Saturday 16 December 2017

Irish 'piano players' to hit right notes

The words are those of an old French sportswriter, highlighting the Gallic theory that rugby will forever be a game played either by piano shifters or piano players. That theory buys into a stereotype of rugby union that professionalism has, it should be said, rendered largely obsolete.

The modern player is no one-trick pony. Today's back is bulked up to the scale of a flanker of yesteryear and, maybe more pertinently, the modern international forward has a dynamism and skill-set virtually unimaginable to his amateur predecessor.

Yet, something about today's opening Six Nations Test at Croke Park returns us to the piano shifter v piano player notion.

Because Italy fall, essentially, into the former category. They come to Dublin with a world-class scrum that, clearly, will try to smash the Irish eight off the park. Beyond that? They won't blind anyone with science.

Publicly, their coach -- Nick Mallett -- has been talking Ireland up, which hasn't been difficult, given our status as defending Grand Slam champions. Yet, Mallett will firmly believe too that he can inflict serious discomfort on the Irish scrum today.

Bear in mind how the Azzurri demolished the All Blacks' front-row last autumn just around the time the Irish scrum was struggling palpably against South Africa and Australia.

If there is a genuine area of concern for Ireland today, this is it.

Italy's destruction of the All Black scrum prompted the so-called O'Briengate fall-out. This entailed Paddy O'Brien, a New Zealander and the IRB's Referee Manager, publicly criticising referee, Stuart Dickenson, for his handling of the scrum in that game.

His criticism came after a meeting with the clearly humiliated New Zealand coach, Graham Henry, and represented a major breach of IRB protocol. Ultimately, O'Brien had to apologise to Dickenson and, though the matter was ostensibly resolved, the two are hardly on each other's Christmas card list.


New Zealand's experience merely confirmed what everybody now knows about the Italians. They may have glaring limitations elsewhere, but they are a world power in the scrum. Right up there with Argentina and France.

It seems to me that Declan Kidney's choice of hookers today -- Jerry Flannery starting; Rory Best on the bench -- is predicated on a desire to ensure efficiency in the Irish line-out. As such, he could be seen to be prioritising competency out of touch over how we fare in the scrum.

It's a trade-off, in a sense. And one that represents a small gamble.

There is certainly a risk in starting Flannery. He's been dogged by injuries since the autumn and, essentially, the only rugby he has played recently was with Shannon in the AIL two weeks ago.

On the bench, Best can't be completely up to speed either, having made an extraordinary recovery from a serious neck injury. That recovery, I have no doubt, was down to Best's incredible professionalism and determination. He, too, has only played one AIL game, but those 40 minutes against the Saxons last Sunday give him marginally more game time than Flannery.

Don't get me wrong. These two are world-class hookers, but to scrummage today against one of the best scrums in the game is a huge ask for both.

Tom Court's inclusion on the bench ahead of Marcus Horan must be on the basis that he offers more cover for both sides of the scrum. I'm certainly assuming that it's not down to match-fitness, as Horan has had more game time in recent weeks than Flannery and Best put together.

Of course, that said, maybe there won't be that many scrums today. Maybe, there'll be the bare minimum of handling errors, crooked throws or unplayables at the ruck, thereby rendering the scrum a largely peripheral matter. But, if it rains, or -- worse still -- if the referee, Frenchman Romain Polite, decides that we are the weaker team in the scrum, it could make things very interesting.

The selection of Kevin McLaughlin at No 6 is another decision that seems to prioritise our line-out. McLaughlin is having a tremendous season for Leinster and would certainly have the edge on Sean O'Brien as a jumping option. But, as a ball-carrier, O'Brien has been on fire all year. In fact, in terms of getting over the gain line with ball in hand, I wouldn't put him far behind Stephen Ferris.

It seems to me that, in Leo Cullen, Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip and David Wallace, we already have four pretty formidable jumping options. Adding McLaughlin as a fifth might be deemed a bit of a luxury when traded against O'Brien's ball-carrying abilities around the field. You see, it strikes me that ball retention today is going to be every bit as important as ball-winning. With this in mind, I would certainly expect to see O'Brien as an impact sub at some point.

Hindsight, of course, offers a fresh perspective to Paddy Wallace's selection at out-half for the 'A' international in Bath last Sunday. Given that Wallace had not played at No 10 for some time, it seemed strange that he be given the jersey ahead of the likes of Ian Humphreys, Ian Keatley or even Niall O'Connor.

But Jonathan Sexton's dead leg now makes that look an inspired call by Declan Kidney.

Aside from the obvious full-frontal from the Azzurri scrum, it will be interesting to see what else Nick Mallett has up his sleeve for Ireland in terms of Italian attack.

Over the past two seasons, the experiment of using players out of position has cost Mallett. The selections of talented centre Andrea Masi at out-half two years ago and then of flanker Mauro Bergamasco at scrum-half last season, made for real car-wreck rugby.

He has also encouraged Italy to run more frequently with the ball, something that takes them out of their comfort zone. Maybe not quite as much as the John Kirwan era did, but certainly more than the reign of Mallett's immediate predecessor, Pierre Berbizier.

Italy never look entirely comfortable trying to stretch the game. They had Ireland under pressure through the early stages in Rome last year, but then -- attacking wide directly from a line-out -- their scrum-half, Paul Griffen, threw an intercept pass to Tommy Bowe. The rest is history.

I suspect that being without their inspirational captain, Sergio Parisse, might change Mallet's thinking on their style of play. It will certainly be interesting to see if Italy revert to their traditional gameplan, trench warfare and a staple diet of high kicks for the Irish back three.

That strategy makes life more difficult for any team playing Italy and Ireland are no exception. Expect to see the 'old' Italy today.

Incidentally, Mallett's team talk was effectively written for him last week with the announcement that Italian clubs would not be able to afford the buy-in cost for participation in the Magners League.

The price tag of over €3m per annum for three years has infuriated the Italians who, hardly surprisingly, are unable to create that sort of annual equity.

No doubt, Mallett will be telling his team in Dublin today that their 'Celtic friends' don't really want Italy at the Magners table for dinner. And he will be encouraging them to summon the requisite response.

Whether or not he gets that, the fundamentals will not change, though. Italy are here with a formidable scrum, but little beyond that. Deal with the Azzurri front three and Ireland have all the aces outside to open their Grand Slam defence with a comfortable victory. Expect the piano players to hit the right notes.

Irish Independent

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