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.

Last Men Standing

This game was always going to be a case of ‘Last Men Standing’, and with the rejuvenated Heaslip and D’arcy adding to the list of those unable to take part, that has come to pass.  With that in mind Deccie has done pretty much all he can to get his best side on the pitch. 

The tight five – hugely impressive so far – remains the same and in the back row Peter O’Mahony replaces Jamie Heaslip directly.   It’s the right call.  There are plenty who would have liked to have seen Sean O’Brien move to 8, but he has little experience there, and has never looked comfortable at the back of the scrum.  Besides, he’s come of age as a Genuine Openside (that’s one phrase we’ll be hearing a lot less of from now on) on this tour.  Peter O’Mahony played a reasonable amount at No.8 towards the back end of this season, and looked the part.  His innate footballing ability lends itself well to the role, and it could be his best position.

D’arcy is replaced by Paddy Wallace.  No doubt Kidney thought hard about giving the ROG-Sexton axis a go from the start, or giving the tantalising, if flawed, Earls-BOD partnership another go after a more-miss-than-hit showing in the first test.  It looks like he made the best choice by picking a natural 12 playing in a position he’s most comfortable rather than shoe-horning Rog into the team players into unfamiliar roles.

That said, it does rather show up the folly of leaving Wallace at home in the first place.  Paddy arrives fresh off the Mediterranean beaches, so it’s asking a lot of him to replicate his brilliant end-of-season form.  His last competitive action was when he played (superbly) in the Heineken Cup final, which is over a month ago now – though he did play the full game against the Barbarians –  so to expect him to bound off the long haul flight and pick up where he left off seems a tall order.  Why Kidney brought Darren Cave when he had cover at 13 in the form of Earls, and left his only natural alternative to D’arcy (excluding McFadden, who he obviously does not see as a 12) is anybody’s guess.  It looked a strange call at the time, and looks stranger again now.

The good news is that Keet Earls is back.  With Tommy Bowe injured and Earls missing in the last test, Ireland have lacked cutting edge out wide.  Earls, of course, has made no secret of his desire to play centre.  It would be nice to have given him the chance to further his claims to the outside centre berth in this match, but with our best wingers injured, needs must.  Trimble and McFadden are honest, hard-working players, but they don’t have the strike running or finishing ability Earls does.  His presence out wide will make a difference.

New Zillund have injury concerns of their own.   Kieran Read and Deeeen Cadah are injured, and McCaw has been moved to No.8, where he is notably less effective.  If (big if) Ireland can reproduce the breakdown intensity of last week and bring a little more dynamism out wide (I’m looking at you, Keet) they can once again be in the shake-up at the business end of the match.

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.