After looking at Graham Henry’s Prefects and the ‘ideal’ number of caps (660) that a championship team should have, we thought we’d have a look at Ireland and how the numbers fitted the team. Can Graham Henry’s policy be replicated in other situations or is he simply fortunate to come from a country with a great rugby culture and a comparatively large player base?
We looked at the Irish team that played against England and counted up the numbers. As with the NZ Prefects, we only looked at starts rather than caps. While all appearances for the national team count in the record books, coming on for a desultory 4 minutes of injury time is not the same as the bowel churning moments in the dressing room before a test match, nor does it require the same ability to shape a game and defeat the opposition. We did include starts for the Lions as well as they are always away tests against top quality opponents. So, while Rory Best has 59 caps, we have counted his 39 starts.
The Irish team that we looked at has 504 caps. The most experienced players were O’Callaghan and D’Arcy, who both look past it at this stage. Jettisoning them will reduce the number of caps by 129 but it is possible that their replacements will be O’Driscoll (122) and O’Connell (85). So that’s OK. Not surprisingly, our best players have the most caps. Both are Lions Captains and are not only Prefects but Head Boy(s).
Who are the rest of Ireland’s prefects? Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Rory Best, Stephen Ferris and Jamie Heaslip stand out as candidates. Bowe and Kearney are both back three players and are often peripheral to proceedings, particularly in a game like the one against the English. Nonetheless, they give Ireland a cutting edge and Kearney’s ability to hit long range drop goals is valuable. Rory Best’s throwing is technically deficient. Too often, Ireland cough up lineout ball in big matches. The consensus is that there’s a lot of moving parts in a lineout and it’s not all the hooker’s responsibility but Best is not as accurate as Flannery was. Ferris is powerful and aggressive but injury prone. If he stays fit, he is a huge asset. It’s questionable whether he is a prefect – he hasn’t captained many teams on the way up and is more a force of nature wrecking ball, as befits a top class number 6. Heaslip’s form since his ankle injury has been patchy. Not as bad as his detractors suggest, he has moved from being captaincy material to a scapegoat over recent months. Heaslip’s media profile provides ammunition for his detractors and Ireland need him to be on top form. Unfortunately then, it appears that Ireland’s top players aren’t producing enough. It’s easier to blame the coach for conservatism but in this instance, it looks to the Mole that more is needed from Ireland’s best players.
By way of contrast, the Welsh team that played against France to win the Grand Slam had 497 test starts. Gatland has trusted in youth but has been able to surround these youngsters with experienced players in important positions. Props Jenkins (64) and Jones (71) both played in the 2005 and 2008 Grand Slam teams. AW Jones (57) and Matthew Rees (43) are the other members of the front five that have started Lions’ test matches. Mike Phillips (49) and Jamie Roberts (44) both play in central positions and provide a lot of Wales’ cutting edge. Gatland’s biggest calls have been to select younger players ahead of prominent personalities like Martyn Williams and Ryan Jones when a more conservative coach might have persisted with the veterans. What can be gleaned from this? Probably that the old adage about forwards winning matches and backs deciding by how much still holds true. Jenkins and Jones will be missed by Wales when their power wanes but for now they provide a stable base for a number of exciting attacking talents to gain valuable experience.
While experience is no doubt valuable, the coach has to strike a balance between employing it and acquiring it. A lot of decision making then has to be delegated to a core group of team leaders. For this to happen, the coaches’ strategy needs to be clearly communicated and thoroughly understood. A tour provides a great opportunity to do this. The intensity of travel will provide a testing ground that will reveal if Sexton, O’Mahony, O’Brien and others can step up and take ownership of their team.