It’s time somebody said it out loud: Paul O’Connell’s looks are becoming a problem. No, that’s not right. Paul O’Connell’s carrying continues to be a problem.
O’Connell won Man of the Match in Ireland’s king-sized meh of a performance against the Estados Unidas in their World Cup opener. There weren’t really a huge amount of options. To a man, the backs played like drains. Even though Tommy Bowe managed to shnake in a few tries to keep his average up, he had a poor, error-filled game; Keith ‘I wanna be a superstar’ Earls failed to impose himself or come off his wing looking for work, and the less said about the Leinster midfield of O’Driscoll, D’Arcy and Sexton, the better.
What’s the collective noun for drains? It’s a gaffney of drains.
The award could legitimately only have gone to one of three forwards: Best, O’Connell or Ferris. The middleman of that bunch later said self-deprecatingly that he probably got the nod because he called so much ball at lineout on himself. He certainly didn’t win it for his carrying prowess. Nice!
O’Connell doesn’t merely call a lot of ball on himself at lineout time: he calls it on himself a lot from the breakdown. Too often we see him standing one out from a slow ruck … just standing there, calling for the ball to be passed a step or two in front of him so he’s not ‘taking it standing’. And all too often we see him getting dropped or buried without making any ground and our loose forwards going in to secure the ball and set up more of the same.
We end up committing guys like Heaslip and Ferris to secure ball carried into contact by O’Connell. Logic would tell you that a more effective way to proceed would be to have these first two, far more explosive runners – both of whom have better offloading skills in contact than O’Connell – run angles off a distributor and try for a line-bust. Sure, there’s the danger they may get isolated, but Gordon D’Arcy is a practiced rucker and isn’t good for many line breaks these days himself … use him as the openside, the first man to the ruck, just as the Aussies use grey man Pat McCabe.
The distributor doesn’t have to be the outhalf – it can be Rory Best or Jerry Flannery, O’Connell himself or even one of the other backrowers. You’re not looking for flat skips that go thirty yards across the pitch, just somebody that can pop a pass to a runner changing the direction of attack, and then be the first man a] on his shoulder if he breaks the line; or b] making the tackle a ruck if the carrier is brought down. The Mole thinks we should be looking for far more variety in this area of our game, far more.
Forwards are scared of pace in defense. This phobia is most severe in open spaces, but a back with quick feet can cause panic in a phone box. We’ve got a pair of underused wingers who we should be looking to bring infield as often as possible, even if it means they ship some big hits … as long as there are men there, we won’t turn over the ball.
What else can be done? Think about changing the composition of the second row – bring a proper ball-carrier in there, somebody who can carry four or five times a match for a gain of 15-20m. As bad a ball carrier as O’Connell is, camera-shy Bonponsiero O’Callaghan is a hell of a lot worse.
Seeing as he wasn’t even included in the training squad, this is a moot point, but we should have a proper look at Ulster’s Dan Tuohy, who carried 7 times for 22m against New Zealand on his debut in June 2010 [those figures will mean more when you take a look at the table below]. With the squad resources we have at the moment, give Donnacha Ryan a chance in the second row beside O’Connell. He might look a little lightweight, but O’Callaghan doesn’t exactly qualify for battleship class in his engagements with the foeman … the Mole doesn’t think you’d be losing as much physicality as people would imagine.
The O’Connell/Munster tactic of standing one-out, taking the ball deep [rather than flat] and straight at an opposition tackler who you’ve essentially signalled you’re going to run into is pointless, dire rugby. O’Connell defenders have written before – namely during the 2009 Lions tour, when his carrying came under greater scrutiny from a wider rugby press that doesn’t regularly regale us with how ‘Superman wears Paul O’Connell pyjamas’ – that it turns slow ruck ball into quick ruck ball. It’s an argument that holds little water. Quick ruck ball is made quick by the players doing the rucking, not the player doing the carrying. The quickest ball of all is when you’ve made a line-break and are forcing opposition forwards to run back towards their own line, turn and come in through the gate against a pack that is steaming forward.
In an article commented on by the Mole yesterday, Gamblor talked to Dexy’s Midnight Rugby Correspondent about the benefits of going ‘back to basics’: “You just have to keep wearing teams down, keep holding on to the ball and going through it and then putting over a fella with just simple hands at the end of 15 or 16 phases, or else a penalty results.”
Bob ‘Barbed Wire’ Dwyer, the World Cup-winning coach of the 1991 Wallabies and one of the most outspoken coaches still knocking about [Dick ‘Dick’ Best might just shade second place ahead of Jake ‘Dick’ White] thinks otherwise. Writing for the excellent Green and Gold Rugby, he comments:
“There is a school of thought that seeks multiple phases of play as a path to breaching opposition defences. This is a mistake – remember the Brumbies of some years back who, in the final of the Super-12 against the Crusaders, achieved a number of periods of play with more than twenty phases each time. They failed to score from any of these and lost the match. Multi-phase plays, almost by definition, rarely ‘ask difficult questions’ of the defence.
If a team can achieve a number of phases, with each one asking a difficult question, then a try is almost inevitable.”
The Mole comes down firmly on Dwyer’s side of this argument. The idea that Ireland are going to wear teams down merely by holding on to the ball for 15 or 16 phases might hold water against minnows like the USA and Russia, but what are you going to do when the time comes to play against first-rate teams? Just ‘holding on to the ball’ isn’t going to beat Australia, not when they can score tries faster than you – i.e. without having to go through 15 or 16 phases every time.