Match Reaction #2: Where The Game Was Won And Lost

The England scrum is about to disappear stage right in about three seconds ...

Twenty-four of England’s thirty-point haul came directly from scrum penalties; the other six were from two penalties late in either half for offside. Rory Best was pinged for “taking up the space” on the English side of a ruck on about 33 minutes, and the Irish defensive line were penalized en masse at 76 mins in front of the sticks, from which Farrell mercifully took the points instead of inflicting another scrum. Yep, it could have been even worse … 

  • 01:15 Scrum Penalty: in the first scrum of the game, Cian Healy’s left elbow goes to deck. He manages to bring it back up off the turf, but the damage has been done. Farrell kicks the penalty goal from the left of the sticks, about 40m out 3-0
  • 22:27 Scrum Penalty: Eoin Reddan kicks the ball out of the back of a turning [but dominant] English scrum, and Farrell again kicks the penalty, this time from in front of the Irish posts 6-3
  • 46:33 Scrum Penalty: with Mike Ross off in the thirty-sixth minute, Tom Court gets absolutely plowed inside the Irish 22 from the scrum resulting from Tom Croft’s knock-on. Court can’t get his shoulder down on Corbisiero at all, and gets driven inside and up; an absolute monstering. Farrell kicks the goal from the left of the posts 12-6
  • 57:10 Scrum Penalty: O’Leary carries the ball over the line for a 5m scrum after a couple of resets, England are awarded a penalty. The ludicrous referral to video ref re: when the whistle was blown takes place.
  • 57:58 Scrum Penalty: Penalty Try 19-9
  • 61:54 Scrum Penalty: O’Leary throws a pass on the floor, knocked on by Bowe; Ireland penalised in the resulting scrum when Court gets owned again, and Farrell kicks the goal from the right hand side 22-9 
  • 73:14 Scrum Penalty: Sexton’s poor flipped-on pass to Earls is knocked on for a scrum in the Irish 22; a penalty is given and sub scrum-half Youngs taps and goes and scores a try; Farrell misses the conversion 27-9
The Mole has a hell of a lot of sympathy for Tom Court. He doesn’t play much rugby at tighthead [and he’s played very, very little this season, with the arrival of John Afoa at Ulster], and he was a late convert to rugby in any case. He hasn’t got a huge amount of propping experience, and while he’s a reasonable enough loosehead at HEC level, going in at tighthead in a big international against a good English scrum – and this English pack gave a decent French scrum more than it could handle last week – was an enormous ask.

Ambi-propsterous

The magnificent Jean-Baptiste Poux of Toulouse, as good a dual-sided prop as there is in world rugby. A brilliant loosehead, he's also an accomplished, international-class tighthead. He's not a physically massive man for a modern prop, so he's worth more than his weight in gold to French rugby.

In the Pro12, Premiership and Top 14 all matchday squads are 23-man, as are the squads in the Heineken Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup. Every professional competition in which club teams from the countries involved in the Six Nations compete use a 23-man matchday squad. Where are props going to get the experience of playing on both sides when there are specialist looseheads and tightheads on the bench in every professional competition bar the Six Nations?

The odd thing is that now props are more specialized than they were in the past [i.e. two looseheads and two tightheads in every matchday squad in all European club competitions], a prop who is a generalist and can play both sides is more of a specialist than ever!

If I’m Not A Tighthead, And Tom Court’s Not A Tighthead … 

Who has Kidney picked at tighthead? John Hayes started every game in 2009 [at 35/36 years old]; Hayes [then 36] was selected for every game of the 2010 Six Nations; Tony Buckley [at that stage 30 years old] for two games in the 2010 November Internationals, Court [30] and Hayes [36] in one each, and then Ross belatedly got his first cap at 32 years old in the 2011 Six Nations.

In November 2009, Hayes every international, including a game against Fiji in the RDS. Fiji, for f*ck’s sake! The scrummaging titans of the South Seas.

The Mole is NOT a Hayes knocker. But did he really have to start against Fiji in November 2009 and Samoa in November 2010? Two more caps on the pile for the Cappamore Colossus, two golden opportunities to try out a new tighthead wasted.

Mike Ross had started both Leinster’s HEC Pool games that October – against London Irish at home and Brive in Brive, respectively – and while he hadn’t set the world alight in those games [not by any means], maybe, just maybe, it was worth bringing in another tighthead prop who was starting Heineken Cup games. Fiji are a very ordinary side, it was played in the RDS, in front of Ross’ new home crowd … nah. Hayes had to start.

Even as late as November 2010, Mike Ross was the fourth tighthead on Declan Kidney’s depth chart: Hayes, Buckley and Court all started the Autumn Internationals ahead of him. He went from being fourth choice to first choice in just over two months [the last of the four Guinness internationals was the last week in November 2010, the first Six Nations game in the first week of February 2011] without playing a single minute of test rugby. How you can pin that on anybody but the head coach is beyond me.

Hopefully This Problem Will Go Away

When talking to the BBC in the build-up to this year’s tournament, Kidney brought up John Hayes when Brian O’Driscoll’s absence was mentioned:

“I am reminded that not so long ago everyone wondered what we would do without (veteran tight-head prop) John Hayes. You could say what he brought can’t be replaced, but Mike Ross came in and everyone else has done a different job.”

Kidney has never shown any inclination to try and bring in a young tighthead to the Irish set-up. Granted, there’s not a huge amount of them around. However … Jamie Hagan started 27 games for Connacht in 2010-11 – he started all bar one of their games for the entire season – as a 23/24 year old, and couldn’t get a look in for Ireland. He wasn’t included in any of the November 2010 squads, he wasn’t included in the 2011 Six Nations squads, and he wasn’t included in the 43-man World Cup training panel: a 37-year old Hayes was, as was a soon-to-be 34 year old Marcus Horan. Even when Connacht team-mate Brett Wilkinson suffered a grade three hamstring tear early in preseason, Hagan wasn’t called up.

In a way, you reap what you sow. If Kidney had given Hagan the gametime that Hayes had got in the 2010 November Internationals, maybe Hagan steps up to the mark, and is a proper international-class tighthead now … or maybe not. At least the Irish rugby public – not to mention Kidney himself – would have an inkling.

Jamie Hagan of Leinster – but had the big man received any international recognition on the back of his marathon 2010-11 season with Connacht, maybe he would have stayed out west for another couple of years. Of course, maybe Hagan isn't the answer to the tighthead question: but then again, Tony Buckley and Tom Court aren't the answer either, and they have 54 caps between them.

Maybe Hagan never goes to Leinster, because he’s getting international recognition at Connacht. You have to think that that was a contributing factor to his move: he’d done as much as he could at Connacht [literally] and it hadn’t really gotten him anywhere: two appearances off the bench for Ireland ‘A’/Wolfhounds in January and February of last year. Moving back to Leinster – his home province, lest it go unsaid – to work with the Irish scrum coach and maybe play some Heineken Cup rugby [because he made his decision to leave the west long before Leinster’s victory qualified Connacht for that competition] might have seemed like the best bet to further his career.

A Dying Breed

Now, Jamie Hagan is no dual-sided prop. He’s an out-and-out tighthead. Were he on the bench on Saturday and it was Cian Healy who got injured, Ireland might have been just as much up the spout as they were with Ross getting injured and Court coming on at tighthead.

Most of the guys who are capable of playing both sides at international level are older players, who played the bulk of their careers in tournaments with 7-man benches, and thus had to play both sides. For a younger prop, every competition in which you compete features a 23-man matchday squad – even the U20s Six Nations has 8-man benches – with a mandatory loosehead replacement and a mandatory tighthead replacement. Where’s the incentive for a coach to pick a player at loosehead one week and tighthead the next? He’s got a match to win.

The Mole would be surprised if the 22-man matchday squad doesn’t again come under IRB review. Scrummaging at international level is a dangerous business, and the beasting Tom Court endured could have been worse … he could have been seriously injured.

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One thought on “Match Reaction #2: Where The Game Was Won And Lost

  1. I fear the most significant effect of Saturday’s result in Irish rugby circles will be the belief that this vindicates the IRFU’s incoming policy on non-Irish qualified players.

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