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.


She’s Lost Control

Joe Schmidt’s first team, picked to deal with what will be a tough Samoa side on Saturday, looks to be more or less on message.  Usually in the November series there’s one game which allows the coach to use a raft of fringe players: think Kidney’s first game in charge against Canada, when he gave Keith Earls his first cap and Stephen Ferris announced himself as a blindside ready for test rugby, or Fiji last year when some Ulster players finally got a chance to show their ability.  That isn’t really the case this series, because Samoa have ascended to the ranks of the second tier, but nonetheless, Schmidt has taken the opportunity to give some matchtime to those around the fringes.

If it was the Kiwis, you can bet Sexton, O’Connell, Healy and O’Brien would all be playing, but instead we’ll be looking at Jackson, Toner, McGrath and Henry.  It’s a nice shake-up and, crucially, all the players brought in are in good form.

Jack McGrath has been excellent for Leinster this season, where the role of reserve loosehead is seen as a vital one, because they rarely play Healy for more than 55 minutes at a time.  He’s deservedly jumped ahead of David Kilcoyne in the queue – it’s a call that might aggrieve Munster fans, but Kilcoyne just hasn’t hit the form he had last season yet.  If he can get back to that level, he’ll undoubtedly be in the coach’s thinking.  When it comes to test rugby, if the call is between two inexperienced players, form should be the decider.

The tight five will have its work cut out for it, though, and outside McGrath’s dynamism and Best’s workrate, it isn’t the most mobile unit.  That said, Devin Toner is a richly deserved pick.  For a player who plays an honest, clean game, he has taken an awful lot of flak down the years, mostly, we think, becaue he doesn’t have ‘good face’.  It should be to the surprise of nobody that his progress has been incremental, but at 27 he now looks a test player, or a handy squad player at least.  Sure he’ll never have the sense of mania that Paul O’Connell can bring to a game, but for the crucial business of restart and lineout catching, he’s the next best thing, and his handling of the ball is surprisingly good.

The Mikes Ross and McCarthy can be considered fortunate starters.  Ross is struggling badly with the new scrum calls, which have thrown the understood scrummaging hierarchy on its head, and McCarthy has looked unfit for Leinster.  Dan Tuohy was a hard-luck story under the old coaching regime, and he’s entitled to feel hard done by again now, because his recent form has been sensational.  As for Ross, it seems an inevitability that his waning performance arc will cross over that of Marty Mooradze’s rising one at some point in the next twelve months; it’s not if, but when.  Probably just too soon though for this series.

Heaslip captains the side for this match, but Paul O’Connell has been announced as Ireland captain.  It’s a shrewd move by Schmidt. For a start, nobody in the land could argue O’Connell won’t do a great job.  It also puts to bed some of the ‘previous’ Schmidt has had with O’Connell, and should help to keep the group united in the event that – as seems likely – Munster don’t have a huge representation in the team.

Another positive call is Chris Henry, and it was nice to get some insight into why he’s been picked, with Schmidt citing his improved release-and-jackal technique, which has proved penalty-expensive if not at its best in the past.  How refreshing to have a coach who gives a little bit of technical detail to the public and show appreciation their understanding of the game, as opposed offering crumbs such as ‘fellas have put their hands up’. Henry looks a likely beneficiary of the new regime, because Schmidt appears to rate him highly, and has tended to see him as the key man to game-manage when he played in opposition to Leinster.

Madigan’s luckless start to the season continues, but Jackson is unarguably the right pick, for the same reasons as Jack McGrath is at loosehead.  The only contentious call in the backline is at first centre where Gordon D’arcy is preferred to Luke Marshall.  Egg isn’t happy about it, not one bit; we could go through the ins and outs of what each will bring, and mention D’arcy’s experience, but let’s face it, he’s in because of the beard.  How can you leave out a man with such a beard?

For once, this feels like an Irish game to look forward to, and probably is for the players too.  In recent years, it felt like the Leinster and Ulster players were happier in their provincial set-ups and that playing for the test side was an onerous experience for them.  In the last Six Nations the players looked like the weight of the world was on them.  The pendulum looks to have swung, for the Leinster players anyway.  They have hardly looked full of joy when playing O’Connor-ball over the last two months, and returning to Joe Schmidt’s methods will surely energise them, and should have the same effect on the rest of the panel who are experiencing his coaching for the first time.

And, finally, what of Schmidt’s no doubt very deliberately chosen words about having ‘lost control’ of Johnny Sexton?  Intriguing for sure, but were they aimed at his paymasters in the IRFU, who failed to contract the player when Schmidt was his coach at Leinster and was powerless to effect the situation?  Or was it a cautionary note to the likes of Sean O’Brien and Donnacha Ryan who are being courted by French clubs?  Probably a little of both.  The message is clear to all, though: we’re better off with our best players playing in Ireland.  Our own take is that with the size of French club squads, they don’t play that much more, but in the case of Johnny Sexton there has been something of a perfect storm; this being a Lions season combined with injuries to other fly-halves at his club has resulted in him having very little rest and playing an awful lot of matches.  For sure though, we’ll all be better off if O’Brien, Ryan and Murray are playing in Ireland next year.

Dwarf throwing, Retirements, Eye-Gouges and Fudged Drop Goals: We rate your World Cup

We’ve pored over Ireland’s exit in some detail.  Here’s a run through the other nations who’ll have fancied their chances to do well.

Scotland: Failed to Qualify from Group
Poor wee Scotland.  Pipped by both England and Argentina by last-gasp tries.  Against Argentina they managed to work a drop goal opportunity to win it, but hurried the kick.  Against England they probably would have won had they not needed to win by more than seven and seek a try themselves when in front on the scoreboard.  They manned up impressively in both games, but the reason they failed to qualify is available in just one statistic: no tries in their final three group games.  They have plenty of grunt in the pack and can keep teams like England on the back foot for long periods, but they just can’t buy a try.  Their backs moving the ball look slower and less accurate than most AIL teams.

Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Sleepy. Time to wake up and learn to catch and pass the ball properly.

Argentina: Quarter Final exit to New Zealand
Worthy recipients of the medal for bravery and courage in the face of unlikely odds.  A shadow of the force of 2007, but their great warriors Ledesma, Albacete and Contepomi refused to go quietly, even if they couldn’t conjure up the same quality as four years ago, with Juan Matin Hernandez a notable absentee.  Should have beaten England and squeezed through against Scotland at the death, and can take real pride in their showing against New Zealand.  They came up with the try of the tournament, with Conters showing a touch of his fading genius, and held the Kiwis tryless for three quarters of the game.  Not bad considering Lobbe was injured and Nigel Owens was shafting them at every opportunity.

Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Happy. Can go home knowing the left nothing behind them.

Italy:  Failed to Qualify from Group
Italy have become an obstinate side at the Flaminio, but the task for the next coach will be getting them to perform on the road.  Showed up well against Russia with slick hands and fast-paced attack, but in their final win-or-bust pool game, their surrender to Ireland was meek and indisciplined.  They talked a good game, with Castro declaring himself ‘ready for war’, but when the moment came they were blown away by Ireland’s greater arsenal.  Somehow, somewhere, a 10 has to be found who can organise their backs and dictate the play.  Until then, they’ll continue to struggle.

Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Grumpy.  Need to keep composure when things go awry.

South Africa: Quarter-final exit to Australia 
Rather unlucky to lose to Australia, but they couldn’t cross the whitewash and paid the price. They brought physicality and certainty to the tournament, and in Francois Steyn, had perhaps the player of the group stages. The problem was, without him, they really showed their limitations. Short of the ability to kick penalties from the halfway line, and without his creativity at 12, they ended up spending 75 minutes camped in the Aussie 22 and losing 11-9. Schalk Burger was immense all tournament, and they played better against Oz than Wales or Samoa, but when you can’t score you can’t win.
Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Bosh-ful – kicking, no creativity, physicality – they are England with discipline basically

England: Quarter-final exit to France 
Where do we start? The scarcely-deserved victories over Scotland and Argentina?  The late and nasty tackles?  The lack of ambition? The stupidity of some of the penalties they gave away? The chambermaid incident? A huge pity that Johnno bottled it and let the running game of last November fade into nothingness, for there are some quality players in this side. It may sound harsh, but they brought nothing to the tournament. It appears Johnno has taken them as far as he can, perhaps its time for a new beginning?
Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Sleazy Sneezy – go home unlamented
Samoa: Failed to qualify from group
After beating the Wallabies during the summer/winter, Samoa went into the tournament very much on the Welsh and Saffa radar, and any chance of being taken lightly was gone. And they duly weren’t, with both sides playing very sensibly against the Islanders and winning. Samoa themselves rarely took the handbrake off and paid the price. Having said that, they didn’t exactly get the rub of the refereeing green, and generally played well – for example, they might have won Group B (the group of dearth). And although Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu might have a point about IRB bias, he didn’t exactly make it very well, did he?
Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Dopey – had the talent to go further, but go home frustrated

World Cup Preview: Samoa

Group D Opposition: South Africa, Wales, Fiji, Namibia

Pedigree: Samoa (as Western Samoa) were the first of the so-called Tier 2 nations to shock a big gun – beating Wales in 1991. Thay have a proud record, making 2 quarter-finals and one quarter-final play-off (in 1999, the stage where Ireland tried a 14 man lineout against Argentina). Recent editions haven’t been as happy – 2007 was their worst tournament to date, with only one win – and they finished as the lowest ranked Pacific team.

Players to watch: The entire team bristles with power, pace and no little footballing skills. For some reason, players who spend their Premiership careers aiming for contact become skilled steppers in their national shirt. like Ooooooooohh Seilala Mapasua – you won’t see pointless knock-ons like you do in Reading. Ooooooooohh Alesana Tuilagi made the WoC HEC Team of the Year, and deservedly so – he gave the Leinster defence more problems that any other player, except (bizarrely) Ooooooooohh James Downey. The era of Pacific packs being shunted around the place are long gone – formidable technicians who love the set piece have emerged, the best of which is Toulouse man-mountain and Iskanders fan Ooooooooohh Census Johnston.

Good tournament: With their RWC record against Wales (P2 W2), a quarter-final is the expectation in Samoa. If they get there, giving Australia a game is required.

Bad tournament: Not getting out of the group – it’s going to be doggedly competitive, but expectations have been raised by recent results.

Prospects: Samoa are a proud rugby nation, and bring real personality and charm to the tournament. The innate physical strength and handling skills of the Samoans have been honed at Sevens level, and for a country with less people than Cork, they punch way above their weight.

The virtual wipeout in 2007 was a huge disappointment in Samoa, and being usurped by Fiji and Tonga even more so, especially given the quality of the squad. Post-2009, the IRB formally included Pacific teams in the international schedule, giving the islands a chance to re-connect with players in Europe, and build between tournaments. In Samoa’s case, this seemed to herald the development of a low-risk percentage game utterly different to tradition.

The tours to the Northern Hemisphere in 2009 and 2010 featured grinding defeats to Ireland, England, Scotland & Wales without the pyrotechnics and running from everywhere expected. A slight suspicion Samoa were developing a backbone of steel was confirmed in Sydney last month, when Australia were downed 32-23 in a game Samoa dominated, both at the breakdown and in line breaks – Matt Giteau certainly won’t forget it in a while, given he has been cast aside as a result.

The draw for this tournament is a little tricky for Samoa – while Wales haven’t beaten them in World Cups, South Africa have beaten them by 50 points in the last two editions, and Fiji have won 5 of the last 7 against Samoa, dating back to 2005. The team have had more time in camp than any previous tournament, and should show well, but the win over the Wallabies may have done more harm than good to their aspirations in New Zealand.

Verdict: They won’t get near the Boks, so it’s going to come down to a three team mini-league with Wales and Fiji. One win is probable, but not two – they are likely to be squeezed out in the group stage for the third tournament running, although they will certainly light it up, and might even make a tackle below the shoulders.