Ireland’s Sevens game bearing fruit
The revival of Ireland’s Sevens programme has been an unexpected success story
Garry DoyleOwain JonesJamie Lyall
12th Jul 2021
A weekend of drubbings for lesser nations did little to stir the soul and another mighty shellacking dished out by the Lions, even allowing for a shaky start against the Sharks, did little to stir the sense of equilibrium in the global game but Wednesday’s titanic battle is shaping up to a an unofficial ‘fourth Test’ as Rassie Erasmus looks to get some minutes under the belt for his rusty World Cup winners. The XV casts its critical eye over events…
There was a graphic on the front page of the South African newspaper, Rapport, yesterday which illustrated in blunt terms precisely how deep a hole the Springboks have found themselves in. Picturing the 23 players lining up ahead of the 2019 World Cup final, the picture editor shaded those free of injury and Covid-19 in dark font.
As a metaphor for what’s going on right now, it was perfect given how there is more darkness than light in the early weeks of this chaotic tour. Thus far the Springboks are nine men down on that World Cup final match-day squad, plus their head coach. In total there have been 23 Covid cases over the last two weeks in their camp. Training has been interrupted, their second Test against Georgia cancelled.
Part of the narrative of a Lions tour focuses around how disadvantaged they are in comparison to their hosts. What chance has a new team thrown together, it is often said. Well, every chance this time.
Even allowing for their difficulties, the Lions have had it easy compared to the Boks. They have played four games in the last month; the Boks have played one since November 2019, a straightforward assignment against Georgia.
When you add everything up – last week’s enforced break from training; the lack of international game-time; the withdrawal of Jacques Nienaber, their new head coach, and Siya Kolisi, their captain, from this week’s training; the fire injuries suffered by Damien de Allende and RG Snyman; the additional Covid related absentees – it’s all pointing to one thing: a Lions whitewash.
While this may seem an outlandish statement to make, given the Springboks’ evident pedigree, it comes with an asterisk. This isn’t the 2019 world champions the Lions are facing, it’s Springbok lite, a diluted version. Given the circumstances, the absence of a hostile home support to intimidate both them and the officials, anything other than a series win for the Lions would be a failure.
The last few weekends of summer Test rugby have featured various shots of fans smiling and waving at the cameras. Some have been fans on the losing side, while others are dancing a merry jig with their nation running in tries for fun.
We can all agree that international sport is a better spectacle when there’s an element of competition in it. Approaching a Test game where you have no idea who is going to win adds to its allure. Sadly, the results of the past few weekends have shown a worrying lack of competition between Tier 1 nations and the madding crowd.
The All Blacks annihilated Tonga 104-0 leading to their captain fronting up on camera after the game almost in tears. A reserve Welsh side put 68 points on Canada, England put 70 points on the same opposition and Ireland’s young guns put 71 points on USA.
It wasn’t much better in the Southern Hemisphere. When Fiji lost 57-31 to New Zealand on the weekend, it registered the most points conceded by the All Blacks and the most by a Fijian side. Heaven knows what Fiji could achieve with proper preparation time and perhaps a relaxation in the eligibility rules for players who have turned out for a Tier 1 nation but would like to play for their place of birth.
All the backslapping and congratulations afforded to the victors feels hollow and unsatisfactory. You could surmise that Covid – which has stretched the pockets of the richest nations to their extremes – has set ‘Tier 2’ nations back a decade.
Since the game went professional in 1995, one of World Rugby’s stated aims was to reduce the losing margins between the established order and the chasing pack and this objective has taken a major hit in the past 16 months after a 2019 World Cup which showed the gap being reduced.
The Eureka moment of Sir John Kirwan saying on Sky Sports New Zealand’s Breakdown that Japan and Fiji should be admitted to the Rugby Championship, should be filed under ‘No shit, Sherlock’ in 2021. It should have happened years ago.
Rugby likes to feel it’s a progressive sport moving at a canter but the truth is its barely out of the stables in terms of being a truly global sport.
The Argentina Test was a little window into Wales’ test future, and that is a slight concern.
Of the side that finished winning the 2021 Six Nations, nine of them were 30 or over. It is an ageing squad and many bonafide Welsh greats will not make 2023. Alun Wyn Jones is 36 in September, Ken Owens will turn 35 in January. Jonathan Davies will by 35 when 2023 starts, while Rhys Webb, at 32, looks to have played his last game for Wales and Leigh Halfpenny, who turns 33 before the end of the year, has to work his way back from a dispiriting, long-term knee injury.
Wales fielded nine players who hadn’t yet reached double-figures caps-wise, and there was no shame in the 20-20 draw with Los Pumas, who were fielding world-class talents Pablo Matera, Marcos Kremer, Nicolas Sanchez and Santiago Cordero but Pivac expressed disappointment in the display. At one point Wales were 14 points in arrears, but the major caveat was that the visitors had had Jean Cruz Mallia sent off after 30 minutes and with the one-man advantage, Wales couldn’t take control of the game. There were too many errors, not enough urgency and a worrying lack of intensity.
While Jonathan Davies carried and led in his usual unfussy manner, there remains a leadership vacuum when the senior players are unavailable and this remains Wayne Pivac’s biggest challenge as a Lions tour marks a traditional turning point as all roads lead to France in 2023.
Take Jarrod Evans. He is a wonderfully gifted fly-half but he will know he is unlikely to usurp Dan Biggar, until he can regularly slot match-winning kicks.
One player who did enhance his reputation was the livewire Tomos Williams, a jack-in-the-box presence, who scored a try and injected impetus into a tepid Welsh display. Indeed, many have been left perplexed why Gareth Davies was chosen ahead of him for Lions duty.
The team have a chance to atone for their complacency next weekend, and Pivac will know players like Ben Carter, Taine Basham and Gareth Thomas will be better for the experience, but he will know there’s a huge amount of work to do before the batons can be handed over.
Those of us with long memories have scars which have yet to heal. We recall the 1990s when Ireland couldn’t buy a win and have still to accept those days belong to a different century. Call it trust issues.
Things have changed, though. No longer are Ireland the whipping boys of Europe, the team who finished in the bottom two of the Five Nations each year from 1988 through to 1999; the team who had more wooden spoons (25) than anyone else in the 20th century.Since the Millennium arrived, there hasn’t been one of those since. Instead there have been two golden generations, the class of Sexton/Murray/Ryan gathering the baton that the O’Driscoll/O’Connell/O’Gara grouping had carried so impressively for a decade previously.
Again, in a country with such a low playing base, you feared for what would happen next. Sexton, after all, turned 36 last week; Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony, Keith Earls and Cian Healy are all over 30. Time remains undefeated against any sportsman. You need a succession plan.
Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen it, first when Ireland ground out a flawed win over Japan and then on Saturday when eight debutants appeared steer them to a 71-10 win over USA. Bear in mind England’s second string beat the same opposition by 14 points a week earlier.
Twelve of Ireland’s starters on Saturday were aged 25 or younger; more to the point the best of them are shining in the positions where Ireland needed them most, Ronan Kelleher becoming just the fourth Irish player in history to score four internationals in the one game, the most exciting hooker the country has produced since Keith Wood.
Add in the contribution of Robert Baloucoune, whose wonderful individual try on debut was the best seen in the Aviva in years; the stunning display of control from Joey Carbery at flyhalf; the continued maturation of fullback Hugo Keenan; the all-round brilliance of No8, Gavin Coombes – and you’ve reason to be excited.
Not just because of what they have to offer, more because of where they have to offer it, in the positions vacated by recently retired veterans Rory Best, Rob Kearney and CJ Stander – and in the slots currently filled by greybeards, Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls.
That latter pair aren’t ready to ride off into the sunset just yet; nor for that matter are Healy, O’Mahony or Murray. But when you consider the age profile of Saturday’s Test team, and when you consider that Ireland have seven players away with the Lions, and a further 11 key players out for a variety of reasons, then it’s clear that the depth chart is building ahead of the 2023 World Cup.
“If we could get three, four, five gems out of this summer, guys who can go on and add to the squad, then that’d be brilliant,” said Andy Farrell, the Ireland coach.
He’ll got more than that. Out of Saturday’s starting XV, Farrell has a dozen who look destined to finish their career with at least 30 internationals caps on their CV, and in Ryan Baird, James Ryan, Kelleher, Coombes and Carbery, five who have the capacity to become Lions.
Of all the positions and all the permutations on this chaotic Lions tour, the loose-head prop berth is the most uncertain of the lot.
On form and on his game, Mako Vunipola would be Warren Gatland’s go-to man in the number one jersey. But the Saracens is not on form. He has been bested in the scrum and some way off his usually thunderous self in the loose.
Wyn Jones entered the tour as the form loose-head, a beast of a scrummager and a handy option to have over ball and in the tight exchanges. So far, the Welshman has been quiet.
And so, the door is open for Rory Sutherland, Scotland’s rampaging Borderer, to seize his opportunity.
Sutherland merges the two great strengths of Vunipola and Jones in one combative and hugely effective bundle of dynamism.
He is a fabulous scrummager, and how important that is when the brutes of the Springboks lie in wait. He is not as deft and impactful as Vunipola around the paddock, but boy, can he carry, punching holes and gobbling up yards. HIs impressive gallop against the Sharks (in the first meeting of the sides) was reminiscent of a scything Calcutta Cup break in the Murrayfield downpour last year.
Sport – and the Lions especially – is about stories. Sutherland’s is compelling. A few years back, he was wheelchair-bound and immobile with two blown adductors. HIs wife had to help him out of bed, help him to the bathroom, help him make the couch. Retirement was a very real possibility. Depression and anxiety engulfed him.
Now, he is a Lion. And the smart money suggests he will soon be a Test one at that.
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