Rugby, Six Nations, Six Nations 2018

Six Nations 2018: Ireland v Scotland Preview

As the snow began to melt and normality returned, sport came back into our lives with a bang. In Brooklyn, Deontay Wilder’s savage knockout of Luis Ortiz brought the highly anticipated heavyweight fight with Anthony Joshua one step closer.

Meanwhile, in London, the findings of the British Parliament’s Digital, Cultural, Media and Sports Committee mean David ‘Marginal Gains’ Brailsford and his sanctimonious bull shit has hopefully come to an end. Incidentally, these marginal gains appear to be the alleged manipulation of the use of TUEs to provide Team Sky’s members with in-competition advantages over their rivals. Parallels could be drawn here with that thing athletes do where they illicitly take medicines that make them perform better than other athletes. The Queen might yet regret handing out that knighthood.

Coupled with the hapless F.A. chief executive Martin Glenn’s bracketing of The Star of David with ISIS and images of Robert Mugabe and it’s proven a less than fantastic week for English sporting administrators. And, any sort of a slip up in Paris on Saturday evening will punctuate what would be a fantastically tough week for English sport.

MD

“But I thought images of Robert Mugabe and The Star of David meant the exact same thing.”

However, in the meantime, we need to mind our own house. The players return for the penultimate weekend of the Six Nations where, with a little help from France, Ireland could sew up the Six Nations Championship with a week to spare. Some quarters implied last week that if Ireland win the Championship on Saturday but fail to wrap up the Grand Slam the following week in a stadium where they haven’t tasted victory for eight years then an air of anti-climax would be attached. It’s obviously conjecture at this stage but perspective shouldn’t really be a defining aspect as to whether something is an objective success or not.

If Ireland lose at home to Scotland next week and then win in Twickenham would that really be a better way to win the championship? The last thing Ireland want is for an ebullient Scottish side, who they will face next autumn in Japan, to enjoy back to back victories over them so close to the World Cup. And so, with this in mind, perhaps it’s best to focus on Saturday’s visitors who have just enjoyed vital and hugely impressive victories over France and England respectively.

This year’s tournament has been the best in a number of years not least because each contest, with the exception of those involving the Italians, has provided extremely interesting style clashes and therefore compelling and tight contests. England employed brawn against Wales but still relied on two moments of magic to overcome the resolute visiting challenge. Ireland, however, thrived through similar means, regularly laying down the gauntlet to the Welsh up front and largely overpowering their opponents.

Meanwhile, the Scottish denied England’s robust ball carriers the opportunity to make inroads by deploying a more mobile, agile pack which caused destruction at the breakdown. Against Ireland, Wales saw virtually no ball, yet cut their hosts apart at will and would have probably won the game if they had patiently gone through the hands during the frantic end game.

Which is to say that all teams have displayed flaws in their game thus far and come St Patrick’s Day week, the consequences of Johnathan Sexton’s drop goal in Paris should be keenly felt.

Soccer has long since been recognised as the game where the sides possessed of superior technical can boss games by retaining the ball, tiring out the opposition and striking when the opportunity presents itself. However, possession in soccer is predicated almost entirely on technical ability.

Rugby is, of course, a possession-based game and without stressing the abundantly obvious – while then doing so – you can’t score without the ball. However, retention of possession in rugby poses manifest difficulties, not least because maintaining control of the ball requires far more physical effort and in a lazy and obvious comparison with soccer, quick turnover ball allows the opposition to counter quickly.

Teams have largely taken the more conservative approach of clearing their lines at the earliest opportunity though, unlike in the past, clearances are either smashed down the middle of the field or shortened somewhat to allow the chasing back three make an aerial challenge to retain possession. So while having the ball is important, where you have it is of greater import.

However, Ireland are led by a man in Joe Schmidt who possesses an unmatched obsession with retaining the ball. The catch of course, when in possession, is the risk of literally losing the ball or conceding penalties at the breakdown. And it is thus that Schmidt has coached his players, particularly the back row in its various combinations, to be peerless in the tackle area. Saturday’s contest with Scotland is intriguing as the visitors were so dominant against England at the breakdown, an area where Ireland have been the tournament’s standard bearers thus far.

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Joe Schmidt’s coaching has allowed Ireland enjoy soccer-like levels of possession in this year’s tournament.

Ireland are genuinely enjoying near-Barcelona like levels of possession and the difficulty in maintaining these levels cannot be overstated. So, will the Scottish trio of Hamish Watson, John Barclay and Ryan Wilson, rightly lauded after their historic win over Eddie Jones’s side, be able to succeed where the much-touted Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler couldn’t?

Scotland figured very quickly that Nigel Owens was going to reward the tackler a fortnight ago and while England could grumble, they displayed a clear inability to respond in-game. Barclay and Watson produced probably their best performances in a Scotland jersey securing vital turnover penalties and generally proving a thorn in the English back row’s lumbering sides, negating the latter’s size with superior speed and technique.

Ireland’s pack will provide a markedly different challenge for the Scottish and it would be a great surprise if they were able to create anywhere near the same frenzy at the breakdown. The concern of course, from an Irish perspective and based on numerous reviews of the Welsh game, is that the Scottish may only require a limited but quick supply of ball to wreak havoc out wide.

Last year in Edinburgh, Scotland made attacking look laughably easy in the first half, with the Irish defence retreating continually, allowing their hosts to make huge gains and putting the defensive line on the back foot. There were almost shades of the passiveness which prompted the World Cup downfall. Ireland were admittedly without their lynchpin at ten that day but it would be remiss of us to ignore the potential pitfalls that await if Scotland enjoy early possession and Ireland fail to repair the sometimes gaping hole so evident in the outside defensive channel.

The revolving door at number thirteen welcomes in perhaps the most lauded centre in Irish rugby in Garry Ringrose, who to date has endured a season stultified by injuries to shoulder and ankle. Ringrose is one of those players who despite his absence and lack of any real form pre-injury, you would back to slot back into the Irish system with relative ease.

Before Jordan Larmour, there was the Ringrose hype-train and the latter’s development into a truly top quality centre has only been delayed by this injury-interrupted season. There have been flashes in recent seasons, no more so than as against Clermont last April, of a truly outstanding talent but an injury-free run will be vital to allow the twenty-three-year-old force his way into a suddenly crowded Irish midfield. As is often the case though, an injury is the best friend of the next man up and with Chris Farrell’s season so cruelly ended, Bundee Aki will combine with his third partner of the spring. If Ringrose does click with Aki, particularly defensively, then perversely given the length of his absence, he has a huge opportunity to take tentative rights to the Irish thirteen jersey.

That Aki has swiftly become the rock in midfield owes to both his impressive adaptation to the Irish system and the influential presence of Johnny Sexton on his inside. It has been in the outside channels that errors have occurred and the wide men, particularly Jacob Stockdale, will have to trust their inside defenders. If there is even a hint of uncertainty, Scotland will pounce, with one of the tournament’s star performers, Huw Jones, offering a persistent threat with ball in hand. Outside Jones, Lions Stuart Hogg and Tommy Seymour are due big attacking performances so if Ireland’s effort to cut ball off at the source fails, then there’d best be no uncertainty out wide.

Though Andrew Porter excelled against Scotland, there is no question that the return of Tadhg Furlong strengthens Ireland’s powerful forward unit. And while some eyebrows may have been raised by Iain Henderson’s selection among the replacements, his presence serves to strengthen a bench whose arrival has often led to chaotic periods where Ireland have struggled mightily, particularly in defence. The Bench Mob they are not.

It’s unclear how long Furlong will last though he is a consistent 70-minute player and there is no way he would be risked if his hamstring hasn’t healed fully. Porter has been outstanding but Furlong is a Lion, has been a mainstay for almost two years now and offers an excellent link between backs and forwards. As good as Scotland were against the English, there is a sense that Ireland can dominate this pack physically, all without losing any of the ferocious aggression and intensity at the breakdown. If Scotland don’t have much ball and particularly if Ireland don’t concede quick turnover ball, then it’s hard to see where the visitors will cause the damage.

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Fit again, Tadhg Furlong, provides a welcome boost to what has already been a dominant Irish pack.

Having said this, there is no way Schmidt will direct his team to keep it tight at all costs and there has been plenty of evidence as provided by Teddy Thomas and a host of Welshman that the Scottish are far from impervious out wide. Ireland won’t be inviting a shoot-out but they will have absolute confidence in themselves to break this Scottish line. And given all the plaudits that have been laid at the Scottish feet this week, Ireland’s back three will be keen to show they’re not just there to contest kicks and hit rucks.

Ultimately, when it comes down to it, Ireland have the best half-back pairing in the tournament against a decent scrum half and a mercurial ten. Russell may have provided the pass of the year a fortnight ago but his bag is invariably mixed and until such time as he displays consistency – which sadly trumps off-the-cuff play – Scotland cannot be favoured in a match like this.

It’s not quite the scorched earth policy but deny Scotland the ball and Ireland will win. Sure, Scotland thrilled against England but, for now, don’t believe the hype.

S.U.S. Prediction – Ireland by 12

Tips: (i) Garry Ringrose MOTM @ 16/1

           (ii) Jordan Larmour Last Tryscorer @ 10/1

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ireland v Wales, Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations, Six Nations 2018

Six Nations 2018: Ireland v Wales Preview

Even when you account for hyperbole – because we all love the Six Nations – this year’s tournament has been enthralling thus far. Three out of six games have been tight affairs, four teams have left themselves in the mix for the championship and France are a mess once more.

Given what’s gone before, it’s fitting that the remaining contenders face off this weekend in Dublin and Edinburgh, respectively. Scotland, fuelled by as yet unsubstantiated self-confidence entertain the heretofore efficient England. This game offers a genuine opportunity to the Scottish to justify their hype while the English will be looking to quieten any suggestions that their back play has become sluggish and predictable.

While proceedings get under way in Paris tonight, the weekend truly kicks off on Lansdowne Road on Saturday afternoon. Warren Gatland, whose star has perhaps never shone so brightly, brings a gradually healing Welsh squad to Dublin looking to continue his excellent recent record against Ireland. Ireland, who have watched the bodies hit the floor this week are still seven-point favourites and that should immediately sound the alarm bells.

With the IRFU’s recent blanket ban on the dailies’ news conference, all the talk has been of the importance of the freedom of the press and the perceived pettiness of some of Ireland’s largest sporting bodies and individuals.

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“Down with those probing questions” (photo courtesy of The Irish Times)

Unfortunately, in a situation like this it generally falls to ‘which side are you on’ as some believe it is the team’s duty to report to the media and provide sufficient access while others believe the media – whose work they ingest on a daily basis – do not deserve any access and constantly look to find baseless stories to propagate their clickbait. We’re of the view that the team should be obliged to provide comment for the media as, whether they like it or not, they generally profit from media coverage.

Interviews are largely and understandably banal now and many people have pointed that sporting organisations are attempting to control their own media in-house. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of very interesting characters are forced to provide vacuous content for their own employer’s online platform. Still, while places like Twitter and The White House would suggest that humanity has regressed irreparably, there remain enough people both interested and intelligent enough to seek their news elsewhere.

The myth that the media always enjoyed a good relationship with sporting organisations is brilliantly debunked in author Mark O’ Brien’s article which appeared in Monday’s Irish Times. The GAA, always ahead of the trend, was the first to chastise and indeed ban journalists from games when the latter had the neck to report incidences of violence in hurling and Gaelic football in the 1950s. According to The Irish Times, the great Christy Ring’s strike to the head of Tipperary’s Tom Moloughney ‘added no lustre to Ring’s reputation’ and when D. Hickey of the Irish Independent expanded on Ring’s ‘deplorable’ act, he was subsequently refused entry to the Cork Athletic Grounds to cover the county final. And to think of the abuse poor Tommy Walsh used to get for creatively devising ways to win the high ball.

Yet, while this is clearly not the first time the sports press have been blackballed, it is symptomatic, as has been pointed out on a number of occasions this week, of a growing intolerance of the sports media. Sports reporting may be less urgent and vital than that of current affairs but it is somewhat disappointing that we as consumers should have to accept the heavy-handed actions of sporting bodies.

No one wants to hear the watered down views of the IRFU or FAI and like it or not, the media plays a hugely important role in promoting sport. Nobody expects absolute candour but between the IRFU’s stonewalling and Martin O’Neill’s unusual approach to Tony O’ Donoghue, an air of militancy has crept into Irish sport.

 

It may not affect the end product all that much though as the general antipathy towards journalists in soccer hasn’t prevented the production of excellent journalism. Also, it’s a near certainty that you could count the memorable or insightful post-match interviews you’ve heard on one hand. Coaches offer next to nothing of interest in interviews and players are far more revealing, and less exhausted, in a one on one setting.

Further, one could argue that the incredibly closed shop of Irish rugby prohibits any of the established journalists from writing what they think when the team underperforms. Or, just generally. You can’t blame the established rugby writers for picking their words carefully but the lack of critique is sometimes grating. And this current ban can’t actually prevent individual players giving interviews, ones that will be far more interesting than anything Joe Schmidt or Simon Easterby usually deliver? Nonetheless, while the recent IRFU ban has ironically led to countless column inches, the end result will most likely be of negligible effect to the production of thoughtful, informative sports journalism.

To this weekend’s main event and the visit of an ominously improving Welsh side. Warren Gatland, long the shade-throwing, instigator has declined donning his troll cap this week. So long the pantomime villain in this piece, the 54 year-old has thrown precious few barbs in Ireland’s direction this week.

Gatland once again confirmed himself as an outstanding coach with the Lions drawn series in New Zealand last summer. For years, supporters and media alike criticised his unsophisticated approach, then encapsulated in the famous ‘Warrenball’ term. The term, though not without merit, is overly simplistic as the game changed together with the personnel at Gatland’s disposal but two Grand Slams and a Six Nations Championship in the Kiwi’s decade in charge represents an exceptional return.

Perhaps coinciding with the rise of Wayne Pivac’s thrilling Scarlets side, Wales openly stated this past summer that their playing style was going to change to a more expansive approach. In their tournament opener against Scotland – who had hyped themselves mightily all week- the Welsh provided a high-octane display, kept the ball in hand and in play for extended periods and seared through the Scottish defence seemingly at will. As impressive as that Scarlets inspired display was, the effort in defeat in Twickenham was even more laudable. Down eight Lions before kick-off and 12 points shortly thereafter, Wales kept England scoreless the rest of the way home and were unlucky not to take more from the refortified stadium.

 

Wales conceded a total of two penalties in that game thus negating Owen Farrell’s prolific boot so the question is just how exactly will Ireland break the visitors down on Saturday? Paris was wet and the Italian game revealed little so Ireland will have to think outside of the English box if they are to break down this exceptional Welsh wall. Both last year and in Cardiff three years ago, Ireland huffed and puffed relentlessly but with little invention and they were ultimately thwarted on the back of an outstanding defensive effort.

The most recent Welsh defensive effort in London allied to their breakdown work which improved as the game went on should provide Ireland with plentiful food for thought particularly when Ireland, no more than any other side admittedly, live and die by the speed and quality of their ruck ball.

More ominously, Ireland will have to deal without Tadhg Furlong in a major game for the first time in eighteen months and though Andrew Porter looks a fine player, he is being asked to replace the best tighthead prop in the world against a scrum that gradually gained superiority over the English a fortnight ago. While it is perhaps unfair to presume Porter will struggle in this department, tighthead props don’t generally ease themselves into the international game and Ireland will now have to seek parity, at best, in an area that has become a real asset in recent seasons.

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Andrew Porter has been tasked with filling the boots of Tadhg Furlong. (photo courtesy joe.ie)

Allied to Furlong’s absence is the more unexpected loss of Iain Henderson, the man who has grown fully into his role at the core of this Irish pack. Henderson has been brilliant all season, despite Ulster sometimes resembling Albert Square this year, and his aggression and ability to make a big play, in particular, will be sorely missed. Robbie Henshaw’s season-ending injury denies Ireland of a trio of its core players.

Two things are worth noting here, however. Wales, bedraggled by injuries all season will give less than a shit about Ireland’s current predicament, while more importantly the chastening Argentinian defeat in October 2015 always prefaced the day when Ireland would need to confirm the new found squad depth, which Joe Schmidt rightly identified as lacking.

Coaches are far more pragmatic than supporters in the wake of crucial injuries. It’s part of the job so they must be. And, in light of Ireland’s exit from the World Cup, Joe Schmidt has worked tirelessly to create genuine depth throughout his squad. The general perception is that Johnny Sexton still remains irreplaceable and Conor Murray is loitering near this classification also. Could this change after Saturday?

With the exception of Australia in November 2016, which came only a year after the World Cup, Saturday offers the greatest challenge to Ireland’s depth since 2015. Three players – Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Chris Farrell – with a combined 11 caps between them will play integral roles if Ireland are to overcome a resurgent and tireless Welsh side that has just welcomed three Lions, Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams back into the fold.

Biggar will bring physicality, structure and a quality kicking game at number ten but he lacks the creativity and running threat of the man he replaces, Rhys Patchell. It would be impossible to omit Biggar but his inclusion suggests Wales may revert to a robust approach.  The visitors will gladly invite Ireland into a street fight of sorts and the panache with which they despatched Scotland is unlikely to surface.

Ireland, for their part, have proven time and again that they are more than able for an aggressive affair but given the moving parts, the hope is that Bundee Aki and Farrell are allowed do more than just smash it straight up the middle. This tactic has proven pointless of late against Wales and if the penalty count is low again, Ireland won’t be able to rely on creating platforms from lineout mauls deep in Welsh territory.

Ireland’s hopes will still live and die on the quality of performance from Johnathan Sexton and Conor Murray. It seems a bit obvious to state this but given how tight this game will be, the home side will probably require their stars to guide them. Their performances should be raised by the fact that they are facing the second best half-back pairing in the tournament.

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As Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton go, so go Ireland. (photo courtesy of rugbylad.ie)

The packs match up very evenly, similarly the back lines, where the returning Liam Williams is set for an enthralling contest with the Six Nations form winger, Keith Earls. Even at the back, Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny can match each other for unfussy reliability so everything points to this game being a tight grind that will be decided by less than a score.

Roughneck affairs like this usually favour the home side, bringing the crowd into the game, and Ireland won’t for even one moment countenance being pushed around by Alun Wyn Jones’ pack. And, if this game follows the Twickenham script then the defences will be watertight, tries will be at a premium and it would be no surprise if this game is decided by a solitary moment of magic.

Dreams of a Grand Slam may still be alive come Saturday but more importantly, we’ll know for certain whether Joe Schmidt’s best-laid plans are coming to fruition.

Ireland by 3

Tips: (i) Wales + 8 and under 39.5 points @ 5/2

            (ii) C.J. Stander 1st try scorer @ 14/1

 

 

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Rugby, Six Nations, Six Nations 2018

Ireland v Italy Preview: All aboard the Larmour Train

What a difference a backbreaking 41 phase sequence of plays topped off by an outrageous drop goal makes. All the contradictions of the best, annual international rugby tournament were on display last Saturday evening in Paris.

On one hand, you have the glass half empty crowd who said Johnny Sexton’s 45-metre goal drop goal was only a mask of Ireland’s considerable deficiencies. Alternatively, you had an incredibly composed phase of play that saw every single Irish player touch the ball and that was punctuated by a daring cross-kick from Sexton, superb leap and carry from Earls and of course the unerring shot from Sexton.

Whatever way you look at it, Ireland had an atrocious record in Paris, shot themselves in the foot at times, were thwarted by a slightly erratic performance from Nigel Owens yet rather than going down in a blaze of bitter recriminations put together the most patient game-winning drive in Irish, international rugby history.

Ireland have pulled off some remarkable victories down the years but Saturday was our first ever walk-off victory. And, to borrow further from baseball parlance, Johnny Sexton stood at the plate with a full count, two outs and no runners on. And, a pack that was about to die on its feet.

What’s important to remember, amidst our negativity surrounding the manner in which Ireland almost let the game slip, is that they pulled it out of the fire in barely believable circumstances.

Think about it. Lashing rain, the flightiest fans in world rugby suddenly buoyed by Teddy Thomas’ individual brilliance and a crushing scrum penalty, missed of course by Belleau. Allied to this was the fact that Ireland, though largely dominant, had yet to make a line break and were now after going more than three hours without a try in Paris. Nothing suggested Ireland were going to find a miraculous winning score.

But between Sexton’s obvious interventions, the extraordinary 34 combined involvements of CJ Stander and Ian Henderson in the last four minutes and a collective will to endure, Ireland prevailed. Of course, there’s plenty to work on but for Irish fans, particularly those who witnessed the ruthless brilliance of Sella, Blanco and Rives, victory in Paris is to be savoured. Indeed, our three victories there in the professional era have come by a total of six points, and have ultimately been decided by a late, late David Humphreys penalty, a questionable scrum decision and Sexton’s bomb.

To go back to Stander and Henderson, they are the prototypical forward required in Joe Schmidt’s high possession, bludgeoning game plan. Both appear high on the list of tackles and carries in every game, not to mention the more subtle stats, and are now vital components of this Irish side. Stander, though a very different player to Jamie Heaslip, is as unerringly ubiquitous as the latter on the field and though the explosive carries of two years ago are a rare sight now, his importance to the team cannot be understated. Ireland’s back row depth is currently being lauded and given the current absentees, this is with good reason, but the loss of Stander would be keenly felt.

With this in mind, it would seem that Stander has been saved for a cameo role on Saturday when Conor O’ Shea’s Italian side come to town. Jack Conan, so extraordinary in the latter half of last season for Leinster, gets an opportunity to impress in a Six Nations environment, and this week’s game will probably offer a decent opportunity for the 24-year-old to show his value in the open field.

Schmidt has shown due respect to the Italians with Conan’s selection the only one unenforced in the starting fifteen with James Ryan reportedly suffering a minor strain after his superb Six Nations debut. Alongside Conan, Dan Leavy, the nominal third-choice Irish openside will also relish the opportunity to explore open spaces after an hour of trench warfare in the Stade de France. This is not to disrespect Italy and while the hiding to nothing line will be wheeled out, Ireland will be expected to win well, while playing effectively within the parameters of their coach’s game. This is multi-phase, high-pressure rugby which ideally presents opportunities for a back three largely starved of opportunities a week ago.

There were early glimmers of the potential of an attacking tandem of Jacob Stockdale and Earls and with Jordan Larmour now seemingly breathing down the back three’s necks, the hope is that they get the opportunity to express themselves a little and deliver accordingly.

People have taken the turns at who to blame for Teddy Thomas’ exceptional try on Saturday. Thus far, there has been Conor Murray’s rush out of the line, a failure to communicate in behind him, a poor angle by Stockdale – one sense knives were sharpened for Stockdale regardless of what he did – and a possible misread by Kearney. Add to this a blistering turn of foot by Thomas and it’s hard to really pinpoint a culprit save to say that if defensive lines and communication were faultless seventy minutes into a gruelling contest, we would never see tries scored.

Rather than lament the French try, Ireland should and no doubt have focused on the fact that they were once more unable to breach the French line in Paris. While the French attack has largely faltered in recent seasons, their defence has remained of the highest calibre, particularly when playing at home. Italy, do not possess such a stern bulwark.

As the traditional floodgate opening took place last Sunday afternoon in Rome, the long-held belief that Italy has not advanced beyond a 60-minute team was substantiated. Though highly impressive at times in the first half, they were the architects of their own downfall – trademark Charles Stewart Parnell – when a forward pass denied a certain try and prefaced the late English onslaught.

Italy won’t be quite as buoyant for their first away trip of the campaign and Ireland will expect a vastly different contest this weekend. Schmidt and his side are not naïve enough to expect the visitors to crumble but given Andy Farrell’s defence was only breached by a moment of brilliance, it’s hard to see where the Italians will create trouble.

One area which has quietly been discussed of late has been Ireland’s inability to breach midfield and despite the paucity of traditional second centre, jinking breaks in the modern game, these concerns are not without foundation. Robbie Henshaw is an outstanding defender, a tireless carrier of the ball and a player who never seems to have a bad game. Notwithstanding these facts, however, he has yet to hit the offensive heights enjoyed both as a fullback and centre at Connacht and in the latter position for Leinster. And, even accounting for the difficulties of breaching the middle in the international game, Ireland offer perhaps offer the least threat of any of the top teams in the Six Nations in this regard.

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Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki have an opportunity to provide some much-needed midfield, attacking thrust.

The expectation, however, is that the damage will be done in the tight by Conan, Henderson and Murray and ultimately out wide by Earls and Stockdale. England’s Anthony Watson laid down the marker last Sunday with some blistering pace and powerful finishing so his Irish counterparts will relish the opportunity to make hay while the wintry sun shines.

Of course, the main attraction tomorrow, Jordan Larmour, will most likely spend the first hour on the bench. If given the opportunity to enter the game at fullback, the excitement in the crowd will be palpable and, though our expectations are generally excessive in these situations, these type of players do not come along very often, especially in Ireland.

Frankly, it’s difficult not to get excited when one considers the 20-year-old’s performances against Ulster twice and Munster in this years Pro-14. However, Larmour is now going to play effectively two levels up from the scene of his wondrous attacking performances. Solid if unspectacular in his Champions Cup performances, the standard is upped again, though not so much on Saturday. If you want a good insight into how heavy an expectation has been placed on Larmour to deliver, he is currently well under odds-on to score, despite being uncapped and coming off the bench.

You don’t want to sound trite but after last week’s endgame, there is sense that Irish supporters would love Wales or Scotland to be coming to town this weekend. Then, you remember that it matters little what we think and that the players went through both a physically and mentally gruelling contest only days ago. If last week proved anything, it’s that wins trump performances every time in the Six Nations.

Some bodies will be rested while others get a chance to shine on the front foot. And, perhaps, we’ll look on this game as the day an international star was born.

Straight Up Sport Prediction: Ireland by 30+

Tips: Stockdale, Earls and Larmour all to score: 3/1

           Robbie Henshaw first try scorer: 16/1

 

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

Six Nations 2018 – France v Ireland Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

J Brunel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J Ryan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Straight Up Sport Prediction: Ireland by 7

Odds: Ireland -6 @10/11

Tips: Ireland to win both halves @ 13/8

          Conor Murray first tryscorer @ 14/1

 

 

 

 

 

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Irish Rugby, Six Nations, Six Nations 2017

Don’t Mention the Bus

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

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

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

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

The Irish team bus in happier times.

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

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

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

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

d-ryan

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

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

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

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

back-row

Could the sum be less than the three excellent parts?

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

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

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

pj

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

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

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

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

S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 23

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

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

           (ii) Wales +5  v England @ Evens

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Rugby Union, Six Nations, Six Nations 2016

Six Nations 2016 – Round 2 Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabah

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

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

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

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

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

SOB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland by 3

In Brief…….

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

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

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

DB

Dan Biggar: Ankles of adamantium

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

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

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

Wales by 10

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

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

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

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

Maro

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

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

England by 12

SUS Picks – Ireland to beat France – Evens

                       Scotland +10 draw with Wales  22/1

                        Italy +15 over England 10/11

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Rugby Union, Six Nations

Six Nations 2016: Ireland v Wales Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rory Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welsh Backrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP

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

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

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

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

Wales by 3

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