Job Done

Six tries, no injuries and some minor selection dilemmas for the visit of the real minnows next week – virtually everything you’d want out of a game against Georgia really. We blogged on Friday about the very few thing we might be able to take from the game, and so it came to pass. The match followed a very familiar pattern of good team vs. minnow: low-scoring first half followed by floodgates opening as the pressure takes its toll on the little ‘un.

In general, the pack will be happy they did their job and the backline less so.  The much-vaunted Georgian scrum seems to be better on paper than in actuality, as a few canny punters predicted would be the case.  Ireland weren’t on top in the scrum, but they were ok there, comfortable in the lineout and strong in the maul.  They found plenty of gaps to exploit.  They created umpteen chances but found their finishing a bit off, in the first half in particular.

The front row will be reasonably happy.  Rosser needed to get some game-time because … er … just because, right. He managed 46 minutes of difficult scrums and one hilarious mini line break before giving way to Rodney Ah Here. The most relevant thing from the weekend for Ross was probably the pillaging the Wobbly front row took in Paris, followed by the incompetence of the backups, who were milked by the French. We’d almost feel comfortable letting Ah Here loose on the Wobs (who have resolved to play a few new faces), but Rosser it will be. And he’ll be better after yesterday.

Dave Kilcoyne enjoyed a slightly less troublesome time than Rosser, had one even better run and scored a try. Job done, and a decent showing against tough opponents. Took one step towards an RWC plane ticket, did Killer.  Scoring tries is not bread and butter for props, but it’s a handy habit to have and Kilcoyne chips in with plenty.

In the row, Dave Foley was man of the match and out-shone his partner Mike McCarthy. McCarthy appears to be a good scrummaging second row [citation needed!] but his star is very much on the wane, and has been since his man-of-the-match award against South Africa two years ago.  Calling Foley ashore early was a probable sign a bench slot on Saturday has been earned, and his performances this year warrant it.  In the backrow, all three men showed up reasonably well, with Dom Ryan especially busy on his debut.  None shot the lights out, though, and we suspect all will drop out of the team for the Wobs match.

In the back division, it was a case of good top ‘n’ tail, poor middle.  Felix Jones had a fine match and both half-backs played well but the entire three-quarter line was pretty middling.  If Schmidty wasn’t happy with depth at centre before, he certainly isn’t now – Dorce and Darren Cave did very little of note in the 80 and only a spicy cameo from Stuart Olding (admittedly against tired and run-out opponents) brightened up the Milky Bar Kid’s options there. If Henshaw is now nailed on to start, who his partner is will be interesting – if Payne is fit, he looks set to continue, but what if he isn’t? D’arcy is most likely to get the call, but he looked rusty here.  No doubt there will be a clamour for Stuart Olding and on the evidence of his glitzy cameo here, it’s not hard to see why.  In retrospect, we may have learned more from starting him, but hindsight is always 20-20.

If this series was to be Simon Zebo’s  time to shine, he’s running out of time. The jet-heeled Corkman controversially (at the time anyway) lost out to Andrew Trimble and Little Bob last Six Nations and was a minor cause celebre – he hasn’t exactly set the world afire and you think if there were better options then Craig Gilroy to choose from, he might lose his place for the Wobbly game. In particular, his moment of trying a redux of his ankle flick instead of jumping on the ball will have been noted by Joe Schmidt – this is the type of play from wingers that will have him spitting bullets. Zebo has clearly taken Schmidt’s feedback of the last 12 months on board, but in his case, there is more to do.

Georgia Team Out!

Stop press! The team for Sunday’s game is out – and, hilariously, Gerry was one player wrong. Seems Joe is a little tougher to read than Deccie. It’s essentially a warm-up for the Canada/Romania games in the RWC where the firsts get a rest and the rest get a run-out – but there are a few interesting calls nonetheless:

  • The most notable first teamer picked is Rosser – the big man needs game time to get to optimal conditioning for the Wobbly front row (stop sniggering at the back) and he’ll definitely get a work-out here. It’s mildly concerning that (i) it takes game time to get him going – what if he comes to the RWC undercooked? (ii) Ross has now started every test under Schmidt – this is into Hayes territory, and (iii) our backups are injured or not good enough to take his shirt.  But hey, what’s new?
  • While Dave Kilcoyne is the nominal third loosehead right now, we think James Cronin is a better player and might finish the year as incumbent at Munster -although the Irish Times Top 50 has them just one place apart, which tells us just how close it is!  Fascinating stuff!  No doubt Joe Schmidt is using it as a guide to selection.  If Killer comes out of a game against Georgia intact, that’s a big plus for him.  His scrummaging will be properly tested here.
  • Paulie, Lighthouse Toner and NWJMB are virtually nailed on for the RWC squad (Henderson is currently out after pre-RWC elective surgery) – there is one more definite second row slot up for grabs, and if Dave Foley carries his ERCC form into Sunday and out-shines Mike McCarthy, he’ll put himself into the conversation.  He’s a good, athletic lock with decent mobility and can carry reasonably well, and is certainly worth a look here.
  • In the absence (not enforced – but is it ever?) of Jamie Heaslip, Robbie Diack will wear the 8 shirt. Or, more to the point, Robin Copeland is (at best) third choice 8. Diack showed well in Argentina, and is clearly in the mix for one of the multi-functional backrow RWC slots, with (but still likely behind) Jordi Murphy, Dom Ryan and Rhys Ruddock. With Murphy to return as more specialised cover for the No.8 jersey, Copeland has missed his chance to gain some ground.  Truth be told, his problems begin with CJ and end with Stander.  There is no crowbarring the prime Bok out of the Munster team and Copeland has found his chances to impress limited as a result.
  • When asked on Sky Sports before the Bok game about whether he was happy with his depth at centre, Joe Schmidt sighed, hummed and hawed, and said “yes and no” i.e. No. He’ll clearly be feeling better since, but he still feels options need exploring. Angry Darren Cave gets another go after a pretty disappointing summer tour – and we’ll hopefully see Stuart Olding get good gametime as well
  • Dom Ryan gets a test debut and it’s merited on early season form.  He had become something of a forgotten man over the last two seasons, but with a run of fitness and form he has reminded us of his talents and knack of scoring tries.

It’s a pretty mobile pack with plenty of good handlers and carriers and lots of athleticism.  Coupled with the no-brainer selection of Reddan and Madigan and a pair of flyers out wide, all signals point towards a looser, faster game plan than we saw against South Africa, which seems sensible against a Georgia team that is likely to be beefy upfront but will struggle in a more open contest.  The appointment of Eoin Reddan as captain also looks shrewd.  Marmion has his champions, but Reddan is still very much second choice and still awfully good, albeit well behind the peerless Murray.  It’s a chance to remind him that he’s still a key part of the squad even if his future gametime is likely to be of the same order as Chris Whittaker enjoyed when he was first reserve to George Gregan.

Here’s the team:

IRELAND (v Georgia): Felix Jones (Munster); Craig Gilroy (Ulster), Darren Cave (Ulster), Gordon D’Arcy (Leinster), Simon Zebo (Munster); Ian Madigan (Leinster), Eoin Reddan (Leinster, capt); Dave Kilcoyne (Munster), Richardt Strauss (Leinster), Mike Ross (Leinster); Dave Foley (Munster), Mike McCarthy (Leinster); Dominic Ryan (Leinster), Tommy O’Donnell (Munster), Robbie Diack (Ulster).

Replacements: Seán Cronin (Leinster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), Rodney Ah You (Connacht), Devin Toner (Leinster), Robin Copeland (Munster), Kieran Marmion (Connacht), Ian Keatley (Munster), Stuart Olding (Ulster).

Go easy.

What Fresh Madness Is This?

Joe Schmidt has named his team to face South Africa.

There has been some talk of Australia being the main focus this month and the team bears this out to some extent. With most of the positions picking themselves with injury to key players removing any would-be hard calls, the only position where there is a real decision to make is the midfield. And it’s there that Schmidt has taken a somewhat experimental route, with the rumoured Henshaw-Payne axis coming to pass.  No, folks, it wasn’t a ruse to wind up the Indo, hilarious as that would have been.

It sure is an odd one, because Gordon D’arcy is fit and ready to go and the obvious selection was the experienced Wexford man alongside one or other of Payne and Henshaw. Another more plausible possibility would be to bring in Olding or Madigan at 12, if D’arcy is indeed less than 100% fit, since both have been playing there, and playing well too, this season. There’s probably a specific gameplan wedded to the selection, and we’ll just have to wait and see what that is. Word on the ground is they trained well together while Dorce was recovering.  Henshaw’s a big strong lad, but probably not used to defending the traffic-heavy 12 channel. And Payne still looks a better full-back than a centre, though his footballing class is not in doubt. Our major concern is that both of them are playing in positions which are not their best.  On their first test starts.  Against South Africa.

The selection of Felix Jones on the bench is odd, even allowing for specialist 15 cover for Bob’s recently-crocked status. Simon Zebo has started a test there, and Payne and Henshaw have spent plenty of time there as well. Wing cover (Craig Gilroy) or even an extra playmaker (Stuart Olding) might have given the bench more game-breaking pizzazz, on the off-chance we are still in it after 60 minutes.

Criticising Schmidt’s selections before matches has tended to be a losing trade, and we have come out the wrong side of it ourselves too many times, and really should know better. To give two examples, against Clermont Auvergne we questioned the wisdom of picking Jennings and Boss, and in last year’s Six Nations we disagreed with the decision to retain the same first team for the Italy game, when the opportunity to freshen things up and rest some bodies for the French match looked appealing. On both occasions, Schmidt’s selections were vindicated. We also harrumphed a bit over Simon Zebo’s omission from the Six Nations, but nobody could argue with the outcome, and Simon Zebo’s attitude since has shown all the hallmarks of someone who is hungry to learn and improve.  So let’s hope that after the game we’re declaring this new midfield as a masterstroke.

Winning this match looks beyond Ireland, and to be fair, that applies no matter how the midfield is set up. The injury list is simply more than our squad can take. As well as 17 unavailable players, it’s hard to see just how sharp Rob Kearney, Mike Ross and Chris Henry can be. Ross, in particular, can hardly be expected to last the full match, which means Rodney Ah Here will have to play at some stage, possibly for as many as 20 minutes. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Cold November Rain

Wow. Isn’t this exciting – we haven’t engaged in a proper spat of inter-provincial bickering since … February? By the time March came along, Ireland were gathering pace en route to a Championship and it seemed churlish, then it was all a bit half-hearted when Argentina came along. But now it’s here – yay!  November internationals!

But seriously, Schmidt’s first season was incredible – nearly beating BNZ, then winning the Championship. Like Deccie, who had an incredibly effective beginning to his tenure, the challenge will be backing that up with a second season – one that will effectively ends in a World Cup. Also like Deccie, the Milky Bar Kid got part of his success from a bounce from a previous season that didn’t reflect the real quality in the team – merely a previous coaching regime that had run its course. Eddie’s control freakery gave way to Deccie’s delegation to the players; which was in turn replaced by Schmidt’s technical coaching brilliance. Can the initial bounce be backed up?

One can reasonable expect some reversion to the mean this season, and retaining the Six Nations will be something they haven’t done since 1949 (although they shared in 1983 when going for a repeat, they would have finished second under today’s rules). While we should be realistic about what expectations for this season are – two wins in November, four in the Six Nations are the par score for this group – they have set their own standards. Also, its worth being aware that the players were grumbling about the tough schedule Schmidt put them through in Argentina – its unlikely that will drop off, and some degree of fatigue is a risk. Plus you-know-who has left a gaping hole in the team.

Two wins in the coming weeks means beating Australia or the Boks – all indications are the Wobbly game wil be the one targeted (like BNZ last year) and, given the injuries we have, and the scratchy form of the provinces, its a tough ask. Still – it makes sense to go for Oz – beating the Boks is tough enough, but without your primary ball carriers it’s virtually impossible – and we have lost DJ Church, Sean O’Brien, Iain Henderson and Andrew Trimble. That said, it’s not all bad – O’Brien missed the entire Six Nations, Henderson was a sub in that tournament and Church and Trimby would be adequately replaced by Tommy Bowe and Jack McGrath. Puts pressure on depth though, doesn’t it.

The first choice pack pretty much picks itself given the missing list – McGrath, Besty, Ross, Toner, O’Connell, POM, Henry, Heaslip. Only one man different from the 6N pack, but Besty is struggling for form, Ross needs matchtime to get up to speed, and Chris Henry hasn’t quite been at his best of late. Sean Cronin will provide decent bacup, another strong carrier and potential for weapons-grade impact late in matches, and will start one game minimum, but the rest of the forward squad ranges from the potential of Rhys Ruddock to the dicky lungs of Rodney Ah Here.

We’d ideally like to see a couple of names pitched in to see if they sink or swim – the likes of James Cronin, Dave Foley and Dom Ryan might have something to offer to the squad in a RWC year – they might sink without trace,  but at least we’d know – and we know what Dave Kilcyone, Mike McCarthy and Robbie Diack can do – and it’s not of the highest level. Ryan will most likely have to wait for the Georgia game but Cronin and Foley could make the bench against South Africa.  Two of Ah Here, Stephen Archer and Tadgh Furlong are likely to get the dubious honour of scrummaging against the monstrous Georgians – gulp.

In the backline, Conor Murray and J-Sex are miles ahead of their backups. The vigils for Sexton’s hamstring can begin now. Ian Keatley got rewarded for some decent early season form over a semi-fit Wee PJ but we suspect Ian Mad-Dog is Schmidt’s number 2, though he has only started at 10 once this season.  One suspects they’ll do whatever possible to get Sexton on the pitch. In RWC terms, Eoin Reddan and Kieran Marmion are pretty much on the plane – but we’d like to see Marmion get a start and see how he does – against Georgia he might be behind a pack being marched backwards early on.

And now, ah yes – time for the centres. We know this – Dorce will start against the Boks and Stuart Olding will see gametime at some point. Who will play outside? The concensus seems to have settled on Robbie “bosh” Henshaw (largely because BOD says it is so), but O’Reilly thinks Schmidt will value Jared Payne’s distribution and running angles more that the directness of the Connacht man. It certainly makes sense not to give Jean de Villers and Jan Serfontein what they eat for breakfast, but Payne has been pretty rubbish at 13 for Ulster. One suspects Schmidt won’t let the two guys shoot out on the field – there simply isn’t enough time for that – he’ll make his selection and stand by it. If it’s to be Payne or if it is to be Henshaw, let’s all make an effort, similar to the 2012 Six Nations when Keet Earls played the entire tournament there, to not jump down his throat each time he Isn’t BOD.

Provided they are fully fit, Bob and Tommy Bowe will be inked into the team – Trimble is a big loss but Bowe is a pretty decent replacement to have. The other wing spot, in shades of a more innocent era (2012), appears to be between Craig Gilroy and Simon Zeebs. Schmidt doesn’t appear to be a massive fan of Zebo, while Gilroy looks to have returned to some impressive form this year after his career stalled last season.  Nonetheless, while Zebo hasn’t been quite as stellar with ball-in-hand, he appears to be putting a lot of effort into working really, really hard and brings a decent kicking game; he might just shade it.  Zebo and Bowe for Trimble and Dave Kearney; it might be injury-enforced but Ireland don’t appear to be losing too much in the trade.

We already know Joe Schmidt is an excellent coach and Ireland have excellent players – if the success or failure of this series comes down to the Wobbly game, he’ll be up against another excellent coach and a team of excellent players. In a RWC year, its a good judge of where we are at, and how the team is shaping up – for you can be sure we won’t have a full deck in 11 months time.

Thirty Man Squads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countdown – T minus 365

After Week One’s crisis, turns out the provinces aren’t do bad after all, going 4-for-4 in the Pro12. Team Milky Bar are gradually leaking the big boys back into the provincial setups, and this week was noticeable for the injection of quality – in the two games we watched anyway (half of us were on the west coast watching Ms Ovale tear it up in the Ras na mBan – no, really). We have criticized the player management system in the past – particularly in 2013 when it seemed like every player Deccie wanted to pick got injured the second he donned provincial colours after what seemed like an age being “managed” – but while it isn’t perfect, there is no denying it has delivered for Ireland, and has enabled the provinces to build depth unimaginable a decade ago.

Breaking the Ireland team into Untouchables, Probables and Possibles can be instructive – here’s a look at how they did this week.

The Untouchables

In Schmidt’s Ireland set up, if DJ Church, Besty, Paul O’Connell, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Johnny Sexton and Bob are fit – they are in. End of story. Jamie Heaslip and Bob made their returns for Leinster this weekend, and it was like seeing a pair of Rolls Royce’s smoothly steam into a boxcar demolition derby – Heaslip was man of the match (well – he was in blue, that’s when he pulls the finger out, right?) and Bob scored a brace of tries. Up north, Besty didn’t have much fun. His very first involvement was to put down a pass for a walk-in try, and the lineout was a disaster, with four throws lost. The Zebras were utterly hopeless, and less errors would have been good.

The Probables

With a fully fit selection, at this point in time you’d expect Joe Schmidt’s wings to be Andy Trimble and Tommy Bowe. Probably. Bowe is the most experiened of all Ireland’s wings, but missed last years campaign due to injury and is effectively battling his way back to the team. Trimble, in turn, was a revelation in 2014 – and coming back into the Ulster team, he was a class apart – strong in defence, and scored a try to boot. In the second row, Devin Toner continued the pattern of the last 5 years and made incremental progress to become an international class lock last year. He’s probably battling NWJMB and Donnacha Ryan for the right to partner Superman at RWC15.  Big Dev has become Really Big Dev, as he looks noticably bulkier this year.  Word is he has gone from a feather-weight 122kg to a rock-solid 127kg.  Alun Wyn Jones made a similar transition from bean-pole to pack enforcer and made the leap from ‘already pretty good’ to world class as a result, captaining the Lions in their final test in Australia.  Can Devin Toner use his new-found bulk to make a similar step forward?

The Possibles

In the summer tour to a wintery Argentina, two of the players who came home with their reputations enhanced were Rhys Ruddock and Robbie Diack. With Fez finally confirming that the dream is over, Peter O’Mahony is battling with Chris Henry for the final slot in Schmidt’s championship backrow, but both the alternatives, Ruddock in particular, are breathing down the two Probables necks. But it was Diack who shone this weekend, looking like the best forward in Ulster’s pack, carrying well and getting through a mountain of work, both seen and unseen. Dan Tuohy also shone in the loose, but in the interests of fairness, needs to take some debit for the dogs dinner of a lineout. Tuohy could be a RWC15 squad member, as he offers something different, but it all depends on how Henderson and Ryan pitch up after spells out through injury.

Speaking of something different, step forward Mr I. Madigan of the Southside – and we aren’t talking about his hair. This time, anyway. Sexton is miles clear of the chasing pack, with Jackson and Madigan locked tight in the battle to back him up.  It looks a classic case of ‘Jackson would start if Sexton was injured, but Madigan offers more as an impact reserve’. In any case it’s likely that both of them will travel t the World Cup, with Madigan’s versatility a bonus.  Recall that Luke Fitzgerald missed out on the last World Cup because Paddy Wallace was needed, in case either ROG or Sexton got injured.

Madigan had a classic Good Ian night, kicking well and scoring a couple of tries – his star is rising again, particularly with Jimmy Gopperth’s difficulties.  But is he a 10 or a 12?  Does it matter?  Being able to play a bit of both will do his prospects no harm.

We’re going to start a RWC15 Player Power Ranking in a couple of weeks and try to quantify some of all this nonsense, but you can bet your bottom dollar all the Irish (and the New Irish like Diack and Jared Payne) are well aware of the ticking clock in Joe Schmidt’s mind which stops in around a year.

Five Years of Hurt

That was a tough series for Ireland wasn’t it? And we won it – the first and second test wins in Argentina. Argentina is a tough-ass place to go in June – long journey, different seasons, no-one, no-one, speaks English, plied with Malbec, tough local backrow forwards smelling blood looking to make a name. And all after a seriously intense season – we’ll remember this year for the Championship win in Joe Schmidt’s first season, but when Paul O’Connell comments on the intensity of the Schmidt regime from day one, you can be sure, its physically and mentally demanding. Its ten months since Schmidt first got his hands on these players, and in this, the final action of the season, he has made sure he has got his pound of flesh, with no let-off in the demands – as high as ever.

And rightly so – in the weekend England assured us that they will be RWC contenders (with Chris Ashton’s WINNING try! What? They lost? So why did he do that stupid dive? … never mind .. prick), South Africa showed us the standards we will need to attain, and we don’t have long to get there – no wonder the Milky Bar Kid is in a rush. Fatigue can wait, there are trophies to win – and its not the Guillermo Brown Cup he cares about.

So short-term, results-wise, the tour was a success and Joe Schmidt got more time with the squad. What about the longer term planning for RWC15? Well, we learned four things from this tour:

  1. In the month Fez retired, Rhys Ruddock showed his credentials as an international backrow – with SOB already awaiting re-integration to a high-functioning unit, this is a “good problem” for Schmidt. With injury rates as they are, having Ruddock (and Diack and Murphy) around is useful
  2. Brian O’Driscoll and Dorce’s partnership will be very tough to replace – more of this later
  3. There is room for Zimon Zeebs in a Joe Schmidt technocrat rugby team – we finally got a glimpse of his game-breaking in the second test. Andy Trimble and Little Bob are a little samey if you want to beat the best, Zebo can offer the *groans* X-factor that we might need. Although, we scored plenty of tries in the Six Nations – we aren’t fully bought into the idea that we need flair for flairs sake, but Zebo is a great player and its great to see him involved
  4. Rodney Ah Here. Ah here

Now, to the centres. We said ahead of the tour the biggest to-do was to start the post-BOD process. After a decade of Dorce-and-BOD plenty, we might be realizing how tough its going to be to replace not just the greatest player in our history, but his reliable sidekick as well – any player wearing 13 is already going to be damned by “well, he isn’t Brian” comment, but then any breakdown in communication with their centre partner will be magnified into a “well, where is Dorce” situation.

Darren Cave played well in the first test, but had a bit of a shocker in Tucuman – the Irish midfield was pourous looking all game, and then not having the pace to finish off the try felt terminal for his international ambitions – even for us used to the one-paced Dorce/BOD combo, Cave looked like he was running in clay. Outside him, Ferg was gamey but doesn’t really have the distributive skills for an international 13. Bamm-Bamm was withdrawn early in the first test with (another) possible concussion, and hasn’t quite got a Plan B into his game yet. So we are 0 from 3 when it comes to new centres – and, as we said before the tour, the point of the tour was really to start this process, so its basically been a bit of a fail in that regard, and the games before RWC15 are slipping by.

The next to audition cohort is likely to go be Kiwi attacking talent with dodgy defence Jared Payne, pure-bred rosey cheeked bosh merchant Robbie Henshaw, and creative youngster Stuart Olding, who will all likely get a callup in November, and hopefully gametimes – its getting very late for experimentation, but desperate times etc.

Its very easy to say we need to get behind BOD (and soon to be Dorce’s) successors, but we need to know who they are first – we sucked deeply on the addictive weed that was BOD to get our Championship win, but we are liable to pay now, and time before RWC15 is short. In 2012, we exhorted folk to stand behind Keith Earls, be aware he was likely to make a few defensive clangers, but give him time to grow in the 13 jersey – we did, and he did, but then he was clearly the best option. Now its not as clear.

If we were betting folk, and we wouldn’t ever do something that is so abonimable to God, we think Joe might decide on a Dorce/Keith Earls centre partnership for the RWC and play it in the Six Nations – they are known international quantities and dovetailed well in 2012, and they are the lowest risk to meet a short-term need. If there is a player to play their way into that base scenario, its probably Payne – Olding is likely to be backup fodder until he breaks into the Ulster starting XV, and Henshaw is very raw. Which makes the whole “future” debate essentially about RWC19 – for RWC15, we just need to get something in place, and quickly.

Cnetre-wise, all we can say after Argentina is that Ferg is an emergency option (at best), Cave probably doesn’t have it and Marshall needs to put his health first. Mind you, no-0ne said this was going to be easy.

Future Now

So in the longer term, the day of Ireland’s first test win on Argentinian soil will probably be remembered less than Humph leaving Ulster for Gloucester (!) – we’ll get back to that later this week. The game, if it was memorable for anything, will be remembered as 1 CE, the first of the post-BOD era. Given we’re already on RWC15 countdown, its damn important we get someone comfortable in the jersey pronto.

First up was Darren Cave. How did he do? Fine actually – the defensive system looked good, he did the simple things well (except that Rivelino-style banana kick), he brought those around him into play, he threatened the line and he didn’t look out of place in the shirt. There is no point judging him by O’Driscoll standards, or even by Manu or Smuddy standards, as some seem so keen to do – he’s clearly not at that level. What he is is competent and solid – and that’s what he showed. Cave himself doesn’t seem to expect to last beyond this tour in the shirt, but, right now, he’s the best option there – Henshaw is injured and has little experience, Luke Roysh has that worrying perma-injury thing going on that often precedes retirement, the Kildare Lewis Moody hasn’t started a game of note at 13 in years and Jared Payne is both still Kiwi and a rare starter at 13. Keith Earls is the likeliest possible challenger, if he starts there for Munster next year. Time, perhaps, to start dialing down our expectations, begin appreciating what Cave can do, rather that point out who he isn’t.

One of the other winners was Robbie Diack, who, one awful piece of butchery aside, had a good day at the office, and certainly outshone Jordi Murphy – that is significant, as, the 2007 Blindside Army aside, Ireland have taken 5 backrow forwards to the last few tournaments. You would think Heaslip, POM, SOB and Chris Henry are inked in, which leaves 1, and 2 at most, places left. Murphy and Diack are battling it out with Rhys Ruddock for those slots (save for a bolter) – and, given Murphy might struggle for starts in big games next season, Diack might have stolen a march on him.

Aside from that – Simon Zebo looked eager but occasionally naive, Iain Henderson to the manor born, Mike Ross flogged and Johnny Sexton imperious – what’s new. While its great to see Zebo back, other wingers were more prominent – Andy Trimble looked (unsurprisingly) better versed in what Schmidt wingers do, and Miguel Montero simply looked monstrous – Zebo has more work to do to get himself in the RWC15 frame. Hendy was so awesome that Big Dev, possibly Ireland’s find of the season, might find himself back on the bench – his soft hands to set Jack McGrath piling into some Puma forwards at high velocity were gorgeous. The future has arrived.

The jury is split between whether we’ll see wholesale changes or a similar lineup, but assuredly the Milky Bar Kid won’t be impressed with the error count – too many missed tackles and a bit passive at times – end of season mental fatigue maybe. Ho hum, and maybe we’re just trying to read a little too much into these games at the fag end of a wondrous season.

The World Cup Starts Here…ish

With the 2014 Six Nations out of the way, the 2015 World Cup suddenly comes into distant view.  It’s not on tomorrow, we don’t need to have our 30 man squad pencilled in today, but the process of building towards this giant of a tournament begins now; or at least, it begins with a pretty-much optimal summer tour of two tests in Argentina. After that, it’s three tests in November (South Africa, Georgia and the Wobblies), then the Six Nations, then … er … that’s pretty much it. So that’s 10 tests between now and then, and 20% of them are in June (and, at the risk of underestimating Georgia 2007 style, that’s counting them as a full test). For those who will say “ah, but, what about our warm-up games?”, we say that its surely impossible that Joe Schmidt will still be looking to play some favourites into form a month before the tournament.  Those will be about battle-hardening the players.

This summer schedule is perfect because the games are hard but winnable.  By the summer, the Irish players are pretty fatigued and often injured, especially if the provinces end up fighting it out for silverware, which they usually do.  Anyone fancy two or even three games against a box-fresh New Zealand team?  Or muscling it out against the Springboks?  Us neither.  Argentina will be using these games as the springboard for their Rugby Championship, so they’ll mean business, but all said and done, they’re a decent team but no world-beaters.  Ireland can have justifiable hopes of winning the series as well as furthering the development of a handful of options with an eye on 2015.

Much has been made of Schmidt’s unchanging teamsheet over the course of the Six Nations.  He mentioned a target of starting over 20 players but in the end only started 18. He did play 28, which, when you include extra front rows and so forth means we are already getting pretty competitive in terms of the RWC15 squad.  We suspected a ‘loss of nerve’ in the lack of rotation before the Italy game, but such assumptions proved a mile off the mark.  And while the likes of Denis Leamy appear to have a bee in their bonnet over World Cup development, the truth is that a number of the next wave of players have seen their development furthered over the course of the championship and winning the Six Nations is the best development the players could possibly have got.

Both Marty Moore and Jack McGrath played in all five matches, and were entrusted with finishing the match in Paris, a huge responsibility. Tommy O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy both experienced test rugby, Iain Henderson started a test match and Sean Cronin was used as a valuable impact replacement, and not a reserve only to be brought on when a wing gets injured.  It feels about 100 years ago now, but Dan Tuohy made a belated impact at test level when given a start against Scotland.

Looking through the playing squad, there is only one player who will definitely not be going to the World Cup, and we all know who it is.  The search for O’Driscoll’s successor starts now and while none of the options are equal to the great man, nor do they have to be.  Remember, this is Schmidt’s Ireland where cohesion and attention to the minutiae are king.  Someone like Darren Cave or Fergus McFadden, apparently solid but unspectacular (remind you of perceptions of a certain Ulster wing currently revising opinions?), could excel under Schmidt’s tutelage.  Robbie Henshaw is seen as the coming man by many, and could well be the long term successor, but it’s not clear he’s ready just yet.  Jared Payne is the wild card, but he doesn’t qualify as Irish until the November series. Joe name-dropped Cave and Henshaw in his post-game France interview and maybe they will get one start each in Argentina.

Two other players should be strongly considering devoting themselves to playing outside centre: Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls. “Keith Earls, haven’t we been over that?”, you say.  Well, yes, it hasn’t always worked but those with working memories will remember that Earls has had more good days than bad at 13. Indeed, he played a whole Six Nations in the position in 2012 and had a good series in a bad team.  With Casey Laulala leaving Munster and no replacement signed, and with the wings hugely competitive at national level, Anthony Foley should be trying to persuade Earls to make a huge push to play outside centre full time.  Meanwhile, up the M7 (or the M9, depending on how you see it), BOD’s retirement leaves Leinster with as big a hole to fill as Ireland, and Luke Fitzgerald and Fergus McFadden are the two men most likely to do so.  Again, with such stiff competition for places on the wing, both should be persuadable to give it a go.

The age profile of the rest of the team looks good, and there is no need to panic and pick an inexperienced team which will lose to Argentina.  That said, options need to be developed at tighthead prop and inside centre, starting this summer.  Gordon D’arcy and Mike Ross should be in the World Cup party, but Ireland need to be ready for a scenario where they aren’t.  Ageing players’ levels can fall away quicker than you expect once they go over the hill.  Both were excellent this Six Nations, but in 18 months who knows?  The IRFU pleaded with John Hayes to stay on until the World Cup, only for his game to collapse in the twelve months before it and he ended up not even making the squad.  Better to plan for being without them and if we still have them, all the better.

Fortunately, options are available and the summer tour is the time to use them.  Marty Moore’s development has been rapid and he should start at least one match in the summer tour. It was a little frightening how Vincent Debaty, experienced but not a renowned scrummager, shunted him all around Le Stade, but he is a young man and will learn from the harrowing experience.  On the next rung is the vastly improved Stephen Archer, who should tour and get at least one runout off the bench.  At inside centre, a cloud hangs over Luke Marshall’s future due to his recent concussion; if he can overcome this issue, it is obvious that he should start at least one match in Argentina and he would be a short odds bet to be first choice for next year’s Six Nations.  If he doesn’t it leaves Ireland in a bit of a pickle, at least until his provincial team-mate Stuart Olding recovers from serious injury.  Olding looks the real deal, a natural footballer, but it will be next season before we get to see him again.

Schmidt will also have to decide if it makes sense to bring a possibly exhausted Johnny Sexton to Argentina.  In all likelihood, and judging on Schmidt’s recent coments, this will depend on Racing Metro’s involvement in the Top 14 playoffs.  Sexton has had a huge workload over the last 24 months and may be best off being allowed a proper recovery period, which would afford Schmidt the opportunity to see how Jackson and Madigan cope with the pressure of starting a hard away game.

The summer also looks a good opportunity to rehabilitate a few names who were absent from this Six Nations. Donnacha Ryan and Stephen Ferris are two forgotten men, but both are back from injury and if they can stay fit and recover their best form, they are among our best players.  Ferris would bring a ying to O’Mahony’s yang as they are almost the polar opposite of each other, in as much as two blindside flankers can be.  It would give Ireland serious options in the backrow, essential in a World Cup where the intensity scales up week after week.  Needless to say, Earls, Fitzgerald and Bowe are in the same camp and all three should be pretty fresh going into the summer tour, while others will be starting to fatigue.  And hopefully Simon Zebo can put his head down and get himself in the frame, because the rugby world is a brighter place when he’s playing.

Ireland are in a splendid position; starting the World Cup run-in as Six Nations champions, with renewed vigour and a sense of clarity.  It’s always better to adapt and change from a strong position rather than leaving it until it’s out of necessity, but such things are easier said than done.  In 2009, Kidney was in a similar place, but was a little too reticent to expand Ireland’s game and playing panel, and momentum was squandered; it was a game of catch up until the World Cup and he was lucky Mike Ross fell into his lap.  Wales, in this year’s Six Nations, have missed the same opportunity and now find themselves on the back foot.  There’s always a good reason to keep things as they are, but often a better one to change.

First Box Ticked

So the Schmidt era is off and running – the scoreline was certainly more impressive than the overall performance – Samoa might have been fed a 50-burger by the Big Bad Boks in their last game, but South Africa added 20 points in 20 minutes after Oooooooooooooooohh Alesana Tuilagi got sent off for straight-arming Jean de Villiers’ twin brother, but before that you need to go back to 2009 when France won 43-5 for a similar result against Samoa.

As for the performance itself, Ireland maintained their intensity for 80 minutes, played with increasing accuracy and precision. After an underwhelming first 40, Ireland got some patterns going in the second half and purred away. Sure, they were helped by injuries to key opponents, but you still have to go out and take advantage of it. Seeing an Ireland team finish strongly was an alien experience as well, and the replacements kicked the team on, as opposed to muddling it up. Positive.

In terms of selection, the irony is that the more progressive a pick was, the more of a success it was.

PJ at outhalf had a solid game, linked play well, kicked his goals in an assured fashion, and used his boot increasingly well tactically as the game went on. The Kildare Lewis Moody might seek contact as much as Shontayne Hapless, but he got through a mountain of work and was certainly more prominent than his more heralded colleague on the other wing. Sure, this might be as much as you can expect from him at this level, but that doesn’t mean  there is no place for it – he’s unlikely to be first choice when everyone is fit, but is a pretty good reserve to have.

At loosehead prop, Jack McGrath was responsible for giving Ireland a really good platform up front and was given man of the match on debut (albeit rather romantically from Wardy) – not bad. He reminded us of the impact (in a different way admittedly) another young Leinster loose-head prop made on Ireland debut a few years back. Who knows, this whole “competition for places thing” might even catch on. Chris Henry started the game well, and Ireland’s backrow even looked – whisper it – balanced until he was forced off with injury. His international career has been bedevilled by poorly-timed injuries and it’s a real shame, for he adds a different element to the other flankers in the squad.

Peter O’Mahony had a great game on the other flank.  Our main beef with him is that he can go long stretches of the game without involvement, but he showed a great nose for the action.  For the last try, he sniffed the turnover on the cards and quickly got into the role of scrum half and moved the ball at the first opportunity.  And Sean O’Brien, well, he’s just Sean O’Brien.

Pleasenst surprise of the day was Eoin Reddan, who we expected may be about to adopt the sort of role Chris Whittaker had for Australia – sitting on the bench for 80 minutes in every game.  But for all Murray’s brilliance, Eoin Reddan – on his day – is still the quickest in the country at getting the ball to 10, and has a role to play in the last 20 minutes of test matches.  Expect to see him around the 60 minute mark again against Australia.

On the other side of the ledger, the “sure we know what they can do” selections didn’t work – Mike Ross was under pressure for most of the game, Mike McCarthy looked too cumbersome for this level and gave away silly penalties, and Gordon D’Arcy was all over the place. Considering all three were picked for solidity, it was effectively a waste of three picks. How much worse could Ireland have been if say Marty Mooradze, Dan Tuohy and Stuart Olding were picked. For the Wobblies game, Luke Marshall and Paul “Minister for Passion” O’Connell will come in, but we’ll still be stuck with Ross. Thankfully, the Australia scrum won’t give him much bother, but then its straight into BNZ with the options either to pick him again, or dump in Deccie Fitz or Moore at the deep end.

However, the worst aspect of the entire day was the venue. When Ireland were under pressure in the first half, far from getting behind the team, the crowd spent its time engaging in Mexican waves, even while Tusi Pisi was lining up a shot at goal. Imagine if we were playing in, say, Twickenham, and the crowd cheered a wave while Johnny Sexton was lining up a kick – the horror! Then there was the sand section – the last game on this pitch was a couple of weeks ago when the soccer team played Kazakhstan, and the weather has been pretty clement – couldn’t we have prepared a better field of play? When the Palindrome was a library in previous times, we have always been assured that the Mass time kickoffs never suited us, and we preferred a drink-fuelled evening start. Well, we had one of those, and the crowd were disengaged and distracted.

Anyway, we don’t have the answers to that, but its mighty annoying.

Looking forward to Oz, it would be nice to see the upward curve continue – another cohesive and inventive performance will do that, break the cycle of one decent show a series, and give us something to build on for BNZ. The result itself will probably be dictated by how much space Quade Cooper gets and how we deal with it – if our defence plays like it did in the first half, we’re going to see Israel Folau and co dotting down multiple times. Consistency of performance has eluded this team for a long time, and that has to be priority one. If we lose, let us at least hope that we have made the Honey Badger and co work for it.