Cronin eager to take big chance in lion's den
IT is a fact of rugby that when the line-out goes pear-shaped, the hooker is the fall guy.
Forwards know that it is far more complicated than pointing the finger at the man tasked with delivering the ball to the designated jumper; other factors such as making the calling, lifting, timing and quality of opposition are essential elements also, but the hooker tends to carry the can when it goes wrong.
Rory Best is a solid line-out thrower but, last Saturday, when the Ulsterman looked down the line with ball poised behind his head, he was confronted by the sight of four huge and expectant South African jumpers, expertly led by the world's premier line-out expert, Victor Matfield. The result was a 50pc return on Ireland's throw.
As the game wore on and Ireland continued to cough up line-out possession to the Springboks, it was clear that Best's confidence began to suffer. In these circumstances, it seemed logical to turn to Sean Cronin, who would have arrived with fresh enthusiasm and belief to the task and, even if South Africa continued to dominate, could have brought bench impact elsewhere through his charges in the loose.
The call never came -- just as it didn't in similar circumstances, when the Irish struggled against Scotland in the Six Nations last March.
However, while Cronin's lack of experience at international level (nine minutes) could have been cited as a reason for not exposing him against the Scots, the Limerick man had subsequently started both Tests on Ireland's summer tour against New Zealand and Australia and performed well.
What were his thoughts as he sat watching Ireland's struggles last weekend and he was not asked to contribute -- did it feel like a lack of faith from management?
"There are a lot of factors that influence the line-out and the hooker seems to always be fed to the lions," says Cronin, who starts against Samoa on Saturday when he will have the 6ft 10ins debutant Devin Toner to aim at.
"There were many parts of the line-out which looked to have broken down at the weekend.
"We're just trying to get that right for the weekend and win first-phase ball, which is something Ireland have always been very strong at. I'd say other teams would look at Ireland as being one of the best first-phase attackers in world rugby, so it's vitally important we get that right at the weekend.
"Last weekend, South Africa seemed to be getting the upper hand in a number of important areas of the game but, look, it's about the squad and the call was made and I'm just looking forward to the weekend and getting a start for my country. I'm just focused on that."
Jerry Flannery and Best have been Ireland's top two hookers for five seasons, since Shane Byrne moved on, but with Flannery injured, the unfortunate John Fogarty retired and Best struggling, Saturday is a chance for Cronin to establish himself as number one and earn a rematch against the All Blacks the following weekend.
Even with Flannery and Fogarty out of the picture, Ireland coach Declan Kidney is fortunate to have strong competition at hooker between Best, Cronin and Munster's Damien Varley and the Connacht hooker knows he has to take his opportunity against Samoa.
"That Tour was massive for me in trying to get a bit of experience," acknowledges Cronin. "I'm just looking at the weekend as another opportunity to get to put on the jersey.
"I thought I did okay in the summer Tests, just okay. I think I've a lot more to offer and I've a lot more to try to improve on at the weekend. I'm just glad to be getting the chance and hopefully I can go out and do the stuff."
Cronin's career has taken off since he went to Connacht in search of game-time and he does not subscribe to the theory that playing Challenge Cup rather than Heineken Cup is insufficient preparation for international rugby.
"That's probably a comment that will be thrown out every so often but the way I look at it is, we played Bayonne in the Challenge Cup a few weeks ago and we beat them.
"At the time they were only four points behind Racing Metro, who Leinster played. If you're going up against sides like that, coming out on top and actually playing well ... yeah, look, it will always be put to you that the Heineken Cup is the elite of the club scene but I just look at situations like that and take what I can out of it. I'm just confident in my own ability."
Hanging out and working with Connacht's Niva Ta'auso and Ray Ofisa has given Cronin an insight into the Samoan mindset on and off the rugby field and he is expecting a monumental physical challenge in Lansdowne Road.
"They're nice fellas, I play with a few of them. They're lovely guys off the pitch but I don't think they'd spare you on it, so you just have to get on with it, get stuck in and try to be as physical as you can and stamp your authority on the game.
"That's what we're going to try to do. I've played against a lot of Samoans, Tongans, big-hitters like that and Fijians as well.
"You're best not running directly into them. You've got to put some footwork on.
"It's going to be physical but no less than the game at the weekend was. You just have to man up, get on with it and get stuck in."