Bord Gais Energy Munster U21 Hurling Final: Clare 0-19 Limerick 0-22

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A turbulent couple of weeks for Limerick hurling has ended in emphatic fashion with a Munster U21 crown against reigning champions Clare in a near capacity Cusack Park tonight. After disappointing exits for the Limerick senior and minor teams in recent weeks, the onus was on the Limerick U21 team to produce a performance to restore confidence and they delivered and more. All that is good in Limerick was in full effect: guts, determination, hard work and team work.

The game started well for Limerick with a early brace of points from Dempsey and O’Donovan but Clare fought straight back and hit four unanswered points O’Donnell and Lynch to the fore for the Banner. The game ebbed and flowed and it became apparent that the two free takers on the pitch would play a vital role in proceedings. Limerick’s Ronan Lynch and Clare Bobby Duggan were unerring from place balls and both teams were extremely aware that any indiscretion seventy yards out would be punished on the score board.

Clare had their best spell of the game towards the end of the first half. With Duggan prominent on frees and Shane O’Donnell getting a little joy on Richie English inside (who was superb throughout) struck the front and led 0-12 to 0-10 at the break. Shane Gleeson capping an excellent period of pressure from Clare with a mazy run and point which lifted the home crowd. Limerick were now struggling in midfield and the half-back line were starting to lose 50/50 battles. John Kiely and management realized that tactical switches were required at the break to get Limerick back into the contest.

Cue the tactical move of the game. Kiely and management have to be applauded for the switch of the game. Cian Lynch was deployed to the midfield area, effectively playing the free role and asked to pick up ball. Ronan Lynch who was beginning to become an isolate figure on the forty was switched to the full forward position and with Lynch and Tom Morrissey further out the field had space to make the required impact on the contest.

Gearoid Hegarty who had a bright opening was called ashore early into the second half (injury) but Limerick did not miss a beat. Byrnes and O’Connell were now asserting dominance in the half-back line and credit to the Limerick full back line for stifling the Clare full forward line. Shane O’Donnell struck a forlorn figure and Ian Galvin moved further back into Clare territory which was evident of how the Limerick back line were performing.

Limerick sensing that the hosts were there for taking hit a purple patch midway through the half hitting four unanswered points. Ronan Lynch prominent but credit to Tom Morrissey for a nice point capitalizing on loose Clare defensive play. The star of the final (in my eyes) was coming to the fore.

Cian Lynch was the clear stand out player tonight, incredible work rate but what sets him apart is his play making and game management vision. The Patrickswell player distribution to setup numerous Limerick scoring chances was a joy to watch and his goal bound effort late on forced Clare goalkeeper Hogan to produce a smart save to his right hand side. The resultant 65 was dispatched by Ronan Lynch whose confidence was in full flow.

The last five minutes saw Clare attempting to force a goal but Limerick’s back line was resolute. A late Kelliher point sealed the win as Clare’s hope of a Munster U21 four in a row was going up in smoke. Clare’s only realistic chance of a goal resulted in O’Callaghan taking one for the team as Shane O’Donnell was running through to concede a free and yellow card. Fergal Horgan’s performance tonight was reasonable, attempted to let the game flow but the Clare faithful will point to a potential second yellow card on David Dempsey midway through the half when he struck the Conor Cleary with the hurl. If he was not on a yellow card, a card would have being merited.

A great win for Limerick U21 who were the underdogs going into this provincial decider. The pressure was all on Clare and by virtue of defeating Waterford (many bookies pre-championship favorites), the scene was set for Limerick to produce a stirring performance and so it proved. Galway await in the U21 All Ireland semi-final but Limerick management will be confident of progress. The back line were stellar throughout. Richie English at full-back was dominant and contained O’Donnell. The fact that Clare called ashore four of their starting forward line spoke volumes. Byrnes at wing back was at his marauding best particularly in the second half running the ball out of defense with confidence. O’Connell at half-back provided the steel and coverage for English inside throughout, astute game management. The midfield pairing of O’Donovan and Ryan were energetic and had several good moments. The forward line was dominated by Cian and Ronan Lynch but Colin Ryan, Tom Morrissey, David Dempsey and Robbie Hanley provided timely cameos to complement the star duo. Roll on mid August. Limerick yet again turn to the U21 team for inspiration and hope and get on board the bus to Thurles in mid August. Well done to Limerick players and management, great success.

For Clare, it was a bridge too far tonight. The pressure of four in a row may have weighed on some players. The Waterford performance was excellent but tonight, the level of performance dipped. Duggan’s influence was minimal from play. Shane O’Donnell tried to make the required impact but was a forlorn figure for long periods. The Clare back line struggled to contain the influence of Cian Lynch from deep positions and Ronan Lynch when switched to full forward line in the second half. Ronan Lynch put Clare’s full back line under pressure and allowed Colin Ryan to run with ball in hand to force several close range frees. Davy Fitzgerald will be pondering this result closely; no goal threat tonight and Limerick’s superior physicality was the key difference tonight. Similar failings to the senior team who were dispatched by Cork in the championship a couple of weeks ago. A long winter awaits Clare and a shift in tactical game plans and player scouting at all grades may be required to reverse a highly unsatisfying end to the intercounty hurling season.

All Ireland Senior Quarter Final: Galway 2-28 Cork 0-22

I have deliberately delayed gaa_imagethe submission of this match report to reflect on a tale of two performances, one performance was full of physicality, passion and desire while the other performance lacked cohesion, work rate and team work required.

Galway were full value for this twelve point victory over a rudderless Cork outfit in Thurles. They were dominant in every facet of play. It was a day when several Galway players came of age, none more so than Jonathan Glynn. The Ardrahan wing forward pounced to score the opening goal after only a minute taking full advantage of abject Cork defending allow the player to run unopposed from forty yards out to dispatch to the net giving Anthony Nash no chance. The Cork defending on this early concession set the tone for the rest of the afternoon as the Galway forward line were afforded plenty of space from their Cork opponents throughout evident in the number of chances that the usually lethal Joe Canning missed (ten from my count) during the seventy minutes.

Cork to their credit tried to go toe to toe with Galway as both teams played free flowing hurling. Daniel Kearney, Conor Lehane and Alan Harnedy scored impressive scores from distance but Cork were working extremely hard for their scores as the Galway defense were pressurizing their opponents, hunting in packs and not allowing their Cork player any time to settle on the ball. It was evident in the number of yellow cards issued by James Owens to Galway players as four Tribesmen were in the book before half-time, the significant part of this was three of them were in the forward line. It really showed the commitment and desire that Galway showed throughout the pitch starting from attack.

Galway management have to be applauded for their tactical and positional switches throughout this contest. The team selection prior to the game did threw up some comments within the county particularly the decision to introduce Conor Whelan from Kinvara and to leave the experienced David Collins on the bench. However, all the changes particularly Aidan Harte to wing back, David Burke to midfield, Canning to the wing were having the desired effect. Aidan Walsh usually so powerful under the high ball was under immense pressure from inspired Glynn and the Cork playmaker Mark Ellis was effectively taken out of the game by shrewd Galway ball distribution into the forward line with the use of the diagonal ball to the wings. Cork simply had no answer and Galway continued to impress heading into the break opening up a four point at the break. Cork were still in the contest but it was more to do with Galway’s accuracy in front of goal than anything Cork were doing on the pitch.

The Cork management realizing that issues were a plenty decided to call ashore Pa Cronin at the break and introduced Newtownshandrum’s Jamie Coughlin. The change did not have the desired effect as Daithi Burke and John Hanesbury dominated early exchanges with the newly introduced player. It set the tone for the rest of the half as Galway continued to pour forward at will and a six point lead was opened up quite quickly into the half. Cahillane who had a torrid afternoon and in addition had a yellow card to his name hit the showers early after forty-three minutes for a high challenge on Joseph Cooney. The red card was a blow but it was the goal from the impressive Conor Whelan which put Cork out of their misery. A long ball into Cooney in the full forward line found its way to Whelan (who has the work rate and traits of Tipperary’s Bonnar Maher) and dispatched the ball into the net. Nash was a forlorn figure while some of the Cork support were hitting the exits.

JBM try as he might by introducing Lorcan McLoughlin, Alan Cadogan and Paudie O’Sullivan were now being routed. The forward line in particular faded badly out of this contest as Burke, Lally (impressive cameo when introduced for Tannian) and Moore were clearing ball pretty much unopposed. The Cork forward line work rate has being an issue all year. It looked like it was resolved after the Cork forward unit produced a stirring hard working performance but today it was back to the tried and trusted bad habits, players were looking for individual scores and statistics and no support runners for players with the ball forced the Cork forward line to hit the deck early looking for frees. Galway with a player advantage closed out the game with relative ease as Cork threw in the towel with fifteen minutes to go. Niall Healy’s cameo summarised the game – was afforded the freedom of Semple with three efforts, two went wide and one went over with not a Cork defender in sight. The game concluded. Galway advanced. Cork are unceremoniously knocked out of the championship.

Galway can reflect on the contest with plenty of positives. Several players really stepped up to the plate. Glynn was inspired in all facets of play and the two Mannion brothers really shone at both ends of the park. Cathal Mannion’s haul of seven points from play was superb. His ball striking is super and Tipperary will have taken note. Galway’s intensity and physicality with or without the ball really caught the eye today. Cork were shunted off the ball on numerous times typified when Lorcan McLoughlin was dumped out over the sideline shortly after being introduced in the second half by Glynn for a Galway sideline ball. The negatives are clear and obvious – twenty-three wides will not beat Tipperary in three weeks. Joe Canning usually so prolific was off radar (ten missed scoring chances) but no doubt Canning will be back to form in Croke Park. Galway back line albeit not fully extended showed the toughness and steel required to compete in the latter stages of the All Ireland series. Daithi Burke was stellar throughout and was ably assisted by Johnny Coen, Padraic Mannion. Tannian was solid and the cameo of Greg Lally at centre back will raise Tannian’s game for the Tipperary game. Galway have a panel with serious competition and they will not fear Tipperary. It will be interesting to see how the Galway forward line performed against the Tipp defense which typically are extremely tight. Great day for Galway hurling as the minors accounted for a very very disappointing Limerick outfit by four points in the curtain raiser.

What now for Cork? This winter will see a lot of soul searching within the county. There needs to be a root and branch review of how Cork GAA is organized and how to nurture the underage development particularly. No underage success since 2001 speaks volumes. JBM has performed miracles with this squad, trying to nurture players from the intercounty intermediate ranks to senior hoping they produce the goods. The current Cork side does not have any standout leaders out the field. Nash is an excellent keeper but then you struggle to see a player from Cork who will take the game by the scruff of the neck. There is certainly no John Gardiner, Rock O’Sullivan, O’Connor’s hurling caliber in the squad. JBM owes Cork nothing if he decides to walk way but his magical touch is not enough if the players on the pitch do not have the strength, desire, work rate to succeed. Cork’s lack of goal threat is an insult to the Cork hurling teams that have gone before. No target man upfront and the lack of support runners is damning. Cork will continue to struggle until their underage teams start to have success at minor and U21 levels. It is going to be a winter of extreme discontent in Cork and it will be interesting to see who the fall guys will be.

The Harty Cup is usually an accurate barometer on how counties are doing in terms of underage development (i.e. albeit there is Clare and Tipp players on some of the Limerick teams). Cork have struggled in recent years and it has only being this year that Blackwater and Rochestown have emerged to provide Cork a viable Harty Cup team contender. Some may point the finger at Frank Murphy, but there are other factors at play which will not be resolved overnight. The daggers are being sharpen and one would suspect that Marty Morrissey and media crew will be in Leeside for a couple of times during the off-season reporting on off the pitch news stories. Two good games today and the semi-finals should be decent provided Waterford and Galway do not have stage fright. For Dublin and Cork, the championship dreams are over and so starts a long period of reflection and analysis of their failings. Sport is fantastic but can be cruel – the winners are heroes and the losers are vilified for their efforts despite putting their lives on hold for the year.

All Ireland Hurling Quarter Final: Waterford 2-21 Dublin 1-19

Waterford advance to meet Kilkenny in the All Ireland Hurling semi-final with a determined second half performance to defeat Dublin by five points. Dublin started the game positively with Ryan O’Dwyer, Dotsy O’Callaghan and Paul Ryan prominent early scoring some impressive scores. Dublin exposed Waterford’s sweeper tactic defensively, playing ball into the space that De Burca (if playing as an orthodox wing back) had left. This also coincided with Dublin dominating the midfield exchanges midway through the first half with McMorrow, Boland to the fore. It forced Derek McGrath and Waterford management to pull Kevin Moran and Colin Dunford back into the midfield and half back line to stem Dublin’s dominance. Dublin continued to assert pressure and with Danny Sutcliffe more prominent in open play, they deservedly led at half-time. Ryan O’Dwyer work without the ball nullified the influence of Gleeson and De Burca and this prevented Waterford from building quality distribution from the black. It also forced Stephen O’Keefe to control distribution from the back and it led to mixed results. There was some good puck outs but also some poor distribution which led to Dublin picking a couple of easy scores.

Waterford were happy to see half-time, they were incredibly lethargic and their work rate levels compared to previous championship games lacked the intensity required. There was no scoring threat inside, no support runners to aid the inside full forward line. Derek McGrath and Waterford management have to be applauded for their words of wisdom at the break because Waterford emerged a completely different outfit. Yes, they had the breeze at their backs but the work rate and ball distribution was vastly improved evident in Shane Bennett’s goal. Maurice Shanahan’s vision to pick out Shane Bennett was outstanding and the finish (ground stroke to the left top hand corner) gave Gary Maguire no chance. Dublin were now suddenly 1-13 to 0-13 behind with Wateford hitting a quick four point burst to start the second half. Waterford’s hurling in the first fifteen minutes of the second half was excellent, the work rate, the intensity and tactical switches were all working to a tee and the bench was playing its part giving renewed energy. Patrick Curran really stepped to the plate upon his introduction, scored and was also very prominent in open play running at Dubin defensively. Waterford were now picking Dublin off with several lovely scores. Kevin Moran and Brick Walsh’s experience and game management orchestrating Waterford play throughout and their leadership on the pitch was obvious.

Dublin were now seven points down with fifteen minutes to go and they were given a lifeline with a stunning Schutte goal. Ryan O’Dwyer lead up work emphasized his unselfish work rate for others and his ball to the Cuala forward was world class. The strike was emphatic and Stephen O’Keefe made a great attempt to save the effort. Waterford’s full back line were now getting a bit nervy after the concession of the goal. Schutte was starting to have joy in aerial exchanges inside but lacked the support runners to inflict further damage. Kilkenny will have taken note of this. I am perhaps being harsh considering the withdrawal of the immense Noel Connors but it is an achilles heel for Waterford historically and Kilkenny with their speed and vision in the full forward line could caused massive problems.

Waterford after a nervy couple of moments after Schutte’s goal steadied the ship with a couple of open play scores. Shanahan and Curran points and link up was proving crucial but the sideline cut of Austin Gleeson from near midfield was emphatic and really spelled the end of the Dublin challenge. Dublin tried immensely hard to get back into the contest emphasized by Dotsy O’Callaghan’s lung bursting run at the death which was crudely stopped by Gleeson. The resultant free from Treacy was saved by Gleeson and that was that. There was still time for Liam Rushe to have the proverbial rush of blood to the head lashing at Shanahan. The incident prompted a red card and so a miserable afternoon for Dublin was complete.

Waterford advance but plenty of work is required to even compete with Kilkenny on this showing. The lethargic nature of their first half performance will be devoured by Kilkenny in a couple of weeks. The lack of scoring depth in the team continues to be a concern. If you take out Shanahan’s frees, there was minimal scoring threat from the rest of the forwards in that opening period. The good news is that they will be underdogs going into this semi-final encounter and the youthful panel should relish playing in Croke Park. Dublin’s season finishes in a disappointing result. Their performance was far improved from the one witnessed against Limerick two weeks ago. O’Dwyer, Boland and Rushe were the stand outs but Dublin require better attacking threat inside. The lack of goal threat this year has being glaring and is a primary reason for their exit today. Cian Boland is a talent and will be in the starting lineup next year. Ger Cunningham has a nucleus of a good team but retirement talk will surface on a couple of established stars such as O’Dwyer, O’Callaghan. It is going to be a long winter for Dublin and the months ahead in terms of personnel changes will be crucial on how viable Dublin will be in the championship for the next couple of years. Five years with more or less the same panel and no All Ireland to show for it, a rethink is required.

GAA Football Roundup

What is it with the backdoor system and the sheer inability of provincial losers to advance through this qualifier route? Only three teams have managed to win through the backdoor system when beaten in the provincial showpiece. Westmeath were hugely disappointing in their nine point reversal to the new summer story of the football championship in Fermanagh. Pete McGrath has to be a contender for manager of the year. The ex-Down managerial supremo has guided Fermanagh to Division Three promotion and after an early exit from Ulster has led his charges through several qualifier round successes. This result was no fluke. Fermanagh were far superior in every department. The Erne men were faster, fitter and more hungry for the ball. Corrigan was the clear stand-out player on show scoring 1-7. His goal was a lovely effort, evading an exhausted Westmeath defense to deftly flick the ball past Gary Connaughton to seal victory.

For Westmeath, it has being an extremely disappointing end to a championship which four weeks ago offered hope and optimism. A historic victory over arch rivals and border neighbours Meath in Croke Park is the obvious highlight. The scenes after this contest will live long in the memory but after an unhappy league campaign where third tier football was consigned before the final round of games, the season ended in flat fashion with a hiding against a Dublin outfit who slowly warmed to the task and this evening’s rout. Westmeath had huge losses with the absence of John Heslin from full forward and hard working Ger Egan but somehow even if they were on the Breffni Park sod, they would have struggled to contain Fermanagh. Fermanagh are a guiding light for counties who say that they cannot compete at the top table. Their squad is extremely hard working and with Corrigan and Quigley in their ranks, they have two players in full confidence and capable of scoring heavily when presented with chances. Pete McGrath knows what is required to win this time of year and with no expectation in the next round, can look forward to a trip to Croke Park and test themselves against Dublin. Fermanagh will be a good opposition for Dublin (provided that they do not suffer stage fright) but with Pete McGrath at the helm, I am confident that they will do themselves and their county justice. Fermanagh are now the story of the championship so move over Westmeath. Fermanagh’s work rate and fitness really caught the eye tonight and Westmeath were routed in the middle third of the pitch long before the final whistle. Westmeath’s two week period gives them little excuse on why they were so comprehensively beaten tonight.

Cork’s loss tonight must spell the end of Brian Cuthbert’s managerial rein. Cork have learned little from last year as they started confidently in the league like last year and have faded out of the championship with a whimper. The Munster football final has being the pivotal fixture this season as Kerry move on confidently to the All Ireland series while Cork dejected and lacking freshness from two epic contests in Killarney are now out of the championship. Cork will point to the first Munster football final and the questionable penalty call for Kerry but the replay of the Munster showpiece and tonight showed the weaknesses that have led to their demise.

The midfield area was routed tonight. Alan O’Connor’s influence in the last two weekends was minimal albeit tonight he was getting into the contest before injury struck. Without the talisman O’Connor, Cork had no other options in midfield. The desperation of Cork management in this area of the park was evident in the introducion of Eoin Cadogan (accomplished defender) to the midfield area. It was a decision which smacked panic and so it proved. Kildare were the fitter, sharper outfit tonight and their explosive pace with ball in hand was causing Cork half-back line endless problems so much so that James Lockery got an early black card for pulling down a Kildare player who was through on goal. Kildare’s confidence oozed after this incident and Kelly catching the eye, the Kildare team were a deserving 0-11 to 0-05 points in the lead. The second half started in manic fashion – epic sixty seconds where Cork should have scored a goal but screwed up the chance with Dorman punching the ball to the bar and then Kildare went up the other end of the pitch and scored their chance courtesy of the dangerous Niall Kelly. It was as good as game over. Kildare continued to tack on points at will as Cork defensive and middle third opened up alarmingly to allow Bolton, Smith, Cribbin to score insurance points. Kildare play Kerry next and it will be an interesting contest but when Cork ran at Kildare defensively, goal chances emerged something that Kerry will not pass up upon on. Sky Sports produce two big wins again. Along with the backdoor system’s luck for provincial runners up, a trend is emerging. Roll on the hurling tomorrow to hopefully light up the championship.

Russia 2018 – World Cup Qualification Draw

The razzle dazzle of the FIFA Russia 2018 World Cup Qualification draw, I could hardly contain my excitement. The dreamy graphics, couple of side shots of the locals who all look so happy to be on the telly and cue the draws after three cups of tea and a packet of bourbon biscuits. Gym beckons on Monday (wishful thinking). The nine group winners advance directly to the World Cup finals. The eight runners-up with the best record against the teams first, third, fourth and fifth in their groups proceed to play-offs to decide the remaining four European berths. I am going to look into my mystic ball and see who will qualify from these European World Cup groups.

Group A: Netherlands, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus, Luxembourg

This looks an interesting group on paper provided that Zlatan is still available for Sweden selection. This conceivably looks like a three horse race with Netherlands (never can tell on their morale and desire to do well), France (defensively solid but whether they have a midfield play maker to unlock a top class defense) and Sweden (workman like team with a superstar in Zlatan). Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg look the also rans but trips to Sofia and Minsk will be treated by the top three ranked teams in this pool with the respect that it deserves. Netherlands will have a point to prove after what has currently happened in this UEFA Championship qualification, no team spirit, manager has given his marching orders. I am going to go with Netherlands and France to qualify outright with Sweden to be the team that no-one will want to draw in the playoffs. Sweden conceivably could be ranked as top playoff team.

Group B: Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia, Andorra

Ronaldo could take a couple of months out during this qualification campaign and Portugal would still advance without little issue. Switzerland’s youthful side containing Xheridi will be the second team to qualify. The big question here is how good are Hungary? If Hungary get their confidence early in this group, they could spring a surprise result against the supposed top two. Faroes, Latvia and Andorra are gone before a ball is kicked.

Portugal (Group Winner), Switzerland (Second)

Group C: Germany, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland, Norway, Azerbaijan, San Marino

Intriguing group here as Germany will be hotly tipped to advance as group winners but the second place berth is anyone’s guess. You have three teams potentially that will be vying for this spot. Czech Republic, Northern Ireland and Norway – all these teams look equally matched and it will be dependent on their head to head record. Northern Ireland are playing well at the moment and if they continue to improve and build momentum will not fear any teams in this group. Norway are the dark horse, they have underperformed in recent years but their underage structures are producing several world class players and with this qualification campaign could see them impress. Czech Republic, the jury is out because if Rosicky and Cech calls it quits after this qualificaton, there does not look to be the strength in depth to replace that calibre of player.

Germany (Group Winner), Norway (second), Northern Ireland (playoff)

Group D:  Wales, Austria, Serbia, Republic of Ireland, Moldova, Georgia

Equally matched group. Four teams will look at this draw and say that they have every chance of advancing to the World Cup finals. Wales have being very impressive in this European Championship Qualification campaign beating Belgium. Bale and Ramsey have being sensational and will be the major threats for Chris Coleman’s team. Republic of Ireland team will probably be without John O’Shea and Robbie Keane (retirements) and it is questionable if the talent is there to replace those key players. Martin O’Neill conceivably could be managing back at club level. Republic will be competitive but you do question the attacking prowess of the team. Austria are an extremely workmanlike outfit. Vienna is a tough venue for anyone to go and get anything from the Austrians where the majority ply their trade in Bundesliga. Serbia are the dark horse. If their management and squad are on the same page, they have the football ability to easily top this group. Serbia could very easily be disinterested and could give up the ghost. I think with the World Cup in Russia, there will be renewed hunger in the Serbian camp to do well and quality for this final. Moldova and Georgia will be the also rans.

Serbia (Group Winner), Wales (second), Ireland (playoffs but it is heart ruling the head)

Group E: Romania, Denmark, Poland, Montenegro, Armenia, Kazakhstan

Eastern Bloc feel to this group so plenty of air miles for Denmark in this campaign. This is a very tough group to call as the top three rank teams have plenty of positives and negatives. Romania are flattering to deceive in a weak European Championship group. They have drawn with Northern Ireland at Windsor Park so have shown good defensive qualities. The fact that Greece have capitulated in their current pool makes calling Romania’s form hard to call. Poland should be confident of advancing from this pool. On their day, the Poles can give any team a run for their money — look at the Germany European Championship win in Warsaw, showed their counter attacking style and deservedly won. Lewandowski is the star player in this pool and Poland get my vote to top this pool. Denmark are in rebuild mode, underage structures are producing promising players but sense this campaign may be too soon for the current U21 players to flourish. Romania are my hesitant second place prediction but would not be surprised if Denmark pip them to this. No playoff berth in this group considering the lack of goalscoring prowess (apart from Poland on display).

Poland (Group Winners), Denmark (second place)

Group F: England, Slovakia, Scotland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Malta

Sky Sports went orgasmic after this announcement. The old rivals of Scotland and England paired together in the same pool. England will be familiar with Lithuania and Slovenia tactics given they are in the same pool for the current European Championship qualifiers. Scotland have all the traits to advance from this group, excellent man manager in Gordon Strachan and their team is hard to breakdown and possess Fletcher as a potential game winner upfront. The fact that there will be an Eastern European derby in Slovakia and Slovenia means that both these teams will lose points to Scotland and England and these two teams will advance ultimately. England could be in another state of transition. Will Hodgson still be in charge? What England players will decide to call time on their international careers?

England (Group Winners), Scotland (second place), Slovenia (Playoffs)

Group G: Spain, Italy, Albania, Israel, FYR Macedonia, Liechtenstein

The easiest pool to predict. Spain and Italy will advance with ease. Israel and Albania will battle it out for third spot and the others are also rans before a ball is kicked. Macedonia should be pushing for the third spot but their current results are erratic at best.

Spain (Group Winners), Italy (second), Israel (playoffs)

Group H: Belgium, Bosnia, Greece, Estonia, Cyprus

A campaign where Belgium can experiment with their tactics and squad for bigger tests in the actual World Cup finals. They are the standout team in this group. Greece and Bosnia to battle it out for second place. Both teams are indifferent at best currently but both teams should provide renewed hunger to advance to Russia.

Belgium (Group Winners), Bosnia (second based on their better form at present)

Group I: Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey, Finland

Croatia look the overwhelming favorite to advance from this group. The battle for second place will be intriguing as Iceland (emerging talent), Ukraine (always tough opposition to face) and Turkey (technically gifted) will be confident of pool progression. For comedy gold, I am putting my second place team as Ukraine.

Croatia (Group Winners), Ukraine (second place)

Rugby Championship: Springboks 20 – 27 New Zealand

What we learned today. It is a bit early to be calling out the winner for the forthcoming Rugby World Cup but New Zealand and South Africa surely are destined to be the two teams to beat in the tournament. New Zealand used all their guile and experience to overcome a hungry, youthful South African side in Johannesburg today. Both head coaches can look back on this game with plenty of positives. Both teams show real attacking intent with ball in play and several glorious line breaks.

South Africa’s young players came to the fore. The center partnership of de Allende and Kriel has massive potential and Jean De Villiers has his work cut out to get his starting place back. Schalk Burger played superbly in the back row along with the abrasive Broussow. The lack of killer instinct from South Africa particularly when New Zealand were down to fourteen players was the difference tonight. The hosts had several opportunities to score a try to put the scoreboard out to ten points but a lack of composure in the red zone proved crucial. de Jager was incredibly unlucky not to go over from an marauding South African ruck, the maul is causing New Zealand massive issues as Argentina highlighted last weekend. Le Roux and Kriel’s tries were excellently taken. Le Roux was typical elusive from New Zealand tacklers while Kriel’s try was a spectacular running line which left Nonu and Smith grasping at fresh air.

Credit to New Zealand though. They never panic and their response today emphasized their experience and composure when required to close out this exhilarating contest. South Africa dominated large portions of this contest but when presented opportunities, New Zealand were their clinical best typified by the late opening period try. Sopoaga produced a sensational run through the midfield and then sent a great pass out wide to Ben Smith who ran around to score near the poles. Good teams score when it matters and the All Blacks check all the traits required. The yellow card of Whitelock should have seen South Africa put New Zealand to the sword but they failed to deliver the knock-out blow. Wondering why Burger decided not to contest scrums when the second half sin bin took place? Several scrums were deep in New Zealand territory and surely host pressure would have seen a penalty awarded. Burger for his personal player performance made a couple of questionable calls to go for the line instead of trusting Hougaard to slot home a couple of penalties particularly in the second half.

New Zealand soaked up the pressure and then produced the killer blow. Dane Coles pace was amazing, immense line break to draw New Zealand level at seventeen and then McCaw playing his last New Zealand game in South Africa scored after a sensational line out option to give the visitors the lead that were never going to relinquish. The game management of Smith and Sopoaga at the death was superb and the late conversion and penalty gave the scoreline more of a gloss for the visitors who will realize that this was an excellent encounter. South Africa youth and hunger will make them fierce opponents for anyone in the Rugby World Cup but New Zealand are a class apart at the moment. I question how Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland can compete with this intensity? When you see a Southern Hemisphere hooker running like a thirteen, enough said. Great contest.

British Open Reflections – July 20th 2015

And so this is my first post to the blogging universe, hope you enjoy it. What we learned today. Sport gives and take it away just as easy. Paul Dunne was joint leader of the British Open yesterday, the main talking point of the tournament but today the sporting gods did not shine on the Greystones golfer and a tied thirty place is not an accurate reflection of his efforts for the week.

The Silver medal which looked a certainty to belong to Dunne last night evaporated down the back nine as USA amateur Niebrugge performed magnificently to win the accolade on -12. Dunne will have learned more today than he has in his entire golf career today. The pressure of leading a major, the crowds and the media spotlight can only help Dunne in his golfing career going forward. He has caught the eye of numerous professional golfing coaches this week and Dunne has a massive future in the professional game.

Zac Johnson deserved this triumph, his short game was nothing short of sensational today and his putt on eighteen to go -15 was worthy of winning the tournament outright. His short game continued to impress in the playoff as Leishman faded early and Oosthuizen the sole challenger to the Iowa native not capitalizing on some excellent iron approach play. Zac Johnson, a humble guy who knows first hand the struggles to get to the top of the summit (challenger events, staying in camper vans, the unfashionable side of the sport, he has done it). It is a great story and Johnson was quick to point out that his legacy is his kids and family and not golf – speaks volumes of the man.

Great tournament and Peter Alliss was at his legendary best in BBC commentary throughout the weekend. A glorious late Monday evening of television topped off seeing the prankster at the FIFA conference. Blatter calling ‘security’ before the money windfall was comedy gold. The defining image of Blatter’s reign was captured.