Ireland brought only two scrum halves to this tournament and a third choice outhalf who played very little even in the event of the incumbent getting injured. The national inability to produce international quality scrum halves with any sort of consistency is a mystery to me. Of the twenty scrum halves selected for the last seven Lions tours, only two were Irish and Tomas O’Leary got injured before he could travel.
Before we go much further, there are two points on selection that we’d make. Firstly, the two biggest talking points of the initial squad selection were the selection of Madigan as scrum-half cover and the omission of Andrew Trimble.
As The Mole saw it, the risk associated with assigning Madigan that role was never as high as it was made out by some commentators; it was more or less reliant on two players in the same position getting getting injured on the same day in one match out of four. If Schmidt had been forced to pick Madigan as scrum-half cover in a match-day squad, the likelihood was always going to be that he’d stick with the starter for the guts of the 80 minutes.
Secondly, Isaac Boss’ late call-up to the squad for the quarter-final against Argentina made him a member of the elite three-World-Cups-gang. Along with hookers Rory Best [’07, ’11 & ’15], Terry Kingston [’87, ’91’ & ’95] and Keith Wood [’95, ’99 & ’03]; second rows Neil ‘Franno’ Francis [’87, ’91 & ’95] and Donncha O’Callaghan [’03, ’07 & ’11]; fellow scrum-half Eoin Reddan [’07, ’11 & ’15]; outhalf Ronan O’Gara [’03, ’07 & ’11]; and centres Paddy Wallace [’03, ’07 & ’11], and Brendan Mullin [’87, ’91 & ’95], and lagging behind only all-timers Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell [four RWCs each], it’s a noteworthy and surprising accomplishment.
Boss has wrung a lot of success and an excellent career out of his talent, but it’s pretty incredible that he has got three World Cup kit-bags out of it.
Conor Murray: The Limerick man is now one of Ireland’s most important players given his ability and the standard of competition for the number nine shirt. One of the characteristics of Joe Schmidt’s coaching is that everything comes off ten; nine is there to keep the ball moving or box kick. This isn’t a unique case; the Cheika-era Will Genia runs and breaks far less often than in years gone by for the Reds and Australia. The certainty about his role seems to have helped Genia discover his form so why suggest something different for Murray?
I feel that Murray has the game to threaten fringe defences and keep them guessing in a manner that would actually free up some space for the three-quarters if it was varied and not over-used. His kicking is usually very good and he is also capable of place kicking. He has probably taken over Mike Ross’s mantle as Ireland’s most important player and is a candidate for captaincy given that he’ll almost certainly be selected.
Consequently the demands and expectations upon Murray are higher now than in previous years. He is a pivotal player for both Ireland and Munster and if either team are to be successful then Murray must command games.
Eoin Reddan: Reddan turns 35 in November and never challenged Murray for the starting slot during the world cup, getting a run out against Romania and appearing off the bench at the end of matches.
Reddan improved and developed new skills throughout his career but particularly at Wasps when he was part of Heineken Cup winning teams. The pathway for Irish professional players is academy to province to national team but the most important thing is playing rugby, and Reddan’s willingness to take on the challenge of London and remove himself temporarily from the national radar proved to be a risk worth taking.
Jonny Sexton: If Reddan’s move overseas was the making of him then the same cannot be said for Jonny Sexton. Sexton’s showdown with the union and consequent Parisian adventure earned him what he felt he was worth but my nagging feeling is that it didn’t benefit his career.
Maybe that’s personal prejudice. He did pilot Ireland to back to back championships and started all but one of the games during those two Six Nations. However, he always seemed shrouded by injury concerns, not helped by a tackling technique that often looks too high.
Sexton was named in the team against Argentina and his withdrawal was one of those “oh, shit” moments. His ability to combine a running and kicking game is top drawer and that variety was missed against an aggressive Argentinian defence.
Sold him on the way up, bought him back on the way down. Good work IRFU.
Ian Madigan: I was delighted that Madigan led the team so well against France and didn’t realise the emotional impact after the game until seeing it online the following day.
I spoke after the Argentina game to a UK-based Irish fan who doesn’t have the opportunity to attend home matches or Leinster games. His impression upon seeing Madigan live was that there always seemed to be a lack of certainty about Madigan’s intentions amongst his fellow players and that he looked to try and take on a lot himself.
Another conversation questioned why the team hadn’t tried to pin Argentina back by kicking to the corner. For the generation of rugby fans reared watching Ronan O’Gara doing just that, it’s an obvious question. My answer is that O’Gara was peerless at it and that it is a demanding skill, one not easily replicated.
Despite that, Madigan’s game simply hasn’t improved enough in recent years where he can command a starting spot at provincial level. We wrote in 2012 that “[Madigan] does need to learn how to control a game, where to put the ball on the pitch, to understand that you don’t have to score off every phase but, by putting the ball into certain positions, you increase your chances of scoring off a subsequent phase. In other words, multi-dimensional stuff.” In the same paragraph we also wrote that “Madigan is a player that needs a top class coach.” But he got Matt O’Connor instead who rarely picked him at outhalf and certainly didn’t push the boundaries of creative back line play.
His selection against Argentina allowed the Pumas to come up hard and fast with the certainty that Ireland were unlikely to kick it behind them and establish any territorial beachhead. My immediate reaction was to question the wisdom of Leinster signing Jimmy Gopperth and to scapegoat Matt O’Connor for not selecting Madigan at outhalf. Is it that simple?
Paddy Jackson: That it might not be that clear cut is evidenced by Paddy Jackson, the chosen one of Ravenhill, who has been given every opportunity to develop as a top fly half. At 23, Jackson has time on his side and had a tough season with injuries, notably a dislocated elbow, the thought of which sends shivers up my spine. However, he has had a different experience than Madigan from the point of view of provincial selection and once chosen for the squad might have been expected to become first alternative as starting ten in Sexton’s absence. That it didn’t work out like that is disappointing and Jackson made a negligible impact on this tournament.
Much like the case of Furlong, the forthcoming season should reveal whether Schmidt saw weaknesses that he couldn’t risk or if his selection too often errs on the side of caution and familiarity.
Instinct or Control?
If, with a top quality front five and place kicker you always have a chance, then with top quality half backs it is game on. NZ had a pair this tournament and they were arguably the best team in the history of the competition.
NZ half backs fall broadly into two categories, personified by Sid Going, “rated by some as the equal of New Zealand’s greatest running half-back”; and Chris Laidlaw, who retired from international rugby to take up his Rhodes Scholarship before becoming at various times New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Zimbabwe and the Chief Executive of NZ’s World Wildlife Fund. When he played, Laidlaw “developed a marvellous pass and an accurate kick from the forward base”.
The Kiwis are more successful with a passing scrum half who keeps the tempo high and Aaron Smith probably surpassed Graeme Bachop in this tournament as the finest exponent of that style since Laidlaw. In contrast, I was of the opinion in 2007 that Byron Kelleher, a running scrum half, was at the heart of NZ’s vulnerability exploited in Cardiff by a French team that left half gaps around the fringes of rucks. Kelleher sought to get through those gaps, France then closed them over and with the NZ scrum half buried beneath the following phase their previously slick attacking game ground to a halt without the tempo being stoked regularly from the base by the nine. For all that, there’s a sizable proportion of the rugby public that loves a scrum half like Going and he was highly esteemed in NZ.
The difference between the two was best described by the erudite Laidlaw himself “[Going] was a kind of genius figure. It went wrong occasionally and we lost a bit. He was totally instinctive, a bit like Ma’a Nonu these days. When I played I liked to keep a sense of control over the game. That’s what gave me most pleasure. Sid was completely different.”
So why all the talk about a pair of Kiwi scrum halves from half a century ago? It is because one of the features of a good team, maybe even the deciding hallmark of a great team, is its ability to play well in more than one way. This RWC provided an excellent example when NZ beat SA in the semi-final in the rain. I had suspected that NZ would kick far more ball in this game than in any other with the objective of pinning SA in their own half and depriving them of kickable penalties, drop goal opportunities and tries from turnovers forced by smothering defence and intense tackling.
In the other knock-out games, the Kiwis ran the ball really well, handling and supporting superbly but for the game against their most significant foe they played the opposition and had the discipline to stick with the plan throughout. They also had the players who could execute it and none more so than their half backs.
Ireland have a really good pair of half-backs when Sexton and Murray are both fit. With either one of them gone there is a big drop, and because of Schmidt’s emphasis on the primacy of the outhalf I don’t think we saw the most from Murray in the quarter.
I think Schmidt really likes a controller at scrum half, a player like Pierre Mignoni, who he coached at Clermont, who keeps the pace of the game up and the ball moving. I’m kind of surprised that he never included Stringer in any of his panels because he would really have suited the style. The easy answer to that is that Stringer is 37 and the real question is where are his successors?
The opposite to Stringer is Mike Phillips, who didn’t fit the mould of a conventional halfback, but who did as much as any other Welshman to sink Ireland over a number of years. Phillips was an instinctive, bustling, attacking player who, when he was on form and fit, could galvanise his team mates and bring the game to any opposition. He himself described Conor Murray as “the poor man’s Mike Phillips” but it was also revealed that “if he had gunpowder for brains, he wouldn’t blow his nose”.
As it is, I don’t think that Schmidt gets the most out of Murray because Ireland play so little off of nine and the opportunity to maximise his running threat is foregone. As in a number of positions, the paucity of competition means that Ireland cannot really vary their game by introducing a different type of player.