Ireland, Irish Rugby, November Internationals, Six Nations 2017

Kings in the North?

After back to back defeats in South Africa, albeit in frustrating and slightly unfortunate circumstances, the pessimist in us wondered just how far down the world rankings Ireland might slip before the World Cup seedings were finalised next May. The toughest November in history lay ahead, key men were ruled out, and the question wasn’t whether New Zealand would win in Chicago, but rather by how much.

That Ireland emerged with a drawn mini-series against the record-breaking New Zealand side, and three wins from four in all are testament to this Irish sides ability to dig deeper and more successfully into their reserves than ever before. Of course, none of this would be possible without Joe Schmidt’s outstanding coaching but in recent weeks the Irish squad have managed to display some true grit in the face of adversity. The victory against New Zealand will obviously stand out for most, particularly with the passing of time, but in many ways, Saturday night’s tensely eked out victory over Australia was almost as impressive.

Only twelve months ago, we bemoaned a lack of player depth, a lack of line speed in defence and an inability to move the ball with accuracy and intent. Against Australia, in the face of an almost unprecedented injury toll, particularly in the back line, Ireland conjured some really good attacking rugby, with one try finished out wide, another created there and the third taken with skilled opportunism by a rising star.

Best of all, perhaps, is that Ireland managed to claw their way back against Australia while playing some heavily, error-ridden rugby in front of a crowd that appeared to be lifeless until the hour mark. With more crisp passing, Australia might have won this game, but we’ve made that very point about Ireland on so many occasions in the past. The best teams find ways to win, even when best-laid plans go awry. No doubt, Ireland’s makeshift back line was plugging holes at an alarming rate but somehow they survived. And, just as in Chicago, with a southern hemisphere side rampant entering the crucial final quarter, Ireland not only resisted but responded in style, ending each game on the front foot.

How many generations of Irish rugby fans recall 60 minutes of blood and guts performances from their team, only to see the fatigue set into the side before they fell away to technically and aerobically superior sides? Under Joe Schmidt, and particularly post-New Zealand 2013, Ireland have gradually matured into a side that will stay all day long. While the coaching staff have ensured heretofore unseen levels of fitness, the side will also have reaped the benefits of closing out these tight end games.

Good sides hone their skills and bust their lungs all week long but, in the context of performing, no one in the world can coach a player into possessing an inherent sense of confidence. Yes, sports psychologists are all the rage, but to the untrained eye, their work seems to focus more on helping players apply themselves to specific tasks and ‘staying in the moment’. This presumably relates to how players approach their tasks and build up to games as opposed to the actual games themselves. It would be hard to imagine that a player could be anywhere but in the moment during a high intensity, physical contest.

Tadhg Furlong with Kieran Read 19/11/2016

How did Kieran Read end up there?

However, for a team to have the widespread confidence to back themselves so thoroughly is something that can only be nurtured through winning games. The coaches’  roles are to prepare the side to the best of their ability, an area in which Joe Schmidt and his coaches are perhaps peerless. Once a side builds residual stores of self-belief, it becomes a different sort of beast. New Zealand have played like this for as long as most people can remember. Australia too, even when the quality wasn’t there, although that bullet-proof confidence seems to transcend all Australian sport. England displayed the trait most clearly in the eighteen month period leading up to their 2003 World Cup victory, and to their credit are always very capable of instilling self-confidence. Although, sometimes, like the occasion on which  Girvan Dempsey ruined their homecoming party, the English can get more than a little carried away.

Irish teams have often struggled down the years in this area. Obviously, Ireland lost numerous games because the opposition possessed superior levels of skill and fitness. However, we can all recall occasions, generally against France or the southern hemisphere sides where a mental block or failure to execute under pressure led to defeat. Often times, also, expectation has weighed too heavily and Ireland have underperformed: Wales in 2011, South Africa in 2016, the entire of the 2007 World Cup.

This current Irish side have benefitted from an extraordinary coach who leaves nothing to chance. As the players have learned to execute Schmidt and, latterly Andy Farrell’s tactics nigh on perfectly, and the fitness levels have increased, so too have they grown comfortable relying on their intuition in the crucial moments of a game.

Before we get too carried away with our recent success, it is worth remembering that the World Cup is almost three years away and recent events will be water under the bridge come 2019. Just ask the Starks. While the reality is that people can’t help but get giddy after witnessing the events of the last month, inevitable talk of a Grand Slam showdown with England on March 18th is presumptuous. The form graph is trending upwards for all Six Nations, and Ireland will need to tread particularly carefully in their competition opener in Edinburgh, against a Scottish side that will go wide early and often.

This week’s rather abrupt, and welcome announcement regarding the trial of the bonus point system in the 2017 Six Nations means that the competition is at last willing to part with tradition, often a meaningless, bye-word for those aspects of the tournament which people think they enjoy but can’t quite pinpoint. Pragmatism shall prevail though and there will be few who expect these new incentives to create a try-fest in a reliably, grim Dublin in mid-February. Still, even if attacking benefits won’t be reaped until March, sides will still at least get a reward for enduring in a 15-9 defeat decided by the boot.

Of course, an English victory tomorrow would mean Eddie Jones’s men ending the calendar year unbeaten. Jones is arrogant, abrasive and, at least publicly, less than charming but there can be no questioning his success as a coach. Previously, he has successfully dragged a mediocre Australian team to a World Cup final, while memorably masterminding the greatest ever upset in World Cup history last year with Japan.

Now, Jones has exceptional squad depth and resources at his disposal and, though his approach couldn’t differ more from Schmidt’s, he possesses the same clarity of purpose. In a recent presentation to the RFU, Jones explicitly stated that he wanted to develop a secondary leadership group to achieve his ultimate goal: world domination by 2019 (in rugby). To his credit, the Australian never shirks a challenge and forces his players to accept pressure as a motivation. Apologists for the Australian are suggesting his antics are intended to shield the players from the media but we’re inclined to disagree as rugby players aren’t subjected to anything near the same relentless attention as footballers. Jones’ Mourinho-like abrasiveness walks a fine line but as history has proven, the antics of a winner will always be forgiven.

Time then to face back into a hugely important and intense window for the provinces before the new look Six Nations begins with renewed hope for all concerned. After a November of unprecedented success, that all began on the shores of Lake Michigan, Ireland face into the new year with enhanced vigour but they now move with a target on their back. The best sides thrive in this environment. Ireland should too.

Ireland, November Internationals, Rugby

How deep is the Irish Well?

Before we go  any further, let’s just park any grievances we have regarding last week’s encounter with New Zealand and their excessive physicality, cynicism or whatever you want to call it. The Kiwis came correct, as it were, for a brutal encounter and did everything they had to, including those illegal acts that Jaco Peyper and his gormless assistants should have punished.

Now, of course, like every other Irish person watching, we were irate at the time but perspective and clarity, naturally enough, follow the event. Are New Zealand dirty? No, but more importantly, who cares? In a game where you’re trying to physically dominate and suppress your opponent, teams will often do what they can.

The responsibility lies with the officials, in all sports, to draw the line at what is and is not acceptable. Take last week’s light heavyweight boxing championship match between Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward in Las Vegas as an example. Ward, a Californian defeated the unified champion, Kovalev , a Russian, in a bout scored unanimously 114-113 by the American judges. Now, for those who watched the fight, you could say it was a mildly controversial call but certainly not a travesty or a fix.


Andre Ward (l), like New Zealand, took advantage of a weak referee. (courtesy

Ward, a frustratingly, brilliant technical fighter gained traction through excessive holding and wrestling with the much more, destructive puncher, Kovalev, almost from the opening bell. Now, referee Robert Byrd could have had a word with Ward early on regarding his relentless holding, particularly after Kovalev’s explosive right in the second, but he didn’t and the challenger took advantage. Kovalev likely lost poise, and more importantly power reserves, in the deceptively energy sapping clenches which ensued. This was an extremely smart move by Ward that could have been stopped by Byrd, but it wasn’t and now, hopefully, we get a chance to see a supremely pissed off Kovalev take on Ward in the near future. Digression aside, the likelihood is that in the rematch Kovalev’s camp will be at pains to ensure that Ward’s tactics are brought to the next referee’s attention early and often.

New Zealand and Andre Ward simply worked the referees. Peyper, is frankly, a useless referee when it comes to disciplining foul-play – you need only look to the violent, illegal hits on Dave Kearney and Johnny Sexton in Paris in February – so, on what reasonable grounds was he appointed referee this game? Surely, Ireland would have politely requested a superior, and if possible non-SANZAR referee, but Peyper was the incompetent lot they were given. New Zealand have nothing to answer for here. Or to borrow and criminally butcher the words of the great Mike Lowrey, ‘don’t hate the players, hate the ref, his grossly incompetent TMO, and maybe World Rugby just a little bit.’

On Saturday, Ireland and Australia will have to deal with Jerome Garces, a man who both sides seem to have a bit of beef with. On that note, let’s park the referee issue. Michael Cheika has made ten changes to his match day squad from last Saturday’s late resistance of France in Paris. It’s a strange and sad sign of the times for French international rugby when a southern hemisphere side targets the Parisian encounter of a winter tour as the opportunity to give a few players a breather.

Cheika and Australia will probably regard this as the lesser as the next fortnight’s challenges – England have been given a very manageable winter schedule – but he’s astute enough to know the challenges Ireland will bring. Assuredly, Australia will not allow Ireland the same control of possession as their defence is not in the same league as the Kiwis. And, in David Pocock and the returning Michael Hooper, they have two of the foremost ground technicians in world rugby.

Michael Hooper and David Pocock 25/10/2015

Michael Hooper (l) and the bloodied David Pocock are probably still the best back row tandem in world rugby. (Yahoo Sport)

The pair performed extraordinarily throughout Australia’s surprising run to last year’s World Cup final and they will be integral to the visitors attempts to consign Ireland to back-to-back defeats. It’s going to be a relentless dogfight on the ground, and where New Zealand withdrew and realigned, Australia will launch themselves ferociously. Both will also look to use stolen ball to release Bernard Foley, the monstrous Kuridrani and potential, game-changer, Israel Folau.

Joe Schmidt seems to have found another well-balanced, back row, and it will be most instructive to see how Sean O’ Brien, Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander perform against the two best back rows in the world on six days rest. O’ Brien was truly immense on his latest return from injury, carrying powerfully, dominating contact and, were it not a handling error, may have scored a decisive try. Heaslip appears to be playing his best ever rugby, with his unseen work now being accompanied once more by the powerful running so prevalent in Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam run.

Meanwhile, Stander gets another opportunity to build on a fantastic performance in Chicago after his unfortunate departure last week. It’s probably a bit petty and whimsical but there’s a degree of schadenfreude in seeing Stander – who was apparently told he was too small for international rugby back home – emerge victorious against New Zealand while South Africa slumped miserably to record defeats, for very different reasons, against New Zealand against Italy. Stander’s rise has been prolific, after a difficult first season in Munster, and his raw passion and abrasiveness have made him a firm favourite with Irish rugby supporters. If anything, his success and popularity only further muddy the waters of the three-year residency rule.

Ireland’s midfield is, barring a frenetic hour last Saturday, a new one and Gary Ringrose, not unlike Gordon D’Arcy a decade or so ago, gets moved into his less preferred inside-centre role. Joe Schmidt has anticipated the physical threat that the hulking, Tevita Kuridrani brings and, probably wisely, has chosen to leave Jared Payne as the defensive lynchpin at thirteen. Kuridrani somehow manages to mobilise his massive, 6 foot 4, 16 stone frame into something more volatile than advertised and is an incredibly direct and destructive runner. The Fijian-born, thirteen and his centre partner, Reece Hodge, have scored in every game on this tour so far, and will be looking to match the exploits of Mark Ella on Australia’s 1984 ‘Grand Slam Tour’. Still, this Australian team just doesn’t have the look of a ‘Grand Slam’ about them.

Wales, who are very difficult to judge at the moment, were swept aside with admirable ease, Scotland pipped at the post, and France just about repelled so it would be remiss to compare this side’s feats thus far to the exploits of Farr-Jones, Ella, Lynagh and Co. in 1984. Australia have weaknesses that Ireland will be looking to exploit, mainly at the set piece. The home side’s lineout has functioned exceptionally all month and, while Australia has chosen for the cautionary inclusion of Dean Mumm on the blindside, Devin Toner’s unit should hold the edge here.

Meanwhile, it’s probably fair to say that the scrum has surpassed all expectations this November. Jack McGrath is deservedly keeping a surging Cian Healy on the bench, while Rory Best continues to flourish in the role he was made for. However, it has been the performances of Tadhg Furlong at tighthead, an area of real concern until recently, that have given most cause for optimism. Just twenty-four, a teenager in tighthead years, the Campile man has excelled since Joe Schmidt brought him into the fold. While there were always cautious expectations that Furlong would develop into a serious player, his performances in Chicago and then a fortnight later have emphatically announced his arrival onto the international scene. The former, New Ross, youth standout thinks his ball-carrying isn’t one of his strong suits, but the strength involved in grounding three New Zealanders, including Kieran Read, would suggest otherwise. While Stephen Moore and Sekope Kepu return, it’s still advantage Ireland in the scrum.

Tadhg Furlong with Kieran Read 19/11/2016

Tadhg Furlong has been immense through the early stages of his international career. (courtesy Newstalk)

So for all the explosiveness in the Australian backline, they can’t live from scraps, although they have exposed Ireland on a number of occasions with breakaways on recent visits. Still, Joe Schmidt will have drilled the importance of ball protection into his players all week long, so you suspect an incident like the unfortunate, Luke Marshall’s against Canada would be detrimental to a player’s chance of selection in the Six Nations.

On the flipside, the issue remains that for all Ireland’s evident forward dominance, the backline play can appear lacklustre with players sometimes slow to look for the offload and lateral movement often prevalent. Ringrose and Paddy Jackson were thrust into a war zone last week, and while the former found his feet,  it was difficult to make any assessment on Jackson.

In Jackson’s defence, there are few sides, if any, who would be able to attack cohesively after losing their midfield axis. New Zealand also would have struggled last week if the outstanding Beauden Barrett and Anton-Lienert Brown had departed so early. The Belfast man is a technically gifted player who performs consistently well for Ulster, but Saturday offers a serious opportunity to quieten the Carberry uprising, for now, and take control of this slightly new-look Irish backline. Coaches pore endlessly over previous games and sessions to find the right combinations and then, sometimes, an injury comes along and forces a new one upon you. Jackson, a slick passer, and the fleet-footed Ringrose might just unlock an Australian midfield that will know little of them. Of course, to earn the right to play, the young Irish will have to be ready for Hodge, Kuridrani and whatever else the resurgent Bernard Foley throws at them.

Paddy Jackson

Paddy Jackson’s performance tomorrow will have a huge bearing on Six Nations selection.

If someone said to you on 1st November that Ireland would win two tests in the month, you’d shrug relatively happily and think, a win against Australia should always be savoured. Now, Chicago has happened and everything has changed. Defeat against Australia would bring a sense of deflation to the month’s end which, while unfair, is only natural. Beating New Zealand thrusts a side into the role of favourites and this is a position with which Ireland need to become more comfortable, particularly against their more illustrious rivals.

Australia are rising from a low ebb and the past three weeks will have rejuvenated Michael Cheika’s side. Further, the visitors would never be readily associated with terms such as ‘low self-esteem’ and they’ll fancy a crack off a side who are close to breaking up the southern hegemony.

Tomorrow requires one more massive push from Ireland after last week’s unusually, intense contest. Win and this will be the most successful winter in Irish rugby history. There’s just about enough left in the tank.

S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 6

Odds: Ireland -1 (Evens)