Guinness Pro 12: Leinster 8 – 3 Ulster

pro12_logo

Leinster earned the bragging rights in this local derby Guinness Pro 12 encounter at the RDS. Hawkeye Sidekick attempts to review the action and to be honest it will be as difficult as listening to Ryan Tubridy attempting his Broadway audition in the opening Late Late Toy Show salvo.

Turgid

What does an Irish rugby provincial supporter expect in an interpro game? They expect two teams regardless of the province to compete, play for the jersey and attempt to play a brand of rugby which is entertaining. You could not fault the effort of either Leinster or Ulster tonight but the lack of quality in passing and handling by both sides left a hollow feel to proceedings throughout. The blustery weather conditions resulted in both sides having to retain ball and this exposed huge gaps in basic skill set.

Several phrases of promising play ruined by an errand pass or handling mistake was the theme throughout and to be honest both teams showed signs of teams coming off hard losses last weekend. Leinster came into this encounter on the back of two European Cup defeats albeit last weekend’s reversal against Bath was a marked improvement from the abject display produced against Wasps. Ulster arrived in Dublin fresh off the back of a trouncing (no other word for it) against a rampant Saracens outfit at Kingspan Stadium (or Ravenhill to the rugby die hards). With both teams having points to prove, the quality of are produced did not set pulses racing on a bitterly cold evening at the RDS.

Leinster won this contest with the only try of the game. It was fitting that the score just before the interval owed more to up the jumper rugby than any spark of creativity to open an opposition defense. Leinster’s pack won their lineout five meters from Ulster’s line (after concerted Leinster pressure) and drove to the line. Sean Cronin emerged from the ruck with the ball. An opening try which produced much needed cohesion but the subsequent conversion attempt from Sexton summed up the game perfectly, turgid. Ulster threatened to response before the break, notably Stuart McCloskey to the fore with some impressive ball carries but Ulster ultimately lost possession and cue half-time as Cronin was feeling his facial features after a shuddering collision from the imposing Ian Henderson.

In fairness to Leinster, they attempted to raise the tempo to their play in the second half. Rhys Ruddock setting up the perfect platform with a lung bursting run which ultimately ended up with Sexton’s pass to Teo being inexpicably knocked on when a try was a formality. It continued the trend to the game, honest endeavor with little in the way of creativity. The lack of offloading from both sides tonight was non-existent. The weather was a factor but the reluctance to attempt an offload with a player supporting in close proximity showed everyone the distinct lack of confidence both sides are playing with currently.

Ulster threatened little in the second half, constantly on the back foot as Leinster’s territorial dominance was not being reflected on the scoreboard. Jackson’s ineffective performance with ball in hand did little to launch Cave or McCloskey in the three quarters. His kicking out of hand led to Luke Fitzgerald repeatedly winning easy gain line yards, the only creative player on the pitch. Les Kiss has an issue at out-half in terms of open play. Jackson needs to step up, otherwise Pienaar and Marshall at half-back will be a reality sooner rather than later.

Reflection

Leo Cullen and Leinster players will add press notes to the effect that the win will turn the season, the win will increase confidence ahead but the lack of cutting edge from a dominant platform will scare Cullen with a trip to Toulon looming large. Lack of back line precision is hurting the side currently. Kirchner as a fourteen is a wasted pick when the South African is a full back by trade. Gary Ringrose’s cameo suggests that Leo Cullen will be using the youngster more in the coming weeks. His freedom to offload and make yards in tight fringes caught the eye. Teo at thirteen has all the credentials to make a big impression with Leinster but his consistency is frustrating. The pack in general performed well tonight but the scrum will be tested more rigourously in the Toulon games. Sexton at out-half showed all the tricks but his inconsistent penalty kick woes continue.

Where now for Ulster? Two provincial losses to Munster and now Leinster leaves Ulster with a challenge to move up the league standings. Ulster’s squad on paper should be far better than what is being produced on game day. Each squad player is talented but the application and mentality in close exchanges has let themselves down in critical times in recent seasons. Les Kiss as head coach should not be an easy out for Ulster squad to call the season “transitional” but the new head coach has to nip those bad habits and issues as soon as possible. Jackson at out-half has stalled into career progression and Ulster’s back play in games such as Leinster is one dimensional.

Leinster win but this game will be forgotten about quickly. Ireland rugby dark cloud post World Cup continues and the skill level on show would not provide any solace for Ireland rugby supporters heading into the 6N next year. Two teams who conceivably could be humiliated next weekend in European action may confirm the worse suspicions about this contest tonight. In Ringrose, McCloskey and Van Der Flier we now trust.

Weekend Sporting Thoughts

erc_logo

Before this tournament I had tipped both Ulster and Glasgow to make the last eight of the competition on the basis that both squads had the hunger, experience and know how to get the job done. Hawkeye Sidekick apologizes unreservedly for that judgement as both teams let themselves and their supporters down on a weekend where several teams chances of European Rugby Cup went down in smoke.

Ulster’s sheer capitulation against Saracens at Kingspan will hurt for some time to come. The hosts failed to show the application and organization required to compete with a Saracens who are well on the road to a home quarter final berth. Les Kiss has a tough job on his hands on the basis of this performance.  The team collectively collapsed in the second half of this contest starting with the sheer inability to nullify the rampaging Mako Vunipola at set piece and ball in hand. Vunipola’s performance set the platform for Saracens to exploit a defensive system which lacked the cohesion and organization required at this level; players not trusting their colleagues to make a tackle was evident in the second half as the visitors exposed soft wing defense from the hosts with Paddy Jackson and Craig Gilroy channels peppered throughout. Les Kiss is only in the Ulster hot seat a matter of weeks but even at this early stage, numerous issues are glaring. The lack of self belief in the team put out on the pitch in the second half was damning; several players immediately put up the white flag which must concern fans and management. The defensive speed was pedestrian at times and allowed Farrell to control passing plays at will. The Ulster pack were flat out destroyed in set piece and one questions how Ulster can rebound from this reversal with the trips to Toulouse and Oyonaax looming large. Opportunity lost for Ulster as the squad is well capable of competing at this level and you  would have thought that lack of performance in last season’s competition would be a motivating factor? Think again.

Glasgow’s inept first half performance proved fatal as a hungry Northampton Saints came away from Scotstoun with a huge win. Glasgow’s front five were bullied out of it in the set piece and Northampton Saints used the platform to score a decisive win that will turn their season for the better. Scarlets are as good as gone, pack were destroyed by a dominant pack by Racing Metro 92.

The good news for Leinster is that the performance at Bath was considerably improved to the one produced against Wasps last weekend. The bad news is that they lost a cliffhanger, even more miserable considering the Leinster second half fightback when Van Der Flier scored a superb try from an immaculate pass from scrum half McGrath. A tough afternoon  at the Recreational Ground to play any expansive rugby. The pundits predicted that Bath’s pack would struggle in the trench warfare, a stupid statement when you consider a pack containing Louw, Webber, Hopper. The game was tit for tat with the hosts edging a tense opening forty minutes. 6-3 at the interval with George Ford and Johnny Sexton dominating the scoring. The Bath try was all to do with promising prop Nick Auterac whose scrummaging resulted in Bath advancing to a certain try only for the match official to award the penalty try. Leinster could have given up but credit to the province and leveling the scores at sixteen with a superb Van Der Flier try; the running lines and passing on such a miserable day was the highlight. Sexton missed a long difficult penalty kick and he was made to pay for the miss as Bath’s pack yet again yielded a Leinster penalty concession at the death to give George Ford a penalty kick that he never looked like missing. I thought Leinster were out of this pool but then came the shock of the tournament so far today.

Wasps’ demolition of Toulon 32-6 was a big surprise. Yes, Toulon named a couple of fringe players but Wasps won this game with their exceptional pace in the back line. Their pace was too hot for Toulon to handle as Wasps score two quick fire tries to set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Was this a bad day at the office for Toulon or are there issues with the squad this season (mediocre French League form). Leinster will find out in a couple of weeks with a trip to the Stade Felix-Mayol. If Leinster could manage a losing bonus point effort, you never know with Bath and Wasps likely to share the spoils in their games in December. Leo Cullen can be proud of his team’s efforts but the levels required to get over the line in these European games is well short currently. Leo Cullen has tough decisions to make; players who he has gone to war with are not performing at this time. Ross, Healy, Heaslip, Murphy, Dave Kearney, Boss and Reddan are struggling for form. Does youth and fringe players get an opportunity in this competition for the Toulon games? Does he play guys on form or does he go with the tried and trusted which has not delivered so far.

gaa_image

Congratulations to Na Piarsaigh who won the Munster SHC Club final today at a pristine Thurles. Na Piarsaigh’s slow starts to matches continued as they trailed Ballygunner by 1-7 to 1-4 at the interval. Ballygunner were sharp in this opening period as O’Sullivan, Barron came to the fore. However, the Limerick City side have shown this season that their second half performances are emphatic with high quality and impressive score taking. This was evident in their run in Munster prior to the final with rampant second half displays against Sixmilebridge and Thurles Sarsfields securing passage to the provincial club final showpiece. The game today was decided in the first ten minutes of the second half as the Caherdavin outfit turned a three point deficit into a four point lead. Shane Dowling was to the fore with a dominant display in the air and dispatched frees over the bar. Dowling was ably assisted by David Dempsey, David Breen, Ronan Lynch (gorgeous long distance point at the death), Cathal King and Peter Casey (what a talent) as the team collectively snuffed out any threat from Ballygunner. The Waterford champions did score a goal from O’Sullivan to close the gap to two points with six minutes left but the manner in which Na Piarsaigh closed out this contest bodes well for the rest of the championship as they tacked on a further 1-3 in those last five minutes to win the provincial title. It was apt that Shane Dowling strode purposefully to dispatch to the net at the end of this contest to spark wild celebrations from Na Piarsaigh management, players and fans. Three Munster SHC campaigns and three Munster titles. Fantastic feat. This team have the right blend of youth and experience to go all the way to St Patrick’s Day honors. Physically imposing with no shortage of skill upfront where Dowling, Casey, Dempsey and Downes lead the line well, it is not impossible to envisage the Caherdavin outfit winning the All Ireland with the power houses of Ballyhale and Portumna are out of the equation. Oulart or Cuala await Na Piarsaigh in February for a place in the All Ireland club final and after this emphatic second half display, the Limerick side will be hard to beat. Another Limerick SHC club success, the talent is obviously there; hopefully all concerned with the intercounty panel focus and produce next season.

epl_logo

This is a strange strange EPL season. Once you think that the form guide has settled comes this past weekend’s results. Arsenal are raising huge credibility questions on their title ambitions, a chance to go top and they yet again produce a flat performance. Arteta’s own goal to decide this contest summed up a misfiring performance but then Santi Cazorla stepped or tripped up to miss a penalty in the second half took the theme to even ludicrous levels. Leadership is required excluding Sanchez.

Manchester United were lucky to come away from Vicarage Road with three points; a promising start led to Memphis’ opener on eleven minutes, lovely volley but as the game wore on, United decided to rest on their laurels and defend. Watford were far more dangerous in the second half and De Gea’s performance was looked upon with envy in the Bernabeu as the Spaniard produced three world class saves before Rojo lazily fouled Ighalo in the box to allow Deeney to dispatch the penalty. Deeney was the focal point of the game as he unluckily turned Schweinsteiger’s cross into the net to spark huge celebrations in the United dugout. United will have to improve from an attacking perspective but to be in second with a limited attacking option outlay will be taken.

Liverpool haunted Raheem Sterling and produced the performance of the weekend. Make no mistake about it, this 4-1 drubbing of City was truly merited. Sharp incisive passing with Coutinho to the fore, Liverpool exposed the absence of Kompany at the heart of the City defense. Firmino’s confidence soared after his goal. The Liverpool midfield led by James Milner and Coutinho suggests better days are not far that far away for Klopp and Liverpool. Nathaniel Clyne gave an exhibition at full back, the best full back in the league this season.

Gary Monk is under pressure. Swansea’s 2-2 draw against Bournemouth emphasized a nervous not seen at the Liberty Stadium for quite some time. Swansea’s defending was non-existent for Bournemouth’s early goal salvo but the Cherries sheer inability to kept clean sheets was emphasized yet again with two late first half goals from Ayew and Shelvey (penalty). Swansea need a win soon, otherwise Huw Jenkins could be forced to hire an experienced football manager to aid Gary Monk.

As for Aston Villa, Remi Garde was given an insight on what will be required to get the team out of the drop this season. Everton’s pace was too much for Aston Villa and the four goal loss flattered them. Villa’s lack of potency upfront means that January cannot come quick enough to buy or loan reinforcements. Gestede, Ayew look well short for this level. Tottenham’s emphatic 4-1 win against West Ham is a statement of intent and suddenly six teams are vying for top spot currently held by Leicester City. Jamie Vardy’s dream season continues, his work rate and pace created the time to slot his tenth goal in a row. United next Saturday, who would back the former Halifax striker from scoring his eleventh goal on the bounce? An incredible feat and story.

Munster Rugby – Empire Lost?

cropped-test.jpg

The Munster 2015-16 season is well underway and certain media outlets are highlighting the low attendances in Thomond Park seen this season. What is the reason for the attendance dip? Hawkeye Sidekick tries to find out and it is not as easy as you may think.

Underwhelming European Cup Start

The start of the European Champions Cup, a time when the province of Munster (management, players and supporters) should be energized for elite rugby action. This is the typical fare but the visitors to Munster were Italian outfit Treviso who let us face it are the whipping boys of the pool. The appeal of the fixture and the inclement weather in the Midwest throughout last Saturday were decisive factors for certain Munster supporters to stay at home. 17,763 apparently turned out to watch the match but you would wonder about the attendance considering the number of empty seats seen in televised coverage. Underwhelming all round. Leicester and Stade France games will garner more interest in the province in the months to come but given the circumstances, the attendance was expected.

Shambolic Pro 12 Scheduling

Guinness Pro 12 organizers must be apportioned blame for scheduling two of Munster’s Thomond Park marquee fixtures (Glasgow and Ulster) during the middle of the World Cup at the ludicrous Friday 6pm time slot.  If anyone who is familiar about traffic in Limerick, Friday evening rush hour is an arduous task which requires patience to navigate from one side of town to another. Forget about it if the weather is anyway inclement. If people in Limerick were struggling to get to the game in this backdrop, what could fans based in the other Munster counties do? The Ulster attendance of 13,000 was nowhere near that and Munster should have made an example of poor scheduling to the Guinness Pro 12 tournament organizers with a strong statement but no words came from HQ.

Munster Identity Crisis

There is an underwhelming feeling now when you see Munster play at Thomond Park. The players are giving their all to the cause but the style of play is unclear. Is Munster a team which holds the traditional virtues of pack play to create a platform or is the team focused on a dynamic, pace back line game plan. Tony McGahan, Rob Penney and now Axel Foley have tinkered with Munster game plan in the last six seasons and the result is a mix mash of forward and back line play with no general continuity to each. The increased financial influence of England and France to lure top players have meant Munster’s players pool is diminished but the supporters are increasingly getting confused on what the game plan is for Munster. A team with no clear identity means that the Munster supporter base starting to question the direction of the team and the club who have focused on redevelopment of training and ground facilities to the loss of quality on the pitch.

Fair Weather Supporters

Every team has them. Munster Rugby nights at Thomond Park were must go events several seasons ago. The miracle games against Gloucester, Sale added to the mystique of the ground but as the team has struggled on the pitch, these supporters have left. Sporting economic reality, winning teams attract the curious supporter who follows until a dip in form. Leinster’s attendances this season at the RDS for instance have being distinctly lower this season after a poor end to last season. Attendance numbers are cyclical in nature. Thomond Park, RDS, Ravenhill and Sportsgrounds will always have their solid die hard fan base. The added supporter base from this demographic is good for the coffers but cannot be relied upon in terms of long term financial sustainability.

Managerial Squad Cuts

Axel Foley is a marmite character within Munster rugby circles. To some, Axel Foley is the embodiment of past Munster glories. His no nonsense management was like when he played as a physically imposing number eight. People love it or they don’t. Foley has divided opinion and the departure of the promising young homegrown players such as JJ Hanrahan and Paddy Butler last season further sparked speculation on Foley’s relationship with players. The excel spreadsheet fiasco on the eve of last season’s kickoff was an embarrassing PR disaster for Foley and backroom staff and raised collective credibility issues before a competitive restart was kicked in anger.

Hanrahan’s decision to move away from Munster to Northampton has sparked most debate as the Currow native is a natural football player whose game management is a joy to watch, his kicking ability with ball in hand is exceptional. There were rumors of discontent between Foley and Hanrahan last season on game time at number ten pivotal to the player’s departure. Keatley was given the jersey and try as Hanrahan tried with brief cameos did not get near the position despite Keatley enduring some inconsistent outings. The dye was cast.

With Munster’s diminished financial revenues, the team cannot afford to lose players of this ilk. Foley enters a critical second season; under performance like last season at key points in the season and Munster will need to act. Poor rugby product on the pitch means supporters are looking for alternative matches to attend (i.e. Gleeson League, AIL, Munster Junior). The match day experience is underwhelming, the die hard fans have to create their own entertainment (banter) on the terraces these days such is the bland fare on display.

Disenchantment between Pro and Amateur Game

The gap between professional and amateur game continues to widen in Ireland. Munster are no different in this respect. Munster used AIL clubs to their advantage at the beginning of the professional era; imploring AIL clubs to sell their corporate match event tickets for top prices to aid the professional dream. What did the Munster AIL teams get in return? Not a whole pile. lack of funding to the grassroots to develop grounds and youth academies. There has being a disenchantment between the two rugby modes. With increased ticket prices to visit Thomond Park on game day, local rugby where that be AIL, Gleeson League, Munster Junior League are viable alternatives to get ones rugby fix.  Local rugby, the lure of supporting teams which are at the heart of the community you live in, players who you know from school or colleges, social scene to meet up with friends for half the price of a trip to Thomond Park during and after the game. Munster and that word identity has being lost in recent years for wins. It has to change, otherwise the attendance woes seen this season will continue.

Galway Hurling

gaa_image

Hello, it’s me
I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet
To go over everything
They say that time’s supposed to heal ya, but I ain’t done much healing

Hello, can you hear me?
I’m in Clarinbridge (California) dreaming about who we used to be
When we were younger and free
I’ve forgotten how it felt before the world fell at our feet

There’s such a difference between us
And a million miles

Adele has penned the perfect summary of the turmoil currently in hurling circles West of the Shannon. The news that Anthony Cunningham and backroom staff resigned from their position as Senior Hurling supremos was no surprise but the sequence of events which led today has left a bad taste in the mouth. The players coup will be seen by traditionalists as another blow to the GAA association, the further undermining of a county board and clubs who sanctioned the appointment of Cunningham and selectors back last September. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the sorry saga and there is plenty of blame to go round.

Management Review

Galway hurling managerial appointments are a poison chalice. Depending on where the internal county candidate is from, rumors of preferential treatment for certain players from a particular location are not far away. Anthony Cunningham’s managerial credentials prior to this appointment were excellent with All Ireland club success to the resume. Furthermore, Cunningham’s backroom staff appeared to appease concerns on preferential treatment. The 2012 season was a positive one for Galway. The first Leinster SHC title win was one for the record books, the free hurling style of Galway on the day propelled Anthony Cunningham to the national sporting conscience. Yes, Galway succumbed to Kilkenny in the All Ireland Hurling replay but the hurling world were now talking about Galway as viable All Ireland contenders. The classic Galway consistency issues surfaced in 2013 and 2014 with disappointing years, management have to take the blame for this and it looked like a similar trend in the 2015 NHL season when Galway underwhelmed throughout the league campaign but just did enough to secure their top flight status. The Championship predictions did not have Galway featuring but after a draw against Dublin in the quarter final (lucky to share the spoils) emphatically exposed Dublin defensively to kick their season into gear. This performance saw the emergence of the Mannion brothers. Jason Flynn and Johnatan Glynn to supplement the work load and scoring from Joe Canning. The Leinster final may have seen Kilkenny victorious but there was enough in the Galway performance to suggest that the Tribesmen could pose issues for anyone in the All Ireland series. This assessment was further enhanced by a thumping victory over Cork and then came the game of the year, a one point win over Tipperary in the All Ireland semi-final. The game showed all that is good in Galway hurling; physicality and skill were in perfect harmony and their fitness down the stretch deservedly won the tie. The All Ireland hurling final will be remembered for what may have or not transpired in the Galway dressing room at the interval break. Instead of pushing on, Galway flat out did not not perform in the second half allowing Kilkenny to control the tempo and put away in the last quarter. Cunningham and management post game could not pinpoint the lack of performance in the second half, a concern for anyone associated with Galway hurling. Rumors during the 2015 season of player unrest were rife within the county; playing panel displeasure at management style, training and match day tactics were public knowledge. These issues required clear the air talks but none obviously took place to the point that Cunningham and management were now isolated  and forlorn figures; sad considering these people should be driving the hurling programme to higher levels. The management in this predicament had to go but constructive discussions with players were required – head strong approach backfired.

Players Review

The Galway Senior Hurling panel obviously had reasons for complaint but the manner of how they went about resolving these issues were at best secretive but predominantly cowardly. Galway’s slant of player power meant meeting in Clarinbridge under the guise of deciding an end of season holiday but the purpose was to set the wheels in motion to undermine Cunningham and management to the point of forcing them to resign. The leaked reports to the media were wholly unprofessional; the senior players who appear to have instigated these discussions must look themselves in the mirror. Would they expect to receive the same treatment if they were in Anthony Cunningham’s shoes? Their employers surely have to ask character issues on if they do this outside work, do they have the capability to launch a similar stunt in the work place? The Cork hurlers were ridiculed for their treatment of Gerard McCarthy but at least they showed their courage of their convictions and issued statements in public to air their grievances of management and county board. The Galway hurling panel flat out failed to show any backbone in this sorry saga. Their purported infighting at half-time in the All Ireland Hurling final was seen in full view here as well. Any new prospective manager would be slow to take on such a job considering the character of several players in the current panel? The panel is diseased and the troublemakers (prolific or not) need to be dropped and start afresh. 26-6 vote would suggest that the young players of the panel were forced into an uncomfortable situtation; rumor mill had suggested that St Thomas’ and young players who joined the panel supported the management, this changed in recent weeks when pressure was obviously applied by senior panel members. The word backbone and the current Galway Senior Hurling panel do not go hand in hand at this time.

County Board

The Galway Hurling County Board come out of this debacle with embarrassment and humiliation. How can a board ratify a management team when the playing squad had serious issues in most aspects of the setup? How could the board not appoint a mediator during the season to nip any tensions between the two parties? How can the board be regarded as the barometer for Galway hurling good when a saga such as this is played out under their watch. Tough questions indeed but this is a board which has being embroiled in controversy for several years. Their inability to manage and execute championship rules in recent years has being well documented, the delay in running off the Galway SHC final is baffling considering that all other counties have played their championship out several weeks ago. Galway’s hurling club culture is one of total mistrust so how can a county with massive potential succeed at intercounty level? The officiating situation in the county has contributed to this fact (James Regan’s point for St Thomas ruled out against Loughrea in this year’s County SHC and who could not forget the Johnny Maher’s best impersonation of Mortal Kombat a couple of years ago in the County SHC final and did not get sent off). No wonder the clubs cannot trust the board, officials to do the right thing. Massive incrimination surely is going to be aimed at the county hurling board as the clubs voted for Cunningham. Player power has won again and the clubs will be asking what their remit is considering these sad circumstances?

Who takes on the managerial reins?

This role is a poison chalice. Ger Loughane’s Galway reign surely will ward off the likes of Anthony Daly and Donal O’Grady from the role. A “foreign” manager is doomed to failure in this county. The candidates have to come from the usual hurling spots. Geoff Lynskey would be high on the managerial candidates, won a memorable minor title with a team which was not given a chance in Galway. Johnny Kelly will arouse the support of Portumna but a distinct lack of success in U21 grade will undermine his challenge. Mattie Murphy and Matty Kenny have glowing resumes but will the players accept the appointment? This is an incredibly difficult appointment for the county hurling board. Any new manager will need buy in from the panel and it is hard to see that the clubs will allow the players to dictate again.  If there is a dark horse for the job, the ex-Tipperary hurling manager Eamon O’Shea (resides in Galway) would be a choice that all parties could potentially agree upon but whether the Tipperary native has the stomach to heal the wounds opened since the All Ireland defeat in September remains to be seen. I would not touch the job with a barge pole considering the characters in the squad who at the first sign of trouble will try to undermine and isolate you and backroom staff. Galway’s 2016 season already is spiraling out of control. The resignation of Cunningham means little now; more developments to this saga will be emerge in recent weeks and could be dirtier than a Christmas Special down in Walford Square. Limerick Hurlers, you are off the hook. Galway Hurlers are now the experts at how not to launch a coup on the manager. To conclude, I will let Adele finish off the article.

Hello from the outside
At least I can say that I’ve tried
To tell you I’m sorry for breaking your heart
But it don’t matter, it clearly doesn’t tear you apart
Anymore, ooooohh
Anymore, ooooohh
Anymore, ooooohh
Anymore, anymore

Hello from the other side
I must’ve called a thousand times
To tell you I’m sorry for everything that I’ve done
But when I call you never seem to be home

Hello from the outside
At least I can say that I’ve tried
To tell you I’m sorry for breaking your heart
But it don’t matter, it clearly doesn’t tear you apart
Anymore

 

Euro 2016: Republic of Ireland 2-0 Bosnia (3-1 Aggregate)

euro2016_logo

Little over twelve months ago, Scotland appeared to inflict a fatal blow to Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2016 qualification hopes at Hampden Park. A 1-0 loss was disappointing but the manner of the performance left many Republic of Ireland supporters (including yours truly) wondering where the team was going. What a difference a year makes. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on Republic of Ireland qualification to the big dance and highlights one player for particular praise.

Why did Republic of Ireland advance?

If you are a Scottish football fan, you will point to two key events during qualification. The unexpected Scottish loss to Georgia on a sultry Tbilisi night in September opened the door for the Republic of Ireland to launch a last gasp attempt at securing playoff football which still looked highly unlikely as it required Martin O’Neill’s men to get something from World Cup champions Germany. It looked mission impossible but a defiant defensive rearguard yielded a famous victory when substitute Shane Long pounced on a Darren Randolph punt down field to score. The result secured at least a playoff berth.

This was the hard part as the Republic of Ireland on reflection dismissed the challenge of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the minimum of fuss. A pivotal away goal from Robbie Brady in Zenica set the platform for tonight’s result. Yes, the penalty was contentious (if it was awarded to the visitors we would have being furious too) but it was the break that Republic of Ireland required. The penalty strike was emphatic from Jonathan Walters, the player of the campaign for Martin O’Neill. Bosnia and Herzegovina tried to get back into this contest but Ireland’s back four were imperious throughout. Ciaran Clark grew as an international player in the last four days, his leadership and organization of the back four was impeccable in these two playoff games. Clark is now the leader of the Republic of Ireland defense after tonight. The Aston Villa clubman was ably assisted by central defender partner Richard Keogh, a player who may not be the silkiest on the eye makes up for in determination, hunger and effort. He beat Dzeko in the aerial battle over the two legs and Bosnia’s key striker was subdued tonight so much so that he got cautioned for dissent. Mission accomplished.

The pleasing part of this performance tonight for the Republic of Ireland tonight was down the left side of the pitch. The creativity and threat posed by Hoolahan, Brady and Hendrick throughout was a joy to watch. Their quick one twos, player awareness created space down the flank and forcing Bosnia into last ditch defending. The first goal did come down the right flank but given the dominance that the Republic of Ireland enjoyed down the left flank, Bosnia did not have the players to support to cut out the ball which fell to the ever willing Murphy to cross into the box. The second goal was an instinctive strike from Walters at the back post following less than convincing Bosnian defending. It was game over. The visiting supporters knew it as well as they grew increasingly quiet thereafter.

No genuine negatives tonight. All players wearing green stood up to the pressure and Darren Randolph had precious little to do until eighty-six minutes when a goalmouth scramble forced the West Ham shot stopper to make a regulation save. In actual fact, the hosts should have being three nil up by then as Shane Long spurned a golden chance when faced with a 1-1 with Asmir Begovic.

Player of the Campaign

How good was Jonathan Walters during this campaign? His work rate and goals were pivotal in qualification. It was absolutely fitting that the Stoke player was to the fore of this success; his two goals were superbly taken and all going well will be a key team player for the side in France next summer. Robbie Brady may have received the man of the match award but even Robbie acknowledged who should have received the honor. Well done Jonathan. Walters for Taoiseach!

Squad Review

This is a campaign where the squad was stretched to the maximum. Suspensions and injuries to key players meant that Martin O’Neill had to place trust in the likes of Cyrus Christie, Richard Keogh, Jeff Hendrick, Daryl Murphy, Darren Randolph. The players who came in produced in spades. The beginning of this tournament looked forlorn but now we have a group of players who are committed to the national team, put their all into the jersey and that is what the supporters expect. John O’Shea heir to the throne has being identified and the goalkeeping options have improved with the emergence of Randolph, Forde, Henderson and the return of Shay Given. Robbie Brady’s set piece execution caught the eye and the central midfield of McCarthy, Whelan grew as the campaign wore on as both players started to complement the other. Aidan McGeady’s winning goal in Tblisi during this qualification cannot be underestimated. All the squad produced and tonight is a satisfying night for the players. The fact that John O’Shea, Robbie Keane were bit parts for this playoff victory spoke volumes of how the squad has evolved and how each player has assumed responsibility for the national jersey. Feel good factor is back again with the national team.

Managerial Review

Martin O’Neill must deserve the adulation tonight for this triumph. He has taken plenty of flak from the Irish media on team selections and the style of football in several games (Scotland away, Poland games). O’Neill never let the criticism deflect from the job at hand and with his backroom staff increased player confidence throughout this campaign. Roy Keane, Steve Guppy’s roles saw improvements in Republic of Ireland’s performances in midfield culminating in the performance of the left side tonight. The team were well organized throughout and were difficult to breakdown. Republic of Ireland still have improvement in terms of retaining ball possession but with more friendlies to be scheduled, the team will improve ahead of the Euro 2016 tournament next summer. Hopefully John Delaney has already secured the contract extension agreement from Martin O’Neill and backroom staff tonight. A great night for Ireland as both North and South take their place in the tournament next summer. What chances of the two teams being paired in the group phrase? A mouthwatering prospect but first time to secure a camper van for the adventure which is to follow. Allez Allez Irlande.

European Cup Rugby Review

erc_logo

A weekend which was dominated away from the rugby pitch, Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the action on the pitch and looks at where do Leinster go after a disastrous home defeat to Wasps at the RDS.

Paris

stade_france

This weekend in Europe will be dominated by one story and one story. The brutal scenes which unfolded in Paris last Friday evening resulted in several European rugby ties involving French clubs postponed due to the security situation in the country as well as out of respect for the victims of this atrocity. Deepest condolences to all families and friends who are affected by this tragedy. Hoping that the powers that be can eliminate this scourge on society globally.

Leinster- Empire Breakdown

Leinster are out of the European Rugby Cup tournament after only one game. The enormity of this defeat will be felt long and hard after this campaign has concluded.as Leinster head coach Leo Cullen starts to dissect this woeful performance against a Wasps team who capitalized on Leinster mistakes to score an emphatic victory. The Leinster performance for the first thirty minutes was actually decent; the hosts consistently deep in Wasps territory but unable to break a resolute a defense.

The turning point came just before half-time when Dave Kearney unforced error attempting to catch a long relieving kick clearance was gleefully accepted by speed merchant Christian Wade. Kearney has being under the microscope for some time in his defensive duties. Argentina’s abilty to isolate Kearney out wide defensively was key to their quarter final success. The mistake committed by Kearney today could not be legislated for but it does show that opposition teams are now keen to test Kearney in his defensive duties, today’s erratic performance will do little to appease both management or the head coach.

Kearney’s mistake aside, you would have expected Leinster to regroup at the interval and back each other to get back into the contest but the second half performance was arguably one of the worse performances seen by a Leinster team in recent memory. The level of unforced errors and inability to slow Wasps ball by the back row were shocking. The pack were well beaten before the final whistle as Wasps scored two easy tries from Simpson (not touched in a forty meter run) and the impressive Charles Piutau who showed Ulster fans his full range of rugby skills who touched down in the corner. Sexton’s ineffective game management meant that the Leinster were on the back foot for long periods of the second half. The errand kick to the corner in the second half spoke volumes; Sexton was rattled. Leinster’s composure was out the window and Wasps enjoyed their trip to the RDS.

Leo Cullen must be brave in the weeks to come. Cullen must be pragmatic and identify the players who are flat out not performing to the standards required. Kirchner is a full back and unless he plays there should be released. Dave Kearney will surely be dropped for the trip to Bath; blessing for the player as he needs to work on his defensive duties. Eoin Reddan’s future at Leinster is now under the microscope. Yes, the pack struggled but Reddan offered little to the party today. His game plan was one dimensional and did not test Wasps fringe defense or out wide (grubber kicks behind). The days of Leo Cullen, Shane Jennings, Brad Thorne are long gone. Leinster’s second row and back row were second best today. Launchbury owned Toner today in open play and led his pack impeccably alongside the rampaging Smith.

Leo Cullen must blood new players to the team. Ringrose, Twigg and Van Der Flier must be allowed to get game time in this tournament to develop into key players for the club in seasons to come. Leinster join Munster in the transitional rebuild mode. It is going to get tougher before it gets better for Leinster.

Munster

The weather was horrendous in Limerick last night. Kudos to the 12,000 fans who turned out to watch a drab affair. Munster’s victory over Treviso lent more about Munster’s ability to adapt to the weather conditions than their performance levels. Munster made extremely hard work of this encounter when it should have being routine after Botha’s early try. Botha on another day should have his second try after only eight minutes as Treviso shuddered in the wind and rain.

Ian Keatley’s telegraphed kick down the pitch midway through the first half was given the service it deserved; an interception from Steyn who scored for Treviso. It highlighted the issues in the out-half position when push comes to shove. Munster’s three quarters were anonymous throughout, the weather was abysmal but Saiili decided to offload at will when he should have taken ball into contact and set quick phrase possession. The New Zealand import needs to adapt his game as his offloading caused endless problems for his receivers.

Munster’s discipline was on point but Treviso were limited offensively. Stander and Murray’s performances were outstanding and set the platform for this result. Stander’s leadership in this side was superb on the night when several Munster players played below par. Five points on the board but the acid test next weekend looks titantic. When you add the inevitable emotion of Stade France stadium next Sunday to remember the Paris victims, Munster if they are not careful are looking at a thumping loss.

Munster are doing enough at the moment and the games between Leicester in December will ultimately decide their fate as Stade France have decided to use their second string in these away games (evident in their lineup against Leicester). The Thomond Park crowd will swell for the Stade and Leicester home games but the performance levels are not at the level required to realistically push into a last eight berth at this time. The injury to Mike Sharry adds more pressure on an already stretched squad. Axel Foley’s tactical nous to be viewed in full effect next weekend. Has he learned anything from the drubbings in Saracens and Glasgow last season? Next Sunday will answer those questions.

Connacht

The Siberian adventure continues for the Connacht players and management as they are still stranded due to weather conditions. The long journey was rewarded with a bonus point victory over Ensei who were gutsy throughout. The brutal cold conditions made ball handling a lottery in the opening period but once McGinty and pack started to impose their will on the game, the result was never in doubt. The -20 temperatures will arouse plenty of hilarious stories among the Connacht squad who were on duty for years to come. Connacht continue to go in an upward curve and is this the season where they can clinch a top six Pro 12 berth with Munster and Leinster in transitional mode. Interesting derby in Thomond Park awaits on November 28th and will answer this core question.

European Cup 2015 – Preview

erc_logo

Dust has not even settled on the Webb Ellis Cup down in Auckland but the NH teams are already in European Cup mode with some mouth watering fixtures this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the five pools and tries to see if there are any genuine dark horses for the crown and whether any of Irish provincial teams will advance from their difficult pools.

Pool 1

Ulster on paper have probably the best chance of any of the Irish provinces to advance from their pool. The appointment of Les Kiss is a progressive move. Kiss will bring fresh ideas to the table and call the team to account for under performance. Ulster frankly under performed in this tournament last season against Leicester (rebuild mode) and Llanelli Scarlets (who were struggling for form and results). Toulon were a class apart but Ulster’s other performances lacked the precision and creativity which you would expect from a side containing the likes of Pienaar, Henry, Best, Henderson, Trimble and Bowe. The squad should perform well in this competitive pool. A new season brings added motivation and with the workmanlike but limited Oyonnax first up, a win will setup the Ravenhill team for a good European campaign. Toulouse and Saracens are the other teams in the pool. Toulouse minus Guy Noves are an unknown quantity this season. They have started their domestic season well but when you take into account the number of internationals out of the French league in the first six games of the season, a better judgement call on Toulouse’s form and squad will be served in the coming weeks. Toulouse can never be discounted but a bit like Munster, the name does not scare teams as much as it used to. Saracens are now at the stage of their development where top honors is the minimum standard now expected at the Allianz. Saracens’ brand of rugby is physical, abrasive and they make no apologies for that. However, Saracens will need to add an more expansive element to their play in the knockout round to reach the summit. Saracens to top the pool but have a hunch that Ulster will sneak into the last eight on the basis of wins against their French opposition who let us face it may become disinterested in the tournament if adverse results are earned early doors.

Pool 2

If European Cups were given out at Christmas, Clermont would be regarded as an rugby dynasty. Alas, trophies and medals are decided in May and June and the French club are the perennial bridesmaid of this competition. The draw has being kind with Bordeaux Begles, Exeter Chiefs and misfiring Ospreys in their pool. Clermont’s star studded squad should easily negotiate passage to the last eight before Christmas with the rest of the teams picking victories off each other in their home games. I cannot see any other teams progressing from this pool apart from Clermont. Ospreys injuries have being huge and a loss to Exeter first game out will consign them to European Challenge Cup competition in the spring. Exeter Chiefs will add color (supporters) and a nice brand of rugby to the neutral but their pack will be blown away by Clermont and the weak points exposed by these contests may be hard to resolve in the pool and beyond. Begles are the whipping boys of this pool, fancy them to take a win or two but their objective is their domestic league and survival. Clermont to top the pool with a 100% record.

Pool 3

This pool alongside Pool 5 are the toughest pools to predict. All four teams in this pool should produce expansive matches, back lines look explosive in this pool with the likes of Imhoff (Racing 92), North (Northampton), DTH (Scarlets) and Hogg (Glasgow). With expansive matches should bring tries and bonus points and the bonus points (try bonus or losing point) could be critical to see who comes out of this intriguing pool. Racing 92’s half-back options are embarrassing. Dan Carter at out-half along with the likes of Mike Philips will provide game management behind a pack which will be led by the consistently brilliant Chris Masoe at eight. Northampton Saints come into this tournament with revenge firmly on the mind. Their season last year collapsed after a disappointing quarter final home reversal to Racing 92. The Northants club never recovered from the defeat. Northampton’s squad is typically young and energetic but they have added experience in Victor Matfield to the pack. JJ Hanrahan’s development at out-half will be closely monitored. Llanelli Scarlets have started the Pro 12 in positive fashion but the acid test is now. Pro 12 season without numerous international players in opposition ranks has helped Scarlets to edge several games but their explosive back line with DTH Van der Merwe shining will be a threat. Scarlets pack is the issue. The scrum is an achilles heel which has not improved in the early part of the season and could prove crucial in their ambitions for the pool. Glasgow Warriors, it is time to put up or shut up. Warriors have consistently performed at a high level in the Pro 12 (won the league last season deservedly) but European Cup rugby performance has fallen well short. Gregor Townsend’s charges need to make a statement in this pool. There should be no excuses. The squad has had a couple of key note departures. DTH is a huge loss considering his form with Scarlets and Canada but the squad has the experience to cope with the loss. Scotstoun is a tough place to go and I expect Glasgow to win all their homes games. This pool is too close to call. A hesitant nod to Glasgow on the basis that this is the defining season in their development as a team. It will be an incredibly exciting group. Racing 92 European Cup ambitions is unknown. Interesting pool awaits.

Pool 4

Munster, Leicester, Stade Francais back in the 90’s would have being seen as a pool of death. How times have changed? Treviso will try hard. All other opposing teams will be respectful to the Italians but in all honesty they will all be looking for ten points against them in this pool. Munster and Leicester are teams whose lure and prestige has waned in recent years. The elephant in the room is Stade Francais. What is their ambition in this competition? They shocked everyone to come with a superb end of the season run to win the French Championship last season but after a less than stellar start to this domestic campaign, will energies be focused on the domestic league. I expect Stade to be competitive in Paris with the talent of Senatore, Parisse, Genia, Ioane on display but suspect that they will look to the second string at some of these European away fixtures. It leaves the door open for Munster or Leicester to top the pool. Munster this season have flattered to deceive; a couple of wins at the death this season in Pro 12 action have not disguised the fact that the pack minus O’Connell, O’Donnell, O’Mahoney have lost physicality upfront. The game management issue remains a concern. For all the good things that Ian Keatley brings to the table at out-half, there is a lingering doubt in terms of his ability at ten when the pressure is applied. His penalty kicking at sometimes best erratic, general game management at times put his team on the back foot. Munster will heavily depend on Conor Murray and CJ Stander to advance from this pool as the back line have failed to fire in the early part of the season. Thomond Park support ridiculed by head coach Anthony Foley in recent weeks will turn out to show their support but there is no identity in the team’s play; a mix mash of philosophies in back and pack play over several years has done little to appease home support discontent on the lack of direction in the club on the pitch. The entertainment factor is missing so Simon Zebo’s return at full back will be seen as a progressive step. Leicester Tigers on the other hand are built on the core fundamentals; strong pack, abrasive physicality sets the platform for the back line to win the gain line battle. Freddie Burns is the star man for Leicester. If the ex-Gloucester out-half fires, Leicester will be hard to stop. This pool will see Munster at their lowest ebb, they will be eliminated from European Cup action and I expect Stade and Leicester to fight for the top spot. Both teams will advance due to their ten point hauls against the luckless Treviso who conceivably will look at Thomond Park as the only genuine away match where they could get something from away from Italy.

Pool 5

The pool of death. Toulon, Leinster, Bath and Wasps. Toulon are the standout team here but the other three teams will not be short of motivation to upset the odds against the reigning champions particularly at home. Toulon’s squad is the result of strategic investment (monopoly) on world class players over several years. The signing of Paul O’Connell is evidence of this. The squad will be leveraged throughout this pool, no weak link which means tough assignments for the other teams in this pool. I will be interested to see how Leinster fare in this pool. After Matt O’Connor’s departure from the RDS last season, Leo Cullen now is handed the reins (a little earlier than expected). Leinster’s pack will be seriously tested in the scrum and lineout and needs to be spot on for the team to harbor any ambitions of pool progress. The prodigal son is back at out-half and Sexton will look to set the marker early in this pool by launching a back line on paper which looks explosive with Teo, Nacewa in their ranks. Bath are the dark horse in this pool. Their youthful squad with George Ford at out-half could pose serious problems in this pool. Anthony Watson on the wing was England’s standout player in the RWC. Bath’s expansive style should not be construed as deflecting from their pack which when required can set platform for their half-backs. Louw continues to lead the pack with an authority which is seldom seen in a player of his age. Attwood, Hooper, Wilson are superb forwards. Wasps are certainly not the also rans of this pool. Their experience in all areas will prove tricky opposition. The wily Haskell, Jackson, Gopperth will aid emerging leaders such as Joe Launchbury to be competitive, underestimate Wasps at their peril. Apart from Toulon, the other teams could potentially take results from each other meaning only one team comes out of the pool.

Predictions:

Saracens, Clermont, Glasgow, Leicester, Toulon (all pool winners)

Ulster, Leicester, Racing Metro (best runners up)

Random Sporting Thoughts

pro12_logo

Reason 501 why I despise this league?

After the SH nation masterclass in the Rugby World Cup where basic skills were executed at a supreme high standard, it was back to the tried (bash ball) and trusted (error strewn) Pro 12 action. The top six concept was exciting for the competition and the season ending rush to grab those elusive European Cup places caught the eye for the neutral. However, there are serious issues with the product and look no further with the Edinburgh versus Munster clash tonight to emphasize the point. Murrayfield resembled a NAMA estate in the middle of Longford. The now consistently poor officiating on show would have driven anyone who bothered to attend this fixture for the hot whiskeys early doors and the two teams on show produced little in attempting to launch any cohesive attacking play. There can be zero excuses for Edinburgh who played for two ten minute periods with a player advantage, their failure to create width to stretch Munster was deplorable. Munster’s good discipline (zero yellow cards heading into this contest) was thrown out the window as Van der Heever and Saili had stints in the sin bin. Few complaints on either but it was a shame that Wilkinson was not officiating Edinburgh in the same manner. The number of penalties leaked by Edinburgh in the scrum (albeit the more dominant unit) necessitated a yellow card but Wilkinson had the blinkers on. Offside was non-existent tonight and when Munster and Edinburgh play in European action next weekend, their respective officiating crews will be far more stringent. Dreadful officiating standard tonight and does nothing for the brand when two teams are quite limited in terms of game plan. Ian Keatley to his credit kicked superbly when required to win the game for Munster but there was precious little to entertain one’s self until the Hidalgo Clyne drop goal attempt at the death which was blocked. The brand of rugby by both teams was dish water; no wonder fans are not paying their hard earned dosh to watch this. Cue Sky Sports to try to promote the top of the table clash at Thomond Park when Connacht come to Munster. The Pro 12 fraternity hold their breathe for a half decent game after dinner time on Saturday.

limerickfc_logo

Limerick FC – Opportunity Lost?

Congratulations to Finn Harps last night, they deserved the playoff win but for Limerick, the reality of life now in the second tier of Irish football will hurt for several weeks to come. This relegation hurts more considering the gallant attempts to get out of a wretched relegation situation which saw the Shannonside outfit not win a league fixture until August 1st. The win against Sligo Rovers last weekend staved relegation off for a week. Sport is viciously cruel; last weekend Limerick were on cloud nine, this weekend it is utter dejection. Where did it go wrong? The shambles that was the redevelopment of Markets Field focused too much energy away from the team on the pitch. Martin Russell’s task as manager was undermined with minimum transfer funds at his disposal; a critical misjudgment considering the caliber of player that left the club last season. Rory Gaffney, Barry Ryan and Sam Oji joined the likes of Danny Galbraith out of the football club and with no like for like replacement, last night was inevitable. BJ Banda’s goal to secure Finn Harps promotion summed up Limerick’s defensive woes this season; no pressure on the Finn Harps cross and there was even less pressure applied to Banda as he headed his effort into the net sparking wild scenes in Ballybofey. Limerick’s relegation has resulted in an interesting crossroads for the football club. Will the local fan base continue to support the club after let us face it a quite rocky start to the season where the Limerick 30 were banned from home games by the club. It was a PR disaster for the club and the frosty relations between the club and fans thawed with the upturn in form. 3,500 fans for the Finn Harps home game last Monday spoke volumes on the potential niche market for professional football in the town. Will the fans turn out to watch Limerick play Cabinteely next season? It is an interesting backdrop.

epl_logo

EPL Review

Chelsea’s season goes from bad to worse, another defeat at the Britannia (despite having good moments) will do little to dispel speculation on Jose Mourinho’s future at the football club. Effort was in abundance but the lack of confidence within the team is frightening at this time. How does Jose reverse the trend? Willian and Hazard are the only players providing an attacking platform at present. Diego Costa is offering little, zero threat at present and Chelsea have precious little options to replace the temper tantrum hothead. Stoke soaked up the pressure exerted by Chelsea and Jack Butland’s performance in goal again has meant that Begovic’s departure to Chelsea has not being missed. Troubling times for Chelsea, hard to see where the team goes from here. They are playing for the manager but there is a distinct lack of pace all over the side.

Manchester United keep another clean sheet, keep possession but today were indebted to Jesse Lingard for the win. Lingard offers pace and ability to beat his opponent out wide. His curling effort after fifty-two minutes was superb and opened the game for the hosts who prior to the goal offered little in the way of chances. The lack of pace in the final third, the final ball and the sheer inability to play passes in behind opposition defenses was again highlighted in spades today. Martial’s pace setup the penalty dispatched by Mata deep into second half injury time secured the three points but in all honesty unless United change their style of play, they will be consigned to a top three / four team.

What has happened to Swansea? Gary Monk was the toast of South Wales last month but ever since their loss to Watford away, things have gone downhill fast. Norwich absorbed Swansea’s dominance and hit them with a sucker punch counter attack move finished by Howson. Swansea’s attacking threat has being nullified. Montero is subdued and is the chief creator for the attacking duo Gomis and Ayew. The lack of confidence in attacking play is clearly evident and this is a serious test of Monk’s managerial credentials to arrest the slide in form. A pivotal fixture against AFC Bournemouth awaits after the international break. Wonder what Swansea do if Bournemouth take a share of the spoils? Monk and Swansea are under pressure and a relegation battle could be on the cards.

AFC Bournemouth – it has being a pleasure but they are as good as down. Their most recent loss to Newcastle highlights the gap required in this level. Newcastle scored with their only shot on target (could Federici do better?) and Bournemouth flat out controlled the ball thereafter but a distinct lack of quality in the final third is glaring. Glenn Murray will score goals but he needs support; experience is required and January cannot come quick enough. The problem is that Eddie Howe’s charges could be stranded at the foot of the table when the transfer window starts again.

Entertaining game at Upton Park, two teams who will fight it out for top six honors this season. West Ham and Everton goals were superbly created; the hosts effort was an excellent Lanzini curling effort and Everton’s goal was a super ball to Lukaku which split the West Ham central defense. A draw was a fair result.

Rugby World Cup: Weekend Thoughts

rwc_logo

The Rugby World Cup is over. New Zealand successfully retain the Webb Ellis and with it become the first team to win the competition three times. It was a weekend where several marquee world stars made their farewells from the international stage. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the tournament finale and looks at the highs and lows of the tournament.

Hail Hail New Zealand

There can be no arguments about the winners of this tournament. New Zealand were far superior to anything in this tournament. Yes, they struggled for periods against South Africa last weekend but their ability to change tactics during the contest to win the semi-final berth spoke volumes about management, the squad, the skill set and the sheer ability to make the right decisions at the right time. Australia could not be faulted for effort in this final. They more than matched their arch rivals in the first quarter with Pocock prominent in the breakdown but this was the day when the New Zealand back row saved their best performance when it mattered most. McCaw was phenomenal during this final, his work rate at ruck time was superb and he was ably assisted by his back row colleagues Read and Caino who tackled and made gain line yards throughout. Zane Douglas’ withdrawal spelled trouble for Australia as the lineout so reliable prior to the final started to creek as Retalick, Read figured out the Australian lineout calls. It was to the internal credit of Australia that there were still in this contest with seventeen minutes left. New Zealand controlled the tempo of this contest and exposed Foley and Giteau defensively throughout. 21-10 entering into the final quarter, New Zealand were in control but credit Australia with a superb try just as Ben Smith was coming back from his sin bin. 21-17 and Australia asked the question of New Zealand whether they had the bottle to close out the contest. The answer four years ago was shaky but yesterday New Zealand made no mistakes. The fulcrum was the mercurial Dan Carter who settled nerves with an excellent drop goal to open a seven point gap and then the dagger to Australia hearts with a monster penalty kick which opened the game out to a two score game. Australia were forced to go for broke thereafter and no better team like New Zealand to pounce on an opponent attacking play error. The scoreline read 34-17 for New Zealand, a fitting end for the careers of McCaw, Carter, Ma Nonu (superb), Mealeamu whose service to the jersey has being nothing short of sensational. The reins of the team now are transferred to the likes of Read, Slade and it will be interesting to see how New Zealand transition without dropping their standards. Steve Hansen’s role in this success cannot be understated, his rugby philosophy which promotes pace, speed and quality skill fundamentals has being evident throughout. Australia will be disappointed with this outcome but the job that Michael Chieka has done in little over twelve months has being sensational. The side refused to give up yesterday even though they were losing the contact area and suffering injury blows to Douglas and Giteau. Australia in four years will be the favorite for the Webb Ellis Cup; the squad nucleus will still be present and with some shrewd selection options, Chieka could reenact revenge on this final loss in Japan (2019). A final which came into life in the second half, a fitting way for the tournament to conclude.

Third / Fourth Place Playoff

I am with Heyneke Meyer on this one, scrap the third / fourth place playoff. Both teams clearly did not want to be there. Argentina gave up the ghost on this fixture as early as in the first quarter as the Proteas took advantage of loose Argentina defense and forward play to go thirteen points ahead in the first half. The second half was a no contest as both sides cleared the bench and try scoring opportunities increased with regularity.

At least, the fixture gave an opportunity for rugby fans to give a fond farewell to South Africa’s Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger and Brian Habana who retire from international duty; they owe nothing to their country and will enter their final chapter of their playing careers safe in the knowledge that they performed with distinction in the green jersey. South Africa enter a crucial transitional period. How does South Africa fill the void left by these players? Massive characters in the dressing room are gone stage left and it is up to the South Africa management and squad to unite and take on this challenge. Argentina’s tournament comes to a disappointing end but one has to congratulate them on the passage to the last four. They played a brand of rugby not see by a Los Puma outfit in years gone by. The traditional territorial game was ditched for a game plan which emphasized width, unerring attacking lines and fearless passing plays at the gain line. Fernandez Lobbe led his side with a command which has won plaudits from fans and journalists alike, his retirement is a big blow for Argentina but the foundations are firmly in place for Los Puma to take the next step to climb to the top of the rugby union tree. Sanchez, Hernandez, Creevy, Senatore are names that will be forever associated with Argentina’s run.

High Point

The high point of the tournament was three fold for me. The first one was the immediate aftermath of the final when the New Zealand team went for their lap of honor and a young New Zealand kid ran onto the pitch to celebrate with his heroes was man handled by security. The manner in which the New Zealand management and players around the incident reacted and dealt with the situation has won even more fans for the All Blacks. Sonny Bill Williams, what a legend. His generous act to give his medal to the young lad was something that I would not envisage a NH player doing in the same situation. Williams’s generosity and compassion to the boy spoke everything which is good for the game; respect for others. Williams has subsequently got a new medal but that is beside the point, an incredible gesture.

The second high point of the tournament was the confirmation if was needed that Dan Carter is lights out the best out-half to ever play the game in the professional era. Injury cost his place four years ago but Carter would not be denied this year, his performances when New Zealand required him the most were sensational. Carter dismantled France with a game management performance which will not be seen in quite a while; his pass selection, the speed of pass, his kicking from hand and on the tee were exceptional. Carter continued to catch the eye against South Africa whose physicality asked questions of New Zealand’s out-half to change the game. Carter produced in reams; tactical kicking on point to give New Zealand territorial advantage which produced points in the red zone. Carter’s penalty kicking was unerring and in the final, his two scores after Australia closed the lead to 21-17 won his team the Webb Ellis Cup. Carter was the MVP of the tournament, to give it to anyone else is a shocker.

Japan’s emergence to the world stage with their upset victory over Proteas will live long in the memory.

Low Point

The disparity between NH and SH teams continues to grow. The tournament was played in ideal weather conditions, predominant dry conditions exposed the massive skill set gaps in the two hemispheres. Where NH teams were safety first, physicality and brawn over skill and imagination, SH teams caught the eye with expansive style of rugby (increasing width to stretch defenses to breaking point). It was a sobering tournament for the NH teams culminating in France’s humiliation to New Zealand. The only NH team to come of this tournament with any credit was Scotland and it was due to their decision to deploy an expansive style. Their exit was brutally cruel but Vern Cotter and team can hold their heads high. As for the other NH teams, they under-performed and yes that includes Ireland whose dependency on a small number of key players in the squad came home to roost with their exit at the hands of Argentina. No quick fix in sight to alleviate the gulf seen during this tournament.

The level of officiating and citing implementation left plenty for improvement during this tourney. Where the small nations were being handed with excessive suspensions (Samoa – Tuilagi ban), the nations at the top table got away with proverbial murder (Sean O’Brien ban, McCaw having no case to answer after his late coming together on Louw in the semi-final, Ford / Gray suspension and then overturned put the citing process into disrepute). Fairness and equality is not words associated with the citing process during this tournament. The match officiating was poor. The role of the assistant referees was embarrassing at times; over dependency on the TMO and when they were required (Scotland’s controversial exit) was nowhere to be seen. Craig Joubert as an international match official is in ruins; poor mistake but was thrown to the wolves by World Rugby. Nigel Owens aside, the officiating crews failed to show the consistency required, look no further than Wayne Barnes and the chop tackle interpretation. The breakdown and the ability to clear a player is now subject to much debate. Too many inconsistencies in officiating during this tournament has being a disappointment.