The idea that test matches are a neat block of matches played at one level, with Heineken Cup games forming another distinct grouping a step down from that in intensity, speed, skill levels, physicality, time allowed in possession and tactical appreciation – and Pro12 matches a discrete block a further notch down from those Heineken Cup games – is one to which The Mole doesn’t subscribe.
Leinster’s Heineken Cup semi-final against Clermont Auvergne was a higher-intensity, more skillful and more fast-paced game than Ireland’s games against either Scotland or Italy in the Six Nations, and the Pro12 final between Leinster and the Ospreys would have done justice to the knock-out rounds [even the final] of the Heineken Cup. The distinctions simply aren’t that clear. Not a single Italian back would get into the first-choice Leinster backline, yet all test matches are a higher standard than the Heineken Cup. How does that work?
That’s not to say that playing New Zealand on their home patch isn’t a huge step up from provincial rugby, because it is … it’s a f*cking massive step up. However, it’s a big step up from Six Nations games as well. Are they not test matches as well?
There are huge variations within each ‘category’ of northern hemisphere rugby, and the categories overlap in any case. Taking the example of two games from Leinster’s 2005-06 campaign, playing Toulouse in the Stade Municipal in a Heineken Cup quarter-final is a huge step up from a pool game against Bourgoin in the RDS.
Not all test matches are created equal – we don’t have the depth to compete against a team like New Zealand when we’re missing some of our most talented players, but we should be able to do alright against Scottish, Italian or a rebuilding English side … and we should have no problems whatsoever fielding weakened teams against the likes of the US Eagles and Russia.
World Cups And The Way They Might Look At Yeh
Rugby World Cups have a massive effect on players and coaches. It’s become more or less a given that administrators will talk in terms of ’World Cup cycles’, and seeing that they only take place once every four years, they’re a massive event in a player’s career.
With Ireland’s RWC07 a sporting disaster of epic proportions, Declan Kidney took what lessons he could from the preparations that turned an Irish team who looked at the peak of their powers at the end of Six Nations 2007 into a lethargic, in-fighting mess of a squad that barely made it over the line against Georgia before slumping to two heavy defeats against France and Argentina and exiting the tournament at the group stages.
This time around there was no trip to the ice-chambers at Spala; there was no segregation of first-choice players and crashpad-holders; there was no shortage of gametime before the tournament proper kicked off, to try and ensure that Ireland wouldn’t go in undercooked.
Why all this talk of the World Cup preparations? Well, of Dexy’s famous 46/47, 40 of them had been selected within the first four matches of the season, before August had even ended.
- Geordan Murphy, Tommy Bowe and David Wallace made their first appearance in the last warm-up game before departure, against England in Lansdowne Road;
- Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Stephen Ferris and Shane Jennings made their first appearances of the season in the home loss against France the week preceding that English fixture;
- Keith Earls, Ronan O’Gara, Eoin Reddan, Conor Murray, Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip got their first minutes of gametime of the 2011-12 season in a not-too-bad loss to France in the Stade Chaban-Delmas; and
- all 22 players selected [nine of whom didn't make the final squad] got a run-out against Scotland in Murrayfield on the 6th August: Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Fergus McFadden, Paddy Wallace, Luke Fitzgeraldª, Jonny Sexton, Tomás O’Learyª, Tom Court, Sean Cronin, Tony Buckley, Donnacha Ryan, Leo Cullen, Mike McCarthyª, Niall Ronanª, Denis Leamy, Jerry Flannery, Marcus Horanª, John Hayesª, Mick O’Driscollª, Kev McLaughlinª, Isaac Boss and Felix Jonesª.
ª indicates that the player did not make the squad for RWC11
Gametime Monsters … Or Not
Every team is also going to have warm-up games before the World Cup in order to try to get players up to speed and sort out in the coaches’ minds who’s going to be in the final squad and who’s going to miss out. To that extent you’re always going to spread the net pretty wide – you’ve got a mandatory thirty spots to fill, and there’ll be another grouping of players who were in contention but missed out and are sitting at home on-call for injuries … so picking 35-40 players over your warm-up games is absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Martin Johnson played 34 different English players in their three warm-up games [two against Wales and one against Ireland], and Warren Gatland played 35 different players in Wales’ three games [two against England and one against Argentina].
The highest profile players left out of the squad in Ireland’s case were Luke Fitzgerald and Tomás O’Leary, but there were others; three of the 46/47 owe their appearance in the list to a single run off the bench in Murrayfield in early August. John Hayes , Mick O’Driscoll  and Marcus Horan  were all selected as substitutes in the first warm-up game a month before the World Cup kicked off [a 10-6 loss to Scotland], and the 19 minutes of action they saw in the first game of the season was the only test action they got for the entire year. Another fringe player, openside Niall Ronan, started in that match; again, that was the only test action he saw that season.
The Old Guard
As The Mole mentioned above, Rugby World Cups are big events in a player’s career; every professional rugby player wants to play in one. As such, players will set themselves the target of making the squad, or at least being in contention for a place right until the end.
For players who are close to the end of their career, the end of a World Cup cycle is a natural cut-off point. However, while World Cups take place at the climax of the southern hemisphere season, that corresponds to the beginning of a new season in the northern hemisphere, so for a lot of old stagers north of the equator, an attempt at making their country’s RWC squad will have them fit and ready for one last domestic season.
Of the 46/47, six of them announced their retirement from rugby [or test rugby, in Geordan Murphy's case] before the end of the 2011-12 season, and indeed, before the touring squad for New Zealand was announced. Of the six, Jerry Flannery, Denis Leamy and the aforementioned Murphy all made the RWC11 squad, while David Wallace was initially named but had to withdraw due to injury; John Hayes and Mick O’Driscoll didn’t make the squad.
Declan Kidney didn’t pick Horan, Hayes, Mick O’Driscoll, Isaac Boss [19 minutes] and Kev McLaughlin [28 minutes] in the warm-up game against Scotland so he could point to the statistics afterwards – he wanted to give fringe players a chance and see if anybody would make a training camp bolt for selection. That’s fair enough.
In the leaked post-RWC11 report on the English effort that made The Telegraph, a number of players were quoted as saying that Chris Robshaw had been a stand-out in training – “[Chris] Robshaw and [Tom] Wood proved themselves to be the fittest, the strongest and played out of their skin in training, but then they were overlooked for senior players and we reverted to type” – and he never even made an appearance in England’s warm-up games, never mind the tournament squad.
The Mole imagines that Kidney never expected to pick Isaac Boss for the RWC11 squad, but O’Leary’s horrific form over the first three games forced his hand in a big way. I’d say the coach was delighted that he’d given those few minutes off the bench to Boss in the Scottish game, because O’Leary’s selection for the 30-man squad would have made a laughing stock of him.Kev McLaughlin might well be the best blindside of himself, Donnacha Ryan and Mike McCarthy, but his second row skills are second-rate compared to theirs, and with Ferris, O’Brien and Leamy in the squad, Kidney was always going to be looking for a player who was second-row first and blindside second, rather than a flanker who could fill in a little bit in the row. Anyway, that’s getting off the point.
It didn’t turn out all that worthwhile having Horan, Hayes, Micko and Locky train themselves to peak fitness over the summer and then give them less than 20 minutes of total gametime each in the warm-up series … but it was worth it in the case of Isaac Boss. While it was O’Leary’s poor form that opened the door for Boss’ inclusion in the squad, it could just as easily have been an injury to another player in those positions covered by the aforementioned lads that opened a door for one of them. A belts and braces approach to covering your ass? After the relatively narrow selection process for RWC07 under O’Sullivan, The Mole thinks that Kidney’s open-call auditions had merit. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with every part of the personnel choice, but I can see the point of the exercise.
Ah …. ‘Friendlies’
Selection was thus experimental/wide-ranging by design at the start of the season. It wasn’t injury that forced Declan Kidney to cycle through 40 of the eventual 46/47 over four non-competition/non-tournament games during August.
They weren’t meaningless games, because players desperately wanted to win a place in the World Cup squad, but you’d be disingenuous if you said that the game against Scotland [in particular] was of high intensity, or if the approach to selection was anything other than experimental.
Again we return to the flawed idea that ‘test match standard’ means something specific, that it has a defined set of parameters regarding quality of performance. Ireland played a test match on 25 September 2011, and they played another one on 23 June 2012. The former was a 62-12 win over Russia [+50 point winning margin], and the latter was a 60-0 loss against New Zealand [-60 point losing margin]. That’s a 110 point swing between two games defined by the IRB as test matches … and in one season.
Russia [currently ranked 19th] and New Zealand [currently ranked 1st] are essentially opposite ends of the long scale of nations who play regular test rugby. Ireland probably have 100 players who can compete against Russia [i.e. hold their own] and 60 players who’d thrive against them [i.e. look good playing against, or contend for selection in the Russian team], and – going from the recent test series – maybe 10 players who can compete against New Zealand and 6 who’d thrive against them.