Having been part of the 2008 squad that lost 33-10 to England in what was Eddie O’Sullivan’s last game in charge, I know how deep the review of Saturday’s defeat will run.
I actually believe that in the long run it will prove to be a good thing for Ireland, once we take the lessons learned from it seriously and put in place a proper programme that will ensure that Declan Kidney has a pool of props to pick from the next time we go back to England in 2013.
At international level, the squad is only 22 deep, in comparison to the 23 required for the RaboDirect Pro12 and the Heineken Cup.
That extra man means each team is required to have two specialist props on the bench, which most use to have cover loose head and tight-head positions. I heard some pundits say if Ireland had to have 23 Tom Court wouldn’t have been on the bench and we would have had two other props in his place but I don’t think it is that simple. Tom Court is a specialist loose head who can pay tight head at a push and Brett Wilkinson, the South African born Connacht prop, may have get the nod over Court for that spot. The other three provincial propping spots are taken up by Rodney Ah You, BJ Botha and John Afoa, who are all ineligible for Ireland. The next tight heads in each province in line are Stephen Archer, Denis Buckley, Jamie Hagan and Declan Fitzpatrick none of whom have yet displayed the ability to pin the scrum at the top level.
Tight-head prop is a much harder position to play than loose head. With only four provinces I believe the new IRFU initiative for non-Irish qualified players was made with the prop situation in mind. In 2010 both Leinster and Munster were badly exposed against Toulouse and Biarritz in Heineken Cup semi-final, which prompted them both to sign Heinke Van Der Merwe and BJ Botha. It solved the problem but didn’t do anything for our stock of props at international level.
You can win a match without a functioning lineout but without a scrum you are goosed. Every pack down was a potential penalty against us and only three of England’s points came from non-scrum related offences. The Irish scrum was under pressure even before Mike Ross departed with a neck injury and his loss led to one of the worst displays of scrumagging I have seen in a long time.
This English scrum wouldn’t have the potential of a South African or a French scrum yet they made us look very poor. The much-maligned Premiership, whose teams struggled to make an impact in the Heineken Cup, prides itself on physicality and their impact at the set piece. There is a culture in England and French of scrummaging and I know from working in France at Grenoble how much emphasis they put in players’ ability to scrummage.
We don’t have that culture in Ireland but need to get it quickly. Leinster three years ago appointed Reggie Corrigan as provincial scrum coach and his role involves scouting potential front rowers at all levels and coaching them. He also prepares the coaches who often aren’t up to speed with the techniques required to become elite.
Each province should have someone like Reggie involved in the domestic game sharing the knowledge and focusing on developing the future inter-provincials or internationals. We are very quick to discard young props on the basis of a bad performance and we fail to realise or tolerate the fact they are late developers.
With only four provinces there is a demand for instant success, which is great but we need to develop a system where props are given longer to mature. There is a valid argument for a loan system where we sent our academy players to play in the Pro D2 in France where they can scrum in a competitive environment and learn from the experience. Scrummaging a machine is fine for timing and technique but you learn more from life experience.
Having already lost potential international props like Ruairi Murphy to the ACT Brumbies and Australia and Paul Dorian Jones to Northampton and England the lack of space due to the lack of space and foresight in our system, Saturday’s debacle could turn out to be a blessing in disguise once we learn from it.
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