Tuesday 26 March 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'For fancy dress, Cronin does not go as Phil Taylor, but nor does he become Edward Scissorhands'

Cronin criticised for off-line darts in Rome but hooker deserves another shot on the oche

At fancy dress parties, Sean Cronin does not go along as Phil Taylor, but then neither does he become Edward Scissorhands.’ Photo: Sportsfile
At fancy dress parties, Sean Cronin does not go along as Phil Taylor, but then neither does he become Edward Scissorhands.’ Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The summer of 2007 was an uncomfortable period in this country. It wasn't that we had a scorcher that made it hard to go outside, rather by the time it was over an unease was growing around a group who carried on their shoulders huge expectations. The group was the Ireland rugby squad, and those getting antsy were the hungriest hoors ever to assemble on these shores: the Celtic Tiger family.

It was a World Cup year. For a variety of reasons the warm-up schedule was botched, leaving us with only two Tests in August: away to Scotland and home to Italy, in Belfast. Ireland lost the first, and coach Eddie O'Sullivan made a lot of enemies in that jurisdiction by claiming that Ronan O'Gara had been the victim of a choking incident. Given what would unfold a matter of weeks later the idea of choking was indeed ironic. Ireland should have lost the second as well, but coincidentally the same O'Gara was able to clear his throat and call for the ball to drop a match-winning goal and send Italy home empty handed.

Having filed the report that night from Ravenhill we were en route back down the M1 when we made the usual check call to the desk to make sure nobody had been defamed in our description of events. "Not great, was it?" said Boss Hogg, referring to Ireland's performance, not the description of it. We agreed. A long way from great. "Still," he continued, "it's the World Cup when you want to be performing, not in the warm-ups. Who ever won anything in a warm-up?"

That conversation popped up again in the wake of events in Stadio Olimpico last weekend. By now you will have been bombarded with the stats that told a different story to the ultimate one of a bonus-point win away from home. So Ireland lost five lineouts; made 16 handling errors and generally looked like lads who had been asked to pause the telly and put the bins out.

At the heart of any successful journey are the halfbacks. When your nine and 10 are world class then you take lots of stuff for granted - like their form. When both of them lose it at the same time then it's the definition of a double whammy. So Conor Murray makes Tito Tebaldi - a fine player in his own right, but not in the same class - look like a cross between a sniper and a pick-pocket. As for the quality of Murray's kicking, which had been as reliable as predicting hail stones and biting winds on an average Irish spring day, it has gone askew.

Meantime, his mate Sexton sprays passes off-line, gets the metre reading wrong on garryowens and the weighting wrong on restarts. And of course, being the insanely competitive perfectionist he is, the toys come out of the pram with perhaps more accuracy than the ball was coming off his boot.

"Fucking catch the fucking ball!" He spat these words out as he stormed off towards the bench last Sunday. Not since Jezza Corbyn described the hapless Tessa May, under his breath, as "a stupid woman", have we got as much value from searing honesty in the heat of battle. In fairness to Sexton, to coin the modern parlance, he owned his stuff. He would be the last man to deny that he is difficult to work with. Most would agree he is worth the effort.

The good news is that Sexton won't sleep until he fixes this. The bad news is that Sexton won't sleep until he fixes this. It is pointless suggesting he stops barking at those around him, but the challenge for the Ireland management team is to help him into a happier place so he can do his job. That's what they get paid for. If you go back through the video you'll see that there was lots he and Murray did well. Of greater importance is that the aggregate of things they did badly was unacceptable.

Clearly Joe Schmidt now feels the same way about Sean Cronin, who was despatched back to Leinster last week. Long before he got to the sanctuary of the changing room in Rome last Sunday he had computed the odds of him making another start for Ireland, other than extreme circumstances, in a big game. This begs the question about what he was doing there in the first place.

First let's acknowledge that Cronin's career has always been topped and tailed by a phenomenal ability to leave opponents for dead with his acceleration, and less than phenomenal ability to impersonate Phil 'The Power' Taylor with his darts. This is not to say that his lineout game was wayward, but he has a history of sometimes missing the target when it really matters.

So why have Ireland been relying on him since 2009? Because he is not alone in not being perfect. Captain Rory Best, for example, has lots of experience of seeing things go south. In Ulster's lineout league table it's likely that he would win the bronze medal behind Adam McBurney and the gold standard Rob Herring. The South African Herring came home from the tour to Australia last summer with his reputation greatly enhanced. Progress, however, has been stunted by Best keeping him out of the first-choice hooking role up north. A powerful scrummager, and a huge personality, Best is more than a hard man to shift off the ball. So Herring has no way forward.

At the end of the same successful, history-making tour, Cronin's star had crash-landed in the jacks. It was alarming the degree to which he had been handed the can after the defeat in the first Test in Brisbane. The inside line was portraying him as a lightweight who couldn't scrummage and struggled equally to complete a tackle. Then he fell foul of management at tour's end in a breach of discipline that saw the hooker reprimanded subsequently by his employers.

Significantly, however, the notoriously hard-to-please Schmidt opted to keep Cronin on board. In the November series he was included and benched for Niall Scannell and Rory Best (twice). Come the Six Nations he had worked his way back to being second in the pecking order - hence the start in Italy.

It is inescapable therefore that he enjoyed a significant measure of trust from management. It is the classic dilemma of selecting replacements in key positions - prop, hooker, scrumhalf and outhalf - that you need some certainty about them. You know that if you have someone short of a gallop, who ideally needs a run off the bench in the last quarter, that you run the risk of that race starting a whole lot earlier if injury's grim reaper makes a house call. In which case the tank is emptied when he's half-way through the flight and it sputters to a halt.

So every time Cronin has been selected for Ireland on the bench in the Six Nations - 32 times out of 33 - it has been in the acceptance that he might be on after five minutes instead of 55. If he is such a lame duck when it comes to giving flight to the ball then why not ditch him altogether?

Firstly, nowhere in the rugby world is there a hooker who hasn't got a dose of the yips when he wanted to be cool, calm and collected. Secondly, Cronin's performance in Rome was not so clearcut. To begin with he was robbed of a comfort blanket before he got out of bed. Who would he want to have been aiming at? A wild stab would say James Ryan and Devin Toner, fellas he plays and trains with at Leinster. Instead, he got Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane. Whatever, no one gets to dance with their favourite partner every time they take to the floor. Get on with it.

Problem was, Cronin was under unique pressure. Best's form has been ordinary. Suddenly the door opens for Cronin, so he has to dot every 'I' and cross every 'T'. In which case he needs a lot of stuff to go right. This checklist would include the lineout calling, the speed and height of the lift, and his own throwing. And that's before you get into the referee being a hard ass on keeping the gap open so the hooker can actually throw without shifting position a couple of times.

Roux was the bingo caller. He has done a good job of it for Connacht this season and Schmidt was happy for that to continue. As a broad-beamed tighthead lock of more than 121kg - only Tadhg Furlong is heavier than him - the kind thing to do is call the ball on someone else. In fairness he mixed the menu in the first half: two on himself; three on Peter O'Mahony; three on Jordi Murphy; one on Iain Henderson. Ireland lost one each in that period on Roux, O'Mahony and Murphy.

At half-time the lineout was a hot topic in the changing room. Interestingly when they came out after the break the reliance on O'Mahony, a lineout nerd and one of the most liftable jumpers in Test rugby, was deemed the best way to settle it all down. The first four throws of the second half went to him, but by that stage Cronin had been called ashore, so Niall Scannell was getting the benefit of the new menu. Not that the Munster hooker had a free ride though. Two balls were lost on his watch as well.

The truth of it is that there are so many moving parts in the modern lineout the only time you can safely blame the hooker is when he throws it crooked or it clips the landing gear of an incoming aircraft. Paul O'Connell was tuned in to the misfiring weapon that was Ireland's lineout in Rome.

"You can go out one day and lose six out of 18 lineouts," he says. "Two might be down to the hooker getting the throw wrong; two might be down to lads missing a lift; two might be down to bad calls. But the hooker gets the blame for what everyone sees as an awful day at the lineout when in fact he might have thrown two bad balls out of a total of 18, which is not that bad at all when you think about it."

As a lineout leader in his day, O'Connell can recall a few outings where he spoiled the picnic for his hooker. There was one afternoon in Murrayfield when he struggled to look Rory Best in the eye afterwards having made a few dodgy calls. Perhaps his lowest point, though, was as an air traffic controller was with Munster.

"I remember we lost six lineouts against Scarlets one day when I was calling and Jerry Flannery was hooker. He was trying to break into the Munster side at the time so the timing wasn't great. Four of them were down to lads not knowing their roles but of course it was the hooker who got the blame. I had the conversation with (manager) Jerry Holland in the airport on the way home, explaining what had gone wrong. Even though I knew what I was telling him was right you'd still find it hard to believe it."

A bit like elsewhere on the Ireland side at the minute, confidence is king. But the way things are configured some positions demand more confidence than others. We remember when Wallaby Owen Finegan fetched up to Leinster at the end of his career - a long way past his best - some of his team-mates complained privately about his liking for calling the ball on himself regardless of the odds. So at times the throw would be made into heavy traffic - exactly where it had been called. In which case the hooker would be blamed, not the lineout leader.

"You need lots of practice, visualisation, knowledge etc, but you don't actually need confidence (to be a lineout leader)," O'Connell says. "It doesn't play as big a role as it does for hooker. But you need it (confidence) to throw because, like a goal kicker, it is so visible when it goes wrong. In reality if the hooker throws accurately and the jumper is at the top of his jump, but it gets picked off because of a good defensive read, there's not a lot you can do."

Italy made a few good defensive reads last weekend. Ireland made a few questionable calls. When the lineout performance was reviewed in camp last week through four separate angles, a whole host of information presented itself, and it would be unusual if every lift was deemed to have been as good as it could have been. And the hookers threw a few dodgy balls. At fancy dress parties, Cronin does not go along as Phil Taylor, but then neither does he become Edward Scissorhands.

When the World Cup warm-ups roll around he will still be there.

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