Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Harpin Points 18 - Ireland's road ahead, that Pichot tweet and more


Every Wednesday we widen our focus beyond Leinster & Ireland rugby matches, offering views on broader rugby topics and themes

THE ROAD AHEAD FOR IRELAND

Hey there! *snaps fngers* Yes I mean you there, Irish rugby fan!!!!  Snap out of it will ya?

Sorry but as amazing and all as last Saturday's match was, don't forget that it was the SECOND time we have beaten the All Blacks.  It has brought us closer to them in the rankings, yet it hasn't overtaken them. But more to the point, it certainly hasn't won us anything at RWC2019.

Again, I apologise for being a “party pooper” but as far as I'm concerned, this is the kind of mindset we'll need if we're going to stay at or near the very top and not regress.  Because however amazing the journey might have been getting here, we'd be crazy to assume that form in 2018 is going to automatically carry forward to 2019.

OK first we have the USA next weekend.  Clearly that will be an evening for ‘squad players’ and no matter how superstitious you might be, you can't deny we'll be strong favourites to win.

The next date in the Aviva won't be quite as straightforward, even though we will still probably be favourites.  When England arrive on February 2, it won't be about the 2019 Six Nations Championship or even defending the Grand Slam.  For me we have to treat it like a one-off cup final, just as though it were a World Cup knockout match, and we know Eddie Jones & co will be up for it,

But we won't get a better RWC rehearsal than round 2.  Say what you like about how able we are to reach semifinals or finals…when the tournament itself rolls around there will be only one way to approach it and that's one match at a time.  And first up we have Scotland.

No doubt we will be favourites both meetings on February 9 and September 22 but no Irish fan worth their salt would dare take them for granted.  They may have fallen short against the Springboks but one thing they clearly demonstrated is that they will punish you severely for mistakes.  Since we have them first we cannot afford anything remotely like a ‘honeymoon period’ and facing them at Murrayfield will be a perfect testing ground for that kind of pressure.

And just in case you think our Pool A schedule will get any easier, next up we have host nation Japan.  Put aside for a second that they're the host nation.  And put aside for a second that they know how to cause an RWC upset. Just last Saturday at Twickenham they not only led England up to the 58th minute, they did so with what I called ‘energetic, enterprising & efficient’ rugby.  It might have been an understrength England team that needed the likes of Itoje and Farrell to step up to get the win, but they still showed they can hurt you if you're any way off guard.

So what I'm saying is, time to get our heads out of the clouds from last Saturday and focus on the road to Japan next autumn, because you can be sure that's how Joe & co are thinking.


MY POSITION ON POSITIONS - 9

Week 9 of our look at the various green jumpers and who should fill them finally brings us into the backs, and given what happened last weekend, or more importantly who it happened without, it's a timely week to look at our “scrums half”.

This goes without saying but I'll do it anyway…if Conor Murray is fit, he plays, and even if we could draft in any other 9 on the planet, he'd still play.  You can argue all you like about the Aaron Smiths and the Faf de Klerks about which is the best at the position from the standpoint of the world game, but nobody is better suited to Schmidt-ball than Conor.

He has many different facets to his game but for me two stand out…first, there's his ability to not only land box kicks on a proverbial sixpence, but also to have the ball come down with snow on it.  The longer the hang time, the more the catcher is sweating, which in turn means the more likely we are to win it back. It's an outstanding weapon to have.

Next is quite simply his ability to sniff out a try from close range.   Defenses around the world are getting better at putting up the barricades when you're camped out on their 5m line rolling through phase after phase but often they can put so much concentration into stopping the next pod that a gap can be left and Murray has a knack for spotting it.

But last weekend we were posed with a dilemma we fear for RWC2019 - what to do without him?  And it seems Joe's answer is not only Kieran Marmion, but also to use the Connacht 9 in exactly the same fashion.  Both he and Luke McGrath after him went for box kicks in the same situations as Murray would have, and even though the accuracy might have been less than we'd like, we had more than enough in the XV as a whole to compensate.

Personally I'd go for Luke McGrath as the ideal replacement…yes, I know that can be put down to my Leinster goggles but I think I have more qualified reasoning…I actually don't think there's too much between them ability wise so it seems to make more sense to be able to bring on Luke in a big match based on their provincial familiarity.

Then there's John Cooney.  As disappointed as Ulster fans rightly were to lose Ruan Pienaar, I really don't think they could have gotten a better deal as a replacement.  And he's even a ‘nine and a half’ style of player much like the Springboks is.  The only thing he needs to do to show his Ireland credentials is demonstrate his ability to suppress some of his instincts and stay within Joe's structure, and hopefully he'll get his chance to do that by starting against the USA.

All in all, not a bad pool of 9s for Ireland to choose from!


THAT PICHOT TWEET

There was much furore about the ruggersphere over a tweet posted by World Rugby number 2 Agustín Pichot at the weekend.



It's always a shame when topics from rugby and politics cross paths, but sadly it is inevitable that it will happen sometimes, and in this case it seems the only cries louder than those of “racist!” surrounding the tweet were those of “how DARE you call me a racist!”

This is an area of particular interest to me since I am, to all intents and purposes, a ‘project’ Irish fan, having been born in the USA and somehow still have a strong ‘twang’ to my voice.  Yet as you can see from the millions of words I have typed on this blog over the last 10+ years (never mind the 40+ years following the boys in green), I still consider myself worthy of being called an Irish fan.

Many times on these pages I have made my feelings clear on project players, but I'll briefly do it again.

Ideally, international teams should only consist of players born in the jurisdiction in question. But once you step outside that absolute, like when exceptions are made for the Ronan O’Garas and Jamie Heaslips and Jordi Murphys, you enter a realm that requires debate and legislation, and not everybody is going to be happy with the result.

But let us be perfectly clear…whatever about Pichot’s stats, 100% of players that currently pull on a jersey for a test nation have done so by complying with the laws of the sport.  And personally, I believe that fulfilling a commitment to play professionally for three full years in a particular nation is enough to justify selection.

If a change had to be made to that rule, I wouldn't have stretched the term to five years; instead I'd place a cap on the amount of ‘project’ players test nations could include in their match day squads.  For example 2 to 3 for the top tier, and maybe up to 6 for all the others.

When somebody draws attention to a team's composition based on country of birth, particularly when it's presumably meant to 'brag' that their own nation achieved a ‘perfect’ score of 0%, it suggests some sort of ‘purity’ about it.  And when you find yourself in that kind of neighbourhood, there's only one place you'll end up as far as I'm concerned, Godwin's Law bedamned.

It was a despicable statement for anyone to make, but for one in his position it was infinitely more so.


CHANNEL 4

For the past couple of weeks I have been rewatching the Ireland matches on Channel 4 rather than RTÉ to get a sense of how the network is presenting the sport as it is relatively new to them.

They definitely chose their broadcasters wisely for the Irish market.  Many fans on these shores will be well used to Ryle Nugent”S commentary as he described Ireland's 2009 Grand Slam and his “Tommy Boooooowwwwwwwe!” is part of the game’s folklore at this stage.

And when it comes to panellists, I thought both Peter Stringer and Jamie Heaslip did an excellent job on the analysis front.  Strings picked out a type of play oft used by Luke McGrath before the Argentina match and sure enough it showed up on the pitch.

Jamie appears to be a natural in the commentary box, knowing exactly what to say and when to say it.  Of course I'd rather he were actually out on the pitch, but since that's not possible it will be great to have him around to help the rest of us watch.

One major down side for a stats nerd like myself was their lack of phase counter.  For me this is essential in the modern game.  A standard score graphic in the top corner of a screen during a rugby mstch should include time elapsed, points scored, tries scored, and when necessary, cards currently in effect, time elapsed in yellow card ,penalty advantage, and phase counter.

Am I being picky? Perhaps. But when one network does it and it obviously works, why shouldn't we demand it from them all,  That said, I'd still give Channel 4 a thumbs up based on what I've seen so far.


BEST TEAM SPORT IN IRELAND?

Sport is primarily for exercise, so ideally we don't want to argue too much about which team sport people, especially young ones, choose.  That said, sport is by definition a competitive realm so it's hard not to draw comparisons.

I know I began this week's first point by asking you to forget the win over the All Blacks, but I'm going to mention it again in this last one anyway just for divilment.  Compare that amazing performance and result to the dire 0-0 draw that happened at a far-from-full Aviva Stadium just days earlier.

Now of course I appreciate that the Republic of Ireland v Northern Ireland clash has political and secutiry implications…but for this topic we must put them aside.  I'm talking about the actual football, and when it came to the Republic anyway, things didn't get much better in their next match which was another scoreless snooze fest.  At the time of writing I learn that the FAI have finally parted way with Martin O'Neill, who incidentally was on a lot more money than Joe Schmidt by all accounts.

So it's hardly a stretch to say that 🏉 > ⚽ on these shores, is it?

What about GAA?  Well, apart from the odd series of so-called ‘compromise’ rules, one thing the sport can rarely produce is a team that represents an entire jurisdiction or indeed the island.  But in fairness, that shouldn't be all that's required to make a sport entertaining.

However over the past decade, gaelic football in particular has found a way to be boring in that Dublin have become pretty much not only the team to beat, but one nobody else can.  Since I live there myself, and in a very GAA-focused neighbourhood too I might add, I'm obviously happy about that, but when it comes to enticing youngsters into the game around the island, it doesn't help.

To be fair though, championships within individual provinces and counties are still keenly contested so the Dublin factor only goes so far.  Still though, when it comes to making national headlines, rugby is doing a lot better these days, of that there can be no doubt.

You may notice I haven't mentioned hurling yet.  Personally, I think it's game that should be played all over the world - it's amazing to watch and the best players routinely do things many millionaires from other sporting codes wouldn't dream of.  But sadly it is only really seriously promoted in a handful of Irish counties and thus also easily gets trumped by rugby.

Apologies to other team sports like hockey and basketball, but it would take some kind of miracle for them to compete with the ‘big boys’ in Ireland so no point in going into them too deeply.

Which means rugby has to be the winner!  Woo hoo!  Maybe I'm a tad biased, but I still think it's hard to argue!  For now…maybe if the Republic of Ireland's new manager has instant success or some county manages to crack Dublin's code that all might change?


Thanks for staying with me through this week's Harpin Points.  Both Leinster & Ireland are playing this weekend so we'll be busy...the plan is to cover the Ospreys match via the normal Monday writeup and for Ireland v USA I plan to do a post similar to that for Southern Kings v Leinster a few weeks ago.  Stay tuned!  JLP

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