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.
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].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.
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:
“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.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.
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
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:
“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 …”
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.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.
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  and Lewis Stevenson  form a very reasonable second row combination in Muller’s absence, and Neil McComb  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.
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.