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.

Not BOD

It would be remiss of us not to sign off on this year’s Six Nations by talking about the successor to you-know-who. Brian O’Driscoll will never wear the Ireland shirt again, and he’s only the best player of the professional era – whoever takes over will be held to the standard set by some-bloke-called-Brian and it will not be easy for them. Indeed, amid the clamour for the shirt, it has to be remembered what a thankless task this will be.  The successful candidate must not only have the rugby skills to take over, he must have the mental strength to deal with not being BOD. Ask Andrew Trimble what it’s like not-being-BOD – while he lit up Le Stade in Ireland’s second winning effort there in 40 years, he lost out on the BOD-of-the-match award. It was a brilliant touch by the French to let BOD have the final word on his own career, but it illustrates the force of personality that Ireland are losing – one of the greats who transcended nations. Although, let’s face it, he has still been dropped by the Lions once more than the Awesome Power of Luther Burrell.

With the World Cup now 18 months away, the learning curve is steep – in the group stages alone, not-BOD will face Michele Campagnaro, one of the better young players on view this 6N and either Gael Fickou, an amazingly talented youngster, or Mathieu Bastareaud, an disgracefully out-of-shape waster who just happens to be extremely strong and explosive, and who seemingly always produces against Ireland. If not-BOD doesn’t win both those games, his next assignment will be marking Smuddy, and if he ins one of them, it’s Marcelo Bosch. Easy.

Any error or signs of not-being-BOD will be picked up upon by fans and meeja alike, with each likely to use the opportunity to row in behind the under-pressure player and support them through their difficult patch. Or maybe they’ll just call for their own provincial team-mate / personal favourite to be handed the 13 jersey. Hard to know really, although those thinking the latter is more likelyare just as cynical as us, and slightly more realistic.

No pressure then. So who is up for being not-BOD?

Robbie Henshaw (Connacht): It feels part of the narrative to call Henshaw “heir apparent” and even say he was “anointed by BOD” but we aren’t so sure about this. BOD’s words have been twisted and Henshaw is very raw at international, or any, level. He is undoubtedly talented, but is still only 20, without a huge body of work at outside centre in professional rugby behind him. That said, he is one of two outside centres actually in the current squad, and is likely to get significant game time in Argentina.  He’s a big, strong running lad and the closest thing we have to a JJV Davies/Burrell type centre.

Darren Cave (Ulster): The other 13 in the current squad. Angry, and who would blame him. I mean, everyone who interviews him asks him about his mate from home, Wotsisname from the Golf innit wiv the hot tennis bird in tow. When is Dazza going to get his time in the sun?! Now maybe – he has been one of the backbones of Ulster’s rise from Magners also-rans to European powerhouse – defensively solid, has added vision and great pass timing to his repertoire this year. Also likely to see some rugger this summer, he is now being thought of as a potential “stop-gap” while Henshaw matures, but he is only 26 and likely to keep improving.

Jared Payne (Ulster): Payne isn’t Irish yet, but he will be in July. Or August. Don’t know, but in time for the Georgia game, that’s for sure. He played lots of rugger at 13 for Auckland back in the Land of the Long Black Chokers but has spent nearly all his time at Ulster at full-back. He undoubtedly has brilliant sense of space and footwork, but his defence can occasionally be of the iHumph variety. And with Joe Schmidt’s obsession with detail, it’s tough to know if he’ll cut the mustard as a 13 candidate if he isn’t playing there week-in, week-out.  Much appears to depend on the shape and fitness of the Ulster back-three.  Word on the ground was that Anscombe’s plan was to play Payne at 13 this year, with Gilroy moving to full-back, but Bowe’s injury put paid to that notion, while Cave continues to be reliable in the 13 shirt.  We’ll see how they line out in the quarter-final against Saracens.

Keith Earls (Munster): Stop! He is good! In fact, he has more experience at outside centre at international level than the rest of the Irish squad put together, so there. And he did ok too, better than ok – we didn’t miss BOD in 2012 as much as we thought we would. Earls has two major problems though – he isn’t playing at centre for Munster, and his decision-making under pressure can be questionable. Re the former, he has a chance to rectify that now Casey Laulala is eschewing passion and pride for money – if he so desires, the Munster 13 shirt is his next season. Re the latter, extended time in camp with Joe Schmidt is maybe just what the doctor ordered – he might even learn how to pass.

Luke Roysh (Leinster): I knew it! Bias! A pro-Leinster conspiracy! Luke Fitzgerald is the most talented back produced by Ireland since BOD, but his international career has been in stall mode for five years. And he is stil only 26! Fitzgerald has the game for outside centre, no question, but he also has two major flaws – he isn’t playing at centre for Leinster, and he is injury-prone. Similar to Ireland, Leinster have a pressing need for a 13 as their one is moving from rugby into the sainthood business – perhaps this is the opportunity Fitzgerald needs to get his career back in the groove. He has experience with Schmidt, and plus he is from Leinster, so he’ll probably get picked anyway. *foam* *froth*

Fergus McFadden (Leinster): Another Leinster player! This is getting ridiculous, I mean there are two now in this list alone – what about the Ulster/Munster/Connacht quota for the national side! Ferg has actually worn the Irish 13 jersey before, against Wales in 2012, although it got ignominiously dumped on its back by JJV Davies en route to Wales upsetting the applecart, and he started his career there. But he has spent the last two years being exclusively a wing. He filled in at centre during the Six Nations just gone, and has the advantage of being in the inner sanctum. Still, a role as a versatile bench option feels more likely.

Stuart Olding (Ulster): Bear with us here. Sure, he’s been at 10 or 12 most of his short career. Sure, he’s injured. But he is a sumptuous and natural footballer with great vision, excellent passing skills, good defence and a sharp rugby brain. We have a funny feeling he will end up as a 13 (partly due to the existence of Wee PJ and Bamm-Bamm, partly because he is good enough to do so). Just saying. Maybe not now though.

Simon Zebo (Munster): A cursory glance at the interwebs will tell you that Zebo has the passing of Matt Giteau, the speed of Carlin Isles, the power of Manu Tuilagi, the defence of Jonny Wilkinson and the rugby brain of Dan Carter – it seems madness that Joe Schmidt won’t pick him, so maybe he is saving him for #thirteen. Note to Munster fans – THIS IS A JOKE! We think he  is great.

So there you have it, plenty of imperfect candidates to be not-BOD. We reckon Cave and Henshaw will each get an audition in Argentina, and Earls and Fitzgerald will be live contenders if they line out there for their provinces next season. Whoever does get the nod, it’s utterly essential that we give them all the support possible – they’ll need it for the one thing we do know is – they won’t be BOD.

What next for Keith Earls?

It was this time last week four years ago that Keith Earls was named in the Lions squad.  He was the archetypal bolter, barely established at international level – he’d been capped against Canada in the previous Autumn series – but showing red-hot form in the lead in to the Lions announcement, culminating in a brilliant performance in the famous thrashing of the Ospreys at Thomond Park that signified the peak of the great Munster team of the noughties.

As it transpired, the tour didn’t go all that brilliantly for Keet, but he overcame a difficult start (he dropped his very first bomb in his very first game and looked harrowed by the experience) to get lots of gametime and it was put down as a learning experience that would stand to him, and surely he’d be back in four years time.  Except that is not how it’s turned out at all.  A flash Munster winger with a nose for the tryline was considered unlucky to miss out on the squad, but that was Simon Zebo.  In the shake-up, Earls was nowhere, barely mentioned in the parlour-game that is the multiple selection of theoretical squads by every writer, blogger or pundit.

He was largely absent from Munster’s recent resurgence, playing a minimal role in their two best performances of the season.  He was injured for the Harlequins match, and played in the unfamiliar 14 shirt against Clermont and left the field early in the second half.  His replacement, Denis Hurley scored the try that put Munster back into the match. This season he also lost his starting shirt for the first games of the Six Nations, though he quickly got into the team on the back of injury to his clubmate Zebo.

It doesn’t quite count as a fall from grace; Earls is still highly thought of in Munster, and no doubt Joe Schmidt will continue to see him as a valued squad member for Ireland.  But it does seem like Keith Earls has found himself somewhat squeezed out of the foreground.  Part of the issue is the positional to-ing and fro-ing that Earls has endured throughout his career.  Last summer, he made a pretty big deal of telling the media he ‘hated’ playing on the wing, and was adamant that he wanted to play centre exclusively for Munster.  In spite of having Casey Laulala in his squad, Penney granted Earls his wish and picked him at centre for much of the season.  But it’s been curious to watch Munster deliver their best when Casey Laulala played 13 (and crucially, when, for almost the first time, Laulala’s teammates appeared to be getting on his wavelength).

The Earls-for-13 movement hasn’t been quite as terrible as some have made out, and he’s had his moments at centre.  He certainly has the running skills to play there, and at times it’s important to focus on what he can do rather than what he can’t.  A couple of months into the season, Earls was in terrific form and looked comfortable in the role.  Witness the try in Ravenhill, where Earls touched the ball three times, one around-the-corner pass, another pass fast, flat and in front of the player running on to it, and the third a try-scoring support line.

But since then things have stalled, and the issue of Earls’ lack of distribution skills just won’t go away.  The other problem is that he cannot simply go back onto the left wing again; there’s a new sheriff in town over there.  It leaves him looking at another year trying to get to grips with the full range of skills required to play centre, or possibly redefining himself as a right wing, taking up the gap about to be vacated by Dougie Howlett.  Ultimately Rob Penney will have the final say.  As the season wore on, we got the feeling he sees his ideal 13 as more of a distributor than Earls can ever really be.  When Munster offered Luke Fitzgerald a contract and the promise of the 13 shirt, what did it say about Rob Penney’s faith in Earls’ continuing suitability for the role?

It can be unfortunate for players when a single event so dominates the public consciousness, but for Earls the moment where he failed to pass to Brian O’Driscoll having made a clean line break against Scotland in the Six Nations this season has almost come to define his lack of awareness of others around him.

It looks like next season could involve yet another positional change for Earlsy.  You could argue that we Irish are unnecessarily daunted by versatility and being a jack-of-many-trades, but for a player who has admitted to issues with self-confidence and has talked in the media about his determination to play in a specific position, it has the look of a backward step.

Oh Captain, My Captain

Brian O’Driscoll was announced as Ireland captain for the November series yesterday.  But, at the risk of commiting heresy, we must ask: is he the right man for the job?  The answer is still a ‘yes’, but it’s worth taking some time to think through.

Time waits for no man, as they say, and just as the clock has ticked past the point where Ronan O’Gara should be an international selection, so too it will reach the point where BOD is no longer the best 13 in the country.  That day may not necessarily coincide with the day the great man retires, and could even precede it.  At some point the time may come when BOD has to be left out of the Ireland team.

It’s worth casting an eye over the form-book.  BOD has played poorly in Leinster’s two Heineken Cup games this season.  Against Exeter he was guilty of taking insufficient care of the ball, while against Scarlets he showed a rare moment of hesitancy in defence to allow Gareth Maule to skate in for a try.  Going further back, he had a fairly indistinguished summer tour in a green shirt.  Casting back slightly further, he did have a stellar Heineken Cup final, with his memorable break and offload to Sean O’Brien the highlight of the match.  The old magic has not disappeared.

The alternatives for the position are Ulster’s Darren Cave and in particular Keith Earls, who played well there in the Six Nations and has made little secret of his desire to play in the 13 shirt and not on the wing.  The pity of it is that Earls has been injured over the past fortnight, and has missed an opportunity to put huge pressure on O’Driscoll.  He had started the season with great gusto.

Any pressure is further diluted by Rob Kearney’s absence, which is likely to see Earls deployed at full-back in any case.  Kearney is close to irreplaceable (particularly keeping in mind the nature of Ireland’s opponents in this series), so taking another of Ireland’s totems out of the backline would leave Ireland looking a bit callow in that division.

BOD is the greatest player ever to pull on the green jersey, and his experience, leadership, class and nose for the tryline should not be discarded lightly.  He still has much to bring to test rugby, so long as his legs are functioning.  Peter O’Reilly wrote that even dead, you could strap him to his horse and send him into the ranks of the enemy.  But even the greatest of men should not be picked based on what they have achieved in the past.  We endorse his selection as captain for this series, but he should not be considered an automatic selection.  Thirteenwatch has not gone away just yet.

Pick me! Pick me!

Keith Earls really, really, really wants to play outside centre for Munster, and presumably Ireland.  The details are here in Earls’ interiew with Charlie Mulqueen in the Examiner.

http://www.irishexaminer.com/sport/rugby/earls-vows-to-make-13-jersey-his-own-202572.html

It’s not the first time he’s made these sort of noises, and unlike his media-schooled colleagues, Keith Earls is the one Irish player who is something of an open book in interviews, and doesn’t seem to mind coming out with heartfelt, honest comments that could leave him in a tight spot. It’s great to see his wide-eyed enthusiasm for the game as well – makes one smile.

However, we’ve mixed feelings on his latest.  We’ve no problem with him saying he wants to play 13 – that’s fair, so why not come out and say it?  We’re always commenting that he’s been messed around too much in his career, so he’s right to try and nail down a position for himself.

But by saying he “hate[s] playing 11” he is in danger of making a rod for himself, and others.  He’s played the majority of his international career and much of his club games there, and if he hates it so much, he at least appears to have made a decent fist of it.  At some point he’ll be called upon to play there, and it puts unnecessary pressure on his coaches when they do it.

Last year his game improved hugely at 13 and he has surely earned the right to start the season in that position. We would see Earls as one of the players Penney should be looking to build the new Munster team around.  Trouble is as a centrally contracted player he’ll be missing the first few weeks of the season, so Laulala has a headstart in the 13 jumper.  Also, Laulala is an out-and-out 13 with little versatility – Earls can be accommodated elsewhere, but Laulala cannot.  Can Munster afford to leave such talent on the bench? Or can Penney, as a new coach, afford to marginalise one of his best players?

It’s a most interesting quandry for Penney.  Thirteenwatch starts early this year.

Six Nations: We need to talk about Keet

Sorry, make that Respect Keet. We have got in trouble for not showing adequate respect to everyone’s favourite blond Limerickman, so Anon, if you are reading (despite promising you wouldn’t) your over-sensitive antennae might get a bit upset shortly, so look away now.

The key question for Ireland in this Six Nations is an impossible one to answer – how do you replace the irreplacable? Drico might be back in a while, but make no mistake, the hill has been browed, and it’s Operation Replacement.

We have been running our regular Thirteenwatch series for a few months now on the contenders for the sacred 13 shirt – in the very first one, we joked about how Deccie was going to play Keith Earls there no matter what. Now, after 6 rounds of HEC, we finally agree Earls is the man for the job, especially after Darren Cave’s misfortune.  The field has essentially narrowed to three: Earls, Bowe and McFadden.  None are naturals in the role, but Earls’ case is the most compelling.   McFadden has plenty to offer, but need not be excluded altogether – he should be included alongside Keet at 12.  Bowe has not played at all at centre, and is needed on the wing.  And Keet’s form is good – he threw in a howler against Castres, but the manner in which he bounced back against Northampton put him back in credit.

So Earls it is. Straightforward? No, not at all. We have some serious reservations about Respect Keet, but lets start with the positives. He has great feet, pace to burn and a serious eye for the tryline.  While he’s no BOD, not by a long shot, it’s worth dwelling for a while on what Earls will bring to the team.  A combination of McFadden and Earls would have serious gas – not something Ireland have had in midfield since D’arcy and O’Driscoll were in the flush of youth and at their peak, in the 2006 Autumn series when Ireland looked like world-beaters.  It would give defences something new to think about.  We’re not saying they’ll be better but it will offer a different kind of threat.

Now for the bad stuff.  When we see Earls, we are always reminded of the great Arrigo Sacchi’s opinion on Steven Gerrard:

“He is a great footballer, but not a great player. He lacks what I call knowing-how-to-play football.”

Earls has all the tools to be a great player for Ireland, but he just does not fully convince. The defensive errors Earls makes at 13 are worryingly consistent and similar (e.g. Leinster 2009, Fat Manu 2011). In addition, one does not see huge development in Earls game since his breakthrough season in 2009 – contrast with Bob Kearney, who has come back from injury a much more rounded player than before, and  is a much better player even than he was in 2009, the previous peak of his powers. We’re unsure if Earls will improve as a player, or whether he is getting adequate guidance in this department. Caveat: the chopping and changing positionally is a major hindrance here.

There is also the mental side of things. When Earls is not completely psychologically clued into a game, he can be desperate. On his Lions debut, his nerves were palpable 6,000 miles away, and he succumbed with his first Garryowen. Fast forward to October – he flagged in the press a few days before the Wales quarter-final that he was thinking ahead of the game at hand, missed 5 tackles out of 8, and was at fault for all 3 tries. While his enthusiasm, as evidenced by the Superstar quote, or talking about wanting to go out there and run around and have fun, is endearing, it’s also a bit concerning that a professional sportsman talks like a 10 year old. It’s a classic mental mistake – thinking about the outcome and not the process – and it’s one that is repeatedly made.

Now, breathe.

Let us say this. If Earls is going to be the man, he must play all 5 games, even though over the course of five hard games, we can more or less say he will throw in one shocker. It’s important people remember that it’s essentially his first test level start in the shirt, and it won’t always be smooth. It’s also imperative because of Earls’ unique circumstances i.e. his fragile mentality. Earls must be trusted, and it must be made clear to him in advance he is trusted – not a Deccie trait (according to Donncha’s autobiog) it must be acknowledged.

We have outlined our reservations, but from this moment on we are fully behind him.  It’s important everyone is 100% supportive of Keet at 13 – he needs it, and Ireland need it. No-one will be happier than us if he delivers in the shirt in the series.  If and when he does have a bad game – hopefully it happens early on so he can finish on a high note – he must be backed (to be fair, this is a Deccie trait). And all the better if he starts showing increasing maturity, and even some evidence of embryonic leadership qualities – a totem is bowing out, and a man of Earls talent would be a proud successor …. if he can marshall it effectively. Fingers and toes crossed…

Thirteenwatch – Part Three

The Six Nations is closer than you might think.  Just two rounds of HEC sit between here and the Grande Old Dame of World Rugby, so it’s time for one last look at the thirteen shirt.  We’ll be looking at it again before the Six Nations, of course, but as part of a wider look at the whole team.  Here’s how we’re calling it…

Eoin Griffin (Connacht)

Out of contention. Probably a co-incidence but nothing has gone right since Gerry wrote one of his hagiographies on him.  Undoubtedly a talented lad but Connacht’s lamentable run has taken it out of even their better players.  Needs to be given a little rest and told everything is going to be ok.  Poor lamb.
BOD Rating: come back next year 4/13 (-1)

Eoin O’Malley (Leinster)

Challenge has faded a bit in spite of some classy moments.  The sight of him being smashed out of the way by Beaver (at the Aviva) has been hard to shake from the memory.  Showed nice touches off the bench against Ulster, but needs to get selected for at least one HEC game in the next fortnight to stay in the hunt.
BOD Rating: will be wearing green, but probably with the Wolfhounds 8/13 (-1)

Fergus McFadden (Leinster)

We are still not sold on Fergus as an outside centre, but he has had a good few weeks.  Rock-solid place-kicking is a string to the bow, and while his partership with D’arcy is a bit boshtastic, his familiarity with the Wexford man will do his chances no harm. Plus he is already in the squad – which gets him past Deccie Hurdle One. In the shake-up for sure. 
BOD Rating: a tough cookie, and full of hard yards. 8/13 (+2)

Darren Cave (Ulster)

Another try on Friday night, but the lack of televisual coverage precludes us from commenting on his performance.  This Friday night against Leicester represents a huge shop window for him.  If Paddy Wallace were to return the Ulster backline he could even some good attacking ball, especially if Pwal is outside a Marshall/Pienaar combo. What possibilities!
BOD Rating: Interview in today’s Sunday Times displayed a man who’s after the shirt.  Indications are Deccie’s a fan.  9/13 (unch.)

Danny Barnes (Munster)

Has been largely out of the picture since loss of form and Earls’ return. Colonel Sanders Toland was screaming for his call-up in his bizarre article last week (Ian Whitten??) but its not going to happen for a while yet.
BOD Rating: Six Nations will be spent playing for Munster 3/13 (-1)

Keith Earls (Munster)

When it comes to us and Keith, it’s… complicated.  Defensively frail, low on confidence and not a particularly brilliant footballer, but the boy has gas and, with a far better try-count than LukeFitz or Andy Trimble, we recognise the value of his outstanding finishing ability.  We also feel he’s been hard done by in how much he’s been moved around.  This season, he returns from injury only to find himself back in the centre, after playing wing all last year.  In truth, we’ve never fancied him as a 13, but we do have to accept he’s played pretty well these last few weeks.  In the Scarlets game he showed up well in spite of playing outside Mafi, who was having a mare.  Against Connacht, he showed deft hands – not usually his strongest suit – to send Scanlon over for a great try, and against Treviso his quick feet and hard line got him a nice try.  We’ve been resigned all along to Deccie picking Earls in the 13 slot, but it might not be as bad a decision as it looked a couple of months ago. We doubt he is the best long-term option, but he deserves a shot.
BOD Rating: we have to hand it to him, he’s not doing badly there. Has probably earned a shot at the jersey 9/13

Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster) and Tommy Bowe (Ospreys)

We’d have liked to have seen one or both of these play 13 over the last few weeks, but it looks like it’s not going to happen at this stage.  Luke’s resurgence has been one of the big positives of the year, and one facet of Earls conversion to centre will be to squeeze himself or Trimble into the XV.
BOD Rating: with zero minutes in the position this season, it’s not feasible 5/13 (-2)

Notes for Deccie: With Donncha O’Callaghan bumped from the Munster second row, maybe you could find a slot for him at 13.  You might just do that?  We were joking Deccie.  You were on the blower to Gaffney and he’s in favour?  Erm…

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 – Outside Backs

Phew, we are finally there. After naming 24 who we would bring and 24 who Deccie will (guess which category Denis Leamy fits into), we get to the last line – the piano players.

How many will go? Six we think – Ireland are well-stocked out wide, so there should be need to do an Eddie and bring a Brian Carney to hold tackle bags. There are going to be some quality players, and Gavin Duffy, left disappointed.

Who is certain to travel? Because of the competition in this sector, there are only two nailed-on certainties to go – Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls. Bowe is the classiest footballer in the squad, apart from Him, and all Ireland’s attacking invention appears to come through him (or Him) these days – he pops up everywhere in the line and his intelligent handling opens gaps for the rest of the backline. We heart him. Earls is another key component of the backline – his defence and open-field running are top class, and even Ludd McGahan seems to have worked out he isn’t a centre.

In addition to the above, Lukey Roysh and Andrew Trimble, B.Div. (2011) are around 95% sure of going. In Luke’s case, its scarcely deserved – his form this season has been poor, especially after the statements he was making in August about being the Leinster and Ireland 15. An easy case can be made that there are six players in better nick than he is – he’s a lucky boy that form is firmly below familiarity in Deccie’s list of priorities. Trimble has gone from strength to strength this year, and is finally becoming better known for his try-scoring than his God-bothering. After out-Bathing Bath last year, this season was less spectacular, but more consistent and ultimately fulfilling. He could be starting.

These four can start learning how to say “If you love Samoa so much, why don’t you play for them” in Maori, for sledging Mils Muliaina and Jerome Kaino in the final.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? Here’s where the fun starts. Even with the unfortunate Shane Horgan out of the equation, Deccie will have to pick two from Gavin Duffy, Felix Jones, Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden (if he doesn’t fit in at centre) and Geordan Murphy. And if Ian Dowling wasn’t forced to retire hurt, this list would contain no extra names.

Even though Bob can’t pass the ball, there is a place in the squad for a rock solid full back with a huge boot, especially with one eye on Italy and half an eye on the Boks in the quarter finals. Presumably he will get enough game time to prove his fitness in August, and if he can manage to jog from one end of Grafton Street to the other. he is on the plane.

Which leaves 1 from 4. Three full backs and a wing/centre. Of the full backs, Felix Jones in undoubtedly in the best form, but he has never played HEC or international rugby, and would represent a gamble. Gavin Duffy plays consistently at a lower level, but he has RWC experience (seriously!) and would represent Connacht’s only tourist if he made it, as Sean Cronin will be a Leinster man in September. Geordan Murphy is injured, but on form adds an extra counter-attacking dimension to the 15 shirt – he would be the horse for the Australia course if he was at 100%. Similar to Kearney, we expect Murphy to get good game time in August to get his fitness up, which doesn’t bode well for Jones and Duffy – its hard to see them getting a chance to make a case for their inclusion.

McFadden offers more versatility and is to some extent a known quantity. You will see him getting a wing shirt ahead of Fitzy or Trimble in August if he is in the mix in this position.

Any bolters? Felix Jones has been great since he came back, and is deservedly in the shake-up, albeit distinctly unfortunate with the stellar names ahead of him in the queue. In most other countries, Craig Gilroy would qualify as a bolter too, but we have too many options for that.

Should go (fitness permitting): Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney, Geordan Murphy, Andrew Trimble (note: we have selected McFadden at centre – if he is overlooked there, we would have him in ahead of Fitzgerald). Jones should be ahead of Duffy on the standby list.
Will go (fitness permitting): Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney, Geordan Murphy, Andrew Trimble