What looks like having been the sole dog day of the summer fell a month to the day after Ireland’s dismal 60-0 drubbing.
What has changed in a month? While new coaches have recently arrived in Munster and Ulster, the old régime remains intact at the head of the test team. Apparently a 60 point losing margin is acceptable to both Declan Kidney’s employers and to the man himself. There are few other ways to read it: he has neither been sacked nor resigned.
However, beating up Declan Kidney on the interwebs is neither enjoyable nor particularly worthwhile, especially in the midst of a period when there’ve been no fresh outrages against Irish rugby. The Mole has no doubt that Kidney holds the success of his test team dear, and that he’s as disappointed as anybody with the recent run of losses.
In the aftermath of the test series, The Mole has found himself reflecting on two items in particular: Dexy’s “we don’t have 46 test players” article and the selection policies of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. With those twin elements acting as funnels through which to narrow an unruly torrent of ideas, gripes and realizations, I’ve been moved to look at the fortunes of four Ulster players, all four of whom it would be generous to describe as fringe members of Kidney-era squads.
They’re players who’ve been weighed and found wanting, only to return in force some years later; players who’ve reinvented themselves on foreign fields; players who’ve been kept down by circumstance and the decisions of an unsympathetic coach; and players who looked destined for long-running test careers but oddly missed the boat.
Leo Cullen’s Magical Eight Seconds Off The Bench Return To The Collective Consciousness Of Irish Rugby
Counting players like Chris Henry as one of the forty-six used by Declan Kidney is something of a sophist’s trick. Henry’s sole test action was the last 26 minutes of the season, coming off the bench for a blindside when Ireland were already 41-0 down.
The former Ireland Schools, Sevens, U21 and ‘A’ international had the best provincial season of his career as a 26/27 year old in 2011-12, starting 24 games [for 1827 total minutes of gametime]; he was named Ulster’s Player of the Year at the province’s annual awards dinner ahead of fellow nominees John Afoa and Paddy Wallace.
Henry started eight of Ulster’s nine Heineken Cup games on the openside flank, missing the semi-final due to injury, and in his second season in the No7 jersey since switching from No8, he excelled in high intensity games at HEC level against the likes of Leicester, Clermont Auvergne and Munster.
While there was no doubt that his injury limited his impact in the HEC final, he was picked out by Brian O’Driscoll as a player that Leinster had to gameplan around:
“Chris Henry is probably one of their most important players. He upsets a lot of teams and really slows ball down, gets away with it, and pushes things to the letter of the law. Sometimes he gets caught out, as he did in the quarter-final (when sin binned against Munster), but more often than not he does a great job for them. It is important that we identify that he is a big strength and try to nullify him.”
But apparently his face doesn’t fit. When incumbent Ireland No7 Sean O’Brien was forced to miss the match against Scotland in the Six Nations due to a foot injury, Declan Kidney drafted in Peter O’Mahony, a 22-year old blindside who had started three games on the openside in his professional career [vs Aironi in the Pro12 in October 2011, vs Northampton in the HEC in January 2012 and vs Treviso in the Pro12 in February 2012].
Ireland have missed each of their starting backrows for one game or more this year: as mentioned above, openside O’Brien missed the Six Nations game against Scotland, blindside Stephen Ferris missed the entire NZ tour and No8 Jamie Heaslip missed the third test of the tour. In every instance, Declan Kidney’s first option has been to replace the missing player with Peter O’Mahony. Blindside, openside, No8, this 22-year old in his first full season of professional rugby [he only started one competitive match for Munster in the 2010-11 season] is apparently Ireland’s second best player in every backrow position … except of course he’s not.
You can make an argument that O’Mahony has a higher ceiling as a player than Henry, and that giving him the test gametime now will pay off in the long run: it’ll get him over the hump – the hump that is the pace of test rugby – early in his career, a good investment seeing that he’s going to be a long term international.
But what position is he supposed to be? What way is that to introduce a newcomer to test rugby, playing him in three different positions in his first three starts? If you can look beyond the personalities involved and consider the selections in abstract – i.e. the national head coach picks a 22-year old back rower at openside, then blindside, then No8 in his first three test starts – well, nothing about those calls looks particularly convincing.
While it might be great in the short term for O’Mahony to get capped early and to have the experience of playing across the backrow at test level – and that’s a stance you could legitimately take as a defender of the selections, were you so inclined – The Mole sees the constant position switches as poorly thought-through: they overlook specific positional requirements and needlessly narrow the group of ‘test players’ available to Kidney.
When the gametime totals are totted up, it’s revealing to see that Peter O’Mahony got more than ten times as many minutes on the pitch in a test jersey [267 minutes] as Henry did this season. Is that a fair reflection of their form?
The Wolfhounds – A ‘Development’ Team
Henry has played ten games for Ireland ‘A’/Wolfhounds in the last four seasons, starting seven of them and notching up four tries along the way. He was the openside and captain in the Wolfhounds’ sole match of the 2011-12 season, the fixture against England Saxons in Exeter in which Ireland lost 23-17.
The Wolfhounds set-up has some unlocked potential [and will feature in a DM article some time soon] but at the moment it’s neither fish nor fowl. Is it supposed to be a development team for younger players to experience the novelty of playing in different combinations under a different head coach away from your province, as they would at test level? That’s one idea. The other approach would be that it’s an actual ‘A’ team, a senior team composed of players who are challenging and/or ready to step into the test team. Young players can still force their way into contention, but it’s a shadow test side.
Either way, you’d think that it might be a legitimate route to the international side … or else what’s the point in having a Wolfhounds side?
Who Leads The Way? What’s Best Practice?
The Mole looked at some of the players who Steve Hansen introduced for the third test, and those selection calls – combined with Thornley’s “we don’t have 46 test players” remark – changed his way of thinking a little.
Liam Messam , Hosea Gear  and Ben Smith  aren’t kids, but nor are they vastly experienced test players. Messam was winning his tenth cap since his debut in 2008, and has only started one Tri-Nations game in his career; Gear was winning his ninth cap since his 2008 debut, but has started more Tri-Nations games. Smith won his fifth cap since debuting in 2009; it was only his second start. All three players had fine performances against Ireland and netted tries, and they earned their spots on the back of some excellent provincial form.
Luke Romano is another interesting case. At 26 years old, he’s only in his second season of Super Rugby. It’s not a huge body of work by anybody’s standards. It’s a particularly interesting selection because he doesn’t have the NZ Schools/U20s pedigree: it’s not as though he was a guy who grew up in the system and was only kept out of the team by the presence of Brad Thorn. He’s arrived pretty much out of nowhere. In contrast, both Hansen and Graham Henry before him have totally overlooked former underage superstar second row Jeremy Thrush, who was the IRB U19 Player of the Year in 2004 and represented his country at Schools , U19 , U21 [2005, 2006] and Junior All Black  level, but has never been capped at test level.
Now, Hansen also picked nippers like Sam Cane , Brodie Retallick , Julian Savea  and Aaron Smith  over the series, so it’s not as though he’ll only select guys who have a long body of provincial work behind them. However, he doesn’t freeze players out, either. If they’re going well and New Zealand have a need, they get a shot.
Calling The Shot
Not every test player is going to be an 80-cap, decade-long international; not every selection has to be a home-run. There’s nothing wrong with giving a guy his first cap at 25 or 26 years old if he’s up there as the best player in his position in the country on form. Neil Best debuted at 26 and had a short, successful run at No6 under Eddie O’Sullivan until first Denis Leamy and then Stephen Ferris took over the Irish blindside position. A guy like Gary ‘Boat’ Longwell upped his game, earned selection as a 29-year old under Warren Gatland and did a job for four seasons, up to and including RWC03. If you can get three or four seasons out of a player at international level, that’s a pretty solid investment.
“We need to have our players coming through sooner,” he [Gert Smal] stresses. “In the southern hemisphere when you get to 23 — and this is what I want to get across to young Irish players — you must start asking the question: ‘Am I going to make it internationally or not?’ It is about not just being happy just playing for your provincial side. We need players coming through at an age when they can play for seven to 10 years, not just three or four.”
This is an interesting take on a test rugby career. The best players will typically break through early, purely because they’re so naturally talented; famously, Brian O’Driscoll played for Ireland before he played for Leinster.
There’s plenty of room for argument between the two schools of thought and – as always – we welcome our commenters’ views on the matter. Can Ireland afford to dismiss provincial players as not being up to international standard for the rest of their careers if they’re not setting the world alight at 23 years old?
Learning On The Job
Some players have found it easy to get a second cap; other players have found it well nigh impossible. Kev McLaughlin got a start against Italy in February 2010, played 19 minutes off the bench in August 2011 and didn’t get his next start until June 2012. Chris Henry started against Australia in June 2010, and didn’t play another minute of test rugby for two years.
On the other hand, it doesn’t really matter how Conor Murray plays; he can’t get out of the team. The Mole is a Murray fan, but he has been patchy for Ireland this season, and some of his performances have been pretty rubbish. Eoin Reddan has been the best scrum-half in Ireland this season, and while he got a couple of starts during the Six Nations, they only came his way because Murray picked up an injury … you just have to look at Kidney’s selections over the course of the tournament to see the truth in that. He didn’t change his team except to replace injured players.
Everything points to the Declan Kidney having fallen into the classic Eddie O’Sullivan trap of believing that he’s got fifteen undroppable players; that regardless of form, they’re the best players in the country. Even when they’re scraping the barrel in terms of personal performance, they’re still better than the next best guy.
Prime vs Peak
A guy who’s in his prime can very often be a better performer than a younger, more talented player who has not yet reached his peak. Now, that balance should change as the youngster gets more and more gametime at provincial/club level, but there’s an argument – brought from theory into practice by some of Hansen’s selections – that you should maximize your playing resources and get the prime of the older player at test level, rather than the growing pains of the younger one.
The Kiwis have lost their long-term No6 of the last four seasons, in Victor Kaino, a player who debuted as a 23 year old [against Ireland] in June 2006, but spent two full years in the international wilderness before winning his third cap as a 25 year old. In the recent test series, they experimented with three players to replace him: 25 year old Hurricane Victor Vito, 30 year old Highlander Adam Thomson and 28 year old Chief Liam Messam. They didn’t start Sam Cane at blindside, which would have been the equivalent of starting O’Mahony at openside against Scotland back in the Six Nations.
Peter O’Mahony keeps being used in the argument as a negative, which isn’t fair on the player – he had a breakthrough season, and deserved his call up to the majors. However, O’Mahony as an openside ahead of Chris Henry in March 2012? No dice. The Mole would lay that ‘un quicker than he could even think about buying it.
More Than Just A Number
Henry had a reasonably good claim to being the best openside in Irish rugby over the course of the season. Sean O’Brien’s best performances came at the very end of the season [the HEC final and the first two tests against New Zealand]; he looked tired and a little out of sorts during the Six Nations and, as we mentioned in a previous article, essentially played as a No6 in the No7’s jersey in the first part of the season. Niall Ronan started brightly but unfortunately suffered a serious knee injury in January.
Openside is a key position in the modern game, and it’s a position where Ireland have little test experience or depth at the moment. In The Mole’s opinion, Henry is a player who’s eminently capable of playing international rugby, and his performances this season for Ulster have earned him the right to do so. He’s one of the very few Irish players for whom Leinster have gone public with their need to specifically gameplan around; Alan Quinlan was another, back in his 2008-09 heyday, a season of performances which earned him a spot on the 2009 Lions. It’s a big compliment to the Ulsterman.
Playing an injured Sean O’Brien for the full eighty minutes of a dead rubber [the Hamilton debacle] when Henry was available for selection was a questionable selection. Obviously Kidney wanted the win, and with Heaslip injured and Ferris already out of contention, he probably didn’t want any more changes in his backrow for fear of a hiding – however, the test series was already gone, and an injured O’Brien had played from kick-off to final whistle for both of the first two games.
Henry was one of Dexy’s forty-six, but what was he allowed contribute? He was given 26 minutes of a dead rubber when Ireland were already 41 points down – the only test rugby he was given the entire 2011-12 season. What can anybody do in that situation? Ireland neither profited from his abilities, nor was he allowed the chance to prove himself as a genuine test calibre No7,