Rugby Union, Six Nations, Six Nations 2016

Six Nations 2016 – Round 2 Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabah

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

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

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

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

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

SOB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland by 3

In Brief…….

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

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

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

DB

Dan Biggar: Ankles of adamantium

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

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

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

Wales by 10

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

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

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

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

Maro

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

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

England by 12

SUS Picks – Ireland to beat France – Evens

                       Scotland +10 draw with Wales  22/1

                        Italy +15 over England 10/11

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Rugby Union, Six Nations

Six Nations 2016: Ireland v Wales Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rory Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welsh Backrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JP

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

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

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

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

Wales by 3

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