Friday, 18 January 2013

“The Hard Yards"

By Podge O’Donnell

As we come to the end of what has been for me, a whirlwind week of sport! Starting at home, today in rugby, we saw Declan Kidney name his extended squad for the 6 nations (which I will get to shortly), John Mullane & Noel Hickey calling time on a remarkable hurling career’s. Yesterday, Paul McGinley got the nod over Colin Montgomery to Captain the European Ryder Cup team.  

Across the pond stateside, there was no let-up in big news either! We will see this week Mr Armstrong finally falling from grace (We will surly hear his, “it’s grand everyone else was at it”….“I was just the best” defensive strategy).  On the basketball court we saw NBA come to London and live basketball back on our TV with Sky kicking off their coverage. Lebron James also made history becoming at 28 the youngest player to score 20,000 career points. For all the avid NHL hockey fans across the Midlands, I am sure you will also know the lockout is over! Another strange story broke about Notre Dame football Manti Te’o and an imaginary girlfriends death/ prank, so strange I am not going there as I still don’t quite get it...

The big news for me was today, when Deccie Kidney shortly after 10am announced his 39 man training squad for the 6 nations. In my last blog I spoke about how we need to see a changing of the guard at national level. Well it is fair to say today we witnessed that. Not only has Kidney introduced a plethora of uncapped players into the mix, 6 (Madigan, Marshall, Henshaw, McSharry, Stevenson and Jackson) to be precise, we also see what some are calling a shock change at captain.

The big one from a Midlands perspective is Robbie Henshaw gets the call!

Robbie Henshaw

Change is good and the introduction of Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson and Iain Henderson re-energised the squad during the autumn internationals. Today we saw more blooding of young exciting talent, this time form Connacht rather than Ulster. Kidney has called into the squad Athlone’s Robbie Henshaw. We have spoken about (and to) at length on The Inside Line about Robbie being a future Irish international and at 10am this morning this possibility, came closer to reality.  Eric Elwood as well as many others have put their neck out this season earmarking Robbie as a future Ireland player. I didn’t think this would come this season.

Why not? Well it’s very rare you see Ireland calling in players at 19 years of age, to the full national side. Also I never thought that Kidney would have the “cojones” to pick a talent so young. A typical year for an average 18/19 year old talent is a couple of provincial caps in the Rabo or B&I cup, and a good run with the Irish 20’s all going well. Well Robbie’s achievements are far from typical. Let’s put this in perspective, rewind 12 months, the lad was getting ready for a schools cup campaign with Marist and thinking about CAO forms. He had played no more than 10 min’s of Senior AIL rugby at the start of this season and probably wont play to much AIL going forward due to action with Connacht week in week out. Robbie was trust straight into the deep end and excelled.

This has been a remarkable year for Robbie, regardless if he gets a cap or not for Ireland. If it happens it is a bonus. If he must make do with Wolfhound duty what harm, he will be lining out with Brian O’Driscoll and other seasoned Internationals. At least he knows he is in the melting pot and will remain one of the first names on the Connacht team sheet.  Best of luck Robbie give them loads of it!

Dave McSharry

Robbie will be joined by fellow Connacht back Dave Mc Sharry, who has also been propelled straight into the full national squad. Another great story is the career of McSharry. However, he was forced to take a completely different route to pro rugby. Injury hampered McSharry’s progress in Leinster. The robust Dublin-born and Templeogue College (Same school as Mal O’Kelly) school boy, joined Connacht from the Leinster Academy at the start of this season on a development contract.  The move has paid off handsomely as the Irish underage international has become one of Connacht’s most important players.

The 94kg centre was part of the Ireland U20 World Cup squad which travelled to Argentina in 2010 winning two caps, alongside his current team-mate Eoin Griffin. Last season, McSharry was playing for UCD in the Ulster Bank League where he did enough to convince Eric Elwood that he could step up a level.

I am not convinced if McSharry has the handling skills for International level and I imagine Luke Marshall’s injury opened the door for his inclusion. May be so, he is playing well,  he won’t take a step backwards and it is a positive move by Kidney and again highlights the role Connacht can play in the development of young Irish players.

Well done Deccie from me on both inclusions!

Other Inclusions & Exclusions

Apart from the two players mentioned above, it is positive to see Paul Marshall included along with team mate Craig Gilroy.  Both these are not week in week out, starters for Ulster. It could be argued that Kieran Marmion is one of the form players at scrum half in the Heiniken Cup and would have not looked out of place in the squad Kidney named today either.  Again I can imagine he isn’t too far away from the thoughts of the coach.

Staying in Connacht this time last season it was Tiernan O’Halloran who was the shining light for Connacht and got called into extended international squads. Unfortunately he has not shown the same form and misses out. Luke Fitzgerald’s return to fitness along with Fergus McFadden’s versatility moves him down the pecking order. Andrew Trimble seems to have done enough to hold a spot in the squad and looks to have reacted well to the challenge laid down by club mate Craig Gilroy. Competition is healthy as we all know.

One other player that could have featured in the 39 man squad is Denis Buckley. Buckley who has been an ever present this season at loosehead prop for Connacht.  At 22, he is another young player to commit to Connacht long term, recently along with Henshaw, McSharry & Marmion.  And if I am to have an educated guess, he has surely played as much if not more, rugby that any other prop in the country this season, and at the highest level available.

What will always hang over Buckley’s inclusion at the next level is his size. Unfortunately he weighs in at 100kg wet and in the games this season against Quin’s, he gave up 34kg to his opposing prop! Sometimes this can be advantage as a prop! Didn’t Paul Wallace single handily dismantle the South African scrum in 1997 for the Lions, at 110kg? I think he did. Size will always follow Denis Buckley’s name, but he makes up for it with ball in hand and in the loose where he is outstanding.

Michael Bent holds onto his place in the squad, for me this is not earned and he should not have been included. There is still no evidence that Michael Bent is an international class prop. For me, regardless how Bent arrived here in the first place, he should now be judged on performance. For me his performances haven’t been anything better than what Jamie Hagan, Jack McGrath, Stephen Archer & Brett Wilkinson would have shown if given the game time.

It’s great to see Ian Madigan included in the squad. Madigan is a real talent, he may not be a 90% goal kicker but what he has got none of the other 10’s (Sexton excluded) in the selection mix have, is game breaking talent. Madigan edges out Ian Keatley for selection but has the added advantage of covering full back, having played numerous times at a very good standard for Leinster. Madigan is a natural game breaker and plays on the gain line. He would add serious pace to the game if, behind either at 10 or 15 coming off the bench. It will be interesting to see how this sub plot for the reserve 10 selection pans out. Messer’s O’Gara and Jackson surely have the advantage over Madigan but they don’t have the game breaking ability Madigan has. It could be horses for course which is a great complaint to have.

Lewis Stevenson, the 28 year old Ulster 6’7 second row is included in the squad for the first time. Having failed to make it at Ulster, in his earlier career, he moved across to play in England, as many Ulster squad members’ do to get top level game time. He had spells at Exeter Chiefs and Harlequins, before returning to Ulster last season. Paul O’Connell & Dan Touhy’s injury has left the Ireland engine room looking very light weight and Devin Toner will compete with Stevenson for a back-up roll and will be mostly on tackle bag duty. Donnacha Ryan, Mike McCarthy and Iain Henderson are in the driving seat. It would be interesting to see who comes into the squad if there is an injury in the second row. It would be back to Donnacha O’Callaghan I would imagine.

I will throw another name into the melting pot, just to play devil’s advocate. From what I have seen from Tom Hayes this year, he wouldn’t be the worst option in the world! Hayes has played a pivotal role in Exeter’s rise from English rugby’s second tier to the Heineken Cup. He has made the Premiership Team of the year and now at 32 is in his prime and is playing Heineken Cup rugby. It’s a real shame that he is not playing in Ireland. Some people in England including one Martin Johnson said he considered selecting him for England! Tom Hayes has shown week in week out that he is good enough and would add something to any of the four provincial squads.

The Captaincy

Today see’s also the changing of the guard in more way than just selection.  Jaime Heaslip has been named as Captain, ahead of the long term Brian O’Driscoll. This has come as a shock to many and has received huge scrutiny in the media. Eddie O’Sullivan named Brian O’Driscoll leader way back in 2003, taking over the reins from Keith Wood. O’Driscoll has accepted Kidneys decision, but did state his disappointment.  The reason given for the change is to allow O’Driscoll to concentrate on getting fit and looking after his body. O’Driscoll isn’t fully match fit, but has he ever been in recent time? Even if half fit he is better than anything we have. His presence alone in recent Leinster performances was even enough to get the best out of the players around him. Does this happen when Jaime Heaslip leads the players? I am not sure to be honest. We will soon see whether or not this decision bares fruit for kidney.  

I don’t buy the “Concentrate on his fitness” reason at all, Jaime Heaslip has done well as Captain but for me there is more to this than meets the eye.

Reports suggest, as well as a certain amount of evidence to suggest the relationship between O’Driscoll and Kidney may be strained, slightly. After all, O’Driscoll did come out after the New Zealand tour and question the role of the attack/backs coach, and in general, the communication between the squad and management.  See blow quotes from O’Driscoll.

“So it’s making sure that we’re all – coaches and players – collectively singing off the same hymn sheet. And even then, there’s a need to use the knowledge of someone like Mervyn Murphy who, from the video analysis point of view, has seen more rugby than anyone. “He has huge knowledge and you have to try to delve into that too and use it.“One thing I’ve learnt is that you can get away with certain things at provincial level. “But your detail has to be very, very accurate at international level. “Otherwise you get shown up.”

It is also reported that O’Driscoll wasn’t overly pleased after Paddy Wallace was called into the same tour from holiday in Portugal, straight into the starting 12 shirt against New Zealand. This to me doesn’t seem like  the perfect harmony between coach and captain. Perhaps then it is time for a change, if Jaime Heaslip is pulling in the same direction as the coach then may be long term, this is the right move.

However, it would have been great to see O’Driscoll finish up his playing career as Ireland Captain. He could still lead The Lion’s in Australia during the summer, even without being Ireland’s Captain. However it would be a much simpler equation for Gatland, if he has led Ireland during a successful 6 Nations campaign.

O’Driscoll has to prove his fitness for the Wolfhound’s against England if he is to be selected. To me if O’Driscoll is walking and talking, then he is fit. This Wolfhound’s exercise as laid down by Kidney seems strange and could be more risk than it is worth, with Kidney playing a very dangerous game. Many believe the game plan should be give O’Driscoll as much rehab time as possible .After all he has probably forgotten more about performing at international than the next man in knows! I wouldn’t think Messi togs out for Barca’s reserves very often when coming back from injury! I could be wrong, I will stand corrected if this turns out to be the case!

Let’s hope all works out and O’Driscoll comes through and plays to level we all know he can still play at in the green of Ireland come opening day of the 6 nations.


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