Balancing the numbers in Ireland’s backrow
essons from the Scots on how to beat France – move the point of contact, target the blindside and survive the opening mayhem
AS “I walk through the long schoolroom questioning” what’s the best team to take the pitch this Sunday, I’m reminded of William Butler Yeats’s Among School Children. My eyes soon land on the starting number seven and his young colleague at nine and ask “Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?”
Seán O’Brien is certainly no leaf or blossom but fits the description of the “bole”. Conor Murray must be all three. As the trunk of a tree O’Brien is crucial to Ireland’s chances in Paris but when asked last Monday by Matt Cooper I suggested that Jamie Heaslip could play at seven. Was this mad? Maybe just a tad. Neither O’Brien nor Heaslip are suited to the openside shirt but as we’ll witness on Sunday neither are Thierry Dusautoir, Julien Bonnaire or Imanol Harinordoquy (France’s starting seven last week).
In essence it matters not a jot. So how do the French get into a World Cup final and lose by just a point without a true tear-away? How have they beaten Italy and Scotland with Bonnaire and Harinordoquay at seven?
For a start they don’t play the traditional role of seven and are judged accordingly.
The best openside in Ireland in terms of running lines, defensive positioning and control at the tail, breakdown work and, most importantly, with an openside’s instinct, is Shane Jennings. He has been unable to secure a starting slot.
The next best is certainly Dominic Ryan, who is at the crossroads of his development, possibly followed by Niall Ronan.
Peter O’Mahony will make a world class openside, with technical ability matched with the brain and attitude to redefine how we view this position. So why not start him?
The arrival of the cerebral Anthony Foley should not be lost on the backrow. Number eights require a rugby brain which allows them control team tempo. Foley is bursting with a rugby brain. I’m not sure O’Brien is that type of player and I would be very careful not to overload his tasks by putting him into eight. Heaslip is not Foley, nor is Stephen Ferris.
I would love to have been at Foley’s first talk with his Irish backrow. Leadership from eight is not built on constant talking but real leadership: direction and most of all judgment. Thus Heaslip is best placed. O’Mahony at seven and Ferris at six means O’Brien would miss out.
Our judgment of O’Brien at seven must be adjusted as he is not a seven, which doesn’t prevent him from being outstanding on Sunday, but don’t expect a Sam Warburton performance. A traditional seven has a million things to do which are constantly being adjusted. If France go off the top his defensive line is crucial, if they go into midfield quickly to get centres Aurelien Rougerie and Wesley Fofana flat in attack he is crucial. If the Irish midfield slow or stop them he is crucial at the breakdown. Beyond that there are a million permutations, and that’s just in defence.
In attack they build again, providing the link between the swift-off-the-deck ball ahead of the scrumhalf, trailing of the ball carrier and much, much more. It is a position of judgment and instinct, constantly reading the ever evolving situation of others. Hence seven is the most restrictive position on the pitch. O’Brien simply can’t do all that and do what you want him to do as well. Accept it!
And in accepting this we must also accept Heaslip is not the same player with O’Brien at seven. His natural game is diluted to cater for deficiencies in O’Brien’s openside game. Accept that also.
Hence Ferris is the only player picked in his natural position so he continues to shine while the other two appear to struggle.
Murray deserves to start on Sunday based on his many attributes. However, I’ve been long asking how he will balance the trenches with team tactics. Fuel was added with Eoin Reddan’s arrival on the pitch against Italy. Reddan appears much more comfortable in his skin, where he does X, followed by Y, which will result in Z.
However with age, experience and a winning formula (Wasps and Leinster) he knows if the X and Y method doesn’t net Z then he can change the letters, knowing his team-mates will expect this, believe in him and react accordingly. Murray is learning this, as are his team-mates of him. Reddan is more likely to keep the bigger picture in view, facilitating those around him, most notably Jonathan Sexton and his backrow.
As Yeats might put it, Murray’s challenge for Sunday is, “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
While Murray and co will dance around Stade de France, physicality brought Scotland 17 French turnovers. The French were badly exposed by an improving Scottish outfit. But the biggest lesson from Scotland was their ability to keep the ball away from French contact and but for errors they would have won.
Lessons – move the point of contact, target the blindside and survive the opening mayhem.
With that in mind I can understand the extra lineout specialist Bonnaire being included, not to mention a massive increase in backrow work-rate, with Louis Picamoles to be launched as the Irish tire.
Watch the French midfield off their lineout! We’ve very little knowledge of Fofana at 12 for France but his lines are powerful and for a smallish fella his core strength is incredible and, as France like to cut the ball behind decoy forwards, he will do damage, as can his outhalf Francois Trinh-Duc.
We know what Dusautoir can do in the counter-ruck but if you question the value of a tough tackle followed by a counter scramble along the deck watch Paul O’Connell tackling Italian supremo Sergio Parisse on 45 minutes and 15 seconds. On the far touchline Parisse carried into traffic and O’Connell stopped him dead. Not content with that he lowered his body height, dragged his knuckles along the ground inches above the felled Parisse and pumped his legs, propelling him into the Italian side of the breakdown. A poorly-placed ball bobbled and O’Connell snaffled it, allowing the Irish backline to take off, with Ferris breaking the Italian midfield, offloading to Tommy Bowe before Andrea Masi scuppered a certain try.
More again please. As ever I have great hope and optimism for Ireland on Sunday and leave you with Yeats.
“Labour is blossoming or dancing where/ the body is not bruised to pleasure soul.”