(Hashtag) Ireland’s Tighthead Crisis

Ok, well, it mightn’t be a crisis, we don’t know that for sure. In fact, we reckon it won’t, but one fact remains indisputable – the man who has started the last 25 Tests for Ireland at tighthead prop is now third choice at his province. That’s not good.

Did you know that since the dawn of professional rugby, only four tightheads have started a Six Nations match for Ireland?  It’s going to become five this season.  Shit just got real.

Let’s rewind a little to the Autumn Internationals of 2010 – that was the point when John Hayes finally ran out of steam after being flogged, almost literally, to death. The indefatigable Bull had been Ireland’s starter for an incredible 11 years, and the progression management consisted of the following:

  1. Identify Mushy Buckley as Hayes’ successor in 2007
  2. Wring hands as Mushy fails to make a dent on Hayes’ starting slot at Munster
  3. Watch Mushy make an impressive top class starting debut in BNZ in the Tour of the Long List of Blindsides in 2010, albeit in a game with few scrums
  4. Cover eyes with hands during 2010 Autumn Internationals
  5. Wring hands further as Mushy repeatedly gets injured and *still* can’t get Hayes out of the Munster team even as Hayes get frogmarched backwards in green

When Buckley lasted 40 minutes in the Wolfhounds game four years ago, the management’s patience snapped and that was that – the previously ignored Mike Ross, of whom it was clear Deccie wasn’t a fan, was in, and acted as a one-man bailout machine, immediately solidifying the Ireland scrum, even sporadically turning it into an attacking weapon! Phew, problem solved.

Of the 44 Tests since then, Ireland have let themselves get into that situation again – we are at exactly the same point in the RWC cycle, and the starters in the interim period have been:

  • Mike Ross (41 Tests)
  • Mushy Buckley (2 Tests) – vs Scotland in RWC11 warm-up, and Russki in RWC11
  • Deccie Fitzpatrick (1 Test) – vs BNZ in the 2012 Tour

Ross started both games in the 2013 summer tour when the opponents were the scrummaging powerhouses of, er, the USA and Canada. He started against Samoa in the November series. He also started both tours in Argentina, who *are* scrummaging heavyweights with the next choice being Rodney Ah Here, so that’s understandable, at least. He started against Georgia – Georgia! – to prepare him for the scrummaging powerhouse of the Wobblies. To be fair to the management, they were undone by injuries in November.  Moore had been out since early on in the season, and they gave every indication that Nathan White would be given a prominent role, only for him to succumb to injury too.  Now, there are always reasons to start Ross, sometimes very good ones, but the risk is that, like with Hayes, we end up that the player just goes over a cliff.

When the Ross-anchored Leinster scrum got shunted around by Quins in December, it looked like he was over the cliff-edge. Happily, Marty Moore has returned in the nick of time and transformed the Leinster scrum, with help from Tadgh Furlong who has cemented his status as first reserve. It’s tough to see how Ross can start for Ireland. He is still in the extended squad, but if he is behind two Irish eligible players at provincial level, it seems a long shot that he is the test starter.  Furlong has been deemed not quite ready for test level yet, and is not in the extended training squad.

So who will start for Ireland? The answer, surely, is Marty Mooradze – Moore is a very strong scrummager and a more dynamic version of Ross around the park. was Ross’s backup at last years Six Nations, playing 110 minutes in total, and looked decent off the bench. But still, it’s a step up, and his last act in an Ireland shirt was to be ploughed backwards by Debaty, Guirardo and Slimani in the final scrum, only to be let off the hook by Dreamboat Walsh and a bit of good luck as the ball popped out of the French scrum and they had to play it.

And who will make the bench?  Either Ross or Nathan White. Could it be that Ireland put out two tightheads with no test starts between them and one of whom has yet to even get a cap?  Indeed, it’s very probable.  If we were to graph Ross’ career graph it would look something like this: unwanted, unwanted, unwanted, Ireland’s most important player, unwanted.

It’s likely that Moore will have a few wobbles against some experienced streetwise operator, probably a dirty Frenchman or filthy Italian, but he should be fine on the whole. And we will know who our starting RWC15 tighthead will be. And while Mike Ross was a stopgap solution that fell into Deccie’s lap, Moore should have a decade-long career and has been groomed for this very situation.  His time has arrived.  Still, it’s mildly concerning that the men most likely are barely capped, and we’ve got ourselves into a situation where an oft-flogged starter packs in eight months before the tournament … again.  Then again, Michael Bent is in the squad too, so there’s always that.