Leinster Sign McCarthy

Mike McCarthy has signed for Leinster for next season, in what’s bound to be a controversial and emotion-stirring move.  On the surface it looks like Ireland’s biggest and most successful province has gone poaching the best player from the weakest and least resourced, which doesn’t look very nice, but it’s worth taking some time to see if that is the whole story.

First of all, it’s necessary to say McCarthy is a terrific signing for Leinster.  He’s exactly what they’ve been looking for to fill the Nathan Hines-shaped void in their second row.  He’s a superb footballer, he’s tough, he’s experienced, he’s in his prime, he’s a tighthead-side scrummager and he’s really, really, ridiculously good looking (in fact, maybe he’s more of a replacement for Trevor Hogan than Nathan Hines).

But is it fair game for Leinster to go and take him off Connacht?  First of all, Mike McCarthy is out of contract at the end of the season, so he is not bound to Connacht, and is entitled to move to any other team that chooses to offer terms – he’s a free agent. Secondly, he is (naturally) entitled to get the best deal for himself and his career.  He’s now an established international player and his stock has never been higher – playing with Leinster represents a chance to compete for silverware and enhance his international credentials.  Connacht are having a good season and are improving, but there is no guarantee they’ll be in the Heineken Cup next year – and, at any rate, Connacht players have not been popular under the present international management – moving to Leinster has something of an international insurance policy about it.

Is it fair to compare McCarthy’s move to the experience of Carr, Hagan and to a lesser extent Cronin since making the move from west to east?  Well, McCarthy will be going to Leinster as a first team player, and an important one at that – the other three came as backup (at best), with an understanding that further development was required.  The media coverage of Carr, Hagan and Cronin’s Leinster careers has at times been bewlidering, painting them as hopeless backups who would have been better staying put. Yet Cronin gets regular match-time and has been a success with Leinster. Admittedly, Carr and Hagan have not – but they have hardly helped themselves by performing so poorly.  Leinster currently have an outside-back injury crisis – had Fionn Carr shown any sort of reliability or try-scoring form he would be starting against Clermont this weekend.  But he hasn’t, so he isn’t.

So it checks out on the player’s side, but what about the big meanies from Dublin 4?  Have they behaved appropriately?  Judging by Connacht’s press release, they appear to think not.

But to answer this, you have to look at the structure of Irish rugby.  The provinces are in active competition with one another, not collaboration.  You can argue the rights and wrongs of this, but that being the playing field, Leinster are perfectly entitled to offer terms to an out-of-contract player.  It appears this is something the IRFU are trying to fix, and according to Peter O’Reilly’s recent scoops, the newly appointed Director of Rugby will be responsible for managing the spread of talent among the provinces and increase the levels of co-operation between them.  This can only be good for Connacht; the IRFU might encourage the likes of Lewis Stevenson or Ian Nagle to travel West were it in place now.

It’s worth going back in time to when Nathan Hines did leave Leinster – Munster at the time had the top 4 Irish second rows in the country, judging by the international pecking order – Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Micko and Donnacha Ryan were the second row forwards selected for the 2010 November internationals. If there was an overarching Pro Rugby Tsar, he would probably have asked Ryan (4th in the Munster pecking order) to move to Leinster to replace Hines. So if Ryan were playing for Leinster now, McCarthy might not be moving!

The IRFU centrally contracts some players, and from what we can gather from this shadowy process, encourages them to locate where they have the best chance of first-team rugby, but McCarthy does not appear to have been offered a central contract.  He’s been offered terms by Leinster rugby, so the IRFU (who Connacht say they tried to recruit to keep the player at Connacht) probably couldn’t do an awful lot.  Unfortunately for Connacht, they probably weren’t that pushed either, and presumably have no qualms about McCarthy playing at the highest level, where he will be a guaranteed starter.  Connacht have always been under-resourced by the IRFU, and Leinster probably know that if they go fishing, they will catch.  That is unfortunate, but it is the system that is in place –for now at least – it’s the IRFU who choose to under-resource Connacht.

So while one does feel for Connacht in losing a player that they have developed and brought to prominence, there is movement in the other direction.  Connacht were the beneficieries of Leinster’s scouting when they signed sturdy tighthead prop Nathan White this summer.  It would be no surprise to see a couple of Leinster’s younger players pitch up in the west next season (Jordi Murphy for example), and perhaps one or two of those signed from Connacht in the last couple of seasons will return there.

We don’t expect Connacht fans to be happy about the news.  Munster fans will probably be even more unhappy, but should probably ask themselves how they’d feel if David MacSharry signed for them tomorrow.  For Leinster fans, the news is massive, going a long way to shore up what looked a significant hole in their squad.

Memo to Mike McCarthy: ‘Become O’Connell’

Lordy.  Talk about timing.  Obviously there’s never a good time for the premier lock in Europe to get injured, but coming just after Ireland appeared to get their season in motion, already without Brian O’Driscoll, captain and all round supremo Paul O’Connell is ruled out for the rest of the Six Nations through injury.  Just three games into his tenure, playing some of his best rugby ever, it’s desperately unlucky on a personal level, but worse still for Ireland.  Conor Murray will also miss the remainder of the campaign.  Again, it’s bad news, and awful for him personally, but it’s one position where we do have an able replacement, who was knocking hard for selection in any case.

Two vs. Four

Donnacha Ryan, already not so much knocking on the selectorial door as smashing his way through it, finally gets his chance, right?  Wrong!  Himself and Donncha O’Callaghan surely cannot be paired together, despite what Gerry says.  Both are front-jumpers (jumping at ‘2’) and neither has any real experience running the lineout.  The only time they were paired at Munster saw London Irish decimate the set piece and win the game.  In fact, if anything, the luckless Ryan is even more likely to miss out on a test start, because Deccie will baulk at having to change two second rows when he already has to change one.  Stakhanov O’Callaghan’s incredible fortune looks set to continue.

For this reason, the clamour to see Ulster’s impressive Dan Tuohy called up is misplaced (though he should be in the squad already).  He, like Ryan, is a front-jumping tighthead-lock, and it’s Muller that runs the lineout up north.

Ireland need a middle of the lineout jumper (jumping at ‘4’) who has experience calling the lineout. It’s one position we just don’t have that much depth.  Stalwart squad men Leo Cullen and Mick O’Driscoll are either injured and/or winding down towards retirement.  The only two options are Connacht’s Mike McCarthy and Leinster’s skyscraping Devin Toner.  Deccie has opted for McCarthy, and he’s a fine player enjoying another good season.  Athletic and full of aggression, all he has to do now is simply take the step up to becoming Paul O’Connell – easy!  He’ll have O’Callaghan alongside him, who could make anything up to eight tackles to help him out.

There’s always Biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey, who at least has the same physique as Big Jim Hamilton, but its hardly fair to deny Mike Ross the title of heaviest forward, and anyway, Big Bob struggles to get in to the London Samoa team these days.

Personally, we would have plumped for Big Dev, given his towering presence in the lineout, vastly improved performances this season, and how he has outperformed Richie Gray on both occasions when they went head-to-head against Glasgow in the HEC this year – but it’s much of a muchness, and every time we’ve seen McCarthy (not enough, perhaps) he has impressed us.  Plus, he’ll up the handsome quotient in the pack.

Verdict: in spite of the morning’s papers anticipating an all-Donn(a)cha, second row, we’re anticipating O’Callaghan and McCarthy starting together, Ryan once again on the bench.

Knock-on Effects .. for the Paddys and the Jocks

If Ryan’s chances of starting have taken a dent, Peter O’Mahony’s have increased.  POM is a light, tall fellow that’s easily thrown in the air, and has done well at the tail of Munster’s lineout this season.  Already probably deserving of a start in this game, Deccie may well see him as a good option to share the lineout burden.  It’s worth noting that Scotland have perhaps the best (maybe second to France) defensive lineout in the tournament, with Richie Gray a phenomenal ball-thief at the front, and Big Jim Hamilton adept in the middle.  A dedicated aerial specialist in the backrow would do no harm.

This would give the Irish pack a very French look, with 2 lumps in the second row and atheletic and talented lineout-enabled forwards in the backrow. Scotland picked 2 genuine opensides (TM) and nullified the French backrow well 2 weeks ago, but Robbo might be tempted to pick a lump at 6 (Kelly Brown and Alasdair strokosh would be ideal, but are injured) to really target the raw Irish lineout.

Verdict: Peter O’Mahony to start.  A somewhat out of form Sean O’Brien to miss out. Robbo to stick with 2 groundhogs, to the delight of Gormless George.


Oh Captain My Captain

The obvious choice here is Rory Best.  Already a longstanding member of the team-leaders panel, he emerged during the World Cup as a key figure in the pack (and a great player).  The only thing that might persuade Deccie to overlook him is the sheer weight already on his shoulders.  He will have the responsibility of throwing to an already struggling lineout now without its main man.  Maybe it’d be asking too much of him.  If that line of thinking did prevail, the armband would fall to one of Rob Kearney, Stephen Ferris or Jamie Heaslip.  Heaslip is usually the most talkative in huddles, but he rarely wears the armband at Leinster, and its unlikely he’ll wear it for Ireland.

Ferris and Kearney’s outstanding form alone makes them compelling, but its our old mate Bob would strikes us as the better option. ‘Twas a 10-cap Kearney who famously spoke up at the Enfield meeting, and by all accounts he is held in high regard by his colleagues.

In truth, any of the group would appear built for the role, and Deccie would do well to empower this group, and probably Sexton as well (like ROG, too cranky for the captaincy, but clearly a leader) with the role of leading the team.

Verdict: Best to captain, with Kearney his able lieutenant

Scrum Half

Little doubt that Reddan will now be the starting nine, but the call-up of Tomas O’Leary raised more than a few eyebrows.  Isaac Boss surely would have got the call, but is in New Zealand for personal reasons.  The folly of not calling up Paul Marshall in the first place has now come back to bite – this is classic stubborn Kidney.

Anyone who has watched Tomas and Paul in action this season will see two players at the opposite ends of the spectrum.  Marshall has been a key figure for Ulster, often coming off the bench, and has pushed his way into the starting line-up in recent weeks.  O’Leary meanwhile, had some reasonable cameos early on, but has reverted to his pre-World Cup form.  He is nowhere near operating at test level.  This is a terrible call by Kidney, which sees him, once again, playing favourites.

Ulster will be delighted that the Marshall-Pienaar axis can continue to develop; at least someone benefits from this deeply wrong-headed decision by Deccie.

Verdict: Unthinkably, O’Leary will be in an Irish matchday 22.  Wowsers.

World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 2

It sort of crept up on us. One minute it was the middle of the summer and the next Ireland were playing an international rugby match.  Declan Kidney named his team at luncheon yesterday, and true to form, trying to infer a whole lot from it is like trying to pick up mercury with a fork.   It’s hard to reason that the selection advances or hinders anyone’s possibilites of touring.
First of all, there is good news that Rob Kearney, Jerry Flannery and Tomas O’Leary are back in action and fit for selection.  Expect to see Kearney and O’Leary feature heavily over the next four weeks – both are seen by management as key First XV players, and both need the gametime badly.  Given Flannery’s history of aborted comebacks, management might be more careful with regards to him, but we expect he will be dying to get out and play.

Now for the spots still up for grabs:

  • This was possibly Conor Murray’s best chance of seeing action, and his touring chances could be receding.  There have been indications he is not considered as close to the squad as we had hoped, and this is another.
  • In the backline it’s a big opportunity for McFadden to show what he can do.  He’s pretty adept at 13 as well as 12 – we all know how well he played last year, he just needs to take up where he left off.
  • Don’t worry too much about Niall Ronan’s surprise appearance.  The Lunsterman had a pretty ineffectual season last year, and won’t be anywhere near the final squad.  He’s just keeping the shirt warm – Jennings is available for selection next week and Wally and SOB will be in the mix too, so Ronan will be thanked for his time and bundled back home.
  • Confession time – we know next to nothing about Mike McCarthy, though we understand he had a good seaon last year for Connacht.  He’s probably behind Locky and Donncha Ryan in the shake-up for the 4/6 spot (although Brendan Fanning suspects otherwise), but we look forward to seeing him
  • Ligind watch: the entire Munster 2008 front row is on the bench – we could see a very poignant triple substitution around the 60 minute mark
Finally, it’s great to see Leo Cullen captain the side, the 100th man to lead out his country.  The Wicklow lock has been harshly treated in the past, and while he may not be the most eye-catching player, he is a fine captain, firm but polite in dealing with referees, and he knows when to talk and when to walk away.

And, regarding the game itself, it could be a scrappy affair (read: GRIM). Scotland look to have a slightly stronger pack out and should just about shade it.