Deep Blue vs The Hipster’s Choice

Even though rugby is on the verge of dying on its feet, with Tony Ward decreeing that the only solution is to cut each team by four players, make them wear armour and helmets, allow forward passes and pause for ads between phases, there is one gleaming white light on its horizon. A light that isn’t just white and gleaming, but well-mannered, good-looking and creative. That’s right – it’s the team formerly known as England (actually foemerly known aas St. Boshingtons), but now rebranded as the Harrow Globetrotters.

The gloriously-monikered chaps talk all proper, are upstanding gents, and, best of all, have this weird idea that scoring tries might, y’know, help win the game. England, who recently arrived at the Aviva bearing a centre partnership of Shontayne Hapless and Matt Banahan, are now the great entertainers of the Northern Hemisphere – they have become the hipster’s choice. On their way to Fallon & Byrne, the skinny jeans-wearing, moustachioed, pipe-smoking ironic glasses-donning denizens of hipsterdom proclaim their ironic love for England.  Truly, it was never meant to bwe this way.

“The Premiership is excellent to watch – I’m thinking of streaming BT Sport on my ThinkPad” they remark while their Jamaica Blue Mountain brews on the counter. “I love the way James Haskell quit his job and went to find himself abroad .. then came back a better person” they crow, as their independently-brewed Slovenian pilsner cools to 5.8 degrees in its specially shaped glass. “I’ve always expected that the England coaching staff would recognise that Danny Cipriani has more to offer than Stephen Myler” they opine while flicking through a dog-eared copy of Bernard Jackman’s ‘Blue Blood’.

Every year, we tell ourselves “this has not been a vintage Six Nations” although what we really mean is “it’s as un-watchable as ever” – it didn’t take the advent of modern defences for Northern Hemisphere rugby to be a forward-dominated bosh-fest on rubbish pitches. The difference is that, while in recent years we have tended to rely on the roller-coaster fortunes of Ireland  and of course the French, with their madcap coaching appointments and smouldering good looks, to provide some entertainment, this year the English are bringing the party.  Daft Punk are playing at their house.  You’ve got to set [their dashing midfield] up, set them up!

So England are the hipster’s choice, but how good are they really? They might score a bucket load of tries, but they also conceded three tries against Italy – three too many against a team piloted by Kelly Haimona – perhaps the worst yet in along series of terrible Italian imported outhalves. Even Craig Gower would have fancied himself against Haimona, and not just in an offal jim-jam contest. Or to put it another way – which coach would have slept sounder after England’s win over Italy – Joe Schmidt or Stuart Lancaster?

We’ll wager the way the rosy-cheeked bright-eyed youthfully vigourous English backs went out to bump up their points difference didn’t fill Lancaster with glee. Plenty of England teams have fed forty- and fifty-burgers to the Italians in Twickers, but none them did it while looking so pourous. Sure, it’s great fun, but we expect the recipe to beat the boring Irish in the Palindrome will fall less on the shoulders of George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson than on the beef of Dan Cole, George Kruis and James Haskell. Can they organise themselves well enough to defend the super-cohesive Irish rolling maul?  The impeccable manners of Chris Robshaw and the way he selflessly tackles his heart out forever, and the ability of Billy Vunipola to keep getting over the gainline and recycle quickly will just as important – this is going to be a tightly fought contest where each metre is fought out in the trenches.  The party stops here, it’s time to get down to seriously putrid rugby.

If England come out and throw the ball around, one could expect the ironclad Ireland defence to keep them out with ease and induce some lateral and directionless shuffling – or an intercept when the first forward is skipped for the centre behind him on static ball. England might have saved the northern hemisphere from eternal damnation in recent times, but they’ll probably need to be playing some decidedly non-vintage (or, if we are true to reality, “vintage Northern Hemipshere”) bosh-it-up-the-middle rugby to leave Deep Blue Schmidt’s hard drive with a win.

They have the capability to do it.  Don’t forget that for all the frothiness, it was their forward power more than anything else that dominated Wales in the opening match.  They suffocated the life out of the Valleysmen.  That is the template they’ll hope to bring to Dublin.  If Ireland’s maul is a weapon, the scrum is a concern, where Dan Cole and Joe Marler are black-belt scrummagers, and nobody needs reminding ofthe manner in which Marler milked penalties from Mike Ross in the Leinster v Harlequins double-header this season.

The backline will be busy, but perhaps not in the same way as against Italy.  Chances are the back three will have to catch a lot of kicks and Mike Brown’s absence will be felt.  Ben Foden is also injured and it leaves them playing Alex Goode at full-back.  Goode is a classy runner in open field (such that that ever occurs these days) but how will he, and the two inexperienced wings (with Jack ‘Tryless Wonder’ Nowell expected to replace Johnny May) go under aerial bombardment from Ireland’s halves?  Note to Jared Payne: don’t do anything silly now.

One thing is certain – it won’t be pretty. A second thing is certain – it will be a chess match. The maul, the kicking game, the scrum; these will be the decisive factors.  It could well come down to whoever best holds their nerve.  We’d back Johny Sexton over George Ford if it comes down to a shootout.

Our money is on the computer. Ireland to win.

Yes, but how did he present the ball?

Anyone who watched Leinster or Munster at the weekend will have suffered a double-dose of mediocrity from then Irish provinces. Leinster huffed and puffed and eventually secured five match points against a committed but limited Zebre side, while Munster snatched an improbable draw from a 12-point deficit late in the match against Scarlets.

None of that mediocrity, however, came from Luke Fitzgerald or Keith Earls, both of whom were excellent in their respective teams. The two players have had plenty of troubles with injuries but both are currently fit and in-form. Beating defenders, breaking tackles, bringing others into the game – yes, even that – and up to task defensively, these lads have the all-court game. Keith Earls has had his distribution and awareness questioned down the years, but as with his defending, it feels like one or two high-profile mistakes have caused everyone to forget the number of times he has passed to another player or shown quick hands. Witness his line break and superb pass back inside in Sunday’s game.

Given the circumstances, they’re probably the two best three-quarters in the country, certainly in attack. Is there anything to be said for getting at least one of them into the matchday squad for the remaining Six Nations matches, starting with Sunday’s titanic whompingly huge battle with th’auld enemy?

With the dust having settled on the France game and everyone in agreement that Ireland have played precisely no rugby whatsoever in the tournament so far, it looks like a stretch to expect an intense kick chase and a decent rolling maul to be enough to beat an England side that is in rude health and even has – for the first time since the likes of Mike Catt and Will Greenwood were around – a potentially dangerous midfield. England won’t leave the Aviva Stadium with less than 15 points, so Ireland will have to go out and play a bit to win.

But how? Ireland have a backline stacked with kick-catchers and straight-line runners and have barely crafted a line-break in the tournament so far. The centres have put in monumental defensive shifts, so credit is due, with tackle counts a flanker would be happy to stand over (insert your own joke about Peter O’Mahony here) against France, and while both have also gained metres by running straight and square, there’s been little in the way of guile. Surely one of Fitzgerald or Earls at outside-centre would offer a little more threat?

Another avenue into the team for one or other would be on the wing, where Simon Zebo has done little enough wrong, but hasn’t really been at his best this season. He’s been serviceable enough, and it might be harsh to drop him, but would Ireland benefit from having one of our cause celebres in his place?  We’d vote for change.

Failing that, the very least we can hope for is for just one of the gruesome twosome to get into the No.23 shirt. Felix Jones is a good player having a fine season, and doesn’t deserve to be dropped either, but he’s an ill-fitting reserve for a backline already stacked with full-backs.  If we’re chasing a try late in the game, who is more likely to do something game-changing?  Not Felix Jones.

Chances are, of course, that none of this will happen. Schmidt has now become the anti-Deccie when it comes to selection. While Kidney appeared to bend over backwards to get his favourite 15 players into the side regardless of how unbalanced it looked, Schmidt places a huge premium on the work done on the training paddock, and only in extreme cases will he parachute players into the team who haven’t gone through the strategy in Carton House. You can guarantee Joe won’t be too interested in who made a 50m line break or beat six tacklers. In fact he is probably more interested in how Fitzgerald presented the ball after running past everyone. As it happens, he did it pretty well, and a try followed. Let’s hope it counts in his favour.

Wolverine Out

Ireland’s most indestructible player, Jamie ‘Wolverine Blood’ Heaslip, has finally been broken.  He will miss his second game out of three when England come to the Palindrome for Sunday brunch. Jamie has three cracked vertebrae thanks to the knee of Pascal Papé – we’ll be honest in saying we thought it was a yellow card at worst at the time, but Papé has been cited, and there would be some justice in seeing him having to sit out some games. Seeing it again last night on Against The Head, knowing that it broke three vertebrae in the afflicted man’s back, it did look a hell of a lot worse than on match-day.  Mind you, the old farts would probably be doing Beleaguered French Coach a favour if they forced him to bring in Romain Taofifenua.

This continues a horrendous run of injuries for Ireland in this sector. Luckily we are well-stocked, but of our top 6 backrow players (in our view) at the beginning of 2014, we’ve had to endure:

  • Stephen Ferris – unavailable for all games in 2014 (5) pre retirement
  • Sean O’Brien – unavailable for all games in 2014 (10) and 1 game in 2015
  • Chris Henry – unavailable for 3 games in 2014 and 2 in 2015
  • Rhys Ruddock – unavailable for 3 games in 2014 (we think) and 2 in 2015
  • Jamie Heaslip – unavailable for 1 game in 2015
  • Peter O’Mahony – unscathed! Perhaps it’s down to the singing, the grubber kicks, his sheer manliness – who knows, but maybe there’s a new Mr Indestructible in town

When Schmidt took over, our likely first choice backrow of Fez-SOB-Jamie never got a chance to play together, and the next best combo of POM-SOB-Jamie only 3 times so far (Oz and BNZ in 2013, France in 2015). POM-Henry-Heaslip leads the way with 5 (4 games in last years Six Nations and Samoa in the 2013 AIs) and has much to commend it, and was extremely effective last year.

For the visit of England, however, Henry and Heaslip (and Ferris obviously) won’t be around, O’Brien has just returned from injury, and Ruddock may or may not be back – and even if he was, it’s unlikely Schmidt would consider him. Only Peter O’Mahony is fully fit with lots of games under his belt. The other specialist backrows in the training squad are Jordi Murphy and Tommy O’Donnell, both of whom started against Italy and had strong games – Murphy made the bench for France ahead of TOD, much to the OUTRAGE of some.

Joe Schmidt essentially has two options for the England game – drop the natural number 8 (Murphy) straight into the team, or shuffle his deck and move O’Brien or O’Mahony to the back of the scrum, and bring in a flanker. Here are the options:

O’Mahony, O’Brien, Murphy: This is the likely Schmidt choice – everything is sacrificed to the system and in this case you have a natural 8 being dropped into the 8 slot. Murphy has started at 8 twice for Ireland, most recently in Rome, and this has the obvious advantage of not tinkering too much with a unit that has yet to see stability this tournament. On the other hand, is Jordi Murphy a good enough player to drop in against Billy Vunipola and an England unit that is settled and in good form?  Murphy is slightly undersized for a No.8 and very much a tyro at this level, while his season has been afflicted by injury and he has not yet hit last year’s form.

Deep Blue Probability Calculation Factor: Very Likely, with O’Donnell brought back into the squad as first reserve.

Henderson, O’Brien, O’Mahony: The obvious advantage here is bringing in the best player available. Henderson will be a second row going forward, and has had huge impact from the bench this tournament to date. Playing him at flanker might not be everyone’s preference for his career – but needs must and we would get a brilliant player into the team – and one who has international experience wearing 6 in the past, including a start in last year’s tournament. This would involve moving POM to 8, where he looks more natural than SOB – he has three starts there for Ireland, albeit 2 in North America in one in the Game That Never Happened in Hamilton. It might even give him greater scope to try grubber kicks with the outside of his boot.  We were advocates of O’Mahony as a long-term option at No.8 some time ago, but it’s been a while since he played there and has matured as a blindside long since. This selection also raises the question about who would cover second row on the bench – would Schmidt pluck Mike McCarthy from the Leinster bench? Or pick TOD and Murphy on the bench with Henderson covering lock – probably. This selection would be The People’s Choice, because everyone is really, really excited about Henderson, but it looks like something of a pipe dream.

Deep Blue Probability Calculation Factor: Does not compute.  Too jazzy by half.

O’Mahony, O’Donnell, O’Brien: This involves shifting SOB to 8 and bringing in specialist openside TOD. This is essentially a vehicle for getting the most natural 7 into the team, and a reflection on how well O’Donnell played against Italy – it involves moving Sean O’Brien back to number 8, a position he last started for Ireland over 4 years ago in Rome (his only start there). Given tackling machine Chris Robshaw is the opposition seven, we can’t see much point to this – except salving some of the OUTRAGE from last weeks selection.

Deep Blue Probability Calculation Factor: Computer says no. O’Brien has enough on his plate without playing out of position.

O’Mahony, O’Brien, Roger Wilson: In a parallel universe, if Darren Cave was allowed to pick the team, this would be the backrow to face England, and he could pick himself at 13 too.

Deep Blue Probability Calculation Factor: Face doesn’t fit.

In twelve months time the landscape at No.8 could look totally different, with the Jacks O’Donoghue and Conan rapidly emerging.  Both have carrying ballast in spades, but O’Donoghue has just one Pro12 start to his name and Conan is still learning to catch the ball.  Their time will come, but not yet.

Happiness Index

Ireland have beaten France by 18-11 to move a step-closer to a possible tournament decider with England. Beaten! France! Tournament decider! Grand Slam Fever! Ireland never beat France, so doing so should be a cause of unbridled celebrations, right? So why has the reaction to the victory been so muted? Shouldn’t we all be much happier?

The answer is fairly straightforward: because Ireland didn’t play particularly well. This is a hopeless French team, badly coached by Phillipe Saint-Andre and they were there for the taking. Ireland conjured not one single line break in the match, and indeed in the final 25 minutes found themselves almost totally on the back foot. It was hard to escape the feeling that had France started with Morgan Parra at 9 and maybe some of the front five reserves they brought on it could all have been very different. Ireland had been expected to win the match all week; they did so, but without any tries, or even a single decent attack, and they were hanging on a bit at the end. At the final whistle it was a feeling of sheer relief more than anything else.

Paul O’Connell pretty much nailed it in his post-match press conference. Ireland were in total control, had the French where they wanted them, but kept releasing the pressure valve. Popey’s favourite adage about giving a sucker an even break sprang to mind. Ireland simply didn’t execute. Paulie was frustrated.

Ireland are two from two, so it feels a bit churlish to start moaning, but they haven’t really played any rugby yet, and they will have to do so to beat England and Wales. One interesting facet of the post-match hullabaloo was a marked difference in how various punters thought Peter O’Mahony had played. The Munster flanker tends to divide opinion, so it’s not exactly a new thing, but there were those (us among them) who had him down as a man of the match contender, and others who felt he went missing in action. Sure, he posted another low tackle count, but he appeared to be very prominent around the pitch, in the second half at least.

But whatever you make of O’Mahony, one thing’s for sure: the chap can play a bit. In this game he fired one of the game’s best passes from first receiver out to the wing late in the first half. A pass! To a wing! Sounds a bit fancy, and this from a Munster man and everything. Has he no shame?  He also kicked the ball with the outside of his foot in the second half. Not many forwards can do that! Indeed, he’s not the only Irish forward who is comfortable distributing the ball. One of Matt O’Connor’s more effective tactical wrinkles this season has been his use of Devin Toner as a distributor, to the extent that Stuart Barnes has declared Toner the new Brodie Retallick. Jamie Heaslip has many talents, but not least among them is his ball-handling abilty, which is first rate.

But alas, we haven’t really seen any of that from Ireland so far, and there has been very little linking between backs and forwards as a result. The days of Ireland putting out eight donkeys in the pack who can only run over or into things is over, so perhaps it’s time to let them play a bit. And while we’re at it, what about getting the two centres to pass the ball just once or twice? You never know, it just might work.

At least we can all rest assured that the players and management will be keenly aware of all this. Schmidt has already identified that England’s win in Wales is far and above anything Ireland have put together so far, so the improvement will be required. Jonny Sexton will have another match under his belt in the meantime; so will Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy. It’s time to give it a lash.

How many is too many?

Ireland are in the unique position of welcoming back a number of world class players in one go after periods on the sideline of various length. It’s an unusual selection headache for the coaches as they ponder bringing some or all of their best players back into the team. The names themseleves – Jonny Sexton, Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien – would enhance any line up in world rugby (except Bath of course), but with the rustiness and shortage of match-fitness that comes with a lengthy injury layoff, the question is: how many such players can be absorbed in the team at any point?

Word on the ground is Ireland are set to start three of this fab four, with the fourth, Cian Healy, starting on the bench. It looks about right. Jamie Heaslip is back from a relatively short period off the pitch; indeed he has played through his injury in recent weeks and by all accounts could have done so against Italy if he really had to. Heaslip is the glue that binds together any Irish backrow these days; such is his versatility he performs the role that is lacking among the two flankers picked either side of them. Playing alongside O’Brien and O’Mahony, he will probably be asked for a day in the trenches, shoring up the breakdown and clearing rucks.

Jonny Sexton is in a strange situation, where has has been forced to sit out through a build-up of concussion incidents. He hasn’t been ‘injured’ as such, so his fitness probably isn’t in question but he will likely be lacking a bit of his match sharpness, but his presence alone on the pitch is a huge fillip. He’s a must-pick and management will look to keep him on for as long as possible. Madigan looks set to deputise, showing that while Schmidt preferred Keatley’s ‘steady-eddie’ approach from the start, he sees Madigan as his best impact replacement, whose less structured style can be of best use late in matches.

Healy and O’Brien are different cases, having been missing for much longer. The O’Brien situation is complicated somewhat by Heaslip’s injury; having one backrow operating at less than 100% is one thing, but selecting two is surely one too many? It is likely it wouldn’t happen if Schmidt did not feel he could rely on Heaslip to come through 80 minutes. Another possibility is that he can get away with it because his second row replacement, Henderson covers the backrow as well as second row. If he absolutely has to finish with a backrow of Hendo, O’Mahony and Murphy, then it’s not the end of the world.

Murphy you say? Well, yes – O’Donnell is a better like-for-like starter on the openside, but Murphy covers more positions from the bench. Tough gig, but then, this is, as ever, an uber-competitive line. Speaking of the bench, we still can’t say we are fully comfortable with Felix Jones being there – Jones is a specialist full-back, while the alternatives (Earls or Fitzgerald) cover virtually the entire 3/4 line plus full-back. Against Italy, Jared Payne getting injured necessitated moving Tommy Bowe to centre and playing Jones out of position. He’s clearly a player Schmidt fancies, and it’s tough to argue with the results, but it has the whiff of Deccie selecting Paddy Wallace to cover the entire backline.

No other changes are likely – and we still think selecting Mike Ross is short-sighted. Did he justify his selection against Italy? Absolutely. Do we think picking Marty Mooradze is a better bet? Completely, in both the short term (as Leinster have proved) and the long term (looking forward to RWC15 and beyond). France, in their only change, have promoted the huge Racing Metro loosehead Eddy Ben Arous – it’s injury enforced, but Ben Arous for 50 minutes plus Debaty for another 10 or so is going to ensure Ross will need to have an equally effective day at the office.

The real good news for Ireland is that Afrique du Sud’s Rory Kockott and Scott Spedding keep their places – we’d feel a lot less confident if it was Morgan Parra and Brice Dulin in the team, and the arm-flapping Bad Ben Youngs impersonations of Kockott and howitzer boot of Spedding should be easier to deal with for Ireland. The only team to really knock Joe Schmidt’s Ireland out of their comfort zone in 2014 were the ultra-ambitious Wobblies when they kept the game fast and loose  – the intelligent Parra and unstructured Dulin would be much more worrying.

Based on the teamsheets, you’d fancy Ireland, but <insert cliche about France here>.

Kasparov, Deep Blue, 1996

Two Six Nations ago, in their second Six Nations under Jacques Brunel, Italy beat Ireland and France, admittedly both at home. The draw for RWC15 had already been made, and these three, with all due respect to Canada Eh and Romania, would be in a round-robin playoff for qualification. If results were repeated, Italy would have topped the pool, and Ireland would have been one bonus point behind France in the scrap for second. Brunel had worked on expanding Italy’s game after succeeding <insert name of Southern Hemisphere rent-a-coach here>, and it was paying dividends – Italy looked like they might be a genuine threat for the rest of the cycle.

Wind the clock forward two years, and Brunel’s experiment has ended – in November, Italy responded to a terrible run of results by picking a Kiwi journeyman at outhalf and sticking it up the jumper. This was never a gameplan that was likely to unstick Ireland under Joe ‘Deep Blue’ Schmidt – and so it proved. Ireland dusted down the well-worn script for beating the Italians when they were under <Southern Hemisphere rent-a-coach> – disrupt the lineout, slowly overpower them up front, and make hay when they began to tire in the last quarter. The Italians even threw in the traditional yellow card. Eddie and Deccie negotiated such obstacles with ease, and so did Joe Schmidt’s Ireland.

The game was a snoozefest, and Ireland’s seemingly fervent desire not to show any of their hand led to the likes of Jared Payne and Henshaw being used to bosh it up the middle. Like the November formula, keeping it narrow was the watchword. O’Connell admitted Ireland allowed themselves to ease into the game slowly.  One would expect we will need to show a bit more against France, who will lap that kind of stuff up. In the pack, Jamie Heaslip is virtually certain to return, we will need to await a prognosis on the unfortunate Sean O’Brien, and DJ Church is less likely to make it. O’Brien’s injury puts the selectors in a bit of a pickle, because the game being against Italy was the perfect opportunity to give him a bit of a hit out before the France match.  But without that hit-out, do they now throw him in from the start against the French?  Or will he even be avilable?  If O’Brien doesn’t make it, its a choice between Tommy O’Donnell, who did very well deputising at the last moment, Jordi Murphy, first reserve 12 months ago, or something creative (and unlikely) like shoe-horning Iain Henderson into blindside while moving Peter O’Mahony across. Henderson’s ballast and skill off the bench gave Ireland real momentum in Rome, and one wonders if it’s merely a matter of time before he makes the starting team.

Right now, though, O’Donnell looks the natural choice.  Full credit to him, but the ease with which Ireland can replace a player of the calibre of Sean O’Brien without batting an eyelid shows (again) how systems and processes drive modern rugby, and in particular this Ireland set-up. It’s tough to imagine, say, Deccie’s Grand Slam Ireland being able to seemlessly replace, say, Wally and Fez with Shane Jennings and Denis Leamy without a noticable decline in production.  They were almost the opposite; dependant on signature players for big plays at key times in the heat of battle.

In the absence of Jonny Sexton, Conor Murray controlled the game nicely – what a player he is – but Keatley had a bit of a curate’s egg on his Six Nations debut. He took his goals well, and kicked better as time went on, but there were a couple of ugly errors in the first half, and Sexton’s general-ship was missed. We’ll need the cranky one back to be at our best. Ian Madigan came off the bench for a tasty cameo against tiring legs, and is probably inked into the number 22 shirt for the tournament – Keatley did fine, and he’ll start if Sexton goes down again, but Madigan’s unstructured threat is better off the bench.

To continue the RWC15 theme, the Italians look so far off being a threat to Ireland that it isn’t funny. The French, of course, are another kettle of fish. Right now, all the elements seem to be there, but it just doesn’t seem to be coming together for them – they didn’t show much against Scotland that would have us tossing and turning .. or maybe Scotland are better under Vern Cotter than they have been. Like Ireland, presumably PSA doesn’t want to show his full hand, given the team is, y’know (with some exceptions), Gallic and, y’know, mercurial and, y’know, French, the whole Scotland episode probably gives few pointers as to how next week will go.

The tournament has started with wins which would have been fully expected, without learning much, but the real direction of the tournament for Ireland and France will be decided on Saturday.

The Game Is On

The Wolfhounds snooze fest ultimately might have some major import when it comes to looking back on Ireland retaining their Six Nations crown, but probably not – nothing we learned was earth shattering. Sean O’Brien is fit again, NWJMB is just amazing, Ian Mad-dog isn’t totally reliable in a mucky boot fest, Sam Burgess is on a hiding to nothing (Dear Slammin’ Sam, take up the sport, and be international standard in three months. Hugs, Bruce & Stu) and Luke Fitzgerald will find a way to keep our nerves jangling.

But now that is (thankfully) in the rear view mirror, the real action begins – it’s just five days until we walk out in Rome, and the Milky Bar Kid has some selection quandaries. The odd dilemma, a few posers and some awkward questions. Last year, he decided on the team (15 and 23) that was going to win the Six Nations and largely stuck with it right the way through. This time around, it’s slightly different due to RWC15 being the ultimate target, but we can’t foresee a series with Schmidt road-testing players and combinations – he’ll do that in camp and stick to a squad that he thinks can execute his gameplan. Who will be the players tasked with this? We’ll start with the forwards and look at the backs separately – the backs have more obvious question marks, but with injuries and returnees the forwards aren’t completely cut and dried either.

Loosehead Prop: Last year, DJ Church was the starter with Jack McGrath the backup. Church, however, is injured and isn’t expected back before the England match in round 3, leaving McGrath as the starter and incumbent for the first 2 rounds. We can expect Healy to march straight back into the XV when he is fit – Schmidt might be one for competition for places, but only within the parameters of gameplan execution, and Healy is one of the cornerstones of the team and will start is fit. James Cronin of Munster, a most interesting player and much better than Dave Kilcoyne, in our untrained eyes, will provide backup early on.

Hooker: Like last year, Besty is the incumbent with Sean Cronin breathing down his neck and providing oomph and carrying from the bench. While Cronin has many virtues, the fact that he can’t throw or hook is kind of major at this level – Besty himself can get the yips, but any lineout weakness is more than compensated for by feral breakdown work (especially important in the absence of Chris Henry). The rather dodgy argument was put forward by Shaggy that, since neither hooker will play the full 80, and Cronin’s throwing is less bad when starting, is that he should be the starter. Not buying it – Besty to start, and it will stay that way until Cronin’s technicals improve.

Tighthead Prop: Now, this is most interesting. We presumed last week that Mike Ross, as Leinster’s third choice prop, simply could not start against Italy. But why would Schmidt pick Ross against the Saxons if he isn’t going to be in the 23? And if he is in the 23, why have him on the bench? Marty Moore seems ready, but we’ve an awful bad feeling Rosser will get the shirt – and it’s a major worry. Even if Ross does get picked, we can’t see him finishing the tournament as starter – our first 3 games are against the strongest 3 scrums, and there is a risk he gets mangled in one of them, forcing the change upon us. Italy are strong enough up front to have troubled Argentina and the Boks in the Autumn, and France and England can be monstrous and destructive on their day. It seems a waste of a pick not to let Moore get that experience, but we think Ross we start the tournament wearing 3, but finish out of the 23. We excorciated Deccie for staying loyal to certain players for too long, and if Schmidt picks Ross, it smells of Deccie-esque uber-loyalty. If it comes to pass, we better hope he has a damn good reason for it – because we don’t expect it to finish well.

Second Row: Here is a unit where Ireland are down to the bare bones. Thankfully, the bones consist of the best three players they have – captain and manic lunatic Paul O’Connell, Leinster’s best player this season Devin Retallick and hairy llama Iain Henderson. After that, it’s, er Mike McCarthy and Lewis Stevenson. Toner, as has been his habit, has improved on last year’s excellence, and is now a key leader for Leinster – he will start alongside the captain. Speaking of, O’Connell’s form is worryingly poor  – at the centre of the meek capitulation against Saracens, he looked his age and more. Still, you can’t expect anything less than 100% crazy aggression, and, back in the green, you suspect we’ll see the POC of the Autumn series – he is in a mental vortex culminating in RWC15 at which point he will retire from green, and that focus will be pushing him on. Then, when he tires, we can unleash the llama from the bench – it’s a lip smacking prospect, and this might be Ireland’s strongest unit, given Murray and Sexton have their own worries. Just pray for no injuries.

Backrow: Last year, Ireland’s backrow was the fulcrum of their success – Peter O’Mahony and Chris Henry led the tournament in turnovers, and Jamie Heaslip was as excellent as ever. This time around, Henry is still recovering from an awful heart injury, but we do just about have Sean O’Brien back in the reckoning. Rhys Ruddock was the player of the Argentinian tour and kicked on again in November, so it’s not guaranteed that SOB will walk straight back into the team, but, as one of Ireland’s best players, surely the Tank will play if fit? We might not get 80 minutes out of him, for the first couple of games at least, but 50 will do. The bench selection is another interesting one, because Heaslip looks to still be slightly affected by his recent shoulder injury. If there is any doubt at all over Heaslip, then it could have a knock-on effect on whether O’Brien is thrown in so early.  Still, Jamie has had a couple of weeks since his last fixture so presumably the warewolf blood has kicked in and he’ll be fine.  The smart money would appear to be on a backrow of O’Mahony, O’Brien and Heaslip, with Ruddock on the bench.

It’s a strong and experienced pack, littered with Lions, and has more carrying threat than in November. On the flip side, our second row stocks are low, SOB is just back from injury, and, of course, the major worry is if Mike Ross starts. Jack McGrath’s recent humdrum form at Leinster could do with being Schmidt-ed as well, but hopefully his three week ‘rest’ will have allowed him to recharge his batteries.

Ireland Squad Announcement Day

It’s Ireland squad announcement day tomorrow, a day which typically allows fans to grumble that their favourite fourth choice wing has been overlooked for someone they perceive to be not quite as good, for the role of holding tackle pads opposite Tommy Bowe in Carton House. As ever, it will be a case of trying to read between the lines to try to form an insight into Joe Schmidt’s thinking, but chances are he won’t give too much away. Expectations are that a single squad of 40 or more names will be named, with those being dispatched for Wolfhounds duty to be decided closer to the match

Nonetheless, a handful of themes to look out for are:

  1. Just back from injury

A number of prominent players are at the cusp of returning, or have just returned, from lengthy lay-offs. Cian Healy, Sean O’Brien, Keith Earls and Iain Henderson would enhance any team, so no doubt Joe Schmidt will want to give them every chance to prove their fitness. Rhys Ruddock is also in line for a return after a not-so-long period out injured, and Jared Payne is another who is recently back to fitness. There’s also Nathan White, who could be in the test squad. On l’autre hand, he’s unlikely to throw in so many players who are short of match time together into his test team. Chances are he’ll want to see these guys get as much action as they can over the next few weeks. Hopefully we’ll see Keith Earls start for Munster this weekend. The Wolfhounds match could prove a handy tool, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a very strong panel on paper, if somewhat rusty in practice, named for that game.

  1. Low representation for Ulster

Ulster’s nightmare season and heavy injury toll looks set to leave them with their lowest representation since, well, since Kidney was in charge. Chris Henry, Dan Tuohy, Andrew Trimble, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding are injured, while Robbie Diack has lost his form. Payne, Best and Bowe are all likely to be in the squad and Henderson should be there too provided he shows a bit of spark in the next two weeks, but who else? Darren Cave and Craig Gilroy, at a push. Dan Tuohy is particularly unlucky to be injured as he was one of their few forwards to impress in recent months, but alas, he’s out.

  1. Sea change at prop?

As Mike Ross’ season has gone a bit John Hayes c.2011, Joe Schmidt has some decisions to make at prop. Matt O’Connor described it as a sea change, as Mike Ross has been left out altogether, with Marty Moore starting and Tadgh Furlong his deputy. Moore has turned the fortunes of the Leinster scrum on their head since returning from injury and his newfound status as first choice prop at Leinster is almost certain to be emulated at test level. Could Mike Ross be jettisoned entirely, on the premise that once your time’s up, your time’s up? Or will Schmidt want to see him for himself before throwing him into the bin? Nathan White, Tadgh Furlong and Rodney Ah Here are all liable to be in the mix so the cupboard isn’t bare, although none are names that will give sleepless nights to Joe Marler or Tomas Domingo. The end of one of the most remarkable test careers in recent history may be about to end.

  1. The Leinster three-quarter line is back

Useless most of the season, Leinster’s back play has been much improved with the return of Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is guaranteed to be in the squad, and we’re dreaming of a Henshaw-Luke centre partnership for the Italy game. Kearney and Fitzgerald should make the enlarged panel too, with Bowe, Zebo and Earls likely to be the back-three men joining them.  The new-look backline at Leinster has seen Gordon D’arcy squeezed out, and it may be his Ireland career will go the same way as Mike Ross.  He’s likely to skate in to the enlarged panel but may find himself out of the matchday 23.

  1. Say hello to Jack Conan

… but just don’t stand in his way. New caps may be thin on the ground after a number of players broke their duck in Novemeber, but one player certain to make his acquaintance with Carton House’s Farrow & Ball muted tones is Jack Conan. With Ireland lacking carrying prowess and Rhys Ruddock and Robin Copeland missing in action in recent weeks, Conan has not so much climbed up the pecking order as run into it and smashed it out of the way.

  1. Fly-halves needed

With Jonny Sexton out of the Italy game and only able to participate in non-contact training and Paddy Jackson sidelined altogether, Ians Madigan and Keatley are walk-ins to the squad and matchday 23. It probably leaves room for an additional fly-half, with a view to playing the Wolfhounds game where Schmidt is unlikely to risk either of the above picking up an injury. It might just be a good opportunity to call JJ Hanrahan up to the squad to give the poor lamb a reminder that somebody out there loves him. In 2009, Declan Kidney made a similar move by picking an out-of-favour Jonny Sexton for the Wolfhounds ,and the selection paid great dividends, with Sexton acknowledging that he gained in confidence from it and it started to turn his season around. We all remember how it ended.

We’ll follow up with post-announcement reaction below the line.

The Cordite Awards 2014

Its been a pretty mental year – Ireland are genuine RWC15 contenders, the provinces are rubbish (except Connacht), Andrew Trimble is an automatic selection for Ireland, Dylan Hartley did something admirable and Wales actually won a game against a Southern Hemisphere side (and naturally became RWC15 favourites right away). Here’s our awards:

Man of The Year: Joe Schmidt – ten games, wins over France, South Africa and the Wobs (hard fought, thought victory and slihghtly fortunate respectively), one piece of silverware, only one loss; and a fresh broom. No pressure, but two pieces of silverware needed next year.

Male of The Year: Steve Walsh – who else. This time for saying “nice pass, mate” to Willie le Roux

The Awesome Power: of the Bath three-quarter line against Montpellier in round 4 of the ERC – Banahan, Burgess, Joseph and Rokoduguni. Oooooooooooooooooooooohhh!!!

Scapegoat of The Year: Jerome Garces, and his contentious red card for Jared Payne in Ravers against Globo Gym, was blamed by Gerry for … Ulster’s rubbishy ERC start. A campaign that included, from Day One in Leicester … er, Jared Payne.

Straw Man of The Year: when asked if it was right that naturalized NIQs such as Jared Payne played for Ireland (in the presence of CJ Stander), RTE’s Michael Corcoran said “well, if you look at how passionately Richardt Strauss sang the national anthem, that shows you he much he wants to play for Ireland”. Right – that’s what counts – and that’s why the anthem-mumbling Brian O’Driscoll was dropped after one cap. Wait a minute, what?

Most Relevant Phrase of The Year: return to traditional Munster values

Strange Correlation of The Year: Axel Foley’s facial hair growth versus clamours for JJ Hanrahan to be picked

Emotional Roller-coaster of The Year: Ulster fans, wailing and gnashing of teeth when Humph announced his departure, were thrown into raptures when Shane Logan welcomed Cowboy back from his holidays with a P45. Things haven’t quite gone to plan since, but the imminent arrival of Kissy suggests good times ahead. Just not now.

Dark Clouds on The Horizon: the Clermont partnership of Parra/Lopez/Fofana looks capable of derailing Ireland in RWC15. Camille Lopez reminds us of Barnesy – he looks completely out of shape and uninterested, but sets the team afire. Let’s hope Remy Tales is the Rob Andrew to Lopez’ Barnesy.

Player of The Year: Conor Murray

Quote of The Year 1: “That’s a mile forward. Aw man”. Triminjus, after Ireland were dependent on the TMO to rule out a French try for a (needless) forward pass. His nerves weren’t helped by the ensuing scrum, where the Gods smiled on Ireland and a penalty wasn’t awarded. It ended well when Ireland won the Six Nations a couple of phases later.

Quote of The Year 2: “Toulon are looking to sign Richie McCaw, and we’ve brought in Clive Ross. No disrespect to Clive Ross, but …” Think you disrespected him there Fez.

Happy Christmas and enjoy the interpros. See you in 2015 for a pointless debate about how the fact that there is no such place as Saracens means a Munster win in Allianz Park is inevitable.

Job Done

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

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

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

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

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

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

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