Sunday, March 27, 2011

NG Dragons-16 Leinster-26

Click here for pre-match HarpinBoo podcast “Isa Like Sunday Morning”

Click here for my Magners League preview on SportsNews Ireland

sexton offload

TIME AND A PLACE

With such massive games on the horizon for Leinster, all I wanted from this one was four league points and zero injuries, and by all accounts it seems we achieved both at Rodney Parade.

So I guess that leaves me with nothing to write about! See you next week! I’ll just fill in this extra time with some Angry Birds Rio!

What’s that? You think I should write something anyway? Oh, alright…

Normally I pinch my lead photo from the interweb, but for this match I’ve chosen a simple screengrab from RTE’s coverage for a reason.

While of course I’m happy with the result, I have concerns over the means Leinster used to come to that end, and the photo shows exactly why.

It looks like Jonny Sexton is doing a super fancy offload to Nathan Hines, doesn’t it? Well, he isn’t. What he’s doing is throwing the ball away needlessly (it goes right by Hines who, in his defence, probably wasn’t expecting it) when we had a ten-point lead, we were a man down and with only two tries on the board, there was no hope of a bonus point.

And in case you think I’m singling out our fly-half, let me add that not only was this pass preceded by a similar one by Jamie Heaslip that happened to come off, more than half the team were trying things like this from the word go, and on a different day, it could have cost us.

Now don’t get me wrong…I’ll sing the praises of the Joe Schmidt brand of Leinster rugby till the cows come home, it’s just that as my title suggests, there’s a time and a place for it, and Sunday afternoon in Newport was neither in my book.

I totally agreed with RTE pundit Brent Pope when he rubbished suggestions that the team may have been rusty  after the Six Nations break.  Like he said, they are full-time professionals who play together every day during the week so even if there were kinks there was plenty of time to iron them out.

It looked like our gameplan was to dazzle them with champagne rugby from the kickoff and have the points wrapped up by halftime.  That’s all very well, but you’re leaving out crucial variables with that strategy – particularly the referee and the way he handles the offside line.

Now Dragons fans may have a problem with that last sentence as by the sounds of the, er, “tenacious” home support they were getting the thin end of the wedge from Andy McPherson.  And it’s true that Dominic Ryan’s yellow card, which he got when the match was all but won on 71 minutes, should have come earlier in the half when he thwarted a quick tap penalty which probably would have resulted in a try.

But the fact remains that the home side were doing everything they could to prevent quick ball emerging from our breakdown early on, and it’s not the first time opponents have done this, and it’s not the first time the ref has turned a blind eye either. 

So all I’m saying is…when you have an obvious talent advantage over your opposition, would it not be better to be patient early on and play simple rugby, aiming to open things out in the second half when the defence is starting to tire?

The manner in which we got our two tries seemed to bear this out.  One dive over the line by Issac Boss and one penalty try after some powerful scrummaging.  Happy as I was with the win, I can’t help feeling that some extra phases instead of some high-flung passes could have gotten us the bonus.

And if I had to single one Leinster man out for over-egging the pudding it would be Luke Fitzgerald.  Luke, for the love of all that’s holy, stop going for the YouTube moments for the time being!!! 

It’s totally understandable that he’s frustrated after his spell at full-back in the Six Nations, especially since his replacement Keith Earls had little or no high balls to deal with against England. But if he has a similar outing against Munster next week as he did in Newport, I’d bench him for McFadden in the Heineken Cup.  All he needs to do is make his tackles and be smart with possession, and gradually his natural talent will re-emerge. The more he tries to force it, the more damage he does to his game, let alone his confidence.

Of the Leinster players who seemed to have the right idea re: approach, there was Leo Cullen and Isaac Boss, and most of all man-of-the-match Isa Nacewa.  Can we just award him Player of the Year now and be done with it?  Or would that be a bad omen?  Yeah, it probably would, but it’s just I’m running out of superlatives for his displays this season!!!

Can’t go without mentioning some Dragons as they did play their part in keeping this a contest. Hughes showed incredible pace to get their try though in the absence of Dan Lydiate, their only true star player was Aled Brew and he didn’t disappoint, with a couple of bone-crunching hits and some dazzling runs.  He still doesn’t quite seem the finished article yet, but although Shane Williams is of a totally different build, the youngster can learn a lot from him at the World Cup and I’m sure he has a great future ahead of him.

Hey, whaddya know, guess I was able to write something about the match after all!

But as I said at the start, when all is said and done, it’s the result that matters, and we got one, which put us second in the league to add extra spice to next Saturday’s clash with our first-placed southern cousins, as if it needed extra spice!  And if coach Schmidt can coax the lads into playing smart rugby in the hostile confines of Thomond Park, who’s to say we can’t make it Six In The Sticks?

like what you read or think it’s all a pile o’ crap? well this blog has a gagillion ways for you to let me know, why not use one?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

IRELAND-24 ENGLAND-8


Professional rugby union has evolved into so much more than an 80-minute slosh in the mud at the weekend. It’s now a process that begins the previous Monday morning.

As well as all the general work to be done on the training pitch and in the weights room, there’s DVDs to be analysed, charts to be drawn and top-secret code sequences to be created.

But when all is said and done, the real work behind everything associated with a team begins in just one square foot of real estate…the noggin of the head coach.

And for me, the most satisfying aspect of Ireland’s slam-denying victory at the Aviva Stadium was that it was clearly the culmination of a superior week’s preparation from Declan Kidney, who totally outfoxed his opposite number.

Pundits often pour over a replay of a match looking for that “pivotal moment”, and they could find several from Saturday evening in Dublin. There was our opening scrum, when despite having a much lighter pack we laid down a marker by not just winning our own ball but heaving them into oblivion in the process. There was of course Tommy Bowe’s try after quick thinking from his outhalf. There was of course Ben Youngs’ moment of madness. There was the way Nick Easter desperately hoofed the ball into touch to end the first half despite being already so far behind on the scoreboard.


I reckon the true pivotal moment came on Thursday evening when Martin Johnson gave a press conference after his team arrived in Dublin. He tried to suggest the real pressure was on Ireland, but I believe he was speaking volumes for his own state of mind.


Anyone who had watched Ireland’s previous four matches would have predicted Ronan O’Gara to start on Saturday. And no doubt on Monday morning, Johnson and his team were doing just that and beginning their six-day turnaround plans accordingly.

Then comes 1:30pm on Wednesday, and calm as ever, Kidney informs the nation that in actual fact it was Sexton who would be wearing Number 10, and when pressed by reporters, gave a classic response for him that went something like “ah, sure, just wanted to give him a go”.

Well I’d love to have been a fly on the wall wherever Johnson was, at least one that was out of reach of his swinging fist. THAT is when we first had England on the back foot, and we never looked back.

And to those who feel Sexton wasn’t worthy of the “man of the match” award, I say this…take a look back at the footage when the announcement was made. See his expression as the camera is practically shoved up his nose while he’s on the bench. He can barely contain his pride, and given how his 16 caps have gone for Ireland so far plus the importance of this match, I can’t think of anyone who deserved it more. Ireland may have been impressive all over the park, but if one had to be singled out, it did our future the power of good for it to be him.

But I can’t let a match writeup go by without mentioning the inspired performance from our boys. Healy and Ross steadying the scrum. Rory Best voracious in the loose. Our legendary Munster second row wreaking havoc on England’s phase construction. O’Brien making his trademark runs. David Wallace making his trademark steals. Heaslip and Reddan combining so well off the scrums. Our makeshift back three joining the line at just the right time. Our centres keeping the door firmly shut.


I want to especially mention Keith Earls. In my book the World Cup number 11 jersey is his. I think he came into his own over the last few matches by letting himself go and deciding to just run as hard as he can with possession (pic) until he’s stopped with a chip and chase as his only option, and when you can find perfect lines as well as he does, every team needs at least one player like that in their lineup.

And of course I have to also mention Ronan’s perfect cameo. I was among those saying how ridiculous it was to change your outhalf at 60 minutes, but to do so nearer to the 70-minute-mark makes a world of difference. It was almost as though the Dublin weather was in tune with what Ireland needed and let loose the rain signalling O’Gara to come on and unleash some vintage torpedoes into the corner to bring home the bacon. And sure didn’t he even get into a bit of handbags with Chris Ashton for good measure! “Don’t see ya divin’ much today, langer!”

Last, but certainly not least, there’s Captain Fantastic himself. In the years to come you can challenge people with this trivia question : “What Irishman has scored three tries in Dublin against England, all in different stadiums?” I doubt even the most sceptical tweeter could fault the role played by the skipper – he was clearly part of the brains trust behind this monumental team performance and the only negative was that he made his own boots all the harder to fill once he hangs them up.

Of course there are doubters out there who are going : “Why the hell couldn’t they play like that in the previous four matches?” That is a valid point, but I sure as hell don’t want to get stuck in the mud thinking like that going forward. It has been clear we had this performance in us, and if we can produce the goods on an occasion as big as a Grand Slam decider, I for one believe we can do it on the World Cup stage.

So as I hang my green jersey back in the wardrobe until the August warmups, I feel my faith in the Irish rugby setup, which I freely admit was wavering after Cardiff last week, has been fully restored.

As for England, well, they are worthy Six Nations Champions, but give Johnson his due he admitted to Ireland’s superiority on the day and thus did not deserve the grandest of accolades the tournament offers. Much like the other five nations, he has a lot of time to spend at the drawing board before he can feel he’s ready to win the Webb-Ellis trophy for the second time down under.

Also this weekend…
SCOTLAND 21-8 ITALY
FRANCE 28-9 WALES

In the main body of my writeup I mentioned a future trivia question regarding Brian O’Driscoll…well another one was produced on Saturday. Some day down the line you can pose this puzzler : “Which team beat France but still got the dreaded Six Nations wooden spoon?” Although that was a heart-breaking end to the tournament for the Italians, nobody can take their famous victory a week before away from them and besides, just as a Grand Slam wasn’t earned by any nation, it would have been tough on the Scots, particularly their coach Andy Robinson, who it could be said was “gripped” by the emotion of it all! Meanwhile in Paris, well, let’s just say both teams will be kicking themselves. Wales may have had a lot to do to win the Championship but it was still there to be won and it looked like they gave up before they started. Meanwhile Marc Lièvremont mightn’t be the most conventional rugby coach in Test history, but even he knows the trophy he won last year could have easily been retained with the tiniest amount of extra effort in either of their two losses. It was an extremely poor tournament all round but I expect much more from all six nations once September rolls around.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

WALES-19 IRELAND-13

Click here for pre-match HarpinBoo podcast “Sexton Bomb”

Click here for a preview I wrote for SportsNewsIreland.com

Click here for hoody competition draw video

phillips

SLOW REACTIONS

Given my chosen headline and lead picture, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was going to be a post all about “that” lineout.

Well, it isn’t.  Sure, if it hadn’t happened Ireland would have won on the scoreboard, but to the majority of “glass-half-empty” Irish fans who moaned when we won in Rome and Edinburgh, would that have been enough?

You can only point to the overall performance, and it has to be said that after Brian O’Driscoll’s try in the first few minutes the team played as though they had all sustained a blow to the noggin similar to Eoin Reddan’s.

And what is most frustrating is that the individual aspects of our game which needed fixing seem to have been sorted…the lineouts were statistically perfect, the penalty count remained in single digits and our total of 11 turnovers lost, while still high, was our lowest of the four matches in the tournament so far.

But therein lies the problem.  Everyone involved in the Ireland setup seemed to think that dealing with those technical areas would bring results.  And they didn’t. So now the focus needs to go on the overall selection and gameplan. But will it?

BOD tryThe amazing start we got didn’t matter a damn. It sure didn’t fill me with any confidence that’s for sure, I’ve been burned too many times this season. I’ve said it again and again…it’s 80 minutes of that kind of intensity we need, not two.

Gradually the match descended into a kicking competition and it was like we had gone through a timewarp back to 2009.  The approach worked back then, but in Cardiff it made us look like we had no ideas, no inventiveness, no real ambition. 

I could list the players from one to fifteen and evaluate their individual contributions but I don’t think it would do any good.  The problem runs deeper.

It’s like our offensive strategy is simply “let the outhalf hoof it upfield and, sure, we’ll get a try somehow”.  That’s not good enough for the Six Nations.  It’s not good enough for this squad of players. And it certainly won’t be good enough in the World Cup.

So yes, as much as I’ve sought to defend him up to now, even I have to turn the spotlight on Declan Kidney.  When he makes his selection for the England game is he willing to bring the changes to admit he’s gotten things wrong or will he take the easy option and blame it all on one botched officiating call?

Now although I don’t want to make this write-up all about the quick lineout, I must at least devote some space to it.  What summed it up for me was the expression on Kaplan’s face when he questioned the touch judge about it.  He asked “is it the correct ball?” and got a nod in reply to which he said “it is???”  I think he was all set to at least check the TMO.*  There’s a case to be made that a ref should back his fellow official when they make a definitive call like that – the touch judge couldn’t have been certain what had happened and clearly bottled it for fear of appearing indecisive. 

lineoutAnd what of Mess(e)rs Rees and Phillips? Do we induct them into the Irish Sporting Hall of Shame to join Thierry Henry?  Well, their body language, especially the scrum-half’s, after the touchdown seemed to suggest they thought it may have been called back. So let’s just say it falls short of Monsieur Vavavoom’s no-no and leave it at that, shall we?

Is there hope to be found when looking forward? There has to be.  Sure…performances like the ones we’ve seen the past few weeks won’t get us anywhere in New Zealand (whereas before we were concerned about our Australian pool match, after Saturday it’s the Italy one we should be worried about!) but as long as we know the talent is there, we know there’s hope.

Call it clutching at straws all you want, but I’m reminded of how I felt when I took my seat in the Aviva Stadium for the first time back in October.  Leinster had been positively awful for the previous month and were facing a Munster team on the rampage.  And England may have four in the win column, but you could hardly call it a rampage.  This is quite possibly the lowest collective standard seen in this famous tournament since it expanded to Six Nations back in 2000.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that although I’d love nothing better than for us to prevent the chariots from swinging low next Saturday, I’ll be more interested to see how the Irish approach the game, from the selection, to the interviews, to the overall attitude.  Not sure what I’d suggest for them to actually do, but say what you like about Marc Lièvremont, he had the right idea in my book coming out on the Sunday and saying in public who was going to get the chop.  I know that’s nothing like Kidney’s style, but surely he can find a way to do something similar.

Otherwise we could find the World Cup passing us by in a much more orthodox fashion than Mike Phillips.

* = turns out you cant go to TMO for the lead up to a try, just the actual scoring of it.

Also this weekend…

ITALY-22 FRANCE-21

I’d like to thank the rugby gods for this match, otherwise it would have been the most depressing Six Nations weekend EVER. The Italians deserved every bit of their victory and proved me wrong thinking they’d get nowhere without a decent 10. Masi was superb at full-back and the French just weren’t good enough. Whatever happens now Nick Mallett can point to this result as proof that he has taken Azurri rugby to the next level while in charge. The Scots will have their work cut out next week to get the win they need to dodge the dreaded spoon.

ENGLAND-22 SCOTLAND-16

If there’s just the one yellow card handed out in a match, does that mean there was only the one serious offence? No. But it decided this one. Scotland deserved at least a draw out of this. England impressed in patches and but for two out-of-this-world try-saving tackles from Paterson may have won by more, but the fact remains that they only crossed the Scottish line at the very end of a spell of 15 v 14. Whatever about Ireland’s woes, Martin Johnson’s men wouldn’t want to take Sunday’s performance with them when they play outside their Twickenham comfort zone.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Leinster-26 Scarlets-15

Click here for pre-match podcast “Twist and Strauss”

d ryan v scarlets

JOB DONE

Since I’ve gone to the trouble of producing over thirty pre-match podcasts this season, I guess once in a while I should compare what happened in the match with what I said in the preview, right?

Well TOTALLY at random (ahem) I have chosen this match to do just that.

First up, there’s my final score prediction, where I said Leinster would win by ten points. Only out by one, go me!

Next, there was my analysis of the Scarlets team, and in particular, George North.  Well, he was on the wing where I was sitting in the first half, and it’s true his team-mates were doing everything they could to get him the ball, but each time he was cancelled out by a strong home defence, particularly David Kearney, who although of much lesser build was more than a match his the 6-foot-4 opposing winger.

As it turned out, the key to the visitor’s demise was out-half Rhys Priestland.  Not only did he miss a few gettable place kicks and a drop goal, but he was guilty of what HAD to be the “worst attempted tackle of the season” which allowed Niall Morris to skip around him with absolutely NO room to spare and get our first try.

On our side of things, I looked at three areas in particular going into this match…Sexton, Devin Toner and our “second-string” back row.

Our international out half controlled the game superbly and even looked to display a kick-to-the-corner ability to match ROG’s, and with the exception of one occasion when he was blocked after telegraphing his intentions, did very well with it.  And of course, six out of six from the kicking tee including the first from the touchline didn’t hurt either.  Let’s just say he more than made up for his bad night at the office in Llanelli last December.

Then, there’s Devin. I gave him a bit of stick in the podcast for not playing with enough aggression.  Well I’m not suggesting for a second he heard my preview, but he did play as though I’m not the only person who has said it.  He was always there in the tackle and impressive going forward with the ball, reaching or passing the gainline almost every time.  Even though he shared the second row with the likes of Leo Cullen, and after the skipper’s alleged injury to a delicate area, Nathan Hines, the youngster stood out.

Finally, though I said in the podcast that although you wouldn't pick any of Friday night’s back row for your ideal starting XV in this Leinster squad, they were immense on Friday.  I tried to impress my son midway through the second half by declaring that Sexton would definitely get Man of the Match, but the adjudicators showed their superior wisdom in awarding it to Dominic Ryan (pic).  He, McLoughlin and Ruddock terrorised the Welshmen throughout the contest.

If I HAD to find a criticism on the night it would be the referee.  We’re reaching a crucial point of the Magners League season and every bonus point counts.  Given all the penalties the Scarlets gave away when we ran at them, I can’t for the life of me work out why it took Andy McPherson as long as 73 minutes to remember he had a yellow card in his pocket.  And since Isaac Boss got our second try soon after, there’d be a strong argument for us getting four had a visitor been deservedly binned earlier.

But I suppose the old “win is a win” adage has to be wheeled out yet again, especially since the rest of our top four rivals also came out on top.  And as for my podcast prediction on that final four, I still stand by it. Munster, Leinster, Ospreys & Ulster, in that order. Why not?

Also this weekend

BEDFORD BLUES-50 LEINSTER “A”-15

The date of this post reads Friday, but that’s only because that’s when the Scarlets match was played. I’m doing this write-up Sunday morning, so I should include a mention of Malcolm O’Kelly’s charges getting “assassinated” over in Bedford.  Had to follow the game via twitter and it seemed the tries were flying over the line at the wrong end every few minutes.  Not much to be said about that, except for the fact that the bulk of our REAL “A” squad were playing at the RDS the night before on account of the Six Nations, with O’Kelly’s options so limited he had to play the first half himself!  Given the two competitions involved, I’d have to say I’d much prefer to go out of the British & Irish Cup at the quarterfinal stage if it meant earning four Magners League points.  Big Mal can be proud of his side for being the only Irish province to get out of their qualifying pool.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST – CHECK BACK HERE MONDAY MORNING FOR AN EXCITING COMPETITION TO GO WITH THE WALES v IRELAND MATCH!

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