Bloody Foreigners

These bloody foreigners, coming over here, stealing our jobs. Especially in rugger. Wasn’t so long ago Ireland had a foreigner as captain (Dion O Cuinneagain) and the NIQs were coming in to teach us how to be good rugger players and explain that recovery from injury didn’t involve going on the lash – who knew?!  John Langford, Shaun Payne, Pippo Contepomi, Rocky Elsom, Johan Muller, etc have all passed through and left deep wells of knowledge.

But now we have largely succeeded in making the provincial playing pools more Irish – NIQs are now limited in scope and number, and the days of big name signings are gone (except in Connacht). Getting the balance right is never esay – the national side won a Six Nations this year, but the provinces are finding it increasingly tough against the French moneybags, possibly soon to be joined by English moneybags.  It’s a constantly shifting target and not easy to hit.

And we are still a little touchy about foreign players – when Joe Schmidt announced his squad this week, he had to defend the selection of Robbie Diack, who has qualified as a project player up at Ulster – here’s what he had to say:

“That’s a question for people over and above me. Players are either available or they are not. I think if Bundee Aki plays well and qualifies in three years, time he will be available to whoever is coaching the Irish team at that time to be selected. If they change the rules he may not be. As it stands at the moment I think there are some very good indigenous players and the vast majority of the squad is made up of those players.”

Now, there is an element of self-interest in some of those questions, as it was in the context of not selecting the likes of Tommy O’Donnell, Irish-born, who had been picked during the Six Nations. When it comes to, say, Jared Payne, in November, given we don’t have a plethora of obvious 13 candidates, one doubts this barrier will be thrown up.

This is especially interesting this week – and this is the point we were trying to get to – as Munster formally anounced their coaching ticket for next season. And, intriguingly, it’s an all-Irish one. In spite of the IRFU’s desire to limit the influence of for’dners, Ireland just can’t shake its fondness for Southern hemisphere coaches.  Not long ago there were four Kiwi head coaches across four provinces; the only thing that changed since then is that one went on to manage Ireland and was replaced by… an Australian.  As we know, Munster have chosen not to extend Rob Penney’s contract in spite of two successive HEC semi-finals and the successful transition from the bestest tactical outhalf ivir like to .. Ian Keatley.  The Belvo boy appeared to have inherited a poisoned chalice in taking the torch from RADGE, but all the time knowing that a local boy was waiting to take it off him.  But he has played to levels unforeseen by many commentators (ourselves included).

What Penney has achieved is to instill an adventurous and sometimes coherent style of play from a province perceived as being more comfortable with boot-and-bullock HEAVE type stuff. The aforementioned Keatley, Peter O’Mahony’s captaincy, Conor Murray’s journey to the best scrummie in Europe, the pack’s technical excellence all happened under Penney. Divvying up the credits is never an easy business, but between the players themselves, Axel Foley and Rob Penney, it’s largely been two years of gains.  Rog’s retirement was weathered surprisingly well, Paul O’Connell remains a totem and Stakhanov briefly re-invented himself as a winger. Epic-ish Heineken Cup wins against Globo Gym, Harlequins and Toulouse after four years of limping out of Europe get chalked up in the credit column and the eventual defeats were suitably close to go into the ‘heroic’ column.

And yet – he has never really fit in. Some of the team of the noughties (let’s call them Liginds) have persistently sniped at him for imposing a gameplan that the province are uncomfortable with – to be fair, for vast tracts of Penney’s reign, Munster have looked toothless and often gormless – but they have delivered when it matters, and have improved in every facet of the game since he took over. Very few rugby teams look good every week, in what is an increasingly fragmented rugby season.  Joe Schmidt’s Leinster came closest to consistency in the Pro12, but they were the first team since Leicester to win back to back European Cups, a rare breed indeed.  It’s hard to say that his reign has been anything but a success.

As Matt O’Connor is probably learning, it’s always easiest to blame the out-of-towner, and even Gerry Thornley’s assessment on Second Captains when asked if there was ‘any shame’ in how Munster lost the Pro12 semi-final seemed a little pointed, and alot OTT.  Yes there was, he said, given the manner of how it happened because they ran out of play twice.  Really?  ‘Shame’ in losing by a point away to a team that has become adept at peaking at this time of the season, because they ran into touch twice in the last 10 minutes?  Jamie Heaslip ran out of play twice when Wales beat Ireland in the 2011 World Cup, but you probably didn’t hear as much about it.

This is the backdrop for the appointment of the current coaching team – who have done nothing wrong here, let’s remember. From the outside, it always looked like the province wanted someone to come in, retire a few big beasts, bring through a few youngsters then hand the keys over to Axel – and that’s what has happened. They probably didn’t expect Penney to do as good a job, which will be Axels’ problem as he tries to live up to those standards. Or not, as he should get a decent honeymoon period.

So – to the Irish coaching ticket (all-Munster in fact) – it harks back to Deccie’s first stint in charge of Munster with Niall O’Donovan and co – a salt of the earth old-skool club coaching ticket. Jirry has been brought in as scrum coach, Micko as “technical advisor”, Brian Walsh as attack coach and Ian Costello as defence coach. A nice balance between Cork and Limerick, with nary an outsider in sight.  Lunch is sorted, fellas, it’s hang sangwidges and tins of lilt out of the back of Axel’s car, and we can all have a chat about the rubbish road from Cork to Limerick!

Where are they coming from?

  • Axel: currently Rob Penney’s number two, has spent time in the national setup under Deccie and the Milky Bar Kid. Generally gets credit for the packs technical skills, and is generally felt to have done a good job with Ireland too.  Although Penney was also a forward, so the real driver will become clear next year
  • Jirry: coming from joe.ie Arsenal, where he was on the conditioning side. With due respect, Arsenal’s conditioning at key moments of this season wasn’t spectacular – but that can’t be all his fault. This feels like a key personality to get on board, even if it might take time to bed into a coaching role. He has been uncomplementary about Munster’s younger players in the past and appeared to take a dig at Mick Galwey on his way out the gate from his playing days.  Jerry seems like an interesting, forthright individual, but in the same way that Foley is always heralded for his rugby brain, Fla never seemed to be a great rugby strategist; more of an instinctive wild man in fact!
  • Micko: er, he’s, er, played for the Baa-Baa’s. And has apparently “shown promise” in the coaching sphere
  • Brian Walsh: involved in the Academy, but most experience is with Cork Con in the AIL, where he won the league a couple of times
  • Ian Costello: former A team coach and Academy man, sports science/UL background

One must say, it’s a big gamble – every member of the coaching staff will be making a step up to a position they have never been in before. Most coaching tickets you see appointed have a few grizzled veterans or older hands in there to offer continuity. The gamble Munster are taking is that Axel provides the continuity and the chaps with familiar faces and accents will takes to Munster like ducks to water, ensuring a seemless transition. We must also say, it’s great to see a progression path for younger Irish coaches.  And while it’s more inward-looking than outward, it’s not that out of step with the way Leinster have gone about appointing coaches.  Matt O’Connor, Joe Schmidt and Michael Cheika all arrived as young and unproven, acclaimed for their role as second-in-command but untried as head honchos (at a big team at least).

It’s going to be a pretty steep learning curve for all of the ticket. So how will it pan out? Our guess is it’s unlikely to end with Donncha O’Callaghan on the wing.  And while that’s the case, it is probably wide of the mark to anticipate that the ball won’t go beyond the No.9 either.  While it’s tempting to see Foley as the ultimate old-skool Munsterman, warming-up by keeping the heat on in the car and shovelling in the recovery pints after training, his being “steeped in the Munster culture” has to be weighed against his oft-cited smarts as a player, which are presumed to inform a technically astute coaching brain that will be more than capable of imposing a modern and highly effective gameplan on the province.  So perhaps the ‘return to traditional Munster values’ (TM – the Cork Con meeja) won’t be on the menu just yet.  This is where the real fascination lies.  Everyone has had their suspicions that Foley and Penney have never been entirely ont he same page, and theirs has been an uneasy allicnce.  The direction in which Foley points Munster should give us a nice retrospective angle on whether or not that was the case.

Foley inherits a squad which looks pretty good, and is on an upward curve.  The emergence of Dave Foley, Sean Dougall and CJ Stander in the late season adds real depth to his pack and he will hope to have Donnacha Ryan and Mike Sherry for more of next season than he did this, and a rejuvenated Tommy O’Donnell would be a big help.  Robin Copeland arrives from Cardiff and James Coughlan ain’t done yet.  The likes of Kilcoyne, Cronin and Archer will be a year older and presumably better.  He has no real issues at half-back or in the back three – unless the outstanding Conor Murray ever gets injured that is, but he’s not the only coach who’s goosed in that eventuality.  If the two largely unknown quantities at centre turn out to be halfway decent, he will have every opportunity to keep Munster competitive.

He can expect an easier ride in the media than Penney got, because there will be huge goodwill behind him, and, how shall we put this, most of the key pundits are great pals with him!  But Munster fans will be as demanding as ever, and he’ll be expected to at least hit the marks Rob Penney did over the last two years.

El Grande Bob Caso y Jirry estan Terminado

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

World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 3

Just 10 days remain until Kidney names his World Cup squad, and last week’s performance and this week’s team announcment give us a little insight – but not too much – into who is likely to go and who isn’t.

On the surface, it all looks rosy for Donncha Ryan, who, having played in the second row last week,  is now given a chance at 6, and so can prove his versatility and bag himself a spot on the plane.  But think forward to next week, and the backrow could be something like Locky-Wallace-Heaslip, and the complexion would look somewhat different.  Would you rather play at home to France with Jamie and Wally beside you and Paul O’Connell in the second row, or go to Bordeaux with no O’Connell and Leamy at 8?

The same applies, to a lesser extent, to McFadden, who didn’t play well last week and finds himself out of the team – but next week in all likelihood BOD will be back.  If he was to play 12 inside BOD it would be seen as an endorsement of his chances. So it’s not all over quite yet for Ferg, though he looks odds-against at the moment.

Following the team announcement and last Saturday’s game we can infer a little about who’s looking good and who isn’t.

Practicing ordering fush’n’chups: All the back three. Rob Kearney came through 80 minutes and looked sharp.  He gets another start on Saturday.  Already a Kidney favourite, he can start laying a claim on the 15 shirt for the Australia game.  Luke Fitz looked a lot more confident, and though he kicked the ball away a little too often, he wasn’t exactly blessed with options by the time the painfully slow ball he was supplied with. Andy Trimble played with great intensity, as usual. All three look to be heading southwards next month.

Still hanging on the telephone: Donncha Ryan did reasonably well on saturday, but he will have a tough job on Saturday convincing that he’s an international 6. He’s up against Thierry Dusatoir dans la sud de France, so no pressure.  Jerry Flannery’s return was positive, but all he did was miss one throw. We need to see some of the old Jirry mongrel before declaring him back for good.

Buying their Electric Picnic tickets: It looks like Peter Stringer’s terrific international career may finally be up.  Sent to La Rochelle to play with Munster, he is the only scrum half yet to see action for Ireland.  Unless he starts at home to France next week, which he won’t, then the game will be up.  Shane Jennings always needed to make a big impression to win Kidney over, and injury looks to have robbed him of that chance. We are presuming Wally will get a start next week in the 7 shirt, with Jenno togging out against Connacht.  A pity.

As for the game itself, it could be a long night for Ireland.  It’s not the most defensively robust 9-10-12-13 Ireland have ever put out and Mermoz and Marty will most likely look to run at the goalposts and hope for some change.  Keep an eye out for the French debutant, Biarritz No. 8, Raphael Lakafia.  We haven’t seen too much of him, but he’s regarded as a huge prospect and someone who could star at the World Cup.

Finally, Meejawatch.  It was interesting that Brendan Fanning and not Gerry Thornley had the inside track on the team this week.  Could Kidney be playing them against each other?  Gerry will have to up his uncritical fawning over the regime and justification of tactics and selection, no matter how bogus, to get back into Teacher’s good books.