Faces That Fit(z)

It’s funny really – history will note that we lost our final home warm-up 16-10 to Cuddly Nemesis Wazza and his Welsh minions (giant minions), but the conversation, from the second Paul O’Connell expectedly eschewed the opportunity to take credit, moved on to the RWC15 squad announcement. Were Earls and Fitzgerald badly injured, or would they make the squad? Did Dave Kearney cement his place? Is Jordi Murphy a better option in the backline than Isaac Boss? How can we parlay some #OUTRAGE into the conversation?

One other thing that we left thinking was this: will, as looks inevitable, Iain Henderson force his way into the XV? And, is Sexton priming himself for a classic Irish outhalf World Cup meltdown? (joke) (sort of)

But anyway, the squad – for some reason we can’t understand, Ireland chose to submit the squad to World Rugby on the 31st, pre-deadline, then schedule a press conference to talk about it on the 1st. Inevitably, it leaked – so we’ve had a bit of time to digest it. There are three big calls – Andrew Trimble missing out, Tadgh Furlong being selected, and Darren Cave making it (indirectly) at the expense of Boss.

Most headlines were about Trimble, who was Irish rugby’s POTY exactly one year ago. And yet – it’s the least surprising. Schmidt himself talked about it before the Wales game – Trimble has played 34 minutes in eight months. And 80 minutes for Ulster on Friday wasn’t enough to convince the brains trust to include him. It might be dividing opinion, but it’s at least understandable. Trimble’s injury woes were compounded by some excellent showings by Dishy Dave and Earls in the warmups – Kearney Jr seems to be a lightning rod for criticism (“Daverage”) but he’s Ireland form wing right now, and we’d probably have him in the Test team. And while it’s easy to fulminate about Trimble’s exclusion – it’s tougher to argue against the inclusion of the guys who have made it – we have depth at wing. Brian Carney won’t be going to this World Cup.

All that said, given the injury histories of the wings that we have brought, and the attrition rate in modern rugby, at this point we still suspect Trimble will ultimately go to his third World Cup.

One person who will likely not go to a third World Cup whatever the circumstances is Isaac Boss – he played himself off the team against Scotland and now Ian Madigan will be the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency scrummie. True, it leaves us exposed should one of our scrum halves take a short-term knock. But a squad of just 31 means coaches have to take risks somewhere.  Look at Australia and Wales, and England; each have at least one position where they don’t have as much cover as they woudl like.  It’s a tight squeeze and every coach has to choose where to double down and where to hope for a bit of good fortune.

The man who will be going in Boss’ stead is, incredibly, Face Doesn’t Fit. Darren Cave came closest to the Ireland team in the lead up to the 2012 Six Nations when his BODness went down and he was in the form of his career. Then he got knacked, and Keith Earls got the gig and went well. That’s right – Keith Earls is an international standard outside centre. Since then, Cave hasn’t troubled the scorer in green – and after a disappointing tour to Argentina last summer his international career looked as good as over. However, with Dorce and Boss falling off a cliff, he’s suddenly back in favour as specialist centre backup – and in the first Welsh buildup game he played as well as he has ever done for Ireland. We called this one as a possibilty last week; Cave can cover both centre positions, and without him in the squad, midfield back-up was worryingly threadbare, especially at 12.  Madigan has enough to work on at out-half where he is a very real possibility for the matchday bench.  Still, one has to wonder about no less than four other Ulstermen who may be in the conversation in other circumstances – Bamm-Bamm and Olding if they had stayed fit, Stuart McCloskey if he happened to be a year older, and of course, nearly three years after his tragic passing, Nevin Spence. But Cave deserves his selection.  He was an unsung herop for Ulster last year and has consistently played to a good level, even if that level appears to fall just short of top class.

At first glance, the call to bring Tadgh Furlong as fifth prop seems needlessly risky and indeed, rather barmy. When we cranked back into gear after a lazy summer, our first post was about the front row. We thought we would be bringing six specialists – three for each side. Since Schmidt made it clear he was going for a 17-14 split, that has not looked like happening.  We thought that spelled good news for Michael Bent, given his ability to cover both sides of the scrum to moderate effect, but that hasn’t happened either.  The picture has been complicated by Cian Healy’s race to prove himself fit.  And a further development is that Marty Moore has also been injured.

But while, on the face of it, the Healy situation appears to require extra cover at loosehead, in fact it’s quite the opposite.  Management are obviously confident Healy will be fit – they’ve been monitoring him on an hourly basis, so let’s assume they’re well positioned to make the call. And if he’s fit the only thing he’s missing is match-time, which means he’ll need to get as much of it as possible in the first two quasi-warm-up games against Canada and Romania.  It means there’s no substantial part for a third loosehead.  On the tighthead side, Schmidt can comfortably rotate his three men over the first two games; on the loosehead side, he needs to get his main man up to speed.

We can bet Schmidt will want to get all 31 of his men on the pitch at some point, in order to keep up morale and unity.  If David Kilcoyne, say, was picked instead of Furlong, he’d simply be hanging around the hotel room.

Rugby’s Great Institution

Between now and the World Cup, Ireland have .. let me count .. one, two, three, four, five games to go. Four of which are in the weeks before the squad needs to be named, with the other one being tonights knockaround against Rugby’s Great Institution in the library.

This time last year (roughly), Team Ireland were jetting off to Argentina for a few weeks of steak, malbec, Quilmes and some soft power photo ops at the Hurlingham Club and Newman College, with perhaps a few easy rugby games thrown in. But enough about Gerry – the squad weren’t expecting to be worked too hard either, and were taken aback at the intensity of Schmidt’s expectations when they got there. The main lesson learned is that Joe Schmidt will absolutely take every opportunity to run the arse off his players.

Which means you would be right to expect Ireland to approach this game as if they were playing BNZ in Dunedin – good performances will gain real credit with Schmidt and bad ones for fringe players might knock them out of RWC contention. The Munster players are unavailable and Connacht players have been rested – which isn’t really helpful to the likes of Matt Healy or Denis Buckley as they try to make an impression on the last few spaces in the RWC15 squad – so it’s an all Ulster/Leinster selection:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Dave Kearney
13. Colm O’Shea
12. Luke Marshall
11. Craig Gilroy
10. Ian Madigan
9. Eoin Reddan

1. Jack McGrath
2. Richardt Strauss
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. Dan Tuohy
6. Robbie Diack
7. Chris Henry
8. Jamie Heaslip (captain)

Replacements:

16. Rob Herring
17. Michael Bent
18. Mike Ross
19. Ben Marshall
20. Jordi Murphy
21. Luke McGrath
22. Paddy Jackson
23. Cian Kelleher

Here’s our thoughts, with a working assumption of a 31 man squad breakdown of 6 props, 3 hookers, 4 second rows, 5 backrows, 3 scrummies, 2 outhalves, 3/4 centres, 4/5 back three:

  • Outhalf: Madigan gets the start ahead of Jacko, which is fully unwarranted on any measure of recent form. Under Matt O’Connor, Mads had a miserable time (maybe he didn’t understand the structures of Leinster rugby?) and has stalled in his development; whereas Jackson has been the form ten in Ireland since the Six Nations finished. The selection of Madigan here suggests the backup outhalf slot is still his to lose for the RWC
  • Centre: while it’s nice to see Collie O’Shea get a start, the really interesting pick is Bamm-Bamm. With Robbie Henshaw now ensconced at inside centre, it would be sensible to identify a like-for-like replacement in the case of injury – Schmidt being a systems man and all. One might have thought Stuart McCloskey was the likelier contender here, but he’s off to Georgia and Schmidt goes back to Marshall, who started in Schmidt’s first game against Southern Hemisphere opposition (the Wobs). Schmidt will bring 3 or 4 centres, and Marshall could be in the mix, which would be extraordinary, but with Olding injured and Madigan-to-12 looking half-baked at best, there are not many inside centres on the scene.
  • Wing: Craig Gilroy gets a well-deserved recall to green following an electric period of form for Ulster, joining a queue that includes Tommy Bowe, Zeebs, Luke Roysh, Keith Earls and his teammate Little Bob (it’s probably too late for Trimby) – and Felix Jones as a Schmidt favourite. A good display here, particularly if he outshines Dave, will probably cement a place in the wider RWC training squad, and then he has a good a chance as anyone
  • Tighthead Prop: MIKE ROSS IN NOT STARTING FOR IRELAND SHOCK! Which is a first since June 2012 (even if this is a non-capped game). If we bring three tightheads, Furlong is essentially duking it out with Nathan White, Stephen Archer (stop laughing at the back) and Rodney Ah Here for the final place.  Even if the RWC comes too soon for Furlong, this is money in the bank for further down the line
  • Loosehead Prop: similarly, the final loosehead prop will likely be one of James Cronin, Dave Kilcoyne (stop laughing at the back) and Michael Bent (we said stop!). Bent is on the bench here, and a decent cameo might force Schmidt to not completely eliminate him from contention
  • Second Row: Yer Man From Limerick, Big Dev and NWJMB are nailed on, leaving one slot for a Celebrity Deathmatch between Mike McCarthy, Dan Tuohy and Donnacha Ryan. Tuohy gets a start here, and this is a really good opportunity to make a statement and pencil himself into Schmidt’s plans. Tuohy and Ryan are a cut above McCarthy in terms of quality, and while both have been beset by injuries, if one or other can force their way into the panel it is good news.
  • Backrow: this is the most competitive line. We have NWJMB in the second row as Schmidt had him there during the Six Nations. Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony are nailed on to be picked, leaving two seats between Chris Henry, Jordi Murphy, Tommy O’Donnell, Robbie Diack and Rhys Ruddock. Henry has long been a Schmidt favourite, and given he has proved his fitness, he would appear to be in the box seat for squad selection. Diack starts ahead of Murphy, with Ruddock missing out altogether – although he’ll play in Georgia. Which is .. um, not a good sign we suppose.

Maybe we are over-analysing, but, with Schmidt, that seems unlikely. Everything is now directed towards RWC15 – and this game will be worth watching.

T minus 400 – Part Two

Yesterday we had the forwards, today the backs. With 17 forwards picked we’re most likely looking at 14 backs; that’ll be three dedicated 9s, two out-halves, and two full-backs, leaving room for just seven three-quarters. It’s all a bit of a squeeze, favouring players who can switch a bit between roles. Last time around, Luke Fitzgerald was left at home in favour of Fergus McFadden and Paddy Wallace. Neither was as talended as Luke, but between them they could cover all the jerseys from 10 to 15 so it was them that went to Fergburger with the Farmer.

Scrum Half

First, the easy part. This unit is as close to nailed down as anything can be 10 months out from the tournament: Peter Stringer, Duncan Williams and Ian Porter. Williams to start the matches with Stringer on to freshen things up against tiring defences.

On the plane: Murray, Reddan and Marmion. Also in the picture: at a stretch, Isaac Boss

Fly Half:

Jonny Sexton is a sure thing, and behind him the pecking order has undergone a bit of a reshuffle. Paddy Jackson has been short of form and is now injured for six weeks. It leaves him with a lot of ground to make up on Ian Madigan. Madge had a fine series and is increasingly confident at test level. But can he get enough time at 10 at Leinster to cement his gains? Then there’s Ian Keatley, consistently solid for Munster, but maybe just a rung off the top in terms of pure talent – Keatley has the advantage of playing with Conor Murray, whereas to this point, PJ has been outside Paul Marshall. Once Ruan Pienaar makes his return, there is every chance Jackson reverts to his springtime form, and is back to challenging Madigan. But at the moment it’s Madigan’s to lose.

On the plane: Sexton. Likely to join him: Ian Madigan. Also in the running: Paddy Jackson, Ian Keatley.

Centres

Ok, now it gets tricky. Based on the most recent squad, the likely centres are D’arcy, Olding, Payne and Henshaw. The only certainty appears to be that Robbie Henshaw is going; he played 12, he played 13, he showed he has the goods; he’s in. After that, it gets a bit cloudy and will remain so until at least after the Six Nations. Jared Payne’s injury meant he missed the chance to nail down the 13 shirt, but he looks a likely bet to be a regular from here on in. Intrigue abounds at inside centre; Gordon D’arcy had two poor games and may just have slipped down the pecking order, but if anyone can hang on in there and squeeze into the squad it’s D’arcy. Then there’s Stuart Olding. The Ulster centre oozes talent, and was a bit unlucky that a lack of gametime at Ulster meant we didn’t see more of him this series, but his star is on the rise and it seems only a matter of time before he starts a high-profile test at 12. His ability to cover 10 if we’re in a jam also means he can effectively fill the 2011-Paddy Wallace role. There we have it, Stuart Olding, the new Paddy Wallace. Let the hype roll on. McCloskey is a possible bolter whose progress will be closely monitored, while Noel Reid and Mr. Face Doesn’t Fit appear further down the depth chart.

On the plane: Henshaw. Likely to join him: Darcy, Payne, Olding. Also in the picture: McCloskey, Cave, Reid

Wings

Four centres would leave room for just three wings. It’s a heck of a tight squeeze. Tommy Bowe will surely travel and Andrew Trimble, assuming he gets back from injury and starts playing well, has a huge amount of credit from the Six Nations. He’s a Schmidt darling. Then it’s a bunfight between the incumbent, Simon Zebo and a cadre of players at a similar sort of level; Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Craig Gilroy. Really, who knows.  Things tend to be abit more fluid in the wide positions, with form generally dictating more than in other positions.  Kearney made a try-scoring return with Leinster this weekend (that’s right, he scored a try!) while McFadden’s versatility counts for something.  Two players who could completely change the dynamic if they get fit are Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald, but at this stage we’re saying it so often we’re like a broken record. We almost can’t remember a time when either Earls or Fitz was consistently fit. All we can do is hope for the best, but Schmidt is unlikely to take any risks; if it’s a choice between a fully-fit Dave Kearney and a bit-injured Keith Earls, he’ll go with the man who’s ready to play.

On the plane: Bowe. Likely to travel: Trimble, Zebo. Also in the picture: D. Kearney, McFadden, Gilroy. Potential game-changers if they can stop being injured for once: Earls, Fitzgerald

Full Back

Rob Kearney is a no-brainer. On the face of it, Felix Jones is more or less a sure thing to go as his deputy, but it may not be as cut and dried as that. Jones is a fine player who had a great game against Georgia, but the fact that Henshaw, Payne and even Zebo and Olding can all fill in at full-back may leave him with more of a fight to get on the plane than you might think. It’s not inconceivable that Joe could give the last place to a fourth wing given the options he has at full-back. But for now, Jones is probably likely to squeeze in; he must be desperate to do so after missing out so unfortunately last time.

On the plane: R. Kearney. Likely to travel: Jones

The question marks at centre could very well drive the composition of the rest of the backline – with Henshaw and Payne likely travellers and Olding likely to go if progress continues, it comes down to a yes/no on Dorce. Based on the Autumn series, Darcy offers neither a line breaking threat, nor a passing threat, and his size is increasingly a misnomer in the age of the giants. But he’s been written off before and has doggedly stuck around. If D’arcy hangs in there, we are potentially picking one from Dave Kearney, McFadden, Gilroy, Earls, Fitz and Jones. However, if the coach feels that D’arcy simply can’t do the job at this level any more, he could bring an extra wing with centre experience – McFadden or Earls for example – and Jones as a specialist fullback to allow the first three centres to concentrate on being centres. D’arcy is the pivot around which the potential RWC dreams of a range of players appear to hang.