Thirty Man Squads

Why are the World Cup squads capped at 30 players? It looks like an arbitrary enough number, set at exactly double the number of players on a rugby team. You might think it suggest that it enables a player and a back-up for all the positions on the field. Perfect? What more could you want?

Except that this appears to overlook the position-specificity of rugby, the development of tactical substitutions and also its attritional nature. Not to mention that certain positions in the team have essentially become 50-30 minute roles to be shared by two players, a development that has taken place in the last six or seven years – in the 2007 World Cup final, the victorious Springboks made only 1 permanent change and that for 8 minutes. Admittedly, their opponents, Dad’s Army, emptied the bench and gave luminaries like, er, Peter Richards and Dan Hipkiss runouts, but they were older and were chasing the game.

One other key development that it overlooks is that matchday squads have been extended from 22 to 23 players since the last World Cup. Not only does this mean that an extra body has to be supplied to each match, but it has a significant knock-on effect on the nature of prop forwards. Back when one prop took his place on the pine, the ambi-prop who could fill in capably on both sides of the scrum was a hugely valued commodity. The outstanding filler-inner in global rugby was Toulouse’s behemoth JB Poux. Sure, France had better tightheads than Poux, and better looseheads, but none were so capable at doing both. England had Matt Stevens and David Wilson. Stars of the game and world-class in the set piece? Not a bit of it but valuable filler-in for the 17 jersey. Ireland had Tom Court. The less said about his qualities on the tighthead side the better, but he was there to cover both sides, notionally at least.

But since the advent of 23-man squads the ambi-prop no longer has any value at all, and a specialist tight and loosehead can be – indeed, must be – accommodated on the bench. As soon as the new rules came into play, Tom Court could stop having nightmares about the playing on the tight side and get on with his role as loosehead… or just get dropped from the squad altogether. Matt Stevens could … er… forget about important things like fitness and conditioning but still somehow make the Lions squad.  What was our point again?

Given a lack of requirement to fill in on both sides, props have been left to develop their game on just one side. It means most nations will be looking at bringing nine front row players. The closest thing Ireland have to a prop who can play both sides is Jack McGrath who has filled in at tighthead the odd time, but scarcely for a over a year. Could we rely upon him as emergency cover or will one of Tadgh Furlong and Stephen Archer be required (along with Mike Ross and Marty Moore, who are appear locked down)? Surely it will be the latter.

Along with three props, chances are most squads will need three of that other specialist position, scrum-half. Only France have scrum-halves and fly-halves who are interchangeable; most nations see the roles as pretty disparate. It all means that three positions could take up 12 squad places and leaves room for just 18 players to cover the other 11. It puts a premium on utility players who can cover a handful of positions. It’s good news for these player types:

  1. The athletic second row who can run fast. The second row who is quick enough to play on the blindside has a big value, because he reduces the back-row/lock requirement by one. Donnacha Ryan made the last world cup on this basis. Step forward Iain Henderson for Ireland and Courtney Lawes for England. Wales don’t appear to breed this type of player; despite having an abundance of fine second rows most of their best locks would be an uneasy fit at 6.
  2. The fly-half who can play centre, or vice-versa. Fly-half is a pretty specified role and mighty important. You need three of them in the squad, in case one gets injured, but that leaves precious little room left for backs. So ideally, at least one of these fly-halves has to be able to play elsewhere. Or one of the centres has to be able to cover fly-half. This is why Paddy Wallace was in the last panel and Luke Fitzgerald was left at home. He could cover centre, full-back and fly-half. Those with especially long memories might recall that Geordan Murphy fulfilled the role in 2007 (when Wallace was the actual backup). Stuart Olding and Ian Madigan fit the bill this time around, and at least one of them is bound to travel. For England, Billy Twelvetrees is the man, while Dan Carter has a reasonable amount of experience at 12 for the Kiwis.  James Hook is probably the classic of the genre, but he’s so good Warren Gatland generally prefers to leave him out for vastly inferior players.
  3. The Utility three-quarter – if you can only play on the right wing, you’d better be damn good because if you’re only in contention as a squad man, you’d be better off if you could cover a few jerseys in the back division. Happily, Ireland have a good few of this player type, and all of Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald and especially Fergus McFadden have experience in at least two positions across the backline.
  4. The Catch-All Backrow – As with the back division, the flanker who can play a couple of positions has an inherent advantage. Ireland have found themselves with an unhealthy oversupply of blindside men in recent world cups, but Jordi Murphy – assuming he can continue his development from last season – can offer better cover at No.8 and No.7 than we’ve previously had. It also helps that Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien have played in all three positions in the backrow. Luckily for England, all their flankers are interchangeable six-and-a-halfs.  On the flipside, New Zealand, Australia and Wales appear to have the clearest demarcation between blindsides and opensides, with the likes of Warburton, Tipuric, Pocock, McCaw and Hooper performing the roles of the openside in the classic ‘breakaway’ mould beloved of purists like Leinsterlion.

All this utility nonsense might not be so important if they extended the squad size to 32 players, which appears logical.  Nobody, least of all the coaches wants a 2005-Lions-sized panel with lots of players who won’t see any action loitering in camp, but two extra bodies would probably go down well. Also, forget any notions of Joe Schmidt having a cast of extras in camp so he can draft players into the squad quickly in case of injury. It’ll be hard enough keeping 30 caged animals happy, having a bunch of hangers-on who know they can’t get selected unless some lad goes down hurting is not going to run at all.

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Self-Loathing Tendencies

Nobody does heartbreak like the Irish.  We are still SO cut up about Sunday – whatever about BNZ’s ruthlessness at the endgame, this team were brilliant and BNZ were blessed, utterly blessed. And the manner of the defeat – having it snatched from your grasp like that – is the worst bit. Sure, it was a (relatively) meaningless November international, but BNZ desperately wanted to win to preserve their oh-so-perfect year, and we did everything but win.

We aren’t sure we have emerged from the zombie-like PTSD, but we’ve got enough perspective to work out how much it hurts … relative to other heartache Ireland have put us through in recent years.  The list is long, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

  1. Argentina, World Cup 2007 This was horrendous. An awful tournament came to a jarring halt – toyed with by a team who hated us, and enjoyed their humiliation of us immensely. A complete non-performance that capped a month of them. The team were whacked and bagged so comprehensively, we felt like a boxer reeling from a barrage of punches. Expectations were high, disappointment even higher. Palla was there, having enjoyed a barmy Peak Of The Celtic Tiger blowout in Paris, drinking champagne from shoes and making our way home most ‘nights’ with the morning commuters.  That night though, barely able to speak, we went back to our mediocre lodgings and had an early night.
  2. BNZ, 2013 Can’t talk about it yet
  3. France, 2007 Palla sat in Croke Park for a good 30 minutes after the game, unable to move. To have come so close against our closest rivals for the championship, but to give it up when so much needed to go France’s way for that try to count – soul-destroying. But Vincent Clerc was a great player, the France team was excellent, and we nearly won despite being shorn of POC and BOD. Sure, it robbed us of a Grand Slam, but only in retrospect. Plus we took out England in spectacular fashion on the back of the pain
  4. Argentina, 1999 It wasn’t so much losing, as the manner of it. A rubbish game, and an utter lack of guile in the final minutes – the world had moved on and we were being left behind. The future looked bleak, coming on the back of a decade of defeats, and one worried about when we would ever see Ireland back at the top table. Simply awful.
  5. Australia, 1991 We weren’t old enough to appreciate the full pain of this one, but that’s not to say it wasn’t painful. There was a weird inevitability about it.  The scenes in Lansdowne Road were hairs on the back of the neck stuff, but this Ireland team couldn’t finish a packet of crisps.  Australia didn’t have long to score, but you just had the feeling they would.
  6. Wales, 2011 Ireland’s performances in the pool stages in New Zealand had blown the tournament wide open.  The team were playing brilliantly and clearly enjoying themselves. A path to the final had opened up with only Northern Hemisphere teams blocking the route. We thought Ireland had changed. But they hadn’t. It was like being stood up at a date with the girl of your dreams.  For Palla it was the most surreal of the lot.  Having been down in New Zealand and watched the pool games amid an ever-increasing feel-good factor, suddenly he was getting up at 8am to watch Ireland lose.  Had the previous four weeks been a weird dream?
  7. England, 2008 Forget the context of Eddie’s regime collapsing. Forget the lesson in game management Ireland got from Danny Cipriani. Forget the English joy at our hubris from 2007 being thrown back in our faces. And remember this – we lost by 23 points … and Lesley Vainikolo was playing for the team that beat us. Shameful.

Je Ne Regrette Rien… Except Maybe These

The IRFU pulled the plug on the Declan Kidney era yesterday, announcing that he would not be offered a new contract.  It draws a line under another managerial tenure that has been a distinctly mixed bag.  Kidney’s career as head coach can neatly be split into two bundles, one succesful, one not; the unbeaten claendar year in 2009, and everything since then.  We’ll always have the memories of Ireland’s long overdue Grand Slam, but beyond that, it was a long, slow and often painful slide towards the fiasco that was this year’s Six Nations.  Everyone knew the end was coming, except Deccie himself it seems, and the only surprise was that he didn’t resign and instead made the IRFU effectively sack him.

Sports coaches on the brink, movie stars in decline, those in power falling from grace: they all have a habit of telling you they wouldn’t change a thing in spite of the grisly endgame. We don’t know, but Kidney will probably never publicly admit to having made grievous errors in his tenure as Ireland head coach, but here are five mistakes that, privately at least, he’ll probably rue.

Paris, 2010. Paddy Wallace’s selection on the bench to cover the outside backs

Following Ireland’s stellar 2009 calendar year, the notoriously hard trip to Paris was the biggest obstacle in their bid to repeat the trick with another Grand Slam. The team was largely unchanged, but the bench had an odd look to it with the rapidly emerging Johnny Sexton now in the 22 as reserve fly-half, but Paddy Wallace retained as cover for the back division.

Ireland started brightly, causing the French worries with Gordon D’arcy looking threatening; indeed he was very unlucky not to score following a clean break, when his chip over the full back bounced oddly and out of harm’s way.  But things took a turn for the worse when Rob Kearney went off injured.  With Paddy Wallace the only available cover in reserve, a lot of shuffling around was required.  Earls moved to full-back, Wallace came on at 12 and D’arcy was shifted to the wing, where he was notably less effective.  Ireland’s attack was blunted and the French moved through the gears, eventually running out impressive 33-10 winners.

Symptomatic of wider malaise?  Yes.  In truth, Kidney never really developed the art of using his bench.  As coach of Munster he generally kept changes to a minimum; in the 2008 Heineken Cup final he brought on only two replacements.  As test rugby became increasingly a 22-man (and then 23-man) sport, Kidney struggled to adapt.  The bizarre (non) use of Sean Cronin as reserve hooker exemplified this.

November 2010. Failure to select Mike Ross and Sean O’Brien

Following a ho-hum Six Nations in 2010, and with the World Cup on the radar, the November test series looked like a chance for Kidney to refresh his team, which was now showing signs of rust. The tour of Australia and New Zealand in June was notable for the number of players selected – but most did well, and the team were far more competitive than expected given the injury carnage – four second-half tries while a man down against BNZ, then pushing Australia to the last bell meant the tour seemed like it would be something that could be built upon.

South Africa were Ireland’s first opponents in November, but Kidney elected to remain more or less true to his Grand Slammers of 2009, albeit with Sexton and Reddan selected at half-back.  Over the course of the four matches, Kidney stuck rigidly to his template.  It meant that Sean O’Brien – explosive with ball-in-hand for Leinster in the weeks leading up to the series – was limited to one start, in the Samoa game, and couldn’t even get ahead of an out-of-form Denis Leamy to win a place on the bench for the real matches.

There was also an urgent need to promote new tightheads, given that John Hayes was now in steep decline.  Kidney pinned his hopes on Tony Buckley – occasionally destructive in the loose, but a poor scrummager and with a tendency towards laziness – and when Buckley got injured looked to Tom Court and John Hayes to back him up.  It looked a strange decision not to even consider Leinster’s Mike Ross, now a mainstay of the province’s first team and a technician in the set piece, and so it proved.  Ross saw not one minute of action, but as the season unfolded and Buckley’s lack of technique proved hugely expensive for Munster, Ross found himself first-and-only-choice for the following Six Nations, while O’Brien was also belatedly promoted to the team.  The two players went from outside the match-day squad to lynchpins, more by accident than design.  It showed a lack of foresight, canny management and joined-up thinking.

Symptomatic of a wider malaise?  Too often Kidney seemed unwilling to promote talented players ahead of ‘his boys’, even when it looked obvious to outsiders that the incumbent was woefully inferior.  The debacle repeated itself with O’Callaghan / Ryan in 2012 and ROG / Jackson / Madigan in 2013.

RWC 2011; selection of ROG vs. Wales

In the 2011 World Cup, Ireland stood on the cusp of greatness.  They had memorably seen off Australia and dismantled a poor Italy side with little fuss.  The tournament had opened up for them, with Northern hemisphere teams lying in wait in the quarter- and semi finals.  There was just one slight problem.  Their premier fly-half, Johnny Sexton, had a dose of the wobbles with placed ball.  It led Kidney to dial 021-4-RADGE for the Italy game, and the Munster fly-half performed consummately.

The question was whether to stick with ROG for the quarter-final, against an eye-catchingly in-form Wales.  The Welsh team’s blitz defence and unwavering determination to bully O’Gara had made things difficult for ROG in the recent past.  Many expected Kidney to revert to the team which had beaten Australia, with Reddan and Sexton dictating attack from 9 and 10.  But he stuck with O’Gara and Murray.  Wales read Ireland perfectly, ankle-chopping their marauding flankers and isolating ROG, cutting him off from his backline with a super-fast blitz defence.  The chance of a lifetime was lost, and if Kidney could wind back the clock to have one game again, we suspect it would be this one.

Symptomatic of a wider malaise?  Yes, an inability to pick correct houres for courses.  In all of Deccie’s tenure, we never got the impression he picked teams with specific opposition traits in mind.  His first XV was his first XV no matter what.  ROG was the man to keep a mediocre Italy at arm’s reach, but his selection was exactly what the Welsh team would have wanted to see.  Kidney had to pick Johnny Sexton and hope his kicking woes were behind him (he slotted a touchline conversion at the end of the Italy match, so they may well have been).

Post RWC: failure to replace Gaffney as attack coach

If Ireland’s world cup was anti-climactic, at least it wasn’t an abject failure, and Ireland had done much right, not least in tactically outmanoeuvring the Aussies and their choke-tackle-led defence.  But in the aftermath of the loss against Wales, it was largely agreed upon that Ireland were lacking dynamism when it came to ball-in-hand attack, where Plans A, B and C consisted of getting Ferris and O’Brien to truck the ball up.  Their attack coach, Alan Gaffney, whose sum contribution appeared to be the Randwick Loop, was finishing up in any case and it looked like the perfect opportunity to bring in a new voice, with new ideas and given a remit to get Ireland’s attacking game up to speed.

Instead, management went down the bizarre route of placing a committee in charge of attack, with Kiss, Deccie himself and Mark Tainton, the kicking coach, taking over the role.  If it looked a bit like a patched up non-solution, then that’s exactly what it was.  The result was as you might expect – Ireland continued to look laboured with ball in hand.  The 2012 Six Nations was another failure, finishing off with the Twickenham Debacle.  Brian O’Driscoll was suitably concerned to air his grievances in public, saying the players didn’t really know who was in charge of Ireland’s attack, in what was a rare shot across the bows from the captain.

Symptomatic of a wider malaise? perhaps Kidney’s greatest failing was his failure to deliver a recognisable attacking gameplan for Ireland.  His grand slam was won by strangling the life out of opponents and an aggressive kick and chasing game, but once the breakdown rules (sorry, interpretations) were changed to encourage a more ball-in-hand style of play, he never successfully adapted.  Ireland’s style seemed to vary wildly from match to match, at times making them look uncoached.  Every so often they would appear to click into shape, only to revert to mush in the following match.  Ultimately, Kidney’s Ireland lacked identity, a way of playing the game that they owned.

The Entire 2013 Six Nations

2013’s was the last Six Nations of Deccie’s contract, and in effect he was playing for a new deal.  The superb performance in beating Argentina had set Ireland up nicely, but from first to last the campaign was a shambles in a way that nobody could predict.  Sure, injuries didn’t help, but Kidney and his team had a horrendous championship.  The trouble began with the appointment of a new captain, Jamie Heaslip.  It looked a positive step, designed to cash in on the momentum generated in November, but was dreadfully handled, not least when it emerged how upset BOD was at having been demoted.

Despite a morale-boosting and impressive win against Wales, things quickly unravelled, sparked by injury to Johnny Sexton.  So abysmal was ROG’s performance as reserve that Kidney elected to throw Paddy Jackson into the starting team for the next game, against Scotland.  Trouble is, Jackson hadn’t place-kicked in four weeks and management had made a blunder in not ensuring he got some practice the week before against Zebre.  In the event, Jackson missed three kicks and Ireland lost.

It got to the stage where every press release issued by management led to backtracking the following day.  When ROG was omitted from the squad (justifiably) for the following game, the next 48 hours were spent assuring the nation that he wasn’t being retired, when clearly he was. Sexton was named against Italy, only to be ruled out for a month shortly after the presser had concluded. The entire camp seemed to be imploding.

The final blow came in Rome, where Italy won 22-15 against an Ireland team that looked rudderless and without any sort of gameplan – had Italy been any less nervous, they could have won by 30.  The only player to try and make things happen was Ian Madigan, whom management had studiously ignored for the previous 12 months.  It just about said it all.

Symptomatic of: failure to plan for future when ROG was visibly fading.  Anyone with eyes in their head could see that ROG had been in decline since the 2011 World Cup, but management persisted in putting off the day they break Jackson or Madigan into the squad.  It resulted in Ireland having two fly halves with a single cap between them in the squad for the game against France. Had the re-build been conducted in the 2012 Six Nations, summer tour or November series, Ireland might have developed to the point where they could easily have managed the injuries sustained – postponing it meant blooding debutants left, right and centre.

Tipping Point

Egg read Ruchie’s book on a boring journey of late, and he found the post-RWC07 discussions illuminating. Obviously, Ruchie, Graham Henry and everyone connected with NZ rugby was devastated and disappointed with the defeat to France, both the manner of it and when it happened (quarter-finals). New Zealand had a goal of winning the World Cup and failed. So what were the next steps? The NZRU works on cycles based on the World Cup, so the Union set a goal (winning RWC11 at home) then asked how best to achieve that.

The Union then invited applications and pitches for coaches to do that. Robbie Deans applied, as did Graham Henry. Henry, though, applied as a team, with Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith, with a 4-year plan (diversify coaching expertise within the team, Grand Slam tour of the NH in 2008, retain Tri-Nations, win RWC11). Deans was a better head coach candidate than Henry, but Henry came with a better plan, and got the job.

The key thing was NZRU had metrics by which to judge performance, and criteria by which to judge applicants. In Ireland, we don’t have that. We used to roll from Six Nations to Six Nations, a state of affairs which only ended when Deccie got the job – he started in the 08/09 season and got yearly, season-based contracts. His latest 2-year extension was signed in summer 2011, just before the RWC.

Ireland had an ok tournament – they beat Australia, but fell at the quarter-finals to Wales. We aren’t sure if Kidney had a target from the Union, but, if he did, you would think it was a semi-final appearance. But we don’t know, and he had a new deal anyway. So now, Kidney has 6 months left on his contract, and this tournament is about whether he will lead Ireland into RWC15 or not. If we win a Grand Slam, or just miss out, like 2007, that’s going to be Deccie. If not, who knows who it will be. Either way, we are 2 years behind everyone else come November.

Last year’s Six Nations was a write-off for Ireland – just two wins, over Scotland and Italy, a creditable draw in Paris and a pair of horrendous defeats to Wales and England, notable for a passive gameplan and a mashed scrum respectively. More importantly, squad development was negligible – Ireland picked just 19 players, with all changes injury-enforced. Stalwarts like Donncha O’Callaghan and Gordon D’Arcy, who will be long gone by RWC15, played every game, and Ronan O’Gara, who has also played his last RWC game, remained a key squad member.

Since then, development has got better in spite of more horrible results, notably a 60-0 thumping in Hamilton – the likes of Chris Henry, Richardt Strauss, Mike McCarthy, Simon Zebo and Craig Gilroy have shown they have what it takes for Test level rugby, and the generation of Ryan, Sexton, Heaslip and Kearney have taken ownership of the team. A near-miss in the second test in NZ was unlucky, then a merry thumping of Argentina improved the mood somewhat. But, the fact remains, last years Six Nations was a huge missed opportunity – and its not like playing the same old faces results in a successful tournament.

Now, this isn’t completely Kidney’s fault – we don’t know if his bosses mandate him to concentrate on the Six Nations, or the RWC. Does he have license to use the first Six Nations after the RWC for squad development? You would suspect not, and, even if he did, would he, given his personal goal is to get a new contract in the space of 2 Six Nations and 1 November series? Unlikely. The nature of how the IRFU award contracts mitigates against that – the extension in 2011 was unrelated and uncorrelated to achievement in the RWC, and it doesn’t help the coach plan in a 4 year cycle.

The squad looks deep and talented right now (with 2 exceptions we will discuss below) and well set for a build into England 2015, with a good blend of youth and experience across the team. In the front row, Kidney has the luxury of auditioning candidates for bench roles at loose-head prop and hooker with the knowledge they have some Test experience and will be able to do a job. Cian Healy and Rory Best are incumbents, but there is depth, and occasionally competition.

Tighthead prop is a war zone – Mike Ross was in management cross-hairs in November for not putting the toilet seat up (or something), but the cupboard is bare. Michael Bent started off promisingly against the Boks, but has regressed to such an extent that serially-crocked Deccie Fitz is considered more reliable. After that, it’s the Scarlets’ favourite prop Stephen Archer and backpedalling Jamie Hagan – not good.

In spite of missing Paul O’Connell and Dan Tuohy through injury, Ireland’s second row resources are strong – Ryan and McCarthy had a great November, and willing winger Stakhanov is having his best season since 2009. If more injuries befall this sector, Devin Toner and NWJMB are available – neither are at Test level yet, but it’s not scraping the barrel. Even Ryan Caldwell is an option.

In the back-row, Fez is a long-term injury loss, yet we can still afford to have the likes of Roger Wilson and James Cawlin nowhere near the matchday squad. This unit is a strength, if badly-balanced – the absence of Chris Henry from the starting lineup against Wales is a criminal offence – the man has been just about the best openside in the HEC in the last 12 months, and offers badly-needed groundhog abilities.  It reinforces the feeling that we stumble across our best selections when injury forces the coach’s hand.  An unbalanced back-row has proved our Achilles heel very recently; but has that key learning been absorbed?

The halves pick themselves by now, and Conor Murray has able deputies in the 2 Leinster scrummies and Paul Marshall. Murray’s delivery was excellent against Argentina, and he is having a good season. Outhalf is a weakness on the depth front – Sexton might be the best outhalf in the Northern Hemisphere, but he killed Bambi we can only hope the Racing business is not a distraction, for we have nothing else. The great Radge is past the stage of relevance at HEC level, never mind Test, and it’s too much to expect him to revert to 2009 form – an outhalf who will be contributing through RWC15 should be given a chance to get some experience, be it Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan or Ian Keatley.

The centre partnership is still as you were – neither will be around in 2.5 years time, but no-one has yet demanded their shirt, with the possible exception of Luke Marshall, who we feel might have started a game or 2 were he not on the treatment table. Keith Earls has had a solid season at 13 for Munster, but didn’t take his chance in November – he’s still first deputy to You-Know-Who, but still deputy for now. Ferg is another option at centre, as are Dave McSharry and Darren Cave.

Wing is where we have the nicest selection issue – our best and most consistent wing of the Kidney era, Tommy Bowe, is out, but we can still afford to have Luke Fitzgerald and Ferg out of the twenty-three. We think Gilroy and Zebo are uber-exciting, but maybe both a bit too similar – we’d have like to seen Fitzy picked for Wales, but it’s a good problem to have.

With Bob back in the mix, the 15 shirt is nailed down. Simon Zebo provided a creditable alternative in November, and Robbie Henshaw has come right up to the cusp of the squad. Jared Payne will be eligible in 18 months too – this is another position of strength for Ireland.

So how will they do, in the latest make-or-break tournament? The France and England at home schedule is one which served us well in 2007 and 2009 – we always feel we can beat Wales on our day, and Scotland and Italy are bunnies right now. All of which is both a blessing and curse, for anything less than 4 wins isn’t good enough.

It all hinges on the Wales game – win, and we have momentum going into the England game, and should be beginning to whisper about France meaning Grand Slam. Lose, and we’re pretty much cooked – we could end up with just 2 wins and 2 home defeats. The Puma game in November carried hints of a new style, dictated by that new leadership corps, the Sexton, Heaslip, Ryan, Kearney group. It is essential Ireland take that up and go into these games with a coherent plan, for if we don’t, we are snookered. The lack of a definable “Ireland” style has undoubtedly contributed to our inconsistency, where we can go from nearly beating NZ to losing by a record margin in a week.

Another habit we want to break is the slow-starting one – against Wales, New Zealand and South Africa last year, we began series as if in a trance, and never recovered poise. If we lose to Wales, Deccie is basically a lame duck, and who knows how the season is going to pan out. Win, and as we said above, possibilities are endless.

If we can do both of the above (win, with a definable style), we are showing development as a team, and perhaps Kidney is the man to being us through to RWC15. If we do win 4 games with a near-miss on the other one, that’s definite progress, and something to build on. We may be behind the rest in this cycle (except Scotland), but a good tournament will go a long way to changing that.

It’s a pity the first match is the key one – a nice little trip to Embra to start would be perfect, but it’s pretty much win or bust from this Saturday. Regretably, we are leaning towards bust as the more likely outcome – a one-off performance against a disinterested Puma XV does not override the dross which preceded it in 2012. In addition, we have picked a side with no openside flanker to go in against a Welsh team with 2 of the best in the Northern Hemisphere. Wales will try and kick the ball long and in-play and force us into a succession of rucks. Given Henry isn’t playing, we will need to go into the game with a clear and executable gameplan in order to win – that seems unlikely to us, based on recent history.

The next game, home to England, is an obvious bounceback opportunity – we have a good record in recent years against the English and owe them one for Court-gate in Twickers last year. The English side is young and exciting, but ours is experienced and occasionally clinical – we think it has the makings of a memorable win. We’ll beat Scotland, but then lose to the French – we’ve a serious mental block against them, and the new-look snazzy bleus will fancy themselves – home loss. A wrap-up win in Rome on Paddy’s weekend will draw the curtain on the memorable but over-long Declan Kidney era, and it’s back to the drawing board for RWC15.

Eight Games That Defined Irish Rugby: Match Eight

The Match: Ireland 21 South Africa 23, 6 November 2010

What it Defined: Ireland’s inability to build on the 2009 Grand Slam

The State of Play

Following Ireland’s miracle 2009 – Grand Slam in the locker, plethora of Lions selections, out-muscling of the Springboks, zero defeats – it was inevitable that they wouldn’t maintain that standard.

In the following year’s Six Nations, Ireland’s efforts were considered a failure by the standards they had set for themselves over previous years. In a season when you visit Paris and London, three wins is par, but when one of your defeats is at home to a previously-winless Scotland in a game you were playing to win the Triple Crown, it puts a different spin on things.

There were three notable take-aways from the championship, and the most important was last – in that Scotland game we saw the first glimpse of Ireland throwing the ball laterally across the line for little gain. Going wide at every opportunity now seemed to be in vogue, but Ireland appeared to have little idea of what to do with the ball. In the Scotland game, the Jocks couldn’t believe their luck, and dominated the breakdown. Previous to this, there were commendable efforts to expand the gameplan, and Ireland had no problem scoring tries – 11 in total, and 3 each for Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls. However, most of the scores were off first phase set-piece ball, and you got the impression these moves would eventually be found out.

Secondly, the back and forth switching between Ronan O’Gara and Jonny Sexton started. ROG started the first two games, then Sexton the next three (after Sexton finished the November internationals as incumbent). This, amazingly, continued for the two years up to and including the World Cup – the lack of clarity in a key position seemed indicative of a drift in purpose.

Thirdly, Ireland’s rock solid discipline from 2009 (apart from the Wales game) was showing signs of breaking down. In Paris, Ireland had somehow withstood a furious start from the French to still be in the game when Jerry Flannery aimed a reckless fly-hack at Alexis Pallison – he somehow avoided a red card, but Ireland conceded two tries with him in the bin, where he joined Cian Healy who had already seen yellow for a shameless and lazy tug on Morgan Parra.

In their home games against Wales and Scotland, Ireland repeatedly gave away penalties. It took until very late to put Wales away as Stephen Jones hoovered up three-point opportunities, then, in the Scotland game, Dan Parks punished repeated offending to kick Scotland to victory – the mindless boos surrounding his winning kick encapsulated a frustrating campaign.

That June, Ireland went to the Southern Hemisphere to play New Zealand, NZ Maori and Oz. They lost all three games, but it wasn’t a tour wasted. A horrendous sequence of injuries meant a raft of young and up-and-coming players got gametime – and most did well for themselves – even Ed O’Donoghue.  Okay, maybe not Ed O’Donoghue, but the point stands.

In the New Zealand test, Ireland were reduced to 14 men after 10 minutes and were 31 points down at half-time. Yet, in a contrast to this years Hamilton test, they rallied and ended up scoring 4 tries; only the second time NZ have conceded 4 in their last 50 games (the other being the Bledisloe Cup game in HK last summer). Then Australia had great difficulty in shaking off the tourists in the final game, winning by 7 after trailing for much of the frst half.

Ireland may have gone 0-3, but it looked like they had engineered a good position to build upon after a difficult, but ultimately fruitful, tour.  They also looked to be finding their feet with regard to the ‘new game’.  Kidney and Kiss talked about rugby being a ‘game of keep-ball’ and of defending the ‘two-second ruck’.

Next year, Leinster started the season like Thomas the Tank Engine with three defeats from four (the time Joe Schmidt lost the dressing room according to G. Hook), but were building up to Stephenson’s Rocket by the time the November series rolled up – they had started the HEC in seriously formidable fashion, and Tullow man Sean O’Brien and the finally fit Mike Ross had been hugely impressive. The series would be Ireland’s first in the spanking new Palindrome, but the Old Farts had disastrously misread the rugby public – obscenely expensive packaged tickets put off many punters, and the opening game, against a Springbok side itching for revenge following a series of defeats to Ireland, was far from a sell-out.

The Irish media, meanwhile, were delighted with themselves – there was nary a dissenting voice – Ireland would comfortably dispatch an injury-hit South Africa and be all set for NZ 2 weeks later. Matty Williams has identified this as the point when Irish rugby got into the comfort zone – confidence turned to arrogance, and the need to constantly grow was left behind. At the time, this half of WoC (Egg) felt like Scrooge for doggedly insisting this South Africa team weren’t going to roll over and have their tummies tickled, but was in a small minority.

The Game

The alarm bells began to ring even louder when the Ireland selection was revealed – the message was clear – out with the new and in with the old. The tightheads were Mushy and Tom Court, tyro second rows Dan Tuohy and Devin Toner were ignored for O’Callaghan and Micko, and a woefully out-of-form Denis Leamy got picked on the bench ahead of O’Brien – Deccie was going with what he knew.

The tourists may have been missing the likes of Francois Steyn, Schalk Burger, Heinrich Brussouw, JP Pietersen and Fourie du Preez, but they came out strong and hungry – the Irish barely saw the ball for the first quarter, and when they did, were guilty of simple errors. One such was Eoin Reddan’s telegraphed pass off a line-out, which was snaffled up by the wily-but-not-exactly-Usain-Bolt Juan Smith for an intercept try from halfway.

Fly half Jonny Sexton’s radar wasn’t functioning for Ireland, in stark contrast to the metronomic Morne, and by the time Gio Aplon finished in the corner with 15 to go, Ireland were 23-9 down and looking well-beaten. To their credit, they took advantage of the Springboks taking their foot off the pedal, and substitute Radge inspired two late tries, and almost nailed the difficult conversion for the draw. However, it was too little too late, and a disappointing performance.

The teams:

Ireland: Kearney; Bowe, B. O’Driscoll, D’Arcy, Fitzgerald; Sexton, Reddan; Healy, Best, Buckley; O’Callaghan, M. O’Driscoll, Ferris, Wallace, Heaslip

South Africa: Aplon; Basson, Kirchner, de Villiers, Habana; M. Steyn, Pienaar; Mtawarira, B. du Plessis, J. du Plessis; Botha, Matfield; Stegmann, Smith, Spies

The Aftermath

The game saw Ireland descend into the cycle of inconsistency, indecision and unclear gameplans which culminated in the Hamilton disaster.

The following week, back in the Aviva (someone had to pay for it!), Ireland struggled past Samoa – Sean O’Brien and Devin Toner, calling the lineouts on his debut, came into the side, but Ross sat it out again – John Hayes resuming familiar duty on the tighthead side. New Zealand completed a routine 20 point victory the next week, then Ireland had one of those nasty and mean-spirited Pumas games to round off the series – they won, but it’s difficult to look good when your opponents only want to fight. The series had left Ireland looking tired and devoid of inspiration, with the management seemingly hunkering down with the team as it was for the World Cup.

The 2011 Six Nations campaign started with a flirt with ignominy – Ireland deserved to lose in Rome, but were rescued by Mirco Bargamasco’s unreliable boot and some late poise from ROG. They lose at home to France, beat Scotland in a drudge-fest, then lost to Wales in one of the most mindless performances from Ireland in recent years – the ball was kicked away over 50 times, and they looked entirely devoid of attacking ideas. They conceded a try from a shocking piece of umpiring, but, to be truthful, they didn’t deserve to win. All of which left them needing to win at home to England to even get close to par for the tournament.

This was their best performance since the Springbok win in 2009 – full of poise, aggression and attacking intent. It looked like they had finally turned a corner and were moving forward again The early Mike Ross (now one of Deccie’s untouchables following Mushy’s inability to make it through 80 minutes in a Wolfhounds game) scrum followed by Sexton and Earls attack felt like a keystone moment. Allied to the form of Leinster in Europe, it seemed Ireland were going to approach the World Cup with a confident, heads-up approach.

It was better late than never, but it was hard not to be rueful of a missed opportunity.  Ireland had left it until the last game of the series to get their best team on the pitch and by now frustration with Declan Kidney’s selection policy was in full swing.  The way Ross and O’Brien went from being persona non grata in the Autumn to 80-minute key players spoke of a lack of joined-up thinking on behalf of the management.  It was not as if they had not been on the radar in the Autumn – indeed, there was a loud clamour for both of them to be given proper exposure to test rugby, but it dadn’t happen.  How could they have missed something so obvious – that Ross was vastly superior to Buckley, Court and Hayes in the key position of tighthead prop?

The World Cup turned out to be more of the same, confirming Ireland’s as a team which flatters to deceive, swinging from the sublime to the ridiculous in every series of games. From almost losing to Italy to spanking England in that tournament, in the World Cup warm-ups it was a desperate defeat to Scotland (admittedly with a scratch side) followed by nearly winning in Bordeaux.

In the tournament itself, Ireland failed to get a bonus point from the USA, then followed that up with a purposeful and aggressive destruction of Australia, Tri-Nations champions and one of the pre-tournament favourites, in Auckland. Ireland were blessed by good fortune with the conditions and injuries to the Australian pack, but it was a tactical masterclass.  That was followed by yet more chopping and changing at out-half, and a smooth and smart win over Italy. Confidence was high going into the quarter-final against Wales, but Ireland flopped. O’Gara was in, and he had one of his worst days in green. Wales were wise to the ball-carrying of Sean O’Brien and Stephen Ferris and chopped them by the legs on the gain-line, and Ireland sank without trace in the second half.

A curate’s egg, then, no doubt about it – which was the real Ireland? The one who ruthlessly destroyed the Wallaby forwards, or the one swatted aside by (an admittedly top class) Wales? The sense of an opportunity of a lifetime passed up was (and is) strong – Wales went on to lose to an uninspired France side, who then put the heart across New Zealand, whose reponse to pressure was typically frenzied, albeit that they scraped over the line this time.

Perhaps the answers would come in 2012 – the coaching team got a re-jig, with a new three-pronged attack coach (mostly Les Kiss) replacing Gaffney, a new manager and Axel pinched from Munster for the injured Gert Smal. The attack functioned well enough after an inauspicious start, but Mick Kearney managed to alienate officialdom by implying they had no confidence in Wayne Barnes following his binning of Fez in the first game. Axel promised a fresh approach akin to that he had been working on in Munster, but lapsed into moaning about refs (a tiresome and increasingly desperate ploy from the Irish management) almost immediately.

Following a HEC campaign which saw three Irish provinces make the knock-out stages for the first time, confidence was high for the Six Nations. But the same problems remained – almost beating France in the re-fixed Stade game was merely a portend for a craven capitulation in Twickers where the lack of depth at tighthead was cruelly exposed by the English. By now every Kidney team selection was being greeted with howls of derision.  It appeared the coach was ploughing on regardless – of the 19 players selected, all 4 changes were injury-enforced, with no tactical or rotational changes at all. Donncha O’Callaghan, who had fallen to 4th in the Munster lock pecking order, started every game. It was indicative of the lack of direction of the team and an increasingly embattled management team digging their heels further and further into the ground.

No-one will forget what happened after that – two Irish provinces made it to the HEC final, yet the national team performance graph was more volatile than ever, swinging from almost beating New Zealand in the Second Test with a display of calculated power and poise, to losing 60-0 a week later. Meanwhle, the coach cut a desolate figure, resorting to taking pot shots at Ulster over the lack of experience of the reserve tighthead, and hunkering down for his last year.

This is where Ireland are at now – a player group low on confidence, without a discernable medium-term plan and seemingly unimpressed with the coaching ticket. Yet it’s a player group high on skill, high on intelligence and heavy with medals.  Scratching for 8th place in the world is not reflective of its ability.  It’s a similar place to where they were when Deccie took over.

How can Ireland put the type of long-term structures in place to maximise achievement on the international stage? How can they move on from the boom-bust cycle, briefly punctured in 2007 and 2009, that has characterised the team since 2000? How can the governing authorities modernise the sport at national level, where the inaccessiblity and eye-scratching dross of the national team contrast sharply to the provinces, motivated as they are by the ruthlessly commercial and Darwinian HEC scene?

If this sounds like a lament for a lost lover, it should – after Ireland reached their pinnacle in 2009, they have generally flattered to deceive and are a teasing frustration for the fans.  Someone needs to put a bit of sparkle into the national team.

What If … Wales had beaten South Africa?

So … that was the World Cup that was. New Zealand, the best team in the tournament, won it, but lost the final. A monumental choke didn’t cost them because of an absolutely shameful performance from Joubert. Example: on 76 minutes, the following happened:
  • Jerome Kaino leaps over a ruck and grabs the ball. Cue French demands for a penalty
  • Joubert: Leave it!
  • Kaino throws the ball back on the French side
  • Joubert: Ball is out!
  • NZ compete and ultimately force a knock on
Appalling. We have no desire to harp on about refereeing, but its really not acceptable. Anyway, we aren’t here to talk about Craig Joubert, we are here to talk about New Zealand.
So, they are a brilliant side, but they aren’t that good when forced to manage with Andy Ellis and Beaver at half-back – not that surprising – how would Ireland fare with Isaac Boss and Niall O’Connor pulling the reins?
Here at Whiff of Cordite, we think there was only one other side apart from France capable of beating the Blacks – the mighty Springboks. The rest of the Northern Hemisphere sides would have supinely surrendered, and we saw how easily the Wallabies were swatted aside in the semi-final.
With South Africa, you can be assured of 80 minutes of high intensity and physicality. You can also be certain that, like France, they genuinely believe they can beat New Zealand, and will plan accordingly.
“What If?” scenario 1 is an obvious one, that South Africa managed to turn territory into points against Australia, and go through to a semi-final, but we thinking the more interesting one is below, as later was better to play New Zealand.
This scenario goes back over 6 weeks, to September 11, when a late Francois Hougaard try helped the Boks squeeze out Wales 17-16. We’re not sure if we can get it down to one moment – P Divvy deciding to keep faith with the underperforming Bryan Habana maybe – but lets say Wales managed to close out the game – how would the tournament have panned out?
On the Kiwi side of the draw, we don’t see much impact – even if Wales managed to beat Australia (which they didn’t last Friday), they would not have beaten New Zealand. In the top half, South Africa would have been pitted against Ireland. There is a reasonable chance Ireland would not have been as sloppy as they were against Wales if faced by dark green jerseys, but the performance was way below what was required to beat the Boks – SA victory.
Next round, its France. And it isn’t France of the final, its France of the semi-final – who, to be brutally fair, were desperate. Save Heinrich Broussow being rightly red carded for a tip tackle on Vincent Clerc in the 17th minute by the half-French and arrogant (copyright Barnesy) Alain Rolland, the Boks would have done it.
Now it’s the final – and the New Zealand nerves are starting to jangle. Your average South African rugby man does not have an inferiority complex regarding anyone, never mind the black shirt, and the ferocity and clarity of purpose shown by France would most likely have been replicated.
On the other hand, France have dimensions that South Africa don’t – you don’t need to worry about Morne Steyn breaking the line and looking to offload the way Francois Trinh-Duc did – but the manner of the New Zealand collective panic gives South Africa a chance.
And, finally, the trump card. Picture the scene – 76 minutes have gone, New Zealand are a point up but South Africa have possession, it’s a ruck about 35 metres from the NZ posts. Jermone Kaino leaps over the ruck and grabs the ball. Instead of “Leave It”, you hear “Penalty Green”. Craig Joubert, watching in the stand, leaps up and cheers – Alain Rolland has just awarded his fellow countrymen a penalty 35 metres out, with 4 minutes to go, and the most reliable goal-kicker in the world has the ball in his hands……

24 Years of Hurt Over… Just.

You could almost hear an entire nation sigh in relief.  Just as Ireland with the Grand Slam in 2009, New Zealand choked utterly, but still had enough in them to get the monkey off their back.  They completely lost their way in attack, became clueless, rudderless and allowed themselves to be dragged down to the level of the rest of the world, but defended magnificently, their heroic captain Richie McCaw to the fore.

Huge credit goes to France, and in particular their two masters of back row play, Thierry Dusatoir and Imaonl Harinordoquy.  Dusatoir entered the pantheon of rugby greats yesterday, if he wasn’t there already, while Harinordoquy showed himself to be the world’s greatest lineout forward, and he’s not even a second row.  They were the only team in the tournament capable of matching the Kiwis both for physicality and skill.  South Africa bring a physical challege, the Aussies have the skillset, but only France, on their day, can provide both.  Their magnificence was one in the eye for the likes of Stuart Barnes, who wrote a lot of nonsense about them last week.

The game itself followed a familiar pattern. Rugby is a relatively simple game – and the adage that forwards win matches and backs decide by how much is a useful starting point. How do forwards win matches? By manfacturing pressure, by dictating the terms of the set pieces and the breakdown, all of which forces thier opponents into mistakes. These mistakes under pressure, in the normal course of events, are penalized by the referee, and the team on top uses these penalties to get increase territorial superiority, and ultimately score a try, or 3 points from the kicking tee. As the team on top gets further ahead, the side under the cosh must take more risks and attempt to score from less advantageous field position, giving the team on top some gaps to play at.

However, for all France’s dominance on Sunday, the cycle above was broken by the referee not rewarding their superiority. Craig Joubert did not make any outrageous home town decisions, but the pattern was clear right throughout the 80 minutes, and it was to the detriment of France. We don’t want to harp on about refereeing (although our muse Gerry is now basically a referee-moaning vehicle), but it decided the game and the destination of the trophy. Rugby needs at least the appearance of probity, and the selection of a referee for a final based on an assessment process which seems to favour one side above another is clearly sub-optimal. Just ask Spreaders how his career went after the opening game of RWC07 – why would Craig Joubert disadvantage his own career by pinging NZ off the park? The process is the problem.

But New Zealand deserve a huge amount of praise for their efforts.  As we noted previously, they had to beat, not only their opponent but the weight of history too.  And they had to do it not just without Dan Carter, but with the sixth best New Zealand outhalf (Donald was fourth choice, and Evans and McAllister are obviously superior).  For Ireland to find themelves in such a position, it would mean Niall O’Connor seeing out the match.  We were left with the extraordinary sight of a man coming on with so little confidence invested in him, that his team almost refused to give him the ball.  And yet it fell to this very fellow to knock over the crucial penalty. You have to hand it to Beaver, and he had the grace to laugh on the podium when the camera was on him. They say you’re only as good as you’re weakest link and in this case he was able to knock over a simple, but pressurised penalty from in front of the posts.  Sometimes, in sport, that’s good enough.

Whiff of Cordite Team of RWC11

Here in Cordite Towers, we are getting our retaliation in first, and presenting our Dream Team of the RWC. Obviously, in some positions, there is potential for us to have our angelic faces covered in egg, but we are willing to risk that. Next week, we will be revealing our Nightmare Team of the Tournament, consisting of players who covered themselves in embarrassment and shame during the competition.

The 4 best teams in the tournament; New Zealand, France, Wales and South Africa dominate the selection as expected, with only 1 player from outside this group – the immense Gorgodzilla.

1. Jean-Baptiste Poux (France) – Destructive in the scrum and an effective operator in the loose – unlikely to be going on barnstorming (Ooooooh) Tonga’uiha esque runs, but his power has given France a real platform.
Honourable mention: Guthro Steenkamp (South Africa), Cian Healy (Ireland). Steenkamp is a big man, and was the pick of the rest. Healy had a very good group stage, but learned a lesson against Adam Jones

2. William Servat (France) – An excellent open-field runner whose darts are accurate and secure and who can scrummage- Servat has every attribute a modern hooker requires, and he has shown them all in this tournament.
Honourable mention: Mario Ledesma (Argentina), Rory Best (Ireland). Best is playing the best rugby of his career right now and Ledesma oozes desire and class

3. Owen Franks (New Zealand) – The NZ scrum has been solid against 2 of the strongest units around, and dominant against Australia. Ben’s understated yet crucial contribution to the cause may be yet to reach its zenich, if NZ decide to Munster it on Sunday.
Honourable mention: Adam Jones (Wales), Nicolas Mas (France), Jannie du Plessis (South Africa). A lot of tight heads were embarrassing, like Ben Alexander and Dan Cole, but these 3 were solid and gave their teams a real platform

4. Danie Roussow (South Africa) – Gave away the decisive penalty against the Wallabies, but had a storming tournament aside from that – seemed to get over the gainline every carry and was rock solid in the set piece.
Honourable mention: Luke Charteris (Wales), Patricio Albacete (Argentina). Albacete dominated the lineout in all his sides big games, and Charteris showed all lanky light locks that the future can be bright

5. Lionel Nallet (France) – France have had the best lineout in the tournament (particularly defensively) and Nallet has been at the heart of that. His aggression in the loose has been notable as well.
Honourable mention: Brad Thorn (New Zealand). Dominant presence in the NZ engine room, brings real power and agressive rucking to the table

6. Schalk Burger (South Africa) – The Boks tame inability to get on the scoreboard was nothing to do with Shalk, whose physical ruck work and tackling were of the highest order. With Roussow, the standout forward in the best unit.
Honourable mention: Jerome Kaino (New Zealand) Sean O’Brien (Ireland). Kaino is now a team leader, and potentially Ruchie’s successor and O’Brien carried on his HEC form into the tournament

7. Ruchie McCaw (New Zealand) – Jokes about his invisibility to Joubert aside, Ruchie has shown real skill and leadership, and tore David Pocock a new one in the semi-final. The best openside in the tournament, and the world.
Honourable mention: David Pocock (Australia). Aus would have been on the easier side of the draw had he been playing against Ireland, and how differently it might have turned out. Utterly omnipotent against the Boks

8. Mamuka Gorgodze (Georgia) – The only player from outside the semi-finalists to make this team, and its easy to see why. Despite being the only threatening ball carrier in a heavy and immobile team, he made huge yardage every game, which was complemented by an obscene amount of tackles. A revelation.
Honourable mention: Imanol Harinordoquoy (France). Top line-out operator and wrecking ball off the back of the scrum with very soft hands. A class above Louis Picamoles, who was responsible for 2 of the NZ tries in the group stages

9. Mike Phillips (Wales): One of several Welshmen to shrug of a couple of seasons’ indifferent form and find his best again.  Passing remains no better than B-, but his strength and ability to break are key to the Welsh game.  Came up with game-changing try against Ireland and should-have-been-game-changing try against France.

Honourable mention: Kahn Fotuali’i (Samoa): The man brought to Ospreys to replace Philips.  Fast, clever and a good passer, he directed the Samoan attack superbly, especially against the Boks.

10. Rhys Priestland (Wales): Strangely, not a vintage competition for 10s, with Carter injured, France going so far as playing without a natural fly-half, and several others out of form.  But Priestland was the find of the tournament, graduating from Magners League class to test level seemingly overnight.  Has the look of a young ROG, right down to the apple cheeks.
Honourable mention: Aaron Cruden (New Zealand): From skateboarding with his mates to directing the world’s best team’s attack.  Things looked better for the Kiwis once Colin ‘Spooked’ Slade exited stage left.

11. Vincent Clerc (France): Even in the group stages he was good for France.  Master poacher whose sniffer’s instincts for where the ball is going to go enable him to get on the end of countless try-scoring passes.  Outstanding individual try against England, too.
Honourble mention: Richard Kahui (New Zealand): Relatively unheralded by Kiwi back-three standards, but Kahui has played his way into the first team.  Underrated performer.

12. Ma’a Nonu (New Zealand): Superb form has kept cult hero Sunny Bull out of the first team.  Ma’a Nonu’s line breaks from the inside centre channel have given New Zealand a key launchpad for their attacking game.  Once a straight-line bosher, now Ma’a has the all round game to beat all-comers.
Honourable mention: Sunny Bull Wulliams (New Zealand): Restricted largely to cameos off the bench, but the offloads are breathtaking.  The world’s best reserve.

13. Jamie Roberts (Wales): Okay, so it’s a fudge to put him at 13, but he’s been so good we had to get him in.  Played so well it’s strange to think that he looked so laborious for the last two seasons: how can he not get over the gainline?  The key has been the depth and speed with which he has come on to the ball.
Honourable mention: Manu Tuilagi (England), Jacque Fourie (South Africa): Harbour-jumping aside, Tuilagi was a rare bright spot for England, and lead the partial fightback against France.

14. Cory Jane (New Zealand): Could play full-back he’s so good under the high ball.  Tall, but with a fairly rangy physique, Jane is also surprisingly strong.  More easily forgiven than, say, Mike Tindall for boozy indiscresions because he’s so damn good.
Honourable mention: James O’Connor (Australia) and George North (Wales): O’Connor looked threatening every time he got the ball, which was not half often enough.  George North is big, but no flat-track bully – he has an array of skills to his game.

15. Israel Dagg (New Zealand): Player of the tournament?  Probably.  Graham Henry showed his ability to make the big calls in playing him ahead of a Kiwi legend on his way out.  He has been handsomely rewarded by Dagg’s brillliance.  Supreme runner with incredible balance and hands.  A star is born.
Honourable mention: Kurtley Beale (Australia): Sorely missed by the Aussies in their semi-final.  With Cooper in melt-down mode, Beale was the one who brough the genius to the Aussie attack, albeit too sparingly.

Ignore the blather: Rolland was right

Saturday was a very unsatisfactory day for the Rugby World Cup. A useless French team got through to a final they scarcely deserve, and a far superior Welsh team went out.  Much has been written about the sending off of their superb captain, Sam Warburton for a spear tackle in the 17th minute.  And much of it has been worthy of Kevin the Teenager: ‘It’s soooo unfaaaaaaaaaaaaair!!!!’.

Stepehen Jones said there was no malice in the tackle, and Warburton’s dropping of Clerc was an act of pulling out of the tackle.  Barnesy (in a shameful piece of journalism, it must be said) accused Rolland of an ‘arrogant misuse of power’, described him as half-French and pointed to conspiracy theories to secure the All Blacks the Cup.  Shaun Edwards called for a change to the rules, where a player can be placed on report, as in League (indeed, Edwards said the tackle was fine for a Leaguer), and intimated that Warburton shouldn’t have been sent off becaue he’s a jolly good fellow.

The fact is that Warburton’s tackle satisfied the IRB definition of a spear/tip tackle, and referees have been instructed to penalise a spear tackle with a red card.  The arguments against the sending off just don’t hold water:

1. There was no malice in the tackle and Warburton didn’t drive Clerc into the ground – irrelevant.  The IRB rule cites driving or dropping the player as a spear tackle

2. Warburton is not a dirty player – irrelevant again.  This invites double standards; that dirty Argentinians and Samoans are to be reffed one way and upstanding Anglo-Saxon heroes another. Disciplinary records are for judging panels to deal with, not referees.

3. The sending off ruined a semi-final – true, but not the referee’s fault.  The law is there to protect player safety, which has to be more important than entertainment for those on the couch.  It seems some have lost sight of why the ruling and sanction are recommended in the first place.  The reason the tackle is outlawed is because it is so dangerous.  It was Warburton, not Rolland who ruined the match, harsh though that may sound

4. A yellow and citing would have been fair – citings only occur for incidents which merit a red card.  So if you believe a citing would be fair, then you have to accept a red card is deserved

5. Rolland should have consulted a touch judge – this is effectively asking for him to bottle the decision.  He had a crystal clear view of the incident and acted decisively and correctly. Ironically, some of the same people castigated the touch judge in the Second Lions Test in 2009 for saying that Burger’s ocular exploration of Luke Fitzgerald was worthy of “at least a yellow card” instead of red

6. Other spear tackles in the tournament have been met with a yellow card – true, but those are the erroneous decisions, not this one.  Take issue with the referees in those games if you want.

7. Rolland is half-French –  a cheap shot from the likes of Stuart Barnes, who should know better. Plus he’s 0% French, he’s Irish – his father is French

8. Vincent Clerc was unhurt – true, but not the point – do we really want to grade an offence based on the severity of the injury caused?

Some commentators have even gone so far as to say the red card should be removed altogether with punishments doled out after matches rather than during.  This is nonsense – the team sinned against has to benefit from the opposing side’s misdeeds.  You really do get the imression the outcry is because a ‘good guy’ got sent off, and if it was a dirty Frenchman who had commited the offence, the volume of shrieking would be a lot lower.

And for those insisting that the sending off cost Wales the game: if the Welsh side could kick properly they would have won comfortably, sending off or otherwise. Also note that post red card, Rolland gave zero scrum penalties to France despite Jean-Baptiste Poux repeatedly tearing Paul James a new one.

And we haven’t even talked about the worst refereeing decision in the game – the penalty that Leigh Halfpenny narrowly missed – this call may have cost Rolland the final, but the red card certainly didn’t, since it was utterly correct.

Seconds Out… Palla v Egg Round Two: Bloody New Zealand v Strylia

So, after round one, Egg is in front, by a nose.  But even he, despite his gloating, admitted he ws lucky and Wales should really have won.  Onto tomorrow’s game, which had better be a whole lot better, and we expect it probably will be.

Egg Chaser says: Australia will beat New Zealand

Egg Chaser must admit, he is much less confident about this one than he was about France, but letsgo with it.
This Australia team have beaten New Zealand in Australia and Hong Kong, the only place missing is in the land of the Long (All) Black Faces. And they will surely not have a better chance to do so, given NZ are missing Carter and are carrying not fully fit versions of Ruchie and Kieran Read.
And make no mistake, NZ without Carter are very human – in spite of having the best pair (or trio!) of centres in the tournament, they laboured against Argentina, and didn’t score a try until the 63rd minute – and this is the same Argentina side that Scotland nearly beat!
The Wallabies have defended stoutly in the tournament to date, conceding only 3 pointers to Italy, Ireland and the Boks, although, as noted in our France preview, NZ can actually score tries (we think).
If Pocock and Ruchie negate one another, the Aussies have the flamin’ back line to wreak havoc. While Quade Cooper has been, ahem, average in the RWC to date, he’s the man NZ fear, and he can be magical. I think the tyro back 3 might nick a couple of tries, and NZ may just fall short again.
Although, since its in Eden Park, that’s probably not true. Australia by 3.

Palla Ovale says: more Eden Park woe for Aussies

All evidence in front of me points towards a New Zealand victory.  Much has been made of the Aussies’ Tri-Nations-winning performance over the Kiwis, and the mental fortitude they will get frmo it, but that was back in Strylia; not in Eden Park, where they almost never win.  It will take something approaching a miracle performance for Australia to get a win in Eden Park in a world-cup semi-final.

The only miracle so far is that the Aussies have made it this far.  If WoC ever becomes a millionaire, the first thing we’ll do is hire a bunch of forensic scientists to work out how on earth they beat South Africa.  If their set piece, ball retention and out-half are even 20% as bad as they were in the quarter-final, there is no chance whatsoever of New Zealand failing to get over the try-line and punish them.  If Autralia’s set piece is poor again, the margin of victory could be as much as 20 points.  Quade Cooper’s form is atrocious – it does look like the pressure of being Public Enemy No.1 has got to him.

That said, Australia will hardly be as bad again.  The sight of the black shirts should bring out something better in them, but it will hardly be enough.  The Kiwis injury troubles are being overstated – Israel Dagg and Richard Kahui are back in tandem – they’re only really missing one player, albeit a crucial one.  But while we’re on that topic, Aaron Cruden looked happier to be there against Argentina, and should provide more presence than the ghostly Slade.

New Zealand by more than a score.