There’s nothing inherently noble or right about having a small backline, rather than one composed of enormous, planet-boshing mutants. When old-timers quote the gospel that rugby is a sport for all shapes and sizes, they conveniently forget that a good big ‘un will always beat a good little ‘un.
Despite all the furore about Warren Gatland’s colossal Welsh backline and how they’ve ‘changed the game’, Gatty didn’t invent big backs, and the Taff class of 2011/12 aren’t a paradigm shift. Back in 2004/05, Bernard Laporte was picking Damien Traille [193cm/6’4”] at No12, Yannick Jauzion [192cm/6’4”] at No13 and Aurelien Rougerie [193cm/6’4”] at No14 for France … and they were a Ron Burgundy-esque kind of a big deal back then, so how have they been written out of history so quickly?
At about the same time the Wallaby backline included Chris ‘Latho’ Latham [193cm/6’4”], Wendell Sailor [191cm/6’3”], Lote Tuquiri [191cm/6’3”] and Stephen ‘Bernie’ Larkham [191cm/6’3”], with big Sterling Mortlock [191cm/6’3”] bizarrely kept out of the No13 jersey by Morgan Turinui [188cm/6’2”]. Good call on that particular selection, Señor Jones.
So, while a 191cm/6’3” scrum half like Mike Phillips is a rarity and a 198cm/6’6” winger like Alex Cuthbert is very much out of the ordinary, it’s not as though coaches were all picking pygmies in the backline before Gatty started picking his West Valley Globetrotters. In a collision sport with no weight classes, size is a skill. But skill is a skill too, and the key element to the current Welsh backline’s success is that they’ve got the handling and agility to augment their size. Rob Dewey and Shontayne Hape are bloody big blokes as well, but were quickly exposed as inadequate at test level because their handling, passing, awareness of space and running abilities were those of club players. Great packaging, ordinary product.
The Two Toughest Diddymen In Doddtown
The biggest challenge for the Leinster management over the next two seasons will be trying to construct a midfield for the future. Gordon D’Arcy [32 years old, 202 Leinster caps, 69 Irish caps] and Brian O’Driscoll [33 years old, 158 Leinster caps, 120 Irish caps] have played just short of an aggregate of 550 first class games for province and country; as the most experienced centre partnership in the history of test rugby, many of those have been in tandem.
Neither player is done quite yet. O’Driscoll is pushing for a fourth Lions tour, and D’Arcy signed a two year international contract at the end of April that will take him past his thirty-fourth birthday. That’s a fine bit of business from his agent, and there’s no doubt that Leinster will be happy to have him on the books and off the payroll, but it’s a questionable decision from the IRFU. Darce wasn’t going to leave Leinster at that stage of his career, and while it might have looked callous not to renew his international contract, it would have been very understandable given his recent form.
While neither player has pulled the cord, The Mole is pretty convinced that both are eyeing the exits. The process of finding long-term replacements started in earnest last season with the enforced absence through injury of O’Driscoll, when Eoin O’Malley [fifteen of his sixteen starts at No13], Fergus McFadden [seven of his eighteen starts at No13 ] and Brendan Macken [four of his six starts at No13] shared out gametime before the return of the Irish captain to provincial colours in late March [and just for the sake of completeness, he had all seven of his seven starts at No13].
The No12 jersey saw an even wider range of candidates with academy players Noel Reid [one of his two starts] and Collie O’Shea [both of his two starts] chipping in, O’Malley [the other one of his sixteen starts] and Macken [two of his six starts] picking up a couple of spares, and Luke Fitzgerald [five of his nineteen starts] taking care of a lot of the heavy lifting during RWC11, when both McFadden [six of eighteen starts] and D’Arcy [all sixteen of his sixteen starts] were away on Irish duty.
Depth Charts/Depth Charges
With O’Driscoll, D’Arcy and McFadden rested due to the Player Welfare protocol [everyone harrumph together like a herd of disgruntled elephants as though it's a new development], O’Malley and Fitzgerald out with long-term injuries and new non-Irish-qualified signing Andrew Goodman not yet having arrived from his home province of Tasman, Leinster are currently relying on what can only be charitably described as a third-choice centre partnership.Academy midfield-back Noel “Readers’ Wives” Reid has edged out Collie O’Shea to start the first two games of the Pro12 in the No12 jersey, almost certainly on the basis that he offers cover for Ian Madigan as both a goal-kicking and outhalf option [fullback Isa Nacewa could also fulfil these roles, but with the Kearney brothers and Luke Fitzgerald all unavailable for selection, cover in that position is limited to Andrew Conway or Darren Hudson – and besides, just slotting Nacewa into every backline position that gives you a bit of bother hardly does holistic wonders for Irish rugby].
Reid is 22 years old and an interesting case for a number of reasons. His status as an outhalf who has been pushed sideways to No12 was well covered in an interview in the program for the Dragons match conducted by a moonlighting Des Berry of the Evening Herald:
“At centre, it is a lot easier to get into the game physically whether it is with a good carry or a good tackle … for out-half, it is obviously very important that you control the game. That is what you are there for. You are the general of the team. You need a good presence around the pitch and you have to make many decisions.”
Unfortunately, Reid’s on-pitch decision-making has been questionable more often than you’d hope for in an outhalf. When he went into the first receiver position in attack against the Dragons, he threw an incredibly telegraphed pass that saw the Welsh outhalf trot in for a long-range intercept try. It was a pass that cried out not to be thrown, the sort that has coaches pulling their hair out. Even if the ball had gotten past the oppo lurker [which would have been a miracle], it’s not as though the tryline would have opened up for Leinster. It was simply a pass that wasn’t worth the risk.
Then you have the British & Irish Cup semi-final in the RDS, when a critical blockdown anybody could see coming from a mile away let a 14-man Munster into a game that Leinster had been leading 20-9. Blockdowns and intercepts that go to the house stick long in any rugby fan’s mind – for critics of Eoin Reddan, they’re the first thing associated with the mention of his name. They’re sometimes used as currency in criticism of players, shorthand [as in this case] for bad decision-making, but they’re merely the flashiest examples. You can cost your side a five-pointer by kicking away turnover ball when you’ve got backs on front five forwards in space, and if it rolls into touch, most people will applaud … there you go. Nobody know anything, as William Goldman said.
So Why’s He In There, This Gaffe-Merchant?
Firstly, Reid does a lot of things right. We’ve been a little harsh on him because he makes some momentary-rage-inducing errors, but he’s a talented player – he’s got good hands, he can place-kick, he’s got pace and balance as a runner – and The Mole always has an interest in seeing a guy being tried in a slightly different position than the one in which he is used to playing. After all, who picks him in that position in the first place? Typically it’s a teacher volunteering as a coach after school – so why not let the pros have their opinion heard?The fact that Reid is starting early season games while an academy player isn’t all that out of the ordinary, but it does pose some questions over the recruitment of Tasman midfield back Andrew Goodman. The Mole watched Tasman play against Taranaki in a cracking Ranfurly shield game a couple of weekends ago, and was pleasantly impressed with Goodman’s game – he kicked goals [including one long-ranger], made breaks, read the game well and put in some big tackles. He’s a safe pair of hands in the same mould as the luckless Mat Berquist and Shaun Berne before him … so it’s a pity he’s not actually in Ireland at the moment, when he’d have got a few games and added some much-needed experience to an otherwise callow backline.
Fans and hacks alike groan when someone like Goodman is signed. Everybody wants the big name players, the ex-All Blacks and the Springboks, and there’s an argument that says that the non-Irish-eligible players that the provinces sign should all be highly experienced internationals like Doug Howlett and Brad Thorn.
That becomes a massive issue when you run into the IRFU’s stipulations about who can be selected in what specific games. Matt Giteau isn’t going to sign for Leinster if he’s not allowed to start games in Heineken Cup; if 2005-06 Felipe Contepomi [who scored a bonkers 416 points that season] was to show up on Leinster’s doorstep today, he’d be regretfully informed that he wasn’t allowed start any Heineken Cup games at No10, No12 or No13, but that he could still sign on the line that is dotted if he wanted to play in Newport on a wet Friday night in February.
Thus you have signings like Goodman. He’s a guy who doesn’t have the back story to demand a huge amount of money – and why would Leinster pay big figures for a player who doesn’t play big matches? – and who’ll sign on with the club in the knowledge that he’s not going to start any Heineken Cup games, no matter how well he plays, unless there’s a serious run of injuries.
IRFU doctrinaires and critics of Leinster will then ask why sign a player like Goodman at all? Why not give an academy player a shot? The answer lies in [in this instance] Reid’s specific weaknesses as an outhalf. If Madigan or Sexton sustain a long-term injury in the middle of the season, who graduates to the midfield bench spot in a crunch game? A guy with a serious body of professional work behind him, or a neophyte who has less than ten first class games under his belt?
Shaun Berne is a bit of a forgotten man because he spent his second [and final] season with Leinster almost entirely on the physio’s table, but when he was called to step up for the injured Jonny Sexton in the 2009-10 Heineken Cup, he stepped up in a big way, overseeing home and away bonus-point wins over the Scarlets in the December back-to-back games. He also took the reins in the semi-final in Toulouse, and while Leinster lost that day, it certainly wasn’t because Shaun Berne had a mare or froze. The pack got ground into mincemeat in the scrum on a filthy wet afternoon, and that was all she wrote. Berne couldn’t turn it around, but he didn’t disgrace himself.
Then you look at the performance of Paddy Jackson in the HEC final. Some commenters have intimated before that The Mole is particularly harsh on Jackson, but I just don’t see it. Maybe we are. Anyway, Jackson froze in the HEC final against Leinster, and was substituted after 46 minutes. Whether he’d admit it or not, The Mole suspects that then Ulster head coach Brian McLaughlin would have lopped off an arm to have a 2009-10 era Shaun Berne at his disposal.
Some Blackrock College No13 Named Brendan [Or, Replacing The Irreplaceable]
Eoin O’Malley’s knee injury and Brian O’Driscoll’s international restrictions mean that Blackrock alumnus Brendan Macken has a clear run at the No13 jersey for the first time in his professional career, at least for the first month of the season. Macken entered the academy straight after his Leaving Certificate and graduated into the senior squad the following year, but to date he has failed to launch as a professional. In his defense, he only turned twenty-one three months ago, and missed a good chunk of the 2010-11 season due to a broken collarbone suffered on his senior debut in February 2011.
He’s still a kid, but he came with a more-than-healthy dollop of hype – the Evening Herald awarded him their School Sports Star of the Year Award back in September 2009 – and while he tends to score a lot of tries at ‘A’ level [five in his last three games at that level, including three against Connacht, two against Pontypridd, but tellingly none against Munster in the B&I Cup semi-final] he hasn’t done too much in first class matches to get anyone too excited.
Being a one-position man has its ups and downs. If you’re a player categorised as such [or who categorises himself as such] it largely means that you’re either in the starting team or in the stands. Macken doesn’t have the tactical intelligence or ballskills of Eoin O’Malley [who played outhalf for Ireland schools, inside centre under Michael Cheika and outside centre under Schmidt] or the adaptability, experience, aggression [or placekicking] of Fergus McFadden, and thus doesn’t make many squads.
The upside of the injuries to O’Malley and Dave Kearney is that Macken and fellow 21-year old Andrew Conway will have fewer players contending for selection in their respective positions. It’s important for their careers that they take the chances afforded them, Macken especially. The fact that he was only given a one-year extension to his contract last season was quite telling. I’d imagine that with two seasons’ worth of selections for the Irish U20s and a Leinster senior debut as an 18 year old [off the bench against Glasgow back in April 2010], he wouldn’t see himself in the same bracket as Tom Sexton and Mark Flanagan … but that’s how the Leinster management team see him: a guy who’s a 50/50 proposition to make it as a professional with Leinster.
While Macken does have an outside break, the x-factor for outside centres across the world, he just doesn’t seem to recognise the importance of his defensive role. Because Brian O’Driscoll has been with Leinster since 1999, the No13’s role in defense has been defined by him – and not only is he a ferocious one-on-one hitter [ask Danie Rossouw], he’s also a technically brilliant tacker, a clever reader of attacks [all the intercepts he has accrued in his career testify to that] and a first-rate organiser of the defensive line.
The 21-year old pretender doesn’t even fulfil one of these roles satisfactorily. He hasn’t shown himself to be a hitter in defense, even though he’s a big, strong kid at 188cm/6’2” and 95kg/14st13lbs. There were far too many soak tackles in midfield against the Scarlets, and Macken never looked to put a hurting on his opposite number and set the tone – in fact he seemed happy enough to be in the picture when a tackle had to be made, as though that ticked the defensive box: “Hey look! I was right there when they crossed the line!”
There was never even a question of him leading the defense, issuing instructions or trying to make a name for himself by smashing the big Welsh internationals in the Llanelli backline.
Things were only a little better against the Dragons, whose backs were a hell of a step down in class from those of the Scarlets. I don’t think Macken executed a single adequate front-on tackle in the entire game. When he was defending his opposite number, he typically took a very soft line and let the guy go outside so that he could make the easier side-on tackle … and concede the gainline, cough up a lot of extra yards and open up a much easier offload to a support runner on an inside line.
However, it wasn’t just Macken who struggled in that first game against Llanelli, even if he was a repeat offender next time out. The Leinster backline were undersized and underpowered in comparison to their opponents and lost the collisions en masse, even those who put in a big effort. None of the starting backline broke 190cm, and none of them weighed in at over 95kg – that’s a small backline by modern standards, especially as the majority of players [Boss, Madigan, Carr, Conway and Nacewa] are hovering around the 180cm/5’11″ and 90kg/14st mark. You need to punch well above your weight to hold your own defensively when you’re that size, and Leinster fans have become accustomed to pocket battleships like Drico, D’Arcy and Nacewa broadsiding much bigger players and pancaking them … but those guys are the exceptions, not the rule.The New Breed … Are Enormous
The inclusion of Jordan Coghlan at centre in the preseason fixture against Northampton was the first stage in an experiment that hints at how Schmidt sees the future of the Leinster midfield. To this point in his career, the 196cm/6’5″ and 103kg/16st3lbs Coghlan has been seen as a backrow player: first as a ball-handling No8 whilst in school at Clongowes, and latterly a rangy No6 in the Tom Croft mould under Mike Ruddock for the Irish U20s.
It’s common knowledge that Coghlan was well-regarded as a cricketer whilst in school; what’s perhaps unappreciated is just how good he was. He represented Ireland in cricket at the ICC U19 World Cup in New Zealand back in 2010 [as a 17 year old] and has been the target of enquiries from English county teams. Cricket, like hurling, is a game more defined by hand-eye co-ordination than pure athletic ability, and Coghlan’s talents as an all-rounder point towards a good blend of the two. That background will hopefully augur well for his acclimation to the more varied handling tasks of a centre in comparison to a backrower.
Schmidt laughingly spoke in a recent Irish Times interview about how Coghlan didn’t fit the mould of Leinster centres: “As the lads said to me, ‘Jordan’s got no right being in the midfield in Leinster. You’ve got to be four foot nothing and 60 kilos’. But I think it just allows you a little bit more of a change-up and a physical presence.”
Oh Didn’t I Mention? Joe Schmidt Has A Playbook For Big Backs
The Clermont threequarter line that won the Bouclier de Brennus for the first time in 2010 under Schmidt’s guidance was composed solely of giants: No11 Malzieu [193cm/6'4"]; No12 Joubert [191cm/6'3"]; No13 Rougerie [193cm [6'4"]; and No14 Nalaga [191cm/6'3"]. Shane Horgan had an exceptionally good season – an Indian summer, considering that injury forced him to retire the following season – when the Kiwi arrived to take over from Michael Cheika in Leinster a couple of seasons ago. Schmidt knows how to use big backs.
That’s one of the reasons why Eamonn Sheridan was retained for so long in the Leinster Academy, despite lurching from injury crisis to injury crisis. It’d be an overstatement to say that the perennially unlucky Sheridan was a Schmidt project, but the big Navan centre – and at 193cm/6’4” and 108kg/17st he’s definitely big, the same size as blindside Kev McLaughlin – had a lot of faith shown in him as he struggled with his fitness. A serious hip complaint initially derailed his progress during the Cheika era, and after starting two games in February 2011, his season was brought to an end by a broken leg. If that sounds unfortunate, his next season didn’t even begin: he ruptured knee ligaments in a warm-up game against Northampton, and didn’t play a single competitive game for the guts of a year.The big centre took up the offer of a one-year contract with Rotherham Titans at the end of last season, because at 23 years old he need the sort of week-in, week-out gametime that he simply won’t be afforded at Leinster. With two seasons of Irish U20s [16 caps, with 12 starts and four of them coming as an U19] under his belt, Sheridan’s talent was tagged early, and there’s always the hope that once those injury woes are behind him, he can start fulfilling the potential he flared in the underage ranks. It might sound unlikely, but that’s exactly what Kev McLaughlin did in the 2009-10 season shortly after turning 25 years old.
Leinster will be keeping a close eye on his progress. Most Irish rugby fans don’t know him from Adam, but with his sort of size and the quality of underage representative rugby he has under his belt, there are reasons enough to be interested in his stint at Rotherham. While he won’t be able to turn back the clock on those injury-addled years, he’ll be hoping to make up for lost time in the RFU Championship. You can’t underestimate motivation as a factor in player progression: the guys who want it more and know how easily it can slip away are the players who’ll leave it all on the pitch. The fact that Sheridan stuck with professional rugby while suffering injury after injury is a sign that he’s in it for the long haul.
Then there’s former Knockbeg College student and Carlow RFC centre Thomas Daly [now with Lansdowne RFC, having left Oak Park to get some Division 1A action], a basketball and Gaelic football standout who represented Ireland Clubs at U18 level in 2010-11, at U19 level last year and is now in the Leinster U20 side at No12 … and he kicks goals too!
Daly is a rangy, raw-boned type of fella who hits the 192cm/6’4″ mark and impressed for Leinster U20s against an Eagles All American XV U23 team back in mid-August in Greystones. Like Sheridan and Shane Horgan before him, Daly has emerged from the so-called ‘non-traditional’ background of youths/club rugby and shares a similar size, physical ability and football prowess with the two Meath men [incidentally, Eamonn Sheridan is cousin to Meath intercounty star Joe Sheridan]. The handling of an ex-basketballer with the kicking abilities of a Gaelic footballer … if it plays as good as it sounds, it’s quite a tune.
While the Ulster pair of Stuart Olding and Chris Farrell who formed the U20 centre partnership in the last two games of the JWC tournament [wins against England and France] will again be available for selection and would be expected to lock down the two starting slots, Olding played the recent U20 interpro against Leinster [a 24-16 win for the Ulstermen at Ravenhill] at outhalf. With neither JJ Hanrahan or Jackson back for another tour of duty in the No10 jersey, it’s plausible that Irish U20 coach Mike Ruddock might decide to keep Olding at the key decision-making position and supersize his centre partnership by going with Daly and Farrell together; after all, Mark Anscombe has selected Farrell in the No13 jersey for Ulster a number of times already this season.
Prince Harry And Chums
It could be that they’re all just marking time until Terenure College supernova Harrison Brewer joins the senior ranks. Brewer is, of course, the son of former New Zealand backrower Mike Brewer, whose nine years of test rugby took in two of the great teams of the last thirty years, the 1987-89 and the 1995-97 All Blacks. Brewer Senior topped out at 195cm/6’5” and Junior looks to be headed that way.In terms of rugby, antecedents don’t come much more distinguished than an All Blacks captain, and Brewer Junior’s talent has already seen the light of day in international competition during the FIRA-AER U18 tournament in April 2012, when he was a year underage.
It’s not unthinkable that the young Hiberno-Kiwi’s size, skillset and reputation could see him match Aussie openside Liam Gill’s record of three Junior World Championships touraments. Gill captained the disappointing Junior Wallabies as an U20 in last June’s tournament in South Africa, but remarkably he was appearing in his third edition of the competition – he was selected in the same side as an U18 all the way back in 2010. Australian selectors at all levels have always been daring and have sometimes led with the face in their oft-parroted belief that “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough”. Even with the presence of 24-year old superstar David Pocock and fellow 20-year old phenom Michael Hooper on the Wallaby openside, Gill fulfilled his underage promise early and made his full debut a against the All Blacks on 25 August, ten weeks after his twentieth birthday.
In contrast, Irish coaches have typically been quite conservative when it comes to selection, but Ruddock has shown a flexible and adventurous approach during his tenure. If Brewer is close to the best available option – and his performances in the FIRA competition would suggest that he has a chance – it’s not outside the realms of possibility.
Schmidt’s Legacy And The Big Turnover
Leinster are in the very comfortable position of having O’Driscoll and D’Arcy’s immediate replacements already lined up and road-tested: 26-year old McFadden has played 74 times for his province [56 starts] and won 14 Irish caps, and while 24-year old O’Malley hasn’t yet won his first full test cap, he started the Irish Wolfhounds’ most recent game in the No13 jersey and has played 49 first class games [37 starts] in Leinster blue.
Of the various centres we’ve detailed above, only Brendan Macken  is currently on a full Leinster contract. Reid  and Coghlan  are in the Academy, but Sheridan  isn’t even in the country anymore, and both Daly and Brewer are underage … Brewer’s still in school, for f*ck’s sake! It’s impossible to tell just how quickly players are going to progress in the senior ranks: the very highly-touted Macken is still finding his feet in the Pro12, while Luke Fitzgerald, another Blackrock College superstar, made his full international debut ten weeks after his nineteenth birthday and was a test Lion at 21 years old.
Matt Williams wrote an article some time ago for the Irish Times – an article that The Mole has been unable to find since, unfortunately – where he voiced his belief that it typically takes a young player three years or so to get to the physical pitch of senior professional rugby. Of course that’s just a rule of thumb, but it’s a good ‘un.
When the O’Driscoll and D’Arcy era passes – and with a doff of the cap to George Harrison, all things must pass – it will take a hell of a lot of getting used to for Leinster fans. The two players have been at the heart of the province for well over a decade: O’Driscoll is entering his fourteenth season at Leinster, and D’Arcy his fifteenth. That sort of longevity almost beggars belief, especially in three-quarters. That the partnership has lasted as long as it has defies a number of well-chewed assumptions, too. They’re not a typically complementary pairing in the ‘bashing off-loader + trailer’ or ‘distributor + runner’ moulds, and they’re positively undersized [and have been for quite a while] at test level; for example, they’re shorter than all four centres who played in the 1991 World Cup final twenty-one years ago [Carling, Guscott, Horan and Little, two genuinely great pairings, but none of them by any stretch of the imagination giants, even in the amateur era].
The defining talents of the Leinster pair – the ability to conjure midfield breaks out of nothing, brilliant open-field running and indomitable defense [and a bloodhound's nose for the try-line in O'Driscoll's case] – are things that you always look for in players, but rarely find in combination. To try and bottle the same lightning twice and find like-for-like replacements would be an exercise in futility.
And before we wrap it up … any discussion of future Leinster centres would be incomplete without mentioning the luminous talents of Luke Fitzgerald. The Blackrock man turns 25 years old today and, with better luck than he has experienced in recent times, the best years of his career are ahead of him. Rob Kearney’s form has firmly closed the door on his interest in the No15 jersey [for good, one would imagine], and while his spectacular double against Bath in December showcased that he was still an enormous threat on the left wing, he has filled in for both Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll before in the centre at Heineken Cup level, and it could just be that that’s where his long-term future lies.
It ain’t over yet, but where Leinster go in the post-Drico and Darce era is wide open. Reid offers the classic second five-eighth option, another outhalf, kicker, distributor and decision-maker who allows the No10 inside him much greater freedom to have a cut. Coghlan is a project at this point, but given his background and physical abilities, one with huge potential. It’d be a good news story for everyone involved if Eamonn Sheridan could finally get past his devastating injury problems and build on the considerable promise he showed as an underage international. Macken? Well, The Mole is definitely not sold on Macken yet, but he has generally featured in weak teams in his short Leinster senior career, and if it was another 20 year old bagging tries for fun at ‘A’ level, rather than one who came surfing in on a wave of hype, I’m pretty sure I’d be more excited and less critical. Then you have age-grade titans Daly and especially Brewer, for whom the sky is the limit at the moment. From the candidates lining up, though, it’s clear that blue is going big.