Thursday bullets is our article series where we give a few quick rugby thoughts on anything going on in Irish, European, or World rugby.
- The game against Italy will stand to Ireland in the long run. Playing without several key players, particularly Sexton and Ringrose who are both leaders in this team. We wouldn’t have learned anything going into the World Cup if Ireland had of beaten a poor side by 30 points, so the fact Italy put up a good fight until late on and Ireland had to actually work hard to win the game will mean more come September, and even two weeks time against Scotland.
- Defensively Ireland weren’t as strong as they had been. Considering they were without the usual half-back pairings and usual center partnership it’s understandable, but there’s plenty to work on ahead of the final two rounds.
- Ross Byrne is the number 2 to Sexton, and outside of a significant injury it has to stay that way at least until after the World Cup. It’s unfortunate Crowley didn’t get more time but it was important Byrne had the experience of closing out a tight Six Nations game on a difficult start. He didn’t set the world on fire but managed the game well despite Ireland missing players. It’s long been a debate as to who Ireland’s 2nd choice would be, with Carbery done no favours after being burdened with the messiah tag pre-injury. Ross Byrne has earned the jersey. It’s important he isn’t hammered with the expectation of living up to Sexton every time he plays. After the World Cup the debate over who should replace Sexton can rage on at both Ireland and Leinster, but until Ireland return home from France Ross Byrne needs to be trusted with the fly-half jersey when Sexton isn’t available. Murray has wrestled back the starting scrum-half place but Craig Casey adds a pace to the game off the bench and is a good deputy number 9.
- Who gets the 3rd Fly-Half spot if an interesting debate, which likely at this stage comes down to Jack Crowley or Joey Carbery and which one does better at Munster in the latter part of the season. Carbery has been hampered by injuries and Crowley hasn’t had the game time yet. Both players have a versatility that would lend well to a World Cup Squad.
- The back three of Hansen, Lowe, and Keenan is nailed down barring injury. They function well together. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the center alongside Ringrose. A returning Henshaw will battle it out with McCloskey and Aki for a place, one of whom may not even make the bench is the 23 jersey is given to a more versatile player. Ringrose is a certainty at center so it may be a case of bringing McCloskey, Aki, and Henshaw to the World Cup and changing it up depending on the opposition. Henshaw could actually find himself playing super-sub role behind McCloskey or Aki as he has that bit of versatility.
- Finlay Bealham misses out on the rest of the Six Nations. A big loss to Ireland considering h has played so well in Tadgh Furlong’s absence. Surely he’s done enough to get into the World Cup Squad when back fit. Furlong’s return to the squad is timely but his minutes will need to be managed, providing a big opportunity for Tom O’Toole.
- A 27-man squad training squad see’s the return of Jamison Gibson-Park. There’s 3 scrumhalves with Conor Murray and Craig Casey retaining their place. However, there are only 2 fly-halves, with Johnyy Sexton and Ross Byrne being retained. Whoever gets the 3rd fly-half spot will likely depend on how Jack Crowley and Joey Carbery get on on the weekend for Munster.
- In the 27-man training squad, of the 13 backs only Jimmy O’Brien has caps in single-digits (4), and of the 14 forwards there’s just two players in that position in Ryan Baird (9) and Tom O’Toole (7). The other players who had been in the squad with under 10 caps are Tom Stewart (6), Jack Crowley (4), Gavin Coombes (2), Cian Prendergast (1), Joe McCarthy (1), Caolin Blade (1), Jamie Osborne, Scott Penny, Michael Milne, and Roman Salanoa (all 0). Ireland have 4 remaining scheduled games with between Six Nations and World Cup Warm-Ups. It’s possible if not likely that an additional warm-up match will be added for late July/August. There’s not a lot of chances to get minutes ahead of France 23 so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see most of those players miss out on a World Cup place considering in favour of names with more experience.
- Kieran Marmion will leave Connacht at the end of the season to join Bristol Bears. The 31-year-old got 28 caps for Ireland, and despite being behind Conor Murray and sometimes others in the pecking order, the scrum-half always impressed me when he played internationally. He did the basics very well, and was a team player (I have memories of him playing on the wing against Australia a while back in a November test).
- Delighted to see Leo Cullen sign an extension with Leinster. Last time a very successful coach left Leinster things went down hill before Cullen turned it around. One thing the former lock has done well is given young players time. Everyone can see Leinster has a massive playing pool. Throughout his early days as head coach he gave young guns plenty of game time and room to make mistakes, allowing them to grow into great players. Whether he stays past 2025 or a new name has to be found, Leo Cullen, along with Ronan O’Gara, is a former player who has proven himself to be an excellent coach at senior level who could coach Ireland some day.
Elsewhere in the Six Nations
- A strong Italy is good for European rugby. While I’m in agreement that the Six Nations should be connected to the Rugby Europe International Championships Pyramid, it’s not as simple as relegating Italy, as that just replaces one tier 1 nation with another. The expanded rugby Europe Championship and the levels below determine promotion and relegation over 2 seasons, and an expanded Six Nations could do the same. Whether or not South Africa join, the Six Nations could be expanded to an 8 team tournament and be incorporated into a European rugby pyramid. There aren’t enough Tier 1 Nations in rugby to get get rid of one, so fans should be happy that Italy have been at least respectable in each of their games so far. Hopefully this spreads into the URC and Benetton become a side that can push on to qualifying for the European cup, and with Zebre not just being pushovers.
- England and Wales played out a pretty turgid draw but the reality is they will both likely improve come the World Cup. Due to the nature of the draw being made so long ago they find themselves benefiting from strong performances last time out and are on the far easier side of the draw. England will need to avoid slipping up against both Argentina and Japan (winning one of those games should be enough couples with wins against Samoa and Chile). Argentina beat them in November and Japan have made a habit of big World Cup wins in recent years, but surely England will be in a better place come September to avoid a repeat of 2015. Wales play Australia, Fiji, Georgia, and Portugal. While Portugal should be routine it’s unclear how good Australia will be under Eddie Jones, and Fiji and Georgia provide banana skin games. Interestingly Wales could find themselves topping the pool or having to go through qualifiers next time around in what is a tumultuous year.
- The Rugby Europe Championship got a reboot this year with 8 teams split into 4 pools. Georgia and Portugal topped their pools with maximum points while Romania and Spain came second. This weekend Portugal host Spain and Georgia host Romania in the Championship semi-finals. In the ranking semi-finals (which determine the standings for the rest of the sides) Netherlands host Belgium and Poland host Germany.
- The new format of the pyramid with relegation taking place over two years rather than one should lead to a better balance of quality in the leagues, rather than the same teams exchanging places each year.