Irish Rugby, Six Nations 2019

Ireland v France – Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUS Prediction – Ireland by 8

Tips

  1. France +14 (Evens)
  2. C.J. Stander anytime try scorer (3/1)
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Six Nations 2019

Italy v Ireland – Six Nation Preview

It’s less than fortunate that Ireland’s game this Sunday comes with a fortnight break either side of it. Few believe Italy will pose much of a problem yet perhaps still chastened from our opening round defeat to England, it appears few changes will be made. And, in the midst of the malaise that Italy seem to induce, Gordon D’Arcy has gone all Mick Jenkins and encouraged Ireland to go play some jazz in the Stadio Olimpico. . 

Not so long ago, Joe Schmidt spoke about finding options for the World Cup quarter final and it seems that Joey Carberry has already jumped from adequate replacement to a genuine threat to the throne. Johnathan Sexton is still the undoubted first choice number ten but Carberry’s recovery from the intercept and subsequent 50 minute performance in Edinburgh provides more than just food for thought.

Given the fact that the encounter in Rome is close to a foregone conclusion, we’re going to change it up a little this week and provide a short preview of each game starting with the next step in Ireland’s strangely off-key performances to date.

Italy v Ireland – 3:00pm, 24th February 2019, Stadio Olimpico

Given the mixed results Ireland have achieved in Scotland in recent visits, it’s hard to be overly disappointed with a two-score victory over a resurgent side who we’ve been promised are on the cusp of something. To be fair to Scotland, they looked very threatening at times in the first half but like Parnell, they are too often the architects of their own downfall.

That said, after half time, Ireland closed the game down as a contest, guided wonderfully by a man, Joey Carberry, who couldn’t have started his time on the field in worse circumstances. Carberry’s loose pass may have been well picked off by Finn Russell, but it shows how far the Athy man has come since his disastrous outing against the USA in June 2017 that he was able to bounce back, produce the moment’s outstanding moment of offence, and, steer Ireland home down the stretch. Even his sealing kick, fifteen to the right, thirty out – historically not a great place for place kicks late in games – was completely nerveless. Carberry may have endured a torrid night in Castres back in December, but he’s been faultless from the kicking tee since and his general game continues to evolve.

It seems remiss to be talking about a player who won’t be playing but in a bizarre about turn, it appears the Irish coaching staff want their 80 cap, reigning World Player of the Year to get some game time under his belt. Surely a tune up in Rome won’t reveal anything we don’t already know about Sexton and he didn’t look in fantastic nick when he left the field in Edinburgh. Before Joey Carberry was ruled out through injury, it appeared Sexton was going to play anyway and while he is short on game time, it just didn’t seem necessary. Carberry is out, however, so there’s no point in exploring hypotheticals.

Perhaps it’s a little disrespectful to view Italy as such a weak opponent but Ireland have obliterated them in recent years. The legendary Sergio Parisse misses out, though of late, the great man’s body refuses to do the bidding of his mind. Italy need to find a number of players to carry the load of their record-breaking captain. By all accounts, Conor O’ Shea has revolutionised the Italian under-age set up but reports suggest that he may not be there to be see the fruits of his labour.

The clamour, or murmur really, for the introduction of relegation and promotion to the Six Nations will probably rear its head on Monday if Ireland run riot but unless Italy have crafted some extraordinary version of the rope-a-dope, then the result will be another resounding Irish victory.

For the past 12 months, this game has always stood out as the opportunity for Joe Schmidt to try some of the peripheral players: Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway, Carberry, David Kilcoyne, Tadhg Beirne, Seán Cronin and now, perhaps, Robbie Henshaw at full-back. His decision to, if not err on the side of caution, then certainly remain conservative, will serve Ireland well in the short term but in reality it’s the last opportunity – outside the unpredictable interloper, injury – to provide these players with game time before the Samoa game in October. Only Kilcoye and Cronin start out of the players named above and Beirne doesn’t even make the bench.

Still, Ireland are actually back in a place from we thrive, slightly underrated by outsiders and gradually building up a head of steam. It’s not clear to anyone where Italy are. All 23 Irish players should get a decent run out and if the margin of victory is hard to predict, the result is most certainly not.

SUS Prediction – Ireland by 20

Tips –  Sean Cronin, Andrew Conway and Chris Farrell to score anytime @ 17/2

France v Scotland, 2:15pm, 23rd February 2019, Stade de France

It’s actually quite difficult to assess what progress, if any, Scotland have made since last year’s Six Nations. While shorn of a number of forwards for the visit of Ireland, the same sloppiness and general lack of accuracy at vital moments prevented Scotland from mounting any real threat to Ireland in the final 30 minutes.

In addition to depleted front row stocks, the Scots are now also without Finn Russell, Stuart Hogg and Huw Jones for their visit to the Stade de France. While Russell and Hogg, in particular, are massive losses this match will provide the Scottish with an opportunity to test their strength in depth. However, if any single player in the tournament was to provide an active definition of ‘x factor’, it would be Hogg.

The closest comparison you can draw to France at the moment, at least in terms of haplessness and a complete lack of accountability, is the HSE. To be fair to France, though, at least their future looks bright with a cohort of successful under 20s hopefully set to make their mark in the next two years.

For now, Jacques Brunel’s side are a complete mess. And, the main reason we don’t know what France side we’re going to get each week is because of the wholesale, largely whimsical changes in personnel.   

Jacques Brunel seems to know as much about his players as Shane Ross does about Irish sport. (photo leparisien.fr)

The French effectively contrived to twice win and yet still lose their opening day contest against Wales. While Yoann Huget’s insouciance – and not in the traditionally cool, French way – and Sebastian Vahaamina’s ill-timed midfield skip pass were pivotal events in the defeat to Wales, no one moment could explain the humiliation handed out to France by a resilient England a fortnight ago.

France have made it clear that Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez have not been dropped from the match-day 23 for criticism of their coaching, or lack thereof, but you’d have to wonder. In reality, France weren’t a million miles off against Wales but Jacques Brunel’s knee-jerk reaction to drop seven players and move Joann Huget to full-back backfired spectacularly.

Perhaps Brunel didn’t see Robbie Henshaw’s uncomfortable evening manning the back for Ireland – it genuinely wouldn’t be a surprise if he didn’t – but the decision to move Huget proved disastrous as England profited from Huget’s absence from the backfield to score four tries directly from kicks into open space.

Tomorrow, Thomas Ramos gets to join the party, making his test debut at full-back. There are high hopes that Ramos can fill the shoes of France and Toulouse legend, Clement Poitrenaud, and he will be joined by club mates Antoine Dupont – a world class scrum-half in the making – and Romain Ntamack. France may win tomorrow, in fact we’d be surprised if they didn’t as Scotland are an average side and Paris is always a difficult place to win. However, what’s more important is that they provide the three Toulouse youngsters with a concerted run in the team.

Brunel seems to be picking his teams from a hat at the moment and players must be either terrified or completely indifferent at the thought of losing their place on the team.  While it’s too late to find the right coach for Japan 2019 – unless the players follow the self-taught manual which proved so successful in the 2011 Rugby World Cup – France have an opportunity to bed in some players who possess a raw skill set that other countries would kill for.

With Russell and Hogg in the saddle, you’d give Scotland a great chance but, as we said, the Paris effect shouldn’t be ignored and Dupont, an all action buzz saw of a scrum half, might just grab this game by the scruff of the neck.

SUS Prediction – France by 6

Tips – Handicap draw France -6 @ 22/1

Wales v England, 4:45 pm, 23rd February 2019, Millennium Stadium

While history and fact fade further into irrelevance in political and general society, sports fans are always cognisant of the great achievements of the past. Even now, more than 40 years later, the Netherlands are revered for introducing the world to the concept of ‘Total Football’. Johann Cruyff, Johann Neeskens, Johnny Rep and the rest of that side – though no doubt tainted with a sheen of romanticism – are better remembered than the actual winners of the 1974 World Cup, where they brought the brain child of legendary Ajax manager, Jack Reynolds, to a global audience.

Perhaps in generations to come, rugby fans will look back and ask where were you that memorable evening in February 2019 when Eddie Jones’ England side revolutionised the game of rugby? Through myriad, complex techniques, England unearthed an astounding new weapon……. the kick into open space. Yes, as Owen Farrell and Henry Slade moved Robbie Henshaw around endlessly and effectively, we were witness to a development like none other.

Perhaps we’re being unfair, but the sense of amazement at England’s success against Ireland first and then a pathetic French team and its absentee full-back was a tad surprising. England have been brilliantly effective to be fair and it’s unusual that a back line would include such a slew of quality kickers. However, the fanfare over their prudent use of the boot – Ireland could take note – would not exist if not for the devastating effectiveness of the Vunipolas and a brilliant supporting cast of Jamie George and Tom Curry.

Billy Vunipola (l) has proved a revelation on his return to the English side and, despite, their free-scoring ways remain the most important player on their side.
. (Photo By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Like those before them, England exposed a narrow Irish defence, caught some breaks and dominated Ireland at the breakdown and in the tackle. Against France, England did as they pleased and if it wasn’t for the occasional shot of an exasperated Joann Huget, you’d have thought the fullback was in the sin bin, such was the space afforded to Farrell, Slade, Elliott Daly and rugby’s form winger, Tom May.

To England’s credit, they kick judiciously and not just up in the air – which can sometimes appear a little aimless when other teams adhere slavishly to this tactic – and they’ve puzzled opposing back threes so far. In Cardiff, however, they will face an orthodox full-back in Liam Williams and a fired up Welsh pack that will be, you would presume, better primed emotionally than Ireland were.

A visit of England always gets the home crowd worked up – apart, unusually, from the Irish crowd throughout much of the recent defeat to England – but the Welsh crowd bring a healthy air of vitriol to proceedings when their neighbours cross the Severn.

Eddie Jones has prodded away all week – in decades to come, Jones will be identified as the forefather of trolling – while a relatively serene, Warren Gatland continues to shift the focus from the Six Nations to the overarching importance of what is to come in Japan.

The first two rounds of the tournament do suggest that England are ahead of the pack and that Wales are genuinely focused on the World Cup. Having said that, this fixture, particularly when played in Cardiff takes on added significance for the Welsh.

The Welsh pack won’t want for intensity and Gareth Anscombe may provide the creative spark that Dan Biggar lacks, but it’s hard to look past a side led by two of the form players in the world in Billy Vunipola and Farrell.

England aren’t quite at the ‘immortality beckons’ stage just yet but win tomorrow and they’ll travelling east with a grand Slam under the belt.

SUS Prediction – England by 6

Tip – England half time/full time @ 11/10

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Six Nations 2019

Scotland v Ireland: Preview

On the plus side, Ireland kept it to 12 points last weekend. On the negative, England with one exceptionally dominant performance have instilled themselves with the bullet-proof confidence typical of a country which rarely needs to be told to keep the chin up. And, while Ireland were dominated in every aspect of the game, if Japan if this year’s ultimate goal – and it is really – then it’s best we learn our lesson on a subdued Saturday evening in Dublin.

Paddy Power’s trite, opportunistic advertising campaign and the hubris of Irish supporters had little to do with England’s blistering start – that was down to Eddie Jones and his coaching staff’s meticulous preparation – but there is no question that the Irish team were out fought all over the field. Momentum as a concept may still be up for question but motivation certainly isn’t. While motorsports rely largely on the quality of their machines, rugby players are just humans at the end of the day.

Think of Ireland going to Twickenham for the World Cup coronation in 2008 and winning on the back of Girvan Dempsey’s brilliant team try. No one saw an Irish victory on the cards that day but buoyed by motivation, they shocked the champions on their home ground. The circumstances surrounding Saturday’s game were hardly identical, particularly as we still have to actually compete in the World Cup but it serves as timely reminder that this Irish team now has a massive target on its back.

There were a few suggestions that England got some breaks on Saturday but what winning team doesn’t? Generally if you’re making all the attacking plays then a bit of good fortune may go your way. Ireland’s one out running and predictable attempts to go wide were unlikely to create too many positive outcomes, particularly when England realised they could determine the offside line early on.

Thankfully, there has been less of the ‘told you so’ hindsight laden analysis that usually accompanies these results, more a resounding reminder that a fully stocked England are a serious force to be reckoned with and that the Farrell, Tuilagi and Slade midfield axis has endless potential. It will be interesting how England perform back home in front of a newly buoyant Twickenham. If a consecutive comprehensive or potentially, bonus-point victory follows, then we should be genuinely concerned. For now, however, England will be forgotten until a possible October meeting.  

This afternoon in Murrayfield will provide a stern test of Ireland’s resilience and ability to bounce back. On Wednesday, Shane Horgan mentioned on Second Captains that if he knew the way to deliver a team to its emotional peak before each game, he would have done so. It sounds an obvious point but it’s also a very valid one. The reality is that each game provides different emotional motivations for teams and individuals and that your emotional pitch simply changes from game to game.

Last week, Ireland were the Grand Slam winning, World Champion vanquishing side whose focus was clearly on focusing on picking up where they left en route to Japan. England, unusually, were the underdog who endured the humiliation of watching the Irish team celebrate Grand Slam victory in Twickenham on a snowy St Patrick’s Day. Two weeks earlier, England had been in the frame for championship success. Due to the confluence of results on the final day, England plummeted to a worst ever fifth placed finish.

The scientific, methodical approach to the game has removed conversations of motivation and emotion despite the fact that these are just men and women at the end of the day, individuals who can be affected by a multitude of outside factors. Now, after one game, pundits and analysts have discussed the emotional, motivational edge England enjoyed as if this is some radical new development.

England came fully loaded, for a change in recent times, and with a side that could match Ireland’s – maybe Tuilagi makes the Irish team now – and any suggestion that we could grasp victory through reliance on our recent superiority was cruelly disproven. True, there were moments that swung the game but England’s victory on Saturday was as good as if not more impressive than Ireland’s last March.

Scotland, though coasting lazily at the end of the Italian game last week, will harbour no great fear of Ireland. They’ve won two of the last three in Murrayfield and Ireland will naturally be a little chastened from last week. However, consider the last Irish defeats and the circumstances surrounding each.

In 2013, with the ship listing badly under Declan Kidney, Ireland faltered with lack of composure at out half and the line out, and, a general lack of leadership. The result was hardly a bolt from the blue and Kidney’s reign as Irish coach ended ignominiously a month later.

In the most recent encounter in 2017, Ireland’s narrow defence – one of the few constant thorns in the side during Joe Schmidt’s tenure – was caught cold early and the general confusion was typified by Huw Jones soft score straight through a lazy Irish line out. It was the opening game of the tournament, Jonathan Sexton was missing and a potential-laden Scotland showed real signs of the offensive threat on offer.

Once more, however, Ireland versus Scotland in Murrayfield can be viewed through a very different prism. Given the successes of the last 18 months, Ireland were humbled last week and with Scotland flowing for an hour against Italy, they will be expected to back up their performance against the reigning champions. Ireland, though, are wounded, angry and no doubt feeling, amongst themselves, that they have a point to prove.

That in itself is not enough to win a Six Nations game and of course, technical superiority will largely win the day but it is generally remiss to disregard the emotional state of team. We all hear of the importance of sports psychologists in contemporary sport so it would naturally flow from this that mental preparation and state of mind are hugely important.

Joe Schmidt exudes calm though he may be slightly irked at suggestions that his side can only play from the front. These assertions come largely on the back of the fact that Ireland have never reversed a half time deficit in his term as head coach. On the face of it, this is a slightly disconcerting statistic but it also means that more often than not, Ireland take hold of games early. The structured nature of Ireland’s game – at least to the untrained eye – means that even a two score deficit will be hugely difficult to surmount. Until proven otherwise this Irish team simply can’t start slowly so expect a highly accurate, physical burst out the gate and an attempt to reassert the physical dominance that has been a trademark of the last year.

Ireland are down some quality players – though it is brilliant to see the return of Chris Farrell – but so too are Scotland. And, it is the depletion of the Scottish front row and inferior quality there in the first place that may tip the scales in Ireland’s favour. Do not expect to see Tadhg Furlong getting manhandled two Saturdays in a row.

There is also no point in avoiding the fact that Rory Best’s position is under pressure. Seán Cronin has played outstanding rugby for Leinster for the last three months and though Best is a brilliant leader and tireless worker, we are constantly reminded that this is a team full of leaders. A dominant display in the set pieces today – minus Devin Toner – would likely solidify Best’s place in the starting 15 for the coming weeks though Cronin must be extremely close.

Best and by extension of the fact that Ireland will kick endlessly, Conor Murray, will not be helped by the swirling winds so you’d expect ball retention by the teams facing into the wind. If Ireland defend high again, then you can expect Scotland to kick in behind when aided by the wind. It’s at this point that we’ll discover how timely Rob Kearney’s return to full back has been.

Ireland don’t want a cavalier, shoot out as they’re quite simply not engineered for it so expect a low scoring grind. Quieten down what Jim Telfer referred to as the Murrayfield ‘theatre goers’ – not unlike a vast portion of the Irish crowd last weekend – and Ireland should be able to wrest control of the contest. The circumstances surrounding this game suggest a perfect opportunity for Murray and Sexton to reaffirm their brilliance. Don’t worry about learnings or work-ons today, the only thing that matters is the result. Ireland by a whisker. 

SUS Prediction – Ireland by 4

Tips

  1. Under 43.5 points @10/11
  2. 2. Conor Murray anytime try scorer @ 9/4

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Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations, Six Nations 2019

Six Nations 2019 – Preview: Ireland v England

While developing the principles of modern physics, Isaac Newton hardly considered that sports writers and fans would still be arguing over the validity of momentum more than 300 years later. Yet, still some people dismiss sports writing as fluff. 

In 2012, Grantland’s Bill Barnwell valiantly attempted to dismiss the relevance of momentum in sport but we’re firmly of the belief that this abstract concept does exist. Just look at the New England Patriots unprecedented comeback in Superbowl 51, the English rugby team’s extraordinary 2003 en route to World Cup success or the incredible roll that Irish superstar, Becky Lynch, is currently on in the WWE where she’s set to become the first woman to ever headline Wrestlemania next month. Incidentally, Lynch’s extraordinary rise is such a male dominated industry is a huge story in itself and no doubt someone will latch on to it next month.

Momentum does exist in sport, though, rather than in Newtonian terms, it comes about as a result of the accumulation of ideal conditions at an opportune time. What can be said with near certainty – while talking about a tenuous idea – is that momentum and confidence are inseparable. Joe Schmidt’s Irish side have won 17 of their last 18 tests – the only defeat coming with Jonathan Sexton starting on the bench – and having beaten all the top tier nations since 2017, there is a quiet but absolute confidence about this side. Confidence without end product is merely arrogance but Ireland have continued to walk the walk while the Irish media increasingly talks the talk.

However, two schools of thought existed as the 2019 Six Nations approached. The first is that success this spring isn’t all that important as Joe Schmidt will really be looking to try out as many combinations as possible so that all 31 players will be ready to step in at a moment’s notice in Japan, if necessary. The alternative states that the Irish international team has never been on such a role and that momentum is lost far more quickly than it’s garnered.

We’re inclined to side with the latter approach as you can deduce that Joe Schmidt has spent the last four years preparing for a nightmare scenario that faced his side in Cardiff in October 2015 when one third of his starting side was lost to injury and suspension. Schmidt has analysed every professional player in Ireland at this stage and seen fit to hand out close to 40 new caps since that defeat to Argentina.

The Six Nations is the annual centre piece of rugby in this part of the world and it would be remiss to suggest that it could be treated like a warm up competition – akin to the National Hurling and Football leagues – as that’s what November and the summer are for. Certainly, given the rigours of the tournament and the scheduling the squad will rotate, most likely in Rome, but Ireland and moreover the Irish public can’t overlook the importance of maintaining the aura around this side.

While it may appear that this Irish side has crescendoed a year earlier that England in 2003, the latter’s success was surely not by design as they had developed a unique formula for tripping on their own laces at the final hurdle in three previous quests for a Grand Slam. Prior to their World Cup victory, England came out the right side of some incredible contests in 2002/2003 – their extraordinary defensive effort in Dunedin and destruction of Ireland in the Grand Slam decider come to mind.

You would imagine that Ireland want to face into the summer with another tournament victory, or Grand Slam, under their belt, at the expense of fielding their back up half-backs in Cardiff on the final weekend. In any event given the level of attrition – witness Ireland’s incredibly deep second row options getting culled in the space of four hours – Schmidt will have handed out opportunities across the board by the time St Patrick’s Day arrives.

Having said all this, it would be remiss to suggest that Robbie Henshaw’s selection at 15 hasn’t come somewhat from left field. After Rob Kearney’s shaky performance last Friday night it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that Schmidt is exploring his alternatives and with Bundee Aki consistently excellent throughout the last 12 months, it’s clear he’s choosing the route of getting your best players on the field.  While Henshaw came to the fore as a full back and it’s widely reported as his favourite position, Will Addison and, particularly, Jordan Larmour may be a little miffed but it’d take a fool to question Schmidt’s decision making at this stage.

While France did the biggest France possible last night in Paris there is no question that the tie of the round takes place on Lansdowne Road this evening. Perhaps it’s just a sign of the clickbait times we live in but the Irish media has spent the last week or so deriding Eddie Jones for his devious attempts to manipulate the media while themselves coming across as arrogant and somewhat dismissive of the English threat. Sadly, the arbitrary ‘how many of their players would make our team’ discussion seems to have already decided the game in Ireland’s favour.

Had the English taken this approach in years gone by – no doubt they did – we’d be pretty worked up by it but it’s probably unfair to assume that public opinion is accurately reflected by what’s printed or spoken about online. And, given the challenge approaching in the autumn, it may just be that this Irish squad will have to accept the intense scrutiny usually reserved for soccer teams.

Brave little England start this tournament imbued a fair amount of quiet confidence, largely due to the form and fitness of Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers, and, the return of Manu Tuilagi. England’s midfield axis is enthralling on paper but Henry Slade hasn’t delivered yet for England – largely due to lack of opportunity – and Tuilagi’s halcyon days in an English jersey came more than five years ago. This is not to say that they can’t or won’t click but opposite them the triumvirate of Sexton, Bundee Aki and Gary Ringrose is developing into a complementary unit and you’d expect the home side to have the advantage in this regard.

With the obvious caveat that all teams are affected by injuries, Sam Underhill’s absence is massive for England as they simply do not enjoy the depth in back rows currently enjoyed by the defending champions. Josh Van Der Flier – in many ways the most underappreciated back row in the Irish squad – was exceptional against New Zealand and with a big performance tomorrow, can lay claim for now to the most keenly contested jersey in Irish rugby. Van der Flier plays most closely in style to the traditional open side but against New Zealand he also carried brilliantly, a facet of his game which many see as paling in comparison to Dan Leavy and Sean O’ Brien.

Which naturally brings us to O’ Brien, potentially the most devastating forward replacement Ireland have ever been in a position to call on. If things are going awry tomorrow, or not, O’ Brien’s entry around the hour mark will be a huge boost not just for the team but all in attendance in the stadium. In tandem with Jordan Larmour – currently top of the queue for the number 23 jersey – though in an entirely different manner, O’ Brien may well provide the game breaking ability to put England away in the final quarter.

With the ‘boring’ boot work of Conor Murray being called into question this week, the irony is that in the opening minutes all eyes will be on the accuracy of the kicking of Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell and the fielding ability of Robbie Henshaw who, though a settled veteran in the side, now finds himself in the spotlight ordinarily reserved for debutants.

Ireland’s successful November fed into an excellent few months for the provinces while the English sides, with the exceptions of Saracens and Saracens, largely floundered. Whether this actually means anything won’t be revealed until mid-March but recent history suggests that the success of Leinster and Munster has been inextricably linked with subsequent success for Ireland. But then, Saracens and Exeter provide a large chunk of the English team and the club malaise may reflect more of the difficult relationship between the RFU and English club owners.

Ireland, quite incredibly from our perspective, start as nine point favourites. The have won the last two encounters with England by nine and ten points, respectively, and odds makers are borderline savants but the line seems a little high.

In a quaint role-reversal expect the visitors to bring all the noise early on but the steadying hands of Murray and Sexton, and, the firepower on Ireland’s bench should see the home side prevail.

S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 6

Tips: Handicap draw (England +6) @ 16/1

England half time/Ireland full time @ 6/1

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