'I still don’t get it' – Brian O'Driscoll baffled by Devin Toner's World Cup absence
Brian O’Driscoll would never class himself as a scrum and lineout expert but he was more than a little interested in the set-pieces against Wales last Saturday.
Devin Toner’s absence from Joe Schmidt’s World Cup touring party had dominated pre-match discussion; now his former team-mate was keen to glean some evidence for himself.
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There was also an even more practical explanation; the set-piece forms the fundamental basis of possession in rugby and, for Ireland under Joe Schmidt, it is the be-all and end-all.
Except that the limited available proof provided in the Aviva – a scrum that seemed to get stronger after Jean Kleyn’s removal, and a lineout that after two early blips was wholly limited in range – served to confuse him even more.
“I still don’t get the Devin Toner thing,” Ireland’s most-capped centre shrugs. “Other than he’s not fully fit, and I’m not privy to that. I have to take what Joe said about him being behind the eight ball with the injury last season and I get all that.
“But from a stacking up point of view, and from watching the two players I’ve seen and the information given on game-time over the last year, and Ireland’s struggles at lineout, I still don’t get it. The scrum was better in the second half, wasn’t it?
“I know a bit about the lineout but not a whole lot about scrummaging .
“But we were definitely under a bit of pressure in the first half yet they are saying Kleyn is a better tighthead scrummager so I’d have to take their word for that.
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“As for the lineout, I don’t know what those stats came out as, but I don’t think we should get carried away about that.
“We were throwing a fair bit of ball to the front and I wouldn’t be loving that quality of possession.
“I know you don’t want to be stupid and cut your nose off to spite your face, by trying to throw to six just to prove yourself.
“I understand you still have to guarantee possession. But it’s a couple of games now they’ve gone to that nearly underhand throw to two, they’ve gone to two a lot off the top.
“And off the top at two is no friend of any backline, it’s really not.
“You want it off four or six, and the variation then of catch and give, off the top, or if they want to maul, fair enough, go to two a bit more and guarantee the ball.
“But from a back-line strike perspective you certainly want more favourable ball.”
While Toner will not now be helping to provide it, a regular member of that back-line who has so often benefited from the Meath man’s assuredness has also suffered a pre-World Cup wobble.
Garry Ringrose’s dip in form has not cost him a place on the plane to Japan – but it does threaten to imperil not only his position in the midfield, with Bundee Aki certain to partner Robbie Henshaw against Scotland, but also potentially the bench berth, as Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway jostle for the 23 shirt.
“The more I have mulled over it the more I thought if Garry was going to be playing against Scotland he would have been playing over the weekend,” says O’Driscoll of the man, often unfairly, anointed as his successor in the 13 shirt.
“That said would I be shocked if he was given a start on the wing? Maybe not. I thought he was very effective on the wing even if he might have had a few missed tackles.
“I know it is not his natural position but he brings a wealth of experience.
“He is probably lacking a bit of confidence himself, things haven’t quite gone his way thus far.
“Sometimes when it is not going for you, you have to go and get it for yourself and I just felt he had done that enough.
“However, on the basis of not playing Saturday and the boys going well I would imagine that it mightn’t be looking brilliant for the Scotland game.
“But for me, he is a shoo-in for the 23 now that he is playing on the wing.”
Ringrose’s defence remains a concern, even when he was successfully stationed in midfield, but O’Driscoll counsels a health warning when analysis stats for tackles, especially missed by wingers.
“Sometimes as a winger, the misses, if you take them in isolation they can look worse than they are.
“Or if you look at someone like Owen Farrell. He misses a huge amount of tackles but are you thinking of not picking Owen Farrell?
“It’s what does he do with those shots. It might be a big shot and he doesn’t finish the tackle.
“But then someone comes in and mops up which means he is putting huge pressure on that person that he has supposedly ‘missed’ according to the stats.
“I think particularly from the wing there is a lot of scope for closing the gate and shoving the person who is an attacking threat in off the wing.
“So I don’t buy that it is as cut and dried if you have missed 50 per cent of your tackles on the wing.
“There is a story behind all of that, you need the visual of watching the game along with the number.
“What have those 50 per cent led to? How many scores? How many line-breaks? They are the stats you need to properly look at.”
Aptly, given he was representing a campaign to sponsor Belief, the four-time World Cup veteran reckons this side can go where no predecessors have.
“Absolutely, they can win it because this is the first Irish team to go to a World Cup knowing that they have beaten every other rival.”
- Brian O’Driscoll was announcing Guinness as the official sponsors of Belief
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