BNZ – the Standard Bearers

And so came to an end the greatest tournament the game has ever witnessed.  New Zealand won, comprehensively, devastatingly and deservedly, and in doing so served up the prototype for what great, thrilling and effective modern rugby involves.  In 2011 they were crowned champions, but they barely stumbled over the line and were blessed by the manner in which the final was refereed.  This time, liberated from the chokers tag, they not only won, but served to demonstrate that they are the best team in the world by a distance, and the greatest of the professional era.

They are fitting champions of a superb tournament.  Indeed, we can only profess ourselves to be surprised by the sheer brilliance of the rugby that was produced.  It was only six months ago that we were despairing of a modern game built on brawn, robotic systems and lacking in skill.  The last two world cups were pretty mediocre in terms of the rugby produced.  We foresaw more of the same here, a sort of turbo-charged Six Nations, but this proved way wide of the mark.  In fact, it was not just the Championship sides that performed such attractive rugby, but many of the Tier Two nations also, not least Canada, Fiji and of course, Japan – who would have made the knockouts but for some generous refereeing in Scotland-Samoa and, of course, scheduling.

One argument that can now be canned is that winning tournaments requires something certain commentators refer to as ‘cup rugby’.  For ‘cup rugby’, see a dull, monotonous game plan involving aerial kicking and one-out runners.  Long a bugbear of ours, it has never made sense that the sort of rugby required to beat an opponent in one form of competition would be different to that of another.  And yet the myth persists that a conservative gameplan is in fact necessary to go deep into knockout rugby competitions.  Hugo MacNeill, who spent the tournament ramming his feet down his throat on TV3, noted that in World Cups you need a Ronan O’Gara-style fly-half, while a Felipe Contepomi type was too outrageous for this rarefied atmosphere.  The august critic had obviously failed to notice that Contepomi holds a bronze medal for his part in Argentina’s 2007 showing while Ronan O’Gara had never made it beyond the quarter finals.

New Zealand remained true to their principles to the end, committed to offloading in the tackle and, especially, passing flat along the gainline.  They may have tightened up in the rain against South Africa, but they were still the more expansive of the two teams and won the try-count by two to nothing.  Ultimately they won the tournament because of their superior skill levels and supreme rugby intelligence.  They have no problem stacking their forwards in wide channels, and when the ball gets there they have the skill to execute.  This gives their strike runners the freedom to roam the pitch and punch holes wherever they may choose.  It’s the exact strategy Rob Penney looked to bring to Munster, but he was laughed out of town for it.  Apparently it wasn’t cup-winning rugby.

The finale of the tournament has a habit of making the group stages look like mere preliminaries, and so it is here.  The past is a foreign country and all that.  And how ridiculous some of it looks from this vantage point!  What, for example, were England thinking?  Watching New Zealand’s all-court game makes it all the more unthinkable that they left Henry Slade in the stands and Ford on the bench, while Sam Burgess and Owen Farrell trundled about witlessly.  Did they think they could win a World Cup against New Zealand with such a ponderous game-plan?  And were we perhaps kidding ourselves a little bit that Ireland could live with this glorious company with such a mechanical, predictable approach reliant on kick-chase and mauling?  Had we better luck with injuries, could we have beaten Argentina and put it up to Australia?  It seems a lot to ask, a high level to compete against.

One other important factor is injuries.  New Zealand, by and large, stayed fit and healthy for the tournament.  Australia also, though they struggled when they lost Pocock for the Scotland game; indeed, they were almost unrecognisable.  They also struggled in Giteau’s absence when he was hauled from the pitch early in the final.  Like it or not, injuries play a huge part in a team’s fate.  Wales’ tournament was undone by injuries, and Ireland’s too.  It’s well and good putting up a no-excuses culture, but if you were asked three weeks before the tournament if Ireland could win a quarter-final without Sexton, O’Connell, O’Brien et al, you’d have objectively said ‘no chance’.  The closing out against France gave us a reason to believe we might not be so badly affected, but it soon became apparent just how terrible that French side was.

The question for now is: will Ireland be able to learn the lessons from this World Cup?  We’ve already posted that we’re unlikely to overhaul our gameplan overnight based on one loss to Argentina, and nor should we.  Ireland are Six Nations champions and will be competitive in that competition again this year.  But we note with interest Gordon D’arcy’s observations that the problem is rooted not in the national team coaching or current crop of players but in the fundamental skills learned in players’ formative years.  A sea-change in mentality will have to occur at every level.  Fail to adapt now and we may forever be playing catch-up.

If the revolution is to come several years down the line, the immediate evolution of the national team should continue apace.  It should not be forgotten that it is the provinces which feed most directly into the national team, and where the players’ day-to-day habits are formed.  Last year was an abysmal one for Irish provincial rugby, and the only way is up.  Leinster were an eyesore, Munster were dreadful, Ulster choked yet again when it mattered and Connacht were a bright spot, but ran out of steam.  We are far removed from Matty Williams’ ideal of a four-pronged provincial base all playing in some sort of ‘Irish way’, that inherently prepares the players for test rugby.  In all likelihood we will never attain such a thing.

However, it is encouraging that Leinster managed 14 offloads in their win over Treviso at the weekend, but tougher tests await, and we will watch with interest as the season develops.  There are a slew of promising players currently performing well in the provincial sides; Stuart McCloskey, Garry Ringrose and Noel Reid among them.  Will they be ready for international rugby come the Six Nations?  Maybe, maybe not; McCloskey looks the closest to stepping up a level.  Nonetheless, it is vital that Ireland show some signs of heeding the lessons that this magnificent tournament has provided.

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Where next for Ireland?

There’s nothing quite like the hand-wringing after a World Cup exit.  England are not just reviewing whether or not to appoint a new coach but the very process by which they appoint coaches.  It almost begs the question, who will review the reviewers?  Heaven knows what the fallout in France is like, because they have serious problems.  The decline of one of the great and most fun rugby nations has been sad indeed.

And so to Ireland, who will have their own self-lacerating episode to get under way, following yet another pre-semi-final exit from the Grand Shindig.  No doubt, Schmidt’s eye for detail on the training paddock and in team meetings will extend to the review of his own performance.  Schmidt admits to pragmatism and self-doubt, so he will question his every decision along the way and see if he could have done things differently.

The way the tournament has panned out with all four Rugby Championship teams making the semi-finals has delivered a perfectly formed narrative with a great big bow on it.  It leads to an easy and obvious analysis that the game is played at a different pace in the south and with a higher level of skill that the European teams simply cannot match.

On the evidence so far, this is more or less true, but it has led to the knock-on argument that Schmidt should radically overhaul Ireland’s playing style in order to compete with the likes of Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.  It’s an argument not without merit but it’s worth looking at in greater depth.

First of all, what is Ireland’s playing style?  More often than not it’s a relatively mechanical one in which aerial domination is king.  Both half-backs tend to kick high into the air and the likes of Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney’s principle roles are to reclaim these kicks.  Ireland confine most of their ball-in-hand play to rehearsed set pieces, from which they tend to get substantial reward.  Mauling, choke tackling and accurate breakdown work are also prominent.  However, they have shown, against Scotland in the Six Nations inparticular, an ability to keep ball in hand.  Against France, just two weeks ago, Ireland totally dominated possession and looked to put width on their game.  Indeed, even against Argentina, it was defence and not a lack of attacking nous that cost us.  Ireland scored two fine tries and 20 points in that match; had they defended better, that may have been enough to win.

It’s been argued in the last week that this is a gameplan devised to beat the likes of England, Wales and France but that it’s too limited to take on the better nations.  We’re not so sure.  And even so, most of the time, England, Wales and France are the opposition we face when we have to win – every spring in the Six Nations.  And nobody was complaining too much when we won the last two series.

We’re in the middle of the World Cup now, and as Demented Mole once put it, Ireland’s fans are like chefs, and work with seasonal produce.  We’re bang in the middle of The Grand Shindig right now, and the Six Nations seems a piddling consolation prize by comparison.  But memories are short, and come the spring we’ll remember what a big deal it is.  Ireland have won few enough Six Nations down the years, so we can’t really turn our noses up at them.

Besides, sticking all your chips on a tournament that comes around once every four years is a barmy strategy.  Stuart Lancaster has been pilloried for going on about 2019, so let’s not ourselves fall into the same trap.  It’s worth remembering that Ireland are out of the tournament because they lost precisely one rugby match.  Chances are we’ll have another quarter-final in four years time, but the idea of building a team with that one-off game in mind seems farcical.  There are so many imponderables and most of the things that will drive the result; form, injuries, the weather, team morale, are influenced by the hours, days and weeks leading up to it.  South Africa are in the semi-finals but they have arrived at their current selection and playing mid-tournament after a crisis-inducing loss to Japan in their first game.  So much for forward planning.

It also has to be remembered that Ireland play most of their competitive games in November and February, when conditions often dictate a duller gameplan.  The World Cup has been played largely on dry tracks, which has been a help to those more willing to run the ball, but in spring the matches are often played out on roly-poly pitches and in wind and rain. The first semi-final showed that sometimes the best teams need to play the conditions too. Ireland’s aerial bombardment was good enough to beat Australia last November.  Ok, it wasn’t in a World Cup, but anyone who thinks Australia weren’t there to win needs to watch the tape again; it was a game of thrilling intensity.

Another argument seems to be that “at Leinster Schmidt had them playing just like Argentina did, why has he gone away from that?”  A look at what’s going on in the provinces might be valuable at this point, just as it is to recall that at Leinster Schmidt had a midfield of Sexton, Darcy and O’Driscoll to work with, as well as a world-class offloader in the second row in Nathan Hines.  But last year he’d have looked at Munster and Leinster playing pig-ugly one-out rugby without pause for breath.  If the players are not able to pass or offload at provincial level, then what are the chances of getting them to do it at test level, where the space and time afforded are even less, and the pressure to execute even higher?  It can’t just be turned on like a tap, and Gordon D’arcy’s articles, where he has explained that Irish players are coached from an early age to support the carrier by hitting the ruck rather than looking for the offload, have been some of the most instructive reading of the last month.

Ireland do need to develop their attacking game, no question.  Perhaps we do not have ballers in the class of Fernandez Lobbe, Matt Giteau, Michael Hooper or Nicolas Sanchez, but last we checked Jonny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson and Jared Payne, among others, were all comfortable playing with the football. The skills are there, and we should look to trust them a little more.  But there’s no need to throw – or should that be Garryowen? – the baby out with the bathwater.

That Sinking Feeling

Irish fans have been left with a familiar feeling, as their team has once again bowed out before the semi-finals of a World Cup.  It was a heartbreaking, spirit-sapping defeat, one that leaves as many questions as answers.  Just why were Ireland so passive in defending the advantage line?  Might Ireland have pushed on had we drawn level with a late penalty, or had the Argentinians been reduced to 14 men for the last 20 minutes?  And might everything have been different if we had something more closely resembling a fully fit line-up to choose from?

We’ll never know, but chances are with our best team on the pitch the scoreline might have been closer, but Argentina’s ability to change the point of attack with ambition and accuracy would likely have caused too much trouble in any case.  They are a better footballing team than Ireland, and proved here that rugby really is a simple game.  For all the changes the game has seen in the last 20 years, the combination of fast ruck ball and accurate passing will go a long way towards winning rugby matches.

What frustrates more than anything though, is that this team has continued the long-standing trend of Irish team’s failing to arrive at the emotional intensity required for a world cup quarter-final.  Ireland have shown up and given their best for precisely one such game: the 1991 Gordon Hamilton match.  In 1995 we were trounced by France, and same again in 2003 when the team had put huge energy reserves into two very hard pool games.  In 2011, the team was out-thought and out-muscled by Wales, and here we were simply outplayed by an at times rampant Argentina.  Joe Schmidt is highly regarded for his ability to prepare teams for tournament rugby matches, but the feral aggression levels appeared to be stuck on the sidelines with O’Connell, O’Mahony and O’Brien.

Schmidt will be thorough in dissecting the defeat, but he’ll also question his own decisions at length too.  Jordi Murphy looked a curious pick at 6, and despite a couple of big plays, he was mostly on the fringes of the game.  Donnacha Ryan at 4 and Henderson at 6 would surely have brought a bit more aggression and presence to the breakdown – yet the pair never saw the pitch together, and Ryan only came in when the game was lost.  Meanwhile, the decision to start Cian Healy also has to be questioned.  Healy ‘forced’ his way into the team after a non-impacting appearance off the bench against Romania.  His pre-tournament injury has simply not allowed him to get any sort of form going, and there are shades of trying to play someone into form in a global tournament here; such strategies have a high chance of failure.  Jack McGrath was a huge step up in energy and impact when he came on.

At outhalf, Madigan went into the tournament as our designated finisher, a role he performed with aplomb against France, with Wee Jacko as Sexton’s backup (Keatley’s role in the Six Nations). However, in time, the waters got muddied and Madigan assumed both roles. So when Sexton was confirmed as down, Madigan was the natural replacement – but it didn’t quite work out, in attack or defence. Will Schmidt regret changing his planning? The lack of depth at centre also came back to bite – we picked only 3 specialists in our squad – Payne, Henshaw and Cave. After Jared Payne got injured, Earls stepped in and had a pretty good tournament in the group stages, but as the only player to start all games, he looked completely bushed by the time of the Argentina game, and the defensive solidity of Payne was sorely missed. Schmidt must be asking himself 2 things – why was Cave brought at all, and would there have been value in considering McCloskey or Luke Marshall in the summer camps?

And as for the Comical Ali injury updates (O’Mahony was walking around the changing rooms .. Payne has a bruised foot .. Sexton has been training fully), one sympathises with Schmidt – its not his job to fully brief the opposition – but the tone of briefings changed markedly from the open discussions from previous squad announcements and Six Nations. We can understand what they were trying to do (or not to do) but what was that about?

In the aftermath, much of the focus has been on the northern-southern hemisphere divide, and rightly so.  The gulf is somewhat cavernous, and at times the European sides appear to be playing a different game.  We can’t help but cast our minds back to some of the pieces we wrote about the State Of The Game around the time of the Six Nations.  Looking back, perhaps we were really  writing about the State Of The Northern Hemisphere, and just needed to watch more southern hemisphere football.  This world cup has, so far, been the greatest I can recall, vastly superior to 2007 and 2011 in any case.  It’s largely down to the brilliance of the Southern Hemisphere nations, as well as Japan.  The supposed tightening up and reduction of gameplans to kick ‘n’ bosh so beloved of Irish commentators, who have ascribed it the title ‘cup rugby’, has thus far failed to materialise.  New Zealand and Argentina refused to be dragged into trench warfare; why bother when you can use your superior skill to amass 100 points between you?  Is that not cup rugby?  And Michael Cheika spoke of his desire to keep playing the Australian way, even if it meant shooting themselves in the foot umpteen times. The two semi-finals are mouth-watering, and, sad as it is, the Northern Hemisphere sides (with the exception of the mighty Welsh) won’t be missed.

Leaders, and Being in the Lead

On Monday, we worried about what Ireland would lose in the knockouts when they were without O’Connell, O’Mahony, Sexton and O’Brien. Sexton is now back in the mix, but we talked about 252 caps managing the endgame. As the dust has settled though, one thing we are a bit more sanguine about is the leadership within the Ireland group.

A friend once told us that he met some person or other who had worked in the backroom staff of the New Zealand rugby team.  ‘What’s it like to be in the New Zealand dressing room before a match?’ he dutifully asked. Said the Kiwi: ‘It’s actually pretty quiet.  They don’t shout at each other.  They don’t need to.’

No surprise there.  If Sir Ruchie wanted to get his point across, we can’t picture him shouting and roaring.  If he had a message to get across to someone, we can picture him doing it in his polite, charming, Gatsby-esque way; the same way as he talks to referees that has kept him from getting yellow carded in spite of umpteen cynical ball-killing exploits at the breakdown.  No doubt a quiet, authoritative word from Sir Ruchie goes a long way with other players in the squad.

So it was with interest that we read Jamie Heaslip’s comments about the team’s half-time discussions during the Ireland v France game.  Plenty might have clicked on the link expecting to hear about the latest speech channelling the spirit of the Somme, a tear-stained battle-cry of ‘Let’s do it for Paulie’ – but no.  ‘We just problem-solved’, said Jamie.  ‘We worked out what gaps had to be filled and how we would fill them’.

Superb leadership.  In the absence of Sexton and O’Connell, we didn’t know for sure what the leadership group would have been, only that Heaslip was now captain. He was one of five players who played in Kidney’s first competitive match – also a victory over France – who also played on Sunday, the others being Besty, Bowe, Bob and Luke Fitzgerald. Leaving aside Fitzgerald, who essentially had a four year international hiatus, and you have the elder statesmen of the Irish team. Throw in Conor Murray (43 Tests over 4 years including 2 for the Lions, and also one of Munster’s key men), Devin Toner (30 extraordinarily consistent caps over 5 years), the once-in-a-lifetime talent of Iain Henderson and the pleasant surprise of how prominent Robbie Henshaw was, and the generations that are passing the torch are clearer. (and in a neat kind of #hashtag, one from each province there).

It’s especially encouraging because Ireland always appeared to be a team that is emotionally driven.  Better when we’re bitter, happy to be written off, uncomfortable with the favourites tag, all of that ultimately defeatist nonsense.   It’s not a winning mentality; it’s the sort of attitude that will yield one off performances but will capture little in the way of silver.  Kidney’s Ireland epitomised it.  One imagines such concepts are anathema to Kiwis, and Joe Schmidt in particular.  The Kiwis have the favourites tag every time they step on to a rugby pitch and have to learn to deal with it.  It’s a measure of how far this team have come in the last two years that they have become so clear-minded, narrowly-focussed and are developing a winning mentality.

It all augurs very well for the weekend. Even with our injury losses, which would have been crippling in the past, the strength of the systems that Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are based on meant that the performance against France stayed at high levels even as players got carried off. The major difference is that, instead of bringing players like Henderson and Henry off the bench – Cheika calls them “finishers”, which we like – our finishers will be Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock. Good players indeed, our standouts in victories against England and South Africa respectively last season, but not quite in the same class.

A month ago to the day, we said this about a prospective quarter final against Argentina:

At this juncture, this looks to us like a 50-50 match – both teams are in the bunch behind NZ, SA and Oz and around the standard of England and Wales. Still, this is what our tournament will come down to to cross the success/failure line – a one-off match with Argentina. Based on how Schmidt has prepared his teams to date, we’re backing him to pull this one off. We’re far out and injuries etc will surely have an impact, but from here, we reckon we can do it.

The only thing we would change there is that SA are a level below NZ and Australia. Clearly our injury situation is severe and the Pumas were mighty impressive in their performance against BNZ. Some are pointing to relative sloppiness against Tonga and Namibia, but we aren’t buying it – this is a top class team that will take some beating. The scratchy BNZ displays in later pool games have devalued the Argentinian performance to a degree, but they still have one of the best scrums around, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Tomas Cubelli and the magnificent Nico Sanchez, who can’t help but put us in mind of Den Caddah in his prime. But, that said, we certainly have the game, and the coach, to win.

But what we do think is that given our injury situation, given that our finishers aren’t of the quality they were against France, we need to be in front at half time, and particularly on the hour mark. Schmidt’s teams have made a habit of being in front at the break – in 26 games, Ireland have only behind only 6 times at half time, and they lost 4 of those games. In the ones they won from behind, they were only a point behind (France and second Argentina Test in 2014). We are good pace-setters who like to play the game on our own terms – in our Six Nations defeats in this period, we struggled to adapt when we needed to chase the scoreboard. Its a must that we don’t let Argentina dictate the game, and stay in front through the third quarter.

One other thing to consider is that we don’t know yet in this tournament is the relative strength of the best Northern Hemisphere teams (Wales, Ireland) and the second tier Southern Hemisphere teams (Argentina, South Africa). Luckily, we have a pointer for us on Saturday – Wales vs South Africa. We fancy Wales in this one, but we’ll be feeling a lot less sanguine about Ireland if the Springboks shake off Gatty’s men and end up winning by 10 points or so. If the Welsh make a game of it, or win, we’re more confident in our prediction that Ireland can finally break the quarter final glass ceiling.

Blood, Sweat and Tears

Well. What about that? Ireland finally exploded into life in this tournament and it had everything great about the Schmidt era – strong systems, disciplined defending and accurate rugby – allied to the old school emotional highs of previous glory days. As Ireland’s players dropped like flies, the team, every time, stepped it up another level – the collective desire reaching higher and higher pitch. The so-called replacements managed to make the team even better, and the controlled fury displayed by the likes of NWJMB and Chris Henry would do the stricken O’Connell proud.

As the game went on, Ireland somehow got better and better – what started out with Peter O’Mahony continued throughout the game with Besty and Sean O’Brien, and was picked up and returned with interest by the replacements. The most incredible thing was the response to losing 2 gold-plated Irreplaceables and our best player of the tournament was how we didn’t collapse, but took the adversity, and turned it around on the French. By full time, Ireland had their fourth biggest victory over France of all time, their first double digit win in 40 years, and it could have been more.

The Mole opined on this forum a few weeks ago that he thought Henderson was better than Fez – certainly his tackle on Bernard le Roux was Ferris-esque, and on a big man too. He was truly unstoppable, as was Chris Henry in his cameo. With O’Connell, Henderson’s level of play is clearly now on a different and higher level, but its the intangibles you would worry about replacing. Munster and Ireland are typically 30% better (we’ve done the science) with O’Connell on the pitch – while the team has a strong leadership corps, O’Connell is still the heartbeat. By the same token, despite O’Mahony being our best player for the first 50 minutes, we lost nothing with Chris Henry. With Henry, its more of a step sideways to a different kind of player than a step down. Yet O’Mahony is Munster captain, and we have lost that.

And a word for Ian Madigan – you are coming on to replace Jonny Sexton – a Test Lion starter, one of the best outhalves on the planet. You’ve spent the last two years stuck behind a Kiwi journeyman at provincial level and had to listen to everyone telling you that you are the poor mans Carlos Spencer – and extravagantly talented player who cannot control a game. Well, way to answer them – the second half was bossed by Madigan in a performance we would be hailing as world class if was produced by Sexton, or Carter, or Sanchez. His emotions at the end of the game reflected how we all felt – immense pride, and definitely a few tears.

The mid-game losses were severe – Sexton was vomiting on the pitch, and it looked to us like a whiplash injury. With his history of head trauma, this is very bad news. There official story is that it was muscular, and we really hope that is the case. The alternative could be career-threatening .. as O’Connell’s injury looked to be. Tearing a muscle off the bone requires long-term rehabilitation, and one wonders if his Toulon adventure is still on the cards. Finally, up to the point he went off, O’Mahony was everywhere – the rock of our defensive lineout, he’s a massive loss.

The French, as *ahem* predicted by us, were atrocious  – Picamoles was a force of nature in the first half but in attacked they offered nothing bar speculative Scott Spedding penalties. We saw Flaky Freddie, and even Dusautoir was mishandling. This, of course, was entirely predictable – anyone with a set of functioning eyes could have seen Saint-Andre’s (lack of) coaching leading the team to this point. The team was unstructured, directionless and shapeless for four years, and chickens are coming home to roost. Despite all the claptrap we read last week about them, France were as bad as expected:

  • They have never been in better shape. Really? I would hate to see them in worse shape – wilting after an hour, they had nothing in the tank at the end
  • They are a united camp after spending months together. They were a collection of individuals, like they have been for the entire PSA reign
  • You never know what team will turn up. You do – they haven’t beaten Ireland or Wales in this RWC cycle
  • They prefer World Cups to Six Nations. Another cracker – this must be why they won the 6N in 2007 before crashing out of the RWC to a rubbish England team and then finished runners-up in 2011 before enduring a miserable RWC in which they made the final almost by default.

Thankfully, Barnesy never bought into this rubbish and stated unequivocally France were hopeless. He was in a sad minority. They will lose to a spluttering BNZ by 20 points.

The flip side of this is that, while we’ve beaten them so comprehensively, we have paid a massive price for doing so. When the emotional high dies down, you wonder would you have preferred to have played as badly as we did against Italy and lost, but have Sexton, O’Connell, O’Mahony and O’Brien (following his reaction to Pascal Pape, a dirty dirty player, giving him an impromptu prostate massage) for the quarter final. That’s a loss of 252 Test caps and 3 Test Lions – a huge price to pay. And, indeed, the successive highs were themselves driven by the losses – a counterfactual with O’Connell and Sexton present for 80 minutes could well end with a similar result without such a huge investment of emotional energy.

That experience is what we’ll struggle to replace. Joe Schmidt’s systems are so strong that the likes of Madigan, Henry, Henderson and McGrath can come straight off the bench with no negative impact on team performance. But it will be very different with upheaval in the camp (minimum three players being replaced), a diminished bench and the loss of 252 caps from managing the endgame. Factor in the investment in emotional energy expended and this will be a long tough tiring week for the squad, ahead of a really hard game. But for the moment, we’re still on a high.

Group of Dearth

The latter stages of the World Cup have started to take shape as the pools head towards their denouement with only the BNZ pool more or less sorted. In that pool, the standard of rugby has been strong, with BNZ creaking in the second quarter but putting in one of the best 20 minutes of football seen yet in their opening game with Argentina. The Pumas, for their part, have looked invigorated after four years of the Championship – in previous World Cups they have looked like a Northern Hemisphere team, full of forward power and strong kicking games, but here they look like a combination of South African forwards and Australian backs. And, speaking of huge forwards, Georgia have been cowed by no-one and the sight of their brutish pack staring bemused at the haka was one for the ages – we couldn’t think of a team less likely to be intimidated. Gorgodzilla has been a force of nature, and his emotional response to being named MOTM * on Friday night was what the development of Tier 2 rugby should be about.

Here in Ireland we have never quite got to grips with the concept that the pool stages of the world cup are for the most part a warm up exercise, and that the real business starts in the quarter finals.  In all except the freakish Pool of Death, the two teams coming out of each pool have been flagged well in advance, and so – even with South Africa’s early abberation – everything has panned out as expected.  The only thing down for decision in the vast majority of world cup pools dating back to whenever, is the fight between first and second, which isn’t always of great consequence.  In 2011, Ireland placed too much importance on having beaten Australia in the pool.  It was a fine performance and tactically shrewd, but ultimately immaterial.  In the quarter finals, when winning really mattered, Ireland fluffed their lines and Australia, who had come second in the pool, advanced to the semi-finals.

The only pool with no teams yet qualified (mathematically anyway) is the South Africa one. In reality, the Springboks are home and hosed – the defeat against Japan woke the squad up, and with Meyer privately briefing against Jean de Villiers’ twin for crimes against the gameplan in that defeat, the defeat and the captain’s injury has allowed Meyer to let yoof have its fling. Damian de Allende and the ginormous Lood de Jager have come in for JdV and Victor Matfield – the physical comparison with Scotland seemed unfair at times, and their pure beastliness will take them far but the team still feels a little callow at this point. Even if Wales lose to the Wobs, as seems likely, they might fancy a cut off these Boks. Second place will come down to Samoa-Scotland – if the Scots win, they are through, if Samoa win Japan will get through with a bonus point win against the USA. Whatever about (largely made-up) Celtic brotherhood, we for one will be cheering heartily for Samoa on Saturday.  But with Samoa a disorganised shambles, the Scots should coast into the quarter finals.

In the Pool of Death, England have had the huge misfortune to come up against two of the best coaches in the world coaching intelligent and focused teams, at just the wrong time. Australia followed up on Wales’ triumph with a scintillating display of scrummaging, backrow brilliance and creativity out wide – England’s props were taken out of the firing line before the hour mark! We’ll have a scapegoat watch on England later in the week, but few would have lived with the Wobblies on Saturday night. Fiji were also hotly tipped to cause an upset of one of the big three – in the event, they didn’t really come close, with just too much inaccuracy against good teams, but man they can play when they want to.

And what then of Ireland’s pool? The only one without any Southern Hemisphere skill or Pacific Island magic has largely stunk the tournament out, to be frank. The pool has been peppered with low standard and forgettable games, with Ireland-Italy merely being the latest – all three French games have been desperately poor quality. Canada have brought some of the effervescent Tier 2 buzz that have characterised the tournament, to be fair. The pool carries a faint whiff of the English pool in the last tournament – chock full of European teams (and Argentina in their previous Northern Hemisphere iteration) – the pool was defined by forward power and was eminently forgettable, barring the amusing off-field tales concerning the England players. When it came to the knockouts, both Argentina and England were dumped out without too much bother – and they weren’t lamented.

The nagging worry at this point is that the general lack of inspiration present proves fatal to Ireland and France in the next round when they will be abruptly exposed to high class rugby, with New Zealand and Argentina waiting, probably two of the best three sides to this point.

The Italian game at the weekend was, by some distance, the worst performance of the Joe Schmidt era – this is a very limited Italian side, yet Ireland somehow managed to make Simone Favaro and Edoardo Gori look like Schalk Burger and Aaron Smith. Schmidt’s success has been built on forcing mistakes from opponents through an extremely accurate kicking game, intelligent rucking and watertight defence – all three elements were conspicuous by their absence on Sunday. If it wasn’t for Italy’s inability to run a lineout (and O’Mahony’s defensive excellence – he may have been called Ireland’s Bakkies Botha last week (!) but could Bakkies have made that tackle? I don’t think so) today’s conversation would be very different, and much more fraught.

Expect the usual commentary about us playing badly being a good thing because <cup rugby> and <complacency>. In truth, cup rugby doesn’t involve kicking the ball away and hanging on by your fingertips, and you’d have thought that three games into a World Cup, we wouldn’t need a reminder of what is at stake. But there is good news – the expected return of Jared Payne and Bob will beef up our defence and kicking game, and it pretty tough to see Conor Murray playing this badly again. The lack of form shown so far this year by Sexton and O’Brien is a concerning issue – and while Schmidt might be tempted to turn to Chris Henry, we urgently need Sexton to show some of his best form.

Another positive is that this France team thrive on one thing and one thing only – beef in the tight. The set piece has been a continual strength, even against Italy, and that is unlikely to change. If our rucking work improves and our defence is a little less passive, we have it well within our werewithall to keep them out – add in how vulnerable they looked to DTH van der Merwe, and you might just expect the likes of Earls to look threatening .. if Ireland manage to get the ball to him. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater – if Ireland tighten up on the basics, they will beat an unstructured and poorly-coached France team, and that’s what they should concentrate on. Forget not knowing which French side will show up, let’s worry about ensuring the correct Ireland side show up – the one which kicks and rucks well.

* This being the first RWC in the mass social media era has been both good and bad – it’s been good for the fans worldwide who can now read the likes of Dorce and Charlie Morgan, whose forensic brilliance has been brought global by new meeja. The bad: the nonsensical MOTM system. Around the 50 minute mark of every game, a WR gnome nominates three players who are then voted upon by ver people. This horseshit system got the result it deserved on Saturday night, when Joe Launchbury was named MOTM in the aftermath of one of the great World Cup performances … by his opponents. Gorgodzilla is a rare exception.

Meltdown

It feels like a bit of a strange World Cup for the Irish at this point – we are still over a week from our first (of many we hope) peak while the tournament goes supernova around us. We haven’t even managed to get the usual pat-on-the-head platitudes about being the best fans, since the general atmosphere has been fantastic.  Minnows have been largely competitive, and then there have been the headline games. The Japan-South Africa and New Zealand-Argentina games on the first weekend were fantastic, but last Saturdays epic was one of the truly great World Cup games.

We were going to write a great piece about England’s great capitulation, but Graham Henry covered it all so comprehensively, his piece was unimprovable. Henry was scathing and unsparing. England were poorly selected, afraid to play rugby and choked in the last 20 minutes, making terrible decisions both on and off the pitch. It was a great article. What came through was Henry’s absolute disdain for what we call the ‘rugby of fear’. Not for Henry the usual hoo-ha of ‘cup rugby’, which is translation for ‘kicking to the other team and hoping they make mistakes’. You go out to beat the other team by playing them off the park. If you have lineout and scrum dominance, he said in so many words, why on earth are you not playing rugby with the high quality first phase ball? It’s anathema to him.

For the record, we cannot understand the decision to go down the line at the end. Whatever about the match situation, whatever about the relative percentages of a rolling maul versus a moderately difficult kick for a 7-from-7 kicker, the fact is – a draw virtually ensures England qualify. At the very least, it means an injury-ravaged Welsh side need to win twice.

But whatever of the erroneous final decision to decline the kick at goal, the choking began well before that. You could say it began the moment Ben Youngs departed the pitch and England suddenly began to clam up. ‘All the good stuff was coming through Ben’, they seemed to say, ‘What do we do now?’ Indeed, you could argue the choking began even before kick off, with Lancaster’s selection. We were critical of it, and our concerns came to pass. It was a selection of fear. A team picked not to lose.  A selection to put doubts in the minds of his own players. A selection the Welsh will have picked up and said ‘these chaps are worried’. It was hardly surprising that those doubts seeped from Lancaster into his players’ heads in the fateful final half hour.

Demented Mole wrote a great analysis of Australia a couple of weeks back, noting in particular the decisiveness of Michael Cheika’s actions as head coach. It raised a key point. Coaches’ decisions will not always be correct, but in acting decisively they will partially mitigate even those they get wrong. The best coaches act decisively. Joe Schmidt, for example. Say what you want about Ireland being boring or mechanical, but the coach is absolutely decisive in how he has set them out play, and how he picks the team. But Lancaster lacks decisiveness, and you struggle to see what England are trying to do. Even over the complete RWC cycle, its tough to map out what England have been building towards (bar Japan 2019, as Lancaster is so fond of pointing out)

The Wales selection seemed like throwing away two years of work on a playing philosophy on the eve of his biggest gamem and his team have a well-earned reputation for lacking decisiveness in clutch situations. What does he do now? Persist with the new game plan, or go back to the old one? Can he decide? He somehow wound up with a team on the pitch with around 2/3 of the cap total he had planned four years ago, another symptom of squad mismanagement.

Worse still was how England managed to make things worse, not better, in the post match interviews. In the immediate aftermath, Robshaw appeared to implicate the kickers Farrell and Ford for the decision to go down the line, before changing his mind and taking all the responsibility himself. Lancaster then appeared not to back his captain, after four years of four square support for every decision Robshaw made on the pitch. Farrell said he would have kicked if asked. Mike Brown just sounded disgusted his forwards had given away so many penalties while he was busy doing everything at full back. It all contrasted so badly to a Wales side that was steadfastly unified in the face of extreme adversity,  led outstandingly by Captain Sam Warburton and his brave Lieutenant Alun-Wyn Jones. One side had enough clarity of purpose to attack an opponents weak point (one paced outside centre) with four half backs on the pitch – and it wasn’t England.

What really struck us was Richard Wigglesworth having a pop at Will Carling for calling Lancaster’s England a “classroom-oriented environment” where the players are treated as “schoolboys”. To us, it sounds fair enough, but it was the contrast between Carling’s England and Robshaw’s England that stood out. Bum Face was appointed England captain after a handful of caps by young coach Geoff Cooke, taking over a side considered to have a disciplinary problem (sound familiar?), who hadn’t tasted success since the Beaumont Slam in 1980, with a few wooden spoons in between. However, between Cooke and Carling, they had fashioned a side that won the a Grand Slam in 1991 (the first of three for Carling) then went mighty close to winning their home World Cup later that year. Carling might have been able to work with Moore, Ackford, Skinner, Guscott, etc, but there was no doubt who was running the show – Bum Face would learn on the job, but he and his coach fashioned one of the Northern Hemisphere’s great sides in the same period of time that Robshaw and Lancaster have led England to this point.

It feels from the outside that the whole show is in danger of falling apart, with the camp seemingly coming apart at the seams, and there’s some serious work to do this week if England are to avoid a calamitous early exit. They now face a strong, coherent and settled (remarkably, considering how long Cheika has been in the job) Australia side, and you can be sure Cheika won’t be letting his side drop their intensity. England will rally; they never roll over for anyone, and it will be another huge, close game which will most likely be decided in the last 20 minutes. But increasingly, it feels like if it comes down to the wire late in the match, Lancaster’s England, like Kidney’s Ireland in 2013, will find a way of losing.

Artists of the Floating World

The first weekend of the World Cup goes down as a huge success.  Well attended stadia full of raucous support, good rugby matches, Ireland looking good – and Japan.  Some are calling it the biggest upset in team sport… ever.  And they’re probably right.  Upsets in modern day rugby are hugely rare.  Even the thought of a supposedly top tier nation like Scotland toppling one of the giants would be fairly seismic.  For Japan to do so is simply out of this world.  What more can be said other than that it was unbelievable.

The victory was spectacular for so many reasons.  For the pugnacious refusal to lie down and be bullied by the Springboks.  Even when the Boks scored a try in the final quarter to amass a seven point lead, which looked to have ended the spirited fight, Japan responded – and spectacularly too.  For the bravery to go for the win rather than kick for the draw (though the kick was by no means a gimme so the draw wasn’t cast in stone).  For the even greater bravery to pass the ball along the gainline to set up the winning overlap.  And for the tactical acumen and cool-headed shrewdness shown in the heat of battle.  Not just in the final denoument, but in killing the ball deliberately (and cycnically!) when South Africa were camped on their line minutes previously.  A try for the Boks in that position would surely have won the game, but Japan had the wherewithal to kill the ball, suck up the three points and leave themselves in a position to go on and win.

But most of all, it was for the sheer skill and technique on view.  Smaller forwards Japan may have, but they showed that the skill of effective rucking is about accuracy and technique rather than big men simply bulldozing into rucks.  They supplied their jinky, pacey backline with a supply of quick ball that was enough to score three tries.  The handling skills in the backline were easily up to the task.

Much had been made in advance of the tournament of the work their scrum coach Marc del Maso has done to bring their scrum from being a shambles, to one of the best in the world.  It came to pass here as they won a scrum penalty in the dying minutes that kept the pressure on the Boks.  As if anyone needed telling, Eddie Jones is clearly some bit of stuff.  And this was his finest ever hour.

Muddy Wulliams made the point that the growth of the Top League in Japan and the benefits of more regular and higher-standard rugby raises all boats. Japan is a very rich country with well-resourced corporations putting money back into the sport – this means teams with such romantic names as Kobe Steel Kobelco Steelers, NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes and Coca Cola West Red Sparks. While it would stick in the craw of AIL vets at Shanning and Garryowen, in rugby, money buys good stadia, full-time pros and Eddie Jones. While the status of the Top16 franchise in Japan (due to compete next year) is in flux, with Eddie Jones having thrown his hands up in despair and going to, ironically, the Stormers, its inevitable that it will happen some day. While Japan aren’t likely to become the new Argentina any time soon, they are equally unlikely to go 24 years without another RWC win.

Much like everyone watching we expect, WoC were running around their living rooms as if they were Japanese.  It would be nice to say ‘this is what the rugby world cup is all about’, but it’s not really.  This sort of thing simply never happens.  It made it all the sweeter, the greatest upset in the history of the sport.

Best World Cup Evah

Before we nail our Ireland preview to the metaphorical door of Wittenberg church that is tinterwebs, we need to consider just a couple of things:

  • The best teams in the world usually win the competition – obvious question marks surround the BNZ teams of 1995 and 2007 – the South African team that won so memorably in ’95 did very little else, and while the ’07 team peaked 24 months later when winning the Tri Nations and beating GivvusahugShawsie and 14 other red-clad men, but BNZ blew both in truth. However, no other champions weren’t the best team (either at the time or in retrospect) and indeed neither group of Springboks were unworthy champions.  Everyone associates the 2011 New Zealand winners with the nervous wreck that fell over the line in the final, but scroll back to the semi-final, quarter-final and pool stages and they were the best team in the tournament
  • Runners-up are not necessarily the second best team in the competition – this isn’t a league, remember. While the cream normally rises to the top, no-one is going to remember the 2003 Wobblies, 2007 English or 2011 French as vintage crops. Indeed, most in English rugby seem to have wilfully expunged the Ashton era from memory, and the French lost to Tonga and were an utter shambles rescued only by the leadership of Thierry Dusautoir, one of the all-time greats
  • Ireland have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals – and have really only had two tournaments you could judge a success, and 2011 only was one because we claimed a Southern Hemisphere scalp. That’s been our level, like it or not.  Put simply, Ireland’s record in these tournaments is pretty average at best, dire compared to our pretensions

So what was all that in aid of then? Well, let’s start on the third point – Ireland haven’t progressed beyond a quarter-final. It’s hard to pinpoint a time when Ireland were obviously among the best in the world – top 8 has been our level. Are we better than that now? Easy to say yes, clearly, on the back of our back-to-back Six Nations, but it’s not that simple. If we consider England, Wales and Ireland during the Schmidt era, games between the three have resulted in two wins each. In the last edition, the teams finished with the same number of points, with Ireland taking the gong on points difference. In our view there is a fly-paper between the sides.

If there is a fly-paper between them, there is a hardback book to the level the Southern Hemisphere showed during the Rugby Championship – it would be hard to see any of the Northern Hemisphere powerhouses living with the general standard produced during the summer. But – like we said – it isn’t a league. Ireland, quite obviously, aren’t the best team in the world, or anything close to it, but while that might preclude us wining the thing, it isn’t the end of the world (see: Lievremont, Marc – 2011). A semi final would constitute a “best tournament ever”, and seems to be something of a national obsession – and it’s achievable.

The major reason to think Ireland can reasonably consider this as a great chance to better their previous best is the draw. If Schmidt was asked to pick a top seed from BNZ, SA, England and France – he’d pick France. If he was asked to pick a third seed between Wales, Scotland, Italy and Tonga – I think he’d pick Italy. Aside from the fag-end of the Deccie era, we haven’t had any trouble with Italy since before Dorce’s international career. And Italy in Rome in the spring is one thing, Italy in a World Cup is another.  They travel terribly, and have been hopeless in World Cups.  It’s a dream pool, eminently winnable. And if we do, the only preferable quarter final opponent to the runner up to BNZ’s group is the one in South Africa’s – but still, at least we’re avoiding the one from England’s group. Compare a scenario where Ireland were drawn with England and Wales in the pool stages – would you be as confident? Hardly. So that’s great.

If Ireland win their pool and lose in the quarter finals, is that a success? No, quite frankly, it isn’t – we’ve done that, four years ago, and despite the best efforts of Gerry and co. to insist otherwise, it was a disappointment. The nature of the quarter final defeat made it worse, but there is no such thing as heroic defeat in a World Cup – just defeat. If we don’t win the pool, we play BNZ – and we won’t win, lets be honest with ourselves. So to make the semis and make the tournament a success (by our definition), the path is winning the pool and beating the runners up from the BNZ pool. Can we do it, and what comes next?

The Pool

We will beat Canada with the firsts, Romania with the dirt trackers and Italy with the firsts. No doubt. Move on.

What about France? The mere sight of a grizzled French prop sucking on a Gitanes or an athletic and good looking wing looking suggestively at Clare Balding used to make Paddy go weak at the knees and slack-jawed, allowing the tanned and self-confident Pierre to walk in multiple tries against us. But no longer – since the O’Leary game over four years ago, we haven’t lost to our bete-noir (thanks Gerry!). Deccie fought out two draws and Schmidt has beaten them twice. Nothing has been easy, but we still haven’t lost to them. Looking in more depth at the players in our squad, we have eleven who have never lost to the French (Madigan, Henry, Henshaw, Kearney Jr, McGrath, Murphy, Payne, Toner, Zebo, Henderson, O’Mahony), all of whom will have aspirations of being in the 23, and only Earls, Jackson and Ryan have never beaten them.

It’s a nice habit. Plus, for all the cliches about “not knowing what France will turn up”, we’re going to go out on a limb here and say that we know exactly what France will turn up – the rabble we have seen since Philippe Saint-Andre took over. They have finished fourth, sixth, fourth and fourth in their Six Nations and have a grand total of 1 (videprinter moment – ONE) win over teams that aren’t Scotland and Italy in competitive games in this entire RWC cycle. They are a directionless, shapeless excuse of a team that will be piloted by Freddy Michalak! We keep hearing about all this Herculean training they are doing, but listen – they were so woefully out of shape in recent years, it’s the least they need to avoid disgracing themselves.

The team are still – still! – constructed around the peerless Dusautoir, but the supporting cast, while individually excellent, just aren’t doing it in blue. The pack are huge, but what good is a huge pack if you can’t actually win any games on the back of it. For all the behemoth hugeness, they lack mobility.  Maestri, Atonio, Guirado – big men, but hardly sprightly, and not to be feared. What, on paper, is an impactful bench, is nothing of the sort – all we can remember is France hanging on at the end of games, not stepping on the gas. Constant chopping and changing in the backs has left us with Scott Spedding in the first team. If you cut them an even break, like England did in Twickers, they will run in a few tries, but play with accuracy and structure and you’ll beat them. Sure, it’s going to be tough going, and we’ll examine some of the micro issues in depth the week of the game, but we’re not buying any talking up of the French – this is the worst team they have had in memory, and we will beat them.

Knockouts

After that, we’ll be playing the runners up in the BNZ pool – likely Argentina. Ireland have been consistently ranked above Argentina in recent years, but for an odd reason: while we have hoovered up ranking points against Italy, Scotland and France, they have bled them by losing to BNZ, South Africa and Australia. Each year, they have got closer – and this year they hammered SA in Durban, having topped the Wobs in Mendoza the year before. They’ve been largely competitive, and had the best scrum in the competition for the last two years. It’s worth asking Schmidt what preparation he would prefer – playing and losing the RC or playing and winning in the 6N – there are arguments for both. And they will fancy beating us as well – they always do.

The UAR have for once done a good job, and have harvested players at home for the Super Rugby franchise that will start in 2016, with the majority of their squad now based at home. They are sprinkled with world class players (Ayerza, Creevy, Fernandez Lobbe, Sanchez, Imhoff) and are fit and rested. Similar to how Ireland will use their first three games to build up to France, Argentina play BNZ first and will use the games against Georgia, Tonga and Namibia to build up to play us.

At this juncture, this looks to us like a 50-50 match – both teams are in the bunch behind NZ, SA and Oz and around the standard of England and Wales. Still, this is what our tournament will come down to to cross the success/failure line – a one-off match with Argentina. Based on how Schmidt has prepared his teams to date, we’re backing him to pull this one off. We’re far out and injuries etc will surely have an impact, but from here, we reckon we can do it.

After that, we think Ireland will have met their match. A week after that, it’s the winner of the Group of Death (more of which anon) and for us, that’s as far as we go. A week out from Argentina facing a team who will likely have whacked Scotland pretty easily and taken off important players with 30 minutes to go. No shame, but we see a tired Ireland unable to go to the well three weeks in a row – this is a tough tournament and our best simply won’t be enough. And there is no shame in that – for this, remember, will be our best effort ever in a tournament in which we usually fall flat on our faces.

Off The Plane

Ireland’s pre-season knockabout against Scotland in front of a half-full Palindrome will probably be forgotten rather quickly – we were ragged and loose and allowed the Scots to have a bit of fun at our expense. Vern Cotter will feel like it was something of a moral victory that his team piloted by Greg Tonks, carried by Mercurial David Denton and containing the first Scot to be capped as both a back and forward in over 100 years forced Ireland to look so vulnerable.

Joe Schmidt, on the other hand, got a look at a few of the faces on the fringes of his squad and some new combinations as well – and the RWC squad situation looks much clearer as a result.  This is the post where you can insert your own use of the well-worn phrases ‘Off The Plane’, ‘Fellas putting their hands up’.

In the forwards, the identity of the second row and back row are set in stone now – Dan Tuohy looked wild and unstructured and nothing like a ‘Schmidt player’ and is likely out of the picture, and the unlikely task for Jack Conan to dislodge Schmidt favourites Chris Henry and Jordi Murphy isn’t going to happen.

If we take five props, as seems likely, the 17 forwards will be:

  • Church, McGrath, Bent, Ross, Moore, Best, Cronin, Strauss
  • O’Connell, Toner, Henderson, Ryan
  • Heaslip, O’Brien, O’Mahony, Henry, Murphy

If we take six, Killer (who had a pretty useful outing, albeit with the traditional three penalties) and Nathan White look like the choices. Either way, they won’t be venturing too far from the training paddock – for if there is an injury to a front line prop, they are likely to be flown over pronto and parachuted straight onto the Test 23 bench.

We didn’t learn a whole lot from the halves – sure, Isaac Boss is slow to the ruck and ponderous when he gets there, but we knew that already. But Boss is going as third choice scrum-half, and the only alternative is Kieron Marmion, who is deemed to raw for the squad this time around. Knowing the premium Schmidt puts on players being in camp and around the group, the odds of Boss being usurped are low.  Boss is going to his third world cup.  Remarkable in many ways, but there you have it.

Madigan gave the traditional curates egg of a performance – flashes of Spencer-esque creativity, good off the tee but always culpable to brain farts. Nonetheless, he tipped the balance in favour of the positive.  His distribution in the lead-up to Zebo’s try was superb.  He appears to relish playing under Schmidty, and Schmidt seems to get the best of him. He’s going to go as bench outhalf, and after a miserable couple of years toiling under O’Connor, the World Cup could be a restorative event for him.

Among the outside backs, it got interesting.

It gave absolutely no-one any pleasure to see Dorce left so comprehensively marooned on the day he overtook the great Mike Gibson as Ireland’s longest serving player. The pace had long gone, the dancing feet have been going for a while, but it was sad to see the defensive reads and positional certainty be exposed by the likes of Tonks and Peter Horne. It felt to us like a waste of a pick (at this stage, Darren Cave can do everything Darce can, and more, so why bother?) before the game, but it’s clear now – there will not be any fairytale and Dorce will not be going to his fourth RWC. He undoubtedly feels he has more to offer, so let’s hope this season turns out to be productive for him – for Leinster.

Zeebs was named as Quinny’s man of the match, which was generous, if not outrageous. We would have gone for O’Brien or the excellent Jared Payne, but there you go. Zebo played well, was solid under the high ball, scored a nice try. He could be ahead of Felix Jones in the reckoning if Schmidt rates his obvious qualities as more relevant than his occasional tendency to error. Either way, you’d imagine he’s ahead of Fitzy, who looked to have reverted to the skittish trying-too-hard Fitzgerald of four years ago, well-taken try aside. While Earls and Zebo have looked assured and confident in this series so far, Fitzgerald was quite the opposite. The sight of Dishy Dave coming off the bench to good effect won’t be making him sleep much easier either. We’ll look at this one in more depth in a few days, but Fitzgerald could well be in a bit of bother.

Peter O’Reilly mentioned last Sunday that Dave Kearney has apparently been outstanding in training, and he certainly appeared tack-sharp in his cameo appearance.  We can expect to see him start the next match.  Kearney was a mainstay of Schmidt’s first season with Ireland but last year never got going with injury ruining his season.  He’s become something of a forgotten man but could be about to burst back on to the scene.