Eric Elwood/Declan Kidney/The Troika have picked a Wolfhounds team high on diplomacy that also stands a fair chance of beating the Saxon hordes.
The starting XV is composed of:
- four Leinster men [Dave Kearney, Eoin O’Malley, Isaac Boss and Rhys Ruddock],
- four Munster men [Simon Zebo, Ian Keatley, Damien Varley and Stephen Archer],
- four Connacht men [Gavin Duffy, Brett Wilkinson, Mike McCarthy, John Muldoon],
- and three Ulster men [Nevin Spence, Dan Tuohy and Chris Henry].
Ulster only got three men – some province has to lose out, unless they turn it into a sixteen-a-side game – but get the captaincy as an acknowledgment/reparation, and everybody’s happy. Hooray!
The Backs – Two Old Seadogs Chaperone Five Skipping Nippers
For such a politically balanced team, there’ve been surprisingly few quibbles from the normally voluble online provincial fanbases. Gavin Duffy gets in ahead of Denis Hurley in light of his extremely solid last two seasons at fullback, his leadership and “veteran experience” [apologies for the first of what are sure to be many NFL-isms over the coming weeks, but we’re not too far away from the Super Bowl]: from the Mole’s point of view, Duffy was unfortunate not to be called into the team for the 2011 Six Nations, when Declan Kidney gave Luke Fitz a chance at No15 … an experience we’d all like to forget, I think it’s fair to say.
While Hurley is possibly in the better form right now, he’s spent most of the last couple of years playing winger due to a serious case of the fullback yips. With the remainder of the backline being extremely young, Duffy’s maturity is probably a better call as the last line of defence.
The backline is bookended by another veteran, Leinster’s Isaac Boss. Boss has had another strong season, and, in the words of Saint Deccie himself, “we know what he can do”. With Paul Marshall’s total – and totally inexplicable – omission from the two squads, Ribery O’Leary warms the bench [walks into rake, shudders a la Sideshow Bob]. This has Deccie’s fingerprints all over it, especially when you see Ian Keatley starting at No10 and Ian Madigan as sub outhalf. The Mole’s pretty sure we can all expect to see Ireland’s patented “halfback mix-up” wrinkle, the strategy that ensures that provincial halfback partners are only ever on the pitch for a maximum of ten minutes together. Otherwise they could explode etc.
The threequarter line is more experimental, with Eoin O’Malley the grand old man of politics at a decidedly aged 23 years old. They’ve already got the grave dug you geriatric old codger, be so good as to fall in there on your way off the pitch. Inside him is contact-friendly Novin Sponce, the Ulllshter bosh-machine. O’Malley’s distribution is in a different league to Spence’s so it’ll be interesting to see if they operate in fixed positions, or if they switch back and forth to show a different shape to the English midfield backs and change the emphasis of attack.
The zuperstar of the hour, 21 year old Corkonian Simon Zebo, takes his place on one wing, with Leinster’s David “K2” Kearney on the other. The Leinster man has seen a lot of gametime this season, having started twelve of a possible thirteen Pro12 games, but he hasn’t been a prolific try-scorer: Zebo banged in more in half an hour against than Kearney has managed all season. Zing!
The Pack – Wolfhound Stalwarts Maintain Status Quo
Brett Wilkinson, something of a Wofhounds stalwart in recent seasons, takes the No1 jersey again. His Connacht team-mate Ronan Loughney is on the bench to offer cover on both sides of the scrum. Loughney has generally been seen as a loosehead during his career, but made the switch across to tighthead when Connacht needed the cover this season, and he has done okay. Damien Varley, playing very well for Munster this season, gets another go at hooker in an unquestionably correct call. Stephen Archer starts at tighthead in what is one of the more dubious calls. Archer has only started nine professional games in his career and you just know that somewhere in the background the IRFU are wagging their finger at Leinster for not giving Jamie Hagan more gametime. Never mind the fact that he has started more HEC matches, more Pro12 matches and played more minutes than Archer …
The second row finds Dan Tuohy partnered with Mike McCarthy in a pairing that should provide a lot of go-forward with ball in hand but may struggle a little at lineout time. McCarthy jumps in the middle of the lineout for Connacht and has been chosen by Elwood ahead of Devin Toner, but there’s little comparison between the two players. The Mole is fairly certain that McCarthy would be seen as a front jumper at any other province than the westies, but the immovable object that is Connacht legend Michael Swift is the other first-choice second row in Galway: between the two of them, McCarthy is the far more athletic lineout option. However, at 193cm [6’4”] he’s very short for an international second row and especially a middle-jumper, where the likes of Sam Whitelock, Luke Charteris, Tom Palmer, Richie Gray and Dan Vickerman all exceed the two metre mark.
The backrow is composed of a pair of Wolfhounds stalwarts, John Muldoon [10 times capped at this level over four seasons] and Chris Henry [9 caps in three seasons], and a neophyte at this level, Leinster’s 21 year old Rhys Ruddock. As mentioned above, Henry captains the team … and he captains it from openside, which looks to be his new permanent position. He has grown into the role, although The Mole is unconvinced that he’ll ever be a classic No7. Still, he has been plenty successful there for Ulster this season, and certainly deserves his spot.
Muldoon has been a tackling machine in the Heineken Cup for Connacht; it will be interesting to see what he brings to the backrow when they’ve got the ball. Ireland are stocked with serious ball-carriers at No6 in Ferris and O’Brien, so if Muldoon has any hopes of making a serious challenge for the Six Nations bench spot, he is going to need to break off some nice runs through the English defense.
Rhys Ruddock slots in at No8, a position that would seem to be tailor-made for his footballing nous and pedigree but one in which he strangely hasn’t ever looked particularly comfortable. Ruddock has got a lot of gametime for Leinster this season [he’s eighth on the list in terms of minutes played] and has blown quite hot and cold. The Mole thinks it unlikely that he’ll have any real role in the Six Nations: simply put, Peter O’Mahony is playing better than him, and provides better cover at No7. However, Ruddock will continue to feature heavily over the next couple of months in blue, and must surely be looking to play his way into more HEC rugby.
The Bench – Convincing Enough … What Else Is There To Say?
In contrast to the senior team, the Wolfhounds bench normally get a serious run-out. Mike Sherry, Munster’s hooker [somewhere in the depth chart, at least], makes the squad on the back of four games played in September; he has been injured since, and only made his comeback in the British & Irish Cup quarter-final against Ulster last weekend. He looked to be a real talent at the end of last season but he’s hardly played this season, so it’s a bit of a slap in the face to Denis Fogarty, Adrian Flavin, Andy Kyriacou etc., who have all played an awful lot more rugby and are ready to go. Still, The Mole reckons that Sherry is a good prospect, and we’re always giving out to Kidney about being such a stick in the mud, so it’s hypocritical to criticise him for this one. Not that I’m not a total hypocrite, but Deccie gets a rare free pass from ‘de Dublin-based meedja’ on this one.
As mentioned before, Ronan Loughney gets the thankless task of covering both propping positions, and as a reward for his best season to date, Big Dev gets to sit on the bench. A Tuohy/Toner partnership has an “opposites attract” type of charm – one says potato, the other says potato [a joke that doesn’t work in print] – so hopefully we’ll see their powers combine a la Captain Planet.
Jean O’Bouilhou AKA Kev McLaughlin covers the backrow by adding another No6/No8 to a combination already composed entirely of No6/No8s. Who else are you going to pick, in fairness? Niall Ronan, Johnny O’Connor and Dominic Ryan are all injured, and McLaughlin has been in good form this season.
Ribery and Madigan provide halfback cover [hopefully young Madigan can teach the 2009 Lions scrum-half how to pass if they’ve any downtime] and the outside back sub is Denis ‘Burley’ Hurley, currently in cracking form.