Taking the positives from a post World Cup meltdown

It ain’t a happy time to be an Irish rugby fan.

After all the build up to the World Cup and talk of a possible ‘best ever’ finish, the flattest performance of the Schmidt era so far put an end to the positivity.

Since then, we’ve had the usual post loss provincial sniping, some tasty digs at the game in Ireland from the usual suspects in the press, the potential of some big defections to France and some downright depressing performances from Leinster, Ulster and Munster.

In pro. sport, the atmosphere has the capability to turn sour very quickly (just ask Stuart Lancaster). And yes, the economics of Northern Hemisphere rugby look loaded against a team from this island having European success in the near future.

But enough of the wallowing.

Tis the season to be jolly after all and from a playing point of view, there hasn’t been enough made of the good parts of the season so far.

Things aren’t that bad, and there’s plenty of reason for hope and excitement as we enter 2016.

The west’s awake

After the World Cup, the question was asked ‘where to we go from here’.

I heard a good Q&A recently with Kilkenny hurler Henry Shefflin, where the topic turned to Brian Cody. One of the things ‘King Henry’ referenced about Cody’s genius was his ability  to keep things fresh by bringing in 1-2 new young tyros each year. My guess is that Schmidt is thinking the same way, and despite all the gloom, lots of new guys are putting their hands up for green geansais.

Indeed, most of the guys doing so are already wearing the green. Connacht, despite an enormous injury list, have been the success story of the season, carrying the goodwill of all Irish fans with them. Healy, O’Halloran, honorary Irishman Aki and even unheralded forwards like Aly Muldowney have been carrying the can with some incredible skills based rugby, while both Marmion and Cooney continue to push Reddan and Boss.

Big Ally has been one of the in form forwards in the country this year. The 6'9 second row is a former basketball player, and indeed it shows when he's handling the ball.

Big Ally has been one of the in form forwards in the country this year. The 6’9 second row is a former basketball player, and indeed it shows when he’s handling the ball.

Don’t be at all surprised if Connacht keep making strides that the IRFU might knock on Mr Lam’s door if Joe decides to move on in 2017…

A Christmas Kiss

Moving northwards from Galway, one of the best European performances of the weekend came from the Ulstermen, who stormed an admittedly out of sorts Toulouse for the second week in a row.

Whether it’s a ‘bounce’ effect from Kiss coming in, or a real indication that Ulster are still a force to be reckoned with will become clear next year.

But for now, Ulster looked like a different team to the one that started the year.

It might be a cliche, but Pienaar is the real fulcrum of the side from 9. When he’s in form and controlling, PJ can concentrate on the things he does really well, like bringing in the vast array of talent from 11-15. With Madigan riding the pine, Jackson is coming back to himself nicely, and it’s heartening to see at least one Irish 10 in form (let’s presume Gareth Steenson is out of the reckoning!). Wee Paddy will never be a Sexton or ROG, and will never have the athleticism of Madigan, but with a good 9 inside him and some space to work with, he’ll carve teams open.

Perhaps more interestingly for Schmidt and the upcoming 6N is the form of McCloskey, Marshall and Trimble. Here are three guys tailor made for the current international game, and for the latter two in particular, it’s great to see them back and firing.

McCloskey in particular looks like he could be a superstar. Along with his obvious bulk and leg drive, he possesses a smart defensive brain, some nice hands and at least some semblance of a kicking game. Pairing the ‘Bangor bulldozer’ with Robbie Henshaw in the centre and Trimble (an old Schmidt favourite) back on the wing in would be very, very exciting indeed.


And then of course, we have the other two.

Considering this is a positive post, I won’t mention the jeering from the Thomond stands or Leinster’s complete lack of cutting edge, and instead focus on what’s gone right.

In the blue corner, Luke Fitzgerald and Rhys Ruddock were two of the best players on the pitch in both Toulon games. Ruddock looks fit and fearsome, and should provide a perfect cover for POM at 6 if the Munster man doesn’t make it back for February. Fitzgerald, though defensively still learning the inside centre role, took the scalp of Nonu a few times over the last 10 days with fleet of foot. He too offers Joe another backline option.

Leinster’s youth is also coming through slowly. Ringrose will be a star, and should see some more time in the saddle during the Christmas period, but Josh VDF and Luke McGrath have been the real start. Both could see Wolfhounds action.

Wearing the red of Munster, again leaving aside the negativity, Stander’s form is the obvious thing to emphasise. Say what you want about the project player system, if it produces any more CJs (and Bundee Aki could be another), we won’t mind. Even in defeat against Tigers, he stood up and though still a little light for international rugby, he’ll push both Heaslip and O’Brien for a starting berth.

Stander's blockdown against Embra showed a hunger to compete that Munster have lacked at times this season.

Stander’s blockdown against Embra showed a hunger to compete that Munster have lacked at times this season.

From the weekend, Mike Sherry and James Cronin put in huge shifts against two international class opponents. Given the lack of options at hooker and LH for Ireland, both could bench in the 6N too.

So where to next? Us Irish sports fans are great at bandwagon jumping, yet if the bandwagon hits a hitch, we’re also very good at cynicism and whinging. For now, let’s hold our fire. Let’s promise to enjoy the festive battles with a smile on our face. Cullen and Foley in particular are being impacted by mitigating factors, and deserve time and support to work through the issues.

Oh, and how about this for a side with fresh blood and enough experienced faces to defend a third 6N?

Henshaw, Trimble, McCloskey, Fitzgerald, Healy, Sexton, Murray, Heaslip, Stander, Ruddock, Toner, Henderson, Ross, Best, McGrath

Cronin, Sherry, Furlong, Ryan, SOB, Marmion, PJ, Earls 

Why the rugby world should be shouting for Australia this weekend…


It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in the rugby world.

Japan have emerged as a potential top tier nation, the rest of the Northern Hemisphere sides have been roundly bitchslapped and most importantly, almost across the board, attacking, positive rugby has been played in sunny conditions. Best RWC ever? We’ll leave that to the experts to judge after the weekend.

The final itself has thrown up a rather predictable pairing, if a novel one for a World Cup final. The auld Antipodean enemies will lock horns, with plenty of subplots and little battles at play.

Who’ll come out on top? My money is probably on the men in black, unless ‘Pooper’ (sorry!) can pull out a serious performance to nullify Ruchie and co.

Who should we want to come out on top?

Well that’s another question entirely.

A dying sport?

I was lucky enough to spend two months traveling around Australia earlier this year, visiting all the major east coast sights. As a sports fan with a keen interest in local media, one thing stuck out for me beyond all the beautiful tanned people, sun, scenery and *cough* latent racism.

From Melbourne to Sydney to Townsville to Cairns and back down to Brisbane, rugby union really seems to be a dying sport in Oz.

Now I’d heard Matt Williams talk about how little media coverage was given to the sport. But until I saw it for myself I didn’t actually realise the dearth of interest in union Down Under.

I like to buy local papers when I’m away, talk to locals about the one thing I have in common with them, a love of sport, and watch as much local sports coverage as I can. But that’s hard when there’s little to no coverage to speak of.

At the time I was there in late Spring, the much loved NRL was getting started, the AFL was in full swing, there was cricket on and the soccer season was being played out too. Union was relegated to minuscule coverage 6-7 pages back into the sports section. Even in Sydney, where the Waratahs were winning and should have been big news, league was the only show in town, with wall to wall coverage of Origin and the multiple local Sydney sides.

The vast majority of union games are on paid TV and a quick look at any Super Rugby game in Oz will show that bums on seats are another issue, even in sports mad cities.The other codes are on free-to-air television and on radio every weekend – without fail, and both the NRL and AFL do an incredible job marketing their sports. The hype around a grand final or Origin game is similar to a Champions League Final.

A losing Lions tour won’t have helped, nor will years of ARU turmoil and scandal.

The numbers don’t stack up well either.

Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 20.48.32 Screen Shot 2015-10-27 at 20.48.43


Sure, Australians have a notorious love of sport, but it’s an incredibly saturated market. The speed and skill of league, simplicity of soccer, ‘occasionality’ of cricket and the tribalism of AFL, particularly around of Melbourne, meant that union was very much an afterthought. Sure, the ‘Tahs win and the the re-birth of a solid club competition will have helped, but not to a huge degree it seems.

Having grown up on Campese, Ella, Eales, Gregan, Larkham, Latham and Giteau, I felt slightly disappointed if I’m honest. Talking to locals, particularly in Brisbane, union was met with disdain at worst, ambivalence at best.

So here’s my point.

People love getting behind winning teams with interesting characters.

We’ve seen how success and hype can breathe new life into a game – think about how this country reacts when Ireland is doing well in any sport, or look at how union has grown in England since 2003.

Cheika’s Wallabies have the characters and heroes that kids can identify with, including Izzy, Pocock, Moore, Hooper and Gits.

Now Australian rugby needs a world cup in the modern era to go along with it.

We’ve heard multiple journalists braying in the past few weeks about how world rugby is a closed shop made up of a few teams who can win the thing, and there is some truth in this. If union was to die out even further in the sun kissed land, if sporty young Aussie kids were further pushed away from rugby and invited into other sports, our game would lose part of its heritage – the caricature carefree, bolshy, attack minded Aussie that always believes he’s better than anyone else.

The All Blacks are a team for the ages, and will be remembered as probably the best side to ever grace the field.

But for the sake of the game, for the sake of maintaining a traditional superpower in a sport where there’s a small amount of them, I’ll be channeling Alf Stewart, grabbing a Carlton Draught, donning my yellow and getting my inflatable kangroo pumped up for the weekend (I actually did bring one of those home!).

Come on Cheiks and co. Come on Wallabies. Do it for the good of the sport.


Ireland are the communists of world rugby, let’s embrace that…

(Aaaanddd we’re back after a longer than expected hiatus! A round the world trip didn’t allow for much rugby watching or writing, though I did manage to sample some Peruvian beach rugby and a visit to a Crusaders-Chiefs game in Christchurch. As always, thanks for reading and if you’ve something to say, hit me up on Twitter or in the comments below.)


Nearly there now…

Here we are in the ‘no-man’s land’ between the phony war of warm-ups and the start of the RWC and it feels like nothing has really happened yet doesn’t it? I for one still feel we learned little about ourselves.

But then again, perhaps that’s the point? Avoid injury (just ask Wazza) and give nothing away.

Twickenham last weekend represented an unlikely second loss in two games for Schmidt’s Ireland. Ireland played ultra conservatively, even bizarrely box kicking from quick ball in the English 22 at one stage.

Without context, that’s definitely worrying.

But we must presume that it’s deflection tactics designed to not show our hand.

Beyond results, what’s more interesting to me is the little things we have been showing over the last four games.


One of the most interesting aspects of the warm-ups was always going to be watching the potential evolvement of Ireland’s playing style. This is the elephant in the room since the 6 Nations. Particularly since the Cardiff game, Schmidt has been critiqued for playing a negative/robotic/conservative/kicking game (delete as desired).

Common perception was that with a Summer full of training, Joe would have the backs hummin’, and we’d be playing an all singing and dancing offloading game with POC flinging out passes from first receiver.

Based upon what we’ve seen so far, this isn’t the case.

We made three offloads against England, while our most impressive performance, in the first game against Wales, was built as usual on quick rucks, structure and huge defensive effort (oh Andrew, how we’ll miss thee!)

Of course, the worry is our rigidity and our susceptibility against a monster pack of forwards. The White Orcs, led by a rather large Ben Morgan and a rather large Brad Barritt showed a blueprint on Saturday for how we can be beaten. Ironically, it looks like being better at our core strengths (simple, direct rugby based on winning the collisions and being smart with the ball) is the easiest way to beat us, because the Plan B for Ireland doesn’t seem to be there.

But is it really a worry?

I don’t believe so.

I’d wager our Plan A will be up to par by the time France rolls around.


I’ve recently seen Schmidt likened to Trappatoni in a pejorative way by some random internet troll.

But actually, the likeness isn’t as crazy as it seems. Bear with me here.

Trap was criticised for removing the individuality from the Irish footballers, focusing on structure rather than flair.

While Schmidt’s Ireland is undoubtedly more talented, one could say he has followed a similar rigid path, playing to what he sees our strengths to be.

Let’s be honest here for a second, even when Munster and Leinster have been winning all around them, Irish success has been based on defence, structure, and a biblical level of effort from all involved.

Sure, we have plenty of class, but then so does every other team, and size is lacking in our pack compared to SA, France and England in particular. 

It’s clear now that since he’s come in, Joe has taken the opinion that our most likely means of success is based around simplicity, everyone playing their role and being as selfless as possible.

That’s partly why Zebo was sidelined for so long, why Gilroy hasn’t been given a shot and why ‘cart horses’ like Trimble, Kearney and Jones have been preferred. It’s why we hear about the importance of ‘always staying active’ so often from inside the camp.

It’s also why I believe Toner (who’s set piece and maul efforts are unparalleled) will start the France games despite Ryan & Hendo’s claims.

Simply, these guys fit into the system better.

The collective over the individual for a greater good.

We’re the communists of world rugby.


Don’t believe me?

Here’s a look at  Darce’s excellent IT column today, I found this paragraph particularly enlightening for a guy who’s only recently left the squad.

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There’s no magic formula indeed.

He also referenced the New England Patriots and their focus on individuality over the collective via the mantra ‘Do Your Job’.

We know that beating France will be a grind. They seem fitter and more structured than the 6 Nations, but also carry the enormous threat from deep of Huget and Nakaitaci, along with a huge pack based around the underrated Picamoles. Containment, hitting rucks like rabid dogs and maintaining a 90% set piece success rate will be the order of the day.

So when it comes down to it, our big World Cup 2015 gamble seems to be that Irish process beats French passion.

Innovation within reason

Of course, that certainly doesn’t mean we’ll be bored to the back teeth by Ireland.

Within reason, and with risk limited, we’ll definitely seem some novel set plays. Look back at the tries we’ve scored in the past two years, and count how many were ‘training ground moves’

Already in the first three games we’ve seen interesting teasers of moves to expect. Lineout and scrums are the main attacking opportunities for this Irish team.

Against Wales, our maul showed it’s still a weapon.

Against Scotland, a cleanly won lineout was reversed back into traffic. Unfortunately Bowe’s line was slightly off and the chance was lost.

Against England, we used Henshaw twice to great effect in the midfield, while our try was another brilliant example of simple effectiveness and everyone doing their job. Watch big Rory’s rucking effort and McGrath’s ‘diversion’ tactics.

The lineout will prove key in this World Cup, with many big nations already practising their own variations. Our lineout maul is a very important tool because it serves both as an attacking option, but also a deception tool (see Seanie’s try in Scotland for an example).

If the scrum maintains its steadiness, expect some more ‘reverse’ moves from there, akin to Kearney against England the last time we played in London.

Also watch out for Murray and Sexton using kicking to attack off quick ball, like these two little beauties.


The playbook has been developing now for two years, so to say we’re one dimensional is both unfair, but also wrong. The man on the street needs to embrace this, stop criticising the perceived ‘boring’ play and realise that this is the risk we need to take.

I’d go as far as to say that if you see us offloading and throwing the ball around against France, we’ll be in serious trouble.

According to Shane Horgan in a Guardian piece from March, ‘collective KISS’ is Joe’s mantra:

‘Take what you’re good at and become exceptional at it, make it a real weapon’

Our hope has to be that Ireland are ‘exceptional’ enough to overcome a French battering.

After that, anything could happen.

All hail Uncle Joe…