Losing Your Linchpin

Sure, there are a lot of moving parts in a team and they all have to do their job, but some are more vital than others.

Many moons ago, when the Mole was a nipper and student transport offered only two options – the heel-toe express or the push bike – to get to training or school or any of the other ‘priorities’ of our young lives, he learned all about the linchpin. Uniquely shaped [square at the top and tapering smoothly within its two inches to a round threaded base], the linchpin connected the crank-arm of the pedal through the centre of the big cogs of the front chain ring to the joint of the frame where the seat tube met the down tube. It seemed insignificant in the overall use of a bicycle: it wasn’t a wheel which covered the ground, and it wasn’t a pedal which took the weight. But without a linchpin, the bike wouldn’t go. You couldn’t apply power and you couldn’t cover ground.

Jamie Heaslip is the linchpin of the Irish rugby team, and has been for the past four seasons. Not Paul O’Connell, not Brian O’Driscoll, not Ronan O’Gara, not Stephen Ferris or Sean O’Brien, not even Rory Best. Ireland have played games, even entire campaigns, without them and survived. Heaslip does the linchpin’s job, and Ireland’s performance in the third test against New Zealand has gone a long way to proving his worth by a basic scientific experiment – transitional replacement. Heaslip is the man without whom the rest are hamstrung.

Declan Kidney didn’t exactly go out to bat for Jamie Heaslip when he was being criticised left, right and centre over the last season – he just kept picking him. Heaslip has started thirty-eight games under the Kidney régime, the most of any Irish player. The Mole wrote recently about how Paul O’Connell’s absence from the team in New Zealand [and specifically the absence of O’Connell’s ineffective ball-carrying] aided the very obvious ‘return to form’ of the Leinster No8, allowing him to do what he does best … namely get on the ball.

Balanced Backrow

With David Wallace a late scratch from the RWC11 squad, Ireland’s backrow balance fell out of kilter. While Sean O’Brien’s performances in the first two tests in New Zealand show how he has grown into the role, his transformation from a tackler-skittling blindside to a ground-hogging openside only really began after RWC11.

Sure, he played with No7 on his back in that tournament, but he had played only two tests as an openside prior to that [vs Samoa in November 2010 and vs France in Toulouse in August 2011] and was still pretty much a blindside playing in the openside’s jersey during the World Cup, as can be seen from the amount of times he carried the ball:

Stephen Ferris [26], Jamie Heaslip [28] and Sean O’Brien [25] in Otago after the 36-6 win over Italy in RWC11. If all three can stay fit and healthy – which is a big ask, given the manner in which they play the game – they should begin to establish a better combined game as a unit. Ferris had an exceptional 2012 Six Nations, while Heaslip and O’Brien were amongst Ireland’s best players in New Zealand; hopefully they can put it all together in the 2012-13 season.

  • 12 carries for 45m vs Australia;
  • 18 carries for 81m vs Russia;
  • 15 carries for 51m vs Italy;
  • 22 carries for 24m vs Wales.

As we mentioned in the linked article, Paul O’Connell got on the ball more often than Jamie Heaslip in all four games of RWC11 in which they started together. With O’Brien, Ferris and O’Connell taking the lion’s share of carries, Heaslip was essentially being asked to cover many of the openside’s duties from No8. There’s a reason that doesn’t happen too often – it’s not as naturally advantageous a position to get to the breakdown as the openside of the scrum is. You have a bigger responsibility to push in the scrum, you have your sightlines obscured and your bind has to be more secure.

The Thing Is … Blah Blah Blah

The wider Irish rugby public have had the idea that Heaslip ‘isn’t at the races’ forced down their throats over the last two seasons by bluffers, know-nothings and the provincially one-eyed, when in fact his form saw him shortlisted for the 2010-11 ERC European Player of the Year [alongside eventual winner Sean O’Brien, Isa Nacewa, Soane Tonga’uhia and Sergio Parisse]. There’s no doubt that the management at Leinster knew their No8’s value to the team – Heaslip was one of only two players [along with Nacewa] who played every minute of every match in their second consecutive Heineken Cup win – but what’s to be gained from parroting how good one of their players is?

Some of Heaslip’s media appearances haven’t endeared him to more conservative rugby fans, but he’s a player who has always been tough, durable and hard-working on the pitch.

Some Irish rugby followers may have suspected Heaslip’s importance, but rarely had the opportunity to test it. Kidney picked Dennis Leamy ahead of the Kildare man for the Six Nations match against the Scots in Murrayfield back in 2009, but the Munster loosie was off the pitch after less than half an hour, and normal service resumed. Heaslip got a red card against New Zealand in June 2010 and Ireland conceded 66 points, but if you’re down to 14 men against the All Blacks for an hour [and Ireland were down to 13 men for ten minutes of that hour when O’Gara was sin-binned], you’re going to concede a lot of points regardless of who it is that’s missing.

Those who watched the debacle in Hamilton will have understood something on Saturday last that Declan Kidney has never publicly acknowledged before. Heaslip is the linchpin.

With Heaslip unavailable for selection, Kidney selected Peter O’Mahony at No8 for the Hamilton test. It was sending a boy to do a man’s job.

How Do Ireland Use That Information?

So where do the results of this forced experiment get us on our road to the future? Again, using fundamental logic, Irish rugby now needs to urgently work on producing a reasonable back-up for this vital player as soon as possible. Irish rugby also needs to establish a similar strategy for replacement of the other parts of this, currently decrepit, vehicle.

So, with this as our starting point what needs to be done by way of rebuilding for next season? Next season – not 2015. Even this outlook is important. Irish rugby must avoid being hijacked into a focus on RWC 2015, because that’s a path to excuse-making. Before that tournament takes place, Ireland will compete in the following games [with current IRB world rankings in brackets]:

  • Autumn 2012 against South Africa [3rd], Argentina [6th] and Fiji [14th];
  • Six Nations 2013 against Wales [4th], England [5th], Scotland [10th], France [7th] and Italy [12th];
  • Summer 2013 against USA [17th] and Canada [13th] during the Lions Tour to Australia;
  • Autumn 2013 against Australia [2nd], New Zealand [1st] and Tonga [11th]
  • Six Nations 2014 against England, Scotland, France, Italy and Wales
  • Summer 2014 Tour to Argentina – probably two tests and one other game;
  • Autumn 2014 [TBC] against South Africa, Samoa and the USA; and
  • Six Nations 2015  against Scotland, France, Italy, Wales and England.

So, twenty-six full test matches and two lower tariff national games within thirty-six months. The Mole emphasises the detail as a reminder that in a period of less than ten months [from November 2010 to September 2011], Warren Gatland replaced twelve of his thirty-man Welsh squad. In the subsequent six months – from October 2011 to March 2012 – he qualified for the RWC11 semi-final and won a Grand Slam.

Welsh Squads from the November 2010 Series [left] and RWC11 [right] – click to magnify.

The Irish U20 squad have just produced an excellent performance at the Junior World Championships in South Africa. Reviewing that tournament performance in comparison to the senior squad efforts in New Zealand – both over the past two weeks and during September/October’s RWC11 – it is very evident that one group was capable of producing consistent, innovative and tactically smart performances. It wasn’t the group led by Declan Kidney.

Pick And Choose

Another impressive aspect of Ruddock’s work with the U20s were his efforts to find his best starting XV for each match. He had certain players whose ability made them indispensable to the team [Henderson, Hanrahan, Jackson, Laydon, Scannell and Gilsenan in the Six Nations, for example], but the others in the squad had to compete hard to get a start, and could find themselves in the team or on the bench depending on how the coach planned to take on the opposition tactically.

Three months after the U20 Six Nations ended with a disappointing loss in the tournament decider against England – a fixture in which Ireland were going for the Grand Slam – the U20s faced the tournament hosting Baby Boks with a much-changed team. In the pack, Furlong came in at tighthead for McCall, Beirne in the second row for the discarded Qualter and Coghlan for Aaron Conneely, with Gilsenan switching over to the openside. Both the halfbacks changed, with Marmion taking over from McGrath and Hanrahan stepping in from centre to take over from Paddy Jackson. Foster Horan moved back into the centre from the wing, and Barry Daly returned wide out, with Peter Nelson taking over from Shane Layden at fullback.

Some of the changes were enforced by external circumstances, others came at the coach’s discretion. However, even with some key players absent, Ruddock had a plan. We haven’t seen too much of that from Declan Kidney in recent times.

Depth Charts

As much as The Mole doesn’t like player marks, he likes lists – call it a personality foible. The one below looks at the Irish test group in order of our current national dependency in light of the recent series loss in New Zealand.

  • Columns No1 and No2 list the positions in order of precedence;
  • Column No3 lists the incumbent in each position for the 2011-12 season;
  • Column No4 lists the suggested immediate cover for the incumbent player for the 2012-13 season;
  • Column No5 lists one [or more] long term replacements for the incumbent; and
  • Column No6 suggests a ‘sell-by date’ for the incumbent.

The Mole is perfectly happy if the man in possession [the left-most column] continues beyond the sell-by date, but this should a matter of choice, not necessity, for the Irish coach of the time.

Suggested succession table [click to embiggen]. The Mole recognises that this is a subjective list, and there is undoubtedly room for debate on the inclusion of others such as Ian Nagle, Dave Foley, Luke O’Dea, Dan Tuohy, Nevin Spence, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Eoin Griffin and quite a few other talented young players. Fire away.

However, the key aspect is the strategy which requires commitment by the national coach and collaboration with the head coaches of the four provinces. The Mole is led to believe that neither has occurred in any meaningful way over the past three years. and Ireland has suffered from this flaw. The process is not perfect and will not avoid defeat at test level but it should result in a consistency of performance, squad integrity and ambition which has been markedly absent over the past three seasons since the Grand Slam in 2008-9.

The Mole is loath to point the finger at lieutenants as opposed to their commanding officers, but there’s little doubt that the evolution of tactical and skills coaching seems to have slowed to a crawl under the current national management. No innovation has been apparent over the past two seasons and if anything, players seem to return to their provincial set-ups with relief rather than with new tricks learned.

Back-Up Plan 

As in days of yore, a linchpin can break or you can even lose it from its key position –usually over rough terrain where there is no chance of recovery. Once you do, you know you’re goosed without a replacement. It may not be as strong, it may even be difficult to fit, but you’ve got to get one before your journey continues.

Just as the linchpin was once a jump-forward invention in the development of the bicycle, it has been refined almost beyond recognition in today’s super-lightweight velocipedes.

Identification and selection of key players and innovation in tactical analysis are important elements in the effectiveness of a national rugby team. Gatland understands this, Robbie Deans understands this, even the less successful Andy Robinson understands it. Declan Kidney sometimes appears to believe it is a weakness to be surprised by something presented to you being contrary to what you previously believed. All of life is evolution, but it requires humility to recognise that your certainty of yesterday will definitely be overtaken by somebody else’s invention tomorrow.

26 thoughts on “Losing Your Linchpin

  1. Let’s make Heaslip the Taoiseach while we are at it. He will sort out these pesky Europeans. Maybe Assad too. And not publicly praising “The Linchpin” is yet another nail for Kidney’s coffin? Oh pu-lease.

    • Heh! Guilty as charged. Sorry, I should have given a bit more but I was a grump that was just out of bed. Heaslip is great stuff. He is one of the outstanding No8s in a period when the world is blessed with some excellent operators there – Harinodoquy, Parisse, Read. (If I was a real Munster fan I imagine I’d have mentioned the bould James Coughlan in the same breadth.)

      But I disagree with the idea that Heaslip is the magic sauce in the Irish team, not in the same way that O’Driscoll was missed in say, Croke Park v France in 2007 or how he was central to the Slam in 2009. For a guy to be the linchpin I think he needs to bring force of personality as well as technical excellence to the party. Parisse is an example.

      I don’t know if Heaslip has imposed himself as much as he should in the former while the latter is beyond doubt. Take the Scotland game you refer to. It maybe more instructive to analyse why Heaslip was dropped in the first place.

      As for my comment on Kidney, while he’s guilty of making a balls of many things (the most recent, the Paddy Wallace selection, for example, has Lens II written all over it) I think a lot of what he is getting is a tad OTT. The inference above is one. If we have a dig at Kidney for not praising Heaslip in the press then we should equally castigate him for not publicly crucifying Heaslip after the infamous red card. I gather most players want their coach’s praise displayed in terms of selection above all other media.

      Tactically, and by extension selectorially, Kidney hasn’t moved on from 2009 unless it has been force-fed. But what I see and read (broadly speaking) blames him for everything that has ever gone wrong, with the possible exception of the bank guarantee. And unfortunately a lot of the venom is based simply upon where he comes from and a belief that everything he does has some secret Munster agenda.

      By the way, I still believe that he players have an awful lot to answer for in the recent 60-0 and escaped with little scrutiny. Only Healy and O’Brien emerged from that with reputations intact or indeed enhanced by comparison with their team mates. But that’s an old one by now.

      Maith an fear, keep it going.

      • The “Declan Kidney didn’t exactly go out to bat for Jamie Heaslip … he just kept picking him” comment wasn’t actually meant as a dig at Kidney, incidentally: it was meant to show that actions speak louder than words. It looked to me like DK reckoned that Heaslip was a big enough boy that he didn’t have to go out and defend him, but that he clearly had the coach’s faith.

        On the other hand, Heaslip was getting more stick than he probably deserved and getting blamed for a lot of things outside his remit by Hook [especially], who unfortunately has the biggest megaphone in Irish rugby coverage through his RTE job.

        DK doesn’t often comment on individual players [which is his choice], but having seen the amount of public criticism of individual players like Heaslip or O’Callaghan, I’m not sure that it’s always the right option.

        With regards to the Heaslip/Leamy swap back in the 2009 Six Nations, I always felt that it was a Kidney decision that was predicated on where he had particular strength in the squad – i.e. he felt that there was little between Wallace & D’Arcy, O’Leary & Stringer, Flannery & Best and Leamy & Heaslip.

  2. Murray is only 23 yet you have long-term replacements for him already. Hardly seems fair, his performances for Munster this year have been good and I think like Sexton he is asked to perform a non-suitable role in the green jersey. He is asked to play like an auxiliary back-row just like O’Leary was, when his obvious strength is his passing. Great article as always Mole. No 8 is generally for most teams the key position for consistency in selection. Dallaglio with England played every game in the 2003 World Cup, nay every minute infact. Heaslip started every test game in the 2009 Lions. Foley for Munster during the ‘Glory Years’ was the same and even Coughlan nowadays fulfills the role, he was never replaced in the Heineken Cup group stages. A coach of mine always said that the No8 sets the tempo more than the halfbacks. Off scrum setpiece he dictates flow of the ball, his carrying and involvement in the game reflect the pace and ‘energy’ of the pattern. That is why it’s so important to make the distinction between blindside and No8. They are worlds apart and getting a boshing, bashing, blindside to play 8 never works. Leinster brought in Leo Au’vaa for that exact reason, rather than convert Ruddock or Gilsenan or Murphy to a No8. Leo gave them the footballing capacity and tactical nous of a No8 for the Rabo league, during its less glamourous stages.

    • Fair point re: Murray, FrontUpRiseUp.

      I’m a big fan but have been disappointed with his play in general this season, with the obvious exception of the Llanelli HEC game for Munster and the French game for Ireland.

      He is capable of an awful lot better. He’s got a lot of physical tools and showed last season that he has a sharp pass, but this season he has picked up a couple of bad habits – whether it’s due to instruction, just generic ‘bad coaching’ or the influence of O’Leary [rather than Stringer] at Munster, I’ve no idea.

    • In fairness there are long term options for all positions regardless of age (a 23 yo EOM is a short-term replacement inside centre – BTW has he ever played there? – with Farrell and Hanrahan as long-term replacements).

  3. Surely Sean O’Brien should be our back up 8 if Heaslip gets injured?
    Move Henry, or someone else in, in his place. I’m not sure about Dominic Ryan’s eventual side at all yet, you’d think it’s openside, but why?
    Is it just because he isn’t quite as tall as Ruddock?
    That said he’s a tireless worker and tackles like a madman. Sort of Dusatoirish ‘cept I’d doubt his consistency/intelligence in tackling at the moment.

    • O’Brien would certainly be an option Sam, but I’m not sure that he should be the go-to cover. Firstly, it’s a specialist decision and he plays there very rarely. Secondly, it narrows the test group further than necessary. We’ve seen that a little too much recently with Earls starting his last four games for Ireland in four different jersey numbers, and each of O’Mahony’s three starts coming in three different positions.

      • If you subscribe to the notion that SOB should be preserved with as a developing groundhog 7(I’d also follow this, but only out of necessity, it’s tragic not having SOB playing in wider channels), and POM (who isn’t an 8 in my view, not at all) as backup 8, then yes, it would appear to be jigging players around. I’d be quicker to move in Ryan, Ruddock etc. so the team wouldn’t be too narrowed.

        Heaslip’s still remarkably resiliant however,

  4. Eoin Malley at 12? Transposition error?

    Nevin Spence and Luke Marshall are two for the long term at 12. At 13, there’s O’Malley and Griffen. Luke Fitz might come into the reckoning somewhere too, hopefully at 12.

    Henderson seems like a tighthead lock to me; he’s stockier and more powerful than your typical lineout forward. That said, he could probably do a job in either lock-forward position. Don’t think Ian Nagle or Dave Foley will make it, though Foley is more likely to. The one to look out for from Munster is Brian Hayes. He’s nearer to the physique and athleticism required for international rugby, something which the other two haven’t come close to achieving. The era of the lolloping, beanpole lineout-lock is at an end, I think. An international side can carry one sub-par athlete in the front-row (grudgingly), but everyone else should be able to get around the field like backrow-forwards and smash hard at the rucks, in addition to performing their set-piece duties. If Ireland are going to throw the ball about with the abandon seen in the 1st and 3rd tests in NZ, then there is no room for any passengers in the loose.

    • Don’t discount Macken, I actually think he’s a better prospect that E’OM, he has it over him physically anyway.

      • From what I’ve seen of him, Macken is an inaccurate passer of the ball (because he seldom passes, at a guess). His decision-making is also fairly poor, falling back too often on the ignore your team-mates and go yourself option. He’s still very young, so there’s plenty of time for improvement, but the selfishness and glory-hunting don’t speak of a good attitude.

        I’ve been impressed with O’Malley, apart from his overuse of the stop and cut inside trick. He passes beautifully, tackles well for a small lad and his performance against the Saxons this year was one of the few positives. He had a couple of shockers defensively last year, but if he improves at the same rate this season, he’ll be good back-up in the position. I’ve tapped out some cutting online criticism of him in the past for being soft defensively, but he’s definitely improved on that.

  5. Good point about Brian Hayes, he has been impressive for Munster ‘A’ on both occasions on which I’ve seen him. Good, aggressive and hard-working second row. Dave Foley gets quite a lot of praise from good sources that I’ve talked to, but I’ve seen very few games where he has played [and he hasn’t played many].

  6. Furlong didn’t replace McCall (who is a LH who covers a bit at TH), he replaced Reilly. It was Merry who replaced the injured McCall at LH in the JWC.

    Heaslip is a good player, and being 8 he is inherently an important one (that isn’t close to being a revalation), but he has dropped off loads. He’s been average in contact at the top level for a long time now.

    • Kyle McCall played tighthead in the last game of the Six Nations against England http://www.irishrugby.ie/rugby/25923.php , Furlong played tighthead for the first game of the JWC.

      “Three months after the U20 Six Nations ended with a disappointing loss in the tournament decider against England – a fixture in which Ireland were going for the Grand Slam – the U20s faced the tournament hosting Baby Boks with a much-changed team.”

      The comparison we were making was between the last game of the U20 Six Nations and the first game of the Junior World Championships, hence all the specific positional and personal changes mentioned later in the paragraph in question.

  7. Very interesting and enjoyable piece, plenty to think about here. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on Ruddock’s own provincial bias, vis a vis only taking 3 players from Connacht u-20s and taking 12 or 13 from Leinster, even though Connacht have beaten Leinster the last two years.

    • Connacht U20s haven’t beaten Leinster U20s the last two years. Connacht won 19-16 in Donnybrook in September 2011 in the U20 Interprovincial Championship in 2011-12 http://www.leinsterrugby.ie/domestic/youth/8498.php , but lost 14-24 in the Sportsground in September 2010 in the 2010-11 edition http://www.irishrugby.ie/news/19231.php .

      I was certainly surprised to see Dan Qualter omitted from the JWC squad. He started all five games in the 2011 U20 Six Nations as an U19, and four out of five in the 2012 edition. Normally a guy who goes to the JWC as an U19 is locked on to go as an U20, so it was a surprising call. Falling out of the starting line-up is one thing, getting left out of the squad entirely is another. Who knows what the story is behind that one?

      With that said, I thought Tadhg Beirne [who mostly sat on the bench in the U20 Six Nations while Qualter started] had a cracking tournament. I felt that his performances in the JWC were an improvement over Qualter’s in the U20 Six Nations – just one man’s opinion.

      Shane Layden was named in the initial squad and dropped out due to injury, and I’d have had no beef with the two Connacht lads [Finn and Carty] who were called in as cover for himself and Jackson having been included in the initial squad at the expense of Leinster players Cathal Marsh and Sam Coghlan-Murray, neither of whom played particularly well.

      With a team who won 8 out of their 10 games for the season, and in doing so beat world champions South Africa, France [twice] and Wales, and managed to revenge themselves on England, the only team to beat them, you’d have to say that the coach didn’t do an awful lot wrong though. Whether or not there was a bias shown towards Leinster players, the vast majority of them showed up and performed well.

  8. Yeah I’ve been saying for ages how vital Heaslip is (partly because of lack of cover) saying how he gets through so much work, is a proven leader and always steps up when it gets to the business end of the season.

    In respect to you depth chart I’d consider Cave the back up 13 even if Kidney doesn’t. Also for long term cover I think the Byrne brothers, Dan Leavy and Harrison Brewer could all be mentioned for their respective positions. Maybe a bit early to tell though. Yes I am a Leinster fan.

    I’m looking forward to how Conan progresses (in terms of cover for 8) he’s real old style 8 with loads of power of the base of the scrum.

    I’d also agree with the earlier comment that Henderson is a tighthead lock he could end up at blindside flanker (but I doubt it) looks like Ferris stuck on a rack.

  9. I’m a big big fan of this site but the Heaslip-as-Linchpin point is poorly argued (not that I agree with it anyway). Citing the debacle against the kiwis as proof of Heaslip’s alleged status within the side – as part of the transitional replacement methodology no less – ignores the many dire Irish performances over the last few seasons the big H played a full part in. The argument seems to assume that with Heaslip we would have managed something like a 30-17 loss, which is pants frankly as no one player would have made a blind bit of difference to the outcome. Jamie Roberts, Will Genia, Brad Thorn – no one. The performance gap between the two sides was of a much more fundamental order. And one more thing – the transitional replacement thingymejig experiment could have been used to “prove” that Gordon Darcy and/or Trimble are our linchpin (admittedly the background evidence for that assertion is on the shallow to non-existent side).

    He’s a very good player is the Naas man – much much better than his detractors think while a little worse than his groupies believe. On the international scene he also has to contend with the mother of shoehorning experiments right at his back door. Neither Read nor Hairydonkey nor any other leading 8 have to worry about adapting their game to facilitate an out and out 6 evolving into a 7.

    I don’t think any top tier side has a linchpin type player – it’s a poor analogy to begin with. Rugby is too complex (systems, psychology, tactics, positions, rules) to allow for that type of reductionism.

    And another thing, while I’m ignoring my work: you should do a piece on the idea of indigenous-players-improving-via-the-symbiosis-involving-foreign-stars-in-the squad-phenomenon (there’s probably a better way of expressing that). I think it’s properly exaggerated for all sorts of (some laudable) reasons. No time to back that up except to mention the examples of France in rugby, England in soccer and to suggest that Ireland should not be cited as a counter example to my hasty thesis since the Welsh have had sweet fa success at Heino level and dwarf our international achievements over the last decade (suppressed premise being that imports mean our provinces succeed at Heino level thus granting them better exposure to top level footie).

    Do something on that please.

    • Strong, well-argued points Tomothy.

      With regards to the imports, the Welsh import just as many players at club level as the Irish provinces do. We covered this a little bit [with reference to Cardiff] in this article: https://dementedmole.com/2012/04/11/match-reaction-2-leinster-vs-cardiff/

      The Ospreys’ 2011-12 squad had Tommy Bowe [Ire], George Stowers [Sam], Kahn Fotuali’i [Sam], Chauncey O’Toole [Can], Nikki Walker [Sco] and Hanno Dirksen [SA] in it, none of them eligible to play for Wales that season.

      The Scarlets had Deacon Manu [Fiji], Vili Iongi [Ton], Sione Timani [Ton], Sean Lamont [Sco] and Ben Morgan [Eng]. Again, none of them eligible to play for Wales in 2011-12.

      The Dragons had Tonderai Chavanga [SA], Andy Tuilagi [SA], Tom Willis [NZ], Ben Castle [NZ], Jamie Smith [Ire] … and I think I’m missing some.

      Anyway, my point is that the idea that the Welsh pro teams have squads entirely composed of Welsh players is a complete and utter red herring. It’s a load of balls. They’re moving towards it faster than the Irish provinces are, primarily because they’re all significantly in the red.

      Why are we doing poorly at international level compared to Wales, then? The way I see it, it’s not all that hard to pinpoint the biggest problem: we’ve got a kicking-coach who’s sharing responsibility for our attacking scheme with a double-jobbing defense coach, a forwards’ coach who has been seriously ill [for who knows how long] and a head-coach who was always more renowned as a head-doctor than a technocrat, but whose voodoo has worn out or [at best] only works intermittently. In short, we’ve got about the most out-of-sorts coaching team in the Northern Hemisphere.

      • Merci and thanks DM. There are 2 justifications for having foreigners in provincial squads from a strictly international team p.o.v.:

        1) Provincial success more likely with good imports, meaning IQ players play more top-level rugby thus improving them while also creating a “winning mentality”

        2) Good quality NIQs pass on their wisdom to our pros, esp. the up and comers.

        As per my previous post I don’t think (1) stands up to scrutiny, or at least is severely undermined by Welsh success at international level and general malaise at provincial level.

        Is (2) a better reason? Not sure. Irish imports have generally been of a better standard than the Welsh – not always bigger names but generally better and more committed players. I think this is one reason why our provinces do better in the H Cup. But do they improve our native talent? You could make a case that Ollie Le Roux was important in Healy’s development, that SOB learned from Rocky, that Fitzpatrick is learning from Afoa and learned from BJ, that the Munster backrow machine from c. 2002-2009 owed a great debt to teaching of Jim Williams or that the Saffers will ultimately by the making of young Henderson up north. You could, but it will never be a self-evident argument: too much admixture of cause and correlation. Even if (2) stands up to close, consistent scrutiny (Zebo/Howlett; Earls/JDV; Kearney/Nacewa; Toner/Thorn; Muller/Stevenson etc. etc.) is it not trading on a confusion between the proper roles of coaches and players? It may be a benign confusion in the short term but it could support a culture of coaching inadequacy (“ah shure let the foreigners sort that out” – Munster scrum; “ah shure Les has feck all to do anyway” – Irish offence; “ah shure he’s not a big name but all he has to do is keep Johann and the boys happy” – Ulster).

        I’ve missed numerous deadline at this stage so I’ll keep going. Obviously coaching is a main reason why we are failing at int level but, perhaps, another is our relatively high expectations (not as a “cause” for failure, obviously, but as making sense of why we feel so pizzed at why the Welsh trump us internationally). Provincially we wazz all over our Celtic brethern and we expect that to translate to the international scene without too much hassle. But taking a cold hard look at the comparative first 22/23 we have no reason to think that this is in any way inevitable. Personally I think the Welsh have the better players at the mo (just) and maybe have had for a significant portion of the last decade. [You could say we had more Lions last time out but that was due to the likes of Tomas, Quinlan and Keef getting picked on the back of tonking the Os in Thomond.] A big difference is the NIQs the players return to when the join the provinces and, just as importantly, the coaching tickets at all the various provinces (Welsh & Irish).

        These two factors explain why our provinces have been so much better than the Welsh over the past decade. Current Int coaching explains why there is such a gulf between the two sides at the mo. No surprises.

  10. Whatever about the Welsh having better players at the moment which is infinitely debateable there’s no way they’d better players when they turned up in the Aviva in February, totally outplayed us and were well worth their victory. They were missing 5 of their 1st choice pack that day and Warburton was forced off at HT.

  11. Pingback: Our Friends From The North Pt.1 – Chris Henry’s Coming To Dinner | Digging Like a Demented Mole

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