Blood, Sweat and Tears

Well. What about that? Ireland finally exploded into life in this tournament and it had everything great about the Schmidt era – strong systems, disciplined defending and accurate rugby – allied to the old school emotional highs of previous glory days. As Ireland’s players dropped like flies, the team, every time, stepped it up another level – the collective desire reaching higher and higher pitch. The so-called replacements managed to make the team even better, and the controlled fury displayed by the likes of NWJMB and Chris Henry would do the stricken O’Connell proud.

As the game went on, Ireland somehow got better and better – what started out with Peter O’Mahony continued throughout the game with Besty and Sean O’Brien, and was picked up and returned with interest by the replacements. The most incredible thing was the response to losing 2 gold-plated Irreplaceables and our best player of the tournament was how we didn’t collapse, but took the adversity, and turned it around on the French. By full time, Ireland had their fourth biggest victory over France of all time, their first double digit win in 40 years, and it could have been more.

The Mole opined on this forum a few weeks ago that he thought Henderson was better than Fez – certainly his tackle on Bernard le Roux was Ferris-esque, and on a big man too. He was truly unstoppable, as was Chris Henry in his cameo. With O’Connell, Henderson’s level of play is clearly now on a different and higher level, but its the intangibles you would worry about replacing. Munster and Ireland are typically 30% better (we’ve done the science) with O’Connell on the pitch – while the team has a strong leadership corps, O’Connell is still the heartbeat. By the same token, despite O’Mahony being our best player for the first 50 minutes, we lost nothing with Chris Henry. With Henry, its more of a step sideways to a different kind of player than a step down. Yet O’Mahony is Munster captain, and we have lost that.

And a word for Ian Madigan – you are coming on to replace Jonny Sexton – a Test Lion starter, one of the best outhalves on the planet. You’ve spent the last two years stuck behind a Kiwi journeyman at provincial level and had to listen to everyone telling you that you are the poor mans Carlos Spencer – and extravagantly talented player who cannot control a game. Well, way to answer them – the second half was bossed by Madigan in a performance we would be hailing as world class if was produced by Sexton, or Carter, or Sanchez. His emotions at the end of the game reflected how we all felt – immense pride, and definitely a few tears.

The mid-game losses were severe – Sexton was vomiting on the pitch, and it looked to us like a whiplash injury. With his history of head trauma, this is very bad news. There official story is that it was muscular, and we really hope that is the case. The alternative could be career-threatening .. as O’Connell’s injury looked to be. Tearing a muscle off the bone requires long-term rehabilitation, and one wonders if his Toulon adventure is still on the cards. Finally, up to the point he went off, O’Mahony was everywhere – the rock of our defensive lineout, he’s a massive loss.

The French, as *ahem* predicted by us, were atrocious  – Picamoles was a force of nature in the first half but in attacked they offered nothing bar speculative Scott Spedding penalties. We saw Flaky Freddie, and even Dusautoir was mishandling. This, of course, was entirely predictable – anyone with a set of functioning eyes could have seen Saint-Andre’s (lack of) coaching leading the team to this point. The team was unstructured, directionless and shapeless for four years, and chickens are coming home to roost. Despite all the claptrap we read last week about them, France were as bad as expected:

  • They have never been in better shape. Really? I would hate to see them in worse shape – wilting after an hour, they had nothing in the tank at the end
  • They are a united camp after spending months together. They were a collection of individuals, like they have been for the entire PSA reign
  • You never know what team will turn up. You do – they haven’t beaten Ireland or Wales in this RWC cycle
  • They prefer World Cups to Six Nations. Another cracker – this must be why they won the 6N in 2007 before crashing out of the RWC to a rubbish England team and then finished runners-up in 2011 before enduring a miserable RWC in which they made the final almost by default.

Thankfully, Barnesy never bought into this rubbish and stated unequivocally France were hopeless. He was in a sad minority. They will lose to a spluttering BNZ by 20 points.

The flip side of this is that, while we’ve beaten them so comprehensively, we have paid a massive price for doing so. When the emotional high dies down, you wonder would you have preferred to have played as badly as we did against Italy and lost, but have Sexton, O’Connell, O’Mahony and O’Brien (following his reaction to Pascal Pape, a dirty dirty player, giving him an impromptu prostate massage) for the quarter final. That’s a loss of 252 Test caps and 3 Test Lions – a huge price to pay. And, indeed, the successive highs were themselves driven by the losses – a counterfactual with O’Connell and Sexton present for 80 minutes could well end with a similar result without such a huge investment of emotional energy.

That experience is what we’ll struggle to replace. Joe Schmidt’s systems are so strong that the likes of Madigan, Henry, Henderson and McGrath can come straight off the bench with no negative impact on team performance. But it will be very different with upheaval in the camp (minimum three players being replaced), a diminished bench and the loss of 252 caps from managing the endgame. Factor in the investment in emotional energy expended and this will be a long tough tiring week for the squad, ahead of a really hard game. But for the moment, we’re still on a high.

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Group of Dearth

The latter stages of the World Cup have started to take shape as the pools head towards their denouement with only the BNZ pool more or less sorted. In that pool, the standard of rugby has been strong, with BNZ creaking in the second quarter but putting in one of the best 20 minutes of football seen yet in their opening game with Argentina. The Pumas, for their part, have looked invigorated after four years of the Championship – in previous World Cups they have looked like a Northern Hemisphere team, full of forward power and strong kicking games, but here they look like a combination of South African forwards and Australian backs. And, speaking of huge forwards, Georgia have been cowed by no-one and the sight of their brutish pack staring bemused at the haka was one for the ages – we couldn’t think of a team less likely to be intimidated. Gorgodzilla has been a force of nature, and his emotional response to being named MOTM * on Friday night was what the development of Tier 2 rugby should be about.

Here in Ireland we have never quite got to grips with the concept that the pool stages of the world cup are for the most part a warm up exercise, and that the real business starts in the quarter finals.  In all except the freakish Pool of Death, the two teams coming out of each pool have been flagged well in advance, and so – even with South Africa’s early abberation – everything has panned out as expected.  The only thing down for decision in the vast majority of world cup pools dating back to whenever, is the fight between first and second, which isn’t always of great consequence.  In 2011, Ireland placed too much importance on having beaten Australia in the pool.  It was a fine performance and tactically shrewd, but ultimately immaterial.  In the quarter finals, when winning really mattered, Ireland fluffed their lines and Australia, who had come second in the pool, advanced to the semi-finals.

The only pool with no teams yet qualified (mathematically anyway) is the South Africa one. In reality, the Springboks are home and hosed – the defeat against Japan woke the squad up, and with Meyer privately briefing against Jean de Villiers’ twin for crimes against the gameplan in that defeat, the defeat and the captain’s injury has allowed Meyer to let yoof have its fling. Damian de Allende and the ginormous Lood de Jager have come in for JdV and Victor Matfield – the physical comparison with Scotland seemed unfair at times, and their pure beastliness will take them far but the team still feels a little callow at this point. Even if Wales lose to the Wobs, as seems likely, they might fancy a cut off these Boks. Second place will come down to Samoa-Scotland – if the Scots win, they are through, if Samoa win Japan will get through with a bonus point win against the USA. Whatever about (largely made-up) Celtic brotherhood, we for one will be cheering heartily for Samoa on Saturday.  But with Samoa a disorganised shambles, the Scots should coast into the quarter finals.

In the Pool of Death, England have had the huge misfortune to come up against two of the best coaches in the world coaching intelligent and focused teams, at just the wrong time. Australia followed up on Wales’ triumph with a scintillating display of scrummaging, backrow brilliance and creativity out wide – England’s props were taken out of the firing line before the hour mark! We’ll have a scapegoat watch on England later in the week, but few would have lived with the Wobblies on Saturday night. Fiji were also hotly tipped to cause an upset of one of the big three – in the event, they didn’t really come close, with just too much inaccuracy against good teams, but man they can play when they want to.

And what then of Ireland’s pool? The only one without any Southern Hemisphere skill or Pacific Island magic has largely stunk the tournament out, to be frank. The pool has been peppered with low standard and forgettable games, with Ireland-Italy merely being the latest – all three French games have been desperately poor quality. Canada have brought some of the effervescent Tier 2 buzz that have characterised the tournament, to be fair. The pool carries a faint whiff of the English pool in the last tournament – chock full of European teams (and Argentina in their previous Northern Hemisphere iteration) – the pool was defined by forward power and was eminently forgettable, barring the amusing off-field tales concerning the England players. When it came to the knockouts, both Argentina and England were dumped out without too much bother – and they weren’t lamented.

The nagging worry at this point is that the general lack of inspiration present proves fatal to Ireland and France in the next round when they will be abruptly exposed to high class rugby, with New Zealand and Argentina waiting, probably two of the best three sides to this point.

The Italian game at the weekend was, by some distance, the worst performance of the Joe Schmidt era – this is a very limited Italian side, yet Ireland somehow managed to make Simone Favaro and Edoardo Gori look like Schalk Burger and Aaron Smith. Schmidt’s success has been built on forcing mistakes from opponents through an extremely accurate kicking game, intelligent rucking and watertight defence – all three elements were conspicuous by their absence on Sunday. If it wasn’t for Italy’s inability to run a lineout (and O’Mahony’s defensive excellence – he may have been called Ireland’s Bakkies Botha last week (!) but could Bakkies have made that tackle? I don’t think so) today’s conversation would be very different, and much more fraught.

Expect the usual commentary about us playing badly being a good thing because <cup rugby> and <complacency>. In truth, cup rugby doesn’t involve kicking the ball away and hanging on by your fingertips, and you’d have thought that three games into a World Cup, we wouldn’t need a reminder of what is at stake. But there is good news – the expected return of Jared Payne and Bob will beef up our defence and kicking game, and it pretty tough to see Conor Murray playing this badly again. The lack of form shown so far this year by Sexton and O’Brien is a concerning issue – and while Schmidt might be tempted to turn to Chris Henry, we urgently need Sexton to show some of his best form.

Another positive is that this France team thrive on one thing and one thing only – beef in the tight. The set piece has been a continual strength, even against Italy, and that is unlikely to change. If our rucking work improves and our defence is a little less passive, we have it well within our werewithall to keep them out – add in how vulnerable they looked to DTH van der Merwe, and you might just expect the likes of Earls to look threatening .. if Ireland manage to get the ball to him. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater – if Ireland tighten up on the basics, they will beat an unstructured and poorly-coached France team, and that’s what they should concentrate on. Forget not knowing which French side will show up, let’s worry about ensuring the correct Ireland side show up – the one which kicks and rucks well.

* This being the first RWC in the mass social media era has been both good and bad – it’s been good for the fans worldwide who can now read the likes of Dorce and Charlie Morgan, whose forensic brilliance has been brought global by new meeja. The bad: the nonsensical MOTM system. Around the 50 minute mark of every game, a WR gnome nominates three players who are then voted upon by ver people. This horseshit system got the result it deserved on Saturday night, when Joe Launchbury was named MOTM in the aftermath of one of the great World Cup performances … by his opponents. Gorgodzilla is a rare exception.

Best World Cup Evah

Before we nail our Ireland preview to the metaphorical door of Wittenberg church that is tinterwebs, we need to consider just a couple of things:

  • The best teams in the world usually win the competition – obvious question marks surround the BNZ teams of 1995 and 2007 – the South African team that won so memorably in ’95 did very little else, and while the ’07 team peaked 24 months later when winning the Tri Nations and beating GivvusahugShawsie and 14 other red-clad men, but BNZ blew both in truth. However, no other champions weren’t the best team (either at the time or in retrospect) and indeed neither group of Springboks were unworthy champions.  Everyone associates the 2011 New Zealand winners with the nervous wreck that fell over the line in the final, but scroll back to the semi-final, quarter-final and pool stages and they were the best team in the tournament
  • Runners-up are not necessarily the second best team in the competition – this isn’t a league, remember. While the cream normally rises to the top, no-one is going to remember the 2003 Wobblies, 2007 English or 2011 French as vintage crops. Indeed, most in English rugby seem to have wilfully expunged the Ashton era from memory, and the French lost to Tonga and were an utter shambles rescued only by the leadership of Thierry Dusautoir, one of the all-time greats
  • Ireland have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals – and have really only had two tournaments you could judge a success, and 2011 only was one because we claimed a Southern Hemisphere scalp. That’s been our level, like it or not.  Put simply, Ireland’s record in these tournaments is pretty average at best, dire compared to our pretensions

So what was all that in aid of then? Well, let’s start on the third point – Ireland haven’t progressed beyond a quarter-final. It’s hard to pinpoint a time when Ireland were obviously among the best in the world – top 8 has been our level. Are we better than that now? Easy to say yes, clearly, on the back of our back-to-back Six Nations, but it’s not that simple. If we consider England, Wales and Ireland during the Schmidt era, games between the three have resulted in two wins each. In the last edition, the teams finished with the same number of points, with Ireland taking the gong on points difference. In our view there is a fly-paper between the sides.

If there is a fly-paper between them, there is a hardback book to the level the Southern Hemisphere showed during the Rugby Championship – it would be hard to see any of the Northern Hemisphere powerhouses living with the general standard produced during the summer. But – like we said – it isn’t a league. Ireland, quite obviously, aren’t the best team in the world, or anything close to it, but while that might preclude us wining the thing, it isn’t the end of the world (see: Lievremont, Marc – 2011). A semi final would constitute a “best tournament ever”, and seems to be something of a national obsession – and it’s achievable.

The major reason to think Ireland can reasonably consider this as a great chance to better their previous best is the draw. If Schmidt was asked to pick a top seed from BNZ, SA, England and France – he’d pick France. If he was asked to pick a third seed between Wales, Scotland, Italy and Tonga – I think he’d pick Italy. Aside from the fag-end of the Deccie era, we haven’t had any trouble with Italy since before Dorce’s international career. And Italy in Rome in the spring is one thing, Italy in a World Cup is another.  They travel terribly, and have been hopeless in World Cups.  It’s a dream pool, eminently winnable. And if we do, the only preferable quarter final opponent to the runner up to BNZ’s group is the one in South Africa’s – but still, at least we’re avoiding the one from England’s group. Compare a scenario where Ireland were drawn with England and Wales in the pool stages – would you be as confident? Hardly. So that’s great.

If Ireland win their pool and lose in the quarter finals, is that a success? No, quite frankly, it isn’t – we’ve done that, four years ago, and despite the best efforts of Gerry and co. to insist otherwise, it was a disappointment. The nature of the quarter final defeat made it worse, but there is no such thing as heroic defeat in a World Cup – just defeat. If we don’t win the pool, we play BNZ – and we won’t win, lets be honest with ourselves. So to make the semis and make the tournament a success (by our definition), the path is winning the pool and beating the runners up from the BNZ pool. Can we do it, and what comes next?

The Pool

We will beat Canada with the firsts, Romania with the dirt trackers and Italy with the firsts. No doubt. Move on.

What about France? The mere sight of a grizzled French prop sucking on a Gitanes or an athletic and good looking wing looking suggestively at Clare Balding used to make Paddy go weak at the knees and slack-jawed, allowing the tanned and self-confident Pierre to walk in multiple tries against us. But no longer – since the O’Leary game over four years ago, we haven’t lost to our bete-noir (thanks Gerry!). Deccie fought out two draws and Schmidt has beaten them twice. Nothing has been easy, but we still haven’t lost to them. Looking in more depth at the players in our squad, we have eleven who have never lost to the French (Madigan, Henry, Henshaw, Kearney Jr, McGrath, Murphy, Payne, Toner, Zebo, Henderson, O’Mahony), all of whom will have aspirations of being in the 23, and only Earls, Jackson and Ryan have never beaten them.

It’s a nice habit. Plus, for all the cliches about “not knowing what France will turn up”, we’re going to go out on a limb here and say that we know exactly what France will turn up – the rabble we have seen since Philippe Saint-Andre took over. They have finished fourth, sixth, fourth and fourth in their Six Nations and have a grand total of 1 (videprinter moment – ONE) win over teams that aren’t Scotland and Italy in competitive games in this entire RWC cycle. They are a directionless, shapeless excuse of a team that will be piloted by Freddy Michalak! We keep hearing about all this Herculean training they are doing, but listen – they were so woefully out of shape in recent years, it’s the least they need to avoid disgracing themselves.

The team are still – still! – constructed around the peerless Dusautoir, but the supporting cast, while individually excellent, just aren’t doing it in blue. The pack are huge, but what good is a huge pack if you can’t actually win any games on the back of it. For all the behemoth hugeness, they lack mobility.  Maestri, Atonio, Guirado – big men, but hardly sprightly, and not to be feared. What, on paper, is an impactful bench, is nothing of the sort – all we can remember is France hanging on at the end of games, not stepping on the gas. Constant chopping and changing in the backs has left us with Scott Spedding in the first team. If you cut them an even break, like England did in Twickers, they will run in a few tries, but play with accuracy and structure and you’ll beat them. Sure, it’s going to be tough going, and we’ll examine some of the micro issues in depth the week of the game, but we’re not buying any talking up of the French – this is the worst team they have had in memory, and we will beat them.

Knockouts

After that, we’ll be playing the runners up in the BNZ pool – likely Argentina. Ireland have been consistently ranked above Argentina in recent years, but for an odd reason: while we have hoovered up ranking points against Italy, Scotland and France, they have bled them by losing to BNZ, South Africa and Australia. Each year, they have got closer – and this year they hammered SA in Durban, having topped the Wobs in Mendoza the year before. They’ve been largely competitive, and had the best scrum in the competition for the last two years. It’s worth asking Schmidt what preparation he would prefer – playing and losing the RC or playing and winning in the 6N – there are arguments for both. And they will fancy beating us as well – they always do.

The UAR have for once done a good job, and have harvested players at home for the Super Rugby franchise that will start in 2016, with the majority of their squad now based at home. They are sprinkled with world class players (Ayerza, Creevy, Fernandez Lobbe, Sanchez, Imhoff) and are fit and rested. Similar to how Ireland will use their first three games to build up to France, Argentina play BNZ first and will use the games against Georgia, Tonga and Namibia to build up to play us.

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

After that, we think Ireland will have met their match. A week after that, it’s the winner of the Group of Death (more of which anon) and for us, that’s as far as we go. A week out from Argentina facing a team who will likely have whacked Scotland pretty easily and taken off important players with 30 minutes to go. No shame, but we see a tired Ireland unable to go to the well three weeks in a row – this is a tough tournament and our best simply won’t be enough. And there is no shame in that – for this, remember, will be our best effort ever in a tournament in which we usually fall flat on our faces.

High Risk

By now we’ve all seen the squad, read the analysis and recoiled in horror at Hugh Farrelly’s devastating, chilling ‘six-step nightmare scenario’ that leads inevitably to Ian Madigan playing scrum half for the majority of the crucial pool match against France.  Yes, it’s all become very clear: Joe Schmidt has taken some serious risks with his 31 man squad selection.  So we’re here to run over each unit, and ask: what should Joe have done.  Y’know, to reduce the risks of something awful happening as a result of injury to one of our best players in the captain’s run.  Anyone who knows anything about the game knows that lads are forever getting injured in the captain’s run.

Front Row

Very risky stuff here.  Only two looseheads selected, one of whom isn’t even fit yet.  This is a high risk situation.  This would have been entirely alleviated had Schmidt drafted in David Kilcoyne.  Further risk reduction could have been achieved by also including Michael Bent in the panel.

Second Row

At first glance, Ireland look well stocked at second row with no less than four first-rate players to choose from.  But have you considered this scenario: O’Connell, Toner, Ryan and Henderson are all struck down with a mystery virus that hits only competent locks and makes them shrink to 1.5m tall overnight! With Rory Best’s arse identified as the source, Schmidt has no choice but to call up Paul Marshall and Strings to cover Chris Henry, our new tighthead lock. Hardly an ideal situation I’m sure you’ll agree.  Schmidt could have avoided this needless risk by selecting three additional locks: step forward Mike McCarthy, Dan Tuohy and Donncha O’Callaghan.

Back Row

Looks ok, doesn’t it?  But remember that Henry is covering the second row (see above) and things don’t look so pretty.  Schmidt should have given consideration to Clive Ross as additional cover.

Scrum Half

The big one.  The mega-risk.  Just two recognised scrum halves.  And Ian Madigan!  Schmidt was keen to tell us that Madser has been practicing scrum half in his mum’s garden all summer, but who is he kidding?  Not us!  And not Hugh Farrelly!  Hugh has already carefully outlined the unthinkable scenario, where Murray and Reddan get injured, leaving Madigan to throw passes from the base of the ruck for 70 minutes against France.  Now let’s dream of the alternative.  The third scrum half that isn’t: instead of Madigan we get Isaac Boss.  For 70 minutes against France.  Oooooohhh, that’s some soothing balm right there.  Feels better, doesn’t it?

Fly Half

We’ve heard it all so often: Ireland’s world cup is goosed if Jonny gets injured.  So why take the risk?  Why be so dependant on one player?  Schmidt should have just left Jonny at home and saved us all the worry about his occasionally jumpy hamstrings.  With little to choose between Madigan, Jackson and Keatley it wouldn’t matter a damn if one of them got injured.

Outside Backs

The only position where Ireland are well covered, thank goodness.  Even if all the wings get injured in the captain’s run, as appears likely, we can at least be assured that Jordi Murphy has experience there.  And, while few will recall such a little discussed fact, it should also be noted that Peter O’Mahony did once play on the wing in an AIL final.

We sign off with a simple plea to Paul O’Connell: just for goodness sake go easy on the lads in the captain’s run!

Faces That Fit(z)

It’s funny really – history will note that we lost our final home warm-up 16-10 to Cuddly Nemesis Wazza and his Welsh minions (giant minions), but the conversation, from the second Paul O’Connell expectedly eschewed the opportunity to take credit, moved on to the RWC15 squad announcement. Were Earls and Fitzgerald badly injured, or would they make the squad? Did Dave Kearney cement his place? Is Jordi Murphy a better option in the backline than Isaac Boss? How can we parlay some #OUTRAGE into the conversation?

One other thing that we left thinking was this: will, as looks inevitable, Iain Henderson force his way into the XV? And, is Sexton priming himself for a classic Irish outhalf World Cup meltdown? (joke) (sort of)

But anyway, the squad – for some reason we can’t understand, Ireland chose to submit the squad to World Rugby on the 31st, pre-deadline, then schedule a press conference to talk about it on the 1st. Inevitably, it leaked – so we’ve had a bit of time to digest it. There are three big calls – Andrew Trimble missing out, Tadgh Furlong being selected, and Darren Cave making it (indirectly) at the expense of Boss.

Most headlines were about Trimble, who was Irish rugby’s POTY exactly one year ago. And yet – it’s the least surprising. Schmidt himself talked about it before the Wales game – Trimble has played 34 minutes in eight months. And 80 minutes for Ulster on Friday wasn’t enough to convince the brains trust to include him. It might be dividing opinion, but it’s at least understandable. Trimble’s injury woes were compounded by some excellent showings by Dishy Dave and Earls in the warmups – Kearney Jr seems to be a lightning rod for criticism (“Daverage”) but he’s Ireland form wing right now, and we’d probably have him in the Test team. And while it’s easy to fulminate about Trimble’s exclusion – it’s tougher to argue against the inclusion of the guys who have made it – we have depth at wing. Brian Carney won’t be going to this World Cup.

All that said, given the injury histories of the wings that we have brought, and the attrition rate in modern rugby, at this point we still suspect Trimble will ultimately go to his third World Cup.

One person who will likely not go to a third World Cup whatever the circumstances is Isaac Boss – he played himself off the team against Scotland and now Ian Madigan will be the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency scrummie. True, it leaves us exposed should one of our scrum halves take a short-term knock. But a squad of just 31 means coaches have to take risks somewhere.  Look at Australia and Wales, and England; each have at least one position where they don’t have as much cover as they woudl like.  It’s a tight squeeze and every coach has to choose where to double down and where to hope for a bit of good fortune.

The man who will be going in Boss’ stead is, incredibly, Face Doesn’t Fit. Darren Cave came closest to the Ireland team in the lead up to the 2012 Six Nations when his BODness went down and he was in the form of his career. Then he got knacked, and Keith Earls got the gig and went well. That’s right – Keith Earls is an international standard outside centre. Since then, Cave hasn’t troubled the scorer in green – and after a disappointing tour to Argentina last summer his international career looked as good as over. However, with Dorce and Boss falling off a cliff, he’s suddenly back in favour as specialist centre backup – and in the first Welsh buildup game he played as well as he has ever done for Ireland. We called this one as a possibilty last week; Cave can cover both centre positions, and without him in the squad, midfield back-up was worryingly threadbare, especially at 12.  Madigan has enough to work on at out-half where he is a very real possibility for the matchday bench.  Still, one has to wonder about no less than four other Ulstermen who may be in the conversation in other circumstances – Bamm-Bamm and Olding if they had stayed fit, Stuart McCloskey if he happened to be a year older, and of course, nearly three years after his tragic passing, Nevin Spence. But Cave deserves his selection.  He was an unsung herop for Ulster last year and has consistently played to a good level, even if that level appears to fall just short of top class.

At first glance, the call to bring Tadgh Furlong as fifth prop seems needlessly risky and indeed, rather barmy. When we cranked back into gear after a lazy summer, our first post was about the front row. We thought we would be bringing six specialists – three for each side. Since Schmidt made it clear he was going for a 17-14 split, that has not looked like happening.  We thought that spelled good news for Michael Bent, given his ability to cover both sides of the scrum to moderate effect, but that hasn’t happened either.  The picture has been complicated by Cian Healy’s race to prove himself fit.  And a further development is that Marty Moore has also been injured.

But while, on the face of it, the Healy situation appears to require extra cover at loosehead, in fact it’s quite the opposite.  Management are obviously confident Healy will be fit – they’ve been monitoring him on an hourly basis, so let’s assume they’re well positioned to make the call. And if he’s fit the only thing he’s missing is match-time, which means he’ll need to get as much of it as possible in the first two quasi-warm-up games against Canada and Romania.  It means there’s no substantial part for a third loosehead.  On the tighthead side, Schmidt can comfortably rotate his three men over the first two games; on the loosehead side, he needs to get his main man up to speed.

We can bet Schmidt will want to get all 31 of his men on the pitch at some point, in order to keep up morale and unity.  If David Kilcoyne, say, was picked instead of Furlong, he’d simply be hanging around the hotel room.

Muddy Waters

The waters are muddying. We thought we had it all under control. Michael Bent, 17 forwards, six half-backs leaving a jam to squeeze eight players in to suffieciently cover off all the outside back positions. Done!

Then Isaac Boss goes and plays so badly that Ian Madigan looks set to be required to cover scrum-half in the now-unthinkable scenario where one or both of Conor Murray and Eoin Reddan get injured. It’s a bit of a throwback to 2007 when Geordan Murphy was nominally our third choice fly-half. Madigan has scarcely any experience there, and while Schmidt has no doubt thought this through very carefully, the best we can go on is that Madigan is a really good passer and quick over the ground, so he has some of the constituent parts of the scrum-half’s game. Time was that was probably enough, but given the modern day scum half’s requirement to dig slow ball out of messy rucks, escape the attentions of flailing limbs before getting the ball away and box-kick for territory, it’s not that simple.

Anyway, the hope is that it will simply never come to pass. Madigan might have to fill in there for 20 minutes against Canada, but that’s likely to be as big a deal as it gets. Hopefully. And no, this isn’t like Matt Giteau acting as emergency third scrummie for Oz – Gits is outrageously talented and one of the best players in the world – he has six caps for the Wobblies at scrum half. We would be asking Madigan to do something he hasn’t ever done before – well, almost never.

However, what it would do is allow one extra berth in the back five, which was looking worryingly tight with just eight names, especially with cover at centre and full-back looking like being a mish-mash of players more used to playing in other positions. Ian Madigan was down in most people’s heads as the primary cover at 12, but it would seem to be a peculiar everything-and-nothing workload for the bequiffed one to have to perform the role of back-up for three different positions. Here’s how we saw it:

Centres: Henshaw, Payne, Earls

Wings: Zebo, Bowe, Trimble, Dave Kearney

Full-backs: Rob Kearney

Cover for inside centre would have been provided by Madigan, and Zebo would be primary cover for full-back.

That’s your eight, and excludes Luke Fitzgerald, Felix Jones and Darren Cave, as well as those further down the pecking order, Gordon D’arcy and Craig Gilroy.

The Madigan-to-9 thing would allow room for one more of the above names to squeeze in. A lifeline for Fitzgerald? That might be one’s first assumption, but given the woefully thin cover at centre, it might just be that someone like Darren Cave, more specialised centre cover and comfortable at both 12 and 13, could be drafted in. A further option is to bring Felix Jones, just the type of hard-running, hard-working player Schmidt appears to be a big fan of, could make it, with Zebo allowed to focus solely on the wing.  Too much is perhaps made of the ability of Payne and Henshaw to cover full-back.  They’re Ireland’s first choice centre partnership, so Schmidt would be loathe to have to break them up in the event of injury to Kearney.  It’s too much shuffling around.

The Welsh selection may start to reveal some, or none, of this. The plot thickens, the picture becoming less clear, rather than more clear, by the day.

Off The Plane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among the outside backs, it got interesting.

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

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

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

Glass Half Full

Four years ago, the half-back combination were Ireland’s biggest personnel headache heading into the World Cup – at scrum-half, Tomas O’Leary was the first choice but was playing like a drain – he was being kept out of the Munster team by young tyro (© Gerry) and 4th choice at Ireland Conor Murray and all attempts to play him into form were progressively worse. One out, after 18+ months of prevaricating between Jonny Sexton and RADGE, we still had not decided on our starting outhalf.

Unsurprisingly, this all came back to bite us – while Conor Murray smoothly stepped up and ended the tournament as starter, it was too much to ask of him to play the French petit general role. That one went to Ronan O’Gara Jonny Sexton Ronan O’Gara, which didn’t work out. Not Radge’s fault, but chickens came home to roost.

This time around it’s all so different – bringing Benty (PLEASE – let’s keep him out of this one below the line) means we have space for an extra back, which looks like being Ian Madigan, meaning squad selection dilemmas are virtually nil.

Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton would likely be the Lions starting pair if a tour started tomorrow, and Eoin Reddan is the back-up change-up scrummie on the bench.  Reddan had a poor season for Leinster, but was superb against Wales, albeit with the ball presented on a silver platter.  The only remaining question is who Sexton’s backup is – while he has started 15 games under Schmidt, he has only finished 2, with 1 of those being injury-enforced – so this is a live question.

Under Schmidt, Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan and Ian Keatley have all started one game but Jackson and Madigan have vied for the first reserve position, with Jackson sitting on the bench for the 2014 Six Nations (except, famously, the last game) and Madigan for the other series. The generally accepted pecking order is that Madigan is the bench guy, but if Sexton is injured Jackson or Keatley are preferred. Since Keatley displaced Jackson in the squad for the 2014 November internationals, their form-lines have sharply diverged – Jackson has returned from injury playing heads-up and sharp rugby right on the gainline and is a good defender, while Keatley was a harrowed mess by season end. Madigan, the best goal kicker of the three by a distance, was stuck behind Jimmy Gopperth for most of Matt O’Connor’s Leinster reign, and was playing like Keatley for the tail end of it. When the wider squad was named, Keatley was out and Jackson and Madigan were in.

Jackson started the Wales game, playing well but kicking from the tee again remains a concern, and the received wisdom is that Mad-dog will get a shot at Scotland. And the likelihood is that all three will make the squad – Jackson will be Sexton’s nominal backup if he goes down while Madigan will wear number 22. If Sexton does go down and Jackson starts a Test, the biggest question remains around his place-kicking – while Sexton and Madigan are 80+% men, Jackson is 70%, on a good day (he went 4/7 against Wales and missed one easy kick). Can we trust an outhalf who isn’t a guaranteed kicker? It certainly contributed to Sexton’s demotion in 2011.

This time around, Jacko has been working with Dave Aldred, and Richie Murphy chalked Jackson’s first missed kick in the Millennium down to it being his first of the season coming early in the game, and him not being settled in his breathing yet. Mind you, would you trust Madigan to start a game, even with his kicking? At least it’s better than 2007, when the backups were Paddy Wallace (centre) and Geordy Murphy (fullback).

At least we know both will make the squad. At scrummie, the third slot seems likely to go to Isaac Boss, who, incredibly, will be going to his 3rd World Cup (as will Eoin Reddan) despite just 7 starts for Ireland – which must be some kind of record. At least Boss has been in and around matchday squads under Schmidt. Kieron Marmion looked to have inched ahead of him nine months ago, but a poor performance in the Wolfhounds game and a significant drop in performance in the second half of the season means Boss is back. After that, the dropoff is severe.

The squad, Test 23 and Test XV selections largely pick themselves, which is nice:

  • Test starter: Murray, Sexton
  • Test backups: Reddan, Jackson
  • Test bench: Reddan, Madigan
  • Tackle-bag duty: Boss

Kebabs All Round

The 2015 World Cup is the first one of the eight man bench era, and the All Blacks PR Department World Rugby have awarded everyone an extra squad place (and hopefully a bigger food allowance) to compensate them for the inconvenience. So that’s one extra slot, with Ireland going from four to five based on previous tournaments.

However, this is also going to the the first RWC where Ireland will have a substitution strategy, and backups will have a role to play beyond stepping in when the first choice gets injured. In the last two (ambi-propstrous) tournaments, Ireland have brought the following props along, with minutes played in crucial games (Argentina, France in 2007; Australia, Italy, Wales 2011) noted:

  • 2007: Starters: Marcus Horan (160), John Hayes (155). Backups: Simon Best (5), Bryan Young
  • 2011: Starters: DJ Church (232), Mike Ross (236). Backups: Patsy Court (12), Mushy

Bryan Young.  If you can remember anything about him, consider yourself the proud owner of a brand new hatchback.

Hard to see the bench men playing 17 collective minutes over five games this time around somehow. So if we now have four props that are critical members of the Test 23, of which we will need every man to play his role in the tournament. Best case scenario, we shove against Italy, France and Argentina just to get to a semi-final, so should Ireland be bringing a specialist backup for each side of the scrum?

First things first though – the first four slots on the plane, and jumpers 1, 3, 17 and 18 are locked in place with DJ Church, Jack McGrath, Mike Ross and Marty Moore all certain to travel. There was a flurry of “fears grow” stories started by the Indo about Church’s recovery last week, but there is simply no chance one of our few world class players won’t be given right up to kick off in the France game to get ready – he’ll be picked. And we’ve moaned incessantly about Ross starting ahead of Moore, but Ross’s performance have largely been good, and Schmidt has largely been vindicated, so we’ll park that one for another day.

So – five or six? O’Reilly suggested on Sunday that Schmidt was leaning towards five, and taking Michael Bent as the fifth prop in the squad, but that simply beggars belief – that would mean we are one injury away from pitching Bent in against the French for 20 minutes. Bent has made an admirable stab at nailing down a place in the Leinster squad (something we saw as his ceiling when he came over) but to suggest Leinster’s fourth choice tighthead could somehow play a meaningful role for Ireland in the World Cup is fairly fanciful.

With two props on the bench, the marketable skill that is being able to scrum on both sides is worth a lot less, and, given you are guaranteed to be facing a specialist, it all seems a bit pointless. Some will say “yeah, but if Church was injured, Schmidt would just call up Kilcoyne”, but if that’s the case, why even pick Bent in the first place if we are certain we won’t play him against the better sides? It seems an unnecessary risk.

Surely better to pick specialist backups on each side, and bring one less centre or wing or whatever – to place our World Cup hopes on the ability of Bent to hold up a side against Argentina seems a pointless risk. Tadhg Furlong and Dave Kilcoyne are the obvious choices for those roles – it seems to be too soon for James Cronin and to be fair to Kilcoyne, which we may not always have been, he’s a survivor in the scrum who is good on the ground and weighs in with more tries than you might think.

WoC’s Front Row squad picks: Healy, McGrath, Kilcoyne; Ross, Moore, Furlong

Playing Them Into Form

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh! *stretches arms* well, that was a fun summer vacation wasn’t it? The World Cup is very nearly upon us, and we’re beginning to get pretty excited about it all. There are only four warm-up games to go before it all starts, and what could possibly go wrong in those, eh? Eh, Geordie? Wally?? Whatever about the wisdom of playing three tough warm-ups and Scotland, surely surely they can’t go as badly as in years past? We have to negotiate:

  • Wales (away)
  • Scotland (home)
  • Wales (home), followed by squad selection announcement
  • England (away)

and two of those fixtures are the ones Joe Schmidt has lost in the Six Nations. While we look a cut below the Southern Hemisphere giants, we’ve been lucky enough to land in a Northern Hemisphere-heavy half of the draw – if we beat France, it’s Argentina (no gimme, but surely beatable) and then potentially England or Wales to get to a final. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

Ireland have a pretty settled squad and the vast chunk of the Test 23 are assured of their places. There will be some jockeying over tackle bag-holding slots (with one major positional exception – see below) but we are finding it tough to drum up OUTRAGE over the identity of the 31st guy to go. We’re going to think about how Ireland will get on in terms of a series of questions around the first choice 23 and preview accordingly:

  • Front Row: in the first RWC of the eight-man bench era, an extra slot has been added. We’ll look at this one first
  • New Willie John: Iain Henderson was the outstanding Irish player in the Pro12 post-last years 6N and his cameos in that tournament were of a high quality. We think it’s getting to the point where you simply have to pick him. Where though? Big Dev has quietly been one of Ireland’s most consistent players of the Schmidt era, and POM has been a critical component of the backrow. We’ll think about how we might use Henderson best
  • Backrow: four years ago, we had to pick three from Wally, Fez, SOB and Heaslip .. until Wally crocked himself in the warm-ups. Now we have to pick three from O’Mahony, Henry, O’Brien and Heaslip, all of whom have been selected when fit by Schmidt. Oh yeah, and there is Henderson as well.
  • Sexton and ….?: Jonny Sexton is far and away the best outhalf in Ireland, but the identity of his backup is still murky. Unlike in 2007, when Paddy Wallace and Geordan Murphy (!) would be assured of zero minutes when it mattered, Sexton’s increasing injury-proneness and Schmidt’s pro-active use of the bench means Wee Jacko, Mad-dog or even Ian Keatley might have a key role to play in this tournament
  • Wing competition: for the likes of Luke Roysh, Andy Trimble, Zeebs, Little Bob and Craig Gilroy, the possibilities for the tournament range from left at home kicking heels to Test starter. This position is where Schmidt has the most options, and it would seem only Tommy Bowe is guaranteed squad selection. Who should go?

We’ll be back tomorrow to talk about the props – feel welcome to give us your thoughts below, and preview the best OUTRAGE moment from the Indo’s Twitter.