New Zealand v Lions, NZvLions, Rugby, Rugby Union

New Zealand v The Lions – 1st Test Preview

It has only taken three weeks and two decent victories to change the mood from abject despair to perhaps over-zealous enthusiasm. Despite the hugely competitive series in 1993, the Lions in New Zealand have, at least for a particular generation, been defined by the disastrous 2005 tour where a combination of an outstanding New Zealand side and an unrelentingly arrogant approach by Clive Woodward led to an absolute shellacking for the tourists.

Of course, that year, the hosts were led by two of the greatest players of all time, in Richie McCaw and the imperious Dan Carter. The Lions was weaker, less united, poorly managed and a series of unfortunate events did little to help their cause.

Now, despite the abject listlessness of the tour opener against the Provincial Barbarians and well-founded concerns over such a truncated tour, the Lions have emerged as genuine opposition to New Zealand. It may seem laughable, particularly to New Zealanders or those averse to the appeal of rugby, that an all-star team from Britain and Ireland is being lauded for actually making a contest of this series. However, given the scars of ’05 and the tremendous difficulty of gelling in just five weeks, the Lions have done well to get to this juncture.

However, any over-exuberance should be tempered by the fact that New Zealand are comfortably the best side in the world, are playing two of the tests in fortress- Eden Park and the Lions have won one of their last four series anywhere. And, being honest, that 2013 series victory, against a ramshackle Australian side and aided by Kurtley Beale’s dodgy studs, will hardly go down in the annals of great Lion’s triumphs.

In effect, we should be tempering the excitement of the past two Saturday’s unusually satisfying grindhouse productions, but the reaction from the New Zealand has been amusing and perhaps is indicative of the fact that the hosts know they’re in for a serious challenge.  They might hate the whinging POMs down that neck of the woods, but the New Zealand Herald has been in full, cry-baby mode in recent weeks with its inane criticism of tough forward dominated rugby.

Worst of all, the much-vaunted gauntlet thrown down in the form of New Zealand’s Super Rugby quintet has actually served as vital preparation for the Lions. While the defeat to the Blues and that Sonny-Bill inspired magic initially heightened concerns of a test whitewash, it was quickly established that numbers 1-12 would only play on Saturdays going forward.

The Lions did pummel the Crusaders front five, and four of the Kiwi tight unit, while the Maori and their loose brand of rugby of rugby were no match for a well-organised, steely collective. Still, while we’ve probably never enjoyed a penalty try so much, there is still the nagging feeling that the Lions aren’t anywhere near as clinical as they need to be in the big games. Now, you can argue that Saturday’s back three comfortably the biggest threat thus far, but those inside, namely Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies need to convert those punchy breaks into try assists.

Speaking of the back three, in a rare event for fans, we got exactly what we asked for. Liam Williams, though frustrating thus far, has the potential to hurt the Kiwis and we think Elliott Daly has the potential to emerge as one of the stars of this tour. Daly can slot in from 12-15, if necessary, has a monster boot and as illustrated in Cardiff when he broke Welsh hearts at the death, he has a decent turn of foot.

New Zealand have long since perpetuated the myth that they only ever play heads up, carefree rugby and that kicking and tight carrying are anathemas to their game. The truth is their game mixes powerful forward play, quick recycling and a devastatingly clinical attack. We’ll confidently say, without the assistance of any empirical evidence, that New Zeland convert more line breaks into tries that any other side in world rugby. And, with the searing pace of Beauden Barrett, witnessed first hand by Conor Murray in November, the Lions will have to shut down every inch of available space.

The Lions, and the first XV have been hugely effective thus far at employing Andy Farrell’s hard rush defence which places extra responsibility on either Conor Murray or a covering winger to sweep in behind for any probing kicks. Yes, contrary to popular belief, New Zealand do kick the ball and they’ll likely do so pretty regularly on Saturday.

The Lions, on the other hand, have no such delusions of grandeur and their game is based around aerial assaults, set piece dominance and, hopefully, this weekend tries as a result of incessant pressure. With a hugely powerful pack and a half-back pairing to rival their illustrious hosts, they’d be foolish to abandon this game plan. The pack is hugely impressive and Peter O’ Mahony’s edginess is shared throughout the unit.

That O’ Mahony managed in the space of three months to go from Irish back-row sub to Lions captain is an incredibly heartening story. We’ve always been a huge fan of the Cork man and after a difficult year for all involved in Munster, it’s fantastic to see him take up the mantle from Paul O’ Connell. Prior to 2015, there was the sense that O’ Mahony was hugely underrated, perhaps because he wasn’t an offensive wrecking ball in the mould of Stephen Ferris or Seán O’ Brien. But his incredible work rate, ability to wreak havoc on opposition ball and almost peerless lineout ability set him out as a genuinely world-class, blindside.

As devastating as O’ Mahony’s own injury was in 2015, it is somewhat ironic that a back injury to Jamie Heaslip opened the door on Paddy’s Weekend for the Munster captain to put in a masterclass from where he has since continued in his ascendancy. Jim Hamilton regularly refers to O’ Mahony as a ‘dog’ on The Rugby Pod, in a truly complimentary way, but in recent weeks he has elevated the Irishman to the status of  ‘world-class dog’. High praise indeed from a man like Hamilton. The rampaging Sean O’ Brien, classy Taulupe Faletau and all-action O’ Mahony have been mightily impressive against decent opposition thus far and there’s no reason to think they won’t rise to the challenge in Auckland.

O’ Mahony, Geroge Kruis and Alun Wyn-Jones are acknowledged lineout experts and they have performed outstandingly well in tandem with Jamie George thus far. However, tomorrow they will face the best lineout in international rugby, so their dominance against the Crusaders and Maori needs to be tempered by the fact that the unit is set to be enhanced by the imperious Brodie Retallick and New Zealand’s talisman, Kieran Read. Parity needs to be achieved in this phase of the game and anything even approaching the first-half omnishambles in Christchurch in ’05 will bring a swift end to the tourist’s chances.

The Lions will also expect to dominate in the scrum, an area that will be influenced by the differing hemispherical interpretations. Jaco Peyper allowed Kieran Read run free in Dublin in November, an offence for which any other number eight would have been sin-binned and a penalty try would have been awarded. In a strange way, those events most likely guarantee that the South African will be far more stringent at scrum time.

Indeed, Peyper’s risible performance in Dublin probably led World Rugby to fast-track new rules regarding high shots after Robbie Henshaw and CJ Stander were both sparked by blatantly illegal shots. With referees, it’s generally better to offer your criticism in advance as a referee’s decision has yet to be overturned to the benefit of the losing team in the aftermath, well, apart from poor old Jimmy Cooney.

The Lions have done a very good job of presenting the idea that they can not only cope with but actually outmuscle the New Zealand tight five. Tadhg Furlong, whose magical season continues, and Wyn-Jones bolster the Saracens trio and with Maro Itoje to explode off the bench, Watland’s side is well equipped in this regard. That said, however, New Zealand are extremely strong in this department too, and powerful, behemoth South African packs have come and perished on this rock before.

Looking through the teams though, the feeling is that this game will be decided in midfield, which is not something we’d predict too often. Williams and Ryan Crotty provide a brilliant chalk and cheese dynamic and will really fancy their chances of finding openings, particularly through Te’o’s channel. The converted Kiwi is a big hitter but there’s a lingering concern that a lapse in defensive reads, and it only requires one, could allow the ruthless home side find a crucial opening. Further, for all Teo’s effectiveness at carrying his final pass leaves a lot to be desired.

 

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Ironically, New Zealander, Ben Te’o could prove the big difference, either way, in the opening test in Auckland. (photo courtesy of The Daily Express)

 

By selecting Liam Williams, Anthony Watson and Daly, Warren Gatland has signalled his side’s intent to go out on their shield, if it comes to that. But New Zealand can counter with an even better back three, combining the intelligence of Ben Smith and Isreal Dagg with the blistering pace and finishing skills of Ioane. The general consensus these days is that you need to score 30 to beat New Zealand, but the Lions have had far greater success at grinding their opponents down on the back of a rock solid defence.

It now looks like the rain will hold off tomorrow evening at the other end of the world, so perhaps a try fest is in store. However, that’s not the way we see it going down. The Lions have completely turned our expectations on their head in recent weeks but in Eden Park, another house of pain for visitors during the last twenty years, New Zealand should have too much. And yet, we can’t ignore that optimistic gut feeling. Lions by a hair’s breadth.

Prediction: Lions by 1

S.U.S. Bets: Lions to beat New Zealand @ 10/3

Liam Williams anytime try scorer @ 7/1

 

 

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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.

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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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Ireland, Irish Rugby, November Internationals, Six Nations 2017

Kings in the North?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tadhg Furlong with Kieran Read 19/11/2016

How did Kieran Read end up there?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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: Ireland v Wales Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rory Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welsh Backrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP

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

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

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

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

Wales by 3

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#Boxing, Boxing, Football, Gaelic Games, Golf, Horse Racing, NFL/Rugby, Republic of Ireland/FIFA, Rugby Union, Soccer, UFC

Straight Up Sport Predictions 2016

2015 was, by any comparable standards, an excellent sporting year. In the murky world of sporting politics, there was also the welcome downfall of FIFA kingpin Sepp Blatter and the lurking snake Michel Platini. Meanwhile, we were treated to the rather unsurprising revelations that Russian athletics was involved in systematic doping and Lord Sebastian Coe is a bit of a dick.

The highlights included the New England Patriots winning their fourth Superbowl after a botched play call by Seattle Seahawks on the New England one-yard line. Almost one year later none of Pete Carroll, Darrell Blevins, Russell Wilson or the latter’s usual play-caller, God, have been willing to take responsibility for not giving the ball to this man (this clip comes with a Tipper Gore warning!)

Willie Mullins dominated Cheltenham and but for this fateful fall – horse and jockey will be back with a vengeance in 2016 – the punters, for once, would have had the bookies running for cover.

Ireland secured back-to-back Six Nations championships for the first time ever after the most dramatic day in tournament history, though the year ended on a diminuendo after an injury-depleted side, with the wrong man at out-half, fell to an inspired Argentina.

Meanwhile, Andy Lee dropped his WBO middleweight title in mildly controversial circumstances to Billy Joe Saunders. It was terribly disappointing that the champion did not get an opportunity to make either of his first two defences on Irish soil. Had Lee fought Saunders in Limerick the likelihood is that he would have retained his title, as boxing historically favours a hometown champion in a tight fight.

Carl Frampton twice retained his IBF super-bantamweight championship, while it would be remiss of us not to mention Conor McGregor’s stunning knockout of Jose Aldo in Las Vegas last month.

Whether you care to admit it or not, the country’s greatest success in 2015 was the qualification for Euro 2016. After the 1-1 draw at home to Scotland in June, dreams of a French summer lay in tatters. We remember agreeing as much with a few friends in a Cambridge pub on that dank afternoon.

But, then, along came Shane Long, Irish folk-hero Jon Walters and a few dollops of luck and qualification was realised after a relatively straightforward dispatching of Bosnia. A group comprising Belgium, Italy and Sweden looks ominous but that is June’s problem.

So, to 2016 and a combination of a few of our hopes and predictions for the sporting year ahead.

  1. After much humming and hawing, Manchester United finally rid themselves of Louis van Gaal.

There can’t be a Manchester United fan out there who will miss the dull, turgid aimless crap that has cost the Dutchman £250 million to manufacture. Rumour has it that Ryan Giggs has been in cahoots with Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish to launch a coup, though, at this point, it seems another despot, Jose Mourinho, will take the reins of this great club. All the while, Sir Matt Busby turns in his grave.

 

LVG

The end is nigh for Louis van Gaal.  (Courtesy of Getty Images)

 

  1. Thanks to the incompetence of others, Arsenal win the Premier League and Arsene Wenger claims that he has been vindicated in investing in a series of shite strikers.

Arsenal definitely have previous when it comes to choking in the second half of the season but at present they appear to be the most error-free side, which by extension makes them the most likely to win the league.

Wenger, to his credit, has been arguably the second best manager of the Premier League era but his sometimes delusional stubbornness has cost the team in the past. Yes, the board love him because the club is in the black but, let’s be honest, the fans couldn’t give a shit about that. They want to win the Premier League.

If Arsenal don’t win this year’s league, then they could be facing a very lengthy drought. There would be a sense of irony as well as a perfect example of the farcical treatment of modern day managers if Manchester City regained the title before coldly sacking Manuel Pellegrini. However, we can see Arsenal just about falling over the line though North London rivals, Spurs, will pose a serious threat.

  1. People accept that Irish club rugby had a great run, stop whining and focus on the international team.

The media of late have been lamenting the death of Irish rugby mainly due to the fact that the French and English look set to dominate the European game for the foreseeable future. Now, first of all, let’s accept that the provinces have seen their fair share of benefactors down the years while the Pro 12 was in an advantageous position regarding qualification to the old Heineken Cup.

We’re definitely not apologists for the European Champions Cup – for one thing, the BT Sport coverage is stomach-churningly ‘old-boy’ and elitist –  and the chips are quite clearly stacked in favour of the shaky Anglo-French alliance. However, like many before them, the Irish provinces have been punching above their weight for years. And, rather than whinge, let’s celebrate this fact.

Many of our finest rugby journalists have gotten in a tizzy of late over the potential downfall of the national side given the perilous state of Irish sides in Europe.

Well, we give you Example A, Wales. Bar the odd good season for Ospreys, Scarlets or Cardiff, the Welsh have a dismal record in Europe. Their domestic game just about keeps its head above water and many of their finest players have departed for more rewarding, foreign bounties.

Yet, for the last eight years, Wales have been a major player, both in the Six Nations and the World Cup. They were probably screwed by Alain Rolland in 2011 and in October their injury-ravaged side came desperately close to toppling South Africa in London.

Ireland need to strike a balance – and lest we forget, Ulster still have a great chance of making this year’s Champions Cup quarter-finals – but Wales have proven that it is possible to produce a top-class national side even when the domestic game is not exactly flourishing.

The next two years should see something of a changing of the guard and there is an abundance of talent coming through; Tadhg Furlong, Stuart McCloskey, Jack McGrath, Kieran Marmion, Jack O’ Donoghue, Garry Ringrose and CJ Stander. Meanwhile, there are the resurgent Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson, Tommy O’ Donnell and Andrew Trimble. Not to mention, the currently sidelined Iain Henderson, Robbie Henshaw and Peter O’ Mahony. Little cause for worry, then.

Iain H

With youngsters like Iain Henderson set to take on the mantle, Irish international rugby is in very safe hands.

The provinces may be entering a fallow period but the next four years appear genuinely promising for our international side.

  1. The All-Ireland Football Championship is overshadowed by further ridiculous disciplinary hearings and successful appeals.

The important thing to remember as an inter-county Gaelic football player is that a red card is just a speed bump and a suspension can be overturned if you shout loud enough. One of the most irritating aspects of Gaelic football is that players, and by extension, their managers and county boards refuse to accept suspensions after clearly breaching on-field rules.

Connolly & Keegan

Remember, kids, you can’t get suspended for this. (Photo courtesy of sportsjoe.ie)

Last year’s clear examples were Mayo’s Kevin Keane and, of course, Diarmuid Connolly’s ridiculous, though successful, overnight appeal against his red card for punching Lee Keegan. The technicalities of that case are mind numbing but the lesson is clear: If you get sent off in the 2016 All-Ireland Football Championship, you’ll be the laughing stock of the summer if you can’t get your suspension overturned.

  1. The Republic of Ireland escape the ‘Group of Death’

By our nature, we are strangely complex characters, in that we convey optimism and pessimism in equal measures, usually in the same conversation.

An example being:

“You see the draw for the Euros?”

“Yeah it’s a fucker of a group, couldn’t be tougher.”

“Do you reckon we’ll get out, though?”

“Ah yeah, don’t see why not. Sure, Sweden only have Zlatan. Belgium are a bunch of whinging bastards. And, to be fair, Italy must be getting old at this stage.”

“Yeah, fair point.”

And that is the logic that we will be applying this summer. Remember, Sweden are ranked below Ireland in the admittedly oft-maligned FIFA World Rankings, Belgium do not have tournament pedigree. And, Italy? Well, there’s always Ray Houghton’s roly-poly in Giant Stadium.

  1. Gennady Golovkin gets a chance to decimate a middleweight world champion.

Broken record and all that, we know. Throughout 2015, GGG has grown exasperated as Golden Boy and Roc Nation protected their Latin-American cash-cows, for fear of them taking a beating that would see their market value plummet.

Not this year, though. Golovkin has relocated to Los Angeles and L.A.’s Central American fight community – the majority of the US boxing community – already love him. Golovkin fights in the tradition of the great Mexican boxers and the fans have warmed to this immediately.

To be clear, until his last few fights, GGG has only beaten what’s put in front of him and usually it’s been brave fodder who need a pay cheque. But it’s the way he’s beaten them. Toe-to-toe, stand and deliver. He may yet be found out by a younger, though more experienced in terms of quality of opponent, Saul Alvarez. Or by the erratic, though hugely talented, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. But, either way, let’s see it happen.

Say what you want about Andy Lee but, at least, he had shown his willingness to go straight for Golovkin had he beaten Saunders. Golovkin has been well handled by HBO and promoter, Tom Loeffler in 2015. The all-important US fan base has been carefully cultivated and for Alvarez, Saunders, Cotto and Chavez Jr., excuses are now thin on the ground.

The Four Kings never avoided each other and that’s what made the 80s the golden era of middleweight boxing. After the most overhyped, underwhelming fight of this or any other era took place between Mayweather and Pacquiao last summer, boxing fans deserve Golovkin and Alvarez in 2016.

  1. People will finally realise that Roy Hodgson is a spoofer of Frank Abignale Jr. proportions.

Children of the 90s will recall the brilliant Stephen Spielberg produced cartoon sketch show, Animaniacs. Fronted by the Warner Brothers, Wakko, Yakko and their sweet little sister, Dot, the show also featured the wonderfully, simplistic Chicken Boo sketch.

Each week, the titular Boo would arrive into town, and, thanks to some excellent costumes and a propensity to stay silent, deceive people into thinking he was, for example, a spy or a sheriff. On each occasion, one apoplectic member of the group would plead, unsuccessfully, with his friends to recognise that this was a chicken in their midst, not a man. Eventually, in the last act, Boo’s costume would come off, his true identity would be revealed and he’d be run out of town.

Now,  Roy Hodgson is obviously no chicken but he has provided a masterclass in deceiving people by basically saying nothing and being a gentleman throughout his reign as England football manager.

Remember, this is the man who said before the 2014 World Cup that he believed he had that could win the tournament. Of course, what followed was England’s worst World Cup performance since 1958, which for someone like Graham Taylor would have meant an immediate sacking.

 

Roy Hodgson

That’s a man who knows he’s getting away with murder. Sorry, soon to be, Sir Roy!

 

Now, on one hand, you have to admire the F.A. for their trust in the manager, and invariably international managers get more time in the job due to the fact that they have a specific set of players from which to choose and no transfer window.

However, the odd aspect of Hodgson’s reign is that he is being hailed as this extraordinary motivator and tactician when, in reality, he has done very little with what is actually a very talented squad.

Hodgson, unsurprisingly, wanted his England contract extension to be finalised before Euro 2016 but FA Chief Executive, Martin Glenn has decided otherwise. Sorry Roy, but Chicken Boo always got found out.

  1. Djakadam wins a first Cheltenham Gold Cup for Willie Mullins.

It would hardly be a shock to suggest that the Gold Cup will be one of the racing highlights of the year but we feel this year’s renewal will be one to capture the entire sporting public’s imagination.

Even in the unfortunate absence of last year’s brilliant winner Coneygree – we will forever be loyal followers of the gutsy, Mark Bradstock trained nine-year-old –  this year’s renewal of the Cheltenham Gold Cup promises to be an absolutely thrilling contest.

The King George at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day revealed a couple of interesting pointers: Vautour is a classy horse but he may not have three miles in him; Don Cossack is probably the best of the lot but as his fall proved, you’ve got to jump them (see Annie Power); Cue Card is having a remarkable season but has question marks remaining over whether he can do it at Prestbury Park.

 

Djakadam

Djakadam and Ruby Walsh, seen here after winning last year’s Thyestes Chase in Gowran park. The pair may just finally end Willie Mullins’ wait for a maiden victory in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

 

Meanwhile, last year’s second and this year’s favourite, the Willie Mullins trained, Djakadam, was merely an observer over Christmas. It appears at this stage he will take the route through the long grass via the Cotswold Chase, a route less popular for Gold Cup contenders in recent years.

Recent renewals have been hard to call perhaps because of a perceived dearth of quality. This year, however, there can be no question as to the depth in the field. And, it may finally see Willie Mullins win the one he so dearly desires.

  1. Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth will each win a major, while Tiger will, sadly, call it a day.

The depth of talent in golf is most probably at an all-time high. After his glorious 2014, it appeared that McIlroy would enjoy a reign something akin to Tiger but Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and an unfortunate game of five-a-side put paid to that.

It’s virtually impossible to separate the three, the Official World Rankings aside, so it would come as no great surprise if each of the big three took home a major this year. McIlroy is hurt by the fact that he still has not mastered Augusta but his form at the back end of the year was excellent and for the first time in a while, he may feel that he has something to prove to himself.

Rickie Fowler, Branden Grace, Shane Lowry and the rarely mentioned around here, Brooks Koepka, will have something to say but the battle between Day, McIlroy and Spieth will be the story of 2016.

In other news, Golfing Tiger is dead. Long live Golfing Tiger.

Tiger Woods

2016 may see the retirement of probably the greatest, and definitely the most influential golfer of all time, Tiger Woods. Vintage era Tiger was simply untouchable. (Photo By Jamie Squire/Getty Images for Golfweek)

  1. Conor McGregor continues to dominate U.F.C.

Anyone who has visited these parts before will know how we feel about Conor McGregor. However, to ignore his spectacular 2015, which culminated with the outrageous 13-second knockout of U.F.C. legend, Jose Aldo would be plain ignorant.

Thus far, he has does everything he has promised inside the octagon, and is the unquestioned king of the U.F.C. featherweight division. The jump to lightweight looks likely as he has acknowledged the difficulty of making 145lb as a relatively big featherweight at 5ft 9″.

Aldo McGregor

Conor McGregor delivered on his promise to dominate the UFC featherweight division, culminating in his 13 second K.O. of Jose Aldo. Now, in 2016, it’s up to the lightweight division. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Nonetheless, while U.F.C. fans and Dana White bow down to kiss McGregor’s feet, it will be interesting to see whether ‘the Notorious’ will have to join the queue before getting a shot at the lightweight champion, Rafael dos Anjos.

To McGregor’s credit, he lives and may someday die by the sword and, for this reason, all eyes will be on John Kavanagh’s star turn in 2016.

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Rugby

Rugby World Cup 2015: Final Preview – Australia -v- New Zealand

Australia -v- New Zealand: Twickenham 31st October 2015, 4:00 p.m.

Two very different journeys to the same destination

At first glance, there is a sense of crushing inevitability to the 2015 Rugby World Cup final line-up. Six weeks down and here we are with the world’s number one and two sides set to thrash it out for what would be an unprecedented third William Webb Ellis trophy. Yet, while the destination is as many have expected, the journey has been anything but predictable. Japan and Argentina, in particular, lit the tournament up and all told the gap between the superpowers and the perceived minnows has unquestionably decreased. In fact, before we go any further, remind yourself that you bore witness to the greatest upset in test rugby history just five weeks ago.

In hindsight, while Saturday’s pairing now seems predictable it is, in fact, the first time the Trans-Tasman rivals have met in the Rugby World Cup final. Indeed by some strange quirk the sides have met only three times in World Cup history: 1991, 2003 and 2011. The Australians were victorious in the 1991 and 2003 meetings – the former including a David Campese masterclass in the once atmospheric stadium on Lansdowne Road while the All Blacks cruised to a facile victory in Eden park in 2011.

The bookies have New Zealand as fairly significant favourites, but there are several reasons to suggest that the game could swing either way, not the least the fact that New Zealand is not the same side in World Cups on foreign soil. This is not opinion, but plain, old fact. Meanwhile, the Australians have prevailed twice on northern shores –Twickenham in 1991 and Cardiff in 1999- while actually dropping the only final ever played in Australia in 2003 to the Jonny Wilkinson inspired English side. That they made the final in 2003 was largely thanks to Eddie Jones mining all the potential talent from a pretty underwhelming team.

Some will stay that statistics when combined with history, are largely irrelevant, but the obvious analytical take away from the above would be that Australia’s performances have actually been better in European World Cups with the All Blacks preferring and thriving on their own turf. This New Zealand side, though, has been a different type of beast to its predecessors and can boast a year-long global dominance, in 2013, where all-comers were vanquished. There is a Michael Jordan-like resolve to the side, never encapsulated better than during last weekend’s grind against South Africa or, as impressively, in the record making victory against Ireland in November 2013.

The All Blacks do not have bad years or particularly bad sides – like Tom Brady they’ve never had a losing season- but the current edition are possessed of the unwavering self-confidence usually reserved for all-time great sides. Which is precisely what the 2015 edition of New Zealand are. The Americans would be fawning over the statistics. A full calendar year unbeaten and a win ratio of almost 91% over their last 57 games (48:2:3). And yet many judgments of the side will be moulded on the outcome of Saturday’s game.

One result should not categorise or define a team, especially in the case of an All Black side which already has so many incredible achievements under its belt. Yet, to a certain extent it will. Win against the Australians and they will justifiably enter the debate for the arbitrary classification of the greatest international rugby side ever. Lose and they will be perceived, probably unfairly, as an excellent side who could not deliver on the biggest stage. Particularly away from home comforts.

Australia, on the other hand, seem to be entering this contest with something of a free pass, insofar as a two-time winner can be granted such when going into a decider with their greatest rivals. Where New Zealand have continuity -former coach Graham Henry seamlessly passed the reins to his assistant Steve Hansen after the 2011 World Cup victory- Australia were in seeming disarray only a year ago. Under-fire coach, Ewan McKenzie was left with little option but to retire after the Di Patson imbroglio, leaving a disparate, ill-disciplined group of players behind.

Unearthing talent has rarely been an issue for the Australians so their requirement was for a strict disciplinarian with winning credentials. How fortunate then that the well-travelled, hardnosed Michael Cheika was open to an upgrade from his role at the New South Wales Waratahs. Similar to the scenario that faced him in Leinster in 2005, Cheika knew that he would be given a richly talented squad with questionable character. This time, however, he would have eleven months to prepare an international team for the World Cup. The four-year cycle could not have gone any differently on either side of the Tasman. Serenity versus chaos. And yet, after a victory a piece this August, the sides meet in the most monumental rubber match one could imagine, a World Cup final.

It sounds lazy at this stage to say this, but the battle of the breakdown on Saturday will go a long way towards deciding the victor. It seems centres and latterly back rows have been the only point of conversation during this World Cup, but their influence on the game is undeniable. Dominate the breakdown and, for the most part, you dictate the pace of the game, controlling the flow of the ball in both directions. The duel is not dissimilar to that of half forward and half-back lines in hurling. True, there are mini-battles taking place all over the field but perhaps none more important than the one on the ground.

All eyes will be on man of the moment David Pocock and, in his last game, the legendary, Richie McCaw.

All eyes will be on man of the moment David Pocock and, in his last game, the legendary, Richie McCaw.

Ordinarily, one would cast the iconic Richie McCaw along with Kieran Reid and Jerome Kaino as the favourites to dominate this joust but Australia’s trio of David Pocock, Michael Hooper and the unheralded Scott Fardy are far closer to the extraordinary. We don’t have enough time to sing the praises of McCaw. Suffice to say he is the greatest forward that we and many others have ever had the privilege of watching. However, all recent talk has been dominated by the otherworldly David Pocock and his lieutenant Hooper.

Hooper and Pocock are both nominally open-side flankers, built in the mode of the traditional hunter-gatherer seven. So when Cheika decided to pick the duo with a view to subduing the Kiwi ball supply back in August more than a few eyebrows were raised. Unsurprisingly, questions were asked as to whether a back row could be balanced with two such similar players present. The answer was an unequivocal yes as the duo thrived at the breakdown, aided by the simple though incredibly effective tactic of picking apart the Kiwis around the edge of the ruck.

When Pocock has been available during this tournament, he and Hooper have been outstanding, never more obvious than in their rucking masterclass against the Argentinians. True, the South Americans played into their opponents hands by running at every opportunity even when tactical acuity required otherwise. Time and time again, though, the Argentinian ball carrier was engulfed by a gold shirt and then pounced on by the arriving groundhogs.

South Africa and particularly Francois Louw were successful in slowing down New Zealand’s ball last weekend and as Gordon D’Arcy already pointed out this week, Louw is not the ball-winner that Pocock is. The All Blacks historically have committed very few players to rucks so tomorrow poses somewhat of a conundrum.

New Zealand will probably kick the ball quite regularly, unlike Argentina, thus guaranteeing field position and only then will they commit heavily to contest the ball on the ground. The Australian back row is almost more dangerous without the ball than with it so New Zealand will want to avoid unnecessary traffic. At the first sight of a contest Australia will, as New Zealand always have, pounce at speed. The breakdown as a spectacle is going to be incredibly enthralling.

While we have for the most part lauded Australia we would do well to remember that the reigning champions themselves have one of the greatest backrows of all time. Richie McCaw’s value to New Zealand is like that of late career Brian O’ Driscoll or Paul O’ Connell. He was  -as O’ Driscoll and O’ Connell were- probably a better player four years ago, in terms of measurable statistics, but his presence has never been more valued than now. Fans of sabermetrics are almost contemptuous toward anyone who values a player’s character or leadership but if McCaw was to go down this evening to be replaced by Sam Cane –as good a pure rugby player- the whole of New Zealand would be distraught. Morgan Parra might not, though.

If the back rows cancel each other out, insofar as they can, then New Zealand should win. And, believe it or not, it won’t come down to the titanic midfield battle. No, New Zealand hold the clear upper hand at half back where, in Aaron Smith and Dan Carter respectively, they possess the best scrum-half in the world and the best out half of all time. Not only that but Carter has returned to Lions 2005 form which in effect, makes him peerless.

Australia are hardly weak in this department but Will Genia, though certainly resurgent, is not the player of four years ago. Meanwhile, Bernard Foley is clearly possessed of an astounding skill-set but there are still question marks over his big game mentality. Though he nervelessly kicked the winning penalty against Scotland in the quarter-final, it seemed as if he zoned out for large parts of the second half. Smith and Carter beat Genia and Foley every single time. But rugby is not that simple.

Dan Carter, probably the greatest out half of all time, may well prove the difference in a tight affair.

Dan Carter, probably the greatest out half of all time, may well prove the difference in a tight affair.

Once their tails are up Australia are able to forget the bad times in an instant and right now they are playing their best rugby….. ever? And, they are the only team who, relatively speaking, have New Zealand’s number. Yet, tomorrow, we will be watching possibly the greatest All Black side to ever take the field. So, on which side do we fall?

This New Zealand team has shown the ability and composure to overcome all challenges presented to it thus far. Yet, in twelve months, Michael Cheika has quite phenomenally reorganised the listless Australians. Victory tomorrow would surely be the greatest achievement in Michael Cheika’s career and of the most impressive turnarounds in rugby history. Steve Hansen has the chance to helm the first back-to-back winner of the tournament. So hard to call, as it should be.

With little certainty, we’ll go with New Zealand to retain and take their place in history.

S.U.S. Prediction – New Zealand by 3

S.U.S. Tips: (i) Australia + 6 (Evens)

                        (ii) Handicap draw (22/1)

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Rugby

Rugby World Cup 2015: Snap Back to Reality

Sometimes, when you want a thing to happen so much, you happily overlook minor details such as, say, stark reality. Thus it was that we looked in hope to our quarter-final showdown with Argentina last Sunday despite being without Paul O’ Connell, Peter O’ Mahony, Jonathan Sexton, Sean O’ Brien and Jared Payne. Our captain, future captain, most important player, best ball carrier and most important defender respectively. Was it always a bridge too far? An unrealistic dream fuelled by frenzied support both at home and in Cardiff? If you believe in it enough, then maybe it might just happen. Well not this time and not as far as a hugely impressive Argentinian side were concerned.

Argentina's captain Agustin Creevy celebrates with a fan after last weekend's thrilling victory over Ireland in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final at a packed Millennium Stadium.

Argentina’s captain Agustin Creevy celebrates with a fan after last weekend’s thrilling victory over Ireland in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final at a packed Millennium Stadium.

It seems that a root and branch investigation is set to take place into the state of northern hemisphere rugby. However, once the hyperbole dies down, the realisation will dawn that Scotland were cruelly robbed, while Ireland and Wales were pick-pocketed by that cruelest of foes, misfortune. England and France were admittedly awful but that’s not really something we’re going to lose any sleep over. Were Australia or New Zealand to lose five or in the case of Wales ten players, you can be certain that even they would struggle. Indeed, Australia did not look near as composed against Scotland without David Pocock and Israel Folau, their marquee forward and back respectively. This is not to whinge, simply to lay out the facts as they present themselves. In any event, we find the overreaction to be misguided, though unsurprising.

Southern hemisphere sides have won six out of the seven Rugby World Cups played since the tournament’s inception in 1987. Soon, of course, to be seven out of eight. Why suddenly are the death knells of northern hemisphere rugby tolling? Why are we getting so hung up about something we’ve known for a long time? Rugby south of the equator is superior to European rugby. There, we said it.

If this wasn’t the case, then why would so many perceived journeyman players travel from the south to Europe at the tail end of their career and have such a decisive impact? Incidentally, the case is identical in rugby league. That is not a reason however to get down on ourselves or incidentally to lump Ireland, Scotland, Wales and to a lesser extent Italy into the same category as England and France. Taking all circumstances into account, the latter have far more deep-lying issues than the other four sides.

A couple of thoughts have nagged at us since Sunday. Would Ireland have been less disappointed had they gone down to Australia, New Zealand or South Africa? And was it largely the case that we have, for almost two years, being fixated with avoiding the New Zealand quarter-final? Our prediction of last week’s outcome was laughably off the mark but we were mindful of the fact that Argentina were coming into a game against a team who they have oft beaten in the past surrounded by little or no fanfare. This a side who had shown marked improvement against New Zealand earlier this summer while also beating South Africa in Durban in August. Then, when they pushed New Zealand to the limit in their World Cup opener it was because the All Blacks were sloppy and under-prepared. Two of their famous traits.

It has been lamented all week that we have no hope until all our eight-year-old are taught how to offload and learn to value and utilise space as much as the ball itself. Which is all very well but then how does one explain the manner in which Argentinian coach, Daniel Hourcade –admittedly with a major dime from World Cup winning Kiwi coach, Graham Henry- successfully taught a group of men in their twenties, and beyond, to run straight, move the ball quickly and play with width? Jesus, that’s fish and loaves stuff!  And this in a country where unimaginative, formulaic rugby formed the cornerstone to their success in recent years.

Coach Daniel Hourcade has overseen a remarkable transformation in the Argentinian style of play.

Coach Daniel Hourcade has overseen a remarkable transformation in the Argentinian style of play.

Rather than completely tear the template up, Hourcade decided to retain the Argentinian strengths –mauling, kicking-game, strong breakdown work- and supplement his players’ skill-sets with superior handling and ball movement and use of the field’s entire dimensions. The early signs were not promising and Los Pumas shipped some serious pummellings but the fruits of their labour were borne emphatically last Sunday. In this vein, Ireland should retain their focus on those areas where they are strong, and these are not dissimilar to the Argentinians’ strengths, and look to expand their game accordingly. The transition, as with any change in tack, will be difficult but once progress is visible the patience and perseverance will be validated.

The idea repeatedly espoused this week that our youngsters should be taught the game differently absolutely carries merit. The oft-cited system in New Zealand whereby children play matches based on weight rather than age is a fantastic proposal. And encouraging a youngster to think their way around rather over an opponent can only be beneficial. Yet the reality is that none of the eight-year-olds in Ballymena, Buccaneers or Bruff are going to be taking the field in Japan 2019 or (hopefully) Ireland 2023, so, while the long-term, ball-centric plan is perfectly logical, it should not prevent Ireland from regarding themselves as contenders for the upcoming tournaments. We’re sure Eddie O’ Sullivan has a suitable mish-mash of clichés about babies and bath water to sum up what we’re trying to say.

New Zealand are the standard bearers of world rugby or as Bret the Hitman Hart –GOAT- put it, they are, “the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be!” (Even after the Montreal Screwjob!) That does not mean however that we need to base our blueprint on the All Blacks. The bigger picture ideals are fine are and should be legitimately considered but those culture shifting, long-term changes aren’t much use to Joe Schmidt or whoever coaches the Irish rugby team over the next twelve years.

In reality, where we exist most of the time, Ireland simply need to retain the foundations and continue building with perhaps a little more adventure. We have been halted, not destroyed, and there would be no sense in razing the city and starting from scratch. This notion that our most capable professional rugby players cannot learn to improve their ball handling and distribution skills under the correct tutelage is completely non-sensical.

For the majority of the last two weekends Cardiff was imbued with the energy of thousands of exuberant, carefree and expectant Irish fans. Then came the decimation by Argentina. It’s natural to hit the panic button especially after such a crushing defeat yet less than a week later the mood is lifting ever so slightly.

By no means are we underestimating the effort and ingenuity that will be required in the next four years. Nor do we disagree with the mooted long-term proposals as to how the game of rugby is taught on this island. Nonetheless pragmatism must be the order of the day and it is possible to change our playing style without abandoning everything that has gone before.

New Zealand are the standard bearers of world rugby. However, in defeat last weekend, Ireland may have found the bar to which they should realistically aspire in the short-term.

S.U.S. Picks: RWC 2015 Semi Finals

24th October: New Zealand (-8) over South Africa (10/11 generally)

25th October: Argentina to beat Australia (9/4 generally)

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Rugby

Rugby World Cup 2015 – Ireland v Argentina Preview

As with Ronan O’ Gara, his Munster teammate of many a year, there was no fairytale ending for Paul O’ Connell in the green of Ireland. For all that he has given of himself and to his team mates, life, the cruel bastard that this it is, chose an agonising twist at the end of O’ Connell’s remarkable, thirteen-year international career. It’s been almost impossible not to get caught up in the outpouring of emotion that has swept over the country since Sunday’s drama in Cardiff. Especially when you hear that O’ Connell had a room of his peers and friends in tears just minutes before they took to the field against France.

In barely thirty minutes our spiritual leader, our most important player and arguably our best performer in this year’s tournament -O’ Connell, Johnny Sexton and Peter O’ Mahony- went down, all during one of the biggest games in Irish World Cup history. The response from the remaining collective was beyond impressive, but we must, like the Chicago Cubs –who won their first home playoff decider in over a hundred years this week- temper our emotions with the fact that we are still ‘only’ at the quarter-final stage of the World Cup. A place we have fallen before on six occasions.

Yet, within a vacuum, last Sunday afternoon will forever remain an iconic moment in Irish sport, up there with, amongst others –these are the ones we’ve lived through and can remember- the Houghton roly-poly, Robbie beating Kahn and Shane Long’s wonder-strike. Thankfully the emotional aspect of these achievements is savoured far more lustily by the Irish support, meaning Joe Schmidt and his team, while naturally elated, would have looked to Argentina this Sunday, only minutes after Nigel Owens’ final whistle.

The injury toll is high though not insurmountable and Sean O’ Brien’s suspension is unfortunate though probably deserved. Incidentally, O’ Brien’s six foot, four inch, eighteen stone victim failed to cover himself in glory after going out of his way to try and get a lengthier ban imposed on O’ Brien . What’s that one about being able to give….? It’s a bit controversial to suggest that it’s ok to punch or slap a player. Indeed it isn’t, not nowadays. Nonetheless Pape’s relentlessness in pursuing the matter smacks of a bully who doesn’t like getting his toys taken from him, particularly with everyone watching. Anyway, it will be interesting to see where Pape’s hands go the next time he approaches O’ Brien in open country.

The greatest difficulty this weekend, aside from under-estimating the Argentinians will be trying to replicate the emotional, and more tellingly, physical intensity of last weekend. By the time Ireland had emptied themselves against the French, Argentina already had their feet up after a comfortable, if unnecessarily aggressive, victory over Namibia. The flipside, of course, is that Ireland had the most perfectly staggered build up to their group decider so it would be remiss of us to moan as soon as our highly advantageous situation has passed.

With all due respect to Keith Earls, the greatest concern throughout the week –save for the potential for thousands of Irish men breaking down in tears amidst all the Paul O’ Connell tributes- has been Johnny Sexton’s abductor and/or groin. Composed as Ian Madigan was when arriving on the pitch in Cardiff, Sexton’s presence is of immense importance to Ireland on Sunday. With the heart of the pack absent, it is imperative that our chief orchestrator remains. Argentina will target Sexton, in the same way that every single team targets opposition playmakers. If Nicholas Sanchez, Sexton’s opposite number, reaches high for a pass and Ian Henderson is in the vicinity, then Irish hopes will be that the Armagh man delivers a monstrous hit.  You do not want to see player hurt but you hope he is weakened for the next collision or slower for the next split-second decision. Crude though it may sound, it’s the truth.

Even with four games played, it is difficult to gauge just how good Argentina are. People have been quick to praise their opening night performance in defeat to New Zealand while at the same time stating that New Zealand were less than impressive on the same night. So were both good? Were neither good? Or, most likely, do the public hold the world champions to a higher standard than their Latin opponents? The latter is a dangerous approach as the Argentinians have long since outgrown the tag of plucky up-starts with one big performance per tournament in them. The reality is that Los Pumas will be approaching Sunday’s game with respect –or perhaps contempt based on past meetings- for their opponents and little else.

Oddly enough, Argentina’s perceived Achilles heel at this tournament has been a tendency to allow their play become too loose and spontaneous, incidentally just as France –in the midst of a discreet rebellion apparently- have moved in the other direction. Ireland would be delighted with such an approach as a reversion to the old-school, grindhouse play of the Argentina of World Cups past would probably present a far greater challenge to Joe Schmidt’s weary side. Logic dictates that scoring opportunities will come Ireland’s way should Argentina employ an expansive, risk-reward game plan.

We are in awkward territory once more, just as four years ago, when Warren Gatland’s red-machine ended our World Cup, in a well thought out physical coup in Wellington. As with the Australian game in 2011, the Irish public were last week able to immerse themselves in our default mode, underdog –when we really were favourites- with the French game looming. However with our nemesis of so many years and tournaments gone by vanquished, Ireland arrive into Sunday’s encounter in Cardiff with the unenviable and unshakable tag of favourites. This perception is somewhat skewed by the fact that Ireland are down three big-time players but the tag of favouritism sits justifiably on the Jamie Heaslip led team.

Despite, five quarter-final appearances Ireland have yet to reach a Rugby World Cup semi-final.

Despite, five quarter-final appearances Ireland have yet to reach a Rugby World Cup semi-final.

Full strength or not, victory on Sunday will take Ireland to unchartered territories, a world Cup semi-final. The prize is too great, too tangible and too realistic a goal to let slip. Argentina will be far more than just a willing footnote on Sunday and are no doubt savouring their low-key build-up to the quarter-final. Still, Joe Schmidt has prepared this squad meticulously and after last Sunday it seems as though they’ll need to be taken away on their shields. In other years, the injuries might have been a bridge too far. Not this time, though.

Often before we went in hope. This time, Ireland enter a brave new world, one of expectation. While favouritism may not have sat well in the past, this Sunday it will.

S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 6 (generally -5.5)

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Rugby

RWC 2015 – Ireland -v- France Preview

Ireland Hopefully Cooked to Perfection

With the potential crisis averted last weekend, Ireland head to Cardiff in a historically favourable position – angry and with a point to prove. In the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s game, it was hard to escape the feeling that Ireland had, probably subliminally, gone into the Italian job with one eye inescapably on France seven days later. Obviously we here it on rote these days that the players are professionals, that they don’t listen to outside noise and take each game as it comes. All the available empirical evidence would suggest otherwise. Did South Africa approach Japan as they would have the All Blacks? Certainly not. To a far lesser extent Ireland appear to have entered last Sunday’s game with their focus and intensity askew. And at this level as we’re repeatedly told, you only need to be one percent off your game to be exposed.

From the off it seemed that the Italians were quite simply better prepared for a battle, ably facilitated by Ireland’s soft defensive line. Now, as far we understand, the intention here is to guide the attacking side laterally ultimately using the touchline as an extra defender. How in the world though does this justify giving the Italians twenty-five easy metres off a scrum, simply by shifting the ball wide? The line speed improved in the second half but dipped once more, particularly when Josh Furno’s try scoring opportunity was created. Ireland were listless at ruck time –not helped by the otherwise excellent Peter O’ Mahony’s yellow card for a rash, arm-free charge at the ruck- and quick ball was at a premium, save for when Iain Henderson carried.

When the ball was there, receivers took it deep from a standing position and were invariably stopped behind the gain line. The early connect between Robbie Henshaw and Keith Earls was truly promising but after the game’s only try, numbers eleven to fifteen were rarely required to focus on much more than their kick chase skills. With David Kearney and Tommy Bowe ostensibly taking part in an audition for one wing spot, both must have been truly disappointed at the paucity of attacking opportunities that came their way. Similarly, the uncomfortable looking Simon Zebo. There is no pint in engaging the Corkman to mimic Rob Kearney, not when their skill sets are so vastly different.

Watching Sunday’s game one couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the 2013 hammering by Australia which officially ushered in the Joe Schmidt era. That day the defensive line fell off while there was little or no direction in a completely anaemic attack. The following Sunday felt like a trip to the gallows with a peerless All Black side set to finish off their unbeaten year with a comfortable victory in Dublin. Of course, we all know how events unfolded. From minute one that day, the home side tore into their far more illustrious opponents, playing with heretofore unseen intensity levels for an Irish side, bringing the defensive line up quickly and carrying with support runners straight through the heart of the ruck. Simple rugby carried out with incredible accuracy and efficiency. And this is what Ireland must aim for again next Sunday in Cardiff.

As insipid as last week’s performance was, Ireland still took four points from the encounter with no injuries reported. Irish teams invariably respond more favourably when they are cast in the role of underdog, or at the very least when they are not overwhelming favourites against a competent team. To be quite blunt about it, sometimes a kick in the arse beats a pat on the back.

Joe Schmidt has already indicated that perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the performance was the concession of ten penalties –Peter O’ Mahony, though superb, was pretty much namechecked by his coach in this regard- and despite the widely held theory about holding back our hand, teams don’t intentionally display bad discipline as a ruse. This is the first area that needs to be rectified for Sunday. Beyond this, of course, we move to the great unknown, the magic tricks which Schmidt and his coaching team have been concocting since the squad first gathered during the summer.

We’ve possibly beaten all our poker analogies to death at this stage so suffice to say, Cardiff will be the stage where Ireland’s backline makes its big reveal. Our half-backs, amongst the best pairing in the world, need to perform this week as we know they can. There was something disconcerting about watching Jamie Heaslip feed Conor Murray off an attacking scrum, whereupon Murray grubber kicked straight to touch. None of the other eight potential quarter-finalists would have attacked off first phase in this manner –to their credit Ireland did a job on the Italian lineout but it’s a pretty limited mode of attack- so again let’s presume that this is all part of a giant Kayser Soze-like deceit.

Of course, what everybody wants to see more than anything is a backline with the potential to unlock their opponent’s defence, by trickery or otherwise. Under Philippe Saint-Andre, France may have lost their attacking verve but they have developed an extremely aggressive in your face defensive wall that simply will not be unlocked by a series of predictable wraparounds. However, in Joe Schmidt’s tenure Ireland have become extremely clinical, so just a handful of line breaks will be sufficient to set up decent attacking platforms. We suspect that February’s game against the French in Dublin provided a pretty accurate blueprint of what we’ll see in Cardiff: direct carries in midfield, trench warfare on the ground and aerial bombardment.

Up to this point, possibly due to our shamefully presumptive nature, we have focused solely on Ireland –Sergio Parisse aside- prior to each group match. This time, however, it would be remiss of us to ignore the challenges that France will bring. On current form, the French have by far and away the most effective ball-carrier in either pack, in Louis Picamoles. The number eight simply cannot be allowed boss the collisions as Parisse was, and if gets into open field he can be as destructive as any of the French backs. The Toulouse is assisted by the no-frills Bernard le Roux* and their redoubtable captain, Thierry Dusautoir. Without a shadow of a doubt, this unit will provide Ireland with their greatest challenge since Wales in Cardiff last March.

Sean O’ Brien is Ireland’s obvious wrecking ball yet it is the perceived dirt merchant in the back row, Peter O’ Mahony, who has actually been our most effective carrier within the unit. Once more the question arises as to whether we are picking the right back row combination? It seems highly implausible that either O’ Brien or Jamie Heaslip will be dropped -though Sunday requires a marked improvement in performance from both- so if a change is to take place it would be likely be the heretofore highly impressive –both in open play and in a highly functioning lineout- O’ Mahony dropping out. And yet…..

Ireland need big performances from Jamie Heaslip (centre) and Sean O' Brien (right) on Sunday evening.

Ireland need big performances from Jamie Heaslip (centre) and Sean O’ Brien (right) on Sunday evening.

O’ Brien has grown into the role of poacher but one wonders if this has nullified his carrying threat? Where are the barnstorming runs last seen as recently as March in Murrayfield? Would a move to number eight at Heaslip’s expense or six at O’ Mahony’s with Chris Henry – Ireland’s best ground operator in the contested areas- coming in at open-side in each case be logical moves? These are options that we have touched on before and even if we don’t believe that immediate change is necessary, there is merit in considering these alternatives. If O’ Mahony, Heaslip and O’ Brien can fulfil their respective roles of disruption, control and destruction then Ireland will assuredly have the upper hand. If, though, as the game unfurls the French are preventing a flow of quick ball in Conor Murray’s direction then Henry must be introduced. Our best back row is still the unit that started last Sunday but the situation remains fluid.

One recurring, slimmed down though still sizable, problem that Ireland must face is the potential match-winner Mathieu Bastareaud. The Toulon centre has always caused trouble for Ireland, whether with the now retired Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’ Driscoll or one of Bastareaud’s current targets, Johnny Sexton. That last statement is probably a little disingenuous as the destructive Bastareaud’s remit is to damage the body and weaken the mind of all out halves, not just Sexton. If he gains momentum and crosses the gain line , Bastareaud has the Ma’a Nonu like ability to free his hands and facilitate the French second wave.

Ireland need to nullify the line-breaking ,off-loading threat of Mathieu Bastareaud.

Ireland need to nullify the line-breaking ,off-loading threat of Mathieu Bastareaud.

The rule for Bastareaud –not dissimilar to the one employed so  successfully by Wales four years ago to foil O’ Brien and Stephen Ferris- will be to hit him as early as possible, ideally behind the gain line. The position in which the big midfielder gets the ball is intrinsically linked to the quality of the ball laid at the feet of Morgan Parra. Slow ball allows the Irish line to shoot up quickly, hopefully foregoing the passive approach seen at the Olympic Stadium. Also, as Gordon D’Arcy pointed out this week, Robbie Henshaw is a pretty big unit, well capable of halting Bastareaud on and not over the gain-line. Nonetheless, the best one can hope for with Bastareaud is containment as he is quite simply too big to overpower or dominate.

Which leads us to maligned, then popular, then oddly maligned once more and now seemingly due to his absence, popular again, Jared Payne. Who knew kicking the ball three times in a tournament could get you on the wrong side of that old sage, Matt Williams? Payne will bring renewed stability to the Irish midfield while guaranteeing crucially important go-forward ball and largely underappreciated distribution skills. Payne and Henshaw had developed a decent understanding by the end of the Six Nations but further growth has been stymied by the unavoidable intervention of injury. Now, as a friend pointed out to us recently, the World Cup is not being played exclusively by centres but the outcome of this game within a game on Sunday will prove absolutely crucial.

The biggest questions will be asked of Ireland when the benches empty around the hour mark. Cast your mind back eight months and you will recall the breathless finale as Ireland desperately repelled wave after wave of French attacks, the latter supplanted by twenty stone monsters off the bench. We have a feeling that this is precisely how Sunday’s encounter will finish, a frantic endgame with the sides camped in the Irish twenty-two.

Sunday is not do-or-die. To say otherwise would be plainly hyperbolic as both sides will get at least one more bite of the cherry. What it is though, particularly for Ireland, is an opportunity to enhance their credentials as genuine World Cup contenders. Interestingly no side has ever won the tournament after suffering a group defeat and it would be preferable if Ireland didn’t have to buck this trend.

Ireland arrive in Cardiff more or less exactly as we expected, predicated of course on the fact that we have thus far only had a glimpse at the full armoury. France, wired as they are –uniquely- simply know how to step it up in World Cups. That statement would sound lazy if it wasn’t so patently incontrovertible. It will come down to fine margins and we’re inclined to back a hopefully even angrier than usual Johnny Sexton over the admittedly resurgent, though still flaky, Freddie Michalak.

Two roads diverge in Cardiff on Sunday. It would be preferable if the one through New Zealand was the road not taken. Ireland by a whisker.

*Damien Chouly has been selected at blindside flanker ahead of Bernard le Roux.

Prediction: Ireland by 2 (Ireland -2 generally)

S.U.S. Tips: (i)  Handicap draw 22/1

(ii) Draw 16/1

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