Ireland RWC2015 Report Cards – Pt.3 The Backrow

A comment I saw recently that I really liked was “We still obsess about ‘ball carriers’ instead of ‘ball players'”. This back row selection paled by comparison with the original 2011 selection of O’Brien, Heaslip, Ferris, Leamy and David Wallace (who of course missed out through injury). They didn’t lack for effort but couldn’t bring the same impact as that quintet in their pomp.

Jamie Heaslip: Highly regarded overseas, Heaslip has never really clicked with the broader Irish public. Left with the unenviable task of replacing Paul O’Connell as Irish captain, he played very well against Argentina in a match where Ireland failed to start until too late. Naturally enough, Heaslip was scapegoated for this by a section of the public but it has to be remembered that this wasn’t even the first time this year that Ireland lost every early contact and gave up an insurmountable lead in Cardiff. Wales had done exactly the same in the first quarter during the Six Nations, and O’Connell was captain that day. Maybe it’s the dressing room; who knows?

Heaslip’s incredible durability means that it is difficult to know when time will be called in his career. As we’ve mentioned previously, he has recently breached 300 professional first class games for Leinster, Ireland and the Lions: a staggering achievement for any pro player, but especially a backrow forward. An extremely dedicated professional, it’s feasible that he will be able to meet the demands of international rugby for a further four years. He’s a physical freak, but also a smart player who has already made big alterations to his game in his career, and who’s to say that there won’t be a third act?

It’s also possible that he might do something like sign for a Japanese franchise for two seasons or play Super Rugby. In the near term future he is one of the front runners to take over captaincy of the team

Peter O’Mahony: That injury ended O’Mahony’s world cup wasn’t a surprise; that it was his knee rather than his shoulder was. O’Mahony contorted himself into some barely believable positions against Canada to avoid making contact with his left shoulder and it looked like he was on borrowed time. We saw an awful lot more of “Peter the Passer” rather than “Peter the Poacher” as he changed his style of play quite noticeably to accommodate his gammy wing, taking on a freelance role that many [including this writer] would have seen as anathema to Schmidt’s structured gameplan. He played very well against France and was missed against Argentina.

There’s much to admire about O’Mahony. He seems well regarded as a leader within the squad and he brings both ball handling skill and an athletic ability to the back row that is scarce among the current playing population. Schmidt mentioned his aerial work as a feature that would be missed by the team against Argentina and he finished in the top five in the ‘Lineouts Stolen’ category despite only playing in three games. It must be hoped that O’Mahony’s latest stretch of convalescence allows him to rehab fully and strengthen all that needs it.

On the other hand, The Mole can’t get past a big hole in his game that you just don’t expect to see from a test blindside – tackling. O’Mahony is not as technically good [in terms of body height or the ability to tackle equally well on both shoulders], as destructive or as busy as either of his regular team-mates in the backrow, Heaslip and O’Brien. Nor could he keep pace with Chris Henry’s efforts when they were in tandem during the 2014 Six Nations. Unless your backrow includes a tackling freak like Thierry Dusautoir or Dan Lydiate, you’d generally expect that your backrow would share the tackles fairly evenly, perhaps with the No8 lagging a little behind the two flankers. Far too often in his test career O’Mahony has finished third in the backrow tackle count.

Defense is half the game, and tackling is the key component of defense. The fact that the Munster openside has only made it into double figures in his tackle count twice in 31 test starts isn’t just a statistical aberration; it’s a flaw in his game. On the other hand, it’s pretty much the only one [apart from a tendency to occasionally take off sideways across the pitch] and one that can be relatively easily remedied. You can’t add an extra yard of pace, but you can become a better tackler, as we have previously referred to with regards to Paul O’Connell. Wrestlers used to talk about visiting Stu Hart’s ‘Dungeon’ in Calgary, Alberta, Canada – you have to say it like that – to learn the finer/more brutal arts of catch wrestling, and Dan Lydiate would do well to turn his farm into a tackle factory and place of pilgrimage for backrows across the world.

Three words: big f*cking deal. O'Brien hits Papé with his wrist in the ned kelly and everyone wrings their hands. I want to see less people being dragged and held off the ball ... if that means more punches, all the better! It's like a good economy: you tax things to disincentivise them. Big cars that are harmful to air quality, smokes that cause cancer etc. Ask rugby fans whether they want to see more players held off the ball or more punches.

Three words: big f*cking deal. O’Brien hits Papé with his wrist in the ned kelly and everyone wrings their hands. I want to see less people being dragged and held off the ball … if that means more punches, all the better! It’s like a good economy: you tax things to disincentivise them. Big cars that are harmful to air quality, smokes that cause cancer etc. all get taxed heavily because they’re generally agreed to be bad. How do you disincentivise holding off the ball? Impose a tax! Ask rugby fans whether they think grabbing players off the ball is worse than hitting said grabbers and you might be surprised what people want to see.

Sean O’Brien: Another high profile member of the Cardiff 5 who was missed against Argentina. When Sean O’Brien plays well he is one of the best in the world but, like Cian Healy, his impact in recent seasons has been dulled by injury. This seems to be a feature of powerful, fast-twitch muscle players so while Leo Cullen, Donnchadh O’Callaghan and Devin Toner are virtually ever present, the likes of O’Brien, Ferris and Healy all frequently miss games through injuries.

O’Brien’s reaction to Pape’s goading was understandable but frustratingly naive for a player of his experience. To be honest though [while admitting that I’m completely biased on this count] I still have a lot of sympathy for him, and didn’t agree with those moaning about either his actions or those of David Pocock in their respective final pool games. Refs hardly ever penalise players when they’re holding you back, and to be frank it’s about the most annoying thing in rugby when you’re playing. In The Mole’s book, if you’re hanging on to a guy off the ball, you pretty much deserve what you get.  If it’s a slap in the chops, so be it. I said the same thing when O’Connell got red-carded for back-handing Jonathan Thomas a few years ago and when Troncon belted Peter Stringer – sorry Strings! – and I stand by it. Don’t f*cking do it, and you won’t get hit.

Pape made a meal of it, and for a guy who is a serial cheap shot merchant with a record like he has – 25 yellows and two red cards in the course of his career I thought his cribbing to the citing commissioner was little short of pathetic. If O’Brien had wanted to hurt him [as Saint Andre has suggested], he would have punched him in the mouth … not given him a hard-ish slap in the gut.

The Mole expected the ban because of the way that sort of stuff has been dealt with recently, but my opinion is the same. It wuz ‘ow we wuz raised, guv’nor. I understand that penalising retaliation is aimed at preventing escalation, but if you don’t penalise the guy who provokes the retaliation as well [especially with off-brand carry-on as seen from Baldwin and Papé] then you incentivise underhand carry-on that few people want to see in rugby – holding people off the ball, diving, cheap comments etc.

I’m standing on an “Easy on Retaliation, Tough on the Causes of Retaliation” ticket. It’s a classic reactionary front based on violence and populism, the sort of thing that has no unforeseen consequences and helps create a better, fairer society. 

Jordi Murphy caption

Jordi Murphy: at 24 years old, Murphy’s best years are likely still ahead of him. Already into double figures in terms of test caps, it can be easy to forget that the Blackrock man started at No8 in a winning performance against the English in this year’s Six Nations. The lad can play, but blindside is probably the worst fit for him in the backrow.

Jordi Murphy: The Mole delivered his verdict on Murphy in one sentence in Wrestling Romania: Jordi Murphy is versatile but is a squad player.” A tad dismissive? Probably; I’m more a fan than some other members of the Mole corps. I did an exercise a few years ago where I tried to ascertain what sort of impact an individual had on his team’s performance throughout a league season. The story that came out of the Leinster review was that when Jordi Murphy played, Leinster had better results (not nearly as much impact as Peter O’Mahony and Munster but along the same lines).

Over the past twelve months, Murphy has started matches at No6, No7 and No8 for Ireland but has rarely looked like nailing down a starting slot. That versatility is valuable for gaining selection to a World Cup squad but not for the last time during this review series, I’ll utter the mantra that versatility is a blessing until it becomes a curse. Murphy was selected at No6 in place of Peter O’Mahony against Argentina and had as good a performance from him at No6 as you could expect. It was a like-for-like substitute in many ways, certainly moreso than moving Henderson to blindside would have been.

Murphy’s carrying wasn’t as good as O’Mahony’s has been in this World Cup, but his breakdown work was better – POM has been very ordinary at the breakdown in this tournament, which I’d put down to his gammy left shoulder – and while he didn’t contribute as much in the lineout on opposition ball, he provided a steady stream on Ireland’s throw.

His tackle count wasn’t great [5/1] but then again, O’Mahony doesn’t offer much in that part of the game either: 7/0 vs Canada, 5/0 vs Italy, 6/2 vs France. However, Murphy doesn’t have the physical characteristics or athleticism to play blindside consistently at international level. Simply put, he’s not big enough or strong enough for the position.

With that said, Murphy’s performance against Argentina provides a very useful buoy to navigate the swells of reaction, criticism and advice that have flooded the Irish rugby media in the aftermath of our exit from the tournament. There has been reasonable criticism of his selection and how he played … but then in the next breath the same commentators have urged Ireland to play the same way, seemingly unaware that there’s a strong and fishy smell of contradiction.

Murphy is a player who avoids contact with footwork rather than racing headlong into collisions; he’s relatively slim and pacy rather than “bulked up”; he passes well, offloads out of contact, and runs good support lines; is an agile lineout option; and he wins turnovers at the breakdown by astutely choosing which ones to go into rather than burying himself in all of them.

These are all evidence-based assertions – he won two turnovers in the QF [the first a penalty in the first half, when an Argentine player refused to release the ball under his jackal, the second a clean turnover in the second half near the Irish 22]; he scored a sharp try because of a great supporting line off Luke Fitzgerald; he passed or offloaded 50% of the times he got the ball [his Kick/Pass/Run of 0/4/5, and 1 offload out of contact, meaning that one of his runs also counts as a pass] and had the best metres/carry mark out of anybody in the pack, either starter or substitute.

So all these things that we as a team should be doing – according to the recent flood of articles after the weekend praising SH teams – he does, and did. But in the end he lost most of his collisions, and that was a massive deal in the game. It wasn’t just him losing collisions, but most of our players. Schmidt acknowledged that and some of the papers mentioned it, but it has rather been lost in the massive hot-air internet fest we’re all contributing too.

The Argentines were winning contacts, consistently getting over the gainline, and our defensive line was constantly having to run backwards to get onside and reset. The Pumas took their chances well, but they were making chances because they were winning the vast majority of collisions.

Where does this leave him? If I were advising the 24 year old Murphy I would recommend that he chooses one position and concentrates on it. There are a couple of ways to go about it: you can do it publicly, as both Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls have done in the past, or you can go down the Fergus McFadden route and have a private meeting with your provincial coach and make your case for specialisation. Murphy’s most natural postion might well be No8, but his size is suited best to the No7 jersey: at 188cm and 106kg, he’s dwarfed by test ochos like Vermeulen [193cm, 116kg], Read [193cm, 112kg], Parisse [196cm, 112kg], Vunipola [188cm, 126kg] and Denton [196cm, 114kg]. He needs to figure out whether he is best served staying in Leinster where Heaslip and O’Brien are incumbent or moving to one of the other provinces. He has achieved a lot at this stage of his career and has another two RWC cycles left in him but he needs to specialise in order to fulfil his ability.

Chris Henry: An example of what I’ve in mind for Murphy is Chris Henry who started life as a No8 before making the pragmatic decision to specialise as an openside. Referring to Murphy’s physical abilities can make it sound like gym scores are all that matter; that’s not the case – and I’m not a believer in that line of thinking – but you have to be aware of all a player’s components. One of the things I liked hearing about Henry was how complimentary Ferris (still only 30) was about him as a mentor of sorts at Ulster. These are the stories that are important but that you don’t see on the pitch or read from a box jump score.

For all Chris Henry’s admirable character, he needs to be at the top of his game at international level. Keeping an eye on him for a few minutes against Argentina, it was noticeable that if he missed an angle or a read there was no digging himself out of a hole with athleticism or a burst of pace. You can’t expect Chris Henry to be David Wallace but with a relatively small playing population, Irish rugby has to try and ensure that it’s best athletes make the most of their abilities. In this regard, it is hard to understand the thinking behind a move like Robin Copeland to Munster rather than Ulster a few seasons ago. CJ Stander has probably been Munster’s best forward in recent seasons and Jack O’Donoghue is one of the most promising players – so why not encourage another number 8 to go elsewhere? Copeland’s injury made the matter a moot point for this RWC but it did not appear to be the best use of resources.

If achieving set piece solidity and close quarter physical dominance is the objective of the front five then the back row is the part of the team where something extra must be brought. There isn’t any one way of doing this, the omnipresence of McCaw, Dusautoir, Pocock and Burger can be supplemented by the ball-playing lineout ability of Read, Harinorduquy, Fardy and Juan Smith or even the relentless chopping of Dan Lydiate. The important thing is the balance and getting a back row together that works for  your team.

Ireland’s back row against Argentina was ultimately underpowered and one paced. However, there weren’t that many alternatives particularly with Ruddock only recovered from injury and O’Donnell ruled out. There’s an opinion that we’ve loads of options in the back row but I’m not of that point of view, its a challenging environment to play back row in a world cup. I do think that players should specialise in positions and learn the nuances of the role so while game time is an objective at an early stage, expertise must be a focus relatively soon.  

One of the challenges for the selectors of the Irish team in the years to come is how to best use Iain Henderson now that O’Connell has retired. Do you put him in second row for his strength and additional mobility? Or do you use him in the back row and hope that he is industrious enough throughout the game? I’d have picked McGrath-Best-Ross-Toner-Ryan-Henderson-Henry-Heaslip for the Argentinian game and felt that starting at six demanded too much from Jordi Murphy.

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8 thoughts on “Ireland RWC2015 Report Cards – Pt.3 The Backrow

  1. I often hear the Irish print media talk about the strength and depth of our back row. I think we have two top class backrows(sob and heaslip) then a whole pile of similar level guys with Pom just on top at present. Ruddock,Henry,Murphy,TOD and now stander close behind. It gives an illusion of depth that isn’t there.
    Pom injury means someone has a chance to stake a claim. Henderson has the ability to be up three with sob and heaslip as a proper top class backrow. That leaves a gap in second row that needs filling. Will be interesting to see who gets picked and will give an indication if there will be any change in playing style on the back of our World Cup exit.

  2. Looking forward to RWC19, its possible only Murphy of that quintet will be around.

    In the case of Heaslip, he’s a smart and driven player who seems indestructible, but then it only takes one injury. If he is around for 2019, its likely because he’s stayed injury free – so say 8 games a year for Ireland, 12 for Leinster each season – 20 games a season. Whatever about 300+ games, 380+ is a LOT of wear in the tyres – what did Nick Easter have when he turned out?

    O’Mahony looks held together by sticky tape at this stage – let’s see how he comes back. Hopefully not a Tom Croft type situation where he comes back 85% of the player he was, which doesn’t cut it. O’Brien another you’d worry about injuries – he’s not quite in the Ferris fast twitch power range, but he’s close, and it sometimes feels like there is a constant hum of injury worries.

    Chris Henry is a great guy, and excellent at what he does, but he is 31 now – I expect he’ll be around with Ulster for a good while yet, but RWC19 seems a stretch. I wonder about O’Donnell – he’s essentially in the prime years now and can be terribly inconsistent – at the end of the 2013/14 season he wasn’t even making Munster’s bench. The hope is that the next 2 seasons (after which he’ll be 30) he stays fit and playing at a high enough level to sniff around Ireland.

    Ruddock, injury free, looks a lock for a long career at Ireland. Regarding Stander, I’ll go back to your first line “We still obsess about ‘ball carriers’ instead of ‘ball players’” – he’s a great carrier with a nose for the tryline, is he a good enough ball player? He is listed at 1.88m and 114kg on the Munster website – it does seem generous, and while heavier than Murphy, its not in battleship class. Picamoles is apparently only 4cm and 2kg bigger than Stander, but you’d have thought it was much more based upon what he does. Conan and O’Dononghue might pass Stander out through this RWC cycle.

    Then there is Dom Ryan, van der Flier at Leinster. Not much of note at Ulster (bar maybe Henderson), or Munster unless Copeland miraculously gets significant gametime ahead of Stander/O’Donoghue, and maybe Heenan at Connacht.

    • you could add Leavy to that list. Right age profile to be involved at next world cup. inching ahead of Ryan as it is. SOB 2.0 seems to have stalled but still only 22. he was a decent ball player for Roscrea.

    • haven’t seen VDF in action for Leinster. How good is he? Worthy of fast tracking approach?

      I think SOB best days for Leinster were in the 6 shirt, would be very interesting if they could afford to allow him slot back in to that position.

  3. @dementedmole

    Excellent piece again.

    Re POM and poor tackle count. Hard to establish it but it would be interesting to do a comparison across other blindsides to see if his lower tackle count is due to his being “taken out of position” at a lot of lineouts/breakdowns relative to his peers.

    Based on the stats provided most lineout steals are completed by 2nd rows (Nyanga and Wood the only possible other 6s on that list?). If he is being put up to compete 3/4 times a game is this not removing him from position where he is covering across from “tailgunner” position possibly, or slowing him down in getting into tackle position?

    Ditto his focus at the breakdown, and his carrying, do his peers get involved in as many of these actions in their matches. Lydiate doesn’t carry all that much if at all for example and isn’t half as effective at breakdown.

    So if all lineouts he competes in + breakdown attempts + carries is added together should an allowance not be made that is he perhaps is not being utilized as a 6 similar to peers. Even if he is involved in 4/5 of these actions more than peers that’s probably 4 additional tackles per game (based on 90% success rate). how often does that get him to double figures?

    Just musings really because I have seen him so much over a prolonged period and whilst you cannot argue against the bare tackle stats above I would never have considered him a weak link in defensive system. Possibly my red bias coming through as well though TBF.

    Agree completely that he was protecting his shoulder throughout; doesn’t reflect well on the alternatives for the position really that JS was willing to accept that limitation!

  4. I’d have picked McGrath-Best-Ross-Toner-Ryan-Henderson-Henry-Heaslip for the Argentinian game and felt that starting at six demanded too much from Jordi Murphy.

    So would I. The stepdown from POC to Ryan was less than the stepdown from Henderson (at 6) to Murphy.

  5. ‘versatility is a blessing until it becomes a curse’ – is this not at least partially the responsibility of the coach to manage? Obviously Henry plays seven but that does not mean he is a like for like replacement for Sob, yet we saw him unsuccessfully trying to make carries off first phase line out ball that Sob would have made. Maybe he would have been better off filling the blindside role and focusing on tackling. In contrast Murphy showed he is a very capable ball carrier who might have made much more from those power plays.

    Regarding his versatility, Murphy seems like a bit of a tweener – he’s about the same size and shape as Henshaw, who also does many of the basic requirements of the backrow, with a tackle count that many sixes would be proud of. However, Henshaw has the pace and hands (though still room to improve) to play centre whereas Murphy is fast for a backrow but possibly average for a centre (but if he trained for back play maybe this could be improved). After the failure of the Jordan Coughlan and Sam Burgess experiments I doubt anyone is in the mood for more of the same but its an interesting what if all the same.

  6. Pingback: The Lengthening of the Days | Whiff of Cordite

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