Saturday, August 27, 2011

IRELAND-9 ENGLAND-20

Ire v Eng

STILL COLD

Downgrading seems to be all the rage these days. Standard & Poor are doing it to economies, the American government are doing it to extreme weather events, so how about I have a go at doing it to a rugby series?

I would like to now officially re-classify Ireland's tests throughout August as “defrost-up matches”. And even that's being kind.

The IRFU sold over 45,000 tickets for this match, Sky Sports no doubt sold a truckload of adverts, but Irish fans were left feeling their team's World Cup hopes have been sold down the river before the squad even got on the plane.

And believe me – I'm the last person to be negative about our chances, but if we are to assess our chances in New Zealand purely based on these four matches, we can hardly be anything but, can we? Well, I may have found a straw or two to clutch at, but it sure wasn’t easy.

Even though in the grand scheme of things the result didn't really “matter”, the stage was perfectly set for both sides to have a right go at this one – Ireland of course were trying to avoid a whitewash while the visitors were trying to erase both defeat to Wales two weeks before and of course a certain Grand Slam failure at this same venue in March.

Well literally from the kickoff it was clear England were up for it. But the question has to be asked...did they actually play that well on the day? I'm not so sure.

You could argue their defence was solid and this is why we were kept tryless for the third time in four matches. You could also argue that they made a mockery of the offside line and Nigel Owens was too busy policing the breakdown.

Ire v Eng 3Either way – Ireland never got going with possession and it was two blatant lapses in our own defence combined with the expected impeccable placekicking of Jonny Wilkinson that put them out of reach on the day.

I suppose the extra week's rest didn't hurt the English either – although RTE commentator Hugh Cahill got his gaffe-counter rolling before kickoff saying they had lost to Wales only the week before!

On the plus side, two areas of concern for Ireland were well and truly taken care of by the looks of things – our lineouts seem to be back on the table and our penalty count at the breakdown was kept to a minimum.

It was just our choice of options when we actually had the ball that let us down. If indeed you could call them options. You don't mind shipping 20 points so much once you look like you can put at least 21 on the board yourself, and we simply didn't from start to finish.

I believe our problems begin with our 9/10 combinations, and I have some stats to back me up.

Ireland have played 9 test matches this calendar year. Of those, only ONCE did the starting scrum-half & out-half come from the same province. Guess when that was? Yes, that humbling of England back in March.

In all the other games, it was either Reddan & O'Gara or O'Leary & Sexton when the match kicked off. And the one other time we got more than 20 minutes of two players used to playing domestic rugby together on the pitch at the same time, it included Peter Stringer who isn't in Kidney's plans now anyway and besides, his prolonged spell on the Millennium Stadium pitch was forced by an early Reddan injury.

So you could say it appears the coaching staff have been going out of their way to keep familiar 9s and 10s apart?

Ire v Eng 2And the ironic thing is, I thought both Eoin Reddan and Ronan O'Gara played well on Saturday. Many berate the Limerick-born Leinster scrum-half for the interception he threw but I can't understand why more blame isn't directed at Heaslip and Bowe for both sticking to the touchline rather than giving him a basic passing spread so they could exploit the (albeit brief) overlap they had.

As for O'Gara, he may have missed a crucial placekick much like he did in Bordeaux, but seeing how once again he was opting to run the ball more often than not which is not his game, it's hard to find fault. And as the clock neared the 60 minute mark, I could tell that the substitution was always going to be Murray & Sexton on at the same time, playing together in a match for the first time ever I might add.

And as if to add insult for my perceived injury to our chances, what does Sexton do with his first few possessions but kick! They were in the most part effective ones, but again, it seemed we were deliberately shying away from our offensive comfort zones.

So my overall point with this provincial pairing theory is that an argument can be made that Kidney knows full well his Reddan or Boss/Sexton and Murray/O'Gara combinations can work together, as he can see that in training, as well of course by seeing them winning so much silverware for their home provinces last season.

Maybe, JUST maybe, he was deliberately keeping them apart so that the alternative pairings could be tried as much as possible in case his hand is forced in New Zealand? I guess the only way we'll know for sure is when we see the starting lineups are chosen in September.

Other good individual efforts on the day came from Paul O'Connell, who was even more like a man possessed than usual, and of course Geordan Murphy, who no doubt had run down Manu Tuilagi once or twice in training with Leicester but still slotted in seamlessly to the Irish setup and will surely step up admirably when called upon in the coming weeks.

But it simply cannot be ignored that for the fourth week in a row we have shipped an unforgivably easy try down our centre. And there can be no use of provincial pairings as an excuse this time, given it was Drico & Darce at fault last week. That Tuilagi try was clearly down to Keith Earls being all at sea on his coverage – which is a shame because I thought the Munster man was much improved on last week overall with decisive tackles after that incident plus some good runs forward.

I mean, if you want to resort to straw-clutching here, you could say that in each case our centres were found wanting there was a different pairing and they need time together to gel, but just how many matches would we have needed to get them to gel?

David-Wallace-Ireland-v-E-007None of this can be much consolation for poor David Wallace. You really felt for him, didn't you? Hardly a textbook tackle from Tuilagi – not his strong suit and if Johnson starts him at the World Cup he will be found out – but a tragic piece of luck for one of Ireland's greatest ever 7s who was all but certain of starting down under. Shane Jennings definitely has the talent to replace him, but I wonder if Kidney will be tempted to opt for a Ferris/O'Brien/Heaslip combo instead.

Add this to the fact that Tommy Bowe ignoring the threat of Delon Armitage outside him for England's second try COULD be put down to his not being fully up to test-match speed yet, PLUS the absence of Kearney, O'Driscoll & O'Brien in this last pre-World Cup outing, and I'm starting to wonder just how many recognised starters we can afford to rest against the Americans on September 11?

With everyone supposedly in need of gametime, especially when it comes to playing together in key combinations, I'm not sure if Declan Kidney has the luxury of using the clash with Eddie O'Sullivan's men as an extra so-called “warm-up”. Which in turn, of course, puts our required starters for our big clash with the Wallabies right in the firing line.

Then of course we had the news we were dreading all the more – an eye-socket injury to Cian Healy as the result of a high tackle from the over-eager Delon Armitage. Seems as though all he will miss is the USA game, but still we must keep fingers, toes AND eyes crossed that he'll be ok after that. He may have gotten pinged a few times in the scrums on Saturday, but there can be no doubt that he, Flannery and Ross must comprise our front row in New Zealand when it counts.

So where does that leave us as Irish fans? I mean – if we're to go completely by the results and performances of the past few weeks, we could be forgiven for getting our towel ready to chuck in the ring. Perhaps some Leinster fans, on the other hand, would suggest that a dreadful month to start a season does not an unsuccessful campaign make, given what happened to us after our “Sucky September” last year.

For now, I'm still inclined to lean towards the latter option, but after the 320 minutes of rugby by the men in green I've seen in recent weeks, my hopes could do with being a wee bit warmer.  JLP

Friday, August 26, 2011

Leinster-14 Northampton Saints-19

Leinster-Saints

I am of course very grateful to all who offered a summary of the match! JLP

REPORT BY MICHAL SLAWSKI

(see his own great rugby blog “From The Bottom Of The Ruck”)

Donnybrook Stadium was the venue for Leinster’s last friendly before the start of the Rabodirect Pro 12. A big storm hit the ground before the match, so it was pretty slippery underfoot. But the sun shone for the whole match, and the dampish weather didn’t take away at all from the genial atmosphere amongst the 3900 spectators, including a decent few Saints supporters. An ideal opportunity to have a few pints, catch up with your mates and take in a bit of rugby.

The match was dominated by the Saints, not too badly affected by the absence of their England stars, and most of the match took place in the Leinster 22. Defense was the order of the day for Leinster, and they stuck at their task well, with a careless pass delivering the only try for Northampton. I hope the Irish team watches the highlights and sees how it’s done. Dominic Ryan deserved his man of the match award with sterling tackling and for making a pest of himself at the breakdown. The front row of van der Merwe, Cronin and Hagan made a good fist of holding their own against an impressive Saints front row through a series of fascinating scrum resets. Steven Sykes played well until he was subbed, and Boss was his usual lively self from the base of the scrum. Fionn Carr took his try well, and nearly got another from an earlier breakout. Berquist looks like he’s going to add a lot to the team, and his place kicking was impeccable.

Northampton were always in the lead, adding steadily to their total with a series of penalties. Now far be it for me to criticize the Saints, but do they really need to ship Myler and Lamb over to Dublin to get kicking practice? They could do with some attacking practice as their only try, by Paul Diggin, was handed to them on a plate. Leinster kicked everything they got down to the corner, turning down certain points in the first half. They finally got on the board in the last ten minutes with a well worked forward try from a line out, with Jason Harris-Wright crashing over with his first touch of the ball. Carr’s try meant the match ended on a high for the Leinstermen. They look in good nick to get their Pro 12 season underway.

REPORT BY DAMIAN SCOTT via Facebook

Very young team. Hard to call how the game went with so many changes. I think all 27 players got a run out. Carr, Cronin, Madigan and Fitzgerald stood out among the starters. Berquist was commanding when he came on. Very good kicker of the ball. Leo Auva'a had some very good bursts up the middle when he came on. He is a tank!!! Saints didn't threaten much overall and it was a good defensive display by Leinster. Their try was a mistake by Sheridan (pass across the line that was a bit far and easily intercepted 10 metres out). Good run out overall I think...

REPORT BY @kendoesracing via Twitter

“Leinster a bit rusty and a few silly mistakes. Thought we defended really well.”

“MUJATIGATE” by JLP

Seeing how I was out of town, I didn’t think it could be possible for me to be involved in reporting of this match but a certain Mr Brian Mujati saw to that!  Apologies if you’re already understandably weary of this whole thing by now – it’s just this blog is meant to be a resource for posterity so I can’t let the write-up of this match go without mentioning it!

Once Leinster reached the Heineken Cup final I added as many Northampton Saints players to my timeline as I could.  So last Saturday morning as I poured through my Twitter timeline I spied this tweet from their prop Mujati :

"Steven Sykes and Heinke van der Merwe were calling me a baboon during the scrums last night. Racism is still alive and things don't change."

So naturally I retweeted it as did others, and not long afterwards the tweet itself was taken down.  Many were shocked at the allegations, others pointed out that the prop himself had tweeted several things about Irish people when he arrived in Dublin, expecting to see people drunk on Guinness & Leprechauns everywhere, stuff like that.  Anyway – Leinster rugby released statements first on the same day that the matter would be “investigated”, then on the Sunday there was another one that read like this :

"Following the allegations made by a Northampton Saints player in the aftermath of Friday night's friendly between Leinster Rugby and Northampton Saints, Leinster Rugby acknowledge that there was an exchange during the match between two Leinster players which was misinterpreted...

It was regrettable that any offence was caused. Both clubs have agreed that the matter is now closed and will now focus on preparing for their respective league campaigns."

And that was that.  Or so we thought.  One eagle-eyed tweeter noticed Mujati had altered his Twitter profile, and this time I took a screengrab.  After that did the rounds for an hour or so someone else spotted he had changed it back again!

Naturally I have no time for any type of racism in sport or anywhere.  It goes without saying that any sporting organisation should act quickly and decisively when such allegations are made.  But particularly in the professional era we find ourselves in, such matters will always be dealt with behind closed doors, and so they should, I say. 

And this incident, together with others that have happened in the past (Matt Giteau’s early announcement that he wasn’t in RWC squad to name but one) make me wonder if the club’s powers-that-be won’t find some way to factor some kind of twitter control into contracts that are drawn up in the future.

Whatever the repercussions, it’s all a nasty business to have out there right before both a World Cup AND an exciting new domestic season are about to begin. JLP

Click here for match highlights on Leinster TV

Saturday, August 20, 2011

IRELAND-22 FRANCE-26

IRL v FRA

PRE-PLANE CRASH

As this warm-up series drags on for the Irish team, the matches are becoming more and more like episodes of the hit TV show “Lost” - I'm going into them with many questions, none of which get answered - instead I get a ton of different questions.

And if it weren't for the pressing matter of the squad being named today, I could have a field day with that analogy, but I best not. Though let's just say Paddy Wallace was a front-runner to be the Smoke Monster and leave it at that.

So let's get down to analysing this one shall we. And analyse we must. This writeup is much longer than normal, but that's only because I want to demonstrate just how far away from “World Cup ready” we looked on Saturday evening.

I want to focus on three sequences in particular – the one that led to the first French try (that goes back a good six minutes the way I see it), and those that came after a scrum for either side in the second half.

6063346830_7687c85ee8_bOf course, we got off to a great start, taking an 8-0 lead. He may have been facing the smallest Frenchman on the pitch, but it was still a powerful finish from Healy. 

Ironically it took the visitors 22 minutes to get the ball into our 22. And if you want to be overly cynical and suggest the French “weren't interested” in that time, go ahead. I for one thought we started brightly, took the game to the opposition, though like always, I did retain doubts that we could sustain it for a full 80 minutes.

Things began to go pear-shaped on 24 minutes. We had just forced a turnover off a French lineout courtesy of Donncha O'Callaghan and for me it is at these stages of the game when we just cannot afford to make mistakes. The French backline had been set for a move so the second we steal possession we should be making as much hay as we can.

Well O'Leary flung it to Earls – sadly his instincts at this moment were compromised by a desire to get it to the far side of the pitch which either came from the coaches' instructions or his backline's screams.

What resulted was an absolute shocker of a pass that had to be retrieved by Andrew Trimble and brought into contact with little or no support, which resulted in the predictable penalty to France which got them on the scoreboard.

I believe this was preying on Keith Earls' mind when he ran into Johnny Sexton on 26 minutes. You can clearly see in the replay that the outhalf is calling for the ball. You can also see that he is in the better position. As much as I don't want to appear to be defending the Leinster player for the sake of it, I can't see any justification for our left winger to be doing anything but withdrawing and preparing for a pass once it was caught.

But much like an argument that was made for Luke Fitzgerald's poor form this year, I believe Earls still had his crucial mistake from earlier on his mind and was trying to make up for it. And to make yet another vital error in that situation can only serve to multiply your dip in confidence.

From the ensuing scrum Jamie Heaslip managed to halt them at our 22 with a superb piece of jackling, one of many instances of him doing that on the day. Then enter one Mr Tomás O'Leary.

At full time I tweeted this. It's a bit harsh I know, but as you can see several agreed. And you'd be forgiven for thinking it was all because of “that pass”. Well it wasn't.

Even with our bright start I couldn't understand why O'Leary was passing every single time the ball was presented to him. It had to be a result of coaching instructions, because that is just not his game. As Thornley has said in his defence of the Munster scrumhalf being Kidney's favourite, he's there for his “physicality”. So why wasn't he taking on his opposite number once or twice off rucks and scrums to prove it?

Plus there was the fact that he was often creamed by French forwards whether it be attacking as you see in the lead photo, or being steamrollered by prop Nicolas Mas in the 1st half.

Anyway...after Heaslip's forced turnover, O'Leary chose to box-kick. And given what I said about the importance of making the most of transition situations, it wasn't a bad call. But it WAS a woeful kick. It's called a “box-kick” because it is meant to stay in the 5m tram-lines. This didn't even stay in the 15m line.

6063343402_6dba5c33fd_bAnd although the fact that Trinh-Duc both attempted and made a drop goal was unusual from that situation, I'd be a lot more worried about what Quade Cooper and the Aussie backline could do to punish such a poor kick.

So just like that, it was 8-6. the French tails were up, and all from our own doing. And it wasn't to stop there. Right from the kickoff O'Callaghan gets pinged for being off his feet and we're back under pressure with a lineout outside our own 22.

Here is where we could see the difference between the two sides. Having worked hard to build a lead we seemed to do everything we could to give it away. The second France get a good attacking position they show the ability to turn on the magic. And before we knew what hit us, Cedric Heymans was touching the ball down over our line.

It was indeed a clinical line by Rougerie and a perfect handoff, but as much as I hate to say it, our captain was sold down the river in his coverage. I honestly can't remember ever seeing him being so stranded and when D'Arcy should have been covering the support runner, he instead had to tackle the powerful French number 13 which made the final offload and finish look extremely easy.

So my point is – in almost every phase of play in that six-minute spell, we were shown wanting. And these are all errors that just can't be there if you're to have any hope of reaching a final four in the World Cup.

Two second half scrums further highlighted the gulf between the two sides. First we had a perfectly-executed move by the French from their own 22.

Parra faked a run to the open side, Picamole took it off the base of the scrum and offloaded to Palisson before proceeding to block Sean O'Brien's ability to get in a tackle. Before you could say “sacre bleu!” the French winger was chipping it over Trimble and but for an unlucky bounce would have been over. Still, they forced a penalty and Parra's man-of-the-match-winning placekicking gave them a vital opening score of the second term.

Then just five minutes later we have a scrum in our own 22. We attempt a very similar move, only it's O'Leary that's looking for the pass from the number 8. Now – did Heaslip screw up the pass or did his scrum-half over-run it? I say 50/50. But the point is, our transmission was garbled where the French one earlier had been loud and clear.

And you probably don't want me to remind you about what happened next. All I'll say is, that was yet another time O’Leary should have showed his physicality by tidying up the play as best he could.

The most frustrating thing about the Munster scrumhalf's poor showing was the that many, including myself, presumed he was a shoo-in to start in New Zealand regardless. But when he was taken off on 50 minutes for Eoin Reddan, I got the sense that this was a message from the coaching staff that the “hook” had been demployed rather than it being a planned change.

From then on, things got better. Reddan did everything O'Leary didn't. The ball was much quicker, and the scrum-half “pick and go” was back on the table. Again, many cynics were claiming that the visitors had given up when we scored the last two tries, but I suggest these people either don't know what they're talking about or suddenly went blind when the likes of Rougerie and Heymans threw themselves into tackles into the final 10 minutes or when the French pack started a dust up after O'Brien's try which finished the match.

And of course, there WERE many positives. Andrew Trimble had yet another good outing and must be knocking on the door to start in New Zealand at this stage. Although Flannery breathed some fire into the pack when he came on, I thought Rory Best's display was a vast improvement on the previous week. Sean O'Brien was our man of the match in my eyes with Healy and Heaslip close behind.  Not only was our own lineout better, we were even causing mischief on their throw.  And how good was it to see Stephen Ferris barrelling forward for an offensive gain again?

6062816811_e6caa918ab_bThen there was the ROG/Sexton 10/12 experiment. I saw Johnny's reaction to O'Gara coming on. He didn't even flex a muscle towards the touchline. I think the move was planned. And since the Leinster man is such a solid tackler, let me say I find this a good option, however wary I may be of our two prized assets being on the pitch at the same time.

Sadly there were also more negatives - Shane Jennings didn't do enough to avoid our hoping David Wallace can recover from injury. Then of course there were our penalty gremlins...the referee that day, Craig Joubert, will be calling the shots when we play both USA and Russia down under so hopefully we'll be able to get on the right side of him when it matters.

Overall, I can't help but give the Irish set-up a C-minus for this showing. When you think of it, the result was almost a carbon copy of our defeat to the same Frenchmen back in February. 22-25 v 22-26, 3 tries to 1 vs 3-2. Which means we don't seem to have learned a whole lot since then!

And it can only leave you wondering if next Saturday's clash with the English will be a hindrance more than a help. As morale-boosting as a win would be, will it be worth a price similar to that paid by poor Felix Jones?

So when Declan Kidney announces his 30-man squad at 1pm on Monday, whatever decisions he might make, you can't exactly see it being received with a fanfare by Irish fans. From now on it's up to the players to prove that their time in September wouldn't be better served being stranded on a mysterious Pacific island.

No matter how much each individual wants to be on the plane, if they can't play together, our hopes will die alone. JLP

Friday, August 19, 2011

Leinster-14 Melbourne Rebels-13



There's always a good feeling walking into Kiely's before the first home Leinster match of a new season, even if it's only a friendly.

The bar is always packed, hoardes are wearing Leinster jerseys, whether they be the brand new one like I was sporting, the Heineken Cup-winning one, or even the die-hards who refuse to put their old-school collared versions with the traditional harp logo out of commission. There's the buzz of anticipation about the place that yet another successful season for their beloved province is about to begin. And then there's Sally O'Brien, and the way she might look at you...

Hang on, getting carried away with the ol' scene-setting there, my apologies.

We got to the ground a bit late, the game had already kicked off. The thing about getting to Donnybrook is though, that's usually the stage when the regular starters who aren't playing take their seats. And sure enough, Isaac Boss was a a few yards away from me as we went into the grandstand, and just down the row from where we were sitting was the likes of Jonny Sexton, Rob Kearney and Cian Healy.

But you'd probably rather hear more about the action, am I right?

Well although the visiting Melbourne Rebels must have had half an eye on the plane home as this was the last match of their tour, they did all the pressing in the early stages. It was very similar to the opening sequences in Ireland's two warmup games so far as we were getting some good defensive work in.

Eventually the defence gave away first a penalty which Wallaby legend Stuuuurling Mawt-lawk (forgive the attempt to write his name as an Aussie commentator would say it) slotted, and then a try in the corner for fullback Richard Kingi that went unconverted.

It took Leinster a while to secure regular possession but when they did things seemed to be clicking well into place despite the numerous untried combinations all over the park. Finally after a decent spell in the red zone skipper for the day Rhys Ruddock crashed over for a try which was brilliantly converted by ex-Crusader Matt Berquist as he literally kicked into the sun.

So that was 7-8 and the home team's heads were clearly already in the dressing room as the visitors came storming back to sneak a second try right before the interval, and with a man down, no less. Their offensive style on the night may have been one-dimensional, with short flat-pass & gain being the tactic of choice, but often it was effective and it was their lock Hugh Pyle who got the touchdown to make it 7-13 as for the second conversion in a row Mortlock's effort fell short.

But all that was merely the appetiser. The main course was to come about ten minutes into the second term and brought the 3,500 strong crowd to its feet.

The Rebels started brightly and were pressing the Leinster line, which to its credit was able to drive them back well. And said driving forced a turnover in our 22 which Old Belvo favourite Leo Auva'a was glad to scoop up and offload to new signing from Connacht Fionn Carr.

He had shown with a few earlier touches that he was keen for his chance to make a break, and with the play broken due to the turnover, this was it. With a sidestep here and a surge there he cut a swathe through a raft of players like it was a sevens match. Having reached the halfway line with ease he found Berquist providing excellent support and the Kiwi then flung an exquisite long pass straight to rookie winger Darren Hudson.

Now I freely admit I knew nothing about the lad but the fact is he had already impressed me with his tackling and wing play before this sequence happened (proven by this tweet) and when he received the ball he had a hell of a lot of work to do. Not only did he have a decent amount of Rebel tacklers around him, he also had the touchline to contend with, but with amazing strength and determination the St Mary's man got to the line. His strength reminded me of Scarlet/Wales sensation George North, or, dare I say it, Shaggy?

Anyway, the try was well worth the price of admission, and the ease with which Berquist stroked over the conversion from the touchline was well worth being the match-winning score.

I thought rookie scrum half John Cooney had an impressive outing as well, and I can only assume he and Hudson earned their starts by showing good form in the preseason. And from that try on, even though Danny Cipriani made his cameo immediately afterwards and showed a few nice touches, the visitors' minds seemed to become more and more focused on the flowing Guinness at the end-of-tour party that was no doubt on the horizon.

There were also sold outings from our centre pairing of Eamonn Sheridan and Brendan Macken, always good to see particularly when you realise the pressure that no doubt comes with putting on a 12 or 13 Leinster jersey given who's further up the pecking order. Ian Madigan showed some extra aggression at full-back and Dominic Ryan & Rhys Ruddock made it clear that when the next World Cup comes around they will probably be sitting in the stands at matches like this one with greater battles on their minds.

So the full-time whistle blew, and before returning to Kiely's I had one task – to get my mitts on one of those Official Leinster Supporters' Club pint-holders. Almost as good value for money as the match ticket was thanks to Hudson's try!

One final thing – as much as I really enjoy tweeting during matches and appreciate all the positive feedback I got for my efforts last night, I'm afraid that isn't going to be the norm for the season to come! My season ticket should arrive next week and I'm going to enjoy every minute of the season as best as I can without tap-tapping on a frustrating iPhone screen for the duration! But since this match wasn't televised as it should have been, I was happy to provide updates for those who couldn't make it.

Maybe someone will do likewise for me at the Northampton game next week which I'll be forced to miss? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? JLP

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ireland Select XV-38 Connacht-3

1224302708387_1


First, I wish to add another lament about this match not being on the telly.  This ties in nicely with the rant I did last Sunday.  RTE’s excuse is no doubt that they had a Shamrock Rovers game on.  Setanta, that they had a Spurs game on.  So….TG4????  All I’m saying is…on my humble blog alone I got approaching 200 hits by people who google a phrase like “ireland connacht tv”.  I have to assume that means they were hoping to watch it, and also that multiples of those who looked at my blog would also have watched it. So…an opportunity missed for advertisers.  Again.

Now…credit to those who did bring us the match through social media, particularly SportsNews Ireland who did live score commentary throughout and had a report done the same evening, and also Rugby Source who seemed to be first in with the full report.

Plus here’s a selection of tweets & comments, thanks to all who chipped in (I’ll add more as I get them, feel free to add comments if you were at the game and had any thoughts) :

Tweet from @nkeegan: some great displays.. Wallace and mcfadden played blinders!
Tweet from @BrendanFanning: A good night for Fergus McFadden and Isaac Boss – a step closer to Ireland World Cup ticket for both
Michael Kirwan : Good enough game. Weathered some pressure from Connaught. Some awful passing too. Leo's try was great; quick thinking from Ferg. Disagree re Wallace. I reckon this was his level. Good kicking display but very average in open play.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

FRANCE-19 IRELAND-12

1224302426561_1

COMBINATIONS

If you're a “glass half empty” type person, you're likely to be pretty pissed off at Ireland's second World Cup warmup defeat in a row.

If you're a “glass half full” type person, you're likely to be raving over things like the fact we were able to claw our way back to within a point of the French, as well as things like the meteoric rise from Munster Academy to full Test rugby of Conor Murray.

But if, like me, you're a “stop debating how much is in the bloody glass and just drink it” type person, you're likely to be looking back over this performance in Bordeaux and working out what it tells us about Ireland's chances of reaching at very least the World Cup semifinals.

True, last week, the Murrayfield result annoyed me. But now, although you could say we have three matches left to prepare, given two of them are being played in three days, it really can be said that we have but 160 minutes left of gametime before the chosen 30 get on that plane.

Before I go on, I'll remind you where I'm coming from. What I want most from this World Cup is to see Ireland reach the final four. Of course, I want us to win it thereafter, but I'm talking about the mindset of the squad going into the tournament. Merely getting out of the pool isn't enough for me.

So to have that mindset, we need to approach the Australia match like we feel we can win it. And to do that, we need to be harsh in our criticism.

Now – when he announced his team for Bordeaux, Declan Kidney spoke of “trying combinations”. So since that was the thought that went into the selection & no doubt the tactics, I'll analyse some combinations I reckon failed and should be confined to the bin.

  • ROG & a passing game. This isn't an anti-ROG statement. He played well. Slotted most of his kicks. Did some lovely punts into the corner. And since for some reason the French TV director kept choosing his tackling efforts to show in super high-def slo-mo, even his defence wasn't too shabby either. BUT – when we eventually started to win possession on Saturday night, it was clear that he was trying to run a Sexton-style offence. And by jaysus, was he putting some zip into those passes!  Yet the moves were getting us nowhere. Not because there's anything wrong with him. It's just not his game. When he was forced to kick in the early stages, and when he chose to in the latter ones, we had positive results. So let's not get him doing things that go against his DNA!

  • Leo & DOC in second row. They were wearing 4 & 5 but they played at 6s and 7s. And I don't just mean in the lineouts. They're not in synch with each other and one thing I feel we learned is that they're a bad pairing. So even if Hooky was talking nonsense saying Leo shouldn't travel, maybe it could be argued that whoever Kidney chooses between these to start with POC down under should be out of the matchday 22 altogether.

  • Irish forwards & lineouts. Sadly, this isn't a combination that can be ditched. It needs to be sorted PRONTO. I'll leave it to bloggers more qualified than I when it comes to the technical points, but I do know enough about it to say that a lineout is a machine with cogs that need to run smoothly just as much as a scrum is, and ours is failing at every stage – the call, the throw, the lift, the jump. Three first half losses in a row on our throw to each of our three jumpers proves the need for a trip back to the drawing board.

  • Mushy & the Irish front row. Like I said before, it's a time for some harsh calls. Our scrum was fine, Buckley came on, our scrum was not fine. Sure, he was on his less favoured side, but assuming Healy & Ross are our starting props, we can only pick one more in the matchday 22, so we need the replacement to cover both sides, Mushy clearly can't do that, so he should start against Connacht on Thursday then be allowed return to Sale for pre-season training.

  • Luke Fitzgerald & starting. This needs to be said in my opinion. As things stand right now, Luke should not start for Ireland against Australia. And although he wasn't exactly a liability, he WAS outplayed by Andrew Trimble against both Scotland and France and thus should be dropped down the pecking order.

  • Anyone but Darce/BOD & the Irish centre pairing. I really don't want to bash Paddy Wallace again, because he did do some good things in Bordeaux. Sadly they were always in broken play, and you can't pick an inside centre based on what he does in broken play. Plus the lone French try was a result of a near-identical play that led to Ansbro's try last week – Paddy evaded the blocker this time but couldn't stop the offload to Ireland-killer Vincent Clerc (didn't help that he had Leo Cullen inside him to be fair!). If Darcy needs to be rested until the trip to NZ then someone else needs to be tried at 12 and that someone should be Fergus McFadden. As for Keith Earls, he'd need more time at 13 if he is to be seriously considered to play there in green, and that's time we don't have. After Saturday I wouldn't have minded seeing Trimble tried there, but it's probably too late for that too. At the start of Leinster's Heineken Cup campaign, I noted that their progress heavily relied on Richardt Strauss' fitness. I fear Ireland's World Cup fate may be similarly tied to its captain's.

  • Hugh Cahill & the commentary box. May as well end my list with tongue in cheek! But you have to assume that RTE are sizing up their squad for the plane to New Zealand as well. So when Eoin Reddan feeds the ball into the first scrum of the night, and moments later as Irish players then start using the possession the commentator says “Ireland win it against the head”, you have to assume he's damaged his chances. Then again...our national broadcaster is hardly blessed with a wealth of talent at this position.

So there you see some poor combinations I noticed on the night. But of course, it wasn't all bad.

I thought Rob Kearney had a great outing, and provided his niggling injury can heal I reckon we'll be just fine at fullback. And also Felix Jones showed some great innovation in his stead. It will be interesting to see who gets the nod for 15 next Saturday.

As for Conor Murray, well if we're to get a serious look at him, he must start the next match at the Aviva, not Donnybrook. He never had the chance to show what he could do at Test level on Saturday, but he certainly did nothing wrong.

One point I'd like to make about the result. I know it doesn't matter, but although Paul O'Connell steadied the ship perfectly for the pack when he came on, I believe he was wrong to opt for the kick that ROG missed. Not because it was missed, of course – he had been perfect up to then. But momentum was swinging our way and it was an extremely rare opportunity for some possession in their red zone. Kicking allowed the French regroup and from the 22 dropout, they were able to keep us pinned back enough to bring victory home and keep the wolves from their coach's door for the time being.

But you could see from the faces of the French players at full time that they were happy to have beaten Ireland. That's because we are a quality side. And I have every confidence we will show that quality before the World Cup kicks off, starting with victory next Saturday. I called it when the final whistle blew in Bordeaux, and I'm sticking to it now. Hopefully there will be plenty impressive combinations for us to enjoy as well. JLP

Saturday, August 06, 2011

SCOTLAND-10 IRELAND-6

Since this is my first writeup of the new season, I'd love to start off by going easy on the boys in green and trotting out clichés like “these results don't matter” but I'd be lying.

I enjoy sport, and I presume you understand that when I say I “hate my team losing” I don't quite mean it in the same way as when I say I “hate idiots who use their mobile phone while driving”.

But still, hate is the right word. And it doesn't matter if it's my favourite rugby team, the team I'm playing for in a mini game at the park, or even if I'm playing a Playstation game. The act of losing brings on bad thoughts – of course I can shake them off, but I'd still rather not have them.

So although this was a World Cup warmup and the attention should have focused on the players rather than the final score, I was still pissed off when Joe Ansbro touched down for the winning try, especially when I saw in the replay how easily the score was constructed.

It's easy to focus on the strong run by Jackson, super offload to the Northampton Saints centre and his powerful finish, but the real damage was done by the other three centres on the park.

First, Fergus McFadden, who can play 13 but was a virtual spectator throughout this match, got sold down the river by Jackson who danced around him. But the Leinster utility back would have felt confident pushing forward since he'd assume his fellow centre Paddy Wallace was covering behind him.

Yet Wallace was too busy dealing with the frame of Graeme Morrison who wanted nothing to do with the ball and brazenly walked straight into Wallace's tackling lane and blocked him off. It's a move commonly tried, but rarely one executed so perfectly at this level.

This not only took Wallace out of the picture when it came to tackling Jackson, it also made him too late to the party when Ansbro went charging past. Perhaps Felix Jones was left a little wanting in the covering department, but really the damage was already done and that was your ball game.

OK. Got all that off my chest. Now to looking at the match from the viewpoint I really should be using...how did the Irish Possibles get on overall? Besides the starting centres, of course?

Well, from a defensive point of view, I have to say, “solid”. That sounds a bit short of the mark when you consider how much possession the home side had without scoring till the 49th minute, I know. But the way I saw it their ball protection at the breakdown was utterly atrocious and despite emerging victorious I'm not sure Andy Robinson was 100% happy. Still, you can only play what's there before you, and our boys handled the workout very well before the lapse in the closing stages.

Going forward, well, we didn't get anywhere near a decent attacking position until the half-hour mark, and when we did, we were able to keep it through a series of phases, and although the home defence was also solid, managed to earn a penalty and unbelievably become the first team to score.

The offensive strategy du jour seemed to be chuck it out to the wingers as fast as you can and let them either find a gap or boot it forward into space. Fitzgerald & Trimble both managed this pretty well. But I'm not altogether sure this will be our philosophy when it comes to facing the Wallabies. Maybe it will be against the USA? You never know.

All eyes were always going to be on our halfback pairing, as this was the only Irish combination on the park which seemed likely to start in the World Cup. Well, O'Leary was in his first outing after a layoff so although they didn't exactly click, you'd want to see them against France or England before you could really make a call.

Sexton himself had a good game all round I thought. He only did his wraparound a couple of times but still made it work for a gain each time. And considering how little chance he had to dictate the play, I reckon his form is in a good spot for this stage of the season.

Many of the newbies impressed me. Mike McCarthy played like he was determined to make a mark, and he and Niall Ronan were to the forefront when it came to forcing Scottish turnovers. It was interesting that McCarthy was shifted to lock in the second half...that was a good sign for him and suggests Kidney wants his 4th lock to be versatile. If this is true, Donnacha Ryan deserves a shot at showing what he can do in the back row as he had a strong outing at 4, especially in the tackle.

Leo was super as skipper and staked a strong claim for a starting position. Maul control, lineout work, all excellent. I've seen nothing to change my probably-biased opinion that he should be number 2 in our pecking order behind O'Connell to start in New Zealand.

That the front row got on Wayne Barnes' wrong side early on doesn't bother me so much. Barring a spate of freak injuries, I can't see that threesome ever forming a scrum at the World Cup. It was great to see Flannery come on in the second half....perhaps not the best idea to make his first action a lineout throw though!

In the back three, I have to afford Rob Kearney similar leniency to that given to O'Leary for his return from injury. Still, he took the odd high ball, joined the odd line move well and although his instinct still seems to be to look for a kick, which wouldn't be advisable against Cooper & co, he still has time to get used to other options.

Another talking point seems to be the Murrayfield crowd for booing us during kicks. Well having been one of the Croke Park crowd who booed Dan Parks as he took an eternity to slot over the winning penalty to deny us a Triple Crown in 2010, it didn't bother me that much. 

But like I said, losing to Scotland without scoring a try did bother me, and hopefully we'll be able to put a pin in that and bring it back on them in spades when we welcome them to the Aviva Stadium for the first time on March 10.

Meanwhile, our preparation bandwagon moves on to Bordeaux where we have an excellent chance to take the French on their own soil as it will be their first outing. Hopefully, Declan Kidney will not let the same centre pairing see the light of day again, though I wouldn't grumble if one of them switched jerseys and still started – can you guess which one? JLP

Blog Archive