Beware New Zealand Threat!

New Zealand – Scope for improvement

The reaction of Eddie Jones and the England Rugby Union team last weekend at the final whistle spoke volumes. Sides would typically be elated with managing to be within one point of the reigning RWC holders but this was an opportunity absolutely lost by England last week.

England created a potential match winning early in this test match (tries from Ashton and Hartley within the first twenty-four minutes) but a combination of indiscipline and utter resilience from New Zealand to not panic, work through the phases and their game plan despite being far from efficient won the day.

There was that late England try chalked off but question marks on game management prior to this play (kicking the penalty to get points on the board) raised their head as well for England. It was well and good to be cavalier and exciting on the eye but professional rugby union is all about winning and despite England’s huge effort, they came up short. 

New Zealand on the other hand will be relieved to get out of Twickenham with a victory; the opening quarter in particular was most uncomfortable. The side were sluggish and struggled to find any tempo in their play. Williams withdrawal was further interruption but credit to Crotty who stormed into this contest with forty meters from eight carries. Goodhue suddenly looked far more comfortable upon Crotty’s introduction as well as Smith and McKenzie. 

The win was ugly at times but the patience and composure of New Zealand to rescue the test match particularly in that last five minutes of the opening period was the decisive point of the game. 15-0 to the good on thirty-eight minutes, things looked well in hand but then a defensive lapse allowed Barrett the time and space to unleash McKenzie for the opening try and then a quick penalty to reduce the gap by five points. 15-10 suddenly and England were under the cosh for the entire second half. New Zealand scented blood and held on for a hard fought win. 

New Zealand Threats

The focal point of this side is from the fly-half position. Beauden Barrett’s game has elevated to new levels this year; he can beat in so many ways. His passing distribution to his three quarters is so crisp and indecisive that the three quarter unit can create seamless gain line breaks.

His kicking game as well from hand is another added dimension; will punish teams if their defensive is up too fast with some deft grubber kicks. If teams are defensively narrow, the diagonal aerial kick to the corners usually yields try scoring success for New Zealand and with the likes of Ben Smith, Rieko Ioane and Damien McKenzie lurking with intent; the different looks will have defensive coaches of opposition with many sleepless nights. 

The backbone of the side is in the pack. The impressive Kieran Read at eight sets the tone for others to follow. His athleticism with ball in hand, tackle count and ability at the breakdown when given the opportunity to turnover ball was exemplary. His decision making around the ruck area is world class. Savea and Squire complement Read so well too in their tackle rate and ability to turnover ball.

Retallick and Whitelock are a superb second row partnership; called an efficient line out even when pressure is applied. Their duel with the Ireland second row unit looks explosive. The front row has unbelievable mobility and flair with ball in hand. Dane Coles will look to continue his impressive form this season.

The New Zealand threat is all round the park and Ireland have being duly warned. Do not expect New Zealand to under-perform two weekends in a row; there will be a renewed focus on performance and execution of the fundamentals from Steve Hansen’s men. Ireland beware!

Fantasy Premier League: Toca Me, I need a miracle!

Before you start reading this blog, may I suggest you listen to this classic trance anthem from clubland lore. You will get the theme when you see the strife of my Fantasy Premier League team in recent weeks. 

A disastrous couple of weeks since the last blog and no I did not blog because it was that embarrassing. The Maddison and Mitrovic experiments were utter failures and they are dropped from the starting XI.

Looking for a miraculous upturn in fortunes to even get to a respectable position in our private league this season; languishing third from bottom. The banter has started on my selections; a long overdue pint with the lads and it will properly kick off!

Mercenaries XI

Ederson continues in goal; has being superb this season with multiple clean sheets but this weekend is the Manchester derby and anything can happen, cannot think of dropping the player. Easy points throughout the season. 

The Alexander Arnold experiment potentially has one week left, looking for a big performance from the player or he is out of my side for the next game day.

Azpilicueta has being a solid points player; the same cannot be said for Matt Doherty in recent weeks but will persevere with the Irishman for another week. He offers plenty going forward so hopefully a few assists against Arsenal (hope more than expectation). 

Maddison is sidelined with injury so it is the perfect time to look at my options. Neves produced seven points last week and hopefully can do the same this weekend on set piece duties on the road to Arsenal.

The Liverpool contingent should be smelling blood as Fulham come to Anfield; playing like a Championship side at present. I am expecting a good points haul from Mane and Salah; otherwise there will be trouble ahead.

Pereyra is my new pick; the player has impressed early doors (a sure sign that will fall off the cliff now) but a fixture against a Southampton side who are defensively vulnerable after a trouncing to City bodes well. 

The striking options. Manchester United cannot keep a clean sheet so Sergio potentially may be in for a goal or assist. He has being stellar this season and his cameo last weekend against Southampton was superb despite the yellow card. 

Wilson is my new pick to the strike force; impressed with his movement and goal last week against Manchester United and given Bournemouth’s pace and speed, they could potentially cause massive issues for Newcastle on the road.

Wilfred Zaha (Mr. Crystal Palace) has being quiet lately, hoping that the London derby will revitalize him as it has being a tough few weeks for the Selhurst Park outfit. Roll the dice and let us see what the weekend brings!

Ireland vs. Argentina Preview

Sean O’Brien makes a timely return

After an emphatic victory over Italy last weekend in Chicago, Ireland lock horns against Argentina at the Aviva Stadium. The team selection made by Joe Schmidt is strong and shows the respect that the Ireland team have for the Argentinians. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule over the selections. 

Sean O’Brien returns for Ireland

Given the strong squad depth chart for Ireland, the omissions of Rob Kearney, Garry Ringrose and Tadhg Beirne are noted but not devastating to the Ireland setup.

The key talking point is the return of Sean O’Brien to the back row unit where he slots in alongside Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander. Injuries issues aplenty for the Tullow native but it is clear that Joe Schmidt has selected O’Brien to provide abrasiveness in his ball carrying, tackling and all round play. O’Brien needs to impress given the huge depth chart in the back row position. Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy, Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy all chomping at the bit to get game time. Tadhg Beirne is a viable option in the unit too.

This is a strong lineup to kickoff the home Autumn International series. The front five looks compact and Iain Henderson will be keen to impress alongside James Ryan in the second row given that Devin Toner is on the bench and Tadhg Beirne is out of the matchday squad. The front row looks incredibly strong with Healy, Best and Furlong looking to unsettle an Argentine front row which has struggled in set piece this season.

The half back partnership will be keenly watched. How will Marmion manage the game? Can Marmion provide quick ruck ball for Sexton to launch his runners?

The three quarters and back three are loaded with talent and physicality. Aki and Henshaw will carry with abrasive purpose while Larmour, Earls and Stockdale will look to impress in the back three. Larmour’s attacking lines are superb but want to see him tested defensively and under the high ball against Argentina to get a full read on the player. 

Argentina shift personnel and captaincy

Mario Ledesma has shifted the team with six changes and a change in captaincy. Creevy starts at hooker but loses the captaincy to Matera. The key theme from the selection is the added bulk to the back row as Petti (a lock) slots into the back row; an indication that Argentina want to meet Ireland head on in the set piece (line out) and pack exchanges.

Sanchez at ten is a superb footballer and will look to Cubelli to provide quick ruck ball to allow  him to launch an exciting back line containing Delguy and Boffelli. A solid outfit which should experience as severe cohesion issues as typically seen by national teams this time of year as all the squad are from the Jaguares. 

Game Plan

It is an interesting question to pose. Argentina have evolved their game plan in recent year. Their dependency on total pack supremacy on the back of a slick aerial game has significantly reduced as the Jaguares and now the national team have refocused to play a more expansive style of game. They will look to spread the ball out wide to test Ireland’s outside defense early doors. 

What do Ireland do? To engage in a highly unstructured game would favor Argentina but the smart play will be to focus initially on pack platform, look to expose the visitors in the scrum. The line out looks interesting with the inclusion of Petti in the Argentinian side; a third viable line out jumper for the South Americans.

Sexton will be eager to launch his runners but I think the theme will be patience; play the phases in the tight and when the opportunities arise, launch Henshaw and Aki to secure gain line advantages that will utilize the Ireland back three. 

Verdict

A good solid test match for Ireland ahead of their New Zealand challenge on November 20th. Ireland will be tested by Argentina in their fast attacking game but the pack platform advantage lies with Ireland here. This is the focal point for victory and despite Argentina’s resiliency, think this is a test match where Ireland will look to issue a statement of intent to all others. Ireland by ten points. 

Argentina: Ireland’s Nemesis

Argentina poses threats to Ireland

After the Chicago Soldier Field test match, Ireland must reset and focus on their next assignment, an assignment against an opposition who have broken their hearts in previous RWC tournaments.

Argentina form guide

Argentina come to the Aviva Stadium on the back of a strong Rugby Championship where the South Americans beat South Africa (H) and Australia (A) and were competitive against New Zealand in both fixtures.

The sore point for Argentina in the Rugby Championship was their second half collapse at home to Australia surrendering a huge lead to lose 34-45, the collapse was the second biggest comeback win in the history of test match rugby. It has prompted a change in captaincy as veteran Creevy is relieved of the captaincy in favor of the youthful, exuberance of back row forward Pablo Mantera. 

What is the squad makeup? 

The Argentinian squad is one which should be cohesive in the pack and back line. This is because the vast majority of the side ply their club careers with the Argentine franchise Jaguares who are in the Super Rugby competition. They have progressed well in the competition, progressively rising up the rankings with a respectable seventh position this season after finishing tenth in 2017 and thirteenth in the standings for the 2016 season. A squad which is evolving with the Jaguares should see improvement as well for the national team come RWC 2019.  

Head Coach

A name that Ireland will know very. Mario Ledesma was an accomplished hooker who had a successful playing career in France and National side. A natural leader, Ledesma led Argentina superbly in the 2007 to a semi-final appearance and continued in that same vain in 2011 RWC where Argentina succumbed to New Zealand in the quarter finals. Coaching stints in Australia and France developed his managerial skill set to take over Jaguares and Argentina national teams in 2018. A man who will make the tough decisions evident in his demotion of Creevy as captain before this tour. 

Game Plan

The Argentinian style of play has evolved quite significantly in recent years. The routine box kicking and pack platform supremacy game plan of the past has fundamentally shifted. The side likes to express themselves with ball in hand, look to be expansive when the opportunities arise with a steadily improving offloading game. 

Players to Watch

The back three threat at the weekend have pace, power and footballing skill to keep Ireland on their toes. Delguy and Boffelli had excellent seasons with their club Jaguares and their pace and ability to create line breaks were seen in the Rugby Championship this season. Moyano is a player who given time and space will destroy opposition. 

The half-back partnership is very experienced. Sanchez is a quality fly-half operator who will ping to the corners when required but his ability to bring his back line unit into the game is a key strength. Landajo is a solid scrum half, no frills and will look to distribute fast ruck ball. Ireland’s back row unit will need to slow down ball to contain the half-back threat of Argentina. 

The back row unit led by Pablo Mantera will look to cut loose in their ball carrying. Mantera is a back row who loves to carry endless ball and will look to offload at every opportunity and will be ably assisted by experienced operator Leguizamón. 

Potential Weak Point

The second row unit contains the brilliance of Lavanini in the ranks. His line out and set piece execution is genuinely world class. However, questions have persisted on the front five cohesion during the summer and Rugby Championship test match series. 

The front row, traditionally an area of strength has become an area where squad depth has being exposed. Ledesma will hope that the front row unit containing Creevy and Herrera can provide the stability required but after that, squad depth quality in the prop positions dips and this is an area of concern for Argentina ahead of the Autumn and RWC 2019 fixtures. 

Hawkeye Sidekick in Boston

This time last week, I was in Boston on a work trip. It was a week filled with big news stories in local and national media. The Boston Red Sox World Series triumph was totally emphatic. No dramatic game sevens as the top quality pitching and some key hitting from the Red Sox was sufficient to snuff out the LA Dodgers who continue to ponder how they get to win a World Series. 

The parade around Boston looked crazy; the office that I was based for the week was in Downtown Boston and from early morning last Wednesday, the fans were filing out of South Station and the other big commuter belt train stations in the city to gain an excellent vantage point (1 million fans) to see their heroes in person. Alex Cora as a player was such a hard working player and as a head coach, he has continued in the same vain. Price as a pitcher arrived to the post-season. Steve Pearce’s MVP accolade in the World Series a true inspiration. 

For the numbers in attendance at the parade, there were always going to be a few idiots in the crowd looking to stand out for the wrong reasons. The beer can throwing to the cavalcade was a classic example; the players and staff would have happily taken a beer, the only problem was that the beer cans were flung at such velocity that it was fortunate that no one on the parade was seriously hurt (apart from the World Series trophy). The video phones were out to name and shame the poor kids who quickly realized that the beer can throwing was probably not one of their better ideas. 

USA is in the fever of mid-term elections. The USA national media is a confusing place to get the ‘fair and balanced’ viewpoint on things. Trump pushing the immigration card and the caravan convoy to raise fears and suspicions in the key US states while the Democrats are throwing the likes of Oprah and Obama to get the minority vote out. The vote in Georgia looks intriguing given the celebrity star power that have being drawn to this governor race. Abrams is making gains. Roll on Tuesday! 

The Squirrel Hill massacre was another timely reminder on how life is so precious and how high ranking officials words can lead to individual’s to do such crazy things. The stories of the victims were gut-wrenching; all good, decent people who arrived to the Synagogue to reflect and pray like they did every Saturday. It was a terrible event and the Pittsburgh people were top class in how they handled the tragedy. Trump decided to barrel into town despite locals opposition on the national airwaves. A fractious week for sure in the political and social elements of the country in full view. 

The end of the week saw the passing of Whitey Bulger. A watershed moment in Boston. I lived in Harbor Point, South Boston for a period in the early 2000’s and the locals would tell of the fear imposed by Bulger and his gang in the community at its height.

The Departed movie was a production that I could not watch; the themes of the movie were eerily striking to Bulger. Given what I had heard about the individual, the news of his death in Virginia was as brutal as Bulger’s regime. The news was greeted for the victims of Bulger with reflection and perhaps a quiet toast for their loved ones lost. A horrific, sad part of Boston history has being consigned to the history books finally.

A week in Boston, a week where the glitzy apartments and condos around the waterfront of the World Trade Center stretch far and wide into the horizon. The wealth and splendor of these new dwellings in comparison with the numbers of homeless people on the street corners in Downtown Boston late at night. The class divide continues unabated. 

The World Trade Center district is vast now and the Convention Center is a superb addition to the area; recall when the area just had the WTC, a couple of restaurants and vast car parks. It has being some transformation in this area, the majority of it definitely for the betterment of the community. 

I spent 6.5 years in Boston back in the early 2000’s, a city which will always have fond memories for me but I cannot help but feel that the country is at complete loggerheads and it is going to take someone exceptional to heal the divisions of the nation in the years to come. Who can step forward to start this remediation process? A difficult question to answer indeed. 

Guinness Pro14: Round 8 Reflections (Irish Provinces)

Glasgow and Leinster had good weekends

A weekend where the November test match series kicked into action with several sides looking at their squad depth to ensure vital victories. It was a weekend where Glasgow Warriors and Leinster Rugby extended their leads in both Conference A and B respectively. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Irish provincial success in South Africa 

The Twitter reaction to the Leinster Rugby and Munster Rugby road trip successes in South Africa has me cracking up this evening while writing this blog article. Look at the sides named by both Irish provinces today, the potential in the side undoubted but there was always going to be passages of play when the cohesion with or without the ball was missing. Cue fan reactions (knickers in the proverbial figure eight). Bonus point try wins secured. Mission accomplished. 

Leinster Rugby accuracy may not have being to the armchair fan’s liking  but the 31-38 road trip win provides the Irish province with such a healthy lead at the top of Conference B. Nine points clear of Ulster Rugby and ten points clear of Scarlets in third with both sides facing the daunting task of having to secure results at fortress RDS. It is a time position to be in at this early stage of the season. The squad depth of the province shown when you see the likes of James Tracy, Scott Fardy, Dan Leavy on the pitch. They are the form side of the league at this moment in time. 

Munster Rugby secured their first road win of the league with a hard earned 26-30 road trip win to the Cheetahs. The good and the bad seen to full effect as Munster Rugby secured a bonus point try win; some great attacking play and the cameos of the back three was a real positive. The bad was the defensive meltdown in the third quarter where Cheetahs exploited big defensive gaps. The altitude was a factor but the parting of the Munster Rugby defense was seen in the previous round at home to Glasgow Warriors so something for management to look at in the coming weeks. 

Kevin O’Byrne was a standout today, put the hand up for more game time with an all action performance. The youngsters in the side did not let the side down and was delighted to see Liam Coombes cross over for a well earned try.

Mike Haley continues to settle nicely in the full back position and his running line for the game winning try was well executed. Munster Rugby secure a vital win on the road; move up to second place in the Conference A where Glasgow Warriors are well out in front and debatable whether they can be caught at this stage. Their demolition of Ospreys (albeit understrength) was a Matawalu showcase of skill and pace to score a hat-trick of tries. 

Bernard Jackman is a man under pressure

After a red eye flight back from Boston in the wee hours of Saturday morning, I headed to the Sportsgrounds in the hope of a thrilling encounter. This was an encounter which Connacht Rugby needed to come out fighting after a horrendous road trip performances to an Ospreys selection missing numerous first team stars at Bridgend last time out. The fixture was competitive for the first quarter but as soon as Connacht Rugby hit the front, Dragons’ heads dropped and a 26-0 lead at half-time to the hosts spelled the end of the contest. 

Connacht Rugby admittedly increased the tempo in that second quarter, better clear out work in the ruck exchanges with Marmion and Horowitz starting to create more line breaks as the game wore on. Horowitz produced an interesting cameo; he plays off the cuff evident in the Colby Fainga’a’s try where the Australian ten spotted a gap and created the line break opportunity. His kicking to the corners impressed me and thankfully for Connacht Rugby, there is a player who can push Jack Carty to the next level. 

Bernard Jackman stated post-game that he can see progress and improvement from his charges but the performance after the first quarter was a horror show; three deplorably blotched line breaks in the opening period which exhibited a distinct of composure on the final pass or handling is a coaching issue.

The number of tries conceded this season is sky rocketing out of control (33) and unless Dragons can secure a much needed morale boosting win next time out, there will be questions on his tenure. Dragons progression this season was expected given the high profile Hibbert and Moriarty signings but it has being anything but. Hope Jackman pulls the situation around but the skill set in his side on this weekend’s showing lacks the quality required to unlock opposition defenses at regular intervals.

Connacht Rugby win but they will rarely have an easier home contest all season. The back three looked a threat all game and the pack carries exposed massive defensive holes in the Dragons’ first line of defense. Buckley and Dillane for me stood out in the ball carrying stakes. Colby Fainga’a along with Jarrod Butler provided mobility and pace off the back of the scrum.

Horowitz has being duly mentioned and Godwin provided a timely reminder of his potency with ball in hand from three quarters. Connacht Rugby need to kick on now until the festive period; key games to get well and truly into the playoff mix now as it looks like a four way battle for the second and third spot in Conference A.

Ulster secured road trip win to Benetton Rugby

A significant result for Ulster Rugby on the road. Benetton Rugby have being progressing nicely this season and leading 7-0 at the break, the Italians would have fancied finishing off the job in the second half due to Ulster Rugby’s recent road trip woes. 

Credit though to Ulster Rugby, thought it was a very professional and efficient display in the second half. Speight’s creativity to the fore with ball in hand and the pack finally created a platform for Shanahan and Burns to launch their runners in the third quarter with tries from the impressive Reidy and Herring.  

The result was key here; the situation that Ulster Rugby found themselves in and the resiliency to get a result on the road in Italy has to be applauded. The fans made have a different perspective but this could be a key result for Ulster Rugby in the context of the playoff picture come next April.