The Irish squad selection for RWC 2011 is due to be announced on Monday, and the smoke is clearing from one of the most hotly debated positions: scrum-half. Declan Kidney’s initial training squad selection saw the inclusion of no fewer than five scrum-halves [Isaac Boss, Conor Murray, Tomás O’Leary, Eoin Reddan and Peter Stringer], and it is widely expected that three will tavel to New Zealand.
While Peter Stringer hasn’t made any matchday selection during the warm-up matches, the idea that Declan Kidney has an axe to grind against him, or didn’t give him a chance at international level last season – as some particularly vocal Stringer fans are putting forward – isn’t worth serious consideration. He saw considerable gametime in the Autumn Internationals, starting against Samoa and Argentina and coming off the bench against New Zealand and South Africa.
His appearance off the bench after a minute against Wales – when the unfortunate Eoin Reddan got a ball right in the mush – served to highlight the inadequacies of his game. He doesn’t have a breaking threat; his kicking from hand is not just poor, but a liability; and while he is as brave as a pride of lions, his physicality in defense is inadequate at international level. It’s not his fault, he’s just a physically small man – 170cm [5’7”] and 71kg [11st3lbs] – in a big man’s game. The likes of Wycliff Palu and Sergio Parisse are the guts of a foot taller and six stone heavier than him, and he’s supposed to deal with them coming around the side of a ruck or a scrum?
The reasonable rugby fan should have a huge amount of respect for Stringer as a player and for what he has achieved in his career, but there are just too many weaknesses there for the opposition to exploit. Furthermore, if you think that his passing is at the same level of excellence as it was in his prime, you’re not watching closely enough.
Tomás O’Leary had an absolute horrorshow yesterday, and a very poor season in 10-11. He’s had no form for over a year, and has always had obvious flaws to his game at scrum-half. His first ten minutes were actually very encouraging yesterday, but he fell off a cliff after that. Three balls dribbled along the ground, one was fired over Sexton’s head to be gathered by the man outside him, and that doesn’t even bring his incredibly poorly thought-through interception into the discussion …
Anybody who knows scrum-half play will attest to the fact that Conor Murray is the most rounded talent of the five scrum-halves in the squad, and is going to be a serious international scrum-half for a long time. He has a snappy pass, establishes a nice rhythm at the base of rucks, has the physicality around the fringes to stop backrowers, and from what we saw in the Magner’s League last season, a good, lengthy kicking game. I’ve never seen him goal-kick, but apparently he’s got a fair bit of aptitude in that category as well. A class act that lacks experience at the highest level, but in the words of The Korgis, ‘everybody’s gotta learn sometime’.
Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss both had good seasons for Leinster and contributed handsomely to a vintage Heineken Cup campaign. They provide a nice one-two punch combination: Boss is physical and chirpy [and incidentally 4kg heavier than O’Leary; at 90kg, the heaviest of the scrum-halves], while Reddan’s delivery is the better of the two. His defensive work against France in Bordeaux, making important covering tackles on Trinh-Duc and Vincent Clerc, showed how much he has improved in this regard, and Ireland’s best performance of the season – against England in the Six Nations – came with him as scrum-half.
The decision for me is simple – Boss, Murray, Reddan to travel.