Better When We’re Bitter

Well, that’s more like it, isn’t it?  It wasn’t quite enough to secure the win, but a draw in Paris was far better than what most of us expected.  It will ultimately go down as a disappointment, because Ireland put themselves in a position to win, but when it’s reviewed with a bit of context, it will go down as one of their better days under Kidney.  Here’s five things we learned from today’s game.

1. Bob Kearney and Stephen Ferris will be senior players on the Lions Tour

Amid all the Wales love this season and Lions-domination predictions, when for example Farmer Farrelly had 13 (thirteen!) Welshmen (and no Leinster players) on his Lions team, two of Ireland’s most important players have set extremely high standards.

Bob Kearney has always been the safest full-back in the air, but he has added really intelligent counter-attacking, line speed and leadership to his repertoire. Coming from a place where his replacement as Leinster fullback had inspired Leinster to a sparkling HEC, Bob has returned as a phenomenally good player. With Ben Foden off form, Little Leigh Halfpenny not a natural fullback and Stuey Hogg just out of nappies, Bob will go on his second Lions tour as a key player.

Meanwhile … Fez … what can we say. When Lionel Beauxis lined up what would have been the match winning drop today, we’re pretty sure he didn’t expect a forward to be the one on top of him, least of all Ireland’s huge enforcer and primary wrecking ball Stephen Ferris. Yet Fez was the man who batted him down. Fez! The quickest man over 10 metres in Ulster, the man’s power is simply incredible. He has twitch muscular strength of Samoan standard (Oooooooohhhh) yet has shown the softest hands in the Ireland team this series. The man is a freak and is the most Southern Hemisphere type player playing in the Six Nations. He’d walk into the New Zealand team, and will walk into the Lions team as well (sorry, Tom Croft).

Paul O’Connell, meanwhile, will be in the shake-up for the captaincy.  Age has not dimmed his ability to conjure up a sort of maniacal energy in the middle of the pack.

2. Les Kiss had a successful week at the office

Ireland’s line-speed in defence was vastly improved this week, and the benefit was reaped early and often.  In the first half hour in particular, Ireland had France in all sorts of trouble.  Any attempt they made to go wide was snaffled out with man-and-ball tackles from Ireland’s backrow and midfield.  Sexton and Ferris come in for particular credit here for their aggression and technique.  The choke tackle may be predictable at this stage, but it’s still effective and still wins turnovers.

3. Some semblance of a gameplan has emerged

Ireland didn’t have that much ball to play with, but they are starting to play with a bit more attacking shape.  We’re still not convinced management are getting enough out of the group of players in attack, but they are looking a lot more cohesive.  Sexton is having a lot of success running a line from very deep behind the ruck – almost to the point where you think he’s going to drop a goal (he mentioned in the Sunday Times that he’s seen Quade Cooper use it to great effect).  He’s comfortable carrying the ball towards the gainline and his ability to throw long, accurate passes takes out midfield blitz defenders.

4. Our strengths are our weaknesses and our weaknesses are our strengths

Ireland were arguably a functioning lineout away from winning the game.  Ireland’s centres stood up to the threat posed by France’s thoroughbreds and caused them some trouble themselves.  Come again?  Surely that’s the wrong way round.  Given the calibre of personnel running the lineout, it was alarmingly awful today, and wasn’t great against Italy either.  We would be surprised if it wasn’t fixed next week – it will need to be, because Scotland’s defensive lineout is perhaps the best in the Six Nations.

D’arcy and Earls were perceived as a massive weakness before the tournament, but they’ve been effective so far.  D’arcy’s still got quick feet that can make ground in traffic, even if he rarely makes clean breaks these days.  Earls, meanwhile, has been defensively good (one missed tackle and an admittedly crucial stupid fly hack that led to the French try aside) and the way he put Bowe through for the try… well you’d almost think he was a natural centre. 

5. Ireland need to back this up against Scotland

It’s not really something that you should dwell on, lest you get frustrated again, but Ireland’s annoying post-Grand Slam habit of one big performance a tournament is well-documented at this stage. Rubbish in the humdrum games, only to pull a huge performance out of the bag when nobody expects it.  The show in Paris yesterday was Ireland’s best against the Bleu Meanies in years, but can they follow it up against Scotland? With a six day turnaround, we can expect changes at 4, 7, 9 and possibly the introduction of Ferg somewhere in the 3/4 line to give some much-needed recovery to the front-liners – Donncha’s unseen work can be particularly wearying.

This should add a sense of urgency to Ireland because, let’s be honest, it’s primed for an ambush. You feel for Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony as they will be expected to hit the ground running. Yet Ryan will face one Richard James Gray, the most exciting second row talent to emerge in these islands since Alun Wyn Jones Paul O’Connell; and O’Mahony will be expected by goons like McGurk and Hook to produce a Brussouw-esque groundhog performance facing not one but two genuine opensides (we’ve checked and they’re genuine) in Ross Rennie and John Barclay. Good luck.

It’s going to be a tough day at the office, but lets not deflate this bubble too much!

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Back Row

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

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

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

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