Thursday, February 28, 2013

Grassroots to Greenshirts : developing home-grown talent together

A press release from Connacht rugby with their vision for the future…

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Connacht Rugby is delighted to introduce our new 'Grassroots to GreenShirts' programme.

A campaign that is unique to Irish sport and will give every Irish rugby fan from around the world the chance to play their part in growing and developing the future stars of Connacht and Irish rugby.

Grassroots to Greenshirts is a crowdfunding initiative that is designed to harness the collective will of Connacht Rugby and Ireland supporters to achieve our development goals. Namely, to increase the number of indigenous players coming through the provincial player pathway with the skill set and support system to achieve the highest accolades in world rugby.

Our vision is simple. We want to create the best elite pathway programme in the country to ensure young Connacht rugby players are given every opportunity to develop into the most talented in Europe, represent Ireland and fulfill their professional rugby ambitions whilst living and playing in Connacht.

The innovative crowd funding platform has been developed to provide a mechanism for all fans to play their part in accelerating our plans and helping us realise our vision.

What is our vision?

For Connacht Rugby

  • to produce the best rugby players in the world and keep them in Connacht
  • to develop more players for the Irish National team
  • to produce British & Irish Lions
  • a Connacht player to lift the Rugby World Cup wearing the famous Green Shirt

How?

  • By continuing to grow, develop and nurture Connacht Rugby's talent with exceptional support and talent development structures.
  • Through the continued growth of traditional and non-traditional revenue streams.
  • By harnessing the collective goodwill and support of Connacht and Ireland rugby fans across the globe to accelerate investment in what is already a high performing programme.

Head of Commercial and Marketing, Alex Saul explains the concept "Connacht Rugby in recent times has seen a throughput of talent from our Academy that is exceptional when measured against the level of investment. This is epitomised in the emergence of Robbie, Kieran, Denis and Eoin this year. We felt that now is the right time to apply new methods to raising funds to direct towards the elite player pathway in Connacht. This is because we believe the future of Connacht Rugby lies with the young indigenous talent across the province".

Expanding further on the use of crowdfunding, Alex said

"Crowdfunding is having a huge impact in the USA and Europe and changing the face of investment. People that are passionate in an area or motivated to see projects come to life -without necessarily receiving any equity or control - are financing projects worldwide. We pride ourselves in thinking outside the box and we are looking at every opportunity to raise funds. All of which are re-invested into the game in the province."

"Grassroots to Greenshirts is about the collective body of fans and supporters, including some 41,000 online followers. We are giving our fans and people who are passionate about Connacht Rugby the opportunity to create something really memorable. It enables us to reach out to people based further afield or overseas who might not be able to attend a fixture, or buy a shirt, but take pride in our success. They can now become part of our plans and part of that continued success."

To find out more about the programme, and to see the "Grassroots to Greenshirts" animation visit grassrootstogreenshirts.connachtrugby.ie

Contact the team at grassrootstogreenshits@cbirfu.com.

Super Rugby–Week 3 preview

Six Super Rugby clashes this weekend for Stephen Humphreys to have a look at…

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Round 2 of the Super 15 action last weekend was replete with upsets and it has been suggested to me by some that I should hang up my tipping spurs after only picking three of the winning teams last week. That is Super 15 rugby though and one of the reasons we all love it: it is unpredictable and, generally, the teams are fairly evenly matched.

A game I wrote off as being the worst match of the round proved interested and saw the Kings open their Super Rugby account with a win whilst the whipping boys of the New Zealand conference got the John Kirwan era off to a flying start at home. In Australia the Brumbies continued their impressive start to the season whilst the grudge match between Queensland and New South Wales was a game low a skill in patches but high on intensity.

This is another round of matches filled with conference derbies that should lead to some exciting rugby and no doubt more upsets!

Blues v Crusaders, Auckland

Keeping to the usual schedule, week 3 of Super 15 action gets underway in Auckland with the Blues hosting the Crusaders. The Crusaders, off the back of a bye last week make their first foray into Super Rugby this week. Many Crusaders fans will be using this game as the start of their countdown till the return of Richie McCaw however even without him Todd Blackadder’s men still look like a quality line-up. Indeed, any side with Dan Carter in it and Kieran Read at the helm ought be dismissed lightly only be fools.

The Blues produced the first upset of Super Rugby 2013 last week and this week will be looking to continue on their winning ways against their long time foes from the South Island. Piri Weepu was impressive last week and controlled the game for the Blues. His influence will be vital to the play the Blues and ultimately the outcome of this fixture.

The Blues pulled of an upset last week but I do not think they will best the Crusaders who will be primed for their first match of the season.

Prediction: Crusaders by 12

Waratahs v Rebels, Sydney

The Rebels travel up to Sydney for their third fixture in 2013 to face the Waratahs in this all Australian clash. The Waratahs were valiant in defeat against the Reds at Lang Park last week and threatened to steal an upset of their own when the score read 17-17 with less than 10 minutes to play. They have basically an all Wallaby forward pack and if that forward pack can lay a solid foundation the mix of youth and experience in the backline could score a few points here. They do need to sort out their goal kicking which was terrible last week.

James O’Connor takes on the captaincy of the Rebels this week and by the look of the Rebels lineup the result of this fixture may largely rest on his and Kurtly Beale’s shoulders. The Rebels showed very good form against the Australian benchmark in the Brumbies before being outclassed in the second half and they will be similarly dealt with by the Waratahs if they can not play out the full 80 minutes here.

The pressure of the goal kicking duties and captaincy may well prove too much for O’Conner and if he does not grapple well with his extra responsibilities then this looms as a danger game for the Rebels. If he is on song however this may be a danger game for their opposition! I think this might be a closer game than many expect with less than a try between the teams. The Waratahs get the nod from me only because of home field advantage.

Prediction: Waratahs by 6

Reds v Hurricanes, Brisbane

An unusually late start has been mandated by SANZAR for this fixture which is a shame because this game has the potential to be one of the matches of the round. The Hurricanes were lacklustre at best last week against the Blues and certainly have the player list to improve on that performance. They will be heartened by the news that Conrad Smith has crossed the Tasman for this game having passed a fitness test following his concussion last round.

The Reds continue their season again without the names Horwill and Genia on the team sheet but showed last week the combination of grit and flair in patches that saw them win the competition in 2011. Ed Quirk has replaced some bloke called Higginbotham so well that Reds fans have hardly noticed his absence and Quade Cooper showed last week that he has the ability to direct this team around the park.

The Reds are at home and they seem to continue to find ways to win at Lang Park and I do not expect this fixture to be any different. The Reds will not blow the Hurricanes off the park but will do enough to win here.

Prediction: Reds by 8

Chiefs v Cheetahs, Hamilton

The first Saturday fixture of Round 3 sees the Cheetahs make the long trek to Hamilton in the North Island to take on last season’s champions, the Chiefs. The Cheetahs made a horror start to their 2013 campaign and saw themselves on the loosing side of a 26-5 scoreline at one point against the Sharks. They remain one of the enigmas of this competition because on their day they have the look of a team that can defeat any opposition whilst at other times they look worse that the Force.

The Chiefs were in fine form last week to defeat the Highlanders in what was the match of the round albeit they will be concerned that they had so many points scored against them. This is a quality line up that plays an attacking and expansive style of game whilst also looking to dominate in the set pieces. If they get on top of the Cheetahs at the break down and in the set pieces and Aaron Cruden gets quality ball they could put a big score on the men from Bloemfontein

I think the Cheetahs might succeed in keeping this game close in the first half but will fade in the second as the trip over and the Chiefs forwards take their toll.

Prediction: Chiefs by 19

Bulls v Force, Pretoria

The travelling Force move to Pretoria with their metaphorical tails between their legs after a, lets not sugar coat it, woeful display against the competition new boys, the Kings, in Port Elizabeth last week. The conundrum with the Force is that on the face of their lineup and given the number of players with international experience in their ranks you would expect them to travel better as team. Last week’s capitulation again proved otherwise however.

The Bulls have injury woes arising from their victory last week against the Stormers in what was a game when they, much like they did for the bulk of last year, won off the back of the boot of Morne Steyn and bone crushing defence. Steyn’s metronomic boot will again be a key to victory to the Bulls whose game plan revolves around strangling teams out of the game. If the Force are in any way ill disciplined in this fixture one can rest assured they will be punished on the score board.

After last week’s performance there is no way I can see the Force winning this fixture and the only reason I am tipping as narrow a margin as I am is because that is just the way the Bulls play.

Prediction: Bulls by 14

Sharks v Stormers, Durban

The last match of the round and only Sunday fixture sees the Sharks host the Stormers in Durban. The Stormers were very disappointing last week against the Bulls: they themselves have admitted as much. They have chosen not to rush Peter Grant back into their line up despite some pretty poor goal kicking last week from Elton Jantjies who again presents as a key to victory for the Stormers in this fixture.

In a performance the polar opposite to that of Jantjies for the Stormers, Patrick Lambie was on song with the boot for the Sharks last week landing 7 from 7 and the battle between these two young men will not only be one of the highlights of this game but also of this round. The Sharks ran out of gas it seemed last week when they had a substantial lead and they will know that doing the same against the Stormers will see them, in all likelihood defeated.

I see this fixture as a real toss of the coin between a team smarting from a first up loss and a home side looking for improvement. It has the look of a game that might come down to who kicks the best here and I only leaning the way of the Sharks because of their home crowd support here but there will be the barest of margins in it.

Prediction: Sharks by 1

Steve (@shumpty77) is sports tragic and is particularly fanatical about rugby and cricket. A proud Reds member, Steve is also a fan of Wallabies as well as the Welsh team (when they are not playing the Wallabies). When not following rugby, cricket and all other sports, Steve is an account director at an accounting firm.

Ulster fall in key top of the table clash

Before we get to Kristian’s report…this post is the 500th on this HoR2 blog since it launched In June 2012.  I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the 30 different contributors we have had to date.  The purpose of this project was to provide a wide range of rugby topics, approaches & opinions and I think it can be said we have done that!  Here’s to the next 500 posts…if you’d like to get in on the action drop me a line at paganoblog@gmail.com. JLP

The momentum that got Ulster to the Pro12 summit seems to be slipping, writes Kristian Ross…

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The battle for top spot in the PRO12 just got a lot more interesting as Glasgow Warriors beat an error strewn Ulster Rugby side at Scotstoun on Friday.

Mark Anscombe's side were looking for improvement following a scrappy win over Zebre the week before knew that defeat in Scotland could cut the gap at the summit of the table, and were keen to get going quickly.

Ruan Pienaar attempted to get Ulster ahead, but missed the opening penalty of the game, the first of many negatives in a performance that Mark Anscombe labelled as " feeble".

But Ulster did take the lead, minutes after Pienaar missed his first attempt he slotted a good kick from distance to put the men in white in front.

Glasgow themselves then won a penalty, 23 year old Peter Horne stepped up to the tee but his kick didn't have the distance in a night the Glasgow kicker would have wanted to forget. However Glasgow were smiling when they scored the games first try following some good pressure, a massive gap opened as the ball was spread wide and ex Falcons player Tim Swinson gave the Warriors the lead. Peter Horne couldn't convert the try as Ulster realised that this one was going to be trickier than expected.

Luckily for Ulster they were awarded a try right in front of the posts following foul play by the Warriors, and it was no problem for Pienaar who sent over the penalty sending the Ulstermen back in front.

Though on a cold Glasgow night it seemed mistakes would be the theme, a massive mix up in the Ulster scrum saw Glasgow break free and Tommy Seymour was given a gift of a try as Glasgow again moved ahead, Peter Horne missing another kick via the conversion.

And if mistakes were the theme, missed kicks were obviously making an appearance as well, Ruan Pienaar getting another shot at the sticks, but pulling his effort well wide as Ulster finished the first half four points behind.

As the second half got underway the Ulster contingent knew that with just four points the gap the task wasn't out of their reach, but when Paddy Wallace's predictable kick was charge down in his own 22, it was another massive mistake, and Peter Murchie was over to extend the advantage even further, but again Peter Horne couldn't convert his kick.

Glasgow piled on pressure trying to get the fourth and grab what would be a bonus point, but Ulster penned them back, and got themselves back into it when Ruan Pienaar struck a penalty from distance to cut the gap to six points.

With the final quarter approaching Ulster knew they needed the next score in order to keep up the pressure, and thought they had it when Robbie Diack looked to have went over but the pass to him was adjudged forward. Ulster were disappointed but didn't let it show, and had their reward thirteen minutes from the end, the first try in Ulster colours for nineteen year old Stuart Olding finishing off a well executed move after some good passing. Ruan Pienaar knew the kick was vital, and maybe the pressure got to him, his kick will wide and Ulster would still need another score as Glasgow held a one point advantage.

Any chance of that happening though was firmly crushed when the Warriors got the killer blow with a fourth score, a great try from scrum half from Niko Matawalu saw Ulster's revival fade away. However a small slither of hope was still there as Peter Horne incredibly made it a full house of missed kicks right in front of the posts. But Ulster couldn't find their way back into it and had to settle for a losing BP, to the delight of a jubilant Warriors team.

In the end, massive mistakes cost Ulster and Mark Anscombe was not happy with the performance. Not only was the gap at the top cut, but Ulster have seemed to lose momentum over the last few weeks (baring in mind they have had injury problems) and Glasgow capitalised on that. Paddy Wallace is added to the ever growing injury list as he is ruled out for a substantial period of time. Ulster return to Ravenhill to play Treviso in Round 17, in possibly one of the biggest games of the season, the Italians no pushover, and will be high spirited after hammering Ulster's provincial rivals Munster in the previous round.

The top of the PRO12 just got tastier, Ulster know the Glasgow have tough games ahead, but they themselves have a tricky fixture list. They'll need all their wit about them as a depleted squad looks to start winning games in easy fashion like the start of the season, they have class, and youngsters like Stuart Olding are a massive positive showing what is to come in the future.

But one thing is for certain, the momentum needs to start building again, or the top spot that Ulster have held on to all season could slowly start slipping away.

I'm Kristian. 18. And my mind is filled with rugby shaped thoughts. Supporting Ulster Rugby, Newcastle Falcons and of course the mighty Ireland. Tommy Bowe is the MAN !!!! SUFTUM.

Iveragh RFC : Update #3

Roots & All is a project where we pick a few teams that don’t normally make the spotlight week in week out and feature them regularly throughout an entire campaign.

Iveragh RFC banner

Underage Eagles played Listowel last Saturday morning in the West Munster u15 plate.  Unfortunately, Listowel proved far too strong in the forward play with the final score 32-14.  The u13 game was cancelled.

The seniors travelled to Listowel also last Sunday for a challenge match.  With only the bare 15 and half the team playing out of position, nothing went right and we ended up losing 15-0.  This was the first game in months that we were well beaten, hardly able to get out of our own half .having played so badly, everyone is gunning to make amends for the next game which, luckily enough is the Mick Barry Cup semifinal against Cashel on Sunday.

Nothing like having an angry team rather than a nervous one for a semi final!.  Cashel have been walking through Munster this year, scoring loads of tries, so a lightning start is vital along with ferocious defence. 

The following week is another huge game as we welcome Dolphin to Iveragh in the first round of the Munster Cup.  Reports to follow

Click here for the club’s Facebook page

Keith Wood signs up as RaboDirect’s voice of rugby

Keith Wood joins RaboDirect (credit Inpho - Dan Sheridan)

RaboDirect, the straight talking savings bank and proud sponsor of the RaboDirect PRO12, has announced that former Ireland and British and Irish Lions international Keith Wood will become the bank’s Voice of Rugby.

Keith, a former hooker for Munster and Ireland, is currently working as a rugby pundit for the BBC and Newstalk’s Off the Ball radio show.

He will be generating exclusive content via RaboDirect’s @RaboInsider Twitter channel, taking part in a number of live Q&A sessions (beginning tonight, 28th February, at 19:30), hosting exclusive events for RaboDirect customers, and appearing on behalf of the savings bank at key RaboDirect PRO12 fixtures.

Tim Bicknell, General Manager at RaboDirect, commented: “It’s great to have a legend of Irish rugby like Keith on board at RaboDirect.

“As a bank we pride ourselves on our straight-talking ethos and a commitment towards providing our customers with a greater choice and access to the rugby sponsorship, so we are very excited about the opportunities our partnership with Keith brings.

“Keith is known across the rugby world for his prowess on the field and his direct and thought provoking views on the game off it. He will be a great asset to our sponsorship of the RaboDirect PRO12, helping us to generate lots of exclusive content and new ways for rugby fans to get even closer to the competition.”

Keith Wood added: “I love what RaboDirect has achieved in the first year of the sponsorship. They have created a strong awareness and I like the way they bring rugby fans closer to the action with their approach. The RaboDirect PRO12 is an essential part of the rugby calendar and is the key nursery for rugby talent. As professional sport grows increasingly distant it is great to see a sponsor and a competition striving to keep the close link between player and supporter as the cornerstone of their vision.

“As well as driving business, ensuring the future health of the competition is important to them, and I’m looking forward to having a role in both of these.”

Got a question for Keith? Tweet your questions to @RaboInsider using #AskKeith and see if he answers yours!

Launched in May 2005 by the Dutch co-operative Rabobank, RaboDirect is in its second year as the title sponsor of the RaboDirect PRO12. Last season saw Welsh region Ospreys crowned as the inaugural RaboDirect PRO12 champions.

BOX-KIX : Feb 28-Mar 7



UPCOMING RUGBY ON IRISH TELLY

[feature to be updated every Thursday and is for Irish TV only]

Times refer to start of broadcast not kickoff

Union in yellow, League in red


SATURDAY MAR 2

CHIEFS V CHEETAHS – SUPER RUGBY
SKY SPORTS 2 – 6:30AM

EXTRA TIME – SUPER RUGBY ROUND-UP
SKY SPORTS 4 – 8:30AM

HARLEQUINS V EXETER CHIEFS – PREMIERSHIP
SKY SPORTS 1 - 3PM

WIDNES VIKINGS V HULL FC – SUPER LEAGUE
SKY SPORTS 1 – 5:30PM

MUNSTER V OSPREYS – PRO12
RTE2 – 6:15PM
SETANTA IRELAND – 11:30PM (TAPE DELAY)

SUNDAY MAR 3

TOULON V TOULOUSE – TOP14
SETANTA IRELAND – 7AM (TAPE DELAY)

JOUR DE RUGBY
TV5MONDE – 11:05AM

SARACENS V LONDON WELSH – PREMIERSHIP
SKY SPORTS 2 – 1:45PM

BLACKROCK COLLEGE V ROSCREA - LEINSTER SCHOOLS SENIOR CUP
SETANTA IRELAND - 2:55PM

PREMIERSHIP HIGHLIGHTS
ITV4 - 8PM

MONDAY MAR 4

AGAINST THE HEAD
RTE2 – 7PM

TUESDAY MAR 5

THE SUPER LEAGUE SHOW
BBC2NI – 1:30PM

ST MICHAELS V NEWBRIDGE - LEINSTER SCHOOLS SENIOR CUP
SETANTA IRELAND - 3:55PM

WEDNESDAY MAR 6

TOTAL RUGBY
SKY SPORTS 4 – 6PM
SKY SPORTS 4 - 11PM

THURSDAY MAR 7

FEATHERSTONE V KEIGHLEY – RL CHAMPIONSHIP
SETANTA SPORTS 1 – 7:15PM

THE RUGBY CLUB
SKY SPORTS 1 - 8PM

NB – This weekly feature needs your help...if you know of any other rugby on telly in the above timeframe please email me! Cheers, JLP



© JL Pagano 2013

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Lack of Experience

It’s not just about who is coach or captain, it’s about planning for RWC2015, writes Ball-Handling Hooker…

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After that performance, the bandwagon for Deccie to leave has gotten bigger and bigger. This isn't a post about whether he should stay or go, but rather, what needs to be done between now and the World Cup. Whenever the World Cup comes around, it's emphasised that it is the be-all and end-all, and that teams should be focusing on it. I, for one, would love to see Ireland finally do well at the World Cup. That Welsh game was the most depressed I've been about sport in my life, and I'd rather not go through it again.

Thus far under Kidney's reign, rightly or wrongly, there has always been an emphasis on the next game. Best players out for winning as many games as possible. This means that players who won't make the world cup are collecting caps, while promising youngsters sit on the bench. This means that when the pressure situation comes, the young players don't have enough experience to know what to do.

Take a look at England. Stuart Lancaster decided last 6 Nations to build a squad for 2015 World Cup. They have been blooding young talented players that will play a huge part in their fortunes over the next few years. Some have even begun to be mentioned as Lions candidates. People like Tom Youngs, Joe Marler, Mako Vunipola, Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling, Tom Johnson, Chris Robshaw, Ben Morgan, Freddie Burns, Owen Farrell, Jonathan Joseph, Billy Twelvetrees, Alex Goode and Brad Barritt have all either made their debut or been brought into the squad and started featuring as a regular since Lancaster took over.

Lancaster has managed to bring in these talents while making huge strides and winning matches. That must be the goal for Kidney. Bringing in too much too soon will be bad, but not bringing in enough is detrimental in the long run. I firmly believe that most of Kidney's youthful introductions to the side are forced on him through injury like Marshall and Jackson last weekend or Zebo to fullback last November. If Kearney had been fit, or Sexton and D'Arcy fit now, it wouldn't be unreasonable to suggest that all three talented youngsters might still be waiting for their first caps.

This 6 Nations should be the perfect time to blood inexperience. It's the first chance after the World Cup seeding is settled so there isn't as much pressure. Especially now that the championship has gone for another year, the time to give experience is now. The only way that Kidney can attempt to win another contract is by doing some forward thinking and preparing this side for the challenge in 2 years’ time.

There are a number of talented players on the cusp of the national side that need exposure and will be needed in the next two years. Players like Kilcoyne, Strauss, Sherry, Tuohy, Henderson, Ruddock, O'Donnell, Ryan, Marmion, Paul Marshall, Madigan, Jackson, Luke Marshall, McSharry, Cave, O'Malley, O'Halloran, Felix Jones and Henshaw are going to be in the top two or three in their positions in two years and are ready to make the step up to internationals now. Others like Paddy Butler, Jordi Murphy, Jared Payne and Ian Keatley will be ready soon and need their chance too. While the tight head prop situation needs someone to get some time, whether it's Fitzpatrick, Bent, Archer, John Ryan or someone completely left field like Nathan White.

The overall focus has to be developing a squad of 30-40 quality alternatives for the World Cup cycles. This means that quality youngsters have to be given the chance to show what they can do. We've already seen the uplifting impact they can have on the squad, so why not give those chances. Kidney only blooded Marshall and Jackson because of injuries. And there are many others that are worth having a look at.

Players aren't trusted because they've no experience. Now is the time to give them some of this experience. Whether Cian Healy or Jonathan Sexton are available for France or not, neither should play. Kilcoyne and Jackson need another go. As does Marshall, but I think he's earned it. Kidney needs to help Jackson out by selecting McFadden on the wing in place of Earls, while letting Gilroy continue his acclimatization to this level. Henderson needs to be thrown in at the deep end, while Dan Tuohy and maybe Tommy O'Donnell should be on the bench at least. I would also like to see Reddan replaced on the bench. Not because he's not good enough, but when the world cup comes around he'll be 34, and Marmion or Marshall will be in a better position to challenge Murray.

Speaking of experience, last Autumn Chris Robshaw was lambasted for some poor decision making in defeat to South Africa. Fast forward a few months and its Jamie Heaslip's turn. The decision has been made, Heaslip is captain. It wouldn't have been my choice, but nonetheless, Heaslip will make a great captain. He will learn on the job. It's said leaders are born, but leaders can be made too. And not all born leaders take to it straight away. Heaslip is the man, and keeping him in the captaincy is the right call. Sure there were doubts when O'Driscoll was made captain the first time. And there were concerns about Keith Wood.

My team for France: 1. Kilcoyne 2. Best 3. Ross 4. Ryan 5. Tuohy 6. O'Mahony 7. O'Brien 8. Heaslip 9. Murray 10. Jackson 11. McFadden 12. Marshall 13. O'Driscoll 14. Gilroy 15. Kearney 16. Cronin /Sherry - just as long as they get on this time 17. Tom Court 18. Fitzpatrick 19. Henderson 20. O'Donnell 21. Marmion 22. Madigan 23. Fitzgerald / Darren Cave 

My team for Italy (injury permitting) 1. Kilcoyne 2. Cronin 3. Fitzpatrick 4. Tuohy 5. Ryan 6. Henderson 7. O’Donnell 8. Heaslip 9. Murray 10. Jackson 11. McFadden 12. Marshall 13. Cave 14. Gilroy 15. Kearney 16. Best. 17. Court 18. Bent 19. Stevenson 20. O’Mahony 21. Marmion 22. Madigan 23. Fitzgerald

Follow BallHandling Hooker on Twitter and Facebook, as well as his blog An Irishman’s View on World Rugby

Kidney clinging on as Ireland lack clinical edge

The visit of France may bring Kidney a stay of execution, writes Ryan Cullen

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The build up to Sunday’s encounter at Murrayfield was dominated by a deafening din outlining the need for Kidney to get his selection spot on. After a chastening defeat against England, all Ireland needed was a boring victory to right the ship – a successful base from which they could build for the visit of France in the next round of fixtures. At the same time as restoring some degree of confidence this would also serve to keep Ireland in the championship hunt, slim though their chances would be.

The selection announced by the Irish management for the game with Scotland certainly came as a shock to many then, myself included, as the experience of Ronan O’Gara was shunned in order to give a chance to Ulster’s Paddy Jackson. At centre, more experienced options were overlooked in favour of another young Ulster flier Luke Marshall. Tom Court’s perceived strength at the scrum, and greater experience, saw him drafted in at loosehead, whilst Donnacha O’Callaghan replaced Mike McCarthy in the second row. A balance, it was thought, had been struck between experience and youth.

If you look at the bare statistics of Sunday’s game, it’s hard to argue this balance wasn’t struck. Ireland dominated Scotland, denying them possession and territory and limited their try scoring potential for the vast majority of the game. Ireland also made several searing line breaks in the first half, opening up the Scots and creating simple one out passing opportunities which would have resulted in tries. For large parts of the game it seemed as if Scotland was simply incapable of getting out of their own half. Yet, as we found out against England, statistics are simply an indication of the shape of a game – not the deciding factors.

The lack of clinical edge demonstrated by Ireland was astounding at times. Whilst Luke Marshall certainly deserves some praise for his overall performance, which made for a very solid debut, he certainly butchered one clear opportunity to set Craig Gilroy away in the corner. His faux pas, however, was considerably more forgivable than the one we saw from Keith Earls who, in a moment of apparent madness, thought it would be better to try and take on fullback Stuart Hogg rather than execute the simple two on one created after his break. Had Ireland taken these they would probably have had the game sewn up by half time.

Unfortunately for Paddy Jackson, Ireland’s failure to take their try scoring opportunities threw greater pressure onto the few kicks at goal he attempted. As Ulster fans will know, Jackson is still growing into his role as first team fly half with his province. He is susceptible to nervous moments and his place kicking tends to be the first thing to go when the pressure comes on. This wasn’t something Declan Kidney could have been unaware of and with hindsight it certainly doesn’t reflect well on him. As Jackson sliced his first effort at goal, Kidney must have started to wonder about the wisdom of his choice of standoff.

Jackson’s overall game management was actually quite acceptable despite his place kicking woes. He passed nicely in the main, stood flat and helped create the Marshall breaks and defended well. If he kicked his goals, and of course made touch with that penalty, then we would probably be saying it was an accomplished debut. International rugby doesn’t provide such margins for error though.

It would be unfair and untrue to place all the blame at Jackson’s feet however. Of the pack only Sean O’Brien comes out with his reputation enhanced. Rory Best had one of his worst days in a green shirt as he was central to the shambolic lineout performance. The scrum creaked throughout and the backrow, O’Brien aside, simply didn’t get over the gain line often enough, even though their work at the breakdown was exemplary. Heaslip is clearly not at the top of his form currently which has lead to his position as captain being instantly undermined. With Ireland desperate in the last ten minutes it looked like the whole team was looking to number 13 for guidance – not number 8.

The backs in general performed acceptably, line break cock ups aside, with Luke Marshall impressing, and proving me wrong, and Craig Gilroy producing his best performance since his debut. The Ulsterman was a commanding presence in the air, strong in defence and scored a try probably nobody else on the pitch would have, pirouetting away from the defence and dotting down from an unlikely position for a relatively diminutive winger. Why Declan Kidney thought he, and not Keith Earls, should be replaced by Luke Fitzgerald is more than a little baffling. Ronan O’Gara certainly didn’t cover himself in glory when he was introduced but given the situation, we can forgive a proven veteran for his moment of madness.

Whether the Irish public will be so forgiving towards Declan Kidney will be probably be decided at the Aviva when France comes to town. Victory over the French may be enough to provide Kidney with a stay of execution provided it is backed up with a good performance and victory in Rome. It would be a surprise if anything else is good enough. There have been many disgruntled fans on message boards suggesting that defeat to France may be preferable if it means Declan Kidney is moved on. I tend to take a similar view to Alan Quinlan here – anybody who actively wants their team to lose to prove themselves right is getting carried away with their own opinion. It certainly doesn’t help the players if the fans aren’t right behind the team and the setup.

That is not to say we can’t be critical – Kidney certainly deserves the criticism he is getting and he should continue to get it if he doesn’t plot a quick recovery. But all should keep in mind that everybody wants the same thing. Kidney has been doing what he has believed is best for Irish rugby and has brought it some of its greatest days. Surely he is due a bit more respect than some people are giving him at the moment.

England’s victory over France was another demonstration of the home side’s ability to grind out a victory despite not bringing their ‘A’ game on to the paddock. For long periods of the game England simply looked second best against a French side with much more shape and threat than in previous rounds. France looked potential winners in the first half after Wesley Fofana’s sparkling individual try and their strong set piece performance. The second half, however, was a different story as St Andre couldn’t help but tinker and came unstuck by doing so. Changing his half backs and the front row saw the balance shift away from his team and in favour of Stuart Lancaster’s men, who were steered home impressively by Toby Flood. For mine, Flood is a better player than Owen Farrell, much more likely to unlock a defence and also a strong goal kicker, so there was no surprise he was a boost of the bench. He wasn’t the only one mind as England once again demonstrated the benefits gained by blooding a squad, not just a First XV. They march on to Cardiff as Italy will surely be little more than a speed bump.

In Rome, Wales produced another strong performance to brush aside an Italian side that has reverted to type. Wales were exceptional at the set piece and entirely controlled the game as Dan Biggar put in his best performance to date. Italy, shorn of Sergio Parisse, huffed and puffed but never really looked a danger to Rob Howley’s men for whom Alex Cuthbert produced his best performance of the championship yet, although he is always a far superior player going forward rather than defending, and Lee Halfpenny was again imperious in difficult conditions. Sadly for Italy it’s hard to identify many players who performed well. Without the galvanising effect of their captain they couldn’t cope with the Welsh size and intensity and probably confirmed their true standing in the championship as a mediocre sixth side.

For England, Scotland and Wales the championship is still very much alive with two huge weekends of rugby still to come. For the others, pride is all that can be salvaged now.

P.S. What a shame it was to hear that Stephen Ferris has been ruled out for the rest of the season. A huge player for club and country, the blindside flanker was a likely Lion also and would have fully deserved to tour after his misfortune on the last trip. The Lions aside, if ever Ulster and Ireland could have done with the Ulsterman’s huge impact it’s probably now.

My name is Ryan Cullen and I am a 25 year old Ulster season ticket holder. I was introduced to the game around 15 years ago and have loved it ever since. I have an interest in pretty much all sports though so don’t be surprised to see a few football (Liverpool), Golfing and Racing interests (to name but a few) thrown in from time to time.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

10 Straw Men

Lies, damned lies and the Irish outhalf debate, by @curates_egg


One of the most frustrating aspects of the debate surrounding who should be the reserve outhalf in Ireland (behind Johnny Sexton) is the flow of lies, damned lies and straw men trundled out by media commentators and others with agendas to peddle. As is the essential purpose of a straw man, these seriously divert attention from the core of the debate.

To be fair, the majority of rugby fans seem to be able to see through these (judging by the comments on online fora) but given the Irish outhalf debate is set to rumble on and hence, the flow of straw men, it seems worthwhile to pick them apart.

Class is permanent

A trite sporting cliché in itself, its use in the Irish outhalf debate reached fever pitch in the run-up to the Scotland match. Particularly guilty in this regard was a plethora of journalists and analysts as part of a misguided campaign to try and convince the Irish rugby-supporting public (and influence the Irish management) that Ronan O'Gara should be picked to start.

There can be no doubting that class is permanent. Ronan O'Gara is a world class player who will remain world class long after he has retired, just like Jack Kyle, Ollie Campbell or Tony Ward (yes, Tony Ward of the 'class is permanent' plethora, take a bow). However, just as class is permanent, there is no cure for aging (a cliché that even holds for Cindy Jackson). At some point, even world class players will be passed their prime and will thus be surpassed by less classy players. That is not to suggest that any of the other contenders is less classy by the way.

However, one thing is clear - Ronan O'Gara's international performances since the Italy match in the 2011 World Cup have been patchy at best and on a downward curve. Objective Munster fans also admit his provincial performances have also been sliding. It is a trend and one which must be sad for his biggest fans to accept.

Experienced candidates only

Another nugget of a straw man used by the ROG plethora was that the other options to start against Scotland all lacked sufficient experience at a sufficient level. Clearly nobody told that to Ronan O'Gara himself when he was selected for his first Irish cap – against Scotland – 13 years ago (to the week).

This self-defeating argument is in fact at the heart of current crisis situation in which Ireland finds itself with regards to alternatives to Jonny Sexton. Despite the glaring need to blood a possible back-up to Sexton – in the highly unlikely event that he, as a rugby player, might get injured – each potential opportunity has been passed up. Usually, with the argument that the game was 'too important' or 'must-win' and we needed an 'experienced' back-up.

Firstly, when does that logic end? When ROG can literally no longer physically play rugby? Secondly, what is a must-win game? The Scotland game was really must-win for Declan Kidney and his management team alone. For Ireland, having already lost the Grand Slam and Triple Crown, it was a great opportunity to play an alternative outhalf who will be around at the next World Cup (unlike ROG). Finally, it ignores the almost constantly declining curve of ROG's performances at international level over the past 2 years.

Plenty of the plethora still argue that ROG was the 'only option' for the bench in the November internationals this year. However, his cameo against a weakened Argentina was clearly not of international standard, whilst Paddy Jackson had delivered a tour de force against a weakened Fiji XV the weekend previously. Enough already…to fight a cliché with a cliché: if you're good enough, you're old enough.

Outhalf must place-kick

This argument has been used both by the ROG plethora and those who support other candidates, as justification for why Paddy Jackson couldn't play for Ireland. Ruan Pienaar is the frontline/big-game kicker for Ulster, therefore Paddy Jackson cannot start for Ireland. Come again? Did I miss the section of the IRB rules that stipulate an outhalf is the only player who can place kick?

Clearly France have missed that rule as well over the past decade when (more often than not) the place kicker has not been their outhalf. Ask Francois Trinh-Duc. Of the other 6 Nations, Wales currently (with full back Leigh Halfpenny) and recently Scotland (with Chris Patterson) and Italy (with Mirco Bergamasco) have also chosen to entrust players other than their outhalves with place-kicking duties. England and, even, Ireland also have history here, as Michael Kiernan fans can testify.

Aha – the proponents of the argument will counter – but Ireland has no alternative to a kicking outhalf. Sorry Fergus McFadden, your 32 successful kicks in the Rabo Pro12 last year don't seem to count (nor your very high kicking average - although I'm not sure its 100%!).
If you are worried about Paddy Jackson's place-kicking, Fergus McFadden is not a bad option to have on the bench or even starting (in the absence of our first choice wingers - Zebo and Bowe - a case can be made for all contenders). You can slot him in on the wing (where he has always delivered for Ireland), entrust him with place-kicking duties and allow Jackson to get on with his game.

This cunning ploy worked very well for Leinster and Ian Madigan last year. With both Isa Nacewa and Fergus McFadden ahead of him in the place-kicking order, Madigan was able to focus on playing his own game, without the pressures of place-kicking. Madigan was seamlessly eased into the Leinster set-up (starting 15 games at outhalf in the Pro12 and 1 in the Heineken Cup) and has this season has taken on the responsibility for place-kicks, now he is settled in the side. Surely, this would be the perfect strategy to use while blooding Jackson (or another rookie) at outhalf.

Heineken Cup starter/first choice 10

The stick typically used to beat Ian Madigan's candidacy with – usually by Paddy Jackson proponents – is that he is not Leinster's first choice 10 or Heineken Cup starting 10, whereas Jackson is for Ulster. There are two points to be made in response to this straw man.

Firstly, Madigan has started a lot of games at outhalf for Leinster over the past 2 seasons. Madigan started as outhalf 16 times for Leinster last season (15 times in the Pro12 and once in the Heineken Cup – vs Montpellier), compared with 15 starts for Sexton (6 in the Pro12 and 8 in the Heineken Cup) – Madigan also came on as a substitute in 4 Heineken Cup games last season (including the final). Jackson started for Ulster twice last season (one of which was his poor day at the office in the Heineken Cup final, when Madigan came on as a sub), coming on as a substitute 3 times. This season, Johnny Sexton has started 12 times for Leinster at outhalf (6 and 6), with Madigan starting 11 times at outhalf and 5 times at full back (once in the Pro12).

Secondly, he is back-up to the best outhalf in the Northern Hemisphere at Leinster, whereas Jackson's competition at 10 in Ulster is Niall O'Connor. This is a point that is routinely ignored by the Jackson proponents.

The fact that Madigan has started for Leinster 4 times this season in the Heineken Cup at full back (and once in the Pro12) is somehow used to discredit Madigan's candidacy. The contrary should be considered: the fact that an outhalf (who happens to have been the reserve outhalf behind the best outhalf in the Northern Hemisphere) is good enough to play in another position, should be seen as a positive for a modern rugby team player!

In short, it is hard to argue that there is anything more than provincial circumstance determining the relative starts of Jackson and Madigan at 10.

Finally, so what? Conor Murray - most recently - started for Ireland without ever having played a minute in the Heineken Cup and became first choice for Ireland in the 2011 World Cup fresh from his first season in the Pro12. Why one rule for one player and another for another?

Leinster signing an outhalf for next season

Another straw man used to discredit Madigan's candidacy is the fact that Leinster has made clear it is looking to recruit an outhalf, following Johnny Sexton's departure. Madigan's knockers will have you believe this is a sign that the Leinster management has no faith in Madigan to take over from Johnny Sexton.

This argument would hold water if Leinster intended to or makes a big name signing of an outhalf in his playing prime. However, it is far from clear this is the case. Cast your mind back to 2009, when Sexton broke through to the Leinster side (guiding the team to its first Heineken Cup) and Felipe Contepomi left at the end of the season. Leinster announced they would be recruiting an outhalf and, sure enough, one was recruited.

Rather than being a vote-of-no-confidence in Sexton however, the recruitment (of Shaun Berne) was very much intended to support Sexton to become a key player at the club. Shaun Berne was never going to be a key player for Leinster but proved to be an invaluable squad player for the year, who filled in admirably when Sexton got injured.

Until we find out otherwise, there is no reason to assume that Leinster will not approach the Sexton succession in a similar way: recruiting an old-hand to support Madigan in taking on the mantle. Ian Madigan is around the same age Johnny Sexton was when he finally made the breakthrough to become Leinster's starting outhalf. Arguably (given the amount of starts outlined above), he is further along the road in his career development (a career that seems to have been meticulously managed). His time for Leinster is now.

Long story longer, there are many straw men floating about in the great Ireland outhalf debate. The purpose of this blog was not to argue for one player over another but more simply to deconstruct some of the flawed arguments used to discredit one candidate or another. If you have to spend all your time deconstructing straw men, you can't have an honest and meaningful debate about who really should be the substitute outhalf behind Johnny Sexton looking ahead to the next World Cup.

@curates_egg : Expat Irish rugby fan living on the continent but regularly travelling to Leinster and Ireland rugby matches. Strong believer in rugby as a family game and a fair sport.































Contributing Factors

It’s not just about Declan Kidney, it’s about the overall Irish rugby experience, writes Kate McEvoy…

Murrayfield pre-match

This weekend I went to Edinburgh on my first 6 Nations away trip. I had a whale of a time, the highlight of which was watching a team in green courageously carry out an appropriate game-plan with solid set pieces and prodigious skill right across the park. It was a privilege to watch the Irish Women's rugby team win their first Triple Crown and to relish in the commitment on the pitch and the unbridled joy on display after the final whistle blew. In lean times for Irish rugby supporters, their hard work & skill is even more appreciated and after years of graft, they deserve all they've achieved and more.

As a rugby supporter who regularly attends matches at a variety of levels – club, provincial and national - as well as a mouthy feminist, I'm ashamed I never previously attended one of the women's games. Wait, that's a lie. As I type this I realize aged 11 I dragged my Dad & sisters to see our then PE teacher captain the team at a fixture in Wanderers. The opposition and any further details are lost in deep recesses of my brain (there's only so much room in there between West Wing quotes and worrying about most conceivable situations). However, it's safe to say my contribution as a supporter of the women's game echo my contribution as a tag rugby player – minimal at best. At least I turn up at the latter, although perhaps it would be better for all concerned if I didn't.

In general, the weekend got me thinking about contributions to rugby. Brian O'Driscoll and Sean O'Brien made massive contributions this weekend, which is all the harder to do when your team is imploding around you. Ronan O'Gara and Declan Kidney have made massive contributions to Irish rugby but that doesn't give you carte blanche to stick around indefinitely. It's time for both to go, mainly because the contribution now is not as great as that which they offered in the past and is frequently being found wanting. Sport's ruthless in that way. You get found out when your contribution doesn't measure up. It's right there on the pitch for all to see. It may take a little longer sometimes but the hair holding up the sword of Damocles over our highest point scorer and highest achieving coach is fraying at a rapid rate and it looks to finally be irreparable.

There seems to be a school of thought that once the Kidney Clock ticks to zero, Sauron will be vanquished and Middle Earth will be restored. There seems to be little by way of recognizable tactics on display at many recent Irish fixtures. I refuse to accept that popping the ball to solo runners coming from static positions deserves to be called a tactic. Obviously the contribution of the coaching ticket is currently lacking. However, here's the unpopular part of my point. On Sunday I saw a team who were stuck in mud of their own creation. It's easy (and apparently for some, entertaining) to lay the blame solely at Kidney's door for the current morass Irish rugby is in. I think the players need to shoulder some of burden for the quality of rugby that's being played by our senior national side.

I'm not interested in picking out individual blunders from Sunday. Better analysts than I have done that, or in some cases conspicuously failed to do so, but I trust you are smart enough to distinguish between the two. Also, you have eyes and are an immensely discerning rugby spectator with a keen analytical mind. I can tell from here. Wrong decisions were made out on the grass as well as in the coaching box. The players need to take a long hard look at their individual contributions on Sunday & throughout the campaign. Now Ireland's most capped second row, Donancha O'Callaghan spoke movingly on the topic. I think it's worth checking out here

For starters, I respect people taking individual responsibility for their actions in any field. But secondly I think anyone assuming that getting rid of Kidney is the golden ticket is in for a rude awakening. A new broom and assorted dustpans will help but the players are at a pretty low ebb. I don't think recovery will happen overnight. The Welsh game was great, the Argentinian fixture enjoyable but overhyped. However we have consistently failed to string consecutive performances and have now thrown away to on the bounce, the latter against a decidedly weaker opposition. The players have a case to answer too.

However those players will clearly look at how their contributions were lacking and desperately strive to rectify any inadequacies, or at least that's how it appears to me. This doesn't seem to be a situation à la les Rosbifs at the RWC with the leaked report claiming players were “more interested in cash and caps". Much like Stuart Lancaster, a new coaching regime, the right coaching regime, can help with psychological as well as tactical issues. Neither of these things will happen overnight. Particularly without the co-operation of, to my mind, the biggest contributor to our current situation, the IRFU.

I discussed in an earlier article how the IRFU are doing little to contribute to the rugby experience of the average Irish fan on match days, how the stadium seems to revolve around people in the corporate boxes rather than the blocks. This feeling was driven home to me after my trip to Murrayfield. You're part of a slow and jovial army winding its way through the streets of Edinburgh. Upon arrival there are copious food stands, a brisk bar service & live Scottish music. For the anthems & pre-match preamble we had bands, a lone piper, flag bearers, fireworks, flame throwers and what appeared to be the modern equivalent of a cannon. At half-time we had a kicking competition and famous former players doing halftime analysis. There was probably more but at this point I had a horrible sinking feeling that comes with failure to convert dominant territory into a meaningful lead & possibly had my head in my hands.

The IRFU's contribution, or lack thereof, to the current situation is plural. As discussed on foot of the English game, there's a lackluster atmosphere in our home ground. The possible reasons for this are manifold but for my money the fact that in seldom feels like there's anything better at play than a hand going for your wallet is a surefire contributor. Of course being a supporter is a serious business to a degree and there's often ire directed at the “just here for a day out crowd” but, regardless of recent results, when did the whole experience get so joyless and, well, cheap?

Certainly not cheap for the spectator who has most likely jumped through distribution hoops and paid a not insignificant amount of money for the privilege of having their bum in a seat. Bells & whistles aren't a solution to poor performances on the field but they're a (and you see where I'm going with this) contribution. To the atmosphere and to the supporters who have schlepped their way to the stadium to shout on their team. I can't help but wonder what traveling fans think of the not so warm welcome the IRFU provides. Do they think we just can't be bothered? It's not only cheap, it's quite frankly a little rude.

My worries about the IRFU go further. Again, Declan Kidney is being held single-handedly responsible for all of Irish rugby's woes by some, while others, particularly in the media, are refusing to admit we have a large-scale problem on our hands. This holds us back from looking at the big picture. To the best of my understanding, we haven't had a full time attack or scrum coach in place for a considerable period. At top-level rugby, particularly at the level we aspire, we expect to compete at, that's lunacy. To those who believe Kidney has refused an improved coaching ticket I say firstly that's supposition and secondly, if that is true, Kidney is not the supreme overlord of the game in this country. It is the responsibility of the organization who appointed him to appoint an appropriate support staff. Obviously the coach has both a say and sway in this but Irish rugby is not his autocracy. So either you're not giving the head coach what he asks for or not giving the team what they need. Neither are acceptable.

Many factors contribute to the crossroads we now find ourselves at but it's time for a combination of reflection and action from our players, our coaching staff and our governing body. There isn't a magic solution, a stunning coup de grâce which once administered will instantly bring all that is right and good to the surface. It's time to look at various contributions to see what measures up and implement serious changes where they do not. Should anyone like to join me, I'll be in Ashbourne on March 8th cheering on a team in green that don't shirk to put in theirs. I have every confidence the men's team will strive to do the same. I'm less confident about the other two parts of the trifecta.

Kate McEvoy : Munster fan in a sea of Leinster blue. Raised on a strict diet of Bective Rangers. Earliest childhood memory is stud marks in the muck. Former hooker for a father & a mother with an eye for a forward pass bordering on freakish . Often to be found down Monkstown RFC/ A & E on account of the exploits of the better half. Best rugby memory, Toulouse main square, May 24th 2008. Epitaph will read “Knew a lot about rugby for a girl.” Can be found tweeting optimistically at @ImKateMc

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