Bent Cops

One of the more endearing/bizarre (delete as appropriate) stories of last November was the ascension of Michael Bent from the Dublin Airport arrivals hall to the bench to face up to the Springboks in the Palindrome, with the now de rigeur hurley forcd into his hand for a photo-shoot, to show just how Oirish he really is. We, and most commentators, acknowledged at the time that Deccie didn’t have many other options.

The theme of Ireland having a tighthead crisis has been going on for so long as to be a constant source of white noise in any selection debate. John Hayes soldiered manfully for a decade, and delivered a relatively solid set piece as the foundation for piles more silverware than Ireland had ever won before (and not just because the Triple Crown was a metaphorical trophy until recently), but behind him, there wasn’t much. The IRFU plucked Mushy Buckley from the Munster undergrowth in 2008-ish and decreed him the next big thing – the player had many promising moments, but ultimately was a huge let-down – Hayes played far longer than was humane, and the occasional filling-in of Tom Court was just that – filling in.

Once Mushy failed to make half-time in the pre-2011 Six Nations Wolfhounds game, patience finally snapped – he was out of the picture. Luckily for everyone, Mike Ross at Leinster had developed into a fine tighthead under Greg Feek – he could always scrummage, but his all-round game and conditioning improved beyond all recognition. The Ireland scrum became a weapon like never before – the filleting of the England pack in the Aviva in 2011 was as surprising as it was enjoyable.

Unfortunately, Ross is human, and tires occasionally, as we have discussed before.  It’s essential for Ireland to have some credible backup (i.e. not Buckley). The alternatives are:

  • Deccie Fitzpatrick – classic scrummager, good debut on tour, but too injury-prone to rely on
  • Jamie Hagan – struggling to convince he can scrummage well enough at Pro12 level, never mind the HEC
  • Stephen Archer – struggling to convince he can scrummage well enough at AIL level, never mind the Pro12
  • Michael Bent – just landed, but comes with a good rep from Tarananki in New Zealand

Bent’s call-up resulted in more than a little frothing at the mouth, with George Hook getting especially apoplectic with rage live on air.  But tempers were clamed – as they so often are – by the sight of the big fella playing and scrummaging well. On his first appearance on this island, in green, he came on for an exhausted Mike Ross against the Springboks and acquitted himself well – the scrum looked solid and his first action was to win a scrum penalty. Two further substitute appearances followed – against a bunny Fiji side mourning the death of a team-mate and not really bothering to turn up, and a tired Puma team who were spectacularly dismantled early on. Neither gleaned much useful information.

Then, after the RWC15 draw, there were the usual flurry of potential Ireland teams named – this is a fool’s errand of course, but it’s a bit of fun and generally an interesting debate. All of them had one thing in common – Bent at tighthead – and why not, since its pretty clear that, akin to the Hayes/Buckley succession plan, that all the national teams eggs are in the Bent basket when it comes to Mike Ross’s long-term replacement. But how realistic is that?

After rounds three and four of the HEC, Ross was given some time off, and Bent got his chance in the December interpros against Ulster and Connacht. He endured a difficult time. Against Ulster, he was milked for scores by the Ulster pack, and his opposite number and international fall-guy Tom Court was man of the match. Then in the RDS against Connacht, he had another shaky outing, and was called ashore shortly after being wheeled by Connacht academy graduate Denis Buckley. Worrying signs, and a curius performance graph.

Of course, Bent isn’t some greenhorn plucked from obscurity and asked to man up – he came through the Taranaki youth system, spent 10 years going up through the grades and eventually made 11 Super Rugby appearances (5 starts) for the Hurricanes and was Taranaki player of the year for 2012 after a productive ITM Cup campaign. That’s a promising CV – but not a home run one. If Super Rugby is somewhat analogous to the HEC, then the ITM Cup is probably at a level slightly better than the Pro12. We will confess, we haven’t seen much ITM Cup action, but if it’s comparable to the Currie Cup (which you would imagine it is – second level professional rugby), it’s probably of the standard of the better Pro12 games.

So Bent comes across as a decent Pro12 standard 26-year old prop, with a reputation for being able to play both sides, after a handful of SR appearances. By co-incidence, another prop came over to Ireland aged 26, with an ambipropstrous reputation (although considered primarily a tighthead at the time) and a handful of SR appearances – Tom Court, in 2006. Both arrived from relative obscurity and neither were mapped internationally.

Of course, the comparison is somewhat moot – Court only took up rugger a couple of years before coming over, while Bent, as a Kiwi, has presumably been steeped in it since birth – Bent shouldn’t have a learning curve like Court did. But the comparison is valid at one level – you don’t arrive in Ireland from second tier rugby and immediately become international class. Bent has some good qualities, but is very much a work in progress. If he is to lock the Ireland scrum for RWC15, he would want to be Leinster’s first choice HEC tighthead by the beginning of the 2014-15 season – that gives him 1.5 years to gain experience, develop further and get to that level – which isn’t that much time really. Even allowing for Ross’s relatively advanced years, he doesn’t have that much rugby behind him – only six full seasons. The idea that he will fade away and Bent step in may be a little presumtuous.

Now, where were we going with this? Ah yes, Ireland’s tighthead crisis. There is a lot of focus and pressure on Michael Bent for a number of reasons – the unusual nature of his call-up, and Ireland’s traditional lack of resources in his position. But expectations have to be tempered a little as well – if Bent is to be the RWC15 tighthead, he needs to be better than Mike Ross in 1.5 years – is that realistic? Maybe, but let him bed in in a new country and gain experience at provincial level first.

To get back to Court, it is only now (ironically, after Deccie has decided Dave Kilcoyne is better than him), after 6 seasons, that Court is realising his potential – and he has been first choice in Ulster for a long time. It was unfortunate that Bent’s first game was against a man who has matured into quite a wily operator, but the mirror held up by Court is an instructive one – Court’s level (HEC and occasionally international class) should be where we expect Bent to get to – anything more will be a bonus. And if RWC15 comes too soon for Bent, be patient – he will only be 33 when RWC19 comes along. Just because he isn’t ploughing opposition scrums right now doesn’t mean he will be the new Peter Borlase or Clint Newland …. or even the new Tony Buckley for that matter.