Everyone’s been spending a disproportionate amount of time talking about the Ireland centres during this World Cup. I’m wondering why that is.
Robbie Henshaw’s hamstring and Jared Payne’s alleged inadequacies are the fodder of daily bulletins, feeding the tournament news cycle that can’t afford to grind to a halt.
Henshaw could have played against Romania last Sunday if the opposition demanded it. Of that I’m fairly sure. Payne may miss out against Italy but just as both are replaceable, their midfield partnership is also an important tandem in an Irish backline that’ll have to unlock sophisticated defences when this World Cup turns serious on Sunday week.
TV3 pulled off a coup in outbidding RTÉ for the World Cup rights in this country, and ratings are important — not just for the advertisers, but for the station itself. Doing the World Cup thing properly is a badge of honour in itself. Now I’m supposing, just supposing, that the reaction filtering into the TV3 boardroom was that their coverage has been good — but not great.
There’s no loose cannon on the studio panel. No Hook. It’s all very sane and sanguine — no slater, no-one who’ll cut loose. And maybe they had a meeting and said, Matt Williams, you assume that role, and let’s see what and who you can have a cut off. Throw out an old curveball there, and so the former Ulster coach zones in for a cut at possibly the one fella he didn’t have in the province, Jared Payne.
Keith Wood offers a bit of balance, suggesting Payne would be the biggest loss to the Irish team if injury forced him out of the tournament. I’d respect Keith, but of course Payne would be anything but the biggest loss. If the former Blue misses out against Italy on Sunday, you could play Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls or Darren Cave at 13. Or Luke Fitzgerald, with Rob and Dave Kearney plus Keith Earls as a back three.
Payne is the key 13 at the moment and we don’t want to be losing him for sure, but in the bigger picture world, you lose the presence of a Paulie (who’s on a different level to anyone else), or a Sexton as a general to fire the backline, then Ireland has got some real problems. I don’t subscribe for a minute to the criticism of Payne, the outside centre with 10 caps — five of them en route to a Six Nations title last season, another against the behemoth Boks, and two World Cup wins thrown in for good measure.
Playing 13 is the hardest spot on the pitch to defend from — and remember he’s a converted full-back. The range of exposure is scary in itself. He’s eyeing the opposition 13, watching 15, watching the blindside wing (depending on where he comes in from). It’s the position that requires the best reads on the pitch, because the price of failure is usually a chat under the posts waiting for the conversion.
Payne has been good to very good, moving between 6/10 and 8/10 performances. I don’t think he’s been excellent, but he’s never been anywhere south of good. In that Irish backline, he’s the one who looks most composed on the ball, and that’s a reliable indicator of a player’s class. In Ireland, we all like to think like a TV studio slag-fest. When things are going well we still have to have a cut. The nine lads talking positively get drowned out by the fella at the back who’s cribbing. That’s the environment we live in.
The only feedback Payne needs to listen to is around him in training every day. He’s in the No 13 jersey and that draws comparisons and expectations that Payne can do stuff Brian O’Driscoll could pull off in his prime. That’s not a realistic barometer. Before that South Africa test, the whole nation was petrified that the Henshaw-Payne axis wasn’t up to the job. With those fears allayed, we’ve moved straight beyond reason and logic to the far side of the spectrum. Why can’t he open up the opposition defence, for God’s sake...?
The show has gone on without O’Driscoll. We wail in the aftermath but the show moves on, and that’s a testament to the job Payne has done.
It’s rare indeed to have a centre who can fulfil the requirements of both positions. Going back to the Kevin Maggs-Rob Henderson vintage, the 12 traditionally gets over the gain line, but would have a limited passing game at top speed. There’s been exceptions — Aaron Mauger with the All Blacks because New Zealand played a second receiver system with two ‘ball players’ — similar to myself and Johnny Sexton at times, or even Johnny and Ian Madigan now. Gordon D’Arcy too was another capable of playing both roles.
But it’s about understanding and respecting your weaknesses as much as your strengths in such roles. When Jamie Roberts plays like Jamie Roberts, he’s the best 12 in the world. When he tried to be a passing Jamie Roberts, he’s not the best. I’d like to think I could once pick a spot on the 22 and drill spiral a kick into the corner which was hard to defend. But because people constantly said I couldn’t get a backline moving, then you try to force that side of your game to appease other people — but that’s not what to do.
Henshaw could have got through Wembley last Sunday if it was France. He could have got through the game, but the difference between that and actually excelling is massive in terms of what you bring to the game. I’d occasions when I had to manage my game because of tweaks, and you can play the game. But it’s only when you get back to 100% that you look back and say ‘what was I doing, how did I manage that?’ You are taking on fellas who don’t have any aches or pains or niggles and you brainwash yourself into believing that your body is on a par with theirs but it’s not. Trying to get to the pitch of where you need to be is impossible and you are at a distinct disadvantage. Getting through a game won’t win you a World Cup. So does the Irish management get Henshaw on the pitch Sunday against Italy in recognition of the importance of game-time before France?
Joe Schmidt will be more aware than most now that Keith Earls can create all kinds of damage in attack from the 13 slot, that extra string to our bow with the ball that his rapid acceleration will bring. That’s all he needs, a couple of yards and, bang, he’s gone. If I was Earls’ personal manager I’d want him to remain on the wing for the time being, allow him progress and perhaps for next year’s Six Nations, look at him at 13 if you need to.
France will have 10 days from last night’s game against Canada to prepare for Ireland, but if they persist with Scott Spedding at full-back and pick Brice Dulin on the wing, it’s a big weakness and they are there to be manipulated. He’s a class 15 but not a winger, and Schmidt’s team selection will reflect that opportunity. You look at the back three options with a fully fit Henshaw and Payne. They’re delectable.
Tommy Bowe is a big game player, so no-one should consider questioning him now. He had a bad game against England but he’s addressed that
. If he’s hungry, the stats prove he’s the man to score tries on the big occasion.
Kearney, Bowe and Keith Earls as a back three? Watch Luke Fitzgerald force the issue on that!
Luke’s an intense competitor, and he’s going to make sure he’s on the pitch against France.
That’s the way he thinks. What you love about him is his self-confidence and bringing that to everything he does. Luke expects to play and he will be shocked if he doesn’t. That’s an admirable trait — in his head, they will have to find a position for him.
He’s that good and I just love that. Those are the fellas you want in your squad: Fellas who expect to win — and expect to win a World Cup, not just to get out of their group. Luke Fitzgerald is in that category — driving expectations.
To those advancing Dave Kearney’s claims, I fully accept his and their bona fides. From what I’ve seen, he has grasped his opportunities and gone onto a whole new level.
But I haven’t gone to war with Dave, so I can’t talk about him like I can other players in the backline.
And that’s the fundamental bottom line for these articles -— I can only say what I know. That’s why I have preference for other people like Keith Earls, Zebo.
You have to understand my bias on that.
When you walk down a mean street with someone, you know exactly what they are made of.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved