accent.

Look out for: Alex Corbisiero and the returning Matt Stevens at prop, and the future Irishman Richardt Strauss at hooker.

Needs to improve: Ross Ford, although as a non-awful Scotland player, he will probably tour anyway. Matthew Rees is the easy option but he is pretty uninspiring.

Too late for: Jirry certainly, possibly Adam Jones and Rory Best as well. Euan Murray checked out a while ago.

Second Row:

Pole position: Richie Gray, Courtney Lawes. These 2 are the future. Lawes added proper meat to his game last season, which was especially evident against Ulster. Paul O’Connell will tour as an elder statesman, but probably not start.

Look out for: Dan Tuohy – Ireland have not produced a real dynamic lock forward in a while – if Tuohy takes Donncha’s shirt next year, he will be the ideal deputy for Gray.

Needs to improve: Alun Wyn Jones’ athleticism might be very useful in Oz, but he will need to get back to 2008 form.

Too late for: Tom Palmer, Nathan Hines and Donncha. Presumably the miracle man Shawsy will have finally gone by 2013. Biiiiiiiiiig Bob might be too old (and immobile) as well.

Back Row:

Pole position: Sean O’Brien, Sam Warburton, Jeamie Heaslip. SOB just pips Fez for the blindside shirt, but the Samoans showed how raw power can upset the Wallabies, so Fez might still take it. Warburton is already a key man for Wales, and could be Welsh captain by 2013. Heaslip could be Lions captain.

Look out for: Tom Wood – if he continues his upward trajectory, he will contend for the 6 shirt. Ben Morgan becomes Welsh next year – the young Scarlets number 8 is a huge prospect.

Needs to improve: If John Barclay becomes the John Barclay on 2009, he has to go. The above goes for Johnnie Beattie as well. Tom Croft has the game, and just needs to re-discover his career momentum – the blinside flank is a crowded place. Le Hasque can cover both flanks, but needs to be a little more skillful.

Too late for: Wally *sniff* – what a man.

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Back Row

Wednesday’s post on the second row generated quite a bit of comment, so today we turn our attention to the back row.  Typically a strength of Irish teams, 2011 will be no different.  Indeed, there will be plenty of fine backrows sitting at home this September – Roger Wilson, James Coughlan, Dominic Ryan and Rhys Ruddock are all a fair way off contending a spot.
How many will go? We see it as five dedicated backrows as well as the 4/6 option, as discussed here.
Who is certain to travel? Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and David Wallace can start thinking about what rain gear to pack – they are going.  If – and it is a big if – Stephen Ferris can pronounce himself fit, he is on the plane, and would put Ireland in the ridiculous position of having four world class back rows and only three starting places to put them in.
Who is scrapping out for the last spots? A fit Ferris would leave just one spot available.  And while the back row is home to Ireland’s greatest depth, it is utterly crucial Declan Kidney gets the decision of who to bring in the last slot correct.  Most indicators would point to Denis Leamy getting the nod.  He’s a hardened, experienced international and a Kidney favourite who made all the Six Nations matchday squads.  The other main contender, Shane Jennings, has never appeared to be held in high regard by the Irish coaching staff.  If Leamy goes and Jennings doesn’t, it will be a grievous error.  Shane Jennings must go to New Zealand, and here’s why:
  1. Form. Leamy has had a poor season, was a leading figure in Munster’s discipline problems, and found himself dropped to the bench for the ML playoffs.  By contrast, Jennings was consistently excellent for Leinster, never more so than in the second half in Cardiff.
  2. Backrow balance.  If Leamy travels, Ireland’s backrow options will consist of a Number 8, an atypical ball-carrying openside and four blindsides.  Ireland’s ambition of playing running rugby without a specialist groundhog to produce that all-important quick ruck ball is highly unusual – it’s a core principal that if you want to run the ball, somebody has to dedicate himself to winning it on the floor.  There has to be room for the option of playing an out and out 7 for certain games, or at least unleashing one from the bench, and Jennings is the man for the job. 
  3. Plan B. Jennings would offer Ireland a different way of playing – a Plan B if you like.  He would also be crucial to slowing down opposition ball. Leamy is simply a lesser version of Stephen Ferris.
  4. If we do bring four blindsides and no genuine openside, it would be spine-chillingly reminiscent of Eddie’s ill-fated 2007 squad.  He left Heaslip and Gleeson at home and brought a raft of 6’s.  Whiff of Cordite will break out in a cold sweat if we feel we are repeating the same mistakes all over again, and we’re already nervous about several ‘untouchables’ in the XV…

What if Ferris doesn’t make it?  Kidney will probably have Jennings on standby if Ferris doesn’t make it.  We would see Leamy as the best fit as a replacement for Ferris’ power, so he would be our standby.  So, were this the case, we would end up in the same place as Kidney, even if we got there by a different route.  We would feel a little for James Coughlan, though – he has outplayed Leamy in 2011, but the suspicion remains that it is too late in the day for him to make the step up to international standard.

Any bolters?  With options stacked, it’s been hard for bolters to jump the queue.  Rhys Ruddock is highly rated by the coaching ticket, but didn’t get enough game time at the tail end of the seson to make a charge.

Should go: Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace, Sean O’Brien, Stephen Ferris, Shane Jennings.  On standby: Denis Leamy
Will go: Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace, Sean O’Brien, Stephen Ferris, Denis Leamy.  On standby: Shane Jennings