The British & Irish Lions squad was announced yesterday with nine Irish players travelling as part of the 37 man squad. Leinster’s Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney, Sean O’Brien, Brian O’Driscoll, and Jonathan Sexton will join Munster’s Conor Murray and Paul O’Connell while Ulster will be represented solely by Tommy Bowe. Not a bad representation when you consider just how poor our Six Nations was. A testament if ever there was one that there are other stages on which to impress the Lions coaching team. Paul O’Connell and Tommy Bowe are perfect examples of this, neither of whom have been able to get consistent test level rugby under their belts due to injury. In O’Connell’s case his monstrous effort against Harlequins in the Heineken Cup quarter-final sealed his seat down under. With the imperious Welsh back three of George North, Alex Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny almost certain to start the three tests (barring injury) the replacement wingers are Tommy Bowe and Scotland’s Sean Maitland. On the face of it the Scot is a surprise choice but given that he and Bowe are 6’2″ and 6’3″ respectively and that the first choice Wallaby wingers of Drew Mitchell and Digby Ioane are 5’11” and 5’10” respectively, it becomes a little clearer as to why Gatland has included them. Other interesting selections include the Saracens prop pair of Matt Stevens and Mako Vunipola. Stevens’ retirement from International rugby in 2011 following a lengthy ban for substance abuse will almost certainly count against him and you would not expect him to get a test jersey with Gethin Jenkins and Cian Healy to battle for selection at loosehead and Adam Jones and Dan Cole competing at tighthead. Mike Ross’s dependability makes him something of a surprise omission but Mako Vunipola’s battering ram style of aggression sees him gain important yards but again his inexperience will count against him and surely only injuries would see him handed a test jersey. Chris Robshaw’s omission has been a huge talking point amongst the English media and for me it’s been overblown. The backrow is probably the area in which Gatty is most blessed, Robshaw has always been a better leader than a player, and once Sam Warburton was chosen to lead the Lions, the England and Harlequins skipper was simply not strong enough individually to outshine the likes of Tom Croft, Dan Lydiate, Sean O’Brien or Justin Tipuric. Another man who is simply surplus to requirements is Jonny Wilkinson. With Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell the standout flyhalves in Europe, and a fullback with Leigh Halfpenny’s devastating accuracy from the tee, there was no need for a third number ten. At the squad announcement press conference Warren Gatland revealed that he spoke to Wilkinson who ruled himself out due to commitments to Toulon that would see him unavailable until after the Lions’ first game against the Barbarians in Hong Kong. Seemingly the two agreed to speak again should injuries rule either Sexton or Farrell out of contention and although Wilkinson’s reliability has been very impressive in Toulon’s march to the Heineken Cup final, I just feel as though his position is such a key one that International kickers were always going to be picked ahead of him. Overall it’s a very strong squad and more so with the Lions than any other team, balancing combinations of players who can complement each other (and where possible – are used to playing together) will be vital to their success. The front row and back three will probably be all Welsh. Alun Wyn Jones and Paul O’Connell will look to pick up where they left off four years ago, as will Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll. Regardless of selection, the back row should be an area of real superiority, particularly with Wallaby captain David Pocock expected to miss the whole tour. Mike Phillips is Gatland’s dream scrumhalf and he should be balanced perfectly by Jonny Sexton’s calm head and leadership. Overall, as Gatty would have it – this should be a team of muscle inside and pace outside.
Joe Schmidt was confirmed as the new head coach of the Irish team this week after speculation had slowed down following Declan Kidney’s dismissal and a string of foreign based coaches ruling themselves out. Schmidt is a man who absolutely deserves this opportunity. After all, having secured two Heineken Cups in the past three seasons he’s mirroring the success that saw Declan Kidney rise to this role in 2009 and with Brian O’Driscoll touting him as the coach who got the most out of him, the I.R.F.U. were right to appoint him. He’ll be good for the team, his style of fast paced gameplay that emphasises and produces high try counts has carried through from his time as backs coach at Clermont Auvergne, and it should rejuvenate an Irish team that seems to be slightly muddled and severely underachieving. I do wish we had progressed enough to be able to speculate on International coaches, rather than seeing ourselves as somewhere between provincial and top test teams in terms of the coaching ticket itself. Both the departed Kidney and the incumbent Schmidt have had no International coaching experience prior to taking this job and it’s clearly too much to ask that World Cup winning coaches like Jake White or Graham Henry would be interested but it all goes back to the unfortunate after-effects left by Kidney’s early success. In his first calendar year in charge we were unbeaten but everything after that was a frustrating mix of equally surprising wins and losses. My brief for Joe Schmidt above all else would be this: Get us to a consistent level of performance and let that be the bedrock of the team’s confidence. In other words, there’s no point beating Australia in the World Cup only to limp out to Wales at the next stage. Consistency will breed confidence and when we’re confident, we’re awesome. We were against Australia but weren’t against Wales, that’s why we got knocked out and that’s what Joe needs to change. I think he will, I hope he will, and maybe by the end of his time in charge he’ll have brought the team to a point where International coaches will want his job. His first test will be Samoa so you’d expect him to get off to winning ways. The Wallabies a week later. Could that be another victory? On the way to a showdown with the All Blacks the following week? He has the potential, the confidence and the support. The recovery starts here!
The I.R.F.U. have officially announced that they will not be renewing Declan Kidney’s contract as head coach of the Irish senior team this summer. While it comes as no surprise given Ireland’s worst performance ever in this year’s RBS Six Nations, as well as our current (and worst ever) world ranking of ninth place, we must remember that Deccie was the man who finally led the golden generation to a Grand Slam which many of them will look back on as the highlight of glittering careers. Kidney himself was the first to say that he and his coaches Gert Smal and Les Kiss (who takes over as interim coach for this summer’s tour of North America) were the lucky ones who got to finish all of the hard work after the foundations had been laid by his predecessor Eddie O’Sullivan, it has to be said that for all of the success Eddie enjoyed, he had plenty of close calls but never brought home the Six Nations trophy. Deccie did. For that, as well as the unbeaten year that was 2009 – perhaps the greatest year in Irish Rugby history, we owe him a debt of gratitude. Certainly he has no more to give, and it is time for a fresh new vision. It’s just a shame for both his legacy and for the team’s future that his tenure started on a roar and ended on a whimper.
Phillip Doyle’s Ireland Women’s team made history in Milan as they secured a first ever Grand Slam Six Nations championship today. Captain Fiona Coghlan led from the front with Niamh Briggs contributing all six points in a low scoring mucky affair where the conditions probably suited us more than the home team. Nevertheless the women showed incredible determination and commitment throughout the tournament and in the process set an example for both the men’s team and also for women looking to get into the game. Congratulations ladies, something tells me this is a St. Patrick’s day that won’t be forgotten for a long time.
A creaking Irish team were left scrambling for explanation and reputation as Italy deservedly demolished us in Rome. They were hungry, determined, and most importantly – patient. We were lucky to still be in contention by half time but three sin-binnings for Brian O’Driscoll, Donnacha Ryan and Conor Murray coupled with our already second string team meant that we were only ever on the backfoot and Italy made history with their first ever victory against us in a Six Nations game, Andrea Lo Cicero’s last as he replaced Alessandro Troncon as their most-capped player. Elsewhere Wales ripped England apart in Cardiff to keep the trophy for another year and dismantle the Red Rose’s Grand Slam dreams yet again while France came back strongly in Paris to overturn a Scotland side that has made enormous strides under the odd coupling of Scott Johnson and Dean Ryan. The points differential being the only thing keeping us off the bottom of the table. Hardly what you’d call solace.
During the week the list of injured players had been read out to the waiting press at the team base in Carton House with one journalist comparing the situation to the 1970’s army hospital TV series M*A*S*H. If that was the case before the weekend then we certainly have since lost the war. The numbers unavailable to us in this championship have only increased and yesterday we saw both Keith Earls and Luke Marshall added to the list of casualties as the pair were replaced with less than a half an hour gone. Earls had dislocated his shoulder while Marshall had clearly failed to recover fully from his concussion last week and should not have been selected. All throughout this campaign the players have assured us that the lack of so many first choice players is not an excuse for the disappointing results and while that must be their mentality in order to believe that they can succeed through adversity the fact is that Ireland have never missed so many players so much. Tommy Bowe, Gordon D’Arcy, Stephen Ferris, Fergus McFadden, Paul O’Connell, Eoin Reddan, Simon Zebo and probably most importantly of all – Jonny Sexton were all unavailable for this game and we can only be thankful that this was the final match of what has been an awful championship for us because if we were faced with having to play again next week, I doubt we could fill 23 jerseys – such is the extent of Ireland’s injury crisis at the moment. We all saw how vulnerable the invincible All Blacks looked in the World Cup final when they were missing their two vital cogs – kicker and captain. Without Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, New Zealand struggled to victory, relying on Stephen Donald who started that tournament as their fourth choice kicker. Our fourth choice kicker (as evidenced by Declan Kidney’s selection throughout this Six Nations) is Ian Madigan and for me he should be second behind Jonny Sexton as his direct running, footballing skills, aggression in attack, determination in defence and unpredictability put him streets ahead of Paddy Jackson with Ronan O’Gara recently showing neither the form for Munster or the composure for Ireland to put him in the mix. There’s no doubting that Paddy Jackson has improved since his very shaky debut and he delivered an accomplished performance last weekend but again against Italy the nerves were plain to see in open field play as he stood so far back from Conor Murray that anytime the scrum half launched a pass his way, his deep positioning gave the Azzurri a huge headstart that they were only too happy to gobble up, meaning Ireland lost ground every time our nine passed to our ten. After spotting the problem Sean O’Brien began to position himself at first receiver, using his bulk to power Ireland over the gain line and Jackson was only used when we elected to kick through for field position. So much like in his debut, we found ourselves playing with a kicker that we had to work around. Obviously Deccie’s hand was forced in selecting an inexperienced outhalf when Jonny Sexton pulled up against England and ROG failed to impress off the bench, but this was a call that he simply got wrong. The explanation offered for his selection over Madigan was that the step up to test level rugby was perceived to be smaller for the Ulsterman given his captaincy of the Ireland Under 20’s last year but on the basis of form, (which Kidney has always said decides his selections) the Leinster kicker would have made us a much more attacking threat, no doubt about it. Another no brainer is that Declan Kidney will not be offered a new contract when his current ticket expires this summer and as always whoever the I.R.F.U. select to replace him will more than likely bring in their own coaching staff meaning that Gert Smal and Les Kiss will also move on. And although most other positions in the staff are normally secure enough in times of transition, I would question whether Éanna Falvey and Jason Cowman are doing enough to keep their positions as team doctor and strength and conditioning coach respectively. The players too made bad decisions (most obviously against Scotland where they squandered more than 70% possession) and we can only hope that we have not seen the last of our best. Brian O’Driscoll deserves better than this championship as his swan song and for that reason more than any other I don’t believe we have seen the last of him in a green jersey. I hope he will bow out in the fashion that we all thought Ronan O’Gara was going to when he spoke after the victory over Australia in the last World Cup. I believe he is waiting for the right game, the right performance, and the right result and that then he’ll say goodbye. Hopefully in Dublin so that we will get to give him the ovation that has been given to no other. This is a low. But it’s not the end. Not yet.
For the second year in a row Ireland and France couldn’t be separated as in what has been speculated to have been Brian O’Driscoll’s last home game for Ireland, the two sides fittingly put thirteen points each on the board. Worryingly for us, we yet again failed to close out (or even stay in the hunt) in the final stages of a test match. In the Grand Slam season of 2009 accumulatively we were behind at half time but more recently we seem to be forming a habit of taking the lead into the break and then parking the bus, to borrow the footballing parlance. In the first half we were doing all of the attacking, Jamie Heaslip muscled over for a try that seemed to come quite easily once we got the field position we needed yet we failed to get back there. Understandably, and bravely, any penalties we were awarded were taken on by Paddy Jackson and the young Ulsterman had an excellent game. While his two penalties and one conversion gave him the confidence he sorely needed after his unimpressive debut last week, it also meant that any time France infringed they did so at some distance from the try line and we took our chances for three points when there might have been more on offer up the line. But from the flyhalf’s point of view – what a recovery. On his debut against Scotland we saw him hold the ball while the likes of Heaslip and O’Driscoll debated his options but this week he was making his own calls. If you pick a flyhalf in modern test rugby, you’ve got to trust him to kick. We didn’t do that in Murrayfield and he suffered as a result but he proved himself this week. France entrusted their duties to Frédéric Michalak who it was clear from the start hadn’t the radar on the day. Had they introduced François Trinh-Duc at any point or given the responsibility to Morgan Parra earlier in the game, they probably would’ve gone on to win it. To me it felt like a loss. We were 13-3 up at halftime and lost the second half 10-0. And because of that the French will feel that even though they didn’t play the usual top speed running and offloading game that has proved so devastating against us over the years, it’s one that they too left behind. Our lineout was excellent. Having stuttered against both England and Scotland, Rory Best’s accuracy was back to his usual high standards and our variety in jumpers made us hard to compete with. The scrum had a mixed outing, performing very poorly in the first half and improving somewhat in the second half which was symptomatic of the conditions underfoot but is definitely an area that needs attention. Declan Kidney’s harshest critics often say that it’s Ireland’s inconsistency that’s so frustrating these days and that inconsistency lies not only in the results but also in particular areas of Ireland’s game. We seem incapable of plugging all the holes at once. If the scrum goes well one week, the lineout suffers and when we get the lineout fixed the following week our kicking game suddenly disappears and so on. It seems very unlikely that Deccie’s services will be retained, and that for me is the single biggest thing that our next coaching team need to address. A bit of harmony in how we play is sorely needed. Eoin Reddan replaced man of the match Conor Murray and late in the game suffered a suspected broken leg. Drico too was replaced after having tried to shake off a very heavy knock so we’ll see over the coming week what team we can put together to take on Italy in Rome next weekend. Let us not forget how close an encounter it was on our last trip to the eternal city with Ronan O’Gara snatching victory for us in the dying stages. Jacques Brunel will be telling his team this week that although our one win and one draw is a better return so far than theirs, they beat France which we failed to do. Make no mistake about it, next week’s clash could easily go either way. If France beat Scotland in Paris (which is no guarantee) the wooden spoon will have been decided earlier in the day between Ireland and Italy. But if Scotland were to win, Les Bleus will finish bottom. It’s not quite the drama we hoped we’d be involved in on the last weekend of the tournament but at least it should give us plenty to shout for right to the end.
Elsewhere Wales kept their hopes of retaining the trophy alive in a record-breaking encounter in Murrayfield. 18 penalties were awarded by Craig Joubert and Leigh Halfpenny slotted 23 points to give Wales a glimmer of hope ahead of their do or die meeting with England at the Millennium stadium next Saturday. A home win by more than seven points would see the Welsh win back to back championships as England survived an amazing Italian onslaught at Twickenham to keep their 100% record intact by the skin of their teeth.
Special mention must again go to the Ireland Women’s team who were confirmed as Six Nations champions after overcoming France in a thriller in Ashbourne on Friday night and watching Italy lose to England yesterday. Phillip Doyle’s side will collect the trophy in Milan next week and will travel in search of a Grand Slam. Come on you girls in green!
Ireland imploded in Murrayfield yesterday as all hopes of contention in this year’s RBS Six Nations were not taken from us, but rather – thrown away. I can’t recall ever having seen a match where a team had such utter dominance in both territory and possession and then went on to lose. With Cian Healy banned for stamping and Mike McCarthy, Jonny Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy and Simon Zebo all sidelined with injuries, it was Scotland’s best chance in years to beat us and they didn’t really have to bust a gut to do it. Their forwards were key to their success with Jim Hamilton stealing crucial lineout ball from a number of uncharacteristically errant throws from Rory Best, and Kelly Brown marshaling their scrum more effectively than Jamie Heaslip could ours. Luke Marshall, Keith Earls and Sean O’Brien were our most penetrative attacking threats but the excitement of their line breaks soon turned to frustration at their inability to capitalise when the try line seemed at their mercy. One would have to forgive the debutante centre from Ulster for not being more clinical, but while Keith Earls should have had the awareness to spot Brian O’Driscoll on his shoulder for a certain wasted try, it was a grim sight to see the former captain berating his winger before the Munster man had even made it to his feet after being tackled into touch. Ronan O’Gara seemed to be showing signs of stress too as his introduction late in the game did little to change our fortunes. In fact with minutes to play he nearly gifted Scotland a bigger margin of victory when he found himself gathering out on the wing, decided against the garryowen, set himself for a long pass infield but changed his mind, instead putting a cross field dink into space and his teammates under unnecessary pressure after Scotland got a boot to his loose kick. While Craig Gilroy managed to twist his way beyond three Scottish forwards for the only try of the game Ireland never looked like pushing on from it and sealing a victory in the manner in which we have come to expect. What we have not come to expect (and we cannot tolerate at test level) is a flyhalf who neither has the ability, confidence, nor trust of his teammates, to take any type of kick. Why on earth was Paddy Jackson selected, for Ireland, at flyhalf, against Scotland, away from home, following a loss to England, when he doesn’t take the kicks for his club, when we’ve been blighted with injuries AND when (as became clear) the game plan was to not let him kick any shots at goal? The feeling leading up to the game was that Ian Madigan would have been expected to have been ahead of his Ulster colleague in the pecking order behind Jonny and ROG and there was surprise from all corners when Jackson was given the nod with Keith Earls even going so far as to confirm in an interview that the team themselves were just as surprised as the public at the selection. It’s safe to say that Madigan could only have had a better game than Jackson, (certainly he couldn’t have had any less impact) but if you accept that the senior players along with the coaches had decided that Paddy’s kicking was so unreliable that unless penalties were between the sticks and inside the 22, the kick was to go into the corner then why did they even feel the need to select a flyhalf at number ten? If all that was being asked of Paddy was to be another man in the line, a strong passer off both hands and an energetic tackler then surely Fergus McFadden or Luke Fitzgerald could have filled the jersey. Sure they’d have been out of position but they’d have had experience and in McFadden’s case at least someone who has been entrusted in the past with kicking duties for his club. Nevertheless it simply serves to remind us that we still have a terrifying lack of depth all across the park. Eddie O’Sullivan once said that Ireland’s biggest barrier to success is injury, and so it remains.
Wales made light work of Italy in a downpour in Rome and they will now be licking their lips at the final weekend’s clash with England in the Millennium Stadium, theirs being the only realistic chance of denting the chariot’s progress towards a grand slam as England took a step closer by doing away with France in Twickenham. Phillipe Saint-Andre must be the only coach in world rugby who is on thinner ice than Declan Kidney as Les Bleus sit bottom of the table, currently on course for a wooden spoon although with Scotland travelling to Paris on the final weekend that should change.
Special mention has to go the Ireland women’s team captained by Fiona Coughlan who won the Triple Crown for the first time ever beating Scotland on Saturday. Congratulations girls!