Saturday, June 28, 2014

Waratahs-39 Brumbies-8

brasil loves rugby

TAHS AT THE TOP

HoR pro logo blueJust to set out the stall for these “match writeups” over the coming weeks - I can’t claim to know enough about Super Rugby to be able to give them nearly as close coverage as I do Leinster & Ireland throughout the season.

So if you’re a big fan of the competition and want some expert analysis on this particular match you’ve probably come to the wrong place…what I plan to do instead is give a northern hemisphere fan’s perspective on what I have seen, of course paying particular attention to players like Kane Douglas and Ruaridh Murphy who will be joining Irish provinces next season.

In fact those weren’t the only Irish connections you could make for this fixture…with this rivalry arguably the nearest the Aussies have to Leinster v Munster, there were none other than Michael Chieka and Laurie Fisher in opposing coaching booths.

Still…while I obviously can’t show as much dedication to the Waratahs as the potentially treasonous chap in the lead photo, I am more than happy to follow them through to the end of their 2014 Super Rugby campaign and I have to say I was mostly impressed with their display on Saturday and they certainly seem to have what it takes to go all the way and give coach Cheika a very unique double.

I mean…what’s not to like about their lineup?  Izzy Folau, Kurley Beale, current Wallaby fly-half complete with porn stache Bernard Foley, and in the pack as well as Kane Douglas there’s Will Skelton, a name we are bound to be hearing very often in the near future as he has buckets of talent and impressed when the Lions played in Sydney 1 year ago.

Now, to be fair to the Brumbies, they have a horrendous injury list which deprived them of names they would certainly be relying on for a derby this late in the season…you can’t do without the likes of Stephen Moore, Pat McCabe, Matt Toomua & David Pocock and expect to compete.  Losing another centre early in this one as Kurindrani had to leave with suspected concussion can’t have helped either, though of course it was good to see the laws being correctly applied.

And not only were the big personalities missing but also they had a winger playing at centre, a centre playing at 10 and most crucially, Ulster-bound (and Dublin-born) prop Ruaridh Murphy playing at hooker.  Whether he just wasn’t good enough or the build-up got to him was hard to tell, but with several missed darts and a missed strike or two at scrum-time I doubt Messrs Best & Herring have much to worry about next season at Kingspan Stadium. (First time I’ve used that name in a reference.  Very weird!)

So the odds were heavily stacked in favour of the home side from the off and in what I must say was a very Leinster-like fashion, it took the Tahs a while to assert that dominance.  The Brumbies were doing all they could to thwart the home side’s front foot ball and it took 15 minutes for them to cross the line, with loosehead and Cian Healy-type cult hero Benn Robinson crashing over.

Then minutes later as the Brumbies tried to put it through the hands it was intercepted by winger Alofa Alofa who then said Aloha Aloha to his opposition as he sprinted more than half the length of the pitch to bring the score to 14-0.

But the injury problems were not all on one side and the Tahs lost their captain and key lineout-caller Dave Dennis to an ACL tear in the first half which sadly has ruled him out for the rest of the season…it seems veteran flanker Stephen Hoiles is favourite to replace him as skipper.

The Brumbies to their credit did what they could and were able to pull a try back before half time as a crossfield kick right into the corner of the try area was brilliantly caught and put down by Jesse Mogg at the expense of the man way ahead of him in the running for the Wallaby 15 jumper, Israel Folau.

But at the breakdown the visitors were finding it more and more difficult  to compete and as much as Steve Walsh tried to resist going to his pocket (at one stage telling an ironically-frowning Jordan Smiler “That was silly mate!”) he eventually had to give in and gave Smiler’s replacement Aleua a 10-minute rest as the game ticked into the final quarter.

From the resulting penalty Kane Douglas took one of many clean lineout catches and a superb maul brought them to the line where Foley sold a dummy when he didn’t even need to and sauntered over for try number three. 

The vital bonus point in the Tahs’ hunt for home finals advantage came on 68 minutes when Alofa Alofa got his second, this time thanks to superbly timed passes by Beale and Folau.

Like I said at the start I was paying particular attention to new Leinster signing Kane Douglas, to see how he’d get on in our neck of the woods.  I have to assume the Tahs will face much stiffer challenges before this campaign is over, but he most certainly looks the part…heavily involved in the lineouts, happy to get stuck in at the breakdown, and even when I wondered if he was tiring at the end of an 80-minute shift, up he pops over in the corner to ship the final pass for Palu to dot down as icing on the cake.

Let’s just say that going by this display, he’ll fit in just fine at the RDS.

So as you can see from the table, with this comfortable victory the Waratahs now top the overall Super Rugby “ladder” though to clinch 1st place and the home advantage that goes with it only victories over the Highlanders (also chasing playoffs) and the Reds (who have flopped this season though they won their last two) will do.

Although it wasn’t quite enough to fill the void left by the Leinster & Ireland off-season, this match was still an enjoyable one to focus on, particularly with the legendary Aussie commentary by the likes of Phil Kearns.

Stay tuned to HarpinOnRugby over the coming weeks and we’ll see if these Tahs can go one better than their teams of 2005 & 2008, both of whom fell to the Crusaders at the final hurdle.  JLP

Click here to see what the HoR Facebook page readers offered as captions for Steve Walsh & Alun Wyn-Jones

match writeup banner Guinness

Position Team Pld Points
1 Waratahs 14 48
2 Sharks 14 45
3 Crusaders 14 42
4 Highlanders 14 42
5 Hurricanes 15 41
6 Brumbies 15 40
7 Force 14 36
8 Blues 14 36
9 Chiefs 14 36
10 Bulls 14 33
11 Stormers 14 28
12 Reds 14 28
13 Lions 14 22
14 Rebels 14 21
15 Cheetahs 14 20

Friday, June 27, 2014

Leins-TAH! Leins-TAH!

HoR pro logo blueDon’t tell anyone, but I have been watching some of the roundy-ball World Cup and *quickly looks around before whispering* actually some of it hasn’t been all that bad. 

Not to worry though - I’m still making the right amount of “harrumph” noises when players writhe on the ground in agony and of course I take every opportunity to point out to non-believers everything negative that happens that you wouldn’t see in rugby so hopefully my street cred remains intact.

Still though…I wonder how soon we’ll see one out of rugby’s equivalent of Costa Rica & Greece reaching the RWC quarterfinals?  A debate for another day, perhaps.

Anywho…despite the sporting distractions in both Brazil and London SW19, to keep our rugby-blogging hand in over the summer months we have decided to “adopt” a Super Rugby team for the remainder of the competition and what better team to choose than the NSW Waratahs.

My reasons for choosing them are threefold :

  1. A chance to keep a close eye on new Leinster signing Kane Douglas.
  2. Their squad has a high concentration of the best Wallaby talent at the moment with the likes of Michael Hooper, Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale, Adam Ashley-Cooper and promising young lock Will Skelton, who could well be a big reason for Douglas moving on.
  3. Just how cool would it be for Michael Cheika to add the Super Rugby title to his CV?  He’d surely be the first coach to win the provincial title in both hemispheres, wouldn’t he?

So over the coming weeks, the Monday morning writeups will continue here at HoR - we’ll follow the Tahs until they go out of the competition then we’ll pick the best match on weekends they aren’t playing.  Then after a week off in August we’ll feature the first Bledisloe Cup match, one in which the Wallabies should have a lot of confidence after the June internationals.

Here is the exact schedule of matches we’ll be featuring on Mondays…

June 30 Waratahs v Brumbies

July 7 Waratahs v Highlanders

July 14 Reds v Waratahs

July 21 Super Rugby Playoff

July 28 Super Rugby Semifinal

August 4 Super Rugby Final

August 11 BREAK

August 18 Australia v New Zealand

August 25 Northampton v Leinster (preseason)

September 1 Leinster v Ulster (preseason)

…and here are the current standings in Super Rugby after the Reds won at the Rebels earlier today.

 

Position Team Pld Points
1 Sharks 14 45
2 Waratahs 13 43
3 Crusaders 13 41
4 Brumbies 14 40
5 Highlanders 14 38
6 Hurricanes 14 37
7 Force 13 36
8 Chiefs 14 35
9 Bulls 14 33
10 Blues 13 31
11 Stormers 14 28
12 Reds 14 23
13 Lions 14 22
14 Rebels 14 21
15 Cheetahs 14 20

A lot of people are understandably thrown by the Super Rugby conference system.  It’s all about making sure the playoffs have at least one team from every region.

The top teams in each conference get seeded 1-3 for the playoff, then all the other clubs are ranked based on their points.  This means that a team in 4th place could have more points than a team in 3rd.  Yes, that looks odd, but think of the Pro12 and the way three Irish clubs made it to the playoffs last season.  This Super Rugby system is designed to ensure there remains an interest in all regions.

As you can see, with the Brumbies just 3 points behind the Waratahs in the Aussie conference there’s much at stake when the two meet in Sydney tomorrow morning Irish time.  The Canberra-based franchise had a great season last time out under Jake White but with injuries especially at hooker (Dublin-born Ruaridh Murphy lines out in the absence of both Moore and Mann-Rea) they’ll do well to repeat their 28-23 win over Cheika’s men back in March.

So although we’ll be scaling back our day-to-day output over the summer, stay in touch because there’s a lot of quality rugby to enjoy & write about.  Go Tahs!  JLP

2014 Challenge Cup

PICTURE BY ALEX WHITEHEAD/SWPIX.COM - Rugby League - Tetley's Challenge Cup - 4th Round Draw - Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington, England - 08/04/13.

We are now at the semi final stage of 2014 Tetley's Challenge Cup and the betting market is really heating up. Betfair make the Leeds Rhinos their 6/4 favourites to win this year’s trophy and it would be no surprise to see the eleven time Challenge Cup winners land yet another title. The semi finalist are made up by the Warrington Wolves, Castleford Tigers and Widnes Vikings. The Vikings have been put in as the 10/1 outsiders to win land the big prize and it will take a monumental effort for Dennis Betts’s men to upset the odds this year. While the Vikings have previously won seven Challenge Cups, their last victory came back in the 1983-84 season and they have arguably done well to even reach this stage of the competition. The other two sides are quite closely matched as far as the odds compilers at Betfair are concerned, with the Warrington Wolves on offer at 2/1 and the Castleford Tigers at 11/4.

The Challenge Cup is a knockout competition for Rugby League clubs which although originally restricted to British teams is now also open to selected teams from both France and Russia. The competition began back in 1896 and has grown over the years to become one of the most prestigious tournaments in rugby. This year’s tournament was played over eight rounds and a total of 81 teams entered. The first round matches took place at the start of February and games have taken place on a monthly basis since with a draw being held at the conclusion of each round to determine who will face off in the following set of fixtures. Wigan were this year’s defending champions but they were knocked out of the competition by Castleford at the quarter final stage.

The Tetley’s Challenge Cup semi finals will take place over the weekend of the 9th and 10th of August. The first semi final will see the Leeds rhinos take on the Warrington Wolves and if the odds at Betfair are to be believed, this is set to be a seriously close match. Both sides have been in excellent form through the competition and the bookies are finding it difficult to separate the two teams. The winner of this match is likely to face the Castleford Tigers in the final as they have what looks on paper at least to be a relatively easy task against the Widnes Vikings.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Romania-10 Emerging Ireland-31

EmergingIreland_NationsCupwinners14_rdax_80

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

HoR pro logo greenPerhaps I spread the “tough love” a bit too thick in my writeup of Emerging Ireland’s second match in this tournament against Uruguay; I have had a few pangs of guilt since I posted it.

Basically what I wanted to convey was that even though we won by a whopper of a scoreline, all was not well with our performance, particularly in the area of ball retention.  However, even though this display against the host nation wasn’t exactly a marked improvement on that score, since we not only won but the victory led to a trophy I’d be a real hardass to lay into the boys for a second time.

So instead what I’ll do is  list what I have learned from this “IRB Nations Cup” Tournament.

  1. THE COMEPTITION’S NAME DOESN’T REALLY GIVE YOU AND IDEA ABOUT WHAT IT IS - “Nations Cup” for me implies a competition for equals.  Now don’t get me wrong…I totally get why the IRB run this and the Tblisi Cup equivalent, so that the Russias, Georgias and Romanias of this world can get some competitive action.  It’s just that the gap in standard between this, let’s face it, third string Irish squad and the other three nations was SOOO wide that it was never really a contest.   I don’t wish to belittle those nations and I’m all for them seeing improvement but to have them face hammerings is hardly going to help them, I would have thought.
  2. THE IRISH DEFENSIVE SYSTEM IS ALIVE AND WELL THROUGHOUT THE LEVELS - Between them it took Russia, Uruguay and Romania a total of 203 minutes to get a try against this Emerging Ireland squad, and to be honest I doubt the Russians would have come close even if they had the 34 that were denied them by lightning.  I reckon the players who make those national squads are used to a lot of broken play when they play week in week out but they were totally stumped when faced with proper organization and of course the choke tackle.  Romania eventually got themselves a penalty try on 77 minutes in the finale but I’d hardly hold this against the Emerg-Ires at the very end of a long season.
  3. IAN DAVIES SEEMS TO BE A DECENT REF - He got good writeups for the way he handled the lightning scenario and I guess you could say he was “rewarded” with the deciding match in this series, and he did ok faced with a few tricky calls and to his credit did his best to let things go towards the end as the home crowd longed for their boys to at least reach double digits on the scoreboard.  Could break through to bigger occasions next season.
  4. ROMANIAN FOR “PICK AND GO” IS “PICK AND GO” - Who knew?  Seriously though…having gotten well used to TG4, S4C and BBC Alba commentaries over the years I sure wasn’t going to let a bit of Romanian stop me from watching the action.  Their TV director could do with telling that after placekicks it’s always better to be done with the replays in time for the ensuing restart, though.

The tries the Emerg-Ires did score on the day were nothing much to write home about…it took us 26 minutes to cross and when we did it was thanks to a mistake in the Romanian halfback line which was pounced on by James Tracy and eventually finished by skipper Dominic Ryan thanks to some, shall we say, “creative” support by Tommy O’Donnell (pushing one Romanian defender out of the way and grabbing another).

Then it looked like the floodgates would open as a decent combination involving Ian Keatley and Eoin Griffin out left was finished by Craig Gilroy.  Perhaps this try WAS something to write home about but throughout the match there were so many opportunities out wide that weren’t finished that to convert just the one doesn’t get me too excited.  But I’m veering towards the negative again…on to the next try.

The second half had barely kicked off when a clearance from his own 22 by the Romanian outhalf Florin Vlaicu was charged down by Gilroy and fell nicely into the the hands of Robin Copeland who just simply powered through and over the line.

Finally we had a penalty try ourselves right at the death when Andrew Conway was denied in the corner by a “tackle” which strongly resembled that by Liam Williams against the Springboks on Saturday and got similar treatment from the officials.

Look…of course as an Irish fan I want to see silverware being brought home and if we’re good enough to win this tournament then that’s good enough for me.  Maybe things didn’t gel too well offensively but with all four provinces represented I doubt many of the combinations will find themselves together too many times down the line.

The defence thing was a good sign, and as I already said it’s in this area where the Tier 2 nations need to improve, be it implementing the system themselves or at least finding a way through it.

Now, the Irish rugby season is absolutely, definitely, positively at an end.  And well done also to Mike Ruddock and his “Wolfpuppies” for their brave display against New Zealand on Friday - another case where the scoreline told little of the performance only this time in a good way for Ireland!

What now for HarpinOnRugby?  Well obviously we will be taking things down a notch or two over the coming weeks but we won’t be going away completely, stay tuned to the social media channels (see tabs at the top of the page) and be sure to keep up the commenting, “Like”ing, RTing and “+1”ing that you can.

Next on our list will be to follow the remainder of the Super Rugby campaign paying particular attention to Michael Cheika’s Waratahs and Leinster’s new signing Kane Douglas.  Then there’s the Rugby Championship to bring us towards the end of August and Leinster’s pre-season friendlies against Northampton and Ulster.

Plenty to look forward to, hope you’ll stay with us along the way. JLP

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Emerging Ireland-51 Uruguay-3

IN CASE OF EMERGE-NCY, BREAK SWEAT

HoR pro logo greenIf ever a result needed to be put into context, it's this one.

The stream was pretty awful as the match was played but I was able to get hold of a decent recording and having watched the full 80 I think it's very important to explain just how poor the opposition was.

Now to be fair..I'd know a lot more about Uruguay’s soccer team than their rugby one even if Luis Suarez wasn't playing, but believe me when I tell you that although I am only offering a couple of reasons I believed them to be below standard, I could probably have found many more.

Putting the kickoff straight into touch then getting munched at the resulting scrum coughing up a penalty with barely 30 seconds on the clock wasn't exactly the best first impression Uruguay could have made on this particular blogger.

Also, teams cough up yellow cards in a game, there's nothing surprising about that. But when you do things like take a lock out of the air in mid jump or manhandle a scrum half at a ruck before he even crouches to pick up the ball, if you then look at the ref with bemusement as he flashes the card, I have to wonder if these guys were really up on the rules in the first place.

But the most telling sign that Uruguay were extremely awful comes from our side of the equation. We somehow managed to serve up a fifty burger despite one of the worst displays in the area of ball retention by an Irish team I have seen in the professional era.

Honestly...I'm not going for George Hook style doom and gloom hyperbole here...we were positively terrible with the ball. I didn't keep track but I'd comfortably say that the amount of possessions we threw away had to be in double digits.

Sometimes it was a pass thrown astray but more often than not it was a simple case of not enough numbers at the breakdown leading to holding after the tackle penalties and even the biggest crime of all - an opponent simply walking through and picking up the unguarded ball. This was even going on when the Uruguay number 7 was in the sin bin, by the way.

OK – maybe there are some mitigating circumstances...this is a squad of players not used to playing together, and they quite possibly will never play together again. And if the overall idea behind the tour is for fringe players to get a sense of what travelling is like, then mission accomplished. But knowing the type of game Joe Schmidt likes to play, I couldn't writeup this game simply by describing how Emerging Ireland's six tries were scored.

Now, to describe how Emerging Ireland's six tries were scored.

The first was an early great combination of kick through from JJ Hanrahan and pick up & touch down by Craig Gilroy. Then Michael Kearney got the put down after breaking through defenders who were looking at each other.  Despite being three-nil down for about five seconds the result was never ever at all in doubt.

But from then until the end of the game, the only reasons we were getting into their 22 was because (a) Uruguay couldn't keep the ball either (b) they were coughing up penalty after penalty and (c) our set pieces were in good nick - dominance in these areas led to penalty try, a couple of lineout/maul push-overs and a quick lineout from captain-for-the-day Johne Murphy which Paul Marshall finished well.  It’s just when we had your bog standard possession in midfield we were going nowhere  and luckily for us we had plenty of penalties and kicks to the corner to get us out of jail.

Obviously you don't rack up that amount of points without doing something right but I honestly believe if this same performance were done against a better organised team we would have struggled. I know all the players involved in our squad and what they can do but based on this outing, there wasn't one who made me think “they should have been in Argentina with the senior squad”. Players did good things in the match it's true, but almost to a man they seemed to cancel them out with a costly error.

I suppose what I'm saying is that although it's great for the players involved to don the green jersey and be involved in a tour, I just wonder how much technical good it's doing them against such poor opposition. Maybe the Romanians on their home patch will offer something on Sunday? Personally I'd prefer if there was an extra match added to the tour like a final between the winner of this comp and the Tblisi Cup but that's a debate for another day.

Sorry for the negativity folks...I know a win is a win and all that and these lads will all go on to do great things but for this one post on this one match I'm just saying what I saw. JLP

Saturday, June 14, 2014

ARGENTINA-17 IRELAND-23

Argentina-v-Ireland---Sum-011

THE JOE SHOW : END OF SEASON 1

HoR pro logo green
Game of Thrones, Love/Hate, House of Cards, Orange Is The New Black, Mad Men – when we rugby fans take a break from the box kicks and focus on the box sets, these are just a tiny sample of the quality offerings out there for us to enjoy.

So as the long August to June slog that is the Irish pro rugby season finally comes to a close, such shows make for an easy analogy now that we can finally cast judgement over the first definable time period of Joe Schmidt's reign as Ireland coach.

Did we enjoy all the drama that unfolded before us? Were we happy with the character development? Is the plot nicely set up for future series?

I could go on ad nauseum with these references...but tempting though that might be, I'll put a pin in them and perhaps at a future date I'll put them all up for you to stream on Netflix. For now, you get the idea.

Taking this episode match in isolation, when I compare what I was looking for with what I saw in the second test at Cancha Del Atletico, Tucumán, I have to say I was disappointed. This is what I laid out in my preview :
1, a solid 80-minute defensive display that shuts down the considerable threats posed by the Argentine backline after facing them last week, and 2, the ability to turn all the fancy white-board forged moves we used in the first quarter last week into scores so that maybe the result can be put beyond doubt relatively early so we can get some of the prospects out off the bench early.
To put it another way, I didn't want to see a repeat of the bad things from the first test, and as it turned out, I'm not sure how much more of a replica of the first test they could have produced, despite the introduction of so many from the successful Six Nations campaign.

Argentina scored the first and last tries mostly thanks to their back three, it took an age for us to turn our offensive superiority into scores, Sexton went off early – all it would have taken was an interception try and you'd be hard pressed to tell the two matches apart!

OK – maybe that's a bit of a stretch, but it definitely did not look as though we had learned too much from the previous encounter and simply plodded ahead the same way, and there was a temptation to go reaching for that oft-used quote from Albert Einstein about repetition and stupidity.

Possibly I could look to defend the display using what had to be the most annoyingly over-used expression by Sky (and trust me, that's against stiff competition) whenever they cover a rugby match in Argentina. Apparently teams who go there have to put up with a “hostile environment”. What does that even mean? Are they greeted on the pitch by a guard of honour made up of balaclava-wearing guerillas wielding kalashnikovs?

But on a more serious note...can we really look at this one 80-minute showing on its own to draw any reasonable conclusions for the Irish team?

In November 2013 just before the Guinness Series I posted another preview complete with expectations called “Joe Schmidt : The First 217 Days” in which I did a little more than calculate the time to elapse between that first game with Samoa and Saturday's second test. I also listed three areas to be re-examined at the end of that timeframe so I guess now is as good a time as any to do just that.

Here's a summary of what I was looking for...
    1. DEFENCE
    2. SET PIECES
    3. A DEFINITIVE STYLE
Note how I didn't put “Six Nations triumph” on my wish list! But for now, let's not harp on too much on that because we've fallen into that trap of milking too much out of one successful campaign before.

On defence, things definitely have not been great for the past couple of weeks. This is not helped by using different combinations at centre. Another thing I don't want to harp on is the loss of BOD, but when it comes to the defensive end of the Irish set up it's hard to avoid...the success of our overall D depends heavily on the 12/13 axis.

Here, Joe Schmidt has two choices. Does he use the upcoming matches to try several different combinations until he finds one that works or does he nail his colours to the mast and name a dream team pairing right away? Well the second option wasn't made easy by D'Arcy missing the tour, but if a new partnership is to be forged they will need game time together.

Still...there were many merits with the duos used in this series...last week, we had Luke Marshall and Darren Cave who of course know each other well at provincial level.. This time, the pairing of Cave at 12 and McFadden at 13 had potential because they both had the versatility to swap positions. But until we settle on a combination that can put in some serious game time together, we may find that throughout the course of a game the opposition will find ways through, and the tries that this under-strength Pumas side were able to score against us highlight this need.

But overall on the defensive side, things over the ten tests since November have been pretty consistent, with the choke tackle getting us out of jail on multiple occasions. Still a work in progress though there has definitely been some progress.

As for set pieces, well what can I say other than Joe had better find a decent replacement for John Plumtree, one that Paul O'Connell can work with as efficiently. There's no doubt that this has been the cornerstone of all our success and I don't just mean the lineout/mauls either, though they have been exemplary.

Finally we come to the “definitive style” thing, and this is where I see Saturday's performance differently. Sure, we could have adapted our game to beat that particular Puma 23 and if we had done, it could have been achieved pretty handily. But should we be preparing for an Argentina side like this or for the much, much greater tests that are coming down the line?

What I have seen over the past two weeks is the next evolution of the Joe Schmidt “power play” game. It still relies heavily on the front foot ball and often when it is chucked out wide you'll see the ball trickled through from the outside channels.

But now we see an increasing reliance on either the scrum half or first receiver passing the ball back inside to where the runner, more often than not coming at pace, can either exploit a gap or suck in a swathe of defenders. And if this ploy doesn't reap instant rewards (like it did for the Zebo try), we are now going much more to the cross-field kick and it's starting to pay off.

We can't expect to try to run a style of play like this by just flicking a switch and using it in the matches that “matter”. They need to be tried in a real match situation and you can bet that Joe Schmidt & co now have laptops full to bursting with footage from every angle over the past two weeks as they hammer out the next stage of the evolution of this type of offence.

No, it did not reap the first-half rewards it should have done in either of these two tests. But to those who want to beat Joe with that stick I say this...wait and see how we get on against the Boks and Wallabies in November before you judge too harshly.

One thing I have to single out from this one match is the referee. As if I didn't have enough to slag Pascal Gaüzère about when he informs captains of the need to use “dee-see-pleen”, but now he can't tell the difference between the numbers 13, 14 and 15 when they are being communicated to him. Perhaps his perceived lack of confidence comes from the language barrier, though that's not a good enough excuse at test level.

Where Pascal really annoyed me in this match was actually in the whole area of dee-see-pleen. The final penalty count was 12 for Argentina, 6 to us and what's more a couple were waived off for our advantage so the difference should be higher. This was in no way reflected in the 1-1 tie in the yellow card column, and I am convinced Ireland would have had more points on the board with an extra man. But we can only hope that he won't feature too much in our big matches down the line.

As for impressive Irish displays on the day, well I have to say Rhys Ruddock was superb in the loose, in fact his consistent gain-line smashing almost had you saying “Seanie who?” Another who stood out was Dave Kilcoyne, in fact I was surprised to see him taken off for Jack McGrath – if he wasn't injured it would have been a good boost for him to get a full 80.

Another Munster man who has done well in the past couple of weeks is Simon Zebo. I had a critical eye on him for this tour and I reckon he has done enough to show he belongs in the setup, perhaps without exactly nailing down a starting jersey, but I'd definitely like to see him involved in November.

Last but not least we have Ian Madigan, or “The Cameo Kid” as I call him based on his displays off the bench throughout May and June. Took his try extremely well and definitely ended his rollercoaster of a season on the up. Needs to establish himself as Leinster's number one starter if his long term future is to be at 10, though I have a feeling we could be seeing him more often at 12 down the line.

What say we begin to bring this writeup, and indeed this season of writeups, to a close, shall we.

From the punditry and analysis of the experts on TV to the puns and analogies of bloggers like myself, there has been much opinion put forth about the game of rugby union on this island since the season began way back when.

Legends may have retired (by accident or design), mistakes may have been made, and most certainly we have been heavily affected by decisions made elsewhere. But when all is taken into account, I hope we can all at least agree say that overall, things are still very much on the way up.

To go back to my TV show theme, I for one have to say I'm hooked on The Joe Show and can't wait to see what happens in Season 2, though of course as we all know the big twist is set to come in the World Cup at the beginning of Season 3. Sadly I don't have any spoilers to leak to you just yet, but let's just hope it has something to do with us going at least one better than RWC2011.

In the meantime, many thanks to Joe and everyone involved in the national team, including those at Under 20 and “Emerging” levels who are having their own successes as well.

Maybe Super Rugby, the Rugby Championship, Wimbledon and - sorry but I'm not ashamed to admit it – the round-ball World Cup will keep us occupied over the summer months but I think I speak for most Irish fans when I say next August's pre-season matches cannot come quickly enough. JLP
match writeup banner Guinness
Also this weekend

#ARGvIRL 2nd test preview

HoR pro logo greenThe date was Friday, April 6, 2012. 

There were two big reasons for rugby fans to flock to the RDS…one was the fact that they were serving booze on Good Friday but also we had the British & Irish Cup semifinal between Leinster A and Munster A.

And one of the best things about attending those matches is that should any of the prospects involved go on to play for Ireland, you can show off that you were there back when their names weren’t really known, especially if you happen to have a blog.

Munster A prevailed that day, 36-29 after extra time in a thriller, and two players in particular stood out, for differing reasons.

On the Leinster side we had Noel Reid, who had an absolute howler of a day at out-half, making error after error allowing the visitors to claw back a 21-9 to force the extra time. 

For Munster there was an enterprising young prop called Dave Kilcoyne, who had several strong carries throughout and deservedly got the winning score.

Their careers took slightly different trajectories since then.  Kilcoyne was fastracked into the Munster & Ireland setup then fell back somewhat as he never really came close to ousting Cian Healy from the number 1 jersey and then he had a similar rise to prominence of Jack McGrath to contend with. 

Still, some good displays in the second half of the season for Munster have earned him a starting position and he takes his place with Rhys Ruddock (who was Leinster A’s captain on that Good Friday) in an Irish pack that is otherwise the one that started the Six Nations decider with France.

Reid’s path to this Second Test in Tucumán was on a much wider curve.  It took a change of position for him to find his feet at the highest level.  Though he has displayed fine form this season, scoring several Pro12 tires and helping Leinster A to their second B&I Cup success, I have to say I’m a bit surprised at his inclusion on this bench, but I wish him all the best nonetheless.

When it comes to developing players towards RWC2015, there’s not a whole lot in this starting lineup to look out for…sure, we have Reid, James Cronin & Herring on the bench but how much will we really learn about them in 20 minutes at the end of a long drawn out season?

There is of course much to examine in our centre pairing, and for this contest Joe has gone for Darren Cave at 12 and Fergus McFadden at 13. It’s a fascinating axis in that the two players are extremely interchangeable in the two positions and this could provide many a headache for the Pumas defence.

I guess there are two things I will be looking for from this Irish lineup…1, a solid 80-minute defensive display that shuts down the considerable threats posed by the Argentine backline after facing them last week, and 2, the ability to turn all the fancy white-board forged moves we used in the first quarter last week into scores so that maybe the result can be put beyond doubt relatively early so we can get some of the prospects out off the bench early.

With the lineup being stronger I can’t justify a conservative prediction like I gave last week so I’m going to put it up to this team…Ireland by 20 should be an achievable goal. JLP

Saturday, June 07, 2014

ARGENTINA-17 IRELAND-29

ARGvIRL 1 lead photo

CENTENARIO

HoR pro logo greenI'm hardly what you'd call an expert on GAA but still I know enough to be able to say I saw similarities between Dublin's win over Laois on Sunday and Ireland's win in this First Test in Resistencia.

In both matches it was easy to tell which team were champions and which were the underdogs, but although the favourites definitely didn't have everything their own way and even trailed at one point, the result was never really in doubt.

For me, the screengrab above captures everything we as Ireland fans could have drawn from this match.

On the right, young Iain Henderson, earning his 11th cap and having his first full 80 minutes in green as a second row. Beside him, the man who was almost poetically making his 100th appearance on a ground known as Estadio Centanario*. The considerable abilities of both men together with their varying levels of experience go to show that despite the departure of such an iconic figure as BOD, both our immediate and long term futures are indeed in capable hands.

Plus, with all that has been said about the current Irish brains trust it doesn't hurt to mention that neither of the above plays for Leinster ;-)

Having said that, right from the kickoff it was clear to anyone who has followed teams coached by Joe Schmidt and quarterbacked by Jonny Sexton that they had a huge influence on Ireland's attacking mindset, and the graphic after 5 minutes of play said it all...Argentina had already made 28 tackles, Ireland a big fat zero.

And the set plays throughout the first half were themselves impressive – you had your traditional front foot phase ball, some variance in runs from the two Ulster centres Marshall and Cave, a neat grubber into the corner by Felix Jones and the one I like the most, the little dink over the blitzing defence by Sexton, something I'd love to see keeping the Welsh honest in Cardiff next March.

Yet for all the attacking enterprise, there was one teeny tiny thing missing from the boys in green for the first half an hour – a try, and it will have to be a concern for the coaching staff that it was the home side who were first to cross the whitewash.

Despite my Leinster allegiance I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a big fan of both Luke Marshall and Darren Cave and I am fully aware of what they can do both individually and as a pairing. And as I said earlier, they played a big role in Ireland's dominance from the kick-off.

Still though, when the Argentine number 8 Benjamin Macome (who was credited with 21 tackles in 70 minutes) saw yellow for taking Andrew Trimble out in the air, Ireland had their best chance to finally get over the Pumas’ line, and it was a fumble by Cave on a relatively straight-forward move that halted our progress. And not long after that, the ball was being touched down back at the other end of the pitch.

Now there were two moments of brilliance in that Argentine score – first an acrobatic take in the air by full-back Joaquin Tuculet and ultimately a finish from Manuel Montero that had both power and precision but sandwiched in between those YouTube moments was one where Marshall was laid out flat by one of the widest sidesteps I have ever seen on a rugby pitch by out-half Nicolas Sanchez. For a split second the two players faced each other, but then the distance between Sanchez planting his left foot and his actually evading the outstretched hand of Marshall the other way could have been as much as six feet.

Trust me...I'm not dissing the Marshall/Cave axis at all...they did plenty, especially Cave, to show they totally belong in the Ireland set-up, it's just those two errors came at a key stage of the match and deserve to be highlighted.

But thankfully for Ireland the tendency of Joe Schmidt-led teams to respond directly after being scored upon is alive and well, and after all the moves forged on the whiteboard, ironically it was the good “old-fashioned” lineout/maul combo which made the Argentine lead extremely short-lived. The only downside of the well-worked Chris Henry try was that it reminded us just how much a shame it will be that John Plumtree has cut his Ireland stint so short.

So we went in at halftime with a one-point lead, and it wasn't long after the break when a set move actually paid off. Debutante Robbie Diack took one of his many lineout catches on the day before Jordi Murphy powered & rolled his way into the Puma 22. Then it was up to the backs and it was great to see Marshall so tuned in to the Sexton wraparound and although the outhalf had men outside him it was his sheer strength which got him over.

Full credit to the Argentine side...all the pre-match buildup made it sound like they were rank amateurs but we have to remember they have had two years of Rugby Championship action now so we're not the only ones keen to nurture a sense of squad depth and it's clear they do have a decent talent pool across the park, particularly in this match in their back three.

After the Sexton try although I don't have the exact stats I'd say Ireland had to make more tackles in the next 10-12 minutes than they did in the entire first half. Thankfully for us, after that earlier blip our defence was staying strong and for all the Argentine endeavour, our scrambling was just too resilient and we kept pushing them back until eventually Andrew Trimble pulled off one of those interception tries he does so often for Ulster and with that the margin was one of 13 points that never really looked in trouble.

The final quarter kind of fizzled out...I'm sure the perfectionist that is Joe Schmidt will have a thing or two to say about the defending for Argentina's consolation try in the 78th minute but the lead had been stretched to 19 at that stage and there's no doubting his biggest concern will be the injury to Sexton which forced him off on 63 minutes. Hopefully he'll be ok but it certainly didn't look good as he was going off.

So that's pretty much how the scoring went, time to look at a few individuals who were out to impress.

In my preview I said I was looking for a “Schmidt-like” display from Simon Zebo...did I find it? Well there's no doubting he did some good things, most notably the offload in the tackle which nearly put his number 13 over in the corner which would have been fitting payback for his try in Cardiff back in 2012. Plus I have to say he played a part in stopping what looked like a certain Argentine try in a sequence which reminded me of the famous French forward pass last March.

Still though...I have to say I didn't see enough from him to warrant moving him up Joe Schmidt's pecking order – and that is best borne out by the time he took a crossfield kick and kept his head facing forward with absolutely no regard for an offload to keep the move going...for the umpteenth time I'll say that this isn't always a bad thing, but it is when you are playing for this particular coach.

Robbie Diack was heavily involved on his debut and possibly had his hands on the ball more often than Conor Murray. I'll admit I wasn't his biggest fan going into the match with a botched try in last year's Pro12 final plus a tendency to drive into scrums foremost in my memory...still though, he certainly showed that he is willing to roll up his sleeves for this Ireland squad and definitely deserves another shot, though he did ignore a decent overlap at one point in the first half.

With Diack & Henry so busy it meant for a relatively quiet shift for Jordi Murphy bar being heavily involved in the Sexton try, and to be fair although we were always on top in the scrums, when it came to the breakdown the Argentine back row were competitive so there weren't a whole lot of opportunities for him.

I was glad to see Kieran Marmion get a game, and I'm wondering if Joe would be tempted to start him in the second test. We can take it to the bank that Murray/Sexton is the halfback pairing of choice for RWC2015 but when it comes to the 21 jumper the one teeny blemish in Conor's game, ie taking a fraction longer than necessary to release front-foot ball, makes it vital that his replacement can provide at least that and let's face it, although Reddan is off a good season he's not getting any younger.

And finally there is Rodney Ah You. Being “Irish qualified” myself, I'm afraid to talk down players like himself and Diack and though I'd have my doubts overall about the 3-year qualification thing, once other countries are availing of it I reckon we'd be mad not to.

It's just that on this occasion I can't get the vision of Ah You just standing there over the try line as Argentina got their consolation try at the end. He had only been on the park 13 minutes yet had the demeanour of someone who had been toiling for the full 78. I've never attended a Joe Schmidt DVD session but I have a feeling that is something that could well stand out like a sore thumb; not something you want on your debut.

But hey...nitpicking aside this was always a comfortable victory against a side that despite not being the Pumas’ finest, definitely had the ability to make the margin tighter so we did well to keep them at arm's length. You can be sure the coaching staff will be keen to end their first season in charge on a high so the stage will be set for a better performance next week...hopefully the injury count won't be so bad.

Overall the significance of Paulie reaching his century and leading us to a maiden victory on Argentine soil cannot be overstated. For all the talk of others retiring we cannot forget what an immense legend we still have in our midst and although I haven't mentioned his performance in this match writeup I really don't need to. JLP

* = Technically “Centenario” translates to “centennial” and I know Paulie hasn’t been around for 100 years but hopefully pedants will give me a break for the reference! ;-)

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Also last weekend

Samoa 18 - 18 Tonga

Fiji 25 - 14 Italy

New Zealand 20 - 15 England

Australia 50 - 23 France

South Africa 47 - 13 World XV

United States of America 6 - 24 Scotland

Canada 25 - 34 Japan

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