World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 4

Geordan Murphy tweeted on wednesday night that ‘the obese lady was opening up her vocal chords’.  It didn’t take a genius to read between the lines.  Felix Jones had been given the nod for the France game, Murphy was left to tog out against Connacht, putting Jones in the box seat for the World Cup.  Geordan is of the age profile where, if he doesn’t make the World Cup, he is likely to retire.  Last night’s try-scoring  performance is likely to be his last in green.

The same, only more so, goes for John Hayes.  It looks as if the Irish management are willing Buckley to be the player they believe he can be, and are giving him every chance to show something – anything! – to get him on the plane.  Hayes, unlike Murphy, is incapable of the sort of eye-catching performance that would demand he be picked – indeed the scrum was dire last night, and it’s increasingly a case of ‘who is the least terrible’.  In one sense though you can sympathise with Deccie – Hayes can’t produce any more, at least Mushy might.  If the Bruff man doesn’t make the cut, the game against Connacht is likely to be his last ever game of senior rugby.  In many ways it’s a fittingly fanfare-free way for him to bow out. 

Wednesday’s team sheets gave us – at last – an insight into Deccie’s thinking.  Indeed, it all but named his squad.  For the likes of Jennings, McLaughlin and Fergus McFadden, it effectively shut the door on their World Cup chances (injuries notwithstanding).  Donncha Ryan appears all but certain to go.  It’s a remarkable call – Ryan has just a single Heineken Cup start to his name, and it was one in which he singularly failed to impress (he was immediately dropped for Mick O’Driscoll).  Similarly, Leamy is nailed on in spite of a wild, indisciplined season just gone.  Meanwhile, Kevin McLaughlin has barely been given a chance to stake a claim.  It looked curtains for Jennings too, but Wally’s injury might give him an unexpected chance to impress.  It is probably too late for him, but let’s hope he can at least give Deccie something to think about.

At scrum half, Conor Murray was rewarded for his confident French cameo with 30 minutes against Connacht and is now odds against – Deccie has perhaps decided Boss’s experience is what is required, in spite of never fancying him before. Curious.

France beckons tomorrow, and this time there can be few positives if Ireland lose.  After two defeats, Ireland need to beat a mixed France team (they’re never the same without Dusatoir) to build confidence.  Oh, and some meet and greet with the opposition’s whitewash wouldn’t go amiss either.

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World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 3

Just 10 days remain until Kidney names his World Cup squad, and last week’s performance and this week’s team announcment give us a little insight – but not too much – into who is likely to go and who isn’t.

On the surface, it all looks rosy for Donncha Ryan, who, having played in the second row last week,  is now given a chance at 6, and so can prove his versatility and bag himself a spot on the plane.  But think forward to next week, and the backrow could be something like Locky-Wallace-Heaslip, and the complexion would look somewhat different.  Would you rather play at home to France with Jamie and Wally beside you and Paul O’Connell in the second row, or go to Bordeaux with no O’Connell and Leamy at 8?

The same applies, to a lesser extent, to McFadden, who didn’t play well last week and finds himself out of the team – but next week in all likelihood BOD will be back.  If he was to play 12 inside BOD it would be seen as an endorsement of his chances. So it’s not all over quite yet for Ferg, though he looks odds-against at the moment.

Following the team announcement and last Saturday’s game we can infer a little about who’s looking good and who isn’t.

Practicing ordering fush’n’chups: All the back three. Rob Kearney came through 80 minutes and looked sharp.  He gets another start on Saturday.  Already a Kidney favourite, he can start laying a claim on the 15 shirt for the Australia game.  Luke Fitz looked a lot more confident, and though he kicked the ball away a little too often, he wasn’t exactly blessed with options by the time the painfully slow ball he was supplied with. Andy Trimble played with great intensity, as usual. All three look to be heading southwards next month.

Still hanging on the telephone: Donncha Ryan did reasonably well on saturday, but he will have a tough job on Saturday convincing that he’s an international 6. He’s up against Thierry Dusatoir dans la sud de France, so no pressure.  Jerry Flannery’s return was positive, but all he did was miss one throw. We need to see some of the old Jirry mongrel before declaring him back for good.

Buying their Electric Picnic tickets: It looks like Peter Stringer’s terrific international career may finally be up.  Sent to La Rochelle to play with Munster, he is the only scrum half yet to see action for Ireland.  Unless he starts at home to France next week, which he won’t, then the game will be up.  Shane Jennings always needed to make a big impression to win Kidney over, and injury looks to have robbed him of that chance. We are presuming Wally will get a start next week in the 7 shirt, with Jenno togging out against Connacht.  A pity.

As for the game itself, it could be a long night for Ireland.  It’s not the most defensively robust 9-10-12-13 Ireland have ever put out and Mermoz and Marty will most likely look to run at the goalposts and hope for some change.  Keep an eye out for the French debutant, Biarritz No. 8, Raphael Lakafia.  We haven’t seen too much of him, but he’s regarded as a huge prospect and someone who could star at the World Cup.

Finally, Meejawatch.  It was interesting that Brendan Fanning and not Gerry Thornley had the inside track on the team this week.  Could Kidney be playing them against each other?  Gerry will have to up his uncritical fawning over the regime and justification of tactics and selection, no matter how bogus, to get back into Teacher’s good books.

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Back Row

Wednesday’s post on the second row generated quite a bit of comment, so today we turn our attention to the back row.  Typically a strength of Irish teams, 2011 will be no different.  Indeed, there will be plenty of fine backrows sitting at home this September – Roger Wilson, James Coughlan, Dominic Ryan and Rhys Ruddock are all a fair way off contending a spot.
How many will go? We see it as five dedicated backrows as well as the 4/6 option, as discussed here.
Who is certain to travel? Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and David Wallace can start thinking about what rain gear to pack – they are going.  If – and it is a big if – Stephen Ferris can pronounce himself fit, he is on the plane, and would put Ireland in the ridiculous position of having four world class back rows and only three starting places to put them in.
Who is scrapping out for the last spots? A fit Ferris would leave just one spot available.  And while the back row is home to Ireland’s greatest depth, it is utterly crucial Declan Kidney gets the decision of who to bring in the last slot correct.  Most indicators would point to Denis Leamy getting the nod.  He’s a hardened, experienced international and a Kidney favourite who made all the Six Nations matchday squads.  The other main contender, Shane Jennings, has never appeared to be held in high regard by the Irish coaching staff.  If Leamy goes and Jennings doesn’t, it will be a grievous error.  Shane Jennings must go to New Zealand, and here’s why:
  1. Form. Leamy has had a poor season, was a leading figure in Munster’s discipline problems, and found himself dropped to the bench for the ML playoffs.  By contrast, Jennings was consistently excellent for Leinster, never more so than in the second half in Cardiff.
  2. Backrow balance.  If Leamy travels, Ireland’s backrow options will consist of a Number 8, an atypical ball-carrying openside and four blindsides.  Ireland’s ambition of playing running rugby without a specialist groundhog to produce that all-important quick ruck ball is highly unusual – it’s a core principal that if you want to run the ball, somebody has to dedicate himself to winning it on the floor.  There has to be room for the option of playing an out and out 7 for certain games, or at least unleashing one from the bench, and Jennings is the man for the job. 
  3. Plan B. Jennings would offer Ireland a different way of playing – a Plan B if you like.  He would also be crucial to slowing down opposition ball. Leamy is simply a lesser version of Stephen Ferris.
  4. If we do bring four blindsides and no genuine openside, it would be spine-chillingly reminiscent of Eddie’s ill-fated 2007 squad.  He left Heaslip and Gleeson at home and brought a raft of 6’s.  Whiff of Cordite will break out in a cold sweat if we feel we are repeating the same mistakes all over again, and we’re already nervous about several ‘untouchables’ in the XV…

What if Ferris doesn’t make it?  Kidney will probably have Jennings on standby if Ferris doesn’t make it.  We would see Leamy as the best fit as a replacement for Ferris’ power, so he would be our standby.  So, were this the case, we would end up in the same place as Kidney, even if we got there by a different route.  We would feel a little for James Coughlan, though – he has outplayed Leamy in 2011, but the suspicion remains that it is too late in the day for him to make the step up to international standard.

Any bolters?  With options stacked, it’s been hard for bolters to jump the queue.  Rhys Ruddock is highly rated by the coaching ticket, but didn’t get enough game time at the tail end of the seson to make a charge.

Should go: Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace, Sean O’Brien, Stephen Ferris, Shane Jennings.  On standby: Denis Leamy
Will go: Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace, Sean O’Brien, Stephen Ferris, Denis Leamy.  On standby: Shane Jennings

Decisions, decisions…

The injuries situation at Leinster is causing Whiff of Cordite a few butterflies this week. Having rotated the squad so well all season, and having everyone fit and fighting for the final push for silverware, the last thing Joe Schmidt needed was to see His Bodness and Strauss, for whom we have no experienced replacement, go down injured against Ulster. The good news is that Strauss is passed fit, while they’ll wait until the last minute on BOD. Expect him to start. Happily for Joe, he has a few positive selection dilemmas to mull over before friday’s team announcment. Here’s a look at the tight calls and how we see them going.

Loosehead Prop: Cian Healy vs Heinke van der Merwe

The thinking goes that van der Merwe is the stronger scrummaging prop, and after his phenomenal half hour against Toulouse, could be the better option to nullify the scrum, generally accepted to be Northampton’s strongest weapon. That said, witness Daan Human’s comments regarding Healy’s improvement at the coalface. We expect Healy’s dynamism around the park to swing it for him.

Verdict: Healy to start, vd Merwe to finish

Back row: Kevin McLaughlin vs Shane Jennings

Arguably the toughest call of the lot, and one that rather depends on where Joe decides to fight his battles. Locky gives a tail lineout option and is a hard, abrasive player, whereas Jennings does his best work on the ground and is a key leader, especially in defence. We feel the backrow is more balanced with Jenno in the team, and his presence allows the Tullow Tank to cut loose with ball in hand. A sub-plot is that Northampton’s own lineout-tail backrow, Tom Wood, is out, but it’s hard to know which player’s cause that helps.

Verdict: Almost too tough to call, but Jenno may just get the call.

Scrum Half: Eoin Reddan vs Isaac Boss

Two curates eggs go head-to-head for the 9 jumper. Joe has tended to use Reddan at home and Boss away. So what about a neutral ground? Reddan remains frustratingly inconsistent, and played poorly against Toulouse, but looked sharp when he came on against Ulster. Boss’ physicality has given Leinster a great option, but we expect Reddan’s zippier pass (when he’s on song!) to get him the nod. Boss is also carrying a niggle, which may just tip the scales in Reddan’s favour.

Verdict: Reddan to start, but Boss to play at least 20 if fit

Left wing: Luke Fitzgerald vs Fergus McFadden

Another tough call. Luke is still nowhere near his best, and his performance against Ulster was headed for 3/10 until his superb try reminded us of what he can do. Fergus, on the other hand, appears to be willing to run through walls to show Joe he deserves to be a starter. Phenomenal in contact and showing plenty of gas, not to mention his place kicking, he is looking increasingly hard to leave out. However, Fitz remains the greater gambreaking threat and we suspect Joe may persevere with him one more time in the hope that he eventually comes right.

Verdict: Fitz to get the nod, but can consider himself a fortunate starter

The team will be announced at noon on friday. In Joe we trust.