Monday, March 29, 2010

Leinster-17 Connacht-14

jonny10

THE CLUTCH

By rights I should be moaning that we only took the lead against our western cousins on Saturday at the 11th hour, but truth be told, after what happened at Croker last week, I’m just happy to be using the words “Sexton” and “drop” positively in the same sentence.

American sports have a phrase “the clutch” that we should borrow this side of the pond more often. It refers to that moment of a contest when the right composure is needed to turn what you’ve done several times in training into something that will bring home the bacon.

Well whatever you want to say about the Sexton/O’Gara debate, one thing’s for sure on the evidence of this week’s Magners League action…Declan Kidney has two quality out-halves to choose from when it comes to the clutch.

First we had ROG on Friday night. Overall, I didn’t think he had a great game, and I was sickened by the silence of the Setanta commentators whenever he made a mistake, or even when he did miss a place kick, how Donal Lenihan would deflect attention by banging on against good things he has done in the past. I really don’t want to bash the Munster No10 for the sake of it, but if he does something wrong he should be called on it same as any other player.

But when it came time to convert Jean de Villiers’ stunning late try, O’Gara was faced with a conversion with the clock ticking down which would force the visiting Warriors to get two scores to win, and he nailed it superbly. It reminded me of his kick from a similar spot (beside the touchline, on the wrong side for a right-footer) when he converted Shane Horgan’s try at Twickenham in 2006 to clinch the Triple Crown.

Naturally that kick heaped the pressure onto his nemesis at the RDS on Saturday afternoon, and for the first 75 minutes of the contest, it appeared the same demons that have plagued him in the calendar year to date were still at Sexton. Even his passing, which was nigh on flawless in the green jersey the week before, was deserting him.

And much like the Scotsmen at Croker, Connacht didn’t seem to be clear on how their hosts saw the game progressing. Blue-clad supporters were barely in their seats when Fionn Carr crossed for the opening score, and it wasn’t too long before he was adding a second.

When the half-time whistle blew, I felt like we had a mountain to climb, but on checking the score, we were only six behind, so surely it was only a matter of time before we clawed them back.

But although the second half seemed to go on forever (which wasn’t helped by the chronic failure of the RDS scoreboard clocks), it seemed that victory just wasn’t meant to be ours on the day.

Now going by Donal Lenihan’s standards, Sexton deserves credit for his penalty near the end which, having been taken from inside his own half, tragically dipped at the last minute and hit the crossbar.

But he was to get another chance – a drop goal from the ten-metre line so by no means a done deal – and with the match on the line he made no mistake and Leinster had their fifth Magners League win in a row.

The result was unfair on the visitors who deserved to come away with more than just the one point but if it’s any consolation Michael Bradley’s men showed yet again how important Connacht’s existence is for Irish rugby. Best of luck to them in their upcoming Amlin Cup quarterfinal with Bourgoin.

So no matter how sober we may be watching it, both Leinster and Munster fans know they have Number10s ready, willing and able to deliver in the clutch next Friday night at Thomond Park.

Of course given the way the last two derbies have gone, the hosts will be delighted if there’s any need at all for clutch kicking on the night! Couldn’t go without mentioning that, could I?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ireland-20 Scotland-23

photo (2)

A STEP BACK

I know I’ve been banging on about it ad nauseum on Facebook and Twitter the past few days, but I have to also start my blog post by mentioning the Be The Difference competition.

Since I’m going to rant a bit about Ireland’s performance, best get the positives out of the way, and I hope the line between my disappointment at the result and my 100% satisfaction with the NewsTalk/O2/IRFU prize is clear for all to see.

Though the subject matter isn’t too appealing to Irish rugby fans, surely the angle afforded by our seats to snap Dan Parks’ winning kick shows you just how much of an honour it was.

And also before I bitch and moan, I don’t want to take anything away from the Scottish performance. All of us clad in green seemed to think their role on the day was as underdogs who were happy to make up the numbers, get what had been a bad campaign over with and keep the losing margin to a minimum.

Well all credit to them for their actual attitude…they would have been forgiven for taking simple drop goal whenever they could but more often than not they went for the try and were rewarded twice. So despite the numerous things the home side got wrong, the visitors still had to capitalise and they most certainly did and all credit to them.

Now…to the real business at hand. What went wrong on our side of the ball?

Well, we’d have to ask Declan Kidney, and in my book, the answer doesn’t come from his post-match press conferences, it came from his substitutions, or should I say the lack of them.

Even the most fervent Leinster supporter couldn’t claim that Jonny Sexton had a good day at the office. His distribution through his hands was good, but his mojo with the boot seems to have vanished. There was little surprise that O’Gara was going to come on, and he did much to steady our wavering ship when he did.

But here’s my beef with the coaching staff…by making the outhalf switch the ONLY tactical change over the 80 minutes, they were insinuating that our poor performance was totally down to our number ten, and that was nowhere NEAR the case.

· We were being dominated by the visitor's front row which included two Lions…why not bring on Buckley sooner to at least try to counter? And yes, I’d have bought him on for Hayes…clearly the other five nations have read the book on him from cover to cover at this stage?

· Best was far from living up to his name with his darts…why not hand Cronin a competitive debut?

· And most of all…since our own lineouts were failing and possession was at a premium, why not introduce proven poacher Leo Cullen to mix things up on their throw?

On top of those failings, our tackling just wasn’t anywhere near the standards we showed at Twickenham, and with D’Arcy statistically being the biggest culprit, questions must be asked as to just how match fit he really was. Not sure how much a substitution could’ve helped there given Paddy Wallace was his nominated replacement.

Here’s my overall point. Kidney’s honeymoon is over. We won the Grand Slam and that was amazing, but it’s time to take it on. It’s not the end of the world that we’ve lost a couple this time round; if anything it could be a help, given that our primary focus SURELY must be the World Cup in 2011.

If I were Declan, I’d be planning a strategy whereby we target winning our pool ahead of the Wallabies.

I’m just wondering, given his reluctance to use his bench on Saturday, just how many players he feels can achieve that end, and does he hold a similar restrictive view to his talent pool that his predecessor did?

I seriously hope not, because given the potential of the Championship-winning Under 20s squad, there’s a lot to work with to get the balance right before the drama begins down in New Zealand. We’ll see who gets a run down under in the June friendlies.

WALES-33 ITALY-10

FRANCE-12 ENGLAND-10

But now, the Six Nations is over for another year, and all credit to the French for their perfect return. Surely as Irishmen we can appreciate the difficulty in getting that final victory…the English kept them close thanks to an admittedly impressive early try but were never going to threaten much more. Johnson’s lineup changes were too little too late for this tournament.

As for Wales, well in travelling to Croke Park I didn’t see much of the match, though I enjoyed the handbags between Mirco and Phillips as well as Hook’s two late tries. At least they finished on a high though you have to have a measure of sympathy for the Italians getting another wooden spoon…perhaps the Magners League experiment will make them more competitive in future.

Now it’s time to consign the Ireland jersey to the wardrobe and take out the Leinster ones. Much exciting rugby still to come before this season is out, and despite our mounting injury list I’m confident I’ll have some champagne to sip yet.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Leinster-20 Glasgow-14

 

I CAME, ISA, I CONQUERED

Sorry the picture isn’t of Man of the Match Nacewa to go with my headline…if Colin Heyburn isn’t at the RDS it’s very difficult to get pictures the next day and I can’t seem one of him from the night.

Instead you see a snap taken by my iPhone moments before Leinster registered their last points of the evening…Fergus McFadden’s conversion of Dempsey’s try right before halftime was to hit the left upright and drop over making him a perfect 4 for 4 with the boot to go with his own earlier touchdown.

But he wouldn’t have had his try were it not for a mesmerising line break from Nacewa followed by a slide-rule offload.  The Kiwi has been incredible since things kicked off last August, and if the decision were to be made right now I’d say he has to be our Player of the Season.  It would be easy to pick out one of our Ireland internationals but truth be told were it not for Nacewa’s consistency our Magners League position wouldn’t be nearly as strong as it is now.

It was also clear to see just how Michael Cheika has played a part in getting us where we are.  Since our XV lineup changes from game to game even more so that usual this time of year, it’s extremely hard to find cohesion on the attacking front, yet when any Leinster XV of his is on defence, particularly on the goal-line, he has everyone fully drilled as to what to do, and damn, they’re all good at doing it.

And despite his position on the wing, Nacewa was one of the top tacklers on the night.

The only reason Glasgow got the first 5-pointer was because Simon Keogh was slow getting back to his position after his fly-hack forward came to nothing, which left  Shaun Berne hopelessly mismatched against the wonderfully-named Hefin O’Hare who did a Highland dance all the way to the line for an impressive finish.

But even when Nigel Owens was playing silly beggars at the death letting the visitors retain possession after the clock went to red with them only six points behind, you always had the sense that we had plenty on the park to bring home the four points if not quite the five.  Besides, it would have been tough on Glasgow had they been denied their own bonus so the result was a fitting one all round.

Nine Magners League wins out of twelve, four points clear with a game in hand and a home Heineken Cup quarterfinal to come (my ticket arrived yesterday woo-hoo!)?  Yeah, I’d have taken that position when full time was blown on our opening day defeat to the Scarlets that’s for sure!

Yes folks, that’s right, we lost to the SCARLETS on opening day.  Had to check the archives to confirm it, but it did happen.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ireland-27 Wales-12

BOD wales

THE TWO NATIONS

Of course I’m over the moon that Brian’ODriscoll’s 100th appearance in an Irish jersey resulted in an emphatic win for the home side , but I still have my reservations.

I’d even go as far to say I’m extremely worried about our chances in the 2011 World Cup based on what I saw over the weekend.

Now before you compare me to George Hook in that I’m looking for a cloud in every silver lining, let me review the match at Croker first, then I’ll explain.

Two first half penalties defined the contest in my book.

After 26 minutes, Jonathan Sexton recovered his own kick forward and Shane Williams was penalised by the finicky-yet-consistent referee for not releasing properly from his tackle.

Tomas O’Leary stood over the ball yet looked for all intents and purposes like he was waiting to give his outhalf a chance to go for the points. But all of a sudden he tapped and went and with the entire Irish XV ready for him, before the visitors knew what hit them, Keith Earls was crossing for the opening score.

Compare that with what happened after 33 minutes.

Rob Kearney took the ball into contact and this time it was the Irishman who was penalised for not releasing. Martyn Williams, skipper for the day, went straight for the ball and looked back at his teammates for the possibility of a quick tap and go himself.

Right there was your ball game in my opinion. Not a single red-clad player was bothered with playing on, even though it wasn’t even half time yet and they’d all had more than a fortnight’s turnaround since the French match. They just wanted to get the breather afforded by a run-of-the-mill kick for touch.

Well if you don’t want it, you don’t get it, and where else can you lay blame for this attitude but at Warren Gatland’s feet.

Perhaps it could be argued that Ireland’s two tries came when Lee Byrne was off the field, but to that I say, why WAS he off the field? Because our trademark excellent jackling forced him to turnover possession so he cynically thwarted our attempt to use the ball quickly ourselves, that’s why.

Now even though I’m a Leinster supporter I have no qualms about admitting that this Irish victory was mainly down to the efforts of our southern cousins. Although I see why O’Leary won man of the match, both David Wallace and Keith Earls could easily have won it themselves.

I’d even go as far to say that in recent weeks the Munster players have taken the whole “they play in red but not in green” accusations and turned them completely around.

As for Jonny10, well it sure wasn’t his day with the boot, was it? I feel that when he misses his first place kick, he carries it round with him the rest of the game, and this is something that can be easily worked on by Kidney & co. His distribution from the hand was still excellent throughout, and I honestly believe it would serve the Irish squad better to start him against Scotland to give him the opportunity to find his kicking mojo again.

Now…to address my World Cup concerns…and to do so, I must factor in the other two test results from the weekend.

SCOTLAND-15 ENGLAND-15

FRANCE-46 ITALY-20

Of course I’m as aware as any rugby fan about the tradition, the passion and the sheer significance of the Six Nations Championship on the world stage.

But we all know the William Webb Ellis trophy is the most important one of all, right?

I mean, whatever about how you perform in competition against European opposition, surely the true test comes when the three, scratch that, FOUR powerhouses from the southern hemisphere are involved as well.

And given that the Autumn Internationals are merely friendlies against squads at the end of their respective long hard seasons themselves, the fact remains we have but six competitive international test matches to play between now and our opening World Cup encounter with the USA in New Plymouth on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

When I consider the performances of the six nations over the weekend just gone, I can only think one thing…

Damn, I wish we could play France every week.

Only then would we be ready for what the Carters, Matfields and Giteaus have to offer us in New Zealand.

Maybe the Italians can be forgiven in that they’ll only next year get an entire season of top level Magners League competition, but not so for the English, Scots and Welsh. They were all absolutely, positively AWFUL, and with their respective setups I can’t for the life of me see how they could possibly improve anytime soon.

It has to be said that this year, more than ever before, a Triple Crown victory will be a hollow one. Unless there’s considerable changes in attitude next week, I’ll be forced to dub this year’s tournament the Two Nations.

Sure, Ireland lost in Paris, but it was not due to a lack of cohesion on our part, rather one of execution, coupled with the rampant French display they’ve shown throughout the competition to date.

Whatever about the poor refereeing in Murrayfield Saturday, it had nothing to do with the galling mediocrity on both sides of the ball, and no matter how close either side got to their opponent’s try line, not once did I have any confidence that they would cross, and that had nothing to do with defensive capabilities either.

Trust me…I really DO hope the other four nations can step up close to the mark during the midweek turnaround, but I won’t hold my breath.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Cardiff-20 Leinster-29

*** IRISH EDITORIAL USE ONLY ***
Magners League 7/3/2010
Cardiff Blues vs Leinster
Isa Nacewa of Leinster is tackled by Scott Morgan of Cardiff Blues
Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Huw Evans

BACK ON TOP

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the best team in a rugby tournament was the one that scored the most tries, wouldn’t you?

Not so in the Magners League so far this year.  After 13 rounds, Leinster top the pile with only one other team having scored fewer tries, and that’s Connacht.

And even though we have two games in hand on some of the other teams, if you had followed our progress all year you wouldn’t bat an eyelid if we won both games without adding too many 5-pointers to our total.

Take yesterday’s match in Cardiff.  We started brightly, with Fergus McFadden crossing for an all-too-easy score after 8 minutes.  It looked like it would be the first of many.

But the home side came back into it with three tries of their own, and it appeared that the cornerstone of our recent success, our tenacious defence, had deserted us.

But after Czekaj crossed just after halftime to force reporters to double-check the spelling of his name, it seemed like our forwards were able to turn it around in the loose and added domination there to that which they already enjoyed in both scrums and lineouts.

Our front row was phenomenal, and were rewarded with a Jackman try following an excellent linebreak by the young Eoin O’Malley.  But props Wright, Van der Linde and Ross acquitted themselves very well in support taking the ball into contact for yardage gains time after time after time.

The backline blew hot and cold, mainly from the halfback pairing.  Eoin Reddan was man of the match in my book despite McFadden’s Sexton-esque goal kicking – although the ball was coming slowly from the rucks, he made up for it with quick, well-executed decisions…sadly his teammate in the 10 jersey wasn’t able to do much when those decisions included him…Berne was also found wanting in the tackling department more than once.

But as happened in most of our eight Magners League victories this season, we did enough in the 80 minutes to stay ahead, and I guess that’s what counts!  And McFadden’s last gasp penalty from halfway was icing on the cake, if a bit unfair on the hosts denying them a bonus point.

And taking the weekend’s action as a whole, the only argument against Reddan and Sexton starting against Wales that would make any sense to me would be that the scrum half would have a 6-day turnaround.

We’ll see what Kidney goes for…it will be a very interesting announcement.

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