Biggie #1: Isaac Boss
In the style of Sports Illustrated doyen Peter King, here’s an interesting nugget: Isaac Boss hasn’t started an international for Ireland in four years. He made his last start against Scotland on 11 August 2007, the first of the warm-up matches for the ill-fated RWC07.
No matter what way you look at it, that’s really pretty incredible. The Rotorua-born scrum-half has made two world cup panels under two different coaches four years apart, and hasn’t started once in between. There have been forty-one test matches since that game: twenty-nine under Declan Kidney, ten under Eddie O’Sullivan and two under Michael Bradley. He hasn’t been in the starting line-up once.
His international gametime under Declan Kidney, who has been in situ as Irish coach since September 2008, amounts to twenty-two minutes: a ridiculous three minute cameo off the bench against Samoa in November 2010, and nineteen minutes in the warm-up game against Scotland just over two weeks ago. His selection for the world cup squad is extraordinary.
That’s not to say it’s unwarranted. Boss played in 29 games this year for Leinster, making 17 starts including big away fixtures in the Heineken Cup against Clermont and Racing Metro. His form was consistent all season, and he duly racked up a huge amount of gametime, even in competition with Eoin Reddan. In contrast, the man whose place he is widely assumed to have taken, Tomás O’Leary, struggled hugely with form and injury: he made just 8 starts for Munster, and came off the bench another 5 times.
Kudos to Kidney for selecting on form with this call. O’Leary has every right to be disappointed, because players have to have self-confidence and put past mistakes behind him. On the form he has shown this season however, O’Leary simply doesn’t deserve to travel ahead of the scrum-halves Kidney has selected.
Personally, I don’t think the selection of Conor Murray is a huge call, or that he’s going at the expense of another player: I think it’s more likely that the choice came down to O’Leary and Boss. Murray has all the talents to be a top quality scrum-half at international level, and is already the most complete player. He lacks experience, and that’s it. Whether he can stake a claim for the No9 jersey for the bigger games against Australia and Italy is yet to be seen.
Biggie #2: Fergus McFadden
McFadden is likewise another big call – what has given him an edge over more experienced players?
There’s the temptation to go with the most obvious explanation and leave it at that: he’s had a better season than Luke Fitzgerald, and it came down to the two of them for the spot. There’s a whole heap of truth in that, but there are probably other thoughts behind the selection that may not be so readily apparent.
Firstly, Gordon D’Arcy has had a relatively poor international season, and is coming off ankle surgery: if he isn’t fit and playing well, should he be in the team? No, frankly. Nobody who’s not fit and in good form should be in the team, regardless of their past record or the partnership they have built up with another player.
Q. Okay, but surely Paddy Wallace is next in line for the twelve jersey? After all, Declan Kidney has consistently picked him there, as recently as the match in Bordeaux.
A. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. McFadden is a far more like-for-like swap with D’Arcy, and considerably outplayed Wallace in their most recent head-to-heads for Leinster against Ulster. Wallace is the better distributor and cleverer footballer, but McFadden has far more pace, is bigger and stronger and a better runner. Both can kick goals, but would be third-choice place-kickers for respective provinces. McFadden has the added plus of training and playing beside Brian O’Driscoll for the last three years in Leinster – there’s a degree of familiarity there.
Another layer of thinking comes when you consider back-up for the No13 jersey. Brian O’Driscoll is increasingly injury-prone, but is still absolutely vital to Ireland’s cause. As such, he needs to be protected as far as is possible from the chance of injury, and should be spared gametime against opposition we can expect to beat without him – namely America and Russian. He’ll lead the team on against America, but I’d be surprised to see him finish the match, and if we can’t beat Russia without him … I’ll leave that one hanging.
Keith Earls was tried at outside centre against France in Bordeaux, and while he didn’t set the world alight, he didn’t particularly have a horror show either; that came a week later in Dublin. Earls’ lack of vision regarding when to pass and when to run, coupled with a pair of truly horrific passes [one directly into touch, the other behind his entire backline] must have sent off major alarms in the minds of Kidney and Gaffney. They may have planned on using Wallace and Earls in the centre against Russia – after all, they used them as a partnership in Bordeaux – but all of a sudden Earls looks like a liability out there.
If, as it has been posited before, it’s because the Munsterman doesn’t like being moved around week in, week out – a wholly understandable position – they may have felt that expecting him to play on the left wing against Australia, the centre against Russia and then the left wing again against Italy simply wasn’t going to do either him or Ireland any favours. Earls has talked extensively about his dislike of being known as a utility back [see below] , and while he performed well in attack from fullback against England on the last day of the Six Nations, it’s fair to say that he wasn’t unduly taxed in defense. Left wing looks to be his best position, and if Ireland are to get the most out of him, that’s the sole position he should play in the world cup.
McFadden, on the other hand, has played most of his rugby in the centre. Up until Joe Schmidt took over, he was known as an outside centre, but the Leinster coach moved him inside one space to the No12 jersey, where he played most of his rugby for the province this season. His appearances for Ireland in the Six Nations came on the wing, and he has enough pace for the position, but it’s likely that his background at centre gave him the final nod over Fitzgerald.
I’d expect to see him in the No13 jersey against Russia, and the No22 against America, where he’ll take over from Brian O’Driscoll if we get to the stage [and we should] where the win is in the bag. Whether he plays a bigger role comes down to how himself and D’Arcy compare in training. After all, Kidney, Gaffney and the coaching team see these guys seven days a week: punters just see them for 80 minutes on a Saturday.
* * * * *
Keith Earls: Call Me, Just Don’t Call Me A Utility Back
“I’m just happy to be in the starting XV, but I don’t want to be known as a utility back. My preference is for outside-centre or full-back. All I can do is to perform as well as I can, irrespective of what position I’m asked to play.”
Limerick Leader, 9th November 2009 http://www.limerickleader.ie/sport/keith_earls_all_set_for_south_african_clash_1_2190657
“I think two positions are enough … I think to be honest fullback is gone for me now. I haven’t played there since the Lions tour. But moving from centre to wing is a good, fresh challenge for me … I like that about playing on the wing. It can be very crowded at 13 and there is more space to attack out there (the wing).”
Irish Times 5th February 2011 http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/sport/2011/0205/1224289069980.html
“I’ve said in all my interviews that the one jersey I don’t want is No 22 … it’s been a rollercoaster. I was just getting used to the wing again and being pushed into 13; a new defensive role, a new attacking role and you have to be a bit more vocal in bossing forwards around … but you have to do what’s best for the team. Obviously the main man was missing and I got my chance at 13.
Hopefully I’ll get a chance this week as well because I don’t feel I did myself justice on Saturday.I’m trying to cement down . . . I felt I was in good form in the Six Nations on the wing. When I came back with Munster I felt good as well. I’m being pushed in to the centre; it’s another good opportunity for me.”
Irish Times, 17th August 2011 http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/sport/2011/0817/1224302579818.html