November Internationals, November Internationals 2018, Rugby, Rugby Union

Ireland v Argentina Preview

Last week’s largely unnecessary return to Soldier Field may have proved an on-field success for Ireland but when viewed on the whole the journey appears to have been largely pointless. Were the IRFU trying to give an opportunity to the diaspora to see Ireland play our least competitive Six Nations opponent or did they sense what now appears to be a relatively unsuccessful attempt to make money? Couldn’t this game have taken place before a full house at Thomond Park against one of the Pacific Island nations, who are crying out for opportunities  to play meaningful games against top tier opposition? And what about the carbon footprint?

Of course, you hear the usual nonsense about growing the game – the lip service regarding the Pacific Nations comes to mind – but it’s very unlikely that kids on the South Side of Chicago ripped off their Bulls and Bears jerseys to see what all the fuss was about in the barely half full Soldier Field last Saturday afternoon.

There were positives some to the trip to be fair. Jordi Murphy got to enjoy a night at the United Centre, we witnessed more of the carefree, attacking brilliance of Jordan Larmour and Tadhg Beirne continued on his ascent to becoming one of the best second rows in European rugby. But was the trip really necessary? Is a 4000 mile round trip entering one of the busiest phases of the season really conducive to the welfare of the players? Only time will reveal, of course, but in the short term it appears that Larmour and Beirne were the big winners against a weakened Italian selection who, unfortunately, do not appear to be closing the gap on their European rivals.

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Tadhg Beirne has given Joe Schmidt some very welcome selection issues in the second row. (photo courtesy of the Irish Mirror)

Ireland’s relentless ascendancy up the World Rankings – not like 2007’s flash in the pan – means that all eyes have moved to the contest with the double world champions, New Zealand, on Saturday week. However, it would be remiss to ignore the upcoming challenge of an Argentinian side that put in its best ever performance in this year’s Rugby Championship, culminating in victories over South Africa in Mendoza and Australia on the road.

Unlike Ireland, the Argentinians have scuffled around the World Rankings in between World Cups, rarely bedeviled by the notion of facing one of the traditional big three (or Ireland) at the World Cup. We have an unusual obsession with the World Rankings which, admittedly, stems from a time when our place in the top eight was far from assured. While we have seen ‘ the Golden Generation’ and the deepest squad in Irish rugby history falter at various stages, Los Pumas with their fusion of confrontational forward play and expressive movement in the backs have now competed in two of the last three Rugby World Cup semi-finals.

The natural and slightly irritating consequence – we’re as guilty as anyone – of Ireland’s recent success is that contests against Argentina are viewed as games Ireland will win comfortably because, well, the only side better than Joe Schmidt’s team are New Zealand. Argentina caused real problems for New Zealand on both of the occasions they met this year, moving the Kiwis around relentlessly, changing the point of attack and finding holes in the New Zealand defence quite regularly. It is of course testament to the World Champions that victory was achieved relatively comfortably in the end but this isn’t the week to sing their praises.

Argentina made a potentially questionable call in choosing to omit those players who ply their trade in Europe from selection for the national team.  Given the size of their playing base this is quite an extraordinary move and there is no point or sense in drawing similarities with the policies mirrored in Ireland and New Zealand. When Argentina qualified for the semi-final in 2007 only seven of their squad played their club rugby at home. By 2015, just eight of their squad plied their trade in the European leagues.

Admittedly, the selection policy over overseas based players is set in mud as the most recent Rugby Championship saw players slowly return to the fold but if the aim is to produce an international squad drawn largely from home based players, then the policy has stuttered its way to effectiveness. Argentina had admittedly been pretty awful prior to this summer but it appears that once their confidence lifts lift their game returns almost immediately. They either have unflinching confidence, the ability to only look forward or a combination of both but with the World Cup less than 12 months out, Argentina are once more a dangerous opponent.

While Conor Murray’s status remains up in the air, Saturday evening provides a huge opportunity for Kieran Marmion to stake his claim to potentially start against New Zealand and then lock down a place in the 23 for this year’s Six Nations. Joe Schmidt, like all coaches, has his preferred players who generally earn his respect after doing a job when called upon in trying circumstances. When people think back to Ireland’s victory over England in 2017 that thankfully prevented Eddie Jones side from matching New Zealand’s winning streak, they may forget that it was Marmion who came in at relatively short notice and performed outstandingly well. Similarly, in 2016 and with the Irish backline ravaged by injury, Marmion unexpectedly played 40 minutes on the wing and somehow managed to prevent the winning score going in down his flank. The point is Marmion has been there and done it for Schmidt and given there is a width of paper between Marmion, Luke McGrath and John Cooney – the latter has the highest ceiling in our view – it’s no surprise that he’s starting on Saturday night.

Another making his return to the starting line-up is the rarely seen, Sean O’ Brien. We all know at this stage that O’ Brien is a force of nature when fully fit but that sight has become more and more of a rarity these days. If the Tullow man can somehow run through an injury free 12 months which will have to be aided by luck and judicious selection by the Leinster coaching staff, Ireland will arguably possess the best back row of any team appearing at the World Cup. O’ Brien’s performance, effectively off the couch, in 2016 against New Zealand confirmed everything we already knew but two years have elapsed since then and he now has formidable, proven opposition for his place in the shape of Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy. Van der Flier excelled, admittedly against largely disinterested opposition last week and Leavy himself is just back from injury but a big seven days for O’ Brien could see him entrenched once more as Ireland’s first choice number seven. If his body can withstand the rigours of the Latin and Antipodean grindhouses, then it bodes well for his chances in 2019.

Rob Kearney’s absence gives Jordan Larmour the opportunity to state his case in a game that will provide far greater insight into the 22 year old’s fundamentals at the back. While Andrew Conway may feel slightly disappointed, Larmour’s audaciousness last week – he’s in heat check territory at the moment- means he thoroughly deserves his chance tomorrow.

There’s a nice balance to the Irish back line – Marmion has intimate knowledge of his centres’ game –  and Argentina spent the southern winter throwing the ball around so for once, Cardiff in 2015 excepted, the contest between these two teams may flow. Argentinian winger, Bautista Delguy, has garnered plaudits for his performances throughout this year’s Super 15 tournament and it would be wonderful if two enthralling young talents were the talk of the game afterwards.

The annual peddling of the line that the European sides are at the start of their seasons and therefore ‘cold’ rings less and less valid these days, at least for Ireland. This side resembles the 15 that Schmidt has picked for the last 18 months and by all accounts players entrenched in Joe Schmidt’s camps are extraordinarily well prepared. At this stage, barring injuries, there are probably five positions up for grab on the starting fifteen so the de facto World Cup trials start tomorrow evening.

For Larmour, in particular, the challenges will come thick and fast from hereon. His footwork and pace made everyone sit up and take notice but Joe Schmidt will be honed in on the fundamentals of the 21 year old’s game, particularly when Rob Kearney has been a near permanent fixture in Schmidt sides. Larmour, like his team mates, is not short on composure though and the home side should ease to victory here.

S.U.S. Prediction – Ireland by 12

Tips

  1. Jonathan Sexton anytime try scorer @ 7/2
  2. Andrew Conway last try scorer @ 8/1

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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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Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations 2017

Madness in the Method?

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

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

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

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

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

Presser

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

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

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

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

 

F & F

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

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

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

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

 

Ireland-Backrow

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

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

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

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

Straight Up Sport Prediction: England by 4

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

           (ii) Under 37.5 points @ 6/5

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Irish Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations 2017

Time to Renew Hostilities

If a week is a long time in politics, then it follows that six months is an aeon in the comparatively tumultuous world of sport.

Southern dominance of the 2015 Rugby World Cup meant that last year’s Six Nations tournament was greeted by a sense of futility, the annual event almost devalued by the varying degrees of humiliation suffered by Europe’s best.

England’s Grand Slam victory probably impressed few outside of England, not as a result of begrudgery but more the perception that they were merely the best of an average-to-bad lot. Then in June, England whitewashed the Australians and Ireland somehow conspired to not win a series in South Africa, notwithstanding a brilliantly resolute victory in the opening test in Cape Town. The good vibes continued throughout the early winter – Ireland’s victory in Chicago an obvious highpoint – and all six nations could point to progress against their southern counterparts. Now, on to a Six Nations tournament which, for the first time in years is wide open and not, as is often perceived, due to a lack of quality.

chicago

All changed, changed utterly.

Once New Zealand finally fell, any right-thinking Irish fan jumped straight to Paddy’s weekend and a Grand Slam showdown with England. Even when the euphoria subsided this turned out not to be the most illogical logic going. However, as November came to a conclusion it was clear that the remaining Six Nations sides, with the notable and hard to decipher exception of Wales, had all progressed steadily.

Now, Ireland, England, Wales and possibly even Scotland go into the tournament with plausible designs on victory. For Scotland to make genuine progress this spring, Ireland need to be quietened on Saturday and for the Irish to deliver on the ambition born in November, well they need to do the obvious. We should preface this by stating that a Championship victory of any nature would be a fantastic achievement.

We’ve been lucky enough to come up in a generation where losing to Scotland was a rarity. You only need to go back to the late 80s and early 90s to understand the glee with which the Scottish viewed the Irish fixture. Not so today. Indeed, since the advent of the Six Nations Ireland hold the upper hand in Murrayfield with six wins to two. Ireland’s last defeat in the Scottish capital in 2012 came on Paddy Jackson’s ill-fated debut and a departure from the international game unbefitting of Ronan O’ Gara. However, Jackson has since blossomed into a fine out-half and O’ Gara’s extraordinary legacy won’t be tarnished by that dour afternoon.

Jackson has actually started six of Ireland’s last eight games but invariably his selection is viewed as a stop gap until the return of Johnathan Sexton. Now, obviously, everyone wants a fully fit Sexton available but his inability to complete a game may become an issue at some point. Joey Carberry, currently returning from injury, deputised brilliantly in November but it seems at this point in time Jackson is the clear understudy to Sexton. The Belfast man had a largely impressive summer in South Africa, was thrown into a free-for-all in the return game against New Zealand and then performed admirably when closing out the November series against Australia. Of course, his game is not free of errors but people often tend to forget that Jackson is only twenty-five and further that he has played behind an average Ulster pack this season.

pj

Paddy Jackson has an opportunity to press his case as more than an injury replacement for Johnny Sexton. (Courtesy of balls.ie)

The Irish eight should provide consistent possession on the front foot. Against Australia Jackson showed a greater willingness to attack the line and he does offer a genuine threat with his vision and passing. Sexton will return shortly but, at some point, Jackson needs to deliver consistent performances that force Joe Schmidt to consider his out-half selection somewhat of a dilemma.

Ireland’s starting pack is as good as any in the tournament – England enjoy greater depth – and it is here that they will hope to stifle the Scots. The surging Tadhg Furlong makes his first Six Nations start, while Rory Best, who endured a tricky beginning to his captaincy is playing the best rugby of his career. It is, however, in the back row that Ireland should enjoy likely dominance.

Ryan Wilson, Hamish Watson and Josh Strauss are fine players but Ireland’s three of Stander, O’ Brien and Heaslip comprise the best unit in the tournament. O’ Brien seems to start on reputation these days, given his litany of injuries and limited training time, but he continues to excel. Heaslip and Stander have both had exceptional seasons thus far and the lack of a traditional seven is circumvented by the versatility of the modern back row forward. In time, O’ Brien has acquired an outstanding ability to poach at rucks and Stander is supplementing his power carrying with improved ground skills of his own. Look at England too, where Chris Robshaw has enjoyed a rejuvenation on the blind side of the scrum.

Many of this Scottish side went to battle with Munster in a highly entertaining contest less than a month ago and a noticeable degree of antipathy has developed between those two sides. While Munster only have one starter in the pack, the always interesting bit of needle will be present. It’s unclear whether photos of Conor Murray’s standing leg have been plastered around the Scottish training facilities this week but their pack will assuredly shower Munster and Ireland’s lynchpin with plenty of attention.  No doubt Schmidt will have brought these tactics, particularly those of the blatantly infringing Strauss, to referee, Roman Poite’s attention this week. Nonetheless, it isn’t something Ireland, or more importantly Murray, can dwell on for too long. You get the feeling Ireland’s forwards will be alert but Murray will be expected to take his shots too and Ireland rarely concede penalties for enforcer-type, retaliatory tactics.

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Josh Strauss’ (l) often questionable pursuit of Conor Murray will be closely observed by Roman Poite.

Schmidt’s selection of Ian Keatley on the bench lays down a pretty clear marker for those plying their trade overseas, no doubt to the chagrin of Ian Madigan. The Bordeuax outhalf must have placed himself at three in the fly-half charts, and only because he’d chosen to seek better remuneration overseas, but Schmidt’s actions effectively close the international door on those who have chosen to leave the island. While Keatley is clearly not on the top rung anymore, it’s heartening to see the good guy, which by all accounts Keatley is, getting an unexpected reward just as his own career in Ireland comes to an end. Jackson is durable but should he go down then Schmidt will simply adhere to Bill Belichick’s ‘next man up’ mantra. Keatley can manage a game but the concern will be as to whether he can still do so at international level.

In the midst of the growing concerns over Sexton, the potentially explosive combination of Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose starting together in green for the first time has been somewhat overlooked. Henshaw, at twenty-three, has assumed the mantle of veteran, while Ringrose has blossomed in his company and grown in stature, particularly in defence. While the majority clamoured for Ringrose’s Irish selection last year, mostly on the back of reports they were hearing from other people, Schmidt knew that the skill set was perhaps a little more advanced than the physical development. A year in the Pro 12 has definitely benefitted his all-round game but Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones will provide a formidable challenge on Saturday. D’Arcy and O’ Driscoll, the benchmark for Irish centres, oozed class going forward but it was in defence that they showed their true worth. Ringrose doesn’t need to try and be any other player and Saturday offers an opportunity to confirm his ascension to international class centre.

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Garry Ringrose’s biggest challenge thus far awaits in Murrayfield.

On a fine day, Scotland can do untold damage with the ball through Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and their powerful fliers outside, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser. However, like Simon Geoghegan in the 90s, the latter two in particular  are probably going to spend much of the afternoon as cold, miserable onlookers. The forecast is bad and while Scotland have picked a powerful pack Ireland should control possession of the ball and with it the game. There’s an unlikely blend of youth and experience on the bench but expect the likes of Ultan Dillane and Josh Van Der Flier to add ballast when needed.

What has become clear is that Ireland’s success in the latter half of 2016 has, not unreasonably, raised expectations. And, Scotland will have viewed this game as an opportunity to confirm their progress in deed rather than word. Still, the feeling is that Ireland have a more fundamentally sound game plan and a stronger squad to boot. Ireland to win, Scotland the first to profit from the new bonus point system.

S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 6

Tips: (i)  Ireland -5 (Evens)

(ii) Munster v Edinburgh 3/2/2017 – Munster @ 15/8

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