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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 3

Just 10 days remain until Kidney names his World Cup squad, and last week’s performance and this week’s team announcment give us a little insight – but not too much – into who is likely to go and who isn’t.

On the surface, it all looks rosy for Donncha Ryan, who, having played in the second row last week,  is now given a chance at 6, and so can prove his versatility and bag himself a spot on the plane.  But think forward to next week, and the backrow could be something like Locky-Wallace-Heaslip, and the complexion would look somewhat different.  Would you rather play at home to France with Jamie and Wally beside you and Paul O’Connell in the second row, or go to Bordeaux with no O’Connell and Leamy at 8?

The same applies, to a lesser extent, to McFadden, who didn’t play well last week and finds himself out of the team – but next week in all likelihood BOD will be back.  If he was to play 12 inside BOD it would be seen as an endorsement of his chances. So it’s not all over quite yet for Ferg, though he looks odds-against at the moment.

Following the team announcement and last Saturday’s game we can infer a little about who’s looking good and who isn’t.

Practicing ordering fush’n’chups: All the back three. Rob Kearney came through 80 minutes and looked sharp.  He gets another start on Saturday.  Already a Kidney favourite, he can start laying a claim on the 15 shirt for the Australia game.  Luke Fitz looked a lot more confident, and though he kicked the ball away a little too often, he wasn’t exactly blessed with options by the time the painfully slow ball he was supplied with. Andy Trimble played with great intensity, as usual. All three look to be heading southwards next month.

Still hanging on the telephone: Donncha Ryan did reasonably well on saturday, but he will have a tough job on Saturday convincing that he’s an international 6. He’s up against Thierry Dusatoir dans la sud de France, so no pressure.  Jerry Flannery’s return was positive, but all he did was miss one throw. We need to see some of the old Jirry mongrel before declaring him back for good.

Buying their Electric Picnic tickets: It looks like Peter Stringer’s terrific international career may finally be up.  Sent to La Rochelle to play with Munster, he is the only scrum half yet to see action for Ireland.  Unless he starts at home to France next week, which he won’t, then the game will be up.  Shane Jennings always needed to make a big impression to win Kidney over, and injury looks to have robbed him of that chance. We are presuming Wally will get a start next week in the 7 shirt, with Jenno togging out against Connacht.  A pity.

As for the game itself, it could be a long night for Ireland.  It’s not the most defensively robust 9-10-12-13 Ireland have ever put out and Mermoz and Marty will most likely look to run at the goalposts and hope for some change.  Keep an eye out for the French debutant, Biarritz No. 8, Raphael Lakafia.  We haven’t seen too much of him, but he’s regarded as a huge prospect and someone who could star at the World Cup.

Finally, Meejawatch.  It was interesting that Brendan Fanning and not Gerry Thornley had the inside track on the team this week.  Could Kidney be playing them against each other?  Gerry will have to up his uncritical fawning over the regime and justification of tactics and selection, no matter how bogus, to get back into Teacher’s good books.

World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 2

It sort of crept up on us. One minute it was the middle of the summer and the next Ireland were playing an international rugby match.  Declan Kidney named his team at luncheon yesterday, and true to form, trying to infer a whole lot from it is like trying to pick up mercury with a fork.   It’s hard to reason that the selection advances or hinders anyone’s possibilites of touring.
First of all, there is good news that Rob Kearney, Jerry Flannery and Tomas O’Leary are back in action and fit for selection.  Expect to see Kearney and O’Leary feature heavily over the next four weeks – both are seen by management as key First XV players, and both need the gametime badly.  Given Flannery’s history of aborted comebacks, management might be more careful with regards to him, but we expect he will be dying to get out and play.

Now for the spots still up for grabs:

  • This was possibly Conor Murray’s best chance of seeing action, and his touring chances could be receding.  There have been indications he is not considered as close to the squad as we had hoped, and this is another.
  • In the backline it’s a big opportunity for McFadden to show what he can do.  He’s pretty adept at 13 as well as 12 – we all know how well he played last year, he just needs to take up where he left off.
  • Don’t worry too much about Niall Ronan’s surprise appearance.  The Lunsterman had a pretty ineffectual season last year, and won’t be anywhere near the final squad.  He’s just keeping the shirt warm – Jennings is available for selection next week and Wally and SOB will be in the mix too, so Ronan will be thanked for his time and bundled back home.
  • Confession time – we know next to nothing about Mike McCarthy, though we understand he had a good seaon last year for Connacht.  He’s probably behind Locky and Donncha Ryan in the shake-up for the 4/6 spot (although Brendan Fanning suspects otherwise), but we look forward to seeing him
  • Ligind watch: the entire Munster 2008 front row is on the bench – we could see a very poignant triple substitution around the 60 minute mark
Finally, it’s great to see Leo Cullen captain the side, the 100th man to lead out his country.  The Wicklow lock has been harshly treated in the past, and while he may not be the most eye-catching player, he is a fine captain, firm but polite in dealing with referees, and he knows when to talk and when to walk away.

And, regarding the game itself, it could be a scrappy affair (read: GRIM). Scotland look to have a slightly stronger pack out and should just about shade it.

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Outside Backs

Phew, we are finally there. After naming 24 who we would bring and 24 who Deccie will (guess which category Denis Leamy fits into), we get to the last line – the piano players.

How many will go? Six we think – Ireland are well-stocked out wide, so there should be need to do an Eddie and bring a Brian Carney to hold tackle bags. There are going to be some quality players, and Gavin Duffy, left disappointed.

Who is certain to travel? Because of the competition in this sector, there are only two nailed-on certainties to go – Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls. Bowe is the classiest footballer in the squad, apart from Him, and all Ireland’s attacking invention appears to come through him (or Him) these days – he pops up everywhere in the line and his intelligent handling opens gaps for the rest of the backline. We heart him. Earls is another key component of the backline – his defence and open-field running are top class, and even Ludd McGahan seems to have worked out he isn’t a centre.

In addition to the above, Lukey Roysh and Andrew Trimble, B.Div. (2011) are around 95% sure of going. In Luke’s case, its scarcely deserved – his form this season has been poor, especially after the statements he was making in August about being the Leinster and Ireland 15. An easy case can be made that there are six players in better nick than he is – he’s a lucky boy that form is firmly below familiarity in Deccie’s list of priorities. Trimble has gone from strength to strength this year, and is finally becoming better known for his try-scoring than his God-bothering. After out-Bathing Bath last year, this season was less spectacular, but more consistent and ultimately fulfilling. He could be starting.

These four can start learning how to say “If you love Samoa so much, why don’t you play for them” in Maori, for sledging Mils Muliaina and Jerome Kaino in the final.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? Here’s where the fun starts. Even with the unfortunate Shane Horgan out of the equation, Deccie will have to pick two from Gavin Duffy, Felix Jones, Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden (if he doesn’t fit in at centre) and Geordan Murphy. And if Ian Dowling wasn’t forced to retire hurt, this list would contain no extra names.

Even though Bob can’t pass the ball, there is a place in the squad for a rock solid full back with a huge boot, especially with one eye on Italy and half an eye on the Boks in the quarter finals. Presumably he will get enough game time to prove his fitness in August, and if he can manage to jog from one end of Grafton Street to the other. he is on the plane.

Which leaves 1 from 4. Three full backs and a wing/centre. Of the full backs, Felix Jones in undoubtedly in the best form, but he has never played HEC or international rugby, and would represent a gamble. Gavin Duffy plays consistently at a lower level, but he has RWC experience (seriously!) and would represent Connacht’s only tourist if he made it, as Sean Cronin will be a Leinster man in September. Geordan Murphy is injured, but on form adds an extra counter-attacking dimension to the 15 shirt – he would be the horse for the Australia course if he was at 100%. Similar to Kearney, we expect Murphy to get good game time in August to get his fitness up, which doesn’t bode well for Jones and Duffy – its hard to see them getting a chance to make a case for their inclusion.

McFadden offers more versatility and is to some extent a known quantity. You will see him getting a wing shirt ahead of Fitzy or Trimble in August if he is in the mix in this position.

Any bolters? Felix Jones has been great since he came back, and is deservedly in the shake-up, albeit distinctly unfortunate with the stellar names ahead of him in the queue. In most other countries, Craig Gilroy would qualify as a bolter too, but we have too many options for that.

Should go (fitness permitting): Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney, Geordan Murphy, Andrew Trimble (note: we have selected McFadden at centre – if he is overlooked there, we would have him in ahead of Fitzgerald). Jones should be ahead of Duffy on the standby list.
Will go (fitness permitting): Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Rob Kearney, Geordan Murphy, Andrew Trimble