Roger Wilson: since making his debut for Ulster as a 21-year old in September 2002, the Belfast-born No8 has played an enormous amount of professional rugby. In five seasons with Ulster he played 116 games [101 starts] and since moving to Northampton at the end of the 2007-08 season he hasn’t let up, playing 117 games [108 starts] for the Saints. In total, he has played 46 Heineken Cup games, all but one of them from kick-off.
How many tests for Ireland has he played? One. Against Japan. Seven years ago.
How is there such a huge discrepancy between the enormous amount of high-quality rugby he has played at club level [209 starts in nine seasons!] and the minimal pay-off he’s received in terms of international recognition? The Ulsterman was his province’s Player of the Year in 2004-05 and in 2006-07, and since moving to Northampton he has averaged 27 starts per season, picked up a Challenge Cup winner’s medal and played in a Heineken Cup final.
Skipping The Queue
There’s only about nine weeks between Wilson [born September 1981] and Denis Leamy [born November 1981], and they played in the same Ireland representative team in the 2002 U21 Six Nations, with Wilson at No8 and Leamy at blindside.
Leamy debuted for Munster the next season but found it hard to break into a backrow that included Anthony Foley, Alan Quinlan, Jim Williams and Eddie Halvey [David Wallace missed the entire season due to injury, or it would have been even harder]. Wilson didn’t start for Ulster until the season after that … but once he got the chance, he didn’t give up his spot. He started twenty games in the 2003-04 season for Ulster, in comparison to Leamy’s five for Munster.
Victor Costello – Callsign “Burger” – Turns In His Wings: One Of You Two Jokers Is Going To Top Gun, The Other Is Flying Rubber Dogshit Out of Hong Kong
Turning 33 years old at the beginning of that 2003-04 season, Victor Costello was drawing towards the end of his international career. The enormous Leinster backrow and former Olympian had been selected in the No8 jersey for Ireland’s key RWC03 matches against Argentina [in the pool stages] and France [in the quarter-final] ahead of Munsterman Anthony Foley, but Foley took the starting role back for the 2004 Six Nations, when Ireland won a first Triple Crown for nineteen years. Big Vic was on the outs, and there was going to be a place in Eddie O’Sullivan’s backrow up for grabs.
At the start of the 2004-05 season, both Wilson and Leamy were well-primed to challenge for international contention. Leamy bagged an eye-catching seven tries in his 22 Munster appearances [17+5] that season, while Wilson had another twenty-start season [20+2] and picked up his first Ulster Player of The Year Award.
On the summer tour to Japan that ended that season, O’Sullivan held auditions for No8: curiously, Leamy didn’t get the call. O’Sullivan started Wilson in the first test [W, 44-12] and Leinster’s Eric Miller [who had had an outstanding tour at No8 for the Lions way back in 1997] in the second [W, 47-18].
These were auspicious tests for both players: it was Wilson’s first and thus far his only cap, and it was the last cap of Eric Miller’s career. The mercurial Miller had debuted as a 21 year old in the 1997 Five Nations and starred for the victorious Lions in South Africa later that year, but his injury-dogged test career ultimately ended at just 29 years old.
There’s A New Sheriff In Town
Obviously neither player took over from Foley at No8. Despite the fact that Leamy had only played No8 for Munster once since the 2005-06 season kicked off [Foley was still the man in possession, and with Wallace, Quinlan and Stephen Keogh about, competition was still fierce on the flanks], Eddie O’Sullivan obviously saw something that he liked. Leamy started the two disappointing test losses against New Zealand and Australia in November 2005 at No8, held his place for the first match of the following Six Nations and kept the jersey for the next two years. O’Sullivan installed Wilson as his back-up, and the Ulsterman was an Ireland ‘A’/Wolfhounds regular from 2006-08.
However, Jamie Heaslip’s emergence at Leinster over that period as a potentially world class No8 altered the depth chart irrevocably. After a great 2007 Six Nations, Leamy had an absolute nightmare in RWC07, and with no other specialist No8 in the squad, he kept on getting picked and underperforming. Ouch. O’Sullivan moved him aside after one game of the 2008 Six Nations and installed Heaslip as his first choice No8 … and while Leinster picked up steam under Michael Cheika, Ulster stalled and faffed about and ended up losing three of their best players in Wilson, Neil Best and Tommy Bowe.
Maybe the emergence of Heaslip in Wilson’s injury-enforced absence was a further factor in his move away from Ulster and Ireland; maybe it convinced him that international recognition was as far away as it ever had been. Wilson moved to Northampton, Declan Kidney took over from Eddie O’Sullivan, and that was all she wrote for Roger Wilson and any involvement with Irish representative rugby.
Now Roger Wilson is on his way back to the land of his forebears [grandfather Harry McKibbin and uncles Harry Jnr and Alastair all represented Ireland, and Harry Snr was an über-distinguished Lion]. You get the feeling that he only left Ulster because of the shambolic way it was being run at the time, that his attitude was the same as that of Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings when they left Leinster for Leicester in 2005: it’s a short career, and you can’t afford to waste them with a club that’s mired in mediocrity.
Ulster opened the 2007-08 with an appalling losing run: head coach Mark McCall resigned in early November and Wilson broke his hand late that month, not returning until the very end of March. By that time the damage was long-done. Ulster had lost five of their six Heineken Cup pool games and would end the season second from bottom of the Magner’s League. The place was in a mess.
It’s not as though they didn’t have the players – they had Justin Harrison, Carlo del Fava, Matt McCullough and Ryan Caldwell in the second row; Neil Best, Stephen Ferris, Neil McMillan, the outstanding Irish U20s openside and captain David Pollock [who was forced to prematurely retire three seasons later with a serious hip complaint], Kieran Dawson and Wilson himself in the backrow; international halfbacks in Isaac Boss, Kieran Campbell, Paddy Wallace and David Humphreys; pacy threequarters like Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe and quality footballers in Bryn Cunningham and Paul Steinmetz. Things just never got going, then pressure kept building and the season fell apart, with three coaches [first McCall, then caretaker Steve Williams, then Matty Williams] over a two-month period from November to January.
The situation couldn’t be more different on his return. Ulster made the final of the 2011-12 edition of the Heineken Cup, and while their league form didn’t see them earn a semi-final place, they scored the most tries of any team in the Pro12. David Humphreys and CEO Shane Logan run an ambitious program that has managed to keep its connections to the traditional Ulster rugby heartlands in good health whilst expanding at an impressive rate.
No8 … No8 … No8 …
Wilson’s return brings an enormously experienced player in his prime back to Ireland in a specialist position where there’s not a great deal of depth. Heaslip has long been Declan Kidney’s go-to man [Kidney has capped him more than any other player since he became Irish head coach], but the other options he has used as back-ups have skipped town or been forced out. Dennis Leamy was Munster’s No8 until the end of the 2008-09 season – and indeed he started in the green No8 jersey against Scotland in the 2009 Six Nations – but a rotten run of serious injuries and the surprising rise of late-comer James ‘Germany’ Coughlan saw him pushed into the No6 jersey and unfortunately into an early retirement.
Coughlan’s an interesting case. Firstly, you’d want to be a real misery-guts not to admire him and the way he kept at it for Dolphin when a surfeit of high quality back rowers at Munster kept him out of the professional squad. Secondly, he’s had a couple of cracking seasons for Munster [he was the 2010-11 Player of the Season] and is an out-and-out No8. Put him on the blindside and he looks pretty ordinary, but with the No8 on his back he’s a quality performer. He’s not alone in that regard: Imanol Harinordoquy doesn’t look all that good on the side of the scrum, but give him the ocho and he’s world class.
Unfortunately Coughlan is the victim of a couple of significant prejudices: he’s too old or too small; he doesn’t have the pedigree; he lacks the athleticism for international rugby; he can only play one position. However, when you see Coughlan playing No8 for Munster in the Heineken Cup, you can tell that he’s a good player, and specifically a good No8. He’s a better No8 than Peter O’Mahony at the moment – even though O’Mahony played a good degree of his underage rugby at No8 – which is why he plays No8 for Munster and O’Mahony plays on the blindside.
And it’s important to have a genuine No8 who has mastered the skills of the position at international level: it’s not ‘middle-flanker’. People called for Sean O’Brien to play No8 for Ireland last season quite a bit: after all, he started for Ireland U21 as an No8 a couple of days after his 19th birthday in February 2006, played four of the five games of that summer’s U21 World Championships there, and played there a good few times for Leinster in the 2010-11 season … but it’s been a long time since he’s been wearing the ocho regularly. The skills atrophy.
Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? They All Became Flankers
Chris Henry had been the man in-situ for Ulster at No8 and had made several appearance for Ireland ‘A’/Wolfhounds in that jersey, but for some reason his provincial management weren’t entirely happy with what he brought to the position, and set their sights on obtaining the services of Cardiff’s former All Black Xavier Rush between the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons. That deal broke down at the last minute, but the Ulster management team plowed on with their ‘anybody but Henry’ scheme and eventually contracted former Blue Bull and Springbok Pedrie Wannenberg. Henry found himself playing on the openside of the scrum, and over the last two seasons he has made a good fist of it and really grown into that role.
John Muldoon had been another player selected for Ireland ‘A’/Wolfhounds at No8 but, like Chris Henry, he found himself squeezed on to the flank by the arrival of an outsized non-Irish-qualified No8 at his province, in this case ex-New Zealand U20 George Naoupu. The 2012 Connacht Player of the Year has been producing the goods for his province for a long time: he was Connacht Senior Player of the Year back in 2008-09, when he split time between blindside and No8. In The Mole’s opinion, Muldoon is probably a better fit at blindside than he is at No8. He’s as tough as nails – who can forget him getting back up and back in the defensive line with a broken arm against the All Blacks in June 2010? – and a bullying, hurtful tackler around the fringes. However, he’s a bit lacking in terms of the explosive acceleration and slick handling skills that mark out genuinely first-rank players in that position, and on his day, the enormous Naoupu – 196cm [6'5"] and 118kg [18st 8lbs] – is a cracking No8.
A Little From Column A, A Little From Column B
So, over the past two seasons Pedrie Wannenburg has forced Chris Henry into the No7 jersey for Ulster; George Naoupu has made the No8 jersey his own in Connacht, with Muldoon moving sideways into the No6 jersey; and James Coughlan has performed a similar trick in Munster, with Denis Leamy moving into the red No6 jersey. That was the situation on the ground in Ireland in the 2011-12 season: NIQ No8s in Ulster [Wannenburg] and Connacht [Naoupu], and Irish qualified No8s in Leinster [Heaslip], Munster [Coughlan] and Northampton [Wilson].
Heaslip’s fitness and durability and the fact that he rarely misses games due to injury saw him reach the 50 cap mark [with 47 of them being starts] against the All Blacks in the Christchurch test. However, his absence from the third test highlighted that since Denis Leamy’s steep decline began in the 09-10 season, Ireland don’t have a viable cover option for him. It has recently been a case of moving a blindside into the No8 jersey as though the two positions only differ in the number on the back of the shirt. Nonsense.
Obviously Ireland were short on bodies by the time Heaslip was invalided out of the NZ tour, and playing against an All Blacks team bent on revenge isn’t exactly the best time to make your first start in a vital position like No8 … but well, Declan Kidney flew Paddy Wallace down to New Zealand from Portugal to start in the No12 jersey, when he could have played Fergus McFadden there. James Coughlan had been called into the Irish Six Nations squad when Leo Cullen dropped out, and was again called up [along with Paddy Butler] for the training squad in late May; I’ve no doubt he would have paid for his own flight out to NZ if he was going to win his first cap! Wilson mightn’t have been quite as match-ready, but who knows?Aside from Heaslip, those are the two Irish-qualified No8s playing regular, high quality rugby at present. Coughlan has started 59 pro games in his career in comparison to Wilson’s 219 [101 for Ulster, 108 for Northampton, 9 for Ireland 'A'/Wolfhounds and his single test cap]; Wilson is not far from having started four times as many pro games as his Munster counterpart. There’s a big edge in experience there, but there are other points to take into account. They’ve gone toe-to-toe a couple of times in the Heineken Cup. The Ulsterman took the individual honours with a storming personal display in Northampton’s losing effort in the 2009-10 HEC quarter-final in Thomond Park, but Coughlan has had the upper hand in more recent times, especially with his outstanding ball-carrying display in Milton Keynes last January.
Widen The Circle
And here we come back to Dexy’s “46 test players” statistic again. Rather than expose more players to international rugby and play players in their regular positions, some of Kidney’s recent selections have actively shrunk the test group and played players deliberately out of position.
The last four games Keith Earls has played for Ireland have seen him start in no fewer than four different-numbered jerseys: No13 vs England in the Six Nations; No15 vs the Barbarians in Gloucester; No12 vs New Zealand in Auckland and No11 vs New Zealand in Hamilton. It’s a similar situation with Peter O’Mahony: his three test starts have come in three different positions. He started at openside vs Scotland in the Six Nations, at blindside vs New Zealand in Auckland and at No8 vs New Zealand in Hamilton.
You can’t expect young players to thrive when you keep moving them from position to position. There are nuances to each role that mightn’t be immediately evident, but are none the less quite important, especially so at test level. The much-lauded New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick hectored his players with the refrain “Do your job” until they were blue in the face from hearing it … but it worked. They knew what their respective jobs were in the team, and they knew that if they took care of their specific piece of business – and their teammates took care of their specific roles – then they’d have a good chance of getting a positive result.
The Mole believes that DK is putting a little too much of an emphasis on the difference between test-match rugby and Heineken Cup rugby, and not quite enough on distinctions between positions: that line of thinking says that Earls is a proven test class player, so he’ll be better in any one of four positions than a guy who actually plays that position on a regular basis for his club, but doesn’t have as many international caps. Rugby’s a position-specific game though [that's one of the reasons why players still wear position numbers rather than squad numbers], and knowing the nuances of your position is a big deal.
Wilson’s return to Ulster might put him back in the picture for international selection, if only as stop-gap cover for an injured Jamie Heaslip. That’s alright; that’s sort of the sometimes-forgotten point of test rugby – it’s a representative level, with a team composed of the best players in their respective positions from a given country. It doesn’t have to be about centrally contracted players, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be about the long-term solution. Competition for places brings out good performances, and frankly, The Mole thinks there hasn’t been enough of it. Ireland have had two coaches who’ve been big on loyalty and conservative selection for more than a decade; it’d be interesting to see one who was more interested in picking players on form from a level playing field, not past exploits or assumed superiority.
Radike Samo came back into the reckoning for Australia as a 35-year old No8 in August 2011, after a gap in his international career of some 81 months. 81 months! Wycliffe Palu’s injury issues and Dick Brown’s struggles at test level opened up a spot at No8, and the big fella took his chance. Were Wilson to snaffle a cap in November 2012, he’d edge out Samo’s record with an 89 month gap between caps [Jun 2005-Nov 2012]. It’s unlikely, but it shouldn’t be out of the question if he’s playing the best rugby of any active Irish No8.
Heaslip is the man in possession, but he’ll miss the first few games of the season due to his international duties over the summer and his injured hand. Wilson and Coughlan will have a chance to put themselves about in his absence, and hopefully the competition will provoke big performances from all three.