Once a World Cup is over, the next one is very far away.
There’s always the temptation to think that it’s vital to start building for the next one immediately. The glamour of the tournament really seeps into your head, and for a month [or more if you’re lucky] rugby is defined by the game on the world stage. Paltry things like Heineken Cups or the Top 14 – tournaments that in other seasons demand your complete attention – pale into insignificance.
As confessed to previously, the Mole is a whopping reactionary: there’s no tiger more paper-ish. However, in quite a few circumstances he’s prepared to sit astride the fence, and post-World Cup coups are one of those instances.
Firstly, there’s the inclination to throw the baby out with the bath-water. Get rid of all the thirty-somethings! Rebuild! Wales have a team full of uber-confident nippers: nine of the starting lineup against Ireland [Halfpenny, North, JJV Davies, Roberts, Priestland, Faletau, Warburton and Lydiate] were 24 years old or younger. Take a leaf from the Welsh book. Give youth a chance.
On the other hand, it’s worth remembering that the Six Nations kicks off in just four months’ time. The Irish squad were together for an extended period over the summer and produced excellent performances in the World Cup against Australia and Italy, and reasonably good ones against Russia and Wales. There’s definitely a strong foundation to build on, so don’t pull down the temple in some wrong-headed paean to Yoof.
This team isn’t as old as some commentators and journalists make it out to be. Sure there are a number of 30+ year olds [Ross, O’Connell, O’Callaghan, O’Gara, D’Arcy and O’Driscoll], but in the Mole’s opinion the three forwards are in their prime. Mike Ross has very few miles on the clock for a 31 year old, and isn’t the sort of player whose athleticism is going to decline and leave him half the player he was at his best, a la Joe Rokocoko. In fact, there’s every reason to believe that Ross will be around for a long time to come.
Paul O’Connell has already been around a long time but is slap bang in the middle of a purple patch of form – and to do what I’ve previously poured scorn upon and project four years forward to the next World Cup, he’ll be 35 years old at RWC15. The likes of Simon “Gimme A Hug Shawsy” Shaw , Big Bad Brad Carnegie Thorn , Lionel Nallet , Nathan Hines  and Victor Matfield  all had their part to play in this tournament, proving that second row is a position where you can age gracefully on the rugby pitch.
Against all the odds, David Wallace has already been successfully replaced in the No7 jersey. Whether Sean O’Brien remains in the jersey largely depends on Stephen Ferris’ knees, but that’s another day’s argument.
The very public [and often fraught] process of replacing Ronan O’Gara has been ongoing since November 2009, and there are at least three candidates gunning for Gordon D’Arcy’s No12 jersey: Fergus McFadden , Luke Fitzgerald  and Nevin Spence .
So, for the most part, Ireland aren’t in bad shape at all. The idea that you can build for a World Cup from four years out is one the Mole doesn’t subscribe to, I’m afraid. A good coach with a decent selection of players should be capable of putting a team together in 18-24 months … that’d be my take. As before, there are far too many variables. On the other hand, the end of a World Cup cycle is a good time to bring the curtain gracefully down on the latter stages of some players’ careers.
For older players, especially those on the fringes, it must be somewhat difficult to get motivated after the huge pressure and emphasis placed on the World Cup, even moreso if you are in the last stage of your career. Secondly, there are some players in the RWC11 squad who were brought in specifically to do a job for the tournament, and are very unlikely to push on. We’ll get to that later.
It falls to Declan Kidney & Co to reconcile the tasks of:
a] keeping together a team who largely performed well at the World Cup in order to have a good shot at the 2012 Six Nations Championship; and,
b] chopping off the dead wood [to put it brutally].
It’s a tough job. For one thing, there’ll be no excuses at this Six Nations. We won’t be ‘building for a World Cup’, or ‘trying a new pattern’. We won’t be ‘hiding moves’ from future opponents. We’ll just be out there trying to win the championship. I think we’ll have as good a shot at it as any team in the tournament, personally.
However, there is a degree of attrition that any healthy squad demands. For the most part it might be a case of looking to clear out some of the guys on the bench first.
- Leo & Micko [both of them 33, both of them players who have contributed hugely to the success of Irish rugby at provincial level and have been long term squad members];
- Mushy [31, and a player who has been afforded a lot of chances] & Tom Court [only a couple of weeks away from his 31st birthday and unlikely ever to be a high quality international];
- Denis Leamy [29, and not a significant force at international level anymore] & Jenno [30 years old, his best years past him and never a big international presence];
- Paddy Wallace [at 32, surely he has seen his last international action] & Geordan Murphy [33, with a great career behind him]
That’s seven fringe members of the RWC11 squad [and Micko, who was starting November Internationals less than a year ago] who – solely in the Mole’s opinion, as ever – Declan Kidney ought to be looking to replace within the next year, i.e. not include them in future Irish squad sessions.
Then you have the likes of ROG , Wally , Flannery  and D’Arcy  who through age, injury or form – and for the most part a combination of all three – need replacing in the near future. That’s a cull of some twelve players, almost all of them in their 30s, and six of them 33 or older.
Out With The Old, In With The New
While that sounds like a huge number of players to replace at one swoop, the Mole thinks that Ireland are actually not in a bad way in terms of replacing the majority of them.
>>>>> Geordan Murphy OUT/ IN <<<<< Felix Jones
Felix Jones  would likely have travelled to RWC11 ahead of Geordan Murphy had he not been injured against France. His injury problems are a big worry: he’s either fragile, unlucky, or both. Still, he’s a real talent with ball in hand and bravery isn’t an issue with him. The guy is a first rate defender as a last man, chopping people down in the tackle low and hard – absolutely textbook technique. His starting debut against France was the stuff of nightmares, and Rob Kearney is in good form and commanding the No15 jersey at the moment, but Jones will hopefully come back into the squad for the next Six Nations.
Geordan Murphy has been around Irish squads for a long, long time. He debuted back in June 2000, and is now coming to the natural end of his career. In truth, he has been a bit-part-player under Declan Kidney. An important bit-part player, but a bit-part player nonetheless. He’s had a long career and won a hell of a lot of trophies and medals with Leicester and Ireland, and really doesn’t owe anybody anything … and no-one will know better than himself that his time in the green is up.
>>>>> Paddy Wallace OUT/ IN <<<<< Ian Keatley & Ian Madigan
An international quality outhalf is the rarest of beasts, and neither Keatley nor Madigan have shown anything on a major stage to suggest that they’d be able to step up to the plate next season. That’s not what they’ll be asked to do, however.
Sexton has already proved his viability on the biggest stage, and will surely be given a consistent run of games in the No10 jersey in the wake of the World Cup. His confidence may need to be repaired a little – after all, he was dropped for two of the biggest games of the tournament, and his goal kicking wasn’t what it should have been – but everything points to the time being right to call it on O’Gara’s international career. ROG failed to do the job he was brought in to do against Wales in the quarter-final, and the mind-games that exerted public pressure on both Kidney and Sexton will neither be forgotten nor looked on kindly behind closed doors.
What the coaching team will/should be looking for is an outhalf that can play another position effectively. Madigan has spent considerable time at fullback in his young career, and Ian Keatley has played a decent amount of rugby at No12. There’s every indication that he will play some more there when O’Gara returns to Munster this season. Both Leinster and Munster got great value out of Felipe Contepomi and Paul Warwick, talented players who could play outhalf and another position [inside centre for Felipe, fullback for Warwick]. Paddy Wallace made three RWC squads without regular international rugby on the back of his versatility, which should encourage both the Ians not to be too precious about where they’re selected by their respective provincial coaches.
>>>>> Denis Leamy OUT/ IN <<<<< Rhys Ruddock
Rhys Ruddock  has already been capped – at 19 and against Australia down under, a baptism of fire by any standards – and is a very good bet for the future at either blindside or No8. He’s got the size, he’s got the pace, and he’s got the rugby brain. He’s only going to get better the more gametime he gets, and looks ready for more exposure at a high level.
Leamy is a long way past his best, and has put a lot of miles on the clock before he’s even reached 30 years old. His performances against decent international backrows in the last season have served to highlight his loss of power: no line breaks, no big tackles, and no pace. He doesn’t bring anything to the lineout as a jumper, and his on-pitch discipline has long been an issue. A series of serious injuries have severely curtailed his abilities, and even with a long pre-season and a good run without interruption, he just doesn’t look a viable candidate anymore at international level. He’s simply not the same Denis Leamy of 2005-08, and is now trading on name recognition more than any real form. I don’t expect Declan Kidney to cut the cord, but I can’t see a good reason not to do so.
>>>>> Leo Cullen, Mick O’Driscoll OUT/ IN <<<<< Donnacha Ryan, Dan Tuohy, Devin Toner, Ian Nagle
Donnacha Ryan  has impressed at this World Cup. He’s got a naturally chippiness and aggression without giving away a whole raft of stupid penalties, and while his lean build isn’t a great asset for a second row, he’s got the look of a guy who is very naturally fit with a good motor. Furthermore, he hasn’t got a lot of miles on the clock, having spent a lot of time on the bench for Munster. Last season was his first really ‘big’ season, with 18 starts and a further 8 games off the bench. That bodes well for a decent degree of longevity to his career. There are a couple of issues though – for a guy who’s so light, he’s not as near as effective a lineout option as he should be. This guy should be a prime defensive jumper, and should be capable of moving up and down the line on our own ball, rather than be stationed at two. His build is also a significant issue in terms of scrummaging: if he can’t provide the shunt at scrum-time, he’s going to struggle to hold a place.
Dan Tuohy  offers something a little different than Ryan. He’s just as mobile but a good deal more heavy-set than the Tipp man, and had a great debut against New Zealand back in June 2010. Unfortunately, his form is very up and down at the moment – not what you’re looking for in a second row. So much of a second row’s effort is about work-rate and physicality that form really shouldn’t come into it much. A good season in harness with Johann Muller should teach him a few things and allow him to perform at his best and make a case for himself.
Big Devin Toner  must be cheered by the late rise to prominence of fellow lamper Luke Charteris for Wales, despite Ireland’s loss. Both are extremely tall men, and for a long time there was the feeling that they were too tall for international rugby – too lanky, too big a target for tacklers, too high off the ground at the breakdown. Charteris has shown that he can be a serious international , and Toner should take great encouragement from his relatively late breakthrough. There’s not a huge disparity in athletic talent between the two men, and if Toner continues to improve – as he has over the last two seasons, and markedly so – he’ll force his way into contention.
Ian Nagle  is a bit of a Great White Hype at the moment – he still only has 9 Munster starts to his name. Before we get into any comparisons with Conor Murray, bear in mind that second row is a long way away from scrum half … there’s a huge difference in the requirements of strength and experience. As mentioned before, some of the oldest players in RWC11 are second rows. Nagle has a long way to go before he’s anywhere near international level, and should be moved as a matter of some urgency to the middle jumper spot rather than a front jumper. Still, the guy has real potential, and has already been marked by the coaching staff with a Wolfhounds start.
Leo and Micko have been around Irish rugby for more than a decade, and have contributed a huge amount. Micko’s late spring saw him win Munster Player of the Year for the 2009-10 season, and his performances for Ireland in 2010 were uniformly good, even when over-matched [as against Victor Matfield]. Leo captained Ireland in two of the RWC11 warm-up internationals and against Russia in the tournament itself, and was a vital part of the squad for his leadership, calm presence and professionalism. Both of these guys have been magnificent servants to their provinces, and have the caps, medals and trophies to prove it. However, they are getting on in years, and while there’s no doubt they will still be significant contributors in the blue and red jerseys, their time in the green should be brought to a respectful end. Ireland already have two vastly experienced locks in harness in O’Connell and O’Callaghan, and younger blood needs to be promoted.
IN <<<<< Damien Varley, Mike Sherry, Richardt Strauss
Rory Best has played the best rugby of his life in this World Cup, and while Jerry Flannery was a loss [and a very sad one, having worked so hard to return], in truth, he wasn’t missed all that much. Best looks fitter, stronger, a better leader and just a better rugby player than he has done at any time in his career.
Damien Varley  got the call-out to replace his fellow Munster man Flannery. Flannery must surely be out of the picture at this stage: how many times can you come back from the same injury only for it to recur and put you out of contention? Varley and the very talented Mike Sherry  will be duking it out at Munster for the starting slot, and a similar situation will be taking place at Leinster between Sean Cronin  and project player Richardt Strauss . Of these guys, Sherry has the biggest frame at 186cm [6’1”], but has a good bit to fill out. Varley was over-used by Munster last season in the absence of Flannery and Fogarty Jnr, and his performances after Christmas suffered. Pre-Christmas, he looked like a real find. It’s a good situation for Ireland to be in: genuine competition at the big provinces but a clear stand-out in Best, and none of them in their 30s.
>>>>> Tony Buckley OUT/ IN <<<<< Jamie Hagan
Jamie Hagan is coming into his propping prime at 24 years old and has seen significant gametime at Connacht on the tighthead side over the last couple of years. His move to Leinster will see him get less gametime with competition from Mike Ross, but on the plus side it’ll see him working closely in conjunction with scrummaging coach Greg Feek, which can only be a good thing for him. The strength and conditioning training and facilities available to him at Leinster will be a step up from anything he previously had available to him at Connacht. When Mike Ross arrived in Leinster, he was a long way away from an international-calibre athlete. Certain hacks make a big deal of the fact that he spent a good bit of time behind CJ van der Linde and Stan Wright on his arrival in the province, but he had to get an awful lot fitter and stronger before he became the player he is today.
Hagan ideally would have been brought into the Irish squad for the November 2010 internationals ahead of John Hayes … but even Mike Ross didn’t get a look in then. However, any further delays on bringing him into the fold is merely wasting time.
Buckley is unfortunately a guy who could never translate his God-given talents to the international rugby pitch with any level of consistency. To quote Guy Noves, he didn’t have ‘the mental’ – just too nice a guy. Most would say that calling time on the Mushy experiment is beyond due, and even as a Mushy Believer, I’d unfortunately have to concur. Still, we’ll always have New Plymouth.*
>>>>> Tom Court OUT/ IN <<<<< Paddy McAllister
Paddy McAllister  is a real prospect on the loosehead side for Ulster. Naturally big, naturally strong and naturally bolshy – everything you’d want in a young prop! At 185cm [6’1”] and 117kg [18st6lbs] he’s got the ideal sort of size for a loosehead, and has good pedigree from Irish Schools and Irish U20 rugby. He’s going to experience some tough times when he comes up against older, more experienced props over the next couple of seasons, but he has the aggression and the physical ability to be included in international training squads in the very near future.
Tom Court was a guy brought in to do a job: back-up loosehead for RWC11. He had a stormer against the USA and justified his place in the squad. However, he struggles against good scrummagers, and is a woeful tighthead at international level. His lack of a rugby background has always stood against him in terms of his general play around the park, and it’s doubtful whether he’s really going to get that much better. He’s relatively young in rugby terms [in that he doesn’t have a huge amount of gametime under his belt], but the Mole would be of the opinion that he has more or less hit his ceiling as a player … and it’s not quite good enough.
That’s the Mole’s take on the the Irish squad, with the 2012 Six Nations in mind. Too harsh? Not harsh enough? Leave your comments!