Trouble with big numbers becoming a major issue

It would be fairly well accepted at this stage that Dublin should have won most if not all of the four games against Meath in the first round of the 1991 Leinster SFC. To a large extent, the reason they didn’t was the almost unerring accuracy of Brian Stafford from placed balls.

The Kilmainhamwood sharpshooter remains the best place kicker the one seeing eye here has ever seen. Dean Rock is, in fairness, only a short head or a neck behind him presently but the fact is ‘Staff’ never seemed to miss when he was needed most. And that was often. Much of the success garnered during the most glorious era in Meath’s history could be traced back to him. After all, that’s why they wrote a song about him!

There are several pivotal components to a GAA team – centre back, midfield (more so in football due to the carry of the modern sliotar in hurling and camogie) and a highly efficient operator from dead ball situations being foremost among them. Lately, goalkeepers can be added to the mix as their role borders on the scientific.

Similar sentiments can, admittedly, probably be attributed to all sports. Team disciplines in particular. Whether that be good central defenders and central midfielders in soccer – Manchester United are presently being pummeled by severe deficiencies in both – or players who are proficient from the free-throw line in basketball.

Rugby’s equivalent are surely the scrum half and fly half – curiously titled half backs for some reason. For as long as can be recalled, Ireland have been blessed with abundantly talented individuals in that sector. From Michael Bradley and Ollie Campbell to Rob Saunders and Eric Elwood up to the last couple of decades where our 9/10 combinations have been as good as any in the world thanks firstly to Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara and, latterly, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton.

At one stage, Ireland would’ve been considered so well endowed in that department that the backup duo – whomever it comprised – would have been guaranteed starters on most other teams. That luxury may have dissipated however. Or at the very least is in the process of so doing.

That Murray has had his considerable powers diminished since incurring a neck injury some time back is surely as obvious as is BREXIT shambolic. Add to that the punishment Sexton routinely ships in the course of a day’s work and the need for re-enforcements in this most crucial of areas becomes highly pronounced. In short, trouble with what are the big numbers in the oval ball code is becoming a major issue.

Conor Murray is not the force of old.

To this end, it is at least encouraging to see new Head Coach Andy Farrell include no fewer than five scrum halves in the first squad selected by him – Conor Murray, Luke McGrath, John Cooney and the thus far uncapped Jamieson Gibson-Park (Leinster) and Caolin Blade of Connacht.

Ulster’s John Cooney is putting pressure on Murray.

Cooney is, to my mind at least, the form player and should be getting the nod. Other interesting selections include returns for Devin Toner and Stuart McCloskey and Ultan Dillane. Most conjecture, however, is revolving around who wasn’t included rather than who was. Principally among them Rob Kearney. Now, for a long time, in this corner at least, the Louth man’s omission wouldn’t have caused that much conjecture as he was considered to be past his best.

However, to his credit, he had in fact returned to something like his form of old throughout the last year or so. With that in mind, though, one can only assume that it was the fact that he is currently not guaranteed his place with Leinster – which has as much to do with the burgeoning of Jordan Larmour as anything else – which dissuaded coach Farrell from retaining the long serving full back.

Now, whatever about the national team, the contrast in the depth of resources available to the provinces at half back could hardly be more stark. Where Leinster have deputies of equal status in Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne should anything happen to McGrath or Sexton and where Connacht and Ulster both appear to have settled combinations in the pivotal positions, Munster currently have no such luxury.

In fact, it could be said that the southern outfit haven’t had a proper 10 since the departure of Ronan O’Gara. Add that to the obvious diminishment in Murray’s output and it’s not difficult to see why parts of this season have been quite the struggle for Johann Van Graan’s charges. That reality was particularly acute in the European Cup fixtures most recently.

Between poor place-kicking and decision making that was even more awry, the twice winners came away from the vital encounter with Saracens at the Allianz Arena which (a) didn’t do their overall performance justice and (b) in the long run could lead to their season ending much earlier than need be the case.

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