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.


Stepping up to the Plate

Leinster’s season in Europe is hanging by its fingernails.  It’s more than a little reminiscent of Munster’s exit at the group stages in 2010 when they surrendered meekly in Toulon and failed to qualify.  That had an air of ‘end of the pier’ about it, with the great Generation Ligind team finally grinding to a halt.  But though leaving Europe in the pool stages left an indelible scar, Munster’s season wasn’t a total wipeout.  They salvaged dignity by winning the Magners League, and more importantly, went some way to securing their future competitivenes by promoting the likes of Conor Murray, James Cawlin, Donnacha Ryan and Felix Jones above some of the more established names to the first team and recruiting BJ Botha for the following season.

If Leinster do go out of Europe, and it’s likely they will, they too will need to use the remainder of the season to embark on something of a re-build.  The job isn’t quite on the scale of that which is still ongoing in Munster, but certainly a new corps of troops needs to come through.  Two years ago, Leinster looked to have unrivalled squad depth, as a slew of talented academy players made waves in Europe and the league.  But a number of these players’ careers have stalled in the last 24 months.  2013 is going to be a big year in the lives of a number of players, and while the phrase ‘make-or-break’ isn’t one we especially like, and can tend to overdramatise things, in terms of building careers as first team players at Leinster, the next 12 months are going to be significant for these fellows:

Luke Fitzgerald

Grand Slam winner and test Lion, Luke’s talent needs no introduction, but his career has endured something of a crisis in the last 24 months.  At his best he’s a brilliant defender and the best player in Ireland – possibly excepting Craig Gilroy – at changing direction and escaping from heavy traffic.  Given his mid-career troubles, there’s a huge amount of goodwill towards Luke Roysh, and as a nation we produce few players with his natural talent.  But a couple of issues must be overcome: he has to stop overrunning the ball carrier, and must improve his strike rate.  And he must focus on one position – and it might just be outside centre, where he could be the replacement for  BOD that the world is waiting for.  His return from injury is imminent, and feverishly anticipated by a Leinster team in real need of some invention in the backline.

Eoin O’Malley

Diminutive centre, but on song, he’s a natural who makes the game look easy.  Showed his class in each of the last two seasons before being laid low by serious injury at the tail end of last season.  Not a big fellow by any means, there will always be those for whom he is just too small for rugby at the highest level, but is nonetheless a (nother) contender to succeed BOD at outside centre for Leinster, and as such, the next twelve months will be huge in his development.

David Kearney

Made huge strides last season, making the Irish bench for the Six Nations opener against Wales, and has been badly missed through injury this season, with resources stretched in the back three.  Although not exceptionally quick, has a good kicking and chasing game and is a dangerous broken field runner and fine ball-handler.  His defensive game – like that of his brother – needs work.  If he can bring it up to the required level, he can be close to being a regular starter for Leinster.  Should have plenty of chances once fit and firing.

Dom Ryan

Generated significant hype following two-try performance against Saracens in the RDS two years ago, and produced a brilliant cameo against Toulouse in the semi-final.  Since then, has been scarcely spotted, as one injury after another have restricted him to a handful of appearances.  Recent comments from Joe Schmidt contrasting his progress to that of Jordi Murphy suggest management are not entirely happy with him.  On a good day he looks to have it all – physicality, great ball-tracking, and superb groundwork – but he is just as capable of total anonymity.  If he can learn from Shane Jennings to keep himself at the heart of matches, Leinster have a player on their hands, but he must now put a run of games together and remind us what we’ve been missing.

Rhys Ruddock

Capped as a 19 year old, and following an explosive performance in Paris against Racing Metro, Franno declared that his potential was unlimited.  But has done little since then to justify the billing.  He can look decidedly undynamic in the loose, and his too-upright carrying style can have fans watching through their fingers in anticipation of another dreaded turnover.  Has rejected overtures from Munster to stay at Leinster, but appears to be an ambitious individual who has no desire to warm the bench, even at a big club.  It’s time to establish himself and make good on the early promise.

Devin Toner

Now this genuinely is make or break – Leinster’s resources in the second row are the worst in the country, yet the big second row just can’t seem to finally break into the first team, having been on the cusp of it for years: he was the reserve second row in all three of Leinster’s Heineken Cup finals over the last five years.  Mike McCarthy’s imminent arrival isn’t necessarily the bad news it may appear, as the two play on different sides of the scrum; Leo Cullen is his real obstacle to regular first team rugby, and the old boy can’t go on forever (can he?).  Last year Toner looked to have made the necessary progress to finally become a first-pick, but this season he’s been fairly ho-hum.  Are his deficiencies – in part brought on by his unique frame – simply too great for him to be a Heineken Cup regular?  The strange thing is that for all the focus on his lack of oomph in the tight, for a seven-foot-tall fellow, he doesn’t pilfer much opposition lineout ball. We are on the verge of saying that if he can’t make it now, he isn’t going to.

Ian Madigan

Woah! Did they just go there? Isn’t Ian Madigan a great young prospect? Doesn’t he have the best eye for the tryline of any 10 in Ireland, and can’t he look magic with ball in hand? Sure, all of the above boxes are ticked, but there is a problem – Jonny Sexton. Sexton is Leinster’s franchise quarterback, and he ain’t going anywhere, except to Oz as Lions starter and potential captain. Madigan’s career is about to reach a crossroads – stay at Leinster and move position, or move on for regular rugger at 10. If he stays, where does he see himself playing? Fullback? Unlikely, with Bob back in tow. Centre? Possibly, but Leinster have lots of competition there (see above) and he has no experience to speak of in the position. And if he moves on, where will he go? All of the other provinces have no need, neither do any of the big English clubs, so it’s probably to France. The answers to these questions are likely to determine how Madigan’s career unfolds from here.

Thirteenwatch: Round Deux

If our first Thirteenwatch was a case of ‘plenty of options, but none stand out’, this week there were a few intriguing developments.  Seconds out, round two…
Eoin Griffin (Connacht)

Taken to school by the world class Toulouse backline, and looked more or less what he is – a rookie learning his trade.  Still has a long way to go to get to international class, but we still have high hopes for the future.
BOD Rating: will have learned valuable lessons from the weekend’s mauling. 5/13 (-2)

Eoin O’Malley

Drafted into the Leinster team on the back of McFadden’s dead leg, and grabbed his chance, scoring two tries, and performing well in all facets of the game. A genuine outside centre with distribution skills and a great step, he is also a throwback to the times when centres were small chaps with quick feet and good skills and not 110kg boshing machines – he reminds us a bit of Matthew Tait.  The question is: does he have the physicalty for international rugby?
BOD Rating: the best performer in the shirt at the weekend, albeit against poor opposition.  Needs to maintain that perfromance level and he will get more chances to stake his claim. 9/13

Fergus McFadden (Leinster)

Injured with a dead leg this weekend, his hopes of a run at 13 have receded as O’Malley took his chance
BOD Rating: more likley to feature at 12 or on the wing, we reckon. 5/13 (-1)

Darren Cave (Ulster)

Another fine performance, full of hard running and good lines.  Caused Leicester plenty of problems, but Ulster couldn’t get over the tryline despite the huff and puff. 
BOD Rating: Upward curve continues, though, like McFadden, Cave just lacks that spark of magic.  9/13 (+1)

Danny Barnes (Munster)

An error-stren performance which will have done little for his confidence.  Given the shepherd’s hook very early in the second half, and had to watch Will Chambers take his place to huge effect.  Can expect to be warming the bench for the Scarlets double header.
BOD Rating: a long way off international level on this form 4/13 (-2)

Luke Fitzgerald (Leinster)

Superb performance on the wing, and looks to have his mojo working fully again.  Skills would appear to transfer to centre.  Perhaps a call to Chez Schmidt to gently encourage him to give Luke some gametime at 13 is in order.
BOD Rating: great to see the old Luke back, but we’d need to see him at centre before we get excited 7/13 (unch.)

Notes for Deccie: A visit to the RDS to see young Eoin O’Malley wouldn’t be a bad idea, Deccie.  The RDS, Deccie, it’s in south Dublin.  You know it Deccie, BOD and Jamie play there.  Keith is still injured Deccie.  Telling McGahan you’re still the boss down there and to stick him at centre won’t help, Deccie.  I wouldn’t advise it, Deccie.  No, Deccie, no!


Kidney Shows Capacity for Surprise

We did not see it coming.  Tomás O’Leary, the blue-eyed boy, coached by Uncle Deccie since he was a schoolboy, given every chance – every chance – to play himself into any kind of form, is not going to the World Cup. Nor is fellow 2009 Grand Slammer and test Lion Luke Fitzgerald. The perils of trying to second guess Deccie are there for all to see. Just when you think you have him read, he pulls a huge surprise out of the bag, and backs it up with impenetrable nonsense at the press conference.

First of all, credit where it’s due. They are two seismic calls, and both are correct.  Tomás O’Leary played like a broken footballer on Sturday, to the point where he was simply a liability.  He needs to go back to Munster and start again from scratch – you find form against the Dragons and Glasgow’s of this world, not against France. In his place comes Conor Murray, a superb ball player who can travel, not just as back up, but as Ireland’s premier 9 – the tournament is now his oyster.

Luke Fitzgerald’s situation is more complicated.  He showed some sparkle in the warm up games, not least with two dashing breaks against France (he certainly outplayed Keith Earls). But dedicated full-back cover for Rob Kearney is essential, so Murphy simply had to go – although in a remarkable twist, he is only going due to this (we almost cried ourselves seeing his face). Fergus McFadden also merits his place on the plane, even if we didn’t see much of him over the last few weeks. He provides invaluable cover at centre as well as on the wing. Plus, you know what you’ll get from him, something that cannot be said for Fitzgerald in his current state. Then there’s Trimble, who is on fire. Luke just got squeezed out, and Earls may have been closer to the chop than anyone ever thought. Lets leave it at this – all of the backs on the plane have had better seasons than Luke, so on that basis, he deserves to be at home.

Elsewhere, Buckle edged out Hayes in the cripple-fight for the chance to get shunted around by the Russian pack, and Leamy and Ryan, as expected, swelled the ranks of touring blindsides, now a regular feature of Irish World Cups. We must accept that Jennings didn’t do enough when given his chance, and although McLaughlin deserved a better shot, he would not rectify the imbalance of the squad. Ryan’s selection is as a 4/6, which becomes interesting/superfluous when one reads of Fez training in the second row (and by Lord, how we need power there).

We are of the opinion that the three loss streak has played a part in this. Ireland sleepwalked through 50 minutes on Saturday, and it’s entirely possible Deccie’s intention is, at least to some extent, to light a fire under the players and jolt them into action. He’s certainly done that to us anyway – even if we predicted it. Kind of.

Anyway, hats off to the 30 going – your names are in lights below.  Fush and chups all round (2 fush for Mushy).

Ireland Rugby World Cup Squad 2011

Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster)
Isaac Boss (Terenure College/Leinster)
Tommy Bowe (Ospreys)
Tony Buckley (Sale Sharks)
Tom Court (Malone/Ulster)
Sean Cronin (Leinster)
Leo Cullen (Blackrock College/Leinster)
Gordon D’Arcy (Lansdowne/Leinster)
Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster)
Stephen Ferris (Dungannon/Ulster)
Jerry Flannery (Shannon/Munster)
Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster)
Jamie Heaslip (Naas/Leinster)
Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster)
Denis Leamy (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Fergus McFadden (Old Belvedere/Leinster)
Geordan Murphy (Leicester Tigers)
Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster)
Sean O’Brien (Clontarf/Leinster)
Donncha O’Callaghan (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Paul O’Connell (Young Munster/Munster)
Brian O’Driscoll (UCD/Leinster) Captain
Ronan O’Gara (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Eoin Reddan (Lansdowne/Leinster)
Mike Ross (Clontarf/Leinster)
Donnacha Ryan (Shannon/Munster)
Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster)
Andrew Trimble (Ballymena/Ulster)
Paddy Wallace (Ballymena/Ulster)
David Wallace (Garryowen/Munster)

World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 3

Just 10 days remain until Kidney names his World Cup squad, and last week’s performance and this week’s team announcment give us a little insight – but not too much – into who is likely to go and who isn’t.

On the surface, it all looks rosy for Donncha Ryan, who, having played in the second row last week,  is now given a chance at 6, and so can prove his versatility and bag himself a spot on the plane.  But think forward to next week, and the backrow could be something like Locky-Wallace-Heaslip, and the complexion would look somewhat different.  Would you rather play at home to France with Jamie and Wally beside you and Paul O’Connell in the second row, or go to Bordeaux with no O’Connell and Leamy at 8?

The same applies, to a lesser extent, to McFadden, who didn’t play well last week and finds himself out of the team – but next week in all likelihood BOD will be back.  If he was to play 12 inside BOD it would be seen as an endorsement of his chances. So it’s not all over quite yet for Ferg, though he looks odds-against at the moment.

Following the team announcement and last Saturday’s game we can infer a little about who’s looking good and who isn’t.

Practicing ordering fush’n’chups: All the back three. Rob Kearney came through 80 minutes and looked sharp.  He gets another start on Saturday.  Already a Kidney favourite, he can start laying a claim on the 15 shirt for the Australia game.  Luke Fitz looked a lot more confident, and though he kicked the ball away a little too often, he wasn’t exactly blessed with options by the time the painfully slow ball he was supplied with. Andy Trimble played with great intensity, as usual. All three look to be heading southwards next month.

Still hanging on the telephone: Donncha Ryan did reasonably well on saturday, but he will have a tough job on Saturday convincing that he’s an international 6. He’s up against Thierry Dusatoir dans la sud de France, so no pressure.  Jerry Flannery’s return was positive, but all he did was miss one throw. We need to see some of the old Jirry mongrel before declaring him back for good.

Buying their Electric Picnic tickets: It looks like Peter Stringer’s terrific international career may finally be up.  Sent to La Rochelle to play with Munster, he is the only scrum half yet to see action for Ireland.  Unless he starts at home to France next week, which he won’t, then the game will be up.  Shane Jennings always needed to make a big impression to win Kidney over, and injury looks to have robbed him of that chance. We are presuming Wally will get a start next week in the 7 shirt, with Jenno togging out against Connacht.  A pity.

As for the game itself, it could be a long night for Ireland.  It’s not the most defensively robust 9-10-12-13 Ireland have ever put out and Mermoz and Marty will most likely look to run at the goalposts and hope for some change.  Keep an eye out for the French debutant, Biarritz No. 8, Raphael Lakafia.  We haven’t seen too much of him, but he’s regarded as a huge prospect and someone who could star at the World Cup.

Finally, Meejawatch.  It was interesting that Brendan Fanning and not Gerry Thornley had the inside track on the team this week.  Could Kidney be playing them against each other?  Gerry will have to up his uncritical fawning over the regime and justification of tactics and selection, no matter how bogus, to get back into Teacher’s good books.

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

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.