Time to Get a Move On

For all the jolliness around Irish rugby right now, for a handful of players this season has been one frustration after another. And things could be about to get more frustrating for some of them when the teams are announced for the Heineken Cup knockouts this weekend.

Despite knocking Paddy Jackson off the bench for the final round of the Six Nations, this has not been a campaign to remember for Ian Madigan. After two years of huge gains, the departure of Jonny Sexton looked set to hand him the breakthrough he needed, but instead Madigan has found himself struggling to oust the less heralded Jimmy Gopperth. Gopperth is a fine player and has numerous strengths, but if Madigan was playing like he did last season he’d be starting all the big matches. He just hasn’t got going yet. Every time we see him inked into the starting team for a home game we get the feeling his season is about to spark, but so far it hasn’t really happened. He played well enough against Munster, but his kicking game remains loose and his superb gainline passing hasn’t been in as much evidence this year, with O’Connor appearing to play him deeper behind the gainline. For the Toulon game, Jimmy Gopperth is probably slight favourite to get picked.

Another who has only played in fits and starts this season is Kevin McLaughlin. Injury hasn’t helped, but his form since returning has been spotty to say the least. He was a weak-ish link against Munster, and the memory of his explosive 20 minutes against New Zealand has receded somewhat. He wasn’t involved in even the training squads for the Six Nations, and now has to contend with a new sheriff in town at Leinster in Rhys Ruddock. Ruddock is a 6 in the Simon Easterby mould, a good lineout catcher who gets on with the ‘unseen work’ of carrying slow ball and clearing out rucks, and if fit is likely to be selected ahead of McLaughlin. With Jordi Murphy and Shane Jennings vying for the No.7 shirt, McLaughlin could find himself outside the 23 altogether.

Meanwhile, up in Ulster, they have their backline all fit (apart from Olding) for the first time in a long time. Bowe and Trimble are undroppable and Marshall plays 12. One has to miss out between Craig Gilroy and Darren Cave, with Jared Payne able to switch between 15 and 13. This weekend, it was Cave who got selected. He’s been one of Ulster’s most consistent players this season and while the clamour to get Payne into the 13 shirt has some, shall we say, external motivators, Ulster are still best served by him playing 15. It means Gilroy loses his starting place. It’s been a difficult year for Gilroy, who, like Madigan, just hasn’t really sparked into life. His exceptional performance against Argentina in 2012 underlined his explosive talent, but he hasn’t been able to replicate it since then. And where has the scoring nous gone?  He scored eight tries in 14 appearances in his first season, but the well has dried up. He managed just one last year and three this, last scoring in mid-December.

Down south, Donnacha Ryan could do with catching a break. He was one of the best players in the country in 2012, but has since then gone from injury to injury. A lacklustre 2013 Six Nations which he appeared to play through an injury scuppered his Lions chances and since then he’s had a pretty stop-start time of it. Now he’s once again doubtful for the game against Toulouse. He’d be a big loss to Munster, because Donncha O’Callaghan is no longer at this level and it’s a sizeable step down to Dave Foley. In the meantime, Devin Toner has cemented his place in the Ireland team, and next year should be a breakthrough for Iain Henderson, with Muller retiring. The heat is on. Schmidt’s singling of Ryan out for his work on the training paddock was a reminder of how highly he is regarded, and rightly so, but he needs an unbroken run of games to build some momentum.

Deccie – Get Out There And Sell Some Tickets!

Tomorrow, Deccie names his 30 man squad for the November Internationals against the Boks and the Pumas, plus a Wolfhounds-type panel for the “Ireland XV” against Fiji in Thomond Park. He’ll be holding a press conference, which doesn’t normally happen for a mere squad announcement, but the IRFU is keen to promote the games to boost sluggish ticket sales.  Quite what sort of a boost a Deccie squad announcement will provide we’re still trying to figure out, but as far as we know tickets already purchased before the announcmement are non-refundable, so that’s something.

He isn’t one for surprises, so expect plenty of Munster players famliar names and faces. But outside of Ireland’s key key men (e.g. the front row, POC, Fez, SOB, Heaslip, Sexton, Earls, BOD, Tommy Bowe, Bob), there is actually quite a bit of jockeying for position.

On the one hand you have the familiar Murray/Reddan or Dorce/Ferg debates, but below that, the last 8 or so squad names are still in flux. Here’s five players who have put their hand up this season, and five who have struggled to get teacher’s attention.

Hands up:

Iain Henderson: New Willie John McBride indeed. Henderson was a revelation at last years U-20 World Cup and looked to have the tools to make it. We thought he would get some gametime at blindside this year, but in the Rabo, certainly not in the Heiny. But it’s tantamount ot the impact he has had that Fez has not been missed one iota – Hendo has been a MOTM contender in both games and looks to the manor born. Of course, he is a second row by trade, so some of the names beneath him here should be watching out. He surely isn’t ready for the ‘unforgiving environment of test rugby, but we can’t be sure about that – no harm in bringing him along for the ride, and he might get on the pitch against Fiji.

Chris Henry: Sean O’Brien is still injured, Shane Jennings is not a friend of Deccie and Peter O’Mahony is patently not an openside (more of which anon) – by process of elimination, Chris Henry is the man. More importantly, he was our MOTM against Glasgow and has picked up where he left off in Thomond Park last season (he wasn’t fully fit after that). He only got about five minutes in New Zealand, where his most notable (and funniest) act was to barge over Romain Poite. He’s been the most consistent 7 in Ireland for a year now evne if he is not built in the classic openside mould – in O’Brien’s absence it’s time he got a shot at the green jersey.

Paddy Jackson: Jacko was like a rabbit in the headlights in the HEC final, but it turns out he was staring at Johnny Sexton and learning oodles. It was the type of experience that can haunt a fellow, but his recovery has been impressively swift.  He looks like a proper player now, not a youngster out of his depth. He has solid defence and has done a decent job of igniting Ulster’s backs. At his age, he is still one for the future, but as the second best 10 in Ireland right now (Madigan has been playing 15 for the last month) and one who is only going to improve, we think he makes the cut.

Paul Marshall: Eoin Reddan is going strongly for Leinster and despite his costly nightmare in Paris, Conor Murray has in fact started the season well.  That leaves the test jerseys more or less locked away, but Marshall should be in line to play against Fiji.  His form is terrific, and his only competition for the jersey is Isaac Boss, who is just back from injury.  Kidney has been reticent to pick Marshall up to now, but with Tomas O’Leary exiled, the time has come.

Simon Zebo: Still tucks the ball under one arm to carry it, but Simon Zebo looks like the most threatening runner in the Munster backline, perhaps even more so than Earls.  The try-count was eye-catching last season, but this year he looks a better all round footballer.  Wingers are best picked when young, fast and in form, and Zebo ticks all the boxes.  With Keith Earls still injured, Zebo has a real chance of squeezing into the test 11 jersey.

Hands Down:

Kevin McLaughlin: Ireland’s Tom Wood finished last season strongly, impressing in the Heineken Cup final and the second test in New Zealand, but he’s yet to get into his stride this season, which has been characterised so far by powder-puff carries and knock-ons in the opposition 22.  With Ferris back in contention and any number of potential blindsides in the mix, Locky is likely to have to settle for Ireland XV action.

Peter O’Mahony: We said last season the over-hype from certain corners about O’Mahony would do him no favours, and now his versatility may be working aginst him. After starting his first three games for Ireland in three different positions, he has merely had his flaws highlighted by very tough opponents. He has played 6 and 8 this season, but with Ferris and Heaslip around, he is unlikely to barge his way into the test team.  Openside is the position with the word ‘Vacant’ outside the parking lot in neon letters, but not having played there this season hasn’t helped his chances of being picked there.  Besides, he hasn’t stamped his authority on the season just yet – though he played well against Embra, Munster looked much more effective with a natural No.8 (Paddy Butler) there.

Ronan O’Gara (WoC ducks for cover): It’s honesty time. An intervention is needed. Despite what Gerry says, the heroic Rog has been largely ineffective this season. He’s also injured.  Father Time can’t tick backwards, and not only is Paddy Jackson a better option (see above), but so are Ian Madigan and (whisper it) Ian Keatley. Deccie might like an easy life as much as anyone, but O’Gara simply no longer justifies selection – it’s time to move on.

Donnacha Ryan: Not a criticism of Ryan as such, but he is not playing in his favoured position, as Rob Penney has stuck Stakhanov in the team, apparently for his play on the wing, and is using Ryan to beef up his light-ish back row. If any of the rest of Ireland’s myriad of ok-but-not-amazing second rows were putting their hands up, he might be under pressure for his test place. As it is, with Dan Tuohy more concerned about Lewis Stevenson, Mike McCarthy playing for Connacht (a major negative it seems) and Devin Toner struggling (see below), he should start – but it’s disappointing he hasn’t been able to persuade the coach he is an indispensable member of the Munster second row.

Devin Toner: Huge strides made last season, but still can’t get into the starting team of the provincewith arguably the weakest second row of the four.  His work at restarts is excellent, but there are still concerns over his lack of power.  Time is still on his side, and Leo Cullen’s legs will eventually grind to a halt, but cannot expect to be in the squad until he finally nails down a place in the Leinster team.  Ireland XV action at best.

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Second Row

This week and next, we’ll be looking at the likely runners and riders for Ireland’s World Cup 30, taking it unit-by-unit. On Monday we studied the front row, now we look at the second row.

How many will go? In 2003, Ireland took four and in 2007 three. We think three plus one back row/second row option is likely this time around.

Who is certain to travel? Ireland’s first choice second row partnership has been set in stone since 2004. Paul O’Connell is a key man and the pack leader – Ireland will need him at his best to progress beyond the quarter-finals. Beside him will be Donncha O’Callaghan. WoC is sick of seeing Donners perform impressively in good team performances and anonymously in bad ones – his leadership skills are non-existent for a man of his experience (Devin Toner calling the lineouts on his debut?) and as for his penalty count… With a string of nondescript performances preceding a few swashbuckling ones, he reminds us of the role Paul Collingwood played for the England cricket team in his latter days. We would love to have seen some variety in the 4 shirt recently, but twas not to be. These 2 are already past security at Dublin Airport.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? Firstly, lets discuss the owner of the number 18 shirt. The contenders here are Leo Cullen and Mick O’Driscoll. In November, Micko was probably a nose in front, and deservedly so – he added real get-around-the-park dynamism to his game in the first half of last season. But after Christmas, when Paulie came back, Micko fell out of favour and lost momentum. At the same time, Leo Cullen improved on a rather scrappy and lumbering first half of season, and personified solidity and, rather surprisingly, showed no little skill in a storming last month of the season.

Deccie has also had a look at Devin Toner and Biiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey (Go Irish!), but neither has any chance of making the squad, due to being tall-but-not-very-good and an immobile Premiership lump respectively. Cullen is 90% certain to take his place on the bench and play 8 seconds against Italy.

The second row cum back row slot is a straight fight between Donnacha Ryan and Kevin McLaughlin. In Ryan’s favour is the fact he has played second row before for Ireland and that he is more of a 4 than a 6 – McLaughlin is definitely more of a 6. For Locky, its that he has played in bigger and higher intensity games this season than anything Ireland are likely to face in this World Cup, unless they come across NZ. Locky is being pencilled in by some as the future for Leinster and Ireland at lock, more due to a lack of options than anything else, but we think Deccie will go with Ryan’s experience and greater suitability for the position.

However, WoC has a better idea. What about bringing an in-form lock forward who offers something different to all the names previously mentioned. Someone who can bring Richie Gray / Sam Whitelock-esque ball-playing skills to the party. Dan Tuohy has been far more effective than Ryan this season, and has excelled playing alongside Johann Muller, which is very similar to playing with Paulie or Leo. Second row could soon be a bit of a problem position for Ireland, and we see little to lose by bringing a man who has done it in the HEC this season, and who could be an Ireland regular very soon.

Any bolters? McLaughlin is probably the most obvious one – in January the idea of him even being in contention at second row was rather fantastical. Tuohy has picked up injuries at unfortunate times.

Should go: Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Leo Cullen, Dan Tuohy
Will go: Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Leo Cullen, Donnacha Ryan

Decisions, decisions…

The injuries situation at Leinster is causing Whiff of Cordite a few butterflies this week. Having rotated the squad so well all season, and having everyone fit and fighting for the final push for silverware, the last thing Joe Schmidt needed was to see His Bodness and Strauss, for whom we have no experienced replacement, go down injured against Ulster. The good news is that Strauss is passed fit, while they’ll wait until the last minute on BOD. Expect him to start. Happily for Joe, he has a few positive selection dilemmas to mull over before friday’s team announcment. Here’s a look at the tight calls and how we see them going.

Loosehead Prop: Cian Healy vs Heinke van der Merwe

The thinking goes that van der Merwe is the stronger scrummaging prop, and after his phenomenal half hour against Toulouse, could be the better option to nullify the scrum, generally accepted to be Northampton’s strongest weapon. That said, witness Daan Human’s comments regarding Healy’s improvement at the coalface. We expect Healy’s dynamism around the park to swing it for him.

Verdict: Healy to start, vd Merwe to finish

Back row: Kevin McLaughlin vs Shane Jennings

Arguably the toughest call of the lot, and one that rather depends on where Joe decides to fight his battles. Locky gives a tail lineout option and is a hard, abrasive player, whereas Jennings does his best work on the ground and is a key leader, especially in defence. We feel the backrow is more balanced with Jenno in the team, and his presence allows the Tullow Tank to cut loose with ball in hand. A sub-plot is that Northampton’s own lineout-tail backrow, Tom Wood, is out, but it’s hard to know which player’s cause that helps.

Verdict: Almost too tough to call, but Jenno may just get the call.

Scrum Half: Eoin Reddan vs Isaac Boss

Two curates eggs go head-to-head for the 9 jumper. Joe has tended to use Reddan at home and Boss away. So what about a neutral ground? Reddan remains frustratingly inconsistent, and played poorly against Toulouse, but looked sharp when he came on against Ulster. Boss’ physicality has given Leinster a great option, but we expect Reddan’s zippier pass (when he’s on song!) to get him the nod. Boss is also carrying a niggle, which may just tip the scales in Reddan’s favour.

Verdict: Reddan to start, but Boss to play at least 20 if fit

Left wing: Luke Fitzgerald vs Fergus McFadden

Another tough call. Luke is still nowhere near his best, and his performance against Ulster was headed for 3/10 until his superb try reminded us of what he can do. Fergus, on the other hand, appears to be willing to run through walls to show Joe he deserves to be a starter. Phenomenal in contact and showing plenty of gas, not to mention his place kicking, he is looking increasingly hard to leave out. However, Fitz remains the greater gambreaking threat and we suspect Joe may persevere with him one more time in the hope that he eventually comes right.

Verdict: Fitz to get the nod, but can consider himself a fortunate starter

The team will be announced at noon on friday. In Joe we trust.