Monthly Archives: June 2013

IRFU Still Silent on Men’s 7s Team

(c) Jack Aherne.

The following is a guest post by Cian Aherne.

2013 marks the first year that Ireland have not entered a men’s 7s rugby team in the 7s World Cup. We knew this would be the case over a year ago but seeing the World Cup kick off in Moscow this weekend brings it back into focus again. Looking through the countries in the IRB World Rankings, I can’t actually find another rugby nation that does not have a men’s 7s team in development – certainly none in the top 20 considering Italy have now started a 7s programme.

What is the IRFU’s current stance on Irish men’s 7s rugby? There are no plans in place. Club 7s tournaments have begun and there are 7s tournaments in development on the ground in Ireland (such as the underage Umbrella 7s, the IRFU national 7s fixture list and the World Mini Games) but there are no plans at all to have a national team or to attempt to enter the Olympics in 2016. As the governing body of the sport in Ireland, the IRFU are the only entity eligible to enter international IRB or IOC competitive programmes; their permission/consent is required in order for a national team to enter.

Considering the lack of a plan from the IRFU and the likelihood that this is down to a shortage of available funding, a group of club rugby players have put forward a proposal to the IRFU for an independently-funded team to compete internationally. This has been made on the back of publicised support from the likes of high profile rugby professionals such as Matt Williams, Doug Howlett, Mike Ruddock, Tony Ward and Alan Quinlan.

One would think that the IRFU could hardly refuse consent for such a proposal considering it would not cost them anything and would be further boosting their reputation worldwide, but they have refused such independent proposals for European and World Student Championship teams in the past. The proposal is currently awaiting a response.

It is difficult to come up with reasons for the refusal of this proposal, and such a denial could be seen as taking away Irish athletes’ rights to Olympic participation. If an Irish athlete is to participate in the Olympics, they need to reach a certain standard. Imagine the Athletics Association of Ireland (AAI) point-blank refusing to permit a track athlete from competing if they made that standard… Worse, imagine the AAI actually refusing to let that athlete even try and make the standard in the first place!

The following are the Olympic Rugby 7s qualification standards and the path Ireland would need to take in order to attempt to qualify for the Olympic Games in 2016:

Olympic Qualification Standards:

–       The top four teams in the IRB World 7s Series 2014/15 automatically qualify.

–       The top one team in a continental tournament in each continent qualify.

–       A repechage tournament will be played for the remaining teams where the top one/two teams qualify for the Olympics depending on whether or not Brazil are given an automatic place.

Ireland’s Potential Route:

–       Rank in the top two nations in Europe who do not compete in the World 7s Series in the 2013/14 season, then…

–       Finish in the top 4 at the Hong Kong-based World Series Pre-Qualifier tournament on 28th-30th March 2014, then…

–       Finish as one of the top three teams at the London-based World Series Core Team Qualifier tournament on 1oth-11th May 2014, then…

–       Finish in the top four in the Sevens World Series in the 2014/15 season.

  • If unsuccessful, possible to qualify as the top one from the remaining European nations.
  • If unsuccessful, possible to qualify as the top one/two from the remaining repechage tournament.

While success in attempting such a route may seem unlikely at this stage, Ireland actually have a reasonable history in the 7s game. For instance, when Ireland have put a team together for 7s World Cups, they have always qualified and finished inside the top 20 ranked nations. They were even beaten semi-finalists in 1993. Furthermore, the Irish 7s team is the only national team ever to beat New Zealand.

Irish club side, The Moosa Daly Wild Geese (Twitter & Facebook), have now won the Dubai Club 7s Championship, the Kinsale 7s and several other Irish tournaments with little financial backing. The Wild Geese offer a perfect template for identifying Irish club players from all divisions who have the potential to excel at 7s if given the opportunity. High-standard club players in Ireland with international, professional and 7s experience (such as Danny Riordan, Ciaran Ruddock and Darragh Fanning) are in their rugby prime at present and, with no professional rugby career ensuing, could be a perfect fit to be the backbone of an international team.

If in reading this, you’re somehow still not convinced that Irish players should at least be given consent to try and compete for the Olympic Games, consider the Olympic creed: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” Surely there could not be a more fitting creed for the style and attitude of Irish rugby players.

If any readers are involved with the IRFU, IRB, FIRA or IOC and are interested in the proposal mentioned above, would like to read it, or put a national team through to the European circuit, please contact Cian Aherne.

Twitter: @CianAherne

The very best of luck to the Irish women’s 7s team competing in Moscow this weekend. They have performed incredibly well to qualify and are a perfect example of the potential for 7s rugby in Ireland. Follow 7s Rugby Ireland for the latest updates on 7s rugby in Ireland.

Lions Look to Change for Second Test

Lions

(c) HSBC.

Tommy Bowe is set to come straight into the Lions starting team for the second Test against Australia after recovering from his hand injury. Despite a clinical finish for his try in the first Test, Alex Cuthbert appears to have lost out to the Ulster wing’s more polished skills and experience at this level. The Welshman should be retained in the match day squad.

At scrumhalf, Mike Phillips is struggling with a long-standing knee injury, which may explain his uncharacteristically untidy performance in the first Test. Ben Youngs looks set to take over in the number nine shirt, with Conor Murray unexpectedly catapulted into the match day 23. It would be entirely deserved for the Munster man, who has enjoyed an excellent tour.

Dan Lydiate appears to have won the battle at blindside, taking over from Tom Croft after the Englishman failed to reach Warren Gatland’s exacting standards in the first Test. It is likely that Croft will be retained on the bench, from where he also covers the second row. Lydiate’s brief would certainly revolve around stifling Will Genia’s influence.

Sean O’Brien, tasked with making a big impact in the second half, should join Croft as a replacement. The Leinster flanker will be keen to show exactly what the Lions were missing last weekend. His name is not one Robbie Deans and the Wallabies will be pleased to see on the team sheet.

Alex Corbisiero’s calf strain hasn’t healed as quickly as Lions staff had hoped, meaning Mako Vunipola looks the probable starter at loosehead. His scrummaging remains a worry, but his work rate in the loose is a boost. Ryan Grant’s final audition against the Rebels yesterday wasn’t enough to win him a Test team spot.

Possible Lions Squad for Second Test

Starting XV: Halfpenny, Bowe, O’Driscoll, Davies, North; Sexton, B. Youngs; Heaslip, Warburton (c), Lydiate; Parling, A.W. Jones; A. Jones, T. Youngs, Vunipola.

Replacements: Hibbard, Grant, Cole, Croft, O’Brien, Murray, Farrell, Cuthbert.

Lions: Refine or Redesign?

Warren Gatland has some big decisions to make ahead of the second Test. (c) NAFW.

The Lions are 1-0 up and that is the fact that really counts. But this series is far from won and the Lions will need to greatly improve their performance on Saturday if they are to prevent the Wallabies from leveling matters. Warren Gatland’s game plan didn’t work out as hoped in the first Test and the Lions coaching staff will need to think deeply about how they proceed for the second, and the personnel they choose.

The Lions lineout stats make good reading if taken on a purely numerical basis (100%). However, all but one of those takes were at the front, meaning Mike Phillips wasn’t a running threat and the Lions’ backs weren’t getting ideal possession to play with. Ben Mowen and the Wallabies seemed content to give up the front of the lineout in order to mark up in the middle and at the tail. The Lions appeared to fear Mowen’s defensive prowess and refused to even attempt to beat him at the back.

Jonathan Davies had a good game at 12, but he doesn’t offer the same go-forward as Jamie Roberts. If the Lions are going to continue to accept the easy option at the front of the lineout, then Roberts or Tuilagi have to be considered as the starter at 12. Both of them would be stronger at getting over the gain line and providing Sexton with better quality possession. It would be harsh to drop Davies, but he didn’t look ideal for the role of gain line breaker.

On Saturday, the Lions suffered from an inability to beat a strong Australian defence in phase play. Missing Roberts didn’t help in that regard, but the Lions can’t rely on one player to get them on the front foot. A re-think of the back row looks necessary, with getting an explosive ball carrier into the side important. Sean O’Brien is a player you can count on to tie in defenders and make yards. His hard work with ball in hand close in to rucks creates space for the likes of O’Driscoll and North out wide.

A striking aspect of the Lions’ game plan in the first Test was their utter refusal to kick the ball into touch. The only kicking we saw from Sexton were short chips in behind the defence, a couple of cross-field kicks and a few garryowens. Likewise, Mike Phillips kept all his box kicks well infield. Even when the halfbacks had time to clear directly into touch from their own 22, they kept the ball in play. That ploy simply had to be backed up by a consistently strong kick chase, especially when Phillips was kicking so poorly.

Unfortunately, the Lions were far from their best on kick chase on all but a handful of occasions. Again, the return of Roberts should improve that, and Gatland could do worse than bringing Tommy Bowe into the team to add more aerial ability. Whoever it will be chasing down the kicks, the Lions need to re-focus this ploy of kicking back to the Wallabies.

Jamie Roberts arrives. Wales Grand Slam Celebration, Senedd 19 March 2012 / Jamie Roberts yn cyrraedd. Dathliadau Camp Lawn Cymru, Senedd 19 Mawrth 2012

If Roberts is fit, his return would add a lot to the Lions’ play. (c) NAFW

In the second half, the back three of Ioane, Beale and Folau showed signs of their sharp counter-attacking game, with one scything break from Beale after a badly contested Phillips kick standing out. In refining this game plan, Gatland and his halfbacks need to ensure that their kicks are more contestable (particularly Phillips) and that the Lions chase is far stronger. Folau, Ioane and Beale will be better in the second Test and they just can’t be given the space to counter-attack.

All of these things tie into the idea of refining the current game plan and trying to beat the Wallabies with ‘positive’ attacking play and by scoring tries. That is certainly the approach I would favour. It’s definitely understandable if Gatland doesn’t want to change a winning team, but the Wallabies left 14 kickable points behind in the first Test and Gatland can’t rely on that happening again.

The alternative would be a more ‘negative’ approach and is surely tempting to Gatland now that the Lions are 1-0 up. It’s something that the Demented Mole discussed in his/her excellent article on Dan Lydiate. The Welsh blindside would likely be the key personnel change to such a game plan.

The Lions didn’t kick for territorial gain at all in the first Test, but Gatland may consider completely changing to a system based around territory. Bringing in Lydiate would mean having the best back row defender in the Lions squad on the pitch. Asking Sexton to kick deep into the corners, securing lineout possession and eking out penalties with a low-risk attacking plan to allow Halfpenny to kicks the points may be enticing.

Defensively, Lydiate and the back row would be tasked with stifling Will Genia’s creative play, while the centres would aim to limit the amount of ball that gets wide to Folau and co. As expected, the Wallabies look at their most dangerous in open, broken-up play. This possible change of game plan would be about pining the Wallabies deep in their own half and trying to shut down their attacking flair.

My personal preference for open rugby, and desire to see another Test as exciting as the first, means I hope Gatland focuses on refining the game plan from the first Test. Being loyal to the guys who helped him to come away with a win would be laudable, but I certainly feel that the Lions will have a better chance of wrapping up the series if they make changes to the starting team.

On the checklist for refinement are winning ball at the tail of the lineout, adding more carrying punch to the team, clarifying the kicking tactics, adding aerial ability to the kick chase and limiting the counter-attacking opportunities for the Wallabies. A 10% improvement in each of these areas would probably be enough to earn the Lions a first series win since 1997.

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Photos: National Assembly for Wales.

The Day Ireland Beat New Zealand

Munster All Blacks Thomond

Were Munster the only Irish team ever to beat New Zealand? Read on… (c) Martin Dobey.

Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks. Each time we play the standard bearers of world rugby, we are reminded of this stat. In 27 efforts, Ireland have lost to New Zealand 26 times. The solitary draw came in 1973, a 10-10 stalemate in Lansdowne Road. At underage level, we have never beaten the Baby Blacks. Mike Ruddock’s U20 side came close last Thursday, but the record remains unbroken. Our women’s team has never beaten the Black Ferns, although they haven’t had a chance to do so yet.

It would appear that Munster are the only Irish rugby team to have beaten New Zealand, with that famous 12-0 victory in 1978. But if you dig a little deeper, there is a dirty secret to be exposed: Ireland beat New Zealand in 1973, by a scoreline of 22-18. How has this result gone ignored you will surely ask? Possibly because the game took place at the International Seven-A-Side Tournament at Murrayfield in Scotland. That’s right, sevens!

On the 7th of April in 1973, the Scottish Rugby Union held the tournament as part of their centenary celebrations. Eight international teams were involved, representing each of the IRB-registered rugby nations at the time: Scotland, Ireland, England, Wales, France, Australia, New Zealand, and an SRU President’s VII which included several South African players.

Ireland’s nine-man squad was a talented one. Vincent Becker was a lightning quick winger from Lansdowne who also represented Ireland in the 100 metres. He went on to win two Ireland caps in 1974. Arthur McMaster was a winger from Ballymena, who won 18 senior Irish caps, scoring 2 tries. Seamus Dennison was the the Limerick man who made that tackle for Munster when they beat the All Blacks. He won three Irish caps, scoring one try.


Kevin Mays was London-born but playing out of UCD. The lock won four full caps for Ireland in 1973. Donal Canniffe was the captain of Munster when they beat the All Blacks. In ’73, the scrumhalf was still with Cork Con, before later joining Lansdowne. Fergus Slattery was already a well established Irish international, and a non-capped Lions tourist in ’71. The flanker’s career finished with 61 Ireland caps and four for the Lions.

Hooker Pa Whelan was another involved in Munster’s win in ’78. The Garryowen man went on the win 19 Irish caps. Terry Moore was a big No. 8 from Highfield in Cork. He would end his career with 12 caps for Ireland. Last but not least was the captain, Mike Gibson. The Belfast man’s Ireland career had begun in 1964 and he had already toured three times with the Lions. After 69 caps for Ireland and 12 for the Lions, he went on to become an IRB Hall of Famer.

It was certainly a formidable Irish selection. In their opening game of the tournament they came up against New Zealand and duly dispatched them 22-18, having led 10-6 at the break. It’s unclear who did the scoring for Ireland, with the available records not extending to that detail. The Irish team went on to beat Australia 16-4 in their next game, before securing a place in the final with a 24-12 win over Scotland.

The final saw the Irish face an English team of considerable strength themselves: David Duckham, Steve Smith, Andy Ripley, Roger Uttley, Peter Preece, John Gray, Peter Rossborough and Keith Fielding were captained by the enigmatic Fran Cotton. The English were victorious, claiming the trophy by another 22-18 scoreline. Although the tournament was never awarded official status by the IRB, the Irish team had essentially finished runners-up in the first Sevens World Cup, and beaten New Zealand for the first time in our rugby history.

happy european champion Portugal

Portugal celebrate their win at the European 7s in 2008. In Ireland’s squad at that tournament were James Coughlan, Darren Cave, Ian Keatley and Chris Henry. Ireland finished 4th to qualify for the 2009 World Cup, the last time we fielded a team.

There’s more to this than just a good story. The 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens takes place in Russia from the 28th to 30th of June, with the likes of Portugal, Hong Kong, Uruguay, Zimbabwe, the Philippines and Tunisia all involved in the party. Following the Italian rugby federation’s recent decision to implement a sevens programme, Ireland are now the only nation in the top 17 of the IRB World Rankings without a sevens team.

The developmental advantages which sevens offers to 15-a-side players are something I’ve written about before, but the fact that sevens is an Olympic sport adds even more value to the calls for the IRFU to get behind it.

Something is amiss…

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Photos: Martin Dobey, Stefanie.

Ruddock and his Wolfpuppies Ready For France

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Ed Byrne scoring for the Wolfpuppies during their 31-26 loss to New Zealand. (c) IRB.

The Ireland U20s play host nation France in the Junior World Championship fifth-place semi finals tomorrow evening after narrowly missing out on a spot amongst the top four teams. Similarly to last year, the Wolfpuppies have impressed greatly at this tournament. The amount of talent at Ireland’s disposal and the high skill level throughout the squad offer encouraging signs for rugby in this country.

One of most impressive things about Mike Ruddock’s team has been their attitude. Over the last three years, the Welshman has worked hard to instill confidence in his U20 sides. The aim has been to convince young Irish players that they are every bit as talented as their international peers. That message is clearly getting across, with a win over Australia and an excellent performance against New Zealand in which the Wolfpuppies were clearly not overawed.

Following that loss, a quote from outhalf Steve Crosbie stuck out. Expressing his disappointment, he revealed just how ambitious the Irish U20s have become: “There is no way we are taking our foot off the pedal here now. We set our goals to win this competition, but that’s not possible now.” The fact that Ireland will see their performance as something of a failure is reason to laud Ruddock’s work at this level.

This winning attitude can only benefit Irish players in the long-term. Whereas five years ago, several of our players at this level wouldn’t have had serious thoughts about a professional career, every single one of these Wolfpuppies will expect to become a full-time professional rugby player.

The single most impressive aspect of this team is the style in which Ruddock has them playing. The Wolfpuppies have been fabulously entertaining to watch. The squad is laden with skillful players and Ruddock has played to that strength. He has given his team the freedom to offload and encouraged them to move the ball into wide channels, where their excellent support play has stood out. It’s intelligent, well-organised rugby and refreshing to watch.

Ruddock’s name was one of those in the mix to replace Declan Kidney when it became clear that Ireland would be employing a new Head Coach at senior level. With Joe Schmidt now in place, we should be thankful that Ruddock remains in charge of the Wolfpuppies. His role in the development of these young players is crucial and Irish rugby should be working hard to ensure it continues for some time yet.

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Christopher Tolofua

Tolofua at Toulouse is 120kg of beef at hooker for the French. (c) Pierre Selim.

Ireland’s opponents tomorrow night are France. The hosts have had a mixed bag of a tournament so far. In the opening game, they were 30-6 losers to England in what was a jarring disappointment. Didier Retier’s side bounced back with a  45-3 win over a weak USA side, who went on to be beaten 119-0 by England. France’s final pool game saw their most impressive performance, despite losing 26-19 to South Africa.

Based on the reputations of the players, this is not a bad French squad. Hooker Christopher Tolofua has made 16 starts for Toulouse over the past two seasons, including two in the Heineken Cup. Playing his second year at this level, the 120kg battering ram takes some stopping. In the back-row, Yoruba Camara is joining Toulouse next season after developing at Pro D2 side Massy. The rangy flanker is quick, athletic and can offload out of the tackle.

Alongside him, No. 8 Marco Tauleigne is a chunky unit at around 115kg. He spent this season with Federale 1 champions Bourgoin, but is moving to Bordeaux in the Top 14 this summer. His carrying is muscular, meaning Ireland’s back-row will need to be alert. Out wide, the French can call on Biarritz flyer Teddy Thomas. He scored four tries in four Top 14 starts this season, as well as two against Gloucester in the Amlin CC. Already a 7s international, Thomas is elusive, pacy and full of flair from fullback.

Apart from those big names, the French can call on five other players who have experience in the Top 14: prop Cyril Baille (Toulouse), sub hooker Romain Ruffanech (Biarritz), lock Leo Bastien (Agen), scrumhalf Baptiste Serin (Bordeaux) and outhalf Vincent Mallet (Stade Francais). Flanker Mathieu Babillot has already made his Heineken Cup debut for Castres. Centre Thibault Regard and winger Gabriel Lacroix are regulars at Pro D2 level. In terms of senior club level experience, the French outdo the Wolfpuppies.

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Teddy Thomas of Biarritz is a danger man for the French. (c) IRB.

However, in every other aspect of importance to this game, the Irish have more to call on. Based on the performance’s of both teams at this JWC, Ireland are the favourites. France have the advantage of playing at home, but that did them no good against England and South Africa. Furthermore, the Wolfpuppies were 22-5 winners when these sides met in Athlone back in March. Both squads have changed somewhat since then, but Ireland have developed far more rapidly.

The Baby ‘Boks made plenty of metres in wide channels against France, and Ireland should look to exploit that weakness too. The French wingers are quick but very lightweight and that should suit the Wolfpuppies. England created several line breaks of the French defence with short passes to support runners inside and outside their centres. Again, those trail lines are something Ruddock’s men are good at, and we should hope to see more of the same.

The French pack are strong in their carrying around the fringes of rucks through the likes of Tolofua, Tauleigne and Baille. No surprise really, with Les Bleus legend Fabien Pelous as manager of the team. Ireland will need to ensure their defence is solid either side of the breakdown.

Ireland appear to have all the tools to ensure a 5th-place playoff final at the JWC for the second year running. Either Australia and Argentina await in that game. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, the French must be dealt with first. Here’s hoping that the Wolfpuppies will be celebrating another win tomorrow night.

At the end of the day, this is a development tournament with the aim of producing professional players. Irish professionals for whom beating the likes of Australia and France is the norm would be greatly welcome.

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You can listen to me talking about the Ireland U20s and this game on yesterday’s Big Red Bench on Cork’s Red FM. Have a listen here:

Photos: Pierre Selim, IRB.

Ireland’s Fifth Province

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The following is a guest post by Rory O’Kane.

Ireland’s official rugby anthem Ireland’s Call mentions the four proud provinces of Ireland in its lyrics but fails to mention the Irish Exiles, who have been fundamental to Irish rugby. The Exiles system has provided us with players of the calibre of Simon Geoghegan, Simon Easterby, Rob Henderson and Nick Popplewell. The latter trio were Test Lions, while Geoghegan was touted as a likely Lion prior to injury in 1997.

With Ireland having a relatively small rugby population, Ireland needs the biggest player pool it can possibly get and the Exiles system facilitates the growth of Irish rugby’s player pool.

In recent years the link with the Irish exiles had weakened. Players such as Shane Geraghty, Andrew Sheridan, Nick Kennedy, Paul Doran-Jones (Ireland U19, U21) and Kieran Brookes (Ireland U18, U19, U20) slipped through the net. However, Irish rugby wasn’t overly concerned; after all it was too busy basking in the success of the “golden generation” of 2004-09 with three Triple Crowns, a first Grand Slam in 61 years and the unprecedented success of the provinces at Heineken Cup level.

It took the 2012 scrum fiasco in Twickenham for the IRFU to decide to strengthen the Exile link with the intention of increasing Irish rugby’s player pool and, more particularly, to unearth a few tight-head props. The IRFU have since appointed Mark Blair as the Development Manager for the Irish Exiles, an arm of the IRFU that runs representative sides for Irish-qualified players based in England, Scotland and Wales. He commented upon his appointment:

“This is a full-time IRFU position because they want to work much more closely with the Exiles. We feel we are only scratching the surface of the players in England, Scotland and Wales that are available to play for Ireland.

It is an alternative opportunity and we are not trying to take players away from anywhere else. But we want to offer that choice to young players of being eligible to play for Ireland.

The recession has seen more Irish people move to Britain and we want to give a pathway for young-Irish qualified players to progress their rugby with the possibilities of international rugby and also the chance to move to Ireland.”

The IRFU already appear to be reaping the rewards of utilising their Exile branch again. No less than 7 Exiles being involved with Ireland U20’s this season:

2013 Irish U20 Exiles

Conor Joyce (Ulster Rugby):  Solihull-born Joyce down the Leicester Tigers academy to join Ulster last season.  The 6ft 3ins blindside/no. 8 has made seven appearances for the U20s this year and has even captained the side against Fiji. He is held in high regard in Ravenhill and even made his Ulster debut against Glasgow in February.

George McGuigan (Newcastle Falcons): Standing at 6ft and 105kg, the hooker has been a mainstay in the no. 2 jersey for Ireland making six U20 appearances. In April, he was rewarded with a one-year contract at Newcastle, despite not having made his Falcons’ debut yet. He has made the first team bench as an unused substitute. McGuigan spent last season on a dual-registration deal with Tynesdale in National League 1.

Ryan Furness (Worcester Warriors): The tighthead prop has been battling Adam Boland and Chris Taylor for the number 3 jersey. Despite regularly making the match day squads in both the Six Nations and JWC he has yet to start. Furness has made two first team appearances for Worcester Warriors.

David Panter (Connacht Rugby): The 5ft 11ins Surrey-born fullback was identified through the Exiles system and signed by the Connacht academy. A former Ireland U18 clubs international, he has made five Ireland U20 appearances and is part of the JWC squad.

Alex Wootton (Northampton Saints): The Saints winger was called up to replace the injured Tom Daly in the current JWC. Wootten was part of Northampton’s squad for the 2012 Premiership 7s. He was capped at U16 level by England. The speedster spent this season on a dual-registration deal at Cambridge. Wootten is eligible for the Ireland U20s again next season.

Jake Caulfield (Ulster Rugby): The 6ft 3ins, 18 stone prop from Western-Supermare spent two seasons in the London Irish academy before joining Bristol for a season. In October of 2012 Ulster signed him on a 3-year contract. He also had a spell in New Zealand with Petone in Wellington. Caulfield is a former England U16 and U17 international and can play both sides of the scrum. He made 1 Ireland U20 appearance vs Wales in the Six Nations.

Alex O’ Meara From the famed Hartpury College, the winger made his single Ireland U20 appearance vs Wales in the Six Nations.

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You can follow Rory O’Kane, author of this piece, on Twitter. You can also follow the Irish Exiles on Twitter. For more on Irish players based abroad, click the ‘Exiled Irish’ tab at the top of the page.

Video Post: James O’Connor Wallabies Outhalf?

Wales vs Australia

O’Connor looks set to start at outhalf against the Lions. (c) Salman Javed.

Judging on the available evidence, I think James O’Connor will start at outhalf against the Lions in the first Test. My personal preference would be for Quade Cooper to start at 10, and use O’Connor at 14. If the Reds playmaker impresses on Saturday against the Lions, who knows? However, for now Cooper remains outside the Australian squad and everything Deans has said up up to this point suggests it will be O’Connor running out at 10. So what does the Rebels man bring to the outhalf position?

O’Connor defends bravely, can beat players with his footwork, place-kicks competently, is explosively quick, has a high work-rate and passes excellently. All in all he’s a very complete rugby player, as highlighted in the video below. His passing game from outhalf would allow the Wallabies to attack in wide channels from first-phase, as well as in open play. O’Connor is very accurate in this regard, and he’s good at spotting space out wide in defences.

However, that vision doesn’t extend to the space in behind defences and that’s one of the areas where O’Connor lags behind Jonny Sexton. He rarely puts grubbers, chips or cross-field kicks in behind defences. The first thought for him is nearly always either to pass or run. This should allow the Lions defensive line to push up quickly without worrying too much about the space left in behind.

That inability to vary his game leads to the biggest problem with O’Connor playing outhalf: he doesn’t ‘boss’ his team around the pitch. He’s relatively inexperienced at outhalf and, as anyone who has ever tried to step into the number 10 shirt from another position will tell you, controlling a team from 10 is very demanding. O’Connor seems to struggle with making decisions about where he should direct play, when to kick and when to attack.

The Wallabies likely ploy to counteract that deficiency is to use several playmakers throughout the team. As you’ll see in the video, they’ve done this in the past by using a distributing second-five-eighth outside O’Connor, namely Berrick Barnes. Also, Will Genia at 9 will take on a lot of the responsibility for marshaling the forwards around the pitch and deciding when to kick. Also, I think Kurtley Beale will have a big role to play in this regard, stepping up from fullback.

That should allow O’Connor to focus on his strengths. If Australia use other playmakers intermittently, that will allow O’Connor to pop up in wider channels, where he is lethal. If Deans does decide to go with a system similar to this, it will ask demanding questions of the Lions’ defence. With O’Connor, Beale and Barnes/Lealiifano (if they play a creative 12 rather than a bosher like Horne) swapping around the pitch, there will be danger from all angles.

I’m still unconvinced that outhalf is O’Connor’s best position, but he’s still a good option there. While I feel that Cooper would be a better choice for the Wallabies, having O’Connor at 10 is not going to weaken them greatly. The 22-year-old (with 37 caps!) is among the best players in the world. He comes across as very mentally strong and I think this Lions tour will see him stepping up a level on what we’ve seen before.

Check out the video below for some examples of what O’Connor can offer from outhalf, and some of the areas where the Lions could have an advantage.

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Photos: Salman Javed.