Ireland pack a ‘good mix of brawn and brains’, says forwards coach Easterby
Easterby believes ‘phenomenal athlete’ James Ryan will become ‘one of the greats’
Ireland’s CJ Stander, Andrew Porter and James Ryan during the anthems before their defeat to Japan at Shizuoka Stadium Ecopa. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
A worrying picture is beginning to form of this Ireland pack being ranked below previous Irish versions at World Cups. That theory can be altered over the coming weekends. If not this iteration will be filed away as sub par.
Like most Irish packs, the current eight almost picks itself with Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong keeping genuine contenders Dave Kilcoyne and particularly Andrew Porter at arm’s length while the fact Rory Best cannot be dislodged at age 37 is hardly a ringing endorsement of Niall Scannell or Sean Cronin.
“You’d be happy to go to war with him,” said Simon Easterby of Ruddock.
So how does this gang stack up against what came before?
“I’d love to be playing in it myself to be honest,” replied Easterby when asked to compare and contrast. “It’s a good mix of brawn and brains.”
Easterby offers an ideal perspective as the starting blindside in 2003 and 2007, and now a highly respected assistant coach overseeing the Irish forwards at this and the 2015 tournament.
A knee injury forced his retirement, age 35, a year before the ill-fated 2011 journey to New Zealand; a World Cup campaign that will forever feel like it got away from Ireland.
The 2003 pack had flaws but its generational player, a patched-up Keith Wood – similar to Best in Japan, on his last lap – formed a world-class lineout flinging to Mal O’Kelly, a young Paul O’Connell and Easterby.
They banished the ghost of Lens in 1999 by overcoming Argentina – Alan Quinlan’s finest hour – lost a classic against the Wallabies in Melbourne, when a David Humphreys drop goal sailed the wrong side of the post, before an Olivier Magne and Imanol Harinodoquy inspired France wiped them out in the quarters.
The promised peak of 2007 for a Munster seven and Easterby never materialised after tanking in definitive battles against France and Argentina. The Georgians also gave them an awful rattle.
The 2011 tournament promised to be different. O’Connell was in his soaring prime while Sean O’Brien’s brilliance covered the loss of David Wallace. All under Gert Smal’s tutelage, the dream World Cup final against the All Blacks looked realistic after meting out an unholy beating to the Wallabies in Eden Park.
Mike Ross could be considered the obvious weakness but the Cork man always locked the scrum. Go through the others and swoon: Healy was in the form of his life, so too Best, Donncha O’Callaghan was keeping Donnacha Ryan out of the team and has there ever been a more balanced backrow than Jamie Heaslip, Stephen Ferris and O’Brien?
Outplayed and utterly out-coached, Wales bowled them out at the quarters in Wellington.
Not to worry, 2015 would be different. When O’Connell – assuming the Wood and Best, end of days role – was carried off against France in Cardiff, the arrival of Henderson alongside Toner softened the blow, until O’Mahony and O’Brien were also stripped away.
Piseog influenced folk would be forgiven for believing Ireland are cursed at World Cups. Or the genetic make-up with tight turnarounds leaves them unfit for purpose. Easterby can only deal in reality.
“We’ve got a great bunch of guys who work incredibly hard but they are also smart,” he explained. “Once they’ve got a good understanding of things, then they’ll grab that and run with it – and that’s what I like about this group.”
Still, imagine Dan Leavy and O’Brien had held up long enough to make it to Japan? Easterby, again, notes the players at his disposal and bristles.
“I’ll leave that to Faz,” when Ryan’s future ascendancy to the captaincy is suggested. “He’s a phenomenal athlete. There’s no big ‘I am’ about him, even though his nickname (the big cheese) would suggest otherwise. He’s just a guy who will continue to grow and will continue to lead, whether that’s through having a ‘C’ next to his name or just through his actions.
“I think he will become one of the greats. I’ve no doubts about that.”
What never changes is Irish men will be smaller, less athletic than their opponents come the knockout stages.
“I guess we’ve always fallen into that bracket. We still have to be able to have an emotional edge and the ability to play at a level that physically can beat teams. We’ve done that in the past and that’s a challenge for all of us to make sure we’re in the right place.
“This week feels different. There has been a real edge and that’s something you feel is a little bit of a change in the mood of the group as well.”
Whether it is enough to separate them from the other World Cups we are about to find out.