While it was never going to amount to anything much more than a disjointed trial match, there were some fine examples of openfield running, some well-taken tries and some contentious hits in tonight’s Ireland Select XV vs Connacht in Donnybrook.
For those selected on the Irish XV, it was a last shot to impress Declan Kidney before the final warm-up game against England; for Connacht, the first tentative steps of their biggest season to date, the prize of Heineken Cup rugby upping the ante from the last number of years spent contesting the Parker Pen and Amlin Cup.
Shane Jennings, scheduled to make his first start of the warm-up internationals following his surgery for the broken arm sustained in the Magner’s League Grand Final, was a disappointing no-show; fears that he had pulled up in training were only somewhat allayed by reports that he has been called in as precautionary cover for David Wallace for Saturday’s match against France. Niall Ronan took his place in the No7 shirt, getting his second start of these warm-up matches. Wallace injured, Jennings untried, Niall Ronan now in the world cup picture? Hmmm.
Club legends Mick “Micko” O’Driscoll and Leo “Leo” Cullen opened the scoring for the Ireland XV, the former crumpling over on the left after goal-line pressure, the latter hobbling over in the same spot after Paddy Wallace’s speculative chip had been validated by Fergus McFadden’s fierce chase, tackle, strip of the ball and quick throw-in. Wallace goaled both tries superbly from wide out. The Ulsterman had a fine game at outhalf and showed that he is still one of the best distributors in Irish rugby. There’s a lovely flight and heft to his passes, and while some of his decision making might have been questionable in a meaningful match, he got a lot out of the backs outside him and gave them the opportunity to shine. He combined particularly well with his provincial teammate Darren Cave, who served a warning to the Ravenhill kitman not to stitch Nevin Spence’s name inside the collar of the Ulster No13 jersey just yet. Cave wasn’t perfect, but showed good strength in contact and good awareness in space; he timed his passes well and generally looked alert and at home – a good outing from a player who hasn’t gone away just yet.
Ian Keatley got on the score-sheet after a nice breakout from the Ireland XV’s 22 in the second half. The ball was moved quickly from substitute Donnacha Ryan through the assured hands of Geordan Murphy via Cave and McFadden, and Keatley took the inside ball to show his pace and sprint over. In general though, he was outshone by the man inside him, and his slightness and lack of convincing technique in defence was highlighted by Henry Fa’afili, Connacht’s battering ram at inside centre. Fa’afili chose to bash it up too much for his team’s benefit (no doubt Martin Johnson is already on the phone) and twice should have given passes to men outside him, but he sure made Keatley’s night a misery when he took the ball into contact.
Another source of misery for the Irish XV was the scrum, certainly until the introduction of Marcus Horan, who made the the most noticeable impact of any player deployed off the Irish bench. It wasn’t the substitution for which the majority of the crowd had been waiting – the announcement of Conor Murray’s introduction for Isaac Boss sent an audible excitement through the grandstand early in the second half – but the soon-to-be 34 year old Munster man was a game changer.
To make way for Horan, Tony Buckley – who had struggled at times on the loosehead side against the young Connacht project prop and former Junior World Cup Winner, the magnificently named Rodney Ah You – was switched to tighthead at the expense of John Hayes. Horan immediately put manners on Ah You, whipping him inside and down with a strong left arm in his first scrum, and boring in underneath and across him to pop the young Kiwi upright in the second. Both techniques were absolutely illegal, and a more astute referee than Peter Fitzgibbon could have penalised him for either incident, but Horan’s nous in the first two scrums gave him an authority over the New Zealander that had him in his pocket for the rest of the match at scrum time.
That’s not to say that Ah You wasn’t game – he carried repeatedly in the Irish 22 late in the game, showing good hands, striking footspeed for a 120kg+ front rower and immense strength in contact. This is the start of his second season in Ireland, having signed an 18 month contract in October 2010 (source: Irish Times), and he looks like he has the potential to be something more than a crowd favourite. It’s all for nought though if his scrummaging on the tighthead side doesn’t improve year on year.
Speaking of tightheads … John Hayes owes nobody in Irish rugby anything; in my opinion, he’s as good an argument as there is amongst sportsmen for some sort of citizen’s award. However, it’s readily apparent that he is, as an international tighthead, finished. He had a tough time from the South African born Dylan Rogers in the scrum, and was quiet around the pitch. Rogers is no Guthro Steenkamp, and he was able to give Hayes more than he could handle from the off.
Hayes, renowned for his honesty of effort throughout his long and distinguished career, had essentially, if guilelessly, played a massive confidence trick on the Irish rugby public by pulling out a magnificent 80 minute performance in Munster’s Magner’s League Grand Final win over European champions Leinster. In that match he produced easily the best game he had played in two seasons, and left us with that as our last memory of his 2010-11 season. Maybe he still had it; maybe he was still a viable contender at tighthead for the world cup squad, even as he neared his 38th birthday. He doesn’t, and he isn’t. He has been a hell of a servant for Irish rugby, but like everybody else, it has to end somewhere. Bringing him to New Zealand would be a mistake.
The case isn’t as clear cut for another Irish veteran, Geordan Murphy. He was asked to do precious little in defence, always his weakness, but he showed in his second game back from a long spell out that he is still a classy full-back in attack, and managed to cap it off with a nice trailing-run try. He’s not quite the player that he was, but nor is he a shadow of himself. Felix Jones can’t afford to do anything less than impress in his run-on debut against the French, because Murphy is a known quantity and a proven performer at international level. Going from the situation against the English in the last game of the Six Nations, where Declan Kidney was forced to draft Keith Earls in at fullback from the wing – a position that the player himself had said was more or less in the past for him – to having three out-and-out fullbacks competing for two spots is a hugely positive change.
Denis Leamy, another veteran on the cusp of selection, had a mixed game. He gets involved in a lot of off-the-ball niggle – slapping players in the head, holding players on the ground long after the ball was gone – but had some nice footballing touches, giving clever passes as part of the backline, occasionally as a flat first receiver in broken play. Injuries have diminished his physicality though, and he can’t compete with the explosive ball-carrying of Ireland’s four front-line backrowers of O’Brien, Heaslip, Wallace and Ferris. His opposite number, the impressive George Naoupu, had a fine outing in his first game back for Connacht following a stint in Japan, and impressed in all aspects – athleticism with ball in hand, physicality in contact, tenacity at the breakdown and ball skills both in tight and loose play.
In general, the Connacht pack were the match of their international counterparts – and there were lot of Heineken Cup winners in the Irish XV’s pack. It goes a long way to showing the importance of team-work and cohesion; it also shows that the several excellent second-half tries by the Irish XVs scratch backline weren’t by any means a given, and reflects well on their skillset.