Saturday, 10 November 2012

Podge O'Donnell's Rugby Blog

Irish squad certainly not broken but may be slightly…. Bent! 

Ireland face the mighty Springboks today in the first outing of the autumn internationals. Declan Kidney’s men go into this encounter very much understrength after a week of much publicised selection problems. There may be some light in the fact the Springbok squad is a little light weight with many players out through injury. The South African side even understated can boost players of the calibre of Ruan Pienaar, Jean De Villiers, The Beast Tendai Mtawarira, JP Pietersen and rising star lock forward Eden Etzebeth who is in the squad for one time Buccaneer Andries Bekker who is injured.

The South Africans travel to Ireland without playersof the calibre of injured star players Bryan Habana and Schalk Burger and in much need to of a win as pressure is mounting on coach head coach Heyneke Meyer after winning only 4 of the last 9 games.

Depleted Squad Captaincy & Selection

The Irish team for the first time in recent history looks considerably light weight and short of much needed leadership. Kidney was forced to name a team minus talismanic leaders such as Captain Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and Rory Best. Let alone picking a team without his Captain and his two lieutenants, Kidney is forced to tackle the Bok’s without Stephen Ferris, Sean O’Brien, Rob Kearney, all key components of a full strength Irish team.


All is not lost and we must view these setbacks as opportunities for players such as newly named Captain Jaime Heaslip. I hope the captaincy can spur a performance that shows the Naas clubman’s full potential. On his day, Heaslip can look like one of the best no 8’s in the Northern Hemisphere however performances in recent seasons have been up and down. Captaincy may refocus the player and add more impetus and drive to his game.

Heaslip edged out Leinster team mate Sexton for the Captains armband, Sexton would have been my choice as captain. It is well established that he rules the roost in the Leinster team and largely calls the shots. Backing Sexton as Captain would also have shown to the public that Kidney believes fully in his abilities and perhaps put the ghost of O’Gara as potential starter to bed.

There is no doubt that Sexton is the number one out half in the squad and will certainly lead the team into the next world cup, however as long as O’Gara is in the squad there will be the constant pressure on Kidney to spring the veteran 10 to close out games in almost baseball bullpen style. This can’t be good for Sextons development in the long term.

Keith Wood mentioned interestingly this week that his choice of Captain for this series would have been Munster’s young back row tyro, Peter O’Mahony who lines out today at blindside flanker. I listen and absorb every word that Keith Wood speaks. I believe he is honest and the without doubt the best rugby commentator and analyst in the country and was quite outspoken this week on the makeup of Kidney’s squad.

Picking a bolter like O’Mahony as captain at this stage of his career sounds a little premature but there is no doubt about his leadership credentials and he plays the game on the edge and leads by example. An interesting angle and different than any other suggestions mentioned by commentators. Perhaps backing a younger player like O’Mahony who is highly regarded among his peers, would freshen up the dressing room and show a fresh approach.

Life after O’Driscoll

Life without BO’D isn’t far away at all, every injury like the latest one suffered in Leinster’s drubbing of the Cardiff Blues, shows that the great man’s body is starting to creek, which is completely understandable. The frustrating part of this tale is the fact that his ability and skills are still fully evident and if fit is still one of the premier players in the game.

The flipside to losing O’Driscoll is that we do not have a replacement in waiting anywhere near good enough. Keith Earls gets his wish this week playing in his favoured position of outside centre and it is really time for the Moyross native to step up and be counted on the biggest stage. Other viable options available for Kidney were Mc Fadden, Bowe & Cave.

Many including myself believe that Earls at international level is far from an outside centre, due to lack of defence, distribution skills and most importantly nous. In all his previous outings Earls has been found wanting in the centre and his best position is on the left wing, where many observers believe his pace and nose for the try line can be best utilised. Keith Earls' endeavour to learn how to play 13 at international level won’t find momentum any time soon if he can’t nail down the position at club level.

The arrival this season of twice capped All Black Casey Lualua seems to thrown a spanner in the works on the domestic front. This problem is also evident across all four provinces slowing the progress of young Irish players. This issue is a debate in itself and has been much debated in the past. The match up against the hard running Jaco Taute will be a big test for Earls and could either make or break Earls outside centre ambitions for the future.

Filling the Full Back Void

Another selection that has caused a bit of a stir is at full back. Similar to Earls at 13, Kidney had many options to play with. However one that came from left field was the selection of Simon Zebo in the 15 jersey. Zebo has only played once for Ireland, on the wing and has never been consider a full back option in Munster squads. Zebo is a winger and very much a raw talent and a work in progress. There are similarities with Zebo and Denis Hickie’s early career speed to burn but loads to learn.

 This could prove a stroke of genius for the Irish management and it is refreshing to see a gamble every once and a while. There is no doubt that a fully fit Felix Jones would have featured ahead of Zebo if available. Ian Madigan would have been a more justified selection at full back as he has played reasonably well at this position for Leinster. Craig Gilroy, Dave Kearney, Denis Hurley, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls even Robbie Henshaw might have been considered more plausible selections for many observers. All have played in this position this season at club level, where Zebo has not as far as I can remember ever played at 15 for Munster and Ireland even at underage level.

 There is no doubt that Zebo is a worthy selection on the wing for Ireland, but this is not the same thing at all to lining out at full back. The importance of positioning and fielding high balls at full back is vital and a cultured kicking is also required. There is nothing to suggest from any of Zebo’s Munster appearances that he possesses any of these skills to be considered a full back at the highest level.

 There is no doubt that the kick heavy South African half pack pairing of Lambie and Pienaar will test Zebo early on and he can expect a thorough examination! This to me is a huge unnecessary gamble on Kidney’s behalf but he must have seen something that he likes and fair play must be given for having the balls to back his gut feelings.

There Are No Friendlies In International Rugby

As much as Declan Kidney and his management team didn’t enjoy the preparations this week I believe this could be a watershed moment for the future of Irish rugby development. This week saw the coach’s back firmly against the wall and forced to make some rather tough calls. Many suggest that he should experiment in this series. This simple cannot be the case in the modern era unfortunately. However he is being forced to experiment due injuries and this adds more spice to encounter.

Kidney is in a difficult position, international rugby is results driven and World Cup ranking points are always at stake. We currently lie in 7th position narrowly ahead of Scotland and Argentina which is really not acceptable. If the World Cup draw was conducted today it would mean the Wallabies, All Blacks, South Africa and England being allocated to different pools and avoiding each other. The Band Two nations, as it stands, are France, Wales, Argentina and ourselves meaning we will be drawn randomly into the for pools leaving us with a big ask in progressing to the next stage.

There is no breathing room for Kidney to play wild cards at the highest level and develop the next “Golden Era” of Irish rugby.

The Inclusion of Michael Bent & Richardt Strauss

Keith Wood on the inclusion of Michael Bent. “It can’t be, it can’t be, that easy to play for Ireland as to get onto a flight and fly into the country. It can’t be. I find it wrong.” “I find it awkward,” said Wood. “It doesn’t sit well with me.”

This week I have been lectured at my lunch break by soccer, GAA and golf enthusiasts about what a disgrace the inclusion of Richard Strauss and the bigger disgrace the fact that Michael Bent has been included in the Irish squad. I was intrigued none the less and remained silent to hear the thoughts and arguments of these not to heavy rugby followers. I had already heard and read at length to the usual suspects Ward, Thornley, Fanning and Wood of course in the media and wanted to hear a different perspective.

The floor was unanimous and in agreement with rugby legend Keith Wood. It was wrong to include Bent and not as wrong to have included Strauss as he has served his time. The most rugby familiar lunch attendee at my table said more or less that it was wrong to include these two players as there are surely players if given a chance capable of doing a better, if not equal job as Strauss and Bent. This was similar to the sentiment of Peter Bracken former Ireland A prop and Heineken Cup winner with Wasps. Peter suggested that there are more than capable replacements playing in Ireland and mentioned Jaime Hagan as an ideal player to step into the international scene, if given time to develop. Peter also pointed that Cian Healy when first introduced failed miserable at scrum time, but learned very very fast howto survive.

What has seemed to get peoples' backs up the most on the Michael Bent inclusion is the simple fact that he has never played a game of rugby in this nation and is line to win a cap.

For me this is indeed the biggest issue, if Michael Bent had been here from the start of the season, slugging away in the front row for Leinster, we wouldn’t be having these debates and if at this point in the season he is better than everyone else (Hagan included) in the Leinster squad then I would be delighted to see him pull on the jersey this weekend.

 However this may not turnout to be the case and Bent could be no better or worse than Stephen Archer Ronan Loughney, John Andress Declan Fitzpatrick and Brett Wilkinson (another special project player that hasn’t worked out as of yet) and leave Kidney & Co with serious egg on their face.

Mike Ross- From Scrap Heap to Mr Irreplaceable

Keith Wood on the lack of tight head options: “How in the name of Jesus are we getting to the point where a guy flies into the country and he will play for Ireland?” Irish rugby was blessed to find John Hayes.

Hayes locked down the Irish scrum for a decade without setting the world on fire; he filled a void at the right time. However when he retired many rugby followers woke up and fast realised that we had no ready replacement. This is similar to the exact position we are in today and hence the jetting in of Michael Bent to cover Mike Ross.

Mike Ross’ rise to becoming Irish rugby’s saviour is an interesting story. After winning one cap for Munster, he was let go in 2006. He was scrap heaped and considered packing in the game altogether. While Ross struggling for a contract anywhere. Peter Bracken was close to getting a chance to back up and push Hayes for the 3 shirt. Tony Buckley was given more chances than anybody else to replace Hayes, a lot of time was invested in him, but this never looked like being a realistic option. Buckley simply could not come to terms with his technique at scrum time. Bryan Young the Ulster prop also travelled to the 2007 World Cup and had the ability to cover tight and loose head, however he never was given the chance to shine and subsequently his career petered out after winning 100 Ulster caps.

Many rated Young as a real talent that never really kicked on. Peter Bracken strongly believes that there are lots of talented tight head props in Ireland and mentioned Stephen Archer and Jamie Hagan amongst others who have shown serious potential. He also suggests that these guys need to be playing week in week out to develop. Many experts suggest a prop only reaches his prime in his early 30’s, as we are seeing in the case of Mike Ross.

It wasn’t until Dean Richards took a punt on Ross and offered him a trial and a subsequent contract at Harlequins, that his career really got momentum. It wasn’t plain sailing in Harlequins and he struggled to get into the team but when given the chance, he was a revelation. This was also the case in Leinster where Mike Ross’s progress was halted by Cook Islander Stan Wright’s presence in his first season. However once given a chance he grew from strength to strength and now seems to be one of the most important players on the team worthy of flying in a replacement straight from New Zealand!

In answering Keith Wood's question to what is going on, I knew this day would arrive soon as did Keith! All you need to do is study the IRFU’s succession planning strategy. It is a very obvious two pronged strategy to provide the next generation of players through using two key approaches.

I am not privy to say that the strategy is right or wrong, good or bad. I have the highest of regard for the IRFU and in my opinion have done a largely an excellent job in developing and managing a successful pro game in this country which in turn is the envy of many other nations.

Succession Planning Strategy

In recent years the International game has changed dramatically. Developing the next generation of players traditionally for all nations came from grass roots youth structures at clubs and schools, backed up by IRFU professional coaches, coaching coaches and working with the next generation at a young age. The game has shifted significantly of late.

We always had the couple of Exiles in our team, rugby’s version of Tony Cascarino and Ray Houghton was Simon Geoghegan and Jim Staples. Geoghegan qualified for Ireland through his Galway born father. His grandfather played in the 1929 All-Ireland Hurling Final. Staples had similar links. It must also be noted that recent squad inclusion Michael Bent is really not different than any of the previously mentioned players. Bent is as qualified to play for Ireland as Kevin Maggs, Rob Henderson, The Easterby’s, Kieran Dawson and many other players that have pulled on the green of Ireland.

The term “Special Project Player” has been added to the rugby vocab in recent years and Strauss is the first real high profile example of a successful special project player, in Irish Rugby. The “Special Project Player” is now a key tool in the IRFU’s locker for developing the next generation of Irish international rugby player. In lay man terms a “Special Project Player” is a player strategically hired by an Irish province who is not Irish qualified and who has not been capped at the highest level for his home nation. If the province and the IRFU ear mark this player as being good enough to play for Ireland they will allow him ply his trade for the province and then be considered for Irish selection after the 3 required years has elapsed, therefore now eligible to play for Ireland.

It must also be noted that this is not a recent phenomenon, Kurt Mc Quilkin and Andy Ward - were first picked on the grounds of residency in the mid-90s. What is different now is that the IRFU are strategically targeting what can only be described as, the slops of other top nation’s player pools and then capping them for Ireland in positions where they deem we don’t have adequate cover.

This recent recruitment policy is now the second prong in the IRFU’s plan for regenerating the international squad. The other avenue is developing international quality players through the very successful academy structures at our provinces. The academy structures gave us the initial “Golden Era” of Irish rugby and graduates are the O’Driscoll, O’Gara, O’Callaghan, Healy, Kearney, O’Brien, D’Arcy, O’Connell and many more.

All mentioned are or were top class international quality players. However the goal posts have moved and the IRFU are moving with them. England has pioneered the “Special Project Player” and has led the way strategically picking players on the grounds of residency and/or family connections. Brad Barritt, Matt Stevens, Shontayne Hape, Mouritz Botha and Ricky Flutey, Dylan Hartley and Manu Tuilagi to name but a few.

Are the IRFU correct to do similar? I will sit on the fence on this debate.

Rugby is professional, therefore by default a results driven business. As a Business Studies graduate I will sum this dilemma up as being a very similar dilemma and a scenario faced by all businesses managers, Declan Kidney, Phillip Browne and Eddie Wigglesworth included. Is it cheaper to “Make or Buy” the raw materials required for manufacturing the finished product?

The IRFU have developed a two pronged tool that is ticking both boxes, making in house and outsourcing the manufacturing of their raw materials. Gets the best of both worlds. Don’t be fooled not all butchers are farmers!

I have penned two teams from both options available based on the two forms of producing the next generation of international players.

Option 1: Special Projects & Players Unearthed Through Ancestry

1) Brett Wilkinson - Connacht South Africa (Special Project)
2) Richardt Strauss - Leinster South Africa (Special Project)
3) Nathan White - Connacht New Zealand (Special Project)
4) Quinn Roux - Leinster South Africa (Special Project)
5) Tom Denton- Leinster England (Ancestry)
6) Mike McCarthy- Connacht England (Ancestry)
7) CJ Stander - Munster South Africa (Special Project)
8) Sean Doyle- Ulster Australia (Ancestry)
9) Isaac Boss - Leinster New Zealand (Ancestry)
10) Matt Jarvis - Connacht Wales (Ancestry) - Still uncertain
11) Corey Hircock- Munster England (Ancestry)
12) Danie Poolman -Connacht South Africa (Special Project)
13) Jared Payne - Ulster New Zealand (Special Project)
14) James Loxton-Connacht Wales (Ancestry) - Still uncertain
15) Adam D’Arcy -Ulster New Zealand (Special Project)

Option 2: Irish Born Young Players Not Featuring Internationally Developed in the Academies

1) Denis Buckley - Connacht Academy
2) Niall Annett- Ulster Academy
3) Jaime Hagan- Leinster
4) Ian Nagle- Munster
5) Dave Foley- Munster
6) Eoin McKeon - Connacht
7) Dominic Ryan (Leinster) /Jordi Murphy- Leinster Academy
8) Paddy Butler - Munster
9) Duncan Williams (Munster) / Kieran Marmion (Connacht)/John Cooney (Leinster)
10) JJ Hanrahan
11) Luke O’Dea- Munster
12) Dave McSharry- Connacht
13) Eoin Griffin- Connacht
14) Andrew Conway- Leinster
15) Robbie Henshaw – Connacht Academy


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