The King is dead, long live … Ian Keatley?

The new season approacheth.  The season tickets have arrived.  Anticipation builds.  We’re back in the hotseat.  Rather than write dullsville ‘season previews’ for each Irish province, we’re going to focus on a couple of themes that will be woth following over the season.  First up, the impossible art of replacing the irreplaceable.

With the move of Ronan O’Gara from the playing sphere into the coaching sphere, it isn’t just Rodrigo Roncero who is devastated by the news. The last time Munster started a season with someone other than the apple-cheeked charmer at outhalf, Munster weren’t even … Munster, as we now know them. It was still the era of bugger-all fans, Shannon making a serious pitch to play in their stead in the HEC and an unknown shrewd and reticent Cork teacher taking training sessions off his own bat. The soaring ambition, silverware and modern stadium that now characterise Munster rugby were such pipe dreams as to be a laughable conceit.

Whoever steps into O’Gara’s boots in the long term has to deal with the expectation and standards that his generation brought to the table – keeping the score to less than 50 isn’t where they are at now. O’Gara might have played like a pub player at times for Ireland last year, but he was instrumental in guiding Munster past the Awesome Power of Chris Robshaw and Harlequins and then putting the heart across Mental Strength Gurus Clermont Auvergne in the next round.

For all the impressive performances Ian Keatley put out in the first half of the Pro12, and his apparent greater suitability for Rob Penney’s vision for Munster, he never hesitated in selecting Radge for those massive games.

But now that Radge is sipping Cotes du Rhone with Pippo Contepomi in Mario Ledesma’s Parisian bolthole, will Keatley be able to step up to the plate and be that HEC standard outhalf Munster need? Keatley has shown himself to be a capable fly-half, but worryingly inconsistent.  He can look great one minute and mediocre the next.  Can he put in the sort of performances Munster will need to steer them around the toughest grounds in Europe?  Moreover, patience isn’t going to be given to a guy who has had two years to learn from O’Gara. Plus the age profile of other Irish out-halves combined with career path of Keatley means that this is essentially his final chance to nail a starting shirt in the HEC for an Irish province. No pressure.

The Munster faithful are putting a huge amount of faith and hope in young gun JJ Hanrahan, who has looked a genuine playmaker on the few occasions we’ve seen him.  Problem is, dropping a guy with a handful of appearances (just five starts, all bar one at inside centre, and six reserve appearances) into a key position and asking him to emulate the best you’ve ever had is such a huge ask as to be ridiculous. Again, no pressure. At least when Ulster threw Paddy Jackson in at the deep end, Jackson had come through years of schools and underage rugby playing the position exclusively – and for all that, Jackson’s tenure at fly-half for Ulster has been far from smooth.  It was only when Ulster held Jackson back from last year’s JRWC that Hanrahan played at 10, deputising for the pear-cheeked Belfast crooner.

The trouble with replacing O’Gara is that it has to happen not only on the pitch but in the hearts and minds of the fans.  As great a player and dominant a personality as Jonny Sexton admitted that he struggled with it for a long time.  For Ian Keatley, it will be pressure on a scale he has never experienced.  We also have a sense that among Munster fans, he is on the backfoot a little, and is seen as a bit of a Leinster reject.  The will of the people is for Hanrahan to leapfrog him into the first team.  At least his replacement won’t have to endure ROG-cam every time he fluffs a kick, although we won’t rule out RTE having a special set-up cutting to ROG in his Parisian living room watching on telly.

One other key reason for Munster to get this one right revolves around the future of the man who’ll be dishing out the passes to either of these men – the Lions best scrum half and Simon Zebo’s good friend, Conor Murray. The good news for whoever ends up playing at 10 is that they will be paired with an authoritative and skilful scrum-half.  The bad news (for the IRFU) is that they have to pay him his worth and satisfy his ambitions.  With Murray’s performaces last season and his ongoing (and mystifying) contractual wranglings, you can bet your bottom dollar there will be some French clubs dangling huge carrots under his nose in the coming months (remember Sexton’s conversations with the union and RM started to get serious in November last year) – if outhalf becomes a problem position for Munster and begins to look like a multi-year project, will Murray consider strolling off to, say, Perpignan for a few years in the sun and come back when it’s sorted? Maybe, maybe not.

These are interesting times at fly-half for all of the ‘big three’, with Ian Madigan about to be thrust into the role of first choice 10 at Leinster, while up North, Paddy Jackson is continuing to try and stamp his authority on a team where the scrum half acts as chief playmaker.  With O’Gara out of the picture, the role as deputy to Sexton at international level is up for grabs.  Of the chasing pack, Madigan is currently well in front, having made the Lions reserve list and been selected on the summer tour of North America, but things can change quickly.

Munster might appear to have a bye to the HEC quarter-finals, but it’s easy to forget how often O’Gara took the points that his pack were offering up – if Keatley or Hanrahan don’t impress early on, a double header with a rejuvenated USAP suddenly will begin looking pretty tough and must-win. Just the way O’Gara would like it – what about Keatley or Hanrahan?


Kidney Axes ROG

Roy Keane used to say that he always knew that when the end came, it wouldn’t be pretty.  And so it was as Declan Kidney swung the axe and almost certainly ended the test career of Ireland’s most capped player; the divisive, cantankerous, chippy, bullishly self-confident but unquestionably brilliant Ronan O’Gara.

Sport can be cruel in many ways, and watching one of Ireland’s most respected players of all time decline to such an abject level over the last two weeks has not made for pleasant viewing.  It has been obvious for some time that ROG has been in decline, and while his street team of media apologists would have you believe the opposite, this day has been looming since the middle of last season.  We have a few observations on the matter:

1. On rugby terms, it’s the right decision.  Yes, it’s awful for ROG personally to have it end like this: it’s sad that his final act of any significance was a loopy, harebrained crossfield kick that ultimately consigned Ireland to a sorry defeat in Murrayfield.  But there’s no room for sentiment on this one.  It would have been the right decision to bring Madigan into the fold at the start of the Six Nations, and it’s still the right decision now.  To jettison ROG mid-tournament looks awful, but the (Kidney) clock cannot be turned back.  Decisions can only be made for the next game, not the last, so it’s the right decision, however awfully it has been made.

It was, though, the wrong decision to keep him in the 23 since the summer, and for that Kidney should be roundly castigated.  The whole situation is a mess of the coach’s making, succession planning at its absolute worst.  The failure to grasp before now that O’Gara was no longer a test player amounts to a costly blunder.

2. ROG should have retired after the 2011 loss to Wales. The danger of playing on too long is that you sully your legacy.  There will be articles about the end of the ROG era this week, but the ROG era ended with the 2011 World Cup.  His noteworthy contributions to test matches since that dismal quarter-final are… what exactly?  He has not started a game in that time, while Sexton has authoritatively claimed ownership of the shirt.  His tenacity and self-belief are admirable, but it has tipped over into a slightly sad sight over the last two series, when it has been clear he’s no longer capable at this level.  It was the right time to go, and he should have done it. For all those saying ROG deserves to go out on his own terms; well that was his chance and he turned it down.

3. Kidney – the man for 2015.  Or so he’d have you think.  Declan Kidney’s selection policy has swung from archly conservative to ‘throwing in ver yoof’.  It’s hard not to be a touch cynical and see it has him positioning himself as a coach with an eye on the 2015 world cup, presiding over a young team.  A transitional coach, if you will.  It’s like a switch has been flicked.  First the change of captaincy, now he’s thrown ROG over the side of his sinking ship to try and keep it afloat.  While in and of itself it’s the right decision (see number one above) it’s a bit hard to stomach the manner in which Deccie has done business.

4. Madigan is there on merit.  While all the airspace will be taken up by ROG, it shouldn’t be forgotten that his replacement deserves his place in the squad.  He picked up rave reviews for his performance in the untelevised win over the Dragons on Friday night, where he kicked three from four from out wide, and continues a hot streak of form.  He is the form 10 in the country and looks to have the stuff for test rugby, albeit with a weak kicking game from hand.  It’s appeared up to now that he is not the fly-half Kidney is looking for, but his form must count for something.  He deserves his chance, at least off the bench.

5. Remember the good times.  Forget the awful cross-kick and the 10m kicks to touch, and remember ROG as he deserves to be remembered.  The cheeky try against South Africa.  The cross-field kick to Shaggy. The try in the corner in Croker against France.  Converting Shaggy’s try in Twickenham to make it a four point game.  Too many penalties and conversions to mention.  We have also heard, but require confirmation, that he once scored a drop goal of some importance.

6. The Cork Con Mafia can go for a lie down.  If ROG has been one of the greatest ever Irish internationals, he has also been one of the most protected, with an army of media campaigners in place to avoid reference to his bad performances, and remind us of the failings of his rivals.  Right up to this week they were still at it.  The poor fellows must be exhausted, as their task has taken on Sisyphean proportions in recent months.  Take a lie down, chaps, and think of Peter O’Mahony.

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.

Ten Questions

Despite what our learned friends in the print media might say, Ireland have a selection issue at out-half. Jonathan Sexton is unquestioned (except by our unlearned friends in the print media) number one, but is a major doubt for the Scotland game.  Working on the assumption that he will be injured, as seems most likely, who should play in his absence is unclear. Ronan O’Gara has been backup since RWC11, but his performance graph has been going south for province and country since then, culminating in his worst performance in a green shirt last Sunday.

Management have, up to now, eschewed the opportunity to give gametime to any of the promising young out-halves currently playing for the provinces, bar Paddy Jackson getting the chance to mow down Fiji for the “Ireland XV”. This is not just us writing with the benefit of hindsight, and those with memories that stretch as far as nine months ago will recall the clamour for Ian Madigan to travel to New Zealand after a season in which he was arguably the standout 10 in the Pro12.  Now, they have a serious problem, for the only man they have trusted for ten minute cameos for the last 15 months is no longer a Test-level outhalf, and the incumbent is sick. And that problem is entirely and completely of their own making. Games against Scotland and Italy in last year’s Six Nations, or in a summer tour where ranking points were not an issue and a win was never likely anyway, or against Argentina in November, were tailor-made for limited gametime for the youngsters to ease them into Test level.

Now, the choice is to dump them in at the deep end against Scotland, or persist with a legendary, but no longer effective player – not a choice we would like to have.

It’s been a consistent theme in the last three years that the management corps have declined opportunities to blood new players until absolutely forced to (by injury, typically) e.g. Mike Ross or Sean O’Brien – two players who have made a huge impression at this level. And it’s not like this policy has paid off in silver; Ireland haven’t challenged for the Six Nations since 2009, and were rather easily swatted aside by Wales in the World Cup quarter-finals.  Narrow selection policy and short-term goal setting have been the rocks on which the current regime looks to be perishing.

So now we’re in a right old pickle for the game in Murrayfield, with not only a starting place, but a reserve to be chosen from four candidates.  Before we go through the options, we are happy to declare upfront that the sole objective is to win the game, and to select the fly-half to give ourselves the best chance of doing that – not with the best chance of winning the 2015 World Cup, or beating New Zealand in 2036.  Ireland need a win here, pure and simple:

The Safe Option (Or is it?): Ronan O’Gara. One hundred and twenty-seven caps. Let’s repeat: one hundred and twenty-seven – that’s incredible. O’Gara is the only player to have played in all 14 Six Nations tournaments, and, until recently, retained the apple cheeks and innocent look that so endeared him to Mario Ledesma and Rodrigo Roncero. But is he really so safe?  All the caps in the world count for little if the player’s level has fallen over the cliff-edge.  Peter Stringer has many more caps than Conor Murray, but it doesn’t make him a safer selection for next week’s match.  The test rugby arena is no longer a place for slight 35-year olds fly-halves.

ROG’s last start for Ireland was in the World Cup quarter-final – he didn’t have a good day then, and he has slowed down since. His boot is now Arwel Thomas-esque, as is his tackling. He has experience and self-belief, but unfortunately the old magic has gone. You could apply Enoch Powell’s famous political dictum to him and, for that, we are profoundly disappointed. It’s also worth asking how ROG could hurt the opposition. Scotland’s only dangermen are in their back three – loose kicking to them is likely to put Ireland on the back foot, and it’s questionable as to whether Ireland should be kicking much at all in this game.

On the plus side, his place kicking remains reliable.  If pressed into action, at least he is unlikely to play as poorly as against England, and Scotland’s defensive system is probably less likely to put him under the sort of pressure England’s did.  But to turn that question on its head, is he the man to best exploit the weaknesses in that defensive system?

The Nordie Option: Paddy Jackson is three months younger than Owen Farrell, and fully two years younger than O’Gara was when he played his first HEC final, but has seven Heineken Cup starts (including a final) to his name, and has been the Chosen One of Ulster rugby for a long time and looked the part in the uncapped match against Fiji. Alas, he has rather wilted in the last two months, and has yet to prove himself a reliable place-kicker, but has mostly impressed this year.

He has often been babysat through matches by Ruan Pienaar and Pwal, but has begun to take on more responsibility, until his current trough of form. Murray has a similar style to Pienaar, and a combination with Jackson might be a good one.  Jackson was injured last Saturday and is not expected to play this weekend either, which makes it very difficult to see Kidney turning to him.  That said, he has the advantage of being in camp already, which may stand to him.

The Giteau Option: Ian Madigan is the most exciting of the bunch – he has an eye for the tryline, and at his best, moves a backline around with a slickness that has Leinster fans purring. He has yet to come near displacing Johnny Sexton (although we expect he’ll start next season in the 10 shirt), but his distribution and breaking game is ideal for taking on a Scotland side who fall off tackles for fun. England and even a lacklustre Italy punched numerous holes through their pourous midfield.  A fast paced running game is the obvious way to beat this Scotland side, rather than kicking to their solid lineout and giving them the opportunity to bring their back three into play.

Madigan has endured an up-and-down season, having been press-ganged into an unfamiliar role at full-back, but has got back to his best form since returning to fly-half.  His place kicking stats are also strong this year, at over 80%, and he nailed six from six at the weekend in a winning performance in Cardiff.

Counting against him is a loose kicking game and erratic decision making, while his line-kicking from penalties is inconsistent and a lack of big game experience.  He has just one Heineken Cup start at fly-half, against an already-out Montpellier, so test rugby would be a major step up in intesnsity from what he is used to.  He has spent less time in camp than Jackson, having been overlooked in November and returned to Leinster promptly this Spring.  And we don’t get the feeling Deccie is that big a fan.  He has overlooked Madigan for both this year and last year’s Wolfhounds games (for Jackson and Keatley respectively).

You might hear “You can’t throw Madigan into Murrayfield”, but it’s not that strong an argument – the Embra stadium is a library, and Madigan is familiar with it from the Pro12. With serious reservations – there are no perfect solutions to this mess, folks – Madigan would be our choice to start, based on hope that his talent will overcome a lack of experience.

The Help: Ian Keatley has done well when deputising for O’Gara so far this season in Munster, but Rob Penney sees both players every day, and has yet to prefer Keatley for a big game. Piloted Munster to their inevitable five-try win against Racing, but has a tendency to suffer from the yips with his place-kicking.  His skillset looks reasonably well equipped to take on Scotland, with a decent breaking game, and strong defensive credentials, but does he have enough class for test rugby?  Firm outsider, but he is the only one of the youngsters with Test starts on his CV (albeit against the USA and Canada).

The Ray Lewis Option: Johnny Sexton may have damaged his hamstring on Sunday, but maybe he should consult Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis – the veteran tore his triceps in October (normal recovery time: 6 months) but was back in 10 weeks to lead his team to the Superbowl. Bill Simmons of Grantland (think Conor George, except American, likeable, respected, intelligent, knowledgeable, well-spoken, a good writer and with good teeth) called him a cheat for it – but if Lewis could sort Sexton out with some deer antler spray, he might be back for Murrayfield. And it’s not like the IRB are serious about PEDs, so he’d probably get away with it too.

So which way is it going to go?  We expect Deccie to stick with ROG, and while Jackson would probably be Decie’s preferred reserve, his injury just might cost him that chance, with the in-form Madigan best placed to be the beneficiary.  Undoubtedly, this weekend’s round of Pro12 games represent something of a beauty parade, and with Leinster at home to Treviso, Madigan has a good opportunity to press his case.  Can he ensure he doesn’t try to do too much on his own?

Each of the four contenders comes with a hazard warning, but given the weakness of the Scottish midfield, we have a preference for Madigan to start with the insurance policy of ROG on the bench.  We know Kidney to be a conservative, but faced with deteriorating performances from the likes of Stringer, O’Leary and Fitzgerald in the past, he has shown an ability to make surprising, seemingly-out-of-nowhere, ruthless decisions.  Could this be one such occasion?  Probably not.  Deccie will most likely stick his chips on ROG to have just enough wiles to sneak a win against pretty ordinary opposition, so long as he knows he has Sexton to return for the more arduous French game.

Whatever fly-half Kidney chooses, we’d like to see a joined-up selection that shows an intent to hurt Scotland, not merely to scrape by.  With that in mind, his choice of loosehead – between Tom Court and David Kilcoyne – is also important.  Scotland’s scrum is no better than average, and Court is the more destructive scrummager of the two.  If Ireland do pick ROG – as we expect them to – they should look to attack the Scottish scrum and milk it for three pointers, giving ROG the platform to work the scoreboard.  If, on l’autre hand, Kidney were to take a risk on Madigan, David Kilcoyne’s energy and pace in the loose would dovetail best, putting an emphasis on playing the game at a high tempo.   Anyone care to wager against ROG and Kilcoyne starting?

Dereliction of Duty

If last weekend was the party, this was the comedown.  Three rubbish games: Ireland lost in a match whose quality was dictated by the conditions, France reneged on their great tradition amid one of the most abhorrent international performances in memory, and Italy just couldn’t dredge up the energy to back up their opening-week victory.  We finished the weekend feeling deflated.

The French team’s dereliction of duty to their history and their public was matched only by that of Ireland’s national broadcaster.  RTE’s rugby footage has long been a hot topic of discussion, with the boorish George Hook becoming a particularly trying, oafish presence on our screens.  Worse still, he seems to drag the rest of the pundits – the majority of whom are coherent and intelligent – down to his level by repeatedly shouting over them and maintaining that his pre-match prediction – no matter how wide of the mark – was in fact entirely correct.

But complaining about Hook is about as productive as complaining about the weather.  What was so infuriating about RTE’s presentation of Ireland’s defeat on Sunday was the total absence of any sort of discussion of Ronan O’Gara’s performance.  Just so we’re clear, the once great O’Gara turned in an awful display.  In conditions which could comfortably described as ‘O’Gara-friendly’, his kicking from hand was woefully inaccurate, with his penalties down the line scarcely gaining more than 15 metres.  His passing was similarly abject and his management of the game – so fabled down the years – was dreadful.  He fared better with the placed boot, knocking over two difficult penalties but missing a third, which would have reduced the deficit to three points.  Ultimately, it was sad to see a great, even legendary player reduced to such a shabby level, and underlines the danger of players hanging on for too long.  The old adage of the boxer taking on one too many fights sprang to mind.

The outcome won’t have been too much of a surprise to anyone who has watched Munster this season, where ROG’s game has declined sharply.  We have been of the opinion that ROG can no longer be a force at test level throughout the season.  At 35, this is no disgrace, and his status as a player of the age is secure in any case.  So we weren’t feeling all that glowy when Sexton departed the field injured after 20 minutes, unlike Donal ‘Tremenjus’ Lenihan, who assured us the situation was made for ROG and that he was a marvellous reserve to have.

When such a claim is made, and the outcome does not turn out as the commentator has predicted, the viewing public deserve some explanation as to why it has transpired thus, but Tremenjus wouldn’t say a word against his clubmate.  When ROG sliced a penalty out to touch, Tremenjus said we should have Kearney kicking instead.  But surely this is the very thing that ROG was brought on to do – one of the reasons he was such a good reserve in the first place.  Having Kearney kicking for the line – unless tight to the right touchline – would be entirely without precendent.  ROG’s missed kick at goal was greeted by Tremenjus with the sole observation that ROG had ‘struck it well’ – something even O’Gara would disagree with, given he missed.

Now let’s be fair to ROG here, and note that there were plenty of poor performances in the team.  Sexton’s tactcial kicking had been poor before coming off (though his touchfinders were long and accurate).  Jamie Heaslip performed badly, knocking on twice and conceding penalties (though he led the tackle count).  O’Mahony and especially Healy seemed more intent on fighting than playing footy.  The tight forwards generally did their job well enough, winning scrums and dominating the maul.  O’Brien played well.  It wasn’t a day for the chaps with two numbers on their backs, but Earls was the only one who looked a threat, and Ireland’s attacking shape looked pretty ragged from the start.  Kearney looks out of form and lost the aerial battle to England’s cannily selected full-back-heavy back three, who executed a simple kick-chase game far better than Ireland.

But in the post-match finale, ROG’s performance took on the status of the elephant in the room.  Amid Hook’s bleatings (which, incidentally, were being disproved as he spoke by the stats rolling across the bottom of the screen), and the panel discussion of where the match was lost, two words were conspicuous by their absence: ‘Ronan’ and ‘O’Gara’.  Now, nobody wants to see a centurion test legend get pulled apart on television, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that ROG is a protected species.  On Friday night, on his Newstalk show, Hook was happy to criticise Sexton’s – wait for it – game management in front of a live audience in Cork Con’s club bar, and claimed that Ireland would have won more comfortably had O’Gara been playing in the second half in Cardiff a week prior. So, when ROG’s supposedly superior game management was shown up to be not so superior after all, why was he not asked about it?

What makes it especially galling is that Jonathan Sexton, as a budding international in his second Six Nations season, had to endure scathing criticism from the panel, in particular after a mixed bag of an appearance as a substitute in a narrow win in Murrayfield, when Tremenjus pilloried the player for attempting to keep position and pass to his own team-mates rather than kick to opposing ones.  It may be stretching the point, but we wouldn’t be surprised if the agenda-driven media environment played some part in his recent decision to play his club rugby in Paris – he certainly would have been (rightly) lambasted was it him coming off the bench to produce such an aimless performance.

But, worst of all, it insults the audience.  The viewers have eyes and brains in their heads.  They could see what happened.  ROG was not solely responsible for the loss, but it was abundantly clear that he cannot play to the required level for test rugby any more.  This needed to be said, but it wasn’t.  In a cringe-inducing, self congratulatory round-table interview in the Irish Times a couple of years ago, McGurk and chums described themselves as the link between the team and the public, and appeared to see their role as one of imparting nuggets of wisdom to a public in need of educating.

Therein lies the rub.  When we read the comment box on this blog, or look at the increasing amount of great fan-writing available, or engage with other rugby fans on twitter or – even better – attend a rugby match or chat about the game with our mates in some sort of hostelry that purveys liquid refreshments, it is obvious that the Irish rugby public are passionate, opinionated and knowledgable.  We are aware that not everyone who tunes in to a Six Nations game is as obsessive about the game as many of those who read our pages, but the point holds.  Perhaps if RTE saw their role as not so much educating the hoi polloi about rugby as serving an intelligent community, we’d get the sort of analysis we deserve.  Getting rid of Hook, and putting Shane Horgan and Alan Quinlan centre stage, would be a start.

Step Backwards

After the HEC double-headers in December, we thought that Ulster were virtually guaranteed a knock-out slot, Leinster were pretty much gone, and that Munster had a pretty decent shot at a best runners-up slot. They had 11 points in the bag and had upcoming games against Scottish patsies Embra and flouncing Parisians RM92 at home – both glaring try bonus opportunities.

And the try bonus point is most relevant – 19 points looks like it might not be enough, but 21 will almost certainly do it. They managed to get 4 tries at home to Embra, and looked threatening in Paris first time out. Sure, they didn’t come close to the whitewash against Sarries, but hey, it was Saturday Night Fever in Thomond – who wants tries when you can have penalties slotted between the posts through cold foggy air and the tears of the assembled press box in near-deathly silence?

Here’s a problem though – in the aforementioned early rounds, master orchestra conductor, curer of the lepers and Lion-designate Ronan O’Gara (© Conor George) was playing close-ish to the gainline and looking like he was buying into the Rob Penney Barbarimunster masterplan. In the Saracens double-header, he played a little bit further back – but needs must and the 5 points gained were what was required.

But since then, Rog has drifted further and further back to the point were he was almost 15m behind the gainline in the recent Cardiff workout. Sure, his tactical kicking might have been as pinpoint as ever, but who cares when it’s exactly what the opposition want – Cardiff won their lineouts, kept the ball intelligently and won the match at their leisure. How can Munster score tries if their opponents have the ball?

This followed an inability to get a try-scoring bonus point against Ulster’s 2.5th team – another occasion when O’Gara was nearly stepping on Felix Jones’ toes.

How can Munster expect to score 4 tries in 2 successive games without the ball, and with an outhalf who looks like he is no longer even going through the motions of playing the gameplan his coach wants him to? It’s not all O’Gara’s fault of course, but he has virtually full control over his position on the pitch, and he isn’t attacking the line.

It’s far from a home run that Keatley is of the required quality to be the future of the 10 shirt at Munster, but that’s not necessarily the relevant question to be asking; the only important issue is whether Munster have a better chance of beating Edinburgh by four tries with Keatley or O’Gara at 10.  This isn’t necessarily clear-cut, but Keatley is a quick, strong fly-half with a decent running game, as well as being a strong defender.  Against that, ROG is more experienced, a better place kicker and better kicker from hand.  But with tries the requirement, it might be time to lean towards Keatley.  Such a move would inevitibly be met with a media scrum, and Penney is presumably aware of this.  But it’s time for tough calls.

P.S. amid the lengthy debate about where Penney’s vision is leading Munster, we’d be grateful if pundits were more restrained in their use of the phrase ‘return to core Munster values’.  Shane Horgan has been one of the only pundits to resist temptation to fall back on easy, meaningless platitudes, and pointed out on Off The Ball that the fruitless multi-phase attack that yielded no points late in the Saracens game was proof that Munster have to get away from their old game plan.  Certainly, Munster’s attack is lacking, but stuffing the ball up their collective jumper is not going to get it done.

Tap and … Oh No

England were left to rue ‘poor decisions’ in their 14-20 defeat to Australia.  The focus was on a number of three point opportunities turned down in the second half, in particular scrum half Ben Youngs’ decision to take a quick tap-and-go.  Indeed, England passed up four kickable penalties in a bid to get the seven points they needed to get ahead on the scoreboard, rather than reducing arrears to three.

The quick-tap has become a means for commentators make themselves look very clever indeed.  ‘Poor decision, you should always go for the three points in test rugby’, they quickly tut-tut as soon as the move breaks down.  Or ‘Oh, terrific stuff there from [pint sized scrum half] there, he spotted the defence was napping, took a tap and go and now [whoever] have seven points instead of three.  Three cheers for [pint sized scrum half]!’

On Saturday, England scored a try from a quick tap penalty by Danny Care, with Tuilagi sneaking in the corner (good play), but left three points on the pitch when Ben Youngs took a tap that amounted to nothing (bad play).

It’s too simplistic to say the quick tap is a good idea when it comes off and a poor one when it fails.  Really, the decision to do this has to come from the management team.  Either Lancaster gives the likes of Youngs and Care enough rope to call it as they see it (‘heads-up’ rugby if you like) and accept that sometimes it will work out and sometimes it won’t, or he imposes a ban on tap penalties within kickable range – or he tailors his allowance for the tactic on a game-by-game, or situation-specific basis.  No player can exactly predict the future, so there will always be a risk attached to any such play.  As a coach, you live with it or you stamp it out.

In general, with our fondness for intuitive, heads-up rugby, we’d be a fan of the tactic and enjoy both Danny Care’s and Ben Youngs’ ability to put pace on the game when they’re really on form, and we’d be hesitant to overly criticise Youngs for his effort on Saturday. England have bigger problems, primarily that they don’t appear to know what they are doing – the rumours that Manu will be moved to the wing for the Bok game is mystifying, we aren’t sure in what universe he is a better winger than Charlie Sharples.

Anyway, back to the point at hand – here are some of the more memorable quick taps in recent times:

Best Quick Tap: ROG vs. South Africa, November 2004, Lansdowne Road.  ‘Go and talk to your team’, the ref allegedly told the South African captain John Smit.  So he did.  And while he was delivering the message with his back to the action, the cute hoor ROG tapped, went and got over the tryline for what turned out to be the crucial score.  The Saffers never forgave the apple-cheeked Corkman.

Worst Quick Tap: Peter Stringer vs. England, March 2006, Twickenham.  In a topsy-turvy game, midway through the first half Ireland won a penalty 30 metres out in front of the sticks.  It looked like a welcome three points was about to be bagged, but Strings seemed to spot a mismatch out wide and attempted a tap-and-difficult-cross-kick to the left wing, the sort of thing best left to those who can actually kick the ball.  He overcooked it and it went out of play for a lineout to England.  Ireland eventually won with Shaggy’s famous try.

Cultural Learnings from the Pro12

Lucky Generals

Ulster had a neat win over Connacht on Friday night, built largely off their imposing pack – the Westerners scrum was demolished and the breakdown was owned by the Ulstermen. Still, they only scored three tries, and rarely managed to get their silky backs on the ball in the Connacht 22. For all their power, they still lack some fluidity, which is a mild concern when bonus points are so important in the HEC and Castres at home is such a clear candidate for one. Paul Marshall and Paddy Jackson both had decent games, but neither grabbed it by the scruff of the neck to really capitalise on their pack’s dominance – Ulster look in need of a general in the halfbacks. Of course, Ruan Pienaar will be back, but he is surely going to be rested for the Castres game, and probably the Glasgae one too. Fez and Chris Henry getting up to full power will help too, with setting targets and linking play respectively. Let’s not worry just yet, but monstrous packs without domineering halves is not a recipe for silverware (see: Clermont, Northampton).

He Did the Mash.  He Did the Monster Mash

As for Nick Williams, the monster-man keeps eating up the yardage.  If he can stay on this level, Ulster have got themselves the signing of the year.  More astute observers than ourselves pointed out we were too dismissive of him in our pre-season analysis.  The only question is: can he sustain it?  We’re not eating humble pie just yet but we’ve the oven at 180 and we’re rolling out the pastry.

HEC Build-up

We’ll be starting our HEC previews this week, but how did the provinces opponents do this week? Exeter will go to the RDS with a pep in their step after a bonus point 42-28 win over Premiership champions Quins. Connacht’s opponents Zebre lost (again), this time at home to the Ospreys – they have yet to win a game in their new incarnation, but there is no doubt they will be targeting Connacht. Result of the week in France was Castres win over Clermont – but the perennial HEC bunnies were at home and playing domestically – lets see how many of that XV line up in Ravers on Friday night. Fellow bosh-merchants, and Ligind hosts Racing Metro lost at home to best-of-the-rest Montpellier on Saturday – they’ll be looking to grind Munster into the dirt up front, and tot up points in 3s.

Referee Rant

We hate to come over all Gerry, but the standard of refereeing the 2 inter-pros left a lot to be desired – first uber-pedant Clancy on Friday night, then some laughable ineptitude from the Aviva officials on Saturday. Two incidents in particular rankled:

  • Just prior to Ulster’s penalty try, Clancy binned Dave Gannon for collapsing a maul. Ulster motored over in the next phase (roughly concurrent to Clancy blowing the whistle, but before Connacht had stopped playing), so had he played advantage they would have scored. The penalty try rule says this: “A penalty try is awarded if a try would probably have been scored but for foul play by the defending team.” – given that the probability of Ulster scoring a try was 100% (they did get over), why didn’t Clancy give one? They (inevitably) got one a few phases later, but that is not the point,
  • Conor Murray sniped round the side of a pile of forwards and dotted down effortlessly right under the nose of the touchjudge. Literally, right under his nose. So why did he need to go upstairs? It’s bad enough when pushover tries don’t get given because the referee abdicates responsibility to a man who simply cannot see a grounding, but sending such obvious incidents upstairs is just incompetent – make the decisions you get paid for, guys.

Note: the Pro12 still operates under the old rules, so the ref could not have gone upstairs for the later Laulala no-try – it would probably the wrong call, but that’s just plain old bad call as opposed to megalomania/incompetence.

[Aside: to the Premiership] Ooooooooooooooooohhh

After the Ulster game on Friday night, we switched to Sky to watch the last 20 minutes of Sale-Leicester. Holy Lord, how bad are the Sharks? And what is Richie Grey doing there? The standard of rugby was terrible, and we saw pretty much every type of unforced error from the Northerners in an embarrassingly short spell. Leicester dealt with them with ease, and will be pleased to have such an easy lead-in to another shocker of a HEC pool.

McFadden and Earls – Ireland’s next centre partnership?

Saturday night’s entertaining derby match was enlivened by two strong performances from Ireland’s in-waiting centre partnership.  McFadden had perhaps his best game for Leinster, looking a more rounded player than ever before.  We all know he’s a dervish in contact and quick once he gets going, but his distribution looked a notch up from its usual fair-to-middling standard.  He’s likely to be shifted to the wing next week, given Leinster’s injury crisis in the outside back division and the impending return of Gordon D’arcy, but this showing at 12 will have been noted by his coaches.

In Paul O’Connell’s absence, Keith Earls has become Munster’s best player.  Always a lethal runner, he has added excellent passing to his reportoire and now looks at home in the 13 channel.  Munster’s best chance of progressing from the pool is to try and get him and Simon Zebo on the ball as often as they can.  To be fair, it looks like that’s how Penney has them set up, albeit with a kicking fly-half.  Which bring us along to…

Penney’s Out Half Conundrum

For the second week in a row, Munster looked more threatening once Rog was replaced by Ian Keatley.  Keatley’s the man in form and looks more geared to play the Penney way, playing as he does, flat on the gainline.  Penney should have started him against Leinster.  If he is to pit Keatley into action from the start in next week’s increasingly significant looking game against Racing Metro, he does so without any previous exposure to high intensity rugby.  This was the ideal opportunity to give him the chance to audition for the shirt.  We expect ROG to line out against Racing, the old head for the sleeves-rolled-up away assignment.  Keatley’s first Heiny Cup start could come the following week, in the more forgiving environs of a home game against Edinburgh.

Transition Time

After Munster’s excellent start to the Pro12, some of our more excitable followers posited that the transition had happened in Rob Penney’s two-week pre-season. Sadly, that has been exposed for the wishful thinking it was. With only Paul O’Connell to return (who is admittedly huge, but not a miracle worker), their pack is looking unfit for the purpose of getting their electric backs on the ball.

Dave Kilcoyne might be able to carry, but in the tight he is a wet blanket. Peter O’Mahony simply does not yet have the ball-carrying skills for an 8, and (as we suggested it would) the hype of last year has done him a disservice – a hard year’s work nailing down a shirt (probably 6) and learning his trade is required. Donnacha Ryan is an able worker, but no sort of replacement for POC – he hasn’t yet got to the stage where he can drag a team on his own will. There is a lot of work to be done, and its a multi-year job.  They’re on the right track for sure, but patience is still the order of the day.

Chug! Chug! Chug!

In acknowledgement of the first big Munster game in which Rog isn’t nailed on first choice since the days before John Langford and Mick Galwey’s tears could be used as fuel for the journey in the beaten up Peugeot 206 from Limerick to Pau via the Hook of Holland ferry and the Brenner pass for a meaningless HEC defeat, we have compiled a fun drinking game.

The units involved are up to you, be they shots, fingers, pints, hands, whatever – we’ll give you points, you decide how much to imbibe.

Of course, Rob Penney might go with the wily old master for Saturday, in which case we’ll look mildly silly, but if he does, you can merely use this later in the season when Keatley does get the nod – and he will, make no mistake – or for Ireland games when ROG watches while Sexton struggles to employ Kidney’s workaday tactics in green.  Just sub Sexton for Keatley where appropriate.

Here’s the rules:

  • Camera catches Ronan looking glum on the bench – 1 point
  • Camera catches Ronan smiling and laughing on the bench – 2 points
  • Ian Keatley drops a goal – 1 point
  • Ian Keatley drops a goal after 41 extraordinarily permissive phases – 5 points
  • Donal Lenihan says that Keatley is playing in the wrong areas of the pitch in commentary – 2 points
  • Frankie says in the build-up that he hopes Keatley doesn’t try to play too much rugby – 3 points
  • Whiff of Cordite’s troll, foaming at the mouth, points out in a comment in this piece that Keatley went to Belvo and doesn’t even know the fourth verse of Stand Up and Fight – 2 points
  • Keatley re-introduces the 6 arse-bounces technique, inducing spittle and fury from Rog on the bench – 2 points
  • Loud cheer from the Munster crowd as Rog gets up to warm up after 60 minutes – 1 point
  • Loud cheer from the Munster crowd as Rog gets up to warm up after 20 minutes – 2 points
  • Loud cheer from the Munster crowd as Rog gets up to warm up after 1 minute – 3 points
  • Pippo Contepomi and Rodrigo Roncero spotted in the crowd lending support to their old mate Ronan – 10 points
  • George Hook says something positive about the match, Ian Keatley, Leinster, Munster or Johnny Sexton – whatever you’re drinking, do something like this:

All joking aside, it’s potentially a watershed day in Irish rugby – the man who, along with Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll has done more to advance Irish rugby over the last decade than anyone. If this does mark the beginning of the end, note the day in the calendar – it’s the end of a momentous era – our Rog tribute if and when he calls it a day will be gushing.

Penney Passes First Test

When Tony McGahan left Munster we gave him an average report card, deeming his leagacy a mixed one.  His currency, however, is diminshing by the week, because Rob Penney has hit the ground running so well.  Indeed, he’s already done the one thing McGahan couldn’t do in all his four years there: get Munster to buy in to his philosophy.

Consensus was that McGahan wanted Munster to play a more expansive game than they had done under Kidney, but you wouldn’t necessarily have known that from watching them on the pitch.  Indeed, if Martians landed on Thomond Park and asked us what McGahan’s Munster’s gameplan was, we would have found it difficult to explain to them.  Under Penney, it’s clear what’s going on.  Backs and forwards no longer look like complete strangers who just bumped into each other in the corridors before the game.  There’s an emphasis on keeping the ball alive, and in James Downey and Casey Laulala, the personnel are there to do it.

In a perverse sense, Penney has been fortunate that he could bed in his ideas in the absence of Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara.  Without wanting to denigrate two of the great players of this (or any) era, there was always a suspicion that they had too great an influence under McGahan’s reign.  When the pressure came on, Munster reverted to their way of playing the game; the way that brought them success under Kidney.  That meant ROG kicking territory and Paul O’Connell taking up the ball time and time again, but for little gain and sub-lightning-fast recycling.

Due to injury and player welfare requirements, both have been largely absent from Munster’s opening month, and the rest of the team have flourished in their absence, which is not to say they won’t be huge assets when they are back in the fold.  ROG is back already and O’Connell soon will be – but they’ll be being dropped into a successful, winning team, playing better than at any time in the last three years, as opposed to having to grab the team by the scruff of its neck, as would have been the case in the recent past.  The Munster camp looks a happy one.  They seem to be enjoying their rugby.  Just look at the re-energised O’Callaghan for proof.  Invisible and derided on this blog last year, he looks like Stakhanov reborn.

All that said, the real business starts now.  Next week, Munster go away to Ospreys (who have had a strange start to the season), and that’s followed up by the Leinster grudge match and the first Heineken Cup match away to Racing; a game which increasingly looks like the key to navigating the group.  Here’s three calls to ponder for Rob Penney:

1. The Back Row

One thing that hasn’t changed from last year is a lack of ball-carrying heft in the Munster pack, particularly in the absence of the injured James Coughlan, on whom they are already overly reliant for hard yards.  Dave O’Callaghan is putting his hand up for selection on the flank and CJ Stander has yet to arrive.  O’Mahony hasn’t played yet but has the sort of ball skills that look tailor made to Penney’s game.  Niall Ronan, Sean Dougall, Paddy Butler and Tommy O’Donnell are all in the picture too: tidy footballers all, but not in the Generation Ligind class.  What chance a backrow of O’Callaghan-Ronan-O’Mahony?  It would have plenty of football in it, but lacks for physicality and experience.  Penney must find the correct balance, which could bring Butler into the reckoning.

2. The Backline

WoC commented in its last seasonal review of Munster that they had good players to fill every shirt from 11-15, so there was no need for them to look as awful as they did.  This is being borne out.  Indeed they’ve so many good players that one is going to miss out.  Hurley is a particular favourite here at WoC; pace he may lack, but he’s big, strong and first and foremost, a proper footballer.  Howlett is captain, he plays 14.  Downey is inked in at 12.  It leaves Zebo, Earls and Laulala fighting for two jerserys, with Earls certain to start, but perhaps in the role he apparently hates.  All three look bang in form.  We’ve a feeling Zebo might just be the one to miss out, but this is a marginal call whichever way it goes and whoever misses out will get his chance at some stage.

3. Dun-dun-Dunnnnnnnnnn. Number 10.

O’Garawatch has never been such fun.  Losing his Ireland place crearly rankles; imagine if he lost his Munster starting jumper.  Picture the Sky cameras panning to his face in the Thomond Park stands.  Think of the media men sharpening their pencils.  Ian Keatley is knocking harder than ever, and looks better suited to the game Penney wants to play.  But you underestimate ROG at your peril, and we suspect both Leinster and Racing would still prefer to face Munster with Keatley at 10 than the wily old Corkman.  Keatley’s Heineken Cup starting debut is probably more likely to come at Thomond Park than in a hard away game.