Rugby Thoughts

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Luke Fitzgerald shock retirement

It was with great surprise this morning that Luke Fitzgerald announced his retirement from the game with immediate effect. The talented Blackrock College player who oozed class with ball in hand and ability to find a gap from absolutely nothing. Fitzgerald has had many highs with province, country and representational honors with the Lions. However, the number of injuries sustained in the last two years have taken their toll culminating in the neck injury sustained against Connacht in the Guinness Pro 12 final which has forced this shock retirement.

It is very sad to see such a talented player forced to retire before his thirties but the wear and tear on the modern professional rugby player is pointing to a career if you are lucky of around seven or eight years. Luke Fitzgerald class was seen in the RWC Quarter Final loss to Argentina last season with one of the tries of the tournament. Fitzgerald ability to evade contact and his blistering pace were too much for Argentina and gave Ireland a sniff of crawling back Argentina’s lead.

Leinster have lost a model professional in the dressing room and compounds the departures of the likes of Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan and potentially Mike McCarthy if rumors are true that the second row will retire due to concussion. A sad day for Ireland Rugby. All the best Luke in your future plans, no doubt whatever you do, you will excel in your chosen career of choice.

Racing Metro are Top 14 Champions!

A brilliant final in the Nou Camp last Friday which was nearly destroyed again by match official in vogue Raynal for a somewhat debatable sending off of Marchenaud early doors. This match official is so trigger happy that he actually scares me what he will do next.

The early sending off should have being that as Toulon built a nice lead before the interval but Racing Metro were not to be denied with a performance of absolute defiance. It always helps when your fly-half is only one Dan Carter who was instrumental in the victory; cool head under pressure and his game management was on the money throughout.

Toulon will wonder how they conspired not to score a try at the death; a scrum virtually on the Racing Metro line but it was squandered thanks to an impressive scrum by Racing Metro. Rokocoko’s try midway through the second half was sensational.

You can call it an upset but given Racing’s financial riches along with their final counterparts, the shock factor is minimal. The setting of the Nou Camp set a magnificent backdrop to the final. The fast track surface lent itself to an expansive game.

Well done Ronan O’Gara, his coaching reputation continues to soar. It is only a matter of time until the Munster man is head coach at a top rugby club.

RWC U20 Championship Final

The post-mortem has already being written but Ireland came up against an England side whose team contained several players who have experienced first team experience for their clubs; massive experience on an occasion like this. Ireland were on the back foot throughout and it was only a matter of time until England hit the front where Mallinder and Marchant were outstanding providing the game management and dynamic ball carrying respectively.

The fact that these two players are playing regular first team rugby with their clubs of Northampton and London Scottish highlighted the need for our Ireland players to get immersed into our provincial first team squads as soon as possible. Ryan, Porter and Deegan who were superb in this tournament need to be given the opportunity to stake their claim in their respective provinces but such is the player pool in Leinster that Ryan and Deegan will struggle for genuine game time next season thus stunting their professional growth and development.

It is time for Peter Nucifora to take responsibility and assign these underage players to the four provinces to achieve this, otherwise we are in danger of letting slip a new exciting generation of Irish rugby player. James Ryan has all the skills, work rate and leadership to become an Ireland great already.

It was a disappointing end to the tournament but given the wins against Wales, New Zealand, Georgia and Argentina indicates the massive pool of talent unearthed by Nigel Carolan and coaching staff. Their philosophy of playing expansive rugby in the 6N tournaments despite making at times mistakes has to be applauded and is now bearing fruit.

England U20 setup and grass roots development are on the money, expect massive England performance strides in the senior side come the next RWC with the likes of Mallinder, Marchant and Chick in their ranks.

England frozen by Iceland

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When is an elimination from a tournament such as UEFA Euro 2016 is acceptable? As the two Ireland teams are greeted with jubilation by their respective supporters in Dublin and Belfast respectively after second round exits, England media / fans / remain campaign look for answers after their exit.

Do England media and fans put too much pressure on their national side? The lead-up to the tournament suggested that Roy Hodgson had selected a squad with youth and experience. The Lion mascot was helping with the team spirit in the camp. Nothing could deflect that optimism until Russia spoiled the Marseilles riot with that last minute equalizer.

The old wounds of tournaments past came back to haunt England. A 2-1 win against Wales secured qualification to the last sixteen, a fixture where Roy Hodgson was given the benefit of the doubt by throwing on Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge to resurrect their tournament chances. Yes, they delivered scoring a goal each but deeply troubling defensive problems were rearing their head.

An uninspired 0-0 draw against a limited Slovakia side was greeted with indifference; fans accused Slovakia of parking the bus but England lacked the final third nous and cuteness to unlock the defense. Potential for improvement was the key words from the English media hordes tonight and a routine win against a nation who are only delighted to be in the tournament. Wrong.

Apart from the opening exchanges when Daniel Sturridge excellent pass to Raheem Sterling forced the penalty which Wayne Rooney scored, England lacked the poise and quality to unlock an Icelandic defense who were superb throughout. It would be unfair to single out one defender. The unit was immense and did not give England a sniff thereafter.

1-0 up and England should have being in cruise control but the manner in which the equalizer was scored must raise serious questions on the coaching or the ability of the players to pick up information on opposition. Iceland’s opener against Austria came from a long throw which caused havoc in the Austrian defense.

You would think that England would have watched the footage, told Cahill and Smalling to win the first ball and for Dier to be alert on the second ball. Nope. The positioning of Kyle Walker on the goal was horrendous, his positioning and realization of the danger was non-existent as Sigurdsson coasted back the England cover and slotted the ball past Hart. It was unfortunate for Walker who has had a decent tournament but the general systematic errors in the England rearguard to defend a set-piece more noted in the Unibond League will have dismayed fans, pundits alike.

The Iceland second goal further exposed rearguard weakness. Cahill and Smalling as a central defensive pairing were at fault, neither player pressed Sigurdsson or Sigthorsson in the lead-up of the goal. It exposed massive leadership questions from the pair to defend the threat. The Joe Hart party piece cannot be kicked to the kerb but the defensive shape and pressure applied to the Iceland intricate triangular passing routine was awful. Lewington and Neville would have being embarrassed by the roles of the defenders for the goal. Joe Hart’s gloves were coated in butter, another clanger to add to the Wales goal earlier in the tournament.

England were down in the game, cue panic after forty minutes with route one ball. No genuine attempt to unlock the Icelandic defense with passing and movement on the flanks. Players when presented with good positions out wide decided to take an extra touch instead of hitting an early cross. It looked like England players’ minds were blown; could not think clearly and the lack of first touch and delivery from set-piece spoke volumes, something which Hodgson and management had thought was improved during their qualification campaign.

Iceland coped comfortably with England’s threat. I cannot recall the Icelandic keeper making a serious save in that second half and Iceland could have scored an insurance goal to rubber-stamp the victory. This was a victory borne from desire, determination, team work and that each player was equal. Their football at times may have being route one but several passages of play were well worked and exposed England’s lack of creativity in the process.

Roy Hodgson honorably stepped aside and resigned from his post. This result is more than Roy Hodgson. It is a systematic failure of the senior national team to cultivate the right culture for players to express themselves in a creative fashion. The team were stifled. The players may have had their limitations but there is something seriously a miss. The best coaches could not resolve the limited options shown by England at both ends of the pitch.

Grassroots will be mentioned but let us face facts. England need to pick the right players for tournaments of this nature. The omission of Danny Drinkwater was a massive mistake and compounded by the fact that Jordan Henderson received limited game minutes. The decision to get Marcus Rashford spoke panic squad selection to appease the mass media. John Stones – why bring the player if you were only going to keep him on the bench. Danny Rose at full back, defensive inept at dealing with crosses was exposed during the Russian game.

Well done Iceland. France in the quarter finals which will be an incredible night. Iceland have shown England that egos have no place in the dressing room and that team unity and spirit are paramount. The Icelandic conditioning and physicality was too much for England tonight. No money in grassroots will give you that; hunger, determination and ability to adapt in a match have being the hallmarks of this tournament. England have to take note now or else being further cast adrift with the chasing pack.

 

South Africa 19 – 13 Ireland

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Opportunity lost? This was arguably one of the worse South African sides in the history of the professional game but Ireland conspired to loss this series. This 19-13 loss exposed areas of play regardless of the personnel not at Joe Schmidt’s disposal that have plighted the team’s performance for the entire season.

The Good

When Joe Schmidt and coaching staff reflect on this contest, they will be happy with how the three quarters went. Luke Marshall and Stuart Olding provided creativity and ability to break the game line throughout.

Marshall’s try was opportunistic in nature; spotting fly-half Elton Jantjies in a poor defensive position took his man on and scored unopposed from short range. The lead-up to the try was excellent from Ireland; quick ruck ball and runners receiving the ball with pace leaving the Springboks scrambling to retain their defensive shape. A quality score and one that gave Ireland a deserved 10-3 lead.

Jack McGrath was superb. His ball carrying resulted in endless game line yard gains. McGrath in the absence of Cian Healy has grown into the prop position and is the default pick for Schmidt going forward. Healy may have explore his options and a switch to the other side of the scrum could be an option provided that his injury woes are addressed.

The second row partnership of Toner and Henderson continues to prosper. Henderson’s manic work rate and aggression with ball in hand and defensive duties set the tone for the rest of the pack. Toner at lineout is a joy to watch, reliable lineout ball winner even though Ireland were forced to throw first in the line given Etzebeth influence in this area (second and third lineout pods). Ireland’s lineout though limited in pod options was solid and set a good platform for Murray and Jackson to launch Ireland attacks.

CJ Stander. His work rate and ability to srifle South Africa ruck ball was evident throughout. The South African native showed little mental scars from his controversial red card two weeks ago with an action packed performance.

Stander was ably assisted by Heaslip who was calmness personified; tackle count and work rate high. The lack of a mobile seven who could compete consistently at the breakdown was highlighted in the last quarter when the Springboks started to take control of the breakdown area. Murphy tried hard but he was blown out of the breakdown area by Louw. Kriel would have had a field day if started.

The Mediocre

The Ireland scrum was in trouble as it was last weekend in Pretoria. Mike Ross as an international prop looks numbered; constantly put on the back foot by ‘The Beast’ throughout and at times lucky not to be pinged further which would have led to a near certain sin bin appearance.

Tadgh Furlong’s cameo was encouraging but there are question marks on the Wexford’s native ability at scrum-time, a penalty concession deep into the second half does not provide convincing evidence that Furlong has where with all to dominate in the set piece even though his mobility and work rate is beyond reproach.

The Bad

There is a massive massive issue in how the professional game is being officiated. Two weeks ago, CJ Stander was sent off for a hit on Patrick Lambie. Stander was in mid-air, failed to protect his opponent in the air and paid the consequences. Willie Le Roux cleaned debutant Tiernan O’Halloran in mid-air and failed to protect the Connacht player coming down.

A red surely but the scenes which happened after brought the game into disrepute. For a TMO to claim that O’Halloran landed on his back was down right wrong. The TMO shirked responsibility. Glenn Jackson was forced to issue a yellow card but it highlighted the lack of consistency when incidents such as this take place. Raynal and Jackson’s rulings in recent weeks has caused massive confusion on what constitutes a red card? Lack of credibility in match officiating after this sorry saga.

There is an issue with captaincy after this match. Rory Best is a standout player but his leadership was lacking during the pivotal O’Halloran incident. No pressure applied to the match officials to issue a red; gave the match officials an easy pass when you consider how the South Africans rounded on Raynal on the CJ Stander red card two weeks ago. Leadership maybe in the dressing room but in the heat of battle, it looked quite lacking. Food for thought for Schmidt and management.

South Africa stifled Ireland quick ball in that second half. The breakdown became messy and unfortunately no go forward ball was generated. It exposed back row imbalance and Ireland were pinged for going off their feet on several occasions, a sign of Ireland being put under immense pressure in this department.

Unfortunately, Ireland unforced error count was too high in that second half to win this test match. Lack of communication was seen on several times with players not expecting passes or not calling for marks.

The last ten minutes was frantic. Sean Cronin burst deep in Ireland territory and pass to Jackson provided momentum but there was a lack of  ingenuity to breakdown a resolute South Africa defense who looked exposed on the flanks.

A diagonal kick from Jackson perhaps? No, that was executed by South Africa. The Luke Marshall forward pass to Earls in the opening period came back to haunt the team. A tour which could have produced much more than the series result.

Schmidt and team have learned plenty but fundamental questions still remain despite the players putting their bodies on the line.

Hail Hail Republic of Ireland

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International football, one minute a player is in total agonish over a missed opportunity and then the next minute provides a sublime cross for a colleague to score the match winner. Those were the roller coaster of emotions experienced by Wes Hoolahan in the closing stages of the game but wasn’t it worth it?

Republic of Ireland have advanced to the last sixteen of the competition by virtue of a late late Robbie Brady goal which secured a best third place spot. There will be some that will rumble on Conte’s Italian lineup (a team full of fringe squad players) but given the pressure that was on the Republic of Ireland tonight, the performance was on point throughout.

Martin O’Neill has being ridiculed by the media hoards for not taking risks in team selection, cue tonight’s selection which was a lineup of several big calls. The decision to play a new central defensive partnership was a ballsy move. Richard Keogh and Shane Duffy who both had excellent Championship seasons were introduced for John O’Shea and Ciaran Clark whose lack of pace and game decision making respectively was costly in the Belgian performance last weekend.

Many expected O’Neill to sacrifice James McCarthy in the central midfield but Glenn Whelan was dropped. The decision was justified as McCarthy controlled the pocket in front of the back four and his commitment to the cause was seen when he put his head and body on the line throughout his seventy minute cameo.

The Belgium game approach of 4-5-1 formation was ditched for a 4-4-2 formation. Daryl Murphy coming into the attack and his aerial ability caused Italian’s defense problems. Murphy’s nuisance factor allowed Shane Long to make runs down the channels. It was an excellent team selection; full of positive energy and the players produced.

High tempo was the key from the first exchanges. Republic of Ireland players pushed up high up the park, not allowing Italy to settle into the game. Republic were the dominant force in that opening period and Hendrick again to the fore with a composed display. His passing and game management were superb and was unlucky not to score with a long range early in this contest.

Italy were struggling to get to grips with Ireland’s physicality. Tackles were being made, bodies were committed to the cause and Italy were forced to concede corners and set pieces deep in their territory. Daryl Murphy produced a fine header which resulted in an excellent save and then cam e a crucial moment potentially in the game. How the energetic James McClean was not given a penalty for a stone wall push in the back, god will ever know? The Romanian official had a great position to see the incident and bottled it.

Seamus Coleman as captain led from the front; his leadership in the back four was sublime. Duffy and Keogh reveled in the surroundings. Their dominance in the air and their awareness of danger (something bereft in the previous partnership) resulted in Darren Randolph having a quiet night. Every player put an amazing shift in and the rewards were justified.

Italy could have picked Ireland’s pocket with a late strike which hit the post but Republic of Ireland were increasingly the team looking for the result. McGeady, Hoolahan cameos meant that Italy were forced on the back foot. Thiago Motta was now in an extremely deep position and the cross which led to the goal split open the Italian defense. Brady’s energy to get into the box and then to have the composure to head the ball on target were stellar.

Cue epic scenes in the stadium. Cue epic scenes in every house and bar in the Republic of Ireland. The last three minutes ticked so slowly but the Republic of Ireland played out the match in Italy’s half of the pitch. Duffy and Keogh marshaled the back four with some excellent clearances immediately after the ultimate game winner. Exhaustion was to the fore in that last five minutes but mentally they continued to perform their job with professionalism.

The vital win was secured. A trip to Nice to play the host nation. We owe France one after that disgusting Henri handball in Stade De France. It will be an intriguing couple of days for Ireland management to decide the first team selection. How can you leave anyone from the side tonight out? Duffy and Keogh were as solid as seen in this tournament. We do not need Damien Delaney.  McCarthy answered his critics with an immense performance, aware to all the danger posed by Italy.

Wes Hoolahan is the game changer in our side; his ability to pick a pass or cross is lacking in others in the team. How he was able to do this after the glorious opportunity squandered moments before says a lot about the player. He wanted the responsibility to deliver the key cross in for an Irish player to get on the end of. It was a marvelous crescendo to cap an roller coaster pool stage for Republic of Ireland. Roll on Sunday already!

Where now Limerick Senior Hurling?

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June 19th. Thurles. Munster SHC Semi-Final and a fifth consecutive season where Limerick and Tipperary have renewed local derby bragging rights. It was an opportunity for Limerick to produce a performance to avenge the mother of all comprehensive hammerings at the Gaelic Grounds at the same stage of the championship last season by Tipperary. Think again and TJ Ryan is pretty much a dead man walking. Why did Limerick lose so emphatically to a fourteen man Tipperary side? Hawkeye Sidekick tries to unravel the malaise.

Goalkeeper

Nicky Quaid had no chance for any of three opening salvos. His full back line were split wide open time after time in that opening period. It must have being a terrifying experience for the Effin clubman. Every time that Tipperary launched an attack in that opening period, they looked like scoring a goal. Quaid’s distribution though was extremely one dimensional and several puckouts were sent out to the sidelines giving Limerick’s forward line little quality ball to work from. As good as you can be after leaking three goals early.

Full Back Line Nightmares

The word ‘naive’ came to mind when I saw the initial team lineup. A very inexperienced full back line was announced and one may have suspected that it was TJ Ryan playing a couple of mind games. However, a full-back line consisting of Tom Condon and debutants Dan Morrisey and Richie English lined out to protect Nicky Quaid’s goal.

A massive ask for Ahane’s Dan Morrissey who was up against one of the leading marksmen in the country in Seamus Callanan and one hoped that Limerick would introduce a sweeper system to protect the rookie but it never materialized due to the decision to name Gavin O’Mahoney at half-back.

O’Mahoney’s decision to allow acres of space in front of the full back line in that first quarter was only going to end up in Tipperary scoring endless goals. Morrissey was left continually exposed by the likes of Callanan with his pace highlighted by the Drom Inch player’s goal where Morrissey was guilty of ball watching in the lead-up. Great offload by a rejuvenated Bonnar Maher.

The Ahane player settled into the game thereafter but with three goals already picked out of the net by Nicky Quaid, the damage was done. In this backdrop, Richie English attempted to stem the tide; tried his best but given the distribution and movement of the Tipperary inside forward line endured a torrid afternoon. The Doon player will be asked to assume full back duties after yesterday. His pace is undeniable; question mark on his physicality perhaps but that will come.

Tom Condon, as honest as they come again endured a torrid afternoon due to the issues in the full back position and the massive space afforded by Limerick half-back line to Tipperary’s full forward line. No lessons were learned in twelve months given how Tipperary forward line created space inside.

Half Back Line Balance

O’Mahoney was entrusted with implementing the sweeper system role and it failed miserably. Game management was non-existent at times and distribution to the forward line was sloppy; high hopeful ball in challenging weather conditions was never going to cut it.

The half-back line had little or no balance. Seamus Hickey at wing back albeit his statistics were good was caught several times in possession. The distinct lack of game time was detrimental in that opening period and his limited cameos in the NHL spoke volumes. The Setanta Sports pundit will not recall this game with any fond memories.

Diarmuid Byrnes was the only success story for Limerick in the back line; he was the only player who was willing to drive the team forward throughout and he has an extremely bright future in the game. His role may shift to half-back in the light of the performance produced yesterday albeit Ronan Lynch who was dropped for the contest may be another option to consider particularly in the sweeper system.

Midfield Rout

Let us quite frank; the Limerick midfield were routed from start to finish. Michael Breen’s runs from deep in the opening exchanges were never tracked by either Browne or Ryan and the Ballina native will rarely score two easy goals in his inter-county career. Browne was industrious but no distinct contribution to either back or forward line. James Ryan was also bereft in contributions; struggled to contain Breen and Brendan Maher sit back in the pocket and assisted his back line with the minimum of fuss. The midfield area to be fair has served Limerick well and was not the worse line on show but the alarm bells are ringing. Cian Lynch as a third man midfielder had minimal influence, ran with ball on several occasions but little was produced. The modern game is not suited to a player of the ability of Lynch who needs to adapt quickly to sweeper systems and the reduced time and space on the ball.

Abject Half-Forward Line

The half-forward line was the worse line for Limerick and that is saying something. The decision to play Gearoid Hegarty at number ten when cleaned by Waterford in the NHL semi-final five weeks prior was a head scratcher. The St. Patrick’s clubman is a natural wing back and the Limerick experiment of attempting to convert a quality half-back to the half-forward line (look at Ollie Moran’s Limerick career) looks quite shambolic. I felt incredibly sorry for Hegarty; his championship debut was one to forget. Dominated by Padraic and Brendan Maher, it was a chastening experience. Hegarty’s best days in a Limerick jersey are still to come and one hopes the player can bounce back from a tough championship debut. 

Shane Dowling’s impact from play was minimal as Ronan Maher’s pace and game management mopped most of Limerick’s aimless attacking distribution. Dowling could not be faulted for his free taking and the Na Piarsaigh player is the key forward player for the county now.

Barry Nash, an incredible inside forward was asked to forage in the half-forward line. Worked tirelessly but his best work is at corner forward as seen in last season’s U21 campaign where Nash’s burst of pace with possession caught the eye. Seamus Kennedy was comfortable throughout and Nash’s substitution spoke more about Limerick’s lack of management on the sideline than anything else.

Full Forward Line

Now we get to the full forward line? Mulcahy, Hannan and Lynch who was a third man midfielder flat out never worked. Hannan at full-forward was starved of quality ball. His two point return came from scraps. Is Hannan’s influence more suited to the team at half-back where he plays for his club Adare? Mulcahy tried hard but there was nothing new from the Kilmallock player and Tipperary’s full back line coped well with the threat posed.

Management

Several positional and player switches back fired horribly. There was an air of desperation about this team selection; no consistency in selection from the NHL. Richie McCarthy omission at full back was an enormous call; despite apparent poor challenge game cameos, the Blackrock player pedigree in championship is self-evident. The half-back line as mentioned lack pace and physicality in the aerial challenges. The sweeper system setup was all wrong. O’Mahoney when required to sit deep did not and vice versa. The distribution of the sweeper is now paramount and the hopeless ball hit was an indication of a lack of planning by management to the scenario as well as a distinct lack of movement by the Limerick outfield players. The half-forward line was an adulterated nightmare. No ball winner in the line and Tipperary despite playing with fourteen players dominated proceedings. The lack of substitutes to change the game also caught the eye; no confidence in the likes of Tom Morrisey, Ronan Lynch, Peter Casey was damning.

Hard to see how this management ticket can be retained.The distinct lack of fight and passion from the Limerick team was a throwback to the 2002 season when Dave Keane was ridiculed from pillar to post. Limerick hurling is in for another winter of discontent; a trip to Mullingar in the qualifiers has banana skin written all over it. Limerick’s lethargic approach to this stage of the qualifiers would suggest that Westmeath will relish the challenge. TJ Ryan, a great Limerick hurling servant as player and manager but the players look like they have had their full of the Garryspillane native; dressing room and lost comes to mind. The responsibility of this debacle is a collective but a new direction in management with proven All Ireland success is required. Limerick’s U21 success last seasons looks like a real distant memory.

Limerick Team (Hawkeye Sidekick)

Quaid, Condon, English, Hickey, Hegarty, Byrnes, Ronan Lynch, O’Mahoney, Cian Lynch, Fitzgibbon, Ryan, Tom Morrissey, Dowling, Hannan, Nash.

UEFA Euro 2016: Republic of Ireland 1 – 1 Sweden

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International football is an utterly unforgiving place, the minute mistake or miscalculation is pounced upon and Aston Villa defender Ciaran Clark will testify to that after his own goal gave Sweden a lifeline in this tournament and a share of the spoils. Prior to the own goal, Clark along O’Shea had being in commanding form and stifled any influence from Sweden key player Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Great Republic of Ireland Start

Martin O’Neill’s charges started with tempo and did not let Sweden settle into the contest. The central midfield three of McCarthy, Whelan and Hendrick were winning their midfield battles and laying a solid platform for Republic of Ireland to attack  Sweden flanks which looked vulnerable early doors. Brady and Hoolahan were finding increasing space on the flanks and the Swedish rearguard were forced to work hard. Several chances were created by the Republic of Ireland. Hendrick was very unlucky not to score with an excellent long range effort which smacked off the crossbar. O’Shea on another day may have made a solid connection to the ball after a set-piece in the Sweden box. Brady’s chance as well emphasized the bright start from the Republic of Ireland and really should have being in front at half-time.

Sublime Weso

Wes Hoolahan is a player which provides something different to Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane; the sheer ability to comfortably receive the ball, quickly assess his options and make the right decision with the ball. His movement in the pocket today also caught the eye as Sweden held a very high line in midfield. Hoolahan realizing that space behind Long was non-existent ventured further out on the flanks to assert his influence. The second half started as the first half had ended but this time Republic of Ireland hit the front. Seamus Coleman to the fore with a lovely setup for Hoolahan whose half-volley effort was executed with confidence and technique. Cue the celebrations and Sweden were now asked questions. A goal made from the League of Ireland.

Sweden adapt with a little help from the Republic of Ireland

The opening goal stoked Sweden into life. A subtle switch to create openings on the left flank which Martin Olsson producing cross after cross in the ten minutes after the opening goal and forcing Clark and O’Shea to put in some excellent clearances. The tactical switch from the Swedes was not picked up upon initially by the Republic of Ireland until it was too late when the Swedes without a shot on target got an equalizer.

It was a nightmare goal to concede from the Republic. James McCarthy’s positioning on the flank with no Swedish player within ten yards of him was a baffler. Clark’s anticipation was slow on the threat posed. Randolph conscious of being done at the near post like he was when playing West Ham United by Anthony Martial was stuck to his near post. It was a series of minute mistakes which led to the equalizer. Zlatan showed his class by starting the move and pulling the ball back into a dangerous area forcing Clark to make a decision.  1-1 and game was back in the melting pot.

Sweden full back weak points not fully exploited

Particularly in that opening period, Republic of Ireland flanks were joying plenty  of success against Sweden’s full back pair in that opening period. Brady’s delivery was at times good but it did not fully expose Sweden defensively. One would suspect that Belgium with the likes of Hazard and De Bruyne will wreck havoc on Olsson and Lustig in the final group game. Opportunity lost in this facet of play but it is something to learn from for the next fixture where Belgium’s Hazard and De Bruyne will not want to track back defensively.

Republic of Ireland Team Rating

All players played with heart and determination throughout. The back four looked solid for long periods apart from the own goal. The central midfield after a positive start struggled in the final quarter of the contest. Glenn Whelan and James McCarthy are two similar players. McCarthy at times looks bereft of his role as Whelan is sitting in the defensive pocket.There is an imbalance in the central midfield area engine room and one wonders what options Martin O’Neill has to address this. Jeff Hendrick will need to continue to support Shane Long who after a bright start became increasingly isolated in the second half. Wes was the man of the match and Seamus Coleman was a close second for me; solid defensively and he showed for ball in attacking areas. Randolph was very solid; own goal was unlucky and he produced a razorsharp save in the second half. It was a professional display and lessons particularly in that second half where Sweden’s change of tact posed problems.

Sweden – Zlatan Over-dependency

Sweden to some observers got away with it today. Zero shots on target and they still got a share of the spoils. The over-reliance on Zlatan was evident throughout. As the talisman struggled to gain any influence on proceedings, Sweden’s other attacking option Berg was unable to take advantage and was hauled off on the hour. Guidetti is physical but not in the same class as Zlatan. The midfield area struggled early doors but when the switch was made to launch attacks down their left flank, the likes of Kaellstroem came into the game. Sweden’s performance in that first fifty minutes will not do against Italy at the weekend. Zlatan’s star quality was to the fore on the equalizer and he will need to continue to carry this team on his back who lacked any other creativity force during this opening fixture.

Four points

I think four points is the target for Ireland and Sweden to get to the next phrase of the tournament. With the likes of Slovakia, Albania, Romania, NI, Ukraine in must win territory this week, third place spots could quickly emerge for either side if they can win one of their remaining fixtures. An exciting contest, an end to end affair which had EPL traits. Both sides realize that improvements are required but both teams are on the board and morale continues to build for the rest of the tournament. The fans and atmosphere were sublime today. Well done to both sets of fans, a credit to the game.

 

Euro 2016 – Initial Thoughts

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Dmitri Payet will be a PSG player next season

Slaven Bilic is already scourging the globe for a replacement for the mercurial Payet as the maestro’s sensational winner against a very unlucky Romania side on Friday confirms that the player has all the attributes required to reach the very top. France flattered to deceive and defensively has questions to answer. Patrice Evra is looking leg weary and better teams will expose the Juventus defender in the weeks to come. Koman for me is a streaky player, on his day can be world class but he is still very naive in his development; his lack of defensive tracking posed problems for France at different intervals. Payet’s spark and creativity in that second half proved the difference and regardless of how the rest of the tournament goes, Payet will be a man in demand.

Teams who have gone defensive in setup have being punished

Refreshing that teams who have tried to have a go have being rewarded with success. England’s decision to sit back and hold onto a lead late last night was punished by Russia’s last night and then you see how ultra defensive Albania, Turkey and Slovakia were in their opening games. All lost their contests and can have little complaints.

I was genuinely disappointed by the level of performance of Northern Ireland today. Apart from McGovern, Jonny Evans and the ever industrious Steven Davis, NI offered little in quality. The sight of Shane Ferguson at full back who has had precious little first team opportunities this season was duly exposed by Poland on fifty minutes, going down his flank and squaring the ball past to Milik to pounce. NI need to come out and attack Ukraine who showed flashes tonight of attacking flair but defensively look well short. Two shots on target today was a poor return. To setup in such a defensive shape gave NI little chance to express themselves on a contest where Poland were controlled throughout by not doing too much. Attack is the best form of defense.

Stars come out to play

It may be early on in the tournament but some of the potential stars of the tournament have announced themselves. Payet’s wonder strike on Friday night. Gareth Bale’s all action display for Wales against Slovakia and Luka Modric’s sensational volley against Turkey today are in the mood to make a statement at this tournament. With Zlatan, Ronaldo to come, it will be interesting to see the subplots emerge from the competition and what clubs will look to secure these players come July.

French caught in a rock in a hard place

With so much emphasis on IS, French security have perhaps taken their eye off the hooligan elements. The scenes in Marseilles and Nice this weekend shows that hooliganism is as much a live threat as is the threat of IS causing havoc during the tournament. Marseilles will be happy to see the back of England and Russia, two nations with historical issues with their fans. England fans for the majority were blameless and the scenes last night at the end of the final whistle when Russian fans ran at the England fan section was truly terrifying. Nice incident was unsavory but was expected given the issues that NI and Poland had in a World Cup qualification game in Belfast a couple of years ago. With Russia and England moving north, tournament organizers have further headaches in marshaling the competition. The best laid plans of everyone concerned need review after the trouble that flared up in Marseilles and Nice.

Can Ireland stop Zlatan, Kallstrom and Larsson?

This is the core question ahead of Republic of Ireland’s opening fixture against Sweden. Zlatan is only of three threats that the Irish media has mentioned. Kallstrom and Larsson’s supply channels need to be nullified as well. O’Shea, Keogh / Duffy will handle Zlatan in aerial exchanges but it is his movement off the ball which will take massive concentration, expect Kallstrom and Larrson to ping diagonal balls over the top for Zlatan to run behind the Ireland rearguard.

Republic of Ireland need to show ambition tomorrow; the theme in this tournament is that teams that sit deep and defend are getting picked off. The onus is on Robbie Brady to attack to test the Swedish rearguard. Shane Long needs good supply of ball and needs runners from central midfield to support him as well. Big questions on whether this will happen. Walters fitness is a huge concern, hope the big man plays his part but do not expect sixty minutes from the player.

The first goal will be crucial and with mixed weather forecast in Paris tomorrow, the heat effect may be nullified enough for the Republic of Ireland to get something from the game. The Republic of Ireland will need to run long and hard during this contest, defend with discipline but also provide a cohesive, pacy attacking option. I suspect a draw tomorrow.

Leinster SHC: Kilkenny 1-25 0-16 Dublin

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Rampant Kilkenny half-back line sets platform for victory

The pregame notes ahead of the opening championship appearance of reigning All Ireland Senior Hurling Champions Kilkenny was a theme of vulnerability stemming  from that shock loss to Clare in the NHL semi-final, a performance which saw the Cats second best in physicality, pace and being punished for exposing their full back line throughout. A totally unexpected U21 Hurling loss to Westmeath two weeks ago in Mullingar suggested that Dublin had a sniff of an upset in a balmy Portlaoise.

However, those media critique words were used to good effect in the Kilkenny dressing room as they took Dublin apart line by line and were emphatic 1-25 to 0-16 victory. The platform for this success built on an outstanding Kilkenny half-back line performance who dominated Dublin’s half-forward line throughout. Walsh, Joyce and Buckley were on top form and nullified the threat of McMorrow at half-forward, starved the Dublin inside forward line of ball in that second half.

Dublin have failed to deliver in the Leinster SHC yet again. The half-forward line issues which were apparent as soon as the ball was thrown in by match official Brian Gavin quickly spread to the midfield area and the Dublin back line who tried manfully to stem the threat of Kilkenny forward line in the opening period were breached at regular intervals in the second half. Jonjo Farrell to the fore with an early second half goal to kill the game as a contest.

Kilkenny will be pleased with the workout; issues in the first half emerged in the full back line where Lennon and Holden were struggling to get to grips with Dotsy O’Callaghan and Eamonn Dillon whose pace and runs from deep where causing massive problems. Lennon admirably stuck to his task but Holden was exposed throughout particularly under the high dropping ball, something teams will look to expose during the summer. Brian Cody and management team will need to address this, better to see it now than in August.

Kilkenny oozed class in that second half period. The usual suspects stood up and were ably assisted by Farrell who chipped in with 1-05 from play. TJ Reid and Michael Fennelly skill and physicality stood out in that second period, five scores on the restart set the tone and Dublin were unable to respond. Kilkenny strike an ominous message to the rest of the competition; there may be issues in the full back line but everywhere else looks incredibly well oiled on that showing.

Where now for Dublin? Ger Cunningham has utterly failed to implement a game plan which makes best use of the likes of Liam Rushe, Eamonn Dillion and Danny Sutcliffe who decided to opt out of the panel this season. The half-forward line performance was one of the worse line displays in the championship this season. McMorrow caused more issues for Dublin going further deep for ball allowing Kieran Joyce free reign to mop up Dublin clearances. The wing forwards were equally ill-equipped to combat Walsh and Buckley who chipped in  with a couple of scores to rub salt into the Dublin wound.

The sight of Ryan O’Dwyer in the starting lineup does little to suggest that there is underage talent coming through the senior ranks. Cunningham is on the brink, the good work of Anthony Daly prior to the Cork man taking the reins  is looking like it has regressed. Worrying signs for Dublin and it could be a short summer if they are pitted against Clare in the qualifiers. When your best half-forward option is watching the game in the stands, you have to ask why this is the case? Dublin camp is not as united as was suggested and the towel was thrown in quickly in the second half.

The only bright spot for Dublin hurling is the emergence of Eoin O’Donnell who had a superb outing at wing back. He faced an arduous task trying to contend with the likes of Walter Walsh but his tight man marking style and awareness of space to distribute clearances to his forward line caught the eye, something other Dublin players failed to do aimlessly hitting long clearances down the throat of the Kilkenny half-back line throughout. A faint bright spot in the midst of a gloomy outlook for Dublin Senior Hurlers this season.

Munster Rugby Coaching Setup

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Munster Coaching Lineup Announced – same old same old? 

On a sultry warm June afternoon, news filtered through from Munster Rugby head office on the coaching lineup for the forthcoming season. It confirmed the demotion of Anthony Foley to the role of line out and breakdown supremo which looks quite the fall from grace. Jerry Flannery continues his tenure as scrum coach for another twelve months, an area which struggled massively last season.

The new indigenous coaching addition comes in the form of Felix Jones who is now a “technical” coach, a coach without portfolio it seems. Jones will be a good addition but given his friendship with the majority of the current playing squad, it remains to be seen where Jones fits into the coaching ticket.

The major announcement was two fold really with the first one not a genuine with the news that Brian Walsh leaving the club, the second was more significant with the arrival of Jacques Nienaber as new defensive coach. His resume includes roles in physiotherapy and strength and conditioning with Currie Cup and Super Rugby sides Cheetahs and Cats culminating in his current role with the SARU as head of performance.

A welcome addition but whether Rassie and Jacques have any resources to invest a squad which requires revamp in the front row, second row, fly-half and three quarters. If no money is available to the new incumbent South African coaching ticket, Munster fans should be worried that the club has not yet hit rock bottom.

Three year programme and suspect that next season will be a transitional period for club, coaching and playing staff. Munster support must remain patient but the head office must clarify the financial and long terms plans for the club. Facilities have being built but there are worrying tones about the financial plight of the club.

Are the IRFU baling Munster RFU out at present? If so, what is the extent of those payments? The new coaching ticket from South Africa which is joining the club is welcome but it feels like nothing else has changed in the culture of the club. Hope to be proved wrong in that assertion but it is just my gut feel on the plight of the club.

The Ireland U20 historic win against New Zealand today showed that the new kids have immense ability. Munster’s contingent played their part. Betts at prop will be in the senior squad next season. Johnston and Daly were exciting with ball in hand and coupled with the likes of Sean O’Connor, Vincent O’Brien and Kelvin Brown in the squad will mean that when back to Munster fold that they are evaluated and if good enough are integrated into the senior squad. Interesting times for Munster. Hopefully, Rassi and Jacques ruffle a few feathers in the Munster nest. It is the bare minimum that is required from the new arrivals.

Hurling Thoughts

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Christy Ring Cup Final Fiasco

A game which should have being remembered as one of the intercounty hurling games of the year was reduced to embarrassment due to errors a plenty from several officials on duty during the final. Tipperary match official John O’Brien will unfortunately will receive plenty of criticism for his inability to keep track of the scores in that last ten minutes but the referee was not the only one who make an almighty cock-up. What were the Croke Park scoreboard operators doing on the day? They were also so culpable on this sad episode as the match referee must have being reassured that his scores were tallying as expected with the scoreboard graphics on show.

Antrim officials were slow to realize the error as well; surely one of the Antrim backroom staff realized the error and raise it to the linesman. Antrim officials in the crowd surely were in attendance and saw the error. The lack of action was frightening and the CCCC are now in a total bind.

The referee match report states that Meath won the final 2-18 to 1-20. By right, this constitutes that the result is final and there would typically be a no recourse for Antrim for grounds for a replay. If the CCCC do decide to sanction a replay, every county board will in the country will be prepared for numerous appeals to replay games such as this.

Mistakes do happen and perhaps it is time for GAA to assign the scoreboard responsibilities to someone on the linesman (fifth official) but given that the fourth official was not called upon to provide his score to the match referee at the final whistle, where do we go from here?

The mere fact that the Christy Ring Cup final was held in June and that the vast majority of the country are now finished their hurling season is an absolute disgrace. How does the GAA think that hurling will develop when the developing counties only have a three month window to work with? GAA are a contradiction in terms. The weaker counties should be playing well into the summer and finals should be showcased before the SHC All Ireland series.

As for the final, Meath’s win was sublime who left everything out on the pitch; every player put their bodies on the line and their fitness was superior to Antrim who need to reflect on how they blew a nine point lead (first half) and five point lead (deep into the second half). They failed utterly to close out the contest and gave Meath the opportunity to win the contest.

A replay if sanctioned will go only one way. Antrim will beat Meath with a bit to spare. Antrim learn nothing from their first final outing. Meath’s hope and promise for developing small ball in the county is shattered. Where is the GAA President going to comment on this issue? Weak leadership all round from the association and one that will leave a bitter taste in the mouth when it is time to reflect on the GAA season this year.

Waterford and Clare Hurling Games – Please Stop

Munster SHC has being a flat out disappointment this season. Cork never turned up to face Tipperary at Semple Stadium two weeks ago. Clare beat themselves off the pitch yesterday with a performance which exposed Clare’s inability to get their inside full forward line into the game, inconsistent free taking and the sheer folly of positioning Tony Kelly in the Clare half-back line thus eliminating Clare’s most potent forward threat. This was a day that Clare’s Davy Fitzgerald and Donal Og Cusack will want to forget in a hurry.

Waterford thoroughly deserved their victory. They started the game with enormous intensity and the early 1-1 salvo from  Maurice Shanahan was pivotal in this victory. Clare were playing catch-up thereafter and with Tony Kelly’s influence non-existent, Clare struggled for a forward player who could take the game by the scruff of the neck. Waterford’s half-back line cleaned out Clare’s half-forward line. The aerial battle on the forty was a no contest as Fives, De Burca were brilliant under the dropping ball.

The decision of Derek McGrath to switch Austin Gleeson to the forward line and introduce Padraic O’Mahoney inside was sublime. Both players produced in spades. Gleeson is a dream of a hurler; his physicality, his fitness, his sideline cuts and his ability to take scores from any distance came to the fore yesterday. Clare had no response to his 0-6 haul and his score at the end of the contest (long range) was one of the scores of the year.

As Clare struggled to gain any parity in the contest, their cause was not helped by an erratic free taking display. Conor McGrath who is usually so reliable with his placed ball was not confident throughout; his confidence waned by the minute and several scores came and gone. This was in stark contrast to O’Mahony whose free taking as always was on point. The decision also to switch David Fitzgerald to the attacking forty did not work; confused Clare more than their opponents.

The contest will not be a Munster SHC classic. Both sides bored the pants off me with their defensive first hurling. No creativity to unlock either defense. The Waterford goal was rather fortunate. Shanahan ground stroke was an air shot which somehow evaded Kelly and several defenders enroute to the goal.

Clare struggled to get Conlon and O’Donnell into the game and Clare may have reached a cross-roads in their squad development. The tactics deployed stifled Clare more than Waterford. Clare have several superb players but their defensive / counter-attack hurling is leaving the likes of Conlon, O’Donnell and McGrath increasingly looking from the outside.

Waterford did what they threatened during the NHL encounters. They put Clare to the sword. Several keynote players but Kevin Moran was sublime in that second half. His work rate and points from play were crucial throughout. The experienced De La Salle player won his 50/50 contests and his distributions to his inside forward line was on point throughout. Waterford showed signs that their forward line is improving. Shane Bennett will grow into this championship. A win that was required from Waterford and with Austin Gleeson in the mood, Munster success is a big possibility.

Galway win in a stroll; Offaly win again

Galway take care of business in Mullingar. The scoreline was emphatic but the main point was whether talisman Joe Canning was knocked out cold in the contest? Player welfare yet again rearing its head and Canning has taken his fair share of punishment for club and county. If Canning was concussed, time for Galway hurling to make a statement and rest the player on medical grounds. Westmeath failed to get into this contest but their recent U21 success against Kilkenny has being one of the stories of the season. Time to regroup and go again in the qualifiers.

Offaly hurlers beat Laois with plenty to spare. Eamonn Kelly will be pleased by this outing; in control for large periods of the game. Dooley again to the fore and sets up a tie against Galway where Offaly will be massive underdogs; time to produce a performance to give the critics more grief but beating Laois and trying to beat Galway is a different story. Time will tell.