Some Good, Mostly Bad, Time for a New Broom

So, the dust is settling on Ireland’s worst Six Nations since 2008 with a mirror image of an ending – a merciless beating in Twickers. It was a peculiar trajectory: awful at the beginning, pretty good in the middle, before a dire ending undid any sign of improvement.  A similar outcome, of course, led to the ditching of Steady Eddie and the launch of the good (and tight) ship Deccie. That’s unlikely this time, but it’s pretty clear we are not going in the right direction – our worst world ranking since 4 years ago comes at the precise time that the provincial game is at its strongest. What is happening?

Since beating South Africa in 2009, Ireland have 5 wins from 19 games against top 8 opposition (Wales, England 6N 2010, Argentina Nov 2010, England 6N 2011, Australia RWC 2011) – that’s a pretty poor record for a team with higher pretensions and solid recent history. That’s as bad a record as Scotland, against whom we’re 2-2 in the same period. Is that our new level?

We don’t like moaning (even though we have done a bit of it in the last few months), so we are going to start with the positives of this years tournament, then look at the negatives, then look at what we want to see going forward.

All in the Game

Tactically, the team looks to have moved forward. The shake-up in the coaching staff looks to have re-energised the gameplan. Ireland’s agressive new-look defence looks effective and coherent, and the Randwick Loops and shovelling of 2010 have become a more thoughtful and incisive animal – albeit one whose teeth are not quite sharp enough to make regular line-breaks. We need to see more runners on the shoulder of carriers, more off-loading, and more players comfortable with a modern high-tempo game. Seventy centimetre round-the-corner carries aren’t where its at.

The ten debate is over and the Five Year Overnight Success

Rather like the 2004 Six Nations, when 5 starts by Radge put the Humph firmly in the back seat, Johnny Sexton’s robust defence and slick distribution are beginning to look at home in the green ten jersey, and his place kicking stats are no longer a worry (22 from 28 for the series). Rog’s bench impact got progressively lower (in truth, he didn’t really impact any of the games), and the great man appears to have resigned himself to finally being in the departure lounge. His defiant raging against the light throughout 2011 has been great fun, but we have to say it’s a relief that Ireland can move on – the partisan foaming from both sides about the shirt is pretty depressing to be truthful. Sexton’s tactical kicking needs to be better, but he should relax now he is in possession.

Five years of incremental improvement and “unseen work” paid off for Donnacha Ryan, who has arrived as an international footballer and should be a key man all the way to RWC15. His aggression at ruck time, appetite for the pill and tackle count have shone a mirror uncomfortably on the so-called master of this work. Ryan had to wait for Paulie to get crocked before he could get his chance, but he was one of Ireland’s players of the tournament. He can still improve – he isn’t very big for a second row, and its hard to imagine Tom Palmer or Big Jim Hamilton being tossed asunder like a rag doll in the manner Ryan was by Bradley Davies.

Key Irish Lions

The papers from Blighty are full of breathless talk about whether Ooooooooohh Tom Croft or Dan Lydiate will wear the Lions 6 jersey, but it’s likely to be neither. Stephen Ferris has the pace of Croft over 10 metres, tackles more destructively and as prolifically as Lydiate and has the type of twitch power generally unknown outside cultures where matches are preceded, not succeeded, by manic dancing. Fez is a unique player in every sense, and gives Ireland a menace that they have never had, and will not likely have again. What a player, and what a Lion he will be, providing his knee holds up.

This time last year, Rob Kearney was recovering from injury, watching his replacement at Leinster inspire the troops to a breathless HEC victory, doubtlessly feeling rather uncomfortable about it all. Twelve months of tough work later, Bob is a better player than he has ever been – safe as a rock at full-back, showing real open field running prowess, and adding subtle handling and running more intelligent lines to the mix. The standout full-back of the tournament, Kearney is another in pole position for a Lions shirt, and is rising to the challenge of becoming one of this team’s leaders in this RWC cycle.

You-know-who, himself, some bloke called Brian

Gerry has used a lot of embarrassing names for Mr O’Driscoll in the last few months, but when your greatest player of all time is on the verge of retirement, it’s nice to know that other players can play outside centre after all. Keith Earls had a decent tournament at 13 in, eh, Brian’s absence, showing surprisingly strong defensive nous and real threat with ball in hand. Earls still looks like a winger playing centre, as evidenced by his poor peripheral vision of support runners, but he made a damn fine fist of it. The debate on who the long-term 13 is can begin, safe in the knowledge the world doesn’t actually end when Brian O’Driscoll isn’t on the team.

As well as his play at outside centre, Ireland took some steps to replace Drico’s leadership. O’Connell and Best did a good job in adversity for much of the tournament, but Drico’s absence was keenly felt in some troubling episides – the Twickenham collapse, the inability to see out a winning position against Wales and the loss of a large lead in Paris.  The challenge is now to grow a new officer class to replace those stepping up. DJ Church needs to step up and take his place in this tier, as do Heaslip, Sexton, Bowe and Kearney – Ireland weren’t dragged kicking and screaming to 3 Triple Crown’s and a Grand Slam by Drico alone, but brought smoothly there by an on-field brains trust of O’Connell, Foley, Wallace, Stringer, O’Gara, D’Arcy, O’Driscoll and Horgan. More guys need to assume the mantle as senior players.

All of which at least means the ship is afloat – just. But we have been left wondering about why the captain isn’t more concerned about the state of the engines, the rudder and the hull. Let’s look at what wasn’t so good.

No Excuses

Deccie’s pally-wals in the media will be ready with the litany of excuses: the referees shafted us, the France abandonment derailed our season, we had bad  injuries, other teams got lucky and we didn’t.  None stands up to scrutiny.  Ireland appears to be at war with the refereeing body, and has been for some time.  This season we had Deccie’s ‘disgust’ with Pearson’s performance in Paris and Foley ranting after the Scotland match.  It’s a dangerous business to be getting into, and we don’t seem to be getting anywhere with it: it provides a culture of excuses and victimhood.  As for injuries, sure, BOD and POC were huge losses, but Wales won a slam with greater injury woes.  They had Sam Warburton for fewer games than Ireland had POC and came to Dublin without four of their preferred tight forwards.  England had to cope without Manu Tuilagi for half the tournament, lost their only 10 with any experience to injury and were never able to call on Courtney Lawes.  And the France abandonment was a stroke of good fortune, not bad – it gave Ireland a chance to go back there with a bit of momentum after beating Italy.

Rotting corpse of Competitive Squads

Now, let’s note what we did not achieve: a win of any decent hue, an away win, a respectable finish, squad development. How did that happen? We feel like we are going over and over the same point again, but it has to be made – Ireland’s selection policy is ridiculously conservative, and getting more so. The same faces that are trusted by Pope Benedeccie refuse to go away even when that trust is no longer warranted.  Form no longer gets even so much as a look-in and a rigid queuing order reigns supreme.  If you’re wondering why the Heineken Cup success of the provinces doesn’t translate to the international level, well, part of the reason is that it’s treated in selection as being irrelevant. 

Donncha O’Callaghan has been a Deccie favourite since he was U-19 coach in 1998, presumably for the much-vaunted hard work he carries out. Well, sorry, it’s not that hard. Or effective. Donncha’s tackle count was miniscule throughout the tournament, his carrying non-existent and his clearing of rucks laughably underpowered. The trust put in an ailing O’Callaghan was just not repaid – the man has been a great servant of Irish rugby down the years, but he doesn’t offer anything like enough any more. But even when Donnacha Ryan was so obviously superior, he was still left on the bench.  One wonders what the likes of Dan Tuohy thinks of all this, playing much superior rugby on a consistent basis all season, yet over-looked equally as consistently. O’Callaghan has started more matches under Deccie than any other player, but surely we can’t put him up against Sam Whitelock (again). Can we?

When Conor Murray unfortunately injured his knee, and with Isaac Boss on compassionate leave in NZ, Tomas O’Leary was the coach’s automatic pick to back up Eoin Reddan (whom they have never trusted). Although the alternative, Paul Marshall, is a player so much better as to be playing a different sport altogether right now, you weren’t that surprised to see Deccie return to a man he still can’t help but love. And it backfired in spectacular fashion in Twickers. Eoin Reddan wasn’t playing well behind a beaten-up pack, but at least he can pass the ball. He was given the shepherds hook after less than 50 minutes on Saturday for TOL, in a game with a wet ball where our scrum was getting minced. That is, where a knock-on virtually guarantees a penalty against us. O’Leary threw 3 complete stinkers of passes – to O’Brien, to Ryan’s feet after skipping (unintentionally we think) the first receiver and one above Tommy Bowe’s face from 3 metres away – all were fumbled and led to penalties from the scrum. In addition, his inability to deal with a kick behind led directly to the English penalty try. It was a complete waste of a pick. Any other scrum half, any one, would have given more, and been more useful in the long term.

Gordon D’Arcy started the Six Nations reasonably well, but finished it .. well, finished. Dorce is a smart guy, and you knew looking at his face on Saturday, that he knew as well as anyone that the jig was up. Inside centre is a position where we actually have all sorts of options, from Fergus McFadden (on the bench!) to Nevin Spence to Paddy Wallace to Oooooooooohh James Downey, but we persevered cruelly with a man who has given so much service in an odd 3-act international career instead of moving on. It defies reason, respect for the player and shows a real lack of intelligence.

Even more perplexing was the decision to replace him with a fly-half.  Fergus McFadden plays for Leinster. At centre. The Leinster coaches see him all the time. And play him at centre. Yet the national management, who see him a handful of times a year, insist that the HEC-winning coaches in D4 are wrong, and Ferg is a winger. To the point where your inside centre is playing like a drain, and you have the man who has taken his place for several games at provincial level on the bench, yet you prefer to save him to play 5 minutes instead of Andy Trimble, and move your 10 out one. Your ten who has never played there. When you have a centre on the bench. Come on. This is just lunacy.

Selection Box

Ireland started 19 players in 5 games. All 4 changes were injury-enforced, and would almost certainly not have been made had misfortune not intervened. The folly of this policy was underlined in the second half at Twickenham – Ireland had nothing to give in a fourth game in four weeks. The idea of blooding some of the young talent from the provinces against Italy or Scotland appeared not to have crossed the mind of the management, and we were left with men who “gave up”, according to Andrew Trimble. Maybe Trimble is on to something – their bodies gave up for them. Who benefits from it? Certainly not the players, not the teams, not the unions or the fans.

Why is it that Warren Gatland can throw seemingly unmapped players like Jason Tipuric on to the international stage and watch them thrive, while Irish management approach starting a player who has less than ten caps as if handling dynamite?  Donncha Ryan is 28, for Gawd’s sake, but Deccie wouldn’t start him until injury – Ireland’s best selector – insisted on it.

Scrum Troubles

Even if Ireland were at their absolute best, they live in a permanent state of being one proppping injury from oblivion.  Sure enough, it happened in Twickers, and once Ross departed the field… well, we all saw what happened.  Tight-head is a position we have no depth, and the 22-man international squads left Kidney in a position where he had to replace Ross with Tom Court – a loosehead, and an ordinary one at that.  Everyone has been keen to absolve Deccie of any blame for that misfortunate, and fair enough – but it’s worth casting your mind back to November 2010, when Ross was afforded not a single minute of gametime, with Buckle, Hayes and – oh, hello! – Tom Court being selected instead.  It was only when Buckle got injured ahead of the Six Nations that Kidney was practically forced to put Ross in to the team.  Kidney kicked Ross out of Munster, and you got the feeling he never especially wanted to pick him for Ireland until he all but had to.

The Land of the Long History of Beatings

The frustrating thing about all this is that we wanted to see a better structure from Ireland this year, more evidence of a gameplan and better execution. Which we got. But the whole effort has been spoiled by gormless selection and a management seemingly unable to look past the past. Well, they have to now. Gerry is already feverishly saying that the upcoming tour of NZ means we have “less scope” for change, but surely the opposite, if anything, applies. Einstein had something to say about doing the same thing and expecting different results, and he was kind of smart. We have the core of a very decent side there, but it’s struggling to come out amidst the dead stench surrounding the larger group.  The current selection policy breeds complacency, and there are several players who look to be operating in a comfort zone: Jamie Heaslip, DJ Church, Tommy Bowe and Sean O’Brien would all benefit from a bit of hot breath on their necks.  It’s time for a new broom to sweep through the squad.

Here is what we want to see in New Zealand:

Unquestionably, the most naturally talented player of his generation is Luke Fitzgerald. After a stunning start to his international career, the wheels started wobbling with his insistence on playing full-back last year, then fell off with his exclusion from the RWC squad. Still, this is a player who is only 24 with bags to offer. Ireland need to bring him back into the reckoning, be it at 11, 12 or 13 (we think he is the future at 13 for what its worth) and utilise him. He is untainted by the Twickers debacle and is hungry and eager. Ensure he isn’t too hungry and ease the man back into the setup.

Impact from the Subs

So, what would you rather see if DJ Church pulls up after 30 minutes in Wellington? Good old Tom Court? Or young Paddy McAllister, bounding on, eager to test himself against Owen Franks? Or perhaps it’s Ronan Loughney, the closest thing to an ambi-scrummaging prop we have.  One of the second rows crocks lame just after half time – who is more likely to come in and have an effect, Donncha O’Callaghan or, say, Dan Tuohy, a man whose ability with ball in hand is unmatched by any other lock in the country. Even Evil Ryan Caldwell would at least be guaranteed to make Whitelock and Williams think for a while, and create some havoc. We’re chasing the game with 15 minutes to go and Jonny Sexton stubs his big toe. Radge to kick the corners? It has its merits, but what about Ian Madigan, the Rabo’s second highest try-scorer who offers something completely different, and unusual by Irish standards? Sure, his place-kicking is untested, but Ferg is a natural, and he is playing 12, remember? Who is that on the bench, is that young Dorce to relieve a wrecked Andrew Trimble. Or is it Craig Gilroy or Simon Zebo, consistently holding their own at HEC level? The idea is the same everywhere here, give youth and vigour its head. Doing the same old stuff isn’t going to work, let’s move into the next generation, just like England and Wales have. 

We’re miles behind already, so it’s time to play catch-up – a slew of youngsters should provide the back-up. The camp is clearly in need of an injection of new blood. Paul Marshall, Tiernan O’Halloran and Devin Toner can take over from Tomas O’Leary, Gavin Duffy and DOC. What’s more, there are players who haven’t been flogged this season, and have bundles of energy to burn. Luke Fitz (see above), Dominic Ryan (injured), Nevin Spence (injured), Felix Jones (injured) have all come back into first team reckoning of late – they should be hitting their peak and not the wall in May, and could have a real impact. Not only will we have fresh players to come in after the inevitable injuries, but they might actually learn from playing Israel Dagg, Kieran Read et al.

What about the ‘NIE’ players

Oh wait, we can’t bring them, that’s right. The clue is in the ‘N’ – it stands for ‘Non’ in Non-Ireland Eligible. So, ok, Rosser might get injured, and Afoa and Botha can’t play. What should we do? It’s a textbook situation for what the roundly-panned IRFU rules are being brought in for. The provinces haven’t produced a tight-head of note since the start of the professional era. But they haven’t produced none either, and we’ve been busy capping Mushy and Tom Court at tight-head. Amid all the halooing about Jamie Hagan not getting games at Leinster, it has been forgotten that he left Connacht to get to work with the Leinster (and Ireland) scrum doctor Greg Feek and technician Mike Ross, and emerge an improved scrummager, and to get mapped internationally. He should be encouraged – bring him along, and maybe one of Adam Macklin and Stephen Archer as well. Introduce them to the setup, and see if any of them look like stepping up.

One thing is for sure, if we adopt the same policy we adopted at the Six Nations, we’re going to get hammered 3 times. So what is there to lose? Well, the habits of a lifetime for starters…..