Saturday, February 27, 2010

England-16 Ireland-20

FUR Ireland

[Update February 19, 2014 - You’ll no doubt forgive me for leapfrogging our last visit to Twickenham in our latest dip into the HoR archives! Some interesting facts about this 2010 clash…it was Sexton’s 1st Six Nations start, John “The Bull” Hayes got his 100th cap, and Leo Cullen actually got a full 11 minutes playing time for his country. Although reading back over this account makes me hungry for chicken wings…]

BACK IN BUSINESS

I had over 1000 words written on this match before a computer crash wiped them clean…I’m not a happy bunny right now.

Still, I want a record for posterity so I’ll do my best to recreate them, albeit whilst clicking “save draft” every few seconds.

I know there are those curious to know how I got on at NewsTalk’s “event” at the Odeon bar in Dublin, but I’ll save those thoughts till the end, though perhaps the inverted commas will give you a clue as to my overall impression...

This was, in my view, the perfect display we could have expected from Declan Kidney’s men after the setback in Paris.

Despite the fact that this is quite possibly the worst squad of England players I’ve seen assembled in the 30 plus years I’ve followed this sport, there were several levelling factors on the day on top of the home advantage…namely the conditions and the finicky applications of the laws by referee Mark Lawrence.  Despite Martin Johnson’s post game whinging, there were more than his fair share of 50/50 calls that went his way over the course of the game.

I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn that I believe it was the Irish Jonny10 that won the battle of the out-halves, and more than earned himself a start against the Welsh.  If you looked at the stats from the kicking tee you may think otherwise, but given his huge involvement in our first two tries PLUS the degree of difficulty of all the kicks he missed, he can be more than proud of his display.

Though at the time I was bemoaning the introduction of ROG, after mature reflection, it now makes sense.  With BOD gone from the backline it was a good time to introduce experience, and I certainly hope Sexton didn’t take it as any more than that.

And on the subject of BOD’s clatter to the noggin…is it something about playing England that makes him get his bell rung?  Or is it the fact that those who do the ringing either are involved or will one day go on to be involved with Munster?  Either way, every Irish man, woman and child wishes him a speedy recovery so he can make his 100th appearance against the Welsh in a fortnight.

Even though there were a couple of lead-changes to follow, the turning point for me in this game was the penalty reversal brought about by the sheer stupidity of Danny “Devil May” Care.  He and O’Leary were going at it several times up to then and he let it get the better of him, and the decision of the ironically-French touch judge was totally justified.  Instead of giving Wilko a chance for another 3 points which he probably would have taken, it gave Sexton the chance to put a perfect kick in the corner which led to Earls’ excellent finish.

But the key stat on the day was the tackle count.  England made around forty and missed six.  We made NINETY-NINE and missed but one.  You have to wonder if the home side were good at retaining possession or was it that we were so confident of our counter-rucking that we were happy to give it to them.  Either way, despite Tommy Bowe’s brace of tries, Jamie Heaslip’s man-of-the-match award was testimony to the entire team’s feverish defensive work for the entire 80 minutes.

The weekend’s rugby action has, as it often does, left me with a few queries when it comes to the laws of the game.  At Twickenham, I was curious about the whole “use it” rule.

Several times early on Mark Lawrence shouted at one of the scrum-halves to use the ball once it appeared at the base of the ruck.  That’s fine, makes perfect sense in my book.  But when Wilko’s drop goal had put England ahead and time was running down on the clock, Paul Hodgson was tackled in his own 22 and seemed to hold the ball for half an hour before it was used.

Luckily, when it eventually was used and cleared to touch, the resulting Irish lineout led to a POC catch, a TOL swerve and pass, and a TB burst and touchdown for the winning score.  So justice was served, only not from the man in the middle.

Now…as for the Odeon, well, the draft Heineken was good.  And for sure there weren’t any gobshites blocking the screen.

But as for the overall wisdom of sacrificing the guaranteed atmosphere of Sinnotts for this, well, not so much.  Between them the Ulster Bank, NewsTalk radio and the pub itself went to so much trouble to get me there I thought they’d at least try to make a lasting impression.

As it turned out you wouldn’t know the bank had anything to do with it, and as for NewsTalk, well, I know Ger Gilroy is a broadcast personality of note in his own right, the fact remains that people want Hook, Popey & co’s take on the action and even if it’s for a rival network, you’re surely better off giving it to them.  What few words he was saying that we could make out from our seat at the bar rarely made sense in relation to the action that was actually happening.

Also I’m a bit annoyed that the girls with the trays of food didn’t pass our direction more often, and I certainly wasn’t going to go running after them.  But maybe that was our fault for our choice of seat?  We made up for it with a post-match visit to the Best Drunk Food Spot in Dublin (Zaytoons) but given a few more spring rolls, wings and wedges, we could well have stayed put for a few more jars apres match.

We did get one thing out of it…a mini NewsTalk rugby ball, which a kind fellow spectator seemed to feel the need to make sure we got before we left.  Perhaps I stood out a bit from the crowd with my wild screams at the telly while the action was going on, but it was a nice gesture anyway.

WALES-20 FRANCE-26

One thing Irish and English fans agreed on this weekend…they all wanted a Welsh win in Cardiff on Friday night.

Well the scoreline doesn’t even BEGIN to reflect how the game went.  France were toying with their opposition like a cat with a dead mouse early on, creating a 20 point lead without so much as breaking  sweat.

But the home side battled bravely, and were it not for some ludicrous errors, particularly wasted kicks by Lee Byrne, the result could have been so much different.

And here’s where my second query of the laws of the game came into play.

Why should a game be allowed to end with a deliberate infringement?  I’m all for the whole “game over next time the ball goes out of play” rule, but after Shane Williams’ late try I don’t understand how, once the referee allowed the kickoff to take place, the French could deliberately make it not go the required distance only for the game to then finish?  Surely the Welsh should have had the scrum back?  Not that they would’ve scored, but the way the match ended didn’t seem to hold up to what the spirit of the rules should be.

ITALY-16 SCOTLAND-12

Again I blame the Odeon for not knowing too much about this match, no sound on the telly at all for this one, but to be fair, nobody at the venue seemed to be paying much attention anyway.  Sad for Scotland but still, this tournament needs Italy to win matches and hopefully one day become competitive, so I guess I have to see it as a good result.

HOW THINGS STAND NOW

The Irish still have one thing working in their favour…the order of play.  Though it’s still up to us to beat Wales and Scotland by good enough margins as to negate the hammering in Paris, were we to do that, the French would then have all the pressure on their own shoulders in the finale against England, and would be forced to earn the Grand Slam.  There could possibly be even a further twist in that Martin Johnson’s men could still be in the mix themselves.

I predict that when they kickoff in that final game at the Stade de France, there will be a number on all our lips.  That number will be the amount England have to win by to be Champions themselves, and if they win by less than that figure, then we’ll have retained the trophy.

It’s the best we can hope for at this stage, provided of course you don’t consider winning at Twickenham and a Triple Crown to be good enough?  Personally I don’t.  Decco & Drico are winners and need to get the boys thinking like winners again until the fat lady sings in this Six Nations Championship.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Leinster-27 Scarlets-14

sexton v scarlets

THIS SEXTON’S ON FIRE!

How many times does a player have to prove he can handle pressure?

Jonny Sexton did it coming on for Felipe at Croker.  He did it again at Murrayfield.  He did it at the RDS in his first Ireland start.  He even did it whilst beating the 2009 Team of the Year.

And in many ways, with the taste of the first competitive defeat of the Kidney era still fresh on the palates of Irish fans, Saturday night’s Magners League contest against the Scarlets represented the 24-year-old’s biggest pressure outing of all.

With Ronan O’Gara shooting himself in both feet by whinging about a journalist, the stage was set to show he was worthy of stepping in at Twickenham next weekend.

So let’s see…how did he handle it?

22 of his side’s 27 points, including a try and 2 kicks from the touchline.  Several crunching tackles.  Tremendous versatility with the ball in hand.  What the hell more do we want?

Let’s face it – we all know that O’Gara is a quality international out-half, but that’s just the point.  WE ALL KNOW IT.  And so do the other five nations.  There’s a playbook on how to go up against him, and there’s no other country in this competition more likely to go by a playbook than Martin Johnson’s England.

So as well as another four Magners League points, Leinster fans were celebrating a display from their super Number 10 that surely has earned him the starting jumper.

We’ll see.

As for the rest of the team, well, to be honest they played like a unit that hasn’t been together in a long time, and guess what, that’s exactly what they were.  Had it not been for McCusker’s blooper moment (see this YouTube clip) the outcome could have been very different, but I’m satisfied we did just enough over the 80 minutes to come out on top.

Despite putting in a strong performance himself on the night, it looks as though Girvan Dempsey’s hopes of making the 22 for the weekend are non-existent with the call up of Geordan Murphy to the squad.  It looks like it’s between the Leicester Tiger and Keith Earls for the vacant 15 jersey.

And spare a thought for poor Sean O’Brien.  He probably wouldn’t have started against England, but what an impact sub to have off the bench.  It has been a great season for the Carlow man and it would be a shame if it were over for him already with so many big matches in the coming weeks.

Last, and certainly not least, even though it was only for a couple of minutes, what a debut from young Rock boy Andrew Conway.  I blogged about a feature on him in Rugby World magazine last May and with a try-producing offload at one end and a try-saving tackle at the other in his brief appearance, he is surely one to watch.

Overall it was an entertaining Saturday evening at the RDS, even if it was kind of like Something Happens coming on to play one song halfway through a U2 gig.

APRES MATCH…

Once the final whistle blew, it was on into town for the #heavensgametweetup.  On the night I met @inshin, his wife Michelle, @heavensgame himself of course, @22dropout, @deiseprop, @broddo, @Grayzie, @TheRealAmz, @holyschmoke, @ruggerwines and @AMcDermott .   Sadly the other guest of honour Mr Hook wasn’t able to make it but despite that and the snowfall (and a nearly-lost blackberry), a great night was had by all in Buskers.

Tried to get some juicy rugby gossip off of @heavensgame but unfortunately he saw right through me and wasn’t coughing up the ball!  Oh, well.  Maybe next time.

Thanks again to @inshin for putting the night together, hopefully we can all do it again soon. 

Sunday, February 14, 2010

France-33 Ireland-10

POC on top

THE KNOCK-ON EFFECT

After all the hype, all the build-up, all the pundits claiming this was a Six Nations decider, the match kicked off and the ball flew into the ait, straight to good old Mr Dependable himself Rob Kearney…

…who knocked it on with the first touch off a green jumper.

From then until the final whistle, you can take your pick of costly mistakes.  Cian Hayes’ sin-binning, Jerry Flannery’s fly-hack of Palisson which reversed a possible 3 points for us, Tomas O’Leary’s bad decision to go for a try with time elapsed rather than take the easy 3 right before the half, or Keith Earls’ balls-up of a simple tap-ball, we just plain and simple made too many basic errors on the day.

And the bounce of the ball didn’t help us either.  When our players were involved with the padding around the base of the goalpost after D’Arcy’s stunning line break, it went against us, but when Servat dived at it down the other end, they scored.

But when you analyse this match honestly, you have to look beyond our mistakes and our misfortunes and look at what was quite possibly the most flawless 80-minute display of rugby union football the Six Nations has ever seen.  Seemingly at will the French were able to surge forward like a TGV train and I very much doubt any team on the planet would’ve found it easy to stay with them.

Of course the scoreline would’ve been a lot closer had we not made so many basic errors on the pitch, but for the first time since he took the reigns I may have to question the wisdom of Declan Kidney’s use of the bench.

Two tries down at halftime and nothing seemingly happening at the start of the second, would it have been ridiculous to throw on Sexton to mix things up?  I really think not.  And perhaps he was injured, but if not I don’t see why Leo Cullen had to come off; his line-out jumping was one of our few success stories on the day.

But in a desperate attempt to look for a silver lining, it could be argued that this result will do Kidney’s World Cup 2011 preparations more good than harm.   There will be performances just like that awaiting us in New Zealand, of that we can be sure, and it’s better to face one now and get a hiding so we can be sure it doesn’t happen again.

I still have a lot of faith in this squad.  Sure – the whole “successive Grand Slam” thing may be gone, but the Championship sure isn’t, and the way the other two matches transpired this weekend proves it.

Wales-31 Scotland-24

Two decisions turned this match around.  First Gatland made one sensible call in hauling off Cooper and replacing him with Rees at halftime.  Sure, the Scottish defence was solid in the first half, but the Cardiff Blues #9s inability to get the ball quickly from the base of the ruck virtually neutralised the star-studded backline behind him.

But even with a new scrumhalf for the home side in the second half, you still felt the Scots had done enough to bring it home, particularly with Parks providing more than adequate cover for Paterson from the kicking tee.

Then enter replacement hooker Scott Lawson.

The man is 28 years old.  You’d like to think even a schoolboy player would know that if you’re up by 10 and there’s less than ten minutes left in a match, there’s no need to give ANY sort of penalty away around the halfway line, let alone one that could possibly get you a binning.  From there, the Welsh got their try and with the Scots guaranteed to be a man down to the end, they were always going to be vulnerable to what happened.

It must be so infuriating for the poor Scottish fans.  And for me as well, since I tipped them to win two this year, and surely this was their best chance.  Just don’t do it against us!

As for the Welsh, well for 70 minutes they reminded me of Ireland under Eddie O’Sullivan…maybe, just maybe, Gatland has the balls to acknowledge his mistakes and fire them up to take on the French and blow this Championship wide open Friday week.

Italy-12 England-17

What can I say about this rancid kick-fest excuse of a rugby game?

It seems Johnson’s men took the phrase “When in Rome…” a bit too much to heart…I see why the Italians kept kicking, coach Mallet is simply doing his best to make the resources he has work in this competitive Six Nations tournament, but what was England’s excuse for kicking it right back to them every time!

The fact that Jonny Wilkinson was happy to kick a drop goal to wrap up the victory says it all.  They should have been miles ahead by then and they know it.

And what’s more, the unthinkable upset may very well have happened had Moody been sin-binned for his dangerous challenge on Luke McLean. 

It was a shocking performance by the men in white, particularly in the lineout, and if they don’t make the right improvements in the next two weeks, they could struggle against what surely must be a fired up Irish 22 at “Headquarters”.



© JL Pagano 2010

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Ireland-29 Italy-11

ireland italy

WEEK ONE, JOB DONE

Ireland’s display on Saturday was much like Jamie Heaslip’s physique…a bit flabby round the edges, but good enough to get the job done. By the end of the first series, we sit atop the Six Nations standings, and I’m not sure how much more we as Irish fans could have asked for.

Brian O’Driscoll, who showed some flashes of sheer genius on the day, said it well afterwards via his twitter account…they played like a team that hadn’t been together since November and I say we listen to the man and have faith that the boys have their A game tucked in their back pocket for the two massive away games to come in this tournament.

And to be honest, right up to moment that Rob Kearney’s lazy attempt at a clearance led to their only try, we were showing the domination, poise and tactical prowess we’ve come to expect from the boys in green.

The backs were trying out some new moves, always good to see when you consider the other 5 nations will no doubt have spent hours analysing DVDs from 2009.

Leinster skipper Leo Cullen gave Declan Kidney yet another glorious selection headache as he seemingly picked off Italian lineout darts at will and set up our second try.

It was as though the visitor’s score served as a wake-up call to the lads in that maybe now was a time to shut up shop, forget about points difference and bring the game home focussing on injury minimalization.

And guess what, that’s exactly what they did. Italy got their last score in the 44th minute and there was NO way they were going to cross our line again even with their break in the closing minutes.

Now…of course I agree ROG had a good outing, but in my book, that’s all it was, good. He kicked his kicks, but each one were ones he’d be expected to get and the only pressure that was on him either came from his own early-season form or his Leinster nemesis sitting in the stands.

I suppose possession should be nine-tenths of the law when it comes to Kidney’s selection for Paris, but it will be a close call nonetheless.

All in all I have faith in this squad to use the 7-day turnaround to iron out the kinks and be ready for battle in the Stade de France.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the competition….

England-30 Wales-17

Uh…word to the wise, England fans…you didn’t actually win the World Cup!

Watching their fans in the Twickenham crowd and reading their tweets, you’d think they had, and some non-English pundits even referred to their display as “awesome”. Were they watching the same game?

They scored 3 tries…two when AW Jones was in the bin for a moment of madness and one after a wayward pass by Stephen Jones while they were chasing the game.

This says it all….when Jones got his yellow, the score was 3-3. And the quality of rugby up to that point was about as exciting as a documentary on stamp collecting.

I’ll give Martin Johnson one thing…he definitely instils belief in his players. They just don’t seem to have the skills or tactical nous to back it up. They’ll make things tough when Ireland come to town, that’s for sure-especially after a likely 2nd victory in Rome will leave them undefeated at kickoff-but you can be pretty sure they won’t have possession handed to them quite so easily as the Welsh did.

As for Warren Gatland, I think he sits at the opposite end of the coaching spectrum. His players have the talent and the know-how, he just doesn’t seem to get them to gel on the day. Personally, I think it’s time to give Leigh Halfpenny his chance to raise his game to the next level.

Scotland-9 France-18

Midway through the first half I feared France would run away with this one and top the standings at the end of the weekend, but then I realised their philosophy was much like Ireland’s…no need to go for tons of points when you run the risk of injury for bigger games to come.

And so the game at Murrayfield was very similar to that at Croker…two first half tries then time to shut up shop. Scotland showed a bit of promise at times but admirable though their attempts at crossing the line may have been, I feel they should have known their limitations and taken the easy drop goal opportunities when they had them and maybe the outcome could have been different.

Nice touch for them to honour by way of their jerseys the one player who chose not to tog out for them on the day, though…

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