Rugby World Cup 2015 – Round 3 Preview

Payne once more the butt of unjustifiable criticism

The chaos and carnage in Twickenham on Saturday night was unquestionably the high point of week two in this simmering World Cup. The compelling and mystifying –because frankly how in the world did Wales win- contest provided exactly what we all expected with the already battle-scarred Welsh forced to reach deeper than most thought possible. Gutsy and intensely composed as the Welsh were in the final quarter, England have massive questions to ask of their leaders, both on and off the field. As many had noted beforehand England’s team selection suggested a desire to stifle their opposition rather than playing to their own strengths. Wales are bloodied and will need incredible resilience to turn around for Thursday’s encounter with Fiji but Gatland, like him or not, has engendered an incredible sense of desire and character within his Welsh squad.

The idea abounds in this professional era that players are no longer driven by passion but by a natural professional drive to win. Gatland has long been criticised for his over-reliance on feeding his players emotions but this weekend he worked his players into a perfect frenzy. With bodies strewn across the pitch and an almost unbelievably patchwork backline out there, Wales’ character and passion were to the fore. The danger with this approach, of course, is that players can’t simply be expected to call on these deep resources of emotion each time they require a herculean effort. Nonetheless, when the situation required it last Saturday evening, a logically inferior Welsh side were able to out battle their more vaunted hosts.

Ireland -remarkably in front of a world record attendance for a Rugby World Cup- easily and expectedly downed a limited Romanian side with the back three, in particular giving Joe Schmidt serious food for thought. With Rob Kearney in doubt for next weekend, this same back three may well be asked to take the field again although at this point it’s a coin toss between Tommy Bowe and David Kearney for the right wing slot. The most intriguing aspect of Ireland’s performance has been the criticism aimed in the direction of Jared Payne. The converted full-back has obviously been under intense scrutiny since replacing Brian O’ Driscoll in midfield, a truly unenviable task no matter who you are. Payne, though, appeared to have ridden out the storm, most recently receiving the endorsements of none other than O’ Driscoll and his midfield partner of many years, Gordon D’Arcy, both of whom acknowledged Payne’s outstanding defence and distribution skills.

On Sunday evening, however, (Irishman?) Matt Williams lamented Payne’s complete lack of form, suggesting Darren Cave would be a suitable replacement in midfield. Worse still the rest of the panel were inclined to agree with him. Now with all due respect to Cave, who is a fine player, his best moments against Romania came in the second half, against a team not exactly renowned for their strengths in midfield. Payne was by no means outstanding on Sunday and his kicking is pretty abysmal judged against any standards. But, given that his kicking game needs to improve, he was right to experiment during those games in which Ireland have virtually no chance of losing.

Look back to the defeat in Twickenham last month and you will recall that Payne was the outstanding back on the Irish team. Frankly we’d side with the guy who steps it up against the better sides, notwithstanding the fact that his performances in recent weeks haven’t really been all that bad. Jared Payne is the best available distributor and defender at outside centre at this moment in time. Darren Cave and Keith Earls though able replacements are not superior second centres to Payne. Robbie Henshaw may ultimately be the man who to naturally fill this position, indeed one hopes so, but right now we are only concerned with the next five weeks.

One can’t help but wonder if there is an underlying antipathy allied with an increased level of expectation towards Payne based solely on the fact that he is a naturalised player. For years, we have looked down our noses at the All Blacks, Australia and more recently England for their recruitment of perceived rugby mercenaries. These players, wherever their place of birth, and their adopted nations are simply taking advantage of an IRB rule. Their performances should not be held to a higher standard and nor should they be subjected to the South Park treatment.

Jared Payne's performances continue to be questioned by the media.

Jared Payne’s performances continue to be questioned by the media.

In any event, the negative talk about Payne has been widely disregarded by those in the know –Darcy and O’ Driscoll- and earlier in the week those who matter. Tommy Bowe, in an interview with The Irish Times indicated that Payne clearly has the backing of his peers while indirectly suggesting that Matt Williams’ views are perhaps best sprinkled with salt. Or at least that’s our interpretation. Williams doesn’t seem to be the most popular pundit, not helped by, amongst other things, his Colin Montgomerie- like ability to insert ‘I’ and ‘me’ into every answer, even when the question is not remotely related to him.

Moving on, Ireland go to East London on Sunday to face Italy knowing that at last the intensity is going to be ratcheted up. Sergio Parisse’s return is of immeasurable value to Italy as heretofore they have been really poor and only snuck by Canada last weekend. The Italians came into the tournament in poor form and don’t seem to have escaped their funk.

Parisse is of monumental importance however and by simply playing he has an uplifting effect on those around him. Statistics obsessed observers, who are ten a penny nowadays, naturally prefer to rely on measurable data and often balk at the idea that totemic players- McCaw, Parisse and O’ Connell- can improve the performance of those around them by their mere presence on the field. There is room for a lengthy debate on this, but our main point is that Sergio Parisse will be more than a world-class number eight on Sunday. Simply by returning to the fold he brings renewed, infectious vigour to his teammates and forces them to try and raise their level of performance to the lofty standards of their captain.

This, however, will not be enough. Ireland have been quietly efficient thus far and all thirty players who have taken the field in the tournament have acquitted themselves well. Selection headaches have arisen as a result of an excess of quality performers as opposed to the 2007 issue of ‘where have all the good performers gone?’ It appears that Robbie Henshaw, an injury-enforced non-participant thus far, will make his World Cup debut alongside Payne, though Payne’s bruised foot may not heal in time. While the squad possesses an abundance of converted centres it would be preferable at this stage to have the first choice pairing together.

The balancing act at loosehead prop may see the unfortunate Jack McGrath shifted to the bench, but a fit Cian Healy will be extremely difficult to omit. Along with Sean O’ Brien and the surging Iain Henderson the Leinsterman provides a world-class ball carrying option and breaching the gain line is, of course, absolutely crucial. Another fifty-odd minutes for Healy would surely see him primed to go deep when Ireland will need him most against the French.

The back three also offers various conundrums, with all six players staking a valid claim to a starting jersey. Rob Kearney, the incumbent full-back, probably won’t be risked on Sunday meaning the increasingly impressive Simon Zebo will be entrusted with the role of minding the house. While Luke Fitzgerald impressed in the Six Nations finale his chances may be damaged by an appearance at inside-centre against Canada. That, and the fact that Keith Earls is probably playing the best rugby of his life. A confessed self-doubter the Limerick man looks incredibly confident and happy in his skin these days. A neutral observer would think that he is a lock for the number eleven against Italy, and perhaps beyond. If Payne is out, expect Earls to move inside and Fitzgerald to fill the number eleven jersey.

On the other wing, there is a little to choose between David Kearney, whose form of late has been outstanding, and old favourite Tommy Bowe. Bowe’s form had been patchy at best, plummeting to its nadir in Twickenham last month. However, last Sunday he performed like a man with a point to prove, dominant in the kick chase and finishing well twice, particularly for his first score, when he powered straight over the top of his opposite number before grounding the ball in the tightest of spaces. Kearney is also a fantastic competitor in the air and he, more than any other back in the last two months, has showed menace and ambition in virtually every carry. It would be cruel on the Louthman to miss out, but it will prove extremely difficult to omit a rejuvenated Tommy Bowe. Admittedly though Bowe has only found form in the last week so the likelihood is that whoever has gone better in training this week will be selected.

Never has an Irish coach been stuck with so many difficult though welcome selection issues. Credit here of course needs to go to Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff for developing a genuinely deep squad. There seems to be a near perfect balance of competitiveness, ambition and camaraderie. Time for the serious stuff now though. And, with a little bit of luck Joe Schmidt’s opinion will hold a little more sway than Matt Williams when it comes to team selection.

Ireland-v-Italy (possible 23)

  1. Cian Healy 2. Rory Best 3. Mike Ross 4. Iain Henderson 5. Paul O’ Connell (c) 6. Peter O’ Mahony 7. Sean O’ Brien 8. Jamie Heaslip 9. Conor Murray 10. Jonathan Sexton 11. Keith Earls/David Kearney/Luke Fitzgerald 12. Robbie Henshaw 13. Jarred Payne/Keith Earls 14. Tommy Bowe 15. Simon Zebo 16. Sean Cronin 17. Jack McGrath 18. Nathan White 19.Donnahca Ryan 20. Chris Henry 21. Eoin Reddan 22. Ian Madigan 23. Luke Fitzgerald/David Kearney

* At the time of writing there is major doubt over Jared Payne’s participation on Sunday. Per The Irish Independent, Keith Earls will be Payne’s likely replacement.

Weekend Picks (selections in caps)

SCOTLAND +14 over South Africa

IRELAND -19 over Italy


Rugby World Cup 2015 – Round 2 Preview

For Lancaster, might is right

So, after a tumultuous week, all twenty sides have taken the field. No prizes for the highlight of the opening round of games but the cruel nature of the scheduling –where Japan were forced to play the two favourites in their group within four days- means Eddie Jones’ side were comfortably and none too impressively subdued by Scotland. Vern Cotter’s side has come to the table with little fanfare, largely as a by-product of consecutively awful Six Nations performances but they should not be underestimated. On Wednesday, the Scots, due to the whimsical nature of scheduling and matters out of their control, were treated with the sort of antipathy reserved for one of their near neighbours. True, the Japanese engines eventually stalled –too easy to insert a joke here- but Scotland were still very impressive in dispatching a tricky, confidence-imbued Japanese side.

We’re inclined to think that we dodged a serious bullet by avoiding a full synopsis of what is now the most interesting quintet in the tournament, Group B. Japan, would admittedly, have been given pretty short shrift. Still, with money in our hand we’d have no hesitation in predicting that South Africa and Scotland will escape will escape this group, though the order in which this happens has taken on a mask of uncertainty after Japan’s stunning victory last Saturday.

The elusive Finn Russell will play a big role if Scotland are to go deep in this tournament.

The elusive Finn Russell will play a big role if Scotland are to go deep in this tournament.

Scotland came into this World Cup with virtually no fanfare surrounding them. And, as somewhat of a quirk, until the IRB rankings are updated next week, they remain the fourth highest ranked side in Group B, behind South Africa, Samoa and Japan. We’ll say now, potentially to our complete embarrassment in a few weeks’ time, that this Scottish side -controlled by the increasingly impressive, Finn Russell, has an excellent chance of making their second ever Rugby World Cup semi-final. Naturally, there are a number of more easily fancied sides to choose from, but we’re inclined to think that the South Africans, rather than being even more dangerous now, are actually ripe for the taking. The ‘Boks enter a balls-out war with Samoa on Saturday and there is likely to be damage from this –actually and not collateral- not to mention the fact that the Samoans could turn over their wounded rivals. Scotland, like Ireland, have been well treated by the fixture list and the benefit of this really can’t be overstated.

Also this weekend, going hand in hand with the South Africa Samoa slobber-knocker, we have the clash of England and Wales in Twickenham on Saturday night. English coach Stuart Lancaster, to the chagrin of many, has made the dull and somewhat depressing decision –we’re talking bigger picture in this regard- of selecting the bread and butter Owen Farrell over the more creative, though admittedly slighter, George Ford for the pivotal clash with their western neighbours. The Welsh, under Warren Gatland, are now famed for ‘Warrenball’ – smash it up in midfield and win every possible physical collision. Lancaster, mindful of this, has chosen a mind-numbingly unimaginative English ten, twelve, thirteen connection of Farrell, Sam ‘the Second Coming’ Burgess and the one trick defensive pony, Brad Barritt.

Out-halves or first five-eighth –depending on where you’re sitting- have always been granted a sort of dispensation for both defensive ability and indeed physique. David Humphreys, Ronan O’ Gara and now, Quade Cooper have all enjoyed enormously successful careers despite clearly lacking the defensive presence of Jonathan Sexton, Jonny Wilkinson or Dan Carter. George Ford, by the grace of genetics, falls into the former group, a nimble twenty-two-year-old who invites plenty of challenging traffic down his channel. When it comes to defence, there is no question that Farrell enjoys clear superiority over Ford.

George Ford, seen here touching down against France in this year's Six Nations has been dropped by coach Stuart Lancaster for this weekend's pivotal encounter against France.

George Ford, seen here touching down against France in this year’s Six Nations has been dropped by coach Stuart Lancaster for this weekend’s pivotal encounter against France.

However, little more than twelve months ago, Ford was offered the number ten jumper to try and give some impetus to an English attack so plainly lacking in craft or guile. Ford’s arrival has been widely lauded and England’s outrageous victory over France in March, where there backline sparkled, was largely inspired by the innovation of the Bath man in the pivot role. Jamie Joseph, injured this weekend –and perhaps for longer- was probably the greatest beneficiary of Ford’s playing style so in Joseph’s absence, the need for a creative out-half has been, rather perversely, deemed superfluous.

Excepting that Barritt is, as they say in baseball, a defensive whizz only, Ford could still work wonders for the underrated line running of Sam Burgess. The Yorkshireman is lazily regarded by union fans as a battering ram -these the same fans who now fawn over Sonny-Bill Williams- but there is far more to the Yorkshireman’s game than catch  and smash. With Farrell inside, however, there is no chance of witnessing the more subtle aspects of his game.

Stuart Lancaster has proven his continued inconsistency in terms of his selection for this weekend’s centrepiece, with the omission of Ford. Already he has acceded to Warren Gatland, acknowledging that he is going to try go bang with the best in the business. The great shame, of course, is that Lancaster has shown to the world and more importantly his young out-half that when push comes to shove, quite literally, might will always be right.

The bigger issue here was highlighted by New Zealander Ben Smith in a Sunday Times interview last weekend. Smith, who spent a year in Bristol after high school–playing with Old Colstonians- noticed that after training everyone would head straight for the gym ignoring the idea of spending extra time on ball skills. Lancaster’s decision to drop Ford is merely a by-product of this disposition to strength over skill. Good defenders should never be taken lightly but ball-players, genuine game breakers like Ford and Finn Russell, should be cherished.


Rugby World Cup 2015: Week 1 Review

Japan's players celebrate what may, perhaps, become the most famous try in rugby history.

Japan’s players celebrate what may, perhaps, become the most famous try in rugby history.

At dawn, look to the east……

New Zealand 145-17 Japan. 1995. England 111-13 Uruguay. 2003. Australia 142-0 Namibia. 2003. The early days of each edition of rugby’s flagship tournaments have always provided the unwanted spectacle of lambs wilfully making their way to the slaughter. Since 1987, the IRB, world rugby’s governing body have –admittedly with a lot of persuasion- attempted to develop and grow the game, particularly in the non-traditional hotbeds of the sport. The game of course needs to be promoted and spread –otherwise you get a self-serving administrative set up like that of cricket’s power-brokers- but there have been occasions, like those listed above, where one almost wished there was a mercy rule.

And so, we all tuned in, perhaps only semi-interestedly, to see by just how much Eddie Jones’ Japanese side would suffer at the hands of two time World Cup winners, South Africa. Two hours later, and with sitting-rooms, pubs and indeed, Cardiff, absolutely rapt, Karne Hesketh slid over in the corner to earn the most unexpected, though richly deserved, victory in rugby history. What happened in Brighton felt almost transcendental in its immediate aftermath –not of course that we would attach over importance to a game of rugby- and could well provide an incredibly-timed effect on the game of rugby in Japan, just four years before they host Asia’s inaugural Rugby World Cup. It is worth noting, however, that this result at least in the short term has probably had a far greater effect on established rugby playing nations than Japan itself –indeed the game was not even broadcast live there- but the hope is that such a momentous occasion will bear fruit in Japan in the next few years.

This victory needs to be spoken of in a different context to anything else that happened last weekend. How, in all rationality, can one consider Ireland and France’s facile –though entirely functional and impressive in their own right- victories over Canada and Italy when over in the other corner an upset of genuinely seismic effect had occurred.

This is not soccer, where the very style and physical requirements of the game facilitate upsets on a relatively regular basis. In rugby, the big sides –specifically the big three southern hemisphere sides- simply do not get caught out by some chippy upstart. The vagaries of the game mean that if a bigger side can’t find the key do the door, they’ll simply go straight through it. Just look at the circles in which these sides operate. Japan’s final pre- World Cup game was a defeat to the world superpower U.S. Eagles. South Africa, meanwhile, appeared to have turned the corner –the ‘Boks had lost their previous five- with an impressively, overpowering victory over Argentina in Buenos Aires.

As the game kicked off, there was an underlying feeling that this duel would provide viewers with the sort of dispiriting turkey shoot –you’re probably the only rich person out there if you felt otherwise- that make casual fans wonder what’s so great about the early stages of this tournament. And then a to and fro epic unfurled before a Saturday afternoon crowd which must have been wondering right up until the final quarter whether this was simply going to be a case of the Japanese dam bursting as expected. Indeed, Eddie Jones, their masterfully innovative coach, implied as much as he too feared the horror movie was about to unfold.

Japan’s last two tries, particularly taken in their context, are quite simply two of the best tries you will see over the next six weeks. The first, by Ayumu Goromaru was straight out of the school of Jones, a wonderfully crisp move off clean lineout ball, punctuated by a beautifully timed inside pass to breach the green line.

The winner was impressive for multitudinous reasons. Eschewing kickable penalties to draw with you know, just South Africa, might seem fanciful for one of the stronger nations yet Japan’s players didn’t even contemplate the alternative. And there is no way that one could argue with their logic. Here they were, in an all all-time position to register the most amazingly shocking result in the history of a game that dates back to the nineteenth century. Never mind ‘The Catch’ or the ‘shot heard around the world’ from the grossly hyperbolic world of U.S. sports. Hesketh’s try and Japan’s Eddie Jones-inspired victory will reverberate in a way that nobody in their wildest dreams could have imagined.

Japan have ensured that they will be treated with a level of respect which they surely could not have anticipated prior to Saturday’s miracle. The cruel nature of the schedule means qualification will still be a brutal struggle but confidence can’t be an issue now. Jones, ever witty, had this to say about upcoming opponent’s Scotland, It’s interesting that before the tournament Scotland said we were going to tank the first game. So if we did tank the first game we’ve got a good performance coming up in our second.”  Eddie Jones, sardonic to the end, sadly leaves his post after the tournament but hopefully not without adding to the greatest upset in rugby history. That said, with Japan now at eleventh in the world, a defeat against twelfth ranked Scotland would actually be an upset. See, the revolution has already commenced.

David Kearney's debut World Cup try capped an impressive, if expected, opening round victory over Canada.

David Kearney’s debut World Cup try capped an impressive, if expected, opening round victory over Canada.

Outside of and before the beautiful insanity of the endgame in Brighton, Ireland set the ball rolling with a thoroughly efficient, injury-free performance over Canada. Having put the result beyond doubt during a riotous ten minutes against fourteen men, Joe Schmidt sagely removed the ‘Unbreakables’- insofar as if they get broken we’re screwed- of Sexton and Murray with more than a quarter of the game remaining. The obvious fillips from the game, aside from the half-backs increased sharpness, were the performances of Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls and the increasingly influential Iain Henderson. The former pair seem as though they have the ability to wreak tandem havoc on opposition defences, while the Ulsterman is impressively living up to and indeed surpassing the weighty pre-tournament expectations  extolled upon him by the Irish public.

Ireland will probably retain only two or three starters from last weekend for Sunday’s upcoming clash with Romania. The value of developing a squad –from a competitive and not lip-service point of view- will be on display on Sunday and assistant coach Les Kiss has indicated that most if not all of the thirty one man squad will have taken to the field after just two weekends of action. In this regard the coaching team will have fulfilled some obvious but vital requirements, ensuring competition is maintained in the squad while most importantly engendering a sense of unity within the group. Of course, there is nothing to suggest that spirit and togetherness are an issue with this squad but like Banquo’s ghost, the 2007 disaster still looms large in the Irish memory.

So with one weekend down, the quite expectation remains and any lingering pre-tournament nerves should have subsided somewhat. While Japan have the chance to do something ludicrously, insanely impressive today Ireland will quietly be looking to make their statement to the world some weeks from now.


Rugby World Cup 2015 – Group D Preview

Irl v Fr

And so to the pivotal group –from where Irish people are standing at least- where Paul O’ Connell’s side will take their place alongside Canada, Romania, Italy and traditional nemesis France. Our traditional trepidation is setting in which in small doses is a good thing but there is genuine cause for optimism this time around. The draw allows Ireland to progress gradually, hopefully step it up against Italy and then hit something close to peak form for the crucial French game.

While no Rugby World Cup will ever grab the hearts and minds of the nation quite like its soccer equivalent, there is a prevailing feeling that this is the most eagerly anticipated rugby tournament, from a national perspective, ever. Whatever happens, we’ll be playing well into October and if Joe Schmidt’s side do ultimately meet their demise it won’t be for wont of preparation or application or, say, a schism in the squad.

How fitting it would be if Paul O’ Connell’s international send-off was as a World Cup winner in Twickenham on 31st October. Sport, though, while always beguiling doesn’t often do fairy tale endings and Ireland will need everything to go right if they are to get their hands on the William Webb Ellis trophy. Still, exciting to envisage it all the same.

First to our main group rivals, France. Rumour has it that France’s is a happy camp of late and Philippe Saint-Andre’s side has been in World Cup mode for months now. But so has everybody else and they are still only a team. And a pretty mad one at that.


Is Freddie Michalak the right man to steer the French to victory?

Is Freddie Michalak the right man to steer the French to victory?

When the draw for Group D was made two years’ ago no Irish fan could hide their delight at the sight of France as the number one seed in our group. Australia, South Africa and New Zealand had been avoided and with French rugby is turmoil, actual and not perceived, the prevailing feeling was that while Ireland would grow under the astute guidance of Joe Schmidt, France would continue on their hapless downward spiral under Philippe Saint Andre and a favourable quarter-final against Argentina would be well within Ireland’s reach. Ireland have improved almost beyond recognition –especially considering some notable absentees who we will try our very best not to mention again- while France have continued to confound and frustrate, offering the type of fare that flies in the face of the cavalier, free-spirited French rugby of old.

And yet, on the eve of the 2015 Rugby World Cup a certain disquiet has crept into Irish hearts and minds. Haven’t they annihilated Ireland in our three previous World Cup meetings? And don’t they just turn up at these tournaments boots tossed languidly over their shoulders and do whatever the fuck they want? Lose to Tonga in the group stages? Pas probleme! We’ll just make it all the way to the final and proceed to be screwed out of a maiden World Cup victory by a referee petrified –somewhat understandably- of never making it out of the country let alone being allowed back in!

Ok, we’re being a tad reactionary and more than a little flippant but the realisation has long since dawned that the application of logic and reason based analysis –which, of course, applies in the case of the other nineteen teams at this World Cup- to French rugby is a largely unedifying pursuit. Were any other team to come into this World Cup on the back of two such disappointing international seasons, expectations would be rock-bottom –except in 2007 when we all thought it’d be grand– yet the French have an unsettling capacity to, and there is no other way to describe it, pull out the big performance on the day. Perhaps scrum-half Morgan Parra’s succinct explanation best explains the phenomenon which surrounds Les Bleus, ‘the problem is, we’re French.’ That problem, of course, works both ways.

The two recent performances against England offered up the idea that France were going to bludgeon all-comers, suffocate the life out of their opposition and maintain scoreboard control with a steady flow of kickable penalties. Not a bad thesis statement if you’ve got the ready-made components. And, from one to eight France have just this, their pack illuminated by the endlessly talented Louis Picamoles. Unfortunately for the French things get a little unusual after this. First of all, it’s worth noting that coach Philippe Saint-Andre was, in his playing days, an emblem of everything exuberant, stylish and lethally effective about French rugby. However, in a real head-scratcher and with no little talent at his disposal, Saint-Andre has decided to discard with the spontaneous yet crucially incisive back play so beloved of his countrymen.

It really is hard to understand why players like Wesley Fofana, Yoann Huget and even underrated full-back Scott Spedding do not get the opportunity to think their way into the gaps, as the French of old once did. In any event, Saint Andre has gone for brute force domination but his grand plan may well fall on the decision to entrust the keys of the juggernaut to the one-time golden boy of French rugby, Frederic Michalak. With obvious competition –or a replacement depending on which way you see it- Francois Trinh Duc bizarrely left at home by Saint-Andre, Michalak, who could very easily be mistaken for the chocolate in a ninety-nine, only has competition from the lightly tried Remi Tales. In a World Cup. Indeed, curiouser and curiouser it gets.

So France have a monster pack, an underrated defence –that wonderful aberration in Twickenham in March aside- and some really dangerous backs who must feel betrayed by this slavish devotion to the prototypical modern playing style. To be fair, size matters more than anything in the modern game, so the longing for diminutive, jinky wingers is really only a whimsical notion these days. Toulon, so dominant in recent seasons have relied on out-muscling their opposition before going for the jugular. France may not have the same personnel as the European champions but, when the time comes we suspect they’ll be ready. A titanic battle awaits in Cardiff on October 11th –on what could yet be a truly momentous day for Irish sport- as the prize at stake is a likely shot at the All Blacks, and these sides may well face each other once more. Ultimately, however much of the French odyssey this autumn will rely on a baffling coach’s decision to choose a less than trustworthy field general.

Prediction:  Quarter-finals

Player to Watch: The otherworldly Louis Picamoles. Skills of a back allied with gargantuan strength.


Italy will desperately want to prove wrong their pre-tournament doubters.

Italy will desperately want to prove wrong their pre-tournament doubters.

The prognosis is not good for the Azzurri. Shorn of attacking talent and overly reliant on an aging pack, still led masterfully by the indefatigable Sergio Parisse –who disastrously misses the opener against France- the Italians look to be well out of their depth alongside northern hemisphere compatriots Ireland and France.

It is only two and a half years –the death knell of Declan Kidney’s reign over Ireland- since the Italians completely overran Ireland in Rome, suggesting their arrival as a perennially competitive side in the Six Nations. Since, however, Jacques Brunel’s side have made little progress, having registered just one victory throughout the last two European winters, or springs if you’re completely deluded.

The pre-World Cup matches are perhaps more misleading than anything but the manner of Italy’s defeat in Murrayfield in August exposed too many gaping cracks. France come first on Sunday but this may actually be no bad thing. The French are slow starters –they lost to Argentina on the opening night in 2007 although we weren’t to know at that point that the Pumas would go to finish third in the tournament- and Italy will assuredly come out with the intention of unsettling their opponents. The problem now however is that France are purpose-built for war so this is Italy’s best weapon neutralised. In any event the loss of their totem may simply be too much to overcome.

Their other decisive game of course comes on 4th October in the soon to be home of West Ham United, Olympic Stadium in east London. And, even after taking caution into account it is very difficult seeing the Italians being victorious in this one either. The Italians will ultimately finish third in this group, comfortably, but it will only be after the outcomes –and the nature of the performances- against their main group rivals that they will be able to surmise whether or not the last four years have seen any tangible improvements.

Prediction: Third in the group.

Player to Watch: As ever, the redoubtable Sergio Parisse.


The Oaks are appearing in an eighth successive Rugby World Cup.

The Oaks are appearing in an eighth successive Rugby World Cup.

Unquestionably the most established side in Europe outside of the Six Nations participants. Romania has a rich rugby history and shares the distinction with eleven other sides of having appeared in every World Cup thus far. If Italy’s wheels completely fall off –not that bizarre when you consider Ireland’s undeserved victory over Georgia in 2007- then the Romanians may target a coup but the likelihood is that they will be battling it out with the Canadians for fourth spot. Legendary backrower Ovidiu Tonita will take the field for his fourth World Cup – he was also in the pre-tournament squad in 1999- and we’d be surprised if a hardier soul takes to the field in the next six weeks.

Prediction: Fourth in Group D.

Player to Watch: Ovidiu Tonita. A player whose quality has always stood out, even against the top-tier nations.


Quarter-finalists in 1991, Canada will need a miracle to repeat such a feat.

Quarter-finalists in 1991, Canada will need a miracle to repeat such a feat.

With the top two places in this group virtually sewn up, Canada like the Romanians, will really fancy themselves to take more than a cut out of Italy. Canadian pride recently took the worst sort of hit a Canuck can take as they suffered defeat at the hands of their southern neighbours, the USA. Canada would have always fancied themselves the boss in that neck in the woods, so they will be coming out the gap with a bit of fire in their bellies when they face Ireland on Saturday in Cardiff. Captain Jamie Cudmore –who will go toe-to-toe with old sparring partner Paul O’ Connell at the weekend- is the definitive, grizzled campaigner and his cohorts up front will have fashioned their game in the image of their leader.

The pack will scrap manfully but the quality quite simply is not there. Wing DTH van der Merwe will be familiar to Pro 12 followers but the likelihood is that he and the rest of the Canadian back line will be living off scraps for the next month.

Prediction: Fifth in Group D

Player to Watch: Phil McKenzie. Impressive Sale Sharks wing who will look to make the most of any turnover ball that comes his way.


Expectations are justifiably, if nervously, high in Ireland.

Expectations are justifiably, if nervously, high in Ireland.

Optimism just does not sit well with the Irish as a nation. Since November 2013, right up until about six weeks ago everything was looking rosy in the newly rejuvenated Irish rugby patch. In the spring we were happy to predict –a bit dreamily to be fair- a world where Paul O’ Connell would lift the William Webb Ellis, having beaten New Zealand of course for the first time in history, with Joe Schmidt granted the freedom of every last square inch of this island. But then, as it often the case, the event horizon grew near and all of a sudden that old gnawing feeling set in: sure we’re Ireland and we don’t win things. Whether we like to admit it or not we have a perverse addiction to getting immediately high on our success and then with the comedown in full flow, morosely predicting our downfall. And then, when it happens, proclaiming fatalistically and with shameful self-knowing that you knew we’d implode at some point.

Rugby, it has to be said, has dealt some cruel blows to Ireland -assuredly we are not the only ones to have been railroaded by misfortune but unsurprisingly we only have pity on ourselves- with Michael Lynagh’s late try in 1991 World Cup semi-final in the old bear-pit on Lansdowne Road unquestionably the stand out World Cup moment of misery.

But at some point this self-doubting, pessimistic safety blanket had to be removed. Joe Schmidt has brought a calm sense of confidence and belief to Irish rugby history and convinced the players –it should be taken as a prerequisite that this is an excellent collective of players- that if they do everything he directs, as close to perfectly as possible, then they can beat anybody on any day. New Zealand was of course proof of Schmidt’s exceptional ability to rally these players, not as before for sixty minutes, but for eighty-three minutes and just a few heart-breaking seconds. While the All Blacks may find it equal parts amusing and flattering to see how a nation could get excited by a defeat the reality is Ireland had cornered New Zealand that day like on no other occasion ever before.

Successive Six Nations victories mean the winning mentality –not our natural preserve- has been effectively fostered and the squad must now for the first time ever be entering a World Cup comfortable with the idea that people are expecting them to hang around until the long evenings come in. In addition, and unlike, say Wales, Ireland have been relatively lucky with the health of their squad and the return –hopefully in the form of some good minutes on Saturday- of Cian Healy is a huge fillip.

The fifteen selected for Ireland’s tournament opener looks for now to be the nominal starting fifteen. Only a brave or mad man could have anticipated Keith Earls or David Kearney filling the wing positions when the Six Nations came to an end but like the seemingly irrepressible Iain Henderson, their form has been rewarded. These selections are not a rebuke to the likes of Simon Zebo and Devin Toner but more an indicator of the fact that at all times places are up for grabs.

We couldn’t talk about Ireland’s chances without mulling over the back line conundrum. As Gordon D’Arcy has already pointed out in his excellent weekly articles, Joe Schmidt values holding possession of the ball over anything else. The directive seems clear: only offload if you know, not think, that the ball is going to a teammates hand. D’Arcy also interestingly pointed to the fact that Schmidt would have the side practice a move maybe only ten times at something like eighty percent efficiency and then entrust the players with the responsibility to effect the move when the game time situation required it. With a flat pre-tournament in the bag let’s hope this is exactly what Ireland have in store for the group decider against France.

The greater worry at the moment is that Ireland were lacking their crisp ball movement and set-piece efficiency in the warm up games. Deep, lateral balkline movement harking back to a less exciting time gave plenty of food for thought but assuredly Ireland have been working on precision –not to mention the puzzlingly sloppy defence- in the past fortnight. Also, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton will hope to quickly re-establish what is one of the premier half-back pairings in world rugby.

Canada and Romania will be despatched in the next fortnight but everyone knows the serious stuff –with all due respect to Ireland’s first two opponents- will begin in the Olympic Stadium at the start of October. Nobody is saying that we will definitely win this tournament or that we will even make the decider but for the first time, perhaps ever in Rugby World Cup history, this Irish team –and by extension the Irish people- can realistically look to the tournament with justifiable designs on going all the way to the final weekend.

Prediction: Semi-finals

Player to Watch: Jarred Payne. Cast in at the deep end to replace he who shall be named. Really growing into the position and could be the spark in attack.

Odds: Ireland 9/1

France 14/1

Italy 500/1

Canada 2000/1

Romania 5000/1


Rugby World Cup 2015 – Group A Preview

Now, while we hoped for what would be a week-long preview of the twenty teams’ prospects in the upcoming Rugby World Cup fate has intervened to ensure that the following, dear reader, will be an abridged version of what we first offered. Time is a cruel mistress and devoid of well….time we’ve had to make a few amendments to our earlier plans.

Over the next two days we will bring a preview of Group A –by far and away the most compelling – and, of course the most pivotal Group as far as Irish interest is concerned, Group D. The quickest way from A to D as everybody knows is straight through B and C so we’re taking this approach quite literally. In summary, South Africa top Group B with Scotland joining them –though only just, after a gruelling battle with Samoa- in the quarter-finals. In a shocking departure from conventional wisdom, New Zealand will cruise through Group C with the Argentinians joining them in the last eight.

Throughout the World Cup, we will provide regular ‘state of the tournament’ updates while highlighting some of the more interesting talking points. And of course, given the natural progression of the tournament there will be plenty to come on the reigning champions, New Zealand and the, massively under the radar, South Africans.

Before we go anywhere however let’s just temper home expectations. Of the home nations Ireland are still the only side yet to appear in a World Cup semi-final, so getting that far alone would be a fantastic achievement, even if the obvious endgame is to become the last team standing in west London.

We’ll tackle Group A today, the so-called ‘Group of Death’ –every international tournament is obliged to have one- where hosts England, have been pooled with double champions Australia, co-hosts Wales, the mystifying Fijians and inevitable whipping-boys Uruguay. There has been considerable talk, pre-World Cup, of teams pushing themselves through the absolute limit in terms fitness and one fully believes this. This group promises to be the most attritional and when the dust settles in four weeks, the qualifiers may have too many wounds to lick. Only time, luck and squad depth will tell.

Despite what people might say to the contrary –pressure, undue expectation- home advantage in a major sporting tournament possesses immeasurable advantages; partisan crowds, unintentionally ‘helpful’ referees, familiarity and we believe an inherent pride of place. In seven Rugby World Cups thus far only one side –and a really atrocious Welsh one at that in 1999- has failed to reach at least the last four. New Zealand twice –see ‘helpful referee’ in 2011- and South Africa have been victorious while England and Australia in 1991 and 2003 respectively came agonisingly close to success in front of their home crowds. With that in mind don’t be unduly surprised by what follows below.



So, first to England who naturally as both the hosts and, well…. being England will go into the tournament surrounded by extraordinary expectation and equipped with the admirable, though often inexplicable self-confidence, which accompanies English sides. Stuart Lancaster has worked tirelessly over the last four years to win back the hearts and minds of the English rugby community following the debacle of Martin Johnson’s poorly conceived, ill-fated reign. Quite clearly the hosting of the showpiece has been at the centre of Lancaster’s thoughts –despite any laughable protestations about building for 2019- since 2011. Though nowhere close to the relentless juggernaut of Clive Woodward’s 2003 World Cup winning side, the current iteration of the English rugby team will, in our view, go mighty close to winning the tournament.

England’s strength’s –powerful pack, excellent outside threat- have been well documented so it would be remiss to avoid what may well be a glaring weakness at out-half. Now, George Ford, the incumbent ten is an outstandingly talented player, possessed of an extremely rounded skill set and will probably establish himself over the next decade as one of the world’s premier out halves. But -and this is a big but- Ford’s heretofore unconfirmed pre-eminence in the game will mean nothing for the next six weeks. The extraordinary Jonny Wilkinson is the youngest out-half at twenty-four to ever guide his side to victory in a World Cup final –doing so of course in 2003- and even then Wilkinson was five and a half years into his international career. When Ford –or indeed Fijian Ben Volovola- kick off this year’s tournament on Friday night the Englishman will be just twenty-two and with a mere thirteen caps to his name. You might be able to win Premier League titles with kids but for England to win the World Cup on home soil they will need heretofore unprecedentedly mature performances from George Ford.

That said, Ford will shine for much of the tournament, England are a well-drilled unit under Lancaster and their home sod has returned in recent times to a sort of ‘Fortress Twickenham Lite’. If England can negotiate their group –so much the less compelling for the dreadfully unlucky Leigh Halfpenny’s absence- then our gut feeling is that they might ride on a crest of a wave of quickly growing confidence and jingoistic pride –think WWII imagery- all the way to the Halloween final. This side will go close but fall just short of the heroics of the 2003 collective of sporting MBEs, OBEs and knights.

Prediction: Runner-up

One to Watch: Jonathan Joseph. A player with the near-unique ability to make inside or outside breaks. A constant threat in attack.



Former Leinster coach Michael Cheika was given a pretty interesting job around this time last year. Take an Australian team wildly low on confidence –yes you read that correctly- in complete disarray and transform them into World Cup contenders in just twelve months. From where we’re standing right now it seems like a case of job well done. A relatively successful November tour was followed by a first Rugby Championship since 2011 –also incidentally in its shortened version in a World Cup year- and Cheika now leads a side laced with cohesion, variety and most importantly a re-instilled winning mentality. Australian sport is laced with an equal parts enviable and loathsome complete, unshatterable sense that their merely being Australian makes them superior to their opponent.

Cheika is by all accounts a ‘take no shit’ coach which given their perilous state after last summer is exactly what the Wallabies required. The swagger is back but so too more importantly is the discipline demanded of an Australian side. With a small playing base, Australia has always relied on versatile, dynamic footballers allied with extraordinarily innovative coaching. The combination this year is no different, but Cheika is still faced with a headache as to who to select in the half-backs. Past performance would perhaps suggest the selections of Will Genia and Quade Cooper, but World Cups are rarely won with a conductor like Cooper. Not all the out halves who have won World Cups have been outstanding players, but they’ve all known how to play the right rugby at the right time.

While the number ten jumper may remain an issue for Australia the man at the back won’t. While all the cool kids are mentioning Kiwi Nehe Milner-Skudder as the man to watch during this tournament, our must-see player is the outlandishly talented Israel Folau. While he hasn’t played quite to his own monstrously high standards of late Folau has a skill-set that allows him perform feats –sometimes even on debut– that other players simply cannot even consider.

Australia, as the joint most successful Rugby World Cup performers of all time,- the All Blacks being the other- simply cannot be ignored. But, while Michael Cheika has worked Gordon Bombay-like wonders to rebuild the house in under a year, an appearance in the decider, though not impossible, seems unlikely.

Prediction: Semi-finals.

One to Watch: May have played our hand early here but definitely Israel Folau.



Every four years the World Cup comes around and with it the evil winds of injury. No team is safe from this nefarious non-entity but in each four-year cycle one side gets punished particularly badly, perhaps for no other reason than the cruel whims of the Fates. Already in a historically difficult group –thanks perhaps to Warren Gatland’s belligerent indifference when the group seedings took place- Wales have seen two starters go down. The loss of scrum-half Rhys Webb has been compounded mercilessly by the news that Leigh Halfpenny, one of the world’s finest full-backs, has been ruled out with an ill-timed and devastating knee injury. We haven’t been to Wales in the last fortnight but one can only imagine a borderline funereal atmosphere –and we do not mean this in a hyperbolic sense- in the country when news of the full-back’s setback was announced. Between his metronomic boot, unfailing solidity at the back and well-timed incisions into the offensive line, Halfpenny could readily be described as Wales’ most important player.

One player –with all due respect to Webb who also misses out on all rugby players’ dream of representing their nation on the global stage- does not a team make but certain players are worth far more to their side than the one-fifteenth fraction they make up on paper. One can only imagine the pervading sense of gloom in Wales but Warren Gatland is as stoic as they come –except when whinging about the predictability of Joe Schmidt’s side- and the Sam Warburton led squad will have accepted by now that the hellish Group A needs to be negotiated without Halfpenny. It would be delightful to see Wales rail against the odds and escape this group and the feeling was that pre-injuries they were on track to do something massive in the next four weeks in particular. All three big guns in this group need their top players available. Wales are now perhaps missing their best. The tournament didn’t end with Halfpenny’s injury and the talent is there but, given that Wales are now missing three of their starting backline –Jonathan Davies was lost in the summer- the hill just turned into a mountain.

Predictions: Group stages.

Player to watch: If he can somehow force his way into an overpopulated back row, the remarkable Justin Tipuric.



Fiji drew an unbelievably short straw when they were drawn in this group. Fijians are the most joyous rugby players to watch in full flow, seeing grass where other see bodies and possessed of blinding pace and supreme ball handling skills. As the fourth seed in say, Ireland’s group the Pacific Islanders would have a tremendous opportunity to not only take a scalp –which in any event at this stage is not enough for the Pacific Island Nations- but compete for a quarter-final spot. Only on Friday night though, in Twickenham will we know how serious a part Fiji are going to play in deciding the destiny of this World Cup.

Prediction: Group Stage

Player to Watch: Nemani Nadolo. Yes, he may seem the lazy pick but more than one winger will be made look stupid by the behemoth Canterbury Crusaders flyer.



We have not come here to patronise, but there is no point in trying to talk up the South Americans chances in this their third World Cup appearance. Full unsurprising disclosure: we don’t know a thing about this Uruguayan side but Google can tell you what we can’t. That said they are the big boys of South American rugby after Argentina and if their footballing counterparts are anything to go by, then don’t expect Uruguay to go quietly into the night.

Prediction: Group stage.

Player to watch: Augustin Ormaechea. Because this report said so.

Tournament Odds

England 9/2

Australia 8/1

Wales 25/1

Fiji 1000/1

Uruguay 5000/1


Rugby World Cup 2015- Week 3 Preview 

 All sorts of thoughts -predominantly negative- must have gone through the heads of Irish supporters this week. Some legitimate and rational and others of the more reactionary half-baked variety. The first line of thinking which needs to be nipped in the bud is that the disastrous 2007 World Cup –which was sullied by the dreadful three-match preparation and the nadir of the shit-kicking down in Bayonne- is about to repeat itself over the next seven weeks. True, Ireland’s performances in the warm up games have been largely listless but to us they are more symptomatic of a side that is going through the motions and with good reason- Ireland need to keep the powder dry and peak in a month’s time. That said things are far from rosy in the garden –the defence which is not an area for variations and tricks up the sleeve has been decidedly porous- and it is hard to subscribe to the theory that everything will simply click into place against Italy and latterly France. Perspective does of course, as ever, need to be applied. Ireland have won two warm-up games, admittedly against largely unrecognisable Welsh and Scottish sides. A six point defeat followed against Wales, with Sean Cronin held up over the line to prevent what would have been the winning score, if perhaps undeserved. It was only at Twickenham last weekend that alarm bells –though hopefully premature- started to ring. As objective observers we can only speculate but on a balanced summary of last week’s game we have plenty of food for thought.

Ireland’s defence, or more specifically, tackling was hugely disappointing, particularly in the first forty minutes last weekend. Reliable veterans like Tommy Bowe –found wanting most obviously for Jonny May’s try- Rory Best and Devin Toner missed multiple tackles while the narrow Irish defence seemed to offer up countless opportunities out wide to the home side. Though the performance improved considerably in the second half England were well worth their eight point victory. And, though signs of life emerged, our over-reliance on a dominant tight game was heavily emphasised once more.

For Ireland to succeed next month and hopefully onwards Joe Schmidt knows that his side will have to be virtually unbreachable in defence, akin to the Six Nations winning sides of the last two seasons. On this basis the most recent defensive aberration in Twickenham is cause for genuine concern. True, England were sloppy and lacked the clinical edge which will be a prerequisite in two weeks but this is surely missing the point. Ireland should only be concerned about ensuring their defense –both in terms of systems and straight up tackling- is perfected in the next fortnight. No coach sends his side into a rugby match, of any nature, with the instruction to take it easy in defence, so as not to reveal their hand. How does the cornerstone of a very successful side, the heretofore rocksteady defence suddenly appear more flimsy than the plot of a Christopher Nolan film? We can only hope that this was the first crease ironed out in the week gone by. In any event, Schmidt and this current Irish side have enough defensive credit in the bank at this stage -though they assuredly don’t give anything remotely close to a shit about the prevailing public opinion- so for supporters it is a question of patience and trust.

The perverse nature of the Irish psyche requires us to immediately presume that the worst is going to happen when a major tournament comes around. And, let’s be fair, our rugby and soccer teams have gifted future generations with umpteen cautionary tales – humiliation in Lens, lunacy in Saipan and the perhaps never to be explained meltdown all over France in 2007- so it is an alien notion for Ireland to be approaching a global showpiece imbued with confidence.

This Irish team is entering this World Cup as a genuine contender –how genuine only time will tell- and despite our inherent naysaying this point is difficult to dispute. Too often Irish teams have played with a sense of inadequacy and perhaps fear of their opponents. Now the team play with a different type of fear, a specific fear that has been engendered during the short reign of Joe Schmidt. Now players fear losing because of the responsibility they have to their team mates and the rational, honest fear of their failings being forensically exposed by Joe Schmidt in the company of their peers.

Fear in the right form is an excellent weapon. Or as music mogul Jimmy Iovine once said, “ Fear is a powerful thing…. If you can figure out a way to wrestle that fear, to push you from behind rather than stand in front of you, that’s very powerful.” Have this Irish squad learned to tackle fear in a positive manner? Everything thus far suggests they have. But this question will not truly be answered until 11th October against France, a team who have so often
represented the fear that stands in front of Irish teams.

Rugby World Cup 2015

Rugby World Cup 2015 Countdown

With the Rugby World Cup less than twenty-five days away we’ll be bringing you our  weekly build up, culminating in predictions for each team, with an unsurprisingly heavy emphasis on Joe Schmidt’s highly-fancied side. We say highly fancied as a relative term, particularly taking into account the systematic malfunction in 2007 and Irish rugby’s nadir –spoken about with almost funereal solemnity- in Lens in 1999. The final previews will take place in three parts in the week preceding the tournament curtain-raiser between hosts England and Fiji on the 18th September.

For now, we ‘re trying to figure out which teams are intentionally going to battle with blanks and what valid assumptions we can make on the basis of the past fortnight’s play. The reality of these pre-World Cup games is that the coaches want their front line players to get at least one run out –aside for the (French) game time calls like Cian Healy- while settling any potentially tight selection decisions on the final few squad members. Injuries destroy the dreams of some –Tommy O’ Donnell just weeks ago and in the past Geordan Murphy, David Wallace and Felix Jones- while simultaneously ridding the selectors of what is actually a highly desirable selection headache.

Ireland looked cohesive against Wales, playing with the exact same precise, high-pressure rugby that has led to such success for Ireland in the past two seasons. The game against Scotland seven days later, while won by Ireland was probably more remarkable for Scotland’s willingness to run back coupled with a slightly worrying ability to breach the Irish defence. Both were phoney wars however whose relevance is largely inscrutable and it is only this week that the remaining big guns come to the fore and that real meaning can possibly be extricated from the team’s performance.

Wales too will be more tournament oriented this week but even still neither side will want to reveal anything of note to their onlooking group opponents. The reality is that any tweaked or expanded game plans will be restricted to in-house training while the pre-tournament friendlies will provide the opportunity to acquire match fitness and ideally hone set-piece consistency and communication and stability in defence. Don’t expect Jonathan Sexton to whip out an inventive backline move which has been finely crafted with France in mind. Or for a crafty line-out play to spring up against England in a fortnight’s time. Nonetheless, it would be heartening to see the Irish side attempt an off-loading game, for this is virtually indefensible, even when anticipated, and further still can’t be produced spontaneously in October without some prior in-game introduction.

Over the past two seasons, Ireland have been absolutely magnificent under both the tutelage of Joe Schmidt and stewardship of Paul O’ Connell. In these last eighteen months only once have Ireland fallen behind by two scores –Wales in March of this year- and the sides failure to overturn the two score deficit that day led to mass overreaction regarding Ireland’s inability in to come from behind to win a game. On reflection, this argument is a mishmash of both sound thinking and ill-founded logic. Since Schmidt’s second game in charge- the oddly listless performance against Australia- Ireland have only once faced a double-digit deficit, in the aforementioned Welsh game, and as they failed to recover from twelve points down, there is a largely pedantic point to be made that Ireland cannot come from behind. Utilising this line of thinking, one could delve deep into hyperbole and state that Ireland have never come from two scores down to win a game with Schmidt in charge. However, a pragmatic analysis of the twenty-two match reign will show that Ireland have developed the ability to wrest control of a game in its infancy thus negating the need to produce a stirring comeback.

The defeat in Wales –seven points in the end combined with some quirky scrum refereeing by Wayne Barnes- was surely disappointing but as is the wont of the vanquished, Irish people were slow to acknowledge a phenomenal Welsh defensive performance, instead focusing on Ireland’s lack of creativity. We also had our reservations post-Cardiff but the frailties in Ireland’s attack –and let’s be honest there are some- can only really be measured in the coming months. As in any sport, a successful side is founded on the bedrock of a top class defence- Manchester United 1999, Pittsburgh Steelers 2005, Donegal 2012- and Ireland’s defence is as good now as at any other period of the professional era. Offense is harder to manufacture and as an idea is more difficult to instil in players. On a modern sports field it is far easier to close off space than it is to create it. Ireland’s defence, though not peerless, is rightly lauded but the question mark over the line-breaking ability of our centres and three-quarters, while perhaps over emphasised, irrefutably remains.

Truly, we will not know, perhaps until the Italian game in London whether Ireland’s attacking game has added a greater sense of fluency and creativity since the spring. One suspects, and it is understandable, that Joe Schmidt will keep the powder dry over the next fortnight but that is not to take from the importance of Saturday’s game, particularly as the last few golden tickets are up for grabs. For some, like Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls and Dave Kearney the hope will be that the ball is moved freely, allowing them to make the most of their final audition for the big show. Further, Saturday’s game will grant the Irish public an opportunity to say a final goodbye on Irish soil to one of its greatest and most influential leaders in this or any other era, the peerless Paul O’ Connell. One hopes his final foreign mission in the green jersey proves the most bountiful expedition in Irish rugby history.

Six Nations 2015

Six Nations: Round 4 Preview – Moving Day

a Six Nations Round 4 Preview – Moving Day

WALES –v- IRELAND – Saturday 14th March, 2:30 p.m. – Millennium Stadium

So here we are. Moving day, to borrow from golfing parlance. The pivotal round of this year’s Six Nations, where the wheat and the chaff go their separate ways. All eyes will be on the Millennium Stadium at 2:30 this afternoon as two of the three remaining title contenders, Wales and Ireland, lock horns in what promises to be an absolute belter. The home side will look to prove that they do indeed belong in the same conversation as Ireland and England, particularly after their comprehensive defeat to the latter in the tournament’s opening round. Ireland, for their part, are seeking back- to -back titles in the northern hemisphere’s premier competition for the first time since 1949.

Immediately, our thoughts turn to the two head coaches, Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt, both of whom may be casting a long term eye towards their dream job back home in New Zealand. Gatland, the Six Nations current longest serving coach, having been appointed in 2007, has enjoyed fantastic success with Wales, winning three championships and two Grand Slams. Despite this success there is a suspicion that his game plan has gone stale of late. The fifty one year old has achieved great success through an incredibly physical, direct game plan, admittedly executed by some excellent players but right now his side seem to be missing a bit of guile.

Schmidt on the other hand is at the beginning of his international coaching odyssey. His side have drawn first praise and then the inevitable criticism for being one-dimensional. As Gatland can attest, there’s nothing wrong with one-dimensional when it works and again it should be noted that the Hamilton born man has led the Welsh to two Grand Slams and a World Cup semi-final during his tenure.

Schmidt, to the untrained eye, seems to play them as he sees them, insofar as he adapts the game plan to suit his team’s upcoming opponent. In advance of tomorrow’s encounter Schmidt will have noted, along with everyone else that Wales just love to send Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies and Toby Faletau at the opposition midfield as early and as often as possible. Ireland’s back row, welcoming back the tireless Jamie Heaslip, and their centre pairing are happiest when taking down direct traffic. It’s clear at this stage that trying to breach the Irish wall by bludgeoning your way up the middle is about as sensible as telling Joe Pesci to go shine your shoes.

This may sound a bit obvious but the key to scoring is having the ball deep in enemy territory. Ireland generally achieve this through a couple of carries to create space for their half backs followed by incredibly well placed box kicks or booming up and unders. Through this style of play, they re-gather the ball or force turnovers, better than any other side in the world. It’s not pretty but unless you’re a neutral, who cares. Better to win ugly like Mourinho than lose beautifully like Wenger. Admittedly, Ireland have not been forced to show their expansive side because, to the best of our knowledge, they’re yet to fall two scores behind. If this happens, and they can’t dig themselves out, then the cries for a lack of perceived creativity may have a little more substance. But until we see this it’s like asking if Australians would be better than us at Gaelic Football if they played the game – We don’t know!

As has been the case recently, Ireland’s game will be predicated on Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray’s accuracy with the boot and a disciplined chase by Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo. Bowe’s aerial skills have long been lauded but it was in this facet of the game that Zebo really came to the fore against England, save for one over-exuberant chase. George North poses an obvious threat going forward but as with most men his size he can’t exactly turn like a ballerina. Also Sexton will most likely kick the corners more often knowing that Ireland’s line out definitely has the advantage over their Welsh counterparts.

Wales’ route one approach has as we noted before been bolstered by the addition of Liam Williams on the wing and the sharp, predatory Rhys Webb at scrum half. Wales obviously need to knock on the front door a few times but once there’s no answer, they should think about sneaking in around the side, utilising Williams and Webb. Roberts, Davies, Henshaw and Payne are going to be one big midfield demolition derby so the likelihood is that the magic, or just a clean line break, is going to come from a well- timed run from the respective back threes, or a little snipe from Webb. As has been pointed to us by a colleague of ours, this Irish team don’t tend to switch off all that much so the Webb threat should be somewhat neutralised.

If you run through both sides it’s hard to find an area where the Welsh are superior. Centres and back three perhaps, but only after an argument in relation to the latter.The back rows are on a par but in our eyes Ireland hold the upper hand in all other areas. So, then you look to the respective coaches. Boston’s Ken Casey, an old favourite of this column, once said, “Though it starts with a fist it must end with the mind.” In our view Gatland can’t help but endure with the fist. Schmidt’s sides are nothing if not physical but it’s in his more cerebral, methodical approach that he takes the advantage into tomorrow. Ireland are a better side, made even better than the sum of their parts by the excellent Schmidt. Ireland should go to Murrayfield next week with their Grand Slam hopes intact.

Ireland by 4 (Ireland -1 generally)

ENGLAND –v- SCOTLAND – Saturday 14th March – Twickenham

The home side will be smarting after being both outfought and out thought by the Irish a fortnight ago. They welcome back Courtney Lawes and Mike Brown, in place of George Kruis and Alex Goode. After the number Ireland did on his pack two weeks ago, Stuart Lancaster realises that his second row depth, Kruis, isn’t quite what he thought, and the bench spot goes to Geoff Parling. Meanwhile Brown, in our opinion, is the best full back in the northern hemisphere and obviously his return bolsters the English side. Having been humbled, and even with green tinted glasses on they were, they’ll look to get their title hopes back on track in front of an expectant home crowd. From the outset this all suggests a comfortable home win with a beleaguered Scottish side coming to town. However we don’t see this one being quite as straightforward.

Scotland, for whom perhaps we have had too much of a soft spot, are really not as bad as their basement dwelling, winless position suggests. They took the game to France in Paris and were with them right until the end. Against Wales, a game we thought they’d win, they kept shooting themselves in the foot at the most inopportune moments. We can’t really make any excuses for the Italian defeat though. Senseless errors, often by their out halves, and an inability to strike when the iron’s hot in the other sides twenty two means they go to Twickenham with pressure coming at them from all angles.

Vern Cotter has made five changes to his side but the bigger question is whether he has succeeded in a short space of time in instilling some mental strength and plain old cop-on into his decision makers, namely Finn Russell and Peter Horne. We discussed the relative strengths of Cotter and Joe Schmidt recently with a friend of the column and they made the interesting point that Cotter seems too willing to invest his faith in talented but flaky playmakers, Finn Russell for Scotland and more obviously Brock James at Clermont Auvergne. While we agree that he gave James too many chances at Clermont the same can’t be said of the younger Russell or Horne, both of whom have performed fantastically well for Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow. We expect Russell, on his return from suspension, to step his game up tomorrow.

Like Lawes for England, Scotland have recalled their enforcer the battle hardened Jim Hamilton. Also added is big ball carrier Dave Denton so, on the face of it Scotland have decided they need a bit of ballast after being humiliated up front by the Italians. Still, we think England’s pack is considerably stronger, particularly on their home turf. Their backline didn’t get much of a look in the last day, thanks mainly to the suffocating game plan carried out to perfection by the Irish. Tomorrow England will enjoy more joy up front and with great ball comes great opportunities. While we certainly don’t expect the floodgates to open after sixty minutes, we just don’t see the Scots having the firepower or the leadership to pick up their first Twickenham victory since 1983.

Scotland are obviously coming south of the Wall looking for more than a performance but a good showing here is necessary before they worry about taking on the world. England, meanwhile need to get the show back on the road and, regardless of the earlier result in Cardiff, put themselves in good shape for the finale against France. Both sides are hurt but while Scotland would cherish victory, Engand quite simply need it more. And, to put it bluntly, they are the better side.

England by 12 (England -16 generally)


ITALY –v- FRANCE – Sunday 15th March 3:00 pm – Stadio Olimpico

Two teams on one victory apiece but who come into Sunday’s game with very different dispositions. Italy were by all known measures the write off of this year’s Six Nations Championship. Still, they arrived in Murrayfield and bullied the Scottish, culminating in a last gasp penalty try and a very welcome victory. France on the other hand were man handled on their own patch, going down to a well organised, aggressive Welsh side, meaning France are Championship also rans after three rounds.

The home side welcome back Andrea Masi while their field general Sergio Parisse wins an Italian record 112th cap. The emotion on the Azzurri’s faces after their victory two weeks ago was fantastic to see and one feels that with a win under their belt they can go home to an adoring public and have a real cut at the tournament’s most spineless side. France will be reeling from their latest defeat, which in truth was as comfortable a seven point victory as you’re likely to see. Tomorrow, coming fresh off the centre carousel, we have Maxime Mermoz and Gael Fickou. The twenty year old Fickou showed flashes of his brilliance with his matching try against England in Paris last year but it’s anyone guess whether he gets to shine. We’ve found it very difficult to read the French under the turgid stewardship of Phillippe Saint Andre. The one shining light is their defence. They’ve conceded just two tries thus far, so while about as exciting to watch as an Eastenders omnibus they won’t give away all that much.

With the World Cup looming the last thing Ireland or indeed group rivals Italy want is for Saint Andre to be replaced after the Six Nations. The prevailing view, as pointed out by Gerry Thornley in The Irish Times earlier this week, is that a French victory on Sunday and a solid showing in Twickenham next week will keep Saint Andre entrenched in the role, much to the displeasure of the French public. We give Italy every chance here but think, and selfishly hope, that the French will sneak this one.

France by 4 (France -7 generally)

Six Nations

Six Nations Review – Round 3

Of course, it’s impossible to reach the halfway point in a five round tournament, unless you’re pedantic and choose halftime in the France v Wales game on Saturday evening, but this is perhaps as good a time as any for a midpoint recap.

This weekend threw up two surprises, most notably in Murrayfield, proving for once that the bookmakers are not entirely prophetic. Scotland were pipped at the end by an Italian penalty try and while bad luck played its part; Giovanbattista Vendetti’s try; Scotland, like Charles Stewart Parnell were in many ways the architect of their own downfall. At least Parnell’s troubles were instigated by, amongst other things, his presumably enjoyable dalliance with Katherine O’ Shea. Scotland’s failings have been brought about largely by incompetence and a failure to execute.

Inaccuracy has been a real problem for Scotland. Late on in Saturday’s game, having been somewhat fortunate to win a penalty on an Italian scrum, Peter Horne, in as an enforced replacement, was entrusted with, what the entire of Murrayfield would have presumed to be, a safe kick to touch. When the friendly confines of touch were all that were required, Horne, like Finn Russell in the defeat to Wales, unforgivably missed and returned the ball to the Italians. An ensuing maul and further indiscretion by the Scottish pack handed Italy a hugely welcome and genuinely unexpected victory.

It seems patronising to say that Scotland needed this victory more than the Italians but frankly, they did. The Scots are coached by the man, Vern Cotter, who along with Joe Schmidt brought Clermont Auvergne to their rightful place at the top table of French club rugby and consolidated their position there. Sergio Parisse aside, how many of the Italian team would honestly force their way into the Scottish team. The Scots sparkled intermittently in the opening two rounds of the tournament so, perhaps on Saturday, they, like this column, failed to regard the Italians with the respect they merited. After the French defeat, there was a sense here that Scotland would have a real shot at home victories against the Welsh, Italians and Irish, and a chance to go to Twickenham with, at the very least, a puncher’s chance. Fool me once Scotland and all that jazz. Scotland’s response to this latest defeat will prove just how much character and resilience Kiwi, Cotter has instilled in this genuinely talented side. Skills and talent are only so impressive. After all, it is execution more than ability, which invariably sees a side over the line. Only a brave man or a fence sitter will honestly believe that Scotland travel south in two weeks with much more hope than a man with a lottery ticket.

Italy, on the other hand, will look to their upcoming Stadio Olimpico clash, with a French side in disarray, with real belief that they can cause an upset, the French monkey having been lifted off their back following 2013’s dramatic victory. The Italians rode their luck at times this past weekend but their pack, their rolling maul in particular, was infinitely superior to their hosts. Kelly Haimona is not an international outhalf and how Italy long for a reliable place kicker, in the mode of all-time great Diego Dominguez. Sides like Italy, limited in attack, simply can’t afford to leave points behind and they must find a kicker whose success rate is, at least, somewhere between 75 and 80 per cent. Still, if metaphorically, Italy went to sleep on Friday to relentless rain and gloom, on Sunday morning they will have awoken to a rather unexpected but welcome Indian Summer.

Wales’ championship ambitions are well and truly alive and kicking once more. To his and their credit, Warren Gatland and his big boppers went to France looking for a fight and, beyond any shadow of a doubt, won the physical battle comprehensively. The most experienced centre pairing in the Six Nations stood strong and there were also exceptional performances from Dan Lydiate and outstanding captain, Sam Warburton. Dan Biggar was accomplished and composed throughout, taking his try extremely well and, as ever, Leigh Halfpenny’s accuracy from the dead ball was close enough to faultless. George North responded well to Gatland’s demands that he become more involved in the game, his carries visibly sapping the will of the French defenders. Adding guile to the brawn was the nippy, dangerous, livewire Rhys Webb at scrum half. We accept that Gatland’s gameplan requires far more straight lines than arcs but a slippery customer like Webb is vital for variation. Still, for the most part Wales stuck to the tried and trusted and, as France are limited and wholly ineffective for large parts of each of their contests, the Welsh blueprint worked just fine. Ireland, their next opponents in what is sure to be a complete hum dinger in Cardiff, play a very specific style of rugby. Their game is somewhat rigid but remember, more importantly, that it is extremely effective. Following a system and sticking to a job, almost Germanically, should not be confused with being limited. Wales will fancy their chances in two weeks and based on their last two outings they should do, but beating this particular French side, even away from home, will pose far less problems than Joe Schmidt’s side.

While discussing the finer points of purgatory with his colleague Ken (Brendan Gleeson) in 2008’s In Bruges, Colin Farrell’s character Ray exclaims, “You weren’t really shit, but you weren’t all that great either. Like Tottenham.”  Perhaps he was prophetically talking about the current French rugby team and, of course, Tottenham. In any era. France made sweeping changes for Saturday evening’s game against a, let’s be honest, above average but far from spectacular Welsh side. Early on the French threatened without ever looking like cutting the Welsh midfield to pieces. The Remi Lamerat experiment never really took off, injury robbing the Castres centre of the opportunity to impress his coach and equally importantly, a decidedly frustrated French rugby public. Mathieu Bastareaud came on early in his place and barring his involvement in Bruce Dulin’s try; incidentally the first French try against Wales in four years; the Toulon man provided little more than hard carries into the arms of the improved Jonathan Davies and ever dependable Jamie Roberts. France, rather alarmingly, despite a raft of changes showed little or no ability to bring the ludicrously talented Wesley Fofana into the game. The future, or more pertinently the upcoming World Cup, looks grim for France, but, since they were able to dispense with their coach, Marc Lievremont’s advice following a chastening defeat to Tonga in the 2011 World Cup and lead themselves to the final where they were unlucky to lose to the final to New Zealand, in Auckland, we would simply say…. watch this space and dispense with all rationale when it comes to the French.

The weekend’s final game saw a good, honest slobber knocker between the two form sides, Ireland and England. Ireland won because, unsurprisingly, they were superior in a number of facets of the game, particularly in their kick and chase game. England seemed a little perturbed by Ireland’s insistence on kicking the ball with great regularity. Perhaps they should have done the same. Except better. Perhaps we’re being facetious, but given they spent most of the week informing everyone how they were preparing for the aerial bombardment, by Sunday evening it looked like a classic case of the dog eating the student’s homework. Ireland had star performers all over the pitch, each adhering diligently to coach, Joe Schmidt’s fastidiously prepared game plan. It would be impossible not to single out Robbie Henshaw for individual praise. This column is open to correction but it appeared that he never once took a backward step with ball in hand. England, always robust in every facet of the game rarely breached the Irish defensive line, Billy Vunipola and Anthony Watson aside, and Henshaw was to the fore of the exceptional, home rearguard effort. The skill, awareness and timing for his try looked like a hybrid effort one might see from Tommy Bowe and Ireland’s greatest ever player, Brian O’ Driscoll.

Ireland have been accused of being limited, indeed strictly speaking they are, but if you keep on winning then how necessary is change? Remember, the English World Cup winning side in 2003 were blessed with standout players all over the pitch but it was very rare, particularly as the tournament progressed, that you saw any sort of ‘heads-up’, creative play, aside of course from the irrepressible Jason Robinson. What about the mighty All Blacks in the 2011 final? They overcame the French in the final on a whopping score line of nine points to eight. It is agreed that those teams that have won the World Cup are built on rock solid defence, a mobile pack who are ferociously competitive at the breakdown when necessary, a near faultless place kicker, and a commanding pair of half backs. New Zealand for all their glorious talent have won the tournament the same number of times as the, dour by reputation, South Africans. Perhaps Ireland will need to bring something different in Cardiff but if it’s a dog fight that the Welsh are looking for, and it most assuredly will be, then Paul O’ Connell and his charges will relish the challenge.

For all the praise of Ireland’s performance yesterday, it is hard to say that they were ten points the better side than their visitors. A number of moments had a huge baring on the outcome of the game. The instance most observers will highlight was Devin Toner’s first half lineout steal, deep in the Irish 22 after George Ford and Chris Robshaw decided to forego a relatively easy three pointer. Setting down a marker? Arrogance? It doesn’t really matter as the big second row’s excellent rob gave Ireland renewed vigour.

England looked very dangerous on occasion. Billy Vunipola showed outstanding pace to race fifty yards untouched off a messy scrum and Anthony Watson looked menacing anytime the game broke up. Additionally, the English spent the majority of the final fifteen minutes sending wave after wave over the top of the line but, with credit to the home defence, the leading point scorers in this year’s Six Nations were unable to cross for a try. A last gasp try, disallowed for a forward pass to Jack Nowell, would probably, on the balance of things, have been justified but the game was up for England by then. England probably left these shores a touch chastened, knowing they were outfought by an incredibly disciplined, aggressive pack, which incidentally looked none the weaker for the loss of back row stalwarts Sean O’ Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

Still, while Ireland may have won the battle yesterday, one suspects the English will believe that they can finish the war on their terms in October.

Rugby, Six Nations


Can the Real France Please Stand Up!

Ireland v France: 14th February 17:00 Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road

Philippe Saint Andre’s side arrive in Dublin this weekend without the usual whirl of excitement and unpredictability surrounding them. Last week’s victory was routine, insofar as they beat Scotland, but the Gallic flair missing in action since the turn of the decade, most certainly did not make its long awaited return. In fact the secret to success last week was a full out assault by their massive pack and the nerveless boot of outhalf experiment 257, Camille Lopez. The carefree, predictably unpredictable French really seem to be a team of the, admittedly recent, past.

That said, Ireland didn’t exactly pull up trees in Rome but a twenty three point victory away to the Azzurri should never be sniffed at. If Italy are the barroom brawler of this tournament then Ireland are the measured, risk free counter-puncher, picking you off with jabs rather than going for the lights out haymaker. Make no mistake, Ireland came out of this particular scrap, extremely comfortable victors. Joe Schmidt would have been happy with the clinical use of the numerical advantage after Italy’s Leonardo Ghiraldini was sent to the sin bin. That’s not to say that the expected accuracy was there throughout and imprecision and sluggishness were clearly evident throughout the opening hour. Whether this can be explained by the usual opening weekend rustiness and the Six Nations starting debut of five players remains to be seen.

‘Write off France at your peril ‘ was a statement that always carried weight, particularly around these parts, where a victory over France was a largely mythical concept, until Brian O’ Driscoll’s hat- trick and David Humphrey’s nerveless accuracy put paid to that, in Paris, in March 2000. That was Ireland’s first victory over France in Paris since 1975 and in that intervening period the French had been defeated in Dublin just once in 1983. After a period of minor dominance at the turn of the millennium France proceeded to register 12 out of 13 victories against Ireland in all tournaments up until the drawn game in Paris in 2012. The last three games between the sides have ended in two draws and last year’s win for Ireland, meaning for the first time since 1974 France will be looking to avoid a run of four games without a victory over the Irish. Now, I’ve used the facts to suit my argument but there is no disputing the fact that Ireland are undefeated by France in four years. A similar, once in a generation blip like this occurs between the hurlers of Kilkenny and Wexford.

As of this morning France are six point underdogs for tomorrow’s game. This could be more if half-cut, patriotic Irish fans decide to skew the market even more. I would be confident, though clearly open to contradiction, in saying that France have never in their history arrived in Dublin with the locals favoured so heavily. I have heard numerous people say this week that the bookies have this one completely wrong. My understanding, as a casual and largely unsuccessful gambler, is that the handicap line is set in response to where the public’s money is going, not because Messrs. Power and Boyle think France are rubbish and that everything Joe Schmidt touches turns to gold, although it kind of does.

My gripe here is actually with the French. How have Les Bleus, comfortably Ireland’s toughest out historically, save for their nemesis in the deep south, allowed the Irish public regard them with such disdain? Recent memories are invoked of any one of Ntamack, Dominici or Bernat-Salles cutting us to pieces with such wilful disdain and exuberance. Despite the numerous humiliating defeats one couldn’t help but hold the rogue, carefree and infinitely skilful Frenchmen in such high regard.

And how could any Irish sports fan ever forget our bête noire, Vincent Clerc, tormenting us for years and finally putting the cherry on top by stepping John Hayes in open country; if only he’d run at him beside a ruck; and silencing Croke Park on rugby’s debut in, arguably, Europe’s finest stadium.

That’s not even ten years ago and yet France’s arrival tomorrow brings less trepidation than the arrival, in a fortnight’s time, of Ireland’s whipping boys of the mid noughties, England. The French, particularly their coaching staff, should be ashamed of themselves. Just watch Serge Blanco’s winning try in the 1987 World Cup semi-final against Australia, ideally with the French commentary, then switch to last week’s horrible slog in Paris. The build up to the try is ridiculous, equal part under 8s mayhem and uncoachable, glorious, heads-up rugby. Unfortunately instinct seems to have been shorn from the 2015 edition of France.

Tomorrow’s game unsurprisingly will be won up front, admittedly a lazy statement that applies to every rugby match outside the Pacific Island Nations. Ireland’s pack is aggressive, disciplined, ferocious at the breakdown and actually slightly heavier per man than France. The French are always incredibly abrasive though and their game will surely be predicated on tight carries by the pack, supplemented by some monsters off the bench and the assistance of the bulldozing, borderline unstoppable when he’s on form, Mathieu Bastareaud.  The French backline, on paper, where everyone bar the players themselves play out these games, is every bit as impressive as Ireland’s, and considerably better in one area, midfield. Here, France have Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana, who if used correctly, are surely the greatest centre pairing in world rugby; a complimentary rugby equivalent of Laurel and Hardy. Fofana glides through defences in a manner similar to the great Conrad Smith and his strength belies his relatively narrow frame. The back of three of Yoann Huget, South African Scott Spedding and the superbly named, throwback left wing Teddy Thomas are every bit as impressive as opposite numbers Kearney, Bowe and Zebo. However the caveat with this French backline is that they can be unstoppable but only if used correctly or rearmed with their traditional licence to thrill. While solid last week, it didn’t look as though Lopez and South African scrum half Rory Kockott, see the theme here, were going to allow their outside backs rain hell on the Scots. There is no question that Ireland enjoy a clear advantage in this department, even taking into account Jonathan Sexton’s inevitable, early rustiness.

Perhaps both sides were keeping their powder dry last week but I don’t buy this theory for a second. Schmidt cuts his cloth to suit the measure while Saint Andre’s team have been rudderless and uninspired since the beginning of his stint as French head coach. If he’s playing the long game with the World Cup in October in mind, then I tip my hat to him. But let’s be honest, he isn’t.

Ireland’s back row has the potential to become a missile launch site once more with the return of the ever dependable Jamie Heaslip and Ireland’s most exciting and, when fully fit, devastating ball carrier, Sean O’ Brien. Thierry Dusautoir, Damien Chouly and Bernard le Roux, from guess where, bring plenty of ballast themselves and will be more than content to go to war. Whoever dominates at the breakdown should present decent go-forward ball to either Lopez or the returning Sexton. Ireland need to be more creative in midfield and the suspicion remains that Robbie Henshaw is playing one position too far inside. Bastareuad and Fofana will welcome traffic up the middle with glee and return it with interest.

Both back threes, as mentioned, are brimming with attacking potential and the midfield playmakers will need to employ subtlety, Bastareaud aside, to unlock two very well organised defences. Stuart Hogg had some moments of brilliance last week in Paris and the opportunity should present itself for Simon Zebo and Tommy Bowe to find some unmanned green grass, particularly once the game breaks up a little in the second half. The Cork man seems to be playing with a chip on his shoulder for Ireland and thus far it suits him. A moment of brilliance by him, Bowe or the electric Thomas may well decide this contest.

Even as an Irishman who gets giddily excited as to what may await us in the next eight months, I long for the return of the swashbuckling, give a flying shite, French team of years gone by.

Unfortunately they won’t make their return tomorrow. I don’t think we, the Irish public, are a million miles off this time.

Ireland by 6.


England –v- Italy – 14:30 – 14th February – Twickenham

A brief, lazy deferral to history to summarise this one.

On 14th February 1929, six members of Bugsy Moran’s Irish mob on Chicago’s north side were executed, the result of a long running feud with legendary, infamous Italian American mob boss, Al Capone. The incident would go down in lore as The St Valentine’s Day Massacre Tomorrow. Tomorrow in Twickenham history should repeat itself but unfortunately for the Italians, there’s little chance of them springing the surprise attack.

The weather isn’t forecast to be great for London tomorrow but frankly it’ll take a monsoon to stop this contest turning into a slaughter. The English juggernaut is most certainly up and rolling and Stuart Lancaster’s side will be well aware that, in a tight Championship where a Grand Slam looks unlikely, points difference will most likely come into play. Once the game gets loose don’t be surprised if everybody outside George Ford gets on the score sheet.

The Italians are always game, to a man, but that won’t be near enough here.

England by 35 (and the rest)

Scotland –v- Wales – 15:00 – 15th February – Murrayfield

This game is intriguing for a number of reasons. Firstly, Wales’ record, 51-3, beating of Scotland in last year’s closing round will be to the forefront of everybody’s mind, north of the Wall. However the Scottish sides of March 2014 and February 2015 are definitely not the same animals. Once aimless and toothless, Scotland’s performances in November and more so last week suggest that Vern Cotter has breadth new life into a team who had been lurking in the wilderness for far too long. The Scots, just like their opponents tomorrow, are a massively proud nation and Cotter has very adeptly tapped into this, at least from the outside looking in, latent pride.

Cotter, like his friend Joe Schmidt an alumni of Clermont Auvergne, has taken a rudderless team and instilled discipline and confidence, two cornerstones to any successful side. Tomorrow is a real litmus test as a narrow, brave defeat will no longer cut the mustard with either the players, it never does to be fair, or the Scottish public.

Wales come to Edinburgh on the back of a chastening defeat to England where they squandered an early ten point lead and failed to score in the second half. In truth the five point defeat could have been so much worse and the manner of the defeat, getting comprehensively outplayed in every facet of the game by your greatest and oldest rival at home, has to be disconcerting for Warren Gatland and his coaches and players, not to mention the wider Welsh public. Gatland ran home with his ball on Friday night and gave his players the silent treatment for letting him down. It’s tough enough for the players to deal with a defeat at home to England without being treated to Gatland’s childish histrionics. Nonetheless hooker Richard Hibbard rallied during the week and said that the “players owe him that (a better performance) for giving us a second chance.” As if he was going to drop the entire team!

It appears that Gatland’s template has become dated. To his credit, using huge men to smash smaller men has brought great success to Wales in recent years but change and variety are vital and the best coaches and teams are always evolving, even if only very slightly. This Welsh team misses Shane William’s trickery and the unfairly maligned Jamie Roberts can’t be relied on to batter down the castle gates every single time. It was intimated last week that Wales are performing with one eye on the World Cup. I prefer Clive Woodward’s blueprint in 2003; annihilate all in front of you and set down a marker for the World Cup later on that year. It’s defecate or get off the pot time for both sides on Sunday.

Finn Russell, Alex Dunbar and the mercurial Stuart Hogg should get plenty of opportunities on Sunday to usurp their more illustrious opponents. Hogg can and does match the ridiculous with the sublime but in an era of increasingly one sized giants, his potential to unlock a defence is invaluable. Scotland need to win to continue their development, Wales to dismiss the nagging feeling that theirs has ceased altogether.

As AC/DC’s Bon Scott and his inimitable voice squealed all those years ago, “It’s a Long Way to the Top if you Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Scotland aren’t even close to there yet but a victory on Sunday will confirm that their ascent continues in earnest.

Scotland by 2

Bill Lonergan – 13th February 2015