The World Cup is almost upon us and I am fucking excited! While it’s a bit of a pain for Connacht, and for non-Connacht based fans who now won’t get to see many televised games as a result, the trade off is seeing those other boys in green giving it socks against the rest of the world. Unlike the autumn or summer internationals where you never really know how much any team cares about the result, its always pretty clear that everyone is trying their best to have the most successful tournament possible. For the ‘minnows’ – that terrible but unavoidable diminutive nickname – the desire to graduate from small fry status by slaying one of the big teams in the group is a huge incentive, and in the right groups there’s even the potential that one of those teams can progress to the knock out stages. For the bigger teams its about proving themselves against their northern and southern peers at once, unlike in the six or quad nations where they are geographically limited. Its no holds barred, winner take all rugby, and that’s what brings out the best in this sport.
For now the main point of contention is selections. Armchair management is everyone’s favourite side game to the actual sport, and I’m no exception. I’m going to outline some of my thoughts on the Ireland squad and the first two warm up teams before giving my own predictions. Hopefully if I have time I can return to talk about the other teams in the tournament at some point in the future.
The alpha and omega of talking points this time around seems to be the front row. Still carrying psychological scars from *whisper* Twickenham, few Irish rugby fans can view an ambiprop without suspicion. Because I’m a contrary sort, I’ve taken the opposite position from early out. A quick look at the squads from 2011 will show that the majority of teams brought four props: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Rugby_World_Cup_squads)
so the idea that there should now be six in the squad is rather profligate.
Everyone is sort of assuming that because we have 31 man squads due to an extra bench slot, that 1 is reserved for an extra tighthead. If you have an extra tighty you need an extra loosey, hence six.
The main argument against bringing only five props seems to be that Ross may pick up an injury in the short window of time when a new player cannot be added to the squad, leaving Bent to the mercies of a monstrous French loosehead who rips him limb from limb while France score penalty tries from half way line scrums, such is the level of destructive scrummaging that will occur. While that does sound like a pretty terrible scenario, its also extremely specific. If Ross or Moore were to go down in any of the games prior to France, White will join the squad. To plan around one extremely narrow possibility within one match is just not realistic for a coach. If Bent does become back up tighthead against France, then three things can happen: Moore plays 80 or as close to it as possible, Bent comes on and does an ok job, or Bent comes on and becomes such a danger to himself that he is yellow carded and either Moore returns or we go uncontested. That’s about the height of it. If Ireland are in such a precarious position that the entire campaign is decided by shaky scrums against France in the final ten minutes then we were never really in with a shout to begin with.
The only teams that will bring six props are the likes of Wales who have a five day turnaround and will want their starting front row to be fresh for both games. I was going to suggest some of the teams with less choice in the backs may bring six but based on the last World Cup that’s actually pretty unlikely. Yes the scrum is your foundation, but that gets built upon – its not the end product.
As a fan of both Connacht and White I would like to see him travel, as I’ve long felt he is the most complete tighthead in Ireland, but its difficult to see him push ahead of Moore after 30 minutes. We know he can perform at European club level, but I never understood why Leinster allowed him to move west. Moore is still carrying a niggle, and White probably offers more around the field than any of the other tightheads, although we don’t yet know if the injuries of the last season have impacted this part of his game. It’s a difficult circle to square as Ross has famously always needed some extra gametime to get up to speed, and will surely benefit from playing England and Wales, which offers just two sub appearances to decide the back up.
Starting second rows are all sewn up but the latest fashionable trend is the plight of Ian Henderson. How can Joe ignore those bullocking runs, those soft hands, those smash hits? But where would he even start: is he a five or a six? A five and a half, unlike six and a half, is not a popular maths equation in rugby apparently. Again I’m being contrary, but I’ve become tired of the constant cheerleading. Henderson is a quality young player, who plays in a demanding position, and has not necessarily shown that he has the capacity to (a) last a full campaign, or (b) play to the level required in the roles that are required of him. I was not a fan of Peter O’Mahoney in the past but he has reached new heights under Schmidt, as have many of the players. To say that Ireland are one of the best coached teams of the last two years is so obvious as to be banal. And yet, when it comes to pet projects, we forget ourselves. We see what we want from a player, while forgetting the flaws. POM has improved because he has added to his already good base skills with extra attention to detail, stronger handling skills, increased work rate and fulfilling a specific role close to the ruck.
This is also the role of POC and Toner to an extent. It is not a role we have seen Henderson perform much before. One interesting feature of the Scotland game was how many rucks involved just one tackler and one man competing for the ball, whether that was Conan, SOB, Henry, Payne, Zebo or Fitz, everyone was expected to challenge and make turnovers. Anyone who is going to force themselves ahead of O’Mahoney will have to show that they what they are adding to the team is equal to, or greater than what is being taken away. Ireland have enough carriers in the team that they don’t need Henderson as a starter. In addition, he does provide excellent impact from the bench, when his skills are most advantageous against tired defence and when O’Mahoney or O’Connell’s ruck work is not as always as necessary because of that tiredness.
I written this numerous times in the past but I always compare Henderson to the likes of Lawes, Launchbury, Etzebeth, Coetze, de Jaeger, Retallick, the Grays – players in and around his age group, or close enough that their development paths are comparable. While many of those players including Henderson could potentially be flankers, whether they would be quite as impactful if they were asked to make twice as many carries as they do is difficult to answer. Obviously I’ve listed some of the best players in the world there but that’s the point – ultimately Henderson is not in competition with Ryan or Tuohy, he’s competing against Flanquart, Vahaamahina, Maestri and Papé.
Henderson will travel, and may even start against the likes of Canada, but then again I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he didn’t pick up a single start. Donnacha Ryan did not look like a player who had been off the field for years last week – he is on the plane for me, simple as that. Touhy on the other hand was a big part of an Ireland underperformance this weekend, exemplified by the lock being bounced by a winger at one point. Admittedly the Scottish wings are big units but still. To be honest I’ve never bought the hype surrounding Touhy (can you see a trend emerging?) – he is an older, less good version of Henderson. In his defence the scrum went well on Ross’ side today but of the top twenty nations, Scotland’s scrum would easily be in the bottom five. Four locks, no Touhy.
With the injury to Tommy O’Donnell, backrow is basically settled at this point. We all know that if there is such a thing as a ‘Joe favourite’ – a much bandied about term – then it must be Jordi Murphy.
Fly half again is as settled as these things can be right now. Sexton starts, otherwise Jackson starts, and Madigan does his thing from the bench. The game against Scotland showed yet again that Madigan does not control the game, but worse for me is his often unsympathetic pass. I believe that he is actually quite predictable, with a little shuffle and step after receiving the ball being a common feature. Cliché alert – he doesn’t get the space at international level that he enjoys at pro12, and as a consequence his linebreak is nullified to a large degree. The only way this selection order changes is if Jackson shows he is a sub sixty percenter from the tee, which is not impossible. I imagine some game reviews will see Jackson coming on at 78 minutes as a mark against him, but I read it as Schmidt testing Madigan.
There is a little more room for imagination at scrum half, where Murray is as nailed on as Sexton but the order of the replacements is far from certain. Reddan had plenty of zip last week against a team that allegedly had not even thrown a rugby ball in training yet, as Wales have concentrated solely on conditioning (allegedly). Its on the record that Joe keeps Reddan in his teams as a leader from the bench, someone who can guide the half time talk and watch the gameplay for issues. Although leadership is another rugby cliché its clearly one of the most important attributes of a winning team, and Reddan’s role as a speaker highlights this. He will be the sub choice against France.
This leaves a shootout between Boss and Marmion. Boss is the most like for like replacement for Murray, but we didn’t see many box kicks today which might favour Marmion. I’ve read a lot of comments after the game that said Boss was dreadful, which isn’t much of a marker of anything as you will see those after any game he plays – people plain don’t like Boss it seems. I thought he was quite active, passed quickly and decisively, and made a couple of good tackles in a game when everyone was dropping off them (he also got bumped a few times, which was inevitable given the teams overall performance). He was solid without being close to exceptional.
Marmion is obviously a personal favourite, and offers far more on his own than either Boss or Reddan, but he cannot replace the experience and leadership of those two. In addition, though he continues to improve, his pass can be a little weak or ‘floaty’ at times, but I noted a number of passes against Wales that crossed half the pitch without issue. At the same time, there’s also a question of trust: Joe trusted Boss to start against Scotland, while sending Marmion to a nothing preseason game against Castres for gametime. If Marmion was rated as an option against the minnows (the games the third choice scrum half will be needed for the most) surely a game against Scotland was the place to find out? He may yet start against England or Wales, but if he does badly against top tier teams is it possible to form an opinion of how much better his performance against Canada might be?
Centre pairing is nailed on, as is fullback. There are growing question marks at wing – if Trimble is fit he starts, but Bowe may well have played himself out of contention. Neither Bowe nor Fitzgerald looked especially good against limited Scottish opposition. England and the presumably first choice Welsh game will tell us a lot more.
Back up positions is where the real action is, and there’s a good bit to talk about. I’ve always had a lot of praise for the utility back, a player that is often unheralded, even criticized, for their versatility. But every four years when the World Cup comes around, people quickly realize the value of a player who covers multiple positions to a high level. The last spots in the squad are in many ways the most important, and its vital that you’re filling them with the best options possible, not the equivalent of 4.2m defenders in fantasy football. Ben Smith might potentially not start any game for New Zealand this autumn, but having him in the squad must give the coach and even the players a confidence that can’t be bought.
I’ve often said that if he has the choice between two equally skilled players, Schmidt will pick the larger one. When he dropped Zebo for Fitz in the final six nations game I couldn’t understand it until I got to the game and saw the latter – he’s a big laddie, as is Payne, who I had also previously thought did not fit my theory of the Schmidt selection bias. This method of selection is bad news for Zebo, who does not look at all like a modern rugby player. He performed well without doing anything exceptional today, but Dave Kearney looked like a flanker and is reportedly ripping up trees in training. More importantly, Kearney made a big impact when he came on, providing the sort of strength and power that was woefully lacking from D’Arcy, who simply cannot travel, no matter what sort of injury crisis occurs. He wasn’t on long enough to put in a big shift but Kearney certainly earned the right to start against England or Wales to see what he can offer over 80.
Earls has also used rehabilitation time to bulk up, although as probably the shortest non-scrum half there’s less room to grow there (D Kearney is allegedly under six foot but he looked the same height as Jordi Murphy to me at anthem time). He looked good against the lost boys of Welsh rugby and can cover 11-15, so he’s still well in the mix. McFadden offers pretty much the same but without the flair and threat of Earls. He’s all hard graft, hard hits, hard yards – has anything ever come easy to McFadden on a rugby pitch? In truth he’s a bit more nuanced than that, and I’m actually an admirer of him as an inside centre, but he is weakest at 13, which Earls, Fitz, Henshaw and Bowe can all cover to a higher level than him, so his relative value is less than his competitors. He also seems to have lost a bit of pace due to the inevitable accumulation of injuries and age, as has Bowe, which is another reason why the latter may be feeling the heat.
Felix Jones has often seemed like a strange back up option to many, but if you follow my selection theory then he is the most like for like replacement for the orange one. Its not exciting, but we simply don’t have an exciting fullback option right now in the mould of a Folau or Smith or le Roux – you can’t have everything after all. A safe pair of hands who is able to return the ball effectively and tackle well is good business in my book.
My 31 man squad, assuming injured players are fit and available, listed in order of preference:
Best Cronin Strauss
Ross Moore Bent
O’Connell Toner Ryan Henderson
O’Mahoney O’Brien Henry Murphy
Murray Reddan Boss
Sexton Jackson Madigan
Trimble Bowe Fitzgerald Kearney
Disagree? Feel free to leave you alternatives in the comments! Like and share if you enjoyed, I’d really appreciate it.