Let’s Get Warmed Up

And so, this weekend, begins Ireland’s World Cup campaign, with what should be a good hit-out away to Wales.

As Gerry outlined to good effect this morning, it’s customary for Ireland to perform dreadfully in these world cup warm-ups, but how much meaning should be attached to that dreadfulness is hard to gauge. Eight years ago, Ireland carried awful form into the World Cup and simply never got going.

Four years ago the same happened, with Kidney forced into the drastic action of dropping entirely the one scrum half he had staked all his chips on playing into form. But Kidney’s team were an emotionally driven side, and seemed to thrive most when they appeared at their lowest ebb, and the sense of looming crisis ultimately played into their favour, in the pool games at least, before the tournament came crashing down in the quarter-finals.

Schmidt’s brood are the opposite, so if absolutely nothing is working well and Ireland conspire to lose all their warm-up games, then it probably is a cause for concern. Joe will be looking for signs that his charges are capable of playing to whatever instruction he has deemed the order of the day for this upcoming, monumental challenge. Just what that is remains to be seen. Schmidt has earned the reputation of a ruthless pragmatist over the course of two Six Nations campaigns, with a strategy high on aerial bombardment and low on offloading, but it’s worth recalling that in the last 120 minutes of the 2015 Six Nations campaign, with Ireland required to chase a Welsh lead, and build a large points haul against Scotland, they kept the ball in hand to great effect. Will he stick to that approach in the World Cup?

Ireland have four warm-up games, but in reality it’s a six (maybe seven depending on Sergio Parisse’s fitness)-match lead-in before the real stuff begins, because the first pool games are against the minnows. So there’s no need to panic if – as seems likely – Ireland play with a total lack of cohesion this weekend. There’s time yet to get the form going.

For all that, though, it’s a nice enough looking team Schmidt has put out; his strongest available props, a spine of experience and plenty of ‘nice to have you back’ uplift from players who missed large chunks of last season. And as usual, there’s plenty of scope for looking out to see who is ‘putting their hands up’ for the last few places in the world cup squad.

Donncha Ryan, Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble and Fergus McFadden are all welcome returnees. Ryan is in a face-off with Tuohy for the last second row place, so he gets a chance to put down a marker of some sort. Terrific, aggressive players both, but prone to injury, it may be a literal case of survival of the fittest. Tuohy is on the bench.  Keith Earls is selected at 13, which will cause frothing in several quarters (welcome back Leinsterlion), but it’s worth remembering that while he is not the complete outside centre by any means, he’s not bad either; try focussing on what he does well there rather than what he doesn’t. He’s a player Schmidt has referenced a lot while he’s been injured, so this is a welcome opportunity to see him in green.  With a maximum of 14 backs making the final cut, there is a premium on versatility, and if Earls can capably cover centre and wing, it puts him in the box-seat.

Trimble was last seen winning all sorts of awards, and is now an established ‘Schmidt favourite’. If he can get back even a shard of the form he had before injury, he can be a huge player this World Cup. McFadden’s chances of making the touring party look more remote, but it will be nice to see a few head-first charges into Welsh tacklers anyway.

The half-back pairing looks nice: Reddan and Jackson. They’re most likely going to be Ireland’s test-match back-ups so it’s time they got to know each other a little better. Jackson was playing quite beautifully at the end of the season. If he can produce that form again he can not only establish himself as first reserve, but become a player worth introducing from the bench for material impact.

In the pack, the main cause for excitement will be Iain Henderson’s selection. His wild, unrestrained style is a thing to behold and his form towards the back end of last season was astonishing. We’ll talk more on the topic next week, but he could make an unanswerable case for test XV selection. The backrow is light on size, but high on work-rate. Jamie Heaslip is flanked by O’Donnell and Jordi Murphy, who, conventional wisdom has it, are auditioning for the last back-row berth in the squad. Don’t be afraid to pass to each other, boys.

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Ireland: Season in Review aka The Kidney Clock

At this stage, after 11 months and 17 tests, only three of which produced memorable performances, our over-riding emotion is relief… that it’s over. Ireland’s season started dismally with four desperately scratchy pre-World Cup warm-ups. It ended horribly with a 60-0 drubbing at the hands of New Zealand. In between it huffed and puffed, briefly sparking into life intermittently only to collapse in a heap again. Ireland produced one good backs-to-the-wall performance in each series, offering themselves a shot at redeeming the season (or genuine glory in the case of the World Cup) but couldn’t see the deal through to the end.

The year will be characterised by three pallid performances: against Wales in the World Cup, England in the Six Nations and the final Hamilton Massacre, and epotimised by three passive defensive moments from our centres – formerly the bulwark of our defence: Keith Earls ushering Ooooooooooooh Manu Tuilagi in in the Aviva, Ferg being bumped badly by George North, and Sunny Bull’s ruthless treatment of Paddy Wallace in Hamilton.

The Coaching Ticket

Kidney and his team finish the season under serious pressure. Not before time, a hugely supportive media are finally asking questions of the performances, game plan and selection. This was Ireland’s third poor Six Nations in a row, and the win-draw-loss record for the year stands at 6-1-10 with four of those wins coming against Italy (twice), the USA and Russia. So we’re not winning. And yet blooding new talent is a can that gets kicked down the road at every series – for fear we might lose.

We need to get the team right for the World Cup. The Six Nations is our annual target, we can’t change now. You don’t experiment in New Zealand.

Next year’s Autumn internationals have already taken on an air of must-win to ensure second seeding for the World Cup. Then it’s the Six Nations again – so what’s the solution?

To be fair, new players have been introduced to the system, but more by accident than design. Injury continues to be the single biggest driving force to get new faces into the team. It was responsible for Sean O’Brien and Mike Ross’ belated entrances to test level (after being overlooked for the entire November before  immediately becoming un-droppable), and McFadden, Tuohy, Fitzpatrick, Donnacha Ryan and Kevin McLoughlin would probably still be awaiting test debuts if it wasn’t for injury to others.

Ryan has been a starter for all of five tests, yet is a key man already … at the age of 28. Ireland survive week-to-week, with little in the way of forward planning. Does Kidney have a long-term plan, you wonder, for Iain Henderson, the outstanding Ulster lock who has shone in the U20 World Cup and has already impressed at Pro12 level?

Dan Tuohy, for example, was in terrific form during the Six Nations but was overlooked for a way-below-par Donncha O’Callaghan and Mike McCarthy. For the summer tour, he was eventually elevated to first choice. It would have benefitted him to have tasted test rugby during the Six Nations before being plunged in against the World champions. Ireland had home games against Scotland and Italy that they were never in danger of losing, but Deccie stuck to the usual suspects. McCarthy himself was surplus to requirements in NZ despite being capable of the type of impact that Donncha only makes when windmilling on the touchline these days.

When Kidney is forced to delve deeper into the well (again, through injuries), he tends to look southwards. Simon Zebo and Peter O’Mahony managed to elbow their way into the squad by generating column inches becoming regular starters at Munster  – a source of huge frustration in Ravenhill where better and more consistent seasons from Craig Gilroy and Chris Henry went virtually unrecognised – Ireland doesn’t need more inter-provincial carping, but Kidney doesn’t do himself, or the fans, any favours in this regard.

It’s hard to see how things will improve. Deccie now faces into the last 12 months of his contract. Unless his paymasters in the IRFU have lost their minds, they won’t be offering Kidney a new contract before the Autumn games or even the Six Nations. (In truth, they will probably be looking for a new coach to start in Autumn 2013). Already an embattled leader, Deccie will have to face questions about his winding-down contract and whether he’s effectively living on borrowed time. It’s not the best point from which to move forward.

Playing Personnel

The good news is that Ireland have plenty of good players. Not all opponents will be as good as New Zealand, so we don’t have to worry ourselves overly about how, say, Rob Kearney stacks up against Israel Dagg. It’s more how Rob Kearney stacks up against Ben Foden (ah, that’s better). Several individuals performed well for Ireland this season: Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Cian Healy, Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien were the pick of the bunch. Donnacha Ryan, Keith Earls and Johnny Sexton have all shown increased authority and fierce commitment. Paul O’Connell was routinely magnificent when off the treatment table – add in our solid tighthead prop and Ireland have the guts of a quality team right there.

Others have found the going tough. Conor Murray had a poor season with province and country, seemingly caught between his duties as scrum half and being an auxiliary flanker. He has the talent to recover, and the hope will be that never seeing Dutchy Holland again Rob Penney’s coaching can help him improve. Fergus McFadden is a game fellow, but not an international wing. Peter O’Mahony’s lack of beef was cruelly exposed by New Zealand – he needs to bulk up and sharpen his tackling technique on his left shoulder, and while the man he stepped in for in Hamilton, Jamie Heaslip, couldn’t be faulted for effort, he never hit top gear.

It’s time to say goodbye to a few great servants. Nobody will forget Ronan O’Gara’s contribution to Irish rugby, but at 35 and with his tactical kicking game looking more than a touch dated, this is a good place to part ways. Ian Madigan waits in the wings. Donncha O’Callaghan is another unforgettable servant of Irish rugby, but has come to epitomise Kidney’s loyalty to a select few and has been our bête noir all season; the sight of him entering the fray only to give away a needless lineout penalty and then disappear from view ought to be his last contribution of a busy, if over-extended, test career. Better players are already in place and Devin Toner can be added to the list next year.

Inside centre is becoming a problem position for Ireland. Paddy Wallace has had a mixed international career to say the least – three World Cups (!) and the silkiest pass of an Irish 12 in many a year, yet it’s the bloodied face of 2009 and the battered defence of 2012 that people will remember. He deserved better than he got on Saturday, but again, he has the look of yesterday’s man. Gordon D’arcy is a curious case – hopeless in the Six Nations, but robust since then with BOD back outside him, he is the man you don’t miss until he’s gone. The feeling persists that we need more attacking threat than he offers at 12, but until such a player presents himself, it’s hard to see who can be put in there.

JJ Hanrahan and Luke Marshall look like future test players, but both are probably at least 2 or 3 years away yet. McFadden is a more immediate option, and he would improve his case if he can depose Dorce from the Leinster team first – it’s a bit silly to criticise Kidney for favouring Dorce there when Joe Schmidt does the same. Nevin Spence was the heir apparent to BOD at 13 last year but has slipped behind Darren Cave in his favoured position – to be honest, 12 looks more natural fit, but a Spence/Cave partnership looks a bit bosh-tastic – i’ts a big year for him, but if he does manage to get starts in Ulster, he could fit in for Ireland.

Of course, BOD might have to move inside, a la the first test in NZ, to shore up Ireland’s problem position. This would continue the succession at 13, where, amazingly, and in contrast to inside centre, we seem to have plenty of options. Keith Earls has grown immeasurably in the role this season, and wants to play there full time. Darren Cave arguably outplayed him this season at provincial level (and kept him on the wing through their underage careers), and is better than his 7-minute lose-lose cameo illustrated. Eoins Griffin and O’Malley are also in the picture.

Next Season

Here’s five things Ireland have to do next season to get the show back on the road.

1. Hire an attack coach

Attack with ball-in-hand has long been the weakest part of Ireland’s game, and failing to appoint a dedicated specialist to the role has been Kidney’s biggest error this year. The players are crying out for a new voice and new ideas. Worse still, Ireland’s defence has slipped off since Les Kiss has been asked to double-up. Kidney and the IRFU have the summer to make the appointment. We can probably forget about Schmidt stepping into this role, for the immediate future – for a start, it would be Gatty/Eddie 2000 all over again, and Schmidt would be mad to go anyway.

2. Cap Madigan and Gilroy

Both deserved to go on the summer tour to New Zealand – of the 3 players nominated for IRUPA young POTY, only O’Mahony made it on the plane. This autumn both should get their chance – Gilroy is a natural succesor to Denis Hickie on the left wing, and Ian Madigan is the best young fly-half in the country. The suspicion remains that Kidney would run a mile from his style of play, but he would offer thrilling impact from the bench for Ireland and would be an unknown quantity outside of Ireland. Both should start against Fiji, at the very least.

3. Beat South Africa

Ireland need a good autumn series. They should have the measure of Argentina in Dublin, but that’s a game its hard to look good in – the Pumas tend to come over here with chips prominently positioned on shoulders and seem oddly content to lose but make Ireland look rubbish. That seems to mean we need to beat South Africa to declare the series a success. Lose that game, even with a good performance, and the vultures will start to circle. No pressure then!

4. Win back the fans

Kidney has lost the backing of Leinster and Ulster supporters in what has become a provincially-drawn rugby public. Munster-centric selections, poor results and dull, grinding rugby have seen to that. Even loyalists from Munster are teetering, tiring of the gnomic utterances and failure to move on. Supporting Ireland is no craic at all these days. If we are to avoid another Six Nations of tedious griping and in-fighting, Kidney needs to give the paying fans a bit of excitement and get them back on his side. Positive, form-based selections and some attractive rugby would be a start.

5. Embrace the Provinces

A worrying theme from the latter portion of the season has been Kidney seemingly turning the provinces into an enemy rather than providers of players to the national team. Rather than tapping into what has won Leinster back-to-back H-Cups, he appears threatened by it, continually droning on about test rugby being much harder than provincial rugby and seemingly unwilling to pair the Leinster half-backs or get Sexton to play flat on the gainline. His dig at Ulster not giving Fitzpatrick experience was embarrassing and unnecessary. Kidney must embrace what is going on at provincial level, or risk irrelevance.

At least four of the above look like long shots. Ireland have regressed badly in the last twelve months. Wales are now far ahead of us, and somehow we have allowed an England side high on endeavour but low on talent to pass us out. Even with the changes above, we suspect Kidney is no longer capable of rousing this Ireland team to any sort of consistency. In all likelihood we’re staring down the barrel of two wins at best in the Six Nations and two from three in the autumn series.

In the interests of some balance, Kidney is badly served by his paymasters in Lansdowne Road – it seems only the Six Nations (which fills the coffers) has priority – and the immediate results-based incentives exacerbate Deccie’s conservative nature. We bet Robbie Deans, Steve Hansen and Heineke Meyer have to tell their bosses who they envisage coming through from youth level in this RWC cycle – we doubt the IRFU even bring it up.

There is a history of messy successions in professional Irish rugby (Brian Ashton, Gatty, Eddie, Deccie at Leinster, Eddie at Connacht, Brian McLaughlin, Gary Ella) and we don’t expect this one to be any different – expect himming, hawing and no little politicking, but the reality is this – the Kidney Clock ticks onwards, and Ireland will have a new coach in situ in fifteen months time.

Last Tango in Hamilton

Egg was on a drinking scouting mission in Munster on Saturday night, and the punters could be neatly split into 2 groups – those who had seen it and those who hadn’t. The former group had pallid, zombie-like faces (rather like Ireland themselves) and the latter had those wide-eyed just-seen-a-wrecked-train macabre fascination faces where they pretend they don’t want to see highlights, but they really do. When the bar obliged with extended highlights (i.e. all the BNZ tries), their faces slowly turned into the death stare ones.

It was not pretty. Most of us expected Ireland to come out with a performance somewhere between the first and second tests, allowing for the expected improvement from New Zealand, and a defeat (and tour) with honour. What we got was a tired, disengaged and passive dog’s dinner of a performance – only the front five emerged with anything approaching credit and the back row and three-quarter line were under massive pressure and buckled pretty early on. It was a tough day at the office.

The idea that Deeen Caddah would be missed was dismissed within 2 or 3 minutes – Chief’s inside backs Aaron Cruden and Sunny Bull were imperious, attacking (and breaking) the Irish line at will – the Irish plan for SBW that had been executed so diligently for the first and second test failed, and when Cruden went off, BNZ were doing better than a point a minute – we can thank Beauden Barrett taking it a little handier on his debut for it not being a 70- or 80-burger.

The other alleged chink in the BNZ armour was the back row – Kieran Read was injured, Ruchie was at 8 and Sam Cane and Liam Messam were making their first starts of the series. Well, all three were regal – Ruchie seemed to be everywhere, even soaring like Shaggy for restarts, and Cane and Messam were to the manor born.

With the inside backs and back row running backwards, there was always likely to be trouble, and so it proved.

So what can we say? Well, the first thing to point out is that this was the 17th test in the 11th month of the season, and was 7 days after the best, and most intense, performance of the year – the tanks were simply empty. There was probably an understanding that BNZ would come out like express trains, and the plan was to build a Maginot Line and hope Ireland were still in it after 20 minutes. In reality, it was exactly like the Maginot Line – BNZ just went through and around it at their leisure. Once the third try went in, heads dropped, the tiredness manifested itself and it was game over. Only Bob, Conor Murray, Donnacha Ryan and Mike Ross didn’t miss a tackle.  A performance of this level would have lost to Italy or Scotland.

Long as the season was, it has been no shorter in England or Wales.  Neither had to face New Zealand, but South Africa and Australia are hardly shrinking violets of the rugby world.  They came out of their (dead rubber) final tests with an aggregate losing margin of a single point.  Ireland lost by 60.

This was Ireland’s first doughnut sunce the Argentina tour in 2007, aka the Alarm Bells Tour, when Eddie’s Untouchables went to Poland, and the rest dirt tracked it to the other side of the world. The difference here was we had kickable penalties, but creditably went for tries – it meant we suffered a record defeat, but the players were right – taking the 3 was the cowardly option.

But still, the record books will say this was Ireland’s worst defeat to New Zealand – and this team is better than that. The muddled rabble we finished up as featured 12 players who played in the HEC final plus Donnacha Ryan, Conor Murray and Keith Earls. The folks in charge are going to have to take some heat here, just as they took credit for the changes that oh-so-nearly got a victory in Christchurch.

Lets start with the lightning rod that is Paddy Wallace. Firstly, Wallace was the best 12 in Ireland this season, and his set up for Dan Tuohy’s try in the HEC final was a thing of beauty. He has been a mainstay of Deccie’s squads right the way through his reign and is in the form of his career, but he wasn’t selected for this tour. It looked odd at the time, and it looked even odder when he was parachuted in from a beach in Portugal for the third test. Wallace’s size and lack of sharpness was ruthlessly targeted by New Zealand, but it was the management who put him in there. Deccie said before the game it was Wallace’s choice to hang out with his family instead of going to New Zealand to gather splinters, but it was Deccie’s choice to fly him over and he judge Wallace ready for SBW – fail. 

Deccie’s line of choice on this tour is how great a step-up test rugby is from provincial rugby – but it’s worth recalling that during the Six Nations, when Irish players are released from camp late in the week for routine Pro12 turkey-shoots, Joe Schmidt was reluctant to put them into the team ahead of those who have trained with the team all week.   And yet, for a test away to New Zealand, Wallace flew across the world from a end-of-season family holiday, arrived on Wednesday and started a test against the best team in the world on Saturday.

We’ve a sneaky feeling budget constraints affected the tour adversely.  The touring panel always looked two to three members light.  This contributed to the Paddy Wallace disaster, and also resulted in the likes of Gilroy and Madigan spending the summer at home when they could have been given a taste of test rugby (how beneficial it would have been is, however, hard to quantify).  Gerry Thornley today alluded to the scheduled flights home probably requiring some players to pack their bags before the game in an attempt to save on costs, effectively treating the final test as a stop-off on the way to the airport.  We thought the days of corner-cutting in elite Irish sport were behind us.  Perhaps not…

A surprising bone of contention from our Munster friends was the decision to bring on Rog after 55 minutes (again). We assumed they’d be supportive of the favourite son, but not any more. In this instance, it was effectively telling Fergus McFadden that the national management considered Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls as better centres than he is. The perception in Munster is that Deccie is afraid of what the always-quotable O’Gara will say in the papers if he doesn’t play. There was huge frustration that Ian Madigan wasn’t there to come off the bench and get the type of experience that Deccie Fitzpatrick will find so priceless in years to come.

Allied to all the above was the number of players who had games much far below their usual standards (from the ultra-experienced captain BOD, to our best player in the first 2 tests SOB, to Kevin McLaughlin on his 4th cap) – the bodies and minds had nothing left to offer and gave up.

And when that happens, it’s the management who should be asked questions – this team looks muddled and in need of new direction. Failure to back up good performances is a long-standing failing of this group.  We aren’t going go down the Deccie-must-go route (yet), but at the very least there is need for a dedicated attack coach to free up Les Kiss to get back to what he knows; some pro-active gameplan to maximise the resources at the coaches disposal; and a medium-term selection policy that builds towards RWC15 – we are treading water at an alarming rate at present, and this is not good enough.

Two damning statistics from this season – firstly, leaving aside Tier 2 teams, invitational sides and Italy, our win-draw-loss record was 2-1-10 – nowhere near acceptable. Of this 1-1-1 came from the type of once-off reactionary performances we have grown used to (Australia, France in Six Nations, New Zealand second test), leaving 1-0-9 from common-or-garden performances. That speaks for itself.

Secondly, a player like Chris Henry, who is old enough to be considered an experienced player, but young enough to still be in his prime by the next RWC; someone who ruled the breakdown in Thomond Park in the HEC quarter final, and is in the form of his career in a position where we have occasionally struggled, played only the last 15 minutes of a season of 1,360 minutes of test rugby. In contrast, the 4th choice lock in Munster, whose top level career is essentially over, was first choice right up until the end of the 14th test of the season. Do these speak of a management team with an acceptable knowledge of the players at their disposal?

This was a dispiriting and hugely demoralising end to a poor season from Ireland. Let’s hope its a low point, that the players make the most of a well-deserved holiday, and that the management get a big huge mirror and stare intently at themselves in it.

Summer Lovin’

It’s raining outside, work is dull and everyone is hibernating – what better time to take a holiday? Egg and Palla have been off-radar for the last while, taking their own holidays (of sorts in one case), but we’re back now, just in time for the Northern Hemisphere’s long-suffering players to postpone their holidays and go on tour. Let’s have a butchers, shall we?

Wales

Where are they going? Australia, for 3 Tests

How is it looking? Not too bad on the Welsh side of things – at club provincial franchise regional level, only the Ospreys have been bothering of late – the rest were done and dusted by January (Cardiff clearly didn’t consider a trip to the Palindrome worth practising for), so they re relatively fresh. Gatty is their biggest injury worry, but you would think Rob Howley will cope just fine – the team has a plethora of heads-up on-field generals, and they should be ok.

The Wallabies are ticking over quite nicely thanks – leaving aside the BaaBaas, and the midweek dirt-tracker against Scotland (more of which anon), these are the 3rd, 4th and 5th successive Tests against Wales. The Aussies are in rude health, with the only blot being the form of the Queensland Reds, who contributed a lot of the RWC11 team.

What’s going to happen? Australia will win the series, no doubt about that. This does, however, represent the best shot of a major win for a NH side, so the first Test will probably decree if it finishes 3-0 or 2-1. Given the Aussies will be hurting from today’s loss, we’ll plumb for the Aussies being ready. 3-0, but three competitive games.

England

Where are they going? South Africa, for 3 Tests and 2 mid-week games

How is it looking? The English are thankful to some leniency for the presence of Hartley and Tuilagi, and are basically at full-strength. How capable that full-strength side is, however, is another question. They were dire for most of the 6N, and they still don’t know who, and in what combination, will play at 10-12-13. The gameplan of uninspired bosh and Farrell’s boot won’t have the Boks quaking.

This is Heineke Meyer’s first series as SA coach, and he has picked a squad top-heavy with Bulls and light on top-of-the-table Stormers which is not going down well at home. The supposedly transitional nature of the side, with Smit, Bakkies and Victor moving on, may be over-emphasised – they are still chock full of experience, and peppered with promise as well.

What’s going to happen? The best-case for England is that they don’t get humiliated. We think they will however, with a 3-0 defeat, probably one big loss, and the two midweek games are such obvious ambushes (in all senses) that we are wondering why they are bothering.

France

Where are they going? Argentina. The ARU wanted to take the games out of Buenos Aires and spread the gospel  – there was talk of beautiful Mendoza, but France are going to Cordoba and Tucuman

How is it looking? The French season is still going on, but there won’t be any respite. PSA has picked a young-ish squad, but there is still room for lots of Toulouse and Clermont players, who have essentially been on the go since August. It’s a great opportunity for younger lads like Tolofua, Samson, Buttin, Dulin and, er, Freddie.

Los Pumas will be well up for this – most of the European-based players are being rested for the Quad-Nations/Rugby Championship (notable exceptions Dr Pippo and Roncero), and its mostly locals who will be aiming to play themselves onto the plane to South Africa.

What’s going to happen? Argentina are tough to beat at the best of times – in front of a raucous crowd against their best buddies France, they won’t want to lose. France won’t be too pushed as long as they get a chance to sample some Malbec – and their hosts will gladly lay it on for them. Still, its a fuller strength French than Puma team. We’ll say 1-1

Ireland

Where are they going? It’s three Tests in the Land of the Long History of Chastening Beatings

How is it looking? If you leave aside Leinster, there is precious little reason to be confident from an Irish perspective. Luckily, the Irish gameplan leans heavily on the all-conquering (and mostly Irish) European champions, so there is a positive vibe around the team. Wait, something doesn’t make sense there… Oh yes, that’s right, Ireland are muddled and poorly-coached. And, crucially, are missing 3 irreplacable forwards (Ross, POC, Fez) for the first Test.

This will be New Zealand’s first Test since the RWC11 win, and they have paid tribute to those guys by continuing to pick them, even the ludicrously-sized Piri Weepu. The NZ teams in Super Rugby, with the exception of the Auckland Blues, are going very well, and there is a nice warm glow around the team right now.

What’s going to happen? Gulp. New Zealand don’t anticipate any problems, and they are unlikely to get any. Three-zup as they say down there, with one nasty one in prospect. Deccie will come home a lame duck with blood-curdling war cries like “Sure, we were never going to beat New Zealand” and “Think of all the injuries” ringing in his ears from the combative Irish press.

Scotland

Where are they going? They’ve already beaten a midweek-ish Aussie selection, which is a great start for them. Now, (admirably) it’s on to Fiji and Samoa

How is it looking? In theory, Scotland can build on Embra and Glasgow’s youthful and successful seasons and integrate some of the promising youngsters like Stuart Hogg into the international setup against beatable opposition. In practise, they were awful in the 6N, but today’s win sets them up for a successful series.

After today’s winning start, they are going island-hopping – you have to admire when established teams go to the Pacific Islands, despite of the drawbacks – poor facilities, stifling heat and huge opponents. New Zealand, for all the Islanders they have “naturalised” have never reciprocated by visiting Apia. Poor show, and kudos to the Jocks.

What’s going to happen? We got an NH win from the Scots – and we should get at least one more against one of the Islanders. Fiji were a rabble in the World Cup, but Samoa gace South Africa a real game, and will be dangerous at home. 2 wins, 1 loss.

Italy

Where are they going? The Americas – one Test each against Argentina, Canada and the USA

How is it looking? Italy’s squad is full-strength but for one (significant) injury – captain and marvel Sergio Parrisse. There is quite a bit at stake for Jacques Brunel – this is his first tour with Italy, and he will be looking to have them playing the way he want to by the end of it. The younger players will relish the chance.

The Pumas are likely to scrummage them off the park first up, but they should have it more their own way against the Canucks and Eagles.

What’s going to happen? They should come home with two wins, and a spring in their step for next season.

Deccie’s Zygotic Mynci

The Irish squad for New Zealand is out. Albeit the first cut before the rest of the injuries.

There are 4 places still to be filled: a loose-head prop, likely Brett Wilkinson (it appears Tom Court is rubbish injured), a second row if Paulie doesn’t recover, a back-row if Chris Henry doesn’t make it and a scrum-half if Hugo “Isaac” Boss doesn’t make it i.e. places for Horan, Micko, Tommy O’Donnell and Tomas O’Leary.

Here’s our initial thoughts:

  • It’s good to see Sherry and Fitzpatrick going – tight-head is a place of low depth, but as we have discussed before, we have players, it’s just they don’t get picked, so we can’t know if they are good enough
  • Dan Tuohy (at last!) makes a non-extended squad – let’s hope he gets in the team ahead of Stakhanov.  I know we’re approaching broken record status on this, but O’Callaghan has done very little this season to keep getting picked.  As a senior player in the Ospreys Debacle he was particularly culpable.
  • Kevin McLaughlin is seriously unlucky – his leadership, versatility and form over the last months probably deserved a call-up (admittedly backrow is competitive). Given the usual mounting up of injuries, we still think we will see him out there before the last test
  • Despite being in the best form of his career, there is no place for Paddy Wallace. It seems Darren Cave is a direct replacement, and Earls is a winger again
  • Bob is the only specialist full-back, and it looks like Earls is his backup
  • The squad is short on specialist wingers, but Earls and McFadden are wingers in Deccie’s world
  • Simon Zebo is blessed, Little Bob and (especially) Craig Gilroy are much more rounded players – the All Black wingers will have him for breakfast without so much as a burp. 
  • It’s a real shame Ian Madigan didn’t get the nod.  Unlike many in a breakout season, he has kept his form up right to the end.  It was a real opportunity to bring a player who will go on to win many caps into the fold and show him what it’s all about

All in all, it’s a squad that’s got Deccie written all over it.  It’s nice to see names like Cave, Tuohy and Sherry involved, but we suspect they’ll be spending more of their time familarising themselves with the coffee machines than playing test rugby.  Ah well, we’re used to it by now.