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.