Memo to Mike McCarthy: ‘Become O’Connell’

Lordy.  Talk about timing.  Obviously there’s never a good time for the premier lock in Europe to get injured, but coming just after Ireland appeared to get their season in motion, already without Brian O’Driscoll, captain and all round supremo Paul O’Connell is ruled out for the rest of the Six Nations through injury.  Just three games into his tenure, playing some of his best rugby ever, it’s desperately unlucky on a personal level, but worse still for Ireland.  Conor Murray will also miss the remainder of the campaign.  Again, it’s bad news, and awful for him personally, but it’s one position where we do have an able replacement, who was knocking hard for selection in any case.

Two vs. Four

Donnacha Ryan, already not so much knocking on the selectorial door as smashing his way through it, finally gets his chance, right?  Wrong!  Himself and Donncha O’Callaghan surely cannot be paired together, despite what Gerry says.  Both are front-jumpers (jumping at ‘2’) and neither has any real experience running the lineout.  The only time they were paired at Munster saw London Irish decimate the set piece and win the game.  In fact, if anything, the luckless Ryan is even more likely to miss out on a test start, because Deccie will baulk at having to change two second rows when he already has to change one.  Stakhanov O’Callaghan’s incredible fortune looks set to continue.

For this reason, the clamour to see Ulster’s impressive Dan Tuohy called up is misplaced (though he should be in the squad already).  He, like Ryan, is a front-jumping tighthead-lock, and it’s Muller that runs the lineout up north.

Ireland need a middle of the lineout jumper (jumping at ‘4’) who has experience calling the lineout. It’s one position we just don’t have that much depth.  Stalwart squad men Leo Cullen and Mick O’Driscoll are either injured and/or winding down towards retirement.  The only two options are Connacht’s Mike McCarthy and Leinster’s skyscraping Devin Toner.  Deccie has opted for McCarthy, and he’s a fine player enjoying another good season.  Athletic and full of aggression, all he has to do now is simply take the step up to becoming Paul O’Connell – easy!  He’ll have O’Callaghan alongside him, who could make anything up to eight tackles to help him out.

There’s always Biiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob Casey, who at least has the same physique as Big Jim Hamilton, but its hardly fair to deny Mike Ross the title of heaviest forward, and anyway, Big Bob struggles to get in to the London Samoa team these days.

Personally, we would have plumped for Big Dev, given his towering presence in the lineout, vastly improved performances this season, and how he has outperformed Richie Gray on both occasions when they went head-to-head against Glasgow in the HEC this year – but it’s much of a muchness, and every time we’ve seen McCarthy (not enough, perhaps) he has impressed us.  Plus, he’ll up the handsome quotient in the pack.

Verdict: in spite of the morning’s papers anticipating an all-Donn(a)cha, second row, we’re anticipating O’Callaghan and McCarthy starting together, Ryan once again on the bench.

Knock-on Effects .. for the Paddys and the Jocks

If Ryan’s chances of starting have taken a dent, Peter O’Mahony’s have increased.  POM is a light, tall fellow that’s easily thrown in the air, and has done well at the tail of Munster’s lineout this season.  Already probably deserving of a start in this game, Deccie may well see him as a good option to share the lineout burden.  It’s worth noting that Scotland have perhaps the best (maybe second to France) defensive lineout in the tournament, with Richie Gray a phenomenal ball-thief at the front, and Big Jim Hamilton adept in the middle.  A dedicated aerial specialist in the backrow would do no harm.

This would give the Irish pack a very French look, with 2 lumps in the second row and atheletic and talented lineout-enabled forwards in the backrow. Scotland picked 2 genuine opensides (TM) and nullified the French backrow well 2 weeks ago, but Robbo might be tempted to pick a lump at 6 (Kelly Brown and Alasdair strokosh would be ideal, but are injured) to really target the raw Irish lineout.

Verdict: Peter O’Mahony to start.  A somewhat out of form Sean O’Brien to miss out. Robbo to stick with 2 groundhogs, to the delight of Gormless George.


Oh Captain My Captain

The obvious choice here is Rory Best.  Already a longstanding member of the team-leaders panel, he emerged during the World Cup as a key figure in the pack (and a great player).  The only thing that might persuade Deccie to overlook him is the sheer weight already on his shoulders.  He will have the responsibility of throwing to an already struggling lineout now without its main man.  Maybe it’d be asking too much of him.  If that line of thinking did prevail, the armband would fall to one of Rob Kearney, Stephen Ferris or Jamie Heaslip.  Heaslip is usually the most talkative in huddles, but he rarely wears the armband at Leinster, and its unlikely he’ll wear it for Ireland.

Ferris and Kearney’s outstanding form alone makes them compelling, but its our old mate Bob would strikes us as the better option. ‘Twas a 10-cap Kearney who famously spoke up at the Enfield meeting, and by all accounts he is held in high regard by his colleagues.

In truth, any of the group would appear built for the role, and Deccie would do well to empower this group, and probably Sexton as well (like ROG, too cranky for the captaincy, but clearly a leader) with the role of leading the team.

Verdict: Best to captain, with Kearney his able lieutenant

Scrum Half

Little doubt that Reddan will now be the starting nine, but the call-up of Tomas O’Leary raised more than a few eyebrows.  Isaac Boss surely would have got the call, but is in New Zealand for personal reasons.  The folly of not calling up Paul Marshall in the first place has now come back to bite – this is classic stubborn Kidney.

Anyone who has watched Tomas and Paul in action this season will see two players at the opposite ends of the spectrum.  Marshall has been a key figure for Ulster, often coming off the bench, and has pushed his way into the starting line-up in recent weeks.  O’Leary meanwhile, had some reasonable cameos early on, but has reverted to his pre-World Cup form.  He is nowhere near operating at test level.  This is a terrible call by Kidney, which sees him, once again, playing favourites.

Ulster will be delighted that the Marshall-Pienaar axis can continue to develop; at least someone benefits from this deeply wrong-headed decision by Deccie.

Verdict: Unthinkably, O’Leary will be in an Irish matchday 22.  Wowsers.

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HEC Round Four – Review

The old cliche is that you can never safely predict too much in the Heineken Cup, and it was reassuring to see that it still holds true this week.  Just when it looked as though most issues were virtually settled with two rounds to go, Quins did the unthinkable and won in Toulouse.  It’s not the first supposedly unbreachable citadel this young side has sacked, and it underlines their credentials as a coming force after they appeared to have been scuppered last week.  Here’s our latest good week/bad week…

Good week


Who else? Quins

A remarkable victory for a remarkable team.  When they lost to Toulouse last week it looked like a case of ‘Welcome to the Big League, chaps’.  To turn it around in Toulouse’s own patch a week on was a feat you simply had to stand and applaud.  This may be a year too early for them to win, but they are a team nobody will fancy playing in the knockout stages, for which they now look set to qualify for, either as winners or as runners-up.  It also underlined the importance of having a world class kicker.  Which brings us on to…

Johnny Sexton

While ROG has been grabbing the headlines with his timely drop-goals, Sexton has been efficiently getting on with the business of playing brilliantly.  He bailed Leinster out in Montpellier, ran the show against Glasgow and then delivered back-to-back man of the match performances against Bath and has racked up 63 points in four games.  On Saturday, he showcased the full range of his talents, and was a dream to watch.

Saracens

In poll position in Pool Five and looking in decent nick having done the double over the Ospreys.  Not the flashiest of teams, but they do have a consistent kicker in Owen Farrell and a belligerant set of forwards, which are two of the basic requirements to qualify as contenders.  Creativity is in short supply, with a somewhat predictable backline (Ooooooohhh Brad Barritt was literally centimetres over the gainline there!), but there’s always Schalk Brits to provide a spark. 

Bad Week


Blind Dave Pearson

Yes, it’s Blind Dave’s second appearance in our Bad Week section, and while his first was for bewildering us with reasoning we couldn’t really understand, this is for one of the single most knuckleheaded decisions in recent times.  You know the one, the blatantly obvious Scarlets try that he just walked away from and went back to give them an attacking scrum.  Had they not scored from said scrum, there would have been serious questions asked.  It was a bizarre moment.

Tomas O’Leary

Lordy.  Tomas had actually impressed a little on his recent cameos but this was back to the 2010/11 vintage.  Munster were totally in control until he came on, and promptly fell on to the back foot.  At one stage, his back-and-across crabbing saw him trapped metres behind the gainline and a penalty followed.  He was then extrmely lucky when his ill-judged grubber went out to touch off a Scarlets boot late in the match. 

Connacht

How much heartbreak can a team take?  Strangely, Connacht have saved their best performances for away matches in the competition, and were five minutes from a famous victory over Gloucester until nothing so complicated as a missed first-up tackle let in a late try.  It must be hard to take for a fanbase that so seldom has anything to cheer.  Connacht are the anti-Munster – a team that simply doesn’t know how to win.

Strings, Strings, he’s our Boy, if he can’t do it, Tomás will

The Ludd Revolution at Munster continues to grind on – retirements and injuries have knocked a few of the Liginds off, one was dropped this year (Donncha), and last week, for the first time, one of them left Munster by choice, albeit temporarily for the time being.
Strings has jumped ship, gone to join Sarries– the very anthesis of Munster – on a three month loan deal.  Perhaps it’s cathartic for him. He was no ordinary player – iconic for his size and bravery, and he won it all with province and country, and deserves better than to play out his last days in the British & Irish Cup.
Stringer was one of the five new caps introduced by Gatty against Scotland in 2000. From that moment until “Georgia” he was undisputed first choice for Ireland.  The overlap with his Munster first choice career was remarkable – for only 6 months either side of his Ireland career was he the red 9 of choice.
If you think of the landmarks in Irish rugby in that period – Munster’s European breakthroughs from 1999-2004, Ireland’s Triple Crowns, the win over England in Croker, the first HEC, the Grand Slam – Strings was there for them all. Yet there must be some caveats … and there is.
Strings’ professional career was largely governed by two men – Eddie and Deccie – and neither quite trusted him 100%.  At national level, Eddie frequently called up duff scrum halves and gave them gametime (Neil Doak, Kieran Campbell, GuyEasterby), not something he was ever renowned for in other positions. Then after the Namibia/Georgia debacles in France ’07, it was Stringer alone who paid the price, getting the curly finger for Eoin Reddan.
In Munster, Strings was dropped by Deccie as soon as Tomás O’Leary’s pass wasn’t absolutely terrible. Stringer’s much superior passing and game management were sacrificed in favour of O’Leary’s physicality and breaking. The circumstances of the chop were astonishing – a coach known for his conservatism replaces a mainstay of the team for an away HEC quarter-final! It was a shrewd call but nonetheless it was, and remains, cruel, and a sad way to effectively end Stringer’s career as a starter.
Stringer didn’t even get off the bench for the rest of that HEC knock-out campaign, and his next start of note was the semi-final against Leinster in 2009 – and we know how that went.  He started three pool games last year in O’Leary’s absence, but the last of those – the dismal capitulation in Toulon – more or less signalled the end of his Munster career as a frontline player.
It’s also a fact that when Ireland (the Grand Slam and the Springbok game in Croker were the peaks) and Munster (who were imperious in the 12 months from the Gloucester game) peaked, Stringer wasn’t in the team. The solid extra dimension of O’Leary (combined, it must be said, with the stinking ELVs) gave Ireland and Munster what they needed to get to the next level.

All the best to the wee man in Watford, and how ironic is it that Stringer’s most memorable contribution to Irish rugby was doing that what he apparently couldn’t do (Ryle: ‘He can’t make a break?!  Well, he’s just made one in the Heineken Cup Final!’:

Kidney Shows Capacity for Surprise

We did not see it coming.  Tomás O’Leary, the blue-eyed boy, coached by Uncle Deccie since he was a schoolboy, given every chance – every chance – to play himself into any kind of form, is not going to the World Cup. Nor is fellow 2009 Grand Slammer and test Lion Luke Fitzgerald. The perils of trying to second guess Deccie are there for all to see. Just when you think you have him read, he pulls a huge surprise out of the bag, and backs it up with impenetrable nonsense at the press conference.

First of all, credit where it’s due. They are two seismic calls, and both are correct.  Tomás O’Leary played like a broken footballer on Sturday, to the point where he was simply a liability.  He needs to go back to Munster and start again from scratch – you find form against the Dragons and Glasgow’s of this world, not against France. In his place comes Conor Murray, a superb ball player who can travel, not just as back up, but as Ireland’s premier 9 – the tournament is now his oyster.

Luke Fitzgerald’s situation is more complicated.  He showed some sparkle in the warm up games, not least with two dashing breaks against France (he certainly outplayed Keith Earls). But dedicated full-back cover for Rob Kearney is essential, so Murphy simply had to go – although in a remarkable twist, he is only going due to this (we almost cried ourselves seeing his face). Fergus McFadden also merits his place on the plane, even if we didn’t see much of him over the last few weeks. He provides invaluable cover at centre as well as on the wing. Plus, you know what you’ll get from him, something that cannot be said for Fitzgerald in his current state. Then there’s Trimble, who is on fire. Luke just got squeezed out, and Earls may have been closer to the chop than anyone ever thought. Lets leave it at this – all of the backs on the plane have had better seasons than Luke, so on that basis, he deserves to be at home.

Elsewhere, Buckle edged out Hayes in the cripple-fight for the chance to get shunted around by the Russian pack, and Leamy and Ryan, as expected, swelled the ranks of touring blindsides, now a regular feature of Irish World Cups. We must accept that Jennings didn’t do enough when given his chance, and although McLaughlin deserved a better shot, he would not rectify the imbalance of the squad. Ryan’s selection is as a 4/6, which becomes interesting/superfluous when one reads of Fez training in the second row (and by Lord, how we need power there).

We are of the opinion that the three loss streak has played a part in this. Ireland sleepwalked through 50 minutes on Saturday, and it’s entirely possible Deccie’s intention is, at least to some extent, to light a fire under the players and jolt them into action. He’s certainly done that to us anyway – even if we predicted it. Kind of.

Anyway, hats off to the 30 going – your names are in lights below.  Fush and chups all round (2 fush for Mushy).

Ireland Rugby World Cup Squad 2011

Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster)
Isaac Boss (Terenure College/Leinster)
Tommy Bowe (Ospreys)
Tony Buckley (Sale Sharks)
Tom Court (Malone/Ulster)
Sean Cronin (Leinster)
Leo Cullen (Blackrock College/Leinster)
Gordon D’Arcy (Lansdowne/Leinster)
Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster)
Stephen Ferris (Dungannon/Ulster)
Jerry Flannery (Shannon/Munster)
Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster)
Jamie Heaslip (Naas/Leinster)
Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster)
Denis Leamy (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Fergus McFadden (Old Belvedere/Leinster)
Geordan Murphy (Leicester Tigers)
Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster)
Sean O’Brien (Clontarf/Leinster)
Donncha O’Callaghan (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Paul O’Connell (Young Munster/Munster)
Brian O’Driscoll (UCD/Leinster) Captain
Ronan O’Gara (Cork Constitution/Munster)
Eoin Reddan (Lansdowne/Leinster)
Mike Ross (Clontarf/Leinster)
Donnacha Ryan (Shannon/Munster)
Jonathan Sexton (St. Mary’s College/Leinster)
Andrew Trimble (Ballymena/Ulster)
Paddy Wallace (Ballymena/Ulster)
David Wallace (Garryowen/Munster)

World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 2

It sort of crept up on us. One minute it was the middle of the summer and the next Ireland were playing an international rugby match.  Declan Kidney named his team at luncheon yesterday, and true to form, trying to infer a whole lot from it is like trying to pick up mercury with a fork.   It’s hard to reason that the selection advances or hinders anyone’s possibilites of touring.
First of all, there is good news that Rob Kearney, Jerry Flannery and Tomas O’Leary are back in action and fit for selection.  Expect to see Kearney and O’Leary feature heavily over the next four weeks – both are seen by management as key First XV players, and both need the gametime badly.  Given Flannery’s history of aborted comebacks, management might be more careful with regards to him, but we expect he will be dying to get out and play.

Now for the spots still up for grabs:

  • This was possibly Conor Murray’s best chance of seeing action, and his touring chances could be receding.  There have been indications he is not considered as close to the squad as we had hoped, and this is another.
  • In the backline it’s a big opportunity for McFadden to show what he can do.  He’s pretty adept at 13 as well as 12 – we all know how well he played last year, he just needs to take up where he left off.
  • Don’t worry too much about Niall Ronan’s surprise appearance.  The Lunsterman had a pretty ineffectual season last year, and won’t be anywhere near the final squad.  He’s just keeping the shirt warm – Jennings is available for selection next week and Wally and SOB will be in the mix too, so Ronan will be thanked for his time and bundled back home.
  • Confession time – we know next to nothing about Mike McCarthy, though we understand he had a good seaon last year for Connacht.  He’s probably behind Locky and Donncha Ryan in the shake-up for the 4/6 spot (although Brendan Fanning suspects otherwise), but we look forward to seeing him
  • Ligind watch: the entire Munster 2008 front row is on the bench – we could see a very poignant triple substitution around the 60 minute mark
Finally, it’s great to see Leo Cullen captain the side, the 100th man to lead out his country.  The Wicklow lock has been harshly treated in the past, and while he may not be the most eye-catching player, he is a fine captain, firm but polite in dealing with referees, and he knows when to talk and when to walk away.

And, regarding the game itself, it could be a scrappy affair (read: GRIM). Scotland look to have a slightly stronger pack out and should just about shade it.

Ireland’s World Cup 30 – Scrum Halves

Last week we looked at the forwards, and this week we turn our attention to the backs. As per previous posts, we think a 16-14 split is how Deccie is going to go, and we are breaking the forwards down into three scrum halves, five inside backs (fly halves and centres) and six outside backs.

How many will go? Three. We can’t see any deviation here. Ireland tend not to do Pienaar types who can play multiple positions, so we will bring three specialists.

Who is certain to travel? Unless he is struck by lightning, Ponderous Tomás is on the plane, and even if he was, Deccie might bring him anyway. WoC reckons Deccie saw David Pocock in action in November 2009, and pencilled TOL in for the Aus game two years  in advance. 18 months of hot stepping, ugly passing and injuries have not changed a thing – O’Leary is Deccie’s first choice 9.

Eoin Reddan also appears secure, despite being as inconsistent as ever. When Reddan is good, like in the second half of the HEC final, he is the best we have, but when he is bad, like against Toulouse, he is terrible. However despite having neither the best defence (O’Leary), best pass (Stringer, up to recently anyway), best break (Boss) or best kicking (Murray), he is the best composite player, and deserves to be first choice.

O’Leary and Reddan can start learning the words to the second verse of Ireland’s Call.

Who is scrapping out for the last spots? A three-way fight here, between three imperfect candidates. Firstly, the Passer. Peter Stringer is now a veteran, and is beginning to play like one. His pass, when it is on song, still fizzes with dangerous possibility, but it is increasingly erratic and unreliable. Even McGahan doesn’t see Strings as a big game player any more. He is odds-against at this stage.

Next, the Future. Since the time Tony McGahan finally bowed to the clarion calls of the more thoughtful of the Munster faithful and gave Conor Murray his chance after the liginds had bowed out of the HEC, he has been a revelation. Wristy pass, physicality, good game management and great box-kicking. The kid appears to have it all. However, it must be acknowledged he hasn’t played any rugby close to test-level intensity i.e. the HEC or international level. It is a huge risk to take an essentially untested player to the World Cup.

Finally, the Mullet. Hugo “Isaac” Boss has been an effervescent presence at Leinster, with his solidity and experience gelling together Joe Schmidt’s “away” HEC team. However, as the season went on, opportunities seemed to dry up, and given that Deccie hasn’t given him game time this season (although he is named in the extended squad anounced on Friday), Boss is another more possible than probable.

Of the three above, Murray is possibly just about favourite to make the trip now. It’s becoming ever more difficult to make a case for Stringer, and Boss seems to be at the back of the queue. However, Boss should be seriously considered. Not just for his play this season, but also for his partnership with Reddan. At Leinster, the pair have the happy knack of improving the team when they interchange – they offer different threats and dovetail very effectively – they are an off-the-shelf scrum-half team ideal for tournament play.

Were it down to us we would definitely take Murray and Reddan, and have a look at how O’Leary and Boss pitch up in August.  If O’Leary can show something like his 2009 form, he would be on our plane, but it is a long time since he has looked the part – right now we would have Boss in poll position.

Any bolters? Murray, of course. The Munster fan sites have been touting him for a while, and he hasn’t disappointed from the moment he got the red 9 shirt. His Ireland underage colleague Paul Marshall has looked spritely this season, but is a little light – this is a year too soon for him.

Should go: Isaac Boss, Eoin Reddan, Conor Murray
Will go: Tomás O’Leary, Eoin Reddan, Conor Murray