RBS 6 Nations: Italy vs. Scotland Preview

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This fixture will decide who wins the wooden spoon. This fixture will decide whether Vern Cotter has a viable future with Scotland. This fixture will define how Italy approach their long term plan heading into the 2019 RWC. A fixture which may be nervy and sometimes scrappy in open play will shed plenty in terms of two teams who have massively disappointed so far in this tournament this season.

Scotland have gone ten 6N games without victory. Their first two games of this tournament have spoke volumes in terms of the confidence and game decisions requited to get over the line and win a match. It is not that Scotland have not had their opportunities against England or Wales to put more points on the board but the lack of composure in critical times have proved fatal.

This is a defining game for Vern Cotter, he badly needs a win to get his team to start believe and improve confidence. Scotland’s struggles in the backdrop of Glasgow Warriors league success is all the more baffling. When you add the skill set provided by the Edinburgh contingent and you start to question why this team are not winning games in this tournament.

They will never have a better opportunity to break their losing streak. Italy are a team in crisis. Their one dimensional pack orientated game plan startled France but England snuffed out the pack threat and exposed the Azzuri back line defensively in a second half rout.

Sergio Parisse is a man mountain but has precious little support in the ranks. The lack of responsibility and accountability by certain Italian kicking options at the death of the French contest spoke volumes. No leadership or accountability in the ranks as Sergio was forced to drop goal, his shrug of the shoulders at his colleagues was enough. The camp is divided.

Scotland have to start this game with gusto and physicality. The front five need to build a platform and the half-backs need quick ruck ball to unleash the likes of Hogg, Visser and the promising Duncan Taylor who showed positively at twelve in his last outing against Wales.

Italy’s only hope is to win the scrum battle but it looks a 50/50 contest at this time. Unless Italy provide an attacking back line dimension which has being bereft so far, Scotland should soak up the pressure of the hosts and win this contest with something to spare.

If Scotland fail to win in Rome, question marks on Vern Cotter’s future has to be raised. Scotland for all their RWC exploits have taken two steps back in this tournament, a win here is the pre-requisite this weekend. The performance is secondary. With Visser back, the signs look good for Scotland.

Verdict: Scotland by seven point after a nervy start

RBS 6 Nations: Wales vs. France Preview

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The third round of the RBS 6 Nations tournament gets underway in the pleasant surroundings of the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff where Wales entertain a France team who have being truly an enigma again in the championship even though they have two wins already in the tournament. A potential arm wrestle or an expansive rugby contest? Hawkeye Sidekick is hoping for the latter.

Maxine Medard’s late try to clinch victory for France over Ireland at Stade De France last time out suggested that a massive corner was turned by Le Bleu. A victory over Ireland has provided much needed belief and confidence ahead of this pivotal fixture as they showed precious little against Ireland for long intervals who stifled France at the breakdown and the kick game pinned Le Bleu deep into their territory.

The French team on paper has a youthful look. The pack looks full of energy and their scrum looks formidable with the likes of Slimani and Guirado in their ranks. The scrum could play a pivotal role for France to create the platform. France pride themselves in their scrummaging and will look to expose a Welsh front row who to be fair have being shown signs of improvement during this tournament. It will be a compelling battle and one which will be a decisive indicator of which way this contest will go.

The lineout options for both sides look pretty even. Jedrasiak and Flanquart are good options and with Chouly as a conceivably third lineout option, France look well setup to challenge. Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones is supreme but he will need Bradley Davies to be on top form to provide lineout stability for the hosts. A slight edge for France in this department given that Chartertis is a massive player for Wales in the set-piece.

The back row battle should be absolutely intriguing. Tipuric has paid the price for a lack of balance in the Welsh back row as the ever reliable Dan Lydiate comes into the pack allowing Warburton to spoil and compete at the breakdown. Faletau at eight has being immense in the tournament with his ball carrying and tackle count top notch. Ireland exposed potential problems in the French breakdown and Wales have the edge in this department despite the pace and power of Lauret and Burban in the ranks.

The half-back battle talking point is whether Plisson can handle the pressure of going away from home and producing a performance. He has shown flashes of brilliance with ball in hand but he needs to be more cohesive to launch his three quarters this weekend, otherwise Wales will gobble up French attacking lines with ease with chop tackles galore. This requirement is not helped by a change in scrum-half where Machenaud is added to the starting lineup, a lack of relationship and understanding potentially gives Wales an edge where Davies and Biggar have played with confidence throughout.

The collisons in the three quarters will be the highlight of this contest. Jamie Roberts barrelling in on Danty will shake the very foundations of the Millennium Sradium and vice versa. Mermoz and Davies provide the subtle game running lines to unlock defenses and it will be interesting to see if the offload game can be sprung. 50/50 contest here and it all depends on which pack creates the necessary platform.

The wings and full back options speak creativity and ability to create try scoring opportunities. George North’s try against Scotland showed that the Northampton Saints players is back to top form. The inclusion of Alex Cuthbert for Tom James provides pace and threat as well but questions on defensive duties could be posed by France with kicks in behind the Cardiff Blues back. Vakatawa and Camara provide width and try scoring ability. Vakatawa is a try scoring machine from close range and will fancy this contest if the stadium elements are shut out. Medard and Williams are dynamic ball carriers and one hopes both players will look to come into the line with attacking intent.

Both teams have enough ability to launch an expansive contest. France would relish an unstructured contest more than Wales so hoping an early visitor score will spring Wales into a more attacking style. France are being written off by some quarters but I suspect that Le Bleu have a massive game in them this weekend. The Ireland win cannot be underestimated and provided that the half-backs provide direction and cohesion, France will be extremely tough to beat.

Wales will be put under pressure in the front five. If they can stem this challenge, their formidable back row should win the breakdown contest. A tentative vote goes to Wales on the basis that they have shown more consistency in their first two games but France are an enigmatic bunch and do not be surprised if they caused the upset if the game becomes unstructured in the second half. Hoping for an offloading contest to kick off this tournament weekend of fixtures in the right direction.

Verdict: Wales by three points in an entertaining open contest

RBS 6 Nations Round 3: England vs. Ireland Preview

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After a two week hiatus, the RBS 6 Nations is back. Two weeks where player recovery is paramount, injury assessment and alternative replacements are mulled over and slept on and then mulled over again. This weekend looks like the pivotal round of the championship so far as conceivably the race for top honors will be a two horse race come Saturday evening. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the England and Ireland match and wonders whether England can take advantage of Ireland’s massive injury list.

Eddie Jones was abrasive at best during his press conference today. The English media pack continually probing on whether England will look to target Ireland fly-half Sexton. The response garnered was all you needed to know. England will look to run down the number ten’s channel throughout, not because Sexton is defensively weak, it is because there is a rookie number seven in the Ireland ranks.

Josh van der Flier’s emergence with Leinster this season has heralded a first international cap in the cauldron of Twickenham. Joe Schmidt has wielded the axe by dropping Tommy O’Donnell from the match day squad altogether, obviously due to his part in the Medard try which is a bit harsh on the player whose ball carrying and tackle count was high during the French contest.

The young Leinster back row player will have a baptism of fire when he faces this experienced England back row. Robshaw, Haskell and the marauding Vunipola at eight. England have being prominent in their breakdown play, slowing opposition ball and always looking to steal ball when the opportunity arises.

Van der Flier will be competitive in the breakdown but questions will be asked of his decision making when at scrum-time. When does he break from the scrum to counter-act Vunipola ball carrying threat which will be barreled down Sexton’s channel? Failure to make the right decision and Sexton conceivably could be on the sidelines early doors such is the aggression and physicality expected from the hosts on Saturday afternoon.

For England, this is where they need to make a serious statement of their long term ambitions to become Europe’s number one team. Their abject RWC failure last year will spur on their effort but this weekend will see first hand how England have adapted their game plan to breakdown resolute defensive structures such as Ireland’s. A fatal flaw in their RWC campaign was their sheer inability to win the gain line battle and their lack of cohesive attacking play in the back line. Saturday will see how far George Ford and Ben Youngs’ relationship at half-backs has evolved to be able to unleash a back line on paper which looks full of pace and enterprise.

Jonathan Joseph’s hat-trick against Italy in the previous round showed when England are given a pack platform and quick ruck ball, they are quite the formidable outfit. Jack Nowell and Watson on the wings provide dynamism with ball in hand and both players are capable of creating a try out of absolutely nothing. Nowell’s try against Scotland was well worked but the Exeter Chiefs awareness of space was all too evident in scoring the try.

I can see no weak points in this England outfit. Their front five are abrasive, strong at set piece time. Joe Launchbury’s absence will be a boost to Ireland but in Maro Itoje, they have a potential upcoming rugby star. The Saracens player has it all to be a standout performer for many years to come; physicality, abrasiveness and raw power are in abundance. His work ethic and pace for a second row is freakish. Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan will have their work cut out to stem the influence of Itoje and Kruis in the set piece.

Ireland on paper have a team which looks dynamic but the question is whether Joe Schmidt will ask his half-backs to play conservative in the same vain as the previous two RBS 6 Nations fixtures. Line breaks have being created but there has being a lack of creativity and composure in finishing these opportunities off. By injury, Joe Schmidt has picked a three quarters which looks quite exciting on paper.

McCloskey at twelve is the equivalent of Maro Itoje for England. The Ulster player is a beast of a player and his ball carrying and ability to win the gain line battle will be crucial for Ireland to launch go forward ball. Henshaw at thirteen could see the best of the player. The Leinster bound player has being stifled in his attacking contributions to date but with a physical player like McCloskey alongside, surely Henshaw will be provided with more opportunities to run into space.

The inclusion of Keith Earls for the luckless Dave Kearney is a solid inclusion. Earls’ cameo against Wales was full of work rate and defensively solid. Earls may need to exude those attributes again on Saturday as the hosts may have the majority of ball possession early doors. Earls’ ability to score a try from nothing is well documented and if given an opportunity will convert.

Rob Kearney at full back has being defensively solid as always but it will be interesting to see if the Leinster man can contribute anything coming into the line with ball in hand. Payne’s best position is full-back and if recovered from injury, would Joe Schmidt consider Payne for the fifteen jersey if McCloskey and Henshaw play well at Twickenham.

The Ireland half-backs will be solid. Murray will provide that defensive assurance around the fringes while also launching box kicks to win territory. Sexton if able to see through the majority of this contest will provide game management to launch his back line but this can only be achieved if the Ireland pack provide a platform.

This is where I fear for Ireland. England’s front five is per player on better form when compared with Ireland who have struggled with match officials interpretation at scrum time and have being exposed on occasion on the line-out minus the O’Connell effect and no conceivable third lineout option.

Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner’s form this season has being inconsistent at best and it will be interesting to see how this partnership goes against an England line-out which has being efficient. The lack of a consistent third lineout like O’Mahoney could be a decisive miss for Ireland on match day.

England’s scrum is the cornerstone of their side to build their platform. Marler and Cole are experienced operators and the fact that Joe Schmidt has had to rush back Mike Ross back to the trenches speaks volumes. Nathan White is dropped to the bench and Tadgh Furlong is omitted from the match day squad. The upside is that Cian Healy will be on the bench to be thrust into action with thirty minutes left but will his introduction be too late?

Ireland should have no pressure on them this weekend. The Paris loss and the lengthy list of tournament ending injuries means that expectations should be lowered to a certain extent. The new players hopefully will perform but there are question marks on several facets of Ireland’s play which points to an England win.

Given that the conditions are expected dry, England will try to bludgeon Ireland with their pack early doors and I am not confident that Ireland’s front five will be able to stand to the pressure. Maro Itoje debut try from a relentless England maul is a certainty. England to win in a high scoring game where Ireland’s back line will provide optimism for the remainder of the tournament.

Verdict: England by ten points

NHL 1A – Round 2 Review

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The second round of games in the NHL 1A are now in the books. A weekend which saw Waterford continue their impressive start to the league campaign, Dublin rebounding superbly to defeat an inconsistent Galway outfit and Kilkenny with several new emerging stars closing out a game which Tipperary will reflect got away yet again.

Deise too strong for Cork

The scoreline of 0-20 to 1-14 on first viewing looks like a tight encounter but Waterford were more comfortable in long periods of this game than the scoreline suggested. Physically dominant in most central battles, the Deise inside full forward line caused numerous problems for an overworked, overstretched Cork full back line throughout who were forced to concede numerous close range frees where the likes of Dunford, Curran and Jake Dillon catching the eye.

Waterford had several positives from the game as five of their starting forwards registered scores, their half-back line was aerially dominant throughout. The negative will be the dismissal of Maurice Shanahan, a late strike off the ball with five minutes remaining. It was a poor decision from Shanahan and one that suddenly forced Waterford on the back foot with a late Cork surge. Waterford push on to four points, no relegation fears and they will relish a tussle with Tipperary in two weeks time.

Cork now prop up the league table and on the basis of this performance could struggle to stay in the division. There is no denying the fact that Cork have several superb hurling talents. Aidan Walsh, Pa Horgan and Conor Lehane at times showed their brilliance but there is a brittleness about Cork defensively which will cause Cork management endless sleepless nights. The full back line was exposed in pace and loose passing from the back was latched among by a Waterford team whose work rate was superior on the night.

Cork will look to the late flourish where Pa Horgan scored a late goal to setup a potentially dramatic finish but those hopes evaporated immediately when Alan Cadogan was sent off for a wild pull in the Waterford goal line. Cork’s central positions need to be reviewed. Is their talent in the county to fill the gaps? The lack of work rate without the ball at times left a lot to be desired. Worrying times in Cork hurling.

Kilkenny new guns put Tipperary to the sword

With the season ending injury of Ger Alyward and the retirement of the mercurial talent from intercounty hurling of Richie Power, some believed that Kilkenny were vulnerable this season but this was emphatically put to bed today as Kilkenny showed Tipperary yet again how to close out a contest with a late 2-1  salvo to secure their first league win of the season.

Brian Cody and Kilkenny management were conscious that a second defeat in the league would mean a certain relegation battle like last season. Kilkenny will be the first to admit that ring rust was hugely evident in their opening day league loss to Waterford last weekend.

Kilkenny playing against a strong breeze in the opening period made a much improved start and with TJ Reid continuing to tick the scoreboard over with points from placed balls, Tipperary were left to rue several gilt edged chances to be only one point up at the interval.

Tipperary should have being further in-front. John McGrath had a great goal chance which went over the bar and several poor shot selections resulted in Tipperary showing little for their efforts. Michael Ryan’s charges did hit the first two points of the start of the second half but with a stiffening breeze against them, it looked a forlorn task to hold on against a Kilkenny team whose new players were now relishing their tussle with their next door county neighbors.

Kilkenny had several positives. Eoin Murphy in goal provided confidence and when called upon dealt with all Tipperary could throw at him. Prendergast at corner-back had a powerful game, the fringe player  surely is staking a serious claim for first team action. His no nonsense approach, physically strong and direct approach was what Kilkenny required defensively. Lennon at centre back was strong and grew into the game making several lung bursting runs from deep. Conor Fogarty’s work rate is infectious and his second half display closing out Tipperary attacking ball supply was crucial in the last ten minutes of this contest.

The stars of the show for Kilkenny were newcomers Kevin Kelly and James Maher whose unselfish pass to Kelly for Kilkenny’s first goal with eight minutes left will have pleased Brian Cody. James Maher’s four points were inspirational for Kilkenny at various stages of the contest when Tipperary looked to be taking a firm grip on proceedings. Kevin Kelly’s eye for goal was highlighted at the end of the contest when presented with a 1-1 chance buried the ball emphatically into the back of the net.

Kilkenny smelled blood, they go for the kill something that Tipperary again were exposed of today. The Tipperary work rate was extremely high but were let down by sloppy passing from the back line and the concession of easy frees in their midfield and half-back line areas. Padraic Maher saw the ire of Tipperary management and was hauled off after a sloppy pass was intercepted and scored by Walter Walsh and then a late challenge conceded an easy score for TJ Reid from the placed ball. James Barry was excellent at center back and is surely a lock for the position come the Summer.

Kilkenny will be pleased with the result but more so of how the new players in the panel adapted to the contest when the questions were asked by Tipperary.

The match officiating on show left a lot to be desired; both teams will be in rueful mood on some of the decisions given against. Ripping a face guard off a player is not deemed a card offense (Noel McGrath’s helmet hauled off by Lester Ryan in the second half). Conor Fogarty was unlucky to be pinged for what looked a fair shoulder on Bonnar Maher deep in the contest. Decisions like this drive intercounty managers potty. A good contest despite the brutal conditions. Kilkenny are as strong as ever and the rest of competition are fully aware of the task that lies await in the summer.

Dublin profit from inconsistent Galway display

Parnell Park is not a happy hunting ground for Galway hurlers; their performance yesterday evening fell well short of posing any serious threat to a Dublin team whose victory was set by the return of the likes of Liam Rushe.

The weather conditions were not ideal and Galway were extremely wasteful in the early stages. David Treacy was the star of the show for Dublin who scored 0-10 and his overall play setup several other scores. Rushe’s cameo cannot be underestimated. The Round Towers dominated this contest and his performance from the half-back line gave his forward line endless scoring opportunities.

As mentioned in my preview last week, Galway’s main focus is their consistency in delivering quality performances game after game. Several worrying signs were the withdrawal of Fergal Moore (injury) and Joe Canning at the break. Galway played with little fluency as Dublin continued to harry and pressure Galway without the ball in contrast to last weekend when Galway had ample time to pick out a colleague in space.

Dublin’s dominance in the second half was emphatic and when McGrath scored Dublin’s goal after forty-six minutes, the game was put to bed. Galway must learn from this setback, the team struggled to cope with Dublin’s work rate and direct approach. The withdrawal of Joe Canning is a massive negative. Is management sending a message to Canning?

Dublin will be relieved with their first win of the campaign. The work rate and physicality is paramount for Dublin this season and whether they have the forward nous remains to be seen even though their performance last night was effective. Without Danny Sutcliffe, David Treacy is now the go to player in the Dublin forward line.

Guinness Pro 12: Glasgow Warriors 27 – 24 Munster

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I have being a hardened critic of the Guinness Pro 12 scheduling during the RBS 6 Nations tournament. The majority of games played are usually turgid affairs bereft of continuity and quality but there is always a fixture during this period which provides enormous entertainment value and tonight in Rugby Park delivered in spades.

This fixture was a ‘do or die’ fixture for both teams. It is strange to see last season’s finalists languishing in mid-table positions and tonight would determine who would be looking forward to a potential season ending top four playoff berth push or for the loser a season ending devoid of excitement and the reality of potentially playing European Challenge Cup next season.

Glasgow Warriors came out of the traps incredibly fast and scored two tries from Sili Puafisi. Both tries will be watched with absolute horror by Munster in video analysis next week as the first try came from two bursts from scrum half Ali Price leaving Munster defensively exposed. The second try was all about number eight Josh Strauss whose power and ball carrying was too much for Munster.

Fourteen nil down and given the season that Munster have experienced, a capitulation looked on the cards as the fast track that is Rugby Park was playing to Glasgow Warriors strengths; pace, speed and quick ruck ball unleashing ball carrying threats such as Strauss.

However, Munster to their credit dusted themselves down and played arguably their best rugby of the season by scoring seventeen unanswered to lead at the interval. The game plan was simple but so effective; the pack running with a directness which opened gaps in Glasgow’s defense. Dave Kilcoyne was the chief recipient  with two close range tries but both Munster props were prominent in the lead-up to both tries. Ian Keatley tacked over the two conversions and in between slotted over a regulation penalty to leave Munster ahead, quite the response.

Glasgow regrouped at the break and they went back in front with their third try on forty-three minutes. The hosts spreading Munster defensively thin as Peter Horne passed to Duncan Weir to touch down. It was classic Glasgow and one wonders why they could not produce this style of rugby in the European Rugby pool stages.

Munster were now behind again and things got even worse on fifty-six minutes when Tomas O’Leary was sent to the sin bin for a deliberate knock-on. The deliberate knock-on was merited according to match official Ben Whitehouse but when have you seen this offense not pinged in recent 6N fixtures? The officiating of this offense needs to be reviewed by the powers that be.

The fourteen Munster men were further behind during this ten minute period as Duncan Weir again kicked a penalty to open up a decisive gap one thought but Munster responded again as Mike Sherry crashed over from close range after a lineout drive. Keatley’s conversion from the sideline was excellent and suddenly Munster were back in front 24-22 with eighteen minutes left.

Munster indiscipline was again highlighted when James Cronin was given his stint in the sin bin with little over ten minutes left and it ultimately was decisive as Glasgow again turned the screw with the man advantage as centre Bryce went over for the bonus point to give the hosts the lead which they never looked like surrendering thereafter.

Cronin re-emerged from his stint on the sidelines but Glasgow were resolute defensively. The hosts realized that a win was essential to keep their title ambitions intact. Ian Keatley had a drop-goal kick but it was asking too much and with it was Munster’s challenge. Glasgow ended the game on the ascendancy and could afford to kick the post with a penalty right on full-time.

Glasgow will only grow after this ding-dong contest victory. The confidence in the camp will soar after this result as they were forced to dig deep to win. Glasgow are a live opponent in the league for the rest of the season and with the likes of Strauss, Puafisi and Peter Horne in good form – things are looking on the up for the reigning champions.

As for Munster, the effective four day turnaround from the Osprey’s loss was a step too far for this squad. Munster’s season is ending for a slow and painful ending and the priority now is to secure a top six berth. Any chance of a top four finish looks remote at best after tonight’s latest reversal. The fight is in the squad but again indiscipline and concentration lapses were wholly exposed by an opponent who relished the pitch conditions. Axel Foley and management must look to the new season and hope to secure quality additions to the squad to avoid a repeat of this season. A potentially sorry end to a miserable season for the province.

Allianz Hurling League: Round 2 Preview

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It is the middle of February, the pitches are still saturated with winter rainfall making hurling conditions atrocious for the start of the NHL season. Let us be frank, I am wholly against this competition starting at this time of year, surely it would make more sense for the powers that be to reschedule this competition for late March or early April when the conditions have improved to allow good quality hurling to take place and allow the Fitzgibbon Cup a chance to realistically showcase their competition at weekends and perhaps attract TV coverage. There will be more to these points in the coming weeks but this blog posting will focus on the second round of the NHL 1A and 1B fixtures up for decision. A series of games which given the small number of league fixtures look do or die for certain teams already.

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There are two fixtures down for decision on Saturday night under the floodlights. After a trouncing in their visit to Galway last weekend, Cork host current league champions Waterford. This fixture usually provides plenty of fireworks and for Cork it is a pivotal fixture in their efforts to stay in the top hurling tier. Their performance last weekend was a continuation of last season’s shambolic Championship exit. Cork provided far too space for a Galway side who relished the space afforded to them passing to colleagues at will and scoring with ease. Cork were physically routed during this contest and a repeat this weekend surely will spell relegation. Kingston and Cork management have their work cut out to identify players who can fill the central defensive positions after some notable off-season retirements. The attack on paper looks decent but with Alan Harnedy destined to miss out, Cork are without one of their primary point scorers out the field. Cork realistically are in must win territory this weekend and the team should be revved up for this encounter.

Waterford come into this game fresh from a solid win over a Kilkenny team who showed ring rust early doors. The Deise performance last weekend had all the hallmarks of last season; solid defensively and launching counter attacks with pace and intent. With WIT now out of the Fitzgibbon Cup, Waterford management have virtually a full squad to chose from granted Padraic O’Mahoney still recuperating from long term injury. This fixture will be decided on who wants it more and I sense if Cork are to do anything this season. they need to send out a statement this weekend. Waterford management may decide to experiment during this contest and this could be enough to sway this tie in the Rebel’s favor. Cork and Pairc Ui Rinn is typically a happy hunting ground and suspect that the hosts will win by three points.

The second evening fixture sees Galway make the travel to our nation’s capital to face a Dublin team who like Cork were on the hands of a humbling defeat at the hands of Tipperary at Semple Stadium. The Dublin team on paper last weekend was strong with fringe players such as Crummy coming into the fold but they were outclassed by a Tipperary team who won the physical battle which set the scoring platform for an easy victory. Dublin’s off-season was marred by the news that Danny Sutcliffe decided to drop out of the panel; a shock move as Sutcliffe was a key panel member last season. Rumors of unrest between the player and management soon surfaced on the forums but it does not inspire confidence that a key county player thinks that he is better off staying away from representing his county.

Galway are Jekyll and Hyde of inter-county hurling; their performance in the All Ireland Hurling final spoke volumes. An inspired first half performance descended into a meek surrender in the second half and it is this inconsistency that Michael O’Donoghue and management need to address. Galway have the skills and the players to win a championship but the issue is how the players as a collective deal with adversity during games and how management (net new) support the team in making the right calls. Galway will come into this game full of confidence; their easy on the eye passing and shot selection impressed last weekend but they will not be afforded the same space and time by Dublin this weekend. Dublin need to win this weekend as their points difference already is at this stage a serious handicap. Ger Cunningham and his charges have received their reality check after a promising Walsh Cup campaign and I go for another home win on the basis of their need is greater. Galway like Waterford may experiment given that they won first time out and this is another factor as to why I am fancying Dublin to get their NHL 1A campaign back on track. Dublin by four to five points.

The last game of the weekend in NHL 1A looks like the proverbial game of the weekend. Tipperary travel the short hop to Nowlan Park to take on current All Ireland Hurling champions Kilkenny. Tipperary beat Dublin with surprising ease, their success was buoyed by a well balanced team performance whete the half-back and midfield dominated which allowed Tipperary’s inside full forward line to flourish scoring a collective 0-10 points. A fine return considering the absence of Seamus Callanan. The Tipperary half-back line last weekend looks like the unit that could start in the championship. James Barry at half-back is the natural choice; was wasted in the full-back line last season and his wing backs of Brendan and Padraic Maher are as accomplished wing backs as anyone in the game.

Kilkenny do not do panic and the performance last weekend in a physical encounter to near neighbors Waterford was a good first league outing. For many in the Black and Amber, it was their first genuine competitive game of the season and it showed early doors. Kilkenny started the NHL campaign slow last season and this season is no different as Brian Cody gave a couple of fringe players a chance to impress. The tried and trusted names will be back in Kilkenny colors come championship but the retirement of Richie Power and the season ending injury to Ger Aylward could seriously dent Kilkenny later in the year. This is a game which both teams will be looking to win. Michael Ryan and Tipperary management need to set down a marker to Kilkenny this year and what better way than to inflict a second successive NHL loss on Kilkenny who will be eager to get points on the board. I am edging this fixture to Tipperary as their physical display against Dublin last weekend was the best that I have seen from a Premier County in the league for several seasons. Their fitness levels were on the money and should see them over the line. Tipp to edge this by two points and it should be a cracker.

NHL 1B

The marquee game of this division comes from Wexford as the hosts look to bounce back from a horrendous Limerick loss to entertain Davy Fitzgerald / Donal Og Cusack’s Clare outfit who eventually ran out easy winners against Offaly last time out. The Wexford camp need a boost after the shock exit of Jack Guiney from the county panel. It appeared that Guiney and Liam Dunne had settled their differences after a dramatic exit from the panel last season due to alleged disciplinary grounds but it all changed come last Friday when Guiney’s withdrawal from the county panel was common knowledge in Wexford. The Guiney situation was a distraction for Wexford as they lacked bite and physicality against Limerick in the Gaelic Grounds. The work rate and application was missing for long periods and a repeat on Sunday could spell serious danger for Liam Dunne’s tenure as county hurling manager.

Wexford need to produce a performance this weekend and Clare will be all too aware of this expected backlash considering the comments coming from Davy Fitzgerald whose pre-season preparations have being hit by the injuries to Pat Donnellan and Tony Kelly. Clare’s win against Offaly last weekend was routine and all the forward line unit got on the scoreboard. Peter Duggan at full-forward was a worthwhile experiment but the performance has to be guarded considering Offaly’s disciplinary self-destruction in the second half where two players were sent off in an eight minute spell. Clare will receive a stern test from an  improved Wexford who should have some of the Oulart the Ballagh contingent back to the first team fold but the Banner men look like they mean business early doors in the season so it is Clare for me by five points.

Limerick travel to Killarney to meet Ciaran Carey and Mark Foley’s Kerry team who shocked Laois last weekend with a fully merited seven point win albeit I sense that this weekend will be a difficult task. Limerick hurling is on a fine run at present with the success of Na Piarsaigh in club and the third level college success of LIT, Mary Immaculate and UL reaching the last four of the Fitzgibbon Cup.  Limerick’s performance last weekend was solid albeit Wexford were extremely poor. Several players took their opportunity with both hands and the scoreboard ticked over throughout. Limerick on paper should have too much for a Kerry team who will battle hard in the first fifty minutes but sense that Limerick’s squad depth in the last twenty minutes will see them home. Limerick to win by five points at least but Kerry will show anyone at this game why they defeated Laois last weekend, some tidy hurlers in their side and this experience is what they crave as they prepare for their debut in Leinster SHC in the summer.

The last game of the division looks like the proverbial must win to stave off relegation. Laois and Offaly come into this game on the back of two poor losses. Laois were beaten comprehensively by a rampant and hungry Kerry at home while Offaly were a long second best to Clare despite their red cards. It is going to be tough to pick a winner in this game as both sides showed precious little last weekend. Offaly get the nod more because there may be added incentive to beat Laois after last season’s reversals. Whoever losses is destined to prop the division table with Kerry looking menacing to add another victory to their name.

RBS 6 Nations – Round 2 Reflections

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Apologies on the late blog posting. Valentines Day weekend and yours truly was on a romantic jaunt but rest assured that I was able to fit in some rugby action to boot.

Le Bleu win the war

Paris in February should not be like this; rotten wet conditions, precious little excitement from open play and a match official who flat out botched the contentious talking point. Maestri is an enigma; the Toulouse second row always seem to have an edge when facing Ireland and so it proved last weekend with his cynical high shot on Johnny Sexton who is now resembling a washed up boxer who has taken one too many punches. The indiscretion may have yielded the opening three points in this dour contest for Ireland but where was the actual punishment for the crime. Maestri on another day should have served at least ten minutes in the sin bin for the offense; perhaps unfinished business after the Ireland RWC triumph but the offense was clearly more than only a penalty.

It summed up the afternoon of Jaco Peyper; was not decisive enough in the set piece where both teams were guilty of scrum infringements. France appeared to be wheeled on a number of occasions in the opening period bossed by Ireland but the South African like the match officiating eternity are writing their own rules on constitutes a scrum infringement. The breakdown for both sides resembled starting formations in trench warfare; sealing off a plenty but no action and then several forward passes were ignored. Perhaps, the referee was trying to let the game flow as there was precious little to entertain the masses in the stand.

Both sides will point to the weather but the lack of cutting edge from either side with ball in hand was massively disappointing. Ireland’s lack of scoring creativity when in periods of dominance was exposed for the second week in a row. The three quarters have being defensively tight but with ball in hand have shown precious little in game line yards. The front five were improved from the opening fixture but in key points of that opening period, the set piece failed to execute and opportunities were spurned.

France improved after the break much to do with their scrum which was getting the benefit of the doubt from the man in the middle. It was the pressure in the scrum which yielded the pivotal game winning score as France pressure five meters from the Ireland line saw O’Donnell having to hold his position for a fraction second late in the scrum which allowed Medard to evade the back row player and score the try. The sense of relief in the French ranks spoke volumes; a key moment potentially in the development of this squad and one that French supporters will hope with see increased confidence in the side to play a more expansive game.

For Ireland, it is reflection on how decisive line breaks can be converted into points; all too common mistakes in the red zone from last weekend were exposed yet again. A question mark in terms of three quarters should surely emerge. McCloskey and Marshall’s power and creativity surely comes into the equation. Henshaw for all his promise has shown precious little with ball in hand in this tournament and it is time that McCloskey partners the Leinster bound player to form a long term partnership. Payne is a natural full-back and should compete for that position alongside Kearney, precious little came from full back hitting the line last weekend. Time for changes but will Joe Schmidt react. The fact that Jack McGrath had to play yet another full game speaks volumes on Schmidt’s view point on his squad depth at prop. Furlong was exposed at scrum time when introduced and James Cronin is apparently not ready for the international fray. Cian Healy’s return cannot come quick enough. A miserable fixture and one that will not be in the archive reel.

Wales triumph, Scotland woe

Scotland are becoming used to being the bridesmaid of RBS 6N tournament. They are getting into positions to win but a lack of composure and game management is their fatal flaw. As like last weekend, Scotland botched a clear try scoring opportunity when John Barclay strode with ball in hand but not seening a colleague on the outside fly kicked the ball away into touch. Wales got out of jail and never looked back.

This contest was incredibly entertaining; would not be hard considering the drab opening match affair. The plus points for Wales was the performances of Jamie Roberts who was a man mountain with ball in hand and defensively dominant with some crunch hits (just ask Cowan) and George North whose work rate and aerial threat was rewarded with a sensational try in the second half to seal victory. The negative is potentially the imbalance that Wales have in the back row. Tipuric and Warburton are superb players but their understanding is little off at this time. Lydiate’s relationship with Warburton is immense and it will be interesting to see how Gatland negotiates this point.

Scotland’s performance was again encouraging after a disastrous start conceding such an early score but the fight, heart and decision to play expansive was commendable. Cotter’s charges were full value for their half-time lead. Their try in the opening period was superbly worked, numerous phrases exposing Wales defense out wide and Finn Russell (taking the right decision) to kick the ball aerially for Tommy Seymour to touch down. Seymour’s performance for Scotland was the first highlight. The Glasgow Warrior back was superb both in work rate, aerial exchanges and his ability to make game line yards caught the eye. The second highlight for Scotland was the emergence of Duncan Taylor in the three quarters. The Saracens player has had to be patient for his opportunity but showed his skills with an assured performance culminating in an impressive try which showcased his ability to pick a superb running line and finish a try scoring move.

Wales’s second half performance in the third quarter won this contest; their scrum continued to impress yielding penalties to create set piece opportunities close to Scotland’s line. Roberts’ try was as emphatic as you will see all tournament; great running line but his physical power was never going to be stopped. North’s try was the end product of sustained Wales pressure, several missed Scotland tackles which was caused by an energy sapping previous fifteen minutes was crucial. Taylor’s try was too little, too late but Scotland have shown again that if they can improve that they will win matches. Wales stride on further in the tournament eyeing up England and France as the pivotal games to potentially reclaiming the championship.

England stroll (in the second half)

Joseph hat-trick of tries. Jamie George’s cameo and a certain number six introduction (Maro Itoje) who will become an England legend are the high points for Eddie Jones but there were issues in the opening forty minutes as Italy took the game to their visitors. The Italian pack were competitive in the lineout and their maul caused England problems forcing penalties. England’s attack were blunted by an initial Italian defense line full of speed and enthusiasm but the second half saw the hosts tire and allowed England space for Ford / Youngs and Care to launch their three quarters. Joseph’s pace was exposing Italy defensively and it highlighted a total lack of defensive structure from Italy in the outer fringes.

40-9 scoreline was harsh on Italy considering their first half efforts but let us be honest until they start to develop a quality out-half and attacking game plan with their backs, this sort of score could be replicated before the end of the tournament. England receive a major confidence boost but there are questions on the captain already. Hartley and George debate will rage in the England national media as the Saracens hooker cameo was brilliant full of work rate, line breaks and correct game management decisions.

Itoje at six also impressed. The player will become a superb second row option but his sheer athleticism at the breakdown will have Robshaw wondering on his starting place. Mike Brown’s performance was atypical mixed and Jones surely will be looking at Goode as a viable alternative option. Eddie Jones’ reign has started well but more pressing engagements lie in wait in Wales and France. Ireland in two weeks time may come at a good time for England considering the injury and lack of form issues plighting Joe Schmidt’s side.

RBS 6 Nations – Round 2 Preview

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The second round of the tournament has arrived and with it has come management conundrums on how to freshen the starting lineups without losing continuity and performance levels. The weekend fixtures have thrown up some intriguing subplots and Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the key pointers to look out for.

France vs. Ireland

Ireland have come out the wrong end of the fixture scheduling this season. After a bruising draw against Wales last Sunday, Joe Schmidt’s charges travel to Paris on less than six days rest and preparation. The fixture has come too soon for Simon Zebo (knee niggle) and Keith Earls (concussion) but Joe Schmidt can rely on Rob and Dave Kearney fill those starting berths respectively. Dave Kearney’s inclusion may raise eyebrows but the player has a chance of redemption after a disastrous RWC quarter-final against Argentina who exposed his wing throughout with power and pace. His afternoon of redemption could be potentially hard earned considering who will be up against in the speed merchant Thomas and try scoring machine Vakatawa whose power and speed is scarily good with ball in hand, whether he is as good defensively remains an entirely different story.

France have named six changes to the starting lineup but Noves has kept faith with his half-back pairing. Bezy and Plisson along with Jonathan Danty have the skills and power to break the Ireland defensive line. The decision to retain his half-back pairing is in stark contrast to Noves’ predecessors who consistently were tinkering with scrum-half and out-half position leading to rudderless France game management. The attacking side of the ball looks extremely interesting on paper but defensively they have shown that there are spaces to exploit so the question is whether Henshaw and Payne have the skill set to take advantage.

The game will be decided in the front five and I fear for Ireland. The scrum was second best against Wales last weekend even though Schmidt is quick to quip on the officiating of the set piece. The microscope will be focused firmly on Nathan White who needs to hold his own in the scrum against a French scrum which showed positive signs for long periods last weekend. With Slimani waiting for his chance off the bench, Ireland’s front row will receive a stern examination. Does Jack McGrath have to play a full game again? Why have James Cronin on the bench if management does not have any obvious faith in the player? The second row battle looks like advantage France. Maestri and Flanquart provide both beef and lineout solidity where Ireland showed massive vulnerabilities at second and third lineout options last weekend. McCarthy as a lineout option is mediocre at best and France will look to identify that weak point.

France even not playing well scored three very well worked tries last weekend. An attacking system is forming under Noves and Ireland’s defensive structures will be tested and due to the scheduling, gaps will open in the last twenty minutes. France require payback for some abject performances against Ireland in recent games. Despite the inclusion of O’Brien to the back row, Ireland are looking to struggle to gain parity in the breakdown due to the inclusion of Camara in rhe side, his pace and power will be a massive bonus for Le Bleu. France by ten points for me and Ireland’s schedule will catch up on them in the final quarter, damn those blasted computational algorithmic fixture programs.

Wales vs. Scotland

Wales have the Ireland scenario to contend with; a six day turnaround but they have home comforts to fall back on as they welcome a Scotland side whose indifferent performance against England makes them underdogs. Wales name Dan Biggar in their lineup even though the Ospreys half-back did not look comfortable last weekend. The Wales team is among familiar lines and the back row options that Gatland has at his disposal is the envy of the other teams in this tournament. The interesting point from this game will be how Wales improve their attacking play; extremely one dimensional last weekend against Ireland with ball carriers crashing ball into a resolute Ireland defense with minimal offloading opportunities. Roberts and Davies at three quarters need to vary their attacking lines and for their colleagues to support them off their shoulder to receive the ball. Wales need to show a different side to their play in the attacking sense so as to boost their points difference come the end of the tournament.

Scotland enter this fixture after a indifferent showing against perennial rivals England at Murrayfield. The six point loss to anyone who saw the result on Sunday morning at the breakfast table a close run thing but in reality the game should have being a fifteen point defeat such was England’s dominance for long periods in the pack. Owen Farrell’s kicking performance left Scotland in the contest but the hosts were unable to string any continuity to their play. The out-half options are scarce and Finn Russell’s cameo was indifferent at best who failed to launch his three quarters and botched a genuine try scoring opportunity by fly kicking the ball after intercepting an England attack close to the Scottish line. It is this lack of game management which is losing games continually for Scotland in this tournament. Hogg is the standout player in the side but his ball touches are minimal from full back which surely must spark managerial conversation in switching Hogg to three quarters or even at fly-half to provide creativity and attacking line speed.

Wales enter this contest as slight favorites but with the six day turnaround and the fact that the same players are predominantly featuring for the Welsh, Scotland have a chance but they need to show significant improvement in all aspects of play to cause the upset. The scrum battle will be a key tussle and Wales’ Evans and Lee will be buoyed by their display against Ireland last weekend while Scotland’s scrum buckled under intense England pressure. The game for me will be decided in the back line and Wales have more weapons and a out-half who looks capable of unleashing his three quarters while his counterpart does not. Scotland to be competitive but Wales to edge this by seven points. Cotter will need to rethink his approach to out-half and back line after this contest as more holes will be picked on their attacking strategy and over-reliance of Laidlaw from the kicking tee.

Italy vs. England

The Sunday matinee and this could be the proverbial stroll in the park for new look England. Eddie Jones’ charges should flashes of offloading and attacking play against Scotland and given the efforts exerted by Italy last weekend, suspect that the level of performance will dip and allow England to score several tries. The England pack produced the best performance of the opening round last weekend; line-out was solid and the scrum was dominant with Coles superb. The maul created Kruis’ try and one suspects more joy against an Italian pack who at times struggled against France. Parisse was immense lasr weekend, showed leadership when others flat out shirked responsibility evident in the last three phrases of play in Paris. The lack of leadership will have hurt the Italian camp in the lead-up to this fixture.

No new faces to energize the camp means that Italy are going to be on fumes come the end of the tournament. The negative thoughts of losing another close contest will be in their minds and England will gratefully lap up any weakness. Eddie Jones’ team need to show their attacking strategy. Nowell in the wing has the pace and power to top the try scoring sheets in this tournament but he needs Ford, Farrell and Joseph to provide the attacking line speed and pass evident in his try last weekend. England to win this fixture at a canter. Italy are going nowhere fast; one dimensional pack orientated game with minimal options out wide. This could be a long, long afternoon for the Azzuri and one wonders where they go from here for the rest of the tournament and their long term strategy leading to the next RWC. England by twenty points despite Parisse’s herculean efforts.

EPL Review

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Leicester City – EPL Champions?

The dream is increasingly becoming a reality. Leicester City delivered an emphatic performance to brush aside Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad Stadium. A performance full of pace, power and incisive attacking threat was too much for City whose back four were again found wanting. Riyad Mahrez’s brace were sensational; his confidence is soaring with each passing game. His second goal was sheer class; giving Joe Hart the eyes and slotting the ball at Hart’s near post spoke volumes. Kasper Schmeichel in goals must have enjoyed his return to Manchester City, a player deemed surplus to requirements several seasons ago, the Dane gave an assured performance in goals and several eye catching saves to boot. Robert Huth defensively was a rock and his threat on Leicester’ set piece is now a concern for opposition with another emphatic header from a corner. City struggled to contain with the pace and power of Leicester’s midfield with Kante and Drinkwater providing game management and incisive passing to setup several goal chances. Vardy’s pace upfront was causing the City back four endless problems and his selfless running was allowing Mahrez to advance further into open space. The fixture list still looks daunting for the Foxes with a trip to Arsenal next weekend and a pivotal last three fixtures of the season with games against Everton, Manchester United and Chelsea but Leicester’s confidence grows with each passing game and it will require a top effort from the chasing pack to wrestle the title away from the East Midlands club. A fantastic story, a fantastic team whose pacey football and direct style has breathed huge life into a league season where the traditional top clubs have flat out under performed. It would be priceless if Leicester City won the league at Stamford Bridge, a fitting repose for Ranieri on his former employer.

Stamford Bridge Stalemate

1-1 draw. Manchester United’s defensive woes were exposed at the death as Costa benefited from a shambolic United defensive line. De Gea was in excellent form, several world class saves and it looked up until Costa’s late equalizer that the Spanish goalkeeper would give United the three points. Lingard’s strike early in the second half was superb and it was just reward for an excellent ten minute spell prior to the strike. United offensively looked more cohesive; a bit more width and with full back support to the likes of Mata to cross for Rooney. Chelsea to their credit had their chances but with De Gea in fine form throughout, it looked to be a forlorn afternoon. Zouma’s anterior cruciate injury will spark rumors that John Terry’s departure from the football club is wide of the mark. A game where both keepers excelled throughout. Courtois’ save from Martial in the opening period was sensational. Both managers will take positives from the game but ultimately a share of the spoils does little for either side’s European ambitions in the league.

Liverpool – Anfield Exodus

The ticket price hike in Anfield was giving the reaction that Ian Ayre needed to say as fans walked out after seventy-six minutes which sparked a Sunderland revival. Mignolet took a step forward in his penalty shootout heroics against Stoke in the League Cup but his contribution to Sunderland’s comeback would suggest that Klopp will look at his options in the off-season. Adam Johnson’s free kick goal was soft and with his back four rattled after that concession, Defoe struck for the equalizer. Liverpool prior to the last fifteen minutes were in total control, took their goals well and did not look threatened as Sunderland defensively looked vulnerable anytime the hosts attacked from wide positions. The ticket hike is a slap in the face of the fans and one wonders where FSG will use the increased revenue. Will they reinvest in the club or put it in their pockets?

Other Games

Could Norwich’s 5-4 loss to Liverpool be the defining point of their season. Their lack of confidence was exposed in a 2-0 loss to Villa. Declan Rudd’s decision to come out for a ball which he never looked like getting spoke volumes as Agbonlahor scored his easiest goal of the season. Norwich are relegation certainties; cannot get clean sheets and their attacking options are having their work overtime to get anything from games. Naismith was an astute signing but Alex Neil may rue the fact that no defensive cover was added before the close of the January transfer window.

WBA are plunged back into the relegation battle. The Berahino saga of will he, won’t he stay at the football club extends for another transfer window and it reflected on the pitch as Newcastle comfortably beat Tony Pulis’ side. Mitrovic scored the winner and his goals will be crucial in the season run-in. The performances of Townsend and Shelvey as well will be important to the club but Newcastle now have enough attacking options to stave off relegation. Newcastle defensively will be put to the test but Saivet and Tiote’s central midfield defensive instincts should improve the side’s shape defensively.

Palace and Swansea share the spoils. Swansea slowly getting out of trouble and Palace continue to look for a proven striker to win games. Adebayor signing is a sign of desperation from Alan Pardew such is their need for a striker to score goals. Swansea will survive but there could be an exodus come the end of the season. Ashley Williams surely will move to another football club with league title aspirations.

Bournemouth will rue the fact that Flamini was not given his marching orders yesterday, two footed lunge at the ball and no red card was a shocker. Arsenal from then on cruised to victory; great goals from Ozil and Chamberlain but if the red card was issued, the game could have gone in a different direction.

Tottenham win again, a good win against a tough Watford side. Trippier’s strike at the back post in the second half was enough but Tottenham’s passing and movement yielded several gilt edged chances. Another clean sheet for Tottenham and the fixture list does not seem to be hindering their progress in league and cup fronts. The true test is when the Europa League action returns; the lack of preparation time for league games could be decisive.

RBS 6 Nations – Reflections

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The first round of games in this weekend’s RBS 6N tournament is in the books. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the opening round of fixtures and wonders if a change in tournament calendar date would improve the product on the pitch.

France Survive

Make no mistake about it, Le Bleu got out of jail against Italy. A performance which tried to add width and creativity was reduced at times to frenzied disorganization and where defensive duties was greeted with indifference. JP Doyle’s pivotal call to ping man of the match Sergio Parisse for moving with the ball when tackled by Camara (marginal tackle and if it was a tackle, it was high) on the seventy-fourth minute incensed the Italian talisman and decided the game when an emphatic penalty kick from Plisson. The Azurri were now facing an uphill battle as Doyle decided to let the French pack off with some blatant offside indiscretions, no attempt to roll away from the tackle. It was incredibly maddening stuff for Italy whose work rate and endeavor had set the platform for victory before the winning score but the lack of success in Italian club rugby and a distinct lack of accountability in the Italian kicking options to take on a drop goal was disgraceful. Parisse was forced to take the kick on and his forlorn look around at the likes of Haimona and McLean spoke volumes. Italy are going nowhere with that lack of leadership and responsibility. France may have scored three tries and their scrum did perform well but that will not be enough to win the championship. Their lack of defensive awareness at times bordered on the ridiculous and if Le Bleu had faced a team with more threat in the back line, the result would have being a different story. Ireland’s six day turnaround means that France potentially could enter the fixture as slight favorites but the lazy defense that marred their RWC campaign was in full effect today and a repeat could give the likes of Sexton and Payne a proverbial field day.

England pack power overwhelms Scotland

Scotland – the true enigma of the 6N tournament. How many years have the pundits and media masses talked up the chances of Scotland only for the same flaws get exposed in the first game of the tournament. The Hastings, Jim Jeffries are long gone and so has Scotland’s inability to genuinely compete in the tournament. England may have won by six points but this loss was as devastating for Scotland as a thirty point trouncing. Scotland’s pack were exposed yet again in a maul situation as Kruis went over with relative ease. The scrum bolstered by Nel was going backwards in key periods as Vunipola at eight was making increasingly added yard as the minutes ticked by. To Scotland’s pack credit, they refused to give up and their lineout was solid which set some level of platform for their back line to impress but more flaws were ruthlessly exposed. Finn Russell’s cameo at ten was indifferent at best; his decision to fly kick in the second half when intercepting an England attack was shocking consider full back Hogg was screaming for the ball on the outside. The missed opportunity compounded by the fact that the television cameras panned in on Russell laughing about the incident seconds later. Laidlaw was accurate in his kicking game but Russell was unable to launch Bennett or Hogg in the back line. Hogg is the standout back line option and one wonders if Scotland should move the talent to fly-half. Lions tour management tested Hogg at the position and it admirably filled the role. Vern Cotter could do a lot worse at present. England’s win was mission accomplished; their pack was solid and organized throughout. The scrum looks to be a potent weapon for Eddie Jones’ charges. When you consider Farrell’s missed kicks, the scoreline flattered Scotland and the two tries that England scored were well constructed. Nowell’s try exposed misreads in the Scotland’s three quarters before the Exeter Chief dived for the corner. England will be hard to beat in this tournament. Scotland need a shrink, a change at ten and potentially a net new three quarters partnership to unleash the likes of Maitland and Hogg. Scotland took one step forward in the RWC but suddenly after this cameo have taken two steps back. Vern Cotter could be waiting a while for his first 6N tournament win such are the issues at present in his side; surprising considering Glasgow Warriors are reigning Pro 12 champions.

Stalemate at Aviva

The draw was greeted with a moot reaction from both sides. The game was the standout fixture in the opening round; great passages of play, incredible physicality and defensively solid cameos. Wales and Ireland will look to next weekend with confidence despite the six day turnaround. Stander’s debut was the stuff of dreams; imposing throughout with or without the ball. Ireland’s back row did an effective job of stifling the influence of the much vaunted Welsh back row although Faletau had a monster game. Wales will look to the front row for their source of comfort; their scrum set piece was dominant and asked massive questions of Nathan White throughout. Wales were untroubled in lineout set piece while Ireland struggled for a third jumper option. Mike McCarthy is not an international jumping option. Donnacha Ryan’s cameo gave Ireland more options in the set piece. Both sides will be pleased with their defensive displays but  on the flip-side, both back lines showed a lack of composure and change of tactics to unlock their counterpart, too many running lines were crash ball specific and not enough drubber kicks or awareness of space out wide. The two teams on show gave a stirring performance considering the weather conditions and should be fighting it out for the championship. The Triple Crown and Grand Slam may be gone but both teams have the quality and nous to beat England and France in the weeks to come.

Wet and Dreary Weather – Poor 6N Product?

The weather conditions this time of year in the NH is abysmal and the product on the pitch reflects as much. All three fixtures were devoid of a quality offloading ball, risk averse tactics to retain ball at every opportunity due to the weather conditions. If the tournament was held in April, then potentially the standard of competition would improve. The weather conditions are defining how teams approach fixtures; attritional, low risk strategy and it was wholly exposed during the RWC tournament where the NH teams were exposed for a lack of basic skill set and quick game management decisions. The standard of play in this tournament only picked up in the last set of fixtures last season; coincided with improved weather conditions. There has to be a rethink to the fixture scheduling. A trial period should be embraced and would improve the attractiveness of the tournament.