Alone He Stands

The fallout from Ireland’s record defeat to New Zealand continues. In the Indo yesterday, what we presume to be Deccie’s thoughts have been channeled through the grubby, ill-informed pen of Farmer Farrelly.  Apparently Deccie is ‘compromised’ in the position of head coach.

Where does one start? Well, let’s take it point by point.

Money is now the core issue, according to Hugh.  True, there looked to be a bit of corner-cutting on this tour, but Deccie’s hand-picked coaching team don’t exactly look like they were put together on a shoestring.

That the rugby setup in Ireland is to the detriment of the national team? Every other coach (bar none) would love the type of player access that Deccie has – he can tell their coaches when to play them, and bring them into camp largely whenever he wants. Key men like Johnny Sexton and Fez played more for Ireland than for their province last season.  Go tell it to the French coaches, who tried to fly Jean Marc Doussain out as cover before the World Cup semi-final, but had to wait for his release until after the week’s Top 14 game.

That Deccie would dearly love to have brought Ian Madigan on tour? Bring him then. You are the coach – you have the right to pick who you want. Maybe prepare by picking him for the Wolfhounds or the Baabaas game.

That Deccie is hamstrung by the situation in Connacht? Of course, we’d all like to have 4 competitive provinces, but good players in Connacht get routinely ignored by Deccie – Fionn Carr was left kicking his heels while Ian Dowling and Denis Hurley were capped in the North America tour in 2009. Tiernan O’Halloran didn’t even make the extended training squad.

That our lack of depth at tighthead is the provinces’ fault? In the November series of 2010, we played 4 games and picked John Hayes twice, Mushy once and Tom Court once. Why weren’t Jamie Hagan, Declan Fitzpatrick or Ronan Loughney given any game time?  Or, erm, Mike Ross, who was first-choice Leinster tighthead at the time.

The Churchill Cup and the Sevens circuit? The Churchill Cup has been abandoned as part of the (agreed) summer tour timetable which had Ireland in NZ for 3 Tests – the US and Canada played Italy this year in the same unified schedule. The ideas that Sevens will help the development of the national 15-a-side team is laughable – it’s like saying 5-a-side soccer will unearth the next Cristiano Ronaldo – the skill sets are entirely different – as evidenced by the complete dearth of former Sevens players at the top level.  The Welsh sevens team has in recent years produced no starters and just one occasional extended squad man, Aled Brew.

The excuses for Kidney and his team are coming thick and fast, but we suspect they won’t wash with an educated rugby public. Farrelly would be better off going back to praising Niall Scannell and calling Peter O’Mahony the new Ruchie – at least some people will believe that, no-one is buying this rubbish.

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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…..

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.

Mythbusters!

One of our readers sent us a question on Facebook last week – wow, we really feel we’ve arrived now that we can write that! It was none other than Ronan Lyons, and he asked us:

I’ve stumbled on to an opinion and would like to pass it by some people who actually understand and watch rugby. Have there been two Sean O’Briens over the last 18 months? The one that played up to and including the match against Australia in RWC, who steam-rolled all before him, and the one who has played from the Wales game on, a good player but not one to set the world alight.

We, and others, chipped in with a few possible reasons: that Seanie is maybe a bit knackered, and that, to an extent, teams have found ways of curbing his impact, in particular by tackling him low around the ankles.  The most pertinent reason, though, was that O’Brien has had to defer some of his carrying duties to get involved in the dirty work in and around the ruck area.  Ireland essentially have three carriers in the backrow, and one of them has to sacrifice their natural game.  In New Zealand, it was Jamie Heaslip who did this, but against Wales two weeks ago, he had a hugely effective game carrying the ball, while O’Brien appeared to be playing the role of ‘fetcher’.
The answer being inextricably linked to the make-up of Ireland’s backrow gives us an opportunity to look at two myths that keep coming up around the make-up of the Irish team.
Myth 1. Ireland need a ‘genuine openside’.  Without one, our backrow will always struggle.
Myth 2. Ireland’s backs are too small.  We should we be putting larger fellows into midfield to compete with the likes of Wales.
Both these myths are reactionary, after recent Irish defeats – both to Wales, as it happens.  In the World Cup quarter-final Sam Warburton wreaked havoc at the breakdown, continually slowed down the Irish ball, which stopped their attack at source.  Quick ball is the lifeblood of any team, and as we tend to drone on, you could have world class backs from 9 to 15, but if you don’t got quick ball, you won’t see them do much.
Fast forward to now and Wales’ giant three-quarter line have smashed apart Ireland and Scotland.  France also have a pretty large back line.  Ireland have had ten years of success with quick-footed, diminutive centres (Drico, Dorce and, errrr, Paddy Wallace), and the next in line have similar stature (Earls, McFadden, O’Malley).  Is it time for Ireland to look at a new approach and draft in bigger men to play centre?
Waiter!  Fetch me some world class 7s on a plate!
The claim that Ireland would be improved by a terrific 7 isn’t without merit.  Ireland’s backrow isn’t balanced, for sure.  It’s all carriers and no groundhog.  Of course we’d love a world class fetcher in there.  But amid the clamour from various media pundits (George Hook is like a broken record ) a few key imperatives need to be borne in mind.
You can only play what you have available.   The best natural 7 in the country is Shane Jennings, at Leinster.  He is a fine provincial player, but even his most ardent fans (we would count ourselves among them) would struggle to make a case for him as a first rate international player.  He is in the Leinster Heineken Cup team about 50% of the time these days.  Dominic Ryan looks to have some of the key components of a 7, but he’s what we would call a ‘six and a half’, a guy who has some attributes of a 6, and some of a 7.  Peter O’Mahony has filled the 7 jersey for Munster, but he’s definitely more of a 6 – he’s too tall to be a dedicated groundhog, though he is a fine breakdown operator.  We can’t simply manufacture world-class opensides overnight. 
Contrary to popular belief, not every successful team has a genuine 7. New Zealand have McCaw, Wales have Warburton, and so on, but World Cup finalists and Six Nations favourites France don’t.  Indeed, the French seem to have a totally different view of how the backrow should look, and it’s worked out well enough for them.  They typically set up with a ball-carrier at number 8 (Picamoles, Harinordoquy), and on either flank (it normally doesn’t matter which) station a lineout forward (Bonnaire, Harinordoquy, Jean Bouilhou at Toulouse) and a wrecking ball (Dusatoir, Gorgodze at Montpellier).  Sometimes the guy playing on the openside is the guy you’d think would be on the blindside.  Sometimes they switch positions.  It can get a bit confusing but one thing’s for sure, there ain’t no dedicated fetcher in the French team.
The solution?  It’s the gameplan, stupid.  Each of Ireland’s starting backrowers are great players in their own right, and none of the alternatives at 7 look good enough to unseat the incumbents.  The question is, how can Ireland get the best out of them?    We’d suggest they try reduce the number of one-out-from-the-ruck rumbles in to contact, and to offload the ball a lot more than they’re currently doing.  This keeps the ball off the floor, and reduces the number of times Ireland have to fight off the likes of Sam Warburton at rucks.  
On top of that, it’s a great counter to the low ‘chop tackles’ that defenders are employing to take down the likes of O’Brien and Ferris.  The chop tackles leave the carrier with his arms free to get the offload away.  That’s the cost of tackling low – and if you don’t make the defender pay it, you’re giving him a free lunch.  Leinster have had huge success with their offloading game, where Sean Cronin and Richard Strauss are experts at timing trailer runs onto offloads from Jamie Heaslip, Nathan Hines (last year) and latterly, Rob Kearney.  Ulster have developed their game in this direction too – witness Wannenbosh’s sumptuous offload leading to Craig Gilroy’s try against Leicester. 
If Ireland are to adopt this approach they’ll need more tight forwards who can handle the ball – Dan Tuohy would be a real option here, and Sean Cronin would need to be sprung from the bench more readily.  Of course, you can’t offload every time, and it goes without saying that Ireland need to be phenomenally aggressive when it comes to clearing out rucks – this is something all the provinces excel at; the personnel are there to do it.
Where the deuce is the beef?!
With BOD injured and Dorce pushing on, Ireland’s midfield is in need of renovating anyway – and after the Wales game there have been no shortage of calls to beef it up with size.  Bowe to 13 is one much-touted option (Fankie and Brent are in favour), while Oooooooooooohh James Downey is a possibility as a crash-ball 12.  A few wrong-headed shouts for O’Brien or Ferris to convert to centre have even been seen on internet fora.  It seems the nation is suddenly obsessed with the size of the Irish backs – there’s even a thread on boards.ie called ‘Can Ireland play good attacking rugby in the future without huge centres?’
Size Isn’t Everything.  That’s what she said.  But again, Ireland have to cut their cloth to what’s available.  The only big options at centre are Tommy Bowe and James Downey.  There are no Jamie Roberts’ or Aurelien Rougeries just lying around gathering dust.  Bowe has very little experience at 13 – which is considered the hardest to defend on the pitch – and has enough to worry about at the moment with his patchy form.  As for Downey, well if he was good enough for international rugby it’s highly unlikely he’d be sitting on the Northampton bench behind Tom May. Just because players are big doesn’t make them good.  Roberts, Davies and Rougerie are great centres not because they’re big, but because they’re good footballers.  Simon Danielli has similar physical stats to George North – but nothing in the way of his skill levels.  Good back play is still about football skills and lines of running – look where England have got over the last decade with any number of beefcake boshers in the backline.  Lesley Vainikolo anyone?  Matt Banahan?  Altogether now: Ooooooooooooooooooohhhh!
Erm, it’s the gameplan again, stupid. 
People need to forget about what we haven’t got, and look a bit more at what we have.  As we noted a few weeks ago, a  midfield of McFadden and Earls would have plenty of running threat, and plenty of pace.  We need to build a plan of attack, and build it around the players’ strengths, not retreating behind fears about the size of players.  As the always incisive Emmet Byrne said on Off the Ball last week, we need to look at how we can hurt teams with what we have, instead of just hoping our defence will squeeze enough mistakes out of the opposition.  
It’s much the same with all our problems: the unbalanced backrow, the uncertainty at half-back, the size of our centres, the unchanging selections: they’d all be a lot less problematic if we played with a clearly identifiable, cohesive and well executed gameplan that everyone on the team bought into.

Six Nations Week 1: Wayne (Barnes)’s World

Week 1 has passed, and nothing really has changed. France are still great, England are still rubbish, Ireland still have no gameplan, Scotland can’t score tries, Wales are quite useful and Italy don’t win away.

But we decided to flesh out the above into something more concrete instead.  Our Week 1 Review, split by champions and old nags:

The Winners’ Enclosure

France

A four try win with a minimum of fuss is a reasonable start for France.  They didn’t look any great shakes for large stretches, but late in the second half you could see them start to enjoy themselves.  Wesley Fofana had a good debut, and his partnership with Rougerie is going to cause a lot of teams a lot of problems.  Louis Picamoles was transformed from a pussy cat at the World Cup to his wrecking ball best here.  Happily for France, their favourite opponenets, Ireland are coming to town for their habitual beating next week.  The fixture list is set up nicely, and the final game against Wales could be a decider.

Happiness Index: 3/5 – decent start to the new campaign, but the French public will demand a more complete performance next week

England

Ugh, that didn’t make for pleasant viewing.  New players, new captain, new gameplan… but the song remains the same.  It’s reassuring to see some things never change, and England just can’t fall out of love with the bosh.  Their backrow was thouroughly outplayed, and only when Morgan came on did they have any decent carrier on the pitch, but they defended doggedly and allowed Scotland to shoot themselves in the foot just enough to win the game.  For a scratch team it’s not the worst of starts, but going to a passionate Stadio Olimpico in Rome will be tough. The media loved it though – Stephen Jones was even saying how good Botha, Dowson and Farrell were.

Happiness Index: 3/5 – one away win in the locker, if they can get another next week they are looking at a successful championship

Wales

Missing four tight forwards, losing Warburton at half time, and with Rhys ‘Toto Schillachi’ Priestland having a shocker, you’d think the writing was on the wall.  But oh me oh my, what a group of matchwinners these guys have.  A sensational backrow, and the biggest, bruisingest, and skilfulest backs in the competition.  Roberts looked short of form, but Jonathan Davies boshed hole after hole in the Irish defence, while George North looks like the player of the age.  Hard running, clean lines, great angles. 

Happiness Index: 5/5 – Wales will be thrilled.  Gatty once again outfoxed Kidney and is a shoo-in for the Lions job.  Scotland at home next, and a great chance to build momentum.

The Losers Corner
Ireland:

Gerry Ending: Blind Dave Pearson! *foam* Wayne Barnes!! *froth* Les Kiss does know how to run an attack!!! *thumps desk* Mother Deccie of Kidcutta!!!!

Farmer Farrelly Ending: Sexton missed kicks! *thumps desk* Miniscule Leinster centres!! *foam* Where is Ooooooooooohhh James Downey!!! *froth* Padre PiO’Mahoney!!!!

Mega Happy Honest Ending: Ireland were like pussycats at ruck time – only substitute Donnacha Ryan attempted to slow Welsh ball, and he got speared for his troubles. Without BOD, Ireland were clueless at the breakdown, and clueless on how to play. Oh how we hoped the noises about an actual gameplan were true – why we believed them is another thing. The personnel sweep all before them in Europe at provincial level, but look like befuddled fools in a green shirt – it’s time for some coaching please. And by coaching, we don’t mean putting the video analyst in charge of attack. 

Happiness Index: 1/5 – very difficult to see how Ireland can have a good championship from here.  Paris beckons. Tomorrow we’ll be looking in more depth at Ireland’s woes.
Scotland:

Now, this is a tough one. Yes, Scotland lost in desperate fashion. Yes, they butchered countless chances. Yes, Robbo did select Dan Parks, who will surely never play for his country, or Scotland, again. And yet. We felt there were some chinks of light. When the Embra halves came on after 55 odd minutes, they played with real speed and purpose. The laughable handling of the players outside killed a lot of moves, but in at least some cases, they were genuinely unfamiliar with the whole “gainline” thing Greg Laidlaw was at and had to reach for flat passes. And the Scottish back row were brilliant, Ross Rennie’s mastery of ruck time harking back to the days of JJ and Finlay Calder. Robbo made a serious boo-boo in picking this team, and confidence is no doubt rock bottom, but they might actually have something to build on – if Laidlaw gets picked to start, Scotland might actually have *whisper* a platform.

Happiness index: 2/5 – at least they’ll get the right team on the pitch now.  All is not lost, but that was a huge opportunity blown

Italy:

An 18 point defeat was within the bookies pre-match spread and Italy will be happy with that. Granted, the French barely broke sweat, but this was a match Italy were never going to win – what they needed was to leave Paris with their dignity intact. And they did that. They looked pretty breezy, contributed to a good quality and open match, and looked kind of rejuvenated. Clearly, without a 10, they are going to struggle, but they have a great back row, a good coach, a decent pair of centres and, now, a spring in their step. In terms of next week, they got the ideal result from England – an absolutely dire performance with a win, which means few changes are likely. Italy have never beaten England, but they will be waiting in the long grass of the Stadio Olimpico this Saturday.

Happiness Index: 3/5 will feel they’ve a good chance of grinding England into the dirt