Just who are we? This Six Nations is a real chance to find our personality
Paul O’Connell’s newfound love for offloading shows that Joe Schmidt has already had an influence
Last Sunday evening I kept wondering why Seattle Seahawks avoided the quarterback throw and insisting on running the ball as their Seán O’Brien, running back Marshawn Lynch, had ploughed a dangerous furrow in heavy traffic with precious little gain. This conundrum was tackled during the half-time analysis with Seattle losing to the San Francisco 49ers. They persisted with this tactic (which proved a winning one) because “that’s where their money is; that’s their personality”.
Readers may have noticed a subtle shift to the ever fascinating world that is American professional sport. What a Sunday it was as it started out for me in Thomond Park, followed by experiencing the City of Culture standing extremely tall with Riverdance and culminating with five late hours of American football semi-finals. Rugby, Irish Dancing and American football – all with huge symmetry.
That said, if Edinburgh are a window into Scottish rugby then we are in for a most enjoyable opener next Sunday. In the meantime, what is our personality?
There is no doubt that Joe Schmidt is having a massive effect on the 44 plus players in camp. They are being exposed to his methods, encouraged by his insights and disciplined by his demands. Paul O’Connell, our most competitive and accomplished forward, has developed a passing game – attacking weak shoulders, fixing players and offloading to hard running supporters, before and after contact.
Dominated the tackle
While barging through Gloucester’s tighthead Sila Puafisi, his offload to Tommy O’Donnell that led to Keith Earls’ try was magnificent. He dominated the tackle adding real value to the ball. Why is this happening now and not ten years ago? Coaching I suppose.
It doesn’t end there as over the past weeks unknowns are on the verge of the known.
Take Muster loosehead James Cronin’s cameo last Sunday. Powerful scrummaging, highly technical clear outs and a pair of hands that were tested to the full with three passes late on that would have had Brian O’Driscoll under pressure. Cronin’s instinct was to hold on tight and power forward.
Add to him Marty Moore. Moore and his Leinster loosehead Cian Healy are poles apart physically but this Six Nations does give us food for thought.
Healy is a sure starter but is it madness to consider him the ultimate impact player? What would be lost if he doesn’t start and what would be gained by his arrival into a tiring Scottish, Welsh, English, Italian and French pack? A rampaging Healy will do damage at any stage but could Cronin, Jack McGrath or David Kilcoyne lay the foundation? That said Cronin was magnificent off the bench against Edinburgh and it would be great for him to get a Six Nations run and Moore a start.
At hooker Rory Best will most likely start but Seán Cronin is the form player and regular pitch time has enhanced his accuracy out of touch no end. Start Cronin!
O’Connell is on the curve of something very special having been exposed to what can be achieved. Devin Toner is his most likely partner so the third secondrow will be intriguing. Clearly there are many eligible candidates but I would love to see Iain Henderson on the bench as he is a future Ian Jones in the making.
He is a tad way off the powerhouse scrummaging that’s required but the scrum loosens up late in the game. It’s a hunch but I feel his future is in the secondrow and he is the same height and already two stone heavier than Jones!
In the backrow there’s the obvious loss of O’Brien which will have a major impact. For a million reasons Chris Henry is my starter – he has an extremely efficient approach to his running lines and has combined his technical development with a nuisance value that will obstruct all aspects of Scotland’s play. In essence he is a vice-grip openside.
Almost his opposite is Tommy O’Donnell who I dedicated huge swathes of time to specifically watching in the Edinburgh and Gloucester matches live. There’s a touch of the French legend Laurent Cabannes in his athleticism and playing style – high praise indeed.
Peter O’Mahony is an interesting character who is developing into a fine leader. I fear, however, that his combative style is stunting his rugby playing progress. He has all the tools to be world class but often gets bogged down in street fighting. IRB Player of the Year Kieran Read is what O’Mahony should be striving for – broaden your game.
Half backs are nailed down, so too the midfield but Luke Marshall is gaining hugely. Gordon D’Arcy was simply magnificent against the All Blacks so I imagine number 12 will be managed over coming months.
Down the food chain
My heart has broken for Keith Earls who was flying these past weeks and a sure starter; so opportunity for Luke Fitzgerald and Craig Gilroy. It it is most interesting to see Simon Zebo so far down the food chain, sitting on the Irish Wolfhounds bench this Saturday. Issues?
So back to the opening question; this Six Nations is about finding our personality and how we can impose it on the competition. I hope it then torrents down through the provinces, into the clubs and schools where 12-year-olds wearing the number five jersey, having witnessed O’Connell’s offloads, visualise themselves doing the same. If so, that’s our personality.