Amidst no small dollop of carping and moaning about what a pain in the arse it was, we mentioned at the end of the last Ruck Marks article that we’d try and run a similar exercise using Ireland’s November tests as our subjects. We surprised ourselves by actually carrying this through [just like we carried through our tag index … all the way up to ‘D’] with a Boxeresque appetite for dumb labour.
Ireland 40 – 9 SamoaIreland’s first test outing under the Joe Schmidt regime was a disjointed effort against an underwhelming Samoan side who failed to reach the standards they had set a year earlier. With that said, Ireland put 40 points on a team who were ranked above them at kickoff. That hasn’t happened too often in the recent past … or ever, really.
There was a fair share of mealy-mouthed pandering to the disappointing Samoan effort, much of it undercooked guff about how they were missing ‘half a team’. Hmmm.
Back in June, a half-strength Ireland were playing a couple of friendlies on North American soil under an interim coach while Samoa were involved in a fully fledged Quadrangular Tournament in South Africa, beating Scotland and Italy on neutral soil before losing heavily to the full strength Springboks, a team who have since gone around beating the piss out of everybody but the invincible All Blacks.
The Samoan team that turned up in Lansdowne road featured five changes from the team that started the final in late June; one of those – Kahn Fotuali’i over Jeremy Sua in the No9 jersey – is a big upgrade by anybody’s account.
At fullback Fa’atoina Autagavaia replaced James So’oialo, who had been and gone from Connacht over the course of about three weeks in October. So’oialo has a name made famous by brother Rodney, but not that much more in his kitbag than the man who replaced him. Northampton’s George Pisi stood in for Stade’s Paul Williams at No13, which is a bit of a downgrade, but hardly a disastrous one; both centres were first capped in 2010, and Williams has 18 caps [all of them starts] to Pisi’s 14 [again, all starts]. Brando Va’aula replaced the talismanic Alesana Tuilagi on the left wing, which obviously takes a huge weapon out of the Samoan armoury; the aforementioned Fotuali’i/Sua switch took place at scrum-half; and Fa’atiga Lemalu replaced the experienced Daniel Leo in the row. The Samoans didn’t name a single debutant in the team that took the pitch, although two lads earned their first caps off the bench.
The point is that it wasn’t a vastly under-strength Samoan team, no more than it was a vastly understrength Irish team. It’s a tricky situation to talk about ‘certain starters’ under a new coach during the Autumn Internationals, but injury deprived Ireland of Jonny Sexton, Donnacha Ryan, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, Craig Gilroy, Richardt Strauss and Iain Henderson, six of whom had started the last of the equivalent tests in 2012 – the convincing win over Argentina – with the seventh [Henderson] making an appearance off the bench in that game.
Schmidt further imposed his selectorial will/tied one arm behind his back by leaving three 2013 Lions – Paul O’Connell, Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy – on the bench for the starting gun. All three of them are typically amongst the first names inked into the starting lineup.
So, with that preamble out of the way, what did the numbers show?
Something that became very evident from looking at these matches in detail over the last month is that Sean O’Brien is pretty much Ireland’s best player in every game. I recognise that this might come across as a loaded judgment because of the fact that this article examines games through a lens which particularly favours him [i.e. activity at the ruck and breakdown], but if Ireland had a Quade Cooper, Israel Folau, Willie le Roux, Jan de Villiers, Dan Carter or Ben Smith tearing it up, there’d just be a classic backs vs forwards argument, rather than any retraction of the thesis.
As it is, none of our backline have either really dominated a game or set it alight over the last month, and O’Brien is just a monster. Everyone in world rugby knows what a punishing and explosive runner he is, but he combines that with being the pack’s consistently hardest tackler, one of Ireland’s most frequent tacklers [in every game he plays] and a ferocious appetite for effective work.
O’Brien was only on the pitch for 46/47 minutes against Samoa, and yet he was the joint highest carrier in the Irish pack [with O’Mahony and Heaslip], ran for almost three times as many metres as his nearest contender in the green eight, beat as many defenders as the rest of the Irish pack combined [starters and subs], made up a credible tally of tackles and finished second only to Rory Best in terms of ruck marks, running up a total of 73 and leading the team in hits  and guards  in the second half.
Rory Best, Paul O’Connell and Sean O’Brien– Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People
One of the most interesting things about reviewing the game was the disparity in the number of rucks between the frustrating first half and the far more satisfying [if never all that thrilling] second half.
The first half saw 67 rucks take place, while there were a round 100 in the second period. Even The Mole can figure that one out: a whopping 50% increase in the number of rucks from the halftime blast to the full time whistle.
Ireland struggled badly to retain possession in the first half; really badly. Only once were they able to take it beyond two phases [the six phase epic of Ruck#15-21 between 11:19 and 11:50 on the match clock]. That’s pretty pathetic.
The half time break obviously saw a significant change in tactics, as well as the introduction of Paul O’Connell and Sean O’Brien, Ireland’s two most effective players at the ruck and breakdown. O’Brien earned 64 ruck points [1 turnover, 14 hits, 7 guards and 3 presents] in the second 40 minutes, while O’Connell earned 53 [3 decisives, 11 hits, 2 guards, 2 presents]. Rory Best continued where he had left off in the first half, bringing in 57 ruck marks [3 turnovers, 1 decisive, 11 hits, 1 guard and 3 presents].
Over the three game series, O’Brien [295 ruck marks in 200 minutes] and O’Connell [264 ruck marks in 187 minutes] were Ireland’s most effective forwards in ruck and breakdown situations. While Best didn’t quite hit those heights, his outstanding work in the Samoan match, a decent shout in the Australian debacle and a score of 34 in the 14 minutes he was on the pitch at the start of the New Zealand game [2 turnovers, 6 hits, 2 guards and 2 presents], serves as an indicator that if he’s not quite at their level, he certainly belongs in their company.
The Ulster hooker made turnover hay throughout the second half by ripping the ball out of various Samoan hands while they were being held up in choke tackles.
He managed three of these steals in the second half [@ 45:13, @ 54:00 and @ 59:13] and almost had a fourth, letting the ball go as the maul hit the ground in order to limit the danger of conceding a penalty. It’s difficult to tell whether the Samoans were so concerned with the choke tackle that they forgot to prioritize ball security as they fought to get to ground [i.e. they were perhaps over-prepared] or that they weren’t aware that Ireland would try and hold them upright and hawk on the ball when the held Samoan player looked to offload [i.e. they were underprepared]. In any case, the second half was a happy hunting ground for Best.
Three Dimensional Strength
The numbers are in and the news is shocking: Devin Toner isn’t particularly effective at ruck time.
He certainly doesn’t compare well to second row partner Paul O’Connell, whose work-rate and effectiveness when the ball is on the deck has been remarked upon previously. However, and wiith due apologies for tiresomely cross-referencing articles that we wrote before, “…it’s also a standard that few will ever hit, and you can still be a more than competent test player without being as good as O’Connell.”
The Mole would stand by that remark. It’d be great if Toner was as good as Paul O’Connell, but O’Connell is easily the best Irish second row of the professional era, and probably the best of the last half century. It’s a pretty sh*tty stick to beat somebody with if you’re going to complain that they’re not as good as the best player their country has produced in the position over fifty years or so. Jesus Christ, Gordon D’Arcy, why can’t you be as good as Brian O’Driscoll?
At around 208cm, Toner is not ideally built for rucking [the obvious game?], and he especially struggles in messier breakdown situations when he can’t line people up from a bit of distance. When he gets his approach right he can deliver some extremely solid thumps that move the pile: that’s not all that surprising, because it’s 124kg moving at a decent lick. However, when there’s not a static target there to hit, he’s a lot less effective.O’Connell has developed a great low hip posture when he’s addressing rucks, but the breakdown is a chaotic theatre of operations and rucking a messy business; you often find yourself arrayed pretty unconventionally, and one of O’Connell’s strengths is that he’s able to function effectively when he finds himself in very compromised body positions. He’s got great three-dimensional strength [just another variant on the over-used ‘functional strength’ tag], and there’s probably a whole catalogue of things that have contributed to it: genetics, the core strength built up by his years of swimming as a kid and teenager, his famous competitiveness in the gym, a willingness to learn from other people and other disciplines, the natural process of getting stronger as you mature [another strength trope, this time the revered ‘old man strength’] … there are likely a dozen contributing factors if you wanted to give the premise a sky funeral and pick over its carcass.
Toner is a lot more reliant on linear strength, and tends to be ineffective if he is inaccurate. There are a couple of things he can do to remedy this: be more accurate would be the first of them!
Secondly, he could definitely use those long levers of arms more effectively even if he slips off the hit – wrap people up, grapple, get underhooks or headlocks and make them compete against the dragging force of his 124kg weight applied off-axis.
O’Connell’s repeat efforts at close-in rucks are magnificent, but when you’re 10cm taller and 12kg heavier, down-and-ups take a hell of a lot of energy. If he has missed a clean hit at the ruck, Toner can sometimes be a bit tepid – he should always fight to make himself a nuisance at the breakdown, even if it means dragging people out from the wrong side [and the master of that particular art, Leo Cullen, is a provincial colleague and should be able to pass on some tips] or playing them when he’s on the deck, fighting off his back with four limbs like a Gracie.
This is all quite negative on Toner, who had a good series and established himself as an option at test level for Joe Schmidt’s Ireland. Mike McCarthy made a similar impression in this series last year, making his first start as a lock [and only the second start of his test career] against the Boks; before him, Donnacha Ryan emerged as a test starter at the tail end of the 2012 Six Nations, when he made his second test start at lock [having made a couple of other run-ons in 2011 as a blindside flanker].
It’d seem evident that Toner’s a very coachable player and conscientious professional, because it’s obvious that he has systematically addressed aspects of his game – scrummaging, ball-carrying [16 carries for 29m in these three games, an average of 1.8m+/carry], tackling [30/5 over the series, an average of 10/1.6 per game], handling [7 passes in his three starts, averaging better than 2 per game] – and methodically improved them one by one, season after season, until they’re at test standard.
Ireland are turning over a generation of experienced, highly-decorated and eminent second rows – Cullen, O’Callaghan, the now-retired Mick O’Driscoll – and the generation behind them have come to international rugby later than their predecessors. There’s always a bit of suspicion amongst Irish fans about players who don’t break into international rugby in their early twenties, which is [in The Mole’s opinion] short-sighted. Not every player has to be an 80-capper, and some guys mature later than others and are simply the best available option at a given time.
You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Til It’s Gone
A scrum that performs badly will typically generate more criticism than a scrum that performs well generates praise; ditto with lineouts. Eaten bread is soon forgotten.
The Irish set-pieces absolutely ground the Samoans into the dirt, generating numerous turnovers, free-kicks and penalties. Paul O’Connell stole two lineouts cleanly and Mike McCarthy one. Their efforts heavily contributed to a Samoan success rate out of touch of just 50%, while Ireland dominated the stratosphere with a cool six from six on their own ball for a 100% return, including a classic try off a driving maul for Peter O’Mahony in the first half.
The scrum was just as impressive, especially as it formed the foundations of debutant Jack McGrath’s successful Man of the Match campaign. James Johnston is no dummy, and he’s bloody enormous, even for a Samoan. While he has lost a little of his effectiveness under the new scrummaging protocol, he’s still the immensely strong 140kg colossus who brutalised first Paul James and then Gethin Jenkins when Samoa knocked over Wales in November of last year. Ask the Connacht props how much they enjoyed scrummaging against him in the Stoop last year when they took on Harlequins in the Heineken Cup – if they haven’t blocked it out of their respective memories, I’d imagine they’d answer that it wasn’t a pleasant experience.
Of course, the scrum is a unit skill, and everyone involved should get their dues. While McGrath, Ross, Healy and Fitzpatrick provided a solid platform in the direct head-to-head exchanges, the labours of Toner, McCarthy and O’Connell in the engine room can’t be ignored, nor the excellent ball control of Jamie Heaslip at the base.
Chris Henry only lasted for 34 minutes of the November series, but it’s arguable that he did everything asked of him. Both Jamie Heaslip and Joe Schmidt spoke in the build-up about how they’ve had to gameplan for him in the past when Leinster were preparing to face Ulster, and he was the same dogged and effective presence at the tackle, breakdown and maul in his time on the pitch against Samoa as he had been in those interprovincial derbies. His seven tackles in the first half hour and ruck mark score of 30 [1 decisive, 5 hits, 4 guards, 3 presents] both led the Irish team at the interval.
He’s just a destructive, negative force as a player, and plays the No7 position in a singular way. He’s somewhat one-paced and lumpen in comparison to other opensides like Michael Hooper or Justin Tipuric, but he reads the game well as a defender, has an indomitable attitude that quietly keeps him coming back for more and is capable of taking a huge amount of punishment. When it comes to competing and slowing opposition ball, he puts his body in harm’s way on a weekly basis, regardless of the import of the game. Allied to that is the fact that he’s a canny competitor and a persuasive, open face with referees; he plays right at the edge of the laws, but only in terms of gamesmanship, rather than niggle or thuggery. As a result, he rarely picks up yellow cards or attracts the referee’s attention beyond what you’d expect. In terms of referee relationships, he’s an admirable Grey Man No7: mildly charming, ultimately forgettable.
He’s also got that slow-twitch sort of strength which manifests itself best through grappling, and being taller than the average openside adds to his abilities as a choke tackler. Henry’s a very, very different type of animal than Sean O’Brien, and quite one-dimensional in comparison to guys like McCaw or [historically] Olivier Magne or Neil Back, but he seems to be a very difficult player to play against; sort of like an openside version of Dan Lydiate.
Ireland 15 – 32 AustraliaThe Beeb’s legendary Northern Code commentator Ray French was interviewed at half time of the Rugby League World Cup final in Old Trafford. In the first forty, the Kangaroos had absorbed the brunt of the Kiwis’ full frontal attack and had taken point-scoring chances with surgical precision; the game was already as good as over, and when former dual code international Robbie Paul was asked what they could do to get back in the game, he was pretty much stumped. He knew that his New Zealanders were goosed, and all he could really come up with was something about playing with passion.
The players were back on the pitch and the director had cut from the studio back to where the action was about to restart, but French was allowed the last word, and they came disembodied over the airwaves as the cameras covered the second half kick off: “When he says passion, somebody up front needs to smash someone.”
Bingo. That’s why he’s one of the greats.
The reaction to Ireland’s 17-point loss to Australia probably deserves more comment than the performance itself, which was …. lacklustre. The team hamstrung themselves with some amateur hour defending, and unless you’re a potent, free-scoring, experienced and composed team [the All Blacks, Rod Macqueen’s Australian team at their best, certain French sides of the late 1980s and early 1990s], you simply can’t afford to concede that many cheap tries and win a game.
There was also a general standoffishness at the breakdown and ruck. As with most situations on a rugby field, there are likely a number of contributing factors, but The Mole feels that the primary cause of this hesitancy was likely explained by the simple fact of who was reffing the game.
Chris Pollock was the whistleblower in the first Lions test who simply didn’t allow competition on the ground, and it looked as though the Irish coaching staff had not just taken account of his interpretation, but had drilled it into their team. Ireland were particularly cautious at the breakdown with regards to jackalling, and because this is the primary mode of competing for the ball at the breakdown amongst all the provinces [rather than counter-rucking/getting beyond the ball] this had an overall negative impact on their performance on the deck. The Australians were in general more urgent and had the benefit of not shooting themselves in the foot every time they were on D.
The Props’ Performances – Sort of Backwards To What You’d Expect
Healy put in a peculiar shift against the Australians, winning Ireland’s only ruck turnover of the day under referee Pollock on 35:15 and making the best Irish tackle of an admittedly piss-poor defensive performance when he buried Australian winger Cummins at 65:24.
However, aside from those standout moments he had one of his quietest games in an Irish jersey and, barring the jarring tackle on Cummins, his second half performance was well below par. The Mole had him picking up just 8 ruck marks in his 28 minute second half: 1 hit, 1 guard and 3 presents. That’s anaemic stuff for a bulldozer of Healy’s ability.
It was surprising to see him fail to complete the cover tackle on Aussie hooker Stephen Moore for Cummins’ try in the first half; you’d imagine that the loosehead would have his number in a footrace nine times out of ten. Sure, it shouldn’t have been his tackle to make in the first place, but it ended up in a scramble and anything goes in that situation.
Healy escaped most of the public recriminations that dogged his prop partner Mike Ross in the [borderline hysterical] aftermath because he was able to hold up his end at scrum time against Sekope Kepu, but Kepu’s no force of nature and scrummaging is a unit skill.
Ross didn’t have a good day on his side of the scrum, but it’s difficult – practically impossible – to know if Ireland’s right side troubles started and ended with the tighthead anchor. On one occasion in the second half [around the 61 minute mark, after O’Connell had decided to kick for the corner instead of the posts and then messed up the transfer at the lineout] he ended up flat on his face on Lansdowne Road’s Desso GrassMaster hybrid sward and was quite obviously at fault. Australia rightly got the penalty and it was more or less the last meaningful action of the match as a competitive issue.
Against the ‘it’s all Ross’s fault’ proposition is the argument that if the opposition loosehead is coming through at a rate of knots and Ross is going backwards rather than buckling to the dirt or getting flying lessons, it means that he’s not getting enough of a shunt from his side of the middle row. There certainly was an instance in the second half – in fact it was the scrum that turned over the ball for Quade Cooper’s cakewalk try – where Peter O’Mahony completely fell off very early after put-in and O’Connell entirely lost his bind. Momentarily we caught a glimpse of a revolutionary scrummaging formation where O’Mahony kept wide on the right and O’Connell played the trequartista role in the hole just behind the front three.Putting that disaster of a scrum all on Ross is laughable: the Aussies have at least four men transmitting power through his channel [loosehead, left side second row, blindside, half a hooker and half a No8] against an opposition force of one. Best has to strike, O’Mahony and Heaslip are nowhere, O’Connell is woefully out of position.
Aside from the scrums, Ross had a strong first half in the loose, leading the team with 59 ruck marks [16 hits, 5 guards, 1 present], making two barrelling carries and four tackles [two solos and two assists].* His second half efforts in the loose tailed off somewhat, but he still finished the day second in the Irish team in terms of his ruck marks , behind only Paul O’Connell.
*Scrum.com has him as making just one tackle which, somewhat unusually, doesn’t tie in with what The Mole has got: we have Ross making tackles at 01:13 [with Sexton]; 04:20 [solo]; 16:37 [with Toner]; and 34:47 [solo].
Big Buckets Of Will, Smaller Buckets Of Skill
Paul O’Connell had a game that must have been personally frustrating for him, and was also frustrating to watch as a fan. The returning captain’s effort was, as ever, commendable. He led the team with a ruck mark of 96 – 53 in the first half, with 13 hits, 5 guards and 4 presents; and 43 in the second half with 1 decisive, 9 hits, 5 guards and 2 presents.
However, he was ineffective in the set pieces, with Ireland’s lineout coming off distinctly second best, and the right side of the scrum was continually under pressure. His handling also let him down a number of times: he threw one pass on the floor, was caught in possession by Ben Mowen at the base of a ruck while trying to get a pass away and dropped a lineout transfer at a critical moment.
Because Ireland lost pretty heavily and the result was beyond doubt from Michael Hooper’s try in the 66th minute, a general feeling of moroseness descended upon the crowd at the game. There seemed to be a very willing acceptance of the proposition that we were never in it, with side arguments revolving around the fucking music over the tannoy and lack of dog and how come nobody hit Kuridrani and a whole bunch of disgruntled and irrelevant et ceteras.
Against that line of thinking, it was 12-15 at halftime, with the game very much in the balance. Ireland had had 67% of possession and 68% of territory in the first forty minutes, and while the team in green didn’t look too carnivorous in terms of scoring a try, the Australians were pretty cynical in defense, conceding four kickable penalties and having a man sent to the sin-bin just after half an hour.
Even the sinfully easy ten points gifted to the Wallabies early in the second half – Cooper’s trot-in try and conversion on 45 minutes, then a patty-cake penalty four minutes later when Rob Kearney dropped a gimme and Madigan was caught up in the wash and forced to hold on – didn’t put the game entirely out of reach; certainly not with half an hour left to play.
Madigan knocked over a penalty on 57 minutes, and three minutes later Ireland were afforded the opportunity of basically the same kick again when the Australians were offside in defense. This time around the penalty was even a little closer to the sticks. Twenty minutes left, a very gettable kick and the opportunity to bring it back to a seven point game? O’Connell made the unnecessarily gung-ho option to go to a lineout that wasn’t firing, and then dropped the pill and lost the turnover.
Pretty much everyone will remember O’Connell making a similar call all those years ago when Munster lost their Thomond Park record to Leicester in the HEC, and he has done it a few times in the interim as well. It’d seem to The Mole that he’s too prone to believing that it’s always time to go for the jugular, when quite a lot of the time it just isn’t. Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit etc.
Just go for the shot at goal. There’s a quarter of the game left. Lovely hurling from the ditch there admittedly, but it seemed a very obvious call even at the time.
Somebody Said ‘Class’, I Heard ‘Waffle’
Not for the first time this year, Fergus McFadden was Ireland’s most threatening and effective back. It seems to be de rigeur in certain sections to damn him with faint praise and to treat every good test performance as an anomaly, regardless of the evidence that builds up in his favour.
Obviously the standout numbers from his performance were his 132 metres run [best on the pitch by some margin] and three clean breaks, but he was also the only Irish three-quarter not to miss any tackles [going 4/0], and finished tenth on the team’s ruck marks, second amongst the backline, with 36 points [1 decisive, 8 hits, 2 guards, 4 presents]. As an all-round performance, it was pretty clearly the stand-out effort from any of the Irish backs.
McFadden hasn’t quite been operating at Mike Brown levels, but there are similarities between them in that they are gutsy, competitive players who were relatively late bloomers at test level. Neither player really fits the stereotype associated with their respective positions [or their clubs, for that matter], but this isn’t synchronised swimming. There are no points for style.
The Kildare man played five games for Ireland in 2013: against France in the Six Nations, the two games of the North America tour, against the US and Canada, and two of the games of the November series, against Samoa and Australia.
The lad averaged 11 carries and better than 65m per game, but more impressive is the average of two clean breaks every test this year, and better than two and a half defenders beaten.
McFadden has 21 test caps [13+8] and has scored 8 tries in those games; 4 of those have come against ‘minnows’ Canada  and Russia , with the others coming against New Zealand, France, Scotland and Samoa. Those aren’t staggering, Julian Savea-type numbers, but they hold up well in comparison to his contemporaries:
- Andrew Trimble [born 1984]; 50 tests [38+12] & 12 test tries [including 2 vs Romania, 1 vs Namibia, 1 vs Russia and 1 vs Canada]
- Keith Earls [born 1987]: 39 tests [31+8] & 12 test tries [including 2 vs Russia, 2 vs Fijiª and 1 vs Canada]
- Luke Fitzgerald [born 1987]: 27 tests [19+8] & 2 test tries
ª For the sake of comparison, it’s worth considering that it’s neither accurate nor [to use a derided word] ‘fair’ to count Earls’ two tries against Fiji in the 43-6 win in the RDS back in November 2009, and not to count McFadden’s two in the 53-0 win against the same opposition down in Thomond last year. The November 2012 game against Fiji was distinctly not a Wolfhounds game, and neither match was played at the national stadium. The primary reason the more recent game wasn’t classed as a test match was because of a sponsorship clause that requires all Irish home test matches to be played at Lansdowne Road and because the attendance drawn by Fiji wouldn’t cover the cost of staffing the Aviva Stadium. That’s not really a good enough reason, in my opinion. Fiji are a country, they sent over their national team. Not awarding caps for that fixture nor regarding it as a test match is one of those decisions which is absolutely understandable from a commercial and financial point of view, but still smells rotten. With that proviso, McFadden’s record would improve to 22 tests [14+8] with 10 tries, 6 of them against ‘minnows’.
This isn’t to say that McFadden is better or worse than Earls or Trimble or Fitzgerald. It’s just that in terms of production, in terms of things that have actually happened, he compares well with any of them.
Fitzgerald made his test debut as a 19 year old [against the Pacific Islands in November 2006], Trimble a month after his 21st birthday [against Australia in November 2005] and Earls at about the same age as the Ulster winger, his first Irish cap coming in November 2008 against Canada. McFadden didn’t debut until he was 24 [against Italy in the 2011 Six Nations]; that might seem somewhat beside the point, but again, it’s noticeable that there’s a bit of a sniffy attitude about players who don’t break into the test side as nippers.
Rather than sticking blindly to preconceptions or talking blithely about a player’s ‘class’ when you can’t put your finger on what it is that he does [or doesn’t do] that sets him apart, looking at a player’s production can give you a strong pointer as to why he gets the nod in selection, and why maybe it’s not the wrong decision after all.
Marshall Steps Up
Luke Marshall continued Gordon D’Arcy’s breakdown effectiveness in the No12 jersey, notching 48 ruck marks [1 decisive, 10 hits, 5 guards, 4 presents] to finish top of the backs.
Even better was his performance with the ball in hand, making four clean breaks and 59m off just five carries. Beyond those good showings both with and without the ball, The Mole was perhaps most impressed with the maturity he showed in taking responsibility for the defensive lapse that resulted [pretty much immediately] in Quade Cooper’s try. It probably wasn’t completely his fault at all – himself and Madigan have never played together before and both are neophytes when it comes to test rugby and Les Kiss’ defensive system – but he stuck his hand up and put it on himself. That takes honesty and courage and says a lot for his character.
Like every young player, Marshall is a work in progress: if you’re as good as you’ll ever be at 22 years old, something’s wrong with your attitude or the coaching you get. Marshall’s comments demonstrate that there’s nothing wrong with his attitude, and in Anscombe at Ulster and Schmidt at Ireland, he’s got a pair of good coaches. The Australia game didn’t have many bright points from an Irish point of view, but Marshall was one of them.
88 – Double Eights, Two Fat Ladies
Sean O’Brien was probably Ireland’s best player [again] but being the top performer of a cast who flubs their lines isn’t the stuff of which Oscar dreams are made. Aside from O’Brien, it was one of those games that crop up every now and again where the Irish backrow looked unbalanced and stilted, with Heaslip and O’Mahony putting in essentially identical, and identically ordinary, performances.
O’Mahony handled the ball 15 times, Heaslip 14 times; the former made 11 runs for 14m [for an average carry of 1.27m] and the latter made 8 runs for 7m [an average carry of 0.86m]; they each beat one defender, with O’Mahony credited with no clean breaks but one offload, and Heaslip credited with one clean break and no offloads; they both made just four tackles [well, Ireland did have the majority of possession]; and Heaslip was modestly more effective at the ruck and breakdown in each half [26 to 25 in the first half and 35 to 32 in the second half].
It’d seem to The Mole that O’Mahony’s most natural position is at No8 [the position where he played most of his underage rugby], and that he should be considered there to pose a genuine challenge to Heaslip’s recent hegemony of the job. Heaslip hasn’t had much competition for the jersey since handily seeing off Dennis Leamy’s challenge almost five years ago, and as a result his form has occasionally dipped without any selection repercussions. It’s difficult to see the recourse of playing O’Mahony at No8 not spurring both players on.
It’s a good use of resources to get O’Mahony into the team at blindside, because he’s currently one of the best backrows in the country. Against that, you’d want to go out of your way not to see the holes in his game as a No6. The strongest part of the Munster captain’s game are his open-field running, his handling and his lineout work, while the weakest are his tackling, his hitting power and his size.
O’Mahony has responded well to Schmidt’s coaching and gameplan, passing as many times in his first two tests under the new regime [10 times, 4 against Australia and 6 against Samoa] as he did in his last seven games under Kidney. It’s a natural strength of his, and has only been encouraged by the new coach rather than implanted.
With the exception of the Samoan test, where his run up the middle went unsupported and he turned over the ball with a hit-and-hope offload, he didn’t really find his groove as a ball carrier over the November tests. He got on the ball quite a lot against Australia but the Wallaby fringe defense were alive to him [and every other forward, it should be said] and dropped him before he could get into a bit of fresh air and put the pedal down. His carrying game against New Zealand was practically non-existent [3 carries for 2m] as he buried himself in less glamourous work at ruck and breakdown.
With Toner and O’Connell both on the pitch, O’Mahony was only used as a lineout wrinkle against Australia, taking one ball on the Irish throw, just as he did in the other couple of tests. Given the effectiveness as a spoiler at the front of the line on opposition ball that he showed in Munster’s Heineken Cup quarter-final against Harlequins, The Mole feels that he could be used more often in this role – he’s got a natural spring and his spare build makes him a quick and easy lift in the same mould as Julien Bonnaire.
Unfortunately, that’s one of the downsides to his game as a blindside. He’s a little undersized and maybe underpowered [at the moment] for the position at test level. Steven Luatua, his opposite number in the NZ game, is listed at 196cm and 114kg, while Scott Fardy, his direct opponent in the Wallabies game, makes 198cm and 111kg.
O’Mahony is listed at 191cm and 108kg, but it seems pretty f*cking fanciful that he’s the same weight as Sean O’Brien and 3kg heavier than David Wallace was at his peak. Of course, measurables aren’t everything. Thierry Dusautoir is listed as between 95-100kg and is one of the greatest flankers of the last decade. However, Dusautoir is one of the best tacklers of the professional era, and O’Mahony isn’t.
The Mole has seen a number of arguments forwarded in defense of O’Mahony’s defense [so to speak]. Just like Toner is not a particularly effective rucker at test level, O’Mahony is not a particularly effective tackler. I think it’s as simple as that. It doesn’t mean that he’s not a good player, or that he doesn’t have other strengths in his game, but it’s a real thing. In general, he doesn’t make as many tackles as you would expect of a good test backrower – Jamie Heaslip made more tackles against New Zealand in 80 minutes  than O’Mahony managed in his 216 minutes on the pitch in all three tests [19 – 7 vs Samoa, 4 vs Australia, 8 vs New Zealand] – and he doesn’t make enough big hits for a blindside in particular. At this stage of his career, he has started 15 test matches in the backrow and failed to make it into a double-figure tackle count even once; of those test starts, he averages slightly under 72 minutes on the park and just under 6.5 tackles/game. Like Toner and rucking, it’s something that he needs to work on.
The Mole is in general positive about Ireland’s depth across the backrow, but there are still a few question marks. The biggest of them hangs over the injury-stricken Stephen Ferris, who recently signed another short term deal with Ulster, but hasn’t played a game of rugby since November 2012. Tommy O’Donnell made a cracking first test start against Canada over the summer, but he has only played 109 minutes of test rugby in his career thus far. Both O’Donnell and the prodigious Iain Henderson would surely have been part of Joe Schmidt’s plans for the November campaign, and it’s unfortunate for all involved that they missed out due to injury.
Rhys Ruddock used McLaughlin’s absence from Leinster during November to stake his claim to the blue No6 jersey, and his performances since have tightened his grip on it. He’s a blue-chipper – capped for Ireland as a teenager, the youngest Leinster captain of the professional era, a former captain of the Irish U20s and Emerging Ireland, 65 first team appearances for his province under his belt before he turned 23 years old. The Mole would be surprised if he’s not in the international mix before the end of the season, possibly as a summer tourist.
Henderson is the big unknown though: his size, his strength and his ability to sidestep, spin-out, hand off and keep his legs going in contact [all illustrated in the first ten seconds below] make him a viable test blindside. There are always going to be some questions over whether or not he’s a lock or a flanker in the long term, and there are arguments for and against: if he’s expected to be launching himself into rucks all day as a lock, he’s not going to have the energy or as many opportunities to do this:
What’s better for the team?
Ireland 22 – 24 New ZealandIreland’s game against New Zealand was of a far higher standard than any of the other games of the series, and ranked up with the Ellis Park test between the Springboks and the All Blacks as the highest intensity match of 2013. It was a game that Ireland came very close to winning, but ultimately lost within the last couple of plays of the game, a tribute to the indomitable character of this great New Zealand team.
There can be little doubt that the Irish performance was backlash from the mediocre showing they produced against Australia, but there was also an element of them being forced to raise their game to compete against a better team. That might seem a questionable statement, but it’s worth considering whether the Irish players would have hit the individual heights of performance they achieved if they’d been playing a rubber game against the Australians, rather than a one-off against New Zealand.
There were a staggering 217 rucks in the game [103 in the first half and 114 in the second] as compared to the Samoa game’s 167 [67 | 100] and Australia’s 137 [73 | 64]. It’s not just the closeness of the result that had the Lansdowne Road crowd in fine voice, but the pace of the game throughout.
It was as good a performance from Paul O’Connell as The Mole can remember him ever producing – a huge effort at the breakdown [as always], hard-hitting carries in the middle of the park and around the fringes, the dominant presence on either side out of touch, a vital part of a solid Irish scrum and none of the skill failures which blighted his outing against Australia.
The Irish captain is right back at the top of his game and back near the top of the world in his position, albeit with a new breed of competitors alongside him in Eben Etzebeth, Sam Whitelock and Alun Wyn Jones.
Bakkies Botha showed that he can still compete at test level in November, but his decision to relocate to France has made him an occasional international; Pato Albacete is not the all-phases presence that he was for the last four or five years, and James Horwill has badly lost form and confidence. Alun-Wyn Jones has emerged as one of the best second rows in the northern hemisphere, but when he and O’Connell played together for the Lions in the first test, it seemed readily apparent that O’Connell was the dominant partner in that firm.
As it panned out, O’Connell’s efforts at ruck time against New Zealand surpassed even his Lions effort. He ran up 1 turnover, 24 hits, 12 guards and 14 presents for an overall ruck mark of 115. When combined with a spotless 12/0 tackle count and a dominant performance at lineout time [his six wins on Irish ball eclipsed the entire All Black pack’s take out of touch], it must rank as one of the best Irish outings of his long career.
Back In Bearded Business
Gordon D’Arcy was under pressure to perform, with Luke Marshall’s omission seen by many as a conservative and parochial call from Schmidt. The long-time Leinster servant went out and repaid the coach’s faith by having a blinder.
In terms of his performance at the ruck and breakdown, the Wexford man ran up a highly impressive and aggressive 79 ruck marks [4 decisive, 15 hits, 2 guards, 14 presents] in an all-action display which saw him rank fifth of all Irish players.D’Arcy’s form for Leinster has been consistently high for a long, long time, but the line had diverged at test level in the latter days of the Kidney regime. There were days in green when he looked completely bereft of confidence – St Patrick’s Day 2012 against England in Twickenham was the nadir, although he was hardly alone there – and any time a player in his 30s falls out of form, there’s always a queue of people ready to tell the world that he’s finished. Sure, sometimes it’s age, but sometimes it’s just a bad run of form from which any player, regardless of his age, can occasionally suffer.
There’s no good time for your form to dip; there’s a particular brand of [naturally] dismissive public opinion that gets rolled out depending on what stage it takes place. If it’s towards the end of your career, you’re finished; if it’s in the middle of your career, you’re just not international standard; if it’s at the start of your career, you’ll never make it.
Marshall is clearly the coming man, but the idea that you build depth in a position by defenestrating a proven player who’s still getting it done very obviously makes no sense whatsoever.
If The Glove Deccie Fitz …
There were a number of impressive performances from the Irish forward subs against the All Blacks, with Sean Cronin performing well as an early injury replacement for Rory Best and Kev McLaughlin putting in bruising tackles and gainline-breaking carries from the blindside, but the happiest surprise was the all-action cameo from Deccie Fitz.
The Ulster tighthead showed up extremely well in terms of carrying the ball into and through contact, something he hasn’t been renowned for in the past. It adds another string to his bow, as he has already proved himself a competent scrummager at provincial level. Toting the pill with a bit of pace and the odd step is eye-catching and reminds fans that he’s a rugby player as well as a scrummager, which isn’t something to be sniffed at. There’s a reductive and oft-voiced theory that all a tighthead has to do is scrummage, but at test level you can’t afford to carry passengers just for one set-piece.
We wrote in the first article about how Adam Jones has a better work rate than is portrayed, and Mike Ross’s performances at the ruck and breakdown against Australia and New Zealand [earning 80 ruck marks in each test, which was good for second amongst Irish players in the former game and fourth in the latter] prove that he makes a big contribution outside of the scrum.
With John Afoa set to make a big money move to Gloucester [far closer to Auckland than Belfast could ever be], the scene is set for Fitzpatrick to finally make the Ulster No3 jersey his own next year.
Whether he can do enough with it to push his case for Ireland is another question. Leinster’s 22-year old tighthead Marty Moore has played in every game of the season thus far for his province, and has impressed all and sundry with his ability to anchor the right hand side of the scrum. With that said, young props look good until they’re made to look bad, and while Moore has passed all inspections to date and might get a call-up for the Six Nations squad, The Mole thinks that it’d be negligent to forget Fitzpatrick’s efforts off the bench in this series. I reckon that he did enough in November to keep his place in the matchday squad in February.
Slaves To The Big Run
Jamie Heaslip led the field [i.e. all players on both sides] in tackles in two out of the three games, notching a 15/2 record against Samoa and a huge 21/1 effort against New Zealand.
The Leinster No8 has had a hell of an eventful 2013: named by Declan Kidney as his Irish captain for the Six Nations, selected for the Lions’ first two tests, nominated as one of the ERC’s Players of the Year for the second time in three seasons … leading Ireland to their worst Six Nations performance since the expansion of the tournament, getting dropped after the second Lions test, going out in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup with Leinster. It’s a season which has seen massive highs and lows. His form at test level has oscillated on a match-to-match basis as well.
Then again, so has the form of a lot of players. Rory Best’s throwing abilities absolutely deserted him in the second half of the Six Nations, then he seemed to get it together for the end of Ulster’s season, then it absolutely fell apart again with the Lions, then he pretty much got it back together for the start of the 2012-13 season.
Cian Healy put in a magnificent 21/0 tackle performance against Wales, got banned for stamping in his next match against England, won a couple of trophies with Leinster, was selected for the Lions, and was bizarrely cited for biting [a citation which was thrown out] in the same match in which injury ended his tour before the test series. He missed out to Jack McGrath for the Samoan game, seeing his Leinster team-mate win Man of the Match on debut, tailed off badly in the second half against Australia and then put in a brutally physical performance against the All Blacks. Then he picked up another serious injury in training and is now a doubt for the Six Nations. It’s the lot of a test player to go through ups and downs over the course of a calendar year.
Against the All Blacks, Heaslip turned in a very big performance in direct opposition to Kieran Read, the best player on the planet. He was second only to O’Connell  in the Irish pack in terms of the number of times he got on the ball  and tied with the captain as the busiest carrier in the Irish pack, with 9 carries. He finished with 76 ruck marks [1 turnover, 18 hits, 7 guards and 3 presents], ranking sixth in the team, and his massive tackle count exceeded even his 16/1 effort from the last time he faced Reid and the All Blacks in Christchurch back in June 2012.
Peter O’Mahony put in gut-busting work at ruck time for a very admirable score of 87 [1 decisive, 17 hits, 12 guards and 8 presents] in the 56 minutes he spent on the pitch before being replaced by Kev ‘Locky’ McLaughlin. That ruck mark was good enough for third on the day, behind only a couple of players who both went the full 80 minutes. This aspect of O’Mahony’s performance was a big step up from his showings against Samoa [43 – 2 turnovers, 7 hits, 6 guards] and Australia [58 – 1 decisive, 12 hits, 7 guards, 3 presents] and gave evidence of his appetite for dirty work.
Maybe it’s just the contrarian in me, but it seems that I disagree with the general opinion on Peter O’Mahony in pretty much every match he plays for Ireland. In my eyes, his best performance of the Six Nations was in the draw against France in filthy conditions, not his game against Wales. In the latter he had an eye-catching run down the right wing … but he also had Craig Gilroy outside him and used up all the space, rather than giving it to the flyer outside him earlier. In the former he didn’t get his hands on the ball in open play as much, but he had an excellent showing in the lineout, made his tackles close in, mauled well in a tight game where mauling well was essential and was a dervish at the breakdown. Similarly, while he put up impressive numbers with the ball in hand in the June tour match against the US Eagles, I felt that his performance the following week against Canada was better in terms of his all-round contribution to the team.
I’m not denying for a second that it’s important to make line-breaks and beat defenders; it’s just that there’s more to the game that making ‘The Big Run’. Making a pass to put somebody into space can be as important in a given context, as can getting a metre over the gainline with tacklers hanging off you, allowing your pack to continue coming forward on to the ball rather than having to ‘J’ out of the ruck and come in through a gate that’s behind where they started off. Plowing a jackal off a tackled player can be the key to a successful series of phases that produce points. Getting up off the deck late in the game to make tackles in open play when you wouldn’t be missed by anybody in the ground if you weren’t there … these things have value too.
The essential point is that just because a guy who is typically a good ball-carrier doesn’t have a highlight-reel run, it doesn’t mean he had a bad game or ‘didn’t show up’. O’Mahony didn’t get on the ball much, and Heaslip never really broke free, but both of them put in huge efforts.
And to end on the same note that we began on, Sean O’Brien is a monster. It’s difficult to overstate his importance to the Irish team, and he’s a massive loss for the Six Nations. We’ve referenced O’Connell’s efforts in the first test of the Lions series a number of times, when he was the only player in red in the Lions test series to break into three figures in ruck marks, setting the benchmark with a score of 109.
The Irish captain bettered that mark in the New Zealand test, hitting 115. Even he couldn’t keep up with O’Brien though, who blew the doors off with an enormous 153 [1 turnover, 5 decisives, 28 hits, 13 guards and 18 presents]. O’Brien ran up a tally of 74 in the first half, took a breather, then came back out and put in an even more impressive effort in the second period, tallying 79 over the next forty minutes. He also managed to effect a 16/0 tackle count – just a staggering effort.
Because it ended on a performance high, and because a new coach was running the show, the fact that the series followed a similar trend of up-and-down performances and results that defined the post-2009 Declan Kidney regime has largely been ignored. Ireland didn’t build from a poor start and get better with every game: they turned in a satisfactory showing against Samoa, a piss poor one against Australia and an exceptional one against New Zealand. Three games is too small a sample from which to make any reasonable or relevant judgement, but it’s all there is to go on thus far. Consistency is still elusive.
Buried in the pewtery gushings that were the soundtrack to the aftermath of the loss to New Zealand, the comment that The Mole found most memorable came from the typically gruff coach of the winners, Steve Hansen:
“We expected them to be tough; every time we play them they’re tough. But sometimes I don’t know if they believe they’re as tough as they are.”
Hansen could afford to be gracious, as his team had just become the first test team of the professional era to win every game they played in a calendar year. He has never been fingered as a bullshit merchant though, and graciousness isn’t synonymous with being patronizing. There’s also a fairly thorny stem beneath the petals.
Confidence, belief. Call it what you will. Very ephemeral. With two home games a week apart to start the Six Nations at the beginning of February, Ireland have a fixture list that affords them the chance to build a bit of momentum in what is typically the more daunting even-year schedule [in that it includes trips to Twickenham and Paris]. A good start is better than a bad one, but as we learned after last year’s razzle-dazzle first half against the Welsh in Cardiff, it’s less than half the battle. The best way to build confidence is to win games. Ugly or pretty, any win will do.