Who is going to carry the ball?

With the two rounds of European Rugby out of the way, focus turns to the November internationals. As usual, a daunting program looms, with South Africa, Australia and Georgia coming to town. Two wins will be the pass mark.

Ireland have injuries aplenty, the two most damaging of which are Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien, unquestionably two of Ireland’s small set of world class players, and crucially, two of their best ball carriers. Ireland have decent replacements for each. Jack McGrath is a stalwart on the loosehead side of the scrum and both Chris Henry was a constant in Ireland’s Six Nations winning campaign, when Ireland were also without O’Brien. Both bring much to the game, but neither can quite replicate the sort of explosive ball carrying and ability to win the contact battle that Healy and O’Brien provide. Leinster’s struggles are probably a reasonable barometer for how hard it is to get momentum without your best carriers available.

The loss of two such warriors is compounded by the loss of Iain Henderson for Ulster, who is the closest thing to O’Brien and Healy in his ability to break tackles, and also Andrew Trimble, who, although a wing, is a strong carrier who has been used to punch holes in the middle of the pitch. Bosh!

The problem is magnified by the fact that Ulster and Munster’s two primary ball-carrying forwards are non-Ireland eligible. Nick Williams is Ulster’s go-to-man for the hard yards (which is quite another issue), while Munster have identified CJ Stander as their best carrier, and his form has been frankly awesome in recent weeks. Do Ireland have enough carriers to make the necessary metres to take the game to Australia, and more problematically, South Africa? Will the lack of Healy and O’Brien force Schmidt into certain selections in his pack? Or in the centres?

We’ve used the ESPN stats from the last two weeks to try and let the stats do the work.

Here’s the file: forwards_metres.  It’s the usual ESPN table format.  The focus here is on columns E to H and T to W, but that’s not to say the players didn’t do other stuff as well!  The guys in red are NIE.

Three things immediately stand out.

  1. Jamie Heaslip is the man. Over the two ERCC games, Heaslip has managed over 40 carries for an aggregate gain over 100m, the full length of a rugby pitch. Heaslip is in outstanding form and will be Ireland’s number eight for all three games. He’s not the most conventional number eight, or the most powerful, but his supreme footwork enables him to avoid the bigger hits and eke out metres where others would be running into a brick wall.  The issue that might arise is against South Africa whose sheer brawn is so suffocating he might not be able to find the space to get a run at soft shoulders.
  2. CJ Stander is the man. As if you need telling. Stander carried for an immense 110m against Sale, and again impressed with 42m with ball in hand against Sale, more than double anyone else in the pack. But he can’t play for Ireland.  Yet.
  3. Ulster have lacked a ball carrier. No Henderson, and Williams struggling; Ulster’s problem is that they have found themselves snaffled on the gainline. Roger Wilson showed up well off the bench against Leicester, but against Toulon no forward made more than 12m, which explains everything about why Ulster lost the game.

Ok, so that’s the obvious stuff, what about the auxiliary carriers, and what might it mean for Ireland

  1. If Heaslip is Leinster’s primary man, Sean Cronin is his lieutenant. Nobody can time a run onto the ball as well as this chap, which enables him to make clean breaks and beat defenders, and his technical deficiencies will continue to be accommodated by O’Connor as long as he can carry for an average of 30m a match. The question is: would Schmidt consider him ahead of Best in order to bolster his cabal of ball-carriers? Best’s lineout throwing has been poor for Ulster, and he has never been an effective carrier, but does bring power to the scrum and an exceptional ability around the ruck. Best would generally be seen as a nailed-on starter and a pack leader, and it would be a brave man to go into trench warfare against South Africa without him, but there may be a case for Cronin based on the current situation.
  2. Tommy O’Donnell is the new Chris Henry. We asked earlier in the season if O’Mahony, O’Donnell and Stander play together, who will hit the rucks? Answer: Tommy O’Donnell. Although a naturally strong carrier, O’Donnell has carried much less than his backrow partners in both games, and has appeared to do so closer to the ruck too. A recent journal.ie interview saw him chatting a lot about his role around the breakdown, slowing down ball, ‘living in the ruck’, and all that. It shows all the hallmarks of someone who has sacrificed his carrying game to do the dirty work; in effect, becoming more like Chris Henry. Which, ironically in this instance, will probably hurt his international ambitions.
  3. Peter O’Mahony offers good value with the ball. We know he likes to operate a bit further from the ruck where he can get his fend going, but O’Mahony’s carrying stats will encourage Schmidt. He made around 20m in each game, and like Sean Cronin was very much lieutenant to the primary ball-carrier. The only player who could realistically take the No.6 jersey from him is Rhys Ruddock, who has had a mixed bag, showing up well against Wasps, with a notable carrying performance, but anonymous in Castres. Throw in O’Mahony’s lineout game and abilty to win breakdown turnovers and he looks fairly nailed on for the jersey, but will probably be used to carry more than in the Six Nations.
  4. Jack McGrath for loosehead. He may not have Cian Healy’s quotient of fast-twitch muscle fibres, but McGrath is a useful carrier, as well as being generally decent in the set piece. He carried over 10m in each game. Both Munster looseheads have shown up better when introduced off the bench, and until one of them (probably Cronin) pulls away from the other, their jostling for position is probably letting McGrath pull the gap out when it comes to national selection.
  5. Paul O’Connell should leave the carrying to others – as has been suggested in certain quarters before,. While it seems churlish to be criticising the great O’Connell for anything, 5m gained over an aggregate 17 carries suggests that O’Connell should probably let O’Mahony, Stander or whichever loosehead is on the pitch have the ball instead. Toner hasn’t exactly been bursting through tackles either, so until Henderson presents himself again in the new year, Ireland can’t expect the second row unit to chip in with many metres. But it was ever thus – and quite often by our own design.

Based purely on individual merits, you’d write down the starting Irish pack as being McGrath, Best, Ross, O’Connell, Toner, O’Mahony, Henry and Heaslip. Schmidt will employ Heaslip as his primary ball-carrier, and ask O’Mahony and McGrath can help him out by chipping in with 20-ish metres each. Is that enough? If not, the case for Sean Cronin and Tommy O’Donnell becomes stronger, particularly for Cronin, though O’Donnell appears to have adapted his role somewhat.

And with a lack of heft in the pack, we need to ask if our preference for midgety centres can be continued – Dorce is decent at making metres after the tackle with his feet, but he isn’t exactly built like Mathieu Boshtereaud. Having someone bigger, like Robbie Henshaw, outside might take some workload off the forward carriers – Jared Payne certainly isn’t going to use opposition players as speed bumps. Any dreams of a second-five-eighth type inside-centre, such as Olding or Madigan, may have to be shelved for the moment.  All this, of course, is compounded by the loss of Trimble – with most of the putative replacements of the dancing-feet variety, we might need to press the square peg of Tommy Bowe into the round hole that is boshing up the middle.

One thing’s for sure: Jamie Heaslip’s going to have have a heavy workload over the next month.

She’s Lost Control

Joe Schmidt’s first team, picked to deal with what will be a tough Samoa side on Saturday, looks to be more or less on message.  Usually in the November series there’s one game which allows the coach to use a raft of fringe players: think Kidney’s first game in charge against Canada, when he gave Keith Earls his first cap and Stephen Ferris announced himself as a blindside ready for test rugby, or Fiji last year when some Ulster players finally got a chance to show their ability.  That isn’t really the case this series, because Samoa have ascended to the ranks of the second tier, but nonetheless, Schmidt has taken the opportunity to give some matchtime to those around the fringes.

If it was the Kiwis, you can bet Sexton, O’Connell, Healy and O’Brien would all be playing, but instead we’ll be looking at Jackson, Toner, McGrath and Henry.  It’s a nice shake-up and, crucially, all the players brought in are in good form.

Jack McGrath has been excellent for Leinster this season, where the role of reserve loosehead is seen as a vital one, because they rarely play Healy for more than 55 minutes at a time.  He’s deservedly jumped ahead of David Kilcoyne in the queue – it’s a call that might aggrieve Munster fans, but Kilcoyne just hasn’t hit the form he had last season yet.  If he can get back to that level, he’ll undoubtedly be in the coach’s thinking.  When it comes to test rugby, if the call is between two inexperienced players, form should be the decider.

The tight five will have its work cut out for it, though, and outside McGrath’s dynamism and Best’s workrate, it isn’t the most mobile unit.  That said, Devin Toner is a richly deserved pick.  For a player who plays an honest, clean game, he has taken an awful lot of flak down the years, mostly, we think, becaue he doesn’t have ‘good face’.  It should be to the surprise of nobody that his progress has been incremental, but at 27 he now looks a test player, or a handy squad player at least.  Sure he’ll never have the sense of mania that Paul O’Connell can bring to a game, but for the crucial business of restart and lineout catching, he’s the next best thing, and his handling of the ball is surprisingly good.

The Mikes Ross and McCarthy can be considered fortunate starters.  Ross is struggling badly with the new scrum calls, which have thrown the understood scrummaging hierarchy on its head, and McCarthy has looked unfit for Leinster.  Dan Tuohy was a hard-luck story under the old coaching regime, and he’s entitled to feel hard done by again now, because his recent form has been sensational.  As for Ross, it seems an inevitability that his waning performance arc will cross over that of Marty Mooradze’s rising one at some point in the next twelve months; it’s not if, but when.  Probably just too soon though for this series.

Heaslip captains the side for this match, but Paul O’Connell has been announced as Ireland captain.  It’s a shrewd move by Schmidt. For a start, nobody in the land could argue O’Connell won’t do a great job.  It also puts to bed some of the ‘previous’ Schmidt has had with O’Connell, and should help to keep the group united in the event that – as seems likely – Munster don’t have a huge representation in the team.

Another positive call is Chris Henry, and it was nice to get some insight into why he’s been picked, with Schmidt citing his improved release-and-jackal technique, which has proved penalty-expensive if not at its best in the past.  How refreshing to have a coach who gives a little bit of technical detail to the public and show appreciation their understanding of the game, as opposed offering crumbs such as ‘fellas have put their hands up’. Henry looks a likely beneficiary of the new regime, because Schmidt appears to rate him highly, and has tended to see him as the key man to game-manage when he played in opposition to Leinster.

Madigan’s luckless start to the season continues, but Jackson is unarguably the right pick, for the same reasons as Jack McGrath is at loosehead.  The only contentious call in the backline is at first centre where Gordon D’arcy is preferred to Luke Marshall.  Egg isn’t happy about it, not one bit; we could go through the ins and outs of what each will bring, and mention D’arcy’s experience, but let’s face it, he’s in because of the beard.  How can you leave out a man with such a beard?

For once, this feels like an Irish game to look forward to, and probably is for the players too.  In recent years, it felt like the Leinster and Ulster players were happier in their provincial set-ups and that playing for the test side was an onerous experience for them.  In the last Six Nations the players looked like the weight of the world was on them.  The pendulum looks to have swung, for the Leinster players anyway.  They have hardly looked full of joy when playing O’Connor-ball over the last two months, and returning to Joe Schmidt’s methods will surely energise them, and should have the same effect on the rest of the panel who are experiencing his coaching for the first time.

And, finally, what of Schmidt’s no doubt very deliberately chosen words about having ‘lost control’ of Johnny Sexton?  Intriguing for sure, but were they aimed at his paymasters in the IRFU, who failed to contract the player when Schmidt was his coach at Leinster and was powerless to effect the situation?  Or was it a cautionary note to the likes of Sean O’Brien and Donnacha Ryan who are being courted by French clubs?  Probably a little of both.  The message is clear to all, though: we’re better off with our best players playing in Ireland.  Our own take is that with the size of French club squads, they don’t play that much more, but in the case of Johnny Sexton there has been something of a perfect storm; this being a Lions season combined with injuries to other fly-halves at his club has resulted in him having very little rest and playing an awful lot of matches.  For sure though, we’ll all be better off if O’Brien, Ryan and Murray are playing in Ireland next year.

Two Man Rucks and Other Stories

Joe Schmidt’s reign as Ireland coach properly kicks off on Saturday with a game against Samoa.  It’s the first of three tests in what is a daunting series.  Even determining what constitutes a passing grade for the series is hard work.  Ireland should beat Samoa.  Yes, Samoa are a much improved team these days, and yes, they’re even ranked higher than Ireland in the tabes, but with home advantage and better preparations, even if it’s a struggle Ireland start that game as favourites.  Lose that one and it’s a bad start.

Of course the opposite is true in the case of New Zealand.  Ireland have a habit of raising their game against the BNZers, but never win.  Ever.  Last time they came to Dublin, Ireland produced one of their better games under Kidney and only lost by 20.  The Kiwis are on a different planet right now (well, it is almost exactly halfway between world cups, so they’re bound to be coming to a peak) and any sort of performance against them will count as a positive.

But what about Australia?  They look more or less hopeless.  Awful against the Lions, weak-willed for much of the Rugby Championship, but there was that seven-try purging of Argentina and game Bledisloe Cup game to suggest that they could still have the goods to swat away a mid-pack team like Ireland.  But then they reverted to mush against England and in the process lost to a very inexperienced test side.  Momentum is probably the keyword here.  If Ireland can get off to a good start against Samoa, then expectations will build and the public will begin to feel we can take the Wobs.  Play poorly against Samoa, though, and we’ll start to get that sinking feeling.

We’re going to be optimistic, though.  The players should get a lift from the new coach coming in, and we have enough faith in Schmidt as a coach to believe he can deliver two wins in his first two games.  We think the Samoa game will be tight, and possibly hard to watch, but this Australia team is there for the taking, with the caveat that if we give Quade Cooper enough ball, he will hurt us.  Ireland’s injury troubles aren’t that dreadful.  Zebo and Earls are a loss, but they can put out their preferred front and back rows (mostly – but Fez ain’t gonna be back any time soon).  For sure, they need O’Connell and Sexton starting, and at their best, but neither is even close to ruled out yet.

Almost more important is the performance level.  With that in mind, on Against the Head on Monday night, a rare thing happened.  Rare for RTE anyway.  The panel provided some insightful, technical analysis.  For those used to the bluster of George Hook, and the subsequent requirement for everyone else to get dragged down to his level, listening to Eddie O’Sullivan – ever a man with an eye for detail, whatever you make of him – explain Schmidt’s predilection for the two-man ruck and what it means for the team was a breath of fresh air.  Few committed to the ruck means lots of runners and options out wide and in midfield, which is how Leinster repeatedly scythed opposition defences open.  But of course, it requires that said two individuals have to absolutely obliterate the ruck to ensure quick ball.  Fail to remove a David Pocock type jackalling over the ball and the rest of the chaps are standing in line waiting for the ball, and can’t get there before it’s too late.  Of course!  RTE tend to shy away from this sort of thing, obviously afraid it’s too technical for their audience, but the opposite is in fact the case.  Eddie made it crystal clear what the implications of putting two in the ruck are, and suddenly something that lots of people may not notice, or take for granted, becomes something to keep an eye on in the upcoming games.  Go Eddie.  And step forward habitual ruck-smashers Rory Best, Paul O’Connell and Jamie Heaslip for key roles in this department this November.

We’re all familiar by now with the aerial image of Ireland against New Zealand when there were multiple Irish forwards, and a back, and their fly-half ruck inspecting when there was not even one Kiwi in the picture.  It showcased a confused, tactically inept team.  We’re expecting different things from Schmidt’s Ireland – tactical cohesion and a playing style the players will enjoy, and profit from.

After the horrendous year Ireland have had so far, we’ll take it. If it’s good enough to beat Samoa, and at least make Australia win the game, that’s about par. If we can beat Australia, it will be a great platform to take into a Six Nations which looks pretty open. Three home wins there is currently baseline (oh, how the mighty have fallen) but that is where we have found ourselves.

In terms of personnel, Ireland look well able to play Schmidt’s high-tempo offloading game – the likes of O’Mahony, Jackson, Bowe and Murray should be comfortable with it, and we already know the Blue Meanies can do it. Following Ireland has been a frustrating experience in recent years, and playing for them hasn’t seemed to be much more fun – turn that around, get the new stadium finally rocking, win some games playing good rugger, and maybe even unite the fan base. No pressure Joe!

New Faces, Old Problems

Egg was excited and full of anticipation all day Saturday and on his way to the Palindrome – Deccie had picked a side in good form, South Africa were injury-hit and the 5:30 kickoff is very much conducive to pints and atmosphere. By two minutes into the second half, all the hope started to die – the Springboks had gotten over a listless and indisciplined first half and had decided to play like men. And Ireland had no answer. It ended up as a quiet whacking and bagging.

There were definite pluses in some individual performances, but the biggest issue with the current coaching ticket re-asserted itself – Ireland appeared to have no plan to actually win the game, and were devoid of cohesiveness and unresponsive when the stakes were raised. The familiar shuffling of the ball across the back line re-appeared, which South Africa easily defended until the inevitable mistake.  With the ball, they took the short-side option too often and found themselves getting isolated regularly.  They lacked the ball-carrying heft to get through South Africa, and never looked like they had the smarts to get around them.  With a defence coach in charge of attack, little wonder.

First the positives – Chris Henry and Mike McCarthy carried their provincial form into the international stage – both looked comfortable on the biggest stage and were Ireland’s most influential players. We’ve been hugely critical of their non-selection in the past, and this was why – McCarthy tackled himself to a standstill, and Henry’s breakdown work was quality. Both should now be treated as incumbents and allowed to hold on to the shirt against the Pumas – McCarthy alongside O’Connell should he be back, and Henry at openside in Sean O’Brien’s continued absence.

Simon Zebo did well at full-back – his boot wasn’t as consistently accurate as Bob’s (whose is?) but he was safe under the high ball and threatening in possession – he looked hungry and ran hard lines. Necessity was the mother of this invention, but he passed a tough test. New boy and gaelgoir Risteard O hOstrais had a good debut – he didn’t see the space he routinely finds in the HEC/Pro12, but he threw reasonably well, and was a nuisance at ruck time.

On the other side of the ledger, the major problem is Ireland’s gameplan, or lack thereof. The positive and purposeful way the Pumas beat Wales yesterday does not augur well for the next big assignment – Argentina will be confident and will feel if they can impose their set piece on Ireland, we may not have an answer. We saw this aspect of our play improve during the Six Nations, so we can only hope that will be the case again, and we will approach the Argentina game with something less muddled.  Best prepare for a repeat of the edgy, nervy abomination of a game exactly four years ago, only with a better Argentina.

On the personnel front, Jamie Heaslip will be disappointed with his first day as captain – his yellow card topped off a tough day at the office. The bench had virtually no impact – Reddan was powerless to speed things up behind a going-nowhere pack and Donncha’s frantic windmilling on the sideline was merely a prelude to a decimated scrum in his first action, and the O’Gara to 10/Sexton to 12 play is predictable and pointless.

In spite of the positive displays and close scoreboard, the buzzards seem to be circling around the carcass of the team right now – if we don’t beat the Pumas, Deccie will be the lamest of lame ducks and a 2012 that has been so positive for the provinces will end as a proper annus horribilis for the national side.

PJ, Hold This Tackle Bag Would You?

Late last week and over the weekend, Deccie caught up on his provincial rugby for the last three months and reached some disturbing conclusions, and has made some additions to the Irish squad to reflect the newsflow.

Firstly, it would appear that the news from Frankie and Gerry wasn’t entirely accurate – it turns out it’s Ulster who have won every game this season and who are playing the best rugby. Secondly, there have been injuries to a few of the apostles – notably Rory Best and Drico. On the plus side, Ireland’s Tighthead Crisis showed signs of resolution with Deccie Fitz managed to go an hour without getting injured, and Michael Bent’s plane touching down without incident in Dublin airport. So, to give credit where it is due, even belatedly, the additions to Ireland’s squad give it a much fresher and more form-based look.

In the half backs, Paul Marshall and Paddy Jackson come into the squad. Marshall has been inventive and snappy from the base this year and his call-up is well-deserved. With Murray and Reddan both playing well, it’s unlikely he will start a game, but he does offer something genuinely different off the bench.  Plus, he knows Ruan Pienaar inside out, so a bench slot isn’t completely out of the question, though the Fiji game looks his best chance. One out, Paddy Jackson is the form 10 in Ireland, the peerless Sexton aside, and has 16 years on Rog – a no-brainer for a cap would you say? Clearly, but placating the once-great O’Gara is as important to the coaching set up now as it was three years ago when Johnny Sexton made his debut – if that takes precedence over success at RWC15, Rog will continue as first reserve.

Two exciting young wings get the nod – Tiarnan O’Halloran and Craig Gilroy. Both have started the season well, though Gilroy has had to make do with a role as first reserve to Tommy Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble. However, with the afore-mentioned pair, plus  Simon Zebo, Ferg and explosive up-and-coming wing Donncha O’Callaghan ahead on the pecking order, starts for the Ireland XV against Fiji are probably the best they can hope for.

At hooker, Sean Cronin is in to cover Rory Best and his provincial team-mate, Risteard O’Strauss; but it’s the position next to him that has created the most heat. A mere 24 months on from a 4-game series where the starting tightheads were John Hayes, Mushy and Tom Court, Ireland have had to resort to calling up a guy who said last Thursday:

They are not saying that [a callup] is going to happen, I’ve just to get over there and play a bit of footy for Leinster first before they can even look at me. It does sound pretty positive, but obviously I’ve got to prove myself first before they can look at me seriously.

Obviously, indeed. Or not. Let’s just hope he’s no Peter Borlase. By means of comparison, Bent comes over after 11 Super Rugby appearances (5 starts) for the Hurricanes, with a reputation for being slightly ambi-propsterous and a solid scrummager. Tom Court came over at the same age after three Super Rugby appearances for the Reds and a similar ability to play both sides. Court has since specialised as a loose-head, and, to be truthful, if we have resorted to poaching players from New Zealand club rugby, we’d take Test-able substitutes as an outcome. Bent comes straight off the back of a productive ITM Cup, so he is at least battle hardened and match-ready  It’s a remarkable call-up, but not necessarily in a bad way; a little creative thinking never hurt.  Some commentators may argue that it’s a kick in the teeth to the likes of Jamie Hagan or Stephen Archer, but neither player is anywhere close to the level required for test rugby.

Deccie Fitzpatrick is the other tighthead selected – there has never been any issue with his technical abilities, but staying injury-free has proved a challenge. His stints in New Zealand this summer were solid, and he’s likely to be the bench tighthead for the Springbok game.

Ian Madigan heads the list of those unlucky not to get the call.  Earlier this season he seemed to be on the cusp of an international breakthrough, but has been pressed into action at 15, where he’s mixed the good with the bad.  It’s not his best position, and it’s allowed Paddy Jackson to get the jump on him.  We’ve already posted on the tough decisions that lie ahead for Madigan, and it will be interesting to see how he responds to this non-call.  Felix Jones returned to action and must be in the management’s thoughts, but perhaps the South Africa game comes just too soon for him.  It would be no surprise to see him later in the series.