Jeunesse Doree

It was a televised discussion over a decade ago and Ronnie Whelan was asked about ‘The Liverpool Way’. Rather than indulge his interviewer with tales of mystical mornings in Melwood, Ronnie exclaimed “there was no ‘Liverpool Way’, just great players.” The quote never got the legs it deserved in my eyes, I thought it was hilarious.

This blog has for most of its time railed against the term ‘Golden Generation’. Brief research (on Wikipedia) was sufficient to confirm my suspicions. The phrase was first used about the Portuguese teams that won back to back World Youth Championships in football and has since entered the lexicon in much the same way that ‘Dream Team’ did after the 1992 Olympics.

The Dream Team weren’t pushed in any of their games during 1992 so didn’t have to dig deep in a match for the ages but instead indulge their opposition in photo opportunities in the manner of an Olympian Harlem Globetrotters. What captured the imagination was all-timers Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan on the same team. Go America!

Ireland have been driven to heights by Brian O’Driscoll during his career, particularly when winning the Grand Slam and beating France in Paris. Other players have had notable careers at the same time but it is only O’Driscoll who I would consider for my all time team. Basically, there isn’t a golden generation, there are guys about the same age as Brian O’Driscoll who came to prominence at a time when the game in Ireland developed professionally.

Why the doggedness on this point? It’s not to belittle anyone’s contribution or to suggest that it was all solely O’Driscoll. The thrust of this piece is that Ireland’s structures since the inception of professionalism are good, particularly at provincial level, and have produced a level of competition that has benefitted Irish professional rugby. However, the idea that it is harder to get off the Irish team rather than on it still lingers and has to change.

The idea that the international game is so different to the Heineken Cup is another thing this blog has trouble believing. Yes, the top level of international rugby is the highest there is but the Heineken Cup offers a quality of rugby that prepares players for that better than anything that has gone before. This is achieved in numerous ways: foremost is the fact that the players get accustomed to big match atmosphere and pressure situations against top quality opposition. One of the results of winning against top class opposition at club level is that there is less mystique and less to fear about the same opposition when the wear their national jersies.

I was surprised by two quotes from Il Dece in the aftermath of the win against Argentina.

“We’ll assemble again at Christmas. I’ll fight, no I won’t fight, but I’ll try and get whatever time we can together. It’s a new squad,”

“When you’re in school, you’re used to having different squads all the time, year on year, but to have so many . . . Like, somebody just counted out that of the 32 we had in training this week, we had 17 new guys compared to the World Cup. That’s a monumental turnover. If you look the bench had three one-cappers.”

The thing that gets me in both quotes is that he is almost taken by surprise by the training arrangements, the structure of the season and the composition of his squad. You know, the one that he picks. It’s not like teams are forced upon him by the Big Five from days gone by. How can you be surprised about having players with so little experience when we cling to some players when they’re passed their best-by date?

This is not a particularly insightful remark but what was to be gained by putting on Donncha O’Callaghan ahead of Iain Henderson at the weekend? At what stage will Ronan O’Gara be jettisoned? When will he stopped being judged on being Chief Ligind and when will he be selected on his current performances in relation to his peers? The argument is that O’Gara is still a proven match winner and brings a cold blooded temperament off the bench due to all the experience gained throughout his career.  It’s tough to argue with that point but it’s also hard to accurately guage the intangibles offered by experience.

You cannot have discretion over the composition of the squad for a number of years and then talk about a lack of experience as though it were fated. If players are to develop experience then they must be selected. Competition for places is vital. It is no longer the case that Ireland does not have a sufficient number of players capable of competing at international level. There is the exceptional case of O’Driscoll and his retirement is approaching. After him, all players are replaceable.

Despite the callow look of the team to face Argentina, the Mole was happy with the line up and the timing of it in the season. In form players had been picked in position and our back line had plenty of gas. I did think we’d win, but only by 4-6 points. I was delighted by the performance, as much because it has become easy to forget how enjoyable it is watching an Irish team play good rugby. The Heineken Cup may have captured the imagination but there is still nothing like shouting at the TV during an Irish match to remind you of the national side’s prominence.

My current view of the national team’s season is based on a single aim: beat France. Over the last ten years in the 6 Nations, Ireland has won 7 out of 10 against England. England has won 7 out of 10 against France and France have won 7 out of 10 against Ireland. For whatever reason, it is the French match that stops Ireland feeling like winners. None of the other teams hold a fear for us but France is a bogey side. With that aim in mind, the French match becomes the game when the best team is selected and the rest of the competition should be used to find that balance.

This isn’t at all to say that games should be sacrificed; on the contrary, players in form should be selected to start in order to foster the edge developed by internal competition and the cohesiveness allowed by familiarity. Does that sound contradictory? What I’m getting towards is a situation where, for example, Luke Marshall is picked to start against Italy so that if he’s required against England in Twickenham then it’s not his first game at international level. I’d particularly be in favour of summer tours being used for the same purpose. I think it is easier to make a debut away from home in a tour environment when there is less unusual attention from those close to you.

Kidney himself used this tactic in his first Six Nations when making four changes for the game against Scotland. When making that selection, it seemed that he was tinkering with the bank of experience built by Eddie O’Sullivan. In the first year of his deal, he was prepared to take risks. Now, in order to try and prolong his tenure, he should do so again.

22 thoughts on “Jeunesse Doree

  1. After the preceding 3 years, nothing should prolong his tenure! Of course if he consistently plays a gameplan like Saturday’s, utilising players in form and in their best positions, selecting a team best-suited to beating the opposition (rather than blind loyalty)…and beats France…then his growing band of critics will have to eat humble pie and a new contract might be justifiable. That’s a few more ifs than simply beating France though.

    Totally share the sentiment that it was great to see the national team playing with flair and confidence, and enjoying themselves again. Does everyone good.

  2. Glad someone else is saying this, I’ve said for ages that this golden generation thing is way overblown. Also, we have too many bogey sides.

  3. I think DK is a wily old chancer and his quotes are indicative of such. His lapdog in the press gets scraps of gibberish and the feigned surprise smacks of a well thought out charm campaign. Lose and blame it on young lads but a win especially in the manner that we did is fantastic.
    Sure, hope is a thing with feathers and Saturday’s backline flew. If they stay like this I’d be happy for DK and his coaches to continue. EO’S was contracted for 9 years and I don’t see the IRFU jettisoning winners. DK needs to remember that both he and them should jettison the losers.

  4. Wales are approaching bogey team status, also. France at home could be a key game; indeed, a possible Grand Slam decider; but it won’t count for so much if we lose first up in Wales. Like Wales’ slam last season, winning the first match – the only really difficult away match, will all due respect to Scotland and Italy – will be crucial in determining Ireland’s Six Nations season.

    If the French game is a top of the table Grand Slam clash, i think it’ll take care of itself! (We’re also due some luck against them It would be nice to see absolutely no sign of Dave Pearson on the pitch, for instance.)

    • I would not be so quick to write off the other away 6N games next year, particularly Rome, but I agree with the view that Wales are very close to bogey team status. Indeed in view of their autumn (likely to finish with defeat to the Wallabies unless they, the Aussies, are de-mob happy) they will be targetting us more than ever.

      As for il Dece’s comments that you highlight Mole, I think he is just a disengenuous bollix!

  5. I am no advocate of Kidneys general selection policy but it is difficult to suggest that O’Gara’s peers have surpassed him yet..Jackson/Madigan are very good but O’Gara even with his shocking tackling is still far ahead of them (experience or not). He still remains the best tactical/kicking out half in the NH by a long distance, sure the younger players are better runners than he is but do not pose as much of a threat to opposing teams as O’Gara’s boot (and in my opinion he also gets the back-line on the front foot even better than Sexton, while not offering a running threat himself).
    Kidney looks like a bit of a hero for ‘giving youth a shot’…but in reality nearly all selections were forced. It will be more interesting to see how he selects for Wales showdown if he has a full squad to choose from. Will he revert to picking POC even though Donncha Ryan and Mike MC proved to be excellent in both games (as ridiculaous as it would seem to drop POC he shouldnt start ahead of these 2 with the form they showed)? Will he revert to the usual backrow even though i think Henry and POM proved that a more balanced back row may be the way forward (as opposed to 3 ball carriers)? It is good to see that the players are proving to Kidney that he does need to step back and think about his selections but how will he respond?
    Paul Marshall deserved at least a start in the Fiji game to show what he can offer (pace) to the wider public.

    • It would be ridiculous to drop O’Connell for McCarthy or Ryan two years ago but he is not that player any more. Sure he is a presence that is hard to replace but both Ryan and McCarthy proved over this series they have the passion to try and do it. There is also the salient question of whether a fully fit POC would even be the best player to make use of in this (possibly) new style of play Ireland might (possibly) start to play from here on.

    • Im sorry I completely disagree with you regarding rog. When has he ever got a backline moving. Hes an outhalf whos only attribute was his boot and he has lost about 20 yards on it. He cant defend, he cant attack and now he cant kick. If madigan was in nz he would be blooded by now

    • Would second what Jojo says.

      ROG was the linchpin to Munster’s 10-man rugby formula, which yielded success for them, despite their lack of attacking backs (with all respect to John Kelly, Anthony Horgan, Ian Dowling etc.). However, I have never heard anyone claim he is good at getting a backline moving – which is what this Irish team needs. He has a good flat pass – on occasion – but it stops there.

      To claim that he is still the second best option defies all the evidence of the past year. Jackson is starting outhalf for the form Irish province and has delivered at every single level (also now in an Irish shirt). Madigan has been excellent for the Leinster backline and, while he is moved to fullback to accomodate Sexton (the best 10 in Europe) for the Heineken Cup, it is a reflection of his quality that he is selected to start out of position. Ditto Keatley – with ROG arguably having got the nod for the Racing and Leinster games due to IRFU dictat (rather than form). It is worth noting that Munster has lost all 3 games in which ROG started.

      To still harp on about ROG’s ‘tactical’ kicking also ignores his recent interventions in an Ireland shirt. Most notably against the Safas (feebly kicking the ball away) and the Argies (feebly dropping the ball directly to an Argentinian).

      Finally, it also ignores the reality that 2013 will surely be the final year for him as a professional and the fact that there is no benefit in playing him in and delaying the transition of new players to the team, who – as demonstrated above – have fulfilled the requisite apprenticeships.

      All of which begs the question: are you ROG, ROG’s mum, Deccie or Goebbels?

      • Goebbels..very clever. The Irish back-line were relatively prolific over the 10 or so years with ROG at 10 and Drico wasnt doing all the work alone. Having a 10 who can actually kick (and to suggest he cant anymore based on 2 bad kicks in 8 minute cameo rolls is ridiculous, it takes a kick or 2 to find your distance…Sexton kicked dead at the beginning of the Argie match for example) holds backlines back a metre or 2 and forces their back 3 to sit deeper (how else could Shaggy have scored so often for Ireland having no acceleration whatsoever), also allowing the 10 to play the ball flat on the game-line (Darcy is forced to take the ball at least 3 metres behind Sexton every time…this is not ‘depth’…depth is coming form deep and taking the ball on the front foot). ROG still contributes this. I take your point about blooding the younger guys and Sexton probably is the best out-half in Europe (even if 2 other European outhalfs were somehow just nominated for World Player of the Year) but people need to jump off the anti-ROG bandwagon and actually think about the situation.
        Munster have their lowest number of players in a green jersey for decades and everyone still seems out to get any player that Kidney picks. Leinster and Ulster have taken over as the 2 top provinces but that isnt to say that Kidney should just jettison any Munster player simply because he is from there himself. I

      • “Leinster and Ulster have taken over as the 2 top provinces but that isnt to say that Kidney should just jettison any Munster player simply because he is from there himself.”

        That’s a hilariously revealing comment, especially in light of the fact that it drives to the core of the ROG defence.

        A friend of mine always maintained that ‘we simply don’t have the players’ when that Golden Generation talk was in full flight. It seemed like he was proved right every time with one or two memorable exceptions. WoC recently pointed out that this year’s bench is much deeper that Eddie’s ever was and you do have to wonder what we’ll make of all those Liginds if the future turns out to be markedly more successful than the past.

        At the very least I’m looking forward to there being a few silver linings to any clouds coming our way. At least Jackson or Madigan can actually get schooled in the sense that failure is tends to build character. We don’t have very much to gain by letting ROG embarrass himself, even if he does to do it within the last 8 minutes of every game.

  6. Have to agree on O’Gara’s passing ability it was noticeable when O’Driscoll got his 100th cap that most of the tries they showed involved a long flat pass from Rog (bypassing the ball buryer at 12).

    • The ROG debate is one that fascinates me. As a Munster fan I can see why it may seem that I am looking through my red tinted nostalgic glass but I really don’t understand why so many people seem to be out to oust him from the Irish squad. His tackling is poor that can’t be denied and he doesn’t have much pace but people don’t seem to understand the knock-on qualities that a good kicking out-half brings to a backline (as I’ve outlined above).
      Now I’m not saying that ROG should start, as Sexton has clearly surpassed him as no. 1 choice (and contrary to how the below will seem I do in fact think Sexton is the better player at the moment) but a very interesting comparison can be drawn between both their international careers.
      Sexton has 32 caps, 26 starts (81.25%), 3 tries (9.4%), 30 conversions (93.75%) and 62 penalties (193.75%).
      O’Gara has 126 caps, 87 starts (70%), 16 tries (12.6%), 176 conversions (139.6%) and 200 penalties (158.7%).
      Now I’m not going to take the Moneyball approach but it would seem that O’Gara has a better match percentage in every area other than penalties (and starts) which would suggest that A) Sexton is a better place kicker or B) Ireland are forced to play for kicks more often when Sexton is on the pitch. The other surprising stat being that O’Gara has a much higher conversion rate…suggesting that A) he is the better kicker (contradictory to the penalty stats above) or B) IRELAND SCORE MORE TRIES WHEN ROG IS ON THE PITCH.
      And all Sextons game have come while Leinster have established themselves as the most successful team in European history?
      Incidentally Ireland have a 60% win rate with O’Gara’s involvement compared to a 45% win rate with Sexton on the pitch (an even worse ratio that Deccie himself…)
      Also ROG has a better try scoring percentage…strange considering Sexton is the greatest out-half in the history of the ‘loop around’!

      • There are too many strawmen in that post to make it worthwhile responding to any of them, ROG.

        The simple reality is ROG is not bringing enough to the party anymore to justify him delaying the development of players we will urgently need next year already.

        Not only has Jackson been much better than him this year, any objective observer would concede that ROG has simply not been much good since his senseless and ill-fated start against Wales in RWC. Its time for us all to move on – even at Munster (where he is 0 for 3 this year), there is surely a case for concluding the transition (esp with Hanrahan starting to knock).

      • Those stats are non-sense – quoting a conversion rate of 139.6% on the basis that one conversion per game gives you a 100% conversion rate is laughable.

        If that’s the case then I am a the best fly half in Ireland- I’ve only ever kicked one conversion in my life and I nailed it (from under the posts but that’s not the point, I nailed that sucker). I also played fly half once and scored a try and a drop goal so I’m claiming a 100% record for those too.

        If anyone has the ear of the coaching staff, tell them that I take a medium splash top and I have a note from my Doctor saying I don’t have to hold tackle bags in P.E. but other than that, I’m good to go.

      • The stats are nonsense and that is sort of the point but they were just for the purpose of direct comparison (if you need an explanation 139.6% means that ROG scored an average of 1.396 conversions per game).
        In all honesty I am probably being a bit of a troll on here as I do think that Sexton is better and it probably is time to bring the younger lads through (although i don’t particularly rate Jackson) but I reckon ROG gets too much abuse online from people who don’t understand the game.
        On that note, I am off……

  7. Whats with all the optimism, we won our last test match so if history teaches us anything its that we’ll lose our next 2 at least. Kidney feeling comfortable again after all the kisses blown at him by the media will slip back into his old conservative self, the players will start to believe their own hype and the opposition(first 2 games against Wales and England) will be desperate to make amends after a poor autumn. All last week did is guarantee us that some much needed changes wont be made, i.e. D’arcy will almost ceratinly start against Wales who he’s struggled against the past few meetings.

    Sorry for the pessimistic view but we are still coached by Declan Kidney who a week ago was the worst coach we’ve had since the advent of professionalism.

  8. Another insightful one Mole! Keep at it. Agree with the viewpoinjt on France as the lynch-pin fixture of the 6N.

    However would also offer the suggestion that DK should treat the national team the way that Brian Cody treats Kilkenny. He knows that his potential selection is from a far smaller pool than his major rivals, so he ensures that selection is totally based on competition and form in that competition in-house. It almost appears as if King Henry is the only automatic on the team sheet. Everybody else, even Tommy Walsh, has to play for their slot.

    I firmly believe that Ireland has the potential to become the NZ of European Rugby – if we have the vision and confidence to bring it about. The reasons for that viewpoint are:

    A. The French and English players are “owned” largely by wealthy indioviduals who want success now for their Clubs. Counctry comes a poor second.
    B. The French and the English both have other major field sports at which they compete internationally which detract from the national support for their Rugby teams; the corollary is that Ireland has only one international, competitive team sport which is capable of success. The consequence of this is that success will be sustainable because there is fanatical support available.
    C. The game is becoming more and more injury conscious and our lack of huge players will diminish as the Lawmakers put more and more emphasis on skill rather than momentum.

    Munster “invented” themselves in the ‘Noughties’ as the Liverpool of European Rugby, provincial, chip on the shoulder, hughly effective at winning the games that were lost.
    Leinster recreated themselves as the AJax of Europe by focussing on the skills whilst quitely developing a hard core of forwards who refused to have their team messed about.
    Ulster are on the path to developing an almost Bayern-like low risk success pattern that involves key players (Pienaar, Muller, Afoa) giving a hard competitive edge whilst younger, talented local lads play key cameo roles with ever increasing confidence.

    With these three cornerstone Provinces maintaining competiveness and developing new players annually, Ireland should be in a position to optimise the available talent by selecting players in form and players suitable to taking up the particular challenges of our different opponents in the 6N.

    Our head coach however must forget the old-fashioned and now out-moded policy of selecting his “best team” for every game. There is more than one “best team” required to win a Tournament which comprises three home games one season and two home games the next season. DK and Small, Kiss, Foley, Feek and Tainton must sit down and figure out what Game Plan(s) are necessary to beat Wales, Scotland, Italy away and then France and England at home over an 8 week period. That’s the challenge for any coach of a Heineken winning team and very few, if any, of them pick just one team.

    Ireland has the capacity to beat almost everybody in Europe on a one-off basis. But what puts bread on the table is winning Tournaments and that’s the form of competition in the 6 Nations – a tournament. Ireland need to start planning with that mindset. If we do, we can!

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