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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Ireland, Irish Rugby, November Internationals, Six Nations 2017

Kings in the North?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tadhg Furlong with Kieran Read 19/11/2016

How did Kieran Read end up there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Irish Rugby, November Internationals, Rugby, Rugby Union

Seconds Out, Round Two!

As it turns out, all Ireland needed to do was get New Zealand on neutral soil, in a city sprinkled with a little magic and, most importantly, put in an outstandingly accurate and intense performance for nigh on two hours.

Bizarrely, considering the meeting between the sides in 2013, Ireland managed to fly into Chicago somewhat under the radar. AIG had gone to typically, ludicrous American lengths to promote the game as a showcase for the ‘AIG New Zealand All Blacks’ – the stadium announcer was unintentionally hilarious  – with Ireland seemingly appearing to make up the numbers.

Now, we’ll never know how distracted New Zealand’s players were or whether they really did underestimate Ireland but the pre-match atmosphere, punctuated by the atrocious violin rendition of the almost equally atrocious, Ireland’s Call, gave no intimation of an Irish victory. It is interesting afterwards, that even amongst the burgeoning, Irish 20:20 hindsight community, few were deluded enough to claim that they had predicted a win for Rory Best’s team.

And that, thankfully, is what separates we supporters from Joe Schmidt, his management team and this ever improving, Irish squad. Offensively, Ireland got almost everything right, virtually all of it premeditated, and while there some defensive lapses, Ireland’s discipline meant the New Zealanders were afforded few opportunities to attack in broken play. As Eddie Jones succinctly pointed out that for all their abundant qualities, “the Kiwis aren’t as good off structured possession.”

And, unstructured attack is the essence to New Zealand victories, particularly in the final quarter. When Scott Barrett ploughed straight through the middle for his 63rd-minute try, even the most optimistic Irish supporter must have had visions of the standard, New Zealand late flurry and a scoreboard that might suggest a relative stroll home. However, Ireland’s defence remained both calm and confident, typified by Andrew Trimble’s rush inside that forced an awkward pass to Julian Savea’s back shoulder and Conor Murray’s nation-rousing smash of Julian Savea behind the Kiwi goal-line.

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Ireland’s, Munster contingent celebrate Ireland’s historic victory in Chicago (courtesy of the Telegraph)

Ireland did not hang on but, rather, finished emphatically with Robbie Henshaw’s try – one that just gets better with repeat viewings – so there is no sense that Ireland fluked a victory. That said, Irish people, not necessarily the Irish team, need to temper their excitement. Appearing on Off The Ball last Friday night, Brian O’ Driscoll good-naturedly observed that the Irish public really only seem to view this team in extremes after the presenters mulled over just how amazing Ireland might be. And, let’s not pretend we didn’t get caught up in that euphoria for a few days.

Meanwhile, on Second Captains Matt Williams – alumni of the same school of nonsense as Michael Owen – rambled endlessly about how important his views were while somewhat ludicrously suggesting injuries had nothing at all to do with Ireland’s World Cup exit. If you listen carefully enough, you can almost hear Williams suggest that Ireland are now playing to their true potential because Schmidt, at last, has seen the light and begun to heed the Australian’s advice. Some man, Matt!

Anyway, back to our visitors. New Zealand have never found themselves in this position before against Ireland so, as Brent Pope noted on RTE 1 Radio on Sunday, the real pressure is on Steve Hansen’s side, particularly back home where the expectations are exacting. Obviously, Ireland will be focused and determined but the longstanding, historical pressure has been alleviated after the victory in Chicago. New Zealand, having lost their undefeated record to Ireland may well feel the heat from their supporters if they lose consecutive tests to Ireland, despite only weeks ago being championed as the greatest team of all time.

After some amateur research, we figured that New Zealand’s win percentage when facing a team who has beaten them in their last encounter stands at 71 percent. Now, two weeks ago Ireland had a 0 percent success rate against New Zealand so, in relation to the largely unhelpful application of statistics to different teams through different eras, a 29 percent chance of success sounds just fine. Anyway, while we don’t know how Joe Schmidt’s mind works, one suspects he cares little for the historical response of New Zealand sides to defeat and more what they will bring to this particular contest on Saturday.

The return of the world’s best, though assuredly rusty, second-row pairing of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock is a major fillip and it would be errant to think Ireland will enjoy the lineout dominance of Soldier Field. The returning duo offer the traditional skills of a lock, and in Retallick in particular, excellent ball handling skills in midfield, akin to Connacht’s 2015 star, Aly Muldowney.

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The returning Sam Whitelock (l) and Brodie Retallick (r) could have a decisive effect on the outcome of Saturday’s match. (courtesy of http://www.lintottphoto.co.nz)

In midfield, New Zealand are down to their last men standing, Anton Lienert-Brown and Malakai Fekitoa, which may actually prove to their advantage as this is a more balanced 12-13 combination. Ireland, however, can claim superiority in this area of the field, as Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne have developed a superb understanding, the odd rush out of the defensive line excepted. Even during the Rugby Championship, where New Zealand enjoyed near, total dominance, the feeling was that their midfield was relatively average, particularly compared to those who had come before.

Israel Dagg’s return will strengthen the back three, particularly in the aerial battle,  but you get the feeling that if New Zealand are to win, the returns of the aforementioned second-rows and Aaron Smith’s form will have a far greater influence. Conor Murray’s outstanding performances of late have called some to label him the best nine in the world , so Smith will hope to put his toilet issues behind him and remind those watching of his sublime, pre-summer form.

To counter this, Ireland need to find new points of attack, and for this reason, it is objectively, understandable that Sean O’ Brien starts for his near unmatchable ball-carrying skills. Josh van der Flier, excellent in his 55-minute shift in Chicago, is the one to miss out but, Schmidt picks players to do a job for the team. So, outstanding as van der Flier was a fortnight ago, the head coach obviously believes O’ Brien can offer more to the team from the off. Detached and simple. While van der Flier will care little for the irony of the situation, he was the man who replaced Tommy O’ Donnell in the starting line-up against England in this year’s Six nations after the latter had performed superbly off the bench in Paris in Ireland’s previous outing.

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Sean O’ Brien’s return should provide explosiveness and a new point of attack. (courtesy Getty Images)

Joe Schmidt will already have drilled all the fundamentals – accuracy, intensity, discipline- into his side, so it will be very interesting to see what new plans he devises, particularly with the likely negation of the set-piece as an offensive weapon.

If Ireland are to cause serious problems for the world’s number one side then Rob Kearney will need to back up his best offensive performance in years, supplemented by another career-best outing from Simon Zebo. The same could be applied to most of the Irish side, but the reality is they will somehow need to improve upon the performance of a fortnight ago.

Oddly enough, despite winning a fortnight ago, Ireland are the ones with more questions to answer, but this comes with the territory when facing New Zealand. The visitors are close to full strength, have a score to settle in their minds and will feel they owe themselves and their coaching team a vastly improved performance. Ireland were so deservedly victors on that incredible afternoon on the south side of Chicago, but we all knew that Retallick and Whitelock’s absences presented a huge opportunity.

While we wrote about intangibles and the atmosphere in a city gone mad, clutched at straws basically, to suggest we could even get close last time, the argument for Ireland should be more compelling this weekend. Also, any suggestion that Ireland will tire in the final quarter seems moot as the entire team bar O’ Brien had last weekend off and the chances are the Tullow man may only be used for an hour. New Zealand, however, have been badly stung and they will not be complacent this time.

Still, Ireland have the opportunity to be the first side to go back-to-back against New Zealand since South Africa in 2009 and a lot of this Irish team will be facing the Kiwis in a red jersey next June. New Zealand’s players assuredly cannot imagine or allow for a scenario where they could lose three in a row to the same opponents. They should escape with a victory, but only just.

SUS Prediction: New Zealand by 6

Tips: Ireland +8  (2/1)

           Ireland to win (6/1)

New Zealand  -16 generally.

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