Three years ago, when BOD went down, we started a #thirteenwatch series – we joked at the outset that Deccie would take a careful look at all the contenders and pick Keith Earls anyway. In the event, when Face Doesn’t Fit got injured himself in January, Deccie’s decision was made for him – Cave was edging the shirt on form, but Deccie, 2012 edition, wasn’t one for taking a punt – this was the year of zero non injury-enforced changes. Anyway, Earls it was, and it was the right call – he had a good series and justified Deccie’s call. This year, the equivalent debate is at number ten – and will the Milky Bar Kid take a careful look at the contenders and pick Ian Madigan anyway?

Based on Joe Schmidt’s Ireland career to date, no one player is indispensable – any personnel loss has been ridden with ease, and this has included the likes of DJ Church, Sean O’Brien, Chris Henry, BOD and Tommy Bowe at different times – all have been replaced from within the squad without a huge discernible impact on performances and results. While it’s tempting to think Schmidt is an alchemist who can turn provincial base into national gold, he’s just the ultimate pragmatist – the system is everything, and every cog knows his role to a tee. The provincial academy system isn’t perfect, but it does tend to produce mature, driven and intelligent players (the type who are happy to go for a 10k run at 6am when they are 17) – this is a boon for Schmidt as even square peg backups (Rhys Ruddock the openside flanker?) tend to be able to slot into round holes in the system. However, if you were to peg any Ireland players as indispensable, you’d stick that label on Paul O’Connell and Jonny Sexton – both among the best in their position worldwide, anchors of a Lions series win (admittedly an ugly and scrappy one against a rubbish team) and pretty much impossible to replicate.

In O’Connell’s case, Iain Henderson, while a very different player, is likely to be the next giant of Irish second row play (metaphorically of course – Big Dev hasn’t gone away you know), but he isn’t there yet. In Sexton’s case, there is a cadre of players who are all of a pretty similar standard right now behind him – none offer quite the same combinastion of tactical brain, passing skill or on-field leadership, and none are currently making and ironclad case to be his backup. And it’s not just an academic question either – Sexton has been stood down and his return is at the mercy of the French medical system. Repeated concussions mean that training of any sort has yet to be possible, and the earliest return date is the 14th of February – when Ireland have the small matter of France at home and before which Ireland face Italy in Rome.   Given the importance of Sexton to the national team, and the fact that this is a World Cup year, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of not seeing Sexton in green until August. Schmidt is looking for not just a reserve, but a test starter.

In Joe Schmidt’s first season, the situation in November coalesced that if Sexton went down, Paddy Jackson would step in and start at 10, as was the case against Samoa, but that Ian Madigan offered a better bench option as he covered other positions in the backline – he was in the 23 for the Wobblies and BNZ. When it came to the Six Nations, Jackson had edged in front, manning the bench in four Six Nations games to Madigan’s one. Jackson was first choice at Ulster, while Madge was having a difficult season at Leinster and was stuck on the bench behind Gopperth.  The view in April was that Jackson would start in Argentina, and it looked like he would have a chance to cement his place as Sexton’s backup. Meanwhile, Munster’s Ian Keatley was further down the pecking order.

In the second half of this year, its tightened up considerably – Jackson went down with a back injury (related to his kicking style) and missed the Argentina tour.  Meanwhile, Madigan sparked into form in the Pro12 playoffs, albeit playing in the centre.  He played both games in Argentina and emerged in credit as Ireland secured two hard-fought, if workmanlike wins.

Jackson returned for Ulster’s ERCC campaign, but has looked rusty, and missed out on the squad for the November series. He has spent more time recuperating, but looked something like his old self in the RDS on Saturday – playing flat on the gainline and bringing the backline into the game well early on, but he faded from view as Leinster gradually got on top. His biggest problem is he is still not kicking goals – something that is recovery driven, for now anyway, although his place kicking has often been shaky.  Ireland do not have a Ruan Pienaar in the team, and the 10 will be required to kick the all-important two- and three-pointers.

This November, Madigan started for Ireland against Georgia and was in the 23 for the big games. He again played well in those matches, even winning the crucial penalty turnover to win the game against Australia.  He has recently been getting some extended gametime at outhalf for Leinster, and it’s fair to say its been a bit of a curates egg. He has been standing a mile behind the gainline and is struggling to get the Leinstertainment thing going. As ever, his tactical kicking – judging when to kick and executing well – is a way off the highest level, and this is the biggest black mark in his game.

We have the feeling that at this stage of his career, Madigan may never develop into a strong ‘controlling 10’, but he is outstanding at certain aspects of the game.  Keatley and an in-form Jackson are probably more rounded footballers, more Sexton-like, but neither offers the same game-breaking ability or explosiveness.  Even at provincial level, when the ERCC kicks back in and Matt O’Connor has full jurisdiction on team selection, it will be interesting to see if he reverts to Jimmy Gopperth – it would certainly seem the logical MOC choice for a trip to Wasps and their gargantuan pack. But it is also worth noting the Madigan’s goal kicking is not juist the best of the bunch but exceptional bny any standard – perhaps even better than Sexton’s (we can’t locate Sexton’s Top14 stats for a complete comparison – feel free to educate us):

  • Madigan 90.3%: Pro12 36/38 ERCC 20/24
  • Keatley 79.7%: Pro12 33/41 ERCC 14/18
  • Jackson 76.7%: Pro12 17/22 ERCC 6/8

Ian Keatley has been something of the ugly duckling of this bunch – given his career path it’s pretty tempting to dismiss him as a modestly talented journeyman. Indeed, until very recently, he’s been painted merely as a placeholder between Munster ligind Rog and future Munster ligind JJ Hanrahan – a filler-inner until Hanrahan is ready. In reality, since Keatley took over as Munster starter, he has continually improved and is playing at a level few – and not us – would have predicted possible two years ago. He still has a tendency to disappear out of games a little, but he is a solid option, and has the advantage of being Conor Murray’s regular partner.

Based on Joe Schmidt’s Spanish Inquisition-esque ruthless pragmatism, he will select whoever fits the system best – right now that seems likely to be Madigan, who is familiar with Schmidt’s methods and is effectively the incumbent. But it isn’t set in stone – this time last year, Madigan seemed likely to be backup for the Six Nations, but Paddy Jackson edged ahead in January. Jackson, nearly three years younger than Madigan and five younger than Keatley, has a more impressive body of work at that age that either of the contenders (it’s easy to forget how young he is – he is a month older than Ronan O’Gara was on the occasion of that Scotland game, and a year and a half younger than Sexton was when he got his first Ireland start), and seems likely to improve further as time time goes on – but in the here and now, he feels like a coltish and unreliable option. Plus he is coming back from an injury and re-modelling his kicking action to prevent further injury. We’d have him in third place at this moment.

Has Keatley done enough to oust Madigan?  At provincial level, you could certainly make that argument – Madigan has yet to be selected at 10 for a European game this season. Part of that is down to backline injuries and Madigan’s ability to fill other positions, but it makes it more difficult for Schmidt to pick him at 10 if he hasn’t been playing there in the important provincial matches.  It’s very easy to blame that on Matt O’Connor, but O’Connor is a professional rugby coach who sees Madigan every day, and is yet to be convinced that Madigan is the best outhalf he has. If Sexton was fit, we’d be 100% certain that Madigan would be in the 23 – but don’t rule out Schmidt picking Keatley to start and keeping Madigan in his 23. It’s still odds-against at this moment, but Keatley is pretty close right now.  It’s still all up for grabs, with two rounds of European matches to show what they can do.


Naturalised Kiwis? I’ll Take Two

Joe Schmidt pulled a surprise yesterday by announcing his panel for the November internationals a week early. We don’t know what the logic behind the premature announcement is; perhaps he just likes to keep us on our toes, the scallywag.

As invariably happens with these things, the squad is pretty large so talking points are kept to a minimum. The real sniping only really gets going when the team is announced for the first test, so keep your powder dry folks! Nonetheless, with five new caps, 15 injuries and one or two notable omissions there was a bit of information to be gleaned.

Jared Payne has long been earmarked for a role as a naturalised Irishman and his moment has finally arrived. Will he be auditioned for 13, where he still doesn’t appear entirely comfortable, or seen as back-up for Rob Kearney? A test debut seems probable in any case.

Connacht’s Darragh Leader is the beneficiary of both Connacht’s good start to the season and a scattering of injuries in the back three. He’ll be competing with Bowe, Zebo and Gilroy for selection on the wing and at the very least will get valuable exposure.

Dominic Ryan is rewarded for a strong start to the campaign after his career looked to have stalled. He was among Leinster’s better players against Wasps and in the absence of Sean O’Brien and Jordi Murphy, he adds welcome depth.

Munster’s Dave Foley looks a good pick having looked solid throughout Munster’s up-and-down start to the season. It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see him named on the bench, because Mike McCarthy has looked a bit leaden for Leinster.

Of the five newbies, the biggest impact could be made by another naturalised Kiwi, Nathan White, Connacht’s rock-solid tighthead. With Marty Moore injured, there’s every chance he will leapfrog Stephen Archer and maybe even Rodney Ah You, who somehow remains in the panel, to perform the sizeable role of seeing out the match after Mike Ross collapses from exhaustion.

Elsewhere, the main talking point was Paddy Jackson’s omission. Schmidt has left out the Ulsterman in favour of Ians Madigan and Keatley. It’s a form call and one imagines if it was tight in the first place, this weekend’s events may have been the decisive pendulum-swing. While Keatley was being lauded for his drop goal heroics, Jackson rather summed up Ulster’s night in Leicester with a lackadaisical conversion which was charged down. It’s a very definite boot up the arse for Jackson, who will be well aware that in a World Cup year, one of he, Keatley and Madigan will find themselves squeezed out of the touring party. Get your game face on fella, starting this weekend against Toulon.

One player a shade unlucky to miss out is Duncan Casey. His lineout stats are unmatched in Europe this year, and neither Cronin nor Best are exactly technicians, so he would have dovetailed nicely. Richardt Strauss hasn’t done anything of note this season, but clearly Schmidt is a fan. Also missing out is Darren Cave, whose ship appears to now have sailed. Squeezed onto the bench at Ulster having failed to take his chance with Ireland this summer, it looks like other options will be explored.

There was better news for Tommy O’Donnell who is recalled. The Tipp man hasn’t quite hit the barnstorming heights of his early 2013 form, but he is at least out of the doldrums of last season. Another player who has been on the same up-down-up trajectory is Craig Gilroy, who looks back to something like the razor-sharp runner who stunned Argentina in one of the most memorable test debuts in living memory. Both play in positions with notable absentees and have a chance to stake a claim.  Now gentlemen, no more injuries, please.  Pretty please.  With sugar on top.

Three Becomes One

Gerry was predicting all three Irish provinces were going to progress this weekend, but in a potentially important weekend looking forward to the RCC, it’s moneybags Globo Gym and Toulon who join Munster and Clermont in the semi-finals – the same lineup as last year, and a real credit to Rob Penney to keeping Munster in such august (and far wealthier) company.

If Toulon beat Leinster in an awesome display of power, skill and depth; Saracens were blessed to defeat Ulster on Saturday night, almost letting a 76 minute man advantage slip.

The biggest pity about Jared Payne’s sending off on Saturday night was that it effectively decided what looked like a delicious contest after just four minutes – Saracens’ ineptitude on the game management and place-kicking front allowed Ulster to hang in there, and almost nick it, but it was a nigh-impossible task to win with 14 men for virtually the entire game. Add in injuries for Besty and Pienaar and it’s a minor miracle Ulster were even in search of a drop goal in the closing phases. For that they have to thank an oddly subdued Sarries – Owen Farrell again got the yips when the pressure was on (see Park, Thomond, tearful Saturday night edition, 2012), they seemed content to let Ulster have the ball despite the excellent ball retention on display, and the few times they used the full spaces on offer they scored tries – and the errant boots of their halfbacks.

Billy Vunipola and Schalk Brits were excellent and carried the team, but Farrell and Hodgson offered very little. We won’t talk about Chris Ashton again, but his bird-brained swan dive made Farrell’s first conversion more difficult than it needed to be – it would have been just reward if that proved the difference between winning and losing, but, sadly, the width of a post on Wee PJ’s first penalty determined that one.

Ulster’s remaining 14 men and substitutes were heroic (and arm-wavingly frustrating in one case – no wonder Pienaar remained on the pitch for so long despite an inability to pass the ball) and couldn’t have done much more, but since Payne’s card was the defining moment it is worth dwelling on it for some time. As per usual, the reaction ranged from the moronic (‘Sure Goode was walking around by half-time, clearly wasn’t badly injured, not even a penalty’) to the opportunistic (‘Sure the game had barely started and he didn’t intend Goode to fall on his head, so it’s a penalty and no more’) to the disciplinarian (‘All tackles on English yeoman should be punished by red – why, back in the day these colonials weren’t even allowed to pass a gentleman on the street without a cap-doff’). But it’s worth diving deeper into a few of the more common lines:

  • Both Ulster and Saracens coach and captain agreed it wasn’t a red. Well, Anscombe and Muller would say that wouldn’t they, so let’s leave it there. McCall agreed, but would he have been so magnanimous if Ulster had won? Or if Payne got a yellow and scored the winning try, would he have argued Garces was right? And Borthwick chided the interviewer for not asking if Goode was ok, and more or less said Garces had the right to make that decision.
  • Payne had his eyes on the ball the whole time. This was Muller’s argument to Garces when the incident happened, and it’s undeniable. But does this invalidate any contact? The reality is that Payne made no effort to contest the ball, which is the key point when discussing recklessness – even the lamest attempt to jump would likely have downgraded the dangerous factor in the referee’s eyes. Even if Payne was looking at the ball, he was utterly reckless when it came to the safety of Goode.  His body shape in enetering the contact zone was all wrong, and that was what put Goode at such great risk.
  • The severity of Goode’s injury influenced the decision. We thought this initially, but we aren’t so sure. Sure, the sight of a man being carried off on a stretcher definitely makes the referee feel under more pressure to do something, but think about this scenario. Goode is dazed but sitting up and needed treatment to continue. Garces shows Payne a yellow straight away, then sees the replay on the big screen and summons him back for a red. Far fetched? Not really, it’s exactly what he did to Stuart Hogg in the Six Nations. We’re not saying it would have happened, but it’s definitely a possibility. Garces is a referee who does not shirk these decisions, and he could well have shown a red anyway.  At the very least, it must be accepted that Garces’ decision was based on due consideration, and not a snap-reaction or emotion, because he and the officials took an age over it.
  • There was no intent to injure. There never is, though, is there? He’s not that kind of player, you hear commentators say (except about Dylan Hartley, because he clearly is). But reckless and dangerous play can lead to injuries, and that’s what needs to be stamped out. Player safety needs to be paramount, and outright intention to injure someone (also known as common assault) is rarely the key factor in these decision, nor should it be.  Payne was reckless and dangerous

We saw the same thing after Sam Warburton dumped Vinny Clark on his head in the World Cup – amid the hot air eminating from Gatty and the compliant UK press, Elaine was accused of being “half-French” by Barnesy, and Frankie accused him of ruining the semi-final for the fans. Warbs didn’t intend to paralyse Clerc, nor did he, but his conduct is the type of dangerous play that can leave players in wheelchairs, and for that Rolland sent him off.

The Sky studio were split down the middle, with Quinnell and Greenwood arguing for red and the Irish pair going yellow – and that 50-50 split is about fair. Some referees would show red, some yellow. Garces tends to be strict and he showed red. Even if you think it should have been a yellow card, the red card outcome was definitely in play, and within reason.  We tend to see player safety as the key variable and think, on balance, a red card was just about the right call. When we first saw it, our thoughts were ‘He might just get sent off here’.  Payne will be the most devastated by the turn of events – he effectively cost his team a place in the semi-finals – and one wonders if Ulster were a little too wound up early on. It’s a terrible pity that a team of such potential, full of young Irishmen, won’t get to play for a chance of another final – their display certainly warranted it, and, given a period of transition is on its way with the departure of Court, Afoa and Muller, who knows when they will have as good an opportunity.

When you are climbing a mountain of the type Ulster needed to on Saturday everything must go right, and if Ulster put themselves in a position to win the game, they will regret four missed kicks. When we saw Pienaar, broken wing and all, lining up the first kick at goal, we were screaming at the TV – it was pretty obvious he wasn’ t lasting the 80, so why not give PJ the duties from the start? Pienaar didn’t kick well, and Jackson was left with a sighter in the second half – which hit the post. Them is the margins. Not much went right for Ulster on the night, and Payne’s stupidity was only one part of it. Some day my friends .. some day.

PS. Worry not, Munster fans, we’ll be talking about your team’s awesomeness next.  And sorry, Leinster fans, but we may have to have a chat about events on the south coast of France later in the week, too.

Caution Swinging In Wind At Carton House

In a move which is going to rock the nation, Declan Kidney has selected Paddy Jackson at 10 ahead of one-time stalwart Ronan O’Gara. The team line-up also features a debut for Ulster’s Luke Marshall, a wing slot for Keith Earls, and a surprising, but not illogical, return to the side for Tom Court, who leapfrogs Munster’s David Kilcoyne.

We’ve reservations about the 10, but it’s a positive, forward-looking selection, and not before time.  Had Kidney been more far-sighted in any series up to now we mightn’t be in such a precarious position, but we are where we are, so we may as well enjoy the rollercoaster ride.

The news will be dominated by ROG’s snub. It’s a call on a par with his now legendary move to bring Tomas O’Leary and Denis Hurley in for Peter Stringer and Shaun Payne, which resulted in Munster winning the Heineken Cup in style. Will this have the same effect?

If making Jamie Heaslip captain and keeping Craig Gilroy in the team gave the impression that Kidney has been emboldened by having entered the last-chance saloon, this decision certainly confirms it. No more Mr. Conservative; when you’ve nothing to lose you may as well gamble with abandon. Two debutants in midfield in a Six Nations game? Last year’s Kidney would have baulked. But now he knows his only chance of an extension is to appear to be tomorrow’s man, and he’s going for it.  All that said, ROG in his scurrent form could no longer be seen as a safe option, and would arguably have been a bigger gamble.  But perception will be that Kidney has ‘gambled’ on Jackson.

Taking the key call at face value, Kidney just couldn’t start ROG in this match. The overwhelming majority of pundits were happy to put forward the ‘blind faith’ argument, that ROG was ROG and would therefore play well by a sort of ROG-O-Magic that rewinds the clocks to 2008. But any reasoned analysis showed that wasn’t likely. The player has been in decline for some time now (and we re-iterate that there is no disgrace in that – there are not many other almost-36 year old skinny-limbed 10s playing test rugby).

There are shades of Tomas O’Leary’s pre-World Cup here. O’Leary only had to play a notch above terrible in the last warm-up match against France to get himself to the World Cup, but couldn’t even do that. Similarly, on Saturday night against Scarlets, ROG just had to turn up and show something – ANYTHING! – to get himself into the 10 shirt, but couldn’t  If O’Gara had picked up a mild cold on Saturday afternoon and sat out the game, he’d be starting this weekend. When he was demoted for Sexton, it was because Sexton played himself onto the team; here ROG has played himself out.

Which brings us to the other element of the decision – the replacement, Paddy Jackson. Jackson hasn’t exactly been kicking the door down to get picked as a test starter. His form has been patchy since November, while Madigan has been resurgent since returning to the more familiar role of fly-half at Leinster. Jackson has presumably got the nod because he has played more at Heineken Cup level (seven starts, including a final, versus Madigan’s five, of which four were at full-back), was in camp in November when Madigan was not, and offers a more structured game than the mercurial Madigan. In short he’s more of a Kidney player.

Whether he’s a better player, or the right man for this game, remains to be seen. Madigan has 70 appearances for Leinster, and has 15 tries to his name in that time. It’s a heck of a premium to put on some time in camp and a handful of H-Cup appearances, none of which Jackson has particularly dominated, compared with Madigan’s form, exceptional passing range, place-kicking, try-scoring and temperament.  One mind-boggling element of the whole thing is that Ulster were not instructed to let Jackson take over place-kicking duties against Zebre last Friday night.  It’s something he’s struggled with this season and he will be asked to step up to a more pressurised environment and convert penalties on Sunday.

It all rather brings to mind the line in Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’, where David Byrne says “And you may ask yourself, How did I get here?”. Everyone with eyes in their head could see ROG was on his way out over the last 12 months – whatever lines we were fed by pundits – but the decision to prepare for this day was continually kicked down the road. It was patently obvious in the summer that Ian Madigan should have been in the touring party, and it was as clear as night follows day that Madigan and Jackson should have got gametime in November.  Take it away, David Byrne: “And you will say to yourself: My God!  What have I done!”

Now a young fly-half is in at the deep end. It’s not the first time this has happened; management delayed promoting Mike Ross right up until the moment all other options were exhausted. If Madigan had been in camp in November, perhaps Kidney would trust him to play the more structured game he wants – but he wasn’t, and it’s Jackson who has got the nod.

Is this the end for ROG?  Probably.  If Jackson plays well, he can cement his place in the 23 when Sexton returns.  Once Kidney drops the hatchet on one of his staples, they rrely make any sort of meaningful return (Stringer played precisely zero minutes in the three H-Cup knockout matches in 2008 after being dropped), and should a new coach arrive next season, it’s hard to see him having a place for a 36 year old 10.

Moving on to the rest of the changes, Earls at wing is probably the least contentious – you could make a strong case for Luke Fitzgerald or Andrew Trimble, but Earls looked good against England, and Scotland fall off tackles – he offers us a chance to impose ourselves on the game by running at the Scots. It’s a marginal call, but a good one.

Luke Marshall’s selection has been long-flagged – Kidney is a fan, fast-tracking him into the November camp like he was from Cork. Niggly injuries have prevented him taking Paddy Wallace’s place in Ulster, but all indications were that he was ahead of the veteran before he broke a finger prior to the Glasgae game in January. Marshall’s pace, hands and distribution are good, and his defence solid, although his kicking game is ordinary. He may be about the only specialist 12 still standing, but we think he’s a good, and forward-looking, choice – the real deal, a player who can have a long career in the shirt and is not just a stop gap.

There appears to be some contention about Tom Court’s selection, but, for us, the only questionable aspect is that he was behind Dave Kilcoyne up to now. Court has been one of Ulster’s best players this season, and their scrum has destroyed all-comers. We thought that if O’Gara played, Court simply had to play to enable a strong scrum to try and generate three-pointers; whereas if Madigan played, the more mobile Kilcoyne was the better bet. But since Jackson more or less splits the difference between the two in terms of style, it makes more sense to judge the two against each other, and given the value placed on scrummaging ability, Court is simply better than Kilcoyne right now.

IRELAND (Possible): Kearney; Gilroy, O’Driscoll, Marshall, Earls; Jackson, Murray; Court, Best, Ross, O’Callaghan, Ryan, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Heaslip (capt). Replacements: Kilcoyne, Cronin, Fitzpatrick, Toner, Henderson, Reddan, O’Gara, Fitzgerald

P.S. we posted about Ulster’s incredible recent crop of youngsters in reference to the opening Aviva game a while back – there will be four full caps among the Ulstermen come Saturday, and only NWJMB Iain Henderson will be without a Test start.