Irish Rugby, Six Nations 2019

Ireland v France – Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUS Prediction – Ireland by 8

Tips

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

B Lap

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

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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