Posted by: Gerry | September 3, 2007

The Men We Can’t Afford to Lose

The aggregate number of caps for Ireland’s first choice XV (assuming Geordan Murphy at full back) is 756, or 50.4 per player. (If Girvan Dempsey is chosen at full back it’s 781, or just over 52 each.) I don’t know for sure, but I’d reckon that has to be the highest for any of the “elite” teams in this year’s World Cup.

In one respect this is a good thing, as it means that our first choice players have an awful lot of experience at the highest level of the international game. But on the other hand, it means that we have shag all strength in depth. If by some quirk of fate all of our first choice XV were to cry off, our alternative XV would take the field with a grand total of 323 caps. However, Malcolm O’Kelly and Girvan Depmsey would account for almost half of these on their own (87 and 75 respectively), and 30 of them would be subject to Alan Quinlan (25) and Paddy Wallace (5) discovering the art of bi-location. (Quinlan would have to divide his time between second row and back row; and Wallace would have to work out some way to throw to himself from the outhalf position to centre.)

There are several key positions in the Irish team where the cover is less than adequate. Here is my analysis of these positions.

Props. Our front row is arguably the weakest point in the team. John Hayes and Marcus Horan are our two first choice props, and if either of them are injured, we can forget about holding our own in the scrum. If John Hayes was missing, we may as well not show up at all. Some critcise him for being slow, and for getting pinged at scrum time. But what a lot of people don’t notice is what John Hayes does well. He secures ruck ball. He picks and drives. He launches men into the air at line-out time. For God’s sake, this man can lift Paul O’Connell by himself. He’s not a glory-glory player, but an honest grafter who puts his body on the line far, far beyond the call of duty. In all likelihood he will retire from the international squad after the world cup, and no-one should begrudge him that. Marcus Horan has had a torrid time with injuries in the last couple of years, and opposing props know that. Fully fit, he’s a top notch scrummager, and he’s even been known to take on the role of winger and sprint for the line and score. Our replacement props are Bryan Young and Simon Best. Nuff said.

Paul O’Connell. Just as Brian O’Driscoll is essential to Ireland’s back play, so is O’Connell to the fowards. O’Connell is the heartbeat of Ireland’s pack, all-conquering in the air, the fulcrum of the maul; a menacing presence and fearless leader. It was his words that inspired the title of this blog. He asks of his team-mates to put the fear of God into the opposition, and by Christ, does he live up to that himself.

David Wallace. Wallace is the only out-and-out openside in the squad, and if he was missing we would be in severe trouble. Leamy could move to 7, with Ferris in at 8, but…

Denis Leamy. The Rock of Cashel has made the Irish No 8 jersey his own over the last couple of seasons. Prior to this he flitted around the back row, and even played in the centre for Munster. But 8 seems to be his home. I am a big fan of Leamy. Hewn from the same rock as Paul O’Connell, he is an intelligent footballer, a superb athlete, strong as an ox, and afraid of no-one.

Peter Stringer. It’s no accident that Peter Stringer is Ireland’s No 1 scrum half. He’s fast to the breakdown, gets the ball out quickly, anticipates what those behind him will do, box-kicks when he has to, and breaks only when something is on. His match-winning try for Munster in the Heineken Cup Final of 2006 is a good illustration of his match-reading skills. He saw that there was no cover on the blindside, and ran in for a try. If there had been cover, he would not have gone himself. If Stringer’s understudy in the Ireland squad was Eoin Reddan, and Eddie O’Sullivan had nurtured Reddan’s talent, Stringer would not be on this list. Sadly this is not the case. Isaac Boss is our No. 2 scrum-half, and he isn’t international test standard. If he was, he would be competing for the All Black scrum-half position in his native New Zealand.

Ronan O’Gara. Oh Holy Jesus. ROG’s understudy, Paddy Wallace, has all of five caps. Not only that, but he doesn’t even play outhalf for Ulster, unless David Humphries is injured. But it’s not even that simple, because there are two Ronan O’Garas. Any team would want Good Ronan. Good Ronan slots penalties effortlessly, even from within his own half. He kicks balls to within an inch of the opposition’s corner flag. He hits exquisite crossfield kicks for oncoming wingers like Shane Horgan to connect to and score. He drops goals when 0.000005 seconds remain on the clock, and we’re 2 points behind. But Bad Ronan misses conversions from tries under the posts. He kicks out on the full, gives hospital passes to the centres, and drops clearance kicks down the throats of opposing wingers. If ROG is missing for either the French or the Argie game, we will struggle. If Bad Ronan shows up, likewise.

Brian O’Driscoll. We love him, don’t we? All those tries! But it’s not just the tries. O’Driscoll is not just the best centre in the world for scoring tries. His defensive work is phenomenal. He’s a superb finisher, but if he feels it’s not on for himself, he will happily offload to someone more likely to score. One of his shimmys can turn a game on its head. This guy could go to any club in the world and name his price. That he has chosen to stay in Ireland is a credit to him. If BOD is missing against France or Argentina, we will lose. It’s as simple as that.

Gordon D’Arcy. BOD’s partner has established himself as the other half of one of the most effective centre partnerships in the world. Brilliant defensively. Show him a chink of light and he will run through it. He and BOD can slice defences apart.

Shane Horgan. A massive presence on the wing, Horgan is a brilliant finisher. Watch whenever Ireland starts a half or a restart, Horgan is in there contesting it. For a big lad, he is amazingly agile. He could almost run along the edge of a sheet of paper and score in the corner. And his defensive qualities aren’t to be sniffed at either.

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Responses

  1. Great stuff. As a Yank who learned the game from the Irish in my youth, I wish I could bottle the Irish team that showed up at Croke against the English and put it up against any other team in the world.

  2. Is it fair to see we’re seeing less of the bad Ronan and more of the sublime Ronan these days? I think when he scored that try against Wales he really put down a mark. He wasn’t there to be bullied any more.

  3. I think that’s a fair enough observation, and thankfully Good Ronan usually shows up for the big games. And when he’s on form, you really feel happy that he’s on your team. Some of my favourite ROG moments:

    The sneaky try against South Africa at Lansdowne Road while their captain was talking to his players.

    His try against Leinster in the 2006 HC semi-final.

    His crossfield kick to Shane Horgan in the Ireland-England game at Croke Park in February.
    http://ie.youtube.com/watch?v=yBzJsLeJZl0

    Landing a match-winning penalty against Leicester last season. This might not be remarkable but for the facts that it was at Leicester; the penalty was kicked from the Munster half; it was raining and he’d missed one from ten or so metres closer earlier.
    http://ie.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQnzngsmVWU

    Let’s hope Bad Ronan sleeps in the morning of the flight over to Bordeaux!

  4. What an utter load of C**P! Lets start with the cover for ROG. It should have been Humphries but when he could guarantee that he would not come on for ROG and ROG would ALWAYS replace him no matter how well he played it is very clear why he retired from International rugby BEFORE this world cup. O’sullivan has shot himself in the foot. As for good & bad O’Gara – in the last full season he has shown he doesnt even know where the touch line is – 90% of his kicks DO NOT FIND TOUCH! Just watch the replays if you dont believe me.

    You must be a munster man cos you refuse to acknowledge the ulster players and their ability. None of them gets a decent run in the team to blend in and make their mark. Strange as their county play over the last two years has been great.

    And what about David Trimble? He is amazing as he showed during the debacle against italy at ravenhill. His genuine pace sets him way above the others and he has a great vision of the game. He should be first choice on the wing, period.

    Now having got all that off my chest – Paul O’Connell & Stringer are majestic and dont get anywhere near the recognition they deserve. I wouldn’t even know where to start with BOD – how can you compliment perfection?

  5. david trimble ? – i thought he was too old to play rugby !

  6. Excellent contribution, Trevor! Good argumentative stuff like that gets the blood pumping.

    You’re right, I am a Munster man (well, a Munster fan, even though I was born and raised in Connacht and now live in Leinster.)

    Humphries was a great international out-half in his day, but that day is well and truly over. If we started him against the French, their centres would go through him for fun. What pisses me off is that once the O’Gara/Humphries debate finished, no effort was made to find and develop a younger understudy/potential replacement for O’Gara. At the moment it’s Wallace, who doesn’t even start at outhalf for his province.

    As for the other Ulster players, I stand by what I have written. In fact, I would have an all-Munster front row, as I believe that Jerry Flannery is a much more effective hooker than Rory Best.

    Now before you accuse me of anti-Ulster bias, I absolutely agree with you about Trimble (Andrew, that is. I think Lord David might be a bit past his prime by now :-)) I remember the first time I saw him, in a Celtic League match against Leinster, and he was sensational. “Give that man a green shirt” was my opinion that night. I would be happy to see him on the wing.

    Also, I would be happy to see Neil Best start instead of Simon Easterby.

  7. Thanks Gerry, especially for correcting my faux pas over the Trimble ‘brothers’. My daughter who knows Andrew would call me an old fart for that mistake!

    Anyway there is something that we both agree on and that is that we hope all the pundits and ‘experts’ are wrong and the men in green get a lot further than is being forecast. (And of course that the holders don’t!!!)

    I’ll be back for more chat soon.

  8. I look forward to hearing from you again soon, Trevor.

  9. Oh dear! That was a bit of a disaster on Sunday night, not because we didnt score 70+ points but that the team lost their direction. Everything seemed to be played on the inside with almost no width, our passing and handling was rubbish and bad RoG turned up. I just hope that BOD isnt injured again because he is definitely short of match practice and needs the game against Georgia.
    We will know going into the game what is needed as the Pumas will have already played and will be sitting at the top of thge group table by then.
    But give credit to Namibia and the work sponsored by the IRB to develop the minor teams. Playing against Italy only 4-5 years ago was a certain win but, as they showed at this years 6 nations they have really come on. Namibia are not going to be far behind them in 2 years time.
    Anyway, what changes can we make for the Georgia match?


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