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Who’s on the Irish Plane? – March Edition

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What a Six Nations. Unbelievable, incredible, absorbing, awesome. The list of words to describe that final day of the 2015 Six Nations could go on forever. We can safely say that we have never witnessed a day of frenetic, frantic and fearless rugby quite like it. Who foresaw Wales putting 60 plus points on Italy in Rome to seize the upper hand in the points race and seemingly dash Irish and English hearts? Or for Ireland to then come out and inflict their heaviest ever defeat upon Scotland in Murraryfield, wrestling the title back within touching distance and crushing the hopes of the Welsh in the process? Even if you saw one of those results coming, not a single person on the face of this planet, or any other, could have predicted the fireworks that would follow in Twickenham. England came out to play, they had no choice, but the French went toe to toe with them in one of the greatest games of rugby we have witnessed in a long time. Sitting in the West Stand in Murrayfield with 10,000 others, chanting “Les Marseillaise” and “Allez les bleus”, imploring France to keep England away from that magical 26 point winning margin put each and every one of us through a range of emotions unlike any we have ever experienced. Yes, the French shipped 55 points, but they were ominously reminiscent of the France of old. They threw caution to the wind and they ceased trying to bowl the opposition over through sheer brute force. Instead, they pinned their ears back and ran anything and everything they got their hands on. If they keep on that path, instead of reverting to type, then they will be a serious threat to the Irish aspirations of topping Pool D.

Props (5)

While many felt Jack McGrath was harshly done by in the lead-up to the final Six Nations game against Scotland, Cian Healy put all doubt aside as he proved he was back to his rampaging best. Healy is quite simply world-class. Jack McGrath has come on leaps and bounds, but he just simply isn’t on the same level. Turning to the tighthead side, and with a World Cup now in full view, it is interesting to note that Marty Moore has yet to start a frontline international game in the green shirt. For all the talk about building a squad, we are somewhat perplexed by Joe’s decision-making in this regard. Although Ross reassured doubters with 5 solid games, it sticks out as a sore thumb that we could go in to the World Cup looking slightly light at a crucial position. Denis Buckley of Connacht had a cracking game against Munster at the weekend, but we still believe James Cronin will travel as the 5th prop, unless we take a player who can ‘cover’ both sides.

Shoe ins: Healy, McGrath, Ross, Moore
Next in line: Cronin, Bent, White
Long shots: Kilcoyne, Buckley
No way José: Archer, Furlong

Hookers (3) Best and Cronin can go and buy their tickets. Strauss will follow as 3rd choice hooker. Best is like having a 4th back-row player on the pitch, with his breakdown work incredible for a hooker. His accuracy out of touch can be a worry, and he needs to avoid the off-days that have dogged his career or else Ireland will suffer. Clean lineout ball is crucial to Schmidt’s game plan, so let’s pray the demons won’t rear their heads this autumn. Cronin’s impact off the bench is incredible. We will discuss more about this impact in our next article, but it is interesting to note that Cronin, per ESPNScrum, had more metres made than any other hooker in the Six Nations. This is despite playing less than half the minutes of his nearest competitors, Guilhem Guirado of France and our hooker of the tournament, Leonardo Ghiraldini of Italy.

Shoe ins: Best, Cronin, Strauss
Next in line: Herring
Long shot: Casey

Locks (4)

Paul O’Connell again epitomised Irish Rugby, and reaffirmed his position as one of the premier locks in world rugby with another gargantuan Six Nations. His mere presence seems to simultaneously strike fear into the opposition and inspire teammates to new levels. His commitment and desire, even in the twilight of his career, are hugely commendable. He is the heart and soul of this team. It looks as if Ireland are going to be graced by a replacement when he eventually hangs up his boots, as the young Iain Henderson further enhanced his reputation, which even had some calling for his inclusion from the start ahead of Devin Toner towards the end of the tournament. We would leave him on the bench for now, but he can’t be far away from the starting team. Donnacha Ryan isn not far away, with a return to the Munster team on the horizon, as he appears to have overcome the foot injury which has dogged him all season. He is currently undergoing return to play protocols following a head injury in his return to action for Munster ‘A’. We believe that he will usurp Mike McCarthy in the squad. Dan Tuohy is also chomping on the bit, having made a return to the Ireland squad for the Welsh game. It all adds up to make for a fascinating battle for that 4th spot.

Shoe-ins: O’Connell, Toner, Henderson
Next in line: Ryan
Long shots:McCarthy, Tuohy, Foley

Back Row (5)

Seán O’Brien is back to his best, he was dynamic and abrasive in everything he did. What a monumental performance against Scotland. The best news to emerge from this Six Nations though, aside from his good health, is that the drop-off from the first choice back-row to those next in line is now as small as it ever was. Jordi Murphy kept Billy Vunipola quiet all day when deputising for Jamie Heaslip. Meanwhile, despite some cracking performances that would have sealed his place to the tournament in years gone by, Tommy O’Donnell is not assured of a place and could still miss out with Chris Henry returning to health for Ulster. Rhys Ruddock has faced another setback in the last week, needing a second operation on his arm and is now a doubt for the World Cup. We will go with Murphy and O’Donnell, on the back of their Six Nations performances, but this is far from being decided.

Shoe-ins: Heaslip, O’Mahony, O’Brien
Next in line: Murphy, O’Donnell, Henry, Ruddock
Long shots: Ryan, Diack, Conan
No way José: Wilson

Scrum-halves (3) Murray and Reddan to travel, with Isaac Boss still seemingly ahead of Kieran Marmion, who has suffered from a dip in form since the turn of the year. With improvement, there is still time for him to win the third place. We would advocate that he could learn a lot from merely being a part of the squad,  with both Boss and Reddan edging closer to hanging up their boots, we need to keep one eye on the future at all times. Hence, we would select him ahead of Boss.

Shoe-ins: Murray, Reddan
Next in line: Marmion, Boss
Long shots: McGrath

Out-halves (2) Oh Johnny, why do you torture us? He was only average against Wales, with a few uncharacteristically errant kicks, and that moment when he wasn’t looking and the ball hit him square in the face made more than a few of us shudder. He also missed 2 kicks against Scotland which led to a nervy end for those of us watching the England-France game. These hiccups aside, he is firmly entrenched as our no. 1 out-half. Madigan will travel as backup, with his versatility being the main reason.

Shoe-ins: Sexton
Next in line: Madigan, Keatley
Long-shots: Jackson

Centres (4)

The area of biggest concern entering the tournament, Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne grew into their roles with each passing game. Henshaw was fantastic in defence, and he wound up in 3rd place in the player of the tournament stakes. We didn’t see much of the pair going forward until the shackles came off against Scotland, but when they did, there were encouraging signs. Payne’s line for his first Irish try was superb, and the reward was well-deserved. With the news that Stuart Olding is set to miss the World Cup, needing a complete knee reconstruction, Gordon D’Arcy’s bid to travel becomes slightly more straightforward. There is bite in the old dog yet, and we feel he has much to contribute even in the twilight of his career. Olding has been particularly unlucky, as this was his first game back in action following the arm injury which had sidelined him since January. Darren Cave and Keith Earls are close too, and the selection of the backup centres will come from these two and the aforementioned D’Arcy. Earls and D’Arcy it is for us, with balance and experience being the key words.

Shoe-ins: Henshaw, Payne
Next in line: D’Arcy, Earls
Long shots: Cave, Marshall
No way José: Olding

Outside Backs (5)

The return of a former Lion has led to the demotion of another. Ireland is currently blessed with a number of starting-calibre outside backs, and whatever way it ends up, there will be some very good players who will be left at home. Luke Fitzgerald fully justified his selection with a superb performance against Scotland. These are the sort of calls Joe Schmidt has a fabulous habit of getting right, and this was no exception as Luke left Schmidt fully vindicated in his choice. The one anomaly here is undoubtedly the persistence with which Felix Jones is making the bench. It seems to be reminiscent of the Paddy Wallace days, and we cannot fathom why Zebo was dropped entirely. The only whisperings we have heard are that were Tommy Bowe to get injured, Joe doesn’t want three left-footed players (Zebo, Fitzgerald, Kearney) in his back 3. It doesn’t make sense to us, but who are we to question the man who has just delivered us back-to-back Six Nations Championships. The main question now is whether Andrew Trimble can regain fitness in time. However, seeing as he is injured, the only change is that Luke goes from next in line to a shoe-in at the expense of Simon Zebo.

Shoe-ins: Rob Kearney, Bowe, Fitzgerald
Next in line: Jones, Zebo, Trimble
Long shots: Dave Kearney, McFadden
No way José: Gilroy

In our last article, we talked about how there were probably 21 places set in stone, leaving 10 to fill. With each game that goes by, at both club and international level, the chances of those on the outside forcing their way into the squad diminish. Injury will undoubtedly play a role, but Ireland look more prepared than ever to deal with an injury to a key player. In our opinion, from a statistical point of view, the most impressive aspect was that Ireland only conceded 56 points across the entirety of the tournament, shipping only three tries in the process. Much as we would rather it were the other way around, the attacking, open rugby on display on the final day of the Six Nations was most definitely an outlier. We expect everything, therefore, to revert to type, when there is no 20 point victories needed to be attained. Using previous World Cups as a barometer, conceding only three tries throughout the Six Nations bodes well for our chances. To put this in perspective, Wales conceded 8, France let in 9 and England leaked 11 scores. Yes, our approach under Joe has been uber-conservative, but in Murrayfield we put to bed the demons of Cardiff the previous week and we put Scotland to the sword in a clinical display of cutthroat attacking rugby. Ireland for the World Cup? It would appear we still highly doubt our chances, especially having never beaten the All-Blacks, but if England, Wales or France were going in to the World Cup on the back of successive Six Nations crowns then they would certainly believe in their chances. Let’s wait and see eh?

Finally, I cannot finish this article without congratulating the Irish Women’s Rugby Team on winning the Six Nations Championship. What a fantastic achievement! In our opinion, it was unjustly overshadowed by their male counterparts in the media, but credit where credit is due. Women’s rugby in Ireland is certainly on the up and up, and long may their successes continue!

Be sure to like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @rugbyankletap and of course check us out at The Ankle Tap for more reading about Irish Rugby.

Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Ciarán Brennan

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