Irish Rugby, Six Nations, Six Nations 2020

England v Ireland – Preview

The mood around Irish rugby remains suitably cagey. Only three weeks ago, it was pronounced that the post-World Cup malaise remained after Ireland stumbled their way to victory over Scotland.

Seven days later they produced their best performance since 2018 in defeating a spirited but under-strength Welsh side. All told, it would be fair to say that the mood heading into Sunday’s Six Nations encounter with England is hopeful rather than expectant.

To be fair to the English, their respective oppostion get incredibly excited each time an opportunity comes around to play them at anything. The ever-popular anyone but England bandwagon moves to southwest London for a contest that will have a significant bearing on the outcome of this year’s tournament.

The build-up to Sunday’s contest game has certainly not been short on sub-plots. The righteous rugby brigade are upset that Eddie Jones antics may be fueling the perceived vitriol amonst supporters, not for one moment considering that the wider world, and booze, may have an impact on the sometimes fraught atmospheres.

The more prominent story, notwithstanding how overplayed it may be, is the fact that father and son, and former tammates, Andy and Owen Farrell, will be in opposite dressing rooms come Sunday. It’s a totally unnatural scenario, though given the almost unparalleled competitiveness of both men, perhaps just further motivation to get one over for each man.

More worryingly, Andy Farrell, brought Bono into camp this week. You’d have to wonder what insight Bono could give the team in the build up to Twickenham? What can a rugby team, built on selflessness, glean from an egomaniac with a messiah complex? Although, who knows, perhaps they’ll think of Bono and his attempts to describe what ‘Irishness’ is as they barrel into contact with Maro Itoje.

Bono, saviour of mankind and Irish rugby.

While we all focused on Ireland’s World Cup hangover, England had to focus on a far more pronounced one. Being pummelled by New Zealand in the quarter final is one thing but not many expected Ireland to come out the right of that result including, by their body language, the Irish players.

England, meanwhile, having dislodged the reigning world champions with a brilliant performance had pundits – English ones mind you – assessing, not whether England would win the final, but more specifically by how much.

England, who on so many occasions down the years appeared to relish the role of bully, met their nemesis in the rugby version of Nelson Munz, South Africa.

Admittedly, England did lose Kyle Sinckler early, and their scrum got punished from thereon. Then, with victory almost certain, South Africa turned on the style with a wonderful team try from Makazole Mapimpi complemented by a beautiful individual effort by the world’s most entertaining player, Cheslin Kolbe.

So, in the space of just seven days England went quite literally from the top to an afterthought. This team has rarely occupied the middle ground under Eddie Jones. It’s either record breaking runs and Grand Slams or punishing defeats to the “scummy Irish” or that “little shit place” known as Wales.

We should remember, however, that while Ireland have enjoyed home comforts so far is this year’s tournament, this will be England’s first appearance of the season at Twickenham.

Of course, the last time either team set foot here, England subjected the Irish to an embarassing 80 minutes which in hindsight was a fairly decent reflection of where each team stood at the time. Six months down the road, however, and the game has changed somewhat.

While Ireland have regathered – Joe Schmidt should be credited with leaving them in pretty decent shape – England made their way into Paris under the usual cloud of Jones chutzpah, an attribute that is usually lauded in victory and derided in defeat.

England rarely brought whatever Jones was promising and, given that the French feed almost pathologically off emotion, Jones’s words seemed a misstep, even with foresight.

Like him or not, Jones is an intriguing character, almost the complete opposite of Andy Farrell in the way he approaches his dealings with the media. Maybe it’s a cultural thing – Farrell is a humble, no-nonsense Northener and Jones, well, he’s Australian.

Given the unique circumstances the Farrells find themselves in this week, the Irish head coach will be quietly delighted that Jones has once more drawn the attention to himself after his bizarre comments to an English reporter on Thursday.

Jones team selction will have raised just as many eyebrows. First, he has chosen to drop Lewis Ludlam and Willi Heinz following the hard-fought victory in Murrayfield. Perhaps Ben Youngs should never have been dropped in the first place, while Courtney Lawes comes back, presumably to give England further line out options on a day when Irish hooker, Rob Herring, will likely face the gratest challenge of his career to date.

In an unusual selection, Jones has selected out an out second centre, Jonathan Joseph, on the wing, in a move that is sure to baffle many. It was only this time last year that England pulled an out of position, Robbie Henshaw, all over the field so it seems strange that Jones would opt for a non-specialist in the back three.

What he does have in the squad, in addition to a six-two split on the bench, is loads of second rows. However, all the forwards in the world won’t help is any of the English outside backs go down.

England, it is clear, intend on overrunning Ireland through sheer physicality, this gameplan ably assisted by the return of Ireland’s nemesis, Manu Tuilagi.

England are extremely difficult to repel when their big bodies start pouring forward, particularly in Twickenham. However, they’ll need good primary possession to effect this plan and while Iain Henderson’s absence for personal reasons of a happy nature denies Ireland a ball carrier, it means the introduction of Ireland’s most reliable ball winner at the lineout, Devin Toner. Ultan Dillane’s presence on the banch should counter some of the English bulk in the final quarter.

Robbie Henshaw showed flashes of attacking brilliance against Wales before a head knock forced him off and in terms of centre combinations, his and Bundee Aki’s is comfortably the most developed. Aki and Tuilagi will clash, and everyone looks forward to it, but it will be moreinteresting to see if the Irish midfield can find any chinks in the channel between Farrell and George Ford, the latter of whom is coming under increased scrutiny of late from the English media.

If Ireland can quieten the crowd early, and this may require little more than gaining parity, you’d be confident that they can turn thr tables on England from a year ago and put Joseph and Elliott Daly in some uncomfortable defensive positions.

Andrew Conway is in the form of his life, Jordan Larmour the potential to unlock a defence at any time while you suspect Jacob Stockdale is one moment away from returning to the form of 2018.

Of course, all of this will be redunant if Ireland can’t take England on up front but C.J. Stander and Tadhg Furlong look to be back to their best, while the bench, including a highly motivated Caelan Doris, has more than enough dynamism to match England’s power game late on.

Win tomorrow and a Grand Slam that not one Irish person contemplated before the season began is a real possibility.

England are a diferent animal at home but still a meeker one without the Vunipolas. They do, however, have the greatest forward depth in world rugby so Ireland won’t view Tom Curry’s presence at number eight as a weakness, more an oddity of selection on Jones’ part.

Start strong, score at least three tries and weather the inevitable storm. These are the not so simple requirements for an Irish victory. Like Wilder in Las Vegas, Ireland to land the knockout blow late.

SUS Prediction – Ireland by 3

Tips – Ireland to win @ 12/5

Ireland to win and Andrew Conway to score a try @ 13/2

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Boxing

Wilder v Fury II

When Tyson Fury rose from the canvas 15 months ago to somehow beat the count after a debilitating combo from Deontay Wilder, few thought the calendar would have to turn twice before we saw a rematch.

Boxing is not linear though, it rarely provides the fans with what they want and it is only when the big promoters and broadcasters have been fed that the fights logic dictates should occur, actually do.

2018 ended on a crescendo, its pedigree stamped by this absorbing heavyweight contest and bell-to-bell thriller between Josh Warrington and Carl Frampton in Elland Road.

2019 promised to be an exceptional year and yet there are few, even the ever ebullient and enthusiastic Steve Bunce, who would argue that the year was anything other than a damp squib.

Yes, Andy Ruiz caused one of those upsets that made the entire sporting world sit up and take note but his disappointing defeat in the rematch with Anthony Joshua in December proved that Ruiz was probably the one hit wonder many feared.

Eddie Hearn did his best to suggest Joshua reinvented the wheel in Saudi Arabia but the reality is he finished the job in December that should have been seen to in May. Joshua, of course, can’t be faulted for the nature of his victory in the rematch but the point is there have been few quality contests at the top weight this year.

That said, the one man in the top division willing to take on a truly difficult contest in 2019 was Deontay Wilder, the WBC heavyweight champion, when he faced the underrated, always feared, Cuban, Luis Ortiz.

Ortiz, who defies age on the basis that nobody has clue what age he is, has proved an intriguing prospect over the last few years. He’s a very proficient fighter, technically sound and very awkward, basically the type of fighter Anthony Joshua has taken a wide berth of at the behest of Eddie Hearn.

Wilder, though, overcame ‘King Kong’ twice, once in an enthralling back and forth fight and more recently in October with a devastating right hand, when the Alabaman had trailed on any score card compiled through sound judgment.

The debate still rages, though perhaps views will be formed more uniformly come Sunday, as to whether Wilder is, in fact, a good boxer.

Wilder has held the title for almost five years, his record in this time 9-0-1, with all nine victories coming inside the distance. Indeed, after next weekend, Wilder will have faced both Tyson Fury and Ortiz twice in just under two years. That is as tough a slate as any heavyweight fighter during that period, indeed it would stand up in any era of heavyweight boxing.

Boxing aesthetes, many self-proclaimed, suggest that Wilder has got his far through not much more than a combination of that prodigious right hand and luck. This is absolute nonsense. Perhaps in no discipline more than heavyweight boxing will an overmatched competitor be cruelly found out. Luck might get through one night unschathe, not 41.

Wilder does get tagged, more than most champions do, but all the while he is measuring the distance, establishing the distance he needs to set the feet and then, it ends.

Right-hand, rinse, repeat.

Having said all this, Wilder’s quality of opponent has elevated considerably in the past two years. The reason, though many would not acknowledge it, is that American heavyweights ceased to be a major draw after the retirement of Evander Holyfield and the end of the last great era of heavyweight boxing.

Indeed, the rise of the Klitschkos, remarkable in so many ways as they were, coincided with the demise of heavyweight boxing in America. It would be stretching credulity to suggest that the two are interconnected but whatever the case, the U.S. struggled to produce a top weight of note for more than a decade.

Then along comes the rangy Wilder, an olympic bronze medallist in 2008, who tore through a path of mostly no names until his WBC title victory in 2015.

Outside of boxing circles, Wilder remained largely unknown until his first victory over Ortiz yet it’s difficult to understand why. Bunce and Mike Costello raised this question on the excellent, Five Live Boxing Podcast earlier this week and, like many, they came to the conclusion that Wilder’s star would have shone brighter and earlier had he been handled by an old-school promoter like Bob Arum.

The Alabaman interviews extremely well, and unlike the last American to dominate boxing, Floyd Mayweather, Wilder is a straight-up, decent and compassionate family man.

Most perplexing, though, is that Wilder has everything you want in a heavyweight boxer distilled into the most alluring weapon in this savage sport – a night-ending right hand. His knockout rate is the best in heayweight history and should he prevail in Las Vegas, his stretch of defences of the WBC heavyweight title will surpass that of his, and many other people’s, hero, the incomparable Muhammad Ali. How is this man not box office gold?

Opposite him on Saturday night is a man who has never endured difficulty in courting attention. Tyson Fury is one of the most charasmatic and enigmatic characters to emerge, not just from boxing but any sport, this century.

The Englishman has not always endeared himself to the public with his highly offensive old-testament pronouncements but after a tumultuous period following his excpetional defeat of Vladimir Klitschko in 2015, he has won over many with his candour and willingness to acknowledge his past misgivings.

Moreover, Fury showed true grit and resilience in recovering from the dark psychological hole he found himself in not long after that famous victory. There are those who will never warm to Fury, and so be it, but it’s hard to deny his wit and intelligence when effortlessly engaging with the boxing media.

Further, and this is not hero-building, simply a relfection of the facts, Fury’s return from the precipice, as a man as much as a boxer, was hugely impressive.

However, in keeping with the wildly unpredictable Gypsy King’s actions, just months ago he parted ways with Ben Davison, his former trainer. Davison is widely credited with taking Fury from his lowest ebb, reinvigorating and returning him to a position, both mentally and physically, whereby he could challenge once more for heavyweight gold.

Still, boxing perhaps more than any sport, largely treats loyalty with utter disdain. It’s a violent sport, its protagonists are volatile and once a fighter feels they’re getting stale, they usually look to point the finger elsewhere. This, to be fair, is totally understandable as certain gyms focus on very specific traits.

The Ingles in Sheffield came to prominence in honing crafty fighters, focused on timing and elusiveness, their most famous protegee bing, the most exicting fighter of our childhood, Prince Naseem Hamed.

Davison himself seems an unsually astute boxing brain for a man of just 27 but he was openly criticised by Fury’s father, John, after the lineal champion’s last victory over Otto Wallin. The party line seems to be that Fury is going for a knockout in the rematch and Davison is not the man to prepare him for this outcome.

With staleness setting in on Fury, a man who you suspect needs to work constantly on staying focused, his eyes turned to Javan ‘Sugarhill’ Steward. Javan is the nephew of the legendary Emmanuel Steward, founder of the world renowned Kronk gym in Detroits in the 1970s.

The Kronk has seen countless men enter its humble environs as novices and emerge as world champions: Milton ‘Ice Man’ McCrory, Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns and Limerick’s own, Andy Lee, all wore the famed red and gold with distinction.

Fury becomes the latest man to commit himself to the ways of the Kronk, the result of a phone call with Lee at the end of 2019. That he will be joined in camp by Kronk acolyte, Lee, gives a sense of grandeur to the type of night “Manny” Steward lived for.

The Kronk as Lee, Hitman Kearns and many others can attest trains its fighters for one true outcome – the knockout. Fury has a reasonably decent record for finishes insde the distance but as the quality of opponent increases so his ability to close it out diminishes.

While he tagged Wilder a few times in the first fight, you could never say the champion was ever truly rocked. To be fair to Fury, he was comprehensively outboxing Wilder until the first kncokdown in the ninth and had it not been for the thunderous knockdown in round 12, he would be the defending champion tonight.

Round of the year – 2018

Therein lies the stark contrast between the two fighters: Fury can pick angles, defend almost perfectly, lean in on the far lighter Wilder in close exchanges, pick him off with the jab and create an insurmountable lead as early as the eight round. Wilder, in the meantime, seems only to need to work the jab and wait for one opening before pouncing.

If a road map to succss was being drawn out, Fury’s is infinitely more sustainable and yet, 41 fights later, Wilder is still working that erratic style of his and then finishing his opponent in the latter half of the fight.

There is no way Wilder wins a decision and it’s extremely difficult seeing Fury knock Wilder out, let alone put him on the canvas.

Wilder’s once-in-a-generation power is finally getting the recongition it deserves but pay attention to the ring smarts he employs to set up the shot.

Fury to dominate, Wilder to end it late in a thriller.

SUS Prediction – Deontay Wilder by KO

Tip – Wilder to win in rounds 10-12 @8/1

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Ireland v Wales, Irish Rugby, Six Nations 2020

Same as it ever was

One week down in the 2020 Six Nations and it’s easy to jump to conclusions: Ireland’s scar tissue from Japan remains, Italy show no signs of progress and a victory for anyone over England is as good as an Irish win.

We’ll look at the Ireland Wales contest in detail followed by previews for Round Two’s other fixtures: Scotland v England, and, France v Italy.

Ireland v Wales – 8th February 2:15pm, Aviva Stadium

Not many thought that Ireland would ultimately rely on a butchered try and a defiant goal-line stand to overcome Scotland in last week’s Six Nations opener.

Perhaps hubris raced past pragmatism, with public and pundits alike happy to overlook the latter stages of the World Cup, instead focusing on Ireland’s comprehensive victory in Yokohama on the tournament’s opening weekend.

Moreover, Scotland were missing their attacking dynamo, Finn Russell, and Ireland, under a new coaching ticket would be rejuveanted after a winter of relative discontent. Who knows what would have happened if Stuart Hogg hadn’t commited an error that would have under-12s coaches seething but a first game victory will be just fine for Andy Farrell.

Remember, Joe Schmidt’s first proper test – with apologies to Samoa – as Irish coach was a bit of an abomination, the home side losing 32-15 to Australia yet only eight days later, they almost made history against a record- breaking New Zealand side.

This is not to try and mirror the experience of a coach on debut but it’s probably a bit hasty to decry the new regime as turgidly stuck in the old ways. Just yet.

Farrell had relatively little time to change it up and it’s difficult to see where the spark is going to come from. Conor Murray kicked regularly and to little effect, and, while the execution can’t be laid at the feet of Farrell, the choice of tactic can.

It’s concerning that Ireland have already lost their attacking fulcrum, Garry Ringrose, to a hand injury that may yet jeopardise his particpication in the rest of this year’s tournament. Ringrose looked sharp in the few opportunities presented his way and he tends to really come to life as defences tire late on in a game.

Robbie Henshaw, while certainly an outstanding defender and a mainstay only eighteen months ago, just does not possess either the speed or nous to attack in the manner which Ireland apparently intend.

Having said that, Henshaw and his old Connacht teammate, Bundee Aki, always formed a formidable pairing and it could be iust the opportunity the Athlone man needs to rejuvenate a slightly stalled international career.

The key, as with last week, is to bring Ireland’s hugely talented back three into the game, particularly Jordan Larmour, who seems to be that one signature game away from elevating himself from outstanding talent to international star.

Flanking him, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Conway did little wrong last week – neither would have enjoyed Murray’s weapon of choice – but with Keith Earls back in the 23, there is little room for error.

There is a sense, largely misguided – not with the bookies mind – that Wales’ hammering of Italy and Ireland’s struggles in beating Scotland will likely lead only to an away victory this afternoon. Italy are, unfortunately, in a bit of a heap at the moment and Scotland, like Ireland as we well know, perform better as underdogs.

Also, perhaps more importantly, recency bias may be playing a hand in how the two sides are viewed coming into this year’s tournament. Warren Gatland, the most successful coach in the northern hemisphere in the last decade, left Welsh rugby on a high. Incidentally, he has started his Super Rugby coaching career with the Waikato Chiefs with two vicories further elevating himself up the New Zealand coaching tree.

Wales are Grand Slam champions and when beaten semi-finalists by enventual winners, South Africa, last October, they had simply taken too many body shots to keep moving forward.

Ireland, well we know how 2019 went, but people were quick to forget the five outstanding years that preceeded it. Indeed, during that period, Ireland collected three championships but World Cup failure has hung like an albatross around their neck.

Irish rugby has been in rude health for years and there may have been a perception from Wales, justified or otherwise, of a sense of superiorty emanating from their Celtic neighbours. Yet, when this World Cup came round, a Welsh side shorn of their best player, Liam Williams, came within a kick of beating the World Champions in-waiting.

It should count for very little today as Gatland and Schmidt are now both gone but until such time as Andy Farrell and Wayne Pivac carve their own paths, the recent past will weigh heavily on this fixture.

Wales are still without Williams, their outstanding full-back has not appeared since suffering an ankle injury in training prior to the World Cup semi-final. Their back line is further depleted by the long-term absence of Gareth Anscombe and Lions centre, Jonathan Davies.

Anscombe’s replacement, the hugely experienced Dan Biggar hardly weakens the team but the inclusion of Saracen’s Nick Tompkins gives the Welsh midfield a perceived callowness.

The back three draws on buckets of experience in Leigh Halfpenny and George North – still only 27! – and buckets of tries in Josh Adams.

Still, this side is not one to fear for Ireland and while Pivac enjoyed some success with the Scarlets, his interntional head coaching experience mirrors Farrell’s, in that he has none.

Today there is an obligation on some of Ireland’s established stars to step it up, none more so than Murray. Some of the rugby loyalists who think you should never be dropped once you’ve earned your spot seem to think Murray is being unduly criticised but the fact is he has not been particularly good for Ireland in the last year.

Conor Murray, Ireland’s best ever scrum-half, is likely playing for his position today. Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Cian Healy and Iain Henderson are far from secure, while Peter O’ Mahony – in as a result of Caelan Doris’ head injury – knows he has 80 minutes to win back the jersey that had been nailed on him for the last three years.

A tip of the hat also to the Aviva Stadium last week who were almost perversely impressive in barely raising a whimper over the 80 minutes. Perhaps it was the stop-start nature of the game or an over-familiarity with Scotland but the result was a subdued crowd, even at the most atmospheric kick-off time.

Wales have garnered a reputation of being able to rely on their mental foritude when their game is not flowing, Ireland quite the opposite. This is an ideal opportunity for Ireland to tip the scales, on a day when the sides look very evenly matched.

Home advantage to swing it.

SUS Prediction: Ireland by 4

Tips: Ireland -3 @ 10/11

Wales H-T/Ireland F-T @ 6/1

Scotland v France , 8th February 2020 4:45pm, Murrayfield

Despite both sides losing on the opening weekend, England visit Murrayfield for today’s late kick off under significnatly more pressure due, as is custom, to Eddie Jones’ combined big mouth and victim routine.

Jones, who seems to neatly occupy the characterisation of ‘great guy if you actually know him’, continued in his quest to antagonise his opposition with little gain when announcing last week that England would unleash “absolute brutality” on France last week. Perhaps he meant brutal in the Irish sense, as a final quarter surge was the only thing that prevented the World Cup runners-up from enduring consecutive hidings.

England performed extremely well for long periods in the World Cup but were aided massively by the facts that they suffered few injuries and played a game less due to the fallout of Typhoon Hagibis. Tomorrow, they face an improved Soctland side without their two most powerful ball carriers, Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi.

Deprived of Vunipola in Paris, Jones sought to brutalise the French without a number eight and with a nominal second row at blindside flanker. Jones’ choices were quite perplexing and, in light of the defeat, he’s doubled down with a slew of flankers at the back of the scrum, Lewis Ludlam coming it to replace Courtney Lawes and Tom Curry remaining at number eight.

Hosts Scotland have a proud history of producing understated but excellent flankers so perhaps Jones decision is rooted in this logic. England were destroyed on the ground in 2018 so it makes sense that they want to be competitive in this area. However, there’s an argument for moving Curry to his natural role and bringing in a ball carrier like Nathan Hughes. The Scots will be delighted that Jones hubris has somewhat backed himself into this corner though.

Scotland’s tournament build up was, of course, blighted by Finn Russell’s Super Sunday, but they performed really well in Dublin. Their line speed was excellent, their scrum dominant and, as Stuart Hogg will be reminded for quite some time, they left a minimum of two points behind at a vital juncture of the game.

Adam Hastings did not look out of place at out-half and Townsend was absolutely correct to retain the Glasgow pivot for the Calcutta Cup fixture. Those 80 minutes should prove invaluable for Hastings and he can be expected to bring Hogg and Sam Johnson into the line at regular intervals.

Meanwhile, Owen Farrell has looked a little off – you’d wonder the mental toll this season has taken on poor, put-upon Saracens players this year – and without Tuilagi, the English midfield suddenly looks a little vulnerable.

England are seven point favourites but that seems a little disrespectful of the hosts, particualrly as they have plenty of positives to carry forward from last week.

Murrayfield will be buzzing, particualrly with the anti-English sporting sentitment having returned to the heady heights of the 90s. This game is already a must win for both sides and Jones has already made the wise decision to avoid the train home.

There’s a sense the flight won’t be much more enjoyable.

SUS Prediction Scotland by 3

Tips 1. Scotland to win @ 11/4

2. Huw Jones anytime try scorer @ 7/2

France v Italy, 9th February 3:00 pm, Stade de France

France returned to something resembling their best in their impressive victory over England last weekend. Shaun Edwards, a major coup for Les Bleus, has their defence working more efficiently and the Stade de France was, once more, cauldron-like.

Antoine Dupont is possibly the best scrum-half in the world right now – apologies to Faf de Klerk and his ridiculous hair – and Charles Ollivon looks an absolutely terrifying prospect. True, Teddy Thomas still has utter disdain for the concept of defence but France can always carry an entertainer.

Italy alas, are not in a good place. There were very few bright spots from last week’s heavy defeat in Cardiff, apart perhaps from their dominant scrum.

Their under 20s had an excellent victory in Wales last Friday week so the future is bright but that won’t give the today’s team much solace.

If you’re still reading at this stage, fair play to you, so we won’t keep you any longer. France are going to win here and it should be a fair hiding. Having said that, the French are contractually obliged to disappoint on the back of an impressive victory so the points may not flow.

The difference now is that Edwards is part of the coaching team. France may not run up 40 plus and that’s a good thing. However, it would be a surprise if they’re huddled under their posts at any point on Sunday afternoon.

SUS Prediction: France 32 Italy 6

Tips 1. Handicap draw (France -26) @ 25/1

2. First try scorer Anthony Bouthier @ 12/1

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Irish Rugby, Six Nations, Six Nations 2020

Straight Outta Wigan

After four months of initial despondence and then roundly boring and pointless debates, the Six Nations has come round and with it, a quiet sense of optimism for the national team.

Wigan rugby-league legend, Andy Farrell begins his reign in slightly different circumstances to his predecessor, Joe Schmidt. The New Zealander arrived in the wake of a hugely disappointing 2013 Six Nations for Declan Kidney, that culminated in a calamitous defeat in Rome and the death knell for the Kidney era.

We all know what happened last October as New Zealand subjected Ireland to 80 humiliating minutes and an abject, though not unexpected, exit from the 2019 World Cup. However, unlike those who went before him, Schmidt never had to worry about the plank, walking long before any difficult decisions had to be made.

Perhaps with a nod to the continuity synonomous with New Zealand, the IRFU chose from within, appointing fomer dual-code English international, Andy Farrell, to his first head coaching role. Farrell, of course, formed an integral part of Schmidt’s coaching staff, tasked with varying success at overseeing the Irish defence. In addition, Farrell was Stuart Lancaster’s right-hand man during England’s ill-fated World Cup on home soil in 2015.

Farrell comes in under relatively little fanfare, perhaps a combination of supporter fatigue from the World Cup and concerns that our ceiling on the world stage has now been established, Also, given the paramount importance given to the four year World Cup cycle, it’s difficult to get excited for the first Six Nations post- World Cup.

The sniping and general sense of disappointment that followed the World Cup eventually dissipated with a round acknowledgement that Joe Schmidt was indeed the best Irish coach to date. That he was the most successful did not require anyone’s view or opinion.

Nonetheless, all and sundry felt that the players at Schmidt’s disposal were not, perhaps, reaching their full potential. Leinster have been there or thereabouts as the best team in Europe over the last four years, Connacht rejuvenated and Munster, though berated for not being Leinster, back to back European and Pro-14 semi-finalists.

Ulster have admittedly gone thorugh an extremely difficult period, highlighted by the criminal trial involving ex-Irish internationals, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. However, the province have come out the other side and will, you feel, be significant contributors to Farrell’s squads in the coming years.

While the sounds from pundits, who have never watched a Farrell coached side, are that Ireland will attempt a more expansive game, it really will be a case of wait and see. His coaching team is comprised of Mike Catt (attack), Simon Easterby (defence) and John Fogarty (scrum coach). Catt hardly excelled with Italy, Easterby takes up an entirely new role and this is Fogarty’s first role with an international squad so one suspects the coaching unit will take longer to gel than those on field.

Speaking this week, Farrell harked back to a time when Irish teams brought unbridled passion and intensity to the pitch, making obvious reference to the Croke Park performance in 2007. However, people were almost sneered at if they mentioned these qualities in the latter period of Schmidt’s tenure.

There is almost a sense that modern Irish players are too intelligent to be relying on emotion, yet at the same time we are repeatedly fed the line about the passion that Munster display in Thomond Park. Also, how can people endlessly peddle the virtues of sports psychology while simultaneously deriding the relevance of emotion?

There’s no room for emotion in today’s game, just work-ons, learnings and Enda McNulty.

There’s no doubt that modern players must be so well prepared and video analaysis plays an integral role but we are repeatedly told that defence is grounded in attitude so a return to an aggressive line speed would be a welcome sight on Saturday.

Having said all that, some green shoots have sprung and while Farrell hasn’t been as adventurous as some first expected, it’s heartening to see new caps being handed out to two players, Caelan Doris and Ronán Kelleher.

Mayo native Doris has taken the club game by storm this season and there’s a sense that the 20 year-old could be in a position to assume the mantle left vacant since Sean O’ Brien’s departure. If Farrell does want Ireland to return to their rugged roots, Doris and CJ Stander will have to be to the forefront of this movement.

It’s interesting that the Irish team now has the look it once had in the 2000s, except that the foundational power now comes from the Leinster pack and not that of Munster. Indeed, there are eight Leinster forwards in the match day squad and the only reason their most consistent forward of the last two years won’t appear is becuase he’s Australian.

For the first time in a while there is genuine pressure on Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong from David Kilcoyne and Andrew Porter. Kilcoyne’s charge has been momentarily halted by injury while Furlong has recently returned to form and it’s not like there had been a precipitous drop in his form.

Which takes us to the selection which let to the most debate in the last month, scrum-half. John Cooney’s form for Ulster has been irresistible and scoring tries will naturally bring plaudits for a player. However, rugby media and coaches love to draw on past performance – how many times was Rob Kearney’s performance in Chicago mentioned in the subsequent three years – and Murray ticks all the boxes here.

Farrell has extensive experience of coaching the Munster man and his partnership with Sexton can’t be overlooked. And, while the Ospreys can’t be used as a reliable measuring stick, Murray did show a return to previous from in Munster’s comfortable victory a fortnight ago. The reality, though, is that Murray will probably have to play his way out of this team and Cooney’s chance may not materialise, particularly as he is only a year younger than Murray, at 29.

Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway, Ireland’s outstanding though ignored players at the World Cup, come in at the back, while Jacob Stockdale has injury to thank for an opportunity to regain his form of 2018. Will Addison appears to have been ruled out through a niggle and there is a fear that he could potentially be prone to the same injury misfortune which has befallen Joey Carberry.

With a fully stacked deck, Bundee Aki, Ireland’s most consistent perfomer in midfield over the last 18 months gets the nod ahead of Robbie Henshaw and few could argue.

Garry Ringrose has been outstanding this seaon and if this back line really do have licence to take chances or think for themselves, or whatever it is they couldn’t or wouldn’t do last season, then the results should be pleasantly surprising.

While Ireland have quietly regenerated, Saturday’s visitors, Scotland, arrive into the tournment opener in relative disarray. Finn Russell, the tournaments’s best attacking player, has been sent back to Paris after an ill-judged, solo piss-up last week.

To be fair to Russell, everyone knows that Sunday pints are particularly tasty. However, they’re best enjoyed in the company of others and ideally not in the bar in front of your boss, especially when work the next day involves getting battered on a rugby pitch and not lurking behind a computer.

Russell is replaced by Glasgow’s, Adam Hastings. Scotland’s remit is to attack and Hastings will attempt this but Russell is an undoubted loss. That said, no amount of back line talent will rectify Sotland’s problems up front.

The Scotish squad isn’t quite in disarray but Russell’s actions, which if stories are to be believed are baffling to say the least, have left the side in quite a predicament. Outmuscled by Ireland and filleted by Japan, the Scots went home from the World Cup with their tails firmly between their legs.

Scotland, its administrators rather than players, came out of the World Cup looking like utter clowns. SRU chief executive, Mark Dodson, suggested that the abandoning of their game against Japan could make Scotland “collateral damage” to the fallout of the typhoon. Anyway, amidst the genuine devestation that befell the country in the wake of the typhoon, the game went ahead, Scotland lost and some form of karma endured.

Townsend has been inclined to curb some of Scotland’s proclivites towards the cavalier and it will be interesting to see whether this provides some much needed stability or whether their game falls away once their attacking instincts are blunted. If the Scottish set piece hasn’t improved then the result from five months ago should be repeated.

Farrell couldn’t ask for a much easier opening fixture for his tenure – he would be forced to make wholesale changes if Italy were in town – and anything outside of an Irish victory, and a comfortable one at that, seems most unlikely.

Don’t expect the wheel to be reinvented but a sharper, more engaged backline should reap the dividends earned by Ireland’s superior pack.

The crowd can do their bit too and prove they’re not just in for the good times. And, while tougher days lie ahead for all concerned, Ireland should take up from they left off in Yokohama.

SUS Prediction – Ireland by 16

Tips – Ireland -13 @ 10/11

Conor Murray Anytime Try Scorer @ 4/1

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#Boxing

Arabian Nights – Part 2

No one realised last April just how tumultuous an effect Jarrell ‘Big Baby‘ Miller’s failed drug test would be. The initial reaction was that Anthony Joshua’s U.S. debut had been scuppered by the idiocy of a tier two fighter whose mouth could move tickets.

Fast forward six weeks and Joshua’s shocking, crushing defeat to Andy Ruiz Jr instantly entered sporting lore as one the greatest heavyweight boxing upsets of all time.

To this day, no one truly knows what happened to Joshua in the build up to his defeat to Ruiz on 1st of June, despite talk of concussions in training, a pre-fight panic attack and a general underestimation of his opponent.

On Five Live Boxing earlier this week, Joshua alluded to the fact that he may some day reveal the true story on his YouTube channel. And, while he may be the megastar with the thriving social media presence, he has yet to convince in the build up to this rematch that he has what it takes to overcome the now, highly respected, Mexican, Ruiz.

The first mistake experts – mostly those to the east of West Quoddy Head – made in advance of the June 1 encounter was to completely disrespect Ruiz on account of his doughy body and his wide eyed enthusiasm during fight week. Though hardly intentional, Joshua seemed to buy into Ruiz’ sincerity and seemingly happy-go-lucky comportment, even allowing the Mexican to pose with all four of the then champion’s belts slung over his shoulder.

The next mistake was a failure to look at the form lines. Though not as indicative as horse racing, a fair amount can be learned from examining a fighter’s record in detail. The best indicator on the pre-existing records of Joshua and Ruiz was their respective contests against fomer WBO champion, Joseph Parker, of New Zealand.

Ruiz fought Parker in an away fixture, again a hastily arranged fight, dominated the first half of the fight and fell to a very tight, majority decision in favour of Parker. Ruiz gave Parker, a technically proficient fighter, endless problems, crowding him early and often and it is telling that Parker’s trainer, Kevin Barry, actually tipped Ruiz in advance of the Mexican’s victory in June.

Parker would face Joshua in Cardiff a year or so later in a highly anticipated, if not, highly enthralling contest. Interestingly, in what some perceived to be Joshua’s least exciting performance yet, he won comfortably on points using his reach to control the fight, picking Parker off and rarely getting involved in heavy-duty exchanges.

Joshua’s next encounter saw him severely tested by Alexander Povetkin but his power was ultimately too much and he despatched the then 39 year old – weird the way Joshua takes out big hitters approaching their 40s – Russian in the seventh round. Having savilly taken apart Parker and ultimately breaking Povetkin, Joshua’s natural next step was to enter the cauldron at Madison Square Garden to make his American debut. Anyone with even a passing interest in boxing knows that the Garden, adorned by all-timers like Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis, is where you come to prove yourself in America. Vegas has the money but the venerable hall in New York has the credentials.

There was no doubt that Joshua would have to impress on his U.S debut, particalrly in light of the reasonably held view among American boxing circles that Joshua’s superstardom owed as much to his Adonis-like frame and masterful promotion of the silver-tongued, Eddie Hearn, as it did to his boxing prowess.

Joshua was unified world champion and his fights are invariably entertaining but the American boxing community and the Garden, in particular, are almost scientific in their scepticism before pronouncing the next big thing. And, as Joshua would soon learn, New York City does not provide the home comfort of 70,000 screaming British fans.

The hindsight narrative now is that Joshua boxed too aggressively and should have picked Ruiz off but the stats – provided by Boxstat – suggest that Ruiz is a really busy fighter who doesn’t allow his opponent the opportunity to control the centre of the ring and pick off feeler shots at will.

Ruiz actually threw less punches (235-248) and landed more frequently, (85-72) all while Joshua out jabbed him (49-38). Therefore, while he may not have imposed himself in the manner in which the Klitschkos once did, it’s not as though he completely abandoned the jab.

Still, one would imagine Joshua will have to focus more on this shot as while knockouts will win plaudits, the jab will control fights over 12 rounds. Joshua does not possess the defensive skills of British rival, Tyson Fury, but he is more powerful so if he can marry his obvious explosiveness with ring intelligence, it could go a long way towards overcoming the champion.

If you cast your mind back to June – watch the fight if you’ve 30 minutes to spare – you get the sense that Ruiz was never really badly hurt, notwithstanding the fact he was put on his back for the first time in his career. Look at Ruiz’ face after he goes down in third round; he looks annoyed that he got caught. Within moments of calmly rising he comes forward, catching Joshua with a massive left hook that, unbeknownst to most viewers at the time – including this one – was the beginning of the end.

And then there’s Joshua’s weight which we’ll come to shortly. First, though, there’s the elephant in the room that Eddie Hearn has blissfully brick batted for the past few months.

For those with a not unreasonable quibble that the event is taking place in Saudi Arabia there’s not much to say except that boxing, like all professional sports, is largely guided by money. The fight probably should not be taking place in Saudi but boxing is, and always has been, awash with avarice. Detractors of boxing will use this event as a stick but frankly it’s much ado about nothing. Horse racing has longstanding connections with Saudi Arabia yet this is rarely mentioned.

Promoters have always been unsrupulous and while their only concern is money, they will always hide behind the fact that everything they do is in their client’s interest. In this case, Anthony Joshua’s interest reportedly amounts to €55 million and it would be intriguing to establish how many moralists would turn down this kind of money.

Further, it will be interesting to see if pro golfers – including Phil Mickelson, Shane Lowry and Justin Rose – will be subjected to the same allegations of selling out, which to be fair they have, when the Saudi Invitational takes place early next year. Either way, Andy Ruiz Jr €10 million payout far exceeds anything he has ever earned for a fight so you supect he’d have travelled to Islamabad if the money was right.

Unsurprisingly, there have been suggestions that Ruiz’ victory may have led to excess but he seems to be surrounded by really good people, none more so that his father, Andy Ruiz Sr. Senior noted his dismay when the champion purchased a white Rolls Royce, not because he felt his son should avoid such excesses, but because he felt it would be more wisely invested in property.

Ruiz is neither a one-hit wonder nor a startled up-and-comer. Nor is he surrounded by malevolent, unsrupulous characters like Don King. This newfound ability to purchase fleets of cars and provide security for his family is only a taster and you’d imagine that Ruiz’ appetite for success has only been whetted. And, at 29, both fighters should only be entering their prime now.

As we mentioned earlier, Joshua’s weight has perhaps become the main topic of dicsussion this week. The suggestions, confirmed by Joshua himself, are that the Londoner will weigh in at his lightest since 2015. Without any knowledge of what’s actually gone on behind closed doors with trainer Rob McCracken, it would appear that Joshua’s intention is to hit and move. Apparently he’s dropped 10 pounds and while he’s still a huge man, that sort of loss is surely going to diminish Joshua’s power.

Ruiz, on the other hand, will probably weigh in around 18 stone though there wil be no sniggers at his body shape this time round. He has a proven template from the June encounter so it would be surprising if he moves too far away from it. Ruiz knows he has the hand speed, variety and power to inflict serious damage to Joshua. In round seven last time, clearly on the advice of his corner, Ruiz walked through whatever Joshua had left, knowing that a few more big shots would finish the contest. They did and Ruiz’ life changed forever.

Should Joshua win you would expect Ruiz should be entitled to a third contest but Eddie Hearn probably has bigger fish on his mind. Should Joshua lose again, both boxer and promoter will have an an enormous task on their hands to reinvigorate Joshua’s career and reestablish his legacy. Money surely can’t matter to Joshua anymore so this fight has massive consequences for his career.

All week Joshua has sounded like a man convinging himself that last June was actually a positive step in his career. Tonight he gets a chance to prove it. If both boxers go out with the intention to bang there’s only one winner. But, the sense here is that they decide to box rather than fight, the same man prevails.

Straight Up Sport prediction – Ruiz by KO or TKO

Tips

Andy Ruiz Jr @ 9/4

Andy Ruiz Jr to win round 1-6 @ 11/2

Andy Ruiz Jr to win round 7-12 @13/2

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RWC 2019

And then there were four

In truth, Ireland really didn’t come very far from their humiliating loss in Twickenham back in August. The aftermath has been predictable in that defensive, dare we say naive, fans have taken the ‘leave our rugby-heroes alone’ approach while the begrudgers and, those who simply don’t like rugby, have been generous with their contempt after the beatdown from New Zealand. The main stick to beat the team is that after all the garlands bestowed upon them, they were unable to break a 32-year drought without a semi-final appearance.

It’s still puzzling as to why a semi-final appearance would sate everyone. If we had the same draw as Wales, we too would have probably limped past a self-destructive French side into a potentially winnable semi-final against South Africa. In a tournament where there are never more than four potential winners at any given time, surely the minimum standards for a high-achieving, ambitious side would be an appearance in the final?

Irish rugby and, indeed, where this team stands need to considered with objectivity and on a number of levels after this latest World Cup failing. And make no bones about it, 2019’s abject showing was far worse than the exit suffered in 2011 under the tutelage of the latterly maligned, Declan Kidney.

At World Rugby’s behest, and in service of their financial needs, the World Cup has taken on enormous importance. The Six Nations, however, is the IRFU’s great cash-cow. Under Joe Schmidt, the Aviva Stadium has generally been packed out and assisted by the totalitarian edicts of David Nucifora, almost all Irish players have continued to ply their trade domestically.

Isa Nacewa offered an interesting, if half-cocked, criticism of Schmidt this week when he said, amongst other things, Ireland were prevented from playing the attacking game Johnny Sexton likes due to a lack of players required to fit this creative template. Last weekend Sexton had both the Leinster centre pairing and Rob Kearney, so it’s hard to see how the personnel referred to by Nacewa were the problem.

Additionally, Ireland’s failings last week were often self-imposed so if you can identify the causal link between the “unstructured chaos” promoted by Lancaster, the rigidity of Schmidt’s regime and Johnny Sexton missing two handy touches then fair play to you.

Incidentally, Simon Zebo’s absence has never been more keenly felt. Sure, he could do with keeping schtum at times and he probably has too much personality for an authoritarian regime but Ireland left Japan as, unquestionably, one of the least impressive attacking teams in the tournament.

While the IRFU and Nucifora will probably never allow it, would it be the worst thing in the world if Ireland chose to pick players who ply their trade away from home? Ultimately, few would make the move as any shortfall in wages would be offset by the Irish game management system which does afford great protection to Irish internationals. It’s just a thought and it’s not like the departure of Zebo – who was unquestionably the star draw in Munster – has had an effect on attendances in Thomond Park and Musgrave Park.

Andy Farrell must be allowed introduce his own style of rugby which, admittedly, we aren’t familiar with yet. Mike Catt’s appointment doesn’t exactly fill one with joy and it’s a shame Ireland couldn’t do something to get former Otago and outgoing Japan attack-coach, Tony Brown on the new ticket. Hindsight comes into play here, of course.

Add in a dash of media-driven xenophobia if the all-English ticket struggles and it makes for an uncertain near future. Still, like it or not, Ireland need to change for the next World Cup and more importantly they need to adapt in the year leading up to the tournament.

It’s also particularly galling to note how much of a psychological impact the English defeat in February seemed to imprint on the Irish players psyche. Aside from the fact that Enda McNulty was in Japan to feed the players Deepak Chopra-isms – fair enough it works for some – it’s concerning that a team who appeared so ebullient less than 12 months ago could become so turgid and almost frightened to play. Why are other teams able to bounce back so quickly from inevitable setbacks that competitive sport brings?

Also, with the exception of the injured Dan Leavy, Sean O’ Brien and the erstwhile, Zebo, these are the best players currently available to Ireland. Some might make an argument for Devin Toner or even ,Donnacha Ryan but, in all reality, they wouldn’t have made a significant difference to the outcome in Toyo last weekend.

Conversely, we have just enjoyed the most successful era in Irish rugby so it will take measured consideration to establish just whwt went wrong.

If annoyance springs from a once overly sympathetic media, some annoyingly protective fans or presumptuous, twee advertising campaigns, the removal of these issues will not have any direct positive effect on the performance of the Irish team.

Ever since the supremely talented and successful, Roy Keane, questioned the defeatist attitude of Irish supporters, a disjointed, non-sensical ‘Why settle for second?’ attitude developed amongst Irish sports fans. True, punching above our weight is not a measurable achievement, and in any event Ireland don’t in fact punch their weight in rugby. And anyway, if McNulty can’t motivate the team to win, then who can?

If Farrell expands the Irish game plan, and his team struggle for a couple of years, sections of the clickbait, populist media will, no doubt, find cause for complaint. Nevertheless, if Ireland arrive at France 2023 with a cohesive attacking unit and the 36-year wait to reach a semi-final – which still seems a very unusual end-goal in a tournament with six potential winners – is finally ended, then surely everything will be rosy in the garden once more? .

On to this weekend’s semi-final previews.

New Zealand v England – Saturday 26th October, 9:00am (Irish Time)

Though not directly opposite each other, Owen Farrell and Beauden Barrett should have a huge say in the outcome of tomorrow’s semi-final.

Eddie Jones is in heaven right now.  England are rolling, he’s having a pretty amicable war of words with Steve Hansen and, most importantly, his English side look primed to hand New Zealand their first Rugby World Cup defeat since 2007.

If New Zealand had the alarmingly messy Irish put out of commission after 30 minutes last week, they know the opening salvo of Saturday’s contest will be extremely combative. As a precursor to this semi-final, we can cast our minds back to the tournament’s opening weekend and the breathless confrontation between South Africa and New Zealand. Hell for leather for an hour, South Africa walked off knowing that night that they’d likely be around come November, while the reigning champions immediately drew a line in the sand.

England, on the other hand, have worked their way efficiently through the tournament, before ruthlessly putting Australia away last week after the Wallabies had threatened to make a contest of it. With the greatest respect to the other semi-finalists, this is the game Jones will have been looking to since he took the English job, even when heads may have dropped imperceptibly low after the series defeat in South Africa in 2018. Oh, how some teams can bounce back in such a short period of time.

Jones, of course, is one of only two coaches this century to mastermind victory over a New Zealand side in the global showpiece, – Bernard Laporte in 2007 the other – leading Australia in 2003 to a 22-10 victory over the nation that many moons – a decade or so ago – were labelled bottlers on the biggest stage.

By a strange twist of fate, the man who lost his job as New Zealand coach that day, John Mitchell, is now Jones’ defensive coach. It’s intriguing, if little more than a notable historical footnote, that Mitchell could now be pivotal in the downfall of his own country’s attempt to achieve what will never be seen again, a hat trick of World Cup successes.

New Zealand have gone with Scott Barrett in the back row, clearly mindful of the dual threat offered by the English lineout either off the top or through their brutish, dominant maul. England have resisted the temptation to include George Kruis, who you imagine would be a locked in – no pun intended – starter in most sides.

What England do now possess, in addition to an unusual clean bill of health, is the exceptional back row tandem of Tom Curry and Sam Underhill. Underhill was missed in the Six Nations but fully rejuvenated, this high-energy, multi-faceted duo complement and facilitate the more destructive work of their man in the middle, Billy Vunipola.

Comparatively, New Zealand’s back-row were outstanding against Ireland, Kieran Read and Ardie Sa’vea imperious, in the best sense of the word. Sam Cane is gine but Hansen has his reasons. It’s difficult to say who will have the upper but while Ireland hoped for an unlikely return to 2018, England’s recent performances are proof that we can expect a ferocious and evenly fought contest from the opposing loose forwards.

There will be so many intriguing mini-battles throughout the field: Manu Tuilagi versus Jack Goodhue, George Ford versus Richie Mo’unga, Read and Vunipola and, though not directly opposite each other, Owen Farrell and Beauden Barrett

While New Zealand have long since shed the sense of trepidation that often shrouded them in World Cup knock-out games, they have acknowledged an English strength by selecting Barrett. However, in the same way New Zealand manipulate observers into thinking they kick far less than other teams, they also bandy the idea that they only focus on themselves. Which is a load of nonsense really as they’re far too intelligent and well-prepared to ignore the perceived strengths of the opposition.  

While there is very little between the sides, England, though comprehensive victors on the scoreboard were cut apart by Australia regularly only to be saved by excellent scramble defence and failure to capitalise by what was admittedly one of the most average Australian sides in recent memory.

And, while their defence has been excellent under the watchful eye of Mitchell, if you’re scrambling against New Zealand, it usually means you’ll be in a team huddle under your posts in a minute or so.

These are definitely the two best sides left in the tournament and we’ve little hesitation in saying that the tournament winner will come from this semi-final. Both sides have quality strewn throughout and while England are no doubt confident, it’s New Zeland’s unparalleled competence that will get over the line.

S.U.S. Prediction: New Zealand by 4

SUS Tips: England +7 @ Evens

Jordie Barrett anytime try scorer @ 5/2

South Africa v Wales – Sunday 27th October – 9:00 am (Irish Time)

It seems a little ridiculous to suggest the meeting of the The Rugby Championship and Grand Slam winners, South Africa and Wales, is the weaker of the semi-finals but all results to date suggest as much.

South Africa, to their credit, pushed New Zealand hard five weeks ago but at no point did it look like Rassie Erasmus’s side would pull off the relative upset. And yet, as South Africa walked off the pitch that night in Yokohama you knew no one was going to prevent them from pitching up this weekend.

Wales rightly joined the short list of contenders after an outstanding 2019 Six Nations, relying on belligerent defence, undying loyalty to Warren Gatland’s emotion based game and the world class incisions of Liam Williams.

Allied to Williams’ power, game-breaking ability and outstanding aerial skills was the craft and creativity of Gareth Anscombe, who recently provided a subtle alternative to the more direct, Dan Biggar. Sadly for Wales, Anscombe never made in to Japan and Williams injury, suffered in training this week, appears to have ruled out one of the world’s finest players from the tournament’s denouement.

Without these two, Wales revert to Biggar, an excellent replacement, and Leigh Halfpenny, another who has excelled in the Welsh red for over a decade now. Neither of these seasoned big-game performers will disappoint but, in a team full of honest robustness, Wales will desperately miss the extra attacking options that those absentees would have brought. Josh Navidi’s all-action game will also be missed.

While South Africa will be dealing from an almost full deck, they will, sadly for all onlookers, have to play with without their wild-card, Cheslin Kolbe. The diminutive winger lit up this year’s Heineken Cup and he has been a marvel at this World Cup. In the way that Lionel Messi mystifies with his balance and footwork, so too does Kolbe. His interjections lit up the opening weekend’s contest but it appears his race is run for the 2019 World Cup.

Kolbe will most certainly be missed but Makazole Mapimpi further confirmed his finishing prowess last weekend and, as ever, South Africa will rely first on their bruising go forward game, of which Damien de Allende forms such a key part. The massive centre was singled out for criticism four years ago when South Africa were memorably upset by Japan but he is now one of the finest number 12s in world rugby.

Where Ireland failed in recent times tying to impose a physical game on Wales, South Africa should have no such worries. The second row pairing of Lood de Jager and Eden Edzebeth are as imposing a duo as exists and the supporting cast of captain, Siya Kolisi, Duane Vermeulen and Pieter-Steph Du Toit will not be overwhelmed by the relentless, high-energy Welsh pack. In addition, the South African lineout, particularly in defence, is near peerless so it’s difficult to see where Wales will get the upper hand.

With a bit of data banked now, Wales opening victory over Australia looks far less impressive than it appeared at the time. And, frankly, they only won last weekend due to a gross lack of indiscipline that seems to be deeply ingrained in the psyche of French rugby.

Due to their attitude, a lot of which seems to be emotion-led, and admitted quality, Wales will never be blown out of a game and, therefore, will likely be in the contest into the last 10 minutes.

Wales, like Ireland, probably needed to be fully loaded to reach this World Cup final and shorn of their attacking fulcrums, they appear to lack the quality to overcome the challenge of this ever-improving Springbok side. South Africa can bombard you like no other side and, eventually, the Welsh house will come crumbling down.

SUS Prediction – South Africa by 9

Handicap Draw @ 25/1

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Ireland v New Zealand, Irish Rugby, Rugby, RWC 2019

Time to end the streak

After six weeks of admittedly variable quality, we’re finally at the business end of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Having been lucky enough to spend the first two weeks out there, we can say that Japan has delivered beyond our wildest expectations.

This, of course, should be considered in the context of the devastating Typhoon Hagibis. The typhoon caused untold damage to the island of Honshu and makes the self-absorbed threats of the SRU look increasingly laughable.

Unfortunately, as with the 2011 iteration in New Zealand, the time difference makes it very difficult for the public at home to really immerse themselves in the tournament. And, while it was easy to forget the rugby while travelling around that extraordinary country – like the rest of the Irish in Japan we had the audacity to enjoy ourselves even in the wake of defeat to Japan –  the degree of negativity surrounding the team following that unexpected defeat has been proven to be excessive.

Scotland were torn apart for 60 minutes last Sunday, in far less trying conditions than Ireland faced in Shizuoka, and while it was most certainly the result Ireland didn’t want, it was difficult not to be won over by Japan. Certainly, we’ve been caught in the frenzy and instantly fell in love with the country, and if say England or New Zealand had performed as Japan have to date, pundits would be slobbering over them.

Kotaro Matsushima and Kenki Fukuoka have provided moments of magic akin to those of Cheslin Kolbe, and, their pack, led by their adored captain, Michael Leitch, have provided quick ball on foot of outstanding, manic rucking. They move the ball with the same speed and accuracy as the reigning champions and their fans have been extraordinary.

It was incredible to hear that volunteers whose homes had been destroyed by Hagibis still turned up early on Sunday morning to ensure the final group match would go ahead. There are some snide critics of the unquestioning self-discipline of the Japanese but their sense of duty and generosity was never so vividly displayed than as last Sunday.

Japan are deemed to have played their final already by many but there’s a sense that the hulking – massively hulking – South Africans won’t have it all their own way on Sunday. The real winners on that side of the draw are Wales, however.

Warren Gatland’s side were brilliant for 60 minutes against Australia before the northern hemisphere’s great enemy, the humidity, kicked in and they were really holding on by the end. They were fitful against Fiji but now find themselves with the perceived easiest quarter final opponent in France.

Gatland, French unknowns, rampant South Africans and the exuberant Japanese are the least of Ireland’s worries right now though, as the back-to-back word champions and presumptive saviours of humanity, New Zealand, await on Saturday.

We all know at this stage that good All-Blacks, including Sevu Reece apparently, make good people and that the sun shines out of everyone of them. Incidentally, while Guinness and Vodafone have been wildly successful on turning people off the Irish team, New Zealand’s sponsors have been churning out this bile-inducing shite for years to little or no criticism.

Undefeated in the World Cup in 12 years, New Zealand go into Saturday’s quarter final as red-hot favourites and rightly so. While they are not the supreme side of four years ago – who admittedly scraped by South Africa in the semi-final – they are the best in the world and their ability to succeed in high leverage situations is unmatched.

Ireland did beat them last November but that seems like an eternity ago now. There is a cautionary tale that nobody beats New Zealand back-to-back but given this is knock out rugby past results are largely irrelevant. The last and only time these sides met at a World Cup, young phenom Jonah Lomu erupted on to the scene, shortly after Gary Halpin gave the most ill-advised middle finger in sporting history. For many, this writer included, Lomu remains the most exhilarating, electrifying player to ever grave the field, rugby’s equivalent of The Rock.

While Lomu’s New Zealand side never managed to get their hands on the William Webb Ellis trophy, the current side, captained by all-time great, Kieran Read, look well primed to reel off a hat-trick of tournament victories. And yet this side, more than ever, have shown vulnerability over the past 18 months.

Notwithstanding the quality of the incumbents, the New Zealand back row and midfield are simply brilliant, and not the standard bearers as was the case four years ago. Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Richie McCaw were generational talents and Sonny-Bill Williams 2019 is, unsurprisngly, a lesser version of the younger model. This is not to say that this is a weak by any stretch New Zealand but they simply do not hold the aura of their predecessors who, admittedly, may have been the best side of all time.

Because you never get tired of watching this man in full flight.

On the tournament’s opening weekend, New Zealand prevailed over South Africa in a thrilling contest while Ireland delivered a dominant victory over an appalling Scottish side. Watching both games, you would hazard that Ireland were never going to live with the Kiwis. The events in the forests of Shizuoka a week later – aside from providing fuel for bell ends like Ewan McKenna and Colm Parkinson – did little to dispel the notion that Ireland were nowhere nearer to breaking their World Cup quarter-final hoodoo.

And yet….. Ireland have probably produced four of their eight best performances during Schmidt’s reign against New Zealand. Perhaps, psychologically, the Kiwis bring Ireland up to their level, or Ireland know anything far from their best will mean humiliation. Whatever the reason, the last six years have provided four superb matches between the sides, each side winning tough in low scoring affairs while also coming away victorious after free-flowing contests.

New Zealand, as is often the case, are being credited with reinventing the wheel by placing their outstanding out-half, Beauden Barrett, at full-back to allow him chime into the line at will. Aside from the fact that this has been the practice in rugby league for years, a friend pointed out that New Zealand were already doing this with Damien McKenzie prior to his injury. Admittedly, when Barrett moves to number 10 after 60 minutes, the game is liable to open up but Ireland can starve him of ball if they kick with intelligence. That said New Zealand are outstanding at pressurising possession and making you put the ball where they want it.

If Barrett is crucial to New Zealand in various guises, no one player is more important to Ireland’s chance of success than Jonathan Sexton. Joey Carberry and Jack Carty may be the future but right now Ireland’s game revolves so completely around Sexton that it is almost worrying, in the sense that if New Zealand can shut him down then the Irish team will be back in Dublin by next Tuesday night. Injury and stark conservatism have prevented Ireland from finding a creative option outside of Sexton and with Schmidt opting for Rob Kearney, there is no sense of Ireland’s out-half being able to rely on an extra layer of playmaking from the back field.

Given the nature of Schmidt’s selction policies, no one really expected Jordan Larmour to start so you can expect conservative, high-intensiy rugby from Ireland. Ireland need Conor Murray and Peter O’ Mahony to perform at their peak while Iain Henderson needs to prove why Devin Toner has been left back home. One player from the Chicago victory is conspicuous by his absence but as we have learned under Schmidt, all players are equal but some players – who play out-half for Ireland and Leinster – are more equal than others.

Ireland may not be at the heights of November but, frankly, they don’t need to be. South Africa found cracks on the opening weekend and Ireland have absolutely no reason to fear this side. Yes, we’ve found various ways to lose at the quarter final stage and the route to tournament victory is extremely tough but like the MLB playoffs, Ireland need only care about the next game up.

The Gods have gathered in Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine for the month of October for their Kamuhakari. While we’re not partiacurlay religious in this neck of the woods, we find the Shinto religion fascinating. The Kamigami – all eight million of them – held their Kamiari Sai last week where they decided on the outcome of certain major events throughout the coming year. Ideally, they’ll have a word with Nigel Owens and ask him to ref the game properly and not for maximum entertainment levels.

An unprecedetned era of success for Irish rugby will end shortly when Joe Schmidt and his family return home. This would be some feather to add to the cap. Ireland, just.

Straight Up Sport prediction – Ireland to win @ 5/1

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Ireland v Wales, Irish Rugby, Rugby World Cup 2019 Warm Ups

Deja Vu All Over Again

We could all learn a little from staying in the moment. Late last year as the country grew giddy up in the aftermath of a victory over New Zealand, Gerry Thornley suggested on Second Captains that rather looking to the Rugby World Cup, we should simply enjoy the victory over the world’s best side in isolation.

However, unlike athletes or more reasoned people, the Irish public couldn’t help but point to another indication that we were ready to compete seriously in Japan. In light of a disquieting 2019 for the Irish rugby team, perhaps we should have taken heed of Thornley’s advice.

Barring victory against a completely disinterested French side, the Six Nations brought ill tidings for this Irish team. If Joe Schmidt’s side were hoodwinked by England, there could no argument that the Welsh caught us by surprise in Cardiff on St Patricks weekend. Even allowing for the caveats sprinkled liberally hereafter, Ireland’s prospects of success in Japan in the coming months have been blunted to the point of impotence.

While it is the natural for the sporting public – in all countries not just Ireland – to overreact to the fortunes of their team, it is not unreasonable for us to wonder just what exactly has gone wrong with this Irish team?

People have been at pains to point out that Ireland were only playing their second warm up match on Saturday evening, while England had already faced Wales twice in increasingly competitive fixtures. That might give you a little grace, particularly from the point of view of match fitness, but it will take considerably longer to establish why Ireland defended so wretchedly from the off? Or why each English first phase play looked like a move orchestrated by the Stephen Larkham-era Australians?

The first, and gravest concern, is that Ireland are not the type of team who can simply, like Dustin Johnson, completely forget their bad days, dust themselves off and move on to the next challenge. A record-breaking defeat against England in Twickenham four weeks out from the start of the World Cup is exceptionally worrying. And, one would have to wonder why – outside of presumed financial incentives – why the IRFU chose to play a bulldozing English side in Twickenham at this point in Ireland’s preparations?

England, of course,  had already picked their 31 players to travel to Japan and this was probably the last run out for the first fifteen but for anyone over the age of 30, there was more than a hint of the dark days of the 1990s and early 2000s, when England routinely demoralised and disassembled Ireland. There were so many worrying aspects to Ireland’s performance though. With the exception of a fairly solid scrum, every facet of Ireland’s game malfunctioned with aplomb.

While miserable, Brazil-based troll journalists bask in the recent failings of the Irish rugby team, while rambling incoherently about the Celtic Tiger, it seems the rest of the country are alarmed, though not surprised, by the continued dip in form. Most reasonable observers though will note the same failings that surrounded the 2015 World Cup are bubbling to the surface once more.

Ireland defended narrowly and passively, which is a combination destined for failure. Most sides that defend narrowly at least rush up and in to force the attack to make decisions – you see this every week in both codes of rugby – but Ireland’s lack of cohesion in defence was mystifying. Bundee Aki seemed to bite too often but Jacob Stockdale too made some dreadful defensive reads, as did Rob Kearney to a lesser extent.

Allied to the obvious systemic failings in the defence was the rash of missed tackles with Joe Cockinasinga, Jonny May and the outstanding Manu Tuil’agi repeatedly going over or around the Irish defence.

Ross Byrne, making his full debut, must have surveyed proceedings shortly after half time and grown jealous of Jack Carty but the Connacht man was thrown into the fray shortly thereafter and his job was akin to the little boy plugging the holes in the dam in Holland. On a day when the problems begun up front, Byrne can’t be to blame but Carty’s selection against Wales suggests that his selection, injury aside, is a done deal.

Of course, this decision is predicated on the fact that Joey Carberry will have recovered in time, and, if he doesn’t then this decision becomes moot and both inexperienced out halves will travel to Japan as cover for a yet to be seen, Johnny Sexton.

Despite the fact they were a step ahead in their progress and playing to a home crowd, England should go to Japan marginally behind New Zealand as favourites. However, any concerns over having to face an England team bloated on confidence should be parked for the foreseeable future, particularly with an ebullient Warren Gatland and Wales waiting in the wings tomorrow.

Wales are resting more than half their starting fifteen, giving full debuts to two players, Owen Lane and Rhys Carre, and a first start to out-half, Jarrod Evans. Still, while the task on paper isn’t as daunting as last week, Wales look have picked largely from where they left off in March and the players and fans will be desperate to give Gatland a winning send-off in his last home game as Wales coach.

Ireland have two matches and realistically three weeks to get things right. The result on Saturday should not be viewed through the prism of past failings, or certainly no earlier than 2015. This is Joe Schmidt’s second time round, we know he is leaving and yet it feels like the team has fallen flat since the turn of the year.

Four years ago, Ireland were undone by what appeared to be a lack of depth. For the last two years, the depth in this Irish squad has been trumpeted so where lies the explanation, apart from the fact that depth generally dissipates when you have to actively call on it.

There are two schools of thought on how to approach the Six Nations or, indeed, the Rugby Championship in the year of a Rugby World Cup. The first, which applies almost exclusively to New Zealand, is that you try out as many players and combinations, with the overarching intention of winning, of course. The second, which applies to everyone else, and as succinctly put by Jay Rock, and, by Clive Woodward last week is to win every game. That was the plan England put in place in 2002/2003 with each victory instilling deeply ingrained belief and tenacity. We’ve seen how the beating by England in February seemingly crushed the confidence of an Irish team who were only three months removed from a brilliant victory over New Zealand.

Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt have experienced extremely different build ups to the World Cup as they both enter the final months of their current roles.

Ireland were massively successful on the back of a game plan which they could only dream of for years, able to physically overpower the likes of England and South Africa. After being turned inside out in Dublin, Cardiff and now London, what will Schmidt do?

Controlling the ball doesn’t really matter if all you can offer is static one out runners or an shift of the ball wide without penetrating through the central area of the pitch. We’re beating the same monotonous drum here but beyond offering banalities like ‘In Joe We Trust’ or that something is being held back  – we’d suggest everything at this stage – pundits and ex-players alike seem to at a loss.

We are all aware of the impeccable attention to detail that Schmidt applies to his game plan and the fact his team is – akin to NFL players – tasked with absorbing mines of information with a view to making in-game decisions based on what they see. Oxymoronically, it seems that players get cut adrift if they try something risky – often known as an offload – and it doesn’t come off. This was fine when we were able to carry and clear impeccably but now that teams are gang tackling – throwback to Wellington in 2011 – and steaming up quickly, the attack looks devoid of ideas.

Unlike the rest of us, Schmidt, his coaches and the Irish squad are not in the business of overreacting so you suspect that while they were chastened after last week, they possess an unerring belief that they can turn things around quickly.

Ireland aren’t the only team with problems – South Africa have had a fairly tumultuous week – but more than anyone given our World Cup pedigree, or lack thereof, the situation needs to be ameliorated before the plane leaves for Asia.

There are questions over hooker, back row, centre and our captain, not to mention Joey Carberry’s ankle. Moreover, there is the fact that we haven’t beaten a top six team in 2019. That alone should provide Ireland with enough motivation tomorrow. After last weekend Ireland should forget about learnings and work-ons. Just win.

Straight Up Prediction: Ireland by 4

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Six Nations 2019

Scotland v Ireland: Preview

On the plus side, Ireland kept it to 12 points last weekend. On the negative, England with one exceptionally dominant performance have instilled themselves with the bullet-proof confidence typical of a country which rarely needs to be told to keep the chin up. And, while Ireland were dominated in every aspect of the game, if Japan if this year’s ultimate goal – and it is really – then it’s best we learn our lesson on a subdued Saturday evening in Dublin.

Paddy Power’s trite, opportunistic advertising campaign and the hubris of Irish supporters had little to do with England’s blistering start – that was down to Eddie Jones and his coaching staff’s meticulous preparation – but there is no question that the Irish team were out fought all over the field. Momentum as a concept may still be up for question but motivation certainly isn’t. While motorsports rely largely on the quality of their machines, rugby players are just humans at the end of the day.

Think of Ireland going to Twickenham for the World Cup coronation in 2008 and winning on the back of Girvan Dempsey’s brilliant team try. No one saw an Irish victory on the cards that day but buoyed by motivation, they shocked the champions on their home ground. The circumstances surrounding Saturday’s game were hardly identical, particularly as we still have to actually compete in the World Cup but it serves as timely reminder that this Irish team now has a massive target on its back.

There were a few suggestions that England got some breaks on Saturday but what winning team doesn’t? Generally if you’re making all the attacking plays then a bit of good fortune may go your way. Ireland’s one out running and predictable attempts to go wide were unlikely to create too many positive outcomes, particularly when England realised they could determine the offside line early on.

Thankfully, there has been less of the ‘told you so’ hindsight laden analysis that usually accompanies these results, more a resounding reminder that a fully stocked England are a serious force to be reckoned with and that the Farrell, Tuilagi and Slade midfield axis has endless potential. It will be interesting how England perform back home in front of a newly buoyant Twickenham. If a consecutive comprehensive or potentially, bonus-point victory follows, then we should be genuinely concerned. For now, however, England will be forgotten until a possible October meeting.  

This afternoon in Murrayfield will provide a stern test of Ireland’s resilience and ability to bounce back. On Wednesday, Shane Horgan mentioned on Second Captains that if he knew the way to deliver a team to its emotional peak before each game, he would have done so. It sounds an obvious point but it’s also a very valid one. The reality is that each game provides different emotional motivations for teams and individuals and that your emotional pitch simply changes from game to game.

Last week, Ireland were the Grand Slam winning, World Champion vanquishing side whose focus was clearly on focusing on picking up where they left en route to Japan. England, unusually, were the underdog who endured the humiliation of watching the Irish team celebrate Grand Slam victory in Twickenham on a snowy St Patrick’s Day. Two weeks earlier, England had been in the frame for championship success. Due to the confluence of results on the final day, England plummeted to a worst ever fifth placed finish.

The scientific, methodical approach to the game has removed conversations of motivation and emotion despite the fact that these are just men and women at the end of the day, individuals who can be affected by a multitude of outside factors. Now, after one game, pundits and analysts have discussed the emotional, motivational edge England enjoyed as if this is some radical new development.

England came fully loaded, for a change in recent times, and with a side that could match Ireland’s – maybe Tuilagi makes the Irish team now – and any suggestion that we could grasp victory through reliance on our recent superiority was cruelly disproven. True, there were moments that swung the game but England’s victory on Saturday was as good as if not more impressive than Ireland’s last March.

Scotland, though coasting lazily at the end of the Italian game last week, will harbour no great fear of Ireland. They’ve won two of the last three in Murrayfield and Ireland will naturally be a little chastened from last week. However, consider the last Irish defeats and the circumstances surrounding each.

In 2013, with the ship listing badly under Declan Kidney, Ireland faltered with lack of composure at out half and the line out, and, a general lack of leadership. The result was hardly a bolt from the blue and Kidney’s reign as Irish coach ended ignominiously a month later.

In the most recent encounter in 2017, Ireland’s narrow defence – one of the few constant thorns in the side during Joe Schmidt’s tenure – was caught cold early and the general confusion was typified by Huw Jones soft score straight through a lazy Irish line out. It was the opening game of the tournament, Jonathan Sexton was missing and a potential-laden Scotland showed real signs of the offensive threat on offer.

Once more, however, Ireland versus Scotland in Murrayfield can be viewed through a very different prism. Given the successes of the last 18 months, Ireland were humbled last week and with Scotland flowing for an hour against Italy, they will be expected to back up their performance against the reigning champions. Ireland, though, are wounded, angry and no doubt feeling, amongst themselves, that they have a point to prove.

That in itself is not enough to win a Six Nations game and of course, technical superiority will largely win the day but it is generally remiss to disregard the emotional state of team. We all hear of the importance of sports psychologists in contemporary sport so it would naturally flow from this that mental preparation and state of mind are hugely important.

Joe Schmidt exudes calm though he may be slightly irked at suggestions that his side can only play from the front. These assertions come largely on the back of the fact that Ireland have never reversed a half time deficit in his term as head coach. On the face of it, this is a slightly disconcerting statistic but it also means that more often than not, Ireland take hold of games early. The structured nature of Ireland’s game – at least to the untrained eye – means that even a two score deficit will be hugely difficult to surmount. Until proven otherwise this Irish team simply can’t start slowly so expect a highly accurate, physical burst out the gate and an attempt to reassert the physical dominance that has been a trademark of the last year.

Ireland are down some quality players – though it is brilliant to see the return of Chris Farrell – but so too are Scotland. And, it is the depletion of the Scottish front row and inferior quality there in the first place that may tip the scales in Ireland’s favour. Do not expect to see Tadhg Furlong getting manhandled two Saturdays in a row.

There is also no point in avoiding the fact that Rory Best’s position is under pressure. Seán Cronin has played outstanding rugby for Leinster for the last three months and though Best is a brilliant leader and tireless worker, we are constantly reminded that this is a team full of leaders. A dominant display in the set pieces today – minus Devin Toner – would likely solidify Best’s place in the starting 15 for the coming weeks though Cronin must be extremely close.

Best and by extension of the fact that Ireland will kick endlessly, Conor Murray, will not be helped by the swirling winds so you’d expect ball retention by the teams facing into the wind. If Ireland defend high again, then you can expect Scotland to kick in behind when aided by the wind. It’s at this point that we’ll discover how timely Rob Kearney’s return to full back has been.

Ireland don’t want a cavalier, shoot out as they’re quite simply not engineered for it so expect a low scoring grind. Quieten down what Jim Telfer referred to as the Murrayfield ‘theatre goers’ – not unlike a vast portion of the Irish crowd last weekend – and Ireland should be able to wrest control of the contest. The circumstances surrounding this game suggest a perfect opportunity for Murray and Sexton to reaffirm their brilliance. Don’t worry about learnings or work-ons today, the only thing that matters is the result. Ireland by a whisker. 

SUS Prediction – Ireland by 4

Tips

  1. Under 43.5 points @10/11
  2. 2. Conor Murray anytime try scorer @ 9/4

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