Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations 2017

Madness in the Method?

The last 12 months have entailed both the very best and most frustrating aspects of this current Irish rugby team. So close in South Africa, then exceptional in Chicago. Gutsy against Australia, caught cold in Edinburgh, followed by sleeves rolled up efficiency and toughness against France. Then a return to old failings in Cardiff last weekend. After a truly mixed season, Ireland return to the place where they so often thrive, backs to the wall and with little expectation.

If the plethora of ‘ifs’ had gone our way in the past six weeks alone, the last few days would have been filled with the fever pitch that only accompanies a Grand Slam showdown. Instead and after a listless opening forty in Edinburgh and, as with 24 months ago, a performance in Cardiff where plan B was clearly left at home, Ireland face England with no tangible wares on the line. They do, however, have an opportunity to measure themselves against the world’s second best side and prevent two records falling. England, meanwhile, have the chance to record the first back-to-back Grand Slams in Six Nations history and break the record of eighteen straight victories held, of course, by themselves and New Zealand. There is no question as to whose winning streak is more impressive but should England prevail on Saturday the history books won’t lie.

The question for Ireland, after the harsh reality of our inability to break down defences without going through multi-phases, is whether we can live with a side who are now marrying potent offence with the discipline which Eddie Jones immediately instilled on his arrival in 2016. The rather frustrating and none too illuminating answer is that, yes, on one off occasions we can live with any side in the world. Therefore, if Ireland win on Saturday where does it leave them, apart from the obvious position of a fairly distant second behind England and marginal leader of the chasing pack.

If you examine the 11 game run which begun last June at the foot of Table Mountain and led into last Friday night’s all too familiar defeat in Wales it’s clear that Ireland are a good side that can deviate from brilliant to decidedly blow average. Nothing revelatory there. However, perhaps of more relevance is the fact that Ireland succeed when their set-piece performs to a markedly superior level to that of their opposition. New Zealand and Australia struggled mightily against the Irish scrum, while the line-out provided a match-winning platform in Chicago. Disrupt Ireland here and it would appear that they are bereft of ideas.

The Irish management team are growing increasingly prickly towards journalists who ask whether Ireland have become either too predictable or are lacking in offensive thrust. Scratch too close to the bone and people generally become uncomfortable. To an untrained eye, last Friday’s attack seemed to revolve around flat one or maybe two out runners and a brand new trick….. the wraparound. The latter generally led to an isolated Keith Earls or Simon Zebo kicking ahead into space and chasing. From such great coaching minds, it hardly smacks of ingenuity.

Presser

Irish rugby journalists have committed the cardinal sin of both doing their job and asking relevant questions at recent press conferences. 

Barring the ten-try evisceration of the then 14th ranked team in the world in Rome, Ireland’s attack has struggled mightily throughout this tournament. Scotland’s defence can be charitably described as average, while to be fair the French encounter was never going to yield a great attacking dividend given the conditions. Wales, in Cardiff however provided a perfect marker as to the progress Ireland have made offensively since the uncannily similar defeat in 2015. The answer, it would seem, is very little.

Despite his excellent performance in Cardiff, for the sixty minutes Johnny Sexton played last weekend Ireland struggled to create any real opportunities, the two best breaks of the game coming from Donnacha Ryan and CJ Stander. For all of Robbie Henshaw’s strengths he is not, at least yet, a midfield creator in the mould of Jeremy Guscott or Tim Horan. Of course, he is still an outstanding defender and carrier and there is the hope that his game can develop along a similar line to that of Ma’a Nonu. However, in the short term Ireland need something beyond Sexton’s often isolated efforts, so Jared Payne’s inclusion should at least offer the option of a playmaker from the back.

England, more as a result of serendipity than design, have happened upon an outstanding 10-12 axis, with Owen Farrell operating as a first five-eighth outside George Ford. Both are excellent distributors, Ford is a genuine running threat and Farrell complements these skills with huge, often times punishing defence. Ireland won’t be fooled into thinking they’re running at a converted out half in Farrell meaning Ford’s rush defence, highlighted by Gordon D’Arcy in this week’s Irish Times, needs to be exploited somehow.

 

F & F

England have fortuitously arrived upon a hugely successful midfield pairing in old friends George Ford (l) and Owen Farrell.

There has been much talk of Ireland’s structured system which is possibly predicated on the fact that carefully managed phase play eventually leads to gaps appearing, somewhat akin to chess. The problem with this kind of rugby is that it grows stale in a hurry when it becomes ineffective. For all the pressure imposed by Ireland last week, and the herculean Welsh defensive performance should not be taken for granted, the closest the visitors came to scoring was from a rolling maul.

Owning the ball in rugby doesn’t quite equate to soccer, where the objective is to press and probe until an opening appears. If rugby, as structured phases amass, the defensive line become more comfortable with their assignment. Maybe Ireland have a rabbit in the hat for Saturday’s encounter but the one time they tried a semi-coherent move off an attacking scrum last week Keith Earls spilled it, perhaps mindful of the fact that the Welsh midfield had telegraphed the move from the off.

Further, and as has been the case throughout this year’s Six Nations there is the issue of Ireland’s back row. From the limited sample size on offer, it appears that the combination of CJ Stander, Sean O’ Brien and Jamie Heaslip is actually less than the sum of its parts. The problem of course is that Stander was the best of the trio last week, Heaslip appears to be nigh on undroppable and with Josh van Der Flier out, there is a lack of experienced depth on the open side. There is a persuasive argument for Peter O’ Mahony’s inclusion but at whose expense? Schmidt is, not unreasonably, keeping the incumbent combination together for the tournament finale but if they are unsuccessful in stymying England, no small achievement, then others – O’ Mahony, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan- will have to be considered going forward.

 

Ireland-Backrow

The Six Nations have thrown up a mixed bag for the Irish back row so far. A big performance on Saturday would offer huge respite.

Ireland have become all too familiar with life without Johhny Sexton in the past eighteen months and now, with a juggernaut coming to town, they must contend with the absence of their other backline lynchpin, Conor Murray. Kieran Marmion will surely relish his opportunity and given his presence and the inclusion of Payne Ireland will probably attack with greater tempo and, dare we dream, invention.

The coaching team have spoken this week of the need to be clinical in opposition territory. England appear to be a performance ahead, at least, in this regard after last week’s demolition of Scotland. Ireland won’t wilt like the disappointing Scots did but nothing thus far in this year’s tournament suggests they’ll be able to repel and breakdown a flourishing English side, buoyed further by Billy Vunipola’s return to the starting line-up. The visitors are on a discernible upward curve while Ireland, ironically given the methodical nature of their play, remain difficult to read.

The frustrating, or perhaps brilliant aspect of this Irish side, is that they remain capable of beating anybody when their up-tempo pace complements a dominant set-piece. England, though, will be primed for an emotional performance from the home side, particularly after being stung in 2001 and 2011 when hunting Grand Slams. Outside of England it’s unlikely that anyone wants Eddie Jones to succeed where all others have failed before him. But in a week where Queen Elizabeth II gave the royal nod for Brexit talks to commence, it seems likely that England will successfully impose their superiority in a more anodyne, sporting manner.

Straight Up Sport Prediction: England by 4

Tips: (i) Handicap Draw (Ireland -4) @22/1

           (ii) Under 37.5 points @ 6/5

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Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations 2017

French test a defining moment

After the defeat in Edinburgh, the perception seemed to go from glass full to glass half-empty with little consideration for rationale or perspective. Now, after the massacre of a poor Italian side in Rome, the mood is tentatively lifting once more. It defies explanation but Irish sides always seem to perform better when there is a pervading sense of uncertainty or even borderline negativity in the air. New Zealand in 2013 and again last November and South Africa last summer are obvious recent examples.

There’s no question that the Irish squad would have applied themselves as professionally as ever to training and video sessions in the lead up to round one of this year’s Six Nations, but you have to imagine that they are not impervious to the prevailing view of the media and the general public. Not that they necessarily believe what’s being said in the lead up to games but it must seep into their psyche. Alternatively, one could take the view that the Irish rugby public place unduly lofty expectations to their national side. That’s probably an argument for another day but, for now, this Irish side finds itself in a seemingly more palatable position, surrounded by tentative expectation. That said, the internal pressure to perform is, no doubt, as high as ever.

The fixture list has been kind to Ireland.  Though downed by the Scots, they were immediately offered a regeneration programme in Rome, safe in the knowledge that victory was nigh on certain. France have always given Ireland difficulty, even during their recent phase of rudderless management and feckless, downright incomprehensible performances. Now, Guy Noves side are resurgent, considering where they were coming from, and they’ll arrive buoyed by a fine performance in Twickenham and a hard-fought and welcome victory over Scotland in Paris.

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France were far from perfect in beating Scotland but they travel to a stadium that holds no fear for them.

Throughout the fist decade of this century, Noves led perhaps the greatest club side ever, in four time Heineken Cup winners, Toulouse. While we remember the individual artistry of Clerc, Poitrenaud, N’Tamack and Jauzion, the success was built on the dominance of the Fabien Pelous-led, gargantuan pack. That team was a joy to watch, and unlike the rubbish in the Top 14 nowadays, they realised that powerful forward play can be married to scintillating incisions from the backline. While Noves’s legacy with Toulouse is redoubtable, Shane Horgan made the point recently on Second Captains that Toulouse’s heydey was more than a decade ago. Rugby has changed considerably since then and it seems that Noves’ greatest strength at this point is his ability to galvanise a French collective who seemed to have lost their way.

As we’re all taking advantage of the residency rule, it would seem trite to criticise the French for selecting a southern hemisphere-flavoured back field but they have done well to hand pick Noa Nakatici, Viremi Vakatawa and Scott Spedding. Vakatawa misses out tomorrow and is replaced by another powerful unit in Yoann Huget. As is often the case with bulldozing wingers, accepted wisdom is that opposing teams need to turn them around and take advantage of their relatively poor field positioning in defence. Ireland’s go-to box-kick game will likely be refined somewhat to include the lesser-spotted line drive into opposition territory. Nakatici doesn’t offer a huge amount in defence but then neither did Vincent Clerc and he still seemed to do ok against Ireland.

Though it’s a position rich in depth, it would be difficult to argue against Louis Picamoles being the tournament’s foremost number-eight, particularly given his recent return to the form of 2014/15. His performance in Twickenham was exceptional and he is possessed of the greatest attacking brain of any forward in the tournament. Ireland’s back-row struggled mightily in Scotland then lorded it in Rome, aided by the hopefully, temporary diminution of Sergio Parisse’s powers, but the upcoming tests will prove an accurate measure of the balance of the current Irish unit.

Whatever the prevailing view at the moment, Saturday’s performance should go a long way towards confirming whether the Stander, O’ Brien, Heaslip combo can perform effectively in all facets of the game. Stander and O’ Brien in particular need to have a plan B in tow for when the wrecking-ball approach is nullified, while all three need to establish parity on the ground, at the very least. Ireland’s back row options are healthier now than ever before and the current trio will be mindful of this.

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A strong performance from CJ Stander should cement his place in the Irish back row.

To injury news, where the Irish Rugby fake news department was at it again this past fortnight. It’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff given the age-old propensity of hurling and Gaelic football managers to insert A.N. Other at corner forward but Schmidt’s Ireland appears to be less than forthcoming with their injury reports. Donnacha Ryan appeared to be fit for the Scottish game while the public was initially informed, with little purpose, that injury kept Ultan Dillane out of the trip to Rome. If nothing else, it’s slightly bemusing but perhaps the Irish management team feel they can gain advantage from concealing this information for as long as is possible. And, on that note, Rob Kearney returns from a seemingly championship–ending injury with Andrew Trimble replacing what must be the most deflated hat-trick scorer ever in Craig Gilroy. As has now become custom, Tiernan O’ Halloran is left to mull over just what it is he needs to do before Schmidt will notice him.

Paddy Jackson deputised more than adequately these past few weeks but, for the time being, there is still little argument over the first-choice Irish out-half. If Sexton stays standing on Saturday then this will all blow over, and one hopes the incumbent number ten is merely going through a rare and unfortunate run of injuries. While the coaching staff were glowing in their praise of Jackson this past week, it’s clear how highly they value Sexton’s leadership and ability to raise the game of those around him. Further, on a more visible level Sexton is near peerless at carrying the ball to the line, an aspect of his game that Ireland missed so dearly in Edinburgh.

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Unsurprisingly, Johnny Sexton and his fitness have been the main topics of conversation in the lead up to this fixture.

For all the major advancements and scalps of the last few months there are still considerable question marks over Ireland’s defence. While they performed admirably in South Africa, bar the second test where altitude had its say, Ireland have been relatively porous since. With the exception of the facile Italian victory, Andy Farrell’s unit have conceded at least three tries in each of the past five games. And this despite Ireland controlling the majority of possession in each contest. A narrow line and lack of line speed are oft criticised but there have also been a number of missed one-on-one tackles. Whatever the ailment and more importantly the cure, Ireland could make life a lot easier for themselves if they didn’t require, on average, twenty-five points to win each of these contests. The caveat, of course, is that this is a small sample size. England, by comparison, may not sparkle but their defence has been mostly rock solid under Eddie Jones, although admittedly the latter have judiciously or perhaps fortuitously avoided New Zealand throughout their unbeaten run.

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Ireland’s defence is yet to click under the guidance of former, dual-international, Andy Farrell.

France will run hard as ever and will jump at the opportunity to move the ball wide while their counter-attacking game has been resuscitated as evidenced by some fantastic deep bursts in Twickenham. Ireland too evidenced their ability to return the ball dangerously from deep in Rome and this must continue into the encounter with France. There is no questioning Rob Kearney’s excellence under the high ball but with O’ Halloran and Simon Zebo breathing down his neck, he needs to show his the consistent ability to link effectively with his wings.

The reality is that Ireland need to win all the way home and see whether Scotland can create some problems for the English in a fortnight’s time. Talk of bonus points seems ludicrous given the defensive qualities of Ireland’s remaining opponents. If the back row click, Sexton hits the ground running, which to be fair he always does after injury absences, and Conor Murray completely sheds the last vestiges of his mini-slump then Ireland will win. But any idea of a runaway victory is fanciful.

It’s clear that Ireland are probably somewhere between the majesty of Chicago and the fitful, frustrating performance in Murrayfield. If they defend as in the latter match, then France will have a comfortable, early spring evening. That outcome seems most unlikely though and Joe Schmidt and, more pertinently his side will be aching to rise to the pitch of November once more.

Ireland see themselves as the most obvious challengers to England’s dominance in the north yet victories are the only way to further this claim and usurp the latter. An improving France will provide a stern mid-tournament examination of Ireland. Expect the home side to respond accordingly.

Straight Up Sport Prediction: Ireland by 6 (Odds Ireland -8)

Tips: (i) France +8 @10/11

           (ii) Simon Zebo anytime try scorer @ 2/1

           (iii) Johnny Sexton first try scorer @ 25/1

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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.

chicago

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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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.

Rugby Championship - All Blacks v Australia, 25 August 2012

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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Chicago, November Internationals, Rugby, Rugby Union

Why Not Us?

So, to the biennial consideration as to whether Ireland can finally break their duck against the all-conquering world champions, New Zealand. If Ireland’s summer trips to New Zealand are greeted with trepidation and the autumn games in Dublin give us some semblance of hope, where does a first ever foray into a Chicago test leave us?

Well, for those who, like us, readily invest in fate, luck and the other intangibles, the Irish team need look no further than the north side of Chicago for inspiration. In the early hours of Thursday morning, the Chicago Cubs ended a 108 year World Series drought with the most heart-stopping, endlessly thrilling  victory over the Cleveland Indians.

 

AFP AFP_HQ3UC S BBO USA IL

Celebrations in Wrigleyville began in the early hours of this morning after the Chicago Cubs ended a 108 year World Series drought.

 

Even for those who loathe baseball, the game still involved enough twists for an entire season. The Indians, luckless since 1948, will be distraught but the atmosphere in Chicago will be absolutely electric for the coming days. And, hopefully, the Irish rugby team can feed off this. Granted, Soldier Field is on the south side in White Sox territory, but the jubilation will be felt throughout the city when the Chicago River will, apparently, run blue as the parade cascades through Wrigleyville tomorrow afternoon.

 

 

In the 108 years that the Cubs sought to break their drought, the Irish rugby team have been thwarted continuously in their own attempts to beat New Zealand. There have been near misses, never more so than 2013, nonetheless the task on Saturday remains as daunting as ever.

crotty-try

Ryan Crotty’s last-gasp try, converted by Aaron Cruden saw New Zealand defeat Ireland in 2013 in heartbreaking circumstances.

It’s very difficult to explore any narrative that hasn’t already been advanced going into this game as the New Zealand juggernaut has eventually rolled over every team it faced this summer. That’s not to say every encounter in the Rugby Championship was a completely, one-sided affair – Argentina, in particular, offered considerable food for thought – but each contest ended with a bench inspired, New Zealand onslaught.

Using your substitutes to up the intensity and energy is hardly an abstract concept – Kilkenny and more recently Dublin have perfected the art – but when New Zealand’s starting fifteen have been testing their opposite numbers lungs for 60 minutes, the ploy becomes devastatingly effective. Indeed, in an interview earlier this week, Lions coach and world-class troll, Warren Gatland noted that the results from the GPS tracker used on New Zealand evidence the claim that their players simply cover more ground than their opponents.

The brain is inclined to slow down as the body does and this is when New Zealand pounce. When allying this mobility with their redoubtable ball handling skills, awareness of space and acuity of decision making, this particular edition of New Zealand becomes increasingly difficult to plan for. Gordon Darcy’s article in Wednesday’s Irish Times expertly highlighted the way Irishmen began making poor decisions in the final three minutes in the 2013 encounter as a result of being out on their feet.

Everybody presumed that the collective retirements from New Zealand rugby of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith would create a contest at the top but in 2016 Steve Hansen’s side appear to have moved up to a new level of ruthless efficiency and precision.

And, perhaps to the fore of this team’s successes is its ability to ensure the machine keeps evolving to the point that when the above-named quartet retired, their importance to the team had possibly been surpassed by the Smiths, Ben and Aaron and Kieran Read. The best teams, the ones that seem to move on effortlessly and without fuss always have one eye on the future.

So, what chance do Ireland have on Saturday? They’re shorn of serious ballast in Sean O’ Brien, Iain Henderson and Peter O’ Mahony, the latter of whose exclusion seems slightly perplexing in light of his recent performances. Still, Joe Schmidt sees these players every day and with three tests to follow, the head coach can’t simply throw caution to the wind and still potentially end up on the end of a pummelling and without key players.

Ireland’s performance in South Africa this summer were extremely encouraging, particularly in the first test when they played 20 minutes with just thirteen men on the field. A series victory was denied by some basic individual errors and, for want of better analysis, a lack of good fortune.

Granted New Zealand gutted South Africa last month, but South Africa have actually regressed since June, played putridly on the day and allowed New Zealand dictate the game as they pleased. To brush over New Zealand’s performance would, of course, be careless at best as they were absolutely sublime in every aspect of performance and they exhibited what awaits Ireland if performance levels, or heads, drop in Soldier Field.

Ireland, having never played New Zealand in Soldier Field are, of course, undefeated there so there’s also that desperate crumb of comfort to cling to. However, on the face of what’s gone before and the current standings of the sides, does Rory Best’s team have a realistic chance of victory? Unfortunately, the honest and pragmatic answer would appear to be, no. However, let’s try and scratch a little deeper.

It seems that New Zealand’s vaunted second-row pairing of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick will both be missing so this somewhat softens the blow of the absence of Henderson, O’ Mahony and O’ Brien. You can argue that New Zealand will be running out of steam after a long, test summer but, surely, having games under your belt is superior to a handful of training field sessions since late June. But after that, it’s hard to find an objective viewpoint to favour Ireland.

pom-and-ih

Ireland will really feel the absence of Peter O’ Mahony (l) and Iain Henderson (r) and Sean O’Brien in Soldier Field.

New Zealand are superior at every position on the pitch, bar perhaps first centre and the second row, and while scarcely believable, the sum is actually better than the parts. That cliché is usually reserved for a team like Leicester City’s premier league winners or Connacht’s reigning Pro 12 champions, a collection of ‘characters’, journeymen and enigmas patched together and proving their worth to all the doubters. But, it also rings true for New Zealand. Their centre pairing does not jump off the page, nor will the second-row pair – Jerome Kaino could yet excel in this role- and yet as the game unfolds it seems as if the fifteen individuals are performing as one, almost preternaturally in sync.

While it may seem dismissive of Irish supporters to expect defeat on Saturday, this attitude is more as a result of New Zealand’s grim stranglehold over the game for the past two years. Ireland have a chance, of course they do, but it will take a bit of adventure and guile to really get at New Zealand and it appears that Joe Schmidt, through a combination of necessity and choice, will be reverting to a more pragmatic game.

Ireland will need to perform at somewhere close to perfection in terms of accuracy, decision-making and defensive intensity while relying on every bit of luck to go their way. In this era of painful over-analysis, those obsessed with statistic evaluation hate to acknowledge that fortune, or lack thereof, can have a massive impact on the outcome of a game. For all their qualities, the unexpected rain shower last night may have been the decisive factor in the Chicago Cubs’ historic victory.

 

soldier-field

Soldier Field, on the banks of Lake Michigan and home to the Chicago Bears will play the unusual home to an Irish rugby fixture.

 

Nonetheless, it would require a borderline, delusional optimist to go into Saturday’s encounter expecting an Irish victory. And yet, here we are in the city where one of sport’s longest, most famous droughts was just ended. Look, we’ve never beaten  New Zealand anywhere so it’s not like we’re out of our comfort zone. Still, it would be remiss of us to look past anything other than a New Zealand victory. And yet………

New Zealand by 8

 

 

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Rugby Union, Six Nations, Six Nations 2016

Six Nations 2016 – Round 2 Preview

The idea of a good draw has never really crept into the thinking of rugby players or coaches. It’s not like soccer where a side can set up away from home to win a valuable point on the road.

Obviously, the sheer volume of scoring makes it impossible to plan for the draw and, barring a last minute equalising score, you’re never going to be overjoyed with one. And, indeed, such is the impatience of the U.S. sporting audience that they simply did away with draws.

Last Sunday, for the third time in five seasons, Ireland drew a game in the Six Nations. And, while Rory Best’s side will rue letting a 13-0 lead slip away, they can be content in the fact that they performed beyond many expectations while also salvaging a game which appeared to be slipping away from them.

The ferocious intensity of the first half was bound to diminish and the Welsh, as one would expect, improved as the game went on. The Irish coaching staff and players could never be seen to revel in a draw but there were considerable positives to be gleaned from the game.

The fear from such an attritional game is whether Ireland will be able to replenish their stocks adequately with a mere six-day turnaround but the fact they have no choice makes their decision easier.

France next and the home side, while certainly not waiting in the long grass, will be keen to build on their ability to tough out a largely undeserved victory over a beleaguered Italian side.

CJ Stander excelled on debut, so too Tommy O’ Donnell on his injury-shortened return, while Jamie Heaslip complemented what was a terrific back row effort.

Jack McGrath’s extraordinary effort meant Cian Healy’s loss was not felt all that keenly and while the latter is still probably first choice when fit, the gap has narrowed.

The general back line play was vastly improved and this came about in large part due to the renewed efforts of Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. Murray’s growing sense of responsibility is a massive bonus while Sexton’s vigour in attack will be crucial in ensuring Ireland’s offence continues to flourish.

Both wingers were superb, particularly in defence, but Keith Earls head trauma will keep him out from the French encounter.

Meanwhile, there is the Simon Zebo enigma. Careless in his basic duties and lacking conviction in the air, the Corkman brought a deep strike threat to the line that has been missing for so long from the Irish game. Zebo too is ruled out tomorrow – though misleading information during the week suggested that both he and Earls were fit – but one wonders if he would have been considered in any event.

Liam Toland makes a very pertinent point in today’s Irish Times about the impatient attitude shown by the crowd in the Aviva Stadium last Sunday afternoon. Irish rugby fans have kicked and screamed for a more expansive, attacking threat and last week Zebo provided glimpses of this. We’ve already touched on his weaknesses but his offensive ability is innate and must be encouraged. 

Schmidt has already shown that he can prepare a team that is extremely reliable and steady. People complained about his selection and approach. So, Schmidt tried out Zebo who, rather unsurprisingly, mixed the good and the bad. So, for those difficult to please supporters, the Irish side reverts to type tomorrow, mostly as a bye product of injury.

France -v- Ireland, 13th February 2016, Stade de France, 2:25 p.m.

TV schedulers continue to push the boat out with this year’s effort to compile the most difficult to remember kick-off times ever.

It’s quite difficult to read into Guy Noves first match as French coach last weekend. While France showed considerable resolve in overturning an eight point second-half deficit, you have to remember that they shouldn’t have gotten into such a whole at home to Italy.

Very few gave Italy so much as a sniff of victory but the Azzurri were extremely combative and their back line showed more structure and intent than recent years. Still, France clawed their way back in, admittedly with a dime from JP Doyle and Sergio Parisse’s ill-fated decision to attempt a drop-goal at the death.

So, where does that leave France? Conventional wisdom suggests that the French are better off for toughing it out but with a seven-day turnaround but with a new coach and the ‘what have you done for me lately’ Parisian crowd, surely a resounding victory would have been preferable. Particularly when French sides have traditionally fed off their bristling self-confidence.

In any event, Noves has decided to reshuffle a deck that ha already been shuffled last week. A sign that he doesn’t like the cards at his disposal or simply a desire to see what options he has? The latter would not be a bad idea given the short rest period but very little can be said with certainty about this French side.

Noves had no say, however, on the absence of Louis Licamoles and centre, Gael Fickou. Picamoles, one of the finest forwards in world rugby is gone for the tournament and, while his replacement Yacouba Camara is highly rated, its akin to trying to replace the Limerick man who-shall-not-be-named.

Curiously, Rabah Slimani, lauded so much by journalist and pundits drops to the bench to be replaced by the gigantic, Uini Atonio. If Slimani is the superior and fitter player, then surely he should start with the 145kg Atonio introduced late on to cause devastation in set-piece and open play alike. Bringing the big men on to raise hell in the past quarter has always been the tried and tested method.

Rabah

Those in the know say Rabah Slimani is a world-class, prop. So, France have dropped him.

Nonetheless, Ireland and particularly Nathan White suffered at scrum-time last weekend and if the French get on top in this department, and Jaco Peyper gets swayed by the baying Parisian crowd, Ireland could be in for a torrid time. 

As we’ve already mentioned, Joe Schmidt’s hand has been forced by injuries in the back three. Reports suggested that both Earls and Zebo were cleared to play but is is apparent now that neither man is available for selection. The situation is particularly unclear with Earls as our understanding is that once a player passes the return to play protocols, he can return to play. It would be heartening to think that further medical advice was sought in this regard, thus leading to Earls omission.

Both Kearney brothers return, bringing stability and steadfast application if not attacking threat but the big boost comes up front. Sean O’ Brien – perhaps Ireland’s new totem – returns from injury to form a formidable back row with Jamie Heaslip and last week’s hugely impressive debutant, CJ Stander.

Tommy O’ Donnell did little wrong last week prior to leaving the field and absolutely merits his place in the 23 but, O’ Brien when fit, is a certain starter. Gerry Thornley rightly pointed out during the week that Stander and O’Brien’s sharing of the tight carries should open some space for Heaslip to carry as he once did. Obviously, back rows are all about balance so we shouldn’t presume but, in theory, this unit should be formidable.

SOB

Sean O’ Brien’s return is guaranteed to strengthen the Irish pack.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton may be forced to revert to the style of Six Nations past but, it would be tremendous to see the attacking endeavour of last weekend once more. The forecast is not great for Paris but both Irish half backs handled wonderfully in postcard Irish weather in Dublin. Personnel and coaching directions, rather than weather, may force their hand.

Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne appeared to entrenched in Ireland’s midfield and they’ve done absolutely nothing wrong but still one wonders if the Connacht man’s attacking threat is being nullified somewhat. Not to mentions Payne’s.

Pragmatism does however have to enter the conversation and given Ireland’s next destination – Twickenham with the chariot getting into gear – a victory is vital tomorrow.

Noves’ France did not nothing to startle last weekend, though Virimi Vikitawa lit the game up at times, and their turnover count, 19, was massive. If Ireland exploit this French weakness and find a much improved effort in the scrum – a big ask, admittedly – then there is no reason to fear this French side.

Ireland have not lost in Paris for six years, unthinkable only a decade ago, and the seven point handicap- of-fear is long since gone. While this is not the turgid Philippe Saint Andre edition of France, Les Bleus still have a considerable transition period ahead.

Tomorrow, Ireland’s known knowns should overcome the unknown unknowns of this French side.

Ireland by 3

In Brief…….

Wales -v- Scotland, 13th February 2016, Millennium Stadium, 16:50

Both sides will have spent last weekend mulling over what could have been, but Wales are clearly the better side. They finished strongly in Dublin and had to contend with the loss of Dan Biggar from very early in the game.

Biggar starts, which is either the result of incredible healing powers, an over exaggeration of the injury in the first instance or a terribly poor judgment call.

DB

Dan Biggar: Ankles of adamantium

Meanwhile, the Scots travel south in search of a first victory in Cardiff since 2002. Vern Cotter was frustrated with his sides lack of composure in attack last week and Scotland know that defeat tomorrow sends them into a place they’ve endeavoured to escape for so long: the battle for the wooden spoon. 

The roof is set to be closed in this incredible stadium and both sides will come to play. The Scots know this is all or nothing, even at this early stage while the home side dare not disappoint a bullish, expectant Cardiff crowd.

Expect plenty of attacking rugby but the difference may be in red zone efficiency. Scotland promise far more than they deliver. This is rarely the case for Wales in Cardiff.

Wales by 10

Italy -v- England, 14th February 2016, Stadio Olimpico, 2:00 pm

Eddie Jones had to be impressed with his side’s efficient, just get-the-job-done victory in Murrayfield last weekend. Their defence was rock solid, while the build up to Jack Nowell’s try showed glimpses of attacking intent, which to be fair, was also present under Stuart Lancaster.

Italy, so cruelly denied in Paris last week, are at a crossroads. Either they have dropped their heads and questioned the relentless cruelty of sport, or they’ve decided that England under new leadership are there for the glorious taking.

Recent performances suggest Italy really are improving and England may not have it all their own way on Sunday. Nonetheless, England are the better side and Eddie Jones will have his charges prepared for a breakneck, passionate Italian performance.

Maro

English rugby fans are getting very excited about Saracens 21-year-old second row, Maro Itoje.

Watch out for England debutant Maro Itoje off the bench. The Saracens second-row is being mentioned already as one of those once-in-a-generation players, which while ludicrous is also intriguing.

England by 12

SUS Picks – Ireland to beat France – Evens

                       Scotland +10 draw with Wales  22/1

                        Italy +15 over England 10/11

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Rugby Union, Six Nations

Six Nations 2016: Ireland v Wales Preview

So, the gloom has lifted. Or, at least, dissipated a little. That crushing defeat in Cardiff really took the sails out of a nation that had gotten a little too high on self-belief and perceived squad-depth.

In any event, the World Cup should be left to one side for now and our attention turn back to the Six Nations, a fantastic standalone tournament in its own right. Any rationalist could have told you before the World Cup that he quality of rugby in the south is superior. The World Cup simply confirmed this so, time to move on, hopefully with lessons learned.

Irish rugby has been less than ebullient since October, with Paul O’ Connell departed for Toulon, key players out injured and disastrous European campaigns for Leinster and Munster. Still, while we can bemoan the financial death grip that the English and French have taken on the club game, the Six Nations offers a far more even playing field. Yesterday’s game in Paris is testament to to this.

Ireland go into today’s opener with designs on a first ever tournament hat-trick but it will take at least two huge performances to lift them past a settled, superior Welsh side and an England team buoyed by both the Eddie Jones-effect and a favourable schedule.

France would have expected a natural lift with the arrival of the mastermind of the Toulouse golden-era, Guy Noves but yesterday provided a stark reminder that the French have some distance to go before they are serious contenders once more. Indeed, had in not been for a hometown call by referee, JP Doyle, Noves would have been enduring a tough Sunday in the French papers.

Along with many others, we would have been borderline dismissive of Italy but their effort yesterday game marked a continued improvement in the Azzurri’s recent performances, if not results.

Neither Scotland nor England gave much away yesterday and Eddie Jones will most likely be delighted to have picked up a maiden victory in a tricky fixture. Scotland huffed and puffed but rarely looked like blowing the door down, or even getting a peek in through it.

So, to Dublin on this afterenoon where Ireland face into Warren Gatland’s largely replenished Welsh side.

Ireland -v- Wales – Aviva Stadium, 7th February 2016, 15:00

The Rory Best era gets under way in the most trying of circumstances this afternoon. Deprived by injury of seven probable starters, Best faces a scenario not unlike that one faced by today’s opponents, Wales, in the Rugby World Cup.

Rory Best

New Ireland captain, Rory Best, knows that his side will have it all to do today.

The endgame of Wales’ phenomenal victory over England in September was preceded by an almost macabre set of events as an already depleted side was shorn of Liam Williams, Scott Williams and Hallam Amos, two of whom were injury replacements themselves. Ultimately, their winning try was set up by replacement winger Lloyd Williams, a scrum half in his injury crisis-free, day job.

While Wales were ultimately battered into submission by a bigger, stronger South African side, it is worth remembering that Fourie Du Preez’s winning try came about as the result of a glorious flick from Duane Vermeulen. Right at the death.

While their supplies were radically diminished by mid-October, the Welsh jigsaw has almost been put back together and they face into a fixture that has held little fear for them in recent times. True, Ireland rolled over Wales two years ago but, absences both short-term and permanent from the pack mean the visitors have the unquestioned upper hand up front.

Warren Gatland has as ever engaged in his doublespeak, citing Jerome Garces scrum officiating as the reason for benching Gethin Jenkins while simultaneously describing the Frenchman as one of the best referees in the world. Gatland knows that Ireland have struggled with Garces’ interpretations in the past but you’d often wonder if the New Zealander would be better  off saying nothing.

It is the Welsh engine room and backrow which holds the trump cards, however. Alun-Wyn Jones is now the preeminent second-row in Europe, while Gatland has finally plumped for the triumvirate of Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau. This highly touted though largely untried combination could potentially wreak havoc, and Ireland, already down the influential Peter O’ Mahony and Sean O’ Brien will need huge performances from a fairly subdued-of-late Jamie Heaslip, CJ Stander and Tommy O’ Donnell. Incidentally, O’ Donnell’s return is one of the few bright spots in Irish rugby of late after that horrific injury in Wales last August.

Welsh Backrow

The back row that many Welsh fans long for, Justin Tipuric, Sam Warburton (c) and Taulupe Faletau could cause major damage today.

CJ Stander has been outstanding for Munster over the last season and a half but today will be comfortably the biggest challenge of his career thus far. Today’s performance will be a considerable measure of the man and while there would be no shame in being bested by the Welsh unit, a dominant performance from the South African native would lay down a claim for a starting spot even after the injuries clear up.

Things are muddied somewhat at half back. Conor Murray and Jonathon Sexton on song are superior to the tandem of Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar but the Welsh pair were far the better performers in the World Cup. That said, none of the four bring particularly good form into Sunday’s game and the major question remains as to whether Sexton can regain the form of early 2015.

Further, Joe Schmidt’s decision to send Paddy Jackson back to Ulster for the weekend must have many people scratching their heads. The twenty-four-year old is unquestionably the form Irish out-half this season and, while no one is suggesting that he takes Johnny Sexton’s place on the field, his release seems counter-intuitive to any intimation that form would be rewarded

This is probably the first time since Sexton took possession of the Irish ten jumper that concerted criticism has been levelled at him. That is not to say that his place is remotely in question but memories fade and Paddy Jackson is now a legitimate option for Joe Schmidt. Sexton more than ever, needs to put in one of those performances that stamps his authority all over the game.

The injury to Rob Kearney has thrown up an interesting conundrum. Joe Schmidt could have made a like for like replacement and moved Jared Payne to fullback. In turn Robbie Henshaw could move to his more natural outside channel allowing Stuart McCloskey to debut at inside centre.

Schmidt craves stability though and has thus opted for Simon Zebo, a winger, at fullback. Presumably, McCloskey can’t be trusted in that channel against Jamie Roberts and to be fair, you can somewhat see where Schmidt is coming from in terms of desiring familiarity. However, cast your mind back to November 2014 and you will recall an untried pairing of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw putting in a blinding defensive performance to thwart South Africa.

McCloskey is an inside centre, he’s playing out of skin and he would allow Payne to roam as a second playmaker. And, we saw how little purchase the Payne-Henshaw combination got in Cardiff last March. We could yet be proven wrong but, it feels like the right time to put McCloskey into the fray. Otherwise, what? Let him dip his toes in Paris next weekend? Or the welcoming environs of South Africa in June?

JP

There have been calls to move Jared Payne to his preferred full back role, but he remains at outside center today.

Irish rugby is shrouded in an exaggerated cloak of gloom at present. Yes, the Champions Cup campaigns were pretty disastrous but the nucleus of a strong international side remains and, in any event, the national team comes first, now more than ever. And, our visitors have proven that a strong national side should not necessarily rely on domestic sides thriving in Europe.

With regard to those calls for an expansive game, bear in mind that it’s due to rain this afternoon and this is February, not the most conducive month to free-flowing rugby. So, don’t expect an entirely new model. Today may prove a bridge too far given the number of notable absentees but a high-tempo performance and a remove from the much-maligned passive defensive system would represent a good start to the season.

Still, Wales have the stronger fifteen and the stronger bench and home advantage means little in this particular fixture. We can’t fight logic on this one.

Wales by 3

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