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

Time to end the streak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deja Vu All Over Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Straight Up Prediction: Ireland by 4

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Irish Rugby, Six Nations 2019

Ireland v France – Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUS Prediction – Ireland by 8

Tips

  1. France +14 (Evens)
  2. C.J. Stander anytime try scorer (3/1)
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Ireland v New Zealand, Irish Rugby, November Internationals 2018, Rugby, Rugby Union

Here Comes the Boom: Ireland v New Zealand – Preview

After Irish journalists and ‘rugby’ people took turns hopping off Bundee Aki and CJ Stander in the last couple of years, it seems the Kiwis are miffed at the fact that European sides – particularly England and Ireland – are displaying the temerity to pick the players New Zealand don’t want. We’re largely unmoved by the rule either way. International rugby is a pretty closed shop – you’d be pushed to name ten top-tier international sides- so if a rule exists to allow players experience international rugby, so be it. To assist the slightly myopic aspect of our argument, it’s worth noting that Ireland have, thus far, taken advantage of the residency rule by moving for players who had been overlooked in their own countries.

If Brad Shields last week and now, Aki, this week are to be at the core of Kiwi whining then why not look to the age-old hypocrisy stemming from New Zealand when it comes to international selection policies. The “All Blacks continue to cynically and systematically loot the Pacific Islands of their best players. It’s an old and depressing story and nobody in New Zealand has been able to give a convincing defence of their actions.”

These are not in fact the words of our learned Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, but an article written by Brendan Gallagher which appeared in the Daily Telegraph during the grim Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005. There is the caveat that British and Irish folk were becoming dispirited and bitter after being beaten and humbled from the deep south up to Auckland and everywhere in between.

Nevertheless, Gallagher argued that New Zealand have long been happy to lure the best talent of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to their rugby nurseries and ultimately give them an opportunity to don the most famous jersey in world rugby. During that summer, we were lucky enough to witness Sitiveni Sivivatu, , born and bred in Fiji, give one of the most dominant wing performances ever, dominating an all-time great in Shane Williams and helping New Zealand decimate the Lions in Wellington. Yet even when joking, it stung any Kiwis when you accused them of poaching the best players their neighbours had to offer.

Sivi

Sitiveni Sivivatu from Fiji’s Yasawa Islands is regarded as one of the best wingers to ever wear the New Zealand jersey. (photo Getty Images)

The bare facts don’t lie, though. It suits New Zealand and Australia for the Fijians, Samoans and Tongans to produce incomparable raw talent without ever possessing the financial strength to keep their players from moving to the richer pastures of Auckland and Sydney. With the three island nations so close in proximity to the Antipodes, surely it would behove the traditional powerhouses to foster the well-being of the international game. Perhaps when it comes to the notion of teams naturalising or poaching players, are teams are equal but some are more equal than others.

In any event, if Ireland are going to prevail on Saturday night in what promises to be an all-time atmosphere, Aki and, particularly, Stander need to excel. Aki has grown into his role as the anchor of the Irish midfield and while he does not possess the wide passing skills of some of his counterparts, he has the ability to beat the first tackle, brings the rare attribute to the Irish midfield of a potential offload and displays unwavering enthusiasm in all facets of his game.

New Zealand can lay claim, whether they like it or not, to changing the rules of the game the last time they visited Dublin. Malakai Fekitoa and Sam Kane in particular got away with some high stuff but amidst the furore over the high shots, Kieran Read managed to avoid one of the most blatant yellow card/penalty try combos in rugby history.

 

Stander was one of the players on the receiving end of Kane’s indiscipline with his night ending earlier than anticipated. Given his recent lull in form, he really needs a big performance against the best team and number eight, respectively, in world rugby. Stander has been exceptionally consistent since the 2015/2016 season, when he seemed to take ownership of the man of the match award in any Muster game, but he has failed to ignite thus far this season. That statement is made in light of the fact that he is still among the top tacklers and carriers in every game but the thrust of his ball carrying has been blunted.

Sean O’Brien’s absence means that Stander now, more than ever, must dominate the contact area and give Ireland go forward ball. He made two of the most important plays in Chicago, a powerful burrow through three would be New Zealand tacklers for Ireland’s second try and a subtle check of Owen Franks in the built up to Conor Murray’s now iconic score. Ireland won’t necessarily require Stander to put his name on the score sheet but in tandem with Peter O’ Mahony and Dan Leavy he can at least gain parity against a Kiwi trio that doesn’t quite hold up to the exceptional back-rows of New Zealand past.

Joe Schmidt thankfully put the great Conor Murray debate to bed on Monday but it’s difficult to ignore just how important the Limerick man was to victory to Ireland in Soldier Field. Admittedly, he got skinned early doors by Beauden Barrett two weeks later but Murray’s decisiveness in attack and defence was probably the difference in the Second City. This is the deepest squad in Irish history but every dominant team – think Brazil 1958-1970 with Pele or Barcelona with Messi – has its MVP and Murray is that for this Irish team. No one is crying for Ireland’s injury issues, obviously, but it would be in many ways their greatest ever achievement if they could overcome the World Champions without their most important player.

Having said all that, New Zealand come to Dublin on the back of a pretty patchy run of form by their standards. Their patented late game heroics saw them scrape home in South Africa and a frankly unfair, or at least inconsistent, call against Courtney Lawes last week likely spared their blushes in Twickenham. The team is still stacked to the brim with quality but when you look at the dream team that won the last World Cup – they too only scraped by South Africa – this looks like a good but not great iteration of New Zealand.

As has been pointed out this week, New Zealand’s line out was immense for the last hour in Twickenham and Ireland’s was about as bad as anyone can remember for a number of years with Argentina always competitive on Rory Best’s throws. Brodie Retallick confirmed last week that he still sets the bar when it comes to second row forwards. The intro to Ghostface Killah’s ‘The Champ’  – “He’s a bulldozer with a wrecking ball attached, he’ll leave a ring around your eyes and thread marks on your back ….” – aptly describes the Kiwi lock’s destructive abilities and he is probably the most complete forward in world rugby. Ireland simply have to improve to compete and Devin Toner’s selection sees a return to fundamentals. Parity in the lineout will be a victory for Ireland. 

There is just the slightest feeling that New Zealand were complacent going to the junket in Soldier Field and that Ireland caught them unawares. They would have been satisfied two weeks later when a show of equal parts brilliance and brutality restored the normal order. However, just nine months later the core of that Irish team played a vital role in earning the Lions a draw in New Zealand and proving for the first time to this New Zealand team that there’s more to the Northern Hemisphere than Sky Sports embarrassingly hyperbolic pre-match coverage. It feels as if Joe Schmidt’s side want to use Saturday night to show that this team is here to stay as a threat to New Zealand and that all has changed utterly.

Gerry Thornley rightly pointed out earlier this week that this encounter should be enjoyed as a standalone contest and thoughts of the World Cup should be eschewed for the night. And, while this is a fair point everyone will remember England’s statement victories over Australia and New Zealand in 2002 en-route to their victory in Australia the following year. Ireland have already ticked the box of a series victory south of the equator so imagine the impact a victory over the double world champions would have a mere ten months out from the World Cup in Japan. Particularly when you consider that if everything goes according to plan, the sides will be meeting again on an autumn night in Tokyo.

New Zealand will try to step on Ireland’s throat early and silence what will be a rarely animated home crowd so Ireland need to be prepared for brutality in the opening exchanges. More importantly the home team need to solidify the set piece as if they get on the wrong side of Wayne Barnes, Jonathan Sexton and Peter O’ Mahony will become crankier than usual.

It’s hard to remember an Irish rugby match being so hyped. These occasions rarely deliver on expectations, though, and the feeling is that New Zealand will shade this contest by the width of an offside line.

S.U.S. Prediction – New Zealand by 3

Tips

  1. Ireland +6 @ 10/11
  2. Ireland half time/New Zealand full time @ 6/1

 

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Irish Rugby, Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations, Six Nations 2018

Six Nations 2018 – France v Ireland Preview

Irish rugby weathered well over the winter unless you’re a dope cheat, in which case you should seemingly hang, or Ulster, who are simply all over the place. Uncharted moral high grounds were discovered by some media outlets and you’d have done well to ignore this and note that Irish teams have had their best European outings in many years.

Leinster have swept aside all that came before them, no performance more impressive than the clinical subduing of Exeter in the latter’s nigh-on impenetrable Sandy Park home. Their only wish may be that the knock out stages wasn’t so far away.

Munster, meanwhile, though not without the odd hiccup along the way, seized control in Leicester in December and rounded off the group stage with aplomb with Johann van Graan and Felix Jones more expansive game plan coming to the fore.

Meanwhile, as Connacht have shown incremental improvements of late, with the form of the 2016 Pro 12 winning back-three a real boon, Ulster have regressed and more than four months into an unusually disrupted season, Les Kiss has shouldered the entire burden and been cast aside.

Thus, as the provinces go so does Joe Schmidt’s squad selection for the 2018 Six Nations with Leinster being rewarded for their outstanding start with 18 members included in the squad. Ireland’s winter was relatively injury free and the only two absentees who could potentially lay claim to a starting jersey are Garry Ringrose and the oft-absent, Sean O’ Brien. Such is Ireland’s back row depth though that O’ Brien, as dominant a presence as he can be, will not be missed so much as in recent years. Additionally, the successful reintroduction of the Robbie Henshaw-Bundee Aki midfield axis means that Ringrose will have his work cut out on his return from injury. And, this is surely just as Joe Schmidt would want it.

While only the foolish would anticipate an encounter in Paris as an easy opener to the tournament, Ireland certainly won’t arrive in their least happy hunting ground with anything like the lethargy that begot the opening 40 minutes in Murrayfield last year. Ireland may be measurably the better side at present but Paris has been witness to only two Irish victories since the advent of the professional era. This alone should place the challenge in firm focus and though Jaques Brunel has been parachuted in amidst Bernard Laporte’s ongoing game of political chess with whomever he chooses, pride alone should motivate the French.

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New French head coach, Jaques Brunel, clearly caught up in Superbowl fever.

French rugby is a terribly unusual beast. While the IRFU may not be all that transparent, their actions appear to be in the best interests of the national side and the game in general. On the other hand, French rugby is managed and largely meddled with by the omnipotent presence of Laporte, a politician masquerading as a sports administrator. Laporte has rarely been out of the press of late but as with most overbearing, monolith administrators, the man appears to be wrapped in Teflon.

France find themselves in the unusual position of having won the 2023 RWC bid, a wonderful fillip for the country, while simultaneously watching as Laporte – whose political machinations brought the bid to fruition – makes a mockery of their game. As time has passed, Laporte has assumed the role of the ego-maniacal administrator who appears to have only a passing interest in the on-field exploits of the sports he governs. After recently, and not unreasonably, bestowing Guy Noves with the ignominy of being the first French national coach to receive his marching orders mid-contract, Laporte issued legal proceedings against the man who oversaw Toulouse’s halcyon days to deny Noves any compensation.

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FFR President, Bernard Laporte, appears to be of the self-serving class of sporting administrators.

The RFU may be pompous, the Scots and Welsh unreliable and the IRFU slightly like this, at least during the 2023 bid, but none you would imagine would display the arrogant vindictiveness which has recently been Laporte’s hallmark. Indeed, his recent self-serving move was to appoint his old friend, Jaques Brunel to take over as head coach of Les Bleus.

Brunel had an awful record as coach of Italy but has been called on by Laporte because no other serious candidates wanted the job and because they are friends, which is obviously very professional. Brunel’s greatest coaching achievement dates back to Perpignan’s 2009 Bouclier de Brennus (French Championship) victory.

A pragmatic sort could note that Noves’ Toulouse won the 2010 Heineken Cup and the Bouclier in both 2011 and 2012, all coming after Brunel’s success with Perpignan. Now, Noves clearly came to the party late with France and couldn’t call on arguably the most talented production line French club rugby had ever produced, as he had at Toulouse, but Brunel’s appointment surely raises all the objective concerns that Noves did. And Brunel is a year older and leaves his most recent club, Bordeaux-Begles in the relatively uninspiring confines of mid-table obscurity.

But anyway, let’s let the French worry about the French and look instead to Paris on Saturday where Ireland must be primed for a successful opening to the 2018 Championship. Joe Schmidt’s team will be endlessly aware that their slow start last February coupled with an overreliance on Johnny Sexton cost them victory in Murrayfield. And, as has been recently noted, Ireland’s away record of late has been fairly atrocious. Basically, there should be no grounds for complacency going into Paris on Saturday based either on historic intangibles or more recent travelling maladies.

A friend noted the other day that Joe Schmidt’s recent selections have probably raised the ire of Irish rugby supporters by offering us virtually nothing to gripe about. An entirely contented sports fan is a vulnerable animal, one whose comeuppance is always waiting patiently around the corner. Just not this weekend, hopefully.

James Ryan’s selection is the only surprise and has some people doing a 180-degree turn and wondering if the 21-year-old is ready for the Parisian cauldron, not unreasonably after his relative difficulties in Montpellier two weeks ago. Ryan clearly has immense talent and the hope is yes this is his time but, in any event, this is not the Pelous –led France of old and Japan 2019 is clearly on the horizon.

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Highly-touted Leinster second-row, James Ryan, has been handed a slightly unexpected Six Nations starting debut. (photo: Independent.ie)

A superb 12 months for Peter O’ Mahony means he is once more a fixture alongside Munster teammate, CJ Stander and thus the selection at openside flanker came down to either Dan Leavy or Josh van der Flier. Leavy is certainly the more obviously explosive of the two but van der Flier has been a fixture of Irish squads for two years now and with his extraordinary defensive work rate, he ticks all the Schmidt criteria. The back row looks extremely balanced now and should be able to dominate the French unit of Kevin Gourdon, Yacouba Camara and Wenceslas Lauret.

With Brunel handing a test debut to nineteen-year-old Mathieu Jalibert, a precocious talent who very few will have actually seen play, the French have announced their intention to run at Ireland. The announcement will no doubt have stoked somewhat different intentions in Stander, Aki and Henshaw. And, after a few difficult encounters with Mathieu Bastereaud in the past, Johnny Sexton could readily advise Jalibert of the evening that awaits him but why ruin the surprise?

Brunel’s decision to go with Jalibert can, of course, only be judged in retrospect but it seems to be that of a man who knows he has very little to lose. Similarly the decision to hand a debut to Castres full-back, Geoffrey Palis suggests a licence for players to cut loose. Given its Brunel’s first game in charge, he can’t really be faulted for taking a risk, particularly when the French have become so downtrodden and risk averse over the last four years. Will they really be able to just flick a switch, though?

The emergence of Tadhg Furlong, resurgence of Cian Healy and relentless endurance of Rory Best mean Ireland can now count the scrum, so often the beginning of the end for Ireland in Paris, as an area of strength. With a solid set-piece platform, Conor Murray and Stander should be able to test both Jalibert and Palis in addition to the weak-when backpedalling Virimi Vakatawa.

Having had a couple of games to get reacquainted there is also the hope that Aki and Henshaw can now bring their attacking thrust of old and bring Ireland’s back three into the game. Jacob Stockdale buzzed in November, Rob Kearney showed glimpses of the attacking thrust of old and Keith Earls has picked up from last season to prove to be the sharpest offensive weapon in the Irish arsenal.  Earls is now a game breaker as well as a proven finisher, far more astute with the ball in hand and the hope is that Kearney and Stockdale can link with him as Simon Zebo does for Munster.

Ireland, you suspect, will be hyper-alert to the potential of an inexplicably strong French opening full of powerful carries and insouciant attacking play but really the latter is becoming a thing of myth now.

Ireland are better in virtually all facets of the game and  France’s turgid defeat to South Africa in November might prove a helpful though by no means infallible measure of their quality. Ireland destroyed the South Africans the week previously and while this logic is largely inaccurate, at least in team sports, it’s not unreasonable to regard France and South Africa as being at a similar level. Also, Brunel’s decision to omit the generally outstanding Louis Picamoles and the imposing Yoann Maestri already looks regrettable.

Even when you throw in the possibility of new manager bounce back, the Paris factor and Ireland’s recent away struggles, this still points to an Irish victory. Ireland have suffered at the hands of France so many times both home and away but attaching too much relevance to history can be self-defeating.

Simply put, if Ireland are as good as many of us think they are, they will win in Paris. France may have their pride but that won’t be enough.

Straight Up Sport Prediction: Ireland by 7

Odds: Ireland -6 @10/11

Tips: Ireland to win both halves @ 13/8

          Conor Murray first tryscorer @ 14/1

 

 

 

 

 

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Irish Rugby, Six Nations, Six Nations 2017

Don’t Mention the Bus

Irish supporters and media have spent the days since Saturday dissecting a seemingly terrible performance. The Scottish public, meanwhile, has no doubt been basking in the warm glow of what they view to be a wonderful display. The truth, however, or at least the true quality of each side’s performances probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Scotland, on the one hand, commendably identified that old Irish bugbear – soft, narrow defence –  and punished it. Throw in a pretty clever, one-off lineout play and a quietening of a seemingly unstoppable Irish back row, in a manner not seen since Wellington 2011, and it’s fair to say the home side got a lot right.

Still, Ireland dominated the scrum, in addition to possession, and by sixty minutes had fought their way into a position of dominance reflected by their perilous one point lead. Ultimately, the combination of heavy legs, a weak bench and a lack of accuracy – no doubt brought about by that insurmountable challenge of the fifteen-minute bus delay – meant that Scotland actually closed out the game with relative ease.

Peter O'Mahony and Chris Henry pass the Trophy around the bus 16/3/2014

The Irish team bus in happier times.

In any event, the game has been dissected ad infinitum and, as has been the case since the beginning of time, media and supporters have moved seamlessly from discussing the Grand Slam showdown with England to questioning how we’ve fallen so far, so quickly.

Now, of course, by losing their opener Ireland will in the words of Aaron Rodgers, ‘have to run the table’ in order to be victorious in March. However, the defeat has also focused minds and will, if nothing else, bring an end to our unnecessarily lofty expectations. And, the Grand Slam should not be the measure of a season, winning the championship should.

In that sense, the visit to Rome on Saturday offers the best tonic. France have affirmed their November regeneration and look lively again, Wales robust and business-like. Under no circumstances would Ireland be best served by appearing under the Friday-night lights in Cardiff after last week’s performance. Some might argue that a stiff challenge would force Ireland to step up immediately but back-to-back defeats could force Ireland into a tailspin. Therefore, with all due obligatory respect to the Italians, a victory in Rome will at least allow Ireland to keep their season alive. How they go about achieving that result will be of far more importance.

Cian Healy comes in off the pine, while Donnacha Ryan, back from a knee strain and playing out of skin this season comes straight into the starting line-up, with Iain Henderson getting an unexpected weekend off. As well as Scotland competed last weekend, Ryan’s raw edge and experience were sorely missed both in the lineout and at close combat. Healy, meanwhile, has a chance to stake a claim for a jersey once permanently his but surely, all eyes will turn to Ireland’s back row, one that may be struggling for balance.

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The returning Donnacha Ryan should boost the Irish line-out, which was dominated in Murrayfield.

Scotland cleaned Ireland out on the ground last weekend, aided by their understanding of Roman Poite’s complete inability to punish blatant encroachments and clear, slowing tactics. Notwithstanding Ireland’s unparalleled discipline there may be a lesson to be gleaned from this, that Ireland might benefit from illegally slowing the game down themselves sometimes.

In any event, after limited game time together it seems that the trio of CJ Stander, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’ Brien is beginning to bear considerable resemblance to the aforementioned Irish back row in 2011 of O’ Brien, Heaslip and Stephen Ferris. It took the practical yet wildly effective tactic of quick, low tackles for the Welsh in 2011. Scotland, tweaked it and gang tackled their men but, more importantly, they dominated the contest for the ball and completely nullified Ireland’s perceived effectiveness –mea culpa– in this area.

Of course, the current trio can still dominate, indeed they will on Saturday, but on the evidence of Saturday’s shortcomings and the outstanding season Peter O’ Mahony is enjoying, Joe Schmidt simply must make space for the Munster captain on his return from injury. O’ Mahony has been one of the premier lineout operators in Europe this season and his imminent return will have the current trio, particularly CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip on notice. Josh van der Flier, too, has been a hugely impressive performer for Ireland and the conundrum facing Schmidt is one any coach would happily suffer through.

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Could the sum be less than the three excellent parts?

Conor Murray won’t have particularly fond memories when he looks back on his exploits in Scotland in the winter of 2016/2017. Rather than target Murray directly last weekend, the Scottish pack spent the afternoon slowing the ball with reckless abandon, meaning the Limerick man often had to work with the dregs. There were times in the second half where he imposed himself on the game – an unfortunate slip from Robbie Henshaw denied Ireland what would have been a sublime score – but still he was far from his best.

Murray doesn’t need to tweak much, but his half-back partner, Paddy Jackson, will need to step up, quite literally, if he is to truly impose his will on the game. Of course, Jackson’s depth in the first half was largely a result of slow ball which limited his options. Nonetheless, he needs to attack the gain line and actually create some uncertainty in Italy’s defence. The line for his second-half try was superb but he seemed, along with the rest of his teammates, to fade out during the vital endgame. Jackson must avoid opting for one out passes, which Scotland saw coming a mile off, and instead bring some variation, whether through chips over the top or by bringing his wingers into the game.

It’s no coincidence that Ireland failed late on against Argentina and Scotland after mounting physically exacting comebacks. Andy Farrell wasn’t present on both those occasions for those who are already sharpening their knives. More relevant to both those defensive aberrations was the man missing, Jared Payne, whose defensive organisational skills are so key to Ireland. Still, Payne is out for the foreseeable future so, as the senior man, Robbie Henshaw will need to fill the void. Henshaw and Ringrose are the future, which is all well and good, but they’ll need to deliver almost immediately. And, if Jackson can’t bring them into the game then one feels his opportunities at out-half for Ireland will dry up in the short term.

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Despite his try and faultless place-kicking, Paddy Jackson is under pressure to vary his game this weekend.

Simon Zebo has been outstanding for Munster at the back all season and while Schmidt is extremely loyal to his veterans, it seems Ireland are missing a trick in failing to utilise the Cork man’s pace, creativity and ability to join the line as a strike runner or distributor. Zebo can’t be far off but Tiernan O’ Halloran must be wondering what he needs to do to make the twenty-three. He’s carried for more metres than anyone else in Europe this year, brings real brio when carrying into the line and has genuine pace also. Unless he’s injured, which has not been reported, his omission from the match day squad seems unfathomable.

Results elsewhere this weekend will have a considerable impact on Ireland’s designs on the championship, where two highly unlikely draws would suit just fine. In any event, Ireland can only control proceedings in Rome. Italy will be resolute for fifty minutes but the feeling is that the quality at Conor O’ Shea’s disposal does not match up to preceding Italian squads. Ireland need to steady the ship and their visit to the Stadio Olimpico provides them with the perfect opportunity to do so.

Let’s put our irrational thoughts of a crisis to one side, at least until the visit of France in two weeks’ time. Ireland to ease home. As long as the bus gets there on time, of course.

S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 23

Odds: Italy +23, Draw +23, Ireland -23

Tips: (i) Draw +23 @22/1

           (ii) Wales +5  v England @ Evens

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Irish Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations 2017

Time to Renew Hostilities

If a week is a long time in politics, then it follows that six months is an aeon in the comparatively tumultuous world of sport.

Southern dominance of the 2015 Rugby World Cup meant that last year’s Six Nations tournament was greeted by a sense of futility, the annual event almost devalued by the varying degrees of humiliation suffered by Europe’s best.

England’s Grand Slam victory probably impressed few outside of England, not as a result of begrudgery but more the perception that they were merely the best of an average-to-bad lot. Then in June, England whitewashed the Australians and Ireland somehow conspired to not win a series in South Africa, notwithstanding a brilliantly resolute victory in the opening test in Cape Town. The good vibes continued throughout the early winter – Ireland’s victory in Chicago an obvious highpoint – and all six nations could point to progress against their southern counterparts. Now, on to a Six Nations tournament which, for the first time in years is wide open and not, as is often perceived, due to a lack of quality.

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All changed, changed utterly.

Once New Zealand finally fell, any right-thinking Irish fan jumped straight to Paddy’s weekend and a Grand Slam showdown with England. Even when the euphoria subsided this turned out not to be the most illogical logic going. However, as November came to a conclusion it was clear that the remaining Six Nations sides, with the notable and hard to decipher exception of Wales, had all progressed steadily.

Now, Ireland, England, Wales and possibly even Scotland go into the tournament with plausible designs on victory. For Scotland to make genuine progress this spring, Ireland need to be quietened on Saturday and for the Irish to deliver on the ambition born in November, well they need to do the obvious. We should preface this by stating that a Championship victory of any nature would be a fantastic achievement.

We’ve been lucky enough to come up in a generation where losing to Scotland was a rarity. You only need to go back to the late 80s and early 90s to understand the glee with which the Scottish viewed the Irish fixture. Not so today. Indeed, since the advent of the Six Nations Ireland hold the upper hand in Murrayfield with six wins to two. Ireland’s last defeat in the Scottish capital in 2012 came on Paddy Jackson’s ill-fated debut and a departure from the international game unbefitting of Ronan O’ Gara. However, Jackson has since blossomed into a fine out-half and O’ Gara’s extraordinary legacy won’t be tarnished by that dour afternoon.

Jackson has actually started six of Ireland’s last eight games but invariably his selection is viewed as a stop gap until the return of Johnathan Sexton. Now, obviously, everyone wants a fully fit Sexton available but his inability to complete a game may become an issue at some point. Joey Carberry, currently returning from injury, deputised brilliantly in November but it seems at this point in time Jackson is the clear understudy to Sexton. The Belfast man had a largely impressive summer in South Africa, was thrown into a free-for-all in the return game against New Zealand and then performed admirably when closing out the November series against Australia. Of course, his game is not free of errors but people often tend to forget that Jackson is only twenty-five and further that he has played behind an average Ulster pack this season.

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Paddy Jackson has an opportunity to press his case as more than an injury replacement for Johnny Sexton. (Courtesy of balls.ie)

The Irish eight should provide consistent possession on the front foot. Against Australia Jackson showed a greater willingness to attack the line and he does offer a genuine threat with his vision and passing. Sexton will return shortly but, at some point, Jackson needs to deliver consistent performances that force Joe Schmidt to consider his out-half selection somewhat of a dilemma.

Ireland’s starting pack is as good as any in the tournament – England enjoy greater depth – and it is here that they will hope to stifle the Scots. The surging Tadhg Furlong makes his first Six Nations start, while Rory Best, who endured a tricky beginning to his captaincy is playing the best rugby of his career. It is, however, in the back row that Ireland should enjoy likely dominance.

Ryan Wilson, Hamish Watson and Josh Strauss are fine players but Ireland’s three of Stander, O’ Brien and Heaslip comprise the best unit in the tournament. O’ Brien seems to start on reputation these days, given his litany of injuries and limited training time, but he continues to excel. Heaslip and Stander have both had exceptional seasons thus far and the lack of a traditional seven is circumvented by the versatility of the modern back row forward. In time, O’ Brien has acquired an outstanding ability to poach at rucks and Stander is supplementing his power carrying with improved ground skills of his own. Look at England too, where Chris Robshaw has enjoyed a rejuvenation on the blind side of the scrum.

Many of this Scottish side went to battle with Munster in a highly entertaining contest less than a month ago and a noticeable degree of antipathy has developed between those two sides. While Munster only have one starter in the pack, the always interesting bit of needle will be present. It’s unclear whether photos of Conor Murray’s standing leg have been plastered around the Scottish training facilities this week but their pack will assuredly shower Munster and Ireland’s lynchpin with plenty of attention.  No doubt Schmidt will have brought these tactics, particularly those of the blatantly infringing Strauss, to referee, Roman Poite’s attention this week. Nonetheless, it isn’t something Ireland, or more importantly Murray, can dwell on for too long. You get the feeling Ireland’s forwards will be alert but Murray will be expected to take his shots too and Ireland rarely concede penalties for enforcer-type, retaliatory tactics.

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Josh Strauss’ (l) often questionable pursuit of Conor Murray will be closely observed by Roman Poite.

Schmidt’s selection of Ian Keatley on the bench lays down a pretty clear marker for those plying their trade overseas, no doubt to the chagrin of Ian Madigan. The Bordeuax outhalf must have placed himself at three in the fly-half charts, and only because he’d chosen to seek better remuneration overseas, but Schmidt’s actions effectively close the international door on those who have chosen to leave the island. While Keatley is clearly not on the top rung anymore, it’s heartening to see the good guy, which by all accounts Keatley is, getting an unexpected reward just as his own career in Ireland comes to an end. Jackson is durable but should he go down then Schmidt will simply adhere to Bill Belichick’s ‘next man up’ mantra. Keatley can manage a game but the concern will be as to whether he can still do so at international level.

In the midst of the growing concerns over Sexton, the potentially explosive combination of Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose starting together in green for the first time has been somewhat overlooked. Henshaw, at twenty-three, has assumed the mantle of veteran, while Ringrose has blossomed in his company and grown in stature, particularly in defence. While the majority clamoured for Ringrose’s Irish selection last year, mostly on the back of reports they were hearing from other people, Schmidt knew that the skill set was perhaps a little more advanced than the physical development. A year in the Pro 12 has definitely benefitted his all-round game but Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones will provide a formidable challenge on Saturday. D’Arcy and O’ Driscoll, the benchmark for Irish centres, oozed class going forward but it was in defence that they showed their true worth. Ringrose doesn’t need to try and be any other player and Saturday offers an opportunity to confirm his ascension to international class centre.

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Garry Ringrose’s biggest challenge thus far awaits in Murrayfield.

On a fine day, Scotland can do untold damage with the ball through Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and their powerful fliers outside, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser. However, like Simon Geoghegan in the 90s, the latter two in particular  are probably going to spend much of the afternoon as cold, miserable onlookers. The forecast is bad and while Scotland have picked a powerful pack Ireland should control possession of the ball and with it the game. There’s an unlikely blend of youth and experience on the bench but expect the likes of Ultan Dillane and Josh Van Der Flier to add ballast when needed.

What has become clear is that Ireland’s success in the latter half of 2016 has, not unreasonably, raised expectations. And, Scotland will have viewed this game as an opportunity to confirm their progress in deed rather than word. Still, the feeling is that Ireland have a more fundamentally sound game plan and a stronger squad to boot. Ireland to win, Scotland the first to profit from the new bonus point system.

S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 6

Tips: (i)  Ireland -5 (Evens)

(ii) Munster v Edinburgh 3/2/2017 – Munster @ 15/8

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