Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Best Backline in the World?

Dick Best, the former England boss, has a thought-provoking article in this morning's Telegraph about the potential banana-skins dressed in sky and and navy blue awaiting the Irish and Welsh rugby teams in Dublin and Edinburgh this weekend, while all hearts and minds are on Cardiff on March 19. A lot of the article is an expression of the usual pieties (one of the many marvellous things about England's fall from glory is reading the likes of Dickie writing about how great it is for the marvellous old competition that England are not, in fact, dominating all around them. How Dickie must weep when he types those words) but Dickie makes one prescient comment about the Irish team that gives the sensible Irish rugby supporter that discommoding feeling of someone walking on one's grave.

"Their forwards have struggled to dominate, other than against Scotland, and the back play has been almost a one-man show," says Dickie. We've been hearing so often about Ireland having the best backline in the world that the nation is inclined to forget that best backline in the world exists only on paper, and that the backline that will line out across the paddock in Dublin 4 at two pm next Saturday is very far from the best in the world.

The absence of Gordon D'Arcy has taken the edge off the Irish backline. An Spailpín is not sold completely on D'Arcy's Godhead, and would pick Henson ahead of him for the Lions first XV, but it's hard to deny that without D'Arcy the Irish backs have lost some of their oomph. O'Gara remains a good but not great stand-off half, but Maggs is getting older now, and is now confined utterly to tackling and crash ball moves.

At least the presence of Kevin Maggs moves O'Driscoll out to outside centre, where his genius will find fuller expression. The question is what is O'Driscoll to think when he looks to his right, and sees Girvo waiting there?

Eddie O'Sullivan's loyalty to Girvan Dempsey is touching, but it's hard to imagine even Mamma Dempsey claiming her boy as some sort of attacking threat. Dempsey's great talent is his solidity as the last line of defence, but why then play him as the last point of attack? Surely if Girvo's place is indeed inviolate on Planet Eddie, wouldn't it make more sense to move Geordan Murphy to the wing, and give the 15 jersey to Girvo?

The daring move, of course, would be to drop Girvo entirely, leave Murphy at fifteen and pick either Munster's Seán Payne or Harlequins' Gavin Duffy on the right wing. Happily, the coach isn't daring by his nature, and two matches away from a Grand Slam is not the time to change horses on the chariot. But there is that horribly worrying feeling that the pack takes longer to start than a Ford Corsair, and that the Best Backline in the World ain't what it used to be.

The story of the mercurial French is more myth than reality of course, especially in the level playing fields of the professional era, and it's reasonable to expect Ireland to win by four as the bookies predict. But An Spailpín can somehow hear the crunch of those feet on the gravel of his grave, and it makes him just slightly uneasy for Saturday.