Glass Half Full

Four years ago, the half-back combination were Ireland’s biggest personnel headache heading into the World Cup – at scrum-half, Tomas O’Leary was the first choice but was playing like a drain – he was being kept out of the Munster team by young tyro (© Gerry) and 4th choice at Ireland Conor Murray and all attempts to play him into form were progressively worse. One out, after 18+ months of prevaricating between Jonny Sexton and RADGE, we still had not decided on our starting outhalf.

Unsurprisingly, this all came back to bite us – while Conor Murray smoothly stepped up and ended the tournament as starter, it was too much to ask of him to play the French petit general role. That one went to Ronan O’Gara Jonny Sexton Ronan O’Gara, which didn’t work out. Not Radge’s fault, but chickens came home to roost.

This time around it’s all so different – bringing Benty (PLEASE – let’s keep him out of this one below the line) means we have space for an extra back, which looks like being Ian Madigan, meaning squad selection dilemmas are virtually nil.

Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton would likely be the Lions starting pair if a tour started tomorrow, and Eoin Reddan is the back-up change-up scrummie on the bench.  Reddan had a poor season for Leinster, but was superb against Wales, albeit with the ball presented on a silver platter.  The only remaining question is who Sexton’s backup is – while he has started 15 games under Schmidt, he has only finished 2, with 1 of those being injury-enforced – so this is a live question.

Under Schmidt, Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan and Ian Keatley have all started one game but Jackson and Madigan have vied for the first reserve position, with Jackson sitting on the bench for the 2014 Six Nations (except, famously, the last game) and Madigan for the other series. The generally accepted pecking order is that Madigan is the bench guy, but if Sexton is injured Jackson or Keatley are preferred. Since Keatley displaced Jackson in the squad for the 2014 November internationals, their form-lines have sharply diverged – Jackson has returned from injury playing heads-up and sharp rugby right on the gainline and is a good defender, while Keatley was a harrowed mess by season end. Madigan, the best goal kicker of the three by a distance, was stuck behind Jimmy Gopperth for most of Matt O’Connor’s Leinster reign, and was playing like Keatley for the tail end of it. When the wider squad was named, Keatley was out and Jackson and Madigan were in.

Jackson started the Wales game, playing well but kicking from the tee again remains a concern, and the received wisdom is that Mad-dog will get a shot at Scotland. And the likelihood is that all three will make the squad – Jackson will be Sexton’s nominal backup if he goes down while Madigan will wear number 22. If Sexton does go down and Jackson starts a Test, the biggest question remains around his place-kicking – while Sexton and Madigan are 80+% men, Jackson is 70%, on a good day (he went 4/7 against Wales and missed one easy kick). Can we trust an outhalf who isn’t a guaranteed kicker? It certainly contributed to Sexton’s demotion in 2011.

This time around, Jacko has been working with Dave Aldred, and Richie Murphy chalked Jackson’s first missed kick in the Millennium down to it being his first of the season coming early in the game, and him not being settled in his breathing yet. Mind you, would you trust Madigan to start a game, even with his kicking? At least it’s better than 2007, when the backups were Paddy Wallace (centre) and Geordy Murphy (fullback).

At least we know both will make the squad. At scrummie, the third slot seems likely to go to Isaac Boss, who, incredibly, will be going to his 3rd World Cup (as will Eoin Reddan) despite just 7 starts for Ireland – which must be some kind of record. At least Boss has been in and around matchday squads under Schmidt. Kieron Marmion looked to have inched ahead of him nine months ago, but a poor performance in the Wolfhounds game and a significant drop in performance in the second half of the season means Boss is back. After that, the dropoff is severe.

The squad, Test 23 and Test XV selections largely pick themselves, which is nice:

  • Test starter: Murray, Sexton
  • Test backups: Reddan, Jackson
  • Test bench: Reddan, Madigan
  • Tackle-bag duty: Boss

Kebabs All Round

The 2015 World Cup is the first one of the eight man bench era, and the All Blacks PR Department World Rugby have awarded everyone an extra squad place (and hopefully a bigger food allowance) to compensate them for the inconvenience. So that’s one extra slot, with Ireland going from four to five based on previous tournaments.

However, this is also going to the the first RWC where Ireland will have a substitution strategy, and backups will have a role to play beyond stepping in when the first choice gets injured. In the last two (ambi-propstrous) tournaments, Ireland have brought the following props along, with minutes played in crucial games (Argentina, France in 2007; Australia, Italy, Wales 2011) noted:

  • 2007: Starters: Marcus Horan (160), John Hayes (155). Backups: Simon Best (5), Bryan Young
  • 2011: Starters: DJ Church (232), Mike Ross (236). Backups: Patsy Court (12), Mushy

Bryan Young.  If you can remember anything about him, consider yourself the proud owner of a brand new hatchback.

Hard to see the bench men playing 17 collective minutes over five games this time around somehow. So if we now have four props that are critical members of the Test 23, of which we will need every man to play his role in the tournament. Best case scenario, we shove against Italy, France and Argentina just to get to a semi-final, so should Ireland be bringing a specialist backup for each side of the scrum?

First things first though – the first four slots on the plane, and jumpers 1, 3, 17 and 18 are locked in place with DJ Church, Jack McGrath, Mike Ross and Marty Moore all certain to travel. There was a flurry of “fears grow” stories started by the Indo about Church’s recovery last week, but there is simply no chance one of our few world class players won’t be given right up to kick off in the France game to get ready – he’ll be picked. And we’ve moaned incessantly about Ross starting ahead of Moore, but Ross’s performance have largely been good, and Schmidt has largely been vindicated, so we’ll park that one for another day.

So – five or six? O’Reilly suggested on Sunday that Schmidt was leaning towards five, and taking Michael Bent as the fifth prop in the squad, but that simply beggars belief – that would mean we are one injury away from pitching Bent in against the French for 20 minutes. Bent has made an admirable stab at nailing down a place in the Leinster squad (something we saw as his ceiling when he came over) but to suggest Leinster’s fourth choice tighthead could somehow play a meaningful role for Ireland in the World Cup is fairly fanciful.

With two props on the bench, the marketable skill that is being able to scrum on both sides is worth a lot less, and, given you are guaranteed to be facing a specialist, it all seems a bit pointless. Some will say “yeah, but if Church was injured, Schmidt would just call up Kilcoyne”, but if that’s the case, why even pick Bent in the first place if we are certain we won’t play him against the better sides? It seems an unnecessary risk.

Surely better to pick specialist backups on each side, and bring one less centre or wing or whatever – to place our World Cup hopes on the ability of Bent to hold up a side against Argentina seems a pointless risk. Tadhg Furlong and Dave Kilcoyne are the obvious choices for those roles – it seems to be too soon for James Cronin and to be fair to Kilcoyne, which we may not always have been, he’s a survivor in the scrum who is good on the ground and weighs in with more tries than you might think.

WoC’s Front Row squad picks: Healy, McGrath, Kilcoyne; Ross, Moore, Furlong

Playing Them Into Form

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh! *stretches arms* well, that was a fun summer vacation wasn’t it? The World Cup is very nearly upon us, and we’re beginning to get pretty excited about it all. There are only four warm-up games to go before it all starts, and what could possibly go wrong in those, eh? Eh, Geordie? Wally?? Whatever about the wisdom of playing three tough warm-ups and Scotland, surely surely they can’t go as badly as in years past? We have to negotiate:

  • Wales (away)
  • Scotland (home)
  • Wales (home), followed by squad selection announcement
  • England (away)

and two of those fixtures are the ones Joe Schmidt has lost in the Six Nations. While we look a cut below the Southern Hemisphere giants, we’ve been lucky enough to land in a Northern Hemisphere-heavy half of the draw – if we beat France, it’s Argentina (no gimme, but surely beatable) and then potentially England or Wales to get to a final. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

Ireland have a pretty settled squad and the vast chunk of the Test 23 are assured of their places. There will be some jockeying over tackle bag-holding slots (with one major positional exception – see below) but we are finding it tough to drum up OUTRAGE over the identity of the 31st guy to go. We’re going to think about how Ireland will get on in terms of a series of questions around the first choice 23 and preview accordingly:

  • Front Row: in the first RWC of the eight-man bench era, an extra slot has been added. We’ll look at this one first
  • New Willie John: Iain Henderson was the outstanding Irish player in the Pro12 post-last years 6N and his cameos in that tournament were of a high quality. We think it’s getting to the point where you simply have to pick him. Where though? Big Dev has quietly been one of Ireland’s most consistent players of the Schmidt era, and POM has been a critical component of the backrow. We’ll think about how we might use Henderson best
  • Backrow: four years ago, we had to pick three from Wally, Fez, SOB and Heaslip .. until Wally crocked himself in the warm-ups. Now we have to pick three from O’Mahony, Henry, O’Brien and Heaslip, all of whom have been selected when fit by Schmidt. Oh yeah, and there is Henderson as well.
  • Sexton and ….?: Jonny Sexton is far and away the best outhalf in Ireland, but the identity of his backup is still murky. Unlike in 2007, when Paddy Wallace and Geordan Murphy (!) would be assured of zero minutes when it mattered, Sexton’s increasing injury-proneness and Schmidt’s pro-active use of the bench means Wee Jacko, Mad-dog or even Ian Keatley might have a key role to play in this tournament
  • Wing competition: for the likes of Luke Roysh, Andy Trimble, Zeebs, Little Bob and Craig Gilroy, the possibilities for the tournament range from left at home kicking heels to Test starter. This position is where Schmidt has the most options, and it would seem only Tommy Bowe is guaranteed squad selection. Who should go?

We’ll be back tomorrow to talk about the props – feel welcome to give us your thoughts below, and preview the best OUTRAGE moment from the Indo’s Twitter.

Horses for Courses

With the shootout for the championship going to come down to points difference, Ireland will need to win by 5 points more than England, and not let Wales put 21 points more than them in the locker. The scarce-tries defensive focused gameplan might suffice, but keeping ball in hand, like the second half of the Wales game, albeit with more accuracy, is probably a better idea.

In the rumoured selection, Joe Schmidt has either thrown the baby out with the bathwater, or he hasn’t, depending on who you listen to. The word on Tara Street and whatever cardboard box passes for the In*o offices is that Schmidt will make two changes – DJ Church and Luke Roysh in for Jack McGrath and Simon Zebo, with Felix Jones retaining his Paddy Wallace 2012 bench role (no, honestly, he covers loads of positions).

Healy for McGrath is a close call – McGrath has played well throughout the tournament, albeit incurring Barnes’ wrath for his green shirt scrummaging angles. Healy has looked an awkward fit as a replacement – he seems to come on super-pumped and eager to make an impression, which didn’t end well against Wales, where he looked wild and off the mental pitch of the game. Based on that, you could make a case for Healy starting and McGrath on the bench as the best use of resources, but it seems odd to reward someone for being rubbish at one role by giving them a better one. More likely is that Ireland will look to play to the second half Welsh gameplan and keep the ball in hand – Healy is a more destructive carrier, and it’s horses for courses in that regard.  He’s a bit lucky to get picked, for sure, but he is unquestionably what Gatland refers to as a ‘test match animal’.

Fitzgerald for Zebo is more controversial. Opinion on Zebo ranges the full spectrum from “he is a show pony who can’t do the basics” to “he has lost a yard of pace and can only do the basics”. We wanted him in the team last season, but can see the logic for picking someone with the footwork and attacking nous of Fitzgerald for this game – where, again, ball in hand seems to be the tactic. While Zebo can also consider himself unlucky, we have to recognize that it’s another horses for courses selection – when there is less need for his aerial skills, there is a natural trade-off.

While you are likely to see headlines about sending the wrong message and such, it doesn’t make much sense for a coach not to maximize his resources to play a particular gameplan – there isn’t much point in keeping the same XV just because. And don’t forget, Fitzgerald might have had an injury-interrupted nightmare this RWC cycle, but he is a Lions test winger – he’ll be up to the job. And you can be sure Schmidt, like he did with Paddy Jackson last year, bringing Zebo along for the ride to recognize his contribution in the championship.

It also appears that strong consideration was given to bringing in NWJMB for Toner, but the presence of defensive line-out guru Big Jim Hamilton, plus Henderson’s relative lack of gametime, swung the debate to the status quo. Toner was anonymous against Wales, but it was his first poor test in a long time.  Big Jim is a wily operator, but when his absurdly long arms get the curly finger, we’ll be unleashing Hendo on .. er .. Tim Swinson. So it’s not all bad.

And Felix Jones is still on the bench despite a starting backline packed with full-time and part-time fullbacks. Sigh. We’d have Earls, but we feel like a long-playing record on that one.

Ireland (probable): Kearney; Bowe, Payne, Henshaw, Fitzgerald; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Best, Ross; Toner, O’Connell; O’Mahony, O’Brien, Heaslip. Replacements: McGrath, Cronin, Moore, Henderson, Murphy, Reddan, Madigan, Jones

Return to Traditional Values

As we think about how to gauge Ireland’s chances against Wales on Saturday, in what is (for them) effectively a Grand Slam decider, the thought occurred to us that Joe Schmidt has Ireland operating at a level close to the Southern Hemisphere big three. We based that on our wins over the Boks and the Wobblies in November, and the clinical nature of our wins over France and England. Wales were beaten last year, leaving BNZ the only peaks unscaled by Schmidt’s Ireland in 18 months. Not bad, but it’s qualitative – Ireland are the best team in a Championship that has left a little to be desired in terms of quality. Is there something we can quantify (we started life off as a rugby nerds blog, then somehow evolved into a platform for bitterness, so in a way we are, prepare the sick bag, returning to traditional values).

The recent run of 10 wins in a row left us thinking where this should rank in the greater scheme of things – on the face of it, not much since 2 of those wins were against Italy and one against Georgia. In fact, its not even a standalone record, with Ireland under Eddie having already nailed 10 wins in a row from Sept 2002 – Mar 2003, but that included wins against Fiji, Russia, Romania and Georgia. If you look at the list of longest streaks, what stands out for us is that five of the top nine (top seven if you exclude Cyprus and Lithuania) are by BNZ – BNZ almost never play useless minnows (disgracefully so in the case of the plundered Pacific Islands) and play the Boks and the Wobs every year, plus away games to the top European nations, and occasionally Wales. Winning streaks of 17, 16 and 15 (twice) in the professional era are bloody impressive.

That in turn got us thinking – what if we shrank the rugby universe to the Southern Hemisphere big three, Argentina, plus England, France, Wales and Ireland and the timeframe from 1999-now (emergence of Argentina as a serious force). Perhaps its a conceit to include Ireland in that company given our hopeless RWC record and paucity of actual silverware (not including Triple Crowns) compared to the rest, but bear with us. How long would record winning streaks be if only games between these 8 nations be in scope?

  • New Zealand: 16 (June 2013 – June 2014) – 4 vs France, England, 3 vs Australia, 2 vs Argentina, SA, 1 vs Ireland.
  • England: 11 (March 2002 – August 2003) – 3 vs Wales, 2 vs BNZ, Australia, 1 vs Ireland, France, SA, Argentina. This was Johnno’s team at the peak of its powers.
  • South Africa: 7 (August 2008 – August 2009) – 3 vs BNZ, 2 vs Australia, 1 vs England, Wales. This Bok team also beat the Lions twice in the middle of that run, and lost the Third Test – since they played the reserves in that Test, it doesn’t feel right to include the series, but worth bearing in mind
  • Australia: 7 (October 1999 – July 2000) – 2 vs SA, Argentina, 1 vs France, Wales, Ireland. Ireland certainly weren’t great shakes here, but this is another one of the great teams of the professional era
  • Ireland: 7 (March 2014 – Present) – 2 vs France, Argentina, 1 vs SA, Australia, England
  • France: 6 (November 2005 – June 2006) – 2 vs SA, 1 vs England, Wales, Ireland, Australia
  • Wales: 3 (on three occasions, latest February 2012 – March 2012) – in each of Wales 3 Grand Slams of the era, they quite obviously beat England, France and Ireland consecutively
  • Argentina: 2 (several times, latest Aug 2014 – Present) – Aus and France have been beaten in the Pumas most recent games. They won 5 from 7 from May-Oct 2007, when they were st their previous peak

First reaction – that list contains some of the best teams of the professional era – the BNZ team that equalled the record of Colin Meads great team, the England team that won RWC03, the Springbok Lion-tamers of 2009 and the 1999 Wobblies. Second reaction – the Greatest Team in World Rugby isn’t quite at the races – we’ll come back to that. And what about Ireland? You can pick holes in the strength of the Argentina teams we played if you want, but you still need to beat them, 10,000km away from home, at the end of the season. And we haven’t played BNZ in that timeframe. Yet still, we are in pretty glided company, even by this imperfect metric, and all the teams we’ve already beaten are likely the ones we’ll need to beat to get to the RWC15 final – we’ll take that for sure.

Ireland at present have attained a high level of consistency of results against the best teams in the world – they have a coach who has instilled a deep commitment to accuracy and execution, which is essentially the thing that has brought them to where they are. When we consider how Ireland will fare against Wales, we need to consider how Wales have fared against the big Southern Hemisphere teams they have played. And anyone who hasn’t been hiding under a rock will no that Wales record against that hemisphere under Gatty is awful:

  • New Zealand – played 7, lost 7
  • South Africa – played 11, won 1, lost 10
  • Australia – played 11, won 1, lost 10

They rarely lose by much (particularly to the Wobblies), but they consistently lose – and its the biggest stick that Gatland gets beaten with in Wales. The Lions Test series win with a majority Welsh side provides some counterpoint, but the reality is that if Kurtley Beale had worn longer studs, they would have lost – and that was to one of the worst Wobbly sides since Australia got to be a Lions tour destination.

Wales have picked their team for this game and its as you were. Tactics? As you were – classic Warrenball awaits. While we see big danger in the Welsh players who are least likely to play super robotically – Rhys Webb and Liam Williams (ironically, probably the two players Gatland felt least comfortable bringing in for Warrenball veterans Mike Philips and Alex Cuthbert), we just think this Ireland team is operating at the kind of level that Wales struggle against. It will likely be a tougher test than previous games, as Wales are similar to Ireland in that they play low-risk rugby designed to force errors. They profited from Scottish and French ineptitude in the last two rounds, but when put under pressure by England they looked rudderless and highly unlikely to win the game, despite starting with a 10 point lead.

If Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton maintain their accuracy of kicking and Ireland continue to own the ruck, we feel this will be enough of a platform for victory. It will be fraught I’m sure, but another bloodless coup would not surprise us. We expect by Saturday evening, Ireland will have a trip to Murrayfield to nail a Grand Slam, and an incredibly favourable draw all the way to their next meeting with BNZ.

Glass Ceiling

After a mighty impressive victory over Inglaterra, Ireland stand close to a historic achievement – a Grand Slam, just a third ever. What struck us after the game was how .. straightforward .. the tournament has been for Ireland. As against Italy and France, a strong third quarter put control of the game firmly in Ireland’s hands (and for the third time, they ended up on the back foot in the final quarter but then each time the opposition were chasing the game). England were whacked and bagged by the hour and the game was done – and it was closed out fairly efficiently.  Ireland were in England’s half killing the clock for much of the final few minutes, and though England almost ran in a try in the final play it wouldn’t have mattered.

England! Whacked and bagged! England have been tournament favourites since like whenever and were the most impressive team through the first two rounds.  Ireland simply put them away without a fuss. Once we went two scores up, that was it, game over.

Now, for the traditional part where we look at where our forecast of the game went wrong. While some of what we said did in fact come to pass (it would be chess on grass and Deep Blue would outsmart England), our overriding concern going into the match was that we wouldn’t have the scoring power to win if England landed a couple of sucker-punches. We were confident they’d beat France’s haul of 11 points and that Ireland would need to respond in kind. Well, they didn’t because Ireland stopped them at source.

A monumental effort at defensive breakdowns won the match. Rory Best led the assault, letting every rose-clad yeoman know that no ruck would be free from either he, Toner, or some Irish forward bent over double trying to pilfer the ball. If we didn’t win it, we slowed it to a crawl and the pressure resulted in England simply allowing themselves to make errors, which Ireland converted into territory and ultimately points. [Incidentally, one penalty against Peter O’Mahony late in the match was beyond ridiculous. As soon as I heard the referee’s whistle I jumped to the air so sure was I that O’Mahony had won the penalty. Then I looked again and Joubert’s arm was pointing the wrong way!]

Another improvement from the France game was that Ireland were more proactive with the bench. Mike Ross [superb again, it must be said] and Jack McGrath were whipped off before the hour, and Iain Henderson was on for 15 minutes. Two changes had to be made far earlier than was idea, but Tommy O’Donnell was superb. And Zeebs was brilliant too – we sort of said he should be dropped, but he was everywhere.

It was all pretty eerie – even when Ireland have been successful, they haven’t made it easy for the fans. The 2009 team salved a description of us all as “long-suffering” after years of near-misses but even then, the average fan gained 10 years through the tournament. The England and France games went down to the wire, Scotland had us in all sorts of trouble (remember Bob’s intervention on a bouncing ball to deny Chris Paterson a walk-in try?) and as for the Wales game… Paddy Wallace won’t be the only one who won’t forget that sinking feeling. Only Italy were dispatched with ease.

Even last year, we lost to England and rode our luck a bit against France. This time, we’ve beaten both without looking like we needed to go up into fifth gear, although the finale of the France match was pretty stressful. Italy were swatted aside and now there are only two games left. And then… it’s only the World Cup. We’re into new territory here.

The first goal – a Grand Slam – has two more peaks to scale. One, Wales, is Mount Ventoux and one, Scotland, is Mount Merrion. Dealing with Scotland will be simple – luminaries like Rog and Drico have come up with the idea that since Scotland will be facing a wooden spoon when we go to Embra, it becomes something of a tough game, since its a ‘cup final’. I’m sorry, but I’m just not buying it – they just lost at home to Italy, crumbling like that lovely apricot Wensleydale we got on the Lisburn Road in our last trip home. They are about to get a huge can of whoopass opened on them in Twickers, so forgive us for thinking they are not going to suddenly become a threat to Ireland in three weeks time. All we’ll hear about for the next two weeks will be whether we need to put Jonny Sexton in some bubble wrap and keep him under the stairs, and sure, he’a absolutely essential to beating Wales, but Ireland could play Ian Humphreys and still waltz pass Scotland.  Even if Scotland do show up you can almost guarantee they’ll find a way to lose the game.

But Wales – now that’s a different story. The Greatest Team in World Rugby have had their customary slow start and they are rather similar to us – they will belt the ball super-high in the air, tackle until the cows come home, and dare teams to beat them. The team is festooned with leaders – Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate, Dan Biggar, Roberts and Davies, Halfpenny. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve a back three who won’t crumble in the face of forty-plus snow-covered garryowens.  Halfpenny is a match for anyone under the high ball, and Liam Williams has played most of his footie in the 15 jumper.  And the rapidly-emerging Rhys Webb, who offers a little guile and creativity to supplement the Warrenball.

Ireland will be ever-so-slight favourites and Gatty would LOVE IT if he got one over on us, and Joe Schmidt. You can only imagine his face. It’s always tempting to dismiss Wales as one-dimensional bully-boys, and they have their off-days but they remain a good team.  Win, and they’re in the shake-up for the championship, which could conceivably be a three-way tie on match points.

Most beautiful of all this is our draw in the World Cup – we’ve got a shambolic French team (please, FFR, do the decent thing and keep PSA until the World Cup) and Italy, plus some bunnies. It’s hard to see at this stage, with our coach, how we won’t plot a way to win that group. The likely path after that is Argentina followed by the winner of the Pool of Death. Our base assumption has always been that England at home will be a tough nut for the Wobblies and the Greatest Team in World Rugby to crack – Cheika’s probably the most likely to do so, but that’s a debate for September. The way Ireland are playing, Argentina then England looks like a feasible couple of matches – avoiding the Southern Hemisphere big three right through past the semi-finals is pretty fortunate (if its ever even happened).

Despite the Irish glass ceiling at the quarter-finals, it’s hard to escape the feeling the stars are lining up, and it’s pretty frightening really – a lot seems to be coming together and our natural inclination is to ask how it can all go wrong. The first way is underestimating the Greatest Team in World Rugby – we certainly won’t be doing that.

The Game Is On

The Wolfhounds snooze fest ultimately might have some major import when it comes to looking back on Ireland retaining their Six Nations crown, but probably not – nothing we learned was earth shattering. Sean O’Brien is fit again, NWJMB is just amazing, Ian Mad-dog isn’t totally reliable in a mucky boot fest, Sam Burgess is on a hiding to nothing (Dear Slammin’ Sam, take up the sport, and be international standard in three months. Hugs, Bruce & Stu) and Luke Fitzgerald will find a way to keep our nerves jangling.

But now that is (thankfully) in the rear view mirror, the real action begins – it’s just five days until we walk out in Rome, and the Milky Bar Kid has some selection quandaries. The odd dilemma, a few posers and some awkward questions. Last year, he decided on the team (15 and 23) that was going to win the Six Nations and largely stuck with it right the way through. This time around, it’s slightly different due to RWC15 being the ultimate target, but we can’t foresee a series with Schmidt road-testing players and combinations – he’ll do that in camp and stick to a squad that he thinks can execute his gameplan. Who will be the players tasked with this? We’ll start with the forwards and look at the backs separately – the backs have more obvious question marks, but with injuries and returnees the forwards aren’t completely cut and dried either.

Loosehead Prop: Last year, DJ Church was the starter with Jack McGrath the backup. Church, however, is injured and isn’t expected back before the England match in round 3, leaving McGrath as the starter and incumbent for the first 2 rounds. We can expect Healy to march straight back into the XV when he is fit – Schmidt might be one for competition for places, but only within the parameters of gameplan execution, and Healy is one of the cornerstones of the team and will start is fit. James Cronin of Munster, a most interesting player and much better than Dave Kilcoyne, in our untrained eyes, will provide backup early on.

Hooker: Like last year, Besty is the incumbent with Sean Cronin breathing down his neck and providing oomph and carrying from the bench. While Cronin has many virtues, the fact that he can’t throw or hook is kind of major at this level – Besty himself can get the yips, but any lineout weakness is more than compensated for by feral breakdown work (especially important in the absence of Chris Henry). The rather dodgy argument was put forward by Shaggy that, since neither hooker will play the full 80, and Cronin’s throwing is less bad when starting, is that he should be the starter. Not buying it – Besty to start, and it will stay that way until Cronin’s technicals improve.

Tighthead Prop: Now, this is most interesting. We presumed last week that Mike Ross, as Leinster’s third choice prop, simply could not start against Italy. But why would Schmidt pick Ross against the Saxons if he isn’t going to be in the 23? And if he is in the 23, why have him on the bench? Marty Moore seems ready, but we’ve an awful bad feeling Rosser will get the shirt – and it’s a major worry. Even if Ross does get picked, we can’t see him finishing the tournament as starter – our first 3 games are against the strongest 3 scrums, and there is a risk he gets mangled in one of them, forcing the change upon us. Italy are strong enough up front to have troubled Argentina and the Boks in the Autumn, and France and England can be monstrous and destructive on their day. It seems a waste of a pick not to let Moore get that experience, but we think Ross we start the tournament wearing 3, but finish out of the 23. We excorciated Deccie for staying loyal to certain players for too long, and if Schmidt picks Ross, it smells of Deccie-esque uber-loyalty. If it comes to pass, we better hope he has a damn good reason for it – because we don’t expect it to finish well.

Second Row: Here is a unit where Ireland are down to the bare bones. Thankfully, the bones consist of the best three players they have – captain and manic lunatic Paul O’Connell, Leinster’s best player this season Devin Retallick and hairy llama Iain Henderson. After that, it’s, er Mike McCarthy and Lewis Stevenson. Toner, as has been his habit, has improved on last year’s excellence, and is now a key leader for Leinster – he will start alongside the captain. Speaking of, O’Connell’s form is worryingly poor  – at the centre of the meek capitulation against Saracens, he looked his age and more. Still, you can’t expect anything less than 100% crazy aggression, and, back in the green, you suspect we’ll see the POC of the Autumn series – he is in a mental vortex culminating in RWC15 at which point he will retire from green, and that focus will be pushing him on. Then, when he tires, we can unleash the llama from the bench – it’s a lip smacking prospect, and this might be Ireland’s strongest unit, given Murray and Sexton have their own worries. Just pray for no injuries.

Backrow: Last year, Ireland’s backrow was the fulcrum of their success – Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry led the tournament in turnovers, and Jamie Heaslip was as excellent as ever. This time around, Henry is still recovering from an awful heart injury, but we do just about have Sean O’Brien back in the reckoning. Rhys Ruddock was the player of the Argentinian tour and kicked on again in November, so it’s not guaranteed that SOB will walk straight back into the team, but, as one of Ireland’s best players, surely the Tank will play if fit? We might not get 80 minutes out of him, for the first couple of games at least, but 50 will do. The bench selection is another interesting one, because Heaslip looks to still be slightly affected by his recent shoulder injury. If there is any doubt at all over Heaslip, then it could have a knock-on effect on whether O’Brien is thrown in so early.  Still, Jamie has had a couple of weeks since his last fixture so presumably the warewolf blood has kicked in and he’ll be fine.  The smart money would appear to be on a backrow of O’Mahony, O’Brien and Heaslip, with Ruddock on the bench.

It’s a strong and experienced pack, littered with Lions, and has more carrying threat than in November. On the flip side, our second row stocks are low, SOB is just back from injury, and, of course, the major worry is if Mike Ross starts. Jack McGrath’s recent humdrum form at Leinster could do with being Schmidt-ed as well, but hopefully his three week ‘rest’ will have allowed him to recharge his batteries.

The Cordite Awards 2014

Its been a pretty mental year – Ireland are genuine RWC15 contenders, the provinces are rubbish (except Connacht), Andrew Trimble is an automatic selection for Ireland, Dylan Hartley did something admirable and Wales actually won a game against a Southern Hemisphere side (and naturally became RWC15 favourites right away). Here’s our awards:

Man of The Year: Joe Schmidt – ten games, wins over France, South Africa and the Wobs (hard fought, thought victory and slihghtly fortunate respectively), one piece of silverware, only one loss; and a fresh broom. No pressure, but two pieces of silverware needed next year.

Male of The Year: Steve Walsh – who else. This time for saying “nice pass, mate” to Willie le Roux

The Awesome Power: of the Bath three-quarter line against Montpellier in round 4 of the ERC – Banahan, Burgess, Joseph and Rokoduguni. Oooooooooooooooooooooohhh!!!

Scapegoat of The Year: Jerome Garces, and his contentious red card for Jared Payne in Ravers against Globo Gym, was blamed by Gerry for … Ulster’s rubbishy ERC start. A campaign that included, from Day One in Leicester … er, Jared Payne.

Straw Man of The Year: when asked if it was right that naturalized NIQs such as Jared Payne played for Ireland (in the presence of CJ Stander), RTE’s Michael Corcoran said “well, if you look at how passionately Richardt Strauss sang the national anthem, that shows you he much he wants to play for Ireland”. Right – that’s what counts – and that’s why the anthem-mumbling Brian O’Driscoll was dropped after one cap. Wait a minute, what?

Most Relevant Phrase of The Year: return to traditional Munster values

Strange Correlation of The Year: Axel Foley’s facial hair growth versus clamours for JJ Hanrahan to be picked

Emotional Roller-coaster of The Year: Ulster fans, wailing and gnashing of teeth when Humph announced his departure, were thrown into raptures when Shane Logan welcomed Cowboy back from his holidays with a P45. Things haven’t quite gone to plan since, but the imminent arrival of Kissy suggests good times ahead. Just not now.

Dark Clouds on The Horizon: the Clermont partnership of Parra/Lopez/Fofana looks capable of derailing Ireland in RWC15. Camille Lopez reminds us of Barnesy – he looks completely out of shape and uninterested, but sets the team afire. Let’s hope Remy Tales is the Rob Andrew to Lopez’ Barnesy.

Player of The Year: Conor Murray

Quote of The Year 1: “That’s a mile forward. Aw man”. Triminjus, after Ireland were dependent on the TMO to rule out a French try for a (needless) forward pass. His nerves weren’t helped by the ensuing scrum, where the Gods smiled on Ireland and a penalty wasn’t awarded. It ended well when Ireland won the Six Nations a couple of phases later.

Quote of The Year 2: “Toulon are looking to sign Richie McCaw, and we’ve brought in Clive Ross. No disrespect to Clive Ross, but …” Think you disrespected him there Fez.

Happy Christmas and enjoy the interpros. See you in 2015 for a pointless debate about how the fact that there is no such place as Saracens means a Munster win in Allianz Park is inevitable.

T Minus 400 – Part One

Following the November series / Autumn internationals / over-marketed “Irish” drink owned by London-based multinational series, Ireland now have the following games left on their pre-RWC schedule:

  • 5 Six Nations games (Italy, France, England, Wales, Scotland)
  • The Barbarians in the Debt Star in May
  • four World Cup warm-ups (Wales x 2, Scotland, England)

Ignoring the money-spinner in Thomond, and taking the reasonable case that Joe Schmidt will have his RWC15 squad close to finalised before the warm-ups, that gives Ireland’s players 400 minutes to cement their place in the squad .. or not, in some cases. We can’t, of course, ignore that possibility that someone will play themselves out of the squad in August, as did the unfortunate Tomas O’Leary four years ago, but then again it’s unlikely Joe Schmidt will persist for someone so badly out of form for so long that it becomes feasible. What is more likely, given the attrition rate in general, and even for the well-managed Irish players in recent years – only Jamie Heaslip of the notional first XV has avoided injury in Schmidt’s time – is that certain players will need to prove their fitness in the warm-ups. But that’s an unknown. For now, anyway. And the warm-ups themselves might result in injuries – Wally, and then Jirry (in training) were casualties in 2011.

It seems a good time to review what the composition of that squad might look like – and there is very little scope for experimentation left, so it’s unlikely we’ll see many changes from here (injuries, as ever, excepted)

This time out, the RWC squad will be 31, with the extra player presumably designed to be a tighthead prop – 23 man matchday squads in international rugger are an innovation from this cycle. In the three previous World Cups, Ireland have gone for splits of 17-13 (2003) and 16-14 (2007 & 2011). A working assumption of a split of 17-14 seems like a good starting point. Based on previous picks, we can expect the following:

  • 3 hookers
  • 5 props (1 more than in 2007 and 2011)
  • 4 second rows
  • 5 backrows (note: do not need all to be specialist blindsides)
  • 3 scrummies
  • 2 fly halves
  • 3 centres
  • 4 wingers
  • 2 full backs

While some Irish players, particularly in the backline, are multi-functional in nature, they are not necessarily viewed as Swiss army knives by the coach. For example, while Mad-dog might provide bench cover in several positions, most indications from Schmidt are that he is seen primarily as a fly-half. Equally, Ferg has played centre for Ireland (most recently in Argentina) and provided bench cover for centre during the Six Nations, but was used exclusively as a wing in Schmidt’s final season at Leinster, and started his 8 tests prior to Tucuman on the wing. It feels unlikely that he’ll fall into the centre bucket, but is really a wing who can cover centre if necessary.

Let’s have a look:

Hooker: Besty and Sean Cronin are miles ahead of the pack and are on the plane – Besty is a key lieutenant on the team, valued for his work in the scrum and at rucks; and Cronin is a very different player, an excellent carrier who offers dynamism, if not quite the same technical attributes as Best. Both players are prone to the yips – there was genuine surprise when Cronin, the hooker, was able to … er … hook effectively against the Boks; and Besty’s radar has the habit of going down for games at a time – even resulting in his omission from the original 2013 Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions squad. After that, Risteard O hOstrais is next in line, and had a good November series coming back from injury. Damien Varley stepped in for Jirry in 2011, and he’s the most Best-like replacement – questionable throwing, good scrummager and brilliant breakdown merchant. He’s injured right now, but could be in the mix. With Mike Sherry’s perma-injury problems showing no sign of abating, Rob Herring, who did well in Argentina, hs some credit in the bank but has been a marginal figure at Ulster this season. One bolter is Duncan Casey, whose lineout stats this year are exceptional.  He didn’t even make November’s training squad – but it’s early days for him and Ireland’s lineout wasn’t any great shakes this series, so his throwing could make him a valuable option.  If he keeps on playing like he is, he could come into the reckoning.  But currently, all signs point towards Best, Cronin and Strauss.

On the plane: Besty, Cronin. Most likely for final seat: Strauss Also in the picture: Varley, Casey, Herring, Sherry

Prop: The flogging of Mike Ross continues unabated – he’s started every game under Joe Schmidt, and his importance of the team is illustrated by the 80 minutes he played against the Wobblies. However, it’s worth noting that the next two best tightheads were injured, and by all accounts the plan was to reduce his workload until injury stepped in. Rodney Ah Here was his backup both in Argentina and this November but, if fit, Marty Moore should be the number two to Ross. Of the other options, Nathan White had been pencilled in for Ah Here’s role until he got crocked, Deccie Fitz might be the best scrummager in Ireland (bar none) but struggles for 20 minute shifts these days, and Stephen Archer is behind Ah Here, which isn’t saying much. On the other side, DJ Church and Jack McGrath are on the plane.  It could be Schmidt picks two specialist tightheads and uses McGrath as the filler inner in case of tighthead emergencies. Dave Kilcoyne had a good series and has probably put some clear blue water between himself and James Cronin at international level – even if Cronin out-wrestles him by the end of the year, Schmidt will put some value on his being involved in the camp up to this point.

On the plane: Ross, Moore, Healy, McGrath Most likely for final seat: Killer Also in the picture: Cronin, White, Ah Here, Archer, Fitzpatrick

Second Row: The incumbents are the mighty, manic Paul O’Connell and the ever-improving Devin Toner – this pair are on the plane. Next up, its Iain Henderson, the new Willie John McBride. Henderson is laid up having taken elective surgery to be in prime nick for the RWC – taking one of Ulster’s best players out for 4 ERC games, when the backups are average, shows his importance to Ireland. We expect Henderson to slot straight into the Six Nations 23, and perhaps even start a game – Henderson still likely has bulking out to do, but, of Irish locks of the same height (198cm) he is already 6kg heavier than Dave Foley (4 years older), 1kg heavier than Dan Tuohy (7 years older) and 2kg heavier than O’Connell (13 years older). And all that while being the best ball carrier in the unit, and a skillful and influential player already. The kid is a phenomenon. The last place is a shootout between that aforementioned Foley and Tuohy, the possibly sometime returning Donnacha Ryan and the slowly sagging Mike McCarthy. If Ryan comes back from injury the player he was 3 years ago, he’s red hot favourite – at this stage however, the question seems to be if he comes back at all, not what type of player he comes back as. McCarthy has been slowly regressing since that performance against the Boks two years ago, and appears unlikely to reverse that career graph. Dan Tuohy was unfortunate (in our view) to miss out on the RWC11 squad, and offers something that the others don’t – good hands and a handy eye for the tryline. However, Foley feels like he is a nose ahead right now – if he keeps up this seasons form, he is favourite. You would have a slight qualm about dropping him in against the big second rows Italy and France like to field – Will Skelton treated him like a speedbump on Saturday – but he’s 4th choice, hopefully that won’t be necessary.

On the plane: O’Connell, Toner, Henderson Most likely for final seat: Foley or Tuohy Also in the picture: Ryan, McCarthy

Back Row: At one point, we seemed like we  might have a mighty fight over the last slot in this unit, but if we bring five players, it looks like we know who they are. Rhys Ruddock was our best player in the Argentina tour, and stepped into the stricken Chris Henry’s shoes with aplomb, putting in two excellent displays against two very tough (and different) opponents. He appears to have put himself in an excellent position to be on the plane. And speaking of Henry, if he comes back from a frightening brain injury, he’s likely to travel as well – Henry is one of the very few players than Joe Schmidt has specifically tailored a gameplan for (the 2012 HEC final) and was a huge influence in the Six Nations. But little can be taken for granted with such a serious condition; Ulster have said they are ‘hopeful he will return to professional rugby’, so it’s a case of fingers crossed for now.  Moving on to more clear-cut matters: Jamie Heaslip – he’s in, and Peter O’Mahony – he’s in too. Which leaves one of the few world class players in our ranks – Sean O’Brien. If fit, he is most certainly not only going, but playing. But he’ll have been out for so long, he will have to show that he’s capable of being the same player as previously.  So assuming the best for our two injured men, that’s the five – simples. Now, this is a very tough and attritional position, so, to be frank, we’d be pleasantly surprised if we get to September with all five ready to play. So hope remains for the rest. Of those, Jordi Murphy, backup during the Six Nations, is probable first reserve. Another in contention would be Tommy O’Donnell, who looks close to his form of 2013, although not making it off the bench against Oz didn’t speak volumes to the coaches confidence in him. Robbie Diack has had a steady start to his international career, albeit an unspectacular one – to be frank, it’s difficult to see us winning the tournament if we are this far down the depth chart. Dom Ryan and Robin Copeland, a genuine number 8, saw gametime in November too, and got some good reviews, but both are likely to be thinking about provincial starts before the World Cup is in their mind.

On the plane: Heaslip, O’Mahony, Ruddock Fitness permitting: O’Brien, Henry Also in the picture: Murphy, O’Donnell, Diack, Ryan, Copeland

So that’s the forwards, and, of the 17 slots up for grabs, we reckon 14 are pretty much decided, injuries allowing. That’s a pretty good and stable base to be building from. Our eyes and brains are getting tired now, so we’ll be back tomorrow with the backs, where we have a bit more uncertainty.  We have question marks at inside centre, and wing is a position where there is scope to take form into account a little more, plus we have two giant elephants in the selectorial room – no, not Ah Here and Deccie Fitz, but Keith Earls and Luke Roysh – their performances could range anywhere between ‘never play again this season’ or ‘break into the Ireland team’ – we simply have no idea. But we’ll talk more about that tomorrow.

It’s Alive!!!

The best test of last weekend (and November so far) was the France-Australia showdown in the Stade de France. In the gold corner were a Wallaby team coming in on the back of the traditional single-digit victory over Wales (but they were SO close this time – if only they didn’t <insert brain freeze here> they’d always beat the Southern Hemisphere sides) and in the blue corner a French team that is impossible to predict to any degree whatsoever – any result between a 10 point French win and a 40 point Wallaby win (as per two years ago) was a possibility. The relevance for Ireland was obvious – not only are the Wobs the next victims in the Joe Schmidt I-always-said-he-was-the-best-coach-in-the-world Ireland bandwagon, but the French are the team we’ll need to beat if the easier path to an historic RWC semi-final is to be realized.

In Ireland, we have a complicated relationship with the French – we disdain the way their club sides roll over away from home, lecture them on culture and passion, encourage them to be more like us in kicking corners and showing discipline; yet simultaneously go weak-kneed at Yoann Huget’s expressive eyebrows and wet ourselves at the prospect of being on the receiving end of a Wes Fofana piece of brilliance. In recent years, we’ve turned around our addiction to defeat – draws in 2012 and 2013 were bested by that incredible win in the Stade de France in March. Amazingly, we haven’t been beaten by France since Tomas O’Leary played himself off the RWC11 plane with that suicide pass in the Palindrome; and only once in the last 9 meetings (W2 D2 L5) have we lost by double digits.

Madcap French coach ™ Philippe Saint-Andre broke the habit of a lifetime and actually picked the same side as a week before – this was both surprising and concerning – is there something to worry about all of a sudden? Seems like there was – the French came out to bash the Aussies up front and stop them getting the kind of quick ball they could have fun with. The front row not only did their thing, but introduced the monstrous Samoan-Frenchman Uini Atonio to the world – we hold our hands up and confess to not watching much Atlantique Stade Rochelais – but we missed a phenomenally strong carrier and a destructive scrummager. Uh-oh.

Also, the French love a beefy second row to smash rucks and add a chunk of power to the scrum. Yoann Maestri has often flattered to deceieve a little – he never quite plays as well as he looks. On Saturday, he did, and had the Australian forwards scattered asunder on several occasions – the French urgently needed an injection of ugly brawn to the pack, and Maestri may have come of age at just the wrong time for us. Above all though, was the sustained excellence of Thierry Dusautoir – like Paul O’Connell, who brings the Munster and Ireland teams up about 30% every time he plays, Dusautoir carries the French to a high level and keeps them there. The man who haunts even Ruchie’s dreams is their key man.

Equally, the imposition of the Waratahs defensive system to the Wobblies wasn’t going to plan – the non-Tahs were struggling and the French outhalf Camille Lopez was carrying the ball right to the gain-line and through them. Lopez has been seen as the future for a couple of years now but has either been held back or got injured – he might look like a student bum looking for summer work on a vineyard, but he plays like a ballerina and had les bleus purring. He even laid a couple of eggs on restarts to remind us he is at heart an enigmatic Gallic superhero, who probably smokes 20 a day and sups beer at half-time, a la Bernard Hinault. Incredibly, this was his first game in le Stade, as it was for Teddy Thomas, who scored a brilliant individual try.

For Ireland, it was all a bit nerve-shredding. Because it looked to be dying on its feet, but IT’S ALIVE, and it has the power to dash our RWC dreams with one insouciant flick of its incredibly good-looking tail.  But let’s not forget the coach is still a lunatic, and who would safely put money on even ten of the starting fifteen making it to the World Cup team.  Camille Lopez won’t have it all his own way over the next twelve months and they could be back to fiddling around with second-raters before we know it.

In terms of the short-term goals, the Wobblies look there for the taking. Cheiks has said he is targeting the sagging behemoth that is England, and 5 or 6 changes are likely (including Portly returning in some capacity). Unlike against the Boks, we will have no qualms about mixing it with their forwards, so a subtly different gameplan is possible – and judging by the defensive shenanigans in evidence Saturday, less boot and more passing might be in order. But not that much more – it’ll be up to Ireland to keep the game structured; the looser it gets the better it suits the Wobs.  Some variation on the tried and tested formula of smashing the breakdown with ruthless accuracy and utilising Sexton and Murray’s ability to guide the team aroud the right parts of the pitch looks to be in order.  Ireland might use their attacking maul a bit more.  It worked a treat in the Six Nations and the Wobs are the sort of team against whom it can be harnessed to good effect.  We have a great chance to go 3-for-3 this November and end the year in 3rd in the rankings, but the medium-term goal of an RWC semi-final just got a little more complicated.