Sure We Know What He Can Do

Ireland today announced their team to play Six Nations powerhouse Italy, and it’s a pretty deflating selection in the backline for those of us who thought we might see some fresh faces during this campaign. For the Italy match is “must-win”, as it should be – Ireland should always beat Italy, to be frank. But with that line of thinking, so is the Scotland game, for it will be necessary to win to avoid finishing fifth – and that’s no time to be changing faces.

One can be certain that we will defend well, and that we will not lose – and one can only hope that the accuracy and delivery that the players feel is within grasp can be delivered and we win handsomely as opposed to falling over the line. Something like England’s performance vs Italy, and not the French one.

While Henshaw-Payne has been our first choice centre partnership, and is the defensive bedrock of the team, the enforced absence of Rob Kearney seemed like an opportunity to leave the centres as they were against England and select Payne at 15, the position in which he has performed best at Ulster. Stuart McCloskey had a promising debut with ball in hand, and one would have hoped the Italians would be easier meat than England – whatever about George Ford being roadkill, imagine a panting Kelly Haimona (sorry) when he runs out of gas after 10 minutes. Still, Henshaw-Payne is at least defensible.

On the other hand, Simon Zebo at full-back and McFadden on the bench are respectively confusing and mystifying. Zebo has clearly established himself as Schmidt’s second choice in the position at this point, but he has yet to show much aptitude for the position and has barely played there for Munster. He is a player that we should have on the team, but probably for a misfiring and slowing Andrew Trimble, not (effectively) for McCloskey. And Ferg has simply offered nothing this season, either for Leinster or in his extended cameo against France, to suggest he can contribute.

With Ian Madigan again selected on the bench, Paddy Jackson is unlikely to get a look-in this tournament, despite being virtually certain to be second-choice when Mad-dog decamps to Bordeaux this summer. Although at least we’ll get to see what Kieran Marmion can do.

To turn the oft-repeated mantra about the energy new kids bring on its head, we can only hope the return of familiar faces doesn’t portend a return to the tired and supine performance we saw in Paris. But thankfully this is Italy, and we will win – but it feels like an opportunity missed.

Ireland: Zeebs; Trimble, Payne, Henshaw, Earls; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Besty, Ross; Ryan, Toner; Stander, van der Flier, Heaslip. Subs: Strauss, Healy, White, Dillane, Ruddock, Marmion, Madigan, McFadden

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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 Other Guy Must Have Died Or Something

Twickenham is no place to throw in a young lad. Or maybe it is – Joe Schmidt has picked two debutants in the XV to face England on the Cabbage Patch on Saturday. Choo Choo Stu McCloskey has been met with benign eyelid flutters as the entire country says “I told you so”, while Josh van der Flier has been met with #OUTRAGE by around a quarter of the country for taking the shirt rightfully belonging to Tommy O’Donnell. And Ultan Dillane will join the fray with 25 minutes to go, giving us three debutants against a serious rugby country. Conservatism eh?

While McCloskey is clearly the form inside centre in Ireland (if not Europe), it has taken the injury to Jared Payne for him to get into the team, and Dillane is of course simply the next best fit second row; but van der Flier has leapfrogged both the TOD and Rhys Ruddock to wear the 7 shirt – and that’s certainly the biggest surprise of the selection. Gerry dropped a hint last week that VDF had jumped above the TOD, but we thought the be-leathered one had one too many tequilas the night before.  O’Donnell can count himself unlucky – 20 tackles against France shouldn’t be overlooked – but it’s hard not to be excited about van der Flier’s potential.

The best thing about the picks are that it gives some sense of Ireland trying something to actually win the game. Groundhog VDF will be in direct opposition to the chiselled cheekbones, perfect teeth and rippling muscles of Tim Nice-but-Dim, and students of rugby will recall how Pocock, Hooper and Warbs utterly destroyed England at the breakdown in the RWC. Now VDF is nowhere near the league of those gents at this point, but it’s a selection to target a weakness. Equally picking McCloskey at 12 offers a way to put Owen Farrell, England’s second five-eighth and playmaker, on the back foot and rattled, preventing him focusing on his real job – getting Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph into space.

At the very least it’s a selection that will give England new problems to think about, and some that perhaps they weren’t expecting.  And commentators such as Quinlan and Horgan are never done reminding us that the arrival of a couple of young upstarts in the starting team can create a buzz about the place.  It also should help to debunk a couple of myths about Joe Schmidt.  Derided in some quarters as an overly conservative strategist and selector, it’s something that doesn’t necessarily chime with a broader view of his career.  The Clermont team he coached and particularly the Leinster side he led to consecutive Heineken Cups were frequently thrilling to watch.  In Schmidt’s second season, his Leinster side also eschewed the much fabled offload, but such was the accuracy of their gainline-passing game they didn’t need to do it.  The current Irish game-plan, long on kick-chase was largely forged in the successful November series in 2014, when Ireland were shorn of ball-carriers through injury and as a result their best means of gaining metres was through reclaiming kicks.  It worked superbly, and its success was carried into the last Six Nations, but has perhaps grown stale in the last couple of series, and the time is nigh for some evolution.

We’re ravaged by injuries, and the English bench looks tough, but Healy and Ruddock are no slouches. We’re getting a bit optimistic. We should know better really.

Ireland team: Bob; Trimble, Henshaw, McCloskey, Earls; Sexton, Murray; McGrath, Besty, Ross; Ryan, Toner; Passion, van der Flier, Heaslip.

Replacements: Strauss, DJ Church, White, Dillane, Ruddock, Reddan, Madigan, Zeebs

 

No Place for Young Men

Well, hello everyone. We were sentenced to three weeks solitary confinement on Twitter by The Man for under-use of the phrase “you never know which France will turn up”. In the event, and as expected, we did know, but Ireland lacked the accuracy and gumption to beat them. Every ruck was like a war zone, Ireland were stuck narrow and when they did get wide, there was a paucity of ideas and accuracy.

It’s been a tough start to the series – the scrum has been poor, the lineout average, and the breakdown a lottery. Ireland’s successive championships have been based on strong defence and swift and accurate counter-rucking without over-committing, with the regular supply of fast ball has enabled Schmidt’s men to dictate the terms of engagement. The defence is still excellent, but Ireland have lost the ability to score points, with only three coming in 80 second half minutes.

Under Schmidt, Ireland have frequently been very strong after half-time, scoring tries in the first 10 minutes of the second half against England, France, South Africa (2014) and England, France (RWC), Argentina (2015). That strength hasn’t been present in this tournament, and the bench hasn’t been able to turn the loss in momentum. Without a doubt, injuries have hit us badly – Healy, Ross, Henderson, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Sexton, Payne, Dishy Dave, Earls, Fitzgerald and Zebo have all missed time at some point – that’s the guts of a team. And of course Some Ginger Bloke From Limerick has retired.

We’re not really sure that the much-discussed tactics aren’t working any more as much as Ireland can’t execute. The team feels tired, perhaps in need of new strings, but probably not a complete re-cast.

Now Ross is back, he simply has to come into the team and steady the scrum – and we should really think about giving Furlong some game time at some point. For the home games? Perhaps facing Mako Vunipola for 25 minutes isn’t the right time – or perhaps it is. When we hear ROG say “Twickenham is no place to throw a guy in”, we instinctively get a little suspicious – both Furlong and White are professional rugby players who live for occasions like this, the real question should be: do we think White or Furlong is better equipped to handle Vunipola? If it’s a tie, pick Furlong, he’s younger and will be around for the next number of years. Just like BOD’s Twitter, the messenger shouldn’t be equated with the message.

In the row, it’s simply hands over the eyes and hoping for the best – Ryan hasn’t been playing at all well enough to inspire anything like confidence, but perhaps Ultan Dillane will do well. With England dispensing with the Awesome Power of Courtney Lawes for the much more frightening Awesome Power of Maro Itoje, this is a huge test. The backrow haven’t really gelled yet this tournament, despite the emergence of the passionate one – indeed Stander has emerged as our primary ball carrier, and we’ve been a little over-reliant on him to say the least. There is an element of “give it to the big guy”, Stander is actually effective at carrying but since everyone else just falls over at the first contact, it’s pretty predictable. He made plenty of metres against Wales, but the French got to him and he averaged a second-row-esque 70cm per carry.  And of course when Stander, or anyone else, gets tackled, we haven’t been able to clear out rucks effectively. Perhaps it’s time to pick wingers for their rucking? While we’re on the topic, the selection of McFadden for Paris was predictably ineffective – he missed tackles, passed poorly and the game passed him by. We have legitimate concerns about Craig Gilroy’s tackling and positioning, but it’s no worse than Ferg’s right now – and he know where the try line is. Schmidt bottled that selection, and it hopefully doesn’t happen again. In any case, with Zebo and Earls back in contention for the weekend, McFadden can be safely dispatched to Leinster.

We disgress. A backrow of Stander, O’Donnell and Heaslip should be able to cope with England’s battery of 6.5’s – plenty of #unseenwork in there, and having Rhys Ruddock (still only 25!) to come off the bench feels good to us. The huge hole at second row (Lawes would likely be our number one lock, but can’t make the England 23) means we are unlikely to win the forward battle, but we shouldn’t get completely mauled either. The game feels to us like one of those ones that will be close on the scoreboard, but the result never really in doubt, 16-9 or something, like a (slightly) higher-class version of the Calcutta Cup.

The game might be more notable for it being Choo Choo Stu’s big chance – Jared Payne has been defensively excellent for Ireland, a real lynchpin, but he looks unlikely to make it. The obvious move would be to put Henshaw out one and bring in the big McCloskey. Ironically, bringing in what looks like a classic crash ball merchants is likely to add a new dimension to Ireland’s attack. McCloskey instinctively looks for space and is an intelligent heads-up footballer. We don’t think we’ll lose as much defensively stepping down from Payne to Henshaw as some people think either. Still, probably not the winning/losing of the game.

Once we get Twickenham out of the way, we’d like to see the likes of van der Flier or Ringrose given a look – while they look physically not 100% ready for the likes of England away, are we really saying we don’t think they could cope with Scotland or Italy at home? Equally, it feels like the time to give Paddy Jackson a start. Jackson’s Irish career has never really got going, with an extremely tough baptism in the fag end of the Deccie era – if Sexton thought it tough taking over from ROG and feeling the semi-public opprobrium that came with it, imagine how it was for a 21 year old Jackson with less than a year as Ulster starter – followed by a loss of form in 2014/15 that led to him losing out of both Keatley and Madigan that series. But with Maddog on his way to France, and Sexton seemingly in a state of perma-recovery from a knock, it seems likely he’ll be Ireland’s starting outhalf at some point in the future. Again, Scotland and Italy at home – what’s the real risk to giving him a pick? Now that the chance of a three-peat is virtually gone, and without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, let’s try and expand our options

 

Doom und Gloom

The Six Nations starts this weekend, and for Irish fans, the air is one of almost pervasive doom and gloom.  Leinster, Ulster and Munster are all out of the Champions Cup and the wounds from the passive defeat to Argentina in the World Cup are still raw.  Throw in injuries to a handful of Ireland’s best players and this being the first series without Paul O’Connell and it doesn’t get any better.  Then there’s the front-loaded schedule which pits Ireland into their three toughest matches first.  Wales, then France in Paris, and then England.  Yeeshk.

It’s certainly a challenging series, and the first major business is getting a functioning team on the pitch.  Ireland have a number of personnel issues, but foremost among them are the tight five and the form of their half-backs.  With Cian Healy, Mike Ross, and Iain Henderson injuried and Paul O’Connell no more, it’s going to be a relatively new-look tight five.  Rory Best, Jack McGrath and Devin Toner pick themselves at this rate, while the remaining two berths are likely to be filled by Nathan White (the two Leinster tightheads probably not quite ready to start) and Mike McCarthy, whose form at least is  a major plus. Well, a plus. But can he be effective at this level? He’s been dining out on his performance against South Africa in 2012 for a while, whereas Ryan always looked the part in green – but then he’s playing like a drain. One way or another, we’ve gone from this area being one of relative strength to one of glaring weakness in six months.

No such selection issues at halfback, but rather concerns of form.  Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton have been two of the key ingredients in Ireland’s Six Nations triumphs, but both have looked – not quite off the pace – just a shade off their usual peerless selves over the last couple of months.  They are still the halves that any of the coaches would love to have in their arsenal, but the concern remains that should either misfire, Ireland’s coaches don’t really have enough confidence in the reserves to take them off in clutch situations. Or indeed, who the reserves are – is it still Reddan and Madigan? Or has Jackson’s much superior form vaulted him on to the bench?

In the back row, the major selection question is where Passion’s CJ Stander (Criosti Eoin Seasamh?) will fit in once he has Dion O Cuinneagan-ed the national anthem. Heaslip might get bombs thrown at him about “workrate” and “attitude” but he was one of Ireland’s best players in the World Cup, and has been pretty decent for Leinster. We just can’t see Schmidt going from having him as his captain to dropping him altogether. So do we play Stander out of position just to get him in the team? Maybe, but Schmidt hasn’t much of a record of that – more likely we see an all-Leinster OUTRAGEous back row of Ruddock-O’Brien-Heaslip with Stander or O’Donnell on the bench. But we’re fine with that – it’s a backrow to strike fear into the toned sinews of England’s David Pocock – James Haskell (of which more below).

When it comes to outside backs, the number Jared Payne wears on his shirt will drive whether or not Choo Choo Stu gets the nod to start. Payne wore 15 in Ulster’s last 2 ERC games and looked excellent – for the first one we weren’t sure if it was Kissy being reluctant to throw his returning star into the heavy traffic of the Saracens midfield, but once he lined out there in the secnod it seemed a ply. For the first time since Deccie took over, Bob is under pressure for his shirt – Payne is a fullback primed for use as a counter attacking weapon, and his selection would signify a probable shift in the gameplan. Kearney is by no means shot – he’s actually younger than Payne – but he isn’t doing much at Leinster whereas Payne is like a limousine in open field.

And if Payne is picked at fullback, it means there is a centre slot up for grabs – and what better solution than to move Henshaw to his natural position outside and employ McCloskey in his natural position inside. Seems too obvious doesn’t it?

Looking further afield, the mood in Ireland is in stark contrast to the newfound ebullience in the England camp where everything is sweetness and light, while Wazza’a Wales must rightly feel that with their turbo-charged midfield back roaring that they will rediscover the cutting edge that was the difference between winning and losing narrowly to Australia and South Africa in the World Cup.

Still, might be better to leave them at it.  For the Welsh, it was ever thus, and Ireland may just find themselves blessed to have them first up, and in Dublin.  Wales have a well earned reputation for sleepwalking through the first game of a series, and to have them at home in round one is almost certainly the best possible way to face up to them.

As for England, well, they’ll be fascinating to watch under Eddie Jones, but don’t bet the farm on them necessarily being all that good.  Forget any sort of stylistic overhaul, or a return to the short-passing game they almost, nearly, thought about bringing to the World Cup before changing their minds.  Jones has instead staked his chips on making his England nastier and less jolly-hockeysticks-gentlemanly than Lancaster’s team.  But it’s still largely the same team that performed so dismally in the World Cup, and the maligned master-of-none Chris Robshaw is still a starter.  And the much vaunted ‘proper No.7′?  That’ll be the Gun Show, a man born to wear the number 6.5 jersey if ever there was one.  Jones’ first major decision is a high-stakes gamble on Dylan Hartley proving himself able to keep ice in the mind in the heat of battle as team captain.  It has every chance of not coming off.  Jonno’s England were similarly spiky in nature, but more often than not it teetered over the brink into daft indiscipline and mostly amounted to rashes of silly penalties and sin-bin episodes. Mind you, at least Jones is a proper coach. England will be competitive as usual, but perhaps miracles can wait.

France, meanwhile, are unlikely to have applied a magical fix to their deeply entrenched structural problems and abject lack of fitness, despite Gerry’s assertions that they are waiting in the long grass for us. Let’s hope it isn’t too long or Yoann Maestri will be even lazier than usual.  Guy Noves’ Toulouse were useless in the last few years, and he appears an unlikely moderniser – bottom half beckons.  And as for Scotland, well, hope springs eternal that they may one year get their act together, but they find a way of extinguishing the feelgood factor every spring.  Should they lose to England in the opening week, expect heads to drop, and watch them limp through the rest of the tournament.

So what of it all then? Well, the thing we need to remember about the Six Nations is that there aren’t any Southern Hemisphere teams in it – so Ireland are unlikely to be filleted the way Argentina did early and late on in Cardiff. And indeed four of the six limped out of the World Cup, and a fifth had the scheduling of Japan’s fixtures contribute mightily to their progress. The only one that came home with their heads held high were Wales, who were mighty value for their quarter final place. The Welsh have home fixtures against the recent bottom-dwellers of France, Italy and Scotland, and could well rack up enough points to ensure a fourth victory will suffice for the Championship – they are our pick. Ireland will do better than the naysayers imagine – four wins is eminently achievable and disgrace unlikely. The flip side of tougher games first means you can come out targeting a score fest against Italy and Scotland for glory – we’d take that, but we reckon we might be behind grinning Gatty come March.

Oh, and the final piece of good news is that a handful of will-they-won’t-they contracts have been tied up in the last few weeks, and hopefully will take a weight off the minds of the likes of Earls, Murray and Zebo.  After an abject winter with the provinces, the Six Nations may be just the tonic needed to rejuvenate the players.

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.

Book Review: No Borders

No Borders: Playing Rugby For Ireland is Tom English’s history of Irish rugby, told by the players and coaches.  Whiff of Cordite was sent a free review copy, and this is our review.

The book starts with the Jack Kyle era and finishes with the 2015 Six Nations.  English provides narration along the way, but for the most part the book is made up of the players’ own versions of events.  English lets all the main players speak in their own words and keeps himself off the stage.   The players’ words shape the story, charting Irish rugby’s chequered history from the troubles to peace, from amateurism to professionalism and from failure to a sort of success.

It’s a ripping read.  I must confess I didn’t start at the beginning and finish at the end, but read in a random order, starting with the bits that were of most fascination: in my case the 2007 World Cup and the breaking of professionalism in the 1990s.  There’s interest in every chapter.

Plenty of the material will be familiar to readers of these pages, and depending on your age, plenty of it will be new to you.  As children of the early 1980s, we were too young for the two triple crowns of that era but can remember plenty of the awfulness which followed.  The abiding memories of that era are of Ireland valiantly taking the game to teams before the inevitable late-game surrender.  The Six Nations was an event in Chez Ovale in Bray, and poor Papa Ovale seemed an eternal optimist.  Palla has distant memories of once making a 2p bet with him that France would beat Ireland, and feeling conflicted as the second half saw Ireland lose an enormous lead and France got their multi-phase groove on.  The folly of youth!  Another year, now old enough to know better than to cheer for the enemy in pursuit of a tuppence, we have slightly clearer recollection of a Five Nations in which Ireland led all four games at the hour mark, only to return three losses and a draw with Wales.  Ah, great days they were.

English’s book serves as a reminder of a few things.  The first is just what a quirky sport rugby is in Ireland.  Largely played in a handful of areas in the country; Belfast grammar schools, Dublin private schools, a handful of schools in Cork and – who could forget? – earthy types in Limerick.  Somehow, the elements all have to come together in the green shirt, and more often than not they do. For all the failings of Irish rugby, the players rarely did anything other than try their hearts out.  Trevor Ringland and several other Ulster players give terrific insight into what it was like for Ulster protestants to play rugby for Ireland, especially during the troubles.

The second is just how… there really is no other way around this… terrible Irish rugby has been for most of its history.  Think this season is bad because we lost to Argentina and Munster and Leinster are a bit rubbish?  Try re-winding twenty years.  Thought Kidney’s Ireland were a bit hit and miss, only showing their best when able to feed off emotion after everyone had written them off?  Well, they were only keeping up the traditions of a century before them.  Even the good days feel like a mere temporary blip before normal service is resumed.  Ireland’s triple crown in 1982 is immediately follwed by a winless campaign.  1985’s triumph only proves a cue for Mick Doyle to buy into his own press and isolate the players.  For the most part, Ireland’s history is of being poorly prepared for matches and having teams backboned a handful of warrior heroes but generally lacking enough great players and general fitness to beat the best sides.  And it’s one of being repeatedly hammered in Paris, of course.

There’s no end of great storytelling here.  The uneasy journey from amateurism – days when the players would call into the chipper for a ‘one-and-one’ on the eve of a Triple Crown decider  –  to professionalism is brilliantly captured.  The old farts in the IRFU – a consistent theme throughout the book, it must be said – were militantly anti-professionalism, to the point of farce.  Tony Ward wins the Player of the Five Nations, but is told he cannot pose for the cameras as there is a sponsor involved.  The World Cup is treated with fear, and the IRFU bans the team from training in advance of it.  At times it seems less point of principle, and verges on a ‘they can’t have what we never had’ mentality.  Meanwhile, the advent of professionalism appears to the players through their TV sets, as every ad break is saturated with the Kiwi players advertising farm machinery.

The 1990s are relentlessly grim.  Murray Kidd is an angry ant, and is followed by Brian Ashton who, it must be said, is reticent and fair-minded about where he went wrong.  But go wrong he did, trying to get Ireland to play like his Bath team and failing to get the players to buy in to his ideas.  Things finally take a turn for the better when Gatland comes along, though he takes a while to get going and has to endure the Lens debacle before turning the tide.  Indeed, he is almost down to his last chips, but plays a winning hand in famously blooding ROG, Stringer et al against Scotland.  The players enjoy his pragmatism and more consistent approach to selection, but interestingly, don’t appear terribly put out when he gets the axe in spite of a terrific final Six Nations in which Ireland win four matches.  For the first time ever, it’s the backs who are the kingpins, and they see technical supremo Eddie O’Sullivan as the man who can best improve them.  When Brian O’Driscoll first appears, he is  like a beacon of light, and it’s clear to everyone just what a star he is almost immediately.

The tension between Gatland and O’Sullivan simmers on the pages, and it’s not the only time Eddie’s quotations seems at odds with the words of others.  The 2007 World Cup fiasco makes for fascinating reading.  Eddie is still clinging to his idea that all the team needed was a couple more warm-up games, but it’s clear from the players words that the problems ran far deeper.

There’s plenty of comedy in there too.  Neil Francis gives expectedly sweary copy (‘that fucker Eales is untouchable’) and takes the credit for the tactical smarts in the almost-win against Australia in 1991.  Andrew Trimble describes trying to get some meaningful critique out of Uncle Deccie on the numerous occasions he is dropped from the team, but can’t get anywhere.  And you can picture Cian Healy pulling his dad’s car around the beach as a teenager.  Needless to say, the amateur days feature plenty of revelry and regular trips to O’Donoghue’s for post-match recovery aids.

Finishing up in 2015 means we get a happy ending, but this sort of book can only ever finish ‘in media res’, or ‘in the middle of things’ to those less versed in the classics.  Which means, if history is anything to go by, Ireland’s next failing can only be around the corner.

No Borders is a terrific read, recommended to any Irish rugby fan.

A Return to Traditional Wigan Values

Munster’s European campaign hit the buffers at the weekend after a feeble defeat to Stade Francais Paris.  In spite of playing against 14 men for the entire second half, it was Stade who glossed the scoreline and ran away with the match.

There were shades of this last season when Munster’s hopes depended on them going to Saracens and winning, but the effort was similarly toothless.  It feels like something of a tipping point among their fanbase with regard to their affection for the coaching ticket headed up by Anthony Foley, with most fans angry and unsympathetic – no much surprise given how they have been blamed by Foley and his chums in the meeja for not coming in enough numbers to see the team.

So what went wrong?  Pretty much everything.  CJ Stander, who was about the only player who performed close to his level, afterwards admitted that although the team talked at half time about what they had to do – play at pace and make the extra man count – they just didn’t do it.  He described them as lacking energy, walking to lineouts.  That speaks to a lack of belief and stomach for the fight, and Alan Quinlan was unsparing in his post-match criticism.

Another who launched a scathing attack on management was none other than Johne Murphy, but for many that sounded like a hatchet job, a chance that Murphy was only dying to take to get one over on a coach who never really took to him.  But if indeed that is indeed the case, it raises a point worth thinking about.  Murphy, as we all know, came in for personal criticism in the infamous player-assessment email that was accidentaly distributed just a few weeks into Foley’s tenure, which is presumably a factor in his bitterness towards Foley.  But he wasn’t the only one, so are there other players around the squad who still harbour resentment towards the coach?  It certainly doesn’t appear as if the team are playing for their lives, or for the coach’s future – Simon Zebo’s performance in Paris smacked of a man with the south of France on his mind, and both Earls and Donnacha Ryan are not fulfilling expectations as two of the go-to veterans of the team.

Quinlan, in his article for the Indo yesterday, came up with the left-field suggestion that the province should dial 021-DECCIE and bring back the auld cute hoor for a renaissance.  After all, Deccie won two Heineken Cups and knows the province inside out.  It seems a bizarre idea, though.  They already have a coach – a whole team of them in fact! – who are hugely passionate about the province, and who know everything there is to know about Munster rugby. But it’s not really what they need – that being an experienced hand with a good technical skillset.

And seemingly the IRFU are ain agreement – the lads need a bit of help, and so they’re sending their latest hire, Andy Farrell, down south to work as a ‘consultant’ for the rest of the season.  It’s a major decision, not least because it’s obviously been foisted upon Foley and his backroom chums and doesn’t reflect all too well on them.  It’s a decent idea in theory – a voice from outside the province is certainly needed – but in practice it’s hard to know how much he’ll be able to add, especially if it’s a source of tension within the camp.  One thing’s for sure, Farrell is a strong character and will try to impose his will on the team.  Be prepared for a return to, erm, traditional Wigan values.

The sense that Munster are reaping what they sowed in appointing this group is inescapable. We blogged back in spring 2014 on Axel’s appointment and his ALL-MUNSTER ticket. While much of the critical commentary went as far as a damp Beatles-at-Shea-Stadium esque fawning over a “return to traditional Munster values”, we had some concerns:

“His main issue- as is the case for seemingly every Munster coach since the year dot – will be recruiting and developing capable centres to provide a threat and most importantly, bring the lethal strike runners Simon Zebo and Keith Earls onto the ball as much as possible.  Casey Laulala is heading for the exit and it looks increasingly like James Downey will be joining him.  Foley will need to recruit, and recruit well.” In fact – Foley has not only recruited badly (Tyler Bleyendaal, journeyman Andrew Smith) but he’s allowed JJ Hanrahan to leave, has converted Denis Hurley into the new Ma’a Nonu Shontayne Hape, and has presided over the catastrophic decline in form of Ian Keatley.

“One must say, it’s a big gamble – every member of the coaching staff will be making a step up to a position they have never been in before. Most coaching tickets you see appointed have a few grizzled veterans or older hands in there to offer continuity. The gamble Munster are taking is that Axel provides the continuity and the chaps with familiar faces and accents will takes to Munster like ducks to water, ensuring a seemless transition.” The gamble has failed pretty comprehensively, no doubt about it, and the appointment of Farrell is more evidence.

And perhaps most cutting from a fans perspective:

“He can expect an easier ride in the media than Penney got, because there will be huge goodwill behind him, and, how shall we put this, most of the key pundits are great pals with him!  But Munster fans will be as demanding as ever, and he’ll be expected to at least hit the marks Rob Penney did over the last two years.” Funny, this one turned out to be on the money

Anyway, it looks like a no-win situation for Foley – no improvement, and he’ll get the blame, they do better, and Farrell gets the credit. And an upturn in results is possible as the fixtures look relatively kind, albeit with the potential for (more) serious humiliation:

  • ERC: Stade Francais (H) – after last week, even a losing bonus point will be seen as a victory of sorts, but a victory is conceivable – Stade have only won one away game all year and have succumbed to the might of .. um .. Brive and Agen
  • ERC: Treviso (A) – surely they won’t lose .. surely!
  • Zebre (A) – see above
  • Ospreys (H)
  • Glasgae (A) – two tough fixtures, but during the Six Nations both will be denuded to an extent Munster clearly won’t, with only one player (Conor Murray) currently a lock in the Irish 23
  • Treviso (A)
  • Dragons (H)
  • Zebre (H) – 3 wins in a row would be your baseline expectation here

So not impossible that by Easter, Munster are back in the top 4 of the league with ERC qualification assured and with some sort of momentum garnered .. for which Farrell gets the credit. Foley’s team are most certainly dead ducks, and it remains to see whether the man himself is as well – both Ulster and Leinster have sacked coaches late in the season and wound up scrambling to get a coaching team in place.

That said, they’ll need to get several of the units on the pitch working far better.  The scrum has been awful all season, and there’s little that can be done at this stage short of winding back BJ Botha’s clock by five years.  The second row has been remarkably poor considering they have three internationals to choose from, and CJ Stander has been virtually a one man band in the backrow.  As for Ian Keatley, his haywire season took another nosedive on Saturday; all the more remarkable as he was man of the match against Ulster the previous week.  Meanwhile Simon Zebo’s mind appears to be halfway to Toulouse.  At least they can console themselves that they won’t lose too many players for the Six Nations.

A Welcome With Open Arms

Ireland’s new defence coach is… Andy Farrell.  Farrell won’t join until after this year’s Six Nations but has a contract which will take him up until after the 2019 World Cup. Welcome aboard, Andy!

It’s an appointment that’s interesting for a handful of reasons.  First of all, rather than drip-feeding the appointment out to the usual conduits in the media in advance so that they could get the broader public used to the idea, the news arrived as, well, news.  It’s hard to remember the last time any bit of news arrived hot off the press.  Even mundane stuff like team selections have been fed to Thornley and his chums for the last number of years almost without exception.

Another interesting element is that Andy Farrell does not appear to have been born in any of the following countries: New Zealand, Australia or South Africa.  Lordy!  What’s all this about?  Irish rugby has long adopted the stance that the southern hemisphere is the place where the best coaches come from, and it is they who they tend to employ.  There’s some history of English coaches – think Brian Ashton, which went well, right? – working in Ireland but not much.  The Irish public as a rule has little respect for the English way of playing.  English rugby is perceived on this isle (and beyond, to be fair) as being a samey, unimaginative sort of game, built on a forward pack which is powerful, but not Bok-powerful and sprinters on the wings but nobody who really has the imagination or skill level to give them the ball.

Andy Farrell goes even a step beyond that, completing a terrific hat-trick of associations that will immediately prove off-putting: Saracens, rugby league and the English World Cup effort.  That’s the holy trinity right there.  Rightly or wrongly, for who really knows, Farrell found himself being fingered with the decision to about-turn on England’s catch-and-pass gameplan and the move to revert to a more traditional bosh-and-kick strategy which backfired dismally and proved itself to be embarrassingly out of step with the approach of the better countries in the tournament.  Meanwhile, any mention of the word Saracens is enough to make Irish rugby fans groan. He’s also being blamed by angels like Bruce Craig for sending Slammin’ Sam back to Souths with his tail between his legs.

None of that will matter much to Schmidt however, who will see Farrell as a hard-nosed and experienced operator.  It won’t have gone unnoticed that Ireland’s defence – while generally the bedrock that has delivered two Six Nations – was passive and meek in the games against Italy and Argentina in the world cup.  Farrell might trade off some of Ireland’s love of the choke tackle for more aggressive line-speed.  Saracens’ famous wolf-pack defence, led with some degree of ferocity by Jacques Burger, focuses on the simple dynamic of coming up in a hard, straight line at such speed that they can suffocate teams at source.  Paul Gustard has been heralded for its implementation but Farrell had the team working in a similar fashion before moving on to Team England.  Farrell is also credited with the generally decent defence put up by the Lions in 2013.  While the games were so terrible only the pro-Gatland elements of the UK media will remember much of the specifics, for sure they didn’t win the series based on their attack, so the defence has to have been halfway decent.

There is of course one other English coach with a league background who has found himself in the position of having to coach his son – Mike Ford. Ford was, we believe, Ireland’s first ever defence coach (certainly the first decent one if not the first actual one) – it was an appointment that went well for both Ford and Ireland. Farrell is basically Ford minus a decade in his background and understanding of the game.

The final bit of intrigue was the confirmation that Brian O’Driscoll has become a sort of Twitter oracle whose every utterance becomes news in and of itself.  Part of the reporting of the news is that Brian O’Driscoll has endorsed the appointment.  Other recent events on which BOD has commented include Adam Ashley-Cooper and Ian Madigan’s moves to Bordeaux and the potential elevation of Garry Ringrose to the national team.  All have become news stories.  Perhaps an ‘Endorsed by Brian O’Driscoll on Twitter’ badge should be handed out to all those who receive his kudos.  He anticipates that under Farrell’s tutelage, Ireland would show good line-speed and kick-chase.  Dull and all as that sounds, it’s the bread and butter of defending.

Amply Balmed

As we’ve written many times, when European rugby hits you hard, you must apply the soothing balm of the Pro12.  The first half of this season has been perhaps the worst in living memory for the Irish provinces in the main shindig, so the seasonal interpros had a heightened sense of importance.

These matches have been washouts in previous editions.  With coaches hindered by limited access to their frontline players, they have tended to pick a strong side for their home match and a team of bunnies for their away tie, creating a series of foregone conclusions in the process.  Not this time, as all of Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster needed the points badly.  Leinster are out of Europe and the Pro12 is Connacht’s primary target anyway, and while Munster and Ulster still have aspirations of qualifying for the knockouts, the best either can realistically achieve is to qualify as runner-up, which brings with it an away quarter final.  They know they can ill afford to coast along in the Pro 12.

With the stakes high, it is Leinster who have come out the most amply balmed.  Indeed, it’s been a fabulous Christmas period for Les Bleus, with other results going their way to boot; Scarlets lost to Cardiff, and Glasgow lost twice to Edinburgh.  Munster beating Ulster also helped.  They can go top and open a gap with their game in hand.

If not exactly half-full, the Leinster glass is at least starting to look less than totally empty.  The team appears to have found a bit of shape and edge in attack, and it can’t be entirely by chance that they have conceded the least number of points in the league.  Their defence over the Christmas period was exemplary, giving up just seven points on aggregate to Munster and Connacht, and some of the handling against Connacht was impressive considering the conditions.

A couple of standout performers deserve mention.  Sean O’Brien is probably the best player on the island and when he is fit makes an incalculable difference to any team.  He performed explosively over the Christmas period, giving a ferocious 55 minutes against Munster and a blistering cameo in the last half hour against Connacht.  There is no other player that combines his ability both in the breakdown and carrying at close quarters, and, er, regathering his own chips over the defence off the back of scrums.  Ireland and Leinster are a different team when they have access to his wrecking-ball talents.  If Leo Cullen and Joe Schmidt could magically protect one player from injury it would be he.

Another is Garry Ringrose.  Munster and Ulster fans may be scoffing at the hype emanating from the ‘Dublin meeja’, as ROG once put it, and while anointing the 20 year old to the Ireland 13 jersey is perhaps premature, there is no doubt that Ringrose is going to be an international player, and surely no question that he is blessed with a rare and natural talent.  While it was his sensational try-creating break that will be remembered, he also defended his channel manfully against Munster, and backed up the performance against Connacht with two more line-breaks and a generally sound showing on a day which wasn’t exactly made for skinny-hipped outside centres.  There’s nothing like the anointing of a new local hero to get a bit of giddiness going on the terraces, and the RDS now has its next potentially great outside centre to celebrate.

Two more young guns who we are going to be seeing a lot more of are Josh van der Flier and Ross Molony.  Van der Flier is enjoying a breakout season and combines great presence at the breakdown with a good carrying game, a similar kind of player to Munster’s Tommy O’Donnell (whose return to fitness, incidentally, will be a huge benefit to Munster over the coming weeks).  Molony is a second row with a big couple of months ahead of him.  As Demented Mole pointed out, Leinster are going to be without their starting second rows for much of the Six Nations period and have little in the way of depth.  Mike McCarthy has finally brought his best form to the blue shirt and is likely to be brought back into the national team set up this spring; O’Connell is gone and Henderson is injured, and while it was hoped Donnacha Ryan would return from injury at his 2012 best, that just hasn’t happened.  Molony and the underwhelming Tom Denton are likely to be partnering up for the five or six games in that window.  He made two vital lineout steals against Munster which have got him noticed.

Things are looking up, admittedly from a low base, but with the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to reflect on a European campaign in which a new and totally inexperienced coaching ticket was only finding its feet, and where the bulk of players in the team were coming off the back of an exhausting and mentally draining World Cup.  With fresh energy, and fresh names in the team, the season can still be turned around, and perhaps that process has already begun.