Three Nations

Hello everyone. It’s been .. checks watch .. a long time. Sorry, we’ve been marveling at how Stuart Lancaster has turned Leinster into Wasps (utterly contrary our predictions) and Les Kiss turning Ulster into Leinster. But now Ireland are back, and it’s <HYPE> time. It’s the Six Nations, when all predictions of a glorious festival of rugby get bogged down in a festoon of rain, French knock-ons and Scottish rifles aimed at toes. It will be as gritty as ever, but we loves it. Particularly when Ireland are looking so well set.

The Piano Shifters

For natural worriers like ourselves, we can’t help but notice that everyone is drooling over the Irish pack – the entire front row are being touted as Lions, the back row depth is ludicrous (Rhys Ruddock can’t make the 40 man tackle bag-heavy squad!) and most of the second rows are fashionable bolters. Where can it all go wrong?

The major areas of concern for us would be hooker and second row – with Sean Cronin’s injury and Strauss’ collapse in form, Besty will be backed up by James Tracy and Niall Scannell. Gulp. Asking one of your key men to play 80 minutes 5 times in 6 weeks, particularly when we have our two toughest games last, is a concern – without getting too far ahead of ourselves, let’s hope we are far enough ahead of Italy and France, in particular, to give 20 minutes to the freshers.

In the row, Devin Toner has quietly become indispensable. We reckon NWJMB and Ultan Dillane are a bit flashy to play together – indeed, it’s hard to see how Henderson can firmly nail down an international second row jersey while playing at blindside for Ulster – Henderson has been selected by Schmidt when fit, but you have to think Donnacha Ryan isn’t far away. Could Henderson or Ryan replicate Toner’s lineout, maul and scrummaging work if called upon? Maybe, but we reckon you’d notice Big Dev’s absence more than you think. Ultan Dillane isn’t yet a starter – if our memory serves us correct (since we didn’t post about it!), he had some fantastic moments against Canada, but also had some knock-ons and dumb penalties – not something Schmidt likes. Although at least with Toner, the dropoff isn’t as steep as for Besty, so at least he won’t have to play 400 minutes.

In the backrow, the first question appears to be who we leave out – although in such a highly attritional position, it’s unlikely a luxury we’ll have all series. Right now, we’d see Stander or SOB on the blindside (with the other on the bench), van der Flier at openside and Heaslip (as ever) at the base. For the moment, O’Mahony will have to content himself with singing passionately and making grown men scream like schoolgirls from the stands.

The Piano Players

For Besty above, read Conor Murray. Already operating at a high level, in the last twelve months Murray has been one of the best players on the planet.  Even the Kiwis rate him.  The dropoff from a probable Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions starter to Marmion and McGrath is like the north face of Eiger. Like Dillane, Marmion got some useful time against Canada, but when we got into their 22, they seemed to find it really easy to defend against him. We remain to be convinced unfortunately. As we remain with McGrath – he looked good with an armchair ride from the Leinster pack early this season, but his game fell apart when Leinster were struggling in Castres. McGrath is a young man just getting a consistent run of starts, and if he needs to be pitched in this series, its unlikely to work out well for anyone. Whoever plays on the blindside is going to have to guard Murray from Josh Strauss better than Munster did in the recent episode of the Passion of St Tibulus.

At outhalf, the usual applies. Sexton doesn’t play 80 minutes any more, and is very likely to miss an entire game. So let’s assume he plays 60% of the available gametime – are we concerned? Not really – Paddy Jackson is a more than adequate replacement .. with one caveat – he needs to cut out the clanger-per-game pattern we’ve seen from him in green, particularly if we need him against Wales or England – the margins will be too tight for that. Still, Jackson is a better outhalf than Finnocent, Cameeeee Lopez and Carlo Canna and about as good as George Ford, so let’s not devote an entire week of analysis to the fact that Madigan isn’t needed any more, shall we?

The biggest injury absentee in the backline is Jared Payne. Payne is an excellent defender and a pereceptive and dangerous open-field runner – we’d have him as our starting fullback, but he’s a nailed on starter either way – 15 or 13. And do we miss him? Of course we do, but we had more than adequate backups – Henshaw and Ringrose actually looks like one of the best partnerships in the hemisphere at the moment, and Luke Marshall is a perfectly serviceable backup for either. Choo Choo Stu is an exciting and different option we’d like to see more of, but he seems in the awkward spot that he is too predictable for international defences, but too unpredictable for Schmidt. The summer series is the time for him.

In the outside back division, we’re mentally preparing for Rob Kearney to start the tournament at 15 – we think it’s probably more likely to be Zebo, but best to prepare for the worst. Stuart Hogg and co will be furiously gameplanning for facing a fullback who can catch and kick. Else, it’s Zebo, Earls, Trimble – that’s pretty good really. Earls is having a stupendous season for Munster and Trimble remains as doughty as ever – BOSH!  Admittedly, after two injuries, we are into Gilroy-on-the-bench territory, but we’ve come a long way from the Brian Carney days.

The Piano Concerto

So basically, there are two men we absolutely cannot do without – Besty and Murray – and one that we’ll need to win the tournament – Toner. If we manage to keep the above three fit, we’ve every chance.

The team everyone is purring over is England, and why not? Thirteen wins in a row is damn good. Still, we’d be a little more sanguine on them – they have tons of players either out or just returning from injuries: Marler, Cole, Haskell, Robshaw, Vunipola x 2, Kruis, Launchbury, Watson. They have a deep squad, but that is a lot of change to wear, and we haven’t even mentioned their captain returning from a ban for thuggery a technical issue with his tackling. Cardiff in week two might be when the run stops for them – and incidentally gives Gatty the perfect excuse to BOSH this summer.

Without him, the Welsh are engaged in some good old-fashioned in-fighting – although they normally like to get that in whoever the coach is. Still, none of that mattered in 2013, and they have the players – Alun Wyn Jones is O’Connell’s spiritual successor, and we expect Warburton to be very influential. Scott and Liam Williams are excellent players, and they’ve competition in the halves. They’ll fancy themselves (quelle surprise) and they have the best fixtures, with Ireland and England at home.

Those two, and Ireland, are the contenders – again. And it will come down to the games between them .. and for Ireland, it will come down to the fitness of Besty, Murray and Toner. Our prediction is that if Besty and Murray play 350+ minutes, and Toner starts every game, we’ll win the tournament, probably through bonus points. Wales are most likely to disrupt that one – they tend to gather momentum as the series progresses, and we have them away in round four. That’s tough.

France are a disaster – for all the supposed improvements Noves has made, they’ll still pick 140kg props who cannot run, and second rows who consider giving away six penalties a game a disciplined performance. Offloads to no-one, backline moves 40m behind the gainline – it will be ugly, and potentially wooden spoon winning, with a trip to Rome in prospect. Scotland have potential (quelle surprise) but have found a way of shooting themselves in the foot under Cotter – they’ll keep that record up. Italy should be better organised under O’Shea, but have Ulster-itis: no decent forwards. The big three will beat up the small three. Again.

Let’s back the best coach (and the coach most fortunate with injuries to date): Ireland to stay fit and win the tournament by virtue of a bonus point garnered by some Ringrose genius in the last minute in Murrayfield.

The Brink of Disaster

Ireland’s Six Nations campaign has been described this week as “teetering on the brink of utter failure” (Cummiskey) and that we “need victories against Italy and Scotland to avoid a disastrous campaign” (Dorce). The second point is moot, since any year we lose to Italy it is disastrous anyway, but is the first true?

While missing Ross, Healy, Henderson, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Fitzgerald and Bowe, we drew at home to Wales, a team who we fancied to win the Six Nations, and the only Northern Hemisphere team have a successful RWC. The defeat to France was an awful spectacle and put our inability to score in lights. But then we went to Twickenham, and played quite well – we had three debutants (two starting), all of whom made big impressions – and with a little bit more composure in their 22 it could easily have been closer.

Stu McCloskey was dangerous with ball in hand, van der Flier started quietly, but grew into the game, finished strongly and should really have had a try had Ultan Dillane fixed Anger’s Mike Brown. Dillane himself was like Iain Henderson off the bench, an utter wrecking ball with huge carrying impact  – the English clearly hadn’t seen much of Connacht and were unaware that Irish forwards can occasionally run into space. Three successful debutants and, in reality, only only match point less than we expected at this point in the Championship. The defeat against France was grim, but potentially we could learn some lessons from it. Like the need to expand our attack maybe.

So, utter failure? Well, if we lose to Italy, it sure is, but that’s the case every year. It feels to us that, like a manic depressive, we have swung wildly across the spectrum of “we are going to win the World Cup” in September to “we have to make sure we beat Italy or it’s an UTTER FAILURE” in March. We are talking ourselves into a corner painting Italy as this must-win game – I mean it clearly must be won, but there is no doubt that it will be won. We could rest Ross (the Italy scrum got mullered against Scotland), Ryan (Dillane is hardly much of a step down anyway), Heaslip (Stander to 8 and Ruddock at 6), Sexton (Jackson in) and Payne (on the bench in case of emergencies) and probably still win easily. On the official Irish Rugby YouTube channel, Heaslip tried manfully to talk up Italy, but really didn’t do well, eventually stuttering to allow that it was a “pretty dark changing room” after the 2013 defeat.

In the event, it looks like we are going to revert to Plan A – stout defence and kick-ball – fit-again Jared Payne is likely to come back in at centre, with Henshaw going back to inside centre and Simon Zebo starting his second Six Nations game at full-back. Is this really the correct approach? Sure, McCloskey got panned by Schmidt for his offload in the third quarter, and is undoubtedly raw, particularly in his positioning, but it’s hard to argue he wasn’t effective – without a huge amount of sympathy from some of his teammates (the hospital pass from Kearney for example). We also have to ask about how we are going to score tries – against England we looked at our most effective in the third quarter when McCloskey and Earls were the focal points of our attack, hunting for space and creating go-forward ball – surely it’s worth another look? And we haven’t even got into the Payne-to-15 argument, but apparently, even with Rob Kearney most likely injured it is Simon Zebo and not Jared Payne that is being pencilled in for the 15 shirt.

Zebo’s return to the XV is welcome, because he brings pace that we are in dire need of in the backline, but a better backline might have had Zebo on the wing in place of Andrew Trimble, who has been ineffective in his first three matches, allowing for Payne at 15 and The Big Fella at 12. Admittedly, one of Italy’s few strengths is the Garcia-Campagnaro centre partnership, but if we were happy with McCloskey-Henshaw facing Farrell-Joseph, do we really think they can’t handle the Italians? Italy are a team that you can whack and bag early on, particularly at home – it doesn’t feel like a huge risk to keep the centres and try Payne at full back. One way or another Ireland will win if they play to anything like their potential.

The Lengthening of the Days

Schmidt announced his 35 man Six Nations training squad yesterday, and the newcomers – McCloskey, Stander, van der Flier and Dillane – have been rewarded for strong recent form. The internet was getting slightly #OUTRAGE-d as misplaced rumours swirled that Stander wouldn’t make it – Munster fans were particularly vocal in their opposition to Stander being picked, continuing a long tradition of opposition to project players being selected for Ireland (see Strauss, R.), but they were left disappointed as Schmidt continued his own tradition of picking the best available players (see Payne, J.).

Truth is, the squad didn’t really tell us much – 35 players were picked; DJ Church, Ross and Henry will be added later; and NWJMB, POM, Tuohy and Bowe were name-checked as being too crocked to be considered. The only notable absentee from the World Cup is Jordi Murphy, who has effectively been replaced by Stander. If anything, it’s a form call.  Stander has been explosive all season, Murphy has been playing poorly at Leinster.  The Mole had a good post-RWC piece on how Murphy might best move his career forward, and he has some thinking to do.

Garry Ringrose doesn’t make the squad, with management seemingly of a mind to keep him developing at Leinster before exposing him to this level.  He’s quite obviously a test player in waiting, and it would have quickened the pulse if he was selected, but romantic notions will have to be put aside for now.  Most likely he’ll be capped in the summer.

The big questions about the match day 23 selection are still out there, and how Ireland may (or may not) change their gameplan, and we’ll be looking at them over the next couple of weeks:

Who starts at tighthead against Wales in Ross’ absence – if it’s Furlong, and he performs well, Ross might never start for Ireland again.  Most likely it’ll be Nathan White, who stands accused of ruck inspecting, but is dependable in the scrum

The second row is a potential car crash – while England have Itoje, Kruis, Launchbury and Lawes and Wales have Charteris, Davies and AWJ, we’ll need to craft a serviceable second row from Toner (fine), McCarthy (in the form of his career, but still), Ryan (struggling to regain anything like his best form) and Dillane. Dillane is listed as being the same height and weight as Itoje, although a year older.  It will be fascinating to see if he can play a part, it’s possible to see him as an impact sub going in alongside the elder statesman (!) Toner on the hour mark.  We’re hopeful we’ll see more of Toner’s best Brodie Retallick impression as midfield distributor, especially as O’Mahony – the only other forward who tends to perform this role – is injured.

The roles of the in-form newbies. McCloskey and Stander are not just two of the form players in Ireland, but in Europe. Can Choo Choo Stu break up the Henshaw-Payne partnership? He’s certainly the most natural inside centre in the squad, is an intelligent footballer with an eye for space and has yet to find a ceiling. At number 8, Stander will have a job replacing Heaslip, who was one of Ireland’s best players in the RWC. There is an accepted wisdom that Heaslip will somehow benefit from competition, like he isn’t quite producing his best for Ireland, but our expectation is he’ll continue his quiet excellence, Stander or no Stander. CJ is in the mix for the available blindside slot with Rhys Ruddock, but Schmidt may just lean towards Ruddock for his lineout ability, which is one area where O’Mahony’s presence will be most keenly felt.  An impact bench role is the most likely starting point for Stander. Although maybe not against Wales – if Gatty unleashes his double openside trump card (do you do anything else with Justin Tipuric?) maybe it’s better to have O’Donnell there.

Interestingly, Ulster (i.e. Kissy, Schmidt’s mate) selected Jared Payne at fullback against Saracens – was it an understandable desire to keep a returning key man out of heavy traffic against a brilliant team, or something more? Rob Kearney is a very different full back from the likes of Ben Smith, Folau, le Roux, Hogg and Mike Brown and it’s hard to envisage him entering the line at first or second receiver and giving Ireland an extra attacking string to their bow. But then again, Schmidt has only ever selected Payne at outside centre.

We’ll be back with more ponderings, but isn’t it getting exciting? The Six Nations! We’ve won the last two, remember? The arrival of spring, and the inevitable slew of atrocious games. Oh and Ringrose OUTRAGE.

BNZ – the Standard Bearers

And so came to an end the greatest tournament the game has ever witnessed.  New Zealand won, comprehensively, devastatingly and deservedly, and in doing so served up the prototype for what great, thrilling and effective modern rugby involves.  In 2011 they were crowned champions, but they barely stumbled over the line and were blessed by the manner in which the final was refereed.  This time, liberated from the chokers tag, they not only won, but served to demonstrate that they are the best team in the world by a distance, and the greatest of the professional era.

They are fitting champions of a superb tournament.  Indeed, we can only profess ourselves to be surprised by the sheer brilliance of the rugby that was produced.  It was only six months ago that we were despairing of a modern game built on brawn, robotic systems and lacking in skill.  The last two world cups were pretty mediocre in terms of the rugby produced.  We foresaw more of the same here, a sort of turbo-charged Six Nations, but this proved way wide of the mark.  In fact, it was not just the Championship sides that performed such attractive rugby, but many of the Tier Two nations also, not least Canada, Fiji and of course, Japan – who would have made the knockouts but for some generous refereeing in Scotland-Samoa and, of course, scheduling.

One argument that can now be canned is that winning tournaments requires something certain commentators refer to as ‘cup rugby’.  For ‘cup rugby’, see a dull, monotonous game plan involving aerial kicking and one-out runners.  Long a bugbear of ours, it has never made sense that the sort of rugby required to beat an opponent in one form of competition would be different to that of another.  And yet the myth persists that a conservative gameplan is in fact necessary to go deep into knockout rugby competitions.  Hugo MacNeill, who spent the tournament ramming his feet down his throat on TV3, noted that in World Cups you need a Ronan O’Gara-style fly-half, while a Felipe Contepomi type was too outrageous for this rarefied atmosphere.  The august critic had obviously failed to notice that Contepomi holds a bronze medal for his part in Argentina’s 2007 showing while Ronan O’Gara had never made it beyond the quarter finals.

New Zealand remained true to their principles to the end, committed to offloading in the tackle and, especially, passing flat along the gainline.  They may have tightened up in the rain against South Africa, but they were still the more expansive of the two teams and won the try-count by two to nothing.  Ultimately they won the tournament because of their superior skill levels and supreme rugby intelligence.  They have no problem stacking their forwards in wide channels, and when the ball gets there they have the skill to execute.  This gives their strike runners the freedom to roam the pitch and punch holes wherever they may choose.  It’s the exact strategy Rob Penney looked to bring to Munster, but he was laughed out of town for it.  Apparently it wasn’t cup-winning rugby.

The finale of the tournament has a habit of making the group stages look like mere preliminaries, and so it is here.  The past is a foreign country and all that.  And how ridiculous some of it looks from this vantage point!  What, for example, were England thinking?  Watching New Zealand’s all-court game makes it all the more unthinkable that they left Henry Slade in the stands and Ford on the bench, while Sam Burgess and Owen Farrell trundled about witlessly.  Did they think they could win a World Cup against New Zealand with such a ponderous game-plan?  And were we perhaps kidding ourselves a little bit that Ireland could live with this glorious company with such a mechanical, predictable approach reliant on kick-chase and mauling?  Had we better luck with injuries, could we have beaten Argentina and put it up to Australia?  It seems a lot to ask, a high level to compete against.

One other important factor is injuries.  New Zealand, by and large, stayed fit and healthy for the tournament.  Australia also, though they struggled when they lost Pocock for the Scotland game; indeed, they were almost unrecognisable.  They also struggled in Giteau’s absence when he was hauled from the pitch early in the final.  Like it or not, injuries play a huge part in a team’s fate.  Wales’ tournament was undone by injuries, and Ireland’s too.  It’s well and good putting up a no-excuses culture, but if you were asked three weeks before the tournament if Ireland could win a quarter-final without Sexton, O’Connell, O’Brien et al, you’d have objectively said ‘no chance’.  The closing out against France gave us a reason to believe we might not be so badly affected, but it soon became apparent just how terrible that French side was.

The question for now is: will Ireland be able to learn the lessons from this World Cup?  We’ve already posted that we’re unlikely to overhaul our gameplan overnight based on one loss to Argentina, and nor should we.  Ireland are Six Nations champions and will be competitive in that competition again this year.  But we note with interest Gordon D’arcy’s observations that the problem is rooted not in the national team coaching or current crop of players but in the fundamental skills learned in players’ formative years.  A sea-change in mentality will have to occur at every level.  Fail to adapt now and we may forever be playing catch-up.

If the revolution is to come several years down the line, the immediate evolution of the national team should continue apace.  It should not be forgotten that it is the provinces which feed most directly into the national team, and where the players’ day-to-day habits are formed.  Last year was an abysmal one for Irish provincial rugby, and the only way is up.  Leinster were an eyesore, Munster were dreadful, Ulster choked yet again when it mattered and Connacht were a bright spot, but ran out of steam.  We are far removed from Matty Williams’ ideal of a four-pronged provincial base all playing in some sort of ‘Irish way’, that inherently prepares the players for test rugby.  In all likelihood we will never attain such a thing.

However, it is encouraging that Leinster managed 14 offloads in their win over Treviso at the weekend, but tougher tests await, and we will watch with interest as the season develops.  There are a slew of promising players currently performing well in the provincial sides; Stuart McCloskey, Garry Ringrose and Noel Reid among them.  Will they be ready for international rugby come the Six Nations?  Maybe, maybe not; McCloskey looks the closest to stepping up a level.  Nonetheless, it is vital that Ireland show some signs of heeding the lessons that this magnificent tournament has provided.

Where next for Ireland?

There’s nothing quite like the hand-wringing after a World Cup exit.  England are not just reviewing whether or not to appoint a new coach but the very process by which they appoint coaches.  It almost begs the question, who will review the reviewers?  Heaven knows what the fallout in France is like, because they have serious problems.  The decline of one of the great and most fun rugby nations has been sad indeed.

And so to Ireland, who will have their own self-lacerating episode to get under way, following yet another pre-semi-final exit from the Grand Shindig.  No doubt, Schmidt’s eye for detail on the training paddock and in team meetings will extend to the review of his own performance.  Schmidt admits to pragmatism and self-doubt, so he will question his every decision along the way and see if he could have done things differently.

The way the tournament has panned out with all four Rugby Championship teams making the semi-finals has delivered a perfectly formed narrative with a great big bow on it.  It leads to an easy and obvious analysis that the game is played at a different pace in the south and with a higher level of skill that the European teams simply cannot match.

On the evidence so far, this is more or less true, but it has led to the knock-on argument that Schmidt should radically overhaul Ireland’s playing style in order to compete with the likes of Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.  It’s an argument not without merit but it’s worth looking at in greater depth.

First of all, what is Ireland’s playing style?  More often than not it’s a relatively mechanical one in which aerial domination is king.  Both half-backs tend to kick high into the air and the likes of Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney’s principle roles are to reclaim these kicks.  Ireland confine most of their ball-in-hand play to rehearsed set pieces, from which they tend to get substantial reward.  Mauling, choke tackling and accurate breakdown work are also prominent.  However, they have shown, against Scotland in the Six Nations inparticular, an ability to keep ball in hand.  Against France, just two weeks ago, Ireland totally dominated possession and looked to put width on their game.  Indeed, even against Argentina, it was defence and not a lack of attacking nous that cost us.  Ireland scored two fine tries and 20 points in that match; had they defended better, that may have been enough to win.

It’s been argued in the last week that this is a gameplan devised to beat the likes of England, Wales and France but that it’s too limited to take on the better nations.  We’re not so sure.  And even so, most of the time, England, Wales and France are the opposition we face when we have to win – every spring in the Six Nations.  And nobody was complaining too much when we won the last two series.

We’re in the middle of the World Cup now, and as Demented Mole once put it, Ireland’s fans are like chefs, and work with seasonal produce.  We’re bang in the middle of The Grand Shindig right now, and the Six Nations seems a piddling consolation prize by comparison.  But memories are short, and come the spring we’ll remember what a big deal it is.  Ireland have won few enough Six Nations down the years, so we can’t really turn our noses up at them.

Besides, sticking all your chips on a tournament that comes around once every four years is a barmy strategy.  Stuart Lancaster has been pilloried for going on about 2019, so let’s not ourselves fall into the same trap.  It’s worth remembering that Ireland are out of the tournament because they lost precisely one rugby match.  Chances are we’ll have another quarter-final in four years time, but the idea of building a team with that one-off game in mind seems farcical.  There are so many imponderables and most of the things that will drive the result; form, injuries, the weather, team morale, are influenced by the hours, days and weeks leading up to it.  South Africa are in the semi-finals but they have arrived at their current selection and playing mid-tournament after a crisis-inducing loss to Japan in their first game.  So much for forward planning.

It also has to be remembered that Ireland play most of their competitive games in November and February, when conditions often dictate a duller gameplan.  The World Cup has been played largely on dry tracks, which has been a help to those more willing to run the ball, but in spring the matches are often played out on roly-poly pitches and in wind and rain. The first semi-final showed that sometimes the best teams need to play the conditions too. Ireland’s aerial bombardment was good enough to beat Australia last November.  Ok, it wasn’t in a World Cup, but anyone who thinks Australia weren’t there to win needs to watch the tape again; it was a game of thrilling intensity.

Another argument seems to be that “at Leinster Schmidt had them playing just like Argentina did, why has he gone away from that?”  A look at what’s going on in the provinces might be valuable at this point, just as it is to recall that at Leinster Schmidt had a midfield of Sexton, Darcy and O’Driscoll to work with, as well as a world-class offloader in the second row in Nathan Hines.  But last year he’d have looked at Munster and Leinster playing pig-ugly one-out rugby without pause for breath.  If the players are not able to pass or offload at provincial level, then what are the chances of getting them to do it at test level, where the space and time afforded are even less, and the pressure to execute even higher?  It can’t just be turned on like a tap, and Gordon D’arcy’s articles, where he has explained that Irish players are coached from an early age to support the carrier by hitting the ruck rather than looking for the offload, have been some of the most instructive reading of the last month.

Ireland do need to develop their attacking game, no question.  Perhaps we do not have ballers in the class of Fernandez Lobbe, Matt Giteau, Michael Hooper or Nicolas Sanchez, but last we checked Jonny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson and Jared Payne, among others, were all comfortable playing with the football. The skills are there, and we should look to trust them a little more.  But there’s no need to throw – or should that be Garryowen? – the baby out with the bathwater.

Billy Twelvetries

An extraordinary day, which showed the sport of rugby in the greatest possible light. After so much dour rugby, and so much talk about how dour the rugby was, and how the odds were stacked against it ever not being dour again, the Six Nations exploded from torpid sludge into kaleidoscopic colour right at the last. It was truly, utterly wonderful, 240 minutes of magic, and if individual test matches could be argued to have been better, it is hard to believe there was ever a rugby day which was so utterly fantastic, heartstoppingly exciting and with so much at stake. Whichever nation you were supporting, and all played their part, it would have been hard not to have been awed by the sheer excitement, but we Irish get to enjoy the deepest satisfaction.

For those lamenting how the laws of the game make it impossible to play rugby, it was a somewhat eye-opening experience. All it took was a few 20+ handicaps and everything we thought we knew about the State of Rugby Today went out the window. Quick ball, space on the field, line-breaks, running at speed, tries, brilliant handling: it was all on show. It makes you wonder if the better teams should play this way more often. After all, it’s always better to beat your opponent by 30 points than by 5. In all sports, it is up to the more talented participants to make their superior skill level count for as much as possible. The same should be true of rugby. Why give a sucker an even break, by allowing yourself to be dragged down to a game of bish and bosh by less talented opponents?  But too often that fails to come to pass.  Against Italy, Ireland were happy to play Italy at their own game, just with greater accuracy.

One interesting question to ponder is whether Ireland had been playing for a Grand Slam and merely needed to beat Scotland, would they have played this way, and won by so many? Knowing Ireland and what they do for their supporters’ heart rates, probably not. That said, Joe Schmidt talked about the gameplan being to build on the second half against Wales, where Ireland played a more ball-in-hand game and were effective too, outside the Welsh five-metre line at least.  This being Joe Schmidt, it’s reasonable to assume he had a plan all along to build Ireland’s running game over the course of the tournament, but that’s a narrative that might be too easy to weld on after the event.

Coming into the tournament, Ireland had several to-dos: bed down the new centre partnership, address other weaknesses in the squad (primarily that the tighthead prop has played every game bar one in this RWC cycle), continue to deliver results, and have the squad and team ready for the RWC. How did we do?

On the first, it’s an A – Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne started all five games together and looked increasingly assured as time went on. Defence was expected to be the biggest concern, for both the new partnership, and for Payne, who has looked leaky at outside centre for Ulster, but in actual fact it was creativity that became the biggest issue. However, as Ireland expanded their gameplan, the centres became increasingly influential – in the second half against Wales, Payne’s footwork and attacking lines caused some problems, and he deservedly scored his first try against the Scots. Henshaw was a contender for Ireland’s player of the tournament – it’s hard to believe he has played more games at inside centre in the last month than he has in the rest of his career.

We spent the tournament calling for Marty Moore to get a start ahead of Mike Ross. Ross himself had a solid championship, but it didn’t really change anything or tell us something we didn’t know – if Moore can scrummage at international level, he becomes the better pick in our opinion. The possibility remains that Ross will not start another frontline game this season, and when we get to the RWC warmups, we will be back in the familiar mantra of “we need to get Ross gametime to get him up to speed”. All of which is true, but still doesn’t change the fact that we are relying on a player who is past his best, and may have fallen off a cliff by August. Again, we feel like a long-playing record, but that doesn’t change the fact that Moore hasn’t started an international yet.

The squad itself was expanded with the likes of Iain Henderson now pushing for a starting slot, and our deep resources at backrow characterized by the impact of Tommy O’Donnell, our 5th choice who has still to nail down a slot in the RWC squad. The backup outhalf issue is still live – Madigan was pretty average off the bench, and himself, Keatley and Wee PJ will all have genuine hopes of going to RWC15, but it’s likely that 25+ of the 31 man squad are already in Joe Schmidt’s mind. We’re in a good place.

The results were obviously excellent, and the championship was won – you can’t ask for much more than that. Even in the game we lost, we did lots of good things, and, to be completely honest, it did no harm for Wales to expose our kick-chase gameplan a little. The reaction was positive, and it set us up well for Murrayfield – it we had lost that game 12-9 in a kick-fest where our tactics were somehow effective, we may not have had the hour of ball-in-hand that set us up for the tilt at the championship. It also might have meant we wouldn’t have needed to listen for a week for sore-losery whining about Barnesy with highly-selective videos doing the rounds – the world would be a better place if the Irish accepted defeat in a more magnanimous fashion.

Wales helped in Rome too, for there can be no question that having to win by over 20 points amounted to a throwing off of the shackles. Ireland simply had no choice but to throw caution to the wind. And in doing so they were sensational. Murray and Sexton controlled the game, the backrow rampaged, O’Connell was his usual self and the introduction of Healy and Fitzgerald seemed to galvanise the team. Healy’s selection was questioned in a lot of quarters, but it’s the sort of call that Schmidt has a habit of getting right.

And in both the post-match interview and the celebrations, Schmidt once again managed to hit every right note, even going so far as to say he ‘wished [he] could say [he] had anything to do with [winning the Championship]’. It was all terribly Declan Kidney, who also had the ability to be exceptionally humble in winning circumstances.

It seems highly improbable that this day will act as a tipping-point in the grander scheme of things. Will the coaches involved suddenly decide to throw the ball around like confetti from now on? Hardly. The World Cup takes place later this year, and chances are it will be like the last two: starting well enough, before the rugby gets tighter and tighter, and sludgier and sludgier as we get closer to the final. Saturday served as a reminder of how great the game can be, and why we all fell in love with it in the first place, but chances are it will go down in history as a weird anomaly, a day when the stars aligned to produce something extraordinary. It was a day that’s hard to apply cold hard analysis to.  Why look for patterns and themes that will never be repeated?  Its like may never be seen again; all the more reason to allow yourself to bathe in its spine-tingling magnificence all the longer.

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

All is not Lost

Dreams of a grand slam have evaporated after Ireland lost to Wales in Cardiff but all is not lost.  The slam is gone but the championship is still to be decided. As is our wont, despite having only two (two!) Grand Slams in our history, its Holy Grail status means we are still busy wailing and weeping in a funereal atmosphere – the championship is one hell of a difficult prize to win, and we haven’t retained it since 1949 (1983 was shared). Winning two in a row, despite (NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO) not winning a Grand Slam, is an extremely impressive achievement.

Ireland were made to pay for a poor opening quarter in which they fell 12-0 behind.  Thereafter, they dominated the match, to the extent that a couple of Welsh forwards produced tackle counts that were off the chart.  But this Irish team is not set up to chase leads as well as they are to protect them and they came up short.

They showed admirable on-field intelligence in some respects.  As we feared, Wales had sufficiently talented catchers in the back field to nullify Ireland’s kick-chase game, which had so effectively put the heebie-jeebies up the English.  Halfpenny and Williams were never likely to come unstuck, but Ireland at least showed the wherewithal to change tack and hold onto the ball instead.  Fears that Ireland lacked the carriers to gain territory with ball in hand proved less than well founded, with the forwards sufficiently robust at close quarters to put Ireland on the front foot and in the right areas of the pitch.  Paul O’Connell even made a couple of bona-fide line breaks.

It was their inability to convert the pressure into tries that was their undoing.  Three times Ireland were camped on the Welsh line but on no occasion could they breach the defence, bar a maul-and-penalty-try.  A lack of guile is certainly one problem, and Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne have been picked with one thing in mind, and it is not outside breaks or distribution.  But it only tells half the story.  Wales dominated the breakdown contest and Ireland just couldn’t get quick enough ball to score the try that might have swung the match.  Another factor was that, as in Twickenham last year, neither Sexton or Murray played especially well.  Both are vital to Ireland and have been outstanding for much of the last 13 months, so we don’t want to come down too hard on them.  Both of them had an off day.  It happens.

Murray was replaced by Reddan, who is a good reserve, and Reddan did supply the backline with some fast passes, but his trick-play of the behind-the-back-pass was read by the Welsh defence.  Sexton, however, was only hauled ashore late in the match, and Madigan’s form has ebbed significantly in the last couple of months, to the point that Keatley may be the better pick right now.  Mads was spared the ignominy of kicking the ball dead from a penalty in the Welsh 22 only because Wayne Barnes hadn’t started the clock again.  It would have been tantamount to criminality. On paper, the situation was made for Madigan – in fact, it’s pretty much what he is in the team for – no need to kick, keep ball in hand, play flat, unlock an aggressive defence. The fact that the coach only trusted him to play 5 minutes makes you wonder why he was even picked.

The good news is it all sets up a last weekend of huge drama.  Three matches and each one with a possible champion.  A three-way tie on points beckons between England, Wales and Ireland, with points difference almost certainly required to settle the dispute, for the 3rd year in a row.  It leaves England slight favourites.  They begin with a four-point headstart over Ireland and a 25-point start on Wales.  They also play last, and will do so knowing exactly what is required of them.  The last time the title was decided in such a manner was 2007, when last-play tries in both matches (for Italy against Ireland and France against Scotland) proved decisive.  Had Ireland been playing last in that situation they would have won the Six Nations; but they weren’t so France did.  There’s every chance it will be as tight again.  What chance a TMO adjudication in Twickers as Courtney Lawes tries to ground the ball for a garbage-time try against France?  It’s all too much! What Irish fans can take hope from is England’s hopeless lack of awareness and accuracy against Scotland at the weekend – from countless first half line breaks, they contrived to butcher chance after chance and even went in behind at half time. England could have won that game by 30 points and put the championship to bed. But they didn’t, so there is hope.

Wales appear to be third favourites, but they face an Italian side that lost 0-29 to France and may have decided that an away win against Scotland is enough for this season.  It’s not beyond the bounds of possibilities that Wales could win by 40 points and give themselves a real chance – when they want to let the shackles off they can really play, and they’re reasonably well set up to adopt a cavalier approach from the off.  Maybe bring in Tipuric for Lydiate to signify an intent to play fast and loose? There is a real chance Wales can tag on 3 or 4 tries in the last 20 minutes if Italy throw the towel in – if all games were at the same time, you sniff around the 9/1 price on them winning, but given they are setting a target for Ireland and England, it’s a pretty big ask.

Can – and indeed should – Ireland do the same?  In all likelihood Ireland will need to win by 15 points to have a realistic chance.  Scotland are porous in midfield, but not completely hopeless in attack, and are good for 55 minutes of decent performance.  A 15-point winning margin points to needing to score somewhere in the region of 25-30 points, which probably requires three tries.  Ireland have scored four in the whole series so far; one from a pick and jam off a lineout, one a penalty try and one a catch from a kick.  They’ve scored exactly one try where someone is running with the ball in their hands over the tryline.

So, while the temptation is to appeal to management to start Earls, Fitzgerald and Henderson, logic points to Schmidt keeping with the approach that won ten test matches in a row, and giving his team a chance to atone for the Welsh match. After all, the team showed they could execute a ball-in-hand gameplan .. until the tryline beckoned. In Schmidt we trust, even if we recently lost a test match. Although, like a long playing record, we’ll once again ask how having Felix Jones on the bench contributes to the goal of winning by a large number of points.

Return to Traditional Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glass Ceiling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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