O’Connell’s Swansong

Paul O’Connell is bound for the sunny climes of Toulon. It’s a richly deserved payday for the all-time great second row, but don’t for one second imagine that he’s heading down there just to get the sun on his back and gently wind down his career.

The first indicator that this is the case is that the deal is for two years, so it’s not just a post-World cup lap of honour. The second signifier is that this is Toulon, where full and total buy-in to the local rugby hotbed’s way of doing business is required. None of Bakkies Botha, Jonny Wilkinson or Simon Shaw were coasting when they headed to Toulon in the latter part of their careers, and Paul O’Connell won’t be either. The third, and most obvious clue is that we’re talking about Paul O’Connell, a man who knows only one way of playing: at full throttle.

The length of the deal may raise a few eyebrows. Two more years will take O’Connell up over the age of 38, but on close inspection it’s not unreasonable to expect O’Connell will still be going strong at that stage. Last we checked O’Connell was still playing at an exceptionally high level. His standard has scarcely tailed off in any way. Sure, there was the odd quiet game, like the Saracens nightmare this year, where he didn’t bring his usual ferocity to bear on the match, but that looks like a rare one-off rather than a bellweather of any precipitous decline.

Plus, O’Connell hasn’t quite as many miles on the clock as you might think. He had his share of injuries that kept him out of the game for long periods and, if anything, he is as fit as ever: he’s right in the middle of as long an injury-free run as can be remembered. He’s going to be an indispensable member of Ireland’s world cup bid, and if he’s good enough for that, he’s good enough to keep going through the rest of the season with Toulon.

There has been some loose talk of release for Ireland training camps, but it appears wrong-headed. Almost certainly, for all the points made above, O’Connell won’t have the reserves of energy to devote himself to both Toulon and Ireland, and will retire from international footie after the World Cup. It makes sense that he hand over the reigns of captaincy to Jamie Heaslip and his role as lock enforcer to Iain Henderson for the next four-year-cycle.

No Munsterman will begrudge O’Connell two years in Toulon, even if they end up coming face-to-face with him in the European Cup, as fate will surely decree they will at some stage. There is crazy talk of the province looking for a contractual clause that he can’t face them, but that’s ridiculous on so many levels – not least the fact that it would be the preference of the likes of Dave Foley and Billy Holland to face the big man. So here’s hoping he turns out at Thomond Park for one last time.  If only there existed an all-encompassing word to describe the almost mythical nature of his contribution to Munster and Irish rugby, we would apply it to this man.

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Captain Fantastic

There is plenty of speculation about who the Milky Bar Kid will hand his armband to. For some, it seems particularly relevant as it gives Schmidt the chance to prove he isn’t inherently biased towards the Blue Meanies and pick someone who isn’t from the Pale. This is nonsense of course, but doesn’t make it any less important. Deccie’s well-meaning attempt to position Ireland for RWC15 by picking Jamie Heaslip  as last season’s captain [Aside: Deccie always picked Leinstermen as Ireland’s permanent captain – BIAS!] didn’t quite work out, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to do it. We might be late to the party in planning for the tournament, but that should be our horizon here. So who are the contenders?

Some Bloke Called Brian.  He has done the state some service, they might say. But he’ll be gone in nine months, and is only coming back from injury.  His leadership is so great it’s almost hard for the captain to be in charge, as Heaslip found last season, but this being his last year, there is surely no point in handing the armband.

Paul O’Connell. Favourite, due to his totemic pack leadership credentials, but an injury doubt for the first game, which doesn’t help his chances. Many of his best recent performances – think first Lions test – haven’t come as captain and he seems to function best as a leader, but not the leader. You’ll get his on-pitch leadership anyway, so it probably matters less to him than to some outside the camp.  Would be a fine choice in any case.

Jamie Heaslip. Divided opinion when appointed last year – some considered it a brave choice by a previously unimaginative coach, some a foolhardy choice  of an “absolute knob” (C. George). Undoubtedly, it didn’t work out, amid a team imploding on-field and off. Healsip didn’t help himself by wearing headphones absent-minded and naive post-game comments. But surely remains a respected leader within the team, and his relationship with Schmidt is presumably stronger than that he had with Kidney, which always looked like an uneasy alliance.  Schmidt used him as captain any time Cullen wasn’t around, and if O’Connell is injured, Heaslip probably becomes the favourite. He is also incumbent, so choosing Heaslip won’t be as controversial for Schmidt as it was for Deccie.

Rory Best. The stalking horse. Besty has been mentioned by precisely nobody, but he is who we would appoint. He is already part of the squad’s leadership corps, has plenty of experience, and has recovered from last season’s half-annus horribilis. Best will be around past RWC15, and has played a key role in husbanding some of the exciting youngsters at Ulster who are also now exciting youngsters in green (Henderson, Jackson, Marshall, Gilroy). A fine man, whose character is reflected by his reaction to being omitted from the initial Lions squad – he used the opportunity to recall the memory of the tragic Nevin Spence, and opined there was more to life.

Peter O’Mahony. Munster captain, and an important member of the squad. Has been excellent in red this season, and we will hopefully see him concentrating on 8 from here on, although that muddles things at national level where he’s most likely to play at 6. But he’s only bedding into the role with Munster, and handing him the national captaincy on top of that may seem like too much burden all at once. Still, he is presumably Frankie’s choice, and that has to count for something right?

Sean O’Brien.  Not an obvious choice as he looks more wrecking ball than strategist, but his game has matured recently, highlighted by his outstanding breakdown work in recent months.  Unduobtedly a key player for the incoming coach, and arguably now the best player in the country, but is he ready to lead it?  Probably not, but a possible wild-card nonetheless.

Paddy Wallace. Go on Joe, for a laugh. The righteous indignation would have us rolling in the aisles.

It’s all about Munster

Who writes these guys’ scripts? Honestly, this team got their hides whupped by Treviso and Glasgow in their last two away trips, but taught the champions of England a lesson in how to win when it mattered. We have berated some of our good friends in the mainstream media in the past for Munster-obsession, but you can see why they are so addictive – they are an incredible story.

Lulling all of Europe into a false sense of security by playing rubbish wide-wide guff all season, only to then produce a most memorable performance from when it matters – that’s the embodiment of the crazy old tournament that is the Heineken Cup laid bare.  It’s surely the only tournament where you can play poorly for much of the season and still win the biggest prize of all, but only so long as you peak at the right times.  Michael Cheika spoke of almost having to manufacture dips in the season to ensure his team peaked for the Cup matches, and even then it didn’t go very smoothly.  History has written that Leinster won the cup in 2009, but anyone who remembers much of how that season unfolded wil recall they played terribly for vast swathes of it.

Back to Munster’s performance.  And boy was it a performance. They started rather tentatively in the first 30 minutes, but as it became clear Quins had very little to threaten them, Munster stepped on the pedal, controlled territory and bossed the game. Ronan O’Gara had acres of space to play territory and Quins basically had no answer, looking anaemic in attack and walking into choke tackles and a breakdown area dominated by dervishes in red.   Quins couldn’t get anything going, and any time they threatened to, they lost the ball.

We said before the game that to win this game would require Munster’s best performance in Europe yet, but all it required was an aggressive and manic pack, accurate kicking from the halves and Superman Paul O’Connell being Paul O’Connell Superman. O’Connell played himself onto the Lions tour, quite possibly as captain, and some of the Quins players fell down the pecking order.  Peter O’Mahony looked like the player he has threatened to become on occasions, and Tommy O’Donnell – little boy lost this time last year – was a revelation.

No-one saw this one coming, least of all Quins (and, erm, ourselves), and the casual attitude from Conor O’Shea’s men was a bit surprising to say the least – they seemed stunned by an archetypal Munster performance, the best since .. what, Clermont at home a few years ago? Or maybe Quins just aren’t all that – they limped out of last year’s Heineken Cup to an average Toulouse side, losing to Connacht to allow the French side to slip through, although they did win the Premiership through the playoffs (admittedly, beating the Saints along the way, which kind of doesn’t count).

Harlequins have historically under-achieved relative to the big West Country and East Midlands teams – even Bum Face’s crew of the early 1990s haven’t the silverware this bunch have (albeit there were less competitions in the 1990s). There has been much talk of them being ‘fast learners’, and they would apply the painful lessons of last season, but maybe this is just Harlequins’ glass ceiling. They certainly didn’t look like English champions or potential European champions, and had little idea of how to play a cup game in the trenches.

But that’s all by the by.  Full credit to Munster, let’s hope we see many more performances like that, not least in Montpellier in three weeks, for they’ll need at least this to avoid a mashing from the best team in Europe, although the way they continue to defy the odds, perhaps they won’t. One thing is for sure, they have the mental in spades, and Clermont have struggled with Irish sides in the past.  And they’ve one other thing: Paul O’Connell.

Stop Press: Paul O’Connell and Rob Kearney Really Important

Is it time to start getting worried about Leinster?  They’re three from five in the Pro12, which doesn’t sound all that bad, but the performance levels have been poor.  Friday night saw them lose five tries in Galway, and truth be told, they made a Connacht team which hasn’t started the season especially well look like world beaters (as only Leinster can).  It’s their second shellacking on the road after an opening day hammering in Llanelli.  In their other away match, with a strong line-up against Treviso, they were decidedly lucky to get out of jail with a late, long range drop goal by Johnny Sexton.

It’s eerily reminiscent of Schmidt’s first season in charge. Leinster have been leaky in defence, losing 18 tries in five matches.  That’s the worst in the league, three more than Zebre.  In attack they’ve played in fits and starts, and have been prone to throwing the ball forward with great regularity and they’ve been powder-puff in contact.

Leinster fans won’t be panicking just yet, because they remember what happened two years ago, when the team seemed to click into gear once the season proper got under way.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll happen the same way again.  In Schmidt’s first season, many were happy to put the upswing in fortunes to a sudden getting-the-hang of what Schmidt wanted them to do.  This was true, but the real reason was that they got their best players back.  Leinster’s season was transformed the moment Sexton and Reddan entered the pitch as substitutes against Munster, instantly picking up the tempo and securing a match-winning try for Brian O’Driscoll.

The concern this year is the lengthy injury list.  Sean O’Brien, Rhys Ruddock, David Kearney, Eoin O’Malley, Dom Ryan and Luke Fitzgerald are all long term casualties and Gordon D’arcy and Rob Kearney left the field of play on Friday, while Richardt Strauss continues to recover from his head injury picked up against Treviso.  Both Isaac Boss and Eoin Reddan are also missing.

Leinster’s back three looks particularly stretched, and if any of Kearney, D’arcy and Reddan were to be ruled out this weekend, it could leave Leinster badly exposed in a couple of positions.  Fionn Carr up against Doug Howlett and George North?  No thanks.  Rob Kearney would be an especially grievous loss, as he is the only big back Leinster have and the back-line would be pint-sized without him.  And the rumour mill on Leinsterfans has shifted into gear, and it’s not good news…

Meanwhile, in the red corner, some of the feel-good feeling associated with Rob Penney’s positive start was knocked out of them this weekend.  Once again, Ospreys laid bare full scale of the job in hand.  They bullied Munster out of the game (as an aside, how good is this Jason Tipuric fellow?).  While Munster’s work with the ball is much improved, the game underlined our one overriding concern about them – a lack of heft in the pack.  The sight of their maul being shunted backwards at a rate of knots will have been chastening for fans of a team which has long prided itself as being expert proponents of this attacking weapon.  The scrum was no better and served as an important reminder that anytime you hear a tighthead prop described as being ‘good in the loose’ you should be very suspicious of him (cf. Tony Buckley).  While Archer can truck the ball up for good yardage, it’s all for nought if he cannot stabilise the scrum.

Removing Archer from their team is therefore necessary, but that only compounds another problem – a lack of ball carriers.  With James Coughlan out injured, who is going to make the hard yards?

It was their second beating of the season, and as well as they played for much of the game against Ulster in their other defeat, there was an uncomfortable reality about elements of proceedings: after the first 20 minutes, Munster barely touched the ball (when they did, it was admittedly very incisive). As Gerry is prone to saying, they were living off scraps.

The trip to a bruising (if hardly inspiring) Racing Metro team looks a lot more difficult after saturday, although Racing have problems of their own.  Donnacha Ryan and POM made their comebacks from the bench this weekend, and are fine and important players, but neither have shown themselves capable of bending a match to their will.  It all serves to underline the vast importance of Paul O’Connell.  It’s been obvious for eons to anyone with half a brain that O’Connell is the key man in red, and without him, it’s genuinely difficult to see how they can beat the best teams.

There, we said it – Paul O’Connell and Rob Kearney are really, really imoprtant, and will be badly missed if not fit.  It might be obvious, we felt the need to say it anyway.

Memo to Mike McCarthy: ‘Become O’Connell’

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

Two vs. Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Oh Captain My Captain

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

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

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

Verdict: Best to captain, with Kearney his able lieutenant

Scrum Half

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

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

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

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

Team in Focus: Munster

Last season: A curate’s egg.  For the first time, Munster failed to make it out of their HEC group, and were lamentable in their pivotal game in Toulon.  The sight of their scrum being shunted around the park and a collective loss of discipline appeared to mean the jig was up for McGahan.  But Munster salvaged a difficult year with a Magners League win, with particular satisfaction derived from beating their rivals to secure it.  The long and painful transition to a new era spearheaded by the likes of Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Felix Jones looks to have begun.

Season so far: business as usual, with five wins from seven in the Pro12. From a rudimentary scan of headlines in the Indo, Peter O’Mahoney appears to have cured the lepers and turned water into wine.

Prospects: This is a huge season for Munster, with one overriding objective: re-establishing themselves in Europe.  The Heineken Cup has always been the lifeblood of the province, and despite finishing with silverware last year, for most fans the season was a disappointment.  Failing to get to the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup just shouldn’t happen to Munster, and it never happened to the liginds.

It’s an objective that looks increasingly difficult.  Munster have been drawn with Northampton, beaten finalists last year, and travel to Castres (second in the Top 14) in Week Two.  A much-fancied Scarlets side makes up the group.

What sort of Munster team will be put out to face these sides?  A pretty unfamilar one, all told.  Generation Ligind, essentially the pack and halves that delivered two Heineken Cups, has all but passed into the next world.  Quinny has gone, Hayes and Horan will be bit part players, Flannery’s future is less certain than ever and David Wallace’s injury robs them of their primary carrier.  Dennis Leamy, no longer anything like the powerful, aggressive player of four years ago, may not make the team and Peter Stringer is now third – maybe fourth – choice scrummie. Stalwarts like Donncha are starting to fade, and the production line is not quite what it should be – Munster under-20s are poor, and have been passed out by Connacht.

The front row will likely be du Preez, Varley and Botha.  The success of the scrum entirely depends on Botha staying fit and in form.  His last season at Ulster was marred by injury and mediocrity; Munster will hope they have the 2009 version.  A creaky Munster scrum is nothing new, of course, but they are used to putting out top class second and back rows.

Paulie can still mix it with the best, and is fit and flying – he was missed hugely in the early stages of the HEC last year. Micko has been performing very creditably (and at a level above Donncha) for two years now – his experience will be a useful asset, though he may take a back seat to allow the likes of Donnacha Ryan is and Ian Nagle more gametime. Nagle is a prospect, but still a little underpowered, but is – he’s unlikely to feature at HEC level this year, but we are hoping Ludd gives him some Rabo action.

Moving back, the glory days of the Quinny-Wally-Axel axis are a dim and distant memory – the 2012 unit is likely to be Ryan/Leamy-O’Mahony-Coughlan.  Ryan seemed to finally break into the first team last year and played fairly well on World Cup duty with Ireland, but the jury is still out – he has only one HEC start, and that was in defeat to London Irish.  Coughlan is an honest, hard-working journeyman, but struggles against the better sides.  Peter ‘the son Hugh Farrelly never had’ O’Mahony is the wildcard – Munster fans had better hope he’s half as good as Farrelly thinks he is – otherwise they’ll be taking on Saints with the ineffectual Niall Ronan at openside. Paddy “Slievenamon” Butler was a barnstorming underage number 8 a few years back, but he hasn’t made it past first base yet – we’re hopeful he can breakthrough for some Rabo games at least.

At half, Conor Murray will likely own the 9 shirt for big games, unless Tomás gets back to 2009 form – and we aren’t optimistic on that front. ROG still has the fire, no doubt there, but he’s 34 now. As one of rugby’s most forthright, intelligent (and divisive) men, he will be aware managing succession is crucial to sustained success, but don’t expect him to be helping Keatley into the 10 jumper just yet.  Munster’s hopes will rest on ROG’s ability to turn dirty, slow ball into scores. Again. It’s not code red yet, but this looks like a potential problem position for Munster in two years’ time unless Keatley can prove himself HEC standard.

Outside the halves, it’s a huge pity that Felix Jones is injured; he added much to Munster’s attack in the second half of last season.  At centre – a problem position last season – Tuitupou has been swapped for Will Chambers, signed from Queensland Reds.  It should be an improvement (lets face it, Chambers would have to be pretty bad to be worse than Tuitupooooooooooooooohh), but a lot rests on the young shoulders of Danny Barnes.  There’s Lifeimi Mafi too, who was superb in the ML final last year, but hopeless (and pretty dirty) for most of the campaign. Keith Earls has class with ball in hand, but moving him around is guaranteed to maximise defensive mistakes – Ludd and Axel (and Keith) need to decide what they want him to be – he looks a winger to us, but many in the Cork Con Mafia media are convinced otherwise.

All told, it’s not a side to strike fear into top-class opponents the way the 2004-2009 vintage did.  Northampton will fancy themselves in the opening week visit to Thomond Park.  Munster will be relying more than ever on the great warriors Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara to navigate them through the tough games – it may be too much to ask.

Forecast: We think Munster will ultimately come second to Northampton.  The two will probably trade wins, and Thomond Park will remain a fortress, but Munster will probably need to get two wins on the road, and we just can’t see it.  In the Pro12, Munster’s ability to consistently churn out results against weaker sides will stand to them, and it’s impossible to see the semi-finals without them.  Another tilt at silverware is inevitable, but they may come up just short this time.

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Second Row

This week and next, we’ll be looking at the likely runners and riders for Ireland’s World Cup 30, taking it unit-by-unit. On Monday we studied the front row, now we look at the second row.

How many will go? In 2003, Ireland took four and in 2007 three. We think three plus one back row/second row option is likely this time around.

Who is certain to travel? Ireland’s first choice second row partnership has been set in stone since 2004. Paul O’Connell is a key man and the pack leader – Ireland will need him at his best to progress beyond the quarter-finals. Beside him will be Donncha O’Callaghan. WoC is sick of seeing Donners perform impressively in good team performances and anonymously in bad ones – his leadership skills are non-existent for a man of his experience (Devin Toner calling the lineouts on his debut?) and as for his penalty count… With a string of nondescript performances preceding a few swashbuckling ones, he reminds us of the role Paul Collingwood played for the England cricket team in his latter days. We would love to have seen some variety in the 4 shirt recently, but twas not to be. These 2 are already past security at Dublin Airport.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? Firstly, lets discuss the owner of the number 18 shirt. The contenders here are Leo Cullen and Mick O’Driscoll. In November, Micko was probably a nose in front, and deservedly so – he added real get-around-the-park dynamism to his game in the first half of last season. But after Christmas, when Paulie came back, Micko fell out of favour and lost momentum. At the same time, Leo Cullen improved on a rather scrappy and lumbering first half of season, and personified solidity and, rather surprisingly, showed no little skill in a storming last month of the season.

Deccie has also had a look at Devin Toner and Biiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey (Go Irish!), but neither has any chance of making the squad, due to being tall-but-not-very-good and an immobile Premiership lump respectively. Cullen is 90% certain to take his place on the bench and play 8 seconds against Italy.

The second row cum back row slot is a straight fight between Donnacha Ryan and Kevin McLaughlin. In Ryan’s favour is the fact he has played second row before for Ireland and that he is more of a 4 than a 6 – McLaughlin is definitely more of a 6. For Locky, its that he has played in bigger and higher intensity games this season than anything Ireland are likely to face in this World Cup, unless they come across NZ. Locky is being pencilled in by some as the future for Leinster and Ireland at lock, more due to a lack of options than anything else, but we think Deccie will go with Ryan’s experience and greater suitability for the position.

However, WoC has a better idea. What about bringing an in-form lock forward who offers something different to all the names previously mentioned. Someone who can bring Richie Gray / Sam Whitelock-esque ball-playing skills to the party. Dan Tuohy has been far more effective than Ryan this season, and has excelled playing alongside Johann Muller, which is very similar to playing with Paulie or Leo. Second row could soon be a bit of a problem position for Ireland, and we see little to lose by bringing a man who has done it in the HEC this season, and who could be an Ireland regular very soon.

Any bolters? McLaughlin is probably the most obvious one – in January the idea of him even being in contention at second row was rather fantastical. Tuohy has picked up injuries at unfortunate times.

Should go: Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Leo Cullen, Dan Tuohy
Will go: Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Leo Cullen, Donnacha Ryan