Rugby’s Great Institution

Between now and the World Cup, Ireland have .. let me count .. one, two, three, four, five games to go. Four of which are in the weeks before the squad needs to be named, with the other one being tonights knockaround against Rugby’s Great Institution in the library.

This time last year (roughly), Team Ireland were jetting off to Argentina for a few weeks of steak, malbec, Quilmes and some soft power photo ops at the Hurlingham Club and Newman College, with perhaps a few easy rugby games thrown in. But enough about Gerry – the squad weren’t expecting to be worked too hard either, and were taken aback at the intensity of Schmidt’s expectations when they got there. The main lesson learned is that Joe Schmidt will absolutely take every opportunity to run the arse off his players.

Which means you would be right to expect Ireland to approach this game as if they were playing BNZ in Dunedin – good performances will gain real credit with Schmidt and bad ones for fringe players might knock them out of RWC contention. The Munster players are unavailable and Connacht players have been rested – which isn’t really helpful to the likes of Matt Healy or Denis Buckley as they try to make an impression on the last few spaces in the RWC15 squad – so it’s an all Ulster/Leinster selection:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Dave Kearney
13. Colm O’Shea
12. Luke Marshall
11. Craig Gilroy
10. Ian Madigan
9. Eoin Reddan

1. Jack McGrath
2. Richardt Strauss
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. Dan Tuohy
6. Robbie Diack
7. Chris Henry
8. Jamie Heaslip (captain)

Replacements:

16. Rob Herring
17. Michael Bent
18. Mike Ross
19. Ben Marshall
20. Jordi Murphy
21. Luke McGrath
22. Paddy Jackson
23. Cian Kelleher

Here’s our thoughts, with a working assumption of a 31 man squad breakdown of 6 props, 3 hookers, 4 second rows, 5 backrows, 3 scrummies, 2 outhalves, 3/4 centres, 4/5 back three:

  • Outhalf: Madigan gets the start ahead of Jacko, which is fully unwarranted on any measure of recent form. Under Matt O’Connor, Mads had a miserable time (maybe he didn’t understand the structures of Leinster rugby?) and has stalled in his development; whereas Jackson has been the form ten in Ireland since the Six Nations finished. The selection of Madigan here suggests the backup outhalf slot is still his to lose for the RWC
  • Centre: while it’s nice to see Collie O’Shea get a start, the really interesting pick is Bamm-Bamm. With Robbie Henshaw now ensconced at inside centre, it would be sensible to identify a like-for-like replacement in the case of injury – Schmidt being a systems man and all. One might have thought Stuart McCloskey was the likelier contender here, but he’s off to Georgia and Schmidt goes back to Marshall, who started in Schmidt’s first game against Southern Hemisphere opposition (the Wobs). Schmidt will bring 3 or 4 centres, and Marshall could be in the mix, which would be extraordinary, but with Olding injured and Madigan-to-12 looking half-baked at best, there are not many inside centres on the scene.
  • Wing: Craig Gilroy gets a well-deserved recall to green following an electric period of form for Ulster, joining a queue that includes Tommy Bowe, Zeebs, Luke Roysh, Keith Earls and his teammate Little Bob (it’s probably too late for Trimby) – and Felix Jones as a Schmidt favourite. A good display here, particularly if he outshines Dave, will probably cement a place in the wider RWC training squad, and then he has a good a chance as anyone
  • Tighthead Prop: MIKE ROSS IN NOT STARTING FOR IRELAND SHOCK! Which is a first since June 2012 (even if this is a non-capped game). If we bring three tightheads, Furlong is essentially duking it out with Nathan White, Stephen Archer (stop laughing at the back) and Rodney Ah Here for the final place.  Even if the RWC comes too soon for Furlong, this is money in the bank for further down the line
  • Loosehead Prop: similarly, the final loosehead prop will likely be one of James Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne (stop laughing at the back) and Michael Bent (we said stop!). Bent is on the bench here, and a decent cameo might force Schmidt to not completely eliminate him from contention
  • Second Row: Yer Man From Limerick, Big Dev and NWJMB are nailed on, leaving one slot for a Celebrity Deathmatch between Mike McCarthy, Dan Tuohy and Donnacha Ryan. Tuohy gets a start here, and this is a really good opportunity to make a statement and pencil himself into Schmidt’s plans. Tuohy and Ryan are a cut above McCarthy in terms of quality, and while both have been beset by injuries, if one or other can force their way into the panel it is good news.
  • Backrow: this is the most competitive line. We have NWJMB in the second row as Schmidt had him there during the Six Nations. Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony are nailed on to be picked, leaving two seats between Chris Henry, Jordi Murphy, Tommy O’Donnell, Robbie Diack and Rhys Ruddock. Henry has long been a Schmidt favourite, and given he has proved his fitness, he would appear to be in the box seat for squad selection. Diack starts ahead of Murphy, with Ruddock missing out altogether – although he’ll play in Georgia. Which is .. um, not a good sign we suppose.

Maybe we are over-analysing, but, with Schmidt, that seems unlikely. Everything is now directed towards RWC15 – and this game will be worth watching.

David? Are You There?

Hot on the heels of the news Paddy Butler will be joining Kiwis Smuddy and Colin Slade at (nouveau riche) Pau next season came the news that Michael Allen would not only be leaving Ulster for Embra, but be leaving the Irish system altogether, with a view to qualifying for Scotland through residency.

Butler, a ball carrying number 8 who can deputize on the flanks, was finding his path at Munster blocked by CJ Stander (Irish in 6 months) and Robo-Copey – both of whom are going nowhere and, being only on the fringes of the Ireland setup, won’t be away for weeks at a time to give Butler gametime. Up north, Allen, a wing who has spent significant time at centre, was behind a long queue of internationals – Trimble, Bowe and Gilroy on the wing and Marshall, McCloskey, Cave, Olding and Payne in the centre. The logic of leaving their current provinces is hard to argue with in both cases.

However, it seems worth questioning why they are leaving the Irish setup altogether – Ulster might have plucked Paul Browne from the Bucuresti Welsh bench just last week, but they are extremely light in the back row. Until Hendo and Henry returned, they were regularly picking from Robbie Diack, Clive Ross, Naughty Nuck and Roger Wilson, and are in dire need of a decent number 8. Butler was marked as one to watch from underage but hasn’t quite made the breakthrough at his home province – wouldn’t have been worth at least exploring a move to Ulster?

Ditto Allen – Matt Healy aside, are any of the Connacht wings clearly better than the Ulsterman? Gametime would have been virtually assured – not at ERC level, but then that’s not guaranteed at Embra either.

Fans tend to overstate the extent to which player movement can be achieved.  There is an occasional tendency to view players like Panini stickers, which can be swapped around at will: ‘I’ll swap you two centres for a backrow, a lock and a sherbet dib-dab.’  But the idea of removing log-jams in various positrions with a bit of delicate prompting has been long-mooted as something David Nucifora is striving to achieve, but has been scarcely visible to date.

Given the general dearth of inter-provincial movement, one wonders what the plans are for this aspect of Nucifora’s role – he can’t force players into another province, but he can certainly tempt them with promises of gametime, and some cash. The alternatives for Butler and Allen are certainly exciting, but does it really benefit Irish rugby when there are NIQ restrictions on the one hand, and clear positional needs in other provinces on the other? It feels like a sub-optimal use of a scarce resource.

The Mole mentioned earlier this month how Munster brought in Pat Howard as a medical joker earlier this season – Howard did more or less what was expected of him, but left virtually zero legacy in Irish rugby. We don’t even know if the option of bringing in a centre from Ulster or Leinster on a short term loan was on the table, but that, at least, would have produced some long-term benefit to Irish rugby, even if small. Do we need to think a bit more expansively?

Billy Twelvetries

An extraordinary day, which showed the sport of rugby in the greatest possible light. After so much dour rugby, and so much talk about how dour the rugby was, and how the odds were stacked against it ever not being dour again, the Six Nations exploded from torpid sludge into kaleidoscopic colour right at the last. It was truly, utterly wonderful, 240 minutes of magic, and if individual test matches could be argued to have been better, it is hard to believe there was ever a rugby day which was so utterly fantastic, heartstoppingly exciting and with so much at stake. Whichever nation you were supporting, and all played their part, it would have been hard not to have been awed by the sheer excitement, but we Irish get to enjoy the deepest satisfaction.

For those lamenting how the laws of the game make it impossible to play rugby, it was a somewhat eye-opening experience. All it took was a few 20+ handicaps and everything we thought we knew about the State of Rugby Today went out the window. Quick ball, space on the field, line-breaks, running at speed, tries, brilliant handling: it was all on show. It makes you wonder if the better teams should play this way more often. After all, it’s always better to beat your opponent by 30 points than by 5. In all sports, it is up to the more talented participants to make their superior skill level count for as much as possible. The same should be true of rugby. Why give a sucker an even break, by allowing yourself to be dragged down to a game of bish and bosh by less talented opponents?  But too often that fails to come to pass.  Against Italy, Ireland were happy to play Italy at their own game, just with greater accuracy.

One interesting question to ponder is whether Ireland had been playing for a Grand Slam and merely needed to beat Scotland, would they have played this way, and won by so many? Knowing Ireland and what they do for their supporters’ heart rates, probably not. That said, Joe Schmidt talked about the gameplan being to build on the second half against Wales, where Ireland played a more ball-in-hand game and were effective too, outside the Welsh five-metre line at least.  This being Joe Schmidt, it’s reasonable to assume he had a plan all along to build Ireland’s running game over the course of the tournament, but that’s a narrative that might be too easy to weld on after the event.

Coming into the tournament, Ireland had several to-dos: bed down the new centre partnership, address other weaknesses in the squad (primarily that the tighthead prop has played every game bar one in this RWC cycle), continue to deliver results, and have the squad and team ready for the RWC. How did we do?

On the first, it’s an A – Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne started all five games together and looked increasingly assured as time went on. Defence was expected to be the biggest concern, for both the new partnership, and for Payne, who has looked leaky at outside centre for Ulster, but in actual fact it was creativity that became the biggest issue. However, as Ireland expanded their gameplan, the centres became increasingly influential – in the second half against Wales, Payne’s footwork and attacking lines caused some problems, and he deservedly scored his first try against the Scots. Henshaw was a contender for Ireland’s player of the tournament – it’s hard to believe he has played more games at inside centre in the last month than he has in the rest of his career.

We spent the tournament calling for Marty Moore to get a start ahead of Mike Ross. Ross himself had a solid championship, but it didn’t really change anything or tell us something we didn’t know – if Moore can scrummage at international level, he becomes the better pick in our opinion. The possibility remains that Ross will not start another frontline game this season, and when we get to the RWC warmups, we will be back in the familiar mantra of “we need to get Ross gametime to get him up to speed”. All of which is true, but still doesn’t change the fact that we are relying on a player who is past his best, and may have fallen off a cliff by August. Again, we feel like a long-playing record, but that doesn’t change the fact that Moore hasn’t started an international yet.

The squad itself was expanded with the likes of Iain Henderson now pushing for a starting slot, and our deep resources at backrow characterized by the impact of Tommy O’Donnell, our 5th choice who has still to nail down a slot in the RWC squad. The backup outhalf issue is still live – Madigan was pretty average off the bench, and himself, Keatley and Wee PJ will all have genuine hopes of going to RWC15, but it’s likely that 25+ of the 31 man squad are already in Joe Schmidt’s mind. We’re in a good place.

The results were obviously excellent, and the championship was won – you can’t ask for much more than that. Even in the game we lost, we did lots of good things, and, to be completely honest, it did no harm for Wales to expose our kick-chase gameplan a little. The reaction was positive, and it set us up well for Murrayfield – it we had lost that game 12-9 in a kick-fest where our tactics were somehow effective, we may not have had the hour of ball-in-hand that set us up for the tilt at the championship. It also might have meant we wouldn’t have needed to listen for a week for sore-losery whining about Barnesy with highly-selective videos doing the rounds – the world would be a better place if the Irish accepted defeat in a more magnanimous fashion.

Wales helped in Rome too, for there can be no question that having to win by over 20 points amounted to a throwing off of the shackles. Ireland simply had no choice but to throw caution to the wind. And in doing so they were sensational. Murray and Sexton controlled the game, the backrow rampaged, O’Connell was his usual self and the introduction of Healy and Fitzgerald seemed to galvanise the team. Healy’s selection was questioned in a lot of quarters, but it’s the sort of call that Schmidt has a habit of getting right.

And in both the post-match interview and the celebrations, Schmidt once again managed to hit every right note, even going so far as to say he ‘wished [he] could say [he] had anything to do with [winning the Championship]’. It was all terribly Declan Kidney, who also had the ability to be exceptionally humble in winning circumstances.

It seems highly improbable that this day will act as a tipping-point in the grander scheme of things. Will the coaches involved suddenly decide to throw the ball around like confetti from now on? Hardly. The World Cup takes place later this year, and chances are it will be like the last two: starting well enough, before the rugby gets tighter and tighter, and sludgier and sludgier as we get closer to the final. Saturday served as a reminder of how great the game can be, and why we all fell in love with it in the first place, but chances are it will go down in history as a weird anomaly, a day when the stars aligned to produce something extraordinary. It was a day that’s hard to apply cold hard analysis to.  Why look for patterns and themes that will never be repeated?  Its like may never be seen again; all the more reason to allow yourself to bathe in its spine-tingling magnificence all the longer.

Horses for Courses

With the shootout for the championship going to come down to points difference, Ireland will need to win by 5 points more than England, and not let Wales put 21 points more than them in the locker. The scarce-tries defensive focused gameplan might suffice, but keeping ball in hand, like the second half of the Wales game, albeit with more accuracy, is probably a better idea.

In the rumoured selection, Joe Schmidt has either thrown the baby out with the bathwater, or he hasn’t, depending on who you listen to. The word on Tara Street and whatever cardboard box passes for the In*o offices is that Schmidt will make two changes – DJ Church and Luke Roysh in for Jack McGrath and Simon Zebo, with Felix Jones retaining his Paddy Wallace 2012 bench role (no, honestly, he covers loads of positions).

Healy for McGrath is a close call – McGrath has played well throughout the tournament, albeit incurring Barnes’ wrath for his green shirt scrummaging angles. Healy has looked an awkward fit as a replacement – he seems to come on super-pumped and eager to make an impression, which didn’t end well against Wales, where he looked wild and off the mental pitch of the game. Based on that, you could make a case for Healy starting and McGrath on the bench as the best use of resources, but it seems odd to reward someone for being rubbish at one role by giving them a better one. More likely is that Ireland will look to play to the second half Welsh gameplan and keep the ball in hand – Healy is a more destructive carrier, and it’s horses for courses in that regard.  He’s a bit lucky to get picked, for sure, but he is unquestionably what Gatland refers to as a ‘test match animal’.

Fitzgerald for Zebo is more controversial. Opinion on Zebo ranges the full spectrum from “he is a show pony who can’t do the basics” to “he has lost a yard of pace and can only do the basics”. We wanted him in the team last season, but can see the logic for picking someone with the footwork and attacking nous of Fitzgerald for this game – where, again, ball in hand seems to be the tactic. While Zebo can also consider himself unlucky, we have to recognize that it’s another horses for courses selection – when there is less need for his aerial skills, there is a natural trade-off.

While you are likely to see headlines about sending the wrong message and such, it doesn’t make much sense for a coach not to maximize his resources to play a particular gameplan – there isn’t much point in keeping the same XV just because. And don’t forget, Fitzgerald might have had an injury-interrupted nightmare this RWC cycle, but he is a Lions test winger – he’ll be up to the job. And you can be sure Schmidt, like he did with Paddy Jackson last year, bringing Zebo along for the ride to recognize his contribution in the championship.

It also appears that strong consideration was given to bringing in NWJMB for Toner, but the presence of defensive line-out guru Big Jim Hamilton, plus Henderson’s relative lack of gametime, swung the debate to the status quo. Toner was anonymous against Wales, but it was his first poor test in a long time.  Big Jim is a wily operator, but when his absurdly long arms get the curly finger, we’ll be unleashing Hendo on .. er .. Tim Swinson. So it’s not all bad.

And Felix Jones is still on the bench despite a starting backline packed with full-time and part-time fullbacks. Sigh. We’d have Earls, but we feel like a long-playing record on that one.

Ireland (probable): Kearney; Bowe, Payne, Henshaw, Fitzgerald; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Best, Ross; Toner, O’Connell; O’Mahony, O’Brien, Heaslip. Replacements: McGrath, Cronin, Moore, Henderson, Murphy, Reddan, Madigan, Jones

Return to Traditional Values

As we think about how to gauge Ireland’s chances against Wales on Saturday, in what is (for them) effectively a Grand Slam decider, the thought occurred to us that Joe Schmidt has Ireland operating at a level close to the Southern Hemisphere big three. We based that on our wins over the Boks and the Wobblies in November, and the clinical nature of our wins over France and England. Wales were beaten last year, leaving BNZ the only peaks unscaled by Schmidt’s Ireland in 18 months. Not bad, but it’s qualitative – Ireland are the best team in a Championship that has left a little to be desired in terms of quality. Is there something we can quantify (we started life off as a rugby nerds blog, then somehow evolved into a platform for bitterness, so in a way we are, prepare the sick bag, returning to traditional values).

The recent run of 10 wins in a row left us thinking where this should rank in the greater scheme of things – on the face of it, not much since 2 of those wins were against Italy and one against Georgia. In fact, its not even a standalone record, with Ireland under Eddie having already nailed 10 wins in a row from Sept 2002 – Mar 2003, but that included wins against Fiji, Russia, Romania and Georgia. If you look at the list of longest streaks, what stands out for us is that five of the top nine (top seven if you exclude Cyprus and Lithuania) are by BNZ – BNZ almost never play useless minnows (disgracefully so in the case of the plundered Pacific Islands) and play the Boks and the Wobs every year, plus away games to the top European nations, and occasionally Wales. Winning streaks of 17, 16 and 15 (twice) in the professional era are bloody impressive.

That in turn got us thinking – what if we shrank the rugby universe to the Southern Hemisphere big three, Argentina, plus England, France, Wales and Ireland and the timeframe from 1999-now (emergence of Argentina as a serious force). Perhaps its a conceit to include Ireland in that company given our hopeless RWC record and paucity of actual silverware (not including Triple Crowns) compared to the rest, but bear with us. How long would record winning streaks be if only games between these 8 nations be in scope?

  • New Zealand: 16 (June 2013 – June 2014) – 4 vs France, England, 3 vs Australia, 2 vs Argentina, SA, 1 vs Ireland.
  • England: 11 (March 2002 – August 2003) – 3 vs Wales, 2 vs BNZ, Australia, 1 vs Ireland, France, SA, Argentina. This was Johnno’s team at the peak of its powers.
  • South Africa: 7 (August 2008 – August 2009) – 3 vs BNZ, 2 vs Australia, 1 vs England, Wales. This Bok team also beat the Lions twice in the middle of that run, and lost the Third Test – since they played the reserves in that Test, it doesn’t feel right to include the series, but worth bearing in mind
  • Australia: 7 (October 1999 – July 2000) – 2 vs SA, Argentina, 1 vs France, Wales, Ireland. Ireland certainly weren’t great shakes here, but this is another one of the great teams of the professional era
  • Ireland: 7 (March 2014 – Present) – 2 vs France, Argentina, 1 vs SA, Australia, England
  • France: 6 (November 2005 – June 2006) – 2 vs SA, 1 vs England, Wales, Ireland, Australia
  • Wales: 3 (on three occasions, latest February 2012 – March 2012) – in each of Wales 3 Grand Slams of the era, they quite obviously beat England, France and Ireland consecutively
  • Argentina: 2 (several times, latest Aug 2014 – Present) – Aus and France have been beaten in the Pumas most recent games. They won 5 from 7 from May-Oct 2007, when they were st their previous peak

First reaction – that list contains some of the best teams of the professional era – the BNZ team that equalled the record of Colin Meads great team, the England team that won RWC03, the Springbok Lion-tamers of 2009 and the 1999 Wobblies. Second reaction – the Greatest Team in World Rugby isn’t quite at the races – we’ll come back to that. And what about Ireland? You can pick holes in the strength of the Argentina teams we played if you want, but you still need to beat them, 10,000km away from home, at the end of the season. And we haven’t played BNZ in that timeframe. Yet still, we are in pretty glided company, even by this imperfect metric, and all the teams we’ve already beaten are likely the ones we’ll need to beat to get to the RWC15 final – we’ll take that for sure.

Ireland at present have attained a high level of consistency of results against the best teams in the world – they have a coach who has instilled a deep commitment to accuracy and execution, which is essentially the thing that has brought them to where they are. When we consider how Ireland will fare against Wales, we need to consider how Wales have fared against the big Southern Hemisphere teams they have played. And anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock will no that Wales record against that hemisphere under Gatty is awful:

  • New Zealand – played 7, lost 7
  • South Africa – played 11, won 1, lost 10
  • Australia – played 11, won 1, lost 10

They rarely lose by much (particularly to the Wobblies), but they consistently lose – and its the biggest stick that Gatland gets beaten with in Wales. The Lions Test series win with a majority Welsh side provides some counterpoint, but the reality is that if Kurtley Beale had worn longer studs, they would have lost – and that was to one of the worst Wobbly sides since Australia got to be a Lions tour destination.

Wales have picked their team for this game and its as you were. Tactics? As you were – classic Warrenball awaits. While we see big danger in the Welsh players who are least likely to play super robotically – Rhys Webb and Liam Williams (ironically, probably the two players Gatland felt least comfortable bringing in for Warrenball veterans Mike Philips and Alex Cuthbert), we just think this Ireland team is operating at the kind of level that Wales struggle against. It will likely be a tougher test than previous games, as Wales are similar to Ireland in that they play low-risk rugby designed to force errors. They profited from Scottish and French ineptitude in the last two rounds, but when put under pressure by England they looked rudderless and highly unlikely to win the game, despite starting with a 10 point lead.

If Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton maintain their accuracy of kicking and Ireland continue to own the ruck, we feel this will be enough of a platform for victory. It will be fraught I’m sure, but another bloodless coup would not surprise us. We expect by Saturday evening, Ireland will have a trip to Murrayfield to nail a Grand Slam, and an incredibly favourable draw all the way to their next meeting with BNZ.

Glass Ceiling

After a mighty impressive victory over Inglaterra, Ireland stand close to a historic achievement – a Grand Slam, just a third ever. What struck us after the game was how .. straightforward .. the tournament has been for Ireland. As against Italy and France, a strong third quarter put control of the game firmly in Ireland’s hands (and for the third time, they ended up on the back foot in the final quarter but then each time the opposition were chasing the game). England were whacked and bagged by the hour and the game was done – and it was closed out fairly efficiently.  Ireland were in England’s half killing the clock for much of the final few minutes, and though England almost ran in a try in the final play it wouldn’t have mattered.

England! Whacked and bagged! England have been tournament favourites since like whenever and were the most impressive team through the first two rounds.  Ireland simply put them away without a fuss. Once we went two scores up, that was it, game over.

Now, for the traditional part where we look at where our forecast of the game went wrong. While some of what we said did in fact come to pass (it would be chess on grass and Deep Blue would outsmart England), our overriding concern going into the match was that we wouldn’t have the scoring power to win if England landed a couple of sucker-punches. We were confident they’d beat France’s haul of 11 points and that Ireland would need to respond in kind. Well, they didn’t because Ireland stopped them at source.

A monumental effort at defensive breakdowns won the match. Rory Best led the assault, letting every rose-clad yeoman know that no ruck would be free from either he, Toner, or some Irish forward bent over double trying to pilfer the ball. If we didn’t win it, we slowed it to a crawl and the pressure resulted in England simply allowing themselves to make errors, which Ireland converted into territory and ultimately points. [Incidentally, one penalty against Peter O’Mahony late in the match was beyond ridiculous. As soon as I heard the referee’s whistle I jumped to the air so sure was I that O’Mahony had won the penalty. Then I looked again and Joubert’s arm was pointing the wrong way!]

Another improvement from the France game was that Ireland were more proactive with the bench. Mike Ross [superb again, it must be said] and Jack McGrath were whipped off before the hour, and Iain Henderson was on for 15 minutes. Two changes had to be made far earlier than was idea, but Tommy O’Donnell was superb. And Zeebs was brilliant too – we sort of said he should be dropped, but he was everywhere.

It was all pretty eerie – even when Ireland have been successful, they haven’t made it easy for the fans. The 2009 team salved a description of us all as “long-suffering” after years of near-misses but even then, the average fan gained 10 years through the tournament. The England and France games went down to the wire, Scotland had us in all sorts of trouble (remember Bob’s intervention on a bouncing ball to deny Chris Paterson a walk-in try?) and as for the Wales game… Paddy Wallace won’t be the only one who won’t forget that sinking feeling. Only Italy were dispatched with ease.

Even last year, we lost to England and rode our luck a bit against France. This time, we’ve beaten both without looking like we needed to go up into fifth gear, although the finale of the France match was pretty stressful. Italy were swatted aside and now there are only two games left. And then… it’s only the World Cup. We’re into new territory here.

The first goal – a Grand Slam – has two more peaks to scale. One, Wales, is Mount Ventoux and one, Scotland, is Mount Merrion. Dealing with Scotland will be simple – luminaries like Rog and Drico have come up with the idea that since Scotland will be facing a wooden spoon when we go to Embra, it becomes something of a tough game, since its a ‘cup final’. I’m sorry, but I’m just not buying it – they just lost at home to Italy, crumbling like that lovely apricot Wensleydale we got on the Lisburn Road in our last trip home. They are about to get a huge can of whoopass opened on them in Twickers, so forgive us for thinking they are not going to suddenly become a threat to Ireland in three weeks time. All we’ll hear about for the next two weeks will be whether we need to put Jonny Sexton in some bubble wrap and keep him under the stairs, and sure, he’a absolutely essential to beating Wales, but Ireland could play Ian Humphreys and still waltz pass Scotland.  Even if Scotland do show up you can almost guarantee they’ll find a way to lose the game.

But Wales – now that’s a different story. The Greatest Team in World Rugby have had their customary slow start and they are rather similar to us – they will belt the ball super-high in the air, tackle until the cows come home, and dare teams to beat them. The team is festooned with leaders – Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Dan Biggar, Roberts and Davies, Halfpenny. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve a back three who won’t crumble in the face of forty-plus snow-covered garryowens.  Halfpenny is a match for anyone under the high ball, and Liam Williams has played most of his footie in the 15 jumper.  And the rapidly-emerging Rhys Webb, who offers a little guile and creativity to supplement the Warrenball.

Ireland will be ever-so-slight favourites and Gatty would LOVE IT if he got one over on us, and Joe Schmidt. You can only imagine his face. It’s always tempting to dismiss Wales as one-dimensional bully-boys, and they have their off-days but they remain a good team.  Win, and they’re in the shake-up for the championship, which could conceivably be a three-way tie on match points.

Most beautiful of all this is our draw in the World Cup – we’ve got a shambolic French team (please, FFR, do the decent thing and keep PSA until the World Cup) and Italy, plus some bunnies. It’s hard to see at this stage, with our coach, how we won’t plot a way to win that group. The likely path after that is Argentina followed by the winner of the Pool of Death. Our base assumption has always been that England at home will be a tough nut for the Wobblies and the Greatest Team in World Rugby to crack – Cheika’s probably the most likely to do so, but that’s a debate for September. The way Ireland are playing, Argentina then England looks like a feasible couple of matches – avoiding the Southern Hemisphere big three right through past the semi-finals is pretty fortunate (if its ever even happened).

Despite the Irish glass ceiling at the quarter-finals, it’s hard to escape the feeling the stars are lining up, and it’s pretty frightening really – a lot seems to be coming together and our natural inclination is to ask how it can all go wrong. The first way is underestimating the Greatest Team in World Rugby – we certainly won’t be doing that.

Yes, but how did he present the ball?

Anyone who watched Leinster or Munster at the weekend will have suffered a double-dose of mediocrity from then Irish provinces. Leinster huffed and puffed and eventually secured five match points against a committed but limited Zebre side, while Munster snatched an improbable draw from a 12-point deficit late in the match against Scarlets.

None of that mediocrity, however, came from Luke Fitzgerald or Keith Earls, both of whom were excellent in their respective teams. The two players have had plenty of troubles with injuries but both are currently fit and in-form. Beating defenders, breaking tackles, bringing others into the game – yes, even that – and up to task defensively, these lads have the all-court game. Keith Earls has had his distribution and awareness questioned down the years, but as with his defending, it feels like one or two high-profile mistakes have caused everyone to forget the number of times he has passed to another player or shown quick hands. Witness his line break and superb pass back inside in Sunday’s game.

Given the circumstances, they’re probably the two best three-quarters in the country, certainly in attack. Is there anything to be said for getting at least one of them into the matchday squad for the remaining Six Nations matches, starting with Sunday’s titanic whompingly huge battle with th’auld enemy?

With the dust having settled on the France game and everyone in agreement that Ireland have played precisely no rugby whatsoever in the tournament so far, it looks like a stretch to expect an intense kick chase and a decent rolling maul to be enough to beat an England side that is in rude health and even has – for the first time since the likes of Mike Catt and Will Greenwood were around – a potentially dangerous midfield. England won’t leave the Aviva Stadium with less than 15 points, so Ireland will have to go out and play a bit to win.

But how? Ireland have a backline stacked with kick-catchers and straight-line runners and have barely crafted a line-break in the tournament so far. The centres have put in monumental defensive shifts, so credit is due, with tackle counts a flanker would be happy to stand over (insert your own joke about Peter O’Mahony here) against France, and while both have also gained metres by running straight and square, there’s been little in the way of guile. Surely one of Fitzgerald or Earls at outside-centre would offer a little more threat?

Another avenue into the team for one or other would be on the wing, where Simon Zebo has done little enough wrong, but hasn’t really been at his best this season. He’s been serviceable enough, and it might be harsh to drop him, but would Ireland benefit from having one of our cause celebres in his place?  We’d vote for change.

Failing that, the very least we can hope for is for just one of the gruesome twosome to get into the No.23 shirt. Felix Jones is a good player having a fine season, and doesn’t deserve to be dropped either, but he’s an ill-fitting reserve for a backline already stacked with full-backs.  If we’re chasing a try late in the game, who is more likely to do something game-changing?  Not Felix Jones.

Chances are, of course, that none of this will happen. Schmidt has now become the anti-Deccie when it comes to selection. While Kidney appeared to bend over backwards to get his favourite 15 players into the side regardless of how unbalanced it looked, Schmidt places a huge premium on the work done on the training paddock, and only in extreme cases will he parachute players into the team who haven’t gone through the strategy in Carton House. You can guarantee Joe won’t be too interested in who made a 50m line break or beat six tacklers. In fact he is probably more interested in how Fitzgerald presented the ball after running past everyone. As it happens, he did it pretty well, and a try followed. Let’s hope it counts in his favour.

Wolverine Out

Ireland’s most indestructible player, Jamie ‘Wolverine Blood’ Heaslip, has finally been broken.  He will miss his second game out of three when England come to the Palindrome for Sunday brunch. Jamie has three cracked vertebrae thanks to the knee of Pascal Papé – we’ll be honest in saying we thought it was a yellow card at worst at the time, but Papé has been cited, and there would be some justice in seeing him having to sit out some games. Seeing it again last night on Against The Head, knowing that it broke three vertebrae in the afflicted man’s back, it did look a hell of a lot worse than on match-day.  Mind you, the old farts would probably be doing Beleaguered French Coach a favour if they forced him to bring in Romain Taofifenua.

This continues a horrendous run of injuries for Ireland in this sector. Luckily we are well-stocked, but of our top 6 backrow players (in our view) at the beginning of 2014, we’ve had to endure:

  • Stephen Ferris – unavailable for all games in 2014 (5) pre retirement
  • Sean O’Brien – unavailable for all games in 2014 (10) and 1 game in 2015
  • Chris Henry – unavailable for 3 games in 2014 and 2 in 2015
  • Rhys Ruddock – unavailable for 3 games in 2014 (we think) and 2 in 2015
  • Jamie Heaslip – unavailable for 1 game in 2015
  • Peter O’Mahony – unscathed! Perhaps it’s down to the singing, the grubber kicks, his sheer manliness – who knows, but maybe there’s a new Mr Indestructible in town

When Schmidt took over, our likely first choice backrow of Fez-SOB-Jamie never got a chance to play together, and the next best combo of POM-SOB-Jamie only 3 times so far (Oz and BNZ in 2013, France in 2015). POM-Henry-Heaslip leads the way with 5 (4 games in last years Six Nations and Samoa in the 2013 AIs) and has much to commend it, and was extremely effective last year.

For the visit of England, however, Henry and Heaslip (and Ferris obviously) won’t be around, O’Brien has just returned from injury, and Ruddock may or may not be back – and even if he was, it’s unlikely Schmidt would consider him. Only Peter O’Mahony is fully fit with lots of games under his belt. The other specialist backrows in the training squad are Jordi Murphy and Tommy O’Donnell, both of whom started against Italy and had strong games – Murphy made the bench for France ahead of TOD, much to the OUTRAGE of some.

Joe Schmidt essentially has two options for the England game – drop the natural number 8 (Murphy) straight into the team, or shuffle his deck and move O’Brien or O’Mahony to the back of the scrum, and bring in a flanker. Here are the options:

O’Mahony, O’Brien, Murphy: This is the likely Schmidt choice – everything is sacrificed to the system and in this case you have a natural 8 being dropped into the 8 slot. Murphy has started at 8 twice for Ireland, most recently in Rome, and this has the obvious advantage of not tinkering too much with a unit that has yet to see stability this tournament. On the other hand, is Jordi Murphy a good enough player to drop in against Billy Vunipola and an England unit that is settled and in good form?  Murphy is slightly undersized for a No.8 and very much a tyro at this level, while his season has been afflicted by injury and he has not yet hit last year’s form.

Deep Blue Probability Calculation Factor: Very Likely, with O’Donnell brought back into the squad as first reserve.

Henderson, O’Brien, O’Mahony: The obvious advantage here is bringing in the best player available. Henderson will be a second row going forward, and has had huge impact from the bench this tournament to date. Playing him at flanker might not be everyone’s preference for his career – but needs must and we would get a brilliant player into the team – and one who has international experience wearing 6 in the past, including a start in last year’s tournament. This would involve moving POM to 8, where he looks more natural than SOB – he has three starts there for Ireland, albeit 2 in North America in one in the Game That Never Happened in Hamilton. It might even give him greater scope to try grubber kicks with the outside of his boot.  We were advocates of O’Mahony as a long-term option at No.8 some time ago, but it’s been a while since he played there and has matured as a blindside long since. This selection also raises the question about who would cover second row on the bench – would Schmidt pluck Mike McCarthy from the Leinster bench? Or pick TOD and Murphy on the bench with Henderson covering lock – probably. This selection would be The People’s Choice, because everyone is really, really excited about Henderson, but it looks like something of a pipe dream.

Deep Blue Probability Calculation Factor: Does not compute.  Too jazzy by half.

O’Mahony, O’Donnell, O’Brien: This involves shifting SOB to 8 and bringing in specialist openside TOD. This is essentially a vehicle for getting the most natural 7 into the team, and a reflection on how well O’Donnell played against Italy – it involves moving Sean O’Brien back to number 8, a position he last started for Ireland over 4 years ago in Rome (his only start there). Given tackling machine Chris Robshaw is the opposition seven, we can’t see much point to this – except salving some of the OUTRAGE from last weeks selection.

Deep Blue Probability Calculation Factor: Computer says no. O’Brien has enough on his plate without playing out of position.

O’Mahony, O’Brien, Roger Wilson: In a parallel universe, if Darren Cave was allowed to pick the team, this would be the backrow to face England, and he could pick himself at 13 too.

Deep Blue Probability Calculation Factor: Face doesn’t fit.

In twelve months time the landscape at No.8 could look totally different, with the Jacks O’Donoghue and Conan rapidly emerging.  Both have carrying ballast in spades, but O’Donoghue has just one Pro12 start to his name and Conan is still learning to catch the ball.  Their time will come, but not yet.

Kasparov, Deep Blue, 1996

Two Six Nations ago, in their second Six Nations under Jacques Brunel, Italy beat Ireland and France, admittedly both at home. The draw for RWC15 had already been made, and these three, with all due respect to Canada Eh and Romania, would be in a round-robin playoff for qualification. If results were repeated, Italy would have topped the pool, and Ireland would have been one bonus point behind France in the scrap for second. Brunel had worked on expanding Italy’s game after succeeding <insert name of Southern Hemisphere rent-a-coach here>, and it was paying dividends – Italy looked like they might be a genuine threat for the rest of the cycle.

Wind the clock forward two years, and Brunel’s experiment has ended – in November, Italy responded to a terrible run of results by picking a Kiwi journeyman at outhalf and sticking it up the jumper. This was never a gameplan that was likely to unstick Ireland under Joe ‘Deep Blue’ Schmidt – and so it proved. Ireland dusted down the well-worn script for beating the Italians when they were under <Southern Hemisphere rent-a-coach> – disrupt the lineout, slowly overpower them up front, and make hay when they began to tire in the last quarter. The Italians even threw in the traditional yellow card. Eddie and Deccie negotiated such obstacles with ease, and so did Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.

The game was a snoozefest, and Ireland’s seemingly fervent desire not to show any of their hand led to the likes of Jared Payne and Henshaw being used to bosh it up the middle. Like the November formula, keeping it narrow was the watchword. O’Connell admitted Ireland allowed themselves to ease into the game slowly.  One would expect we will need to show a bit more against France, who will lap that kind of stuff up. In the pack, Jamie Heaslip is virtually certain to return, we will need to await a prognosis on the unfortunate Sean O’Brien, and DJ Church is less likely to make it. O’Brien’s injury puts the selectors in a bit of a pickle, because the game being against Italy was the perfect opportunity to give him a bit of a hit out before the France match.  But without that hit-out, do they now throw him in from the start against the French?  Or will he even be avilable?  If O’Brien doesn’t make it, its a choice between Tommy O’Donnell, who did very well deputising at the last moment, Jordi Murphy, first reserve 12 months ago, or something creative (and unlikely) like shoe-horning Iain Henderson into blindside while moving Peter O’Mahony across. Henderson’s ballast and skill off the bench gave Ireland real momentum in Rome, and one wonders if it’s merely a matter of time before he makes the starting team.

Right now, though, O’Donnell looks the natural choice.  Full credit to him, but the ease with which Ireland can replace a player of the calibre of Sean O’Brien without batting an eyelid shows (again) how systems and processes drive modern rugby, and in particular this Ireland set-up. It’s tough to imagine, say, Deccie’s Grand Slam Ireland being able to seemlessly replace, say, Wally and Fez with Shane Jennings and Denis Leamy without a noticable decline in production.  They were almost the opposite; dependant on signature players for big plays at key times in the heat of battle.

In the absence of Jonny Sexton, Conor Murray controlled the game nicely – what a player he is – but Keatley had a bit of a curate’s egg on his Six Nations debut. He took his goals well, and kicked better as time went on, but there were a couple of ugly errors in the first half, and Sexton’s general-ship was missed. We’ll need the cranky one back to be at our best. Ian Madigan came off the bench for a tasty cameo against tiring legs, and is probably inked into the number 22 shirt for the tournament – Keatley did fine, and he’ll start if Sexton goes down again, but Madigan’s unstructured threat is better off the bench.

To continue the RWC15 theme, the Italians look so far off being a threat to Ireland that it isn’t funny. The French, of course, are another kettle of fish. Right now, all the elements seem to be there, but it just doesn’t seem to be coming together for them – they didn’t show much against Scotland that would have us tossing and turning .. or maybe Scotland are better under Vern Cotter than they have been. Like Ireland, presumably PSA doesn’t want to show his full hand, given the team is, y’know (with some exceptions), Gallic and, y’know, mercurial and, y’know, French, the whole Scotland episode probably gives few pointers as to how next week will go.

The tournament has started with wins which would have been fully expected, without learning much, but the real direction of the tournament for Ireland and France will be decided on Saturday.

The Game Is On

The Wolfhounds snooze fest ultimately might have some major import when it comes to looking back on Ireland retaining their Six Nations crown, but probably not – nothing we learned was earth shattering. Sean O’Brien is fit again, NWJMB is just amazing, Ian Mad-dog isn’t totally reliable in a mucky boot fest, Sam Burgess is on a hiding to nothing (Dear Slammin’ Sam, take up the sport, and be international standard in three months. Hugs, Bruce & Stu) and Luke Fitzgerald will find a way to keep our nerves jangling.

But now that is (thankfully) in the rear view mirror, the real action begins – it’s just five days until we walk out in Rome, and the Milky Bar Kid has some selection quandaries. The odd dilemma, a few posers and some awkward questions. Last year, he decided on the team (15 and 23) that was going to win the Six Nations and largely stuck with it right the way through. This time around, it’s slightly different due to RWC15 being the ultimate target, but we can’t foresee a series with Schmidt road-testing players and combinations – he’ll do that in camp and stick to a squad that he thinks can execute his gameplan. Who will be the players tasked with this? We’ll start with the forwards and look at the backs separately – the backs have more obvious question marks, but with injuries and returnees the forwards aren’t completely cut and dried either.

Loosehead Prop: Last year, DJ Church was the starter with Jack McGrath the backup. Church, however, is injured and isn’t expected back before the England match in round 3, leaving McGrath as the starter and incumbent for the first 2 rounds. We can expect Healy to march straight back into the XV when he is fit – Schmidt might be one for competition for places, but only within the parameters of gameplan execution, and Healy is one of the cornerstones of the team and will start is fit. James Cronin of Munster, a most interesting player and much better than Dave Kilcoyne, in our untrained eyes, will provide backup early on.

Hooker: Like last year, Besty is the incumbent with Sean Cronin breathing down his neck and providing oomph and carrying from the bench. While Cronin has many virtues, the fact that he can’t throw or hook is kind of major at this level – Besty himself can get the yips, but any lineout weakness is more than compensated for by feral breakdown work (especially important in the absence of Chris Henry). The rather dodgy argument was put forward by Shaggy that, since neither hooker will play the full 80, and Cronin’s throwing is less bad when starting, is that he should be the starter. Not buying it – Besty to start, and it will stay that way until Cronin’s technicals improve.

Tighthead Prop: Now, this is most interesting. We presumed last week that Mike Ross, as Leinster’s third choice prop, simply could not start against Italy. But why would Schmidt pick Ross against the Saxons if he isn’t going to be in the 23? And if he is in the 23, why have him on the bench? Marty Moore seems ready, but we’ve an awful bad feeling Rosser will get the shirt – and it’s a major worry. Even if Ross does get picked, we can’t see him finishing the tournament as starter – our first 3 games are against the strongest 3 scrums, and there is a risk he gets mangled in one of them, forcing the change upon us. Italy are strong enough up front to have troubled Argentina and the Boks in the Autumn, and France and England can be monstrous and destructive on their day. It seems a waste of a pick not to let Moore get that experience, but we think Ross we start the tournament wearing 3, but finish out of the 23. We excorciated Deccie for staying loyal to certain players for too long, and if Schmidt picks Ross, it smells of Deccie-esque uber-loyalty. If it comes to pass, we better hope he has a damn good reason for it – because we don’t expect it to finish well.

Second Row: Here is a unit where Ireland are down to the bare bones. Thankfully, the bones consist of the best three players they have – captain and manic lunatic Paul O’Connell, Leinster’s best player this season Devin Retallick and hairy llama Iain Henderson. After that, it’s, er Mike McCarthy and Lewis Stevenson. Toner, as has been his habit, has improved on last year’s excellence, and is now a key leader for Leinster – he will start alongside the captain. Speaking of, O’Connell’s form is worryingly poor  – at the centre of the meek capitulation against Saracens, he looked his age and more. Still, you can’t expect anything less than 100% crazy aggression, and, back in the green, you suspect we’ll see the POC of the Autumn series – he is in a mental vortex culminating in RWC15 at which point he will retire from green, and that focus will be pushing him on. Then, when he tires, we can unleash the llama from the bench – it’s a lip smacking prospect, and this might be Ireland’s strongest unit, given Murray and Sexton have their own worries. Just pray for no injuries.

Backrow: Last year, Ireland’s backrow was the fulcrum of their success – Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry led the tournament in turnovers, and Jamie Heaslip was as excellent as ever. This time around, Henry is still recovering from an awful heart injury, but we do just about have Sean O’Brien back in the reckoning. Rhys Ruddock was the player of the Argentinian tour and kicked on again in November, so it’s not guaranteed that SOB will walk straight back into the team, but, as one of Ireland’s best players, surely the Tank will play if fit? We might not get 80 minutes out of him, for the first couple of games at least, but 50 will do. The bench selection is another interesting one, because Heaslip looks to still be slightly affected by his recent shoulder injury. If there is any doubt at all over Heaslip, then it could have a knock-on effect on whether O’Brien is thrown in so early.  Still, Jamie has had a couple of weeks since his last fixture so presumably the warewolf blood has kicked in and he’ll be fine.  The smart money would appear to be on a backrow of O’Mahony, O’Brien and Heaslip, with Ruddock on the bench.

It’s a strong and experienced pack, littered with Lions, and has more carrying threat than in November. On the flip side, our second row stocks are low, SOB is just back from injury, and, of course, the major worry is if Mike Ross starts. Jack McGrath’s recent humdrum form at Leinster could do with being Schmidt-ed as well, but hopefully his three week ‘rest’ will have allowed him to recharge his batteries.