O’Connell Out, Irish Lineout Holed Beneath The Waterline

O’Connell had another great game against France, and it turns out that he played half of the second half on one leg. He has been one of the three best players on the pitch for Ireland in every game thus far, and while some have raised a few questions over his decision-making as captain, his on-pitch performances have been of the highest calibre. He has been the standout second row in the tournament and has cemented his place as one of the best in the world – in The Mole’s list, there’s James Horwill of the Reds and Australia, Pato Albacete of Toulouse and Argentina and O’Connell of Munster and Ireland. 

A great generation of second rows has departed the international scene in the wake of the 2011 World Cup: Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, the greatest second row combination of the professional era [and probably in the history of international rugby]; Big Bad Brad Carnegie Thorn, the dual-code legend who won every trophy for which he’s ever professionally competed; Simon “Give Us A Hug Shawsy” Shaw, whose international career spanned fifteen seasons; Aussie centurion Nathan Sharpe, and another Wagga-Wagga man, Scotland’s Nathan Hines, whose international career spanned eleven years and three World Cups.

O’Connell has butted heads with all of these players in the past, and while it’s not quite fair to say he’s the last man standing, he’s still going strong at 32 years old. If there was a union of international second rows, he’d be the chairman [O’Callaghan would be the secretary, doing the unseen work].

Richie Gray has done a serious job on the Irish lineout before, and that was when Paul O'Connell was in situ

Having watched him go toe-to-toe with one of the new generation last Sunday, Toulouse’s enormous nipper Yoann Maestri, The Mole was looking forward to seeing O’Connell go head to head with his biggest competitor for the Lions No5 jersey for next summer’s tour, Scotland’s Richie Gray. The last time they played, Gray stole three of Ireland’s throws.

The time before that, back in March 2010 in the last match at Croke Park with Ireland complacently looking to secure a Triple Crown, Scotland took a huge chunk out of Ireland’s lineout, winning six against the throw on their way to a Dan Parks-powered victory.

Unfortunately for both Ireland and amateur Lions selectors, O’Connell is out. Connacht’s Mike McCarthy has been called up by Declan Kidney to replace him, although it seems more likely that Donnacha Ryan will be the one to swap in and get his first Six Nations start at the ripe old age of 28. That’s not a particularly big issue in itself, as second rows have the longest shelf-life of any position in international rugby, but the putative O’Callaghan/Ryan combination has rarely been tried even at Munster; and the one time it was given an outing in a high profile game, it was a disaster.

Nick Kennedy of London Irish: Kennedy and Bob Casey took Ryan and O'Callaghan apart in the first game of the 2010-11 HEC in Madejski Stadium

The first game of Munster’s 2010-11 HEC campaign was away to London Irish, and the two Donners got taken to the cleaners by Nick Kennedy and Bob Casey, so much so that Ryan was axed and Mick O’Driscoll was recalled to the team for the next three games until O’Connell’s return. The major problem was that Ryan was used to jumping at the front and wasn’t used to calling lineouts; despite O’Callaghan’s 270+ first class games as a second row, shorn of the comforting presence of O’Connell he was a passenger at lineout time. There are no solid indications that these problems have in any way abated. Ryan and O’Callaghan don’t really play together much, and the Munster lineout either hinges on Paul O’Connell or the canny Micko when O’Connell is absent.

At the weekend, Ireland will be going up against a Scottish lineout which is as good as you’ll find in world rugby. Gray is the obvious threat on opposition ball, but the spring-heeled John Barclay is a brilliant aerial operator as well. Playing with two de facto front jumpers, neither of whom are used to operating a lineout at even provincial level could prove to be a serious tactical failing.

10 thoughts on “O’Connell Out, Irish Lineout Holed Beneath The Waterline

  1. Then we should be abandon any thought of playing a territorial game underlined with tactical kicking. Ball in hand or kick-chase from Rob (though the latter worries me – he’s had amazing success with recovering the ball this 6N but surely that can’t keep continuing).

  2. Some talk from WoC on twitter that McCarthy is a four-jumping line-out caller and will be parachuted straight in. Ryan will have to wait on the bench again as Kidney is unlikely to change both men from one unit.

  3. McCarthy is also 6’4″ as opposed to Gray’s 6’10”. O’Connell had a tough time against Gray last year, and he [POC] is one of the best lineout exponents in the world. McCarthy could get absolutely destroyed.

  4. @Ian – yeah, that was definitely my hunch yesterday – I just thought it impossible we could go into the game without a recognised middle of the lineout jumper, and lineout caller. But all the papers this morning are assuming we’re going to. It seemed such a folly I’d ruled it out as a possibility! It would be a remarkable call, just remarkable.

  5. Only thing I’ll say about the lineout battle is that if we’re going on recent form, though I’d expect the Scots to pinch a few of ours, I certainly wouldn’t expect their backline do much against our defence afterwards. We should have enough weapons in other areas to win the war. SHOULD.

    • We SHOULD alright Harpin, but going into a game with a massive weakness like that and hoping for the best with it makes me very nervous. It gives Scotland something to really go after and target, and they can tailor their game accordingly. They’re the sort of side that can drag you down to their level and eek out points from your mistakes, if you let them. I think it’s a dangerous selection call to go into the game without an experienced lineout caller and middle jumper. Personally, I’d go for Toner, who’s been excellent for Leinster this year and is comfortable in the role.

      There’s only one Paul O’Connell though. Big ask to get two wins from two now.

  6. Looks like Best is injured now too. That’s disastrous in and of itself, but also makes it even less likely Ryan will be trusted with an inexperienced hooker.

    • That is bad news. Leaves question marks over captaincy as well as the lineout. Brendan Fanning holds out some hope for Best in that he’s seemed injured before (eg after Italy in RWC2011) but them come back and played at full pelt.

      Cronin’s darts are not recognised as his strongpoint either. We could of course tailor our tactics around avoiding lineouts and thus minimising our potential weakness, while maximising the carrying/physicality that Cronin and Ryan might bring to the table, but is that something Kidney would turn to? Hard to say I guess.

  7. Looks like our supposed best selector is wanting to play a keep-ball-in play, wear-down-their-front-5 type of game! The one change I absolutely wanted to see until all of this was court getting a run. Healy has surely given enough of himself lately and could be doing with being stood down until twickenham, whilst giving court a deserved outing. I would be impressed if they still do that.

    O’Connell’s interviews after the match evoked memories of Keith wood’s passionate, voice wobbling interviews of the mid 90s after heroic efforts. Just a magnificent leader, player and man. Quinlan gave a fascinating insight in the IT last week, where he talked about as a player you needed to know the captain wasn’t doing this just for his own glory. You don’t have to read too far between the lines to see he is describing O’Connell. Even when a lineout went astray there was no head dropping. Like sexton after the missed kick the attitude was “let’s go make another one.” We are not short of leaders though. If not rory…..heaslip’s lung burning steal at 78mins, sexton’s lead from the front tackling, Ferris’ save-the-president dive, Rob kearney’s correct confidence in himself, Gordon darcy’s belligerent, tone-setting counter ruck in the first minute, tommy bowe’s cavalier attacking attitude, donncha’s unseen work…..ok that’s a little carried away! (although his tackle count was only low because Murray and sexton were tackling everything that moved. And I thought the clear out of ruck was worthy of praise prior to bowe’s 2nd)

    The only thing on leadership which I am uneasy about is if we find ourselves in a last gasp finish like that we can’t have such uncertainty at the ruck where reddan and sexton had the little conference. Johnny has to go to either 100% run it, 100% drill it to the corner or100% drop it. Any decision is a good decision. If any one of those decisions is made without conviction though, it won’t work. Hopefully the coaches are sorting this obviously, but it is exactly the scenario where o’gara could be a brilliant sounding board for sexton to learn from and take on board advice or ignore as he sees fit.

  8. Right enough after that dive Michael D would be bound to feel a bit more comfortable being escorted down the red carpet by the big ulster man. Tongue firmly in cheek.

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