#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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#Boxing, Boxing

The Legend of the Garden Continues

Hall of famer, Marvin Hagler, once said, “It’s tough to get out of bed to do roadwork at 5am when you’ve been sleeping in silk pajamas (sic)”. Amongst the many theories abounding after Anthony Joshua’s shock defeat to Andy Ruis Jr. last Saturday night, this one may ring most true.  Entourages 20 deep and luxury apartments in Dubai sound great but at some the hunger must wane, the ruthless desire must dim just a little.

In any event, after the massive upset in the vaunted main hall in Madison Square Garden, heavyweight boxing is back to its equilibrium state of chaotic uncertainty. Ruiz Jr, a man you would quite frankly never mistake for an athlete, destroyed an over-confident Joshua to throw the division into disarray and, more importantly, secure his family’s future.

Usually, on nights like this, the champion is caught by an unexpected haymaker – think Hasim Rahman over Lennox Lewis – a one-off punch that cements the underdog’s status in the annals of shock victories. However, Ruiz Jr, whose physique had made him the easy butt of jokes throughout fight week, regrouped after a third-round knock-down to pummel Joshua into submission and shock not just the Garden but the entire sporting world.

Ruiz Jr had the now deposed champion down on four separate occasions, the first of those in the third round being particularly devastating, and the question marks over Joshua’s defence and jaw that have abound since his wild victory over Wladimir Klitschko in 2016 resurfaced.

Boxing, and particularly the heavyweight division, has the ability to frustrate and thrill in equal measure, often simultaneously. The events of the last few months have been no different. Joshua had been slated to make his American debut against Jarrell ‘Big Baby’ Miller, the latter a loud-mouthed, New Yorker who seemed a perfect fit for Joshua.  However, Miller, a 22 stone behemoth, whose stamina somehow endured into the later rounds was found guilty of balls out doping – perhaps in a nod to late 90s Tour de France –  failing tests for HGH, GW1516 and EPO, costing himself millions in the process and leaving Matchroom, DAZN and Eddie Hearn with a huge void to fill.

While it may be hard to believe now, it turns out that Jarrell Miller took all the drugs.

Apparently a $5,000,000.00 purse was placed on the table but the uptake was slow, with the tricky Cuban, Luis Ortiz, reportedly rejecting more money that has ever been placed before him. Enter Ruiz, who made his desire to fight Joshua known to Eddie Hearn via a message on Instagram.  Ruiz had only last fought in April – notably against Alexander Dimitrenko, a perfect tune-up for Anthony Joshua – and was out of camp for only six weeks before returning to work with Manny Robles. Even with this, the experts gave the Mexican American little chance.

Mike Costello and Steve Bunce of the BBC Five Live Boxing Podcast had noted the surprising hand speed of the challenger during last week’s workouts, allied to the fact that Ruiz’ only defeat had come by split decision at the hands of New Zealander, Joseph Parker, two years ago in Auckland. No one viewed Ruiz, to borrow from boxing vernacular, as a bum but he also was barely cracking the major division’s top ten.

Joshua had not been slow to speak of his plans for 2020 when interviewed midweek, not least when his arch-nemesis, Deontay Wilder, had been quick to announce his own rematch with Ortiz and then the much anticipated super-fight with Tyson Fury in February 2020. While it is unquestioned that Joshua allowed his attention to slip just slightly – that’s all that’s required when gigantic men are swinging for you – rumours have swirled about in the fight’s aftermath of the Briton’s preparation to the fight, with some suggesting that he was sparked in sparring less than a fortnight before fight night.

For those who love boxing, the mythos and conjecture form a large part of the post-fight synopsis, and rumours will swirl around until such time as Joshua gloves up and fights again. Until then, questions of a flu, the now infamous sty in the eye, alleged anxiety attacks and a perceived gun shyness will be prevalent.

What is unquestionable is that the tables have turned drastically on Joshua and the braggadocio Hearn in the last six months. Fresh off his stoppage of the tricky but aging Russian, Alexander Povetkin in September, Joshua was issued what appeared to be a legitimate offer – reputed to be worth north of $35,000,000.00 – to face Deontay Wilder in a unification bout for the four recognised heavyweight titles. While Matchroom and Premier Boxing Champions/Al Haymon, Wilder’s promoter, are equally flexible with the truth, it does seem that team Joshua were happy to milk the sold out stadiums in the UK, while basking in the glory of the defeat of the 40 year-old, Klitschko.

When Wilder and Fury sprang their surprise date in L.A. last December, the sense was that Hearn and Joshua had been caught unaware, this time by the wily, Frank Warren. That fight provided one of the best final rounds in heavyweight boxing history and it seemed the big three – Fury, Wilder and Joshua – would engage in a de facto round robin for the next 18 months.

The thrill and anticipation for these fights was frustratingly pierced by ESPN’s move to sign Fury to an exclusive US deal separating him, in a broadcasting context, from Joshua (DAZN) and Wilder (Showtime/Fox). With Fury now in the money, Joshua in possession of three belts and Wilder’s promoters loathe to give up the remaining belt, it felt as if boxing fans would be held hostage to three ridiculously rewarding and divergent financial arrangements.

However, due to fate and the unforeseen intervention of stupidity, drugs and Ruiz’ earnest appeal to Hearn, the division has been flushed wide open once more. And, more importantly, in a twist of fate that no one could have anticipated, Haymon’s PBC signed Ruiz to their stable a mere matter of months ago. PBC has gone from protecting one belt to now possessing all four. Ordinarily, possession is nine tenths of the law, however, in boxing possession is the only show in town.

Joshua may be the most marketable face in boxing – you’ve definitely seen him smiling at you from a bus stop or billboard over the last two years – but if he doesn’t win the rematch with Ruiz later this winter, then the opportunities will dry up almost instantly, unless Haymon and Warren decide otherwise.

In the wake of the drama in the Garden, it has become evident that America is alive to boxing for the first time in years. Sure, Floyd Mayweather’s fights were popular events but there was little of the mystique and the obscure, raw magic that surrounded the sport in the middle of the 20th century. Hard core fans always cared, predominantly the Central American community, but casual fans – the ones who can really effect pay-per-view numbers – are intrigued again.

Even if you are a Joshua fan, there’s something eminently appealing in seeing the quietly-spoken, endearing underdog prevailing over a corporate darling who had arrived on US soil to announce himself to the masses. Ruiz says he has been bullied since he was six over his weight, though you suspect plenty of his tormentors have received the appropriate justice in the years since. More to the point, Ruiz is now at the top table with Fury and Wilder, while Joshua must regroup and prepare for his rematch with Ruiz – announced for November or December – in the knowledge that his career is at a major crossroads.

The suggestion was that Joshua would take Ruiz to the UK but the already unconvinced US crowd will become even more sceptical if Joshua decides to take his ball home after one tough night in boxing’s most revered venue.

Money can surely no longer be an issue, so, if Joshua still wants to create the legacy he has spoken of, he must do so in Vegas or Los Angeles this winter. Steve Bunce thinks the fight will take place in Los Angeles and if Joshua really is the banger he says he is, this shouldn’t be a problem.

While a mega fight between two undefeated champions would have done incredible numbers, the fans will come in droves to see Joshua versus either Fury or Wilder in 2020, not to mention the Ruiz rematch later this year. And, while this sounds incredible, an undefeated record is no prerequisite for greatness. Ali, Foreman, Hopkins, De la Hoya, Pacquiao – all unquestioned hall-of famers with multiple defeats on their resume.

HBO and Sky Sports are as guilty as anyone of promoting the much lauded undefeated versus undefeated contests but the problem is most fighters will enjoy countless easy victories on the way to a 30-0 record. Thus, you get a vacuum where the two or three best in the division circle each other for years until a generally unsatisfactory showdown takes place long after the public’s appetite has piqued.

The 60s, 70s and 80s were a bloodbath, where it would have been quite literally impossible to escape with respect, money and an unbeaten record.

A recurring theme as discussed recently by Kris Mannix and Max Kellerman is that boxers and fans want two different things. Boxers want to make as much as money as possible while, understandably, putting themselves through as little punishment as possible. Fans, however, want the best fights, and for the majority of fans, the best fights are brawls. It’s easy for fight fans to forget that the boxers ultimately want to get out of there in tact mentally and physical and avoiding the best fighters is conducive to this.

The promoters and broadcasters have to deal with the double edged sword they create when lionising their undefeated fighters. Fury v Wilder is theoretically the best fight out there as neither man has tasted defeat but the next instalment of Joshua v Ruiz is, in many ways, more compelling. Ruiz is about to walk away with €20 million plus – and will be subject to patronising platitudes for the next five months. Should he win again, though, he cements his place at the top of the division. Meanwhile, Joshua, who has worked so hard to create the persona of a carefree destroyer now must ignore all his fly by night, celebrity pals, knuckle down with Rob McCracken and reintroduce his brutal side.

Fans had become irked at the reticence of Matchroom to make the Wilder fight. Now, faced with adversity for the first time in years, Joshua can endear himself to the boxing, and general sporting, public by coming back against Ruiz and then potentially putting himself in line for a contest against the winner of Fury-Wilder II.

It’s virtually impossible to chart the course of something so volatile as the heavyweight division. Only weeks ago, conversations on the division were fraught with frustration and irritation. However in the space of seven dynamic rounds, the powerful hands of Andy Ruiz Jr – the most unlikely king of the giants – have suddenly filled the next 12 months with infinite promise.

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Irish Rugby, Six Nations 2019

Ireland v France – Preview

Fine Gael’s popularity is plummeting, English politicians are offending innocent victims of the Troubles and Manchester United are raising smiles – for some of us – with Fergie-time victories; it feels just like the 90s again. And, after signs of life in a Paris a fortnight ago, are France set to continue this 90s revival on Sunday afternoon against the unusually beleaguered Irish side?

Joe Schmidt can’t put his finger on the cause of Ireland’s recent malaise while Shane Horgan triggered PTSD in some quarters as a result of his fleeting reference to the inexplicable aberration in 2007. No matter that it was an entirely different playing squad and management team, he was simply applying his own subjective experience to an unrelated group of individuals.

Ireland may be struggling of late but if you take the pervading sense of doom at face value, then Joe Schmidt’s squad should probably accept that the World Cup quarter final hurdle is, once more, going to unseat them.

Amid the jittery atmosphere that no amount of cheesy, irritating ‘Team Of Us’ ads can soothe, it’s  worth taking stock of the team’s performances to date in the 2019 Six Nations.

England arrived on 2nd February almost fully loaded and with ample motivation after the closing day humiliation in Twickenham less than 12 months previously. They led from kick off basically, thoroughly dominated the collisions, got the bounce of the ball and a pivotal forward pass call and came out as comfortable winners.

Ireland would inevitably be skittish after this result and the upcoming trip to Edinburgh was fraught with peril, particularly when you consider that Ireland had lost there on their last visit. A nine-point victory was largely dismissed, though Joey Carberry’s emergence from a shaky start to steer the team home commendably was widely accepted as a positive.  

Funnily enough, Horgan and Shane Jennings stressed how impressed they were by Wales’ seven point victory over Scotland this afternoon, a result that was far less assured than the Irish win. Yet, Ireland – nine point winners in Edinburgh – were criticised for being flat and devoid of ideas.

The response to the Italian victory was similarly reactionary. Schmidt made changes as expected, where it is worth noting that our fifth and sixth choice second rows were selected to start. Ireland started reasonably well but an early injury to Bundee Aki worryingly threw the backline into disarray and then, to the surprise of everyone, Italy came out and played some brilliant rugby. While their tries and numerous surges downfield came on the back of Irish mistakes, rather than laud Italy, people chose to criticise Ireland.

For the last two years, fans and media alike have crowed on about how weak Italy are and that their presence devalues the Six Nations. However, when Italy then arrive and provide a really impressive performance – the brain fart for Jacob Stockdale’s try aside – few are willing to give Conor O’ Shea’s side any credit.

Would people prefer hand out platitudes after a nine-try walkover or instead accept that Italy played well for 80 minutes – a facet sorely missing from their game traditionally – and Ireland, with seven first choice players missing, had to dig very deep? This isn’t to say that Ireland were particularly good in Rome, but they scored four tries and gave starts to a number of fringe first-teamers.

The tournament has been underwhelming from an Irish perspective, but our view is that the problems to date stem from a more obvious source. To operate at their highest level, all great teams require a highly functioning spine. In the 12 months leading up to this year’s Six Nations, Ireland’s spine of Rory Best, Conor Murray, Jonathan Sexton and Rob Kearney performed at an extremely high level over a sustained period of time.

2019 has been a different kettle of fish, however: Best’s form has been patchy all season, Murray is still feeling his way back from his highly publicised injury, Sexton has struggled to string consecutive decent performances together looking rattled in patches, and, Kearney is another who has struggled with injuries while generally failing to impress. These are four of Ireland’s longest serving members and to a large extent, the experienced core of a side will set the tone for performance levels.

It’s simply not enough to say that Ireland’s players lack confidence as Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale were both excellent in Edinburgh and Rome. The English defeat may have dismayed the team but it was only one game and if the players really were affected that badly then the confidence created by the exceptional performances of 2018 appears to be unusually brittle.

Sunday sees the return of Cian Healy, Best, James Ryan, Iain Henderson, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander and Garry Ringrose and while depth has clearly been nurtured in the squad, this is the strongest 15 available.

Stander’s impact, honed on an enormous work, rate often goes unappreciated as though many are still expecting him to return to his tackle busting ways in his breakout season for Munster. Along with Ryan, he will provide a willing battering ram – though sometimes you do wish space was targeted ahead of the man – and make upwards of 15 tackles.

Henderson too has, not so much a point to prove, as an opportunity to illustrate that the Irish lineout is still a highly functioning unit in the absence of Devin Toner. Even in stormy seas, Toner has proven to be a beacon for Best, so his club mate, Henderson, will hope he can assume this mantle. Toner has been part of all the recent Irish success so Henderson must make the most of his opportunity.

What of Sunday’s visitors, the improving French, who in an extraordinary break from tradition have retained their match day squad from the victory over Scotland last time out.

Antoine Dupont sparkled as anticipated while Romain Ntamack, and, Thomas Ramos at the back also provided eye-catching performances for the stricken, Jacques Brunel. With an identical 23 to the last time out, the old cliché must be dropped, at least for one week, as we genuinely do know which France is going to turn up!

However, rumours of the French shackles having been removed and a new era of carefree, freewheeling rugby are slightly wide of the mark. The French did play some lovely rugby in the first half and Yoann Huget should never, ever be selected away from the wing again.

Having said that, France beat an injury-stricken Scottish side – without Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and two of their starting front row – who with two minutes left were 10 metres out from the French line. France subsequently surged down the field and were incorrectly allowed feed the scrum that led to their bonus point try and winning margin of 17 points.

France want to impose themselves as before at the set piece but Ireland, with the full complement in tow, can no longer be bullied at scrum time. Tight head, Demba Bamba, is being highly touted in France and will be interesting how his clash with Cian Healy unfolds.

More interesting still will be to see how much debris is left strewn across the midfield after Bundee Aki and Mathieu Bastereaud collide for the first time. Despite repeated allusions to the fact that Robbie Henshaw and Ringrose must form Ireland’s midfield, Aki – his departure in Rome aside – has been the mainstay since his November debut 2017 against South Africa. True, you would not mistake his passing for Matt Giteau’s but he carries intelligently and powerfully, defends aggressively and can find an opening running north to south or into a wider gap. Though shackled against England, there’s potential for this combo, with Sexton as orchestrator, to unlock a French midfield that will hope to meld Sexton’s old nemesis, Bastereaud, with the more elusive, Gael Fickou.

Fans over the age of 30 will remember the powerful, classy, Emile Ntamack, carving through a prone Irish defence throughout the halcyon days of the 90s – when a game plan could revolve solely around ‘getting the ball to Geoghegan’ – and it seems the time has come for son, Romain to deliver on the extraordinary promise displayed in last years U20s World Cup.

Romain Ntamack is part of the current Toulouse youth movement and while it will inevitably spell trouble for Ireland, there is something wonderfully exciting about seeing young French players who care only for enjoying their rugby and playing with the type of self-expression that is so widely lacking in the often dour world of professional rugby today.

This may come in flashes on Sunday but an improved performance against a bedraggled Scottish side isn’t cause for Ireland to be cowed. Ireland come equipped with what is close to their first 15 and France have been anaemic away from Paris for years. The visitors may sparkle intermittently but Ireland, once again, have a point to prove.

SUS Prediction – Ireland by 8

Tips

  1. France +14 (Evens)
  2. C.J. Stander anytime try scorer (3/1)
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Six Nations 2019

Italy v Ireland – Six Nation Preview

It’s less than fortunate that Ireland’s game this Sunday comes with a fortnight break either side of it. Few believe Italy will pose much of a problem yet perhaps still chastened from our opening round defeat to England, it appears few changes will be made. And, in the midst of the malaise that Italy seem to induce, Gordon D’Arcy has gone all Mick Jenkins and encouraged Ireland to go play some jazz in the Stadio Olimpico. . 

Not so long ago, Joe Schmidt spoke about finding options for the World Cup quarter final and it seems that Joey Carberry has already jumped from adequate replacement to a genuine threat to the throne. Johnathan Sexton is still the undoubted first choice number ten but Carberry’s recovery from the intercept and subsequent 50 minute performance in Edinburgh provides more than just food for thought.

Given the fact that the encounter in Rome is close to a foregone conclusion, we’re going to change it up a little this week and provide a short preview of each game starting with the next step in Ireland’s strangely off-key performances to date.

Italy v Ireland – 3:00pm, 24th February 2019, Stadio Olimpico

Given the mixed results Ireland have achieved in Scotland in recent visits, it’s hard to be overly disappointed with a two-score victory over a resurgent side who we’ve been promised are on the cusp of something. To be fair to Scotland, they looked very threatening at times in the first half but like Parnell, they are too often the architects of their own downfall.

That said, after half time, Ireland closed the game down as a contest, guided wonderfully by a man, Joey Carberry, who couldn’t have started his time on the field in worse circumstances. Carberry’s loose pass may have been well picked off by Finn Russell, but it shows how far the Athy man has come since his disastrous outing against the USA in June 2017 that he was able to bounce back, produce the moment’s outstanding moment of offence, and, steer Ireland home down the stretch. Even his sealing kick, fifteen to the right, thirty out – historically not a great place for place kicks late in games – was completely nerveless. Carberry may have endured a torrid night in Castres back in December, but he’s been faultless from the kicking tee since and his general game continues to evolve.

It seems remiss to be talking about a player who won’t be playing but in a bizarre about turn, it appears the Irish coaching staff want their 80 cap, reigning World Player of the Year to get some game time under his belt. Surely a tune up in Rome won’t reveal anything we don’t already know about Sexton and he didn’t look in fantastic nick when he left the field in Edinburgh. Before Joey Carberry was ruled out through injury, it appeared Sexton was going to play anyway and while he is short on game time, it just didn’t seem necessary. Carberry is out, however, so there’s no point in exploring hypotheticals.

Perhaps it’s a little disrespectful to view Italy as such a weak opponent but Ireland have obliterated them in recent years. The legendary Sergio Parisse misses out, though of late, the great man’s body refuses to do the bidding of his mind. Italy need to find a number of players to carry the load of their record-breaking captain. By all accounts, Conor O’ Shea has revolutionised the Italian under-age set up but reports suggest that he may not be there to be see the fruits of his labour.

The clamour, or murmur really, for the introduction of relegation and promotion to the Six Nations will probably rear its head on Monday if Ireland run riot but unless Italy have crafted some extraordinary version of the rope-a-dope, then the result will be another resounding Irish victory.

For the past 12 months, this game has always stood out as the opportunity for Joe Schmidt to try some of the peripheral players: Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway, Carberry, David Kilcoyne, Tadhg Beirne, Seán Cronin and now, perhaps, Robbie Henshaw at full-back. His decision to, if not err on the side of caution, then certainly remain conservative, will serve Ireland well in the short term but in reality it’s the last opportunity – outside the unpredictable interloper, injury – to provide these players with game time before the Samoa game in October. Only Kilcoye and Cronin start out of the players named above and Beirne doesn’t even make the bench.

Still, Ireland are actually back in a place from we thrive, slightly underrated by outsiders and gradually building up a head of steam. It’s not clear to anyone where Italy are. All 23 Irish players should get a decent run out and if the margin of victory is hard to predict, the result is most certainly not.

SUS Prediction – Ireland by 20

Tips –  Sean Cronin, Andrew Conway and Chris Farrell to score anytime @ 17/2

France v Scotland, 2:15pm, 23rd February 2019, Stade de France

It’s actually quite difficult to assess what progress, if any, Scotland have made since last year’s Six Nations. While shorn of a number of forwards for the visit of Ireland, the same sloppiness and general lack of accuracy at vital moments prevented Scotland from mounting any real threat to Ireland in the final 30 minutes.

In addition to depleted front row stocks, the Scots are now also without Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Huw Jones for their visit to the Stade de France. While Russell and Hogg, in particular, are massive losses this match will provide the Scottish with an opportunity to test their strength in depth. However, if any single player in the tournament was to provide an active definition of ‘x factor’, it would be Hogg.

The closest comparison you can draw to France at the moment, at least in terms of haplessness and a complete lack of accountability, is the HSE. To be fair to France, though, at least their future looks bright with a cohort of successful under 20s hopefully set to make their mark in the next two years.

For now, Jacques Brunel’s side are a complete mess. And, the main reason we don’t know what France side we’re going to get each week is because of the wholesale, largely whimsical changes in personnel.   

Jacques Brunel seems to know as much about his players as Shane Ross does about Irish sport. (photo leparisien.fr)

The French effectively contrived to twice win and yet still lose their opening day contest against Wales. While Yoann Huget’s insouciance – and not in the traditionally cool, French way – and Sebastian Vahaamina’s ill-timed midfield skip pass were pivotal events in the defeat to Wales, no one moment could explain the humiliation handed out to France by a resilient England a fortnight ago.

France have made it clear that Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez have not been dropped from the match-day 23 for criticism of their coaching, or lack thereof, but you’d have to wonder. In reality, France weren’t a million miles off against Wales but Jacques Brunel’s knee-jerk reaction to drop seven players and move Joann Huget to full-back backfired spectacularly.

Perhaps Brunel didn’t see Robbie Henshaw’s uncomfortable evening manning the back for Ireland – it genuinely wouldn’t be a surprise if he didn’t – but the decision to move Huget proved disastrous as England profited from Huget’s absence from the backfield to score four tries directly from kicks into open space.

Tomorrow, Thomas Ramos gets to join the party, making his test debut at full-back. There are high hopes that Ramos can fill the shoes of France and Toulouse legend, Clement Poitrenaud, and he will be joined by club mates Antoine Dupont – a world class scrum-half in the making – and Romain Ntamack. France may win tomorrow, in fact we’d be surprised if they didn’t as Scotland are an average side and Paris is always a difficult place to win. However, what’s more important is that they provide the three Toulouse youngsters with a concerted run in the team.

Brunel seems to be picking his teams from a hat at the moment and players must be either terrified or completely indifferent at the thought of losing their place on the team.  While it’s too late to find the right coach for Japan 2019 – unless the players follow the self-taught manual which proved so successful in the 2011 Rugby World Cup – France have an opportunity to bed in some players who possess a raw skill set that other countries would kill for.

With Russell and Hogg in the saddle, you’d give Scotland a great chance but, as we said, the Paris effect shouldn’t be ignored and Dupont, an all action buzz saw of a scrum half, might just grab this game by the scruff of the neck.

SUS Prediction – France by 6

Tips – Handicap draw France -6 @ 22/1

Wales v England, 4:45 pm, 23rd February 2019, Millennium Stadium

While history and fact fade further into irrelevance in political and general society, sports fans are always cognisant of the great achievements of the past. Even now, more than 40 years later, the Netherlands are revered for introducing the world to the concept of ‘Total Football’. Johann Cruyff, Johann Neeskens, Johnny Rep and the rest of that side – though no doubt tainted with a sheen of romanticism – are better remembered than the actual winners of the 1974 World Cup, where they brought the brain child of legendary Ajax manager, Jack Reynolds, to a global audience.

Perhaps in generations to come, rugby fans will look back and ask where were you that memorable evening in February 2019 when Eddie Jones’ England side revolutionised the game of rugby? Through myriad, complex techniques, England unearthed an astounding new weapon……. the kick into open space. Yes, as Owen Farrell and Henry Slade moved Robbie Henshaw around endlessly and effectively, we were witness to a development like none other.

Perhaps we’re being unfair, but the sense of amazement at England’s success against Ireland first and then a pathetic French team and its absentee full-back was a tad surprising. England have been brilliantly effective to be fair and it’s unusual that a back line would include such a slew of quality kickers. However, the fanfare over their prudent use of the boot – Ireland could take note – would not exist if not for the devastating effectiveness of the Vunipolas and a brilliant supporting cast of Jamie George and Tom Curry.

Billy Vunipola (l) has proved a revelation on his return to the English side and, despite, their free-scoring ways remain the most important player on their side.
. (Photo By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Like those before them, England exposed a narrow Irish defence, caught some breaks and dominated Ireland at the breakdown and in the tackle. Against France, England did as they pleased and if it wasn’t for the occasional shot of an exasperated Joann Huget, you’d have thought the fullback was in the sin bin, such was the space afforded to Farrell, Slade, Elliott Daly and rugby’s form winger, Tom May.

To England’s credit, they kick judiciously and not just up in the air – which can sometimes appear a little aimless when other teams adhere slavishly to this tactic – and they’ve puzzled opposing back threes so far. In Cardiff, however, they will face an orthodox full-back in Liam Williams and a fired up Welsh pack that will be, you would presume, better primed emotionally than Ireland were.

A visit of England always gets the home crowd worked up – apart, unusually, from the Irish crowd throughout much of the recent defeat to England – but the Welsh crowd bring a healthy air of vitriol to proceedings when their neighbours cross the Severn.

Eddie Jones has prodded away all week – in decades to come, Jones will be identified as the forefather of trolling – while a relatively serene, Warren Gatland continues to shift the focus from the Six Nations to the overarching importance of what is to come in Japan.

The first two rounds of the tournament do suggest that England are ahead of the pack and that Wales are genuinely focused on the World Cup. Having said that, this fixture, particularly when played in Cardiff takes on added significance for the Welsh.

The Welsh pack won’t want for intensity and Gareth Anscombe may provide the creative spark that Dan Biggar lacks, but it’s hard to look past a side led by two of the form players in the world in Billy Vunipola and Farrell.

England aren’t quite at the ‘immortality beckons’ stage just yet but win tomorrow and they’ll travelling east with a grand Slam under the belt.

SUS Prediction – England by 6

Tip – England half time/full time @ 11/10

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