The row was a young man’s game in this tournament; the oldest of the starting locks at the semi-final stage was the 27 year old Whitelock, a player for whom The Mole has had a special regard ever since he was the only All Black not voted into the New Zealand Herald’s RWC11 ‘Team of the Tournament’ by the paper’s readership. The 38 year old Victor “Matlock” Matfield sought to scourge the young ‘uns from the bench as Ireland bid au revoir to one of its favourite sons.
Paul O’Connell: Walking towards Cardiff city centre before the French match, one of our group noted the number of people wearing green. I felt there was a lot of goodwill towards the Irish team before the game and I thought that O’Connell was a significant part of that. The reason that a VCR player was purchased in Mole Hill many moons ago was so Papa Mole could watch his video of “A Year of Pride” when that meant Triple Crown rather than marriage equality. So, while I do remember Ciaran Fitzgerald’s iconic moment, I was a little young for him to have any immediate impact on me. Given that recollection, Paul O’Connell is the greatest Irish captain I can remember and the main reason I think that Irish people liked this team so much.
The best description of Paul O’Connell that I ever heard came from Laurie Fisher because it was stripped of the regional, cosy chumminess that’s natural from Irish sources. When asked who was the best player he’d ever coached, Fisher responded:
“If I was saying it was their influence on the team, then it’s [Munster, Ireland and British & Irish Lions lock] Paul O’Connell, and by a long way. He is the most influential player on the park in any team I’ve been involved in. Just outstanding, because he always played to a level, and again, not the greatest player that’s ever lived, but his influence on the psyche of a team, the work rate of a team; he is integral to any team he plays in performing.”
O’Connell’s Lions captaincy in 2009 was high pressure given the demands of touring in South Africa against the the world champions. Since then, he has developed into one of the elder statesmen of the game. What struck me recently was the similarity to Hansen’s description of Richie McCaw “He’s been a real good competitor from day one. The one thing he has done throughout his whole career is keep evolving. When he first started he couldn’t catch a cold and he had four feet. His big thing he could do was pinch ball at the breakdown. Now he is a complete rugby player. He is a lineout forward, he can catch and pass and that’s a testament to his ability to want to be a better player every day.”
We reckoned that O’Connell could have worked on his hands – “catch and pass” – after RWC11. While he never became the Nathan Sharpe-like distributor we envisaged, he stopped dropping as much ball, made the occasional line break and became a much improved tackler, notably demanding a tutorial from Dan Lydiate on the 2013 Lions tour about how to improve his effectiveness. O’Connell’s willingness to work when he had already reached an elevated status, his drive and his genuine decency were big pluses for this Irish team.
You don’t get to choose the way you finish and while lifting the Webb Ellis trophy would have been a great photo, it was fitting that O’Connell went out on his shield, injured in combat and competitive to the last. The team missed him badly against Argentina.
Devin Toner: Ah, big Dev, lightning rod for criticism and restarts. I questioned Toner’s inclusion for the French game and he then produced a superb display, possibly the best forward on the park. Against Argentina he just didn’t do enough as the team’s big man to combat the Pumas’ momentum.
Murray Kinsella’s superb article about Ireland’s defensive display against Argentina was the one I wanted to write and draws attention to Toner’s role in Argentina’s first try. Is it nit-picking to highlight one episode in a review of a tournament? Is it the heinous crime of “being negative”?
I was pretty sanguine after the loss to Argentina albeit disappointed that it had ended; at least we’d been beaten fairly by a team playing well. The fact is that Irish rugby has made significant strides since 1999 and if we want to get better then we have to understand where it is we need to improve. Attending the NZ v France game on Saturday evening, one of the things that struck me was how competitive the Kiwis were in every contact. Sure, their forwards can run support lines and off load but they’re expected to compete in every contact and make sure the other guy knows about it. That is their bread and butter and they are the demands that Irish rugby must make of itself, especially at test level. Being dominated in early contacts is the fast way to the international poorhouse.
That might all sound a bit miserable. Toner’s set pieces are very strong and in the immediate aftermath of the Argentinian game, it seemed that commentators missed how good a lot of our fundamentals were. Yes, we need to develop our handling and footballing nous but our front five is competitive and it must be remembered the maxim from the south of France – “no scrum, no win”. Toner’s bulk and size adds considerably to that set piece prowess and the question now is not so much whether he has O’Connell’s drive for self-improvement – over the course of his career, he has got better with practically every season and has had very little handed to him – but whether a] he can round out his game by using those long arms and big hands to good effect in terms of offloading out of contact, as Nathan Hines used to do; and b] he can become a senior player and more of a leadership presence.
Iain Henderson: Hendy was one of the original 5 Ups and we’ve been waiting for him to make the breakthrough to test starter that has been promised for a number of years. One of the observations that we made about Henderson in years gone by was that we still hadn’t found his ceiling. This tournament gave some evidence to where that ceiling was: playing in the second row at test level against a serious Puma eight. Hendy looked absolutely pooped when he left the field in the quarter final having worked hard to keep his team in the game.
Overall it was a successful tournament for the young ex-Academician and he produced a number of superb cameos. Some of his feats of strength were pretty incredible to witness, the moreso because he’s still sort of baby-faced and unassuming looking. The question now isn’t so much if he starts but where he starts: his ball carrying is the best part of his game, and the least replicable by any other player in Ireland. However, it’s badly compromised by the demands of second row.
I thought that we saw some of the legit arguments about pigeon-holing Henderson as a second row in this game, although with O’Connell’s international retirement our options have distinctly lessened. One of the best things in Henderson’s game is running with the ball, and if you wear his legs out scrummaging and mauling and tie him up in the tight against big, top quality packs, you’re swapping grunt work that any international-quality lock can do for … eh, nothing.
The biggest question mark over Henderson isn’t his talent or application, it’s what you want him to do. Do you want him to get the ball in his hands frequently, or do you want him primarily scrummaging, mauling and hitting rucks? It’s nice to think that he can do both, but the evidence of the Argentina game suggests that it’s unrealistic.
Blindside might be the most profitable place to select him over the coming year, although in all probability his long term future is second row. He was only ever selected to start at second row in the RWC and his breakdown performance against the Italians, when he made pretty much zero impact, may mitigate against selection as a flanker.
Donnchadh Ryan: It was great to see Ryan return to the international scene after a frustrating and worrying period of injury. Given his rustiness, it was asking a lot that he would command a starting slot in this tournament, although I thought he should have been given greater opportunity against Argentina given the physical demands placed on the starters.
Having said that, he found it difficult to get to the pace of the game once he was on, so maybe he wouldn’t have proved the silver bullet had he been there since kick-off. Given that second rows mature late and Ryan’s obvious natural fitness, it would not surprise were he to make the squad for the Japanese world cup, at which stage he’ll be 35. He hasn’t worn a huge amount of tread off the tires: 34 games for Ireland [17 starts] and 134 for Munster [96 starts]. It might seem like a lot, but an obvious comparison on that count is Jamie Heaslip, given that both of them were born in December 1983. Heaslip was racked up 202 games for Leinster [194 starts], 80 for Ireland [76 starts] and a further 12 for the Lions, so if Ryan can avoid further injuries problems – specifically a recurrence of his foot injury – there should be a lot of life left in him yet. He has previously proven his value in the Six Nations, and if he can get back to the form he showed in 2011-12, he’ll be a valuable part of the Irish squad.
O’Connell’s departure from Munster makes him the longest serving player in his provincial pack, and with Peter O’Mahony due to be absent for the majority of the season, the opportunity is there to become the leader of the Munster pack. Recent interviews have shown him to be thoughtful and quick-witted, and if he emerges as a strong personality this season it will be to the great benefit of Irish rugby.
As noted at the beginning of the piece, the age profile of top locks in this tournament was young compared to previous vintages. Ireland has got a bit of a personnel gap between the 29 year old Toner and the 23 year old Henderson, so don’t expect a big rush to follow the southern hemisphere trend in time for the next Six Nations.
Looking forward four years might be enjoyable, but it’s of limited use … but it is enjoyable, and this is a World Cup themed post, so this day in four year’s time we might be even more demented-er and writing about another quarter-final exit but praising the second row play of Darren O’Shea, John Madigan and James Ryan. After all, Henderson was only 19 years old during RWC11.
The job of the front five is to secure consistent, good quality first phase possession, to deny the opposition the same and to clear as many breakdowns as possible. With the possible exception of a goal kicker, their role is the most important on the park; “no scrum, no win”. With a top quality front five and place kicker you always have a chance, despite what other shortcomings your team possesses. With a weak front five, you’re toast.
And that was my understanding of the front five’s role and, dear reader, I’d say it was yours as well. But given that we’d been hammered out the gate and conceded 43 points, we couldn’t have done that well in the front five. The aftermath of the Argentinian game has seen many calls for a more expansive game and a greater emphasis on catch and pass skills along with awareness of attacking support. No qualms with any of that but I think it incongruous, and a bit Irish, that when we concede 43 points we give out about our attacking. The problem against Argentina was our defending.
Much of this was put down to emotion and expending too much of it against France. Not to disagree entirely but one of the themes of this review is that passion is not a philosophy and that Irish rugby prizes passion and often uses it to compensate for deficiencies. Looking objectively at it, Ireland gave away the gainline in close against Argentina then conceded out wide.
When reviewing Australia before the tournament a quote of Cheika’s stood out “he was looking for for two locks who were “jump lineout-orientated” and two who were “work rate” ones”. I checked a few things out and now interpret “work rate” as tackling. Step forward Kane Douglas (age 26), Australia’s top tackler against Scotland, Wales and second highest against Argentina with about 10% of his team’s tackles in all games. In the final Dean Mumm had the highest tackle count in the game with 13 and Sam Whitelock joint highest for NZ with 12. He shared that distinction with Dan Carter; Cheika liked his team to run at the opposition out half. Australia played a fast press against Argentina at the beginning of the semi-final that resulted in an intercept try for second row Rob Simmons.
For Ireland, Henderson and O’Connell was a partnership that worked well as tacklers while the 6’10” Devin Toner didn’t contribute a high count against France (5 of 99) or Argentina (6 of 118). If your big men aren’t making the tackles then someone else has to and if Irish rugby wants an incisive, ball-handling midfield then preserving them by reducing the number of tackles required is one of the objectives.
For South Africa, Eben Etzebeth (who turned 24 at the end of the tournament) is a machine with 22 tackles against Argentina and 16 against NZ, both top rated. Jonny Gray (age 21) is cut from the same cloth with 20 tackles against Japan and 18 against Australia.
This is the new breed of lock, young tackle machines who get off the line and hit low in order to win contact in close and as a consequence deny the opposition space out wide. Demanding broken field intensity in addition to set piece solidity is the next step for the mindset of Irish locks at the elite level, much in the mould of their departing captain’s latter years.