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.

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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.

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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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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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Rugby Union, Six Nations, Six Nations 2016

Six Nations 2016 – Round 2 Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland by 3

In Brief…….

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

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

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

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Dan Biggar: Ankles of adamantium

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

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

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

Wales by 10

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

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

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

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

Maro

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

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

England by 12

SUS Picks – Ireland to beat France – Evens

                       Scotland +10 draw with Wales  22/1

                        Italy +15 over England 10/11

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Rugby Union

The Curious Case of Sam Burgess

The IABA aren’t exactly in the good graces of the Irish public of late. And Jose Mourinho is in the midst of a highly entertaining egocentric, paranoid mess. But nobody in the international locality looks quite as foolish right now as the RFU, the ‘powers that be’ of English rugby. England’s shambolic performance in a home World Cup has been compounded by the return of Sam Burgess, as expected, to the National Rugby League and his former club, South Sydney Rabbitohs.

The Yorkshireman did not perform well over the last three months, but there was a sense that he was hung out to dry, to a certain extent, by many in the rugby union fraternity. Now as the dust settles, the real criticisms are rightly being aimed at the incompetents who decided that a rugby league convert could fit seamlessly into an international midfield in the space of ten months. Oh, and all this, while he played at a different position for his club, Bath.

Surely more should have been made of the fact that Burgess was employed as a blindside flanker by Bath while being asked to flip over to inside-centre while on England duty? This is actually unheard of in modern rugby, except seemingly when a rugby league convert enters the fray.

There would be widespread condemnation of Joe Schmidt and his management team if, for example, Sean O’ Brien was asked to moonlight at first centre while in an Irish jersey. Or if Sam Warburton was chosen as Wales’ midfield linkman. Why, then, was it not considered extraordinary that an incredibly inexperienced player was being asked to man two hugely different positions for two different teams? That kind of thinking is completely and utterly, batshit crazy.

Burgess spent his time at Bath at flanker and with England at centre. What could possibly go wrong?

Burgess spent his time at Bath at flanker and with England at centre. What could possibly go wrong?

Bath were Burgess’ primary paymasters so it made complete sense that they would deploy him in a position that would benefit their style of play. And, unlike England, Bath are capable of some scintillating backline play. Thus, Mike Ford thought it wiser to use Burgess as a high volume carrier and tackler in the pack. The former Bradford Bull’s ball skills are far and beyond that of the usual forward so this ploy seemed to make complete sense.

However, and this is the point where conjecture enters the piece, it would seem that Burgess was sold on the idea of coming home and representing England at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Who filled his head with this nonsense? And, considering the situation at Bath who actually accepted the idea as being plausible? If England were so determined to have Burgess in their World Cup then why not bring him as a hybrid, one of a kind, centre-cum-flanker to use off the bench? It would have made about as much sense as what actually happened.

BBC Sport’s Ben Dirs asks the fair question as to whether some culpability in this whole saga lies at Burgess’ feet. Dirs does not point fingers, focusing more on the views of others and their reaction to the twenty-six-year-old returning ‘home’ to Sydney. The overwhelming feeling, however, is that the RFU, and perhaps Burgess’ advisors, were away with the fairies. Some, including dual international Henry Paul, believe Burgess should have given himself more time in rugby union but for us the situation was virtually untenable.

To be quite clear, we’re not Sam Burgess cheerleaders and we too saw that he was poor in the World Cup. And, there is no doubt that Burgess underestimated just how difficult the transition to rugby union would be. With that amount of talent, of course, you should back yourself but you don’t want to veer into Nicklas Bendtner territory.

Nonetheless, in the same way that the RFU were so quick to court Burgess, once the wheels came off in Twickenham, they wanted no part of him. Was Sam Burgess given an unconditional assurance of a World Cup spot? Based on his performances in the centres it seems very possible. He did nothing in the warmup games to suggest he deserved a place and it is beyond madness to expect a rookie, with less than a year’s experience, to suddenly find his feet on the most pressurised stage of them all.

There is a sense of irony or just plain absurdity to how this odd situation has concluded. Sam Burgess, born and bred in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, is returning home to the safety of Redfern, in Sydney’s south inner city. It must have felt so strange to feel homesick and lost in the country where you’ve spent the first twenty-one years of your life, especially after arriving back to such fanfare.

Burgess has a strong familial bond and it is understandable that he would seek his safe haven with those dearest to him. Younger, twin brothers George and Tom are his club mates at the South Sydney Rabbitohs while older brother Luke plies his trade up the coast on Manly’s northern shores. Add to this the facts that mother Judy has relocated to Australia and his fiancée is Australian and one can clearly see why he might return home. Oh, and Burgess is idolised by ‘Bunnies’ fans after leading them in 2014 to a first Grand Final victory in 43 years.

Burgess and South Sydney Rabbitohs teammate, the already legendary Greg Inglis, celebrate 2014's Grand Final victory, the club's first in 43 years.

Burgess and South Sydney Rabbitohs teammate, the already legendary Greg Inglis, celebrate 2014’s Grand Final victory, the club’s first in 43 years. Burgess has re-signed with the Rabbitohs for 2016.

Yet, while the call of home-away-from-home may have played a major part in Sam Burgess’ departure from rugby union, one suspects he would have had little difficulty seeing out his Bath contract if things had been going more smoothly.

It’s worth noting that Sonny-Bill Williams spent two years at the Auckland Blues learning the fundamentals of rugby union before making his New Zealand debut. And, despite what people may think, Burgess is as talented an athlete as Williams, often getting the better of the New Zealander in their encounters down the years.

Mike Ford seems to be the only responsible adult to realise that patience was the key to developing Sam Burgess as a legitimate rugby union player. Nobody questioned his skill-set, potential or confidence, but these attributes combined do not guarantee immediate on-field competence.

The rugby world is, no doubt, in union in their views of the RFU as an organisation that exudes deluded arrogance. Sir Clive Woodward, has rightly derided them as, “the laughing stock of world rugby” and it would be interesting to see what the players think. Although, this doesn’t seem likely, given the squad’s fear that the findings of any post-World Cup internal investigation would be leaked. And, what of Luther Burrell, the man cast aside to make way for the unproven rookie, Burgess. We’re sure he’ll enjoy the grovelling phone call he receives prior to the Six Nations.

Centre Luther Burrell, having done very little wrong, was inexplicably cast aside for the rookie, Burgess

Centre Luther Burrell, having done very little wrong, was inexplicably cast aside for the rookie, Burgess

2014/2015 will surely go down in the interesting category as Sam Burgess looks back over his life. Now, however, he is set to carry on a career that will lead him into the pantheon of rugby league greats. For him, the brief, unsuccessful though not regrettable dalliance with rugby union is over.

For the RFU, the outlook is considerably bleaker. Player confidence must be at an all-time low while the management team -perhaps unsure of the chain of command- are in a virtually untenable position. It will be interesting to see how the situation unfurls. Mind you, those “old farts” in the RFU, as once described by Will Carling, aren’t ones for changing.

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Champions Cup 2015

Champions Cup Preview: Matt O’ Connor’s Fate in His Players’ Hands

One more backward step and Matt O’ Connor disappears off the cliff.

An Australian walks into a plum job and two years later still doesn’t know what he’s doing. That’s it, no joke or punchline here, simply a statement of fact pertaining to the general perception of Leinster coach, Matt O’ Connor.

O’ Connor’s reign over the eastern province has been nothing if not peculiar. He took over the reins from Joe Schmidt in 2013 – a poisoned chalice if ever there was one – and in his first season in charge led the side to the Pro 12 title and a quarter-final exit from Europe at the hands of Toulon, who themselves were en route to back- to -back Heineken Cup titles. Now, by anyone’s calculations this represents a more than honest day’s work at the office. But there have been rumblings of discontent from Leinster fans for quite some time now. Initially, the disenchantment appeared as a side-effect of the comedown from the phenomenally successful Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt eras. It was only natural that Leinster fans would react as such- remember there were more than a few murmurs when Joe Schmidt lost a whopping three games in a row at the start of his Leinster tenure. And, don’t think Munster fans didn’t grumble after the Declan Kidney glory days. Or that a certain column didn’t decry Louis Van Gaal a mere eight months into his first season with Manchester United. However, one year on and with silverware in the bag, the Australian remains largely unpopular with the Leinster faithful. The criticism is based, seemingly, not just on a lack of success- how relative a term- but more on a lack of a discernible game plan for players to implement and for supporters to actually recognise.

Purely entertaining teams throw the ball around all the time. And win nothing. Cheika was the first in the long line of Leinster coaches to figure this out and, more importantly, bring his charges around to this way of thinking. Schmidt followed with his now famously disciplined defensive system where players simply dare not miss and every man is publicly –amongst his peers at least- made accountable for any errors made on his behalf. O’ Connor knew what he needed to focus on immediately upon his arrival – remember he came from the pragmatic Leicester Tigers- and to his credit Leinster were defensively excellent last year conceding just thirty tries in the Pro 12. Incidentally, this total is almost bang on par with what Schmidt and Cheika sides conceded in the Pro-12. This year, however, things have gotten progressively worse and just a fortnight ago Bath, led by the wonderfully talented George Ford –behemoth runners need not always apply- cut the formerly vaunted Leinster midfield to absolute shreds. Leinster won though, based on a powerful forward performance and a faultless kicking display by the enigmatic Ian Madigan.  So, just step back for a moment and think about it, Leinster are into the last four in Europe for the first time in three years and for our money have a great shot at an upset on Sunday. That’s not an awful season by any stretch. The problem though is that as the defensive foundations have crumbled the offense has crashed down in its wake.

Before we put O’ Connor in the stocks, how about we have a balanced look at his tenure and indeed the run-up to his appointment. We know luck is by its very nature completely random, and thus unquantifiable, but O’ Connor hasn’t been blessed with it. Before he even arrived in 2013 it was announced that Europe’s premier out-half Jonathon Sexton was off to Racing-Metro. Next man down? Just Isa Nacewa –who makes a welcome if unexpected return next year- arguably the greatest ever international export into the Irish provincial game. That leads us to last season where the Australian lost, not only captain Leo Cullen, but the greatest player Irish rugby has ever seen, Brian O’ Driscoll. So, to tally that, Leinster lost three of their four best players and their totemic captain in just two years. By no means are we O’ Connor apologists- it’s hard to get behind a grumpy Australian who blames all his woes on everyone else. Nonetheless, what we suggest is an objective look at the hand he has been dealt. His new signing in the centre, to ostensibly replace the once-off O’ Driscoll, Ben T’eo, is a rugby league convert who will need time to adapt in defence in this form of the game. And, before people criticise O’ Connor for signing the former South Sydney Rabbitoh, remember that it’s difficult to find a readily available, top- class centre in a World Cup year.

Now, however, to perhaps O’ Connor’s greatest sin, the failure to ignite a backline that includes at various times three Lions, eight Six Nations winners, a South African international and, Jimmy Gopperth. Ok, perhaps we’re being harsh on Gopperth but you can’t expect a backline to wreak havoc when you’re receiving the ball back in your own garden. Murray Kinsella provides an excellent analysis of where Leinster seem to be doing it wrong and how they can improve and it’s not just Gopperth who fails to shine. Ian Madigan has had his moments this season, but O’ Connor seems stubbornly opposed to dropping Wasps bound stand-off, Gopperth. Also, constantly looming over the Australian is the fact that Jonny Sexton will be back on these shores next year, and naturally will be a lock to play at number ten. So is it really a poor decision for O’ Connor to play Madigan at first centre, particularly if the latter intends to stay at Leinster? The real problem for O’ Connor right now is that he’s playing a game of poker where the stakes are phenomenally high and his stack of chips is diminishing rapidly. By sticking with Madigan at twelve, he’s putting his eggs in next season’s basket when Sexton will operate inside the younger man. However, if the triple-European champions get badly defeated on Sunday O’ Connor probably won’t be the man in the Leinster hot seat next year.

You feel the Leinster bed still hasn’t been made this season and no one really wants to sleep in it. A win on Sunday for them will clearly be perceived as the players taking matters into their hands – as with France and England in the past two World Cup Finals- while a loss, and specifically a bad one, will be the fault of an aimless coach failing to implement, or indeed identify, a game-plan over two seasons. Leinster have stuttered and stumbled their way into this weekend’s inaugural Champions Cup semi-final against two time reigning European Champions Toulon. Luckily for them so have the French side. Given the horrible run of form which Leinster have endured of late, all realistic hope –we use the words lightly- of silverware will rest on unlikely victories over the champions and most likely, the red-hot, perennial bridesmaids, Clermont Auvergne. Expect Leinster, littered with the type of talent most others could only dream of, to let the shackles off, whether directed to or not. The goods things from the Bath game- a dominant pack and excellent scrum- need to be married to intelligent offloads and a willingness to go from deep when the opportunity presents itself. Like most French sides Toulon don’t like when a visiting team puts it up to them so Leinster need to get into them early, even if it means blurring the lines between what’s legal and what’s not.

True, Toulon are looking for three-in-a-row but this is not the juggernaut of last year and, while the visitors are minus O’ Driscoll, the champions no longer have the services of the indescribably, important Johnny Wilkinson. Further, the game will be played, not in their Stade Mayol bear pit but in Marseille – where an arguably inferior Munster side ran the champions extremely close last year- which means home advantage is diminished. The visitors are better than we think while we’re not entirely sure what to make of the champions. As poor as Toulon were two weeks ago, you sense Wasps –definitely an inferior side to Leinster- may have angered a dozing giant in the quarter final, running their hosts far closer than anyone expected.

Victory here for Leinster will mean O’ Connor remains an Irish taxpayer for at least another year, even if his players get all the credit. We don’t think Leinster will die wondering on Sunday but with such a lack of certainty and continuity – even still no one knows the strongest team this deep in the season- we think this one will be a bridge too far. One perhaps for the moral victory category, but that may not be enough for the under-fire O’ Connor.

Toulon by 4 (Toulon generally -11)

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