Jonny’s Coming Back

Hello everyone. Welcome back! The rugby season is cranking up and the blog will be getting back to its usual schedule after our summer downtime. We’re wonderfully refreshed after the break, thanks for asking.

So… where to begin?

The Indo is reporting that Jonny Sexton is returning to Leinster next season. And while the phrase ‘The Indo is reporting…’ should come with the usual disclaimers, the report appears pretty definitive and a bunch of other news sources have jumped on it. We’d been given a ‘you heard it here first’ last week that the deal was ‘dans le sac’.

It’s impossible to see it as anything other than great news. There has been the odd bout of griping that the IRFU could have saved a packet by leaving him in France where he was doing just fine, but such arguments miss one crucial point. The IRFU is committed to having all the players on home soil, and the model for Irish rugby that has proved reasonably successful since the dawn of professionalism has been to have the best players centrally contracted and playing their rugby for the provincial teams.

The system has its flaws and isn’t perfect, but is founded on the principal that the players’ performance is maximised by managing their gametime and ensuring that the national team’s interests are fed into by the provinces. If you don’t agree with that premise, that’s fine, but be sure to apply the same logic when, say, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson or Robbie Henshaw are negotiating their next contract. Sexton is arguably the single most important player for Ireland’s World Cup and future Six Nations chances, so if an optimally managed Sexton is just 5% better than he would otherwise be, it will be money well spent.  That’s before we even get into the benefits of visibility of our star players, marketing the game to punters and other intangibles.

We’ve said before that negotiating these high-profile contracts is a thankless job; sign the player and you’ve paid him too much money, lose him and you’re too much of a penny-pincher. So it is nice to be able to say the IRFU should be given a pat on the back for a job well done. The problems arose in the first place because they dragged their heels and looked complacent, giving Racing and other suitors all the time they wanted to sweet-talk the player, but this time they’ve wasted no time, locking things down before the domestic season has even started.

Readers will recall Joe Schmidt’s lamentation during the Six Nations preparations that ‘we have lost control of the player’, and no doubt he has impressed upon those writing the paycheques the importance of keeping the players at home where they can best manage them. Sexton is a card-carrying member of the Schmidt fanclub and it’s easy to imagine Schmidt having a hands-on role in the deal.

So, Ireland will stand to benefit. It’s a World Cup year where the players’ game exposure tends to be managed more strictly than ever. Sexton won’t get the benefit of that over the next nine months, because he won’t be here until next season, but presumably his World Cup build-up and pre-season will be managed by the IRFU now. But the biggest winner by far is Leinster. After all, Ireland still have access to the player and their frustrations in terms of Six Nations preparation time pale beside Leinster’s problem; they lost their most important player. Now they will have him back (in a year’s time) and the knock-on effect should make Leinster a more attractive proposition for other players. A Leinster with Sexton at 10 should be competing for silverware on all fronts.

There will be lots of talk of Ian Madigan being ‘the big loser here’ and it being ‘time to think about his next move’ and so on, but the be-quiffed one and everyone else would be as well ignoring it. He has an entire year before Sexton gets here and should be focusing exclusively on playing as well as he can this season; that means making himself first-choice at Leinster (whether at 10 or 12), continuing to get exposure at test level and securing his place in the World Cup squad, for which there will be significant competition. He’s contracted with Leinster until 2016 in any case, so any long, dark nights of the soul are miles down the road and there is plenty he can do to shape his career in the meantime.

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Jonny Sexton and the Summer Tour

Jonny Sexton’s season in France has gone on at least a week longer than expected.  With Racing Metro securing an improbable win away to Toulouse, largely due to Sexton’s goal kicking as it happens, they’ve made it to the semi-finals of the Top Quatorze.

It only serves to lengthen what’s already been a long, fatiguing season for Sexton, and no doubt Joe Schmidt will be watching closely.  It’s one of the more difficult decisions for Schmidt as to whether or not to bring Sexton on the summer tour to Argentina.  Sexton himself has let it be known he wants to play and it’s worth bearing in mind that there’s no precedent for Ireland to head off on a summer tour with a weakened team.  The only time players were left behind was in 2007 on a tour to – guess where? – Arentina, when O’Sullivan left his 15 Untouchables at home.  But that was the summer directly before the World cup, and this one is still 16 months out from the event, so it’s a very different situation.  These will also be two tough games.  This is a far from vintage Argentina team, but they’ll be using these games to get set for the Rugby Championship, and will most likely have targetted them as their most winnable matches of the season too.  There’s a series to be won first and foremost.

As well as winning, perhaps even more so, the most important piece of business to take care of on this tour is to begin the process of replacing Brian O’Driscoll.  Whether the man Schmidt decided upon is Darren Cave or Robbie Henshaw – it appears it will be one of the two – that player must be given the best possible platform to succeed.  That will most likely mean surrounding the chosen one by as many top-class internationals as possible.

It’s worth casting one’s mind back to how Declan Kidney handled Sexton’s own debut.  The game was against Fiji in the RDS and was sandwiched between two tests against top tier opponents in Australia and South Africa.  Sexton was coming off the back of a career-turning few months; he had steered Leinster to a hugely unexpected Heineken Cup triumph and was now embedded as his province’s first choice fly-half.  He had been in the matchday 23  for the Australia game, but didn’t get on.  As a player he offered huge possibilities to Kidney and Ireland, who until now had been worryingly dependant on Ronan O’Gara.  This was the perfect opportunity to give Sexton his debut.

In a canny bit of management, Kidney surrounded Sexton with the fulcrum of the Leinster team with whom he was so familiar; Heaslip, Reddan, D’arcy and O’Driscoll.  D’arcy and O’Driscoll were in the same boat as O’Gara, in that Ireland were overly reliant upon them and had few alternatives if they were ever injured; unless you counted Paddy Wallace, which most people didn’t.  The game was a perfect opportunity to have a look at alternatives in those positions too.  But Kidney recognised that you can’t do everything at once and the most important thing was to ensure that his gleaming new fly-half was given every opportunity to get his international career off to a good start.  Surrounded by his Leinster colleagues, in the RDS, it would be as if he were playing in blue.  As it happened Sexton played like a dream; so well in fact that Kidney picked him again the week after for the test against South Africa.  In a signature performance, Ireland won 15-11.

Similarly, Schmidt will want to provide his new 13 with as solid a platform as he can, and that surely means playing Sexton inside him.  Madigan, Keatley and Jackson are fine players, but none are as accomplished or as experienced as Sexton, whose threat on the gainline and superb decision making and distribution create space for those outside him.  He is also a leader in the team and will be seen as a key figure for steering an inexperienced player through his first few caps.  Certainly, Ireland will want to develop a couple of options in one or two other positions, but the only position where they face going to the World Cup with an unproven player is at outside-centre.  So if Sexton is named in the touring squad, and the hordes begin baying for ‘development’ of certain players, bear in mind that chances are he’s in the team for precisely that reason.

El Madrigal o Juan del Zextonio por el semifinal contre Biarritz?

Remarkably, Leinster have a selection dilemma at fly-half for this weekend’s semi-final against Biarritz.  It’s a scenario that seemed almost unthinkable until recently: that Sexton, Leinster’s best player and on-field general may not be an automatic choice for an important European game.  Incroyable!

It’s testimony to the strides made by Madigan in the ten weeks where Sexton has been injured (and, admittedly, the fact that it’s the Amlin).  It’s not that long ago that Leinster fans were crying into their moccha-frappucinos over Sexton’s departure, but now the anguish has been replaced by a sort of cautious optimism (the signing of Kirchner notwithstanding).  Madigan has set about the last number of weeks as if on a crusade to prove wrong the preconceptions many pundits have of him.  Can’t place kick off the tee?  Try 85% and top scorer in the Pro 12.  Great at home, but can he manage tough away games?  Wins in Adams Park and Thomond Park sound hard enough.  Can’t kick out of hand?  That part of his game is rapidly improving.  It’s reached the point where Madigan and the Lions have been mentioned in the same sentence.  There was a bump in the road against Ulster, but he responded as well as possible.

If one was to argue that the returning player has to earn the shirt back from the incumbent, there’s a strong case for retaining Madigan for the Biarritz match, such is his form.  Indeed, factor in that Sexton is leaving at the end of the season, and the strength of the argument compounds itself.  Joe Schmidt has already hinted that with a six-day turnaround, he might favour a number of those who didn’t play on Sunday.  That would mean Madigan starting.

But for all that, those with short memories need to cast their minds back to just how good a player Sexton is.  We’re talking about the de facto Lions test outhalf here. Would Leinster have won the last two Heineken Cups without Sexton? Unlikely.  If anyone has really forgotten, Sexton provided them with a reminder against Zebre in his return.  He kicked all his goals, made several clean breaks and knitted the backline together.  It was business as usual.  While Madigan has an air of what-will-he-do-next about him that gets supporters out of their seats, Sexton’s cool authority is undoubtedly preferred by his team-mates when the heat is on.

It’s easy to have one’s head turned by hugely talented players, but there exists a gulf between players who catch the eye with tries and linebreaks and those who deliver silverware.  Contepomi was the latter, but it was only when Sexton entered the fray that Leinster made the leap into greatness.  Madigan is a hugely exciting, wonderful prospect, but it’s not yet clear if he’s the sort of player who can consistently win finals.  It would ultimately be cruel luck on Madigan to drop him after doing so much so well in recent weeks.  Indeed, if Madigan is making a late, late bolt onto Gatland’s radar, he almost certainly needs to start and excel this weekend to have any chance of being in the Lions squad, so it would probably drive a nail into that coffin.

Madigan will at least know that his time will come, and that next season he’ll be starting these sorts of games.  When the news that Jonny Sexton was leaving, a number of Leinster fans suggested giving Madigan the rest of the season to acclimatise.  As it transpired, with Jonny’s injury, he has been given plenty of opportunities, and taken them. He’ll get many more next season, when the pressure will ramp up again – it’s one thing to win in Adams Park, yet another to beat Clermont in Bordeaux.

But the whiff of silverware has a habit of shaping priorities, and the majority of diehard Blues will be looking for Leinster to put their best team out to redeem what’s been a difficult season.  There are two cups to play for and Schmidt will look to his cup-winning fly-half to win them.  Jonny Sexton should start against Biarritz.

The Ins and Outs of the Johnny Sexton saga

On Friday afternoon, our Twitter timeline was like a morgue.  It was as if there was a death in the family.  Johnny Sexton, the icon of Leinster rugby, would not be staying with his boyhood province, instead signing a lucrative contract with flash Parisian moneybags Racing Metro.  After being knocked out of Europe the previous weekend, it felt like Armageddon for Leinster fans.

Now that we’ve had the weekend to process the bad news, hopefully we can offer a bit more perspective than on Friday, when Palla was tweeting through the tears… here’s how we see it.

1. It’s bad news for Ireland

Some commentators felt the move might actually be positive for Irish rugby; Sexton will hardly disimprove in Paris, and it elevates Madigan to a probable starting role at Leinster.  More Irish fly-halves will be starting big games.  Such an argument looks like a curious emphasis of quantity over quality.  It is great to have as many Irish 10s playing high level rugby as possible, but surely it is most important that by far the best we have is playing in Ireland?  If you don’t put much stock in the IRFU’s ploy of keeping the players under their central watch, then fine, but the players appear to appreciate their game-time being managed (to an extent) and it has hardly done Sexton’s test career any harm that he plays his club rugby with Dorce outside, as well as the other cabal of Leinster internationals.  The net effect is a negative for Irish rugby in general; we’d be better off with Sexton at Leinster. Plus, as we will discuss in more detail below, this could open the doors to other players leaving – which is definitely bad for Ireland.

2. The IRFU has a case to answer

Without being inside the negotiating rooms, we cannot pinpoint the blame on any one individual or body, but at the very least, the IRFU have a lot to answer for on this one.  How did they let the jewel in their crown get away?  Did they undervalue just how good and marketable a player Sexton is?  Going by Thornley and O’Reilly and his godfather Billy Keane, Sexton’s camp were unhappy that contract negotiations started so late and that the IRFU’s initial offer was no higher than Sexton currently earns.  Although he signed a two-year contract last time around, we understand that those negotiations were fraught, with Sexton unhappy at the IRFU’s offer of less than O’Gara (his reserve at the time) was earning.  An overspill of these bad vibes was probably brought into these negotiations.  The IRFU would not have been required to necessarily match the Racing offer; Sexton wanted parity with the top paid players in the country – a fair evluation of his ability, then –  but the IRFU would not meet him there.

The money men at 4 Lansdowne Road may not be completely displeased that they won’t have to pay big bucks to Sexton but still have him for Ireland, but that’s an extraordinally short-sighted view. Coming as it did in the week when Puma pulled the plug on their current kit deal, we should consider this – Sexton’s image rights are no longer controlled by the union, meaning any kit manufacturer will lower their offer commensurate with the fact that one of Ireland’s most marketable assets cannot promote their gear.

3. The central contracting system has its flaws

The central contracting system has served Ireland well, no question.  But its shortcomings were exposed here.  Leinster were the party with the most to lose, but they could do nothing, while the IRFU negotiated with the player.  Joe Schmidt must be seething; he has lost his best player, the cornerstone of his team, because of the slipshod work of others.  Just imagine.  Something is wrong in a system where interests and ability to act are so misaligned. And, to this point…

4. The IRFU’s relationship with the provinces must be better managed

Six months ago we blogged that the future success of Irish rugby depended on the powers that be’s ability to dovetail the provinces’ requirements with those of the national team.  Instead, what we have is a situation where the mission for the year is very much about ensuring that the national team is seen by all as the top dog.  Would this have entered Johnny Sexton’s thinking?  Probably.  There has been radio silence since the PR disaster that was the announcement of new player succession rules, but assuming they’re still going ahead, how confident could Sexton be that Leinster would be able to recruit the top-class second row they need to be competitive at the sharp end next season?  The IRFU’s determination to ensure the national team is not usurped in the fans’ minds as Numero Uno could end up hurting themselves as much as anyone.

5. The door is open for others

We can’t know yet if Sexton’s departure will be the first of many, but certainly it opens the door.  Cian Healy and Rob Kearney have not yet signed up for next season.  Kearney has been on regional airwaves describing his shock at the news.  Sexton’s move will no doubt lead those players to consider just how much a force Leinster can be without their great fly-half.  Compounding this, French clubs may now become encouraged.  The Irish provinces have yielded slim pickings over the years, with Clermont and Toulouse apparently coveting Sexton, but wary of being used as bargaining tools.  Such powerhouses will surely have found their interest piqued by this week’s transfer news. The aforementioned players are of course from Leinster, where there appeared to be genuine shock at how Luke Fitzgerald was cut from the payroll when injured – careers are short and Pandora’s Box is open.

One man we are genuinely concerned about is Sean O’Brien – amazing as it seems, one of our most important players is not currently on a central contract. His current Leinster deal ends next season, so one can expect the union to start discussions in December – if you were a French club, wouldn’t you make discrete contact in advance? O’Brien has many reasons to stay in Leinster, but you can bet that grá for the Union who haven’t made him an offer he can’t refuse is not one of them – they had betterget this one right.

6. Madigan deserves his chance

There’s already speculation that Leinster will scour the southern hemisphere for a fly-half, but this would be a bad move.  The one positive that comes out of this is the solving of the Madigan Riddle, also known as What Do You Do With a Problem Like Madeegan.  While Madigan still has a way to go to get to Sexton’s consummate level, at the very least his impressive performances in blue over the last two years have earned him the right to at least a season as first choice 10.  At his best he’s a thrilling talent with an eye for the tryline, a breaking threat and a sublime pass, and could prove himself to be the second-best 10 in the country if he can improve his decision-making and kicking from hand.  A Shaun Berne-type signing as back-up seems more appropriate, and it’s a pity that Paul Warwick has just been snapped up by Worcester; he would have been ideal. Now that George Ford is taking his promising talents to Oooooooooooooohh Bath, perhaps a move for Beaver is in order?

7. Sexton should see out the season

There’s a worthwhile argument that Leinster’s future must start today with as much invested in Madigan from now, including any Pro12 or Amlin knock-out games.  But Sexton has earned the right not to be treated as a shop-bought commodity and should remain Leinster’s first-choice 10 for the remainder of his contract.  Plus, respect must be paid to the remaining competitions in which Leinster will compete, which means giving themselves the best possible chance of winning them with the best team on the pitch.  Besides, with the Six Nations starting, Madigan will be afforded plenty of Pro12  starts over the coming months in any case.

8. Leinster must be positive and move on

It’s devastating for the fans and certainly a blow to the team to lose so great a player.  But wallowing in disappointment will achieve little.  Leinster’s squad can take comfort by recalling that their recent success was born out of adversity, and their hardness won through difficult times.  They have overcome worse than losing a key player before.  Furthermore, minds should be cast back to the summer of 2009, when a seemingly irreplacable Aussie backrow made his way back down under.  It seemed like the end of the world, but his loss was barely noticed following the emergence of a certain Tullow native with a penchant for smashing holes all over the pitch.

With this in mind, Proper Church’s tweets of Madigan with the meme ‘Relax. I’ve got this’ were a good start.

9. Bon Chance, Johnnny Sexton

Leinster fans in particular will be disappointed, hurt even, by the decision.  Some will call Sexton a mercenary and that he’s moved for the money.  But really, unless any of those people are Johnny Sexton, or Fintan Drury, or Johnny Sexton’s fiance, it’s impossible to know exactly what his motives are for leaving.  Many players have flirted with France before, most notably Brian O’Driscoll.  But none have been in Sexton’s position, where he has won three Heineken Cup medals with his hometown team.  BO’D stayed at Leinster out of a feeling of unfinished business.  Sexton may feel it’s as good a time as any for a fresh challenge.  To him, we say, bon chance.

Le Johnny Show-Bizz?

Johnny Sexton has reportedly been offered megabucks to join Racing Metro.  By all accounts it’s a serious offer and the club has plans to become a European force over the next two-to-three seasons.  They’ve signed up Castres’ highly-rated coaching ticket for next year, and have identified Johnny as the man they need to conquer Europe.

The IRFU have, apparently, been slow to respond, which on the face of it, is remarkable.  Sexton is now firmly established as the nation’s premier 10, and it appears a fait accomplis that he will be the starting Lions fly-half.  There is a legitimate argument that he is the outstanding player in the country, having surpassed O’Driscoll and O’Connell, both of whose recent impact has been limited by injury.

While nothing has been signed yet, the whole affair does bring to light the glaring flaw in centralised contracting.  The system whereby the top players are centrally controlled by the IRFU has, in general, been a success, with the players’ match time controlled appropriately.  But the other side of the coin is that the provinces’ needs come a distant second.

While the IRFU in general puts a lot of stock in having the players under their control, they might be somewhat agnostic about Sexton leaving for Paris.  For a start, playing in France is no longer the flog-athon it was once perceived as, and the big Top 14 contenders now have large enough squads to rest their better players.  Juan Martin Hernandez and Winiewski are both on Racing’s books, so Johnny 10 can comfortably be rotated out of the team as and when the coaches see fit.  Matching Racing’s offer is presumably out of the question, but even without doing so, the IRFU would seemingly have to offer terms that would establish Sexton as the best paid player in the country in order to keep him in Ireland.  It wouldn’t be undeserved, but perhaps they’re not that keen on the idea.  They’ll still have access to Johnny for internationals, and his standing is such that he’ll continue to be picked wherever he plays.  And his leaving Leinster would pave the way for Ian Madigan – potentially his understudy at test level next season, but possibly a bit of a headache for the IRFU while on the bench at Leinster – to flourish at his home province.  Indeed, Madigan would probably be the biggest beneficiary of all this.

The team with the most to lose by Johnny setting sail are Leinster.  Before Joe Schmidt even signed on at the province, he identified Sexton as the most important player at the club – it was he and Leo Cullen that Schmidt met for a chat to discuss his vision for Leinster rugby, and the Kiwi has built the team around Sexton’s regal attacking game.  But Leinster can only sit idly by while the IRFU crunch the numbers.  They can do nothing tangible to keep him at the club.  It points to a schism in the system.

As Peter O’Reilly discussed so eloquently in the Sunday Times, Sexton is one of the icons of Irish rugby, particularly in his home province.  Among Leinster fans, he has come to embody the new winning culture at the province, with his arrival as a first team player coinciding exactly with the beginning of Leinster’s dominance.  His rise to the top has been especially hard-won; the manner in which he has had to overcome adversity to get to where he is today, and had to claw the Irish 10 shirt off the back of a legend, have made him an especially adored player on the terraces of the RDS.

As for Johnny himself, nobody would begrudge him a couple of seasons on a colossal salary in the splendour of Paris.  He owes Leinster nothing, having steered them to three Heineken Cups.  The timing could probably never be better.  The Lions tour will be out of the way and he could return in time for the World Cup in 2015.  But for those who have watched him develop from a skinny-limbed youngster on his debut in Thomond Park to the world-class leader he is today, it would be difficult to watch him play in another team’s colours.  The IRFU should do what they can to tie down one of their greatest assets.

*The title is a reference to Racing Metro’s 1980s backline, which was famous for its flair and eccentricity, and became known as Le Show-Bizz.  Read more about the club’s colourful history here.

HEC Round Four – Review

The old cliche is that you can never safely predict too much in the Heineken Cup, and it was reassuring to see that it still holds true this week.  Just when it looked as though most issues were virtually settled with two rounds to go, Quins did the unthinkable and won in Toulouse.  It’s not the first supposedly unbreachable citadel this young side has sacked, and it underlines their credentials as a coming force after they appeared to have been scuppered last week.  Here’s our latest good week/bad week…

Good week


Who else? Quins

A remarkable victory for a remarkable team.  When they lost to Toulouse last week it looked like a case of ‘Welcome to the Big League, chaps’.  To turn it around in Toulouse’s own patch a week on was a feat you simply had to stand and applaud.  This may be a year too early for them to win, but they are a team nobody will fancy playing in the knockout stages, for which they now look set to qualify for, either as winners or as runners-up.  It also underlined the importance of having a world class kicker.  Which brings us on to…

Johnny Sexton

While ROG has been grabbing the headlines with his timely drop-goals, Sexton has been efficiently getting on with the business of playing brilliantly.  He bailed Leinster out in Montpellier, ran the show against Glasgow and then delivered back-to-back man of the match performances against Bath and has racked up 63 points in four games.  On Saturday, he showcased the full range of his talents, and was a dream to watch.

Saracens

In poll position in Pool Five and looking in decent nick having done the double over the Ospreys.  Not the flashiest of teams, but they do have a consistent kicker in Owen Farrell and a belligerant set of forwards, which are two of the basic requirements to qualify as contenders.  Creativity is in short supply, with a somewhat predictable backline (Ooooooohhh Brad Barritt was literally centimetres over the gainline there!), but there’s always Schalk Brits to provide a spark. 

Bad Week


Blind Dave Pearson

Yes, it’s Blind Dave’s second appearance in our Bad Week section, and while his first was for bewildering us with reasoning we couldn’t really understand, this is for one of the single most knuckleheaded decisions in recent times.  You know the one, the blatantly obvious Scarlets try that he just walked away from and went back to give them an attacking scrum.  Had they not scored from said scrum, there would have been serious questions asked.  It was a bizarre moment.

Tomas O’Leary

Lordy.  Tomas had actually impressed a little on his recent cameos but this was back to the 2010/11 vintage.  Munster were totally in control until he came on, and promptly fell on to the back foot.  At one stage, his back-and-across crabbing saw him trapped metres behind the gainline and a penalty followed.  He was then extrmely lucky when his ill-judged grubber went out to touch off a Scarlets boot late in the match. 

Connacht

How much heartbreak can a team take?  Strangely, Connacht have saved their best performances for away matches in the competition, and were five minutes from a famous victory over Gloucester until nothing so complicated as a missed first-up tackle let in a late try.  It must be hard to take for a fanbase that so seldom has anything to cheer.  Connacht are the anti-Munster – a team that simply doesn’t know how to win.

Did somebody order a Power of Four wristband?

On tuesday, Egg Chaser took a look at the forwards he expects to be jostling for position on the flight down under. It’s still a long way off, so we’re not all going to agree. One commenter even made a case for Mushy Buckley as a Lion, so at the risk of upsetting any Johne Murphy fans out there, here we go with the backs…

Scrum half

Pole Position: Ben Youngs is exactly the sort of scrum half you’d want to take on the Aussies.  Struggled a little in the latter portion of the season but has plenty of time to iron out the kinks in his game.

Look out for: Conor Murray. The Munster scrum half had a breakthrough lat year, and looks every inch the complete player. Should be Ireland’s first choice nine next season.

Needs to improve: The 2009 Lions Mike Philips and Tomas O’Leary will need to get their mojo back to be in the mix.

Too late for: Eoin Reddan will be pushing over the hill by 2013.

Fly half

Pole Position: Jonny Sexton looks by far the most complete and reliable of the options.  Needs to bring consistency to his game at test level, and the shirt is his.  Toby Flood would provide ample back-up.

Look out for: George Ford is already causing excited mutterings among England fans, who wouldn’t overhype a player lightly.  He is just 18, but served notice of his considerable talent in the recent U20 World Cup.

Needs to improve: James Hook has talent in abundance and wants to play more at fly-half but must learn to boss the game to be a Lions 10.

Too late for: The 2009 fly halves ROG and Stephen Jones will be past their best by the time 2013 rolls around.

Centres

Pole Position: Brian O’Driscoll will have to have the shirt torn from his back.  His body may give up before 2013, but for now he is still in poll position.  No inside centre currently stands out.

Look out for: Manu Tuilagi is the man who could take over from BOD.  He has some work to do on his defence, but looks explosive with the ball.  Fergus McFadden will be the established Ireland 12 by this stage and should be pushing for a spot.
It’s early days for two very young players who should make big strides between now and then: Scottish centre Mark Bennett has just signed for Clermont and is hoped to be the quality centre Scottish rugby has lacked for so long, while Luke Marshall will become a key player at Ulster next year.

Needs to improve: If Jamie Roberts can regain the form he showed in 2009, he is a nailed on tourist. But he has never looked the same player since.

Too late for: Possibly BOD and almost certainly Dorce.

Back Three

Pole position: Generally the most unpredictable, as form plays a huge part. On the left wing, Keith Earls and Max Evans look the most likely, while on the right it is hard to see Ashton and Bowe being displaced.  Ben Foden looks the real deal at 15, though Rob Kearney can challenge if he recovers from injury and adds greater variety to his counterattacking game.

Look out for: Lee 0.5p has been bedevilled by injuries, but if he can get back on track he can be world class.  Llanelli’s starlet George North also looks set to make a big impression, while Tim Visser becomes Scottish qualified next year, and if he can take his try-scoring exploits to test level will certainly be a Lion.

Needs to improve: Luke Fitzgerald endured a difficult season and needs to get back to his pre-injury form. If Oooooooooohhh Matt Banahan can add pace, a sidestep, softer hands, a brain and defensive positioning to his bulk, he could contend for a spot on the plane.

Too late for: Lee Byrne will be pushing 32, while it looks a tour too far for Shane Williams.

After the Six Nations next season, we’ll revisit and see how our Lions Ladder is looking.  No doubt we’ll try to rewrite history to make it look like we were right all along.

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Inside Backs

The penultimate post in the series looks at the fly-half and centres quandry.  Egg Chaser will wrap things up on Friday by looking at the back three.

How many will go? Two fly halves, three centres.

Who is certain to travel? It will come as little surprise to Ronan O’Gara, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy when Deccie informs them that they are going down under.  These four can purchase their copy of Ki Te Whaoiao’s An Introduction to Maori Culture and Society.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? Dedicated outside centre cover is thin on the ground.  If the unthinkable were to happen to Brian O’Driscoll and he should miss a game it is likely that one of the outside backs, probably Tommy Bowe or Keith Earls would step in to the breach.

One man who is likely to go as cover for Dorce and the two fly-halves is Paddy Wallace.  A couple of high profile mistakes and the images of his face being mashed in the 2009 Six Nations have made Paddy a bit of a punchbag among Irish rugby fans, but the truth is that he is a classy distributing centre, and one of the best passers of the ball in the country.

He was in Eddie’s 2003 and 2007 squads as a reserve out-half (the reserve in 2007), and his ability to cover 10 and 12 and offer an alternative ‘second five-eighth’ option at 12 gives Kidney another way of playing.  So far so good.  But the truth is that he is not even close to being an international 10.  If Sexy and ROG were both to get injured, Ireland may as well pack up and go home – the notion that Wallace should be brought to cover this remote eventuality is a nonsense.  Even more nonsensical is the idea that Wallace covers full-back.  A certain esteemed Irish Times journalist has repeatedly peddled this line, and it has been used to justify Paddy’s selection as half-time orange provider throughout the Six Nations, but it is hard to think of any attributes of a modern 15 that Wallace possesses.

So his value should be measured on his ability at 12.  And we like Wallace as a 12, but he has not had the best of seasons with Ulster or Ireland.  Menwhile, Fergus McFadden offers cover across the three-quarter line and is coming off the back of a superb season with Leinster, even if he is not yet a consistent starter in the big games.  Tigerish in contact, with enough gas to play on the wing, and the ability to place-kick, he should be taking his place on the plane in September.

A final option, and an increasingly fashionable one, is playing a big man at 12 to bosh up the middle.  After all, didn’t BOD mesh wonderfully with Jamie Roberts on the Lions tour?  The man to play this role for Ireland would be Ooooooooooooooohhh James Downey.  WoC was surprised to see Downey show reasonable hands for Northampton in the HEC semi-final, and felt we had perhaps underestimated him.  The feeling remains that he is probably not quite up to international level, though this is one option that would have been worth exploring before now.  Downey didn’t make the 43-man training squad this week, so the ship has probably sailed.

We think Deccie will plump for Wallace, with the fly-half cover working in his favour, but it is possible (particuarly in light of Shaggy’s injury) that Fergus could still make it as a utility back, more of which anon…

Any bolters? Nevin Spence had made a bolt with a string of impressive performances for Ulster, and is unfortunate to be ruled out through injury.  His time will come.

Should go: Ronan O’Gara, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Fergus McFadden
Will go: Ronan O’Gara, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Paddy Wallace

Notes from a Small Country

With one half of Whiff of Cordite manfully running the show from home, the other was on a crucial research trip in Cardiff, Bristol and (ooooooooooohhh!) Bath this weekend. The following memo details our findings:

1. The Millenium Stadium is unmatched in Europe. The palindrome has the best location, Stade de France the most appealing design, Twickenham has front-lawn barbeques en route to the ground, but The Millenium tops the lot. Ear-shreddingly loud, right in the centre of town, and so steep-sided that there is not a bad seat in the house – this was one ground we’ll never forget.
2. Jonny will be the Lions test out half in 2013. How much can be attributed to his half-time speech we can never be sure, but one thing’s for sure: Jonny was wired. He had the look of a man who wasn’t going to accept defeat. It was reminiscent of a certain fly half from Cork…
3. It was the greatest Heineken Cup Final ever. Leicester v Stade and Wasps v Toulouse are generally held up as the classics, but this surely topped the lot. It was one of those exceptional occasions where sport takes on the realm of theatre, with the players’ emotions writ large on their faces. Let it not be forgotten that Northampton played a huge part.
4. The Heineken Cup final is the party of the year. Northampton and Leinster fans travelled en masse, of course, but they weren’t the only colours represented. Whether it was La Marseillaise booming out of an Irish pub, or Les Toulousaines passing people over their heads on the train, this was a party with a very international flavour.
5. It was sweeter than 2009. If most Leinster fans are honest, the semi-final victory over Munster felt more significant than winning the Cup that year. Leinster’s form in that competition was patchy to say the least; but this year, they were the best team in the tournament from the first moment to the last. Even their only defeat, away to Clermont, was a great performance.
6. We heart Bath. Whiff of Cordite has always been bemused by the venorated treatment of Bath Rugby, but having visited yesterday, we are card-carrying fanclub members of this magnificent town, which deserves a team to match it. Amazing Roman ruins, beautiful limestone buildings, natural hot springs and one of the great old Englsih rugby grounds. We can see ourselves quite happy there, in fact: Saturday afternoons at the Rec with Barnesy, stretching out in the Thermae Bath Spa steam rooms with Barnesy, Sunday lunch in the Pump Room with Barnesy…

Post-coital Bliss

Although Whiff of Cordite is physically split between Dublin and (Ooooh) Bath, one day out from THE game, we are of one mind on our musings:

The half-time turnaround is obviously the key – what happened? We think Dylan Hartley’s injury had a huge effect on the Northampton team. We can envisage a half-time dressing room of few words and few stepping forward to plan a close-out of a match all-but-won as Hartley received treatment. This is in contrast to the Leinster dressing room, where BOD himself alluded to the leadership being shown by Jonny Sexton, no doubt in addition to O’Driscoll himself, plus Cullen, Heaslip, Horgan and Reddan, amongst others. The Saints looked unsure of themselves from from the start of the second half.

As soon as Leinster got the first score, you got a sense the tide had turned irrevocably. From the 41st minute on, it was the Saints who were falling off tackles, whose set-piece was crumbling, and with none of the bloody resistance that had done for Ulster. Perhaps the inevitability was felt by the Northampton players as well – they themselves were on the other end of an eerily similar game just 2 weeks ago – how the Leeds players must have felt is an interesting question.

The Leinster selection was wrong. All year, Joe has picked on form, not reputation, and has reaped the benefits, building a much deeper squad throughout the season. Fitzgerald was again poor yesterday, falling off several tackles (notably against Foden in the 67th minute) and not showing much in attack – McFadden should have started. The McLaughlin/Jennings call was more marginal, and form was less of a factor – but with Jennings in place, the back-row looked much better balanced. Also, Locky’s first-half scrummaging was poor – Mike Ross will not have been amused with his detachment. In the second half, the Leinster 8 got the shove on straight away, helped by everyone muscling in.

Whiff Of Cordite had a huge amount of respect for Northampton as a club and a team before this game, and has even more after it. The daring nature of the Northampton gameplan was uber-refreshing, and the team literally gave it all. The post-match actions of the team, led by captain and coach, of staying on the field for as long as Leinster did showed huge respect, and will hopefully give these guys the hunger to scale the peak themselves. The experience of yesterday will stand to this team, and we suspect there will be many more titanic battles between these 2 sides in the near future.

And finally, the referee was excellent. Romain Poite has received a fair degree of heat from the Irish media, but Whiff of Cordite has only praise for his display. The stronger team in the scrum was consistently rewarded with penalties, and his positioning for the Dorce non-try was perfect, as was his reversion upstairs just in case. One very slght caveat – Barnesy made an argument in commentary for a possible penalty try for a bat-down with 3 outside during the advantage being played for Dowson’s yellow, but he went back for the original offence. Maybe WoC’s hero in Tara Street will give him the, eh, credit he is due.