Wednesday, February 18, 2004

A Short, Sharp Shock for Kevin Maggs

It takes a very subtle mind to keep up with IRFU politics, but Eddie O'Sullivan has brought it to a new and higher level with his team selection for the crucial Welsh game on this coming Sunday. Eddie has achieved such a level of cunning that he deserved to be ranked with the great scholastic philosophers of the Medieval Church - the lads that used to count the angels on the head of a pin, and that sort of thing.

That Brian O'Driscoll would return at the earliest opportunity was clear for all with eyes to see; that Kevin Maggs would be the man to make way is completely out of blue. Even more astonishingly, O'Driscoll will play inside centre, while Gordon D'Arcy retains the thirteen shirt.

This is just bizarre. The Irish midfield defence was parted on Saturday in Paris as the Red Sea was parted by Moses during the flight from Israel, but it seems unfair to pin the blame for all that on Maggs. It's especially unfair on a man who had a superb World Cup doing the thankless work that an inside centre does, which is tackling all day and taking crash ball two or three yards before getting smashed to the ground by the biggest hombres in any rugby team. Hard lines indeed, especially as it seems that the one man who wouldn't be dropped on any basis was Gordon D'Arcy.

The list of Irish one-cap wonders is a long and ignoble one, and any sensible man would suggest that a man needs more than eighty minutes to find his way in the white heat of International rugby. At the same time, nobody can suggest that D'Arcy is a better outside centre than O'Driscoll, as right now nobody on the planet is a better outside centre than O'Driscoll. As such, Darwinism wins out over Gordon D'Arcy's feelings, and D'Arcy goes to the bench. Yet all during the aftermath of Paris, it was never suggested that D'Arcy's place was in danger - if O'Driscoll was to return it would be at the cost of either Dempsey, for whom D'Arcy would take over at full-back, or Howe, for whom D'Arcy would take over on the wing.

D'Arcy's place was inviolate. Why?

I can see why someone wouldn't pick Howe in the first place. Thirty-two is old for a winger, and seeing him out there in all that open space with his scrumcap tied tightly under his chin reminds me of nothing so much as the child of an overconsiderate mother who ensures that he never leaves the house without his hat and mittens. If Howe breakfasts solely on Ready Brek An Spailpín wouldn't be a bit surprised.

That said, the only thing Howe did wrong in Paris was the double movement for the try, and that's more for the French to complain about than the Irish. So why should Howe be sacrificed for D'Arcy? What's so special about D'Arcy?

If An Spailpín were any hand at all the scholastic philosophy he could posit a hypothesis that the reason D'Arcy remains and Maggs got the bullet is because, with the demotion of Malcolm O'Kelly and the rightful promotion of Donncha O'Callaghan to the second row, the number of Leinstermen in the side remains constant. The only demographic that's down numbers therefore is the Exiles, and who ever sings for them? Miserably, though, An Spailpín is an innocent, simple fellow, and can't figure this out at all.

Although Malcolm O'Kelly hasn't been setting the world on fire - he's almost as anonymous as his Leinster predecessor of the eighties, Mr Francis, the Media Darling - there is an argument to be made in favour of retaining Kelly and putting big Donncha in at Number Eight. Foley is an excellent defensive eight, but he's not exactly the man to grab the ball and head to where battle is thickest. This is O'Callaghan in a nutshell, a harum-scarum devil-may-care-um broth of an Irish boy, and exactly what the doctor ordered to pluck those Welsh feathers. Because, if the Welsh win then suddenly last year's Grand Slam contenders are making their way to Twickenham to take on the English in the first English appearance at Twickers in a full international since they won the World Cup. And if Ireland is going there with an 0-2 record, then we're no such much co-celebrants at the high altar as the ritual sacrifice. And we wouldn't like that.