Guinness Pro 12: Munster 21 – 30 Llanelli Scarlet

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Scarlets win at Thomond Park

Munster finally punished for inaccuracies with a loss

Let us be quite frank. Munster inaccuracies has being present in recent weeks. Tough road wins at Edinburgh and Ospreys may have masked glaring precision and game management decisions but last Friday evening, Llanelli Scarlets punished sloppy Munster work for a deserved win. It was a very Jekyll and Hyde performance from Munster; a dominant opening first half where three fluent tries were scored off quick ruck ball from Taute, Sweetnam and Oliver indicated a potentially easy night’s work but the lack of defensive organization, missed tackles in the second half gave Scarlets a sniff and they rammed the door down with some fantastic scores of their own. The opening try was a superb kick in behind, exposing a flat footed Munster defense whose line speed in the second half was passive in nature. The second Scarlets try was a superb well worked scored, love the expansive style of play from the West Wales region. Johnny McNicol had plenty to do with the ball but his awareness of space causing hesistation in Munster’s defense was key. The third try was a Munster defensive disaster; overlap on the flank, lack of communication to fill the defensive gap left Ronan O’Mahoney in an isolated position and van der Merwe was never going to miss from close range. Munster can have no complaints; this result was coming in recent weeks and it is a good reality check for the province ahead of the Toulouse ERC fixture.

Munster youngsters impress; seasoned pros do not

This was a fixture where the video analysis for Munster was a potentially mixed message. The new Munster players in Goggin, Oliver continue to revel in the first team and their performances in the first half showed incredible promise. This was the highlight as more seasoned players in the squad failed to produce the required performance. Duncan Williams had a night to forget particularly in the second half. When game management was required playing against the breeze, Williams failed to assert authority and his slow distribution allowed Scarlets the time to regroup defensively. Bleyendaal had a mixed night defensively. His channel was pinpointed at times and like Williams failed to provide game management to quell the constant Scarlets second half onslaught. O’Mahoney on the wing endured a torrid night; a night where several game management decisions went wrong and was left high and dry for the third Scarlets try. Dave Foley’s performances for Munster this season have being disappointing; looks a pale shadow of the player which emerged to the squad a couple of seasons ago. The depth chart at second row is competitive and Foley needed a good game to get into the thoughts of Munster management ahead of the business end of the season. The performance was flat, lineout was hit and miss and little impact from open play. Foley will struggle for game time for the remainder of the season on the back of this performance. Is the player fully fit? I have my doubts.

Blessing in-disguise?

I think the loss is a great reminder to the Munster team that their accuracy and intensity levels have to be better for the full eighty minutes. It is much better to get this reminder now than wait until April 1st to see this performance. The loss exposed some defensive communication breakdown. Saili was erratic in his defensive plays; coming out of the line and isolating colleagues defensively in the process. Saili was an experienced player in the Munster lineup and some of his decision making really let down his side. Saili needs to get back to basics; communication, game management, hit first tackles. The side’s precision was not good enough. The number of forward passes, lineout breakdowns were glaring. Erasmus and management need to address the basics this week in the training paddock. This level of performance was unacceptable; the players will realize that and it is a test for the fringe squad members ahead of a trip to Cardiff.

Scarlets – Most improved side in Pro 12 this season

Llanelli Scarlets form since the start of the calendar year has being excellent. Their performance in ERC competition with a famous victory over Toulon and should have beaten Saracens have being the springboard. Their win against Glasgow last week was due warning to Munster and this result and victory at Thomond Park should come as no shock. Their front five has improved but it is their ball skills and expansive style out wide which has caught the eye. Scarlets are in the top four of the league; they can look to push on now and with renewed confidence will be a threat to anyone above them in the playoffs. The only thing that could jeopardize their campaign is injuries. Their second half was extremely impressive; excellent ball retention and their ability to identify Munster defensive gaps was superb. The tries scored were well constructed. Well done Scarlets.

Pro 12 has got interesting / Officiating remains an issue

We have a league, ladies and gentlemen. Munster are off the top of the table. Leinster are now on the summit with the Ospreys breathing down their throats. It is a pivotal couple of weeks for the chasing pack. Glasgow’s loss to the Ospreys means that they are looking for favors from others to get back into the playoff race. It looks like five teams looking for four spots. Leinster look good. Munster need to steady the ship with a win against Cardiff. Ospreys will look to keep pressure and their try scoring exploits should see them secure playoff rugby. The battle is for the fourth spot. Scarlets look favorite but Ulster have a nice schedule of games coming up. It makes for compelling viewing. Pro 12 league has got interesting but the officiating is letting down the season. The officiating at Thomond Park bordered on ridiculous at times. Business end of the season now and officiating is a toss-up. No consistency; offside rule has being ditched. Linesmen not awarding correct decisions. Where do you go?

RBS 6 Nations: Round Three Reflections

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To ruck or not to ruck, that is the question

Ireland half backs decisive in Aviva Stadium victory

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Murray sublime in Ireland victory

Ireland and France was the expected arm wrestle that many rugby observers expected; squally conditions further reduced the expansive nature of this contest which increased the focus of game management from the half backs and this battle was emphatically won by Ireland as Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton provided tactical nous and scoring threat to seal a ten point victory.

Murray’s performance on Saturday was sublime. His box kicking was on point throughout, exit strategy was well executed throughout with long kicks to relieve Ireland’s defensive lines. Murray distribution from the ruck was accurate and allowed Sexton the sufficient time to attempt to launch his three quarters.

What makes Murray such a threat is his work with or without the ball. His ability to create tries from close range is a real standout this season; his poacher style try from good Ireland pack work was due reward for an enterprising opening period but his ability to stop attacks with excellent defensive cover tackles seen at various intervals of the contest.

Sexton belied his lack of game time to produce an excellent performance. His place kicking was on point throughout and his game management in open play provided Ireland with several standout moments. His quick thinking nearly yielded a try in the opening period when France thought the Leinster player would go for the posts; launched a quick tap and go which set the platform for Murray’s try a couple of minutes later.

Sexton’s ability to flirt with the game line to engage defenders and launch his runners is a standout; he takes sometimes undue punishment for this approach but the fly-half always gives his colleagues the best opportunity to gain game lines. This was an impressive cameo; he really confounded my assertions last week illustrated by his emphatic drop goal in the second half, all the more impressive given the wet conditions.

With Ireland’s half backs in dominant form, France were facing an uphill struggle. They were competitive in a physically abrasive opening period and tried to launch attacks from any area of the pitch.

Fickou and Picamoles looked formidable early door with some impressive ball carries but France were unable to make their first quarter territorial dominance convert into points, a period where they emphatically won the breakdown area slowing down Ireland ball and punishing the hosts whenever ball carriers were isolated.

The conditioning issues of France did surface in the second half; Ireland’s pack increased the tempo in the third quarter and France penalties soon followed opening up the ten point lead which was ultimately the gap at the final whistle.

This was a game of attrition. Both defenses by and large ruled the roost despite a couple of line breaks in the opening period. Ireland’s inability to carve out line breaks for Henshaw is a worry. The Leinster three quarter work rate has being stellar in this tournament but his game line yards have being low.

Ringrose has being the focal point of the three quarter attacks; providing stealth running lines while Henshaw has being the battering ram for initial phase platforms. Wales and England defensively will be stiff tests but there needs to be more balance in the three quarters with both players possessing pace and power to make the required ball carrying impact.

Ireland’s back row balance issues surfaced on Saturday. No dynamic seven to compete effectively at the breakdown was exposed more than once with the French having the upperhand in this department. Josh van der Flier’s absence was felt particularly in the opening period where Ireland struggled to retain possession due to slow support for the ball carrier.

Tommy O’Donnell potentially has to come into the equation against the Welsh; his pace and competitiveness in the breakdown area will be required against a highly talent Wales back row but realistically Schmidt will probably retain the players who started against French. Stander, Heaslip and O’Brien carried endless ball throughout but there is a dynamism missing in this unit which will be punished by more clued in back row opposition units starting with the Welsh.

France will continue to experiment for the duration of this tournament. Media reports suggest that the French Rugby Union will look to setup a contract based system for their elite players (forty players), a good move and one that will reap rewards in terms of continuity and cohesion.

There have being good signs from Le Bleu; the willingness to attack from anywhere is admirable but the accuracy and precision that comes with this approach has being lacking. The penalty count in the second half was too high and on another day Nigel Owens could have issued a yellow card(s) for the visitors due to their offside infringements.

To ruck or not to ruck England

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Outsmarted, cue toys thrown out of pram

Credit to Conor O’Shea and Italian management for absolutely snookering England for the opening period to the extent that Eddie Jones threw his toys out of the pram. It was a deliberate move from Jones; switching the focus away from his players and honing the media down the avenue of ruck laws. His players failed to adapt to the challenge that was presented by the Azzuri, evident in the exchange between Hartley and Haskell with Poite who reminded them that he was the referee and not the coach.

The approach from O’Shea and Italy was admirable; nothing to lose attitude in the opening period should have being rewarded with more points on the board but their lack of a quality goal kicker was exposed. Allan is an average ten. His body language at the penalties presented did not inspire confidence but his reaction after missing was pathetic, smiling away to his colleagues (looked out of more relief).

Italy need to identify a reliable number ten, if that means looking for a SH player and securing residency, then so be it. Each penalty miss was a smack in the face to the likes of Parisse who was stellar with ball carries and leadership. Parisse was sensational yesterday, had Hughes in his pocket early doors.

5-10 at the interval was the minimum England expected from a dour opening period. There are now serious questions on the England captaincy. Hartley’s inability to take in the information from Poite on the ruck laws spoke volumes; his leadership was muted in that opening period and his colleagues were ponderless.

Even Owen Farrell celebrating his fifty cap had a shaky first half but he stepped up to the plate in the second half to provide the platform in open play to setup victory, something Hartley failed to do.

How Jack Nowell is not starting for England is another subplot from yesterday’s game? His street smarts shone with a quick brace of tries. His ability to spot mismatches and gaps is excellent, game smarts were in short supply from England but this was one player who stepped up to the plate.

Maro Itoje is now the leader of the England pack; his performance was immense. Itoje is a good six but is a different player when switched to the second row. England’s scrum started to assert dominance in the second half when the switch was made and his lineout threat and athleticism in open field shone through. Itoje is a Lions test match player already.

The ruck laws do not need to be redefined; SH teams such as the Chiefs vary the no ruck tactic to keep opposition on their toes. It is up to teams to read the tactic and either smash through the middle or engage players in the ruck area. I thought it was a fascinating tactical switch; expect more NH teams to experiment with the tactic. Intriguing end to this tournament beckons as Scotland and Ireland may test England’s game reading of this tactic. England collectively need to adapt and that includes Matt Dawson.

Scotland pounce to beat blunt Wales

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Hogg sublime in Scotland win

Scotland have being the standout team of this tournament. Their welcome resurgence continues with a superb sixteen point victory at Murrayfield. The hosts had to soak up Wales pressure in the opening period but their second half showed creativity and precision which was sorely lacking from the visitors.

Liam Williams continues to impress in this tournament; has being the leading back for the Welsh. His opening try was well worked. Wales presenting quick ruck ball to their explosive backs where Davies found Williams to score in the corner.

Wales enjoyed dominance in the opening half and should have had more points on the board but lack of discipline (Webb hold back) after a massive game line break emphasized the point and was a turning point in the contest.

Scotland survived the onslaught and their pack started to create the platform for the likes of Hogg to impress out wide. His attacking line and pass to Seymour at the end of the half was a sign of things to come in the second half and the hosts built on this promise with two well worked tries.

The first Scotland try had a hint of obstruction (running line of Jones potentially impeding Welsh defenders) but Visser to Seymour pass was sublime and the Glasgow Warrior did well to touchdown. The second try was to do with Russell and Hogg; their awarness of space, the speed of pass pivotal to setup Visser to score from close range.

A fixture which on the basis of the first half performance in recent seasons could have seen Scotland drop the heads and accept their fate but this is a different team under the departing Vern Cotter. There is a steel about this group of players to knuckle down when the pressure is exerted by opponents and their precision and accuracy is improved with ball in hand.

No pressure for Scotland against England; it will be interesting to see how Scotland attempt to disrupt England’s game plan while possessing an edge in their attacking play. Optimism and confidence should be high for Scotland, should be an intriguing contest.

Where now for Wales? A performance which lacked cohesion and some players looked devoid of ideas to get back into the contest. The back line again was starved of quality ball at times particularly in the opening period. The pack were well beaten at the end of the contest. Will Howley wield the changes for Ireland? Nothing to lose but several Welsh players are playing themselves out of the Lions tour; a reaction is required against Ireland.

RBS 6 Nations – Round 3 Thoughts

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Sink or Swim week

Can Sexton produce a performance against France?

The Ireland team selection in essence yielded little surprises. Best and McGrath were recalled after being left out of the starting lineup against Italy. The only selection of interest was at fly-half with Sexton replacing Jackson for the jersey despite playing no game minutes in recent weeks.

Schmidt has plumped for a player who has produced for Ireland consistently over Jackson who did little wrong in Rome two weeks ago. Is Schmidt sending a statement that he still does not trust Jackson to execute the Ireland game plan against France?

For Ireland, you hope that the switch works but I have massive reservations on the selection. Sexton’s recent form and early departures from games are two main concerns and one that France will target throughout.

The ten and thirteen channels were to be targeted by France anyway and with Sexton introduced to the starting lineup, there will be more focus on the ten channel in the opening exchanges to test out Sexton and see if he is fully fit and defensive ready for a test match of this intensity.

Sexton’s ability is undoubted but the recent injury problems and lack of game time (don’t care who are) will affect your performance. Murray will need to provide Sexton with the time and space to launch his back line but also for his defensive duties. Ireland, Joe Schmidt and management will hold their breathe on Saturday evening. Intriguing stuff.

 

Ireland prepared for pack trench warfare

The fact that Joe Schmidt has named an abrasive subs bench (5 forwards, 1 backs and two half-backs). The decision to leave Dillane was made purely because Ireland management believe that this game will be won in the pack exchanges. The closing quarter will be a pivotal time for Ireland to potentially use their conditioning advantage or a France team who have flagged in their last two matches in the closing exchanges.

Peter O’Mahoney coming off the bench is a stellar substitute to spring into action for his open play, breakdown and lineout option capability. His willingness to do the hard work and go deep into the tackle count can only help Ireland at the death of this test match. Henderson gets the nod over Dillane who is still struggling for optimum form this season.

France will look to set their platform at the set piece and the onus is on Ireland’s front five to deny this advantage. The scrum will be sublime; the French pride themselves in a dominant scrum but with the likes of McGrath, Best, Furlong packing down, it promises to be an epic contest.

The lineout options to Rory Best are solid with Toner, Ryan and potentially Stander / Heaslip in the opening exchanges. The promise of Henderson and O’Mahoney to come into the fray will add bolster to the lineout in the closing quarter. This is not going to be an offloading exhibiton game; expect hard hits throughout with the pack exchanges pivotal to who wins this contest.

 

How much will England score against Italy?

England’s point spread bets will vary wildly this weekend. Italy are on a hiding to nothing as their backs are proverbially against the wall. Their media do not rate the team, their media has questioned why the team are in the RBS 6 Nations (prompting talks of why Georgia are not in the tourney).

Conor O’Shea realized that this job would take time to cultivate a winning culture and a team whose undoubted passion would convert into a more cohesive unit with ball and defensively. The reality check has being swift. A second half thrashing at home to Wales set the prelude to an embarrassing reversal to Ireland two weeks ago.

There was precious little to take as positives for Italy; the set piece was exposed. The scrum was a weak point in both games. The lineout usually so solid disintegrated against Ireland and gave Joe Schmidt’s endless opportunities to launch attacks deep in Italian territory.

With this backdrop comes their first road trip of the championship and what a daunting challenge with a run out at Twickenham. England will be relishing this fixture to demonstrate their flair, offloading and attacking dimensions to their side. Their pack are excellent; no genuine weak point in the England ranks. The set piece is solid, scrum could be targeted if any officials dare ping Dan Coles for not driving straight. Love him or hate him, Dylan Hartley throws good lineout darts and with the man mountain Maro Itoje becoming a standout pack leader, quick ruck ball from Youngs and Care allows the likes of Ford and Farrell to unleash an incredibly pacey back line. Joseph omission is an opportunity for others to impress.

Eddie Jones constantly tries to change up the side and keep the players on their toes. Joseph was a standout for England last season so Jones is not afraid to be the hard calls. Daly has being a revelation this season with his long range kicking and scorching pace (do not remain Alex Cuthbert of that try) which won England the game against Wales two weeks ago. England will look to probe Italy’s fringe defense throughout and there is only one winner; potential floodgates to open on fifty minutes and expect 30 / 40 point thrashing for the Azzuri. Expect more talk of Georgia and their inability to join the RBS 6 Nations party to develop next week.

Scotland vs. Wales – Creativity appear?

Wales enter this contest on the back of a traumatic loss to their arch foe England. A game which they could have won was taken away from them thanks to poor game management both on and off the pitch. The on pitch events preceding the game winning try have being much documented. Davies and Cuthbert have heard enough about their roles in video analysis but the Welsh management have to put their hand up and admit that key substitution switches were made at the wrong time. Ross Moriarty was having an absolute belter of a game but then Howley decides to take his Gloucester charge off in his prime. Momentum built was then destroyed and gave England an opportunity to regroup and execute their game plan.

Wales showed flashes of the creativity which they have in abundance. Liam Williams has being sublime in this tournament; his running lines and all round game makes him a cert for the Lions tour. George North continues to perform at a high level. Williams and Davies form a superb three quarters where pace and power are in abundance. Wales need to make a decision on what style of play they want to adopt for the rest of the tournament?

Wales need as many points as possible. The answer would point to a more expansive style but Wales have at times gone back to prototype and being a little one dimensional using their pack and defense nous to beat opponents.

Wales need to make a statement this week and with a Scotland team minus a couple of first choice players including influential Laidlaw, it is a game that is there for Wales to secure a win and a potential bonus point win.

Scotland under Vern Cotter have improved their consistency this season. The loss to Paris had plenty of positives. Hogg at full back continues to impress in open space. The defensive fringes were good for large parts.

However, the scrum and defensive maul were areas of weakness and Wales will look to target these areas in the opening half this weekend. The inclement weather may make the ambition to be expansive a long shot and it could be another pack battle, hoping it will not be as both sides process two stellar back lines. This could be the most entertaining contest of the weekend.

Hawkeye Sidekick Predictions

Ireland by three points (won’t be pretty but a result will be secured)

England by thirty points (bonus point by half-time)

Wales by seven points (weather determines bonus point)

Guinness Pro 12: Ospreys 23 – 25 Munster

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Five key talking points from the top of the table tussle

Munster never say die attitude to the fore

This was a mixed performance from the men in red. Ospreys should have had this contest out of sight in the first quarter such was their dominance. Two quick fire tries superbly executed by the hosts aided by some defensive breakdowns in line speed and first time tackles had Munster on the ropes but Ospreys intense start subsided to such an extent that the visitors created a platform and scored two quality tries of their own. O’Donoghue and Sailli ball carries and running lines were sublime. 20-18 at the break, hard to believe that the Munster were still in the contest but they were.

Munster’s ability to continue to build phrases and look for space in the last ten minutes was quite admirable; several attacks had broken down due to poor ball protection and unforced errors. Kilcoyne’s try was an excellent effort; his ability to break three Osprey players to touchdown is a potential pivotal event in the Pro 12 season.

Bleyendaal’s conversion was unerring and Munster had stolen victory from the jaws of defeat. The squad is resolute. The management is resolute; united front and the pride in the Munster jersey is restored this season, something potentially may not have being the case last season after such a horrific opening first quarter.

Champions Cup vs. Challenge Cup

Ospreys’ fans were quick to point at the Beck TMO decision as the key turning point of the contest. A try then would have proved near fatal for Munster to get back into the contest but there was still well over twenty minutes plus to go. Ospreys’ attacking lines have being superb all season; they have hit heavy scores in both Pro 12 and ERC Challenge Cup but Ospreys played in spurts yesterday, great opening period but died for fifteen minutes before the interval to allow Munster to get back into the contest. The Challenge Cup, you can possibly get away with a quiet period of play but in the Champions Cup, it is punished. Ospreys should secure a top four place this season and a return to the top table of European Rugby where they will see first hand that any lull in intensity is devastatingly punished. Ospreys will go far in the ERC Challenge Cup but defensively they will need to bring their defense for the full eighty; the hosts failed in this regard and this is what cost them victory yesterday.

Mitrea

Officiating is an occupational hazard; both teams will have gripes with the officiating. As eluded to, the Welsh side will point to the Beck try and also for some high tackles not pinged by the Italian official leading to this decision (Saili cited on February 20th). Munster will point to scrum dominance and no discernible advantage from this set piece.

Mitrea frustrates me as a match official; has all the attributes to be a top class referee and then lets himself down with the question he posed to the TMO on the Bleyendaal try. The question would have indicated a try was the answer but then it was turned down for something not mentioned by the match official during the initial TMO discussion on the decision.

This was a top of the table tussle; come May, a decision like this could decide home field advantage in the playoffs. The TMO decision did not cost Munster but Ospreys will feel rather different. It is a worrying aspect for teams leading into the season run-in. Mitrea has to be better in these situatons or his credibility as a match official will wane at a rate of knots.

Munster – Sloppiness

This was far from a vintage Munster performance. The set piece was decent throughout. Marshall at two is becoming a real viable ball carrier and providing stern competition for Scannell who is on international duty. The defensive breakdowns for the two Ospreys tries were avoidable; defensive line speed was passive in that opening quarter and first time tackling was not on point.

Credit to the side, they made adjustments at the break and was improved in the second half but defensive system failures particularly in April and May will be ruthlessly punished. The lack of ball control and composure in Munster’s play at times was frustrating; the second half saw a flurry of unforced errors where Munster trying to force the issue coughed up ball.

The base of the scrum usually so solid for Munster was inconsistent at best, ball control was an issue and is something that young Jack O’Donoghue needs to improve. All other aspects of play were on point from the Waterford man but he needs to bring more dominance to the base of the scrum with his ball control.

The fortitude of the Munster players to go to the death won the day but video analysis and training paddock will be an interesting place tomorrow.

Pro 12 Weekend Fixtures – One Quality game, one close game and the rest are blowout victories for home teams

Osprey and Munster fixture was a superb advert to the league; despite the fact that both sides were missing several first team starters. The lack of cohesion in these RBS 6N calendar fixtures was non-existent in this fixture, both teams hit the ground running and served up some splendid periods of play.

Ospreys under Steve Tandy are an excellent team and they will be a force to be reckoned with in the business end of the season. If they can beat Glasgow, they take the Warriors out of the playoff picture.

Munster entertain Scarlets next Friday night, a game which has banana skin written all over it for the Irish province. Scarlets have improved immeasurably since Christmas and their performances in ERC action will have issued a massive warning for Munster this week in preparation for the fixture at a Thomond Park which should have had a decent crowd.

The other fixtures were nondescript, several blow out wins and a narrow win for Connacht over the Dragons in a dull encounter. The league needs more competitive games like what was witnessed at the Liberty Stadium. Forty point drubbings is not the order of the day! However, need to mention the Pienaar try for Ulster against Warriors (try of the tournament so far for me).

NHL Review

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NHL 1A – Tipp march on, Clare and Dublin register first wins

What a difference a week makes. Let us be frank, Dublin hurlers and management backs were against the wall. After a facile performance against Tipperary at Croke Park a week ago, Ger Cunningham’s charges arrived to Cork with criticism ringing in their ears. Dublin’s response was emphatic and an eight point triumph over a Cork side whose performance was well below the standard required at this level of competition. Dublin were superior throughout the contest. There was a hunger and determination in Dublin’s play from the throw in and set about supplying quick ball into O’Dwyer and Conroy who revelled in the Pairc Ui Rinn surroundings.

After cautious opening exchanges, Ryan O’Dwyer’s goal provided the catalyst for Dublin to produce a much improved opening half performance. 1-8 to no score was the deciding spell of this contest before the interval as Cork’s issues from last season were in full view. Defensive vulnerable throughout, lack of work rate out the pitch where Dublin’s half back line received quick puckouts without any challenge from Cork’s half forward line. Yes, Cork responded to be only four points behind at half-time but Dublin reasserted their dominance when Conroy scored after neat play from Burke in the second half.

Ger Cunningham would have being impressed by the attitude and work rate of his charges throughout the contest particularly when Dublin were reduced to fourteen player after Chris Crummey’s red card. Cork were devoid of any ideas on how to get back into this contest and were unable to thwart Dublin’s running game where player overlaps were created on a regular basis. Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash had to bail the hosts on a couple of occasions due to this with some smart saves.

Dublin get their league campaign off the ground, a win that a week ago looked beyond them. This performance was full of work rate and endeavor with some good passages of play produced. The early ball into the forward line was impressive and Conroy, Burke and O’Dwyer were to the fore. Tougher challenges, higher match tempos loom large in the horizon but Dublin have given themselves a platform to build on.

Cork on the other hand should be worried. This was a performance which exposed work rate and application in all outfield lines. There was a distinct lack of pace around the pitch as Dublin dominated the 50/50 exchanges for long periods. Ellis at centre back did not know whether to follow the movement of O’Dwyer or stick in the pocket; confusion and chaos reigned. The forward line work rate without the ball reared its head as well. The new comers to the team never came to the party and Kingston has questions to answer ahead of upcoming NHL fixtures. Jekyll and Hyde seen in consecutive weeks for the Rebels.

Tipperary impress against Waterford

This was the key fixture of NHL 1A this season. It was a classic opportunity for Waterford to hit an early blow and sent a statement of their ambitions for the upcoming season. Instead, Tipperary without being put under immense pressure secured a comfortable six point victory and left Derek McGrath with questions to ponder.

Walsh Park pitch conditions were not ideal for hurling; the grass was long and the soft conditions under foot did little for the contest which was tough and uncompromising throughout.

Waterford’s shot selection at times was horrendous, an Achilles heel of the side last season and Deise players were making rash decisions to hit points from impossible angles and shoot for goals from unrealistic angles. The host’s defensive approach also resulted in their forward line going isolated at times.

Michael Ryan has set out his intentions to seriously challenge for league honors. The fact that only two players from the current panel have league medals is the motivation. Tipperary were extremely controlled throughout.

No weak point in any unit as the new players to the team stood up to the challenge. Stephen O’Brien aerial prowess is a real asset. Hamill at centre back, what a find, physical defender but his ball distribution was sublime. The two corner backs were real finds today, stuck to their task admirably throughout and ably assisted the excellent James Barry at full back.

A quick glance at Tipperary’s sub bench illustrates the squad depth at Michael Ryan’s disposal. The fact that Ronan Maher was not used today spoke volumes; Hamill was having an excellent afternoon. Seamus Callanan, Bubbles O’Dwyer, Michael Cahill and Seamus Callanan came on with ten minutes left to get some game time. Training session matches will be muck savage in Tipperary this season; competition for panel places will be incredibly hard fought. A dream scenario for Tipperary management.

Two Tipperary players stood out today. John McGrath score tally was to the fore but his work rate and free taking accuracy provided Tipperary with momentum particularly in the opening half. His goal was well taken after Noel McGrath’s shot was initially superbly saved. The goal spelled the end of the contest. Waterford tried hard but their lack of accuracy was evident in their shot selection. Austin Gleeson was subdued; not helped by switching from centre back, to centre forward and then in the square.

Tipperary have sent the statement to the rest and with the more established stars yet to feature significantly in the league so far (Bonnar Maher back in April), the Premier County will have a major say in both league and championship this season. Waterford are in the mix but they must eradicate the bad habits of previous season’s to realistically have a shot at winning Liam McCarthy.

Clare win; Cody not panicking

The 2-19 to 0-12 scoreline would have some inter-county hurling manager’s fearing the worse but Kilkenny manager Brian Cody was having none of it post game in Ennis today. Relegation is not a word in his vocabulary at present and he is looking forward to the rest of the league with confidence. However, privately there must be concern on several fronts.

Clare yet again exposed Kilkenny with speed and quick delivery to the full forward line. Aaron Shanagher was sublime today; his performance set the tone with several good points as well as an excellent goal which gave Eoin Murphy no chance. The victory also was set in the Clare half-back line display where the likes of Bugler and Fitzgerald constantly drove forward creating player overlaps.

The speed of Clare was too much for Kilkenny today on all lines. The full forward line movement was a joy to watch receiving quick ball from the half-back and midfield areas. The Kilkenny full back line were overworked today; full back position is glaring and Padraic Walsh needs to be switched to his favored wing back position. Paul Murphy at center back experiment did not work. Holden was vulnerable to pace and attacking runs throughout; the lack of pace defensively is an issue for Kilkenny and no genuine alternatives are to be seen.

The other glaring area for Kilkenny is to identify a goal threat inside. Apart from a penalty effort and Cillian Buckley effort in the first half after a run from deep, distinct lack of goal chances for Kilkenny today.

TJ Reid was typically workmanlike but he was double and trebled teamed at times, this should have opened up the game for other forwards but most were snuffed out. Richie Hogan struck an isolated, frustrated figure today. Ger Aylward and Colin Fennelly cannot come back quick enough but the squad depth is vulnerable.

Clare will be pleased with this performance. The subdued display on the road to Cork last weekend was hard to comprehend for Clare management but the players on duty today produced the work rate and executed the game plan to the letter.

It was quite similar to the what they produced last season in the NHL semi-finals where they ripped Kilkenny apart with speed, aggressive running lines and also quick ball delivery inside. The league has seen inconsistent performances from several teams in this division; something which will need to be addressed in the coming weeks.

Tipperary are in pole position with the rest of the chasing pack trying to find the right formula and combinations. Decent league start but the league quality will increase.

NHL 1B – Wexford in pole position, Limerick and Laois win

iThe resurgence of Wexford hurling continues. A two point victory over Galway at Pearse Stadium has the Slaneysiders with promotion in their own destiny. Davy Fitzgerald was quick to point out that this was far from the complete performance but any team that goes to Galway and comes back with the points deserves massive credit.

Their conditioning and fitness levels are the best in the league; evident in their late surge to beat Limerick last weekend and again they left it late with a flurry of scores to secure victory from the jaws of defeat. Galway will rue the scored missed during the opening period; two opportunistic goals were well taken but there was a lack of cohesion in the forward line units; player movement for colleagues was poor at times and needs to improve.

Galway are faced with the real prospect of 1B hurling again next season; not good for a county who are striving for All Ireland honors. Liam O’Donoghue like John Kiely should now look at their panels and give game minutes to fringe players; promotion is realistically out of reach after today’s result.

It will take a massive collapse from Wexford to not secure promotion from here with games against Kerry, Laois and Offaly to come. Davy Fitzgerald’s arrival has being the pure tonic for Wexford; the panel and hurling fans in the county are energized. Their application and work rate this season is a far cry from previous season’s where their league form let us be frank was abject at times (thinking back to last year in Gaelic Grounds and a horrendous defeat to Limerick.

Fitzgerald’s motivational skills are sublime and his passion for the game infectious. The question is whether Wexford can keep this level of intensity until the championship. I sincerely hope they do as it would make for an incredibly compelling Leinster championship.

Limerick got their league back on track somewhat with a facile win against a hard working yet totally outgunned Kerry at Gaelic Grounds. The first twenty minutes were compelling when Kerry had scored their second goal of the afternoon to level affairs but Limerick struck home a quick brace of goals to open up a lead that would be never relinquished. Several players impressed but Kerry’s resistance was broken early, more pressing tests will be a more accurate assessment of the likes of Lynch, O’Brien, Morrissey.

The worrying concern for Kiely and management will be the number of goals conceded today; three goals against a Kerry outfit was disappointing. Richie English at full back has to be the option for Limerick now; the Doon player will make mistakes but he needs game time in the position now. Richie McCarthy’s service to the county has being sublime but his pace is an issue now.

The Limerick half-back line is looking like a potentially superb unit. Byrnes is a player of massive potential. He has all the attributes; great aerial ability, pace and speed, ball striking accuracy. Hannan at centre back is a good move from management and with the likes of Hickey and O’Mahoney vying for the other wing back spot, it has massive potential. Limerick will look to build further confidence before a meeting against Galway; a defining test of how the team will fare for the upcoming championship.

Offaly are in crisis. Kevin Ryan is jinxed, another county where the commitment of senior players is questionable. The lack of discipline shown in Portlaoise last night was a bitter pill to swallow but to point to the two striking red cards would be most unkind to a Laois side who played the better hurling and were the better conditioned team.

Offaly were six points up early doors but Laois eventually got a foothold in the game with some nice points from Stephen Maher. The Laois running style was causing Offaly huge problems and the first red card came from this; the striking action was a red card, no doubt about it and Offaly were on the ropes.

The tempo of the game bordered on an exhibition game as Laois let the ball do the work, opening space for their inside forward line to score at will. Laois under Eamonn Kelly are going in the right direction but you sense that the likes of Wexford, Galway and Limerick will cause endless problems for their back line as they gave Offaly too much time and space in the opening period.

Where do Offaly go from here? They flirted with relegation last season but it might be required to focus minds in the county. The county are no longer a top hurling side and actions is required.

The underage structures will not produce miracles overnight but the lack of commitment from senior players in the county is bordering on disgraceful. Kevin Ryan has a mission impossible task at the moment; unless the panel fronts up and puts in the hard yards in training, it is doomed for failure. A loss against Kerry and it could be curtains as Laois were very comfortable winners last night.

NHL – First Round Reflections

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And so it begins. The winter of discontent and hurt from last season is put to bed and teams are back in league action. The opening round of games in the books and several teams are already under pressure. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

NHL 1A

Tipperary may not have played in the Munster Senior Hurling League but they showed little sign of rust as they dismantled a youthful, yet totally outgunned Dublin outfit at Croke Park. The sixteen point victory was emphatic. Callanan was quiet in open play but it was a game where other players came to the fore. McCormick and Forde in particular hit several superb scores during the seventy minutes. Padraic Maher reveled in the half-back line and scored two superb points from long range. This was all too much for a Dublin team bereft of experience due to the absence of the Cuala contingent but there was little guile upfront to seriously threaten Tipperary defensively. This fixture has typically being a banana skin for Tipperary given Dublin’s usual early speed and conditioning. Tipperary were superior in all facets of play; first touch, catching and striking all on point and the work rate from last season continued to be seen last weekend. Dublin have a problem during this league campaign. While it is admirable to give youth their chance, the rookies need experience along them to grow and develop. Without the likes of Sutcliffe and Cuala players, this could be a chastening experience for Ger Cunningham and Dublin hurling supporters. A must win game against Cork this weekend beckons; lose that fixture and the relegation playoff is a dead certainty. The Cuala players (on club duty) cannot come back soon enough as Tipperary’s forward line speed and movement was too much at times for Dublin defensively.

Cork continue their rehabilitation with a win over Clare all the more significant given the lineup selected by the Banner county. Tony Kelly’s name on the starting lineup was a shock, thought it was a little risky of Ballyea to allow the mercurial star to play in this fixture. Clare can have little complaints on this result. Their forward line struggled for cohesion throughout; short passing game at times ragged. Cork were lively throughout and the usual suspects upfront came to the fore. Cadogan, Harnedy and Horgan were superb but the element of youth in their ranks provided much momentum in this success. After a wretched NHL season last year, a win against a struggling Dublin this weekend could pretty much secure NHL 1A hurling next season. Kingston and management will be pleased with the progress; tougher tests certainly lie ahead but the signs are promising for Cork hurling fans.

Waterford took the scalp of Kilkenny at Nowlan Park, a first success at the venue in thirteen years. The Deise should have won this game by more but some questionable shot selection in the opening period saw that Kilkenny kept just in touch. Kilkenny experimented with Padraic Walsh at full back and the experiment was ditched pretty quickly as the lead-up to the Curran goal will illustrate. The full back position is a troublesome position for Cody’s side. Holden was exposed last season and a new viable option is required but none is forthcoming on the basis of this performance. Waterford were led by the usual suspects. Moran, Walsh and Gleeson drove the team down the stretch while Patrick Curran was a constant menace inside. The physicality on show was unrelenting; late hits at times sparked some flashpoints. Richie Hogan was rattled at various stages but the mercurial talent responded with some glorious scores. Walter Walsh introduction provided much needed aerial presence for Kilkenny in the half-forward line. It is early days but the squad depth of Kilkenny is a talking point. Tyrell, Larkin are gone and more leaders lost from the dressing room. It is going to be an intriguing NHL to see if Cody bloods any significant new talent to the side. Waterford’s win is a boost, their pace and conditioning won the day. A test against Tipperary next weekend will provide further evidence of where Derek McGrath’s charges are.

NHL 1B

The key fixture was at Innovate Park and Wexford’s resurgence under Davy Fitzgerald continues. 1-14 to 0-14 win for the hosts results in a huge match in Salthill this weekend against Galway. This win was built on hard work, determination and ability to take opportunities in the final quarter. Limerick started the contest well. Peter Casey was prominent in the early exchanges and Limerick should have being more than six points up at the break. Wexford kept in touch due to some poor Limerick wides and it would come back to haunt the Shannonsiders as the hosts tore into Limerick in the second half. The game turned into trench warfare; match official Diarmuid Kirwan content to allow the teams at it. Limerick’s physicality was lacking in these exchanges and Wexford took full advantage. McDonald’s goal sealed the win but Limerick will point to some officiating decisions that did not go their way in the final ten minutes as key turning points; a penalty call not given but the forward line unit lacked cohesion. Given that Barry Nash is now dropped off the panel and Aaron Gillane is scoring all round him in Fitzgibbon Cup action, questions are being asked of John Kiely as to why these talents are now off the panel. Gillane in particular is a baffler. 2-10 for Mary Immaculate today against NUIG. Gillane should be given a chance to impress but the Patrickswell player is surplus to requirements? Wexford’s conditioning was on point and the passion from Davy Fitzgerald has reenergized the county again. An excellent attendance given the weather conditions.

Galway started life in NHL 1B with a facile win over an Offaly side whose manager Kevin Ryan laid out the plight of the side. The inability of the full squad to train together is a massive concern and does not bode well for the coming season. Their lack of hunger and desire to compete in this contest was evident from the opening exchanges. Galway strolled to victory with the inside full forward line having the proverbial field day such was the abundance of quality ball going into them. Galway will realize that the Wexford fixture is a significant test and will determine who goes up to NHL 1A next season. Limerick will need favors and beat Galway by a healthy score (unlikely) to have any chance. This is a straight two horse race for promotion. Salthill will be a venue of interest for any hurling fan. Kudos to Kerry hurlers, a magnificent win over Laois managed by Eamonn Kelly was an obvious highlight. A win against Offaly in the coming weeks and Kerry will be assured NHL 1B hurling next season. Limerick next for the Kingdom, a tough test but given Limerick’s attacking line woes, it is a game where Kerry will rip into their visitors.

 

RBS 6 Nations Reflections

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The good, the bad and the sheer ugly

The classic rout

Happy Valentine’s Day to one and all, hope everyone is feeling loved and appreciated today which is a contrast to the Italian management and squad who were vilified by their local scribes after Ireland comprehensive rout of the hosts in Rome last Saturday.

Statements such as ‘we do not belong in the RBS 6 Nations’ were the theme of the pieces, perhaps bourne out of frustration where professional rugby clubs are threading water at the bottom of the Pro 12 while the national team continues to struggle for anyone of the caliber of Sergio Parisse to game manage and launch game line breaks.

Ireland produced a professional performance in Rome. Their slow start of Murrayfield was not repeated as the Italians were under the cosh from the restart. The Italian set piece then started to deteriorate particularly the lineout and Ireland were gifted excellent field position. 81 tackles made in the first thirty minutes was an ominous sign for the hosts and it was no surprise that Ireland made their dominance count with a flurry of tries started by Keith Earls.

The bonus point (first in the tournament’s history) was secured before the interval and Stander was having one of those performances where it will be pretty next on impossible not to bring the South African / Annacotty resident to the Lions tour. Jackson had an assured performance at ten; orchestrated his back line superbly and his kicking off the tee was immaculate. Cian Healy produced a most encouraging cameo in the front row; his scrummaging was solid and tigerish in the open play, good competition with McGrath has developed for the number one jersey. The back row unit improved considerably; nullified Parisse and Favaro and were dominant throughout.

Gilroy’s cameo was a nod to management for introducing the speedster against a tiring Italian outfit. His hat-trick was clinically finished and will aid his development in the national team; his aerial skills looked good to boot. Kearney’s absence will be a blow in terms of squad depth but there is sufficient coverage in Zebo and O’Halloran for the French test. A satisfying second match performance from Ireland.

The second half was a procession. Italy have to be credited for their tries, good play from the front five to build momentum in the maul but there was little else for Conor O’Shea to be enthused about. The issues for the Azzuri were obvious and glaring. No leadership in the back line as Henshaw and Ringrose had the proverbial field day reading Italian attacking plays and making huge yards with ball carries.

Ringrose’s performance was encouraging; much more decisive in defensive duties and his ability to create space from nothing was evident in his try. The Italian three quarters were being ripped to shreds in the final quarter. The Italian pack at set piece lacked cohesion and precision to seriously threaten Ireland who pretty much scored at will. A difficult job on paper for Conor O’Shea looks mission impossible on the basis of this cameo.

With no genuine homegrown Italian talent coming through the ranks, RBS 6 Nations organizers will have to revisit the question of Italy’s participation in the tournament. An easy touch is not what this tournament needs or wants. The empty seats at the Olympic Stadium were striking; the locals are not prepared to watch this drivel anymore. Georgia surely have to be considered a genuine replacement for Italy if results such as this continue in this season’s tournament.

Coaching 101: Don’t change a winning unit

Rob Howley and Welsh management will need to reflect on this loss for sometime. Their decision to withdraw personnel who were playing stellar games in a pregame determined fashion backfired horribly. Moriarty’s substitution was particularly baffling; the number eight was having a superb afternoon. His physicality and ball carrying were to the fore, providing a platform for Wales.

The substitution saw the introduction of Faletau to the proceedings who also had a superb game but the decision to retain the services of Warburton stuck out like a sore thumb. There is someone not quite right with Warburton at present; the loss of captaincy is a blow but his general back row performances for club and country this season have being underwhelming. He was not very prominent in the breakdown exchanges.

Wales will rue the fact that they let the superb test match slip away. They had several opportunities to create a necessary buffer in the opening period but inaccuracy in the red zone was crucial. Halfpenny and Williams were superb in the back line with their running lines. Liam Williams’ running line for the opening Wales try was sublime. A key moment of the game and one that Wales deserved based on their second quarter showing.

You have to admire England for their refusal to panic and play to their game plan. Farrell’s leadership to the fore in the last quarter, driving the side on and was ably assisted by the likes of Teo, Haskell and Hughes who put in a serious shift. The game winning try will be viewed by England as reward for their constant probing in the last quarter, for Wales it was a disaster.

The attempted kick from Jonathan Davies lacked direction and conviction, kick the ball into touch, reset defensively and face up for another two minutes of England onslaught. The kick was caught in the middle of the park and a swift exchange of passes saw the ball with Eliot Daly whose pace burned Alex Cuthbert on the wing. The attempt of Cuthbert to make any tackle was embarrassing for the player; he was schooled by Daly. Farrell’s subsequent conversion was lights out brilliant and put the game out of Wales’ reach.

Penny for the thoughts of Warren Gatland on that try would be interesting. Whether the New Zealander would have being stuck with the premeditated substitutions is a question for another day? Wales will need to regroup but it will be difficult given the manner of the defeat. There is a championship still to be won and a pivotal fixture with Scotland now awaits.

France scrap past Scotland

An intriguing contest. Scotland produced exciting moments of play from their player of the tournament Stuart Hogg. They also showed weakness particularly in the scrum and the squad depth at nine was highlighted once Laidlaw was forced to retire due to injury. His kicking off the tee in particular underpinned by the bizarre conversion miss from Finn Russell. The defensive maul at times was ragged and the officiating crew pinged Scotland for offside at various stages. Scotland were competitive but at key times, game management was a little off which is fatal when you play away in Paris.

France for their intent to run the ball at any given occasion coughed up a lot of opportunities for Scotland to gain a platform in the contest. Kicks out in the full, crossing and unforced ball handling errors and errand passes plighted a performance which enthused the locals in attendance. Noves game plan is clear, asking his players to express themselves on the pitch but the absence of the likes of Fofana was key. His pace and game line gain ability would have an additional element which Scotland would have struggled to contain.

What worked for France? The front five were dominant in set piece. Their scrum was far superior to their opponents, setting up attacking platforms. The opening try was classic France, quick hand, awareness of space to the fore. Their physicality will pose Ireland a serious threat in two weeks time. Their pack is incredibly big and strong. The scrum battle will be intriguing at the Aviva Stadium. The question is whether France can improve their attacking and defensive cohesion to produce a full eighty minute performance. The defensive performance of France on the wings at times left a lot to be desired. Hogg enjoyed plenty of space to make easy game line yards. An interesting weekend and one that whets the appetite for round three.

RBS 6 Nations Preview: Italy vs. Ireland

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End of the line for the vanquished this weekend

Saturday afternoon represents an opportunity for Italy and Ireland to keep alive their slim championship chances. For Italy, a gritty yet ultimately heavy defeat against the Welsh indicates that it could be a tough afternoon for an Ireland side who were put to the sword by Scotland in Murrayfield. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the fixture and wonders if risk and fear will play heavily on both sides in Rome.

Italy – a distinct work in progress under O’Shea

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Conor O’Shea has arrived as the new Italian head coach. His leadership skills and ability to take a team who are at rock bottom (look at his Harlequins stint where the club were reeling from the bloodgate scandal) and build confidence and momentum to boot. O’Shea has yet publicly that this is a work in progress project; an accurate assessment and this season is a year where the Irish man will run the rule over the existing squad and see if there are any homegrown players ready to step up to the next level.

I feel for O’Shea in many respectives; a turgid domestic professional rugby environment where both Treviso and Zebre have massively struggled in Pro 12 and European Cup competition. The nucleus of the national squad is based on players representing these clubs. The saving grace has being the mercurial Parisse and Favaro who has made an excellent impact with Glasgow Warriors. Both players plying their trade away from Italy may be the tonic for the national team to prosper going forward; Italian players immersing themselves in clubs with a winning culture and learning how to execute in pressurized scenarios.

The Italian side have a reputation for throwing the tantrum when decisions go against them; it manifested last weekend with JP Doyle’s penalty count against the hosts particularly at scrum time. Italy argued their case but match officiating crews are closely scrutinizing their set piece. The scrum looked shaky at times last Sunday and with an impressive Ireland front three looming large, it could be a long afternoon.

O’Shea is going to look at the lineout and breakdown to gain parity in this contest. Parisse in particular will be a key figure; driving his back row colleagues with ball carries and slowing down Ireland ball. The options past the half-backs are limited unfortunately; no significant evidence that the Italy back line can create behind the game line, they rely heavily on their pack getting on the front foot. It is a situation which needs to change for O’Shea and Italy to progress.

A win against South Africa last November should have being the springboard for further confidence but it smashed only a week later when Tonga took the game to the Azzuri in the pack, won the battle upfront and sneaked a shock win. One step forward, two steps back is the theme for Italy at the moment. They have an excellent head coach but it is going to take time for the group to adjust to O’Shea’s coaching style and demands. The silly mistakes and lapses will be prevalent on Saturday but whether Ireland can avail of these gifts will be a different story.

Expansive Ireland or Low Risk Ireland?

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Sexton absence has created opportunity but exposed squad depth issues

Ireland media hordes have not given Scotland enough credit for last weekend. They analyzed Ireland’s game plan and formulated a strategy full of work rate and expansive attacking lines out on the wings to expose Ireland’s rigid defensive structures. It is a reality check for Schmidt, coaching staff and players. The team selection was unbalanced particularly in the back row where Ireland had three prolific ball carriers but no player with the pace to compete at the breakdown like van Der Flier. The Ireland camp have being quick to state that it was a bad day at the office but there were issues which cannot be thrown away as an one off.

Defensive structures seriously broke down last weekend. Ringrose at thirteen was struggling to make defensive reads all game; some inaccuracy inside of the Leinster player but his decision making to make a defensive play was non-existent at times particularly the first Scotland try. Payne’s absence has being massive on the defensive side of the ball. His communication traits to tell colleagues where to position themselves during defensive duties was sorely missed last weekend. Henshaw and Ringrose are superb talents with ball in hand but their defensive partnership needs to improve and expect Italy to perhaps to execute a couple of missed passes to test this unit early doors.

The second issue was the lineout and the lack of options at two and three. Best struggled for a consistent second option last weekend increased by the absence of Peter O’Mahoney whose assured lineout jumping has being on show with the province this season. Toner was the only viable option from the lineout and Scotland were quick to read and setup defensive off this.

The third issue has being an alarming distinct lack of squad depth at half-back. No genuine game minutes for players behind Murray in the November internationals has created a problem for management; when the game is in the melting pot and freshness is required at scrum-half, who can they trust? Marmion is a quality talent but with precious little minutes under his belt with Ireland, coaches felt the need to keep Murray on the pitch.

The ten position as well is a point of conjecture. This should be a period where Paddy Jackson stakes the claim to be the first choice number ten but the performance last weekend fell short; lack of game management and lapses in defensive play plighted his performance but was not helped by slow ball from Murray caused by poor pack ball presentation. Carbery could be fast tracked to the squad as soon as the French game so it is imperative for Jackson to produce an assured performance this weekend or the media vultures will be looking for changes.

The Ireland pack needs to be more cohesive this weekend. The scrum was a source of encouragement last weekend and with an Italian front row who are falling foul of officiating crews in recent internationals, there is a big opportunity to build a platform from this set piece. McGrath, Best and Furlong need to lead by example and with Healy, Bealham and Scannell in reserve, it is an unit with much promise. The second row partnership last week lost their battle with the Gray brothers. Henderson’s form should improve this weekend and hopefully a reliable lineout option. The back row has being mentioned in this blog posting. Van der Flier surely will be in the first fifteen, his pace and ability in the breakdown would provide balance to an unit with much upside.

It is a game where Joe Schmidt and team needs to step up and produce a performance full of drive and hopefully expansive plays when the Italian pack get tired and platform is sufficiently built. I am expecting a better clinical Ireland performance with a bonus point secured. Italy will try hard but their limitations were exposed last weekend and with a day less to prepare, Ireland have a golden chance to redeem themselves.

Ireland Selection (Hawkeye Sidekick)

Zebo, Earls, Ringrose, Henshaw, O’Halloran, Jackson, Murray, Heaslip, Van Der Flier, Stander, Henderson, Toner, Furlong, Best, McGrath

Guinness Pro 12: Edinburgh 9 – 10 Munster

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Let us be frank. This was a poor advert for the competition. Both sides with understrength teams, players not familiar with starting partnerships and unforced errors ensued. The inclement weather conditions certainly contributed to the scrappy nature of the contest but Munster found a way (somehow) to win the contest. Sky Sports tried to hype up the Munster team on duty but in all honesty, this was a poor performance from the men in red. The only bright spark being the superb pass from Bleyendaal to O’Mahoney for the pivotal try and the several line breaks from Rhys Marshall who looks dynamic in open play. I could seriously bore you with the analysis of this game. Edinburgh had a late chance to win but it was ambitious penalty effort. Munster win. Top of the league and not one for the video archives or review of the season. Trench warfare would best describing of it. I was delighted that Ronan O’Mahoney won the man of the match accolade, a super season from the Limerick winger. Improving with each game. The officiating crew, least said about it the better. Inconsistent at best.

Full Match Video Below

RBS 6 Nations: Scotland 29 – 22 Ireland

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Intriguing weekend action

 

Scotland deservedly beat Ireland in rousing opening fixture

An exciting opening fixture where six tries were shared. Joe Schmidt can cite all he wants on delays in arrival to the grounds affecting team performance but the fact of the matter was that Scotland were the more hungrier, more organized and more creative side on the day. They thoroughly deserved their win. Ireland must go reflect and execute a more precise game plan going forward.

Scotland on the front foot early doors

The hosts took the game to Ireland from the start, winning the game line battle and identifying narrow defensive shape from Ireland. Stuart Hogg was sublime throughout; you give this guy any space and he will exploit to the full. His try was sensational and showcased his ability to identify space between Earls and Kearney but with this you need serious pace to execute and no-one from Ireland laid a finger on the full back.

Scotland were looking to create in that opening period and their creative lineout move stunned Ireland; it was such a pivotal score immediately after Ireland’s first try of the contest. Ireland’s video analysis today would have being painful to watch, the lack of communication in the line was abysmal. No player identifying Dunbar in the lineout; no realization of the impending danger. Conor Murray has being blamed for the score but I think the lineout generals (Best, Toner, Henderson) need to carry some of the can. Leadership was sorely lack from Ireland’s pack in the opening period and Scotland’s try encapsulated everything which went wrong. Dunbar had plenty to do when he received the ball but lack of awareness from Ireland proved fatal. Murray’s tackle was too little, too late. This was the pivotal point of the contest.

Scotland have being knocking on the door in recent seasons against Ireland and there was going to be no repeat of past losses. The Scotland pack to a man produced a performance full of work rate and intent. The dynamic game plan of Scotland in the opening period was compared to Ireland who looked for host mistakes to get a foothold in the contest. A far cry from the comments of Joe Schmidt in the leadup to this contest looking for his side to be more expansive. It is a distinct work in progress after this performance.

Scotland expansive game plan

The talk of Scotland continuing their focus on Conor Murray was a sideshow as Scotland aimed their point of attack at the three quarters. Ringrose had a torrid afternoon trying to read Scotland attacks throughout. The first try was one the Leinster star will not want to see again; in no man’s land albeit he was not the only one guilty of this. Castres exposed defensive misreads in the final pool game, expect opposition to target the thirteen channel more in the coming games. Ringrose with ball in hand is a joy to watch but both Henshaw and Ringrose need to communicate better in defensive scenarios. Jared Payne’s communication and defensive nous was sorely missed yesterday. Ringrose was not the only player to experience a torrid afternoon.

Ireland sluggish

Apart from the front row in the scrum, all other units had distinct off days. The Ireland lineout malfunctioned at an alarming rate during this contest. Best struggles with his second and third options increased with no Peter O’Mahoney in the ranks. O’Mahoney was a massive loss for his work rate at the breakdown and the fringes but his lineout ability has being underappreciated. Best and Toner lineout read were predictable and were being read by Scotland. The scrum had its moments but Poite was indecisive in calling penalties in this area. The ball presentation from Ireland for Murray at rucks was shocking at times; the ball was so slow and ponderous. Murray struggled to give Jackson the time to launch his three quarters as a result. Jackson tried hard but there was minimal success in line breaks. The back row lacked dynamism in the breakdown; Van der Flier’s omission was more questionable as the game wore on. Three very similar players started this contest, excellent ball carriers but who was getting to the breakdown first? It was a very disjointed pack performance. Van der Flier’s introduction did improve matters and there will be calls for Tommy O’Donnell to get a recall due to his pace and ball carrying performances for Munster this season. Ireland’s pack need to pick up the performance. Several players may have played themselves out of a Lions tour already.

Ireland precision off

The lack of Ireland precision in defensive and offensive scenarios was untypical of a team coached by Joe Schmidt. The offload from Jamie Heaslip to Robbie Henshaw in the second half which to be fair was superbly taken by Maitland encapsulated the point perfectly; lack of protection of the ball. The other example of this was the penalty with nine minutes go which gave Scotland the opportunity to regain the lead that they would never relinquish. Just what Paddy Jackson was thinking coming in from the side, not releasing the player with the ball was a classic lapse of focus. It was a mistake which has defined Ulster’s season and it spread to the international team. A serious reality check for all concerned with Ireland.

Half Back Options (Lack Of)

I think the fact that both Murray and Jackson were on the pitch for the entire game showed you everything you need to know on what Schmidt thought of the depth at his disposal on the bench. Keatley was obviously emergency cover; would not get on unless Jackson went off injured. Marmion is an excellent player but Schmidt felt that Murray was the better option. What does that say for Ireland and their lack of depth in these positions? Murray is a pivotal cog in the team; if he goes down injured, both country and province are doomed. Murray had a tough afternoon yesterday; his decision to launch a box kick with four minutes to go was more because he could see that the pack had nothing left in the tank to ball carry but the subsequent chase from Ireland was like the day in general; a mess. Jackson was also having a mixed afternoon; his penalty kicking after the opening effort was on point but he was not allowed to impose his attacking game plan as Finn Russell won the duel. A serious issue for Ireland going forward, needs to be addressed ahead of the next RWC.

Scotland – Where now?

The performance was on point from Scotland. The challenge is to backup the performance next week on the road in Paris. Scotland’s passion has never being questioned but the game management and tactics certainly have. The scrum is still a source of huge concern but their lineout fired well. Gray brothers were collective phenomenal. Richie Gray’s tackle count was insane and set the tone for the rest of the pack. The back row won their battle; they were superior in clearout and ball presentation to Laidlaw who was unerring on penalty kicks. The back line now has serious potential. Dunbar is a superb prospect; under rated player but his try yesterday has brought his name into the Lions squad reckoning. Maitland was solid in both ball in hand and defensive duties. His interception of Heaslip’s offload to Henshaw was a key moment. Hogg was sublime. This result will only boost confidence and performance levels for Scotland. The only warning is that Scotland at times played the offside rule to the maximum. Poite was weak in this area; players lying on the wrong side, not making an effort to roll away may be punished by another officiating crew. It is refreshing to see Scotland win and get their tournament off to a flyer; a win against France would be sensational and launch Scotland into the championship reckoning.