by Brendan Cole
It is 10 months since Ireland were pulverised by England at Twickenham and despite the whole Michael Bent farrago, Mike Ross is still the only Irish (qualified) man capable of standing in the breach between the rest of the team and destruction (which makes the persistent rumours that he is not a management favourite all the more baffling).
Irish supporters did not enjoy the spectacle on St Patrick's Day last year, but for the neutrals it was one of the rare occasions when the scrum became a truly dramatic spectacle.
More often than not, it isn’t.
The stats say it took an epic 56 seconds for each scrum to complete in last year’s Championship, while there was a 49% chance of a collapse at each engagement.
As for the nature of the contest, a sizeable troop led by former England hooker Brian Moore has been banging the drum on the deterioration of the scrum for the last couple of years.
We caught up with self-confessed sports nerd Ross at the launch of Dead Space 3 earlier in the week (where we learned that Mike is a PC man, really) and were keen to get a few thoughts on the ‘dark arts’ from Ireland’s foremost practitioner.
Interesting learning number one: the crooked feed bugbear is more a bugbear for commentators than those with their heads in the armpit of the opposition.
But is the scrum now much different to the scrum ‘back then’?
Ross concedes that the contest now is less about hooking and more and about winning ‘the hit’. But take a look at the video. The scrums of 20 years ago were equally likely to be “a mess”.
What do we expect when 16 professionals weighing a total of 1,400kg gather to settle a shoving contest up to 20 times over 80 minutes?
Cian Healy's New Deal
Ireland did have some good news on the propping front. With Ross and his Leinster and Ireland scrum partner Cian Healy were among those to confirm they would be staying in Ireland as a slew of new deals were announced in the wake of Jonny Sexton’s decision to quit Dublin for Paris. Peter O’Mahony also put pen to paper on a new deal.
Healy also took the time to give us a sense of Ian Madigan's feelings on that Sexton transfer.
A French crisis at out-half?
And while Ireland may be short of tightheads, but where are all the French outside-halfs? Such is the dearth of quality in the position, with Francois Trinh-Duc apparently not favoured by the new regime, that the well travelled Freddy Michalak is now the incumbent ( watch out for some class moments from his career on tomorrow’s TV show - and note that he's still only 30).
The Irish out-half factory has always produced at a rate of one gem every four or five years on average, though the production schedule frequently provides two at about the same time.
Ward, Campbell, Dean, Keyes, Elwood, Humphreys, O’Gara, Sexton.
France’s apparent out-half shortage makes you wonder. Would Ronan O’Gara be better off finding a pack of French bruisers to punt around the mid-to-upper reaches of the Top 14, instead of waiting around for regime change at out-half and a new style to emerge at Munster?
At 35 but with no evident drop in playing ability and a game based on brains rather than brawn or pace, there are few playing reasons to quit.
What odds O’Gara joining the likes of Sexton, Butch James and Jonny Wilkinson et al in France’s foreign legion within a couple of years?
One To Watch: Luke McGrath
While Ireland have produced plenty of high class out-halves, but scrum-half has definitely been more of a patchy position down the years and historically, though Peter Stringer deserves credit for setting a new bar in the position since 2000.
But Ireland’s future could also be bright here with Luke McGrath one to watch. He will lead a youthful group of Under-20s in what has the look of a rebuilding campaign this year with just three returning for a second bite at the cherry.
McGrath built a big reputation as a schoolboy and showed flashes of brilliance during Ireland’s Under-20s Six Nations campaign last year, including a superb drop goal in the opener against Wales.
His ball playing ability also helped Ireland play just enough rugby to keep France at bay during the superb win in Paris.
McGrath did drop off the radar for a few months, but told the press earlier this week that glandular fever had ruled him out for a couple of months.
Ireland may not hit the heights of last year’s campaign or this summer’s brilliant performances at the Under-20s Rugby World Cup, but McGrath certainly looks like a player to watch with a view to the next renewal of the real thing in London in 2015.
Watch Ireland Under-20s live on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Island of Ireland only) from 7pm tonight.
Set up your Six Nations with the 'Voice of Rugby'
If you have been trawling YouTube for video to get you in the mood for another round of rugby’s best two months, this video by the Bill McLaren Foundation is not to be missed.
Combining some of the great moments from the great man’s career, and some of his greatest turns of phrase, including commentaries on the likes of Simon Geoghegan (‘mad octopus’), Victor Costello (‘water buffalo’) and Munster (‘the red army’). You’ll also find an Eric Elwood kick being described as though it was “as if he kicked three pounds 'o haggis”.
For those wanting more insight, Rory Lawson, grandson of Bill McLaren, posted an excellent tribute earlier this week which can be read here: "With a voice almost operatic in clarity and range, instantly recognisable and uniquely blessed with a Borders twang, Bill McLaren “The Voice of Rugby” enjoyed almost 50 years as a national broadcaster. Three years have flown by since his passing but many of the great rugby moments he created with his magical turn of phrase are still fresh in the mind.”
There will be full live coverage of Wales v Ireland and England v Scotland on Saturday 2 February from 12.30pm and Italy v France on Sunday 3 February on RTÉ Two. (Live streaming Ireland only). Ireland v Wales is also live from 1.00pm on Saturday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1. (Live streaming Worldwide)