Many moons ago, when the Mole was a nipper and student transport offered only two options – the heel-toe express or the push bike – to get to training or school or any of the other ‘priorities’ of our young lives, he learned all about the linchpin. Uniquely shaped [square at the top and tapering smoothly within its two inches to a round threaded base], the linchpin connected the crank-arm of the pedal through the centre of the big cogs of the front chain ring to the joint of the frame where the seat tube met the down tube. It seemed insignificant in the overall use of a bicycle: it wasn’t a wheel which covered the ground, and it wasn’t a pedal which took the weight. But without a linchpin, the bike wouldn’t go. You couldn’t apply power and you couldn’t cover ground.
Jamie Heaslip is the linchpin of the Irish rugby team, and has been for the past four seasons. Not Paul O’Connell, not Brian O’Driscoll, not Ronan O’Gara, not Stephen Ferris or Sean O’Brien, not even Rory Best. Ireland have played games, even entire campaigns, without them and survived. Heaslip does the linchpin’s job, and Ireland’s performance in the third test against New Zealand has gone a long way to proving his worth by a basic scientific experiment – transitional replacement. Heaslip is the man without whom the rest are hamstrung.
Declan Kidney didn’t exactly go out to bat for Jamie Heaslip when he was being criticised left, right and centre over the last season – he just kept picking him. Heaslip has started thirty-eight games under the Kidney régime, the most of any Irish player. The Mole wrote recently about how Paul O’Connell’s absence from the team in New Zealand [and specifically the absence of O’Connell’s ineffective ball-carrying] aided the very obvious ‘return to form’ of the Leinster No8, allowing him to do what he does best … namely get on the ball.
With David Wallace a late scratch from the RWC11 squad, Ireland’s backrow balance fell out of kilter. While Sean O’Brien’s performances in the first two tests in New Zealand show how he has grown into the role, his transformation from a tackler-skittling blindside to a ground-hogging openside only really began after RWC11.
Sure, he played with No7 on his back in that tournament, but he had played only two tests as an openside prior to that [vs Samoa in November 2010 and vs France in Toulouse in August 2011] and was still pretty much a blindside playing in the openside’s jersey during the World Cup, as can be seen from the amount of times he carried the ball:
- 12 carries for 45m vs Australia;
- 18 carries for 81m vs Russia;
- 15 carries for 51m vs Italy;
- 22 carries for 24m vs Wales.
As we mentioned in the linked article, Paul O’Connell got on the ball more often than Jamie Heaslip in all four games of RWC11 in which they started together. With O’Brien, Ferris and O’Connell taking the lion’s share of carries, Heaslip was essentially being asked to cover many of the openside’s duties from No8. There’s a reason that doesn’t happen too often – it’s not as naturally advantageous a position to get to the breakdown as the openside of the scrum is. You have a bigger responsibility to push in the scrum, you have your sightlines obscured and your bind has to be more secure.
The Thing Is … Blah Blah Blah
The wider Irish rugby public have had the idea that Heaslip ‘isn’t at the races’ forced down their throats over the last two seasons by bluffers, know-nothings and the provincially one-eyed, when in fact his form saw him shortlisted for the 2010-11 ERC European Player of the Year [alongside eventual winner Sean O’Brien, Isa Nacewa, Soane Tonga’uhia and Sergio Parisse]. There’s no doubt that the management at Leinster knew their No8’s value to the team – Heaslip was one of only two players [along with Nacewa] who played every minute of every match in their second consecutive Heineken Cup win – but what’s to be gained from parroting how good one of their players is?
Some Irish rugby followers may have suspected Heaslip’s importance, but rarely had the opportunity to test it. Kidney picked Dennis Leamy ahead of the Kildare man for the Six Nations match against the Scots in Murrayfield back in 2009, but the Munster loosie was off the pitch after less than half an hour, and normal service resumed. Heaslip got a red card against New Zealand in June 2010 and Ireland conceded 66 points, but if you’re down to 14 men against the All Blacks for an hour [and Ireland were down to 13 men for ten minutes of that hour when O'Gara was sin-binned], you’re going to concede a lot of points regardless of who it is that’s missing.
Those who watched the debacle in Hamilton will have understood something on Saturday last that Declan Kidney has never publicly acknowledged before. Heaslip is the linchpin.
How Do Ireland Use That Information?
So where do the results of this forced experiment get us on our road to the future? Again, using fundamental logic, Irish rugby now needs to urgently work on producing a reasonable back-up for this vital player as soon as possible. Irish rugby also needs to establish a similar strategy for replacement of the other parts of this, currently decrepit, vehicle.
So, with this as our starting point what needs to be done by way of rebuilding for next season? Next season – not 2015. Even this outlook is important. Irish rugby must avoid being hijacked into a focus on RWC 2015, because that’s a path to excuse-making. Before that tournament takes place, Ireland will compete in the following games [with current IRB world rankings in brackets]:
- Autumn 2012 against South Africa [3rd], Argentina [6th] and Fiji [14th];
- Six Nations 2013 against Wales [4th], England [5th], Scotland [10th], France [7th] and Italy [12th];
- Summer 2013 against USA [17th] and Canada [13th] during the Lions Tour to Australia;
- Autumn 2013 against Australia [2nd], New Zealand [1st] and Tonga [11th]
- Six Nations 2014 against England, Scotland, France, Italy and Wales
- Summer 2014 Tour to Argentina – probably two tests and one other game;
- Autumn 2014 [TBC] against South Africa, Samoa and the USA; and
- Six Nations 2015 against Scotland, France, Italy, Wales and England.
So, twenty-six full test matches and two lower tariff national games within thirty-six months. The Mole emphasises the detail as a reminder that in a period of less than ten months [from November 2010 to September 2011], Warren Gatland replaced twelve of his thirty-man Welsh squad. In the subsequent six months – from October 2011 to March 2012 – he qualified for the RWC11 semi-final and won a Grand Slam.The Irish U20 squad have just produced an excellent performance at the Junior World Championships in South Africa. Reviewing that tournament performance in comparison to the senior squad efforts in New Zealand – both over the past two weeks and during September/October’s RWC11 – it is very evident that one group was capable of producing consistent, innovative and tactically smart performances. It wasn’t the group led by Declan Kidney.
Pick And Choose
Another impressive aspect of Ruddock’s work with the U20s were his efforts to find his best starting XV for each match. He had certain players whose ability made them indispensable to the team [Henderson, Hanrahan, Jackson, Laydon, Scannell and Gilsenan in the Six Nations, for example], but the others in the squad had to compete hard to get a start, and could find themselves in the team or on the bench depending on how the coach planned to take on the opposition tactically.
Three months after the U20 Six Nations ended with a disappointing loss in the tournament decider against England – a fixture in which Ireland were going for the Grand Slam – the U20s faced the tournament hosting Baby Boks with a much-changed team. In the pack, Furlong came in at tighthead for McCall, Beirne in the second row for the discarded Qualter and Coghlan for Aaron Conneely, with Gilsenan switching over to the openside. Both the halfbacks changed, with Marmion taking over from McGrath and Hanrahan stepping in from centre to take over from Paddy Jackson. Foster Horan moved back into the centre from the wing, and Barry Daly returned wide out, with Peter Nelson taking over from Shane Layden at fullback.
Some of the changes were enforced by external circumstances, others came at the coach’s discretion. However, even with some key players absent, Ruddock had a plan. We haven’t seen too much of that from Declan Kidney in recent times.
As much as The Mole doesn’t like player marks, he likes lists – call it a personality foible. The one below looks at the Irish test group in order of our current national dependency in light of the recent series loss in New Zealand.
- Columns No1 and No2 list the positions in order of precedence;
- Column No3 lists the incumbent in each position for the 2011-12 season;
- Column No4 lists the suggested immediate cover for the incumbent player for the 2012-13 season;
- Column No5 lists one [or more] long term replacements for the incumbent; and
- Column No6 suggests a ‘sell-by date’ for the incumbent.
The Mole is perfectly happy if the man in possession [the left-most column] continues beyond the sell-by date, but this should a matter of choice, not necessity, for the Irish coach of the time.However, the key aspect is the strategy which requires commitment by the national coach and collaboration with the head coaches of the four provinces. The Mole is led to believe that neither has occurred in any meaningful way over the past three years. and Ireland has suffered from this flaw. The process is not perfect and will not avoid defeat at test level but it should result in a consistency of performance, squad integrity and ambition which has been markedly absent over the past three seasons since the Grand Slam in 2008-9.
The Mole is loath to point the finger at lieutenants as opposed to their commanding officers, but there’s little doubt that the evolution of tactical and skills coaching seems to have slowed to a crawl under the current national management. No innovation has been apparent over the past two seasons and if anything, players seem to return to their provincial set-ups with relief rather than with new tricks learned.
As in days of yore, a linchpin can break or you can even lose it from its key position –usually over rough terrain where there is no chance of recovery. Once you do, you know you’re goosed without a replacement. It may not be as strong, it may even be difficult to fit, but you’ve got to get one before your journey continues.
Just as the linchpin was once a jump-forward invention in the development of the bicycle, it has been refined almost beyond recognition in today’s super-lightweight velocipedes.
Identification and selection of key players and innovation in tactical analysis are important elements in the effectiveness of a national rugby team. Gatland understands this, Robbie Deans understands this, even the less successful Andy Robinson understands it. Declan Kidney sometimes appears to believe it is a weakness to be surprised by something presented to you being contrary to what you previously believed. All of life is evolution, but it requires humility to recognise that your certainty of yesterday will definitely be overtaken by somebody else’s invention tomorrow.