Janus 19|20 – The Second Row

The demonstration of the Springboks’ scrummaging might in the World Cup Final showed a definite logic behind Joe Schmidt’s pre-occupation with the set-piece prowess of his own second rows. Like the rest of us, Schmidt probably expected that we’d wind up playing South Africa in the quarter-final; hope for the best, plan for the worst and all that.

 

Janus 19-20_Lock

James Ryan Japan

James Ryan getting double-tackled in the Japanese game. There’s probably a similar photo of every Irish forward who played in this fixture.

James Ryan

  • Squads: 4 [May 2019, Sep 2019, Dec 2019, Jan 2020]
  • Age: 23
  • RWC19 Games: 4
  • RWC19 Starts: 4
  • RWC19 Minutes: 296 [6th]

Ryan couldn’t be faulted for his efforts. More and more duties were laid at his door over the course of 2019, and he put them all on his back and plowed forward. Right-side lock, lineout caller, go-to ball-carrier, captain-in-waiting … it looks like he’s had all the fun he’s going to get out of rugby in the first two years of his career, and now it’s just going to be a decade of responsibilities and press conferences. Welcome, my son. Welcome to the machine.

In writing this short review of Ryan’s World Cup, the Mole is reminded of a book he had when he was but a pup. It was a large format hardback, a collection of photos and short articles on great moments in sport [that might have been its title, now that I come to think of it], and the headline that has stuck with me for years and years was “Boy Wins Man’s Event”, a brief but glowing tribute to Bob Mathias’s stunning victory in the 1948 London Olympics Decathlon as a 17 year old

Ryan’s assumption of all most demandingly physical roles of the Irish team has been assimilated by the Irish rugby public to the point that it’s essentially taken for granted.  He is almost always Ireland’s best forward; if not the outright best, then one of a pair. He famously played for Ireland before he played a professional game for Leinster, and since then he has played in more tests [23/20+3] than European Cup games [17/14+3], and more European Cup games than league games [13/12+1] … and four of his twelve starts in the league have been in either semi-finals or finals.

The young Leinster lock takes care of so many responsibilities that – in theory – his partner in the row should be able to make hay around the field. Henderson’s hot-and-cold form meant that we never got to see anything but a short glimpse of that idealised abstract of a complementary partnership.

The Mole’s theory is that Schmidt’s selection of Kleyn was influenced by the idea that if Ryan could be excused the heaviest and least skilled of the tight work – the tighthead scrummaging, the endless ruck hitting – then Ireland could benefit from his playing a role less constrained by the obligations of gruntwork. Kleyn didn’t show sufficient on-pitch ability to make a credible stake for selection and prove or disprove the validity of this idea, so the point is moot.

Iain Henderson_Japan

Iain Henderson bursts through the Scottish defence in the opening quarter of the first game of Ireland’s pool stages. “Don’t believe a word I say/Not that you would anyway/I may be insincere/But it’s all downhill from here.”

Iain Henderson

  • Squads: 4 [May 2019, Sep 2019, Dec 2019, Jan 2020]
  • Age: 27
  • RWC19 Games: 5
  • RWC19 Starts: 4
  • RWC19 Minutes: 272 [7th]

Henderson pulled no punches in producing a classic Henderson series – promising, inconsistent and ultimately frustrating. His tournament exploded into life with a phenomenal start against Scotland … and then fizzled out, ending with a 49th minute substitution against New Zealand, played off the park. 

The Ulsterman’s erratic form was referenced by Joe Schmidt during a pre-departure press conference, in a remark that was half-threatening, half-pleading:  “Iain Henderson … who’s promised so much and performed at times incredibly well for us  …. we’re going to need [Henderson] to very much put his best foot forward.” The newsworthiness of the incident was that Schmidt made the remark in the first place; the content might have raised a few eyebrows, but that reaction was more a case of being surprised that he went out and actually said it. The point wasn’t in dispute. 

Henderson was announced as Ulster’s new captain for the 2019-20 season, but he doesn’t radiate authority on the pitch for Ireland. He has the tendency to drift out of some games, and his body language is terrible: he always looks knackered and running on fumes, like a sleep-deprived father. When the camera goes to him, it’s just a portrait of fatigue. It seems like he’s always being told things, rather than telling something to anybody else. 

The lacklustre looks are a side effect; they wouldn’t be an issue if Henderson was turning in consistently effective performances like James Ryan or C.J. Stander. But nobody can predict if Henderson is going to be tuned in or if his concentration will last the hour. Inconsistency is his calling card. That’s one of the prime reasons why he has been in and out of the team with such frequency: he’s an unreliable player.

His best is probably better than Devin Toner’s best, but Toner is a player who tends to play within 15-20% of his best, while Henderson’s percentage of tolerance is enormous. Toner routinely empties the tank, while Henderson struggles to put together back-to-back performances. Does he struggle? Is that the right word? It doesn’t look like he’s struggling, it’s just that he doesn’t do it very often. Second row is a primarily an effort position, rather than a skill position; if things aren’t going your way, you can make it better by getting to the next breakdown quicker, hitting the next ruck harder, lighting up the next ball-carrier.

Mercurial is too handsome a word to describe his swings in form; he’s just inconsistent. This has been the story of his career essentially since the honeymoon glow of his first season at test level wore off, and Irish fans started looking at him with expectation rather than wonder. 

Tadhg Beirne_New Zealand

Tadhg Beirne has a lot to offer Ireland, and was a real loss for the Six Nations. While his first season with Munster was very strong, his best rugby came the season before with Llanelli, where he seemed to have a wide-ranging and largely unrestricted role that played to his strengths – his abilities as a jackal, his expert handling and his under-rated rugby brain.

Tadhg Beirne

  • Squads: 2 [May 2019, Sep 2019]
  • Age: 27
  • RWC19 Games: 5
  • RWC19 Starts: 2
  • RWC19 Minutes: 197 [15th]

Tadhg Beirne had a productive World Cup. He was one of the nine squad members who played in every match; that’s a key valuation to take into account, from The Mole’s [admittedly lowly] perspective. It shows that a player is in good condition and in form too good to ignore. 

Beirne’s versatility was a key element of his success at Llanelli, and his role in this tournament took advantage of that versatility. He was the only Irish player who took the field with three different numbers on his back over the course of the competition: No4 against Russia, No6 against Samoa, and No19 in the other three games. While he’s obviously extremely aerobically fit and a talented lineout jumper, the element of Beirne’s game that sets him apart are his singular abilities at the breakdown; in all my years watching the game, only Maro Itoje can rival him in his effectiveness as a jackal for a player of his height. He’s really quite phenomenal.

In his last season in Wales he turned out for the Scarlets five times at No8, 11 times on the blindside and 13 times in the second row. Essentially, he split his time more or less evenly between the second and backrows. Since returning to Munster however, all nineteen of his starts have been as a lock.

Beirne got his first test start in the second row in the final match of the Six Nations against Wales and, just like Cronin against Italy, he laid an egg. One can argue the case that they weren’t put in optimal positions to succeed: Cronin had a hack lineout at which to throw, and Beirne was in a team low on confidence sent over the Irish sea to stop a Welsh juggernaut careening into Cardiff with all the confidence and momentum that a win over the English gives them.

Robbie Henshaw_No15

* Everybody gets things wrong! At least one third of The Moles were really excited at seeing Henshaw selected at fullback. Another third was sulking because Kearney was dropped.

The record shows that Beirne had an opportunity and didn’t make the most of it. Would he have preferred not to be selected? The Mole doesn’t think that either Beirne or Cronin were particularly well-managed by Schmidt in 2019, but there’s a similar situation in every test team in the world. Gregor Townsend decided not to bring Huw Jones to the World Cup, Steve Hansen didn’t do right by Ben Smith in the tournament and Eddie Jones has gone on the record about picking the wrong team for the final. If either Cronin or Beirne didn’t get their respective chances to start in the Six Nations, would that have been better or worse management?

Though he has effectively been pigeonholed as a second row in his adopted province, he has every attribute – every single one – to be Ireland’s best blindside amongst a crowded field. Great size at 198cm/113kg, an exceptional lineout option, that phenomenal jackalling ability, a footballer’s instinct in open play, real pace and outstanding balance. At test level, against the best packs in the world, he’s a loose forward, not a tight forward. And he could be a great blindside.

The Mole remembers having a discussion with a very experienced rugby man at the time of Beirne’s signing, and how enthusiastic he was about the Kildare man’s abilities and his potential to shake up the status quo in the Irish pack. This enthusiasm seemed naive to cynical old me. Munster were never going to pick Beirne at blindside, because that was Peter O’Mahony’s position. There was absolutely no possibility they’d pick him there ahead of O’Mahony, and there was practically no chance they’d pick him there if O’Mahony was injured … because if he did better than O’Mahony, where did that leave the provincial captain? Maybe pushed into the No7 jersey, which would be no bad thing from The Mole’s lowly point of view.

With Johann van Graan bringing the enormous World Cup-winning Springbok giant Rudolph Gerhardus Snyman to Munster for the 2020-21 season, there’s every chance that Munster will go huge up front, with Snyman packing down alongside countryman Jean Kleyn in the row. That could prompt Beirne to remove the metaphorical tape from his ears and free him up for the part he was born to play, baby.

Jean Kleyn_Brendan Moran_Sportsfile

Jean Kleyn in his one RWC19 appearance, the pool game against Russia. ©Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Jean Kleyn

  • Squads: 3 [May 2019, Sep 2019, Dec 2019]
  • Age:26
  • RWC19 Games: 2
  • RWC19 Starts: 1
  • RWC19 Minutes: 85 [27th]

Kleyn, the most contentious pick of the squad, failed to repay the faith the coaches had shown in him by selecting him ahead of the 67-times capped Devin Toner. 

The 203cm/121kg South African-born lock was selected on the basis of his scrummaging prowess: “Jean Kleyn, we probably don’t have a specialist tighthead secondrow. I’ve talked about the balance that we’re looking for across that squad of 31. Jean Kleyn fitted that. Tadhg Beirne gives you the versatility of both a secondrow and he can play in the backrow. He’s teamed up really well with Kleyn for Munster this year. And he also gives you the threat over the ball like a six or a seven would.” 

The Mole felt that Kleyn was included with the prospect that a pool-topping Ireland would likely face South Africa in the quarter-final. That issue became clouded when Ireland lost to Japan, but was still a viable scenario until the final whistle of the last game of the pool. However, by that time Kleyn’s value had collapsed. Picked to start in an all-Munster starting front five against Russia – a canny selection that allowed for familiar partnerships in a short week – he turned in a mediocre performance. His reputation as a scrummager took a dent: this was a Munster front five who scrummaged together all season long, and they struggled to get any change out of their Russian counterparts who they outweighed by an average of 5kg per man [113.6kg to 108.6kg].

Schmidt’s stress on the importance of a specialist tighthead second row is a topic we’ll cover later in more depth, but suffice it to say at this point that Kleyn’s inability to make a noticeably positive impact in his strongest set-piece must have shaken the coach’s judgment in his selection. He had been put in a position to thrive in his one chance and didn’t make an impact. The effectiveness of his scrummaging had been overestimated.

Kleyn’s particular abilities and limitations meant that he was badly suited to a bench role in comparison to either Henderson or Beirne, both of whom have extensive experience in the backrow, and are more mobile, better carriers and ball players. By some margin the least able of all the second rows as a jumper and with no high-level experience as a caller, his use in the lineout was largely restricted to a lifter. He won just two lineouts in his two matches, one in each game. His sub-par handling was one of Donald Rumsfeld’s “known knowns”; he wasn’t selected to give tip-on passes or act as a potential distributor in the screen.

Kleyn didn’t pick himself: the responsibility lies with the coaching team, Joe Schmidt in particular. Schmidt has often been criticised for being an unadventurous and conservative selector, and he broke the trend in opting for Kleyn. It was a surprising selection, but one that turned out to have no upside.

Devin Toner_2019

Toner’s omission from the Irish RWC19 squad was one of the biggest shocks in world rugby in the week of squad announcements; only New Zealand’s omission of two-time World Cup winner Owen Franks garnered more headlines.

Devin Toner 

  • Squads: 3 [May 2019, Dec 2019, Jan 2020]
  • Age: 33
  • RWC19 Games: –
  • RWC19 Starts: –
  • RWC19 Minutes: –

The tumult of vocal emotion that followed Toner’s omission from the Irish RWC19 squad showed both how shocked the Irish rugby public were by the decision and how personally well-regarded he has become over his long career.

Toner’s under-appreciated work-rate has been highlighted in the past by Murray Kinsella [for his efforts in the wins against New Zealand both in 2018 and in 2016] but more obviously, the Moynalvey man has been one of the most effective and productive lineout players in the world game over the last six years.

With the presence of Japan in the group, Toner’s selection seemed a given to me. The selection of the Leinster giant and Peter O’Mahony in the same pack for that match would give Ireland a staggering advantage out of touch, and they could control how the game was played for at least the opening half. In his first Six Nations game in charge in February 2014, Schmidt’s team had victimised a Welsh pack short of quality jumping options in a game that featured 32 lineouts. To the Mole’s eyes, that blueprint was still relevant. Play the game from set-piece to set-piece. Don’t fret about kicking the ball to touch too often; you want lineouts, and if they have a throw it’s a chance to put pressure on them. Compete with O’Mahony at the front on Japanese ball, and maul off our own ball. Slow the game down and take away the Japanese advantages of fitness and familiarity with the humid conditions. Bring your size to bear on a much smaller pack. If the Japanese coaches figure out a counter to that gameplan at half time, bring on subs [Henderson and Beirne or Conan] to change the picture and show them something else.

It might have been Toner’s only start of the tournament, but from my point of view it was worth bringing him for that game alone. While there were all sorts of arguments mooted about how it wasn’t a call between Toner and Kleyn, but between Toner and Beirne, I never bought those magic beans. Beirne is a hybrid lock/blindside, equally at home in either position, while the others are strictly second rowers. The call was between Toner and his lineout prowess and Kleyn’s scrummaging heft. Given that Toner had proven his abilities out of touch time and time again at the highest level, and that Kleyn was an international neophyte, The Mole felt that the scales came down heavily on the Meath man’s side: proven against potential. It wasn’t as though the choice was between a 60-cap lineout ace and a 60-cap scrummaging colossus; it was a choice between a well-tested winner and an untested striver.

Beyond that, Toner had scrummaged behind the tighthead for two seasons for Ireland. He’d won Man of the Match from there in Ireland’s first win in South Africa against the Boks in June 2016, beaten the All Blacks from there against New Zealand in Chicago, and gone 80 mins there in the record 38-3 win over the Boks in November 2017. Writing that he wasn’t capable of doing a job on the right side of the scrum was just flat out wrong, a nonsense. He might have been a middling tighthead scrummager in comparison to Kleyn, but Kleyn wasn’t even a middling lineout jumper – never mind caller – in comparison to Toner. As a lineout player, he’s nowhere in comparison to Toner. Look at their respective markers in the following half-season: Toner has taken 49 lineouts in 864 mins [1 win/18 mins on the pitch], Kleyn just 6 lineouts in 427 minutes [1 win/71 mins on the pitch].

Dev Toner_Weights_Dan Sheridan_INPHO

Luke Fitzgerald made the point of his The Left Wing podcast that Toner might have suffered by comparison with Kleyn’s athletic ability in the long pre-season strength and conditioning sessions that started early in the summer of 2019. Toner came into the summer training squad carrying an injury picked up in the Pro14 semi-final against Munster, and Kleyn is younger, stronger and had to make a mark in double time.

In another credit on his ledger, Toner had played in and against Japan on the June 2017 tour, turning in two strong performances in the wins in Shizuoka and Tokyo. He won 9 lineouts and averaged a very un-Toner-esque 6.4m/carry in those two games. Granted that was two years before the World Cup – ancient history – but in the interim Toner had won the Six Nations [starting three of five games], beaten the All Blacks, won a test series in Australia [starting two of three games], and won the Heineken Cup and two Pro14 titles for Leinster [starting six of seven knock-out games in those three tournaments]. He had also missed all bar 57 minutes of the disappointing 2019 Six Nations campaign when the rot set in … and while it’s incidental rather than telling, Ireland were only 13-17 down when Toner went off in that game.

Toner wore the disappointment in a manner that spoke well, expectedly well, of his character. He took some advice from his coach Leo Cullen, who had been through something similar before, took heart from a generous text message from Ronan O’Gara, and put his shoulder back to the wheel for his province. Since his omission from the RWC19 squad, he has played in 16 matches for Leinster and Ireland, winning 15 of them.

Given that so many of Ireland’s best players underperformed in Japan, in all probabilities the inclusion or exclusion of Toner from the squad wouldn’t have made any difference in the final account. Anybody who’s reading this saw Ireland get demolished by New Zealand in the quarter-final. If they had ended up playing South Africa at that  quarter final stage – eventual World Champion South Africa – it’s impossible to see them having done the job there either.

Ultan Dillane_France

Dillane featured against Scotland, Italy and France in the 2019 Six Nations, and was one of Ireland’s most eye-catching players in the one game he started, the fixture in Rome.

Ultan Dillane

  • Squads: 3 [May 2019, Dec 2019, Jan 2020]
  • Age: 26
  • RWC19 Games: –
  • RWC19 Starts: –
  • RWC19 Minutes: –

Along with Munster centre Rory Scannell, Dillane was one of the first two players to be cut from the World Cup training squad by Joe Schmidt. Tough break, kid.

Schmidt gave the Paris-born, Munster-reared lock his debut cap in 2016, picking him on the bench for an extremely difficult fixture against Stuart Lancaster’s England team in Twickenham. Coming off the dispiriting quarter-final loss to the Pumas in RWC15, Ireland had opened their 2016 Six Nations with a 16-16 home draw against Wales, followed by a brutal 9-10 loss to Paris in France. They were going to Twickenham without a win to their name … and as it would turn out, they wouldn’t get one in England either.

However, the then 22 year old Dillane produced a number of bright cameos in his limited time on the pitch, and he would go on to feature in all bar two of Ireland’s remaining games in 2016. Given that those appearances included wins over South Africa [12 mins], New Zealand [16 mins] and Australia [25 mins], it looked as though Ireland – and Schmidt – had discovered a new test second row.

However, an ankle injury suffered late in 2016 meant that his 2017 got off to the slowest possible start. On the back of no rugby in January, he was included on the bench in the ‘late bus’ match in Murrayfield that started Ireland’s 2017 Six Nations – an egregious loss – and got his first start in the competition the following week in a 63-10 romp against the Italians in Rome, a cakewalk of a game made memorable by CJ Stander’s hat-trick of tries. Unfortunately, that was his last game of the season. A recurring shoulder injury meant March surgery and an early end to his 2016-17 season.

By the time he was back in harness, James Ryan had arrived on the scene. Now, if Dillane hadn’t been injured, Ryan would just have taken his place; it didn’t really matter whether or not he was in situ at the time of Ryan’s arrival.

Ultan Dillane_Connacht 2017-18_Munster

Under the unpopular Kieran Keane, Dillane had a reasonably productive season in solo terms for Connacht in 2017-18, but his team were dreadful, as bad as they had been the previous season. It’s very difficult to garner enough momentum for a test recall from a struggling team. [Image rights: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile]

Dillane, like Keith Earls, is one of the most quietly popular players in the squad amongst the general Irish rugby public. Ask an Irish fan what they think of him, and you’ll likely get a positive response, whether you ask the question in Dublin, Cork, Galway or Belfast. Like Earls, there’s a lot of good will towards him. Maybe it’s because there’s a touch of vulnerability about them. They’ve got human frailties, and the rest of us empathise with that.

He’s got heart; he doesn’t throw around blame; he’s self aware about what he needs to get done; he recognises the strengths of his peers; and he takes criticism calmly and reflectively.

“It doesn’t mean they don’t want to pick you … they’re not trying to shaft you, they want you to be at your best and that’s only fair.”

Dillane is similar to Peter O’Mahony in that he does certain things really well, but there are other pre-requisites of his position that he doesn’t do that well at all. For example, his lineout play for a test second row is military medium, and as a scrummager he’s not up to international scratch. But he’s really good in open play: quick and explosive, a natural runner and a good tackler who puts in a lot of work and some really big hits. It seems to me like the stuff that’s learning and drudge-work [scrummaging, lineout play], he’s pretty poor on, but the stuff that other second rows find difficult comes easier to him, i.e. open-field running. 

In The Mole’s opinion, he’s an impact sub in a similar mould to Sean Cronin: a guy who has a particular set of skills that suits the end of a game, not the body of a game. And I think he’s a player who should be around the squad regularly in that role. Firstly, it’s a real job. The game at test level is more collision driven than it has ever been, but it’s also more sophisticated. Impact and difference off the bench are prerequisites in the No19 and No20 jerseys; coaches aren’t just looking for injury cover anymore. Dillane’s size [198cm/114kg] married to his real pace brings ferocious hitting power in both attack and defense. He doesn’t have Courtney Lawes’ nasty streak, but in terms of size, build and percussive impact, there are enough comparison points to make you check the fingerprints twice.

Jimmy Johnson, the last Dallas Cowboys coach to win the Super Bowl [and he won two] had a saying: “Treat a person as he is, and he will remain as he is. Treat him as he could be, and he will become what he should be.” Maybe Dillane won’t be a long term Six Nations starter – there are Irish locks with fewer holes in their respective technical games – but as a second half replacement, when the game is looser, there are more tired bodies on the pitch and the set piece die has been cast, he can be an explosive contributor.

Quinn Roux_England

Nathan Hines was in place on Schmidt’s arrival in Leinster, having come to Dublin before the 2009-10 season after four years in Perpignan. When the IRFU forced him out at the end of 2010-11, Schmidt contracted Damien Brown from Brive and Steven Sykes [ouch] from Natal. Browne held up his side for a season and a half before his shoulder issue proved unfixable, but Sykes was an absolute dud, a byword for failure around the RDS for a good few seasons afterwards. His mid-season departure paved the way for a short-term contract for Brad Thorn, as prototypical a tighthead lock as there has been in the game. The following season [2012-13], Schmidt brought a 21 year old Roux to Leinster. That season turned out to be the coach’s last in charge of the province.

Quinn Roux

  • Squads: 1 [Jan 2020]
  • Age: 29
  • RWC19 Games: –
  • RWC19 Starts: –
  • RWC19 Minutes: –

It’s easy to imagine a future where Quinn Roux doesn’t win another Irish cap. In a country where the term ‘project player’ was invented, and where the debate over same has occasionally run hot, Roux was Schmidt’s particular project. Schmidt’s conviction in the worth of a tighthead-side second row was implacable, forged and tempered through his experience in the Top14 with Clermont.  It was a shibboleth for him.

He always had a specialist right-hand scrummager in his squad at Leinster. They varied in standard from the hopeless [Stephen Sykes] to the journeyman pro [Damian Browne] to the outstanding [Nathan Hines] to the legendary [Brad Thorn].

Hines was 34 in the one year he overlapped with Schmidt [2010-11]; Browne was 31/32 during his time at Leinster; and Thorn was 37. Bringing in a 21 year old to fill that position was a long shot at a long-term solution. Whilst I can by no means provide an insight into Schmidt’s mind in this regard, The Mole’s line of thinking is that Schmidt was looking to build his own tighthead lock at Leinster for the long term. Schmidt had had to replace his tighthead lock – evidentially a primary building block of his selectorial philosophy – every year at Leinster, and that meant

  • a] spending one of his limited NIQ slots;
  • b] going through the long process of finding the right player to fit the role, convincing him to come to the club and engineering a deal;
  • c] entering into negotiations with the IRFU to get the signing over the line;
  • d] doing the same thing all over again in two years’ time due to the contemporary IRFU guidelines limiting NIQ contracts to a two-year duration.

The logic of contracting Roux was that he had the physical credentials; that he was young and raw and could be coached to Schmidt’s exacting standards of how a tighthead-scrummaging lock should perform; that as a project player he could be contracted for a three-year initial period and then be free from IRFU limitations; and that by qualifying by residency by the time he was 24/25 he would still have a long portion, and likely the best years, of his career in front of him as a lock for Leinster.

Quinn-Roux Comparison

Quinn Roux in his early 20s for Western province [left] and in his late 20s for Connacht.

It didn’t pan out quite like Schmidt had planned. We wrote an article seven years ago about Roux’s recruitment to Leinster, and included a photo of him standing alongside then-teammate Eben Etzebeth, where Roux looks absolutely enormous. By the time he arrived at Leinster he was already five kilos lighter. You can see the different in the image on the left between the beefy 21 year old that Leinster signed from Western Province and the positively svelte, Irish-qualified 29-year old Connacht lock available for selection for the RWC19 squad. There has always been a  different mindset in South African rugby, where size for size’s sake is encouraged. If that sounds dismissive, it’s not. It’s an alternate emphasis based on available stock, heritage and approach to the game.

For a long time, Irish rugby didn’t really prize super-heavyweights and didn’t recognise their value. The 203cm/124kg Bob Casey played the majority of his career for London Irish, while the 196cm/130kg Damien Brown spent almost a decade in France [three seasons in Brive, two in Oyonnax] and England [four seasons in Northampton]. Tony ‘Mushy’ Buckley [196cm/138kg] was converted from a Leinster Schools second row at Newbridge College – a ball-carrying, ball-playing behemoth of a second row, with great handling skills – to an outsize Munster tighthead prop. He was the strongest Irish rugby player I’ve every seen in my life. Hands the size of catering trays. Boil a stone off him on the rowing machine, get him down to 132kg, tape his ears up, put him on the right side of the row and you could’ve put Peter Stringer in front of him and had a solid scrum. If he was French there’d be a statue of him outside the local stadium. Even if it was scaled down, it’d still be a massive statue.

Irish rugby didn’t have very many huge specimens, and thus it didn’t make sense to model a gameplan that relied on them. But there was also a lack of experience and a lack of clear thinking from first principles within coaching ranks in knowing how to get the best from naturally enormous men. Their lack of running fitness was always held against them, and weighted too harshly against the power and stability they generated in the scrum and the wrestling strength they exhibited in mauls. Second rows were valued for their lineout ability, not their scrummaging ability. Mike Ross, probably the best Irish tighthead scrummager of the professional era, sent a funny tweet about the French-qualified South African Paul Willemse at the start of the year, noting the benefits of having a huge lump behind you in the scrum:

Mike Ross tweet re Willemse

In many ways, Schmidt was a very orthodox coach. That he put an onus on set-piece fundamentals can be seen from his championing of Ross – whom Michael Cheika undervalued – on the basis of his scrummaging ability, and from his insistence on pairing a jumper and a pusher in the second row while at Leinster.

It’s surprising that, having first picked him against the Springboks in June 2016, the first year in the new World Cup cycle, having picked him in test teams every season since then, and having picked him in four matchday squads in the 2019 Six Nations, that Schmidt would then discard him when it came to the preparation for RWC19. Roux didn’t even make the training squad. Schmidt had invested a lot in him, in the face of a largely unconvinced Irish rugby public. Kleyn’s imminent qualification by residency gave the head coach a bigger, taller, heavier, more abrasive South African lock, and he immediately put him into play.

In Summation: Second Rows

What about looking forward, yeh bleedin’ Janus?

You’d have to be a confirmed misery guts not to be enthusiastic about two young second rows who lit up February 2020 [the last month of blessed normality], Leinster’s Ryan Baird and Munster’s Thomas Ahern. The 21 year old Baird blew up the world in the last game of Leinster’s truncated unbeaten season, scoring a hat-trick of tries and making almost 100m running with the ball against last year’s beaten Pro14 finalists, Glasgow Gurriers. The 206cm Ahern has been, at least for The Mole, the star of the unbeaten Irish U20s this year. He’s like Kelly The Boy From Killane. Strides at the head of the band? Check. Seven feet is his height, with some inches to spare? More or less. Looks like a king in command? Damn right.

Ryan is the best rugby player in Ireland. Not the best lock, or the best forward, the best player. His rough-edged performance against the English in Twickenham showed a bracing physical leadership: he presented an example to the rest of his pack about how tough and how aggressive they’d have to be to contest the game on equal terms. Unfortunately, not enough of them followed him through the gap he made. He’s the man that the Irish pack will be built around for the next World Cup, and most likely the one after that as well.

When I look at players like Beirne, Dillane and Baird, I see them in the light of my Damascene conversion to Pieter-Steph du Toit [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder], the most effective hybrid lock-blindside I’ve seen since Abdel Benazzi. The game was looser when Benazzi played, and he played for Les Bleus – he was more guileful and attack-minded than the South African. But today’s game, though not as wild, is more brutal in its own way, and du Toit now defines the position. What do you get with a third lock on the pitch? Size and hitting power in a game that has become dominated by collisions. It’s an approach Ireland need to seriously consider … but more of that anon.

 

4 thoughts on “Janus 19|20 – The Second Row

  1. I was so convinced Schmidt would being Roux to the RWC I actually out a fiver on it. I, like many, could not fathom his initial international selections but he more than win me over between ’16 and ’19 and I thought that money in the bank would get him there ahead of the glaringly mundane Kleyn. That photo comparison is enlightening though and had I seen it last summer I would probably have kept my fiver.

  2. Good writing and more astute analysis. Now is certainly the time for detailed pieces like this, as mentioned by @Meandu above.

    Hopefully Farrell, Catt, Easterby & Fogarty are using their time wisely and researching deeply insfollowing the Mole. Hopefully, The Mole has articles about the other positions in the Irish team drafted for well timed release by the end of May.

  3. For what it’s worth, despite Ireland being deeply underwhelming I think they would have found SA more beatable in the knock-outs than (an equally underwhelming) NZ side. Putting the final back in a tightly locked drawer, SA weren’t exactly wowing fans in the preceding games which people quickly forgot post-WC and tactically Schmidt had out-thought the Boks before – although I do think Toner would have been missed had that game ever materialised.

    Anyway, re: Kleyn and last minute / outlier selections, it seemed to be the vogue thing to do. SCW made a big noise about it in 2003 (Woodman and Lewsey), and Eddie Jones repeatedly spoke about Milner-Skudder in 2015, and the the dynamism of change (I mean, who was McConnochie ever going to replace in the starting-lineup?). I appreciate squad selection and squad dynamics is more nuanced than that, and not every player is selected because he is seen as a starter, but it’s interesting how some concepts quickly become groupthink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s