Irish Rugby, Rugby

Rugby charting choppy waters

Team of Us, Jamie Heaslip cosplaying as Ron Burgundy, the most irritating stadium PA in world rugby and a desire to twin the sport with painfully boring corporate jargon. Irish rugby often seems like it’s going out if its way to alienate both those who are on the fence and those who already love the game. Glibness aside, however, professional rugby in Ireland is in rude health. The team – of players, not us – are performing to a standard never before seen, and the sustained success means the crowds continue to throng to Lansdowne Road.

There is always talk – in all sports – from ex-players, administrators and the marketing crowd of growing the game. The first two fairly want the game to grow because they love it, the latter because any large scale growth of the game means more eyeballs and more potential to generate revenue. The IRFU though must be perfectly happy with the space in which Irish rugby operates – it is the sporting lifeblood of much of the middle class and is marketed thus, while also enjoying popularity in many pockets throughout the country and, as the team are successful, the casual fan will continue to tune in.

For those who complain that international rugby has only five or six competitive teams, just look at soccer – club or international – or indeed gaelic football, and name more than four teams who compete annually, or biennially in the case of international soccer, for major honours. There is no intention to embark on a defence of rugby here, but it is mildly intriguing that some people are as vehement in their dislike of rugby as they are passionate in defence of their own chosen sport. Like hurling, horse racing or boxing, rugby has always been comfortable in its own skin, and this must prove irritating for onlookers of a more sensitive disposition.

However, aside from the largely inconsequential gripes surrounding Irish rugby that are mostly played out on Twitter between middle-aged men, the game is not in the healthiest place on a global scale. English club owners are being upended by their greed and hubris, South Africa are desperate to migrate to the relatively more profitable shores of the Northern Hemisphere, while the Welsh rugby appears to in the most precarious position of all based on recent reports. Meanwhile, Australia are relying on the enigmatic Eddie Jones to reinvigotate a game which has fallen miles behind rugby league, a game which already enjoys far greater popularity.

Eddie Jones – back to save Australian rugby once more? (courtesy Daily Telegraph)

Most interestingly, back in the summer of 2022, New Zealand Rugby Union sold a fraction of its soul – 5.8% – 8.58% of it to be precise – to U.S. private equity firm Silver Lake for NZ$200 (approximately €117 million). It is presumably a mandatory requirement that private equity firms adapt an anodyne name to divert attention from the fact that they’re on the scene to trim the fat and maximise profit. Why not something more snappy like Corporate Predator Group or Hyena Securities?

The Silver Lake deal is interesting as, to many Kiwis, it represented a sale of part of New Zealand’s culture. However, for those who may have been in any way concerned, Silver Lake Managing Director Stephen Evans alleviated any concerns with a perfectly vague explanation, possibly by way of ChatGPT:

“Digital technologies are changing sports and media, providing a lot of opportunities for rugby, and we are ready to help go after them while respecting the values and traditions of the game in New Zealand”.

As vanilla statments go, that’s as absoluely grand as they come. Still, to the commercial arm of the NZRU, this deal was likely considered too good to turn down. No doubt the players will have to add to the burgeoning collection of F1: Drive to Survive copycats as OTT platforms seek to replicate the success of a reality show based on Formula One, a sport that has all the ingredients for compelling off track storylines.

Rugby is, to put it mildly, boring as shit off the field, with most interviews sounding like something choreographed by a mix of David Brent, a strip of cardboard and a Google search for ‘make me sound corporate’. And why hasn’t anyone told the players that every time they mention ‘rugby IP’ in an interview an angel loses its wings? Moreover, if the players are going to milked, then you’d hope the reward is decent, but this constantly proffered idea that rugby has huge potential for growth has little grounding in reality.

Where is the as yet untapped market for rugby? The U.S.? Not a chance. Rugby just doesn’t have a foothold in America outside of Polynesian communities and some Irish and British ex-pats, and the NFL is a behemoth that sucks up any available oxygen for sports of a similar ilk. Also, unlike stupid real life and its consequences, NFL owners and for the most part, players, can do what they want with little fear of censure. They are also naturally extroverted, bordering on arrogant in their media appearances, cultural traits that aren’t exactly encouraged on this side of the world.

Perhaps Silver Lake have, surprisingly, invested unwisely and failed to reconcile the fact that unlike Formula 1 and Manchester City, both soulless entities, New Zealand rugby has real cultural significance for Kiwis both home and abroad ? In any event, New Zealand is an outlier, and the NZRU the only national rugby administration that is able to parlay its genuine cultural attachment and a carefully crafted mystique into significant commercial opportunities.

Rugby does face an existential crisis as a community wide recreational sport due to the ongoing concerns surrounding brain injuries, but that won’t kill the professional game. Where it will be most affected is at the grassroots level, where parents won’t want their children playing a sport which features regular reports of ex-players sadly incapacitated by head and brain trauma. If this happens, it may be the case that the elite players will be identified early, and their path will be set.

Look at American football, where the only people who play the game beyond 22 or 23 are those who end up pursuing a professional career in the NFL or the lesser-known Canadian Football League. This has absolutely no impact on the game’s popularity, and it wouldn’t be a great surprise if rugby follows this route.

The issue of brain trauma can’t be neatly discussed in a few paragraphs, and it would be remiss to attempt to do so. However, one would hope that the stark, grim lessons learned from the early days of the professional era will point the way forward. At some point, men and women are going to take the information available to them and decide they want to play rugby. It is not the job of journalists to simultaneously praise the games while also taking the moral high ground at each available opportunity.

The cause of brain trauma – predominantly to tacklers – are manifold and it may come as somewhat of a surprise to people that, in the NRL at least, head injuries are as likely to be caused by contact with the knee of the ball-carrier. So, while the eradication of shots like the one inflicted by Uini Atonio on Rob Herring are rightly being chased from the game – or at least they were up until recently – it is possible that rugby, like many other sports, will be acknowledged by its participants as assuming inherent risks and once the correct guidelines are in place, the show will go on. If you know, you know so speechifying on a weekly basis won’t help the case.

The next six months should theoretically be the greatest for world rugby’s four-year spin cycle between World Cups as the sport will build up to what appears to be the most open World Cup in the professional era, with six teams realistically holding aspirations for victory in Paris on 28th October. But, the game is probably facing more challenges now than at any time since William Webb Ellis allegedly failed to grasp the rules of football and picked the ball up.

Briefly on the topic of what to do about the complete lack of atmosphere at the Aviva Stadium, this has been an issue since the newly developed stadium opened in 2010. The removal of terraces has an irreplaceable impact on the atmosphere of a stadium and this is obviously something that can’t be rectified. However, the more salient issue is the continued desire of stadium management in Europe to blindly ape the model in place for US sports which is largely as follows: shit music blared out whenever there is a break in play, refusal to allow the crowd build a natural atmosphere or worse still trying to contrive an atmosphere by imploring the crowd to ‘make some nooissssse for Oirland’. Add this to the increased ticket prices and, as desired by the IRFU in this case, international matches become events or days out in much the same way as a concert or an NFL game might.

As a consequence, you can’t charge people upwards of €100 for matches and then tell them how to spend their time at the match, that’s just basic customer service. However, a quick look at Croke Park or the Aviva Stadium when soccer international matches are played shows a world of difference. The most obvious point is that the majority are there for the on-field activity and so aren’t overly bothered by the fact that they’ve to curtail having a few pints for two hours. They’d possibly get a drink if it was available but it doesn’t impact on their decision to attend the match.

Just for example, Ireland v Georgia – the night of the tennis ball protest – was a bog-standard 1-0 victory, but the atmosphere there trumped the atmosphere of probably 80% of Irish rugby matches I’ve attended. But, maybe that’s just the way it is, and some things will never change.

At a minimum, however, the IRFU and stadium announcement could curtail needless PA announcements, stop with the piped music or perhaps have a band perform on pitch pre-game. As to the fans boozing, Alan Quinlan was whinging about this from his free seat back in 2013, so this is just the same argument being rehashed. Perhaps the bar could be closed after half-time as a compromise, but realistically this isn’t going to happen. Also, sports administrators in Europe will have taken note of the fact that most NFL stadiums fill out on a weekly basis despite roughly half of the teams being rubbish. Depressingly in thrall to everything the yanks do, rugby will continue in its attempts to create a ‘gameday experience’ to safeguard againt those days when the team is not performing at a high level.

There is also little point in comparing the Irish and French supporters. Yes, the stadium sounded like Stade de France at times last week and the French are intensely passionate and vocal, but they also boo their team off the pitch regularly after a bad 40 minutes. Imagine the team got booed here? Gerry Thornley would probably have a heart attack and the team of us would be in awful place.

The IRFU quite happily made this bed, and will have little difficulty if you can’t sleep in it. As long as the team keeps winning, and the beer keeps flowing, someone else will. It is what it is.

Irish Rugby, Six Nations 2021

The Curious Case of the Undroppable Out Half

Every couple of years the same question rears its head. Why don’t Ireland offload more? The weather is often a solid jump off point in looking for an excuse. Yet Pat Lam was able to nurture one of the best offloading games in club rugby in the windiest, wildest outpost of Western Europe.

So what is it then? The chief proponents of the off load hail from two distinct geographical locations and cultures: the gloriously laid back island nation of Fiji and 10000 miles away, the self-proclaimed great entertainers of France. The French and Fijians have thrilled in their own ways throughout modern rugby history and while France are now probably the greatest beneficiary of the unbelievable pool of Fijian talent, outside historical poachers Australia and New Zealand, it shows that there are no specific prerequisites necessary for the development of an attacking style.

We wring our hands every few years and wonder why it can’t be done and the answer is almost certainly conservative attack coaching. The recently published stats from the Daily Telegraph showed Ireland with the worst pass to offload ratio which is not really a statistic which is open to interpretation. Our back line play has long seen crab like shifts from side to side with our wingers, most notably, Keith Earls having little or no space when they come on to the ball.

Intermittently, during Joe Schmidt’s tenure, there were murmurs of a lack of an offloading game perhaps becoming an issue down the line, but it wasn’t until very clear cracks appeared that critics became comfortably vocal. To be fair, Irish rugby does not lend itself to criticism, where most journalists who convey even objective critiques are shunned. Neil Francis is neither interesting nor objective, and does not offer anything resembling constructive criticism, so he can be excused.

Schmidt’s game required extraordinary attention to detail, all with a view to retaining possession and seizing on the eventual mistake from a tiring defence. And, while the approach bore unprecedented success for four years, the game has moved on and now territory trumps possession. Defensive systems have become more adept at handling a team like Ireland, and new laws mean it has become increasingly difficult to retain the ball for lengthy periods. For those who enjoy 15 carries for 20 yards and endless rucks this is a sad day but for everyone else a brave new world beckons.

Andy Farrell doing ‘the offload’. (The 42)

Ireland’s victory over New Zealand in 2018 represented the zenith of Schmidt’s tenure, but it was also the last time the Irish rugby team would physically dominate one of the heavyweights of world rugby. Since then, Ireland’s record against teams ranked in the top four in the world reads one win, Wales 2020, and six losses, England 2019 twice, New Zealand 2019, England 2020 twice, and most recently the deceptively narrow defeat to France.

It seems that Ireland are struggling to emerge from five years of soft-authoritarian rule where players were, by all accounts, encouraged to play what they see. The catch being if they erred they were gone from the team. Fancy a one handed flick out of the tackle? Fine, Simon Zebo, but if the ball goes to an Australian player and they score, you’ll never be seriously considered for selection again. Thus, it was that Zebo, in outstanding form, watched from the stands as Argentina cut a listless Irish team – saved temporarily from humiliation by the enforced introduction of Luke Fitzgerald – to pieces by spreading the ball wide early and often.

Ireland obviously regrouped between 2015 and 2018 but when the pressure came on in another World Cup, as has been the case before, the wheels inexplicably and spectacularly came off.

That’s a very skewed, shallow interpretation of how things went, but following the exceptional standalone victory against New Zealand, Ireland were exploited badly by England in February 2019 and from there the decline gathered momentum. Both of the coaching tickets under Schmidt and current head coach, Andy Farrell have failed to introduce either new ideas or new faces to a group that so desperately requires both. There is a temptation after each failed attempt to reach a World Cup semi-final to suggest that we place too much emphasis on the tournament, however, that’s a plainly bizarre line of thinking. The Six Nations has its own romanticism and, now more than ever, we miss its unique combination of excitement and familiarity as winter beckons in spring and old rivalries are reignited. But the World Cup is the one true yardstick.

There is also a strange tendency to abandon a tactic after one failed attempt, Robbie Henshaw’s full-back cameo against England in 2019 a case in point, rather than obtaining more of a sample size with which to work. England exploited Ireland and Henshaw with their kicking game that day, but the identical tactic worked 12 months later when Jordan Larmour filled the back field.

Back to the Irish attack, whose primary drivers at this point should be Sexton, the seemingly undroppable out-half and Mike Catt, the seemingly invisible attack coach. To objectively criticise Sexton’s performances over the last two years is not to take from his exceptional career but the coaching staff’s unwillingness to consider a replacement, save for when injury intervenes, seems counter-intuitive. Making Sexton captain has made dropping him more difficult, but Farrell came to this decision too with his eyes wide open.

The position at present is messy and clarity is unlikely to emerge. Ulster’s number ten, Billy Burns, is not the answer. He is a good club player but no one aspect of his game stands out at international level. Ross Byrne, who has been dumped into Twickenham in two thankless assignments, was polished when he replaced Burns against France, but he is criticised for taking the ball too far from the gain line and failing to engage the defence.

It’s worth noting that Sexton wasn’t pulling up trees in his first season in the Irish squad and while Byrne may not be the answer, it’s impossible to tell until he gets a run of games in the starting team. If Farrell doesn’t trust Byrne to guide Ireland in Rome next weekend, then he obviously doesn’t rate him all that highly.

On the flip side, those clamouring for the younger Byrne brother, Harry, to start in Rome, are equally deluded. Harry Byrne has 19 caps for Leinster, all in the Pro 14, so to start him next week would be akin to New Zealand starting an out half who has yet to play Super Rugby. The reports are glowing, but as with Ben Healy in Munster – who has at least appeared in Europe – there is a steep learning curve and the step-up to international rugby is perhaps taken too lightly.

And, for some reason, Jack Carty, who has been in excellent form for the last three months, has become the forgotten man. Like John Cooney and Tiernan O’ Halloran, Carty appears to be one of those players who, through happenstance and the conservative nature of coaches, will never receive as many international caps as his talent and body of work to date deserve.

Whoever replaces Sexton – there is still hope for Joey Carberry – the succession plan has been handled miserably. It’s not clear what Sexton would need to do to lose his place, and he seems to enjoy a rarefied status in Irish rugby where anyone who criticises his performances is rounded on by his cheerleading supporters in the Irish media. Again, this is nothing to do with Sexton, but like Ronan O’ Gara before him, his game has deteriorated since his age 33 season.

Up until this year, David Nucifora was very comfortable reminding people that he was the sheriff and his town was prospering. And, we are constantly reminded that the Six Nations is the cash cow and if we don’t win, we can’t put bums on seats. Well, the pandemic has inadvertently obviated the requirement for any concerns in this area, so why not treat this as an opportunity to forget about Nucifora and the IRFU’s commercial pursuits.

Farrell and his coaching staff have a chance to make a statement in team selection this week that very clearly points towards the future. If ambition is the way forward, Carty should start, but barring 20 minutes in Paris in October, Ireland haven’t looked ambitious. Farrell has done fine so far but the overarching approach of the current coaching staff seems to be to pray Johnny Sexton doesn’t get injured and presume his form will suddenly pick up five months out from his 36th birthday.

The Irish coaches love talking about learnings and work-ons and all the other galling buzz words that sound like they came from a seminar delivered by David Brent. Well, they seemed to have learned little from history and if they pin their hopes of success in the medium term on a 35 year-old out half – that he is Ireland’s greatest out half of all time is irrelevant – they are doomed to failure.

Ireland could easily be chasing a third win, but they are not. Now, Rome presents an opportunity to inject freshness and competition for places with an eye fixed firmly on France 2023.

Farrell’s decision to perversely prioritise a largely irrelevant victory over an ideal opportunity to build for the World Cup does not bode well for the future. And, the win at all costs approach means the future will be sacrificed for the potential to secure a third placed finish in a tournament that has already passed Ireland by.

There is no real sense that Farrell’s position is at risk, so this conservatism merely represents a continuation of what came before. And a comprehensive victory over a side ranked below Tonga and Georgia in the IRB world rankings will only offer very short term gains. Perhaps this is just a consequence of the short-termism so readily associated with our politicians seeping into Farrell’s thinking.

Irish Rugby, Rugby

England v Ireland – Preview

Eamon Dunphy must be squirming at the news of Stephen Kenny’s video emerging this week. Kenny and/or some of his coaching team seemingly thought that a 1916 inspired motivational video would inspire his fatigued, listless team prior to playing England in a hastily arranged friendly in the midst of a lockdown.

Perhaps the video was the motivation behind the side avoiding a 5-0 defeat?

Dunphy, a sometimes thoughtful yet consistently hypocritical voice – think of a socialist in thrall to the elite – has always claimed to be a critic of Official Ireland and, what he considered, the unmerited dislike for Britain drummed up by plastic nationalists.

In fairness, his view was that many Irish soccer professionals earn a living playing the game in England and for the most part don’t share the same derision for the ‘Brits’ as us uncultured suckers who’ve lived in Ireland all our lives. Incidentally, James McLean might disagree.

Dunphy’s view is, maybe, more complex than that and while he admirably displayed his dismay at the atrocities of Bloody Sunday in 1972, he felt England gave him a living, so he’d generously give them a break for past misgivings. He likes to paint the place as a Shangri-La for the Irish in the 60s which sounds like a load of nonsense but he was there and we weren’t so he wins that one.

Anyway, Dunphy is always quick to point out that ‘football people’, most of whom must come from Dublin understand the Brits and see past their follies. So, when word of Kenny’s inspirational video broke, Eamo’s heart must have dropped.

As a true football man, Kenny has let down Eamonn, which he’ll get past quick enough. More importantly though, he’s had a bit of David Brent moment, attempting to invoke the spirit of 1916 – doesn’t even seem like the right event to draw upon this year – in front of many players who either have English heritage or may be married to an English woman.

Hopefully, Andy Farrell hasn’t made any similar bloopers this week, though if he’s paid heed to Rassie Erasmus, he’ll be careful not to upset anyone in the dressing room.

Erasmus’ comments prior to last year’s World Cup semi-final of Ireland being ‘softies’ have really ruffled some feathers. The historical perception has always been that, no matter the score line, Ireland have always prided themselves on their ability to fight, to never back down even when being dominated on the scoreboard.

Frankly, Erasmus doesn’t have to apologise for his comments but while they were said in the context of a motivational talk prior to his side facing the not-soft Welsh, he must believe it to an extent.

If Farrell wants to provide motivation, a video of Queensland’s miraculous victory over New South Wales in last Wednesday’s State of Origin decider would prove far more effective than any half-cocked jingoism.

The English rugby team are always viewed as bullies when they are on top. Is this simply because they usually field a physically bigger pack who dominates the set piece and the collisions? Perhaps and that is probably the larger context in which a team is deemed to be a bully in rugby.

New Zealand have routinely humiliated every team in world rugby but it’s rare that they are described as bullies. This, despite the fact that they have produced some of the most physically imposing players in rugby history: Lomu, Umaga, Nonu, Savea and, fresh off the production line, Caleb Clarke. And, these are just the backs.

New Zealand have always done it, or at least projected the picture of doing it, with style and panache. England, though, perhaps in keeping with their perceived mentality, have put brute force and physical domination to the forefront and worn it as a badge, particularly in Twickenham

And, with a healthy dose of Pacific Island magic introduced into the mix, particularly Many Tuilagi, England have really been able to impose themselves on Ireland in recent years. This is why Irish supporters are viewing today’s game with no little trepidation. However, like England, we have added some strings to our bow.

After some early indifference, Ireland have gotten really stuck into the residency rule and tomorrow’s team will have five starters who have qualified to play for Ireland under this regulation. Of the two most recent debutants, James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park will be under the microscope tomorrow.

Lowe was excellent last week, deservedly capping off his energetic performance with a well-taken, late try. The former Waikato Chief has been touted as the spark that Ireland’s three quarters need and he provided everything that was hoped for last week, carrying through and around the tackle, looking to link with team mates and competing strongly in the air.

Still, it will only be Lowe’s second cap and it seems slightly unusual to expect a winger, despite their remit to roam nowadays, to immediately transform our attack.

Having said that, you wouldn’t always expect a corner forward to immediately change the flow of a hurling match. But we all bore witness to Richie Hogan’s piece of permanently etched magic last Saturday night…..

Though a shameless effort to squeeze Hogan’s extraordinary feat into the article, it shows that Lowe, like Hogan, playing in a more peripheral position can still have a significant bearing on the game.

The case for Jamison Gibson-Park is less clear though and for those who believe the 28 year-old should start for Ireland, a day behind a retreating pack may offer an alternative view.

Perhaps we’re being harsh but while Lowe’s selection has been met with real anticipation, the choice of Gibson-Park suggests a paucity of options at scrum-half. Hopefully we are proven wrong.

Should Ireland perform well tomorrow, then we may look at it as the day that Gibson Park and his half-back partner, Ross Byrne, announced their arrival as genuine opposition to the entrenched incumbents, Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton.

It’s not as though Murray and Sexton have gotten fat off their success but in the same way their own arrivals heralded improved competition for Tomás O’ Leary and, of course, Ronan O’ Gara so might the ascendancy of Byrne and Gibson-Park drive the former duo to greater heights.

Farrell’s selection has clearly taken into account the forward domination that England have enjoyed during Ireland’s past two visits to Twickenham. The World Cup warm-up was an abomination and, sadly, a portent of the aberrations that were to follow in Japan merely weeks later.

Last year’s Six Nations contest finished 24-12 to England but the score line is not really reflective of the dominance England enjoyed before both benches emptied on 60 minutes. Curiously, for the second Six Nations running Ireland could not defend the kick against England.

The man who stood out then, as he does always, ensconced in the Irish side of the ruck, completing shuddering hit after shuddering hit was Maro Itoje. He is surely the world’s best player, or if not that, then the man you would want most in your team, a disruptor in the truest sense of the word, not like the dickheads in Silicon Valley.

The hope is that James Ryan, captain tomorrow, leading Ireland out on the 100th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, can eventually reach the consistent heights of Itoje. England do not rely solely on the Saracens lock but he is the beating heart of what is an excellent forward unit.

There is a wariness around the scrum, particularly as Pascal Gauzere decided early and often that Leinster were the transgressors in their defeat to Saracens in the Heineken Cup quarter final. Gauzere is in the middle again tomorrow and Eddie Jones has been planting his usual seeds of doubt.

Parity in the scrum would be a victory of sorts for Ireland, particularly in the continued absence of Tadhg Furlong, and control of the contest may then come down to an enthralling between the back rows: C.J. Stander, Caelan Doris and a positively more angry, Peter O’ Mahony versus Sam Underhill, Ben Curry and the near indomitable, Billy Vunipola.

Obviously this is a not a straight up, man to man contest but whichever back row can suppress their opponent’s attacking forays while simultaneously providing consistent go forward ball for their half backs will go a long way towards solving this puzzle.

Ireland are in better shape than people think and will be more competitive than in recent years. England, however, are simply a better side and that is enough.

SUS Prediction: England by 8


  1. Ireland +12 @ evens

2. Handicap Draw (+12) @ 25/1

3. James Lowe 1st Try @ 15/1

Irish Rugby, Six Nations 2020

France v Ireland: Preview


The prevalent mood is that Ireland have not played well enough to be in the running for this year’s Six Nations Championship. Perhaps the disjointed season is to blame.

True, it is very difficult to view this season through a prism of normalcy but the lingering negativity around the team has been bloated by the abysmal opening 40 minutes in Twickenham in March followed by the abrupt halt to all sport.

Seven months passed and the negative memory of Twickenham remained, without any of the positives from the victory over Wales two weeks previously. And, due to recency bias and the way England have strangled Ireland over the last 18 months, the pessimism is easy to countenance.

Ireland were comprehensively beaten in London that day but their undoing came largely from an inability to cover the backfield to the short kick and the all-round magnificence of Maro Itoje.

England themselves had gone to Paris on the crest of a successful World Cup – admittedly replete with a harsh lesson from South Africa in the final – but found themselves ambushed and embarrassed by a highly motivated French side.

If we consider Ireland’s performances to date, there was a nervous victory over Scotland, an improved if-not resounding one over Wales and before the enforced break, the comprehensive defeat in Twickenham.

Last weekend saw the resumption of the 2020 tournament and it should come as little surprise that the game was speckled with rust. The final score of 50-17 was probably a fair reflection as Italy battled gamely – a patronising but fair accolade for a team that offers very little to this tournament currently – and, though Ireland conceded late, it is unlikely to have any baring on the tournament’s outcome.

An Irish victory with a bonus point will guarantee Six Nations success for Andy Farrell in his first season in charge. This is extraordinarily unlikely, given that Ireland have put four tries past France in Paris just once.

This happened in France’s 43-31 victory in the 2006 Championship. Some recent articles have described this as a swashbuckling Ireland performance and this is true to an extent, However, if the swashbuckler was Ireland he stabbed himself in the face with his own sword about four times in the first half alone, whereupon France opened up a 40 point lead.

Ireland charged home hard with those four second-half tries but any possible allusion to Ireland coming close to stealing victory that day is revisionist history at its finest. It was an engrossing game but it was not a back and forth affair or one where victory was ever truly in Ireland’s grasp.

This is already too much reference to a match with little current relevance but it does emphasise the rarity of Ireland producing an offensive explosion away to France.

Even though it was a friendly, France looked highly impressive last weekend against Wales. After falling behind by 10 points early in the game, France proceeded to out score their visitors by 38 points to 11. They mixed their attack under the unflappable Antoine Dupont, and the breakneck running lines of Gregory Aldritt, captain Charles Ollivon and the irrepressible, Viremi Vakatawa, provided a glimpse into a potentially terrifying future for France’s Six Nations opponents.

Dupont may be the best player in the world right now, possessed of the skill common to the greats in all sports – Lionel Messi, Luka Doncic, Cameron Smith – of almost always making the correct decision. This skill isn’t predicated so much on instinct alone but on the awareness of what options are available to them and the knowledge to choose the right one.

The manner in which the French players carried last weekend is something that is slowly being reintroduced to the Irish game as, to be fair, the harder the line run, the more likely the carrier will commit a handling error.

Ireland’s game plan and plentiful success over the six years of Joe Schmidt’s reign owed much to ball retention and, for the most part, risk averse football.

You can’t just flick a switch and expect to revert to an all-out attacking approach. Indeed, the last attempt at this resulted in a dire opening 40 minutes in Yokohama in last year’s World Cup quarter final against New Zealand.

Joe Schmidt had a game plan that worked up to a point and brought Ireland its most successful ever era in terms of winning percentage and silverware. Ireland, for want of a better expression, got figured out by England in February 2019. Thus, it was necessary to evolve or, perhaps more accurately, adapt the game plan.

For Andy Farrell, following Schmidt was hard enough and attempting to imprint his style, and that of his coaching team in this elongated, meandering season must have added to the difficulty.

Perhaps though, like the rest of us and with time on has hands, Farrell was able to dive down a YouTube rabbit hole back in April and learn just what happened in Paris in the 90s and 00s when a French back line was allowed express itself against Ireland.

France, particularly in the absence of Teddy Thomas, still don’t have a back three to rival Poitreanuad, Dominici and Clerc for sheer attacking verve but there is balance across the division and in Dupont and Vakatawa, the two best in their position in world rugby.

If Ireland are to go all-out attack to begin, just what exactly does this mean? Move the ball wide immediately when pinned in our “22”? Or run harder lines and look for offloads out of contact early and often?

The latter option seems more sensible and attempts to introduce this facet of the game were clearly on view last weekend. C.J. Stander, an undeserving lightning rod for ex-players and journalist alike when Ireland struggle, had some lovely touches last weekend and, indeed, Peter O Mahony’s (5:09) beautiful pass for Bundee Aki’s try shows clear progress in Ireland’s attack.

True, this score came when the outcome had long since been decided but Ireland’s players need to be be in a position to execute comfortably in real time in order to instinctively attempt these passes in high pressure situations.

Like Stander, Aki’s importance to this team, allied to his durability, is often overlooked or undermined but there is no question that he can cause trouble for Vakatawa in defence and the collisions between these two should be exhilarating.

There is, frankly, no real sense in Ireland shooting from the hip from minute one as, even if they are to score four tries, it can be achieved through a collective positive approach as opposed to Jameis Winston gunslingin’ , as that approach has its drawbacks too. Against quality teams like France the onus is on winning the match, while the potential bonus point is just that.

An empty Stade de France should benefit Ireland and certainly the absence of the irresistible crescendo from the crowd when France embark on their magical passages of interplay should preclude the Irish players from being overcome mentally as well as physically.

France are currently on the same points as England, 13, and have a slim advantage in points difference. Therefore, for the French to win the title, they will almost need to match England’s margin of victory in Rome. This is not going to happen unless Ireland endure an extraordinary capitulation and Italy make two year’s worth of development in the space of seven days.

As the Brits are indeed at it again, the Six Nations trophy will be in Paris and not Rome for the tournament’s finale. However, that appears to be the greatest inconvenience Eddie Jones side will face this weekend.

In all likelihood, France will approach this as another stepping stone towards the 2023 home World Cup and a chance for their first choice half-back pairing of Dupont and Romain Ntamack to solidify their burgeoning combination.

While we would all love tomorrow to produce the drama and grandstand finish of 2015’s Super Saturday, it’s hard to see how an improving but still only decent Irish side will achieve something their predecessors never could.

France will never be as professional as the rest of the top-tier nations and, frankly, they don’t need to be. They, along with the Pacific Island Nations, can exhilarate in ways that other nations can only imagine.

It is simply impossible to expect military discipline, the bedrock of successful rugby teams, to combine seamlessly with ad-lib brilliance, particularly when the latter can’t really be taught. France may, though, be on the cusp of discovering a devastating hybrid of the two thanks to the introduction of quality coaches including Shaun Edwards and Raphael Ibanez.

And, with Dupont, France may possess the key to marrying the pragmatic with the ingenious. Or to put it less pompously, a brilliant rugby mind who relieves Ntamack of the tactical pressure, allowing the young out-half to flourish.

Ireland have the weapons to hurt France but they are short of potent ball carriers in the front five, and, while the legacies of Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton are secured, questions still remain over their current form.

Ironically, in the absence of a crowd, tomorrow night may mark the return of the Stade de France to the fortress of old.

S.U.S Sport Prediction: France by 6

Tips: Antoine Dupont 1st try @ 14/1

Viremi Vakatawa anytime try @ 7/4

Irish Rugby, Six Nations, Six Nations 2020

England v Ireland – Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bono, saviour of mankind and Irish rugby.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUS Prediction – Ireland by 3

Tips – Ireland to win @ 12/5

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

Ireland v Wales, Irish Rugby, Six Nations 2020

Same as it ever was

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home advantage to swing it.

SUS Prediction: Ireland by 4

Tips: Ireland -3 @ 10/11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUS Prediction Scotland by 3

Tips 1. Scotland to win @ 11/4

2. Huw Jones anytime try scorer @ 7/2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUS Prediction: France 32 Italy 6

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

2. First try scorer Anthony Bouthier @ 12/1

Irish Rugby, Six Nations, Six Nations 2020

Straight Outta Wigan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUS Prediction – Ireland by 16

Tips – Ireland -13 @ 10/11

Conor Murray Anytime Try Scorer @ 4/1

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

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

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


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