The news that Glasgow Warriors have released their Scottish test-capped second row Kieran Low on a loan deal to Saracens probably didn’t break the internet in the same manner as just about everything else is said to do so these days, but it nevertheless impacted tangentially on something that The Mole had been thinking about over the last few months.
Low is a 24 year old London-Irish product who played for the England U18 and U20 teams and enjoyed his breakout season for both club and paternal grandfather’s country in 2013-14, starting 19 matches and scoring three tries for the Exiles at club level and winning his five Scottish caps during the period bookended by the respective Novembers of each of those years.
The Wily Saracen
Classifying Saracens as a ‘Marmite’ team is being bloody generous to the tenants at Barnet Copthall: it’s not a case of “either love ‘em or hate ‘em” when pretty much everybody hates them. With that said, you’d have to be a stooge not to recognise that they’re a well-coached and extremely well-organised side. Head Coach Mark McCall’s comments on the loan deal were low key, but indicated the thoroughness of his forward planning:
“With a few injuries and the expectancy that we will lose a few second-row forwards during the Six Nations, we are very happy to be able to bring Kieran into the group.”
Saracens only sent two of their locks to RWC15 – England’s George Kruis and the United States’ Hayden Smith. Big Jim Hamilton didn’t make it into Vern Cotter’s Scottish squad, South African club captain Alistair Hargreaves wasn’t on the radar for Heyneke Meyer and, to borrow a phrase from former Leinster PRO Peter Breen, the World Cup came “a week too soon” for former English U20 captain Maro Itoje.
Hargreaves and Smith aren’t eligible for the Six Nations, so they’re safely stowed away; Hamilton may not be part of Cotter’s plans in the aftermath of being omitted from a relatively successful Scottish World Cup effort; Kruis wasn’t quite a Jonah on England’s doomed enterprise, but he was essentially inconsequential to proceedings: called to duty for 12 minutes against Australia in a lost cause and 26 minutes against Uruguay in a dead rubber; and while Itoje may be the coming man, it may also be that his various coaches haven’t decided whether or not he’s a lock or a flanker.
None of these players are a lock to be a part of the Six Nations: not in the way that Joe Launchbury is at Wasps, or Alun-Wyn Jones is at Ospreys, or Jonny Gray is at Glasgow, or Devin Toner is at Leinster. And yet even though they may not end up losing anybody to the Six Nations, Saracens are belt and bracing for the reasonable chance that the wind may have changed and that they might end up losing a couple.
Marginal Gains Till We Keel Over With The Weight Of Accumulated Percentages
To counter the possibility of being down numbers, they’ve managed to engineer the aforementioned loan deal, and have got themselves a recent international lock on loan until the end of the season; it’d be naive not to observe that this period essentially amounts to putting a player on a long term trial.
They’re doing everything by the book. They’ve worked hard trying to mitigate any potential losses, examined themselves to find a point of weakness and attempted to strengthen it before it becomes a target for other teams. The contracting of Low may only be one of those marginal gains, but we all know how such gains can aggregate.
If We Do Nothing, I’m Sure The Problem Will Just Go Away
Low’s loan move isn’t a particularly interesting story in its own right, but since seeing Tom Denton replace Mike McCarthy against Toulon in back-to-back games, The Mole was brooding over Leinster’s second row situation. I don’t want to take pot-shots at Denton, who at least puts in a stint when he’s on the pitch and was a big contributor to Leinster’s scrum dominance down in Thomond Park, but … well, “we know what he can do”. It’s not all bad news on the second row front: Mike McCarthy is playing some of the best rugby of his tenure in the Big Shmoke, and Ross Molony’s emergence this season has been quite impressive for a 21 year old.
However, the long term injury to recent signing Mick Kearney has meant that he hasn’t played a minute of rugby for Leinster yet this season [and indeed hasn’t played a professional game for anybody since Connacht’s loss to Munster on the 28th March, over nine months ago]. New Zealander Hayden Triggs hasn’t been available for selection since picking up what looked like a nasty foot injury against Bath in the European Cup six weeks ago, an injury which required surgery. Development contract lock Gavin Thornbury is also rumoured to have picked up a significant pectoral injury which, if what The Mole has heard is true, could keep him out of contact for 12-16 weeks. Lest it go unmentioned, between the three of them, said players have started a total of two games for the province. They’re still unknown quantities.
Answering Ireland’s Call …
Ireland are facing into a defense of their Six Nations trophy in just over five weeks’ time, and it’s difficult to recall a recent campaign when second row stocks were lower. The great Paul O’Connell has retired from test rugby; his putative successor Iain Henderson is unavailable owing to a serious hamstring tear; Donnacha Ryan’s form is very ordinary; and Dan Tuohy hobbled off the pitch against Edinburgh mid-December and has since missed all the fun his Ulster mates have been having.
It’s probable that Irish coach Joe Schmidt will include both Leinster heavyweights – Toner and McCarthy – in his wider training squad. Given the aforementioned context of retirements and injuries, it’s very conceivable that both will be in the matchday 23.
… And Leaving Your Homes Unguarded
With this point in mind, and pivoting smartly on heel back to the Leinster side of things, it’s clear that the province will be completely in the soup over the Six Nations with regards to their second row supplies. Because of a storm-postponed fixture with Glasgow having been rescheduled, Leinster now have five Pro12 games in the international window, rather than four.
With three seriously injured locks whose return-to-play dates are murky, and their two best second rows likely lost to Irish duty, Leinster would seem to be in far more of a pickle than Saracens. Outside of the injured and the internationals, the second row stocks are comprised of Denton, 23 year old Tadhg Beirne and Ross Molony. The province is pretty light in the engine room. Can we expect a response from those who push the buttons and pull the levers?
Alas! A Lack Of Alacrity
The Mole thinks it’s fair to say that, with the exception of Ulster under the hard-nosed stewardship of David Humphreys, the provinces have not been renowned for their deal-closing prowess over the last five or six years.
The Irish player appropriation system is a big old fairground full of swings and roundabouts, and while it’s now presided over by a new circusmaster in David Nucifora, some things haven’t noticeably changed. The provincial representatives still have to go cap in hand to the long double-axle trailer behind the big top and argue their case that the proposed strong-man is desperately needed, that his presence won’t impinge on the chances of underfed young Irish runaways, that he will bring all these wonderful memories and a sense of inspiration to starstruck youngsters both on and off the saw-dust etc. before they get the go-ahead to start legitimate negotiations with said Johnny Foreigner’s agent.
So while Saracens can go out and organise a loan deal for a Scottish international, that’s probably not a viable option for Leinster. Munster have been allowed short term deals for a non-Irish-qualified player or two, but the extenuating circumstance of Felix Jones’ forced retirement from the game demands understanding.
Once a province have determined that their prospective loanee has to be Irish-qualified, they’re cutting down their options to a great extent, but making the IRFU end of negotiations a lot less fraught. The Union aren’t going to kick up a fuss if it means an Irish-qualified player is going to be getting more minutes on the pitch. That’s one of the main items on their agenda, after all.
Help Us Obi-Wan, You’re Our Only Irish-Qualified Hope
Having briefly veered away from specifics in order to give a more general overview of the situation at the administrative level, we’ll return to the original example outlined above at Leinster. Admittedly, losing five locks to injury and international call up is close to a worst case scenario for the province, but at this stage it’s not a wholly improbable one.
The question The Mole asks is how do the organisation respond? Is the player-contracting element of the management nimble and decisive in terms of getting a short term deal done in double time? Or, as has happened in the past, will they hold up their reluctance to get their hands dirty as some sort of valediction ‘on the way we do things’.
The Mole sees an ideal candidate for a quick-fix – and hopefully a much longer solution – in Worcester Warriors’ Darren O’Shea , the 23 year old Crosshaven-born lock.
O’Shea took a rather unusual career path for a young Irish player, leaving the Munster Academy after just one year in order to take up a contract offer from Dean Ryan at Worcester Warriors, then in the RFU Championship. His first season can only be regarded as a success: as a 21/22 year old he played in 18 of Worcester’s 25 RFU Championship fixtures and started 13 of them, including the first round of the semi-final games against London Scottish, in a campaign that saw the Warriors promoted to the Aviva Premiership.
He hasn’t played in any of Worcester’s seven Premiership games to date, but has started three of their four Challenge Cup matches. He even managed a late try in his most recent match, the home fixture of the double-header against Gloucester back on 10 December.
Though his progress at Worcester has stalled this season, that’s more an indication of the short-termism – or pragmatism, call it whichever way you’re pleased to see it – that permeates English professional rugby, rather than a sign that he has hit the ceiling of his abilities. With their promotion, the Warriors invested heavily in their squad and brought in the Fijian international Tevita Cavubati from the Ospreys and Donncha O’Callaghan from Munster. He might be past his prime, but O’Callaghan is still a big name with phenomenal experience: a Lion in 2005 and 2009, a Grand Slammer, a double Heineken Cup-winner with over 90 test caps on his figurative mantelpiece. That he’s quite close to turning 37 years old and had begun to be taken for granted as a second string player in Munster were good reasons to leave the province rather than decisive indictments of his current abilities as a player.
In short, Dean Ryan isn’t selecting O’Shea a lot this season. If the coach thinks he can do without him post-Christmas, and would like somebody else paying his wages, maybe an immediate loan deal isn’t out of the question. It could – and should – at least be explored. O’Shea is represented by Niall Woods at Navy Blue , someone with whom all the provincial CEOs will be familiar.
If, on the other hand, Ryan wants to keep O’Shea as part of a longer term plan [a topic on which he has been forthright], then not selecting him very much when he’s coming into the last quarter of a two year deal isn’t the best way to keep him encouraged.
Hammer Home That Point Darce. If You Repeat Yourself Often Enough, We’ll Give You A Guest Spot On This Blog
In the small theatre of campaign that is repatriating Irish players plying their trade abroad, O’Shea would be very close to the top target on The Mole’s hit-list. His primary – and very obvious – selling point is his size: at 206cm and 121kg [6’9” and over 19 stone in old money] he has got outstanding size for a lock forward. Gordon D’Arcy has been testing out his Obvious Game chops in recent columns for the Irish Times, writing that Ireland just doesn’t produce many very tall players:
“The size issue will always have to be taken into consideration. There isn’t another second row in Ireland like Dev Toner and when he is gone we will probably never have another.
Having watched Brodie Retallick as New Zealand put over 60 points on France it is not hard to understand why he was named world player of the year. He’s 6ft 9ins tall. New Zealand produces a Brodie Retallick every three to four years.”
“Secondrow remains a problem area. That problem is height. We have plenty of 6ft 5in locks of genuine talent but the 6ft 8in Mal O’Kelly or 6ft 10in Devin Toner type player is very hard to find here. And until we do we will struggle because the next Paul O’Connell may not have been born yet.”
There’s Devin Toner at 208cm, then Donnacha Ryan, untried Leinster nipper Gavin Thornbury and Ulster unknown Pete Browne all topping out at 201cm … and that’s it. There are just four Irish-qualified players who hit the 200cm mark playing professionally in the country.
Seven of the eight second rows who started the two RWC15 semi-finals – the exception being Argentine Guido Petti Pagadizaval – hit or exceed that mark. I’m not saying that extreme height is the only important trait that a second row has to possess, but let’s not be obtuse about it either. It’s really important.
As it stands, despite possessing outstanding raw materials for a test second row, no strand of Irish rugby seems to have any particular interest in O’Shea. He’s entirely outside the Irish system. And yet, in terms of succession planning, The Mole sees him as a player of national importance. That may sound melodramatic, but as D’Arcy has pointed out above, we’re not chock-a-block with 6’9″ locks over here. We’re also running short on test quality locks even as we speak. With those issues forefront in mind, O’Shea is not exactly a player that we can afford to let slip through our fingers.
Emigrants Come Home, The Recession Is Over
Leinster have shown that they know what to do with an extremely tall lock; the career progress of the now 29-year old Devin Toner [who has played under four Leinster coaches and is just shy of 175 appearances for his province] has been exemplary.
Toner had nothing handed to him, but was always afforded chances. It was a long build in most regards, but it has been unquestionably worthwhile: the Moynalvey man has been a key part of two Six Nations championship teams.
There’s little doubt that O’Shea can complement the Meath man in the Leinster set-up: a like-for-like replacement when the former is away on Irish duty and, at six and a half years younger than him, an eventual successor. It’s difficult to imagine anybody better able to pass advice on how to get the best use out of such a long frame than Toner; after all, who else has the experience of it?
O’Shea is still at the stage where he’s more potential than product; that shouldn’t be a big deal. The careers of Simon Shaw, Nathan Hines, Brad Thorn, Lionel Nallet et al show that big men can have long stint. However, his size and his willingness to travel early in his career mark him out as an intriguing prospect, and one that should be attracting far more attention in Irish rugby circles.