Ireland 27 – 24 Australia Postgame Thoughts

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Rory Best  – Centurion

Ireland conclude their international calendar fixtures with a compelling 27-24 win over an Australian side who were their own worse enemy. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the test match.

Ireland Squad Depth 

A key failure of Joe Schmidt and Ireland management during last year’s Rugby World Cup was that management did not have the squad to cover injuries to several positions. Arguments aplenty on why this was the case but yesterday, Ireland were faced with a similar predicament. Sean O’Brien late injury withdrawal compiled with the early withdrawals of Rob Kearney (15), Andrew Trimble (14) and Jared Payne (13) meant that Ireland had a makeshift back line for the second half where inexperienced Kieran Marmion and Joey Carbery were thrust into unfamiliar positions. Australia did enjoy success on the flanks in that second period; Ireland gamely fought to the bitter end, tried to retain their defensive structure as much as they could to secure the victory.

The players who were summoned for duty off the bench made immediate impacts. Marmion’s hit on Pocock, Dillane’s ball carries and tackle count. O’Mahoney’s unbelievable breakdown steal at the death. Bealham at scrum time. It was a superb effort from an Ireland side who in past years would have struggled to compete with SH sides of the caliber of Australia given the absence of several marquee players. Schmidt and management will have plenty of food for thought selecting a 6N squad on the back of the performances yesterday where every player stood up and delivered a performance.

Game of two halves 

A pulsating game where both sides enjoyed long periods of dominance. Ireland should have being more than ten points up at the interval. Ireland’s front five were dominating in scrum and making numerous notable game line gains. The half-backs were complementing each other perfectly. Murray continues to excel and has to be a front runner for the Lions number nine shirt. His defensive nous, coupled with a big boot and ability to launch his runners at the precise right time has being hallmarks of this superb Autumn International series for Ireland. Even with the fluctation in personnel outside of the Munster number nince, Murray has led superbly and allowed his fly-half option the time and space to make the right game management decision.

Jackson yesterday showed everyone that with extended game time at ten, the Ulster man is the answer to the ten position. Sexton’s injury and concussion problems necessitate that Schmidt needs a viable alternative at ten. Jackson provided the attacking lines and kicking required in a superb test match. His penalty kicking which has at times being maligned was on point; his last conversion was sensational; showed massive leadership to slot the conversion over from the sideline. It provided Ireland with a massive boost heading into the last ten minutes of the contest. Ireland’s territorial dominance should have yielded more points, perhaps attacking refinement is required by Schmidt and management next year.

Australia will rue lost opportunities during this contest. It was a fixture which the Wallabies should have won based on their second half performance. They revel in open space and Foley, Folau were immense in identifying defensive mismatches in an Ireland back three whose inexperience at times was ruthlessly exposed. The first twenty minutes of the second half was how Australia should have started this contest; their pack aroused from their slumber making several eye-catching carries. Quick ruck ball allowed the visitors to strike with two well worked second half tries but they were undermined by constant penalty concessions. The front five unable to stem Ireland in the pack open exchanges with Garces making the judgement call that Australia were second best at scrum time and infringing in the rucks. Chieka will have grievances but some of the offside decisions were on point. Australia have massive potential but their pack needs to be more abrasive particularly when oppositions front fives are well organized and drilled.

Player Welfare? 

On a day where England winger Eliot Daly was given his marching orders for taking an Argentinian player out in the air, World Rugby hoped that would set the example for more consistent officiating yesterday. They were sadly mistaken as match official Garces failed to issue a red card for a serious tip tackle offense by Australian back row Dean Mumm on Tadhg Furlong. What makes the decision to brandish a yellow card more baffling is that the French referee had no hesitation to issue a red card to Keith Earls in a recent European Cup match against Glasgow. It was the same offense but officiated differently. This is what is driving both fans and rugby coaches potty.

World Rugby needs to provide direction on this type of offense; Bernard Foley somehow tip tackled Devin Toner late in the contest, another yellow card brandished which on another day would be a red. Ireland have being on the end of a couple of awful decisions in recent weeks, luckily the players involved will make a full recovery but it only requires an international player fatality to take place for action to happen. A worrying trend. Does World Rugby and match officials care for players welfare? It is a mixed message during this Autumn International series.

Rory Best – Centurion 

The Banbridge native has being immense in his Ireland career. A superb servant to the Ireland side throughout the years. He took on the unenviable mantle of succeeding Paul O’Connell but the Ulster hooker has provided assured leadership. His lineout and scrummaging this season has being on point and Best is surely going on the plane with the Lions tour next summer. The scenes after the contest stood out; Best with his family, cherishing the moments post game with them and taking the time to pose for photos with other families at pitch-side. His interview with Damien O’Meara before the international spoke volumes; if you have not listened to it, would recommend listening to it. His desire to do well for club, then province and now country was loud and clear. Class act and his centurion number of caps is well merited. Congratulations Rory!

Ireland RWC 2023 Bid

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Five points which will determine whether Ireland wins the bid next year:

  • Women’s 2017 Rugby World Cup 

Ireland is the host of the Womens Rugby World Cup next year. It should be viewed by the IRFU as a test event to prove to World Rugby that the country can host the men’s equivalent. The venues for this tournament are smaller; confined to Dublin and Belfast but the organization and smooth running of the tournament will be taken into account when deciding the location of the 2023 RWC bid. Ireland should embrace this tournament and send a massive statement to World Rugby that the country is ready to host this prestigious tournament.

  • Casement Park Project

The venue which will make or break the bid. Any faltering progress reports on the build of this project will spell disaster. It is imperative that cross border bodies proactively manage this venture and ensure that the stadium is delivered on time and on budget. Casement Park plans look exciting but given the delays and protests to the project by locals, concern has to be raised on this venue at this early stage. Fingers crossed.

  • Public and Private Support 

This is a no brainer as the Irish public are totally behind the bid. The venues selected will embrace the tournament and welcome players and fans alike. The private sector are now but given uncertain economic times ahead with Brexit next year, will the private sector contribute the investment required to get this bid over the line?

  • Infrastructural Upgrades

Road networks, train networks, accommodation, broadband connectivity across the land need to be on point for this tournament. The venues will provide the hospitality involved but the infrastructure in these cities and towns needs to be on point as well. The Irish Government needs to provide a comprehensive plan setting out the upgrades which will take place in the next five years to appease World Rugby of concerns on this point.

  • Tournament Profitability vs. Affordability 

Will this be a tournament for the few or the tournament for the many? We have seen recent World Cup tournaments where the majority population of host countries excluded from attending games due to the high ticket prices. This cannot happen for this bid. The stadiums selected need to be priced competitively in order for matches to be played to full houses. Revenue streams will spawn from these full houses. IRFU will retort that ROI is essential for the bid to succeed but the prices for tickets, hospitality and travel needs to be on point. The eyes of the world will be upon us; best foot forward. Bring the RWC to Ireland in 2023!

EPL Review: Part 3

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The final installment of this season so far. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the teams at the lower reaches of the league and wonders if some clubs are already condemned.

Stoke: 

The Good: 

The resurgence in form in the last five games has being admirable given their horrendous start. Joe Allen has being sublime in recent weeks; his goals and performances have given Stoke much needed momentum in midfield. Defensively solid in recent weeks and it has allowed Stoke to move up the table. Relegation concerns should be allayed in the next couple of weeks.

The Bad: 

Set piece defensive woes early doors were compounded with a couple of penalty decisions given against Mark Hughes’ side. The loss of Jack Butland has being huge albeit Lee Grant has deputized superbly in recent weeks. Stoke need more from Bojan, Arnautovic and Bony needs to be the main goal threat provided that the service is up to scratch. Shrewd transfer deals are required to inject fresh blood into a squad profile which has several players entering the twilight of their careers.

Verdict: 

After a shaky start, Mark Hughes’ charges have improved in recent weeks on both ends of the pitch. Joe Allen will be the talisman for the club this season. Squad should be good enough to battle for a top ten league placing but there are issues ahead for this club with an aging squad next season.

Leicester City: 

The Good: 

There has being flashes of Leicester from last season where Mahrez and Vardy have shown the form of last season. Slimani is a good signing but opponents are wise to Leicester’s style of play this term which is one of the factors why they are in the bottom half of the table. Champions League form has being superb, four clean sheets. Gray is a player with massive upside, one to watch this season.

The Bad: 

Champions League involvement has meant that squad focus in the league has not being what it should have being. The defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford spoke volumes; squad selection and the subsequent team performance was nowhere near the standard produced last season. Leicester defensively in the league have being caught on a couple of occasions resulting in penalty and set piece concessions. Kasper Schmeichel’s injury woes have not helped matter in that respect. Transfers focused on attacking options but failed to shore up midfield and defensively gaps.

The Verdict: 

The league is gone but Leicester City should not be involved in a relegation battle. A top twelve position is where they end up considering the European commitments at play this season. December and January will be pivotal for Leicester City to get enough points in the bag to focus again on the Champions League tournament; their form after these fixtures in the league speaks volumes.

Middlesbrough: 

The Good: 

Great addition to the league, great fans and superb stadium to match. Boro’s result at Manchester City and Arsenal have being the standouts. Their defensive shape was superb in those results. Karanka is a manager whose tactical nous in away games will mean that Middlesbrough will be hard to break down. Gibson has being superb; one to watch this season. Valdes signing in goals adds experience to the Boro rearguard.

The Bad: 

Goal shy. Their ten goals in the league this season joint second last in the league. This ratio has to improve and puts much pressure on their defense to keep clean sheets. Jordan Rhodes could help in that regard but Negredo is first choice striking option currently. Karanka will need to recruit a couple of players in the January window to get the club over the line particularly in midfield and striker areas.

Verdict: 

40 points is the target but it all depends on Middlesbrough being able to find the net. Their goal average thus far is poor and lends itself to the club being involved in a relegation battle. The fixtures against the likes of Hull, Sunderland, Watford, Burnley will decide their fate. Middlesbrough have no problem performing against the top teams, it has being their performances against teams around them mostly which has them in this position. Hopefully will stay up and think they will by the skin of their teeth!

Crystal Palace: 

The Good: 

The new investment in the football club. Selhurst Park and their fans produce a superb match day atmosphere. Good business with the Bolasie deal (30 million). Steve Mandanda signing has being a plus point.

The Bad: 

Alan Pardew’s decision to offload Dwight Gayle to Newcastle is looking more baffling by the day. The lack of goals upfront is seriously undermining the football club and if not addressed will result in a lengthy relegation battle. Pressure aplenty for Benteke to produce the goods and score the goals to get the side to the magic forty point figure. Palace’s pace has being undermined by Bolasie’s departure. Zaha and Puncheon have struggled for form this season along with Cabaye. Palace need to keep clean sheets but at times defensively have looked vulnerable evident in the Burnley display.

Verdict: 

January cannot come quick enough for Alan Pardew. Benteke is an upgrade but needs more quality striking options. Palace will finish in the bottom six of the league but should do enough to survive for another season. Whether the new investors want Pardew to remain as manager given the shaky start to the season is another story.

West Ham United: 

The Good: 

New dawn with the arrival to the London Olympic Stadium surroundings, increased gates and revenue streams, shame that the new venue has failed to lift off in the manner expected. Payet is still at the football club.

The Bad: 

The ever increasing mess that is London Stadium. A steward’s worse nightmare and with a fan base who look more disillusioned in the new surroundings, the move has not gone to plan. West Ham United defensively have being all at sea; central defensive gaps exposed at times which beggars why James Tomkins was allowed to leave the club. Cresswell’s injury woes have not helped either or the early Europa League exit. A squad where the cheque book has being thrown at players who quite frankly have not produced. Ayew looks questionable even at this early stage.

Verdict: 

Slaven Bilic’s second season will be a long and frustrating one; results will continue to be inconsistent given the current squad makeup. Payet will provide the flair and attacking inspiration but defensively, question marks are there for all to see. Mark Noble will provide leadership to see the Hammers get to the coveted forty points but there will be few cheers this season. Club transfer policy rethink required.

Hull City: 

The Good: 

The opening day result against reigning champions Leicester and the victory against a Southampton side who were suffer the after effects of Europa League action. Apart from this, not much to write home about.

The Bad: 

A club in crisis; the boardroom instability was evident in the time it took to appoint Mike Phelan as manager. The lack of first team squad numbers indicates bad planning in the offseason which will come back to haunt them in the coming months. The squad will work hard for the manager but they will suffer some horrific hammerings against teams who are incisive in their passing evident in their drubbing away to Bournemouth. A season which will see relegation unless January window recruits are identified in all areas of the pitch. Phelan may lose his job before season end; unfortunate but given the way that the club is being run, not that surprising.

Swansea City: 

The Good: 

The opening day result away win to Burnley and that is about it.

The Bad: 

The squad looks weak defensively particularly with the departure of Ashley Williams, their talisman. The central defensive options look incredibly weak at this time; set piece leadership is non-existent and more goals will be conceded because of it. The attacking options need to improve fast. Llorente has had an unremarkable start to his Swans career. Sigurdsson cannot keep this team up on his own. Bob Bradley’s appointment goes against the passing ethos of the football club. Gary Monk will look like a rock star in the next couple of months.

Verdict: 

South Wales, it has being a pleasure but the EPL dream will be over at the end of the season. Classic relegation ingredients in abundance at Swansea, cannot keep clean sheets and cannot score too many goals. Their meek effort against Stoke and Manchester United does not inspire confidence that fortunes will change anytime soon.

Sunderland: 

The Good: 

Jermain Defoe is still at the football club. First away win before the international break against an in-form Bournemouth.

The Bad: 

Underwhelming start to the season. Poor preseason transfer planning, signings came and gone and left massive squad depth issues in the club. David Moyes’ defensive options are the stuff of nightmares. Pickford in goals has being superb but defensively have being all at sea. January transfer window will be the difference between the Mackems staying up or not. Ellis Short needs to support Moyes in the transfer market or sell up.

Verdict: 

Will lull everyone into a false sense of security that they are definitely down and then come up with a most unlikely set of results around Easter to save their top flight status. Moyes if allowed to build a squad will improve the club long term but whether Short gives him that time is another story. Big Sam looming large in the horizon does not help matters. A pivotal couple of weeks beckon for Moyes and Sunderland.

 

 

EPL Review: Part 2

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In this review of the first eleven games of the EPL season, Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on teams ranked between sixth to thirteenth. It is a mixed bag with teams who have excelled while others who frankly have being extremely poor.

Manchester United

The Good: 

Struggling to find one, perhaps Zlatan’s good early form and goals which has dried up. De Gea’s performances again in the goals to rescue his increasingly under pressure back four. The emergence of Juan Mata in midfield chipping in with a couple of goals. Rashford continues to develop into a decent striking option for the club.

The Bad: 

Central defensive options currently at the football club.When has Phil Jones last featured in a league game? Bailly aside, distinctly average performance from this unit. The underwhelming start of Henrikh Mkhitaryan to his club career; another Borussia Dortmund bust? Wayne Rooney’s lack of form and rumors about his future. Increasing isolation of young players such as Lingard and Martial. The manager’s constant moaning about absolutely everything. Past season signings look more rubbish every single day. Fellaini, Darmian to name but a few.

Verdict: 

There is no quick fix; the club will need a couple of seasons to rebuild and buy the right players in the right areas. Ed Woodward’s transfer policy is coming back to haunt the football club; chasing the wrong players. The lack of defensive options in the squad is damning. A good cup run and potential top six finish is the objective. UEFA Europa League campaign is a hindrance at this stage.

Everton: 

The Good: 

The arrival of Ronald Koeman to the football club, a manager who given the right finances will build an improved footballing side. The retention of Romelu Lukaku, his goal tally so far has being impressive. Steklenberg’s form in goals has being superb at times; his cameo away to City was a standout. Ashley Williams’ signing was one of the most astute in the preseason. Everton’s win is Swansea’s massive loss.

The Bad: 

The continous spat between Everton management and Republic of Ireland with injured players. James McCarthy saga has being embarrassing. The end of Phil Jagielka as a viable central defensive option; his lack of pace is giving teams opportunities. The continuous rumors on Lukaku’s future this season. Can Ross Barkley fulfil his potential? All the traits are there but sheer inconsistency is plighting his game.

Verdict: 

A solid start to the season has stalled with recent losses to Burnley and the hammering at Stamford Bridge. Koeman will look to improve the squad defensively and central midfield in January and next summer with several long serving players being shown the door. Top eight finish beckons unless the team produces a couple of upsets against the top four currently in the league.

Watford:

The Good: 

Solid start to the top flight this season considering managerial departure at the end of last term. Troy Deeney continues to impress; leadership and creativity is to the fore.

The Bad: 

Defensively vulnerable when faced against pacy teams evident in their losses to Arsenal and Liverpool so far this season. Where has Ighalo gone? Second season syndrome. No goals and precious little to report from a player who was pivotal in the Hornet’s survival last season. The lingering club registration player issues from seasons gone by; this could become a story come the New Year.

Verdict: 

Top eight standing is misleading; squad depth in the next two months will be exposed and  the Herfordshire club will be looking at a relegation battle come Christmas unless Ighalo gets back to scoring form. January window will be pivotal for Watford to shore up gaps defensively and provide midfield depth.

Burnley: 

The Good: 

Sean Dyche, his man management and ability to make his side extremely tough to breakdown have led to this ninth position in the league. Tom Heaton has being sublime in goals; his saves against former club Manchester United were world class. Shrewd signings in the offseason. Gudmonson and Hendricks have added depth to the midfield. Michael Keane continues to excel in centre back; his partnership with Ben Mee has being pivotal to the club’s fine start to the season. Financially stable. Turf Moor is a tough place to get a result; ask Arsenal. Set piece is king; goal source.

The Bad: 

Apart from Sam Vokes, struggling to see who in the striking department will score goals. The midfield and defense have chipped in with a couple of goals. A problem area. Michael Keane’s future will the subject of much debate; will he go in January? Squad depth again may be exposed due to suspensions in the next couple of months.

Verdict: 

Given the points difference between Burnley and West Ham, a couple of bad results will have Burnley back in the relegation battle which is the forte this season. Burnley have learned from past mistakes in their first eleven games but whether their squad is good enough to score enough goals to get to forty points is a different story. Tough and go whether they stay in the top flight.

Southampton: 

The Good: 

Charlie Austin has provided goals a plenty since joining from QPR. Virgil van Djik has being sensational at center back; his partnership with Forte has being fundamental to the club recovering from a shaky start to the season. The club’s policy to bring home local underage talent to the first team is an example for the rest of the league. McQueen, another decent local youth player to be given his nod.

The Bad: 

Involvement in UEFA Europa League has hindered EPL form. The start of the season was a by product of European involvement. The form of Steven Davis has being inconsistent so far; his goals were pivotal in securing Europa League football last season. The constant transfer links to the club’s marquee stars. Tadic, Forester, Fonte and van Djik will persist. The transfer policy has being on point but there will be dud signings soon which will see the club suffer. Top eight spot is achievable provided that Europa League does not expose the squad.

West Bromwich Albion: 

The Good: 

Tony Pulis’ side has being typically abrasive defensively but have also added goals from the likes of Rondon and McClean. The set piece is pivotal; goals from corners and free kicks have being paramount. Their performance against Tottenham was a standout. Forty points will be secured by February.

The Bad: 

Creativity is sometimes limited with the Baggies but as long as forty points is secured, happy days? The goals scored is in the bottom five of the league; needs to improve.

Verdict: 

Survival will be secured with ease; top twelve berth would be a good acheivement. Experienced squad with Evans, Fletcher in the ranks so a potential cup run may be a bonus. Tony Pulis – Mr. Forty Points.

AFC Bournemouth

The Good: 

Eddie Howe did not bite on the England football job (nibble maybe). The acquisition of Jack Wilshere on loan has aided more creativity to the side. Exciting front three loaded with pace and power. Ibe could be an astute signing long term.

The Bad: 

Defensively vulnerable at times due to their footballing style. Sunderland loss was a poor result considering their recent form leading into this fixture. January defensive options need to be added. The front three’s goal record has being mediocre; need to up the goals tally as defensively, they look like a team who will not keep clean sheets.

Verdict:

Top ten finish is on provided defensively they can tighten up. Eddie Howe’s admirers to continue to wax lyrically about the manager. Arsenal link? England link? Club to establish themselves in the top flight but how do they grow financially?

Munster 27 – 14 Maori All Blacks

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Last Friday evening in Thomond Park was a night that I will remember for quite a long time. The debut of the Maori All Blacks was a resounding success and one would sincerely hope that the New Zealand side will be back in Munster HQ sooner rather than later.

The pregame tribute to Axel Foley was incredibly moving, the gesture of the Maori All Blacks to present their jersey with AF at the back to Anthony Foley’s two sons was particularly striking. The subsequent Haka performed by the touring party provided the crowd with unforgettable moments even before the start of the contest.

Media reports have being incredibly harsh on the two teams on Friday night. The game was played quite frankly in a monsoon. The torrential rain a hour before kickoff made the ball like a bar of soap but both sides tried to play as expansive as they could. Yes, there were some patchy periods of play but it was understandable considering the conditions. Sometimes, I question some media hounds on their assessment of games.

This was a fixture which would have  immensely pleased Rassie Erasmus and coaching staff. The players on duty were given their opportunity to confirm whether they were able to produce a performance in the first team jersey and did the team deliver? There were several eye catching displays from the team in red.

The front row was dominant from the first scrum exchange. Archer, Scannell and Cronin provided the early platform where Munster settled into the game. The second row was a revelation on the night.O’Shea and Madigan were prominent in set piece but it was their work rate around the fringes which really impressed me. O’Shea’s cameo in particular caught the eye; lineout was assured in extremely testing conditions and he continued to make bone crunching tackles until the final whistle stopping the All Black Maori’s at source. Madigan also was to the fore; some impressive hits which caused Munster turnovers.

The back row contest was sublime. Ioane as a ball carrier was a beast and he showed his potency in the lead-up to the Maori’s second try making massive yards. However, Munster and particularly Robin Copeland can feel proud of his efforts. Copeland revels when games are open in nature which Friday was. His ball carrying caused the Maori’s massive headaches which sucked more players around the fringes allowing Munster to attack on the wings with deft drubber kicks. O’Donnell’s captaincy was on point and Conor Oliver was snipping in his breakdown and ball carrying duties.

The highlight of the game for me personally was the performance of Darren Sweetnam whose poise and class throughout shone through. He has the ability to see the game so quickly and was evident in his try just before the interval which swung the game to Munster. A try which came from an inaccurate Maori’s pass was latched onto by Sweetnam whose kicks were perfectly judged. Quality finish. You can see why Erasmus rates the player so much.

Ronan O’Mahony also was to the fore; his try came from a deft chip behind the Maori defensive line by Duncan Williams. A hint of offside about it perhaps but his awareness of the opportunity was obvious clear from his shout to Williams to kick over the top. Munster’s young squad players have played superbly in recent weeks.

While the youngsters were revelling in their surroundings, the more experienced back line players gave leadership when required. Taute and Conway were sensational on the night. I spoke to Taute post game and he ‘dearly wants to stay’ in the province beyond his short loan deal expires.

Taute brings physicality in defense and attack; very much a Trevor Halstead mould of player which Munster fans love, needs to be signed long term. Conway at full back was on point; his catches in diabolical conditions and game line yards were immense. No Munster player lay down and the win was fully merited.

Maori All Blacks did show in the opening period flashes of brilliance. They ruthlessly punished Munster on two occasions when the exit strategy was not executed correctly. The offloading on the wings were superb. Ioane was a fulcrum for the visitors throughout, his ball carrying posed the USA Eagles massive problems and his ball carry led to the second Maori try.

The Maori’s were second best in the pack exchanges; the scrum misfired all night and game management was off in the wet conditions. They may have had an grievance on O’Mahony’s try but they could have had easily multiple players in the bin due to tackling Munster players without the ball on several occasions. The opening half was not capitalized on by the visitors and Munster played the percents particularly during their sin bin. Scannell’s kick to the corner during this period was sublime. Two neat finishes by the Maori’s was the end product; improvement a plenty for the Harlequins fixture.

The result was never in doubt in that final quarter. Maori’s tried to score but Copeland and company were not in the mood to let this happen; several breakdown steals ensued. Munster were deep in Maori territory when the ball was lashed into touch by O’Donnell. A magic night, one to remember. Munster momentum continues. An exciting December beckons and with the fan base re-energized again, exciting times lie ahead for the province.

Munster vs. Maori All Blacks Preview

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Another sell out beckons at Thomond Park

You have to credit the Munster Rugby social media department, the debut of the Maori All Blacks to Munster has captured the imagination and another sell-out crowd beckons for Thomond Park on November 11th. The occasion will bring back memories of the superb fixture between Munster and New Zealand in 2008 when the All Blacks grasp victory from the jaws of defeat. The fixture will be recalled for the stirring Munster Haka orchestrated by the likes of Doug Howlett, Rua Tipoki, Lifefimi Mafi and Jeremy Manning. Oh the memories! Tomorrow is destined (weather permitting) to be an exhilarating contest with two teams eager to throw the ball around and score tries.

Maori All Blacks – Team Selection:

The visitors have embraced the fixture evident in the starting lineup announced in midweek. The starting fifteen contains several players with the Super Rugby experience and the rest are representing their provincial clubs in New Zealand. No weak point in this lineup.

Number: Player Name: Provincial Club: Super Rugby Club:
15 Marty McKenzie Southland Chiefs
14 Ambrose Curtis Manawatu
13 Matt Proctor Hurricanes
12 Tim Bateman Wellington Hurricanes
11 James Lowe Tasman
10 Otere Black Manawatu Hurricanes
9 Billy Guyton Tasman
1 Kane Harnes Bay of Plenty
2 Ash Dixon Hawkes Bay Hurricanes
3 Ben May Tasman Chiefs
4 Leighton Price Hawkes Bay
5 Thomas Franklin Otago Highlanders
6 Reed Prinsep Canterbury Hurricanes
7 Shane Christie Tasman Crusaders
8 Akira Ioane Auckland Blues

Form Guide:

Maori All Blacks have hit the tour running with an emphatic 54-7 win over USA Eagles at Toyota Park, Illinois on November 4th. This was a dominant display with the Maoris abrasive pack setting the platform for their talented back line the time and space to make decisive game line breaks. Akira Ioane was different class during the contest; his sevens experience and ball carrying was too much for the Eagles at times. The offloading game from the Maoris was on point and the back line was regularly involved in proceedings. James Lowe and Akira Ioane scored a brace each while front row players Ash Dixon and Kane Harmes crossed over also. Maori’s dynamism in the fringes and rucks will test Munster’s charges to the limit. The pack has size with the likes of Ben May in the front row. The inclusion of Franklin in the second row will see Maori’s with a quality lineout operator but Ioane is the man to watch in this fixture. His ball skills, offloading and ability to identify mismatches will be a joy to watch. Maoris have setup camp in Limerick for the entire week; a sign that they are intend on putting on a show at Thomond Park. Munster must be prepared to meet fire with fire and first time tackles need to cut off the quick ruck ball that Maoris crave.


 

Munster Rugby – Team Selection:

Number: Player Name:
15 Andrew Conway
14 Darren Sweetnam
13 Jaco Taute
12 Rory Scannell
11 Ronan O’Mahony
10 Ian Keatley
9 Duncan Williams
1 James Cronin
2 Niall Scannell
3 Stephen Archer
4 John Madigan
5 Darren O’Shea
6 Tommy O’Donnell
7 Conor Oliver
8 Robin Copeland

 

Rassie Erasmus would have being forgiven for fielding a team full of inexperience and youth academy players but the South African’s selection is one which aims to continue the momentum built in recent weeks. The front row has an experienced look to it with Cronin, Scannell and Archer packing down. The second row combination looks exciting with Madigan and O’Shea who was excellent in the win over Ospreys last weekend. His lineout calls will be tested more by a savvier, experienced second row opposition so it will be interesting to see how this unit goes. If Madigan and O’Shea impress, it will give Munster Rugby management with some nice selection posers for the rest of the season safe in the knowledge that these newcomers can step up to the plate and perform for the team. The back row battle on Friday night is going to be epic. Tommy O’Donnell will captain the side from six and will form the line alongside promising Conor Oliver and Robin Copeland who should relish the open space in this contest. Copeland’s ball carrying will be fundamental to Munster asserting influence in this contest.

The half-back partnership is Duncan Williams and Ian Keatley. Both players will look to continue their improvements seen in recent weeks. Williams at nine last week had one of his best games for the province but knows he needs to continue to put in this level of performance with recent signing Aihe Toma on the bench. Keatley needs to get it simple tomorrow; game management and play the percentages. His rehabilitation from a confidence dip season last year continues and needs to be pushing Bleyendaal for the ten jersey for the benefit of the squad.

The back line is a mix of youth and experience. Conway (full-back), Jaco Taute provide experience and for the likes of Rory Scannell who is becoming a leader of the team and the promising wingers Ronan O’Mahony and Darren Sweetnam. Sweetnam on initial appearances looks like a genuine Ireland international in a couple of seasons. Both wingers impressed hugely last weekend but Maoris will test both players defensively in the fringes. The fixture is a great gauge of the progress made by the fledging squad players and should provide Erasmus with an idea of who will be pressing for team selection for the remainder of the season particularly during international windows. Roll on Friday night! The atmosphere will be spectacular and is an occasion to savor. Let us hope that the weather helps both sides play the expansive rugby that the supporters in attendance are looking for.

EPL Review: MidTerm Report (Part 1)

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November International football break has arrived. Perfect time for all EPL teams to assess how their season is going after eleven games. Liverpool fans and dreaming of a much coveted league title gathers pace? Jose is just not a happy camper around Manchester whether it is in Carrington, Old Trafford or his hotel digs. Arsenal making a genuine case of challenging for league honours. City’s Champion League focus is causing indifferent form in the league. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the season to date.  Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the top five currently sitting in the league and assess their strong / weak points.

 

Top Five:

It may be only eleven games into the season but the makeup of the top five currently looks like could be potentially seen come next May. Let us start with Liverpool. Klopp’s appointment was a masterstroke; his managerial approach is so refreshing and the fluid attacking play of Liverpool where Adam Lalanna is a different player to the one under Rodgers has being sublime. When you add the likes of Coutinho, Firminho, Mane whose pace and runs from deep has being a distinct plus – it is easy to see how Liverpool are the leading goalscorers in the division. The midfield area has being solid. If there is a weak point for Liverpool, it is their defensive side. Fourteen goals conceded so far in the league and question marks in the full back berths (particularly Moreno) should see some January transfer window activity. Matip has being a shrewd investment; looks very assured and has shown presence in the attacking set pieces. Lovren must tighten up to allow Liverpool to become a realistic title contender. The Karius / Mignolet debate will rage in the coming weeks. The German keeper looks vulnerable on crosses but his distribution looks assured. Does Mignolet ask to leave in January? Liverpool with a few tweaks and improvements defensively could run Manchester City extremely close.

The Eastlands club started like a house on fire; running scores against the likes of Bournemouth suggested that Guardiola’s side were already embracing the fast tempo, incisive passing football style of their manager. Attacking options are endless; spoiled for choice and De Bruyne has being sensational this season. Aguero has provided the goals with Silva also orchestrating affairs. Sterling has shown flashes but it will be interesting to see if Guardiola looks to the transfer market in January. The central midfield area is workman like with Fernandinho marshalling well. The weak point like Liverpool is defensively. Bravo in goals is a signing which is flattering to deceive; his ball distribution is decent but his command of his area when crosses are launched is another story. Stones has shown the odd lapse and there is questions on Kompany’s fitness. Olamendi has had good games but has being exposed a couple of times by more clinical strikers. Once City conclude their CL group stage business, expect them to go on a ten / eleven league game winning run. It will be interesting to see if any other team can then keep pace before and after Christmas.

Chelsea for me are an enigma. Conte has found a potential potent team containing Pedro, Hazard and Costa who is back to his annoying best for opponents; scoring goals at will and being physical down the channels. Matic is a player reborn under Conte after a disappointing season under Mourinho last year. The defensive side of the side looks quite solid. Luiz is back at the Bridge; likes to play his football and likes to make the party piece brain fart moment. Cahill’s form has being indifferent and with John Terry playing a more backup role, Chelsea’s title challenge will rest on the central defense’s ability to keep clean sheets. The jury is still out on Chelsea; emphatics wins over Manchester United and Everton (who were both extremely poor) so Chelsea have to show their ambitions by delivering against their top five foes in the coming months.

Tottenham. It is all about Harry Kane. When Kane is in the side, Tottenham are a different side. Janssen has being a disaster signing and Tottenham may need to dip further into the transfer market come January to shore up the attacking options. Tottenham have superb midfield options. Wanyama is a superb acquisition; box to box player with defensive / ball winning his forte. Eriksen on his day is a superb attacking player; his passing range is on point but can be an isolated figure at times during games. Ali is growing more and more into the side; second season and teams have looked to stifle his influence but that has allowed Lamela more room to express himself. Tottenham defensively look solid. Rose, Davies, Trippier, Wimmer are adequate full back options. Alderweld and Vertonghen are on a par with any of the top central defensive partnerships in the league. The weak point is the squad depth; the same players are playing week in, week out – wholly exposed at the business end of the season last term and the squad does not look strong enough in midfield and striker department to win the title. Top four definitely.

Arsenal. Is this the season where Arsene Wenger and team deliver some league title silverware? Once December is out of the way, then pundits can talk about their title ambitions. Offensively stacked, Arsenal are on a rich vein of form. Ozil, Sanchez, Giroud, Walcott have fired in goals and assists. The midfield unit has being strong. Ramsay continuing his Euro 2016 form. Cech is still producing superb goalkeeping performances. The weak point is potentially in the back four. Paulinha and Mertesacker as central defensive options does not inspire confidence; one vulnerable in the air while the other’s lack of pace is a negative. Arsenal will be a title challenger but when they hit their sticky patch, how will the team respond? Lack of leadership on the pitch last season in the league cannot be repeated again. Wenger has taken enough flak from the fans and media; it is up to Arsenal’s players to deliver.

Verdict:

All top five sides have massive attacking options but there are certainly weak points defensively and squad depth. I still fancy Manchester City to build a four point lead over the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal come year end. Chelsea and Arsenal need to prove more to yours truly but they are nicely positioned. These top five are miles ahead of the rest of the league. They will battle it out for the CL qualification spots. Fact.

Munster 33 – 0 Ospreys

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This time of year gives me the creeps when it comes to the Pro 12 tournament. November internationals; sides are depleted, squad depth of certain teams is highlighted, squad depth in other teams are exposed. These three statements were particularly true on Friday night when Munster continued to their recent good form with an emphatic win over an Ospreys side who were missing twelve first team players.

A sold out Irish Independent Park (Musgrave Park to the old school masses) continued the renewed support of the province since the tragic death of Axel Foley. The energy of the home support has inspired the Munster team in recent weeks and there was plenty to be positive about from a Munster perspective for Rassie Erasmus. Dave Kilcoyne produced a barnstorming display; full of intensity and work rate in the loose. His ball carrying ability and game line yards set the platform for Munster to launch attack after attack. A power packed performance which has earned the UL Bohemians clubman a thoroughly deserved international call-up.

Munster were rarely troubled by an Ospreys side who were quite passive in the opening exchanges. This was in comparison to the hosts whose line speed, work rate and organization in the fringes were on point throughout. The ability of Munster players to support their colleague was a pleasure to watch. This set the tone for the first try of the contest where concerted Munster pressure led to a maul from close range which rumbled over the whitewash.

Darren Sweetnam and Ronan O’Mahoney made big statements to the coaching staff tonight. Sweetnam looks like a real find; the Cork native seems to have so much time on the ball and his ability to beat the first tackle shows the ingenuity and creativity of the player. Sweetnam’s kicking game from hand is a work in progress (one ball went out in the full) but his deft chip behind Ospreys rearguard at the death of this contest oozed class. His close range try was clinically executed. A player which the province must retain and secure; exciting times ahead.

O’Mahoney has had an encouraging Munster career to date but his cameo on Friday night suggests a different side to his play. His two tries came from absolutely nothing, the latter when he latched onto an Osprey’s mistake to score. His work rate and ability to win the game line battle was evident throughout . Two promising youngsters on the wings; the academy is producing genuine talent which can make it to the top again.

Peter O’Mahoney was on a different planet; his ability to read Ospreys’ lineout calls got ridiculous at times. Darren O’Shea certainly assisted in this department but O’Mahoney is like a brand new player for the province. His actions inspire his colleagues to follow suit; the way he got up from a nasty looking fall from a lineout in the second half was nothing short of remarkable. O’Mahoney bounced straight back up and Mitrea was startled that the Ireland international got up so quickly. O’Mahoney’s work rate offensively and defensively was on point.

Tyler Bleyendaal continues to impress; yet again the pack were in dominant form but the New Zealand player continued to game manage with efficiency. His kicking both from the tee and out of hand was on point and Ospreys were struggling to make defensive reads on Munster such was the accuracy and precision of Bleyendaal on the night. A position which Munster have struggled in the last eighteen months, it is now imperative that Munster keep their NZ player fit and healthy in order to retain the momentum of the side.

Ospreys will rue the fact that so many players were unable due to injuries and international duty but the defensive line setup was at times inconsistent, something not exposed in Challenge Cup fare but when in Pro 12 action can be magnified three fold. When the Welsh region had chances to put pressure on, their set piece let them down. The scrum was second best and the lineout misfired at key times in key territorial areas. Better days lie ahead for the Ospreys but the side looks jaded and the break has come at the right time. Steve Tandy needs to assess and try to get players back in the squad to shore up gaping holes in the front five and back line.

The most exciting part of the night for me personally was the introduction of Munster’s scrum half Griesel who even in the eight minute cameo showed all the attributes required to suggest that the province have a scrum half who adds a different dimension to Munster’s play. His quick ruck ball, his physicality to tackle in the fringes was promising. The SA U20 capped player will keep the likes of Duncan Williams (who was good) on his toes particularly during international rugby sabbaticals of the season. Munster’s squad continues to evolve for the better.

Erasmus will be happy that Munster kept the door shut at the death; the line speed in defense did not abate. Munster will have tougher tests starting with the sold out fixture against the Maori’s in Thomond Park this week. Maori’s will be unashamedly aggressive with ball in hand and will try to create from anywhere. An useful exercise for the side ahead of European Cup action next month. Interesting times ahead and Munster head into the Pro 12 break in a quite healthy position second in the table. The fans have come back to support the province; progression is the keyword at the moment and Munster are delivering this requirement.

Ireland 40 – 29 New Zealand

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A certain blogger who will remain nameless (that would be me) questioned the Ireland selection in the lead-up to this fixture last week; the blogger did not see where the creativity and physicality was going to come from to down the ‘juggernaut’ New Zealand. Never mind, for once Hawkeye Sidekick was well wide of the mark and Ireland delivered a performance which has to rank as their most emphatic and complete performance ever.

How did Ireland manage to break the hoodoo?

Ireland had what Axel Foley referred to ‘as a bit of dog’ in the lead-up to this fixture. The 2013 reversal in the Aviva Stadium still hurt and resonated among the Ireland players who were on duty in the magnificent amphitheater that was Soldiers field. From the poignant yet striking formation (tribute to Axel with the eight formation), Ireland were a team focused on writing the wrongs and getting over the line against New Zealand who despite several injuries had potency in every line.

Ireland’s game management centered around three key areas: the first was the exploitation of a New Zealand second row partnership which had a open loose forward in the ranks. Even New Zealand with their impressive squad depth was well short in this area and Toner /Ryan dominated lineout exchanges. The Ireland maul was gloriously executed in their first try on nineteen minutes; no continuity in the New Zealand front five to counteract the set-piece. Stander in the lead-up to the try was immense; his sheer raw physicality and work rate was infectious.

The Ireland scrum has on occasion let the team down in vital moments but this was a day where the line fronted up and won their battle against a New Zealand front row oozing class. It was the coming of age for Jack McGrath (who was mistakenly called Rory Best by a NZ journalist last week) and Tadhg Furlong whose scrummaging was on point and gave Ireland a solid platform to launch attacks out wide. With the lineout firing well, Ireland had the core fundamentals right to seriously trouble New Zealand.

The New Zealand three quarters possessed massive upside with ball in hand but Ireland pinpointed the channel consistently in this test match. Henshaw and Payne were making significant game line yards and the CJ Stander try from close range came from Ireland’s ability to break the NZ three quarter channel ten meters out to allow the Munster talisman to power over. Henshaw’s performance was nothing short of sensational; his work rate, his twelve tackles and general willingless to run with ball in hand throughout was a joy to behold. Payne’s assured defensive organization was to the fore and NZ struggled to make any concerted line breaks in the first fifty minutes of this encounter.

The Ireland half-backs won their battle hands down; it was helped by a supreme pack effort but Murray to the fore caused endless issues for NZ in the close fringes. Murray’s try just before half-time was a superb piece of game management. The Munster scrum-half sensing that Smith was day dreaming on the defensive read made a snipping run which was never going to be stopped. Smith’s performance added to the off the field indiscretions must make him extremely vulnerable for the axe. Perenara’s introduction in the second half provided much needed direction for NZ in open play.

Sexton vs. Barrett. Sexton for fifty minutes was lights out sublime; his game management and ability to execute provided Ireland three quarters with massive game line gains. Barrett floundered as his pack and scrum half were under immense pressure. Sexton’s lack of game time caught with him in the third quarter and unfortunately at least one of NZ tries were down to Sexton’s kicking game inaccuracy (either out in the full or the aimless aerial bomb leading to Ben Smith’s try). Carbery’s introduction was made at exactly the right time and the youngster provided the coolness and direction which Ireland required to close out the contest. Several key game management decisions from the Athy native in the last ten minutes belied the fact that this was Carbery’s debut. His kick to the touch forcing NZ deep into their own half with eight minutes to go was as good as it gets.

New Zealand are a supreme team. Their comeback in the second half was sensational; their speed of pass, line speed and offloading were to the fore in that third quarter. Ben Smith’s try was a thing of beauty; how agile was the full back to cross the whitewash while under pressure from the likes of Zebo and Heaslip at the corner flag. New Zealand have that aura about them; you never think they are beat until the final whistle. When Zebo crossed over to make it 30-8, any other opponent would have lied down and looked for the final whistle to go. NZ are a different beast; they continued to play their rugby and their calmness in that third quarter is something that Ireland and others learn from.

With Ireland hanging on 33-29 with fifteen minutes to go, the signs did look ominous. NZ were clearing rucks quicker, fast ruck ball to Barrett who was starting to impress. Ireland had to dig into the well and the hit from Trimble in midfield which caused NZ to spill ball to go forward a key moment in the contest. Ireland was refusing to take a step backwards; the fans in the stadium responded. The Ireland players were reenergized and the last eight minutes were superb culminating in the fifth Ireland try.

Ireland of old would have set the scrum, kept it tight in the front five to kill the clock but Ireland under Schmidt are a different proposition. Another solid scrum and Heaslip executed the pass to Henshaw on the running line perfect. Henshaw was never going to be stopped after breaking the first NZ tackle. Try for Ireland. Game over. History was made. It was a move which typified the evolution in play from Ireland; their sharp attacking lines were too much for NZ.

Chicago; a town which had its own hoodoo broken last week with the Cubs World Series win seen another hoodoo consigned to the history books. Ireland vanquished all the horrors and tribulations of twenty-eight previous NZ wins with one supreme performance. This performance is now the blueprint for Ireland going forward; this is the performance which should be the baseline for Ireland players and coaching staff to aspire to each and every week.

Given the players unavailable for selection, this Ireland win is all the more remarkable and with the likes of O’Brien, O’Mahoney, Earls, Kilcoyne, Henderson all raring to get back to the national setup, Schmidt has serious selection dilemmas going forward. What a day! Ireland score forty on NZ. Ireland score five tries on the reigning World Champions. Incredible stuff. NZ unbeaten record is smashed.

All Stars Award Review

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The Opel All Stars Awards are upon us; this year has gone fast. A gala where the top intercounty footballers and hurlers gather to reflect on the year and earn further recognition. In these award ceremonies, there will be debate on some nominations. Hawkeye Sidekick ponders these questions.

Gaelic Football

Stephen Rochford’s thoughts this morning on the announcement that David Clarke was selected as goalkeeper would have being intriguing. Clarke dropped for the All Ireland Final replay is given the award (has to be a first). Stephen Cluxton or Evan Comerford for me were ahead of Clarke this season. If the panel selecting the team were looking for a keeper other than Cluxton, Tipperary’s netminder Comerford ticked all the boxes. His assured performances this season and his accurate kicking was paramount to Tipperary’s success this season.

The corner back positions can have little argument. Harrison and McMahon were the standout performers in their positions this season. Harrison was a real find for Mayo this season; his man marking assignments in the All Ireland finals were standout performances. McMahon was ultra efficient this season and chipped in with several scores. His leadership defensively with the absence of keynote players such O’Carroll in the full back line stood out. Stellar years for the pair. Well earned awards. Jonny Cooper at full back will have little argument from most quarters; solid in a position which looked vulnerable at the start of the season.

The half-back line is probably where the massive controversial debate will rage. How Durcan and Cian O’Sullivan were omitted is baffling? O’Sullivan was described as Dublin’s defensive lynchpin; the definition of the modern half-back; the definition of a defensive game reader. Durcan’s attacking runs and score taking from long range caught the eye. Ryan McHugh and Colm Boyle were selected ahead of both players. Both had good years but when compared with O’Sullivan and Durcan’s cameo does not hold up. Award opinion will be varied. McHugh albeit was influential for Donegal in attacking play; his ability to support his forward line was to the fore and his eye for goal shone through obviously for the selection panel to get him the nod. Robbie Kiely and Peter Acheson of Tipperary were almost omitted; Kiely had a stellar year but his controversial black card spelled the end for his All Star prospects.

The midfield area was another area of contention. Donnelly and Fenton are solid picks but cannot feel some disappointment for Clare talisman Gary Brennan who was superb this season. His ball winning ability, scoring ability were sensational in NFL and Championship. Clare had a great season and Brennan was a huge reason why and would have being good to have highlighted Banner’s progression this term.

Few complaints on the half-forward line. Harte, Connolly and Kilkenny is an awesome line. Harte with his snipping running from deep. Connolly’s unerring accuracy scoring from any angle and Kilkenny’s coolness and distribution is the stuff of legend. Aidan O’Shea potentially but his All Ireland final cameos fell short of the level required.

The full forward line is youthful and energetic. Dean Rock wins his first gong, reward for taking on the mantle of Dublin’s focal point from placed balls. Rock also was prominent in the scoring stakes from play; worthy reward for the Ballymun clubman. Michael Quinlivan’s cameos in the Cork and Galway triumphs in the championship stood out this season. His contribution with Clonmel Commercials earlier in the year was taken into accounts; nice acknowledgement for Tipperary who on another day could have had three players on the team. Paul Geaney, pure class forward. His score tally speaks volumes. The Dingle native’s ability to score from either foot had his defensive markers at sixes and sevens.

Cillian O’Connor was unlucky to miss out on an award; noteworthy performances for Mayo at the business end of the season. Kevin McManamon unlucky to miss out as well; a potential footballer of the year before the All Ireland final is overlooked. Plenty to digest in that selection.

Hurling

Lee Chin would not be anywhere else but at this gala. The Hurling All Stars will be announced to the general public tomorrow during the televised event. The team should go along by and large familiar lines but there are a couple of spots in the team which are up for grabs but think that the selection will be along these lines:

  1. Eoin Murphy (KK)
  2. Cathal Barrett (Tipperary)
  3. Daithi Burke (Galway)
  4. James Barry (Tipperary)
  5. Padraic Walsh (KK)
  6. Ronan Maher (Tipperary)
  7. Padraic Maher (Tipperary)
  8. David Burke (Galway)
  9. Jamie Barron (Waterford) / Brendan Maher (Tipperary)
  10. Walter Walsh (Kilkenny)
  11. Austin Gleeson (Waterford)
  12. Bonnar Maher (Tipperary)
  13. John McGrath (Tippeary)
  14. Seamus Callanan (Tipperary) and should win HOTY
  15. Richie Hogan (Kilkenny)