Our Friends From The North, Pt.3 – Ryan Caldwell And The Lessons He Could Teach You

Ryan Caldwell breaks away from Mamuka Gorgodze in Bath’s 2011-12 Heineken Cup clash against Montpellier.

Some time ago we published a couple of articles about Ulster-born players Chris Henry and Roger Wilson. Apparently it was going to be a four-part series [or so we claimed], except we never bothered to post anything after the first two chapters. That’d be the sands of time slipping through the gnarled fingers of Old Man Editorial Control. Wait a minute – that makes no sense. In the words of Dexys, plus ça change

Ryan Caldwell is a player who was always expected to be an international. He captained his school to the Ulster Senior Cup; represented Ulster and Ireland Schools in 2003; played for Ireland U21 in the 2005 U21 Six Nations, and started every game of the 2005 U21 Rugby World Championship in Argentina.

He debuted for Ulster the following season as a 21-year old, started all three games of the Churchill Cup for Ireland ‘A’in May/June 2007 as a 22 year old, and pushed himself ahead of Italian international Carlo del Fava and Irish international Matt McCullough to partner Justin Harrison in the last three games of Ulster’s Heineken Cup pool in 2007-08, in a season where he copper-fastened his reputation for indiscipline with three yellow cards and a straight red.

Caldwell’s handling, his passing, off-loading in contact and ball-carrying have always been strengths in his game. As with any second row who likes to get his hands on the pill, you can have too much of a good thing.

In January 2008 he was added to the same IRFU High Performance Unit as Cian Healy, Luke Fitzgerald, Stephen Ferris, Jonny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Donnacha Ryan and Jamie Heaslip. He started alongside Trev Hogan in the second row in Irish ‘A’ losses to Scotland ‘A’ and England Saxons during the Six Nations the next month, and retained his place in the June 2008 Churchill Cup squad, entering into the 2008-09 season as a locked-down Ulster starter in the second row at just 24 years old. Under Australian nice-guy Matt “Matty” Williams, he played in 21 games, starting 18 of them [including all six HEC games].

International recognition beckoned when he was named in the Autumn Internationals 2008 squad, and the former Inst man got his first full cap the following year on the mickey-mouse tour of North America that took place during the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa. That may not be an electric, Paul O’Connell-esque start to your international career as a second row, but it is steady progress at a young age through all the right channels. So how has he found himself in the international wilderness?

Rumbles Of Discontent At Ravenhill

His problems at Ulster kicked in before the 2009-10 season with two significant changes to the provincial set-up: Brian McLaughlin replaced Matty Williams as head coach, and the Williams-recruited Dan Tuohy joined from Exeter Chiefs [see below].

Matty Williams gives the begrudgers both barrels in a classic, well-earned feat of Matt pique on Twitter [click to embiggen]. You tell ’em, Matty! The Mole isn’t sure how many of the abusers got in touch with him … sure we don’t even know if Ryan Caldwell is on Twitter!

Caldwell started the first two Heineken Cup games [vs Bath and Edinburgh], but was replaced shortly after half-time in the second of the two, a disappointing loss to the Scots in a sparsely-populated Murrayfield. McLaughlin essentially backed Tuohy as a front jumping tighthead second row from then on, sticking with ‘Useless’ Ed O’Donoghue as a lineout-calling middle jumper rather than pairing  Tuohy and Caldwell together.

Ulster’s season was a real curate’s egg. They came out winners in four of their HEC pool games and accomplished their first ever victory on English soil on the last day of the pool stages, whipping Bath 28-10 at The Rec but crucially falling one try short of the bonus-point that would have put them in contention for a quarter-final spot.

However, their Magner’s League form was brutal yet again. They won just seven of their eighteen games, and finished eighth on the log in the then ten-team league. Their league form from 2007 until 2010 was genuinely appalling: in the 2007-08 season they finished ninth of ten; in the 2008-09 season they finished eighth of ten; and in the 2009-10 season they finished eighth of ten again. You can understand why the IRFU felt that something needed to be done to give them a boost.

Ed O’Donoghue appeared in the second row alongside Dan Tuohy for an Ireland XV against the Maori in a cracking match that the hosting Kiwis won 31-28 in June 2010. O’Donoghue started 40 games in two seasons for Ulster, was headhunted by Leinster and proved a total and utter bust. How does that sort of thing happen? He’s 28 years old and had played for Northampton, the Queensland Reds and Ulster – it’s not as though he was plucked from obscurity.

All Change In The Ulster Engine Room 

Following a surprising selection for Ireland’s summer tour to New Zealand and Australia in June 2010, ‘Useless’ Ed took the M1 down to Dublin for the first year of a three year Leinster contract [which didn’t work out at all well]; meanwhile, back in Ulster, former Springbok second row and captain Johann Muller arrived from Natal before the 2010-11 season got underway.

While Tuohy’s arrival in 2009-10 had signaled a competitor and seen a decrease in his game time, this was the season in which Caldwell’s pro career almost collapsed. The presence of a World Cup-winner and former Natal captain as direct competition probably had a huge amount to do with further unsettling the already edgy Inst second row, but beyond that, The Mole has long thought that there was some sort of falling out between coach Brian McLaughlin and Caldwell, because he only started three games in the 2010-11 season.

Early in February 2011 it was announced that Lewis Stevenson would be returning from Harlequins over the summer, and that Caldwell would be released a year early from his contract to join Bath. He came off the bench for fifteen minutes the day after the announcement and then didn’t play another minute for Ulster that season. Done.

It’s easy to imagine that there could have been a failure to see eye-to-eye between a heavily-tattooed marginal head case like Caldwell and McLaughlin, a former school teacher at RBAI. Whether co-incidentally or not, that’s Caldwell’s alma mater, whom [as we have mentioned before] he led to the Ulster Schools Senior Cup as captain in 2003. As an un-bylined piece in the Belfast Telegraph relays:

Probably shouting at an off-camera Caldwell about his tattoos.

“You associate Brian McLaughlin first and foremost with RBAI, one of the heavyweights of Ulster schools rugby, because of his remarkable record of taking them to five titles from eight finals (he brought Wallace High School to one as well before he fetched up at Inst in 1982 as a physical education teacher), though he went himself to Regent House.”

The Mole imagines that there’s a good bit bubbling below the surface of the player-coach relationship: Caldwell has since said that he has a lot of respect for McLaughlin, but the three-start season seems like a clash-of-personalities situation. There’s nothing to be gained from that sort of scenario, and with the brevity of a career in pro rugby, you can’t afford to waste time either moping around or banging your head against a brick wall. The Bath offer came at the right time, and Caldwell grabbed the opportunity with both hands in the same manner as when he established himself in the Ulster starting line-up back in 2008.

Bath Or Bust/Bathtime!

Bath finished a disappointing eighth in the table and Caldwell tore the medial ligament in his knee early in a key fixture at Edgeley Park against Sale in mid-April, but up to that point he had been absolutely flying for the former West Country heavyweights.

Caldwell’s lineout abilities are often overlooked, but at 201cm [6’7″] he’s got long levers and a better spring than most big men. He was Bath’s go-to lineout option in his first season at the club. Coming into a new club as a front-jumper and taking over as the middleman shows a definite improvement in skillset, as well as shouldering more responsibility.

He played in 29 games in his first season with the club, starting 26 of them – including all six Heineken Cup pool games – on the way to racking up 1988 minutes of gametime [by way of comparison, Dan Tuohy played 27+1 for 2057 mins in Ulster]. At the Bath Rugby End of Season Awards he took home The Baines Family ‘Best Forward’ Award [ahead of Simon Taylor and Francois Louw] and finished second behind Louw in the Novia ‘Players’ Player of the Year’ Award.

The move has been an enormous success for him, as both a player and a person. As he said in an interview with the Irish Independent before Bath’s fixture against Leinster in Dublin:

“Some people can stay at the one club and they’re successful doing that. For others, though, it can feel like treading water and sometimes you have to bite the bullet and make the move for the good of your career. 

I’ve done that and hopefully it can stand to me, not just on the rugby field but in terms of quality of life as well. There were a few factors behind the move. Things had gone stale for me at Ulster. I wasn’t performing as well as I had been. So I thought that this was the time to make a change and push my career on a little bit. I haven’t looked back. I’ve really enjoyed it here and I’ve been given the opportunity to play.”

Age Isn’t An Issue … 

There comes a stage in many young pros’ careers when their rate of progression has slowed to a crawl. Some are content to hunker down and soldier on in the belief that something will open up for them, while others take a more distinct course of action, make a big call and move away from the club where they grew up. Caldwell was one of the latter camp, and despite turning 27 just as his first season kicked off in Bath, he made the move with the best years of his career still ahead of him.

When you see the ages of the elite second rows playing in last year’s World Cup [Simon Shaw 38, Brad Thorn 36, Lionel Nallet 35, Victor Matfield 34, Nathan Hines 34, Nathan Sharpe 33, Danie Rossouw 33] it’s readily apparent that a second-row’s physical prime comes a lot later in life than that of a centre or a winger. Brad Thorn debuted for the All Blacks as a 28-year old in 2003 – granted, he’s a special case, given his exceptional career in rugby league, but the fact remains that the New Zealand coaching team were prepared to give a 28-year old a chance to debut for the All Blacks.

Leinster got great value out of a guy like 22/23-year old Ian Madigan in the 2011-12 season [16 starts and a further 10 appearances off the bench for 1444 total minutes of gametime]; not so much out of 22-year old Mark Flanagan [2 starts and 4 sub appearances for 178 minutes]. Guys who are physically powerful enough to play HEC rugby in the second row as 22 or 23 year olds are as rare as hen’s teeth. With the scrum possibly more important than it has ever been in the professional era, you need that power as well; it’s not an optional extra.

… But Size Matters

There’s not many people knocking around Irish rugby at 201cm [6’7″] and 113kg [17st 11lbs] who have pace, decent hands and buckets of aggression. It might sound too obvious to even mention, but height is an enormous factor in a second row’s career. If Ciaran Ruddock was 203cm tall instead of 193cm tall, he’d be the next big thing in Irish rugby. Unfortunately he’s not, and he isn’t. Guys who are 200cm+ tall, who are athletic, competitive and who’ve been playing rugby since their teens … yup, Ireland’s not exactly loaded down with these kind of guys. We need to make them count.

Anybody who has read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball will be familiar with the term ‘the good face’. Nagle’s got ‘the good face’, but can he run, throw, field, hit and hit with power?

There’s a huge amount of time investment required in order to get second rows up to the required level of physicality, and it’s a slow yield. Tall men with long levers aren’t normally great at moving a lot of weight around in the gym, and tend to be hard gainers when it comes to muscle-mass. Devin Toner is a case in point, as are the Munster pair of Ian Nagle and Dave Foley.

Nagle in particular seems to be very highly rated. He was called into the Irish training squad in January 2012 on the back of one start for a weak Munster team up in Ravenhill over Christmas 2011 in the Pro12 last season, in what was largely seen as a toe-dipping exercise by Declan Kidney. The Mole saw it that way at least, because at the time [and unfortunately little has changed] there wasn’t a whole heap of evidence to suggest that Nagle was ready for the demands of international rugby in the second row. Aside from a decent lineout performance against a leaderless Australian second-string in horrific conditions back in November 2010 [which benefitted from being shown live midweek on RTE], he hasn’t really had much of an opportunity to shine. It’s not that he doesn’t have the talent to be a good player, it’s just that he has found it hard to get on the pitch.

Going from his most recent appearances for Munster [he is yet to start a game this season, and only started two last season], he looks to lack quite a bit of physical power compared to guys like Billy Holland or Mick O’Driscoll, players whom he might have been expected to leapfrog in selection for the province in 2011-12 … and it’s not as though those two lads are enormous, size XXL second-rows, either. However, what they both have – and Micko in particular had it by the sackload – is experience.

Gametime – Take It Where You Can Get It

Along with size, gametime is a key factor for front five forwards. It’s a myth that you’re going to get stronger playing more games: you get stronger in the gym, you become a better, more effective rugby player on the pitch. All the time in the gym and on the training paddock will improve your test scores and fine-tune your skills as a by-product, but the reason you’re doing them is so that it’ll improve your performance on the pitch.
Leo Cullen has previously written about how difficult it is to balance the need to put on and keep weight and get reasonable gametime as a young second row, but training, nutrition plans and the level of oversight afforded by pro teams have progressed a great deal since the days when Leo was a nipper [which was pre-Reformation]. Nagle signed a two year deal to keep him at Munster in January 2011 when Northampton were sniffing around, and backed his talent/believed a load of sweet talk [delete as according to own beliefs] that he’d bleed some quality gametime out of the stone that was an O’Connell/O’Callaghan/Ryan/O’Driscoll second row corps in Munster.
However, since signing that contract 21 months ago, he has started just six games for Munster and come off the bench in another six. With Billy Holland stepping up to fill Micko’s ‘domestique’ role – he has played in every game that Munster have contested under Rob Penney, including all three pre-season warm-up fixtures – the immediate gametime future isn’t looking that much brighter.
Again, Micko acts as a counterpoint. At the end of the 2002-03 season [when he was 24] he left Munster for Perpignan, recognising that the Donnacha O’Callaghan/Paul O’Connell partnership was an obstacle he simply wasn’t going to get over any time soon. He headed over to USAP, competed in the Top16 [as was] and the Heineken Cup, played on the blindside, learned French, had a good experience in a beautiful part of the world … and came back two years later a better player. Nobody says you can’t go back.

Leo Cullen, back in the days when Leinster wore stripey shirts and Girv had hair [sorry Girv]. He left his home province for Leicester for two seasons and came back a harder, more streetwise player and a more mature and capable leader. Leicester has always been seen as a school of hard knocks, but sometimes circumstances off the pitch have just as much impact on how you perform as the playing environment. Moving out of his comfort zone in Dublin might have been as important to Cullen as landing in Leicester.

Leo Cullen left Leinster as a 27 year old after the 2004-05 season. While the circumstances of his departure were due to frustration with the way the province was heading rather than any inability to put together a run of games, he still left … and, like Micko before him, came back. And came back a better player, and a more effective leader.
Just as Caldwell’s spell in Bath has been a hands-down success, it’d be difficult to spin Nagle’s decision to stay in Munster rather than go to Northampton as anything other than an opportunity lost. They don’t pay you to hang around in your tracksuit in the Premiership; they pay you to play.  If Nagle hadn’t been contracted to Munster  last season, would he really have been missed? 215 minutes of total gametime says no. 

You Have To Be Good Enough First To Bring The Age Part Into The Cliché

The “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” adage is often abused by proselytes of the yoof movement: you have to be good enough first. And in test rugby terms, good enough means good enough now, not good enough when you reach your potential. That’s not to say that a player can’t improve after he’s made his test debut, but test selection isn’t necessarily about building a series of 80-cap players.

A week or so after his retirement, Jerry Flannery had something very interesting to say in the Irish Independent about selecting inexperienced but talented young players when the coach’s hand isn’t forced by injury:

Jerry Flannery had a fairly brusque take on some of the youngsters that were coming up at Munster in the waning days of his own career: “I wasn’t saying to myself, ‘We have some cracking young players coming through.'” Normally you only hear good things from old pros about the nippers, so it’s  interesting to hear a different spin. What does he have to gain from saying that? Nothing. 

“If you are going from the ’09 season to 2010 … these guys like (Peter) O’Mahony, (Simon) Zebo, (Mike) Sherry, (Ian) Nagle, (Dave) Foley, these are all good players but they weren’t so much on the radar back then and I was there training with them the whole time. I wasn’t saying to myself, ‘We have some cracking young players coming through.’ Maybe a coach can see something I can’t see, but I am training with them, I have eyes on them all the time so I don’t know how you get that cycle right in a squad.”

Instead of building the unnecessary hype around a guy like Ian Nagle by bringing him into the Irish squad to train [an uncharitable point of view would be that it gave a more-or-less undeserving player a big boost in profile at the expense of others who were playing better], The Mole believes Kidney would have done well to bring back Caldwell, who was in the middle of the best season of his career, has far more experience, strength, size and aggression than the young Corkonian at present, and would actually be able to contribute something at test level.

The Mole recently talked about the Nagle training selection with one of his most knowledgable sources and got an interesting perspective on it:

“What does it say to Donncha O’Callaghan? ‘Here’s the kid who holds the pads for you in Munster, now he’s being lined up for Ireland’? Donncha trains with that lad every day, he knows he’s not any sort of immediate threat. If that’s the only competition for the jersey, he’s laughing. You bring in a stringy, aggressive, hard-running Nordie – everything that O’Callaghan’s not – and tell them that they’re in competition for a spot, and all of a sudden both players are going at 100% for every second of training. Caldwell is playing well and wants the jersey, O’Callaghan knows that this lad is a bit of a headcase and is liable to blow if he gets wound up … the intensity of the whole pack goes up. Ian Nagle is never going to land a box on Donncha …”

Donnacha Ryan and Caldwell share a number of similarities – both lean, aggressive athletes who can handle and run with the pill. In terms of physical ability and skillset, The Mole doesn’t think that there’s a huge amount between them. Ryan is more disciplined and plays smarter, but those are qualities that come at different times to different players. To see Ryan excelling at test level in the absence of Paul O’Connell during the Six Nations was one of the bright points of an otherwise bleak international season: up to the 2011-12 season, he had played 100 minutes of test rugby over three seasons, spread over seven appearances off the bench. Given the standard of rugby Caldwell produced in his first season at Bath, it seems plausible that he could perform at a similar level as Ryan in the test environment.

The inference was that Ryan Caldwell would.

The Mole is a firm believer that Caldwell has the physicality and the rugby skills to compete in the test environment. He’s taller than Donnacha Ryan [201cm to 198cm], heavier than him [112kg to 108kg], has a similarly high level of athleticism and every bit as wide an aggressive streak. Those are the ingredients you need to be a test second row: size, athleticism, aggression. Ryan’s more versatile in that he can play both second row and blindside, and he’s a more astute footballer. In short, he’s the better rugby player of the two … but I don’t think it’s the enormous, vaulting gap that some may consider it to be.

A brief overview of their respective provincial careers [Ryan here and Caldwell here] highlights the fact that it was only really in 2010-11 that they started diverging in terms of their progress – Ryan had a big season in Munster [18+8], while Caldwell had his annus horibilis [3+3] in Ulster.

Declan Kidney’s Open Auditions

The national story is an interesting one as well, harking back [as it does] to happier times. Post-Grand Slam glory, with his two starting second rows [O’Connell and O’Callaghan] away with the Lions, and the two Heineken Cup-winning Leinster second rows [Cullen and O’Kelly] unavailable for selection for the Irish tour to North America, Kidney wanted to have a look at what was down in the engine room: who were the third-class stokers?

Mick O’Driscoll, Bob Casey and Caldwell went to North America in late May as the second-rows of a Lions-less, Leinster-less Irish tour for two test matches against Canada and the US Eagles, and ten days later the Churchill Cup kicked off in Colorado … and Ireland ‘A’ had three different second rows: Donnacha Ryan, Trevor Hogan and Devin Toner. Ryan had actually been part of both squads, coming off the bench for John Muldoon on the blindside in the tests against the Canucks and the Yanks.

Jesus, those were heady days! Ireland won all five matches denuded of their best players and played the Churchill Cup with the confidence of egomaniacs. Declan Kidney was experimental with his selections and looked to give a wide number of players the opportunity to prove themselves.

Big Bob, Micko and Trev “It’s Me, The Guy From The Bar” Hogan have all retired in the last couple of seasons, leaving Ryan, Caldwell and Toner from that six-strong 2009 group. Last season [2011-12] Ryan won the Munster Player of the Season Award while, as mentioned above, Caldwell was second in Bath’s Players’ Player of the Year Award; Toner played more minutes of gametime than any other Leinster forward [and all bar one of the backs] on the way to his third Heineken Cup winner’s medal. It’s fair to say that all three had the best seasons of their respective careers. Ryan had the best season of all – he had a great run, and looked every bit a test second row during the Six Nations and in New Zealand – but Caldwell’s good run was out of sight and out of mind in the Premiership.

This isn’t really about a Ryan/Caldwell/Toner argument, though; Ryan’s test form of last season would make that one-sided. It’s about wider-ranging issues: building a deeper squad; considering Irish-qualified players who ply their trade outside of the four provinces; and selecting form players rather than favourite players.

Playing Away From Home [Arf Arf]

By its nature the Aviva Premiership is a good testing ground for tight five forwards. It’s a very physical league with strong set-pieces, and the wintery conditions for a five month period from mid-October to March make for a very tough week-in, week-out roster of games. There’s an argument that the type of rugby on display is boring and based more on percentages than attacking flair, but that’s not particularly relevant when it comes to analyzing the efforts of the tight five.

The Premiership has improved as a spectacle this season [bar Saracens, the joyless bastards, working away on their one try per game record], but that doesn’t mean that the forward grind has got any softer.

Maybe The Mole has become complacent when he looks at the threat that the Premiership offers to the professional game in Ireland, but I genuinely think the threat of a mass exodus of Ireland’s best young players has passed. The Premiership’s salary cap limits the wage they can afford to pay, but the tax rebate is a more important lure to stay in Ireland, and it’s extremely difficult to compete with that long-term benefit. The provinces have all established themselves [bar Connacht] as diners at the top table in Europe, and while that can always change over a period of years, there’s no immediate reason why it should. Whether the IRFU issues a general dictat regarding the selection of Premiership-based players to each incoming Irish coach is a matter of speculation, but a mass emigration of talent due to a wider-ranging selection policy is something that isn’t on the cards.

Form And Patronage

Caldwell is out of action while recovering from his knee surgery; in terms of international selection, whether he’s injured or playing the best rugby of his life doesn’t really seem to matter, as long as he is still playing in the Premiership.

If he is to put himself forward as an international contender, you get the feeling that he’ll have to return to Ireland, whether or not the current regime is still in place when it comes time to decide his next contract.  And, as he states unequivocally in the Independent interview, the prospect of playing for his country is something he hasn’t given up on:

“I still have ambitions to play for Ireland; I’ll always have that ambition to represent Ireland. Definitely.” 

You can’t get much more straightforward than that.

Nevertheless, Bath seems to be a good fit for Caldwell and his family, and the Farleigh House training facility is the stuff of which dreams are made. Until his injury, he was having  the best season of his career there. Returning to one of the provinces to boost your chances of international selection might look like a no-brainer to Irish rugby fans, but it’s not that simple.

Roadblocks To Return

Firstly, one of the principle draws – that of the tax reimbursement – wouldn’t necessarily be much inducement to Caldwell: he has played his entire career in Northern Ireland and England thus far, has never worked or lived in the Republic and thus doesn’t qualify for the scheme. Secondly, uprooting a young family is a difficult thing for any parent to do, and is definitely not undertaken lightly. However, Caldwell likely realises that if he is to make good on his ambitions to again play for Ireland, he’ll have to return to play in Ireland, and there are two likely landing grounds: Ulster and Leinster.

Johann Muller won’t be around for ever, and he has been a leading figure in Ulster’s renaissance. His departure will open up a spot in the second row, but it’s his captaincy and leadership that may prove a bigger loss. If they don’t suitably replace him with a quality player, Ulster will be significantly weakened. 

It’s unlikely that the northern province will be able to resign Johann Muller when his contract expires in 2013, as he is already on his second deal. That immediately opens up a spot in the second row.

Brian McLaughlin has moved on as head coach, and other high profile players [Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson] have returned from stints in British rugby; those are both encouraging signs for the former Inst man. Dan Tuohy [27] and Lewis Stevenson [28] form a very reasonable second row combination in Muller’s absence, and Neil McComb [29] has started the Anscombe era brightly, but Caldwell would be a live candidate to duke it out for a starting spot … and of course, Ulster is home. Having a support network of friends and relatives around when you are trying to settle in a young family is a big deal.

Leinster probably have a bigger need than Ulster at second row – club captain Leo Cullen turns 35 in January and is only contracted until the end of the season, and Damien Browne  turns 33 before the season ends – but as trophy threats, the gap between the two provinces has narrowed dramatically over the last five months. Leinster absolutely throttled Ulster in the Heineken Cup final last May, but it’s impossible to imagine that sort of mismatch the next time they meet. While Leinster would have had a much brighter gleam in 2010-11 or last season to somebody keen to win trophies and make a name in a successful team, Ulster’s light has grown decidedly brighter.

With that said, Leinster are on the lookout for Irish-qualified second rows. They’ve drafted in less physically gifted locks than Caldwell in the last three seasons [Big Browne, the aforementioned Useless Ed and Tom Denton of Leeds] to go with the more eye-catching NIE signings of Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn, and it’d be surprising if they didn’t make a strong bid for the former Dungannon man.

Endgame

Everything points to Caldwell being in demand in at least two of the Irish provinces next season, but is a move back across the sea necessarily the best thing for him? He seems happy in Bath, and up until his injury was playing the best rugby of his career. Bath’s a hell of a nice town, and while The Rec leaves something to be described in terms of playing surface, capacity and permanence, it’s still an atmospheric sporting arena/public park when it’s jammed full of braying west countrymen and their charming womenfolk. As we’ve mentioned previously, the training facilities afforded by gazillionaire Bruce Craig ensure that the players have a phenomenal day-to-day work environment. It’s a club with a storied history, and while they have floundered around somewhat in recent years, the change of ownership and resultant massive injection of cash makes it likely that they’ll pick up significant momentum again over the next couple of years. It’s difficult to walk away from somewhere like that.

However, one thing that is undeniably true is that it’s far harder to ignore an Irish player in good form in the Pro12 than it is to ignore one toiling away in the Premiership. Were John Andress having the sort of season he’s putting together in Worcester for Connacht [he’s started every Premiership game for the Warriors’ at tighthead, rested only for the ridiculous one-sided Amlin Challenge Cup romps over Bizkaia Gernika and Rovigo], he’d be in Declan Kidney’s squad haste-post-haste. As it is, we’ve just seen the laughable selection of Stephen Archer.

Caldwell toils away for thirty games in a season in the second row for Bath, excelling in both Heineken Cup and Premiership and acclaimed by his fellow players, and can’t even get a look-in for the Wolfhounds; Archer manages a pair of starts in a row against very poor teams in the Pro12 and gets called into the national squad. It’s as clear an indicator as you can get without the IRFU holding a press conference: if Caldwell [or Andress, for that matter] wants back into the Irish team, they’re going to have to come back to Ireland.

 

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17 thoughts on “Our Friends From The North, Pt.3 – Ryan Caldwell And The Lessons He Could Teach You

    • Agreed. Looks like an Abu Dhabi-funded Clongowes. A few ex-Wood lads in Leinster’s academy might get a fit of nostalgia if Bath were ever to come knocking…

  1. Great piece mole, nice to have you back.

    In last weeks off the ball podcast Gerry mooted the point (perhaps due to personal a bias, but mooted none the less) that John Hayes and Mike Ross where both products of the A.I.L. and therein lies the origins of their skill set which is hard to come by if not unique in Ireland. It’s hard to view amateur club rugby as a springboard to national and international recognition but…..

    Neil McComb has been a story that has flew under the radar this year. I believe he eschewed a development contract to get a university education and plugged away with the amateurs until the selectors came knocking for a second time. He spent two or so years helping out here and there picking up caps in depleted teams and garbage time excursions as a lock come blindside.

    Then all of sudden gets a full contract, grows a fantastic beard, and plays some solid, at times eye catching tight-end-esque stuff where he pops up here and there and does some surprisingly dynamic stuff for a big guy. He’s looked the best “new” second row this year and may be Ulster’s only lock come Zebre time. In short a real bolt from the blue, Is this a story we could and should be hearing more of.

    P.S. Damian Browne’s slick hands and majestic lung bursting run to score a try against Cardiff was a thing of beauty, will he be challenging Carr for a place on the wing anytime soon.

    • Agree on McComb, he’s been playing really well. It’s been a bit of a renaissance year for some Ulster’s former no-hopers, in fact. Niall O’Connor has looked quite good when selected (though he is firmly third choice) while I no longer break the nearest object when I see that McComish has been picked. Where’s Useless Ed? Maybe he’s come good as well.

  2. Mole, the following comment was written when I got to the bit about a possible Caldwell and McLaughlin falling out:

    I went to university with an ex-Inst lad who was in RC’s year and described him as “the most vile human being I have ever met in my life”. Now, I trust this fella’s opinion and judgement, and he said he had no personal issues with Caldwell, but the guy’s just an absolute ballbag.

    Now, I can offer no further testament to the veracity (or not) of that opinion, it is what it is and people do change and mature but – and I’m sure you’ve mentioned this somewhere in the article – McLaughlin was presumably RC’s coach at school, so any disagreements could have been long-standing, as well as fresh.

    What’s undeniable is Caldwell’s talent. Always thought he could have been supreme, and figured that something else was behind his failure to properly kick on.

    • McLaughlin was one of the most decent and humble men on the planet, you’d imagine Caldwell would’ve had to have committed genocide to get under his nose like he did.

    • Very interesting LM. Could totally believe it – there’a a lot of noise behind the scenes in each province that isn’t fit to print but forms an important part in the jigsaw. The story of why, as the Irish Times would put it.

      • Mole, like I said, it is what it is. I trust the guy who told me, and he has nothing to gain by lying, but it’s the opinion of one person.

        Your “noise behind the scenes”, while undoubtedly true, has me intrigued. Most of it’s probably very prosaic, in truth – clashing personalities and egos, etc – but such things still have the ability to mess almost anything up.

        I heard (and now we’re into real Chinese whispers territory, this is from someone who knows someone) that the Irish players are now all done with Declan, that the NZ tour killed off any lingering patience amid the more sanguine squad members. Is this true? One wouldn’t know from the public view, they’re all pretty good at keeping smiling faces all looking the same direction.

  3. I don’t think you need to look too far beyond economics to explain the omission of players based beyond these shores. While the IRFU is ponying up for these boys they’re going to want to get their moneys worth. Not much would rankle more with the purse-string holders than their investments sitting in the stands, still taking a paycheck without even being forced into action (as well as a blow to the collective ego of those who hand out the contracts). While it may never be made explicit to the coaches exactly, I’m sure it’s well understood.

    I would also wonder how much of a carrot playing for the national team is used to keep players in the country. As stated above, there is no significant threat of an exodus to the Premiership (and certainly not with players of a higher standard) and implicit in that is the understanding that players outside Ireland rarely play for Ireland. That keeps the provinces strong (and homegrown) and keeps the HCup money flowing in.
    All Michael Bent had to do was SIGN for Leinster to get into an Ireland squad.

  4. Are you not counting Henderson as a lock? Or is it just cause Anscombe hasn’t played him there? Just saying because you don’t mention him when talking about Ulster’s locks.

    While Caldwell is a very able player he’s a yellow card waiting to happen and that’s a liability you can’t have at international level.

    • Agreed, Joe Schmidt got a good look at him in theHCup last year and you have to perhaps think he reached the same conclusion. Mind you if we could get some of his dog into Dev!

  5. Great post Mole. Jesus, Leinster could do with him already this season. With Damian Browne the only second row performing, we are pretty desperate.
    I haven’t followed Caldwell intensely but he always looked the part. Nagle I have followed as much as possible but he just doesn’t seem to have what it takes unfortunately.

  6. I wouldn’t be writing Nagel off yet, it should be noted that he picked up that niggling shoulder injury in the ’11/’12 preseason match vs Northampton which kept him sidelined for most of his windows of opportunities last season. He ony got it properly seen to and (hopefully) fixed during the summer, which meant that he again missed the opportune period for him to nail down a place a la Holland. Added to that, he seems to have filled out with room to spare.
    In his first ‘A’ game this year he scored the crossfield try which eluded the hands of DOC in the H Cup and in his first appearance for the senior team he was the one who got the turnover in the Cardiff line out in our ’22 at the end of the match, and then again secured the fast ball for Laulala’s try.
    I think he could have made big steps forward over the last year or so bar the injury so when he next gets his chance (end of AI’s & 6N’s) I think he’ll be up for it

    • He’s still young for a second row, so I wouldn’t write him off at all. There was a lot of raving about him when he came into the senior panel 2 seasons ago though and expectation is the mother of disappointment. Will continue to watch.

  7. I haven’t really followed Caldwell’s career since he went to Bath – what has his disciplinary record been like? It was pretty appalling for Ulster.

    Caldwell maybe Irredeemably damaged his chances for Ireland, under the current management anyway, when he was punched out by POC, and ended up in hospital when apparently Caldwell used his feet a bit too freely during rucking practise at an Ireland training session.

    • I don’t care what Gabriel Byrne says, this “the gathering” business is really taking off……for irish rugby anyways. If its not props its second rows.

      Every saint has a past and every sinner a future I guess. That said, it would be pretty tricky for caldwell to work his way back into the ulster set up. He moved on at a time when ulster were looking at recruiting players with particular leadership/discipline qualities. Between McLaughlin, Humphreys and the general set up they’ve done a brilliant job of recruiting, integrating and developing the existing players to really suit that ethos over the past few years. That is the cornerstone of their team and it would seem the mole is spot on – they lost trust in caldwell around that time and once lost it is difficult to go back on that and build anything with confidence. I’m not sure that was the case with Wilson or bowe.

      Leinster might look at redhanded’s anecdote above and think….this could be another Nathan hines! There are a fair few similarities and it does look a better fit for the player and team, at least excluding family circumstance. Haven’t seen enough of him at bath to put forward a worthwhile opinion on whether or not he could do the business though and it all depends on just how much he wants to put himself in the international selection shake up anyway.

      As regards what this all means to player pathways and what can be inferred – very hard to say and any suggestions fall victim to your law of unintended consequences. It’s a case by case basis and what works best for an individual. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all.

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