Squad to Squad, Tour To World Cup, Japan to Japan

Ireland’s tour to Japan and the US – and Joe Schmidt’s as yet unannounced squad selection – assumed a greater significance when the pools were drawn for RWC19 last Wednesday. This tour was always going to be more relevant than the usual mid-cycle summer tour, which typically functions as a support act to the Hollywood Lions tour, because we knew we’d be competing in Japan in two years’ time; now we know that we’ll also be competing against Japan. 

It’s a full twelve years since Ireland toured Japan. Again, it was a side salad to the meaty Lions dish, with the Japanese hosting an understrength Irish squad in two test matches: the first at Nagai Stadium, Osaka and the second at the wonderfully named Chichibunomiya Stadium in Tokyo. Ireland won both games by 30-ish points, but from The Mole’s point of view, the winning margins aren’t all that relevant. The real interest – and the focus of this article – is to establish if there are patterns that can be identified or any lessons that could be learned from the squad selection for the tour. After all, Eddie O’Sullivan was looking forward to a World Cup two years down the pipe too …

Second Comes Right After First

Schmidt was decisive in shutting down talk of his taking a role as assistant coach to the Lions under Warren Gatland. There’s an argument that I’ve read with regards to Gregor Townsend’s dismissal of a similar offer – namely that it would have been better for the Scottish players to have somebody in the selection set-up making an argument on their behalf – but when you look at anything other than the short term, what benefit do you get from having one or two extra players from your country touring with the Lions? Does it outweigh the positives of a coach spending three solid weeks of training time with a group of players he’ll be relying on for the next 24-30 months? Of course not.

Eddie O'Sullivan and the 2005 Irish Lions_Billy Stickland

Eddie O’Sullivan photographed with the 2005 Irish Lions. It was an attractive job on paper, but seems to have been a quasi-nightmarish experience in reality. 

When Woodward offered Eddie O’Sullivan a role as assistant coach on the 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand, it granted him both a degree of recognition [you could just as easily say prestige] and the chance to test his coaching chops under trying circumstances – demanding, high quality players; a short time-frame to prepare; and an exceptional opposition in wait.

Accepting the offer meant that he would unavoidably miss Ireland’s tour to Japan but, with a trusted lieutenant in Niall O’Donovan in place to oversee said expedition, it probably wasn’t a difficult choice for O’Sullivan. He has always been an ambitious personality, and it would have been logical to view the assistant coach role as a natural route to the top job for the next tour. Indeed, O’Sullivan’s 2007 re-up with the union made provision for such an offer. While history has not been kind to The Dagger, at that point in time he was right in the middle of a four year period where Ireland won fifteen of their twenty Six Nations games and took home three Triple Crowns. Being optimistic about his future was not delusional.

However, the tour was a calamity from the top down, and one which very, very few of those involved [Ryan Jones, Gareth Thomas and Simon Easterby stand out in memory] walked away from with their reputations enhanced. If you had asked me who the assistant coaches were for the 2005 Lions, I would have told you that O’Sullivan was one – it’s not like I’ve completely blanked the tour from my memory – but on a day to day level it’s a role that I don’t associate with him. He was unequivocally sidelined in Woodward’s coaching set-up.

schmidt-gatland

“I don’t really want to go.” | “Yeah, I never really wanted to ask you in the first place.”

While I doubt that Schmidt was looking at O’Sullivan’s position for parallels, I’m quite convinced that he saw any role under Gatland as being curtailed to the extent of pointlessness. Most everybody who follows northern hemisphere rugby knows how Gatland teams play, and they’re also aware that he’s not renowned for his collaborative, idea-exchanging nature.

 

With that not-particularly-attractive proposition in front of him, and directly weighed against the chance to take an Irish squad to America and Japan and spend a significant amount of time on the training pitch [a point of practice to which Schmidt consistently refers in interviews], then I would imagine that his choice was every bit as easy as O’Sullivan’s was twelve years ago. Thanks but no thanks, Gats.

Mid-Cycle, Mid-Management

David Quinlan 19/6/2005

A 28-year old David Wallace skates over for a try in the second test against Japan. This was the only occasion on which Wallace played for Ireland in 2005. Jonny O’Connor had a huge year and won the IRUPA Players’ Player of the Year award [ahead of shortlisted candidates Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell] but independent of that, Wallace seemed to fall completely out of favour with Eddie O’Sullivan. 

That point of difference between O’Sullivan and Schmidt can easily be ascribed to a number of factors – personality, experience, the value of a Lions role at that point of their respective careers – but there are too many unknowns to make any speculation satisfying. The outcome is the more relevant issue: Schmidt went for the lower key tour with the more immediate aim [the 2019 World Cup], while O’Sullivan went for the bigger job with a distant but desirable long term goal [head coach of the 2009 Lions].

The latter’s decision to take up the Lions role meant that the 2005 touring party to Japan was benignly run by the holy trinity of Niall O’Donovan [Manager/Forwards’ Coach], Michael Bradley [Assistant Coach] and Mark McCall [Assistant Coach], with the 26-man squad made up of 12 backs and 14 forwards.

 

Paddy Wallace was a late scratch from the tour due to a broken hand, with his spot going to Jeremy Staunton. Blindside flanker Simon Easterby was called up to the Lions tour as a replacement for Lawrence Dallaglio [the Wasps man was injured in the first game in New Zealand against Bay of Plenty], getting the news whilst he was packing his kit for Japan. Easterby went to the airport with the rest of the Irish squad, but got on a plane to New Zealand on his own.

Of the playing personnel, Kieran Campbell [25], Kieran Lewis [24], David Quinlan [27], Trev Hogan [25], Bernard Jackman [29], Matt McCullough [23] and Roger Wilson [23] made their test debuts on tour. None of them would make O’Sullivan’s 2007 World Cup squad.

First Test: [bolded text indicates the player was selected for the next World Cup squad]

  • Forwards [1-8]: M. Horan [27], F. Sheahan [28], S. Best [27], L. Cullen [27], M. McCullough [23], A. Quinlan [30], J. O’Connor [25], R. Wilson [23]
  • Backs [9-15]: P. Stringer [27], D. Humphreys [33], A. Horgan [28], K. Maggs [31], G. Duffy [23], T. Bowe [21], G. Dempsey [29]
  • Subs [16-22]: B. Jackman [29], R. Corrigan [34], T. Hogan [25], E. Miller [29], K. Campbell [25], J. Staunton [25], D. Quinlan [27].

Second Test:

  • Forwards [1-8]: M. Horan, F. Sheahan, S. Best, L. Cullen, M. McCullough, D. Leamy [23], D. Wallace, E. Miller
  • Backs [9-15]: P. Stringer, D. Humphreys, A. Horgan, D. Quinlan, G. Duffy, T. Bowe, G. Dempsey
  • Subs [16-22]: B. Jackman, R. Corrigan, T. Hogan, A. Quinlan, K. Campbell, J. Staunton, K. Lewis [24]

Delicious Takeaways

The most tangible fact is that nine of the players who toured Japan went on to make the RWC07 squad: Marcus Horan, Frankie Sheahan, Simon Best, Denis Leamy, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, Peter Stringer, Gavin Duffy and Girvan Dempsey.

Eleven Irish players were initially selected for the 2005 Lions, with Simon Easterby arriving as the first call-up; of those twelve Lions, only Shane ‘Munch’ Byrne [33 years old when the squad was announced, 34 a week after the tour ended] didn’t make it to RWC07.

2005 Irish Lions [11+1*] 

S. Byrne, J. Hayes, P. O’Connell, D. O’Callaghan, M. O’Kelly, S. Easterby*, R. O’Gara, G. D’Arcy, B. O’Driscoll, S. Horgan, D. Hickie, G. Murphy

With the benefit of hindsight, it works out rather neatly: the World Cup squad would go on to be made up of eleven Lions, nine players from the tour to Japan, and ten players [listed below] who played their way into contention in the intervening two years. It would have worked out as a perfect 10/10/10 split if Easterby hadn’t been called up for the Lions … Woodward f*cking ruining everything as usual.

  • Forwards: Jerry Flannery, Neil Best, Rory Best, Bryan Young, Stephen Ferris
  • Backs: Isaac Boss, Eoin Reddan, Andrew Trimble, Paddy Wallace, Brian Carney

The obvious point about the above list is that no fewer than seven of the ten were Ulster players. Ulster had nobody in the 2005 Lions squad, and only two players on the tour to Japan – tighthead prop Simon Best and second row Matt McCullough. However, they introduced a raft of talented players at the start of the 2005-06 season, and clinched the 2005-06 Celtic League in the last two minutes of the season courtesy of a David Humphreys’ dropper.

Stephen Ferris and Andrew Trimble made their professional debuts as twenty year olds at the start of that league campaign [Trimble would go on to score eight tries in 22 starts] and, in his second pro season, the 23 year old Rory Best  firmly took the reins from Nigel Brady and Paul Shiels at hooker.  Irish-qualified scrum-half Isaac Boss arrived from Waikato and hot-headed flanker Neil Best had a career season as a 26/27 year old, scoring 6 tries in 24 starts.

Rory Best and Neil Best [if I had written Rory and Neil Best there would be some sort of a weird implication that they’re related – I definitely would have written Rory and Simon Best – so apologies for the awkward phrasing ] made their Irish test debuts off the bench against the All Blacks in November 2005, while Trimble made his the following week as a starter against Australia. Isaac Boss got his debut on the June 2006 summer tour to New Zealand – a tour home for him, paradoxically – and Stephen Ferris fittingly made his debut against the Pacific Islanders in Lansdowne Road the following November. Bish Bash Bosh.

Brian Carney vs Scotland_Oliver McVeigh Sportsfile

Brian Carney makes a break against Scotland in the August 2007 warm-up game. Carney was a phenomenal RL player and by all accounts a great member of the squad. His selection for the RWC07 squad didn’t really work out, but that was hardly the only thing that didn’t work out. While it looks particularly brutal with the benefit of hindsight and Bowe’s enormous accomplishments in the game,  The Mole is not inclined to be too harsh on a selector taking a ballsy decision. 

Of course, the one name notable by its absence is Tommy Bowe, the five-test Lion and second highest try-scorer in Irish test history. Whoops. It seems quite batshit now that Bowe was overlooked for the RWC07 squad in favour of Brian Carney, and in fairness to those involved, The Mole recalls it being a very contentious decision at the time.  However, in researching this article, I came across these quotes from O’Sullivan from the press conference before Ireland’s warm-up game against Scotland which places the selection process in context:

 

“Tommy’s situation is that he is pretty much certain to play (against Scotland). He picked up an (Achilles tendon) niggle last weekend, we scanned him and found he’s fine. We’ve just given him these two days to stay off it, just to make sure he’s firing on all cylinders for Saturday … it’s an important game for Tommy because he got injured in the first Test against Argentina in Santa Fe. In fact he got a knock early in the game and played through it, then got a second knock. He didn’t really get a good hit out on that tour and missed the second Test. That’s why I’m anxious he plays in this one and I’ll give him every opportunity to prove his fitness.”

“It’s difficult to dissect players publicly without being critical of them. They’re both good strike runners, both good footballers. Tommy’s been involved with the squad for a while now and he’s a very capable player. Brian’s come in and undoubtedly we took a punt on him going to Argentina based on the time he had to prepare. You have to say on what we saw in Argentina it was very positive so you’d have to give him another opportunity again. There’s nothing in it between them at the moment, Saturday’s a very important game for both of them. It’s hard to differentiate between them, they’re two very good players.”

Look at Eddie O’Sullivan being all reasonable and shit!

2009 North American Jaunt 

Ireland’s tour to North America in 2009 was a short-lived May fling that overlapped the business end of the domestic season: the first test of the tour, against Canada in Vancouver, took place on the same day that Leinster played Leicester Tigers in the Heineken Cup final. In response to what can only be described as dubious scheduling, head coach Declan Kidney didn’t select any Leinster players in the his squad.

This quirk more or less invalidates the squad selection in terms of comparing it with its quadrennial equivalents: it’s one thing to omit players on the basis of preference, another situation entirely to be obliged to write a province out of your plans.

Tony Buckley_Ireland vs Canada

Watching Tony Buckley hand people off was always a treat. 196cm and 138kg – what an enormous man! 

The same side started both tests, with the exception of Tony Buckley switching from tighthead to loosehead between the tests; thus Tom Court started at loosehead in the first test [against Canada] and Mike Ross at tighthead in the second test [against the US Eagles]:

 

  • Backs [15-9]: Gavin Duffy, Barry Murphy, Ian Whitten, Darren Cave, Ian Dowling, Ian Keatley, Peter Stringer
  • Forwards [1-8]: Tom Court/Tony Buckley, Rory Best, Tony Buckley/Mike Ross, Bob Casey, Mick O’Driscoll, John Muldoon, Niall Ronan, Denis Leamy
  • Subs [16-22]: Sean Cronin, Mike Ross/Tom Court, Ryan Caldwell, Donnacha Ryan, Eoin Reddan, Niall O’Connor, Dennis Hurley

2009 Irish Lions [14+2*] 

Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Brian O’Driscoll, Ronan O’Gara, Tomas O’Leary†, Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace, Alan Quinlan†, Stephen Ferris, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Jerry Flannery†, Gordan D’Arcy*, John Hayes*

  • * Johnny Come Lately
  • Hors de Combat

While we’re not going into the 2009 tours in detail, it is nevertheless worth noting that despite 16 Irishmen making the Lions that year [14 in the original selection and a further two as injury replacements], the contribution from this group to the RWC11 squad was essentially the same proportion as that of the Lions squads before and after, i.e. 10/11 players.

Luke Fitzgerald_Lions 2009

Luke Fitzgerald breaks down the left during the second test against the Springboks in 2009. That year he was an integral part of the Irish team that won the Grand Slam [starting all five games and scoring two tries], the Leinster team that won the Heineken Cup [starting all nine games and scoring tries against Wasps and Munster] and played in one of the greatest test matches of the decade, all as a 21 year old. The poor guy’s career was decimated by injury, but that was a hell of a year for any player to have. 

Luke Fitzgerald and Tomas O’Leary were the most obvious cuts, having probably played themselves out of contention in the warm-up matches in August 2011. Though John Hayes made the training squad that summer, he was clearly at the end of the road and wasn’t a genuine contender for selection. Alan Quinlan had finished up his career in Munster at the end of the 2010-11 domestic season, shortly before his 37th birthday.

 

An in-form David Wallace was desperately unfortunate to miss out on RWC11. He was badly injured in the last warm-up game in a collision with Manu Tuilagi, and though he made it back on to the pitch late the following season, he wasn’t the same player and called time on a great career in May 2012. The unlucky Jerry Flannery was named in both the 2009 Lions squad and the 2011 Irish World Cup squad, but injury ensured that he could make only a cursory contribution on the pitch to either tour. A bad elbow injury in a training session ruled him out of the Lions tour, and a recurrence of his calf problems – the same issues that forced his retirement the following year – ruled him out of contention before the key pool fixture against Australia after he got the guts of twenty minutes under his belt in the first game of the tournament against the US Eagles.

Second Verse, Same As The First

When you look at the RWC15 squad with reference to the 2013 summer tours [Lions to Australia, Ireland to North America], it’s instructive that the break-up is similar to the RWC07 squad.

Ireland sent twelve Lions to Australia under Warren Gatland: nine were initially named in the squad with three replacements called up under varied circumstances.

2013 Lions [9+3*]

  • Forwards: C. Healy, P. O’Connell, S. O’Brien, J. Heaslip,
  • Backs: C. Murray, J. Sexton, B. O’Driscoll, T. Bowe, R. Kearney, T. Court*, R. Best*, S. Zebo*

Ten of those players would go on to make the RWC15 squad, the exceptions being O’Driscoll – 34 years old and on his fourth Lions tour, who would go on to play one more season with Leinster and Ireland before retiring – and Court, who signed for London Irish before the 2014-15 season.

Of the 29-strong Irish squad who played tests against the US Eagles and Canada that June, eleven of them would go on to make the RWC15 squad: forwards Sean Cronin, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry and Peter O’Mahony; and backs Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson, Darren Cave and Robbie Henshaw.

2013 Tour to North America [29]

  • Forwards: Sean Cronin, Richardt Strauss, Mike Sherry, Tom Court, Declan Fitzpatrick, Jamie Hagan, Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Ross, Mike McCarthy*, Devin Toner, Dan Tuohy, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Kevin McLaughlin, Tommy O’Donnell, Peter O’Mahony
  • Backs: Isaac Boss*, Kieran Marmion, Paul Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan, Darren Cave, James Downey, Stuart Olding, Fergus McFadden, Andrew Trimble, Simon Zebo*, Robbie Henshaw, Felix Jones

The remaining ten players who made the RWC15 squad, having not toured with either Ireland or the Lions in the summer of 2013, are listed below:

  • Forwards: Jack McGrath [25], Tadhg Furlong [22], Nathan White [34], Donnacha Ryan [31], Jordi Murphy [24],
  • Backs: Eoin Reddan [34], Keith Earls [27], Jared Payne [29], Luke Fitzgerald [28], Dave Kearney [26]

White and Payne were not qualified to play for Ireland in 2013, while Donnacha Ryan was given the summer off to rest and recuperate, having played through a shoulder injury late in the season – as interim coach Les Kiss said, “If you called Donnacha he would play in your team tomorrow. Everyone plays with injuries but there was an opportunity for Donnacha to work on a few things and get in some recovery processes.”

Eoin Reddan had broken his leg against France in early March and was unavailable for selection in the summer; Keith Earls and Luke Fitz had sustained serious shoulder and knee injuries respectively against Italy in the last game of the Six Nations and were long term scratches.

McGrath, Furlong, Murphy and Kearney – all of them Leinster players – had yet to play for Ireland at the time of the summer tours. McGrath and Kearney would debut against Samoa in November 2013 [McGrath winning Man of the Match and Kearney scoring two tries]; Jordi Murphy made his first appearance for Ireland off the bench against England in the following year’s Six Nations and his first start in the 2014 summer tour to Argentina, while Tadhg Furlong’s debut came in August 2015 in the warm-up game against Wales.

RWC 2015 Squad [31]

  • Forwards: Rory Best, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy, Sean O’Brien, Paul O’Connell (captain), Peter O’Mahony, Mike Ross, Donnacha Ryan, Richardt Strauss, Devin Toner, Nathan White.
  • Backs: Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Robbie Henshaw, Paddy Jackson, David Kearney, Rob Kearney, Ian Madigan, Conor Murray, Jared Payne, Eoin Reddan, Jonathan Sexton, Simon Zebo.

Again, the squad was split in much the same manner: 10 Lions from the 2013 tour to Australia, 11 tourists from the synchronous tour to North America, and 10 players who were on neither tour. Incidentally, that split follows [in proportion, rather than background] the anecdotal Toulouse ideal squad makeup of one-third Espoirs/one-third from other French clubs/one-third foreign players.

Learnings, Work-Ons & Cetera

The most immediate point that emerges from analysing the relationship between past mid-cycle tour and RWC squads is that this tour, as freighted with new importance as it has become, isn’t any sort of cut-off point. The opening match of RWC19 is on the 20th September 2019 – a full 28 months away. On average, a third of the players making up each of the last three RWC squads have emerged in the equivalent period.

There is a huge amount of time for players to play their way into contention … and an equally long period for those in possession to have to fight off the various challenges of rivals, injury and age.

Addressing Age/Virulent Ageism

Rory Best will be 37 by the time RWC19 kicks off. It seems extremely unlikely to The Mole that he will make the World Cup as a first team player. Legendary Argentine hooker Mario Ledesma played in his fourth World Cup in 2011 as a 38 year old, so there’s precedent … but Ledesma wasn’t captaining the Pumas [Contepomi was, with Juan-Martin Fernandez Lobbe as pack leader]. Of course any player can get injured and/or lose form over a two year period, but it’s obtuse not to recognise that a player is at a greater risk of significant decline in his mid-to-late thirties than he is in his late twenties or early thirties.  To avoid addressing the captaincy next season is to give a hostage to fortune.

Rory Best Ireland

Rory Best turns 35 before the 2017-18 season starts, and it will still be more than two years to RWC19. Declan Kidney took the Irish captaincy from Brian O’Driscoll in 2013, two years before RWC15: he almost certainly recognised that Drico wasn’t going to make it to that tournament as captain [and he didn’t make it in any capacity] and wanted to give his successor sufficient time to get his feet under him. At the time Paul O’Connell’s career was in the balance, and the captaincy went to Heaslip. It was a badly handled transfer which attracted criticism from all sides, but you could still make a legitimate argument that fundamentally it was a reasonable call from the then head coach. 

Paul O’Connell turned 36 a couple of days after Ireland had been knocked out of RWC15 by Argentina, having led the side unbeaten through the pool stages. However, Best has already played more matches than O’Connell did over his entire career.

Best’s Career in numbers …

… in comparison to O’Connell’s.

Assuming he avoids injury, a regular season for Best would probably see him play 12-15 games for Ulster and 8-10 games for Ireland – that’s 20-25 games per season, and he has a draining Lions tour to go through before any of that happens. The Lions tour has a habit of negatively impacting on the following season. So if you see Best as captaining Ireland through to RWC19, you’re asking him to give you 50-ish high quality games over two seasons as a 35-37 year old before you even get to the World Cup … it’s a risk that needs mitigating, in my eyes.

It’s not picking on Best: it’s a question of how to manage a pragmatic approach to players who will be either at the end of the third stage [30-34] of their careers – or even past that bracket – by the time RWC19 comes around, and combine that with a sensibility and respect that doesn’t piss people off inside and outside the camp.

Rob Kearney_Andrew Trimble

Rob Kearney carries Andrew Trimble in training before the victory over NZ in Chicago. Yep, it’s a picture that offers a lot of caption opportunities. These guys are first rate players who have performed at the highest level for a decade, but realistically it’s difficult for back three players to prosper deep into their 30s. Two 33 year old fullbacks started the RWC07 final, Percy Montgomery for South Africa and Jason Robinson for England, but the average age of the back three players from the last four World Cup-winning teams has been a solid 26 years old. It’s yet another flip remark, but if Ireland got to the RWC19 final with Kearney and Trimble in harness, they’d have to play a 10 year old on the other wing to get that average age down to the requisite mark. 

Rob Kearney will be 33 years old six months before RWC19 kicks off; Andrew Trimble will turn 35 during the tournament.

 

Kearney may yet have a couple of great seasons in him – and I’m a bigger fan than most – but the pragmatic side of me sees an ageing back three player whose body has been put through the wringer. As he said in an interview before the start of the season

“I had maybe five hamstring strains last year that were never overly serious. They were all Grade Ones but kept me out for 10, 14 days [at a time]. It was hard to get any sort of momentum going … it’s good [now] and I feel as if I’m on top of them. It’s just important now to get a bit of luck, get some game-time, get robust and stay on top of my body as best I can.”

Unfortunately, when you chart his 2016-17 season, there’s scarcely a month that went by where he didn’t pick up a new injury or else have surgery on a previous injury: knee injury [@ Glasgow in September in the Pro12], suspected concussion [vs Australia in the November internationals], ankle injury [@ Northampton in the European Cup in December], arm injury [vs France in the Six Nations in February], knee injury and surgery [the injury suffered in Six Nations training camp in March 2017], and bicep surgery [undergone in April 2017]. He has been absolutely crocked this season.

Oh No, My Dear Friend.  I’ve Planned A Far Greater Reward For You. When I Pass On, You Shall Be Buried Alive With Me. 

Donnacha Ryan’s decision to move to France, Iain Henderson’s unexpected selection for the Lions, and Ultan Dillane’s injury-wrecked season have combined to leave Ireland’s second row stocks looking threadbare this summer.

However, the situation that presents itself, namely a three-match summer tour to a pair of Tier 2/3 nations and then a series of November internals with RWC seeding positions already allotted, allows an opportunity for the coaching team to build a test second row from raw material. The Mole would go further, and say that they’re close to optimum circumstances to introducing a young forward to test rugby. With Ryan’s impending departure, Ireland obviously need to look at a new second row; but kind scheduling means that we’re not sending down some kid to play against the All Blacks or South Africans before he’s ready; and we can afford to continue the efforts in November against better teams – we’ll be at home, and the matches don’t really count for anything.

So if the coaching team take Kieran Treadwell [21] or James Ryan [20] – or both – and give him some exposure in all three games of this tour, they’ll get a very good idea of whether or not he’s a guy who has the potential to play Six Nations rugby in the near future. If he is, he stays in the squad for the AIs, and then he’s tested at that next juncture to see how he does there. If he doesn’t go well on the tour – if it’s a year too early for him ot if there is a particular element he’s struggling with, for example – then you look at bringing in whoever is playing better out of Ross Molony or Dillane for the AIs. Then you look at one of those players as the bench option for the following year’s Six Nations … and at the end of one season [in a best case scenario] you have a player who has earned 9 or 10 caps and has established a good level of experience in test rugby.

That’s certainly my point of view. We’ve got more than two years to go to the World Cup, we’ve got some really talented young locks in Treadwell [21 years old, 21 Ulster appearances], Molony [23 years old/44 Leinster appearances], Dillane [23 years old, 39 Connacht appearances/10 Irish caps] and James Ryan [20 years old, as yet uncapped by Leinster], so let’s go out and build a great second row.

However, when The Mole sees a number of people picking squads for the Japan tour, and Billy Holland is in practically all of them, I wonder if I’m being a bit too enthusiastic, if I’m spouting the ‘good enough/old enough’ doctrine that I’ve been dismissive of in the past. Now, there’s a really limited market for sh*tting on players that everybody likes, but sometimes it seems like everybody is marching out of time … except me!

We’re two and a bit years out from a World Cup, and you want to bring a 6’3″, 31 year old second row with one cap on tour to Japan? Sorry lads, this isn’t the f*cking 1970s. 191cm and 111kg second rows who can’t get over the gainline are not in massive demand in the international game these days.

Billy Hollland_Canada

Billy Holland won his first Irish cap against Canada in November, and you’d have to be a cold-hearted son of a bitch to begrudge him it. I certainly don’t. But I also recognise that there were a lot of semi-pros in the Canadian side, and practically every Pro12 game he has ever played has been against better opposition. 

It’s a difficult enough argument to make, because I respect Billy Holland and have long admired him as a player: we wrote an article about him 5 years ago when he seemed to be getting a tough deal in selection at Munster [we were proven almost entirely wrong as it turns out, but the point of the link is to show that we’ve long held him to be a good pro]. He’s smart, tough, has a great workrate and seems like a good guy and a genuine leader on and off the pitch.

But for all his undoubted rugby intelligence, work ethic and footballing skills, The Mole just doesn’t believe that Holland is big enough or athletic enough or strong enough to prosper as a test second row. He’s not the first quality club lock to be shuffled into that bracket, and he won’t be the last either.  I know I’m coming across like Shane Williams’ teacher here [or Geoff Cooke with regards to Neil Back] but with due respect, Billy Holland isn’t an exceptional talent like Shane Williams or Neil Back. He’s a consistent and reliable player, good at the bits and pieces, but not a guy who churns out big play after big play or a strongman who dominates collisions. Contemporary international second rows – Etzebeth, Retallick, Whitelock, the Gray brothers, AWJ, Itoje, Kruis, Launchbury, Lavanini [or in commentator parlance “your Etzebeths, your Retallicks, your Whitelocks” etc. ] – are more or less physical and athletic freaks; they’re practically all 8-10cm taller [i.e. 199-201cm] and 10-15kg heavier [i.e. 118-123kg] than Holland, and it’s a massive physical disadvantage to try and make up.

I was trying to think of a comparison, and being a small second row is like being a slow winger: you’re at a huge disadvantage to start with, and you have to offset that by being brilliant at other things and conspicuously outstanding in practically every game. With Holland, I just don’t think you’re getting that. He deserved his cap against Canada, and it was just reward for a guy who does everything in his power to get things done right. But to be blunt, sometimes you’re better off drawing a line through a guy’s name sooner rather than later.

 

Design The Team You Want, Then Build It

There are elements of Eddie Jones’ personality that I quite dislike, but you’d have to be ignorant of the last fifteen years of rugby to dismiss his qualities as a coach and assessor of players.

His squad selection for England’s Argentina tour fascinated me, especially the manner in how he announced it:

“We have focused particularly on youth because we want to find players who are going to be better than the 16 players going on the Lions tour … there is no reason why other players can’t come back into it but they’ve got to be desperate to improve. I always saw 2017 as an opportunity to build the depth of our squad. This is the ideal opportunity to bring young guys through … what I want these young guys to do is not wait for the senior players to ask them to do things. I want them to be the new energy in the team.

Jones is so combative, so determined to continually rile his own players and get their backs up, but most importantly, he’s so single-minded about what he wants. England have a far bigger playing population that Ireland [and it’s a far bigger country], so he can afford to alienate people and players on a more or less permanent basis – which is what he has likely done in some instances with that selection – but he is determined to build the team that he wants, not just settle for an agglomeration of the best[ish] players currently available.

The tour to the US and Japan – and the following November series of tests – offers Schmidt a similar opportunity. There are players who will come into the reckoning later in the cycle, namely assimilated Johnny Foreigners like Bundee Aki, Jean ‘Patsy’ Kleyn and Tyler Bleyendaal, but two years on the clock is an ideal time to set the target and start the clock. Here’s hoping for a single-minded and ballsy selection.

 

 

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8 thoughts on “Squad to Squad, Tour To World Cup, Japan to Japan

  1. Another great piece of rugby journalism with in-depth research and ballsy conclusions and no sitting on the fence.

    The picture presented demonstrates just how transient is a top-level sports career, for even the most talented players like Dave Wallace, Luke Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe.

    Accepting the probability that RWC2019 (actually the 2020 Season) will be a step too far for Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble, Rory Best and maybe one or two others, opens the mind to the sort of possibilities that Schmidt might consider for this Summer and Autumn Internationals. I like the logic of planning for 28 months ahead.

    Great article. Keep them coming.

  2. Yay! The mole is back. Another cracking article – they are always worth the wait.

    (Now… if only someone could poke whiff with a stick…)

  3. Mole you’re a sight for sore eyes – another excellent article, looking forward to reading your opinions on the Lions!

  4. Great article, so great to see real analysis and research done. Well done.

    Squad announced and a lot of your wishes are ticked off

    1) with Best getting old there are 3 hookers involved with minimal experience. No Cronin either.

    2) with lock being a weakness in some ways treadwell and Ryan are in. Is ruddock covering as 4th choice.

    3) aging/tried back 3 players not selected (McFadden, Kearneys, Trimble)

    4) with Murray as a very obvious first choice in Ireland, it’s good to see 3 scrum halves traveling for experience.

  5. Excellent stuff Mole – is there an error in the caption to the Billy Holland photo “…every Pro12 game he has ever played has been against better opposition . .”? Playing for Munster in the Pro12?
    Squad announced features Treadwell and Ryan which is interesting. Joe’s conservatism as a selector is his one major flaw but he may not have any choice at with the second rowers.
    Eddie Jones comments interesting about wanting to find players who are better than those going on the Lions tour. I think it was the Australian cricket coach (back in the 90s?) who said he was looking to change one player in the Test XI each year even if the new guy was not then better than the player he was replacing. In 12 months time he would be the better of them but that wouldn’t happen unless he was starting in the team this year.

  6. “that split follows [in proportion, rather than background] the anecdotal Toulouse ideal squad makeup of one-third Espoirs/one-third from other French clubs/one-third foreign players.”

    Back in the ’60s/’70s there was a similar anecdotal saying about trophy-winning teams in English football ” … every team needs 3 Scots in it – but not more than 3!”

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