In the first instalment of his exclusive column for Pundit Arena, George Hook pulls no punches, criticising Joe Schmidt’s insistence on ignoring form players and Ireland’s diminishing chances in South Africa.
In the latter years of the last decade, the rationale for picking John Hayes – who, by 2010, was almost into his dotage – was predicated on the fact that Ireland had no other tight-head prop capable of holding up the scrum.
And throughout Hayes’ final years, amid a desperate scramble to find anyone that could replace him, Ireland and the IRFU vowed never again to be so heavily reliant on one player in such a key position.
Fast forward five years to the present day and the man that replaced Hayes in 2011, Mike Ross, is in his 37th year and still being selected to start in the front row for Ireland. Ross is incapable of moving at the pace required to play international rugby and his lethargic tackling and inability to offer anything but a steady shoulder in the scrum is a massive liability for Ireland outside of the set-piece.
Rugby union has evolved dramatically in recent years. The old-fashioned, heavy-bellied prop forwards of Ross’s ilk are no longer fit for purpose in the modern game. Now, any international tight-head worth his salt must be as comfortable running and passing the ball as he is wrestling with his opposite number in the scrum. Ross does not fit the modern profile.
Meanwhile, Tadhg Furlong, a hungry, powerful young understudy, with remarkable mobility for his size and stature, is being kept on the bench in Cape Town on Saturday, while Marty Moore, the longstanding heir to the tight-head jersey, has been banished into exile because of his decision to join Wasps next season.
Ireland is too small a country, with too few playing numbers, to just ignore players that decide to ply their trade overseas. Ross should have been tossed on the scrap-heap years ago. Incredibly, at 36 years of age, he will earn his 60th cap as the starting number three against South Africa on Saturday. So much for learning from past mistakes.
Joe Schmidt, after ignoring Jared Payne in his best position for the past two seasons, has all-of-a-sudden decided to play the New Zealander in….his best position. Payne’s form at full back for Ulster has been screaming for an opportunity to transfer those skills to the international stage. Now, because of injuries to Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo, Payne finally gets a shot at fifteen. The coach is not entitled to take any plaudits for this one.
Schmidt’s decision to include Rob Kearney in his original traveling squad spoke volumes about how out-of-touch the head coach is with the concept of form. Tiernan O’Halloran ran riot against his opposite number in the Pro12 final at Murrayfield two weeks ago, yet he, along with Matt Healy, is deemed unsuitable for inclusion in the match-day twenty-three tomorrow. The mind boggles.
One wonders if the Ireland players have the stomach for the inevitable physical battle that awaits them at DHL Newlands on Saturday. For the likes of Paddy Jackson, Jordi Murphy, Luke Marshall and Kieran Marmion, this series represents an opportunity to cement their faces in the coach’s plans for next season.
But with the current campaign stretching out to almost a full calendar year, going back as far as the World Cup warm-up series last August, there are bound to be some weary bodies taking to the pitch over the course of the next three weeks.
South Africa will kick-off a new era under head coach Allister Cotzee in Cape Town tomorrow and while his appointment as successor to Heyneke Meyer was not without controversy, one would imagine that the match day twenty-three, as selected, will be bursting a gut to impress the new man in charge.
Paddy Jackson, in particular, faces a tough examination against the in-form and unpredictable Sharks fly-half Pat Lambie. Lambie’s Super Rugby team-mates Willie Le Roux, JP Pieterson and Lwazi Mvovo are well accustomed to each other in the back three and love nothing more than to link up and counter-attack on loose possession. If Jackson opts to kick the ball out-of-hand, he had better be accurate.
Ultimately though, this game will be decided on the battle upfront and it is extremely difficult to see Ireland coming out on top. Eight of the South Africa starting XV played in the RWC third place play-off win against Argentina last year and while Coetzee has brought in some new faces, the spine of this Springbok team remains intact.
Eben Etzebeth is a physical freak in the second row and much of South Africa’s line-out options revolve around the Stomers lock. Even Devin Toner’s 6 foot 10′ frame may struggle in the set-piece against one of the best players in the world at the moment.
Jack McGrath and Mike Ross will face the ultimate examination of their scrummaging abilities against Tendai ‘the Beast’ Mtawarira and Frans Malherbe in the front row. One can only hope that Furlong will get enough game-time off the bench to build on his experience at test level.
South Africa should prove too strong for a tired Ireland outfit and I fully expect the home team to come out on top in the first test. But if this summer series is to be anything other than a wash-out for the Ireland squad, then the likes of Furlong, Ultan Dillane, Healy, Marmion and O’Halloran have to get regular playing time.
In the grand scheme of things, the results on this tour won’t matter. But it can only be chalked off as a productive series if the coach invests time in the younger players. On the evidence of the opening Ireland selection, I won’t be holding my breath.
George Hook, Pundit Arena.