June 29, 2014
One season down for Joe Schmidt and Ireland have won the 6 Nations and won a tour in Argentina for the first time ever while the Emerging Ireland side that went to Romania won the IRB Nations Cup. However Ireland still need to find a replacement for the great Brian O'Driscoll and have also lost forwards coach John Plumtree. There's one full season before the World Cup with the "easy" year of the 6 Nations in between. So how does the Irish squad look to be building towards both?
THE ARGENTINIAN TOUR
Ireland were 2 from 2 against Argentina in June, with both sides fielding weakened sides. While I'm sure winning the tour was a major objective there were other things that Ireland needed to focus on as well. Ireland looked a very capable and confident side in the 6 Nations and were well worth their title win. The level of performance we saw in February and March wasn't evident though on this tour. Ireland struggled to deal with a second string Argentinian side and never really showed the same level of control and dominance that we saw through large parts of the 6 Nations.
There were very good reasons for this though. Ireland had a number of players missing; be it through injury or being rested. Add to that the fact that they had to try and find a new mid-field partnership they were always going to struggle in the centre of the field. The only part of the performances that should be of real concern was the defense, which was breached too easily on a number of occasions.
The injury to Robbie Henshaw before the series was a big blow as it prevented the coaches from getting a good look at a real contender for the 13 shirt. The knock that Luke Marshall took in the first test was another big blow and questions may need to be asked regarding his future in the game. Concussions are not to be taken lightly at all and while he may not have had a concussion in Argentina, the pure risk of it means that it will inevitably be a constant in his career going forward.
Other than looking for a new centre partnership Ireland also needed to look at some of the depth across the park. To that end players that really stood out on the tour for me were Henderson and Ruddock. Henderson has always been a bit of a physical freak and it's just been a matter of time before he was ready for international test rugby. If June was anything to go by he is pretty much there and come September 2015 he should be challenging for a starting spot in the squad. He is a powerful carrier, has great hands and is incredibly physical in everything that he does.
Ruddock isn't too dissimilar. His physicality in the contact and at ruck time is superb, plus he's a good line-out option. If/when SOB returns Joe may well look to Ruddock to start at blindside as his skill set would compliment those of SOB and Heaslip more than POM, whose skills duplicate those of the first choice 7 and 8. In fact a starting back 5 in the pack of POC, Toner, Ruddock, SOB and Heaslip with Henderson and POM on the bench could be the way to go. Ruddock is at his best taking ball into contact in the tight and clearing out rucks with real power which would free up SOB to play a little wider. Henderson can do the same off the bench and allow POM to spend his time in open field where he is really dangerous, especially against tiring legs. It's early days for Ruddock in that regard, but if he can build on his form from last season then he should be in contention.
In the centre Marshall and Cave went fairly well in a new set-up. They certainly looked like a partnership that should be looked at again. Unfortunately as mentioned above Marshall may not be someone that we can count on given his history of concussions. The midfield of Cave and McFadden however was not so positive. Perhaps if they were played the other way around, Ferg at 12 and Cave at 13, it may have been better. As hard working and talented as he is though, McFadden is not an international quality outside centre.
Overall Joe will have been reasonably happy with the tour, but the big question of the centre partnership is still a long, long way from being answered. This is something that I'm sure will disappoint him greatly. The loss of Paddy Jackson to injury would have been hugely disappointing also as it would have cemented him as second choice out-half. His distribution and decision making are top class and he brings in his back line better than Madigan does. He hasn't had much game time with Ireland under Joe so far and last month was the perfect opportunity to rectify that. It would have provided a good deal more certainty in a crucial position.
If we were to look at a 30 man squad for the RWC as things stand what would that be? At this stage it could look like the following:
Looseheads: Cian Healy & Jack McGrath
Hookers: Rory Best & Sean Cronin
Tightheads: Mike Ross & Martin Moore
Second Rows: Paul O'Connell, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson & Dan Tuohy
Blindsides: Peter O'Mahony & Rhys Ruddock
Opensides: Sean O'Brien & Chris Henry
Number 8: Jamie Heaslip & Jordi Murphy
Scrum-Half: Conor Murray & Eoin Reddan
Out-Half: Jonathan Sexton & Paddy Jackson
Centres: Gordon D'Arcy, Darren Cave, Fergus McFadden, & Robbie Henshaw
Back 3: Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Rob Kearney & Jared Payne
There are other players that will look to, and could very easily, force their way in:
Looseheads: David Kilcoyne & James Cronin
Hookers: Richardt Strauss & Damien Varley
Tightheads: David Fitzpatrick & Rodney Ah You
Second Rows: Mike McCarthy & Donncha Ryan
Blindsides: Robbie Diack & Kevin McLaughlin
Opensides: Tommy O'Donnell
Number 8: Robin Copeland
Scrum-Half: Kieran Marmion
Out-Half: Ian Madigan & JJ Hanrahan
Centres: Stuart Olding & Noel Reid
Back 3: Dave Kearney, Craig Gilroy & Felix Jones
Within the first 30 above alone there is huge competition for starting places. However in the 20 players just outside of contention there are quite a few who could very easily put their hands up. And I haven't included Luke Marshall or Luke Fitzgerald in either list due to injury concerns. If both/either make a return then that's another 2 names to add to the pot, both of whom are really class players. There's also a very good pool of talent there. That's the good news. Really good news. That's depth unlike Ireland has ever really seen before.
The bad news however is that we've still a lot of work to do at centre. And the list of centres we have in that 30 doesn't inspire huge confidence. It is possible that Jared Payne or Tommy Bowe could move into the 13 shirt with options like D'Arcy, McFadden or Madigan playing 12. Keith Earls could also have a case at 13, being the only other player to have played any more than a couple of caps at 13 in the Ireland set-up over the last few years. There are options, but we are very short on time so need to identify our first choice as soon as possible and get them playing together with our half-backs.
THE LOSING OF PLUMTREE
Prior to the start of the series in Argentina Ireland's forwards coach John Plumtree announced he was leaving less than a year into his 3 year contract. This was a big blow to Ireland as Plumtree had made a significant impact in the Irish pack. In the 6 Nations they were consistently on top. Ireland's line-out and mauls were both real weapons. He seemed to be widely respected and admired by the players. The job of replacing him a year out from a World Cup is going to prove difficult.
As understandable as his reasons for leaving are it is still very disappointing and adds to the issues that Joe desperately needs to deal with in the short term. Between now and the AIs in November we need to find a forwards coach and a centre pairing that will last us for the next 18 months at least. That's a pretty big ask in such a short time frame. We wish John Plumtree all the best and are obviously thankful for the work he has done.