Ireland v Wales, Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations, Six Nations 2018

Six Nations 2018: Ireland v Wales Preview

Even when you account for hyperbole – because we all love the Six Nations – this year’s tournament has been enthralling thus far. Three out of six games have been tight affairs, four teams have left themselves in the mix for the championship and France are a mess once more.

Given what’s gone before, it’s fitting that the remaining contenders face off this weekend in Dublin and Edinburgh, respectively. Scotland, fuelled by as yet unsubstantiated self-confidence entertain the heretofore efficient England. This game offers a genuine opportunity to the Scottish to justify their hype while the English will be looking to quieten any suggestions that their back play has become sluggish and predictable.

While proceedings get under way in Paris tonight, the weekend truly kicks off on Lansdowne Road on Saturday afternoon. Warren Gatland, whose star has perhaps never shone so brightly, brings a gradually healing Welsh squad to Dublin looking to continue his excellent recent record against Ireland. Ireland, who have watched the bodies hit the floor this week are still seven-point favourites and that should immediately sound the alarm bells.

With the IRFU’s recent blanket ban on the dailies’ news conference, all the talk has been of the importance of the freedom of the press and the perceived pettiness of some of Ireland’s largest sporting bodies and individuals.

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“Down with those probing questions” (photo courtesy of The Irish Times)

Unfortunately, in a situation like this it generally falls to ‘which side are you on’ as some believe it is the team’s duty to report to the media and provide sufficient access while others believe the media – whose work they ingest on a daily basis – do not deserve any access and constantly look to find baseless stories to propagate their clickbait. We’re of the view that the team should be obliged to provide comment for the media as, whether they like it or not, they generally profit from media coverage.

Interviews are largely and understandably banal now and many people have pointed that sporting organisations are attempting to control their own media in-house. Unfortunately, this means that a lot of very interesting characters are forced to provide vacuous content for their own employer’s online platform. Still, while places like Twitter and The White House would suggest that humanity has regressed irreparably, there remain enough people both interested and intelligent enough to seek their news elsewhere.

The myth that the media always enjoyed a good relationship with sporting organisations is brilliantly debunked in author Mark O’ Brien’s article which appeared in Monday’s Irish Times. The GAA, always ahead of the trend, was the first to chastise and indeed ban journalists from games when the latter had the neck to report incidences of violence in hurling and Gaelic football in the 1950s. According to The Irish Times, the great Christy Ring’s strike to the head of Tipperary’s Tom Moloughney ‘added no lustre to Ring’s reputation’ and when D. Hickey of the Irish Independent expanded on Ring’s ‘deplorable’ act, he was subsequently refused entry to the Cork Athletic Grounds to cover the county final. And to think of the abuse poor Tommy Walsh used to get for creatively devising ways to win the high ball.

Yet, while this is clearly not the first time the sports press have been blackballed, it is symptomatic, as has been pointed out on a number of occasions this week, of a growing intolerance of the sports media. Sports reporting may be less urgent and vital than that of current affairs but it is somewhat disappointing that we as consumers should have to accept the heavy-handed actions of sporting bodies.

No one wants to hear the watered down views of the IRFU or FAI and like it or not, the media plays a hugely important role in promoting sport. Nobody expects absolute candour but between the IRFU’s stonewalling and Martin O’Neill’s unusual approach to Tony O’ Donoghue, an air of militancy has crept into Irish sport.

 

It may not affect the end product all that much though as the general antipathy towards journalists in soccer hasn’t prevented the production of excellent journalism. Also, it’s a near certainty that you could count the memorable or insightful post-match interviews you’ve heard on one hand. Coaches offer next to nothing of interest in interviews and players are far more revealing, and less exhausted, in a one on one setting.

Further, one could argue that the incredibly closed shop of Irish rugby prohibits any of the established journalists from writing what they think when the team underperforms. Or, just generally. You can’t blame the established rugby writers for picking their words carefully but the lack of critique is sometimes grating. And this current ban can’t actually prevent individual players giving interviews, ones that will be far more interesting than anything Joe Schmidt or Simon Easterby usually deliver? Nonetheless, while the recent IRFU ban has ironically led to countless column inches, the end result will most likely be of negligible effect to the production of thoughtful, informative sports journalism.

To this weekend’s main event and the visit of an ominously improving Welsh side. Warren Gatland, long the shade-throwing, instigator has declined donning his troll cap this week. So long the pantomime villain in this piece, the 54 year-old has thrown precious few barbs in Ireland’s direction this week.

Gatland once again confirmed himself as an outstanding coach with the Lions drawn series in New Zealand last summer. For years, supporters and media alike criticised his unsophisticated approach, then encapsulated in the famous ‘Warrenball’ term. The term, though not without merit, is overly simplistic as the game changed together with the personnel at Gatland’s disposal but two Grand Slams and a Six Nations Championship in the Kiwi’s decade in charge represents an exceptional return.

Perhaps coinciding with the rise of Wayne Pivac’s thrilling Scarlets side, Wales openly stated this past summer that their playing style was going to change to a more expansive approach. In their tournament opener against Scotland – who had hyped themselves mightily all week- the Welsh provided a high-octane display, kept the ball in hand and in play for extended periods and seared through the Scottish defence seemingly at will. As impressive as that Scarlets inspired display was, the effort in defeat in Twickenham was even more laudable. Down eight Lions before kick-off and 12 points shortly thereafter, Wales kept England scoreless the rest of the way home and were unlucky not to take more from the refortified stadium.

 

Wales conceded a total of two penalties in that game thus negating Owen Farrell’s prolific boot so the question is just how exactly will Ireland break the visitors down on Saturday? Paris was wet and the Italian game revealed little so Ireland will have to think outside of the English box if they are to break down this exceptional Welsh wall. Both last year and in Cardiff three years ago, Ireland huffed and puffed relentlessly but with little invention and they were ultimately thwarted on the back of an outstanding defensive effort.

The most recent Welsh defensive effort in London allied to their breakdown work which improved as the game went on should provide Ireland with plentiful food for thought particularly when Ireland, no more than any other side admittedly, live and die by the speed and quality of their ruck ball.

More ominously, Ireland will have to deal without Tadhg Furlong in a major game for the first time in eighteen months and though Andrew Porter looks a fine player, he is being asked to replace the best tighthead prop in the world against a scrum that gradually gained superiority over the English a fortnight ago. While it is perhaps unfair to presume Porter will struggle in this department, tighthead props don’t generally ease themselves into the international game and Ireland will now have to seek parity, at best, in an area that has become a real asset in recent seasons.

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Andrew Porter has been tasked with filling the boots of Tadhg Furlong. (photo courtesy joe.ie)

Allied to Furlong’s absence is the more unexpected loss of Iain Henderson, the man who has grown fully into his role at the core of this Irish pack. Henderson has been brilliant all season, despite Ulster sometimes resembling Albert Square this year, and his aggression and ability to make a big play, in particular, will be sorely missed. Robbie Henshaw’s season-ending injury denies Ireland of a trio of its core players.

Two things are worth noting here, however. Wales, bedraggled by injuries all season will give less than a shit about Ireland’s current predicament, while more importantly the chastening Argentinian defeat in October 2015 always prefaced the day when Ireland would need to confirm the new found squad depth, which Joe Schmidt rightly identified as lacking.

Coaches are far more pragmatic than supporters in the wake of crucial injuries. It’s part of the job so they must be. And, in light of Ireland’s exit from the World Cup, Joe Schmidt has worked tirelessly to create genuine depth throughout his squad. The general perception is that Johnny Sexton still remains irreplaceable and Conor Murray is loitering near this classification also. Could this change after Saturday?

With the exception of Australia in November 2016, which came only a year after the World Cup, Saturday offers the greatest challenge to Ireland’s depth since 2015. Three players – Andrew Porter, James Ryan and Chris Farrell – with a combined 11 caps between them will play integral roles if Ireland are to overcome a resurgent and tireless Welsh side that has just welcomed three Lions, Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams back into the fold.

Biggar will bring physicality, structure and a quality kicking game at number ten but he lacks the creativity and running threat of the man he replaces, Rhys Patchell. It would be impossible to omit Biggar but his inclusion suggests Wales may revert to a robust approach.  The visitors will gladly invite Ireland into a street fight of sorts and the panache with which they despatched Scotland is unlikely to surface.

Ireland, for their part, have proven time and again that they are more than able for an aggressive affair but given the moving parts, the hope is that Bundee Aki and Farrell are allowed do more than just smash it straight up the middle. This tactic has proven pointless of late against Wales and if the penalty count is low again, Ireland won’t be able to rely on creating platforms from lineout mauls deep in Welsh territory.

Ireland’s hopes will still live and die on the quality of performance from Johnathan Sexton and Conor Murray. It seems a bit obvious to state this but given how tight this game will be, the home side will probably require their stars to guide them. Their performances should be raised by the fact that they are facing the second best half-back pairing in the tournament.

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As Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton go, so go Ireland. (photo courtesy of rugbylad.ie)

The packs match up very evenly, similarly the back lines, where the returning Liam Williams is set for an enthralling contest with the Six Nations form winger, Keith Earls. Even at the back, Rob Kearney and Leigh Halfpenny can match each other for unfussy reliability so everything points to this game being a tight grind that will be decided by less than a score.

Roughneck affairs like this usually favour the home side, bringing the crowd into the game, and Ireland won’t for even one moment countenance being pushed around by Alun Wyn Jones’ pack. And, if this game follows the Twickenham script then the defences will be watertight, tries will be at a premium and it would be no surprise if this game is decided by a solitary moment of magic.

Dreams of a Grand Slam may still be alive come Saturday but more importantly, we’ll know for certain whether Joe Schmidt’s best-laid plans are coming to fruition.

Ireland by 3

Tips: (i) Wales + 8 and under 39.5 points @ 5/2

            (ii) C.J. Stander 1st try scorer @ 14/1

 

 

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Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations 2017

Madness in the Method?

The last 12 months have entailed both the very best and most frustrating aspects of this current Irish rugby team. So close in South Africa, then exceptional in Chicago. Gutsy against Australia, caught cold in Edinburgh, followed by sleeves rolled up efficiency and toughness against France. Then a return to old failings in Cardiff last weekend. After a truly mixed season, Ireland return to the place where they so often thrive, backs to the wall and with little expectation.

If the plethora of ‘ifs’ had gone our way in the past six weeks alone, the last few days would have been filled with the fever pitch that only accompanies a Grand Slam showdown. Instead and after a listless opening forty in Edinburgh and, as with 24 months ago, a performance in Cardiff where plan B was clearly left at home, Ireland face England with no tangible wares on the line. They do, however, have an opportunity to measure themselves against the world’s second best side and prevent two records falling. England, meanwhile, have the chance to record the first back-to-back Grand Slams in Six Nations history and break the record of eighteen straight victories held, of course, by themselves and New Zealand. There is no question as to whose winning streak is more impressive but should England prevail on Saturday the history books won’t lie.

The question for Ireland, after the harsh reality of our inability to break down defences without going through multi-phases, is whether we can live with a side who are now marrying potent offence with the discipline which Eddie Jones immediately instilled on his arrival in 2016. The rather frustrating and none too illuminating answer is that, yes, on one off occasions we can live with any side in the world. Therefore, if Ireland win on Saturday where does it leave them, apart from the obvious position of a fairly distant second behind England and marginal leader of the chasing pack.

If you examine the 11 game run which begun last June at the foot of Table Mountain and led into last Friday night’s all too familiar defeat in Wales it’s clear that Ireland are a good side that can deviate from brilliant to decidedly blow average. Nothing revelatory there. However, perhaps of more relevance is the fact that Ireland succeed when their set-piece performs to a markedly superior level to that of their opposition. New Zealand and Australia struggled mightily against the Irish scrum, while the line-out provided a match-winning platform in Chicago. Disrupt Ireland here and it would appear that they are bereft of ideas.

The Irish management team are growing increasingly prickly towards journalists who ask whether Ireland have become either too predictable or are lacking in offensive thrust. Scratch too close to the bone and people generally become uncomfortable. To an untrained eye, last Friday’s attack seemed to revolve around flat one or maybe two out runners and a brand new trick….. the wraparound. The latter generally led to an isolated Keith Earls or Simon Zebo kicking ahead into space and chasing. From such great coaching minds, it hardly smacks of ingenuity.

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Irish rugby journalists have committed the cardinal sin of both doing their job and asking relevant questions at recent press conferences. 

Barring the ten-try evisceration of the then 14th ranked team in the world in Rome, Ireland’s attack has struggled mightily throughout this tournament. Scotland’s defence can be charitably described as average, while to be fair the French encounter was never going to yield a great attacking dividend given the conditions. Wales, in Cardiff however provided a perfect marker as to the progress Ireland have made offensively since the uncannily similar defeat in 2015. The answer, it would seem, is very little.

Despite his excellent performance in Cardiff, for the sixty minutes Johnny Sexton played last weekend Ireland struggled to create any real opportunities, the two best breaks of the game coming from Donnacha Ryan and CJ Stander. For all of Robbie Henshaw’s strengths he is not, at least yet, a midfield creator in the mould of Jeremy Guscott or Tim Horan. Of course, he is still an outstanding defender and carrier and there is the hope that his game can develop along a similar line to that of Ma’a Nonu. However, in the short term Ireland need something beyond Sexton’s often isolated efforts, so Jared Payne’s inclusion should at least offer the option of a playmaker from the back.

England, more as a result of serendipity than design, have happened upon an outstanding 10-12 axis, with Owen Farrell operating as a first five-eighth outside George Ford. Both are excellent distributors, Ford is a genuine running threat and Farrell complements these skills with huge, often times punishing defence. Ireland won’t be fooled into thinking they’re running at a converted out half in Farrell meaning Ford’s rush defence, highlighted by Gordon D’Arcy in this week’s Irish Times, needs to be exploited somehow.

 

F & F

England have fortuitously arrived upon a hugely successful midfield pairing in old friends George Ford (l) and Owen Farrell.

There has been much talk of Ireland’s structured system which is possibly predicated on the fact that carefully managed phase play eventually leads to gaps appearing, somewhat akin to chess. The problem with this kind of rugby is that it grows stale in a hurry when it becomes ineffective. For all the pressure imposed by Ireland last week, and the herculean Welsh defensive performance should not be taken for granted, the closest the visitors came to scoring was from a rolling maul.

Owning the ball in rugby doesn’t quite equate to soccer, where the objective is to press and probe until an opening appears. If rugby, as structured phases amass, the defensive line become more comfortable with their assignment. Maybe Ireland have a rabbit in the hat for Saturday’s encounter but the one time they tried a semi-coherent move off an attacking scrum last week Keith Earls spilled it, perhaps mindful of the fact that the Welsh midfield had telegraphed the move from the off.

Further, and as has been the case throughout this year’s Six Nations there is the issue of Ireland’s back row. From the limited sample size on offer, it appears that the combination of CJ Stander, Sean O’ Brien and Jamie Heaslip is actually less than the sum of its parts. The problem of course is that Stander was the best of the trio last week, Heaslip appears to be nigh on undroppable and with Josh van Der Flier out, there is a lack of experienced depth on the open side. There is a persuasive argument for Peter O’ Mahony’s inclusion but at whose expense? Schmidt is, not unreasonably, keeping the incumbent combination together for the tournament finale but if they are unsuccessful in stymying England, no small achievement, then others – O’ Mahony, Dan Leavy, Jack Conan- will have to be considered going forward.

 

Ireland-Backrow

The Six Nations have thrown up a mixed bag for the Irish back row so far. A big performance on Saturday would offer huge respite.

Ireland have become all too familiar with life without Johhny Sexton in the past eighteen months and now, with a juggernaut coming to town, they must contend with the absence of their other backline lynchpin, Conor Murray. Kieran Marmion will surely relish his opportunity and given his presence and the inclusion of Payne Ireland will probably attack with greater tempo and, dare we dream, invention.

The coaching team have spoken this week of the need to be clinical in opposition territory. England appear to be a performance ahead, at least, in this regard after last week’s demolition of Scotland. Ireland won’t wilt like the disappointing Scots did but nothing thus far in this year’s tournament suggests they’ll be able to repel and breakdown a flourishing English side, buoyed further by Billy Vunipola’s return to the starting line-up. The visitors are on a discernible upward curve while Ireland, ironically given the methodical nature of their play, remain difficult to read.

The frustrating, or perhaps brilliant aspect of this Irish side, is that they remain capable of beating anybody when their up-tempo pace complements a dominant set-piece. England, though, will be primed for an emotional performance from the home side, particularly after being stung in 2001 and 2011 when hunting Grand Slams. Outside of England it’s unlikely that anyone wants Eddie Jones to succeed where all others have failed before him. But in a week where Queen Elizabeth II gave the royal nod for Brexit talks to commence, it seems likely that England will successfully impose their superiority in a more anodyne, sporting manner.

Straight Up Sport Prediction: England by 4

Tips: (i) Handicap Draw (Ireland -4) @22/1

           (ii) Under 37.5 points @ 6/5

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Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations 2017

French test a defining moment

After the defeat in Edinburgh, the perception seemed to go from glass full to glass half-empty with little consideration for rationale or perspective. Now, after the massacre of a poor Italian side in Rome, the mood is tentatively lifting once more. It defies explanation but Irish sides always seem to perform better when there is a pervading sense of uncertainty or even borderline negativity in the air. New Zealand in 2013 and again last November and South Africa last summer are obvious recent examples.

There’s no question that the Irish squad would have applied themselves as professionally as ever to training and video sessions in the lead up to round one of this year’s Six Nations, but you have to imagine that they are not impervious to the prevailing view of the media and the general public. Not that they necessarily believe what’s being said in the lead up to games but it must seep into their psyche. Alternatively, one could take the view that the Irish rugby public place unduly lofty expectations to their national side. That’s probably an argument for another day but, for now, this Irish side finds itself in a seemingly more palatable position, surrounded by tentative expectation. That said, the internal pressure to perform is, no doubt, as high as ever.

The fixture list has been kind to Ireland.  Though downed by the Scots, they were immediately offered a regeneration programme in Rome, safe in the knowledge that victory was nigh on certain. France have always given Ireland difficulty, even during their recent phase of rudderless management and feckless, downright incomprehensible performances. Now, Guy Noves side are resurgent, considering where they were coming from, and they’ll arrive buoyed by a fine performance in Twickenham and a hard-fought and welcome victory over Scotland in Paris.

france-v-scotland

France were far from perfect in beating Scotland but they travel to a stadium that holds no fear for them.

Throughout the fist decade of this century, Noves led perhaps the greatest club side ever, in four time Heineken Cup winners, Toulouse. While we remember the individual artistry of Clerc, Poitrenaud, N’Tamack and Jauzion, the success was built on the dominance of the Fabien Pelous-led, gargantuan pack. That team was a joy to watch, and unlike the rubbish in the Top 14 nowadays, they realised that powerful forward play can be married to scintillating incisions from the backline. While Noves’s legacy with Toulouse is redoubtable, Shane Horgan made the point recently on Second Captains that Toulouse’s heydey was more than a decade ago. Rugby has changed considerably since then and it seems that Noves’ greatest strength at this point is his ability to galvanise a French collective who seemed to have lost their way.

As we’re all taking advantage of the residency rule, it would seem trite to criticise the French for selecting a southern hemisphere-flavoured back field but they have done well to hand pick Noa Nakatici, Viremi Vakatawa and Scott Spedding. Vakatawa misses out tomorrow and is replaced by another powerful unit in Yoann Huget. As is often the case with bulldozing wingers, accepted wisdom is that opposing teams need to turn them around and take advantage of their relatively poor field positioning in defence. Ireland’s go-to box-kick game will likely be refined somewhat to include the lesser-spotted line drive into opposition territory. Nakatici doesn’t offer a huge amount in defence but then neither did Vincent Clerc and he still seemed to do ok against Ireland.

Though it’s a position rich in depth, it would be difficult to argue against Louis Picamoles being the tournament’s foremost number-eight, particularly given his recent return to the form of 2014/15. His performance in Twickenham was exceptional and he is possessed of the greatest attacking brain of any forward in the tournament. Ireland’s back-row struggled mightily in Scotland then lorded it in Rome, aided by the hopefully, temporary diminution of Sergio Parisse’s powers, but the upcoming tests will prove an accurate measure of the balance of the current Irish unit.

Whatever the prevailing view at the moment, Saturday’s performance should go a long way towards confirming whether the Stander, O’ Brien, Heaslip combo can perform effectively in all facets of the game. Stander and O’ Brien in particular need to have a plan B in tow for when the wrecking-ball approach is nullified, while all three need to establish parity on the ground, at the very least. Ireland’s back row options are healthier now than ever before and the current trio will be mindful of this.

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A strong performance from CJ Stander should cement his place in the Irish back row.

To injury news, where the Irish Rugby fake news department was at it again this past fortnight. It’s not exactly groundbreaking stuff given the age-old propensity of hurling and Gaelic football managers to insert A.N. Other at corner forward but Schmidt’s Ireland appears to be less than forthcoming with their injury reports. Donnacha Ryan appeared to be fit for the Scottish game while the public was initially informed, with little purpose, that injury kept Ultan Dillane out of the trip to Rome. If nothing else, it’s slightly bemusing but perhaps the Irish management team feel they can gain advantage from concealing this information for as long as is possible. And, on that note, Rob Kearney returns from a seemingly championship–ending injury with Andrew Trimble replacing what must be the most deflated hat-trick scorer ever in Craig Gilroy. As has now become custom, Tiernan O’ Halloran is left to mull over just what it is he needs to do before Schmidt will notice him.

Paddy Jackson deputised more than adequately these past few weeks but, for the time being, there is still little argument over the first-choice Irish out-half. If Sexton stays standing on Saturday then this will all blow over, and one hopes the incumbent number ten is merely going through a rare and unfortunate run of injuries. While the coaching staff were glowing in their praise of Jackson this past week, it’s clear how highly they value Sexton’s leadership and ability to raise the game of those around him. Further, on a more visible level Sexton is near peerless at carrying the ball to the line, an aspect of his game that Ireland missed so dearly in Edinburgh.

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Unsurprisingly, Johnny Sexton and his fitness have been the main topics of conversation in the lead up to this fixture.

For all the major advancements and scalps of the last few months there are still considerable question marks over Ireland’s defence. While they performed admirably in South Africa, bar the second test where altitude had its say, Ireland have been relatively porous since. With the exception of the facile Italian victory, Andy Farrell’s unit have conceded at least three tries in each of the past five games. And this despite Ireland controlling the majority of possession in each contest. A narrow line and lack of line speed are oft criticised but there have also been a number of missed one-on-one tackles. Whatever the ailment and more importantly the cure, Ireland could make life a lot easier for themselves if they didn’t require, on average, twenty-five points to win each of these contests. The caveat, of course, is that this is a small sample size. England, by comparison, may not sparkle but their defence has been mostly rock solid under Eddie Jones, although admittedly the latter have judiciously or perhaps fortuitously avoided New Zealand throughout their unbeaten run.

andy-farrell

Ireland’s defence is yet to click under the guidance of former, dual-international, Andy Farrell.

France will run hard as ever and will jump at the opportunity to move the ball wide while their counter-attacking game has been resuscitated as evidenced by some fantastic deep bursts in Twickenham. Ireland too evidenced their ability to return the ball dangerously from deep in Rome and this must continue into the encounter with France. There is no questioning Rob Kearney’s excellence under the high ball but with O’ Halloran and Simon Zebo breathing down his neck, he needs to show his the consistent ability to link effectively with his wings.

The reality is that Ireland need to win all the way home and see whether Scotland can create some problems for the English in a fortnight’s time. Talk of bonus points seems ludicrous given the defensive qualities of Ireland’s remaining opponents. If the back row click, Sexton hits the ground running, which to be fair he always does after injury absences, and Conor Murray completely sheds the last vestiges of his mini-slump then Ireland will win. But any idea of a runaway victory is fanciful.

It’s clear that Ireland are probably somewhere between the majesty of Chicago and the fitful, frustrating performance in Murrayfield. If they defend as in the latter match, then France will have a comfortable, early spring evening. That outcome seems most unlikely though and Joe Schmidt and, more pertinently his side will be aching to rise to the pitch of November once more.

Ireland see themselves as the most obvious challengers to England’s dominance in the north yet victories are the only way to further this claim and usurp the latter. An improving France will provide a stern mid-tournament examination of Ireland. Expect the home side to respond accordingly.

Straight Up Sport Prediction: Ireland by 6 (Odds Ireland -8)

Tips: (i) France +8 @10/11

           (ii) Simon Zebo anytime try scorer @ 2/1

           (iii) Johnny Sexton first try scorer @ 25/1

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Irish Rugby, Six Nations, Six Nations 2017

Don’t Mention the Bus

Irish supporters and media have spent the days since Saturday dissecting a seemingly terrible performance. The Scottish public, meanwhile, has no doubt been basking in the warm glow of what they view to be a wonderful display. The truth, however, or at least the true quality of each side’s performances probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Scotland, on the one hand, commendably identified that old Irish bugbear – soft, narrow defence –  and punished it. Throw in a pretty clever, one-off lineout play and a quietening of a seemingly unstoppable Irish back row, in a manner not seen since Wellington 2011, and it’s fair to say the home side got a lot right.

Still, Ireland dominated the scrum, in addition to possession, and by sixty minutes had fought their way into a position of dominance reflected by their perilous one point lead. Ultimately, the combination of heavy legs, a weak bench and a lack of accuracy – no doubt brought about by that insurmountable challenge of the fifteen-minute bus delay – meant that Scotland actually closed out the game with relative ease.

Peter O'Mahony and Chris Henry pass the Trophy around the bus 16/3/2014

The Irish team bus in happier times.

In any event, the game has been dissected ad infinitum and, as has been the case since the beginning of time, media and supporters have moved seamlessly from discussing the Grand Slam showdown with England to questioning how we’ve fallen so far, so quickly.

Now, of course, by losing their opener Ireland will in the words of Aaron Rodgers, ‘have to run the table’ in order to be victorious in March. However, the defeat has also focused minds and will, if nothing else, bring an end to our unnecessarily lofty expectations. And, the Grand Slam should not be the measure of a season, winning the championship should.

In that sense, the visit to Rome on Saturday offers the best tonic. France have affirmed their November regeneration and look lively again, Wales robust and business-like. Under no circumstances would Ireland be best served by appearing under the Friday-night lights in Cardiff after last week’s performance. Some might argue that a stiff challenge would force Ireland to step up immediately but back-to-back defeats could force Ireland into a tailspin. Therefore, with all due obligatory respect to the Italians, a victory in Rome will at least allow Ireland to keep their season alive. How they go about achieving that result will be of far more importance.

Cian Healy comes in off the pine, while Donnacha Ryan, back from a knee strain and playing out of skin this season comes straight into the starting line-up, with Iain Henderson getting an unexpected weekend off. As well as Scotland competed last weekend, Ryan’s raw edge and experience were sorely missed both in the lineout and at close combat. Healy, meanwhile, has a chance to stake a claim for a jersey once permanently his but surely, all eyes will turn to Ireland’s back row, one that may be struggling for balance.

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The returning Donnacha Ryan should boost the Irish line-out, which was dominated in Murrayfield.

Scotland cleaned Ireland out on the ground last weekend, aided by their understanding of Roman Poite’s complete inability to punish blatant encroachments and clear, slowing tactics. Notwithstanding Ireland’s unparalleled discipline there may be a lesson to be gleaned from this, that Ireland might benefit from illegally slowing the game down themselves sometimes.

In any event, after limited game time together it seems that the trio of CJ Stander, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’ Brien is beginning to bear considerable resemblance to the aforementioned Irish back row in 2011 of O’ Brien, Heaslip and Stephen Ferris. It took the practical yet wildly effective tactic of quick, low tackles for the Welsh in 2011. Scotland, tweaked it and gang tackled their men but, more importantly, they dominated the contest for the ball and completely nullified Ireland’s perceived effectiveness –mea culpa– in this area.

Of course, the current trio can still dominate, indeed they will on Saturday, but on the evidence of Saturday’s shortcomings and the outstanding season Peter O’ Mahony is enjoying, Joe Schmidt simply must make space for the Munster captain on his return from injury. O’ Mahony has been one of the premier lineout operators in Europe this season and his imminent return will have the current trio, particularly CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip on notice. Josh van der Flier, too, has been a hugely impressive performer for Ireland and the conundrum facing Schmidt is one any coach would happily suffer through.

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Could the sum be less than the three excellent parts?

Conor Murray won’t have particularly fond memories when he looks back on his exploits in Scotland in the winter of 2016/2017. Rather than target Murray directly last weekend, the Scottish pack spent the afternoon slowing the ball with reckless abandon, meaning the Limerick man often had to work with the dregs. There were times in the second half where he imposed himself on the game – an unfortunate slip from Robbie Henshaw denied Ireland what would have been a sublime score – but still he was far from his best.

Murray doesn’t need to tweak much, but his half-back partner, Paddy Jackson, will need to step up, quite literally, if he is to truly impose his will on the game. Of course, Jackson’s depth in the first half was largely a result of slow ball which limited his options. Nonetheless, he needs to attack the gain line and actually create some uncertainty in Italy’s defence. The line for his second-half try was superb but he seemed, along with the rest of his teammates, to fade out during the vital endgame. Jackson must avoid opting for one out passes, which Scotland saw coming a mile off, and instead bring some variation, whether through chips over the top or by bringing his wingers into the game.

It’s no coincidence that Ireland failed late on against Argentina and Scotland after mounting physically exacting comebacks. Andy Farrell wasn’t present on both those occasions for those who are already sharpening their knives. More relevant to both those defensive aberrations was the man missing, Jared Payne, whose defensive organisational skills are so key to Ireland. Still, Payne is out for the foreseeable future so, as the senior man, Robbie Henshaw will need to fill the void. Henshaw and Ringrose are the future, which is all well and good, but they’ll need to deliver almost immediately. And, if Jackson can’t bring them into the game then one feels his opportunities at out-half for Ireland will dry up in the short term.

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Despite his try and faultless place-kicking, Paddy Jackson is under pressure to vary his game this weekend.

Simon Zebo has been outstanding for Munster at the back all season and while Schmidt is extremely loyal to his veterans, it seems Ireland are missing a trick in failing to utilise the Cork man’s pace, creativity and ability to join the line as a strike runner or distributor. Zebo can’t be far off but Tiernan O’ Halloran must be wondering what he needs to do to make the twenty-three. He’s carried for more metres than anyone else in Europe this year, brings real brio when carrying into the line and has genuine pace also. Unless he’s injured, which has not been reported, his omission from the match day squad seems unfathomable.

Results elsewhere this weekend will have a considerable impact on Ireland’s designs on the championship, where two highly unlikely draws would suit just fine. In any event, Ireland can only control proceedings in Rome. Italy will be resolute for fifty minutes but the feeling is that the quality at Conor O’ Shea’s disposal does not match up to preceding Italian squads. Ireland need to steady the ship and their visit to the Stadio Olimpico provides them with the perfect opportunity to do so.

Let’s put our irrational thoughts of a crisis to one side, at least until the visit of France in two weeks’ time. Ireland to ease home. As long as the bus gets there on time, of course.

S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 23

Odds: Italy +23, Draw +23, Ireland -23

Tips: (i) Draw +23 @22/1

           (ii) Wales +5  v England @ Evens

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Irish Rugby, Rugby Union, Six Nations 2017

Time to Renew Hostilities

If a week is a long time in politics, then it follows that six months is an aeon in the comparatively tumultuous world of sport.

Southern dominance of the 2015 Rugby World Cup meant that last year’s Six Nations tournament was greeted by a sense of futility, the annual event almost devalued by the varying degrees of humiliation suffered by Europe’s best.

England’s Grand Slam victory probably impressed few outside of England, not as a result of begrudgery but more the perception that they were merely the best of an average-to-bad lot. Then in June, England whitewashed the Australians and Ireland somehow conspired to not win a series in South Africa, notwithstanding a brilliantly resolute victory in the opening test in Cape Town. The good vibes continued throughout the early winter – Ireland’s victory in Chicago an obvious highpoint – and all six nations could point to progress against their southern counterparts. Now, on to a Six Nations tournament which, for the first time in years is wide open and not, as is often perceived, due to a lack of quality.

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All changed, changed utterly.

Once New Zealand finally fell, any right-thinking Irish fan jumped straight to Paddy’s weekend and a Grand Slam showdown with England. Even when the euphoria subsided this turned out not to be the most illogical logic going. However, as November came to a conclusion it was clear that the remaining Six Nations sides, with the notable and hard to decipher exception of Wales, had all progressed steadily.

Now, Ireland, England, Wales and possibly even Scotland go into the tournament with plausible designs on victory. For Scotland to make genuine progress this spring, Ireland need to be quietened on Saturday and for the Irish to deliver on the ambition born in November, well they need to do the obvious. We should preface this by stating that a Championship victory of any nature would be a fantastic achievement.

We’ve been lucky enough to come up in a generation where losing to Scotland was a rarity. You only need to go back to the late 80s and early 90s to understand the glee with which the Scottish viewed the Irish fixture. Not so today. Indeed, since the advent of the Six Nations Ireland hold the upper hand in Murrayfield with six wins to two. Ireland’s last defeat in the Scottish capital in 2012 came on Paddy Jackson’s ill-fated debut and a departure from the international game unbefitting of Ronan O’ Gara. However, Jackson has since blossomed into a fine out-half and O’ Gara’s extraordinary legacy won’t be tarnished by that dour afternoon.

Jackson has actually started six of Ireland’s last eight games but invariably his selection is viewed as a stop gap until the return of Johnathan Sexton. Now, obviously, everyone wants a fully fit Sexton available but his inability to complete a game may become an issue at some point. Joey Carberry, currently returning from injury, deputised brilliantly in November but it seems at this point in time Jackson is the clear understudy to Sexton. The Belfast man had a largely impressive summer in South Africa, was thrown into a free-for-all in the return game against New Zealand and then performed admirably when closing out the November series against Australia. Of course, his game is not free of errors but people often tend to forget that Jackson is only twenty-five and further that he has played behind an average Ulster pack this season.

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Paddy Jackson has an opportunity to press his case as more than an injury replacement for Johnny Sexton. (Courtesy of balls.ie)

The Irish eight should provide consistent possession on the front foot. Against Australia Jackson showed a greater willingness to attack the line and he does offer a genuine threat with his vision and passing. Sexton will return shortly but, at some point, Jackson needs to deliver consistent performances that force Joe Schmidt to consider his out-half selection somewhat of a dilemma.

Ireland’s starting pack is as good as any in the tournament – England enjoy greater depth – and it is here that they will hope to stifle the Scots. The surging Tadhg Furlong makes his first Six Nations start, while Rory Best, who endured a tricky beginning to his captaincy is playing the best rugby of his career. It is, however, in the back row that Ireland should enjoy likely dominance.

Ryan Wilson, Hamish Watson and Josh Strauss are fine players but Ireland’s three of Stander, O’ Brien and Heaslip comprise the best unit in the tournament. O’ Brien seems to start on reputation these days, given his litany of injuries and limited training time, but he continues to excel. Heaslip and Stander have both had exceptional seasons thus far and the lack of a traditional seven is circumvented by the versatility of the modern back row forward. In time, O’ Brien has acquired an outstanding ability to poach at rucks and Stander is supplementing his power carrying with improved ground skills of his own. Look at England too, where Chris Robshaw has enjoyed a rejuvenation on the blind side of the scrum.

Many of this Scottish side went to battle with Munster in a highly entertaining contest less than a month ago and a noticeable degree of antipathy has developed between those two sides. While Munster only have one starter in the pack, the always interesting bit of needle will be present. It’s unclear whether photos of Conor Murray’s standing leg have been plastered around the Scottish training facilities this week but their pack will assuredly shower Munster and Ireland’s lynchpin with plenty of attention.  No doubt Schmidt will have brought these tactics, particularly those of the blatantly infringing Strauss, to referee, Roman Poite’s attention this week. Nonetheless, it isn’t something Ireland, or more importantly Murray, can dwell on for too long. You get the feeling Ireland’s forwards will be alert but Murray will be expected to take his shots too and Ireland rarely concede penalties for enforcer-type, retaliatory tactics.

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Josh Strauss’ (l) often questionable pursuit of Conor Murray will be closely observed by Roman Poite.

Schmidt’s selection of Ian Keatley on the bench lays down a pretty clear marker for those plying their trade overseas, no doubt to the chagrin of Ian Madigan. The Bordeuax outhalf must have placed himself at three in the fly-half charts, and only because he’d chosen to seek better remuneration overseas, but Schmidt’s actions effectively close the international door on those who have chosen to leave the island. While Keatley is clearly not on the top rung anymore, it’s heartening to see the good guy, which by all accounts Keatley is, getting an unexpected reward just as his own career in Ireland comes to an end. Jackson is durable but should he go down then Schmidt will simply adhere to Bill Belichick’s ‘next man up’ mantra. Keatley can manage a game but the concern will be as to whether he can still do so at international level.

In the midst of the growing concerns over Sexton, the potentially explosive combination of Robbie Henshaw and Gary Ringrose starting together in green for the first time has been somewhat overlooked. Henshaw, at twenty-three, has assumed the mantle of veteran, while Ringrose has blossomed in his company and grown in stature, particularly in defence. While the majority clamoured for Ringrose’s Irish selection last year, mostly on the back of reports they were hearing from other people, Schmidt knew that the skill set was perhaps a little more advanced than the physical development. A year in the Pro 12 has definitely benefitted his all-round game but Alex Dunbar and Huw Jones will provide a formidable challenge on Saturday. D’Arcy and O’ Driscoll, the benchmark for Irish centres, oozed class going forward but it was in defence that they showed their true worth. Ringrose doesn’t need to try and be any other player and Saturday offers an opportunity to confirm his ascension to international class centre.

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Garry Ringrose’s biggest challenge thus far awaits in Murrayfield.

On a fine day, Scotland can do untold damage with the ball through Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell and their powerful fliers outside, Sean Maitland and Tim Visser. However, like Simon Geoghegan in the 90s, the latter two in particular  are probably going to spend much of the afternoon as cold, miserable onlookers. The forecast is bad and while Scotland have picked a powerful pack Ireland should control possession of the ball and with it the game. There’s an unlikely blend of youth and experience on the bench but expect the likes of Ultan Dillane and Josh Van Der Flier to add ballast when needed.

What has become clear is that Ireland’s success in the latter half of 2016 has, not unreasonably, raised expectations. And, Scotland will have viewed this game as an opportunity to confirm their progress in deed rather than word. Still, the feeling is that Ireland have a more fundamentally sound game plan and a stronger squad to boot. Ireland to win, Scotland the first to profit from the new bonus point system.

S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 6

Tips: (i)  Ireland -5 (Evens)

(ii) Munster v Edinburgh 3/2/2017 – Munster @ 15/8

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