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

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Standing Alone

The received wisdom is that Munster are supposedly the third best province in Ireland, but clearly they haven’t bothered to pay it much attention – perhaps giving belated truth to Gerry’s assertion that ‘Ulster are the better team, but Munster are the better province’. For the second year running they find themselves in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, carrying the hopes of the nation, while their more heralded rivals to the north and east will be watching events on their television sets. Quite the achievement given the supposed transition they are in. Sign whoever that coach is up for as long as he likes! Or ditch him and promote the local hero, whatever.

Munster swatted aside a desperate Toulouse effort over Saturday brunch in effervescent fashion. Toulouse were hanging on at half-time but two early second half tries won the game A home win always appeared likely. Toulouse were poor and didn’t appear to have any belief that they could win in Thomond Park, but to score six tries in a Heineken Cup quarter final against anyone is impressive.

More impressive still is that they did it without their captain, Peter O’Mahony. He was replaced after just 18 minutes, but this was the day CJ Stander emphatically announced himself as a Munster player. The South African backrow has had an enigmatic, slightly puzzling Munster career to date, providing brief glimpses of a rarefied talent which has had tongues wagging in the stands, but appearing to struggle to gain the faith of his coaches. Now we know what he can do. Can this be the start of something wonderful?

The two wings deserve special mention. Keith Earls looks sharp as a tack and Simon Zebo looks like he has taken Joe Schmidt’s pointers on board. Rather than sulking or whining to the media, he has come out and spoken of his determination to improve certain aspects of his game, and is doing his talking on the pitch. He scored the fifth try in the face of some pretty tepid defending, but it was all started by him doing something pretty mundane: aggressively chasing a restart. Jamie Heaslip, when he was rotated out of the team in the 2009 Six Nations, told Declan Kidney he would be 100% positive in the lead-up to the game and wouldn’t allow being dropped to negatively affect him in any way. He’d train harder than ever. In the event, he was brought on after 20 minutes and scored the winning try, and was back in the team for the final game. Simon Zebo appears to have the same attitude.

The win and the manner of it also highlighted the importance of getting a home quarter-final. Contrast with Leinster’s trip to Toulon, a similarly comfortable win for the home side. Flip the venues, though and it’s a different ball game altogether. The home-away swing effect is always big in rugby, but particularly so where the French are concerned, what with the spirit of the bell-tower and all that. Leinster will be left to ruminate on a carless defeat to Northampton Saints, having put 40 points on them the previous week.

So, on Munster march to the semi-finals, and this time they have to go away. Can they win? They won’t go down without a fight, but they look like outsiders (again) – Toulon are clear favourites in Marseille, and the reality is that Munster have had a bit of an armchair ride to this point. None of their pool opponents will be partaking in the inaugural RCC next season if the leaked qualification rules come to pass – six from each league (including one from each Rabo country), one from the HEC/RCC champions league, and the winner of a Franglais playoff. Contrast with all three of Ulster and Leinster’s pool opponents likely to be back (admittedly Treviso by default). Of all eight quarter-finalists, Toulouse are the only ones hanging on to qualify, clinging on to the final French automatic spot. Here’s hoping their excellent pack and brilliant outside backs can trouble the beastly behemoth Toulonnais the same way they troubled the bosh-happy behemoth Toulousain.

Lions Post #5: He’s a Killer He’s a Flash Boy Oh

With Wazza currently busy deciding which addresses to send his Power of Four Wristbands to in the mail, the weeks are running out to make a good impression on the old boy.  But a handful of players are making a late bolt, and some of them are some right flash geezers.

The question we’re asking this week is this – just how much room does Wazza have in his squad for flash dandies with lopsided haircuts and a bit of a strut about them?  He’ll want a combination of hard-nosed experience and the fearlessness and brashness of youth.  After all, someone has to pose for the cameras in the commemorative DVD (which may or may not contain emotional montages, sepia-tinged clips of a thinner Jeremy Guscutt dropping a goal and a lot of talk about what it means to wear the Lions jersey), and the likes of Brian O’Driscoll and Sam Warburton will be far too sensible for that type of carry-on.  Plus the last tour would have been nothing without Donncha O’Callaghan pulling Ian McGeechan’s trousers down.  Yes, the Lions tour needs a bit of pizzazz, and the three players we’re looking at today are the men to provide it.

Simon Zebo couldn’t strictly be described as a bolter, as he’s been progressing very nicely for about two seasons now.  In fact had he not been cruelly struck down by injury in the Six Nations he could be more or less nailed on by now such was his form, but he looks like he’ll be able to overcome that setback.  He looked pretty sharp against Harlequins, with one particular take and offload catching the eye.  A couple more performances of the same ilk in the next couple of weeks and Zebo can add another pair of socks to the list of those he’s worn around his ankles.

In general the wing is the most bolter-friendly position, because it’s the one position where greased-lightning whippersnappers can get into the team, and confidence and pace are the order of the day, rather than grizzled experience.  One can get by on instinct.  With that in mind, Wasps’ fastman Christian Wade must at least come under consideration.  Yes, he’s a rough diamond and probably not the greatest defender in world rugby, but in the modern game, where space is increasingly difficult to find on the pitch, a fellow who can beat his man on the outside is incredibly valuable.  And, yes, dude is pretty flash.  With Chris Ashton playing like a drain for most of the season (he did claw back some credibility in Saracens’ win over Ulster on Saturday), Wade is worth bringing for his gas alone.

One thing Wazza should be doing is ensuring he has variety in his squad.  Were he to bring, say, Cuthbert, North (both nailed on), Bowe and Visser, he’d have four rather similar players; big strong fellows who can run hard and through people.  There should be room for an elusive runner in the party, and Wade and Zebo fit the bill.

One other player alleged to be making a bolt in some excitable quarters is Leinster’s precociously gifted Ian Madigan.  Wazza was there to see his headline-grabbing 28-point haul on Friday night, which added another feather to his cap, albeit in a scattergun match which suited his mentality.  It seems a done deal that Sexton and Farrell will make the cut, but there’s probably room for one more, and with Rhys Priestland injured (and overrated anyway), options are thin on the ground.  Greig Laidlaw as a 9-10 option?  Solid, but unspectacular.  James Hook as a utility man?  Wazza has never seemed to rate him that highly at Wales.  Johnny Wilkinson?  Will be involved in the Top 14 knockouts, more or less ruling him out.  Last time around Geech emphasised that he was looking for players finishing the season strongly, and Wazza is expected to pick up that particular baton.  Madigan would tick that box, and his game would surely prosper on the hard Antipodean grounds.  And, yes, he has a bit of flash about him.  Check out that hair for starters.

All that said, it looks at least a season too early for him.  Whatever about wing bolters, the idea of throwing rookie fly-halves into Lions series sounds like a step too far.  It can be tempting to get very excited about such a prodigious talent, but it’s too easy just to remember his best games and forget about the bad ones.  He was brilliant on Friday, but only a week previous struggled to get the backline working (admittedly a workmanlike backline without D’arcy, who appears to be operating very much on Madigan’s wavelength) against Ulster.  He’s best served playing in the North American tour with Ireland this summer.