In fairness to the IRFU they haven’t hung around in attempting to remedy the catastrophic scrum failure at Twickenham on Saturday. Yesterday, on their website, the governing body of Irish rugby advertised the newly-created position of High Performance Scrum Coach. The harsh lesson England gave us at scrum time shows just how lacking in depth our front-row is. Tom Court, a loosehead prop for his province, was asked to replace the clearly irreplaceable Mike Ross at tighthead and the results were disastrous and dangerous.
The new Scrum Coach will be responsible for implementing the “recently established” High Performance Scrum Programme on behalf of the IRFU. Presumably, that programme means teaching young Irish props how to hold their own and hopefully dominate this particular set-piece. The current lack of depth of props anywhere near international level is alarming. There are certainly players with the potential to step up, but lack of exposure, even at provincial level, has held them back.
A lot is made of the need for props to gain years of experience before being unleashed in high-level rugby. We often hear that props don’t hit their prime until late in their careers, often after they turn 30. But look at England’s pair who demolished us on Saturday – Dan Cole is 24 and Alex Corbisiero just 23. Our own Cian Healy is 24 too, and his scrummaging has been progressing until this hiccup. Clearly, if he is good enough, a prop is old enough.
Jamie Hagan is a fine prospect at tighthead. Age? 24! Still uncapped, the Leinster man hasn’t even featured in an Irish squad yet. That’s despite a strong season at Connacht last year when he was first-choice. While he hasn’t been a starter in the big games for Leinster this season, he has 15 appearances, 2 more than Court has made for Ulster, at loosehead. With the lack of cover for Ross at tighthead, surely Declan Kidney could have given Hagan a chance at some stage over the last year or so, even just off the bench?
The new Scrum Coach will need to stress to Kidney the importance of getting Hagan involved as soon as possible. At Munster, Stephen Archer is a 24-year-old tighthead with plenty of talent. He’s in his third season with the province and has picked up 7 starts this season. Archer will also need to be worked with closely, getting his scrummaging up to standard. Ulster’s Adam Macklin at 22, is another with potential. A converted back-row, the Belfast Harlequins man still has plenty to learn, but why not in an international environment?
On the other side of the scrum, Healy is first-choice but we need more competition here too. Court is good player for Ulster, but looks uncomfortable at international level. His teammate Paddy McAllister, 22, has looked solid in his 15 appearances for Ulster this season. Leinster’s Jack McGrath is the same age and another potential international. John Ryan of Munster, 23, and Ronan Loughney of Connacht, 28, can play on both sides of the scrum.
John Andress of Exeter Chiefs, 28, is a tighthead who played for the Wolfhounds back in ’09. Brett Wilkinson, also 28, has had plenty of involvement with the Irish squad, but no caps so far. Also at Connacht, Rodney Ah You and Dylan Rogers battered the Irish scrum in a World Cup warm-up last August and could be naturalised soon, both joining in 2010. There are plenty of options!
Last Saturday, Ireland paid the price for not investing time and resources into developing props who are up to an international standard. It has been a long-term issue, but with John Hayes and then Mike Ross having stayed largely injury-free, it has never really come to the fore. That’s exactly what happened in Twickenham, and the spotlight was merciless. The IRFU have been forced to act swiftly, knowing that something should have been done a long time ago.
The main point is that it’s not all doom and gloom. Yes, we got an absolute beasting at the scrum against the English, but there are young players in this country with the potential to play international rugby. If the IRFU can get the right person to fill the new Scrum Coach role, allied to their succession plan, which should mean more provincial exposure for Irish props from next season onwards, then things can be put right.
In the short-term, Kidney must include some of these young players in the tour to New Zealand, even if he doesn’t feel they are ‘ready’. The only way to find out is to give them a chance. As we’ve seen with players like Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony, some guys are just made for international rugby and the step-up is natural for them. To use Cole and Corbisiero as examples again, both were 22 when the made their England debut. Now, both look like possible Lions contenders next year.
Kidney needs to take a leap of faith in his squad selection for New Zealand, not just in the prop positions. As discussed on The Touchline already, he needs to get competition for every position back into the squad. Who knows what heights Cian Healy and Mike Ross could be pushed to with hungry young props breathing down their necks? If there had been replacements at a sufficient level of ability, could they have been rested at some stage in the 4-game run and thus come into the England game ready to attack their scrum? Some balls in June will have huge benefits down the line.
*As an aside, the IRB must expand the size of the bench in international games to 8 players. Asking a prop to cover two specialist positions is unfair and dangerous, as we saw with Court last Saturday.
Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane.