Irish Rugby: Where To Go From Here?
Ireland’s disastrous encounter with Argentina in the Rugby World Cup quarter finals last weekend, left hundreds of thousands of Irish fans in dismay.
We learned that Joe Schmidt isn’t the answer to all questions asked of the men in green and that the squad depth is not sufficient to compete at the highest level. 80 minutes painted a picture of poor organisation in wide defensive channels and player selections that were clearly out of context for the contest that was always likely to develop, particularly up front.
But one match isn’t what defines a team or indeed their World Cup campaign. The France game up is rather the one that will linger in the memory as it was the cornerstone to everything positive about the campaign and all that would go wrong a week later. Losing leaders such as O’Connell, O’Mahony along with Sexton in a rugby nation with a player pool of just four competitive outfits and expecting to reach a semi-final however, is simply unrealistic and avoiding an early exit proved impossible.
The next four year cycle starts for Ireland when the group regather for the Six Nations Championship after Christmas as they try to capture their third consecutive title. This time however, they march on without Paul O’Connell and it will be interesting to see who is elected as the new leader, (more than likely Peter O’Mahony or Jamie Heaslip) and if they will inspire enough to retain the standards of the past seasons. Whether the new skipper is successful or not will depend on how respected he is among his peers and for me, if this is to mark a new era for the Irish; the young, aggressive but mature head of Peter O’Mahony is the ideal candidate to drive the team forward. Such is the character of the Corkman that new beginnings must be established for a new-look squad of players around him, and for Japan 2019, maybe he will lead them to the Promised Land, the semi-finals.
All is looking bright for the future, provided that Schmidt remains in charge of course or at least if he leaves, a credible alternative is in place. However, to add to previous success in terms of rucking excellence and kicking, it is vital for the former Clermont and Leinster coach to install a style of fast paced, creative, running rugby if we are to be world beaters.
Only the future will tell whether Schmidt makes this effect on the side as he has done in previous jobs but one thing that the fans can suggest, are changes of personnel. Now we shall offer you an insight into how the team may look for the upcoming Six Nations and how we would imagine things will develop from there.
SIX NATIONS AND CRUCIAL CHANGES OF PERSONAL
Once a concrete centrepiece of playing style is established as we’ve done above, Joe Schmidt must now tweak the squad base to offer two things that lacked in that Argentina game: aggression in the pack and creativity in the backs.
First of all our changes come in the frontrow. A scrum platform should be implemented for the short term future and this is where the dilemma commences. Cian Healy since his return the injury has looked a shadow of his former self and in contrast, Jack McGrath has been a star member of the team for the last year. Reputation must now be put aside until the Belvedere bruiser rediscovers his old ways to accommodate the latter whom offers a more intelligent style, without reducing the quality of the set piece. McGrath once in the driving seat of the scrum could be interlocked with the experienced duo of Rory Best and Mike Ross who showed no signs of their age in the World Cup gone by. These two certainly won’t be around in four years’ time but for the championship of 2016, they are by far the best options available as Sean Cronin & Marty Moore look more likely to be the men for Japan.
In the second-row, Devin Toner and future star Iain Henderson occupied the gaping hole left by Paul O’Connell for the tournament but while Henderson looks nailed on, as O’Mahony is his competition for the blindside spot, Toner’s days in the starting line-up hang in the balance. Fans around the country are keen to see Tipperary warrior Donnacha Ryan directly replace O’Connell in the five jersey. His dogged & aggressive characteristics, lineout domination and physicality at the ruck set him up to become key for Schmidt and should the people’s fantasies come to reality, 29 year old Toner may not hit the pitch all too often as alternative substitutes are better suited for impact from the bench. Such a scenario would be unfortunate for the 6’11 Leinster lock but it is vital that Ireland’s pack has as many mean operators as possible with O’Connell now retired. Due to this and the matter of impact, it could happen that someone like Dave Foley will be the secondary weapon of choice.
The backrow has always been Ireland’s true strength however and the four provinces are sure to have very divided opinions on the matter. With already a collection of incredible athletes including O’Mahony, Henderson, Ruddock, Murphy, O’Brien, Henry, O’Donnell, Conan and Heaslip, the South African mammoth CJ Stander has come in to spice things up further for the Six Nations. The Munster eight is sure to add hugely to squad competition and considerable bulk but to be realistic, unless one of the current crop picks up an injury the outsiders will fail to rack up many opportunities on the short term. Therefore, this season we are sure to see O’Mahony and O’Brien link up with Heaslip once again but one of the men such as CJ who fight for the sub spot are sure to cause havoc upon introduction.
Grit, power, aggression is exactly what is necessary to set up quick ball for Ireland’s elite half-backs should they distribute play onto a positive platform. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are the best halfback pairing in Europe but unfortunately, beyond the starting duo both in the sense of strength-in-dept and in a sense of the centre combination outside, Ireland have little to inspire.
Robbie Henshaw is a spark of physicality, pace, skill and leadership at inside centre but at 13, a problem which has grown since the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll is up for discussion again. Keith Earls had a great World Cup campaign without doubt, but you still just get the feeling that playing centre is hardly second nature for the Moyross man as despite his endless work rate at the ruck, bravery in the tackle and odd line break, he has failed to unlock defences with well-timed passes on any occasion and therefore he may not quite be the answer. Jared Payne, equally as unnatural out of position at outside centre has too been a favourite of Schmidt’s for his defensive efforts. However, it is inexcusable to note that Ireland will not attack with flair, conviction and become a defence unlocking machine while one of the two are there in control of O’Driscoll’s jersey. The common factor between the two is that neither are specialist centres and it is screaming out that Ireland need one of natural instinct to get the engine of Joe’s green machine up and running. Stuart Olding, Stuart McCloskey, Darren Cave or Noel Reid are our last hope. Unfortunately, going by injury records, we could see years of more variation than one would have liked.
Finally, in the future XV is the back three. This is the single most important area of a Joe Schmidt team as he continues to emphasise the kick chase and defensive game out wide. At RWC 15, the Kearney brothers, Dave and Rob were starters on the wing and at fullback respectively, while the experienced Tommy Bowe occupied the right flank. For me though, an overhaul is crucial as excitement needs to be increased significantly to add a new dimension. With Bowe and Rob Kearney pushing on in age, such a possibility becomes increasingly likely, while with young guns, Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy, Dave Kearney improving evidently under Schmidt’s expert guidance, further pressure is mounting each day. However, for the upcoming internationals, the form players must be accommodated. Luckily for Ireland, we have not one but two men who have rejuvenated their careers at the peak age: Keith Earls and Andrew Trimble. Both speedsters have great natural ability, experience and sublime finishing making them all-rounded wingers which are badly required for the Six Nations at the very least. Behind them, Kearney is almost certain to retain his jersey but Jared Payne or Simon Zebo might not be a million miles away from challenging, should they get game time at 15 over the Christmas period.
Do you think Ireland can make it three in a row with the team above and will Joe Schmidt now start to develop a more imaginative and expansive game plan after a big wake-up call?
Short term future secured. Now let’s look a little further…
5 Players that Joe Schmidt must build his squad around for 2019.
5) Iain Henderson
By the time Ireland’s next shot at the World Cup comes around, leaders in the pack such as Rory Best, Paul O’Connell and possibly Jamie Heaslip will be long gone. In their place new men have to step up to the billing and the Ulster forward seems like one to watch out for in the future. Throughout the 2015 World Cup, Henderson was Ireland’s star performer as he left his physicality known to any opponents that came near him. His level of performance has been quite incomprehensible for Irish fans to date but one would obviously suggest that such form will eventually come to an end. The most important thing however, is that once his enthusiasm of youth wares off in the next four years, he must prove to be a consistent leader and general of the pack. Whether his days at second row are to be prolonged is still in question unfortunately, as Munster lock Donnacha Ryan is sure to have an aggressive impact in his final seasons of Six Nations rugby, but whether Henderson retains his place will be crucial for the establishment of himself as a player which of course would benefit Irish hopes and dreams for 2019.
04) CJ Stander
For a while now, Jamie Heaslip has varied his game which has unfortunately denied Ireland go-forward-ball from the base. The Leinster captain has instead adapted a work ethic around the ruck and tackle area which has been important for Ireland’s recent success but at times like the Argentina match, ball-carrying menace was severely lacking and CJ Stander is the ultimate solution. The Springbok young gun is still just 24 and is eagerly anticipating to burst out of the blocks for Ireland come Six Nations time. His bruising presence is crucial to the pack for this next World Cup cycle in particular as Cian Healy’s long stretch of poor form perhaps means that McGrath will take over (and hence, withdraw another carrying option), O’Connell who improved very impressively with ball in hand on his final days is now retired from the green shirt and Sean O’Brien has shown signs of inconsistency as of late too compounded by a worrying injury record. These factors are conclusive that more bulk is necessary should Ireland find the perfect balance. For example, McGrath’s inclusion due to his perhaps superior scrummaging along with Stander’s inclusion for carrying now means that Schmidt can now prioritize the crucial skills in each position, while it also results in a stronger platform for CJ to run riot from. Making the new citizen the prime carrier in the lead up to Japan will have undoubted reward as his appetite fro contact is foreign to anything which we have seen since vintage O’Brien in 2011.
03) Johnny Sexton
Come Japan, Johnny Sexton will have learned every trick in the book as he turns 34. The Asian experience may well be his last rugby memory but Ireland should take advantage of the Leinster kicker’s incredible talent while they can, should they have a successful cup campaign. In this instance of building around a key member of the squad little changes however, as Sexton is already the engine of each and every Irish game as usually when he performs, the whole team do and visa-versa. The next four years are just a matter of polishing the rare rough edges to his skills, in order to become a true legend of Irish rugby and to hopefully conduct the way to the semi-finals for the lads around him.
02) Robbie Henshaw
Ireland’s scramble to discover the perfect outside centre is ongoing so Henshaw, who will be 26 at the next World Cup has to show the sort of leadership that he displayed in performances against England and France in 2015 to benefit the side. The Connacht man’s ability and further potential is enormous which is hugely exciting but his provings as a big game player are even more satisfying. Finding such a level of focus and determination regularly is now what Henshaw must achieve to become a world star as he is tasked to come out of his comfort zone and to inspire Ireland to victory as a brave leader of the backline throughout the next couple of Six Nations Championships. His own performances can certainly inspire all this around him and whoever plays outside him should it be Olding, Ringrose or McCoskey is sure to have a comfortable ride.
01) Peter O’Mahony
A battering backrow of Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and eventually CJ Stander awaits us. The two latter will give throw their robust frames into everything for the team and give their rucking efforts too but although O’Brien is world class at openside, with a European player of the Year award standing to his name and Stander becoming increasingly tired of all those Man of the Match awards at provincial level, O’Mahony is more unique. The Munster flanker’ aggression, ball-stealing and maturing leadership hint that he may well have the capacity to become vital for the next World Cup. He doesn’t have the greatest presence or stature but there is still potential for this young man to earn likewise respect of backrow legends such as Thierry Dusautoir or Richie McCaw during the four year window.
Dare we hazard a guess…?
Written by Munster Haka manager Ronan Calvert on behalf of the MH team.