(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.

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#Flogged

We dreamed up this post lounging around on Northside grass, peeled grapes being handed to us by the Irish Times sports staff, having conned them into thinking we might need them to ghost an autobiography at some indistinct point in the future. But we soon realized the subject matter was far too serious for us, and we needed to rope in stats guru Andy McGeady for a joint post.

You’ll be able to tell who is responsible for what – the critical insight, relevant statistics and funny bits are from Andy, and the bitterness, carping and anti-Munster bias from us.

The issue of player welfare is something that will be big for us this year. Careers are getting shorter (Ian McKinley, Eoin O’Malley), the level of concern for serious injury differs among observers, and those players who are lucky enough to forge long and successful careers are increasingly paying for it with huge playing time. On this year’s Lions tour, Warren Gatland said that the physicality of rugby had gone up a notch since the last tour.  It was a statement that left us reeling; the 2009 series in South Africa was so bruising you almost felt your ribcage tightening just watching it.  The stakes are increasing all the time.  And when the NFL, where owners readily acknowledge players are mere commodities, seems more concerned about managing careers than rugby, we got a problem.

Two cases in point: Mike Ross and Ruan Pienaar.

Forget Johnny Sexton, Ireland’s most important player is nerdy Corkman Ross because if you don’t have a competent tighthead prop, you’re goosed. The opposition will milk you for penalties, and if you get away with giving up 12 points from this source, you’ve done well. Consider the last time Ireland had to do without an effective tighthead for a big game – in Twickenham in 2012 when Tom Court was forced to deputize for the crocked Ross. Shudders. This isn’t a Court diatribe of course, he is a loosehead by trade and was pressed into service through necessity, but merely illustrates the point.

Not only are tighthead props the most important players on the pitch, they are also typically the biggest (BBC infographics seem to delight in broadcasting the weight of Ireland’s tighthead) and strongest. The power output has increased to the extent that in the Southern Hemipshere and France, a prop isn’t expected to last longer than 60 minutes, with a new front row often introduced en masse between 50 and 55 minutes.

In Ireland, however, we are milking Mike Ross to a terrifically dunderheaded extent. Ross has played every game of note in the last three years for Leinster, and, once he saw off the ‘spirited challenge’ of Mushy, every game possible for Ireland in two and a half. And this is literally every game possible. When Ireland played a disinterested (for multiple reasons: the IRFU didn’t give them the respect of playing a full test, and they had just buried a team-mate) Fiji in November, Ross was required to tog out to prove his fitness. Then in June, when we toured North America, it was decreed we needed Ross to see off Shawn Pittman (London Welsh) and Hubert Buydens (Prairie Wolf Pack). Why?

By the end of last season, Ross looked completely shattered, markedly less effective and in need for a long rest more than anything. Was it really necessary to fly him around the world to steady the scrum? Frankly, without Ross, Ireland would struggle to win a game in the Six Nations, never mind against a Southern Hemisphere giant.

Ruan Pienaar, in turn, is Ulster’s marquee man and their key playmaker. He joined the brethren from the Sharks after the Tri-Nations of 2010, and has not only played every game of note Ulster have had (in both the HEC and the Magners/Pro12), he’s been involved in every Springbok squad in that time – encompassing a World Cup, two Rugby Championships, a Tri-Nations, three November tours and three June tours. Not much time for day trips to Bangor, that’s for sure.

Maybe it’s us, or maybe it’s the more rarified level Ulster are operating at now, but Pienaar seems notably less effervescent than he was two years ago – at the tail end of last year, he looked mentally jaded and unimaginative. Paddy Jackson and the speedsters outside sometimes rarely saw the ball, aside from chasing box-kicks and fielding delayed passes. For Ulster to take the next step in their development, which is often the hardest one, and win some silverware, they’ll need their best players fully engaged and in top form.

In Mendoza on Saturday, Pienaar was ponderous and indecisive – it was a miracle (and a shame) he lasted 80 minutes. Perhaps if Anscombe is honest, he’ll think that a month in the Caribbean for his best player might maximise the chance of him being where Ulster need him by April and May. Sadly, with the behemoth packs of Leicester and Montpellier to negotiate, the chances of that happening seem precisely zero.  But enough speculation – this is where we hand over to stats man Andy McGeady…

When the gentlemen of Whiff of Cordite brought up the subjects of Mike Ross and Ruan Pienaar I did what I am wont to do – I took out the pad and paper, scratched a few things down and had a good, solid mull.

Then I fired up the stats machine.

And I peered inside.

Mike Ross, as Leinster and Ireland’s number one tight head prop forward, is a singularly important player in Irish rugby. And, yes, last season he indeed played a very large number of minutes compared to his contemporaries in European top level rugby.

PropsPlayingTime

Note: the stats used are from the 2012/13 season proper, i.e. the same information that would have been to hand before people flew off to various summer tours.

Of all Rabodirect Pro 12, Aviva Premiership and Orange Top 14 props only six men played more minutes of domestic, European (Heineken/Amlin Cup) and international rugby than the ex-Harlequins man managed during the 2012/13 season.

Mike Ross is thirty three-years old.

1867 minutes of rugby at an average of 64 minutes per outing is a decent shift for a top level front row, especially so at that age.

But he is also thirty-three years young.

Mike Ross might have a birth certificate bearing the year 1979, but between professional club and test level rugby he doesn’t have as many rugby miles on the clock as others.

Fellow thirty-three year old Carl Hayman, for example, played the last of his 45 tests for New Zealand in 2007. Ross first pulled on an Irish test jersey in 2009 playing two summer tests against Canada and the USA, not featuring again in a test side until playing Italy in Rome in 2011.

Since then, of course, Ross has been a regular for Ireland but with just five weeks in age between himself and Hayman the contrast between the two couldn’t be more stark.

And it wasn’t just in the international arena where Ross was a late starter; it took the former UCC and Cork Con man some time to nail down a regular first team slot with a top side, becoming a regular with Harlequins in the 2006-07 season. Depending on how you look at it Ross has made between one and two fewer season’s worth of top level club appearances than the other capped thirty-and-overs in that list, Tom Court excepted.

That’s something to think about. It’s a Matt-Stevens-worth of games, after all.

Ruan Pienaar, like Ross, was the most flogged horse at his position in his league over the 2012/13 season, sitting in third place on the most-minutes-played list of halves currently plying their trade in the European game.

HalvesPlayingTime

Jonny Wilkinson and Rory Kockott might have both played more raw minutes than the South African but neither had to cope with the more rigorous physical and mental demands of the international game (not to mention travel to, literally, all four corners of the globe). The fourth placed Ian Madigan, just behind Pienaar on the list, had just 62 minutes of international rugby in that time (Ronan O’Gara had 78, for those scoring at home).

The IRFU will have no real say in how often Pienaar plays for Ulster, or at what position, perhaps with the exception of suggesting quietly that Paddy Jackson might be offered some time over the kicking tee in live games.

Joe Schmidt and the Irish coaching staff will, however, have some control over the number of minutes that Mike Ross spends rambling around paddocks in the blue of Leinster or green of Ireland. But whether his odometer or registration plate is the more accurate gauge, perhaps only the man himself will know.

Credit: individual playing time stats courtesy of Opta (player ages added from other sources)

Thanks to Andy McGeady for his contribution.  Visit his own excellent site here.

Playing Favourites

In the build-up to last week’s game against Fiji, Gerry Thornley mentioned not once, but twice that the selection of Mike Ross was due to managment’s unhappiness with his performance versus South Africa, where he conceded two scrum penalties before being substituted late in the game.  The articles are here and here and the quotations are as follows:

The selection is also notable for retaining Mike Ross ahead of Michael Bent, which suggests that management want more from their established tighthead than was shown last week.

The selection of Mike Ross to start again at tighthead rather than have a longer look at Michael Bent suggests the management were less than thrilled with the performance of Ross last week, when he was called ashore after conceding a costly couple of scrum penalties.

Now, we know Gerry Thornley has a direct line to the management, and we know Kidney uses him as a vehicle to get his message through to the public.  So it’s pretty safe to assume that this is not just Gerry throwing out a mad opinion, and that he is entirely correct: management were unhappy with Ross’ performance and asked him to prove himself in the Fiji game, and Thornley is to get the message out there.  Besides, it’s so left-field a notion that surely no journo, fan or otherwise would even think of it, unless they were told it was the case.  Wasn’t Mike Ross the player we were supposed to be having late night vigils for both before and since the Twickenham Debacle?

This being the case, this is some pretty shoddy man management.  Mike Ross is being singled out for Ireland’s multiple woes against South Africa.  Management are happy to go public, through the media, with criticism of his performance – and his alone.  Nice.  It’s particularly unedifying because Ross is a player we know Kidney has never been a huge fan of.  It was under Kidney’s watch that Ross’ Munster contract was allowed to lapse, and Ross only got into the Ireland team when all other possibilities (Hayes, Buckle and Court) were exhausted.  It smacks of hanging him out to dry at the first available opportunity.

Mike Ross has been a one-man bailout to the Irish management.  When their only plan for tighthead succession to The Bull (Tony Buckle) was doomed to failure, he came along, through none of management’s doing or planning, and saved their bacon.  He has held the Irish scrum up manfully, and occasionally destructively [e.g. England 2010], since the 2010 Six Nations and has become a key player.  Think for a moment where we’d be if Mike Ross were not around.  And this is how he is treated for giving away a couple of scrum penalties after an exhausting 70 minute shift, and against a Springbok loosehead fresh off the bench.  That’s not to say, of course, that he deserves a free ride if he plays rubbish, but have we really reached that stage because of a couple of poor scrums?  Incroyable.

Another prop being shabbily treated for his role in performing a thankless task is Tom Court.  Court has been Ireland’s unheralded ‘filler-inner’ for four years, taking his place in the number 17 shirt because he can just-about scrummage on the tighthead side, as well as being a fairly competent loosehead.  He endured a wretched experience against the English front row in Twickenham, but most right-minded folk would agree he was asked to do a job of which he is not capable.  On the loosehead side, he has never let anyone down.

Ever since, his form with Ulster – where a huge emphasis is being placed on the set piece – has been rock solid, and he has played solely at loosehead.  And with 23-man squads finally arriving into the international game, he can take his place on the bench solely having to focus on one role – loosehead forward.  Except that he’s been instantly demoted for David Kilcoyne, a nipper with literally a handful of starts with Munster.  Thanks for the dig-out Tom, but now that you might get a chance to show what you can do in your best position, we’re going to go with this other fella who’s started two Heineken Cup pool matches.  Kilcoyne is a decent player and has started the season well enough, but if Healy went off injured after 30 minutes against Argentina, would you prefer him or Court holding up the left-hand side of the scrum against the brutalising Puma front row?  I’ll take Tom Court, thanks.

Every coach has his favourites, and against that, every coach has players he only seems to pick out of necessity.  Safe to say, Mike Ross and Tom Court are not among Kidney’s favourites.

It’s all Jamie Hagan’s Fault for Moving to Leinster

Amid the fallout from Ireland’s Twickenham debacle, one regular lament in the meeja is Jamie Hagan’s move to Connacht.  It goes thus: Ireland could have had another tighthead prop to call on had Jamie Hagan stayed with Connacht this year, instead of moving back to his home province, Leinster.

Hagan was a highly durable near-constant in the Connacht front-row (50 appearances in two seasons), and has found himself marginalised at Leinster, where he has to contend not only with Mike Ross, but also Kiwi prop Nathan White.  Had he stayed at Connacht , he would have had the pleasure of going up against Toulouse, Glaws and Quins props and earning his corn as a Heineken Cup level scrummager, miraculously emerging unscathed from those encounters, instead of togging out for Leinster A in the British & Irish Cup.

The reality of course, is totally different, on any number of counts.  Let us expel a number of myths. 
Jamie Hagan has made a bad career choice.  No he hasn’t.  He has come to Leinster to work with Greg Feek and Mike Ross, the men responsible for turning Leinster’s scrum from a wet blanket that Toulouse pushed around in the 2010 HEC semi-final to something altogether more solid, and occasionally destructive.  The hope is that he will emerge from this a better technical scrummager and a player Leinster can trust to start in high-stakes games.  With all due respect to Connacht’s coaching ticket, we are given to believe it does not feature someone of Feek’s calibre on the books.  His chances of improving to the level required in a technical position are far greater at Leinster.
Leinster are stockpiling, and Hagan is languishing in the reserves.  Leinster have a plan for Jamie Hagan – he is not simply languishing in the A team. They are working with him to improve his scrummaging and fitness.  Those with short memories would do well to recall that Mike Ross barely featured in his first season at Leinster – he spent the year in the gym, where Michael Cheika demanded he get fit enough to get around the paddock.  The following season the Mike Ross we know and love today emerged.
Jamie Hagan has had very little gametime with Leinster.  Another story that doesn’t hold up.  Of Leinster’s three foremost tighthead props, the playing time this season is as follows:
  • Jamie Hagan – 9 starts, 7 sub appearances, 634 minutes
  • Mike Ross – 9 starts, 2 sub appearances, 660 minutes
  • Nathan White – 6 starts, 11 sub appearances, 561 minutes
Hardly banished to the sidelines.  One of those starts was in the Heineken Cup, in the final pool match against Montpellier.  It looked, to us anyway, like a signal that Hagan was firmly in Leinster’s plans, and he did well to hold his own against Leleimalefaga, one of Europe’s more gargantuan looseheads.
Had Jamie stayed at Connacht the Twickers debacle wouldn’t have happened.  Hardly.  If Jamie Hagan had six HEC starts to his name with Connacht, and 13 more in the Pro12, he would still not have made the matchday squad for Ireland v England.  The current 22-man squad rule, daft as it is, means Tom Court would still have made the bench, because he can, in theory, scrummage on both sides. Its also worth noting that being shunted around the Sportsground by Joe Marler and Jean-Baptiste Poux is hardly something that benefits one career – ask Court about Alex Corbisiero and see what he says.
In fact, he might not have made the training squad – after all, he never did before.  Even when he was winning positive reviews at Connacht, Irish management never gave him much encouragement.  He has a grand total of two Ireland A caps, both earned as a replacement in 2011 – Declan Fitzpatrick and Tony Buckley the starters at 3 in the two games.
It’s easier to stand out in an ordinary side like Connacht.  Everyone wants to see the positive in you when you play in a wholehearted, but usually losing team.  If the scrum sinks three times in a match but you make three big carries, chances are people will remember the carries.  At Leinster, teams come to the RDS knowing their opponent has fewer weaknesses.  If they sense one, they will look to extract everything out of it.  The scrum was identified as such on Friday night by the Ospreys, who milked it, and won a tight match.  Hagan was among those culpable.  There’s still work to be done – plenty of it behind the scenes with Greg Feek.

Moments of the Season Part 1

In keeping with the end of season theme, we’re going to take a look at our favourite moments of the season.  First, Egg Chaser takes us through his, tomorrow Palla Ovale follows suit.

Chris Ashton’s length of the field try against Australia. Australia, fresh from beating the All Blacks in a remarkable game of running rugby, landed in Twickers in November. Its fair to say WoC probably weren’t the only ones expecting the Wallabies to be the only team playing fast and loose, but in an incredible match, they were beaten at their own game.There had been flutterings of something happening for England in Australia in June, but the anthracite-clad red rose announced itself this day, with the highlight Ashton’s try. It established Ashton as a star, and signposted a gloriously unexpected positive attitude, the type of which we had not seen in an English team since 1990.



The best two teams in Europe collide. Coming to Lansdowne Road for the final game of the 6 Nations, England needed a win to complete a first Grand Slam since 2003, when it was also finished off (in style) in Dublin. Less than a minute into the game came the first scrum, something Dylan Hartley was clearly relishing, judging by the way he shoo-ed away the physio. Cue Mike Ross mincing the England scrum, a quick tap penalty by Sexton, Banahan’s outside shoulder exposed by Earls, and 80 metres gained by Ireland. The English platform had been decimated, and Ireland never looked likely to lose afterwards.

Reality dawns on the Northern Hemisphere. Following the rather dowdy and generally low-quality Six Nations, the Crusaders and the Sharks came to Twickers as refugees from the Christchurch earthquake. To stunned Northern Hemisphere fans made comfortable by the likes of Mad Dog Jones deriding the Super XV as basketball, this was a serious shock to the system. The players here seemed to be playing a different sport to that which “graced” Murrayfield and the Millennium Stadium. Not only did we see wonderful running lines and a series of deft and intelligent offloads by Daniel Carter and Sonny Bill Williams, we witnessed a display of powerful scrummaging from the Crusaders and ferocious rucking. Simply incredible.

Clement Poitrenaud not scoring against Clermont. If any passage of play symbolised French rugby over the last decade, it’s this one. Indeed, if any player symbolises French rugby over the past decade, it’s Clement Poitrenaud – a man who mixes the sublime with the ridiculous, sometimes within seconds of one another – just like here. Toulouse covered 105 metres in just six marauding phases, a mesmeric series of play full of offloads, line breaks and runners flooding the support channels, all in a visceral and powerful lunge at Clermont’s throat. Poitrenaud touched the ball 3 times in this magical 45 seconds, once to draw in 2 tacklers to a prop, again in a brilliant half-break to commit 2 more men before offloading to Servat, and the third time to drop the ball when all he needed to do was fall over to make this the try of the century. Which almost made it better.

Keep your eye on: Mike Ross, scrum nerd, being substituted

Thankfully, Whiff of Cordite has never been involved in the business end of a scrum, preferring instead to stand far away and not think too much about it. Luckily, we have located a total geek who knows a hell of a lot about the coalface. Step forward … Mike Ross:

“It’s basic physics at the end of the day and the focus is on the pack as a whole. I know it’s difficult in terms of their (backrow) defensive duties but speaking as a frontrow, it makes a huge difference if you have them staying down and giving that weight until the scrum finishes. A lot of teams will wait for the opposing backrow to stand up and they will come again; once they have you moving it is too late to come back from that.”

Impressive. Ross was renowned at Quins for spending huge amounts of time studying the opposition front row, and he has taken that approach with him to Leinster and Ireland. The proof of this pudding can often be seen in the eating – the early destruction of the English scrum at the Palindrome a case in point (about which more anon).

What we here at WoC find extremely interesting is how he gleans information on the opposing front row and passes it on to his replacement when he gets substituted. We first noticed this during the 6 Nations – instead of seeing the familiar sight of the Bull trundling off and Mushy trundling on, passing with a low 5, we saw Rosser stop Tom Court and talk to him for 30 seconds, replete with actions. A once-off? Why nay, didn’t he do the same thing with Stan Wright in the Toulouse match! Plus it seemed like Wright was listening (unlike Court) – as well he should. And last week, he more or less demonstrated Court’s technique on the Dog Barbecuer 30 minutes into the Ulster game.

We salute Mike Ross, scrum nerd, and leave the last word to him:

“I didn’t sleep well that night or for a couple of days afterwards. Before that I don’t think I gave away a penalty try in eight years. I was fairly raging afterwards.”