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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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Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations, Six Nations 2019

Six Nations 2019 – Preview: Ireland v England

While developing the principles of modern physics, Isaac Newton hardly considered that sports writers and fans would still be arguing over the validity of momentum more than 300 years later. Yet, still some people dismiss sports writing as fluff. 

In 2012, Grantland’s Bill Barnwell valiantly attempted to dismiss the relevance of momentum in sport but we’re firmly of the belief that this abstract concept does exist. Just look at the New England Patriots unprecedented comeback in Superbowl 51, the English rugby team’s extraordinary 2003 en route to World Cup success or the incredible roll that Irish superstar, Becky Lynch, is currently on in the WWE where she’s set to become the first woman to ever headline Wrestlemania next month. Incidentally, Lynch’s extraordinary rise is such a male dominated industry is a huge story in itself and no doubt someone will latch on to it next month.

Momentum does exist in sport, though, rather than in Newtonian terms, it comes about as a result of the accumulation of ideal conditions at an opportune time. What can be said with near certainty – while talking about a tenuous idea – is that momentum and confidence are inseparable. Joe Schmidt’s Irish side have won 17 of their last 18 tests – the only defeat coming with Jonathan Sexton starting on the bench – and having beaten all the top tier nations since 2017, there is a quiet but absolute confidence about this side. Confidence without end product is merely arrogance but Ireland have continued to walk the walk while the Irish media increasingly talks the talk.

However, two schools of thought existed as the 2019 Six Nations approached. The first is that success this spring isn’t all that important as Joe Schmidt will really be looking to try out as many combinations as possible so that all 31 players will be ready to step in at a moment’s notice in Japan, if necessary. The alternative states that the Irish international team has never been on such a role and that momentum is lost far more quickly than it’s garnered.

We’re inclined to side with the latter approach as you can deduce that Joe Schmidt has spent the last four years preparing for a nightmare scenario that faced his side in Cardiff in October 2015 when one third of his starting side was lost to injury and suspension. Schmidt has analysed every professional player in Ireland at this stage and seen fit to hand out close to 40 new caps since that defeat to Argentina.

The Six Nations is the annual centre piece of rugby in this part of the world and it would be remiss to suggest that it could be treated like a warm up competition – akin to the National Hurling and Football leagues – as that’s what November and the summer are for. Certainly, given the rigours of the tournament and the scheduling the squad will rotate, most likely in Rome, but Ireland and moreover the Irish public can’t overlook the importance of maintaining the aura around this side.

While it may appear that this Irish side has crescendoed a year earlier that England in 2003, the latter’s success was surely not by design as they had developed a unique formula for tripping on their own laces at the final hurdle in three previous quests for a Grand Slam. Prior to their World Cup victory, England came out the right side of some incredible contests in 2002/2003 – their extraordinary defensive effort in Dunedin and destruction of Ireland in the Grand Slam decider come to mind.

You would imagine that Ireland want to face into the summer with another tournament victory, or Grand Slam, under their belt, at the expense of fielding their back up half-backs in Cardiff on the final weekend. In any event given the level of attrition – witness Ireland’s incredibly deep second row options getting culled in the space of four hours – Schmidt will have handed out opportunities across the board by the time St Patrick’s Day arrives.

Having said all this, it would be remiss to suggest that Robbie Henshaw’s selection at 15 hasn’t come somewhat from left field. After Rob Kearney’s shaky performance last Friday night it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that Schmidt is exploring his alternatives and with Bundee Aki consistently excellent throughout the last 12 months, it’s clear he’s choosing the route of getting your best players on the field.  While Henshaw came to the fore as a full back and it’s widely reported as his favourite position, Will Addison and, particularly, Jordan Larmour may be a little miffed but it’d take a fool to question Schmidt’s decision making at this stage.

While France did the biggest France possible last night in Paris there is no question that the tie of the round takes place on Lansdowne Road this evening. Perhaps it’s just a sign of the clickbait times we live in but the Irish media has spent the last week or so deriding Eddie Jones for his devious attempts to manipulate the media while themselves coming across as arrogant and somewhat dismissive of the English threat. Sadly, the arbitrary ‘how many of their players would make our team’ discussion seems to have already decided the game in Ireland’s favour.

Had the English taken this approach in years gone by – no doubt they did – we’d be pretty worked up by it but it’s probably unfair to assume that public opinion is accurately reflected by what’s printed or spoken about online. And, given the challenge approaching in the autumn, it may just be that this Irish squad will have to accept the intense scrutiny usually reserved for soccer teams.

Brave little England start this tournament imbued a fair amount of quiet confidence, largely due to the form and fitness of Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers, and, the return of Manu Tuilagi. England’s midfield axis is enthralling on paper but Henry Slade hasn’t delivered yet for England – largely due to lack of opportunity – and Tuilagi’s halcyon days in an English jersey came more than five years ago. This is not to say that they can’t or won’t click but opposite them the triumvirate of Sexton, Bundee Aki and Gary Ringrose is developing into a complementary unit and you’d expect the home side to have the advantage in this regard.

With the obvious caveat that all teams are affected by injuries, Sam Underhill’s absence is massive for England as they simply do not enjoy the depth in back rows currently enjoyed by the defending champions. Josh Van Der Flier – in many ways the most underappreciated back row in the Irish squad – was exceptional against New Zealand and with a big performance tomorrow, can lay claim for now to the most keenly contested jersey in Irish rugby. Van der Flier plays most closely in style to the traditional open side but against New Zealand he also carried brilliantly, a facet of his game which many see as paling in comparison to Dan Leavy and Sean O’ Brien.

Which naturally brings us to O’ Brien, potentially the most devastating forward replacement Ireland have ever been in a position to call on. If things are going awry tomorrow, or not, O’ Brien’s entry around the hour mark will be a huge boost not just for the team but all in attendance in the stadium. In tandem with Jordan Larmour – currently top of the queue for the number 23 jersey – though in an entirely different manner, O’ Brien may well provide the game breaking ability to put England away in the final quarter.

With the ‘boring’ boot work of Conor Murray being called into question this week, the irony is that in the opening minutes all eyes will be on the accuracy of the kicking of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell and the fielding ability of Robbie Henshaw who, though a settled veteran in the side, now finds himself in the spotlight ordinarily reserved for debutants.

Ireland’s successful November fed into an excellent few months for the provinces while the English sides, with the exceptions of Saracens and Saracens, largely floundered. Whether this actually means anything won’t be revealed until mid-March but recent history suggests that the success of Leinster and Munster has been inextricably linked with subsequent success for Ireland. But then, Saracens and Exeter provide a large chunk of the English team and the club malaise may reflect more of the difficult relationship between the RFU and English club owners.

Ireland, quite incredibly from our perspective, start as nine point favourites. The have won the last two encounters with England by nine and ten points, respectively, and odds makers are borderline savants but the line seems a little high.

In a quaint role-reversal expect the visitors to bring all the noise early on but the steadying hands of Murray and Sexton, and, the firepower on Ireland’s bench should see the home side prevail.

S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 6

Tips: Handicap draw (England +6) @ 16/1

England half time/Ireland full time @ 6/1

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#Boxing, Boxing, Tyson Fury

Fury v Wilder: A Turning Point?

Heavyweight boxing rises from the canvas

From the 1920s to the 1990s, boxing’s heavyweight division was to the forefront of not just sports but popular culture, particularly in America.  

The list of great heavyweights includes men who were giants of popular culture in their era: Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis – all names that have carved their way into sporting lore. For decades, the heavyweight champion of the world was the most famous sportsperson on the planet.

Even when avarice ensued in the 1980s and new governing bodies – WBO, IBF, WBC – were established, the best heavyweight enjoyed the adulation of the masses. However, towards the end of the last century, a number of events occurred, leading to the gradual demise of the heavyweight division.

Mike Tyson’s thrilling, sometimes depraved, journey lurched towards a sickening halt in the late 1990s and Evander Holyfield retired shortly thereafter. With Lennox Lewis’ outstanding career nearing its finale, heavyweight boxing came to be dominated by a pair of robotic behemoths from Ukraine who offered none of the flair or fanfare of their immediate predecessors.

Those men were the Klitschkos – Vitali and Wladimir – and they enjoyed a decade of dominance built on monumental physiques and relentless, metronomic left jabs. Their styles had little aesthetic appeal and they failed to engage with an American audience who still harboured historic bias towards Eastern Europe.

Big and Boring: The Klitschkos

Though Oscar de la Hoya, Floyd Mayweather and Roy Jones Jr were wowing boxing fans a few weight divisions down, the heavyweight division was always relied on to attract the casual fan. And, with a paucity of quality big men, the division descended into relative obscurity.

In all sports, the idiom states that a good big man will beat a good small man. Well, in boxing, the most enthralling sight is two huge men colliding in an eighteen by eighteen feet ring with just a 10 ounce glove for protection. Last Sunday morning, Tyson Fury,took on WBA heavyweight champion of the world, Deontay Wilder, in the Staples Centre, Los Angeles – two men attempting to win back the attention of a once rapt American audience.

The boxing community in America, together with promoters and network executives, were aware that a dull contest would represent a missed and potentially final opportunity to seize the attention of today’s demanding, impatient television audience. Remarkably – as nostalgia tends to mask the sheer number of dull heavyweight clashes – Wilder and Fury were involved in a wild contest that escalated in the final four rounds. The climax of the saw bout saw Fury rise – Undertaker-like- from the canvas in the 12th round after a devastating combination from Wilder looked to have ended the contest.

https://www.sho.com/video/65123/wilder-knocks-down-fury-in-round-12

Indeed, with the exception of Larry Holmes in 1978 against Ernie Shavers, it’s unlikely that anyone has ever beaten the referee’s count after absorbing what Fury did. Wilder’s face showed both bemusement and grudging respect and though a contentious split draw decision followed minutes later, those in attendance or watching at home knew they had just witnessed something special.

The events in Los Angeles would have been keenly observed by Anthony Joshua – WBC, WBO and IBF champion of the world – and his team, led by silver-tongued promoter, Eddie Hearn. Since winning Olympic Gold in London 2012, Joshua has gone on to become the golden boy of British sport. His charisma, power and extraordinary physique have made him extremely popular with the British public and he is an advertiser’s dream.  Joshua enjoyed a narrow escape from a drug conviction in 2011, when a judge told him, ‘prison–or boxing’. Joshua took his chance and hasn’t looked back.

Hearn’s Matchroom Promotions built Joshua up as the novice destroyed all comers. While Joshua’s hype machine gathered momentum, Fury – always a divisive character –went to Dusseldorf in 2015 and defeated Wladimir Klitschko, in the process becoming the lineal heavyweight champion of the world.

However, before their rematch could take place, Fury was banned and ultimately spiralled into a deep hole of alcohol and drug abuse, very nearly taking his life in the process. The British Board of Boxing Control (BBBC) was left with little option but to ban Fury after he admitted to prolonged cocaine abuse.

With Fury suspended, Joshua defeated a Klitschko in decline and became the world’s pre-eminent heavyweight. But, champions are only as good as their rivals. Tyson had Holyfield, while Ali, Foreman, Liston and Frazier all engaged in enthralling contests in the 1960s and 1970s. New Zealand’s Joseph Parker – since proven to be an average fighter-  held the WBO title, while the Alabaman, Deontay Wilder, was relying on an ungainly but hammer like right hand to lead him to an undefeated record and possession of the WBA championship.

Joshua v Klitschko was a brilliantly even fight, not a fight between two brilliant boxers.

The problem,though, was the glaring absence of Fury from the heavyweight scene. Joshua is an immense talent but when people like Eddie Hearn unearth a man both as talented and marketable as Joshua, there is a hesitancy to put him in a ring with a man as unorthodox and dangerous as Wilder. Sportswear companies, watch manufacturers and airlines don’t respond well when the face of their billboard campaigns has been sparked in front of millions of viewers.

If there is a paucity of quality challengers – as was case when the Klitschkos ruled – then promoters can largely do as they please but audiences are wise and predictable fights will not do big office numbers. With Fury absent though, and offering little beyond pithy soundbites, Hearn knew it was his prerogative to mine Anthony Joshua’s cross-generational appeal and make some real money. Admittedly, that is the very essence of professional boxing.

Boxing enjoys a most unusual place in society, offering somewhat of a social dilemma:why do peaceful people enjoy the brutal nature of a boxing match? Perhaps it’s the drama of the event, the contradictory appeal of the glamour and raw brutality, or, perhaps we’re not as peaceful and reasonable as we believe.

This week the grim reality of the fight game came to bear when it was confirmed that former light heavyweight champion of the world, Adonis Stevenson, had been placed in a medically induced coma and may have lasting brain injuries. His injuries came in defeat to Oleksandr Gvozdyk in Quebec City on the same night that heavyweight boxing was rejuvenated. The contrast is jarring. The risks are so real and so obvious and history is littered with hundreds of cautionary tales of men and women who were devoured by the boxing industry. Yet, mystifyingly the show goes on and those who should know better lap it up.

Still, while boxing cares little for its casualties, the return of the fallen great has been mythologised since the 1920s. Thus it was, earlier this year, and after negotiations with the BBBC, Tyson Fury was allowed to return to the ring, with his two-year suspension backdated to 2016. Two barely passable tune-ups followed before Fury and Wilder’s respective management teams were able to agree to last weekend’s contest.

When the fight was made, Team Joshua – none of whom lack for hubris – saw Wilder and Fury as inferior, the ‘B side’ in any future negotiations. Then, Wilder and Fury engaged in the remarkable contest last weekend and now the division is alive with opportunity once more. Unlike Joshua and Klitschko, this was actually a contest between two men in their prime. Joshua is still the main draw but as in bygone days, the pinnacle of the heavyweight division is now populated by a number of extremely talented yet markedly different men.

Whatever the case, events in California have changed the dynamic entirely. How else could Deontay Wilder have ended sitting on a couch beside the mystifying, James Corden? Until Saturday, Joshua and Hearn perhaps rightly thought that Fury and Wilder needed them. Now, however, their rematch will fill Wembley Stadium or a Las Vegas casino and the box office purchases will be like the 90s heydays.

Some people will scratch their heads and struggle to fathom the brutality of boxing but last Saturday’s fight has renewed America’s love for the storied heavyweight division. For the oddly sentimental fans of boxing and the power brokers alike, the bigs are back and all is well in the world once more.

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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

 

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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