Ireland v New Zealand, Irish Rugby, November Internationals 2018, Rugby, Rugby Union

Here Comes the Boom: Ireland v New Zealand – Preview

After Irish journalists and ‘rugby’ people took turns hopping off Bundee Aki and CJ Stander in the last couple of years, it seems the Kiwis are miffed at the fact that European sides – particularly England and Ireland – are displaying the temerity to pick the players New Zealand don’t want. We’re largely unmoved by the rule either way. International rugby is a pretty closed shop – you’d be pushed to name ten top-tier international sides- so if a rule exists to allow players experience international rugby, so be it. To assist the slightly myopic aspect of our argument, it’s worth noting that Ireland have, thus far, taken advantage of the residency rule by moving for players who had been overlooked in their own countries.

If Brad Shields last week and now, Aki, this week are to be at the core of Kiwi whining then why not look to the age-old hypocrisy stemming from New Zealand when it comes to international selection policies. The “All Blacks continue to cynically and systematically loot the Pacific Islands of their best players. It’s an old and depressing story and nobody in New Zealand has been able to give a convincing defence of their actions.”

These are not in fact the words of our learned Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, but an article written by Brendan Gallagher which appeared in the Daily Telegraph during the grim Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005. There is the caveat that British and Irish folk were becoming dispirited and bitter after being beaten and humbled from the deep south up to Auckland and everywhere in between.

Nevertheless, Gallagher argued that New Zealand have long been happy to lure the best talent of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to their rugby nurseries and ultimately give them an opportunity to don the most famous jersey in world rugby. During that summer, we were lucky enough to witness Sitiveni Sivivatu, , born and bred in Fiji, give one of the most dominant wing performances ever, dominating an all-time great in Shane Williams and helping New Zealand decimate the Lions in Wellington. Yet even when joking, it stung any Kiwis when you accused them of poaching the best players their neighbours had to offer.

Sivi

Sitiveni Sivivatu from Fiji’s Yasawa Islands is regarded as one of the best wingers to ever wear the New Zealand jersey. (photo Getty Images)

The bare facts don’t lie, though. It suits New Zealand and Australia for the Fijians, Samoans and Tongans to produce incomparable raw talent without ever possessing the financial strength to keep their players from moving to the richer pastures of Auckland and Sydney. With the three island nations so close in proximity to the Antipodes, surely it would behove the traditional powerhouses to foster the well-being of the international game. Perhaps when it comes to the notion of teams naturalising or poaching players, are teams are equal but some are more equal than others.

In any event, if Ireland are going to prevail on Saturday night in what promises to be an all-time atmosphere, Aki and, particularly, Stander need to excel. Aki has grown into his role as the anchor of the Irish midfield and while he does not possess the wide passing skills of some of his counterparts, he has the ability to beat the first tackle, brings the rare attribute to the Irish midfield of a potential offload and displays unwavering enthusiasm in all facets of his game.

New Zealand can lay claim, whether they like it or not, to changing the rules of the game the last time they visited Dublin. Malakai Fekitoa and Sam Kane in particular got away with some high stuff but amidst the furore over the high shots, Kieran Read managed to avoid one of the most blatant yellow card/penalty try combos in rugby history.

 

Stander was one of the players on the receiving end of Kane’s indiscipline with his night ending earlier than anticipated. Given his recent lull in form, he really needs a big performance against the best team and number eight, respectively, in world rugby. Stander has been exceptionally consistent since the 2015/2016 season, when he seemed to take ownership of the man of the match award in any Muster game, but he has failed to ignite thus far this season. That statement is made in light of the fact that he is still among the top tacklers and carriers in every game but the thrust of his ball carrying has been blunted.

Sean O’Brien’s absence means that Stander now, more than ever, must dominate the contact area and give Ireland go forward ball. He made two of the most important plays in Chicago, a powerful burrow through three would be New Zealand tacklers for Ireland’s second try and a subtle check of Owen Franks in the built up to Conor Murray’s now iconic score. Ireland won’t necessarily require Stander to put his name on the score sheet but in tandem with Peter O’ Mahony and Dan Leavy he can at least gain parity against a Kiwi trio that doesn’t quite hold up to the exceptional back-rows of New Zealand past.

Joe Schmidt thankfully put the great Conor Murray debate to bed on Monday but it’s difficult to ignore just how important the Limerick man was to victory to Ireland in Soldier Field. Admittedly, he got skinned early doors by Beauden Barrett two weeks later but Murray’s decisiveness in attack and defence was probably the difference in the Second City. This is the deepest squad in Irish history but every dominant team – think Brazil 1958-1970 with Pele or Barcelona with Messi – has its MVP and Murray is that for this Irish team. No one is crying for Ireland’s injury issues, obviously, but it would be in many ways their greatest ever achievement if they could overcome the World Champions without their most important player.

Having said all that, New Zealand come to Dublin on the back of a pretty patchy run of form by their standards. Their patented late game heroics saw them scrape home in South Africa and a frankly unfair, or at least inconsistent, call against Courtney Lawes last week likely spared their blushes in Twickenham. The team is still stacked to the brim with quality but when you look at the dream team that won the last World Cup – they too only scraped by South Africa – this looks like a good but not great iteration of New Zealand.

As has been pointed out this week, New Zealand’s line out was immense for the last hour in Twickenham and Ireland’s was about as bad as anyone can remember for a number of years with Argentina always competitive on Rory Best’s throws. Brodie Retallick confirmed last week that he still sets the bar when it comes to second row forwards. The intro to Ghostface Killah’s ‘The Champ’  – “He’s a bulldozer with a wrecking ball attached, he’ll leave a ring around your eyes and thread marks on your back ….” – aptly describes the Kiwi lock’s destructive abilities and he is probably the most complete forward in world rugby. Ireland simply have to improve to compete and Devin Toner’s selection sees a return to fundamentals. Parity in the lineout will be a victory for Ireland. 

There is just the slightest feeling that New Zealand were complacent going to the junket in Soldier Field and that Ireland caught them unawares. They would have been satisfied two weeks later when a show of equal parts brilliance and brutality restored the normal order. However, just nine months later the core of that Irish team played a vital role in earning the Lions a draw in New Zealand and proving for the first time to this New Zealand team that there’s more to the Northern Hemisphere than Sky Sports embarrassingly hyperbolic pre-match coverage. It feels as if Joe Schmidt’s side want to use Saturday night to show that this team is here to stay as a threat to New Zealand and that all has changed utterly.

Gerry Thornley rightly pointed out earlier this week that this encounter should be enjoyed as a standalone contest and thoughts of the World Cup should be eschewed for the night. And, while this is a fair point everyone will remember England’s statement victories over Australia and New Zealand in 2002 en-route to their victory in Australia the following year. Ireland have already ticked the box of a series victory south of the equator so imagine the impact a victory over the double world champions would have a mere ten months out from the World Cup in Japan. Particularly when you consider that if everything goes according to plan, the sides will be meeting again on an autumn night in Tokyo.

New Zealand will try to step on Ireland’s throat early and silence what will be a rarely animated home crowd so Ireland need to be prepared for brutality in the opening exchanges. More importantly the home team need to solidify the set piece as if they get on the wrong side of Wayne Barnes, Jonathan Sexton and Peter O’ Mahony will become crankier than usual.

It’s hard to remember an Irish rugby match being so hyped. These occasions rarely deliver on expectations, though, and the feeling is that New Zealand will shade this contest by the width of an offside line.

S.U.S. Prediction – New Zealand by 3

Tips

  1. Ireland +6 @ 10/11
  2. Ireland half time/New Zealand full time @ 6/1

 

Advertisements
Standard
November Internationals, November Internationals 2018, Rugby, Rugby Union

Ireland v Argentina Preview

Last week’s largely unnecessary return to Soldier Field may have proved an on-field success for Ireland but when viewed on the whole the journey appears to have been largely pointless. Were the IRFU trying to give an opportunity to the diaspora to see Ireland play our least competitive Six Nations opponent or did they sense what now appears to be a relatively unsuccessful attempt to make money? Couldn’t this game have taken place before a full house at Thomond Park against one of the Pacific Island nations, who are crying out for opportunities  to play meaningful games against top tier opposition? And what about the carbon footprint?

Of course, you hear the usual nonsense about growing the game – the lip service regarding the Pacific Nations comes to mind – but it’s very unlikely that kids on the South Side of Chicago ripped off their Bulls and Bears jerseys to see what all the fuss was about in the barely half full Soldier Field last Saturday afternoon.

There were positives some to the trip to be fair. Jordi Murphy got to enjoy a night at the United Centre, we witnessed more of the carefree, attacking brilliance of Jordan Larmour and Tadhg Beirne continued on his ascent to becoming one of the best second rows in European rugby. But was the trip really necessary? Is a 4000 mile round trip entering one of the busiest phases of the season really conducive to the welfare of the players? Only time will reveal, of course, but in the short term it appears that Larmour and Beirne were the big winners against a weakened Italian selection who, unfortunately, do not appear to be closing the gap on their European rivals.

TB

Tadhg Beirne has given Joe Schmidt some very welcome selection issues in the second row. (photo courtesy of the Irish Mirror)

Ireland’s relentless ascendancy up the World Rankings – not like 2007’s flash in the pan – means that all eyes have moved to the contest with the double world champions, New Zealand, on Saturday week. However, it would be remiss to ignore the upcoming challenge of an Argentinian side that put in its best ever performance in this year’s Rugby Championship, culminating in victories over South Africa in Mendoza and Australia on the road.

Unlike Ireland, the Argentinians have scuffled around the World Rankings in between World Cups, rarely bedeviled by the notion of facing one of the traditional big three (or Ireland) at the World Cup. We have an unusual obsession with the World Rankings which, admittedly, stems from a time when our place in the top eight was far from assured. While we have seen ‘ the Golden Generation’ and the deepest squad in Irish rugby history falter at various stages, Los Pumas with their fusion of confrontational forward play and expressive movement in the backs have now competed in two of the last three Rugby World Cup semi-finals.

The natural and slightly irritating consequence – we’re as guilty as anyone – of Ireland’s recent success is that contests against Argentina are viewed as games Ireland will win comfortably because, well, the only side better than Joe Schmidt’s team are New Zealand. Argentina caused real problems for New Zealand on both of the occasions they met this year, moving the Kiwis around relentlessly, changing the point of attack and finding holes in the New Zealand defence quite regularly. It is of course testament to the World Champions that victory was achieved relatively comfortably in the end but this isn’t the week to sing their praises.

Argentina made a potentially questionable call in choosing to omit those players who ply their trade in Europe from selection for the national team.  Given the size of their playing base this is quite an extraordinary move and there is no point or sense in drawing similarities with the policies mirrored in Ireland and New Zealand. When Argentina qualified for the semi-final in 2007 only seven of their squad played their club rugby at home. By 2015, just eight of their squad plied their trade in the European leagues.

Admittedly, the selection policy over overseas based players is set in mud as the most recent Rugby Championship saw players slowly return to the fold but if the aim is to produce an international squad drawn largely from home based players, then the policy has stuttered its way to effectiveness. Argentina had admittedly been pretty awful prior to this summer but it appears that once their confidence lifts lift their game returns almost immediately. They either have unflinching confidence, the ability to only look forward or a combination of both but with the World Cup less than 12 months out, Argentina are once more a dangerous opponent.

While Conor Murray’s status remains up in the air, Saturday evening provides a huge opportunity for Kieran Marmion to stake his claim to potentially start against New Zealand and then lock down a place in the 23 for this year’s Six Nations. Joe Schmidt, like all coaches, has his preferred players who generally earn his respect after doing a job when called upon in trying circumstances. When people think back to Ireland’s victory over England in 2017 that thankfully prevented Eddie Jones side from matching New Zealand’s winning streak, they may forget that it was Marmion who came in at relatively short notice and performed outstandingly well. Similarly, in 2016 and with the Irish backline ravaged by injury, Marmion unexpectedly played 40 minutes on the wing and somehow managed to prevent the winning score going in down his flank. The point is Marmion has been there and done it for Schmidt and given there is a width of paper between Marmion, Luke McGrath and John Cooney – the latter has the highest ceiling in our view – it’s no surprise that he’s starting on Saturday night.

Another making his return to the starting line-up is the rarely seen, Sean O’ Brien. We all know at this stage that O’ Brien is a force of nature when fully fit but that sight has become more and more of a rarity these days. If the Tullow man can somehow run through an injury free 12 months which will have to be aided by luck and judicious selection by the Leinster coaching staff, Ireland will arguably possess the best back row of any team appearing at the World Cup. O’ Brien’s performance, effectively off the couch, in 2016 against New Zealand confirmed everything we already knew but two years have elapsed since then and he now has formidable, proven opposition for his place in the shape of Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy. Van der Flier excelled, admittedly against largely disinterested opposition last week and Leavy himself is just back from injury but a big seven days for O’ Brien could see him entrenched once more as Ireland’s first choice number seven. If his body can withstand the rigours of the Latin and Antipodean grindhouses, then it bodes well for his chances in 2019.

Rob Kearney’s absence gives Jordan Larmour the opportunity to state his case in a game that will provide far greater insight into the 22 year old’s fundamentals at the back. While Andrew Conway may feel slightly disappointed, Larmour’s audaciousness last week – he’s in heat check territory at the moment- means he thoroughly deserves his chance tomorrow.

There’s a nice balance to the Irish back line – Marmion has intimate knowledge of his centres’ game –  and Argentina spent the southern winter throwing the ball around so for once, Cardiff in 2015 excepted, the contest between these two teams may flow. Argentinian winger, Bautista Delguy, has garnered plaudits for his performances throughout this year’s Super 15 tournament and it would be wonderful if two enthralling young talents were the talk of the game afterwards.

The annual peddling of the line that the European sides are at the start of their seasons and therefore ‘cold’ rings less and less valid these days, at least for Ireland. This side resembles the 15 that Schmidt has picked for the last 18 months and by all accounts players entrenched in Joe Schmidt’s camps are extraordinarily well prepared. At this stage, barring injuries, there are probably five positions up for grab on the starting fifteen so the de facto World Cup trials start tomorrow evening.

For Larmour, in particular, the challenges will come thick and fast from hereon. His footwork and pace made everyone sit up and take notice but Joe Schmidt will be honed in on the fundamentals of the 21 year old’s game, particularly when Rob Kearney has been a near permanent fixture in Schmidt sides. Larmour, like his team mates, is not short on composure though and the home side should ease to victory here.

S.U.S. Prediction – Ireland by 12

Tips

  1. Jonathan Sexton anytime try scorer @ 7/2
  2. Andrew Conway last try scorer @ 8/1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard
Golf, Open Championship 2018

Open Championship 2018 – Preview

It’s always difficult in the wake of a World Cup, particularly one as enthralling as this one, to raise ourselves up off the canvas and get back to the mundanity of the regular sporting year. Still, the Open Championship/British Open – whichever you’re having –  is a more than satisfactory quick fix in the wake of France’s victory in Russia.

With this year’s extraordinary hurling championship taking a week off and the Super 8s already a damp squib as predicted, Golf’s oldest major championship takes centre stage this week at Carnoustie. Despite Tiger’s return, which has actually been better than expected, the golfing year has been relatively humdrum to date. The Masters fizzed briefly on Sunday before the PGA Tour’s greatest pantomime villain prevailed, while Shinnecock Hills was memorable more for the contempt the players displayed towards the course and the USGA.

No one has grabbed 2018 by the scruff of the neck and despite the supposed intrigue of watching a multitude of bland young Americans repel a resurgent Tiger, something is missing. While Tiger’s return was an extraordinary boon for the sport, he has performed as a top 30 tour pro.

While Tiger’s spot as the all-time greatest is hard to contest, the game really needs Rory McIlroy to snap out of his relative malaise.  The Northern Irishman’s inability to add to his haul of four majors, the drought now stretching to four years, increasingly becomes a point of conjecture as each major rolls around. Of course, the use of the word drought in the circumstances could be perceived as lazy hyperbole but the 2014 edition of McIlroy rightly drew comparisons with Tiger and this being the case, the yardstick applied is major victories and not merely success at regular tour events. McIlroy himself has acknowledged that at the rate he was winning majors, four years “seems like a long time”.

The reality is that none of McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jason Day and particularly defending champion, Jordan Spieth have enjoyed even temporary periods of dominance this year meaning the year’s most talked about moment was the victory for the much-maligned Patrick Reed at Augusta. From a business and viewing perspective, Tiger’s return obviously makes 2018 a bumper year for the PGA but on course, there has been little to get excited about. The majors generally shape the year but this year’s Masters and US Open will be remembered mostly for the unpopularity of their winner and host course, respectively.

However, with Carnoustie likely to play sympathetically to the big, and sometimes wayward, hitters, – McIlroy indicated that he and Jon Rahm simply took the rough out of play in practice on Monday by employing the driver –  the course having played host to some extraordinary moments in Open history and Tiger’s ever-narrowing window, the sense is that the 147th renewal of the Open Championship should add brio to an otherwise unremarkable year.

Our most vivid memories viewing golf consist of Tiger’s evisceration of the field and the course in Augusta 1997, the same man’s one-legged and most likely last major victory over Rocco Mediate in 2008 and the truly incredible, heart-breaking meltdown suffered by Jean van de Velde at Carnoustie in 1999.

That Paul Lawrie actually won the tournament that year has become a mere footnote in time with the infamous shot of Van de Velde standing in the drain, pants rolled up to his knees, perhaps contemplating the cruel machinations of life now an iconic part of golf history. The moment, though truly harrowing for the Frenchman, managed to capture the perverse beauty of golf, a grown man barefoot in a drain wondering why the fuck he chose that club while millions watch on in sympathetic exasperation. While the moment was truly ridiculous, there was (with apologies to the great, Derek Mahon) also something sublime at the heart of Van de Velde’s actions that day.

Of course, Carnoustie also played host to Padraig Harrington’s first major victory, when once again the Barry Burn, crossing the approach to the 18th green, almost brought ruin to the chances of the most delightfully bonkers man in professional golf. Harrington somehow regrouped and saw off a petulant Sergio Garcia via playoff to spark an incredible run and perhaps the most remarkable, and unnecessary, swing change of all time.

Despite the run of dominance of Americans in the majors – five in a row and 14 of the last 20 – we’re going more Eurocentric with our picks but first a look at the honourable mentions. Favourite, Dustin Johnson’s availability at a price of 12/1 confirms both market uncertainty and a lack of a truly dominant force in 2018.

Tiger Woods (25/1)

At 25/1, Tiger probably represents a slightly more realistic price than on his return at Augusta when his odds were cut to less than half that price despite almost a decade out of contention at major championships. Unquestionably the most famous sportsman in this writer’s lifetime, there may be one last big one left in Tiger. It seems bizarre that people still marvel at the fact that Tiger was a complete asshole while all the time giving Phil Mickelson a free pass. That is until the big Californian showed his depraved, nasty streak by intentionally drawing a two-stroke penalty at Shinnecock Hills.

With the two set to engage in a $20 million head-to-head, sadly not on their own dime, a win for either would bring added lustre to a wholly unnecessary event. Tiger seems the more locked in of the two and he’s slowly coming to the boil but without the explosiveness and intimidatory skills of old, a 15th major seems a bridge or burn too far.

Rory McIlroy (18/1)

Four years ago McIlroy’s ceiling seemed boundless but his downward spiral to the oblivion of eighth in the world suggests the once anticipated era of total domination may be beyond the County Down man. Rather than catch Nicklaus or Tiger, McIlroy may just have to settle for being one of the ten greatest players ever. His round with Rahm appears to have piqued his confidence but without evidence of any sustained period of consistency on the greens, it’s difficult to believe that this is the week when McIlroy gets it right again.

Brooks Koepka (20/1)

There was a time when we slavishly punted on Koepka, picking up fairly regular each way money safe in the knowledge that he’d come good in a major sooner rather than later. And he did, just after we’d stopped showing faith in him. A resilient, massively composed defence of his US Open title last month means Koepka has thrown his hat into the ring as a genuine star and his Open form is extremely promising. However, we’ve built an ailing gambling career on a stubborn refusal to backtrack so, if victorious, Koepka will somehow have to try and enjoy victory this week in the knowledge that Straight Up Sport abandoned him before he made it big.

STRAIGHT UP SPORT PICKS

  1. Alex Noren (25/1)

Noren appears here as a form pick – winner in Paris two weeks ago – and with his best Open finish (6th) coming last year, the Swede merits serious consideration this week. Often a high quality, though slightly undervalued player, hits form in the month leading up to a major and Noren may well just fit that bill this week. A very popular gambling pick this week as evidenced by the rapid shortening of his price so at least if he fails in his quest for victory, a few of the more ikey gamblers will go down with you.

  1. Francesco Molinari (28/1)

The Italian veteran appeared to be faltering somewhat right up until the middle of last year. However, Molinari has seen a remarkable resurgence of late, culminating in a first and tied-second at his most recent starts, The Quicken Loans National and John Deere Classic, respectively. The 35-year-old has form on both sides of the Atlantic this year with a victory on the European Tour this year at Wentworth in May. Molinari always ranks toward the back of the pack in driving distance but is remarkably accurate and has tons of birdies in his armoury. If one of the leading lights came into the Open with a portfolio of work like this for 2018, they’d be half this price so the Italian looks a great each-way option.

  1. Henrik Stenson (25/1)

Removed himself from the ‘Greatest Never to Win a Major’ conversation with an incredibly dominant performance at Royal Troon in 2016. Accurate iron play, two top sixes in this year’s previous majors and allied to his victory in 2016, Stenson has placed in the top three on four separate occasions at the open.  Of this week’s field, only Tiger boasts a better record in the Open Championship.

  1. Jon Rahm (20/1)

The inevitable victory for Jon Rahm at a major will lead to a plethora of shit headlines: “Rahm Slam”…. “Rahmpant Rahm…..” but a wordplay-friendly name isn’t the only reason we’ve focused on the weirdly American accented, Spaniard. He’s a bomber, has an extremely impressive GIR percentage and putts well. Indeed, if a few more had dropped on the Sunday in Augusta, we wouldn’t have had to sit through the most muted green jacket presentation in history. Though he’s yet to leave any mark on this tournament, Rahm was victorious in Ireland last year and acquitted himself admirably during his defence earlier last month. There’s no question that Rahm will win a major before long and this week offers a tantalising opportunity. Either way, we won’t be making the same mistake we made with Koepka.

633039022-612x612

Though still only 23, Jon Rahm looks primed to pick up his maiden, major victory this week.

 

Of the four picks, Noren and Molinari’s respective odds have probably slimmed down just a little too much but their form is irresistible. Stenson is hard to ignore when you consider the bare facts while Rahm, at just 23, is already pounding on the door.

Rahm has been one of the most consistent performers this year, like Molinari achieving victory on both the flagship tours and, despite the limited sample size, his game appears suited to links courses. Given his ability, form and reasonably attractive odds, we’ll side with the Spaniard to break the US stranglehold on the major championships.

However, as recent history has confirmed at Carnoustie there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip so don’t be surprised if the Barry Burn once more has the final say come Sunday evening.

Standard
Rugby, Six Nations, Six Nations 2018

Six Nations 2018: Ireland v Scotland Preview

As the snow began to melt and normality returned, sport came back into our lives with a bang. In Brooklyn, Deontay Wilder’s savage knockout of Luis Ortiz brought the highly anticipated heavyweight fight with Anthony Joshua one step closer.

Meanwhile, in London, the findings of the British Parliament’s Digital, Cultural, Media and Sports Committee mean David ‘Marginal Gains’ Brailsford and his sanctimonious bull shit has hopefully come to an end. Incidentally, these marginal gains appear to be the alleged manipulation of the use of TUEs to provide Team Sky’s members with in-competition advantages over their rivals. Parallels could be drawn here with that thing athletes do where they illicitly take medicines that make them perform better than other athletes. The Queen might yet regret handing out that knighthood.

Coupled with the hapless F.A. chief executive Martin Glenn’s bracketing of The Star of David with ISIS and images of Robert Mugabe and it’s proven a less than fantastic week for English sporting administrators. And, any sort of a slip up in Paris on Saturday evening will punctuate what would be a fantastically tough week for English sport.

MD

“But I thought images of Robert Mugabe and The Star of David meant the exact same thing.”

However, in the meantime, we need to mind our own house. The players return for the penultimate weekend of the Six Nations where, with a little help from France, Ireland could sew up the Six Nations Championship with a week to spare. Some quarters implied last week that if Ireland win the Championship on Saturday but fail to wrap up the Grand Slam the following week in a stadium where they haven’t tasted victory for eight years then an air of anti-climax would be attached. It’s obviously conjecture at this stage but perspective shouldn’t really be a defining aspect as to whether something is an objective success or not.

If Ireland lose at home to Scotland next week and then win in Twickenham would that really be a better way to win the championship? The last thing Ireland want is for an ebullient Scottish side, who they will face next autumn in Japan, to enjoy back to back victories over them so close to the World Cup. And so, with this in mind, perhaps it’s best to focus on Saturday’s visitors who have just enjoyed vital and hugely impressive victories over France and England respectively.

This year’s tournament has been the best in a number of years not least because each contest, with the exception of those involving the Italians, has provided extremely interesting style clashes and therefore compelling and tight contests. England employed brawn against Wales but still relied on two moments of magic to overcome the resolute visiting challenge. Ireland, however, thrived through similar means, regularly laying down the gauntlet to the Welsh up front and largely overpowering their opponents.

Meanwhile, the Scottish denied England’s robust ball carriers the opportunity to make inroads by deploying a more mobile, agile pack which caused destruction at the breakdown. Against Ireland, Wales saw virtually no ball, yet cut their hosts apart at will and would have probably won the game if they had patiently gone through the hands during the frantic end game.

Which is to say that all teams have displayed flaws in their game thus far and come St Patrick’s Day week, the consequences of Johnathan Sexton’s drop goal in Paris should be keenly felt.

Soccer has long since been recognised as the game where the sides possessed of superior technical can boss games by retaining the ball, tiring out the opposition and striking when the opportunity presents itself. However, possession in soccer is predicated almost entirely on technical ability.

Rugby is, of course, a possession-based game and without stressing the abundantly obvious – while then doing so – you can’t score without the ball. However, retention of possession in rugby poses manifest difficulties, not least because maintaining control of the ball requires far more physical effort and in a lazy and obvious comparison with soccer, quick turnover ball allows the opposition to counter quickly.

Teams have largely taken the more conservative approach of clearing their lines at the earliest opportunity though, unlike in the past, clearances are either smashed down the middle of the field or shortened somewhat to allow the chasing back three make an aerial challenge to retain possession. So while having the ball is important, where you have it is of greater import.

However, Ireland are led by a man in Joe Schmidt who possesses an unmatched obsession with retaining the ball. The catch of course, when in possession, is the risk of literally losing the ball or conceding penalties at the breakdown. And it is thus that Schmidt has coached his players, particularly the back row in its various combinations, to be peerless in the tackle area. Saturday’s contest with Scotland is intriguing as the visitors were so dominant against England at the breakdown, an area where Ireland have been the tournament’s standard bearers thus far.

J Sch

Joe Schmidt’s coaching has allowed Ireland enjoy soccer-like levels of possession in this year’s tournament.

Ireland are genuinely enjoying near-Barcelona like levels of possession and the difficulty in maintaining these levels cannot be overstated. So, will the Scottish trio of Hamish Watson, John Barclay and Ryan Wilson, rightly lauded after their historic win over Eddie Jones’s side, be able to succeed where the much-touted Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler couldn’t?

Scotland figured very quickly that Nigel Owens was going to reward the tackler a fortnight ago and while England could grumble, they displayed a clear inability to respond in-game. Barclay and Watson produced probably their best performances in a Scotland jersey securing vital turnover penalties and generally proving a thorn in the English back row’s lumbering sides, negating the latter’s size with superior speed and technique.

Ireland’s pack will provide a markedly different challenge for the Scottish and it would be a great surprise if they were able to create anywhere near the same frenzy at the breakdown. The concern of course, from an Irish perspective and based on numerous reviews of the Welsh game, is that the Scottish may only require a limited but quick supply of ball to wreak havoc out wide.

Last year in Edinburgh, Scotland made attacking look laughably easy in the first half, with the Irish defence retreating continually, allowing their hosts to make huge gains and putting the defensive line on the back foot. There were almost shades of the passiveness which prompted the World Cup downfall. Ireland were admittedly without their lynchpin at ten that day but it would be remiss of us to ignore the potential pitfalls that await if Scotland enjoy early possession and Ireland fail to repair the sometimes gaping hole so evident in the outside defensive channel.

The revolving door at number thirteen welcomes in perhaps the most lauded centre in Irish rugby in Garry Ringrose, who to date has endured a season stultified by injuries to shoulder and ankle. Ringrose is one of those players who despite his absence and lack of any real form pre-injury, you would back to slot back into the Irish system with relative ease.

Before Jordan Larmour, there was the Ringrose hype-train and the latter’s development into a truly top quality centre has only been delayed by this injury-interrupted season. There have been flashes in recent seasons, no more so than as against Clermont last April, of a truly outstanding talent but an injury-free run will be vital to allow the twenty-three-year-old force his way into a suddenly crowded Irish midfield. As is often the case though, an injury is the best friend of the next man up and with Chris Farrell’s season so cruelly ended, Bundee Aki will combine with his third partner of the spring. If Ringrose does click with Aki, particularly defensively, then perversely given the length of his absence, he has a huge opportunity to take tentative rights to the Irish thirteen jersey.

That Aki has swiftly become the rock in midfield owes to both his impressive adaptation to the Irish system and the influential presence of Johnny Sexton on his inside. It has been in the outside channels that errors have occurred and the wide men, particularly Jacob Stockdale, will have to trust their inside defenders. If there is even a hint of uncertainty, Scotland will pounce, with one of the tournament’s star performers, Huw Jones, offering a persistent threat with ball in hand. Outside Jones, Lions Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour are due big attacking performances so if Ireland’s effort to cut ball off at the source fails, then there’d best be no uncertainty out wide.

Though Andrew Porter excelled against Scotland, there is no question that the return of Tadhg Furlong strengthens Ireland’s powerful forward unit. And while some eyebrows may have been raised by Iain Henderson’s selection among the replacements, his presence serves to strengthen a bench whose arrival has often led to chaotic periods where Ireland have struggled mightily, particularly in defence. The Bench Mob they are not.

It’s unclear how long Furlong will last though he is a consistent 70-minute player and there is no way he would be risked if his hamstring hasn’t healed fully. Porter has been outstanding but Furlong is a Lion, has been a mainstay for almost two years now and offers an excellent link between backs and forwards. As good as Scotland were against the English, there is a sense that Ireland can dominate this pack physically, all without losing any of the ferocious aggression and intensity at the breakdown. If Scotland don’t have much ball and particularly if Ireland don’t concede quick turnover ball, then it’s hard to see where the visitors will cause the damage.

TF

Fit again, Tadhg Furlong, provides a welcome boost to what has already been a dominant Irish pack.

Having said this, there is no way Schmidt will direct his team to keep it tight at all costs and there has been plenty of evidence as provided by Teddy Thomas and a host of Welshman that the Scottish are far from impervious out wide. Ireland won’t be inviting a shoot-out but they will have absolute confidence in themselves to break this Scottish line. And given all the plaudits that have been laid at the Scottish feet this week, Ireland’s back three will be keen to show they’re not just there to contest kicks and hit rucks.

Ultimately, when it comes down to it, Ireland have the best half-back pairing in the tournament against a decent scrum half and a mercurial ten. Russell may have provided the pass of the year a fortnight ago but his bag is invariably mixed and until such time as he displays consistency – which sadly trumps off-the-cuff play – Scotland cannot be favoured in a match like this.

It’s not quite the scorched earth policy but deny Scotland the ball and Ireland will win. Sure, Scotland thrilled against England but, for now, don’t believe the hype.

S.U.S. Prediction – Ireland by 12

Tips: (i) Garry Ringrose MOTM @ 16/1

           (ii) Jordan Larmour Last Tryscorer @ 10/1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standard
Ireland v Wales, Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations, Six Nations 2018

Six Nations 2018: Ireland v Wales Preview

Even when you account for hyperbole – because we all love the Six Nations – this year’s tournament has been enthralling thus far. Three out of six games have been tight affairs, four teams have left themselves in the mix for the championship and France are a mess once more.

Given what’s gone before, it’s fitting that the remaining contenders face off this weekend in Dublin and Edinburgh, respectively. Scotland, fuelled by as yet unsubstantiated self-confidence entertain the heretofore efficient England. This game offers a genuine opportunity to the Scottish to justify their hype while the English will be looking to quieten any suggestions that their back play has become sluggish and predictable.

While proceedings get under way in Paris tonight, the weekend truly kicks off on Lansdowne Road on Saturday afternoon. Warren Gatland, whose star has perhaps never shone so brightly, brings a gradually healing Welsh squad to Dublin looking to continue his excellent recent record against Ireland. Ireland, who have watched the bodies hit the floor this week are still seven-point favourites and that should immediately sound the alarm bells.

With the IRFU’s recent blanket ban on the dailies’ news conference, all the talk has been of the importance of the freedom of the press and the perceived pettiness of some of Ireland’s largest sporting bodies and individuals.

MON

“Down with those probing questions” (photo courtesy of The Irish Times)

Unfortunately, in a situation like this it generally falls to ‘which side are you on’ as some believe it is the team’s duty to report to the media and provide sufficient access while others believe the media – whose work they ingest on a daily basis – do not deserve any access and constantly look to find baseless stories to propagate their clickbait. We’re of the view that the team should be obliged to provide comment for the media as, whether they like it or not, they generally profit from media coverage.

Interviews are largely and understandably banal now and many people have pointed that sporting organisations are attempting to control their own media in-house. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of very interesting characters are forced to provide vacuous content for their own employer’s online platform. Still, while places like Twitter and The White House would suggest that humanity has regressed irreparably, there remain enough people both interested and intelligent enough to seek their news elsewhere.

The myth that the media always enjoyed a good relationship with sporting organisations is brilliantly debunked in author Mark O’ Brien’s article which appeared in Monday’s Irish Times. The GAA, always ahead of the trend, was the first to chastise and indeed ban journalists from games when the latter had the neck to report incidences of violence in hurling and Gaelic football in the 1950s. According to The Irish Times, the great Christy Ring’s strike to the head of Tipperary’s Tom Moloughney ‘added no lustre to Ring’s reputation’ and when D. Hickey of the Irish Independent expanded on Ring’s ‘deplorable’ act, he was subsequently refused entry to the Cork Athletic Grounds to cover the county final. And to think of the abuse poor Tommy Walsh used to get for creatively devising ways to win the high ball.

Yet, while this is clearly not the first time the sports press have been blackballed, it is symptomatic, as has been pointed out on a number of occasions this week, of a growing intolerance of the sports media. Sports reporting may be less urgent and vital than that of current affairs but it is somewhat disappointing that we as consumers should have to accept the heavy-handed actions of sporting bodies.

No one wants to hear the watered down views of the IRFU or FAI and like it or not, the media plays a hugely important role in promoting sport. Nobody expects absolute candour but between the IRFU’s stonewalling and Martin O’Neill’s unusual approach to Tony O’ Donoghue, an air of militancy has crept into Irish sport.

 

It may not affect the end product all that much though as the general antipathy towards journalists in soccer hasn’t prevented the production of excellent journalism. Also, it’s a near certainty that you could count the memorable or insightful post-match interviews you’ve heard on one hand. Coaches offer next to nothing of interest in interviews and players are far more revealing, and less exhausted, in a one on one setting.

Further, one could argue that the incredibly closed shop of Irish rugby prohibits any of the established journalists from writing what they think when the team underperforms. Or, just generally. You can’t blame the established rugby writers for picking their words carefully but the lack of critique is sometimes grating. And this current ban can’t actually prevent individual players giving interviews, ones that will be far more interesting than anything Joe Schmidt or Simon Easterby usually deliver? Nonetheless, while the recent IRFU ban has ironically led to countless column inches, the end result will most likely be of negligible effect to the production of thoughtful, informative sports journalism.

To this weekend’s main event and the visit of an ominously improving Welsh side. Warren Gatland, long the shade-throwing, instigator has declined donning his troll cap this week. So long the pantomime villain in this piece, the 54 year-old has thrown precious few barbs in Ireland’s direction this week.

Gatland once again confirmed himself as an outstanding coach with the Lions drawn series in New Zealand last summer. For years, supporters and media alike criticised his unsophisticated approach, then encapsulated in the famous ‘Warrenball’ term. The term, though not without merit, is overly simplistic as the game changed together with the personnel at Gatland’s disposal but two Grand Slams and a Six Nations Championship in the Kiwi’s decade in charge represents an exceptional return.

Perhaps coinciding with the rise of Wayne Pivac’s thrilling Scarlets side, Wales openly stated this past summer that their playing style was going to change to a more expansive approach. In their tournament opener against Scotland – who had hyped themselves mightily all week- the Welsh provided a high-octane display, kept the ball in hand and in play for extended periods and seared through the Scottish defence seemingly at will. As impressive as that Scarlets inspired display was, the effort in defeat in Twickenham was even more laudable. Down eight Lions before kick-off and 12 points shortly thereafter, Wales kept England scoreless the rest of the way home and were unlucky not to take more from the refortified stadium.

 

Wales conceded a total of two penalties in that game thus negating Owen Farrell’s prolific boot so the question is just how exactly will Ireland break the visitors down on Saturday? Paris was wet and the Italian game revealed little so Ireland will have to think outside of the English box if they are to break down this exceptional Welsh wall. Both last year and in Cardiff three years ago, Ireland huffed and puffed relentlessly but with little invention and they were ultimately thwarted on the back of an outstanding defensive effort.

The most recent Welsh defensive effort in London allied to their breakdown work which improved as the game went on should provide Ireland with plentiful food for thought particularly when Ireland, no more than any other side admittedly, live and die by the speed and quality of their ruck ball.

More ominously, Ireland will have to deal without Tadhg Furlong in a major game for the first time in eighteen months and though Andrew Porter looks a fine player, he is being asked to replace the best tighthead prop in the world against a scrum that gradually gained superiority over the English a fortnight ago. While it is perhaps unfair to presume Porter will struggle in this department, tighthead props don’t generally ease themselves into the international game and Ireland will now have to seek parity, at best, in an area that has become a real asset in recent seasons.

AP

Andrew Porter has been tasked with filling the boots of Tadhg Furlong. (photo courtesy joe.ie)

Allied to Furlong’s absence is the more unexpected loss of Iain Henderson, the man who has grown fully into his role at the core of this Irish pack. Henderson has been brilliant all season, despite Ulster sometimes resembling Albert Square this year, and his aggression and ability to make a big play, in particular, will be sorely missed. Robbie Henshaw’s season-ending injury denies Ireland of a trio of its core players.

Two things are worth noting here, however. Wales, bedraggled by injuries all season will give less than a shit about Ireland’s current predicament, while more importantly the chastening Argentinian defeat in October 2015 always prefaced the day when Ireland would need to confirm the new found squad depth, which Joe Schmidt rightly identified as lacking.

Coaches are far more pragmatic than supporters in the wake of crucial injuries. It’s part of the job so they must be. And, in light of Ireland’s exit from the World Cup, Joe Schmidt has worked tirelessly to create genuine depth throughout his squad. The general perception is that Johnny Sexton still remains irreplaceable and Conor Murray is loitering near this classification also. Could this change after Saturday?

With the exception of Australia in November 2016, which came only a year after the World Cup, Saturday offers the greatest challenge to Ireland’s depth since 2015. Three players – Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Chris Farrell – with a combined 11 caps between them will play integral roles if Ireland are to overcome a resurgent and tireless Welsh side that has just welcomed three Lions, Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams back into the fold.

Biggar will bring physicality, structure and a quality kicking game at number ten but he lacks the creativity and running threat of the man he replaces, Rhys Patchell. It would be impossible to omit Biggar but his inclusion suggests Wales may revert to a robust approach.  The visitors will gladly invite Ireland into a street fight of sorts and the panache with which they despatched Scotland is unlikely to surface.

Ireland, for their part, have proven time and again that they are more than able for an aggressive affair but given the moving parts, the hope is that Bundee Aki and Farrell are allowed do more than just smash it straight up the middle. This tactic has proven pointless of late against Wales and if the penalty count is low again, Ireland won’t be able to rely on creating platforms from lineout mauls deep in Welsh territory.

Ireland’s hopes will still live and die on the quality of performance from Johnathan Sexton and Conor Murray. It seems a bit obvious to state this but given how tight this game will be, the home side will probably require their stars to guide them. Their performances should be raised by the fact that they are facing the second best half-back pairing in the tournament.

SextonMurray

As Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton go, so go Ireland. (photo courtesy of rugbylad.ie)

The packs match up very evenly, similarly the back lines, where the returning Liam Williams is set for an enthralling contest with the Six Nations form winger, Keith Earls. Even at the back, Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny can match each other for unfussy reliability so everything points to this game being a tight grind that will be decided by less than a score.

Roughneck affairs like this usually favour the home side, bringing the crowd into the game, and Ireland won’t for even one moment countenance being pushed around by Alun Wyn Jones’ pack. And, if this game follows the Twickenham script then the defences will be watertight, tries will be at a premium and it would be no surprise if this game is decided by a solitary moment of magic.

Dreams of a Grand Slam may still be alive come Saturday but more importantly, we’ll know for certain whether Joe Schmidt’s best-laid plans are coming to fruition.

Ireland by 3

Tips: (i) Wales + 8 and under 39.5 points @ 5/2

            (ii) C.J. Stander 1st try scorer @ 14/1

 

 

Standard
Rugby, Six Nations, Six Nations 2018

Ireland v Italy Preview: All aboard the Larmour Train

What a difference a backbreaking 41 phase sequence of plays topped off by an outrageous drop goal makes. All the contradictions of the best, annual international rugby tournament were on display last Saturday evening in Paris.

On one hand, you have the glass half empty crowd who said Johnny Sexton’s 45-metre goal drop goal was only a mask of Ireland’s considerable deficiencies. Alternatively, you had an incredibly composed phase of play that saw every single Irish player touch the ball and that was punctuated by a daring cross-kick from Sexton, superb leap and carry from Earls and of course the unerring shot from Sexton.

Whatever way you look at it, Ireland had an atrocious record in Paris, shot themselves in the foot at times, were thwarted by a slightly erratic performance from Nigel Owens yet rather than going down in a blaze of bitter recriminations put together the most patient game-winning drive in Irish, international rugby history.

Ireland have pulled off some remarkable victories down the years but Saturday was our first ever walk-off victory. And, to borrow further from baseball parlance, Johnny Sexton stood at the plate with a full count, two outs and no runners on. And, a pack that was about to die on its feet.

What’s important to remember, amidst our negativity surrounding the manner in which Ireland almost let the game slip, is that they pulled it out of the fire in barely believable circumstances.

Think about it. Lashing rain, the flightiest fans in world rugby suddenly buoyed by Teddy Thomas’ individual brilliance and a crushing scrum penalty, missed of course by Belleau. Allied to this was the fact that Ireland, though largely dominant, had yet to make a line break and were now after going more than three hours without a try in Paris. Nothing suggested Ireland were going to find a miraculous winning score.

But between Sexton’s obvious interventions, the extraordinary 34 combined involvements of CJ Stander and Ian Henderson in the last four minutes and a collective will to endure, Ireland prevailed. Of course, there’s plenty to work on but for Irish fans, particularly those who witnessed the ruthless brilliance of Sella, Blanco and Rives, victory in Paris is to be savoured. Indeed, our three victories there in the professional era have come by a total of six points, and have ultimately been decided by a late, late David Humphreys penalty, a questionable scrum decision and Sexton’s bomb.

To go back to Stander and Henderson, they are the prototypical forward required in Joe Schmidt’s high possession, bludgeoning game plan. Both appear high on the list of tackles and carries in every game, not to mention the more subtle stats, and are now vital components of this Irish side. Stander, though a very different player to Jamie Heaslip, is as unerringly ubiquitous as the latter on the field and though the explosive carries of two years ago are a rare sight now, his importance to the team cannot be understated. Ireland’s back row depth is currently being lauded and given the current absentees, this is with good reason, but the loss of Stander would be keenly felt.

With this in mind, it would seem that Stander has been saved for a cameo role on Saturday when Conor O’ Shea’s Italian side come to town. Jack Conan, so extraordinary in the latter half of last season for Leinster, gets an opportunity to impress in a Six Nations environment, and this week’s game will probably offer a decent opportunity for the 24-year-old to show his value in the open field.

Schmidt has shown due respect to the Italians with Conan’s selection the only one unenforced in the starting fifteen with James Ryan reportedly suffering a minor strain after his superb Six Nations debut. Alongside Conan, Dan Leavy, the nominal third-choice Irish openside will also relish the opportunity to explore open spaces after an hour of trench warfare in the Stade de France. This is not to disrespect Italy and while the hiding to nothing line will be wheeled out, Ireland will be expected to win well, while playing effectively within the parameters of their coach’s game. This is multi-phase, high-pressure rugby which ideally presents opportunities for a back three largely starved of opportunities a week ago.

There were early glimmers of the potential of an attacking tandem of Jacob Stockdale and Earls and with Jordan Larmour now seemingly breathing down the back three’s necks, the hope is that they get the opportunity to express themselves a little and deliver accordingly.

People have taken the turns at who to blame for Teddy Thomas’ exceptional try on Saturday. Thus far, there has been Conor Murray’s rush out of the line, a failure to communicate in behind him, a poor angle by Stockdale – one sense knives were sharpened for Stockdale regardless of what he did – and a possible misread by Kearney. Add to this a blistering turn of foot by Thomas and it’s hard to really pinpoint a culprit save to say that if defensive lines and communication were faultless seventy minutes into a gruelling contest, we would never see tries scored.

Rather than lament the French try, Ireland should and no doubt have focused on the fact that they were once more unable to breach the French line in Paris. While the French attack has largely faltered in recent seasons, their defence has remained of the highest calibre, particularly when playing at home. Italy, do not possess such a stern bulwark.

As the traditional floodgate opening took place last Sunday afternoon in Rome, the long-held belief that Italy has not advanced beyond a 60-minute team was substantiated. Though highly impressive at times in the first half, they were the architects of their own downfall – trademark Charles Stewart Parnell – when a forward pass denied a certain try and prefaced the late English onslaught.

Italy won’t be quite as buoyant for their first away trip of the campaign and Ireland will expect a vastly different contest this weekend. Schmidt and his side are not naïve enough to expect the visitors to crumble but given Andy Farrell’s defence was only breached by a moment of brilliance, it’s hard to see where the Italians will create trouble.

One area which has quietly been discussed of late has been Ireland’s inability to breach midfield and despite the paucity of traditional second centre, jinking breaks in the modern game, these concerns are not without foundation. Robbie Henshaw is an outstanding defender, a tireless carrier of the ball and a player who never seems to have a bad game. Notwithstanding these facts, however, he has yet to hit the offensive heights enjoyed both as a fullback and centre at Connacht and in the latter position for Leinster. And, even accounting for the difficulties of breaching the middle in the international game, Ireland offer perhaps offer the least threat of any of the top teams in the Six Nations in this regard.

BA

Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki have an opportunity to provide some much-needed midfield, attacking thrust.

The expectation, however, is that the damage will be done in the tight by Conan, Henderson and Murray and ultimately out wide by Earls and Stockdale. England’s Anthony Watson laid down the marker last Sunday with some blistering pace and powerful finishing so his Irish counterparts will relish the opportunity to make hay while the wintry sun shines.

Of course, the main attraction tomorrow, Jordan Larmour, will most likely spend the first hour on the bench. If given the opportunity to enter the game at fullback, the excitement in the crowd will be palpable and, though our expectations are generally excessive in these situations, these type of players do not come along very often, especially in Ireland.

Frankly, it’s difficult not to get excited when one considers the 20-year-old’s performances against Ulster twice and Munster in this years Pro-14. However, Larmour is now going to play effectively two levels up from the scene of his wondrous attacking performances. Solid if unspectacular in his Champions Cup performances, the standard is upped again, though not so much on Saturday. If you want a good insight into how heavy an expectation has been placed on Larmour to deliver, he is currently well under odds-on to score, despite being uncapped and coming off the bench.

You don’t want to sound trite but after last week’s endgame, there is sense that Irish supporters would love Wales or Scotland to be coming to town this weekend. Then, you remember that it matters little what we think and that the players went through both a physically and mentally gruelling contest only days ago. If last week proved anything, it’s that wins trump performances every time in the Six Nations.

Some bodies will be rested while others get a chance to shine on the front foot. And, perhaps, we’ll look on this game as the day an international star was born.

Straight Up Sport Prediction: Ireland by 30+

Tips: Stockdale, Earls and Larmour all to score: 3/1

           Robbie Henshaw first try scorer: 16/1

 

Standard
Irish Rugby, Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations, Six Nations 2018

Six Nations 2018 – France v Ireland Preview

Irish rugby weathered well over the winter unless you’re a dope cheat, in which case you should seemingly hang, or Ulster, who are simply all over the place. Uncharted moral high grounds were discovered by some media outlets and you’d have done well to ignore this and note that Irish teams have had their best European outings in many years.

Leinster have swept aside all that came before them, no performance more impressive than the clinical subduing of Exeter in the latter’s nigh-on impenetrable Sandy Park home. Their only wish may be that the knock out stages wasn’t so far away.

Munster, meanwhile, though not without the odd hiccup along the way, seized control in Leicester in December and rounded off the group stage with aplomb with Johann van Graan and Felix Jones more expansive game plan coming to the fore.

Meanwhile, as Connacht have shown incremental improvements of late, with the form of the 2016 Pro 12 winning back-three a real boon, Ulster have regressed and more than four months into an unusually disrupted season, Les Kiss has shouldered the entire burden and been cast aside.

Thus, as the provinces go so does Joe Schmidt’s squad selection for the 2018 Six Nations with Leinster being rewarded for their outstanding start with 18 members included in the squad. Ireland’s winter was relatively injury free and the only two absentees who could potentially lay claim to a starting jersey are Garry Ringrose and the oft-absent, Sean O’ Brien. Such is Ireland’s back row depth though that O’ Brien, as dominant a presence as he can be, will not be missed so much as in recent years. Additionally, the successful reintroduction of the Robbie Henshaw-Bundee Aki midfield axis means that Ringrose will have his work cut out on his return from injury. And, this is surely just as Joe Schmidt would want it.

While only the foolish would anticipate an encounter in Paris as an easy opener to the tournament, Ireland certainly won’t arrive in their least happy hunting ground with anything like the lethargy that begot the opening 40 minutes in Murrayfield last year. Ireland may be measurably the better side at present but Paris has been witness to only two Irish victories since the advent of the professional era. This alone should place the challenge in firm focus and though Jaques Brunel has been parachuted in amidst Bernard Laporte’s ongoing game of political chess with whomever he chooses, pride alone should motivate the French.

J Brunel

New French head coach, Jaques Brunel, clearly caught up in Superbowl fever.

French rugby is a terribly unusual beast. While the IRFU may not be all that transparent, their actions appear to be in the best interests of the national side and the game in general. On the other hand, French rugby is managed and largely meddled with by the omnipotent presence of Laporte, a politician masquerading as a sports administrator. Laporte has rarely been out of the press of late but as with most overbearing, monolith administrators, the man appears to be wrapped in Teflon.

France find themselves in the unusual position of having won the 2023 RWC bid, a wonderful fillip for the country, while simultaneously watching as Laporte – whose political machinations brought the bid to fruition – makes a mockery of their game. As time has passed, Laporte has assumed the role of the ego-maniacal administrator who appears to have only a passing interest in the on-field exploits of the sports he governs. After recently, and not unreasonably, bestowing Guy Noves with the ignominy of being the first French national coach to receive his marching orders mid-contract, Laporte issued legal proceedings against the man who oversaw Toulouse’s halcyon days to deny Noves any compensation.

B Lap

FFR President, Bernard Laporte, appears to be of the self-serving class of sporting administrators.

The RFU may be pompous, the Scots and Welsh unreliable and the IRFU slightly like this, at least during the 2023 bid, but none you would imagine would display the arrogant vindictiveness which has recently been Laporte’s hallmark. Indeed, his recent self-serving move was to appoint his old friend, Jaques Brunel to take over as head coach of Les Bleus.

Brunel had an awful record as coach of Italy but has been called on by Laporte because no other serious candidates wanted the job and because they are friends, which is obviously very professional. Brunel’s greatest coaching achievement dates back to Perpignan’s 2009 Bouclier de Brennus (French Championship) victory.

A pragmatic sort could note that Noves’ Toulouse won the 2010 Heineken Cup and the Bouclier in both 2011 and 2012, all coming after Brunel’s success with Perpignan. Now, Noves clearly came to the party late with France and couldn’t call on arguably the most talented production line French club rugby had ever produced, as he had at Toulouse, but Brunel’s appointment surely raises all the objective concerns that Noves did. And Brunel is a year older and leaves his most recent club, Bordeaux-Begles in the relatively uninspiring confines of mid-table obscurity.

But anyway, let’s let the French worry about the French and look instead to Paris on Saturday where Ireland must be primed for a successful opening to the 2018 Championship. Joe Schmidt’s team will be endlessly aware that their slow start last February coupled with an overreliance on Johnny Sexton cost them victory in Murrayfield. And, as has been recently noted, Ireland’s away record of late has been fairly atrocious. Basically, there should be no grounds for complacency going into Paris on Saturday based either on historic intangibles or more recent travelling maladies.

A friend noted the other day that Joe Schmidt’s recent selections have probably raised the ire of Irish rugby supporters by offering us virtually nothing to gripe about. An entirely contented sports fan is a vulnerable animal, one whose comeuppance is always waiting patiently around the corner. Just not this weekend, hopefully.

James Ryan’s selection is the only surprise and has some people doing a 180-degree turn and wondering if the 21-year-old is ready for the Parisian cauldron, not unreasonably after his relative difficulties in Montpellier two weeks ago. Ryan clearly has immense talent and the hope is yes this is his time but, in any event, this is not the Pelous –led France of old and Japan 2019 is clearly on the horizon.

J Ryan

Highly-touted Leinster second-row, James Ryan, has been handed a slightly unexpected Six Nations starting debut. (photo: Independent.ie)

A superb 12 months for Peter O’ Mahony means he is once more a fixture alongside Munster teammate, CJ Stander and thus the selection at openside flanker came down to either Dan Leavy or Josh van der Flier. Leavy is certainly the more obviously explosive of the two but van der Flier has been a fixture of Irish squads for two years now and with his extraordinary defensive work rate, he ticks all the Schmidt criteria. The back row looks extremely balanced now and should be able to dominate the French unit of Kevin Gourdon, Yacouba Camara and Wenceslas Lauret.

With Brunel handing a test debut to nineteen-year-old Mathieu Jalibert, a precocious talent who very few will have actually seen play, the French have announced their intention to run at Ireland. The announcement will no doubt have stoked somewhat different intentions in Stander, Aki and Henshaw. And, after a few difficult encounters with Mathieu Bastereaud in the past, Johnny Sexton could readily advise Jalibert of the evening that awaits him but why ruin the surprise?

Brunel’s decision to go with Jalibert can, of course, only be judged in retrospect but it seems to be that of a man who knows he has very little to lose. Similarly the decision to hand a debut to Castres full-back, Geoffrey Palis suggests a licence for players to cut loose. Given its Brunel’s first game in charge, he can’t really be faulted for taking a risk, particularly when the French have become so downtrodden and risk averse over the last four years. Will they really be able to just flick a switch, though?

The emergence of Tadhg Furlong, resurgence of Cian Healy and relentless endurance of Rory Best mean Ireland can now count the scrum, so often the beginning of the end for Ireland in Paris, as an area of strength. With a solid set-piece platform, Conor Murray and Stander should be able to test both Jalibert and Palis in addition to the weak-when backpedalling Virimi Vakatawa.

Having had a couple of games to get reacquainted there is also the hope that Aki and Henshaw can now bring their attacking thrust of old and bring Ireland’s back three into the game. Jacob Stockdale buzzed in November, Rob Kearney showed glimpses of the attacking thrust of old and Keith Earls has picked up from last season to prove to be the sharpest offensive weapon in the Irish arsenal.  Earls is now a game breaker as well as a proven finisher, far more astute with the ball in hand and the hope is that Kearney and Stockdale can link with him as Simon Zebo does for Munster.

Ireland, you suspect, will be hyper-alert to the potential of an inexplicably strong French opening full of powerful carries and insouciant attacking play but really the latter is becoming a thing of myth now.

Ireland are better in virtually all facets of the game and  France’s turgid defeat to South Africa in November might prove a helpful though by no means infallible measure of their quality. Ireland destroyed the South Africans the week previously and while this logic is largely inaccurate, at least in team sports, it’s not unreasonable to regard France and South Africa as being at a similar level. Also, Brunel’s decision to omit the generally outstanding Louis Picamoles and the imposing Yoann Maestri already looks regrettable.

Even when you throw in the possibility of new manager bounce back, the Paris factor and Ireland’s recent away struggles, this still points to an Irish victory. Ireland have suffered at the hands of France so many times both home and away but attaching too much relevance to history can be self-defeating.

Simply put, if Ireland are as good as many of us think they are, they will win in Paris. France may have their pride but that won’t be enough.

Straight Up Sport Prediction: Ireland by 7

Odds: Ireland -6 @10/11

Tips: Ireland to win both halves @ 13/8

          Conor Murray first tryscorer @ 14/1

 

 

 

 

 

Standard