Rugby World Cup: Ireland 16 – 9 Italy

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Ireland advance to the last eight of the Rugby World Cup. Hawkeye Sidekick looks from up high to survey the repercussions from the result and main talking points from the contest at the Olympic Stadium, London.

Italy’s proverbial Rugby World Cup Final

The Italian performance belied the level of performance produced by the Azurri in recent weeks. Every Italian player to a man rose and stood up in this fiercely competitive contest. I doubted the influence one man would have on a side but was I completely off the mark. Sergio Parisse gave an exhibition in leadership and driving his team forward with numerous lung bursting carries. When you add the hard tackle count of the likes of Favaro, Ireland were suddenly back on their heels. The scrum which should have being in Ireland’s favor was a 50/50 contest. Garces officiated the scrum extremely well, good competition in the scrum and both teams really did not gain any ascendancy during the eighty minutes. The Italians will rue the absence of regular hooker Ghiraldini who was ruled out due to a calf injury. His understudy Manici struggled to find his jumpers throughout the first period and was promptly hauled off at the break. Manici was pivotal in Ireland’s game winning try, the lineout throw was telegraphed to the first pod and O’Mahoney pounced. A couple of phrases later and Earls was over for the try. Fine margins win games and this was a decisive moment. Italy left everything on the pitch, work rate was infectious for the full eighty minutes but a distinct lack of quality in the back line was ultimately decisive. It allowed Ireland to focus on the pack battle and to add extra bodies to the breakdown area. Italy will think what if on the Furno disallowed try, huge credit to Peter O’Mahoney on making the tackle and putting the second row into touch before touching down in the corner. Two key moments went against Italy and on another day, Italy would be the team celebrating. Italy pinned their World Cup hopes on this fixture. They fell short and Italy reflect on what might have being. They will pinpoint revenge next year in Rome next year. Could Parisse have gone another ten minutes? Decisive replacement call.

Passive Ireland

The last time I heard the word “passive” referenced was in a Leaving Certificate German exam. The Germans love those passive nouns. For the record, the word “passive” is “accepting or allowing what happens or what others do, without active response or resistance”. It sounds just about right for Ireland today. The preview game comments were focused on a performance and building a platform to win this contest. Both elements failed to materialize. Italy by and large were able to control the tempo of the game. Their line speed was far superior in the opening exchanges and their ability to make yards after the game line was duly noted. Ireland’s defense just about held out today but questions will be asked by a more slicker three quarter unit, look no further to France next weekend. The positives for Ireland were that they were tested by a determined tier one rugby nation (what rugby spin that statement is) for a full eighty minutes. Ian Henderson continues to have an immense start to the season. The Ulster man was the standout second row today. His ability to win ball for Ireland (two choke tackles), his tackle count and ball carries were world class. Conor Murray’s game management nous at the end of the game was key to this victory, took the pressure off Sexton at half-back to strategically place Ireland deep in Italian territory at the death. Peter O’Mahoney had an excellent game (apart from that shoulder charge late on). His work rate around the park was typified by his try saving tackle on Furno early in the second half. His lineout steal in the opening period setup Earls try. Robbie Henshaw got through a full game, starved of quality go forward ball and his only opportunity to break the game line setup the Moyross Magician for an excellently worked try. Ireland have plenty to work on running into the French game. The scrum and pack performance in general was pretty disappointing, no genuine advantage at the set piece and when Nathan White was introduced, the Italians started to turn the screw. White can argue that Tommy Bowe was behind him in the scrum but White looked unconvincing upon his introduction and lost ball in contact. The attacking maul was not at the races today, uncharacteristically disorganized which will need to be rectified. The line speed will need to improve for next weekend. Hoping Ireland are holding moves in reserve but one thing is for sure, the Ireland video analysis session will be a horror show to watch for players and management alike. Kudos to Keith Earls, top Ireland World Cup try scorer. Superb accolade.

Verdict

Ireland advance to the quarter finals. The expectation levels have being taken down a notch after this unconvincing performance. Was this Ireland performance simply a bad day at the office or are the demons of past World Cups coming into the equation? Ireland’s worse enemy is themselves. There was tension in the stadium which translated onto the pitch for the team in green and white. The real tournament starts now. The Ireland performance surely will improve next weekend. The intensity and line speed have to be upped. It has to or it is going to be a quick exit in the quarter final stage yet again. Opportunity lost? I hope not for Ireland’s sake, but there was a timely reality check today for the team. Wales did a job on Ireland in the preseason game at the Aviva Stadium. Italy attempted to replicate the game plan and it nearly worked. Does Schmidt have a game plan to combat this? An interesting week of sound bites awaits from both Ireland and French camps. I personally cannot wait.

Rugby World Cup: England Exit

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The worse case scenario for RWC organizers has come to fruition. England are dumped out of the tournament in the pool stage, the first host nation ever not to advance from this stage in the history of the competition. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the reasons why England are planning a knees up end of tournament party next weekend in Manchester.

England Pack Fail to Deliver

It was illustrated in spades last night. Lancaster’s pack has failed to deliver in this tournament. The scrum which should have being a source of strength crumbled to smithereens against an Australian pack who let us be honest are not even in the top three scrum units in this competition. Who knew Joe Marler was so vulnerable in the set piece? Australia to their credit targeted the Harlequins man and did it produce the dividends; numerous penalties in the scrum which produced penalty after penalty. The writing was on the wall. The blame is not only for the front five. The England back row have being routed in the last two games. Wales and Australia’s back row units are excellent and their pace and ability to win and disrupt ball at the breakdown meant that England could not build any momentum to launch attacks. Tom Wood? The player is a liability, penalty guzzling machine who has a history of disciplinary problems. Lancaster leaves his post (probably) because he trusted individuals who simply do not produce at international level. Marler and Wood may have played their last game for their country.

Foreign Player Rule

Michael Chieka when installed as Australian manager reversed the ARFU decision to not select players plying their trade overseas. The decision resulted in the likes of Matt Giteau coming back to the fold. Chieka realized that he needed a bigger selection pool to increase competition in the squad. The performance last night emphasized the point. A pack which was much maligned twelve months ago is now improving with each passing game. Foley’s last penalty kick last night spoke volumes. The Australian pack pushing England all over the park in the scrum. Who could have foreseen that at the start of the game? England on the other hand were resolute. They refused point blank to pick England players playing their rugby other than England. Steffon Armitage’s exclusion will be the single decision associated with the reign of Stuart Lancaster. When you consider the performance of Robshaw and Wood during this tournament, would Armitage improve the team? Hell yeah. England RFU have to review their player selection policy urgently.

England Management

This tournament exposes flaws in England management. There was no identity to this team. What brand of rugby were England attempting to play? One week trying to play a fast uptempo back line orientated game (Fiji match), the next week back to the trenches and based a performance off the pack (Wales match). If management constantly change their philosophy, how can the playing staff be capable of performing to the highest level? England management were weak not to confront the mole issue in the camp. Several team leaks from the camp at the start of the Welsh and Australian games undermined their plans and no corrective action was apparent to resolve the problem. England management must carry the can in terms of selection during this tournament. What did Luther Burrell do so wrong to get dropped from the entire squad? What did George Ford do not to be the starting ten for the Wales match? How could England management think that Brad Barritt was an international thirteen? Sam Burgess? Project annihilation. Those decisions (only a small subset) are at the door of England management. Change is required.

Three Quarters

This was a glaring weak point for England. Sam Burgess was in no win territory, came into the code late and after being tried as a back row for Bath, the experiment switched to three quarters which is an incredibly difficult position to master. Burgess as a rugby league player is top notch, great ball carrier and offloads with the best. The rugby union code exposed his defensive skills and his inclusion in the Welsh team meant that England management made the fatal mistake; deploying Brad Barritt as thirteen which led to Wales’ game winning try. Sam Burgess’ hard running lines also exposed England management’s inability to integrate the player into the squad. Not one England colleague was running alongside for a potential offload during this tournament when Burgess had the ball. Did any England player actually watch a video of Burgess best clips with the Sydney Roosters? Abject unit for England and it is a miracle that Watson and May scored tries when the three quarter line performed so abysmally.

Leadership

Chris Robshaw will no longer be England captain. His decision to go for the line against Wales at the death will be forever associated with the Harlequins player. Robshaw at least try to lead from the front but there appeared to be little other leadership throughout the team. Robshaw is the scapegoat of the English sporting media but there are several other England players who when push came to shove offered meek resistance. The distinct lack of leadership must be linked with the several disciplinary issues which surfaced during the lead-up to this tournament. Dylan Hartley’s indiscretions on the pitch could not be tolerated anymore but his lineout throwing ability resulted in England without their first choice hooker. Manu Tuilagi’s appearance at MK Dons watching his brother playing for Samoa spoke volumes. Think of the impact that Manu would have had in the three quarters for England? Two massive players out of the squad due to their own stupidity. The fact that certain players appear to play as individuals (Owen Farrell’s goal kicking celebrations) said everything about the team setup – individual adulation was the be all and end all. England leadership issues and off pitch issues will take years to resolve regardless of whether Lancaster is there or not.

English Media

The English media, one minute they blow you up to the royal status and the next they knock you down like a rat in a sewer. Certain England players believed their own hype and when the Welsh defeat came, the media went to town on the squad. England’s mole in the camp gave the media a field day on team selection to prod at the squad and management in the last two weeks. Certain individuals within the camp crumbled under the pressure. The English media have contributed to claiming a mighty scalp – their own team.

Rugby World Cup: Japan 26 – 5 Samoa

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Japan – The Team of the Tournament

I know it may be early days to call out the team of the tournament but Japan have provided the most entertaining performances in this competition so far. Japan’s shock win over South Africa does not look so surprising after today’s emphatic performance over the hotly fancied Samoa outfit. Their easy on the eye rugby – free running, decision to go for tries instead of regulation penalty kicks (which come off), near perfect technique in all facets of play (scrums, tackling) have being a breathe of fresh air. Japan may require Samoa to do them a massive favor in the last round of pool games but rest assured that Japan as a rugby nation has being reborn. I personally cannot wait for Japan to now host the Rugby World, time to book my flights, hotel, sushi and sake in that order.

Arise Michael Leitch

Michael Leitch is the find of the tournament. Yes, he is playing with the Chiefs but he has finally being introduced to the general rugby world public. Japan can be proud of how they have developed Leitch into a world star. Leitch’s performances have being aided by several other standout performers including Thompson, Broadhurst and the industrious Horie and Goromaru. A breathe of fresh air.  Japan’s scrum today was utterly dominant, led to the first try (penalty try). Samoa’s lack of focus then allowed Yamada to nip in the corner to give the half-time score a more accurate feel. The 20-0 score at the break was merited and to be honest the game was over as a contest. Thank you Japan for the memories. A team that could conceivably win three out of four games in their pool and still go home after the pool phrase. No pressure Scotland or South Africa.

Samoa – A rugby nation in chaos

Japan’s victory is great for world rugby but for the vanquished opponent today, it is a sad tale of how a rugby nation has gone in the other direction. Samoa is a proud rugby nation but question marks over the country rugby structures, player commitment to the cause when playing with foreign clubs and the lurking intent of New Zealand and Australia to poach promising players loom large. Samoa’s sheer lack of indiscipline was shocking. It was the worse indiscipline in the tournament so far. Joubert could not have warned Samoa anymore than he did in that first ten minutes of this contest but the Pacific Islanders did not heed those warnings. Two sin bins in two minutes in the first half were merited and then to compound matter a late sin bin at the end, numerous offside calls, numerous knock on mistakes particularly from the Samoa front row meant that Japan were always in charge. Seventeen penalties is a shocking statistic considering the caliber of player in the Samoa squad including several marquee names such as the Tuilagi, Johnston, Pisi brothers, Fotuali’i, Leota, Perez, Williams brothers. It is simply not acceptable for Samoa to yet again under perform in a Rugby World Cup tournament with the squad assembled. IRB needs to tackle the poaching player issue. It is unfair for New Zealand and Australia to go and poach players at will from the likes of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga but there are also other underlying issues at play. The lack of structures in Samoa to support their player pool in the youth ranks is quite damning. This has resulted in increased influence asserted by professional rugby clubs in Europe, Super 15 in the way that Samoa rugby affairs are dealt with; it appears to have swayed Samoa player loyalty away from the nation team jersey. It is a situation which will not be resolved overnight but the IRB needs to help the Pacific nations to improve their competitive levels. They are miles away from entering the Rugby Championship. Where does the Pacific Islanders stand in the context of world rugby?

Random Sporting Thoughts

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Mayo GAA – Where is the white smoke?

Player power wins the day as managerial duo of Connelly and Holmes retain their dignity and exit stage left. The short lived saga has exposed massive trust issues between the players and the county board. The management duo were caught in the middle and were made scapegoats for yet another Mayo end of championship collapse. The message this week is that the players think they are better than what they are. The players felt that the management duo in charge last season were not up to par. My question to the players is simple: who do you think can take you to the promised land? With no realistic managerial target acquired, the players are behind in preseason preparations already. If a manager of the caliber of James Horan who left no stone unturned could not find the keys to unlock Mayo’s sheer inability to get over the line in the championship, who can? As mentioned in my article during the week, Mayo were five points clear of Dublin with around fifteen minutes to go in the All Ireland Football Semi-Final replay. Cue the collapse of all collapses, Mayo players lost their bottle on the pitch and the rest as they say is history. Connelly and Holmes can take some of the blame in terms of aimless long ball tactics to Aidan O’Shea but with a five point lead secured, the players flat out could not close out the deal. No pressure on this panel of players next season. Nothing short of an All Ireland triumph will suffice. The good will to this team from a neutral perspective has diminished given the events of the last couple of days. Mayo need to appoint a marquee big name to the senior football managerial position, anything else and Mayo are in freefall. Rochford may have won an All Ireland club title with Corofin but is unproven at this level. The Mayo panel and county board are now under the microscope, expect further incrimination in the coming weeks if the players do not ratify the potential county board managerial selection. To the outside, this saga is over but I suspect that this will get more messier in nature in the weeks to come. Stay tuned, some of the sound bites will be priceless from both sides. Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes leave their role, dignified statement last night, owe nothing to the county. A sorry chapter in the history of Mayo GAA.

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Rugby World Cup – Previews

England vs. Australia:

This could be the day that the tournament organizers have had nightmares about. It is the day that England could be eliminated from the Rugby World Cup by arch sporting foe Australia. Many pundits have predicted England’s demise tonight. England are in siege mentality mode. The siege mentality mode can go one of two ways: come out swinging and succeed or personalities in the camp cave in mentally due to the pressures exerted from a bad loss and media reaction. England have major issues with a potential mole in the camp leaking the team details days before the official announcement. The English media have had a proverbial field day with the management and squad. I applaud Chris Robshaw for going for the win last weekend, he trusted his pack to get the job done but the pack failed to execute last weekend to clinch the win. A repeat performance and England’s exertion to Manchester to face Uruguay will be a damp squib. The game tonight will be decided in the front five. England will look to bully Australia’s front five upfront. Australia’s first test in this tournament, have shown signs of improvement in the front five (Fiji performance where the lineout and maul were impressive) but there are questions on their ability to compete in the scrum. England’s scrum is a key strength and can create penalty opportunities. If England decide to throw the ball out wide, then Australia have the advantage. May’s tries have caught the eye with his pace and ability to finish off moves but no-one has tested his defensive side. His kicking is an area where Australia can exploit with the dangerous Folau lurking in wait. No pressure on Romain Poite, a referee with an interest of all dark arts scrummaging. If England can gain a foothold in the scrum, then the hosts have a great chance. England for me to win based on the fact their backs are against the wall. England 21-15 provided Lancaster trusts his pack, otherwise Australia by at least ten points.

 Ireland vs. Italy 

This game a couple of weeks prior to the tournament looked a banana skin for Ireland but as the tournament has progressed, we have seen two teams going in opposite directions. Ireland have ten points to their name in the pool, playing effective rugby and exposing sin bin advantages (five tries scored when their opponent has being down to fourteen men). All Ireland squad players have had game minutes and feel like that they are part of the tournament. Italy on the other hand are looking for a miracle; that miracle is the introduction of Sergio Parisse in the side. Parisse’s influence (lack of) has being evident in Italy’s performances so far in the tournament – zero leadership, set piece misfiring. Parisse should provide some level of leadership but the scrum look wholly out of sorts. Castrogiovanni not even in the twenty-three man squad speaks volumes. The lineout will be undermined by the absence of Ghiraldini at hooker. Ireland’s pack must expose the set piece to create the platform for Murray and Sexton at half-back to launch their back line. Henshaw and Earls for this game is an exciting three quarter selection, pace in abundance and Earls can create something out of nothing. Bowe, Kearney and Zebo if provided with opportunities will score tries tomorrow. Italy will improve with Parisse’s leadership but Ireland have too many aces in the pack. Italy’s back line is devoid of any attacking threat and has gone backwards in recent years. The keyword for Ireland is performance. If Ireland perform, then the result will be achieved. Ireland have to send out a big statement to France tomorrow and I sense this performance is coming. If Ireland can score early, Italy could well fold. Ireland to win with a bonus point try performance. Ireland 35 – 17 Italy.

Jack Grealish

A blog reader who will remain anonymous asked this week on my opinion of Jack Grealish. Remember the name because this is the last time you will see this name sprinkled on this blog. Jack will be an England outcast who will look for a way back into the Republic of Ireland setup in two years time. Grealish is a good player but whether he is international standard is another story entirely. Jack has made his decision. He teased both associations to the point of boredom. Republic of Ireland will move on but whether Grealish’s camp does (if as expected he does not feature with England) is another story. A story which still has a potential unexpected twist yet. Hoping the Republic of Ireland stick to their guns and refuse any other overtures from Grealish’s camp. With Aston Villa’s current form, Jack Grealish could conceivably be playing in the Championship next season. Roy Hodgson will be looking elsewhere. A decision which could easily backfire for the player in time.

Random Sporting Thoughts

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Wales win – opportunity lost?

A day where yet again the RWC fixture scheduling comes into sharp focus. A clearly fatigued Wales beat an entertaining Fiji 23-13 at the Millennium Stadium. The win was the minimum mandate for Warren Gatland’s charges but given the reaction of the Welsh management at the end of the game when several opportunities to score the elusive bonus point were spurned, you get the sense that Wales do not feel completely secure in the pool. The sense of insecurity could potentially grow if and a big if England were to defeat Australia at Twickenham on Saturday. Wales today will enjoy this victory, built on a promising open period where Davies and Biggar continued their rich vein of form. The locals may have expected Fiji to roll over in the second half but the Pacific Islanders relished their surroundings and proceeded to throw the ball around in quite spectacular fashion. Fiji’s style of play was probably the last thing Wales wanted today, lung bursting periods of play where the pack and back line were throwing the ball around like they were in the school yard in national school. Wales’ energy was not there in the second half and Fiji took full advantage with one of the tries of the tournament courtesy of Goneva. Wales’s squad depth is so depleted that forgotten man James Hook even got a cameo today. Biggar’s leg injury adds to the Wales casualty list. Gatland and management will realize that Wales’ energy levels will be far improved next weekend but the level of set piece execution has to drastically improve to compete with Australia, albeit the green and gold could do England a massive favor by dumping the hosts out this weekend. Ashes redemption, maybe not but revenge for the cricket would be priceless. No pressure for Lancaster and the England team.

Will the real France please stand up?

France produce the Jekyll and Hyde performance to either excite or create dread for Ireland rugby fans. You have to give massive props to Canada for sticking so long with Le Bleu considering the ridiculous lack of time to prepare for the contest. France showed tonight that they are more than capable of bludgeoning an opponent’s pack but also have the ability out wide to expose an opponent. Five try haul for France where the key point was quick ruck ball, when they provide that platform, they are extremely dangerous. Canada’s two try haul did expose French vulnerability in defense but given the bench depth, an upset similar to Japan over the Springboks was never going to happen. 41-18 is a bit harsh on Canada but France showed no mercy when presented with try scoring opportunities. There are still issues with France linking play between pack and back line but once Parra came on, the team grew in stature. Bastareaud in midfield is a battering ram and with Wesley Fofana’s pace and speed shown with his early try, Ireland three quarters will have their hands full next weekend. Ireland will realize that France have shown areas of strength and weakness. France’s maul was the strength and Canada unfortunately could not do anything to stem the tide. Ireland’s focus is Italy but provided that a performance is produced, all eyes will focus on France with renewed confidence. The keyword is performance for Ireland and France next week. Intriguing times ahead.

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Mayo Football Woes (Now Off The Pitch)

A quick note for the Mayo footballers. When you decide to ditch your management team who dedicated their year to you, you better produce the goods on the pitch next season. This has a recipe for disaster written all over it. The county board will support Connelly and Holmes to the hilt while the squad will dig their heels in. Mayo players can complain about managerial tactics but were they not five points ahead of Dublin with fifteen minutes to go in the All Ireland Football semi-final replay? The management can only do so much. It is down to the players on the pitch to deliver the goods. It is down to the players to adapt the game plan when need be. It is down to the players to make the right decisions on the pitch. These facets of play have deserted this group of players year in year out when it came down to the crunch. James Horan could not provide the answer to the issue. The managerial duo installed this season could not stem the irreversible tide. The common denominator is the players. Be careful what you wish for Mayo footballers as I can speak as a Limerick man when the Limerick hurlers dug their heels in with Justin McCarthy a couple of years ago, it did permanent damage and Limerick hurlers are still plying their trade in NHL 1B. This is the scenario that could face Mayo if this crisis drags out over the winter. Time for cool heads within the county board, current senior football team management and players to resolve the issue. Jimmy McGuinness is not taking the job so who else would take it? Rochford may have won am All Ireland club title with Corofin last season but it is a massive step up to take on an inter county football team. Risky appointment in some quarters. Donie Buckley interest? Interesting times in lovely Mayo, let us hope they are singing off the same hymn sheet soon.

GPA Football Championship Proposal

The proposed GPA football championship (champions league format) sound good but what happens to the U21 and Sigerson Cup championships? Compressed schedule means the official end to the dual inter county player. How do the parish clubs fit into the equation, the heartbeat of the organization? The fixture (lack of) in the club scene is a disgrace. Do not get me wrong, the proposal has merits — teams waiting for seven weeks between championship games is not acceptable. Time will tell. Wonder if the GAA HQ will take these proposals seriously?