Lions, NZvLions, Rugby, Rugby Union

New Zealand v Lions – 3rd Test Preview

If rugby league is to blame for Sonny-Bill Williams dangerous shot on Anthony Watson last weekend then what was Sam Cane’s excuse in November when he banjaxed Robbie Henshaw? It’s difficult to know really but Williams, as has been revealed to a greater extent this week in the New Zealand press, is not a particularly popular sort at home. Like Jared Hayne, another NRL superstar from across the Tasman, Williams has had the temerity to try his hand at other sports. Hayne, to be fair, does seem to be a particularly self-absorbed guy, but Sonny-Bill seems a decent if somewhat overt guy. And, when he came on at half-time and entirely changed the course of the game in the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final, the dissenters were less clearly heard.

There appears to be an unwritten rule that you can either like rugby league or union, but never both. Incidentally, after the All-Ireland Hurling Final, our favourite annual sporting event is the State of Origin clash between New South Wales and Queensland. But, anyway, there appears to be constant sniping, particularly in the southern hemisphere, between the two codes. The latest barbs are irrational at the least, particularly considering the NRL outlawed defensive shoulder charges in 2015.

Now, a logical person might consider the fact that Sonny-Bill was a league player by trade before he moved to union and subsequently proved instrumental to New Zealand retaining the William Webb Ellis. Then, they might realise that New Zealand rugby union has actually profited greatly from Williams’ presence in their game. However, every great drama requires a villain and thus it falls to the Aucklander to fulfil this role.

While the Lions chose to rest the bodies this week in Queenstown, New Zealand immediately returned to the training paddock with revenge on their minds. Being completely objective, New Zealand probably shouldn’t have been too dismayed by the fact that they largely bossed a game where they were at a numerical disadvantage for 45 minutes. The Lions pack, and back row specifically, provided an improved showing but they played for 45 minutes against a seven-man pack. We illustrate these facts not because we like to rain on a parade but because there has been just a little too much back slapping going on amongst the media and public in Britain and Ireland this week.

New Zealand return to Auckland in a game they simply must win and despite the fact that they are under immense pressure, they generally respond extraordinarily well to defeats. The flip side, of course, is that the Lions genuinely are not under much pressure. Before the tour commenced, a New Zealand clean sweep in the test series was only available at even money, and after the sluggish victory over the Provincial Barbarians, these odds seemed a little generous.

The first test didn’t do a huge amount to inspire hopes of a Lions comeback but the reality is that New Zealand, who rightly garner praise as the greatest attacking team on the planet, failed to ignite in the back line. Indeed, the best tries of the test series so far have been scored by Taulupe Faletau and Liam Williams on the back of sweeping length of the field moves. And yet, it took an erratic kicking display from Beauden Barrett, a slightly fortuitous penalty and a one-man advantage to overcome the hosts.

The Owen Farrell-Johnny Sexton axis provided the genesis for both tries last Saturday and while it was widely acknowledged that Ben Te’o was unlucky to lose his berth, the Worcester man is not a good distributor of the ball. Practically all of the Lions success has come in the wider channels so it is understandable that T’eo had to make way.

Much has been made of the way New Zealand responded to their defeat in Chicago last November by turning up in Dublin a fortnight later and both legally and illegally, physically overpowering Ireland. While there were notable shots from Cane and Waisake Naholo and one of the most blatant scrum infringements you’re ever likely to see from Kieran Read – thou shalt not penalise a New Zealand captain – the visitors physically dominated in every facet of the game. Their rucking was immense, line speed almost imperceptibly fast and they were superior in the collision. Forewarned in this case is certainly forearmed.

In an unusual development that few would have predicted six weeks ago, the visitors have had the lion’ s share – unforgivable pun intended – of their success in the wider channels. New Zealand’s pack has rarely been under pressure, remember they had seven in there for most of last week’s encounter, but their backline has both failed to spark and shown defensive frailties. While the fears from this part of the world were that the gruelling pre-test encounters would see a rising injury toll for the Lions it is actually the World champions who have suffered. Ryan Crotty, their midfield general and rugby’s preeminent full-back, Ben Smith are huge losses and the Lions have thankfully been able to take advantage of these absences. Warren Gatland will hardly lament the loss of Sonny-Bill either.

Ngani Laumape appeared to be a difficult sort to halt with ball in hand but as the week has passed, more and more seasoned observers have pointed to his defensive deficiencies, although it was Israel Dagg ultimately who got steamrolled by Taulupe Faletau.

Jordie Barrett’s inclusion at full-back serves as both an attacking fillip but also a potential safety net should big brother, Beauden falter from the kicking tee once more. Julian Savea’s return immediately gives that back three a more complete look, even if the Hurricane is somewhat out of form.

Sky Sports probably used up a generation’s worth of hyperbole last weekend but there is no denying that Saturday’s game is the most highly anticipated rugby match since the 2015 World Cup final. Despite the extraordinary success of this current Kiwi team, the demanding New Zealand rugby public will forever mark an asterisk against their achievements should they fail to overcome a makeshift team on home soil.

Interestingly, New Zealand have been the ones doing most of the crying this week about poor officiating. Obviously, they will be looking to influence Roman Poite but French referees, generally to their credit, are not known for wavering. The general consensus is that French referees play it to the law, while Jaco Peyper seems to hold the silver fern in the highest regard. Regardless, if the Lions are as ill-disciplined as last weekend, they will deservedly lose.


Roman Poite, a good, headstrong French man, is unlikely to be swayed by either side.

It’s unlikely that any Lions side will ever again have such an incredible opportunity for a series win in New Zealand. We’re not saying it’s impossible but this is a serious Lions team, New Zealand are without crucial players and future test series will probably be played over one weekend if English and French clubs get their way.

Yes, it’s fortress Eden Park and hell hath no fury like a New Zealand team scorned but people said the same thing about Kilkenny and then Wexford turned them over twice in quick succession. This is going to be violent, intense, breathless rugby, just what we all love, but it will require cool heads to prevail. For once, the Lions may possess just as many of these required leaders as their illustrious hosts. In a white-hot battle, Lions by two.

S.U.S. Tips: (i) Lions to win @ 4/1

(ii) Sean O’ Brien anytime try-scorer @ 11/2


New Zealand v Lions, NZvLions, Rugby, Rugby Union

New Zealand v The Lions – 1st Test Preview

It has only taken three weeks and two decent victories to change the mood from abject despair to perhaps over-zealous enthusiasm. Despite the hugely competitive series in 1993, the Lions in New Zealand have, at least for a particular generation, been defined by the disastrous 2005 tour where a combination of an outstanding New Zealand side and an unrelentingly arrogant approach by Clive Woodward led to an absolute shellacking for the tourists.

Of course, that year, the hosts were led by two of the greatest players of all time, in Richie McCaw and the imperious Dan Carter. The Lions was weaker, less united, poorly managed and a series of unfortunate events did little to help their cause.

Now, despite the abject listlessness of the tour opener against the Provincial Barbarians and well-founded concerns over such a truncated tour, the Lions have emerged as genuine opposition to New Zealand. It may seem laughable, particularly to New Zealanders or those averse to the appeal of rugby, that an all-star team from Britain and Ireland is being lauded for actually making a contest of this series. However, given the scars of ’05 and the tremendous difficulty of gelling in just five weeks, the Lions have done well to get to this juncture.

However, any over-exuberance should be tempered by the fact that New Zealand are comfortably the best side in the world, are playing two of the tests in fortress- Eden Park and the Lions have won one of their last four series anywhere. And, being honest, that 2013 series victory, against a ramshackle Australian side and aided by Kurtley Beale’s dodgy studs, will hardly go down in the annals of great Lion’s triumphs.

In effect, we should be tempering the excitement of the past two Saturday’s unusually satisfying grindhouse productions, but the reaction from the New Zealand has been amusing and perhaps is indicative of the fact that the hosts know they’re in for a serious challenge.  They might hate the whinging POMs down that neck of the woods, but the New Zealand Herald has been in full, cry-baby mode in recent weeks with its inane criticism of tough forward dominated rugby.

Worst of all, the much-vaunted gauntlet thrown down in the form of New Zealand’s Super Rugby quintet has actually served as vital preparation for the Lions. While the defeat to the Blues and that Sonny-Bill inspired magic initially heightened concerns of a test whitewash, it was quickly established that numbers 1-12 would only play on Saturdays going forward.

The Lions did pummel the Crusaders front five, and four of the Kiwi tight unit, while the Maori and their loose brand of rugby of rugby were no match for a well-organised, steely collective. Still, while we’ve probably never enjoyed a penalty try so much, there is still the nagging feeling that the Lions aren’t anywhere near as clinical as they need to be in the big games. Now, you can argue that Saturday’s back three comfortably the biggest threat thus far, but those inside, namely Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies need to convert those punchy breaks into try assists.

Speaking of the back three, in a rare event for fans, we got exactly what we asked for. Liam Williams, though frustrating thus far, has the potential to hurt the Kiwis and we think Elliott Daly has the potential to emerge as one of the stars of this tour. Daly can slot in from 12-15, if necessary, has a monster boot and as illustrated in Cardiff when he broke Welsh hearts at the death, he has a decent turn of foot.

New Zealand have long since perpetuated the myth that they only ever play heads up, carefree rugby and that kicking and tight carrying are anathemas to their game. The truth is their game mixes powerful forward play, quick recycling and a devastatingly clinical attack. We’ll confidently say, without the assistance of any empirical evidence, that New Zeland convert more line breaks into tries that any other side in world rugby. And, with the searing pace of Beauden Barrett, witnessed first hand by Conor Murray in November, the Lions will have to shut down every inch of available space.

The Lions, and the first XV have been hugely effective thus far at employing Andy Farrell’s hard rush defence which places extra responsibility on either Conor Murray or a covering winger to sweep in behind for any probing kicks. Yes, contrary to popular belief, New Zealand do kick the ball and they’ll likely do so pretty regularly on Saturday.

The Lions, on the other hand, have no such delusions of grandeur and their game is based around aerial assaults, set piece dominance and, hopefully, this weekend tries as a result of incessant pressure. With a hugely powerful pack and a half-back pairing to rival their illustrious hosts, they’d be foolish to abandon this game plan. The pack is hugely impressive and Peter O’ Mahony’s edginess is shared throughout the unit.

That O’ Mahony managed in the space of three months to go from Irish back-row sub to Lions captain is an incredibly heartening story. We’ve always been a huge fan of the Cork man and after a difficult year for all involved in Munster, it’s fantastic to see him take up the mantle from Paul O’ Connell. Prior to 2015, there was the sense that O’ Mahony was hugely underrated, perhaps because he wasn’t an offensive wrecking ball in the mould of Stephen Ferris or Seán O’ Brien. But his incredible work rate, ability to wreak havoc on opposition ball and almost peerless lineout ability set him out as a genuinely world-class, blindside.

As devastating as O’ Mahony’s own injury was in 2015, it is somewhat ironic that a back injury to Jamie Heaslip opened the door on Paddy’s Weekend for the Munster captain to put in a masterclass from where he has since continued in his ascendancy. Jim Hamilton regularly refers to O’ Mahony as a ‘dog’ on The Rugby Pod, in a truly complimentary way, but in recent weeks he has elevated the Irishman to the status of  ‘world-class dog’. High praise indeed from a man like Hamilton. The rampaging Sean O’ Brien, classy Taulupe Faletau and all-action O’ Mahony have been mightily impressive against decent opposition thus far and there’s no reason to think they won’t rise to the challenge in Auckland.

O’ Mahony, Geroge Kruis and Alun Wyn-Jones are acknowledged lineout experts and they have performed outstandingly well in tandem with Jamie George thus far. However, tomorrow they will face the best lineout in international rugby, so their dominance against the Crusaders and Maori needs to be tempered by the fact that the unit is set to be enhanced by the imperious Brodie Retallick and New Zealand’s talisman, Kieran Read. Parity needs to be achieved in this phase of the game and anything even approaching the first-half omnishambles in Christchurch in ’05 will bring a swift end to the tourist’s chances.

The Lions will also expect to dominate in the scrum, an area that will be influenced by the differing hemispherical interpretations. Jaco Peyper allowed Kieran Read run free in Dublin in November, an offence for which any other number eight would have been sin-binned and a penalty try would have been awarded. In a strange way, those events most likely guarantee that the South African will be far more stringent at scrum time.

Indeed, Peyper’s risible performance in Dublin probably led World Rugby to fast-track new rules regarding high shots after Robbie Henshaw and CJ Stander were both sparked by blatantly illegal shots. With referees, it’s generally better to offer your criticism in advance as a referee’s decision has yet to be overturned to the benefit of the losing team in the aftermath, well, apart from poor old Jimmy Cooney.

The Lions have done a very good job of presenting the idea that they can not only cope with but actually outmuscle the New Zealand tight five. Tadhg Furlong, whose magical season continues, and Wyn-Jones bolster the Saracens trio and with Maro Itoje to explode off the bench, Watland’s side is well equipped in this regard. That said, however, New Zealand are extremely strong in this department too, and powerful, behemoth South African packs have come and perished on this rock before.

Looking through the teams though, the feeling is that this game will be decided in midfield, which is not something we’d predict too often. Williams and Ryan Crotty provide a brilliant chalk and cheese dynamic and will really fancy their chances of finding openings, particularly through Te’o’s channel. The converted Kiwi is a big hitter but there’s a lingering concern that a lapse in defensive reads, and it only requires one, could allow the ruthless home side find a crucial opening. Further, for all Teo’s effectiveness at carrying his final pass leaves a lot to be desired.


Image result for ben te'o lions

Ironically, New Zealander, Ben Te’o could prove the big difference, either way, in the opening test in Auckland. (photo courtesy of The Daily Express)


By selecting Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Daly, Warren Gatland has signalled his side’s intent to go out on their shield, if it comes to that. But New Zealand can counter with an even better back three, combining the intelligence of Ben Smith and Isreal Dagg with the blistering pace and finishing skills of Ioane. The general consensus these days is that you need to score 30 to beat New Zealand, but the Lions have had far greater success at grinding their opponents down on the back of a rock solid defence.

It now looks like the rain will hold off tomorrow evening at the other end of the world, so perhaps a try fest is in store. However, that’s not the way we see it going down. The Lions have completely turned our expectations on their head in recent weeks but in Eden Park, another house of pain for visitors during the last twenty years, New Zealand should have too much. And yet, we can’t ignore that optimistic gut feeling. Lions by a hair’s breadth.

Prediction: Lions by 1

S.U.S. Bets: Lions to beat New Zealand @ 10/3

Liam Williams anytime try scorer @ 7/1




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.


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.



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

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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Ireland, November Internationals, Rugby

How deep is the Irish Well?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Michael Hooper and David Pocock 25/10/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tadhg Furlong with Kieran Read 19/11/2016

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

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

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

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

Paddy Jackson

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

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

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

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

S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 6

Odds: Ireland -1 (Evens)

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.


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

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.


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.

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.



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.


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.


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, 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




Rugby World Cup 2015: Final Preview – Australia -v- New Zealand

Australia -v- New Zealand: Twickenham 31st October 2015, 4:00 p.m.

Two very different journeys to the same destination

At first glance, there is a sense of crushing inevitability to the 2015 Rugby World Cup final line-up. Six weeks down and here we are with the world’s number one and two sides set to thrash it out for what would be an unprecedented third William Webb Ellis trophy. Yet, while the destination is as many have expected, the journey has been anything but predictable. Japan and Argentina, in particular, lit the tournament up and all told the gap between the superpowers and the perceived minnows has unquestionably decreased. In fact, before we go any further, remind yourself that you bore witness to the greatest upset in test rugby history just five weeks ago.

In hindsight, while Saturday’s pairing now seems predictable it is, in fact, the first time the Trans-Tasman rivals have met in the Rugby World Cup final. Indeed by some strange quirk the sides have met only three times in World Cup history: 1991, 2003 and 2011. The Australians were victorious in the 1991 and 2003 meetings – the former including a David Campese masterclass in the once atmospheric stadium on Lansdowne Road while the All Blacks cruised to a facile victory in Eden park in 2011.

The bookies have New Zealand as fairly significant favourites, but there are several reasons to suggest that the game could swing either way, not the least the fact that New Zealand is not the same side in World Cups on foreign soil. This is not opinion, but plain, old fact. Meanwhile, the Australians have prevailed twice on northern shores –Twickenham in 1991 and Cardiff in 1999- while actually dropping the only final ever played in Australia in 2003 to the Jonny Wilkinson inspired English side. That they made the final in 2003 was largely thanks to Eddie Jones mining all the potential talent from a pretty underwhelming team.

Some will stay that statistics when combined with history, are largely irrelevant, but the obvious analytical take away from the above would be that Australia’s performances have actually been better in European World Cups with the All Blacks preferring and thriving on their own turf. This New Zealand side, though, has been a different type of beast to its predecessors and can boast a year-long global dominance, in 2013, where all-comers were vanquished. There is a Michael Jordan-like resolve to the side, never encapsulated better than during last weekend’s grind against South Africa or, as impressively, in the record making victory against Ireland in November 2013.

The All Blacks do not have bad years or particularly bad sides – like Tom Brady they’ve never had a losing season- but the current edition are possessed of the unwavering self-confidence usually reserved for all-time great sides. Which is precisely what the 2015 edition of New Zealand are. The Americans would be fawning over the statistics. A full calendar year unbeaten and a win ratio of almost 91% over their last 57 games (48:2:3). And yet many judgments of the side will be moulded on the outcome of Saturday’s game.

One result should not categorise or define a team, especially in the case of an All Black side which already has so many incredible achievements under its belt. Yet, to a certain extent it will. Win against the Australians and they will justifiably enter the debate for the arbitrary classification of the greatest international rugby side ever. Lose and they will be perceived, probably unfairly, as an excellent side who could not deliver on the biggest stage. Particularly away from home comforts.

Australia, on the other hand, seem to be entering this contest with something of a free pass, insofar as a two-time winner can be granted such when going into a decider with their greatest rivals. Where New Zealand have continuity -former coach Graham Henry seamlessly passed the reins to his assistant Steve Hansen after the 2011 World Cup victory- Australia were in seeming disarray only a year ago. Under-fire coach, Ewan McKenzie was left with little option but to retire after the Di Patson imbroglio, leaving a disparate, ill-disciplined group of players behind.

Unearthing talent has rarely been an issue for the Australians so their requirement was for a strict disciplinarian with winning credentials. How fortunate then that the well-travelled, hardnosed Michael Cheika was open to an upgrade from his role at the New South Wales Waratahs. Similar to the scenario that faced him in Leinster in 2005, Cheika knew that he would be given a richly talented squad with questionable character. This time, however, he would have eleven months to prepare an international team for the World Cup. The four-year cycle could not have gone any differently on either side of the Tasman. Serenity versus chaos. And yet, after a victory a piece this August, the sides meet in the most monumental rubber match one could imagine, a World Cup final.

It sounds lazy at this stage to say this, but the battle of the breakdown on Saturday will go a long way towards deciding the victor. It seems centres and latterly back rows have been the only point of conversation during this World Cup, but their influence on the game is undeniable. Dominate the breakdown and, for the most part, you dictate the pace of the game, controlling the flow of the ball in both directions. The duel is not dissimilar to that of half forward and half-back lines in hurling. True, there are mini-battles taking place all over the field but perhaps none more important than the one on the ground.

All eyes will be on man of the moment David Pocock and, in his last game, the legendary, Richie McCaw.

All eyes will be on man of the moment David Pocock and, in his last game, the legendary, Richie McCaw.

Ordinarily, one would cast the iconic Richie McCaw along with Kieran Reid and Jerome Kaino as the favourites to dominate this joust but Australia’s trio of David Pocock, Michael Hooper and the unheralded Scott Fardy are far closer to the extraordinary. We don’t have enough time to sing the praises of McCaw. Suffice to say he is the greatest forward that we and many others have ever had the privilege of watching. However, all recent talk has been dominated by the otherworldly David Pocock and his lieutenant Hooper.

Hooper and Pocock are both nominally open-side flankers, built in the mode of the traditional hunter-gatherer seven. So when Cheika decided to pick the duo with a view to subduing the Kiwi ball supply back in August more than a few eyebrows were raised. Unsurprisingly, questions were asked as to whether a back row could be balanced with two such similar players present. The answer was an unequivocal yes as the duo thrived at the breakdown, aided by the simple though incredibly effective tactic of picking apart the Kiwis around the edge of the ruck.

When Pocock has been available during this tournament, he and Hooper have been outstanding, never more obvious than in their rucking masterclass against the Argentinians. True, the South Americans played into their opponents hands by running at every opportunity even when tactical acuity required otherwise. Time and time again, though, the Argentinian ball carrier was engulfed by a gold shirt and then pounced on by the arriving groundhogs.

South Africa and particularly Francois Louw were successful in slowing down New Zealand’s ball last weekend and as Gordon D’Arcy already pointed out this week, Louw is not the ball-winner that Pocock is. The All Blacks historically have committed very few players to rucks so tomorrow poses somewhat of a conundrum.

New Zealand will probably kick the ball quite regularly, unlike Argentina, thus guaranteeing field position and only then will they commit heavily to contest the ball on the ground. The Australian back row is almost more dangerous without the ball than with it so New Zealand will want to avoid unnecessary traffic. At the first sight of a contest Australia will, as New Zealand always have, pounce at speed. The breakdown as a spectacle is going to be incredibly enthralling.

While we have for the most part lauded Australia we would do well to remember that the reigning champions themselves have one of the greatest backrows of all time. Richie McCaw’s value to New Zealand is like that of late career Brian O’ Driscoll or Paul O’ Connell. He was  -as O’ Driscoll and O’ Connell were- probably a better player four years ago, in terms of measurable statistics, but his presence has never been more valued than now. Fans of sabermetrics are almost contemptuous toward anyone who values a player’s character or leadership but if McCaw was to go down this evening to be replaced by Sam Cane –as good a pure rugby player- the whole of New Zealand would be distraught. Morgan Parra might not, though.

If the back rows cancel each other out, insofar as they can, then New Zealand should win. And, believe it or not, it won’t come down to the titanic midfield battle. No, New Zealand hold the clear upper hand at half back where, in Aaron Smith and Dan Carter respectively, they possess the best scrum-half in the world and the best out half of all time. Not only that but Carter has returned to Lions 2005 form which in effect, makes him peerless.

Australia are hardly weak in this department but Will Genia, though certainly resurgent, is not the player of four years ago. Meanwhile, Bernard Foley is clearly possessed of an astounding skill-set but there are still question marks over his big game mentality. Though he nervelessly kicked the winning penalty against Scotland in the quarter-final, it seemed as if he zoned out for large parts of the second half. Smith and Carter beat Genia and Foley every single time. But rugby is not that simple.

Dan Carter, probably the greatest out half of all time, may well prove the difference in a tight affair.

Dan Carter, probably the greatest out half of all time, may well prove the difference in a tight affair.

Once their tails are up Australia are able to forget the bad times in an instant and right now they are playing their best rugby….. ever? And, they are the only team who, relatively speaking, have New Zealand’s number. Yet, tomorrow, we will be watching possibly the greatest All Black side to ever take the field. So, on which side do we fall?

This New Zealand team has shown the ability and composure to overcome all challenges presented to it thus far. Yet, in twelve months, Michael Cheika has quite phenomenally reorganised the listless Australians. Victory tomorrow would surely be the greatest achievement in Michael Cheika’s career and of the most impressive turnarounds in rugby history. Steve Hansen has the chance to helm the first back-to-back winner of the tournament. So hard to call, as it should be.

With little certainty, we’ll go with New Zealand to retain and take their place in history.

S.U.S. Prediction – New Zealand by 3

S.U.S. Tips: (i) Australia + 6 (Evens)

                        (ii) Handicap draw (22/1)


Rugby World Cup 2015: Snap Back to Reality

Sometimes, when you want a thing to happen so much, you happily overlook minor details such as, say, stark reality. Thus it was that we looked in hope to our quarter-final showdown with Argentina last Sunday despite being without Paul O’ Connell, Peter O’ Mahony, Jonathan Sexton, Sean O’ Brien and Jared Payne. Our captain, future captain, most important player, best ball carrier and most important defender respectively. Was it always a bridge too far? An unrealistic dream fuelled by frenzied support both at home and in Cardiff? If you believe in it enough, then maybe it might just happen. Well not this time and not as far as a hugely impressive Argentinian side were concerned.

Argentina's captain Agustin Creevy celebrates with a fan after last weekend's thrilling victory over Ireland in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final at a packed Millennium Stadium.

Argentina’s captain Agustin Creevy celebrates with a fan after last weekend’s thrilling victory over Ireland in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final at a packed Millennium Stadium.

It seems that a root and branch investigation is set to take place into the state of northern hemisphere rugby. However, once the hyperbole dies down, the realisation will dawn that Scotland were cruelly robbed, while Ireland and Wales were pick-pocketed by that cruelest of foes, misfortune. England and France were admittedly awful but that’s not really something we’re going to lose any sleep over. Were Australia or New Zealand to lose five or in the case of Wales ten players, you can be certain that even they would struggle. Indeed, Australia did not look near as composed against Scotland without David Pocock and Israel Folau, their marquee forward and back respectively. This is not to whinge, simply to lay out the facts as they present themselves. In any event, we find the overreaction to be misguided, though unsurprising.

Southern hemisphere sides have won six out of the seven Rugby World Cups played since the tournament’s inception in 1987. Soon, of course, to be seven out of eight. Why suddenly are the death knells of northern hemisphere rugby tolling? Why are we getting so hung up about something we’ve known for a long time? Rugby south of the equator is superior to European rugby. There, we said it.

If this wasn’t the case, then why would so many perceived journeyman players travel from the south to Europe at the tail end of their career and have such a decisive impact? Incidentally, the case is identical in rugby league. That is not a reason however to get down on ourselves or incidentally to lump Ireland, Scotland, Wales and to a lesser extent Italy into the same category as England and France. Taking all circumstances into account, the latter have far more deep-lying issues than the other four sides.

A couple of thoughts have nagged at us since Sunday. Would Ireland have been less disappointed had they gone down to Australia, New Zealand or South Africa? And was it largely the case that we have, for almost two years, being fixated with avoiding the New Zealand quarter-final? Our prediction of last week’s outcome was laughably off the mark but we were mindful of the fact that Argentina were coming into a game against a team who they have oft beaten in the past surrounded by little or no fanfare. This a side who had shown marked improvement against New Zealand earlier this summer while also beating South Africa in Durban in August. Then, when they pushed New Zealand to the limit in their World Cup opener it was because the All Blacks were sloppy and under-prepared. Two of their famous traits.

It has been lamented all week that we have no hope until all our eight-year-old are taught how to offload and learn to value and utilise space as much as the ball itself. Which is all very well but then how does one explain the manner in which Argentinian coach, Daniel Hourcade –admittedly with a major dime from World Cup winning Kiwi coach, Graham Henry- successfully taught a group of men in their twenties, and beyond, to run straight, move the ball quickly and play with width? Jesus, that’s fish and loaves stuff!  And this in a country where unimaginative, formulaic rugby formed the cornerstone to their success in recent years.

Coach Daniel Hourcade has overseen a remarkable transformation in the Argentinian style of play.

Coach Daniel Hourcade has overseen a remarkable transformation in the Argentinian style of play.

Rather than completely tear the template up, Hourcade decided to retain the Argentinian strengths –mauling, kicking-game, strong breakdown work- and supplement his players’ skill-sets with superior handling and ball movement and use of the field’s entire dimensions. The early signs were not promising and Los Pumas shipped some serious pummellings but the fruits of their labour were borne emphatically last Sunday. In this vein, Ireland should retain their focus on those areas where they are strong, and these are not dissimilar to the Argentinians’ strengths, and look to expand their game accordingly. The transition, as with any change in tack, will be difficult but once progress is visible the patience and perseverance will be validated.

The idea repeatedly espoused this week that our youngsters should be taught the game differently absolutely carries merit. The oft-cited system in New Zealand whereby children play matches based on weight rather than age is a fantastic proposal. And encouraging a youngster to think their way around rather over an opponent can only be beneficial. Yet the reality is that none of the eight-year-olds in Ballymena, Buccaneers or Bruff are going to be taking the field in Japan 2019 or (hopefully) Ireland 2023, so, while the long-term, ball-centric plan is perfectly logical, it should not prevent Ireland from regarding themselves as contenders for the upcoming tournaments. We’re sure Eddie O’ Sullivan has a suitable mish-mash of clichés about babies and bath water to sum up what we’re trying to say.

New Zealand are the standard bearers of world rugby or as Bret the Hitman Hart –GOAT- put it, they are, “the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be!” (Even after the Montreal Screwjob!) That does not mean however that we need to base our blueprint on the All Blacks. The bigger picture ideals are fine are and should be legitimately considered but those culture shifting, long-term changes aren’t much use to Joe Schmidt or whoever coaches the Irish rugby team over the next twelve years.

In reality, where we exist most of the time, Ireland simply need to retain the foundations and continue building with perhaps a little more adventure. We have been halted, not destroyed, and there would be no sense in razing the city and starting from scratch. This notion that our most capable professional rugby players cannot learn to improve their ball handling and distribution skills under the correct tutelage is completely non-sensical.

For the majority of the last two weekends Cardiff was imbued with the energy of thousands of exuberant, carefree and expectant Irish fans. Then came the decimation by Argentina. It’s natural to hit the panic button especially after such a crushing defeat yet less than a week later the mood is lifting ever so slightly.

By no means are we underestimating the effort and ingenuity that will be required in the next four years. Nor do we disagree with the mooted long-term proposals as to how the game of rugby is taught on this island. Nonetheless pragmatism must be the order of the day and it is possible to change our playing style without abandoning everything that has gone before.

New Zealand are the standard bearers of world rugby. However, in defeat last weekend, Ireland may have found the bar to which they should realistically aspire in the short-term.

S.U.S. Picks: RWC 2015 Semi Finals

24th October: New Zealand (-8) over South Africa (10/11 generally)

25th October: Argentina to beat Australia (9/4 generally)


Rugby World Cup 2015 – Ireland v Argentina Preview

As with Ronan O’ Gara, his Munster teammate of many a year, there was no fairytale ending for Paul O’ Connell in the green of Ireland. For all that he has given of himself and to his team mates, life, the cruel bastard that this it is, chose an agonising twist at the end of O’ Connell’s remarkable, thirteen-year international career. It’s been almost impossible not to get caught up in the outpouring of emotion that has swept over the country since Sunday’s drama in Cardiff. Especially when you hear that O’ Connell had a room of his peers and friends in tears just minutes before they took to the field against France.

In barely thirty minutes our spiritual leader, our most important player and arguably our best performer in this year’s tournament -O’ Connell, Johnny Sexton and Peter O’ Mahony- went down, all during one of the biggest games in Irish World Cup history. The response from the remaining collective was beyond impressive, but we must, like the Chicago Cubs –who won their first home playoff decider in over a hundred years this week- temper our emotions with the fact that we are still ‘only’ at the quarter-final stage of the World Cup. A place we have fallen before on six occasions.

Yet, within a vacuum, last Sunday afternoon will forever remain an iconic moment in Irish sport, up there with, amongst others –these are the ones we’ve lived through and can remember- the Houghton roly-poly, Robbie beating Kahn and Shane Long’s wonder-strike. Thankfully the emotional aspect of these achievements is savoured far more lustily by the Irish support, meaning Joe Schmidt and his team, while naturally elated, would have looked to Argentina this Sunday, only minutes after Nigel Owens’ final whistle.

The injury toll is high though not insurmountable and Sean O’ Brien’s suspension is unfortunate though probably deserved. Incidentally, O’ Brien’s six foot, four inch, eighteen stone victim failed to cover himself in glory after going out of his way to try and get a lengthier ban imposed on O’ Brien . What’s that one about being able to give….? It’s a bit controversial to suggest that it’s ok to punch or slap a player. Indeed it isn’t, not nowadays. Nonetheless Pape’s relentlessness in pursuing the matter smacks of a bully who doesn’t like getting his toys taken from him, particularly with everyone watching. Anyway, it will be interesting to see where Pape’s hands go the next time he approaches O’ Brien in open country.

The greatest difficulty this weekend, aside from under-estimating the Argentinians will be trying to replicate the emotional, and more tellingly, physical intensity of last weekend. By the time Ireland had emptied themselves against the French, Argentina already had their feet up after a comfortable, if unnecessarily aggressive, victory over Namibia. The flipside, of course, is that Ireland had the most perfectly staggered build up to their group decider so it would be remiss of us to moan as soon as our highly advantageous situation has passed.

With all due respect to Keith Earls, the greatest concern throughout the week –save for the potential for thousands of Irish men breaking down in tears amidst all the Paul O’ Connell tributes- has been Johnny Sexton’s abductor and/or groin. Composed as Ian Madigan was when arriving on the pitch in Cardiff, Sexton’s presence is of immense importance to Ireland on Sunday. With the heart of the pack absent, it is imperative that our chief orchestrator remains. Argentina will target Sexton, in the same way that every single team targets opposition playmakers. If Nicholas Sanchez, Sexton’s opposite number, reaches high for a pass and Ian Henderson is in the vicinity, then Irish hopes will be that the Armagh man delivers a monstrous hit.  You do not want to see player hurt but you hope he is weakened for the next collision or slower for the next split-second decision. Crude though it may sound, it’s the truth.

Even with four games played, it is difficult to gauge just how good Argentina are. People have been quick to praise their opening night performance in defeat to New Zealand while at the same time stating that New Zealand were less than impressive on the same night. So were both good? Were neither good? Or, most likely, do the public hold the world champions to a higher standard than their Latin opponents? The latter is a dangerous approach as the Argentinians have long since outgrown the tag of plucky up-starts with one big performance per tournament in them. The reality is that Los Pumas will be approaching Sunday’s game with respect –or perhaps contempt based on past meetings- for their opponents and little else.

Oddly enough, Argentina’s perceived Achilles heel at this tournament has been a tendency to allow their play become too loose and spontaneous, incidentally just as France –in the midst of a discreet rebellion apparently- have moved in the other direction. Ireland would be delighted with such an approach as a reversion to the old-school, grindhouse play of the Argentina of World Cups past would probably present a far greater challenge to Joe Schmidt’s weary side. Logic dictates that scoring opportunities will come Ireland’s way should Argentina employ an expansive, risk-reward game plan.

We are in awkward territory once more, just as four years ago, when Warren Gatland’s red-machine ended our World Cup, in a well thought out physical coup in Wellington. As with the Australian game in 2011, the Irish public were last week able to immerse themselves in our default mode, underdog –when we really were favourites- with the French game looming. However with our nemesis of so many years and tournaments gone by vanquished, Ireland arrive into Sunday’s encounter in Cardiff with the unenviable and unshakable tag of favourites. This perception is somewhat skewed by the fact that Ireland are down three big-time players but the tag of favouritism sits justifiably on the Jamie Heaslip led team.

Despite, five quarter-final appearances Ireland have yet to reach a Rugby World Cup semi-final.

Despite, five quarter-final appearances Ireland have yet to reach a Rugby World Cup semi-final.

Full strength or not, victory on Sunday will take Ireland to unchartered territories, a world Cup semi-final. The prize is too great, too tangible and too realistic a goal to let slip. Argentina will be far more than just a willing footnote on Sunday and are no doubt savouring their low-key build-up to the quarter-final. Still, Joe Schmidt has prepared this squad meticulously and after last Sunday it seems as though they’ll need to be taken away on their shields. In other years, the injuries might have been a bridge too far. Not this time, though.

Often before we went in hope. This time, Ireland enter a brave new world, one of expectation. While favouritism may not have sat well in the past, this Sunday it will.

S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 6 (generally -5.5)