Ireland v New Zealand, Irish Rugby, November Internationals 2018, Rugby, Rugby Union

Here Comes the Boom: Ireland v New Zealand – Preview

After Irish journalists and ‘rugby’ people took turns hopping off Bundee Aki and CJ Stander in the last couple of years, it seems the Kiwis are miffed at the fact that European sides – particularly England and Ireland – are displaying the temerity to pick the players New Zealand don’t want. We’re largely unmoved by the rule either way. International rugby is a pretty closed shop – you’d be pushed to name ten top-tier international sides- so if a rule exists to allow players experience international rugby, so be it. To assist the slightly myopic aspect of our argument, it’s worth noting that Ireland have, thus far, taken advantage of the residency rule by moving for players who had been overlooked in their own countries.

If Brad Shields last week and now, Aki, this week are to be at the core of Kiwi whining then why not look to the age-old hypocrisy stemming from New Zealand when it comes to international selection policies. The “All Blacks continue to cynically and systematically loot the Pacific Islands of their best players. It’s an old and depressing story and nobody in New Zealand has been able to give a convincing defence of their actions.”

These are not in fact the words of our learned Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, but an article written by Brendan Gallagher which appeared in the Daily Telegraph during the grim Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005. There is the caveat that British and Irish folk were becoming dispirited and bitter after being beaten and humbled from the deep south up to Auckland and everywhere in between.

Nevertheless, Gallagher argued that New Zealand have long been happy to lure the best talent of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to their rugby nurseries and ultimately give them an opportunity to don the most famous jersey in world rugby. During that summer, we were lucky enough to witness Sitiveni Sivivatu, , born and bred in Fiji, give one of the most dominant wing performances ever, dominating an all-time great in Shane Williams and helping New Zealand decimate the Lions in Wellington. Yet even when joking, it stung any Kiwis when you accused them of poaching the best players their neighbours had to offer.

Sivi

Sitiveni Sivivatu from Fiji’s Yasawa Islands is regarded as one of the best wingers to ever wear the New Zealand jersey. (photo Getty Images)

The bare facts don’t lie, though. It suits New Zealand and Australia for the Fijians, Samoans and Tongans to produce incomparable raw talent without ever possessing the financial strength to keep their players from moving to the richer pastures of Auckland and Sydney. With the three island nations so close in proximity to the Antipodes, surely it would behove the traditional powerhouses to foster the well-being of the international game. Perhaps when it comes to the notion of teams naturalising or poaching players, are teams are equal but some are more equal than others.

In any event, if Ireland are going to prevail on Saturday night in what promises to be an all-time atmosphere, Aki and, particularly, Stander need to excel. Aki has grown into his role as the anchor of the Irish midfield and while he does not possess the wide passing skills of some of his counterparts, he has the ability to beat the first tackle, brings the rare attribute to the Irish midfield of a potential offload and displays unwavering enthusiasm in all facets of his game.

New Zealand can lay claim, whether they like it or not, to changing the rules of the game the last time they visited Dublin. Malakai Fekitoa and Sam Kane in particular got away with some high stuff but amidst the furore over the high shots, Kieran Read managed to avoid one of the most blatant yellow card/penalty try combos in rugby history.

 

Stander was one of the players on the receiving end of Kane’s indiscipline with his night ending earlier than anticipated. Given his recent lull in form, he really needs a big performance against the best team and number eight, respectively, in world rugby. Stander has been exceptionally consistent since the 2015/2016 season, when he seemed to take ownership of the man of the match award in any Muster game, but he has failed to ignite thus far this season. That statement is made in light of the fact that he is still among the top tacklers and carriers in every game but the thrust of his ball carrying has been blunted.

Sean O’Brien’s absence means that Stander now, more than ever, must dominate the contact area and give Ireland go forward ball. He made two of the most important plays in Chicago, a powerful burrow through three would be New Zealand tacklers for Ireland’s second try and a subtle check of Owen Franks in the built up to Conor Murray’s now iconic score. Ireland won’t necessarily require Stander to put his name on the score sheet but in tandem with Peter O’ Mahony and Dan Leavy he can at least gain parity against a Kiwi trio that doesn’t quite hold up to the exceptional back-rows of New Zealand past.

Joe Schmidt thankfully put the great Conor Murray debate to bed on Monday but it’s difficult to ignore just how important the Limerick man was to victory to Ireland in Soldier Field. Admittedly, he got skinned early doors by Beauden Barrett two weeks later but Murray’s decisiveness in attack and defence was probably the difference in the Second City. This is the deepest squad in Irish history but every dominant team – think Brazil 1958-1970 with Pele or Barcelona with Messi – has its MVP and Murray is that for this Irish team. No one is crying for Ireland’s injury issues, obviously, but it would be in many ways their greatest ever achievement if they could overcome the World Champions without their most important player.

Having said all that, New Zealand come to Dublin on the back of a pretty patchy run of form by their standards. Their patented late game heroics saw them scrape home in South Africa and a frankly unfair, or at least inconsistent, call against Courtney Lawes last week likely spared their blushes in Twickenham. The team is still stacked to the brim with quality but when you look at the dream team that won the last World Cup – they too only scraped by South Africa – this looks like a good but not great iteration of New Zealand.

As has been pointed out this week, New Zealand’s line out was immense for the last hour in Twickenham and Ireland’s was about as bad as anyone can remember for a number of years with Argentina always competitive on Rory Best’s throws. Brodie Retallick confirmed last week that he still sets the bar when it comes to second row forwards. The intro to Ghostface Killah’s ‘The Champ’  – “He’s a bulldozer with a wrecking ball attached, he’ll leave a ring around your eyes and thread marks on your back ….” – aptly describes the Kiwi lock’s destructive abilities and he is probably the most complete forward in world rugby. Ireland simply have to improve to compete and Devin Toner’s selection sees a return to fundamentals. Parity in the lineout will be a victory for Ireland. 

There is just the slightest feeling that New Zealand were complacent going to the junket in Soldier Field and that Ireland caught them unawares. They would have been satisfied two weeks later when a show of equal parts brilliance and brutality restored the normal order. However, just nine months later the core of that Irish team played a vital role in earning the Lions a draw in New Zealand and proving for the first time to this New Zealand team that there’s more to the Northern Hemisphere than Sky Sports embarrassingly hyperbolic pre-match coverage. It feels as if Joe Schmidt’s side want to use Saturday night to show that this team is here to stay as a threat to New Zealand and that all has changed utterly.

Gerry Thornley rightly pointed out earlier this week that this encounter should be enjoyed as a standalone contest and thoughts of the World Cup should be eschewed for the night. And, while this is a fair point everyone will remember England’s statement victories over Australia and New Zealand in 2002 en-route to their victory in Australia the following year. Ireland have already ticked the box of a series victory south of the equator so imagine the impact a victory over the double world champions would have a mere ten months out from the World Cup in Japan. Particularly when you consider that if everything goes according to plan, the sides will be meeting again on an autumn night in Tokyo.

New Zealand will try to step on Ireland’s throat early and silence what will be a rarely animated home crowd so Ireland need to be prepared for brutality in the opening exchanges. More importantly the home team need to solidify the set piece as if they get on the wrong side of Wayne Barnes, Jonathan Sexton and Peter O’ Mahony will become crankier than usual.

It’s hard to remember an Irish rugby match being so hyped. These occasions rarely deliver on expectations, though, and the feeling is that New Zealand will shade this contest by the width of an offside line.

S.U.S. Prediction – New Zealand by 3

Tips

  1. Ireland +6 @ 10/11
  2. Ireland half time/New Zealand full time @ 6/1

 

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Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations 2017

French test a defining moment

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

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

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

france-v-scotland

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

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

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

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

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

cj

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

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

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

sexton

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

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

andy-farrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Irish Rugby, Six Nations, Six Nations 2017

Don’t Mention the Bus

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

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

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

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

The Irish team bus in happier times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Ireland, Irish Rugby, November Internationals, Six Nations 2017

Kings in the North?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tadhg Furlong with Kieran Read 19/11/2016

How did Kieran Read end up there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ireland, November Internationals, Rugby

How deep is the Irish Well?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Hooper and David Pocock 25/10/2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tadhg Furlong with Kieran Read 19/11/2016

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

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

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

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

Paddy Jackson

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

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

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

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

S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 6

Odds: Ireland -1 (Evens)

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Irish Rugby, November Internationals, Rugby, Rugby Union

Seconds Out, Round Two!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rugby Championship - All Blacks v Australia, 25 August 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUS Prediction: New Zealand by 6

Tips: Ireland +8  (2/1)

           Ireland to win (6/1)

New Zealand  -16 generally.

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