Is the RWC the be all and end all? No it’s not – but it’s a useful benchmark, amongst other things. I shake my head sometimes at the Ghosts of World Cups Past that haunt every step of the tournament and what inferences can be drawn from some coincidental detail. Cup rugby is unforgiving because it’s knock out: so one bad game, an unsympathetic referee, a series of unfortunate injuries, and you’re out … with no shot at redemption.
We compiled brief report cards after the last tournament which I’d forgotten about until last week. Reviewing them proved to be like opening a time capsule, albeit to a relatively recent date. Sure with the internet and playstations we all have minuscule attention spans anyway. For that reason we’ll review the current squad and make reference to their predecessors.
Cian Healy: We remarked on Healy finding himself marking JJV Davies in the quarter final in 2011 and how it was unrealistic to expect a prop to mark a three quarter after an hour when faced with that match up. Four years on and some things don’t change – except this time we moved our slower, older prop to the outside of our defensive line!
Healy’s return from injury was the source of a lot of press coverage in a low key build up for the national team. That recovery never seemed to come to fruition and although Healy was given the starting slot against France and Argentina it seemed to be on reputation rather than form. That’s understandable. On his best days he’s a monster with the ball in hand, and with a backrow shorn of Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony, Ireland were in need of a bit of extra pop in terms of carrying the ball close to the breakdown.
Healy was a Lion in 2013 and probably would have started a test if not for an ankle injury that ruled him out of contention. The fact that injury has prevented him from showcasing his best form in the two biggest rugby events of the last couple of years is unfortunate for both himself and Ireland, but so it goes. However, The Mole thought Jack McGrath was hard done by as he’d played very well in all his games, and had probably done more to earn a spot than Healy had over the last couple of months. In the quarter final, Ireland lost their first scrum against the head in a match that Healy never imposed himself on.
Four years ago we reckoned that Healy was on his way to becoming possibly the best loosehead in the world. He wasn’t the best loosehead in the squad this time around, but he has definitely set a high standard for Irish props and if he can manage his injuries there is easily another RWC in him.
Jack McGrath: The Mary’s man was dropped for the big games despite playing well throughout the warm ups and initial pool matches. McGrath puts in a lot of tackles, is a very good scrummager and has an extremely high work-rate at the breakdown for a chap who tips the scales at close to 120kg. He is also a big, strong man, capable maybe of putting the Lusitania on his chest. The sight of him warming up during the French game by lifting Iain Henderson from the front on his own was one of those reminders that international rugby front row forwards are a different breed than your common, garden or couch variety of human.
It might seem strange to say given that he didn’t make the starting XV for the French or Argentine games, but in performance terms McGrath was undoubtedly one of the successes of the Irish effort, and has plenty more miles left on the clock. He seems happy enough sharing the loosehead role with Healy at Leinster as well as Ireland but a big money offer from France or England wouldn’t surprise me.
Mike Ross: At one time arguably the most valuable player on the Irish team – including O’Driscoll – Ross was undoubtedly Ireland’s first choice tighthead for the duration of the tournament.
It’s easy to take Ross for granted and worth remembering that immediately before he started for Ireland, the tightheads for three games in a row were a combination of a 37 year old John Hayes (versus Samoa, Nov 2010), Tom Court (against New Zealand the same month) and Mushy Buckley (against Argentina in the last match of the series). The pass-the-parcel round finished in February 2011 when Ross was selected against Italy, which was 58 tests ago. Since then, Ross has been selected to start 53 times.
Ross was part of a pack that lost a scrum against the head against Argentina, and in one particularly worrying sequence found himself marking their three quarters beside Rory Best. It’s not a good look for a 35 year old tighthead. However, up until that first scrum against the Argentines, Ross had been the anchor of a much-better-than-solid Irish scrum over the tournament, and Marcus Ayerza, the man directly across from him in the quarter-final, is regarded by many as just about the best loosehead in the world.
When they’re writing the history of Irish rugby, Ross probably won’t get the big love that John Hayes has earned; Hayes was a centurion and an 80-minute man for the vast majority of his career. However, Ross is the finest Irish tighthead scrummager that The Mole can remember in either the late amateur or the entire professional era, and scrummaging is the ne plus ultra of the No3’s responsibilities. He didn’t have his best game against the Pumas, but who did? In terms of an overall tournament report, it was a solid performance from a solid player in a position that requires solidity.
Nathan White: None of the naturalised Irish players are or have been clasped to the collective bosom and White, formerly of Leinster and currently of Connacht, is no exception. He seems like a good guy but was a definite step down from Ross whenever he came off the bench and was shop steward of the ruck inspectors union in what was a frustrating aspect of the Irish performance throughout the tournament.
I couldn’t stress enough how much solidity is required in a tight head when reviewing Mike Ross, and again it’s worth emphasising here that White has physical characteristics required for international tight head that aren’t often found in Irish men. Munster’s first choice tighthead for the last four seasons has been the Springbok B.J. Botha, and with the exception of a few starts in Europe for the now-retired Declan Fitzpatrick, Ulster haven’t started an Irish-qualified No3 by choice in a major game for a hell of a long time. The aforementioned Botha did the first of his three seasons there in 2008-09, and he was succeeded by first John Afoa, then Wian Herbst.
Taking into account the totality of his career in Ireland, White is a minor success story for the [somewhat] controversial ‘project player’ … eh, project. Sourced and signed by Leinster before the 2011-12 season, he made a decent contribution [24 games, including 8 starts] to a very successful season for the blue province before upping sticks and heading west to continue his naturalisation period and allow Leinster born-and-bred tightheads – first Jamie Hagan, then Marty Moore and recently Tadgh Furlong – the gametime to prove/improve themselves. Over the last couple of seasons, he’s played the valuable role of a veteran anchor in Pat Lam’s rapidly improving Connacht side, and his qualification for Irish international duty under IRB regulations prevented a sticky situation when Marty Moore was ruled out of the World Cup reckoning before the tournament kicked off.
Having said that, I didn’t understand the decision to bring over Isaac Boss for Jared Payne after the the French match. If it was my choice I’d have had Marty Moore in the squad immediately. He’s not an outside centre but he’s a fine tighthead, an excellent tackler and would have been an improvement on White.
Tadhg Furlong: The Mole thought this might be Furlong’s breakthrough to the wider public consciousness but he got very little rugby, in contrast to his Irish U20s team-mate from 2012, Iain Henderson. Furlong is young for a tight five forward, very young for a tighthead and has a bright future ahead of him. We’ll get a better idea this season if Schmidt saw some deficiencies in his make-up or was just too conservative in his treatment of Furlong.
Rory Best: as can be evidenced by Cian Healy, it isn’t necessarily the case that players will continue to get better season after season, usually as a consequence of injury. Best is a rare player who has maintained an upward trajectory since the last tournament and he had a good World Cup.
In a similar manner to Mike Ross, Best is a competitive, steady player who meets all his positional requirements without any flash. Particularly good over the ball, he denies the opposition possession regularly.
Keith Wood has always been a shoe-in for my era’s Irish selection but Best is certainly in the conversation given his durability, consistency and competitiveness. It is unlikely that he will make the next world cup but he is a candidate for captaincy should Schmidt elect not to appoint Heaslip.
Richardt Strauss: the second of Ireland’s project front row player, Strauss got the nod ahead of Sean Cronin as Best’s backup. A product of Grey College, Strauss is a technically excellent tackler, probably the best in the Irish squad. Ireland has never had the same regard, reverence even, for the Springboks as it has for the All Blacks. I think the NZ style of play appeals to us much more and we find it difficult to empathise with the Boers whose rugby culture is different than ours. An insight from Eddie Jones about his time coaching in South Africa is that they prefer not having the ball and instead trust in their defence.
Strauss’s tackling technique could teach Irish rugby a lot. Rather than merely bend at the waist like a number of his peers, Strauss drives off either foot and can therefore tackle effectively and safely with both shoulders. The Conor McGregor-driven increase in popularity of MMA in Ireland introduces very effective takedown techniques to wider public awareness and Irish rugby would benefit greatly at all levels from greater practice of accurate tackling.
Sean Cronin: Schmidt is a fan of technical proficiency over athletic potential which meant it was always more likely for Strauss to get the nod. That said, Cronin has improved since the last world cup and is in some way symptomatic of the challenge that Irish rugby faces. In any playing population the best athletes make a difference and they often don’t have to have the same grasp of basic skills as their peers because they can get away with it.
Homer: You’re Darryl Strawberry! – DS: Yes. -HS: You play right field. – DS: Yes. – HS: I play right field too. – DS: So? – HS: Well, are you better than me? – DS: Well, I’ve never met you, but… yes.
The higher up they go, the greater the requirement for solid fundamentals but the emphasis on these skills needs to start early with a concentration on technique and awareness rather than just outcome. In order to do this you need a culture of good instruction, which is not achieved overnight.
D’Arcy related this experience in one of his excellent Irish Times articles “all the players who came into the academy system during my generation were big fish coming from small ponds, be it from the school or youth system. They never needed to pass the ball (except to whoever was taking the conversion).”
Lack of depth in the front row and ropy scrummaging technique are often a twin feature of Irish rugby but neither applied in this tournament. Partly that is due to effective use of the naturalisation of project players and partly it is due to an academy system that has provided top class coaching to high potential players. The front row is currently an area of strength for Irish rugby and I’d like to see if an underage international prop could make the move to hooker if he had the mobility in order to provide attacking scrummaging technique and size in the middle of the front row. Steve Thompson and William Servat are the model of players I have in mind for that role and Steve Smith is the closest Irish comparison I can draw.