RWC 2019: Pool D Preview

Pool D: Fiji hopefully to provide fireworks

In the final RWC 2019 pool blog preview series, Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool D. Can Wales top the pool? Can Fiji rattle Australia in the opening fixture of this pool? What do Georgia have outside of their pack?

Pool D

Australia: Consistency key

You have to love Australia. Regardless of their form heading into a world championship or important series, their sport teams always have a swag, always have a confidence that they will deliver the goods.

The Michael Cheika era has been an interesting era. The line out platform has been standout but the scrum set piece has experienced issues. The back options have excelled at various points; the reintegration of O’Connor to accompany the marauding running lines of Kerevi and Kuridrani is a nice addition considering the furor on Israel Folau.

This is a very experienced squad selected. There should be plenty of nous and game management at half back with the likes of Foley, Genia and White in the mix. The sight of Christian Lealiifano in the squad is superb news; class player on and off the pitch.

The back row unit has two standout performers in Hooper and Pocock who needs to be managed well in order for Australia to have any ambitions of World Cup glory. Pocock’s all action style and supreme breakdown work is incredible.

Given the experienced squad assembled, there are issues with the scrum. New Zealand destroyed Australia in this area of play in the previous test match. Other teams have probed Australia in this set piece area too and that could be decisive in a knockout round game.

The Fiji fixture is a massive game. Fiji are a dangerous side to play particularly if you intend to throw the ball around. Australia will look to do this in abundance and could leave themselves open to the counter attack which Fiji could take advantage of.

If Australia can win this opening fixture, then they look with confidence with their match up against Wales, a team which they have had a good recent record against. A nation expects and Australia will look to deliver.

Wales: Gatland era comes to an end

It is the end of an era in Welsh rugby. Warren Gatland is departing back to native New Zealand after the conclusion of this tournament. Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones will then be entrusted to take the national side to new heights. Interesting times.

Prior to preseason, Wales were standout candidates in this pool. Their structured game management style rewarded with a superb 6 Nations Grand Slam. They forced opposition to submit. Their second half dismantling of England was emphatic.

They have identified a back three with extreme potency. Halfpenny / Williams, North and Adams will look to light up the tournament but whether the Wales game plan will provide sufficient early ball for them to impress is an entirely different question.

The preseason has been a mixed bag truth be told. England have been on top form during preseason and Wales were not the only team to face England in a ruthless mood at Twickenham. Wales did beat England a week later but the performance lacked excitement.

The Ireland fixtures during preseason were more of the same. Ireland dominated a second string Welsh selection for sixty minutes only for Wales to rustle up an excellent final quarter to nearly snatch a win on Gatland’s farewell game at the Principality Stadium.

The Ireland away trip saw some good moments from Wales. Parkes’ try was well worked by the pack but once Ireland’s pack asserted dominance in the third quarter, Wales had no answer.

The absence of the likes of Rob Evans, Samson Lee really struck home on that performance in the front row and without the injured Taulupe Faletau in the back row, there was no spark in the pack.

Minds will be focused in the Welsh camp after this preseason. The training put in by the squad has been incredible so may explain the flat performances in recent preseason games. The focus and mindset is to top the pool but they need to get past their nemesis Australia to do so.

Pack platform is everything for this Welsh side. The scrum platform needs to be on point but question marks abound after this squad selection. Lee and Evans omission opens questions in this facet of play. Line out should stand out given Jones, Tipuric and Ball as viable options.

Wales’s back row unit has always been stellar, they will disrupt opposition ball and with the likes of Navidi, Tipuric in the side. Gatland will resist tweaking the game plan that has served his side so well; it may work for the pool phase but in the knockout rounds, that might need to be evaluated.

Georgia: Scrum Central

No sign of Georgia entering the NH top brass and participating in Tier 1 test match fixtures anytime soon. A disappointment given the Tbilisi attendances for the national team. It is stifling the team’s development and progression in the sport.

The focus of this Georgia side will be the set piece; specifically the scrum. Their reputation in this area of play precedes itself. Their scrummaging unit has been asked to train with the likes of England in the past, sessions which were fiery to say the least. Mikheil Nariashvili is a prop who will shine in this tournament. The Montpellier club player is a scrummaging freak.

The pack which is being coached superbly by Graham Rowntree contain several marquee names from French Rugby. Gorgodze is a massive unit and will lead from the front. It is a vastly experienced pack and will pose issues for opposition but after that lies the issue.

Due to the lack of standout Tier 1 test match fixtures, Georgia are still struggling to implement an efficient half back and back line game plan. The game management can be very inconsistent; indecisive decision making at vital moments a plight on the side.

If this was a scrummaging tournament and pack contest, Georgia would be one of the favorites but it is not and the weak points will be ruthlessly exposed particularly in the back field defensively.

Fiji: Offloading excitement reigns

Fiji will add excitement to the tournament. Their offloading game is par excellence and their pack led by the likes of Leone Nakarawa will pose issues for pool opponents.

How will pool opponents play Fiji? Will they go conservative and look to create out wide once the pack platform is secured or do they look to exploit any defensive back field deficiencies early which is dangerous but Fiji love unstructured contests and will eat up any attacking miscues from opposition.

The pack contains massive ball carrying threat. Nakarawa is a specimen in the second row. His speed and mobility is incredible and his offloading ability is world class. You throw in Mata from the back row and you have potency in the pack which will need to be looked at.

The weak point. The lack of team cohesion due to players playing in far flung countries. Preseason has been promising but fixtures against Tonga are not going to cut it when facing Australia and Wales in particular.

The scrum set piece can be exposed; their front row if moved around the park will tire and see opposition look to exploit this area in the pool phases. A team to be respected. A team where pool opposition tactical setup will be intriguing to see.

Uruguay: Tough Ask

Good to see Uruguay in this tournament. They will bring passion, endeavor and hard work but the squad looks quite exposed in multiple areas. They secured their World Cup ticket by beating Canada in the playoffs; that is the baseline performance to evaluate the side.

The squad has no marquee names of note. It could be a breakout tournament for some players. This looks a daunting task for Uruguay. Hopefully they will be competitive but a distinct lack of preseason games makes this a tournament too far. This could get embarrassing.

Verdict:

Hoping that Fiji upset the pool form guide and beat one of either Australia or Wales. If they can, then this pool gets interesting but for now think they will be just short given lack of team cohesion and competitive fixtures.

Australia have a superb record against Wales in recent seasons and I think they will have the nous and game smarts to win this test match. Wales will look to build momentum as the pool progresses; they should do so provided that they are accurate against Fiji in particular.

Georgia and Uruguay are looking at a winner take all game to not finish bottom in the pool.

RWC 2019: Pool C Preview

Pool C: Pool of Death

In the third part of this Rugby World 2019 preview series; Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool C. It is a pool which looks on paper to be effectively a shootout between England, Argentina and France for the two quarter final berths. 

Pool C

An intriguing pool with three marquee teams pitted together. USA and Tonga complete the pool lineup; two sides who will provide energy and passion but a distinct lack of quality when compared with the other three teams will be decisive.

England: The Eddie Jones England era hinges on this tournament

It has always been about this Japan Rugby World Cup 2019 for England and particularly Eddie Jones. The World Cup cycle has seen Eddie Jones arrive and run the rule over the best talent English rugby union has to offer; there were those infamous training camps in Brighton which caused some consternation among the clubs. There were also those heated scrummaging practice games against the Georgians. Eddie Jones has left no stone unturned for this World Cup and he will be on the front foot with his press conferences and the sound bites.

England in the last eighteen months has seen a progressive upward curve. They have demolished Ireland in 6 Nations and preseason friendly test matches. Their pack looks traditionally strong. Jamie George provides mobility, discipline and set piece line out accuracy in the absence of Dylan Hartley. The pack is at a nice age demographic. The sight of Genge, Itoje, Kruis, Curry in the pack provides energy and overall quality in all facets of pack play.

Ford and Farrell versatility to play the ten channel will be key to England progression. Youngs and Heinz if provided quick ruck ball have the ability to create havoc in the back field. I am expecting Manu Tuilagi to be a key fulcrum for England much like the Vunipola’s in the pack. Their dynamism and physicality with ball in hand is going to cause opposition untold damage.

Where are the weak points? The key question for England is can they produce a full eighty minute performance. The preseason games have seen massively impressive periods of play but there have been lulls in quality – look at the opening half performances against Ireland and Italy during preseason. England have the ability to blow away teams with their quality but the consistency of their play for an entire game remains a question mark.

The discipline question surrounding England is never too far away. England is skirting a fine line on their defensive line speed and offside at ruck time. Officiating decision making early in this tourney will determine whether these areas are a concern for Eddie Jones; if they are heavily pinged early, expect Jones to be frank in press conference settings.

On paper, this side will look incredibly far in the tournament. They are stacked with talent and provided that discipline does not become a big issue in the group games, I expect them to advance from this pool and into a semi-final match. After that, all bets are off.

Argentina: In Jaguares, we trust

One look at this squad and you see why Argentina will be an extremely tough pool opponent. Their continuity is obvious with the majority of players coming from Super Rugby finalists Jaguares. The familiarity and cohesion of the team should be on point from the opening minute of this tournament. You then throw in the players who are playing in England and France; quality operators in Figallo, Sanchez and Urdapilleta.

The Argentina defensive shape and structure has steadily improved in this year’s Rugby Championship. This was seen to good effect in their performance against New Zealand; disciplined defensive display and when provided with the opportunities were competitive at the breakdown. The line out has been solid; Creevy is a talisman hooker and his relationship with Lavanini and Alemanno will be seen to good effect in this tournament.

The back line play has evolved too. Jaguares in particular provided explosive attacking plays in their run to the Super Rugby final. Delguy is going to be a star at this tournament; outstanding back three player whose ability to snip and create from open play will be standout. The Argentinian style of pack orientated play and kick game is now complemented with the ability to offload in the tackle, set the tempo high and look for opportunities to exploit on the outside.

The issue is with the scrum. Ireland in the November series took advantage of uncharacteristic erratic Argentinian scrummaging. The pen count was high and setup huge pressure for Argentina from a defensive perspective. If Argentina can address those scrum set piece concerns (they need to France and England in this area of play), then this is a side that will advance to yet another quarter final appearance. Their kicking game is unparalleled; superb footballers who will win any kicking exchange contest.

France: Enigma

France come into this tournament on the back of an encouraging preseason win over Scotland (32-3) but this is when France were in the mood, lovely French summer sunshine at their backs to express themselves. You cannot guarantee that France will do the same when in Japan.

The lead up to this tournament has been a shambles; squad selection has been erratic at best. Brunel does not know his best squad, has decided to ditch Lopez and Parra looks hasty at best. No general shape to the pack and the front five that will lineup in the pool stage could be significantly different to the one that played in the 6 Nations this year.

What is the ethos of this side? Is it pack orientated or is it attacking / offload game? I am not sure and I do not think the French public knows either. The best thing for France is for Brunel to step aside at the end of this tournament and start afresh.

The hope is that the young guns which Brunel has vouched for deliver on the big stage. Dumbo Bamba in the front row could be a standout in the tournament; mobility and scrummaging to boot. Dupont and Ntamack tandem at half-back is potentially very good on paper. Penaud has the attacking skill but defensively is he solid enough?

This is a tournament where France have thrown the dice on squad selection. The likes of Bastareaud are removed from the squad; leaders need to step forward. Picamoles needs to be a leader in this pack but has failed to deliver in recent seasons. There are too many questions on this French side for me so I suspect pool elimination is the smart bet.

Tonga: Passion but vulnerability aplenty

The key question you have to ask yourself is how do Tonga bounce back from that absolute pasting at the hands of New Zealand last weekend? 90+ points is an embarrassing score concession and the lack of structure, conditioning and general cohesion from Tonga was a massive wakeup call.

The squad composition is varied with players based in England, France, Wales, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand and Samoa. The lack of quality test match competition is undermining Tonga like the other Pacific Island nations; the club vs. country issue with player release is a continually recurring theme.

What to expect from Tonga? Expect passion, physicality in ball carrying and offloading when possible but not far behind will be disciplinary issues particularly when we get into the second half of games. The lack of cohesion is an issue for this squad. New Zealand match created massive gaps in quality on both sides of the ball.

Their key fixture looks to be against USA to secure a win and to be honest, it is going to be a struggle to see them win that encounter. Bottom place in the pool potentially beckons despite the best efforts of Piutau and Mafi.

USA: Work in progress

There is a lot to be hopeful for the long term development of USA Rugby. The establishment of their domestic league will only increase the quality of players in the country and the fact that players can play in their own country means more national training camps and more cohesion. Has this tournament come too soon?

The squad on paper has a lot to like about it when you consider the likes of Taufete’e and Lamsitele in the front row. Peterson at lock is a solid lineout operator and Tony Lamborn plays in Melbourne. AJ McGinty at ten will need to provide game management to allow USA to secure a pack platform.

The concern is the lack of squad depth in the back line to complement the performances of Cam Dolan in the back row. The Ireland November series test match showed the good, the bad and the ugly part to the USA play and the outside defense shape was at times hugely lacking.

The side will fight to the bitter end but when you compare the side with England, France and Argentina; it is a step too far. Their fixture against Tonga has cup final written all over it. A win there and some competitive outings in the pool is the goal.

Verdict:

Three teams vying for two quarter final berths. England is the standout side for me in this pool; they have the ability to beat their pool foes either in the pack or out wide. Argentina for me with their cohesion and game management will pip France to the second berth.

RWC 2019: Pool B Preview

Pool B: Clash of the Titans

In the second part of this Rugby World 2019 preview series; Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool B. It is a pool where two of the tournament favorites New Zealand (reigning champions) and South Africa are pitted against each other and their clash on the 21st September will go a long way in determining the destination of the Webb Ellis Cup this year.

Pool B

You have to feel for Italy, Namibia and Canada. They have got the proverbial stinker of a pool.

The press media duties from these sides will be ‘look forward’, ‘pitting our wits against the best’ but in all honesty, the morale of these squads must be a mix of trepidation and nervousness ahead of this tournament kickoff.

The pool teams to advance from this pool before a ball is kicked will be New Zealand and South Africa. The only question is who will top the pool?

New Zealand: Confidence and form on the rise ominously

If there was any hint of overconfidence in the New Zealand prior to the World Cup, it was well and truly smashed in the performances against South Africa (home) and Australia (away) in the Rugby Championship.

Two subdued performances, two inaccurate performances where discipline reared its head against Australia away with the opening period red card. Some respected figures in the sport were beginning to question New Zealand? They should have known better.

The performances since then have been on point. The shutout victory against Australia at home issued a fiercely defiant statement of intent from Steve Hansen’s side.

Their defensive shape and structure was sublime; they never gave Australia a sniff. Their line speed with / without the ball was vastly improved.

Their complete demolition of poor Tonga last weekend in Hamilton with a second string team lineup further evidence of their upturn in form. Their skill set and line speed were devastating to watch. Tonga never stood a chance.

There are so many strong points to this New Zealand squad; their coaching and playing staff experience to win this competition is huge. Their skill set and ability to create from any facet of play is outstanding.

Steve Hansen has not been afraid to drop loyal test match performers of the past; evident in the omission of Owen Franks in the pack. Their all round game is so solid and with the likes of Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga orchestrating behind the scrum, good things should happen for New Zealand.

The potential question ahead of this tournament is selection consistency. Who plays at ten? Barrett or Mo’unga are vying for that jersey. Barrett has switched to full back in recent test games with mixed results.

Ben Smith (personally) is an incredible full back option still and it will be interesting who Steve Hansen and management deem to be the better ten option for the side.

The scrum potentially may be an area to watch for New Zealand. The pool opponents apart from South Africa are realistically not going to threaten or identify many issues.

The key opening fixture against South Africa will provide potential New Zealand foes will plenty to scrutinize in the pack exchanges; the scrum can at times be exposed and the absence of the likes of Franks may be felt.

South Africa: On the rise under Erasmus

The fact that we are talking about South Africa as a genuine World Cup 2019 contender is a testament to the work and transformation undertaken by Rassie Erasmus and coaching staff.

Reverse the tape back to the start of this world cup cycle, the team were in complete chaos with little direction or game plan. Painful defeats to New Zealand and then a humiliating Northern Hemisphere tour in 2017 where Ireland in particular had a record win over the South Africans signaled that changes were required.

Rassie Erasmus as he did in Munster Rugby came in and started to laid the foundations of success and the performances in the past eighteen months have been on the upward curve.

South Africa’s pack platform has been huge in this revival. Eben Etzebeth has led the pack from the front; his all action style accompanied by a superb set piece game has provided the side with confidence. The assured captaincy of Kolisi (albeit has been sidelined with injury for a good chunk of the preseason) has also been prominent in the pack / breakdown area.

There is a formidable half back partnership in Faf de Klerk and Handre Pollard whose sniping runs and assured game management respectively have posed serious issues for opposition in recent test matches. The back three is loaded with pace and expect the likes of Willie le Roux and Cheslin Kolbe to revel in the fast track conditions of Japan.

The key question is how they will stack up against New Zealand on September 21st at Yokohama. The pack needs to bully New Zealand who are now well warned of their threat after that draw in the Rugby Championship.

The half back depth chart is a concern. Elton Jantijes has threatened to become a superb test match operator but his lack of consistency and composure is frustrating to watch in recent seasons.

A win over New Zealand and this tournament suddenly opens up for South Africa. A loss in the opening game and there is then the prospect of a potential bruising last eight encounter with Ireland.

Italy: Best of the rest

Conor O’Shea has laid solid foundations during his tenure as Italian head coach in recent years. The emergence of Benetton Rugby last season in Guinness Pro14 action is reward for concerted effort in player recruitment and development. Zebre Rugby continues to be the key developmental squad for the national side.

Progression is now been seen in underage teams but the improvements in these areas are slow to reach the senior national team at present and this pool setup does little for their overall confidence, development and progression.

What to look out for from Italy? The hope is that Italy can execute an efficient game plan on both sides of the ball. The pack set piece has been a mixed bag in recent seasons particularly the scrum; they cannot give away the number of penalties in this area of play in this tournament.

The line out should be solid platform ball with the likes of Ghiraldini at the controls.

Tebaldi and Allan need to provide direction in their attacking play which at times has been extremely one dimensional; one out runners – no variation in attacking lines and then the back three defensively have been exposed in their shape and coverage at various points in recent seasons.

The word is progression from an Italian perspective. Unless the top two have an extreme off day (highly unlikely), they are not going to qualify from this pool. The focus is performance delivery as a springboard for the future. Campagnaro hopefully can provide attacking threat. 

Namibia: Little to suggest any upsets

The Namibian challenge is tough to assess given the lack of quality test match opposition in this World Cup cycle.

Their most illustrious opponent came in the form of Russia which is no gauge to evaluate the side. The pool of players in the county is small (90 registered players) and the cohesion issues of the side given the lack of top quality test match opposition will rear its head in this tournament.

Namibia should provide sufficient physicality in the pack but conditioning and endurance will be key issues here in the third / fourth quarter of games.

The attacking side of their game will be focused on the likes of Johan Deysel who plays with Colomiers in France. Janco Venter will be required to perform at an ultra-high level of performance at the breakdown area.

Realistically, Namibia are going to aim for a long awaited Rugby World cup win against a vulnerable looking Canadian side. If they achieve this result, then mission accomplished for Phil Davies, coaching staff and playing squad.

Canada: Vulnerable squad limitations to be ruthlessly exposed

Kingsley Jones has had an unenviable job as Canada head coach. There has been a changing of the guard in this World Cup cycle and the squad is very much in transitional mode, looking to gain experience and consistency at test match level.

From an Ireland perspective, there is plenty of interest in this squad with the inclusion of the likes of Peter Nelson (full back) and Shane O’Leary (Fly-Half) in the squad. Both are solid performers but will they get sufficient game time to impress for Canada?

The key player for Canada is the all action Tyler Ardron whose has impressed with Waikato Chiefs this season. He will look to lead from the front but question marks on the pack set piece are huge.

You can see the side being turned over by the better sides and they look particularly vulnerable against Namibia in the wooden spoon pool game.

The hope is that DTH van der Merwe and Jeff Hassler can provide attacking threat but it is dependent on Ardron and the pack to provide good ruck ball; this is going to be a challenge.

Canada were the last team to qualify for this World Cup and I fear for them when they face the big two in the pool.

Verdict:

This will be a pool with precious few surprises. New Zealand until they are beaten for me will top the pool. South Africa will comfortably finish second while the others will hope that their dignity is intact after some awful beat downs come the end of this pool phase.

RWC 2019: Pool A Preview

Pool A: Can Japan repeat their 2015 exploits?

In this opening preview blog, Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on Pool A. The key question is whether Japan as the host nation can emulate their standout pool performances of 2015?

Pool A

The pool team setup is intriguing. Take Russia out of the equation and we potentially are going to have some very competitive fixtures in this pool. Ireland and Scotland will be fancied but can Japan and Samoa upset the form guide?

Russia vulnerabilities to be ruthlessly exposed

Let us cut to the chase with respect to Russia. The side have shown little in preseason games to render much consideration in this pool. An abrasive pack but the discipline and back three defensive structure is pretty poor.

Connacht traveled to Moscow and dispatched Russia with the minimum of fuss and one wonders how Lyn Jones and Mark McDermott can resurrect this tournament before a ball is kicked. Expect some really heavy losses, enthusiasm in abundance but the lack of experience in international test match rugby will be ruthlessly exposed.

Vasily Artemyev

The key player for Russia is Vasily Artemyev. He has the unenviable job of trying to organize the back three. His experience will be crucial for Russia and his wing and full back versatility should be a positive in what could be potentially an arduous tournament.

With Russia out of the picture, we will look at the other pool teams.

Ireland: Confidence slowly restored

Ireland come into the tournament with confidence somewhat restored after a shaky 6 Nations campaign and horrendous preseason loss to England at Twickenham.

The subsequent performances against Wales in Cardiff and Dublin this past weekend has restored confidence among the fans, confidence in the side with Murray and Sexton showing positive signs in the 19-10 win over Wales.

The Ireland squad selection was not without several soundbites. The omission of Kieran Marmion at scrum half was particularly harsh and the fact that Joe Schmidt has decided to go with only two scrum halves is a calculated risk.

The other key omissions were Jordi Murphy, Will Addison and Devin Toner whose omission has riled up the Irish press rat pack. How dare Devin Toner be omitted for Jean Kleyn?

The selection process has been ruthless. The question is whether the Ireland line out has been undermined by the Toner omission who has managed the set piece for such a long time. Time will tell.

The opening fixture against Scotland will define how Ireland perform in this tournament. Ireland squad on paper is excellent, the form guide in this World Cup cycle has been outstanding. The enigma of a Rugby World Cup and getting past the quarter final is the issue?

Scotland: Pack needs to be deliver

The Scottish squad selection has thrown up several surprises. The initial omission of Bradbury is a key mistake. The Edinburgh Rugby forward leads by example and his set piece execution is outstanding. He is currently on standby with Jamie Ritchie injury concerns.

The key question for me is how the front five of Scotland perform? They have deliberately picked Georgia for preseason games to test their pack unit. There are key questions still to be answered in the set piece and their defensive maul. Teams can bully Scotland’s pack and that could spell trouble for Townsend and management.

The key strengths is their open play, their ability to create scoring opportunities from deep. Hogg at full back along with Graham look to have pace and danger with ball in hand. The omission of the likes of Huw Jones could be another omission that could come to haunt Scotland in this tournament.

Finn Russell

The key player is Finn Russell again for Scotland. His game management, play making from ten will be crucial. If his back row unit can deliver quick ruck ball to the Racing 92 player, expect fireworks. Laidlaw at scrum half will also play a crucial role; his goal kicking and box kicking will be required in key fixtures against Ireland and Japan.

Japan: Host nation the dark horse

The 2015 Rugby World Cup saw Japan produce standout performances against South Africa and Samoa. Their attacking front foot offloading play was sensational and they were unfortunate not to advance to the quarter final phase of the competition.

Fast forward four years. Japan are primed to host this Rugby World Cup and with an opening fixture against a vulnerable Russia, confidence should be established quickly.

The key strengths from Japan is their pace and speed. Their ability to offload and beat the first tackle will be standouts. Their conditioning will be immense and teams will need to play for the full eighty minutes.

Michael Leitch

The unfortunate weak points could be the pack set piece. The pack boosts the mercurial Michael Leitch in the back row and could easily slot into the second row if the need arises. The line out and their defensive maul shape at times can be exposed.

If Ireland and Scotland are not on their game, expect Japan with their passionate home support to cause a shock. Whether it will be good enough to get out of this pool is an entirely different story.

Samoa: Consistency key

The lead up to this tournament has being shrouded in disarray. Players not getting released for training camps, the disconnect between the association and the player group.

Samoa needed to get through the playoff process to advance to this tournament. An efficient playoff victory over Germany was mission accomplished but the real work starts now.

Rey Lee-Lo

What to expect from Samoa? Physicality and creativity with off the cuff attacking moves. There are dangerous players in the side and watch out for the Cardiff Blues centre Rey Lee-Ho; his explosive speed off the line is sensational and will cause issues for opposition.

The weak points unfortunately is a lack of consistency in set piece execution and when that goes, the discipline is not far behind. The lack of composure could see disciplinary issues for Samoa with yellow and red cards.

Their fixture against Japan will define their tournament. Japan will enter this fixture with confidence and whether Samoa have the collective structured game to defeat Japan is a difficult question to answer. This could be potentially an arduous tournament for Samoa.

Verdict:

Ireland provided that their pack platform is established early can beat Scotland and Japan to secure top spot in the pool. Who they play in the last eight will be a difficult task (New Zealand or South Africa) regardless of the opponent.

The second place is the one that intrigues me. Samoa will try hard but look set to finish fourth in this pool. It is up to Japan and Scotland for the second spot and I just wonder if Japan can sneak the second spot in this pool?

Scotland have had a mixed preseason. A heavy loss to France focused the squad and management to then deliver victories over France at home (albeit struggled in the opening period) and then a double against a tough but limited Georgia side.

Japan for me is the dark horse. Their front five is going to determine their progression and I think they match up well against Scotland. I am going to go with the host nation to upset Scotland and get into the quarter final phase.

Ireland Rugby World Cup Squad 2019 Reflections

After three contrasting preseason international friendly performances and endless debate on the player inclusion and omission, Joe Schmidt has revealed the thirty-one man squad which he and Ireland hope will deliver the goods in RWC 2019. Hawkeye Sidekick views the squad selection.

Toner, Addison and Marmion omission

The main headline from this squad selection is these three omissions. I am surprised on the Toner omission personally given the endless line out issues without the towering Leinster Rugby second row. The work rate and mobility critiques are fair enough when you compare Toner with the likes of Beirne and Henderson but the set piece is going to be absolutely fundamental for Ireland in this tournament.

The line out is the primary source of attacking play for Ireland and Toner has been the primary line out caller with assistance from O’Mahoney and Henderson. The distinct lack of line out callers in the second row from
an Ireland perspective is now a big issue ahead of this World Cup; expect opponents to pepper Ireland’s lineout and put enormous pressure on Ireland set piece throws.

Rory Best, Niall Scannell and Sean Cronin must be prepared; the line out unit must be well drilled because this has the potential to fall apart at the seams without the reassurance and height of Toner. The Toner shoulder charge against Wales last weekend may been a deciding factor in this selection too; citing potentially and ban.

Will Addison came to the party late; he will be integral to Andy Farrell’s long term plan for Ireland. I thought Addison did as much as he could last weekend to merit inclusion but the significant injury layoffs last season and this preseason were key factors in his omission. Addison’s utility back line place goes to Andrew Conway who will not let the side down.

Chris Farrell wins a squad berth as well; his physicality in ball carrying and defensive solidity key attributes.

If there is a player who will feel absolutely sore on his omission, it will have to be Kieran Marmion. I am thinking back to the New Zealand game last November when Marmion rose to the occasion and provided a standout performance. His fast distribution, his ability to support ball carriers were seen to good effect with club and country but he has been overtaken in the last furlong by Luke McGrath; a safe choice. McGrath is controlled, executes the fundamentals well, would like to see more variation in his play but the decision to bring two scrum-halves is froth with danger given Conor Murray’s recent HIA woes. I would not be at all surprised if Marmion was out in Japan early in the tournament. Marmion is a fantastic player
and Ireland’s loss is Connacht’s gain in the Guinness Pro14 campaign.

The Winners:
The Welsh game last weekend was the last chance saloon for a couple of players to impress and on reflection, it looks like Kilcoyne, Ryan and Conway picked the right moment to impress. Kilcoyne’s cameo
left Schmidt with no choice but to bring to Japan and left Jack McGrath out in the process. John Ryan’s set piece is excellent; his scrummaging against Wales to the fore and if Joe Schmidt is looking for scrummaging dominance, then John Ryan and Andrew Porter provides squad competition in this regard.

Andrew Conway’s cameo last weekend was crucial in team selection; effectively a toss-up between him and Addison. Key line break in the opening period to setup Stockdale’s opening try against Wales. He should have had a try himself but for an overcooked pass from Carty. Jordan Larmour looked vulnerable but is on the plane given his dynamism in open play in the back field but the challenge has been set for the Leinster Rugby player to step up and push onto higher levels.

Rhys Ruddock inclusion is well merited; a powerful player and could be pivotal in key games against Scotland and potentially South Africa / New Zealand down the stretch.

Injury Concerns:
The squad is solid on paper but there is a nagging concern on injuries to key personnel. A huge gamble has been taken on the likes of Sexton, Carbery and Earls with minimal game time in this preseason campaign. We need these players to be firing on all cylinders and until we see them in the flesh next weekend in Dublin (hopefully), then there will be big doubts. The two scrum-half option does not sit well. Murray and McGrath are going to be worked hard in the pool stages and that could lead to injuries.

It is that word ‘ hope’ that the injury concerns will come through preseason and be ready for Scotland but hope is not always reality.


Conclusion:
This is a squad selection that is consistent in most part; the players who have performed for Schmidt in
this World Cup cycle get the nod. The omissions will be debated more now and whether the likes of

Donnacha Ryan could have entered the fray given the Toner absence. Schmidt may have missed a trick with Ryan. Yes, he is with Racing 92 but the player is performing at a high level; line out management par excellence.

The set piece for Ireland is crucial and this line out now looks vulnerable? Hopefully, Ireland can prove me wrong in this regard. The role of Jean Kleyn in this squad will be fascinating as the tournament progresses on, his sheer horsepower will be required at key moments. Watch this space!

All Ireland Senior Hurling Final: Preview

Kilkenny and Tipperary seventy minutes away from All Ireland glory

It all comes down to this. The traditional All Ireland Hurling final is in place with perennial rivals Kilkenny and Tipperary one fixture away from lifting Liam McCarthy. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the final showpiece and what to expect.

Team News:

It is as you were for Tipperary as Liam Sheedy names an unchanged lineup from the side which came back to beat Wexford in the All Ireland semi-final. Kilkenny make one personnel change from the side which held on to topple reigning All Ireland Champions Limerick. Richie Leahy makes way for fit again Cillian Buckley.

Puckout Strategy Key:

The early puck out exchanges are going to be fascinating viewing. Kilkenny looking to crowd out the middle third and forcing Brian Hogan to be deadly accurate with his distribution. Hogan will need to look to keep the tempo high, look for easy out balls from the corner back and half-back lines to launch attacks.

Eoin Murphy has excelled Kilkenny this season; his opening half puck out strategy was the best I have seen all year against Limerick. His decision making to hit short or go long had Limerick scrambling for answers, a key foundation for Kilkenny’s victory.

Full Forward Threats Aplenty:

This final could be a game for the full forward positions on either side. TJ Reid has been a standout and will be exemplary but the role of the two full forwards in opposition is a keynote pregame commentary.

Colin Fennelly in recent months has provided the additional scoring and attacking leadership that Kilkenny have craved; to supplement and reduce the burden off TJ Reid who for me is HOTY candidate heading into this final.

Fennelly in the All Ireland Series has been a player with a point to prove; an extraordinary comment given vast his medal haul for club and county. The Ballyhale Shamrocks full forward has provided attacking threat aplenty and chipped in with some key goals.

His ability to take his full back marker on and create goals has been a hallmark of this Kilkenny campaign down the stretch and it is going to be interesting how Seamus Kennedy combats the threat. Does Ronan Maher drop in the pocket to nullify the threat but then leave space for Reid to score at will and deliver a man of the match performance?

Seamus Callanan at full forward as well has been exemplary. His goal scoring prowess seen throughout the year; give the Drom-Inch clubman a half a chance and he will bury it into the net.

Huw Lawlor has grown into the full back role but he faces the ultimate test. His corner back colleague Joey Holden knows firsthand what happens if Tipperary manage to supply Callanan with increasing frequency on All Ireland finals. You are chasing shadows.

Whoever wins the battle of the full forwards could be decisive in the final outcome when it all said and done.

Tipperary Midfield / Half Forward Units:

If there is a vulnerability in this Tipperary outfit, it is in the midfield and half forward line. Will they win enough primary and secondary ball to provide for their dangerous inside full forward line?

Michael Breen is a player who I rate extremely highly but he has failed to fully fire on all cylinders this season. The stage is set for the Ballina clubman to demonstrate his powerful running game and set the platform for Tipperary. If he does not, then Kilkenny have negated a key player for Tipperary.

The half forward line without Bonner Maher is a work in progress. There have been flashes of brilliance in open play but given Kilkenny’s setup and their ability to crowd out opposition, will the likes of O’Dwyer, McCormack or O’Meara get sufficient primary possession to be a factor in the contest? It is a major concern.

Kilkenny combating the run game?

The Limerick All Ireland semi-final was a strange contest; an emphatic first quarter and that was the foundation for victory but Limerick when they established the run game posed serious issues for Kilkenny defensively.

Limerick carved out goal chances in that second half; a superb Shane Dowling strike and then the late David Reidy effort where Kilkenny’s defensively were stretched to breaking point.

For Tipperary to win this contest, the run game has to be a key factor. The direct ball route to the full forward line is their strength but they will need the Maher’s in the half back line to drive forward from deep.

Michael Breen has to be ferocious in the run game; provide key deep runs at different intervals to ask the question of Browne and Buckley to allow Noel McGrath to sit in the pocket and orchestrate in the midfield and pick out colleagues with accurate distribution.

Kilkenny will pack the middle third; expect Donnelly, Mullen and Walsh to counter attack and attempt to pack out the Tipperary middle third allowing the likes of Deegan and Fogarty to sweep the threat of the direct ball to the inside full forward line? Intriguing stuff.

Tipperary combating the run game?

The two finalists have shown vulnerabilities in combating the run game. I am not convinced on the full back and center back positions in the side. Seamus Kennedy ably deputized at full back.

Ronan Maher was superb when switched to half back in the second half. This has to happen again to allow Padraic Maher to game read and provide a match winning contribution.

Tipperary though were exposed by the explosive Wexford run game in the first three quarters of their semi-final game. McGovern was giving acres of space and expect Kilkenny’s half forward line to test the defensive shape of Tipperary by making lung bursting runs from deep.

Given the vulnerabilities of both sides in the run game, this game could suddenly open up in the third quarter and goal chances could be created given the defensive struggles.

Verdict:

This is a tough final to call. Both sides have key strengths but also have vulnerabilities. The final lineup’s look strong and this could well be decided by the bench. Kilkenny were impressive against Limerick but were made hang on at the end. Tipperary battled well with fourteen players to advance to the final.

This final ultimately comes down to who will be defensively sound on the day. The Kilkenny stifling work rate without the ball against Limerick is something that Tipperary could struggle to combat. Tipp squad bench impact looks good with Kehoe and Morris in sparkling form.

I would not be surprised if this was a draw and a replay but if you had to ask me to pick a winner. I think Kilkenny have the aces in the attack. Reid, Fennelly and a player called Richie Hogan hold the key. The others will follow suit. Kilkenny to win by two / three points in my opinion as Tipperary’s lack of half forward primary ball winners minus Bonner will rear its head.

Premier League: Teams Hopes and Fears

Premier League is back!

First blog posting in how many weeks. Someone pinged me during the week asking what was the story? The story is that this site is not a full time thing, it is a part time / hobby interest and for the last couple of months, I have been undertaking certification in PSM I and Financial Investment (CFA Investment Foundations). All passed with flying colors but the same cannot be said for the runners and riders who take to the start line for the commencement of the English Premier League. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the hopes, the fears and expectations of each side.

Arsenal:

The hope: secure top four football next season.

The fear: defensive and goalkeeping vulnerabilities exposed against the top teams; lack of leadership due to player departures in the off season. Can Pepe deliver immediately?

The expectation: Solid start to the season. An exciting strike force which should produce goals, the question marks are defensively and whether David Luiz in particular can provide the leadership and nous to settle the side in the key games against the top teams.

Aston Villa:

The hope: survival in the top flight. Home form is paramount. Tom Heaton signing was an astute buy, defensively upgraded after that deal.

The fear: Will the side be the Fulham of last season? Massive investment on numerous players who are unproven in the league. Will Dean Smith get the time to gel the side together before being given the dreaded vote of confidence by the board.

The expectation: Big club. Jack Grealish will provide the inspiration for Villa and I see them just about staying up despite squad depth issues midseason. John McGinn and Conor Hourihane could be prospective targets for the better teams come January; expect them to make an immediate impact.

AFC Bournemouth:

The hope: keeping Callum Wilson fit and healthy. Ryan Fraser to continue his good form of last season. Home form solid and away counter attack potent to nick points on the road.

The fear: defensively were stretched to breaking point last season; have the reinforcements at the club sufficient quality? Nathan Ake is a major cog in this side. Any injury or suspension for Ake and the side are in trouble.

The expectation: established side in the top flight; a good early start is essential, fancy Bournemouth for a top ten position this season.

Brighton & Hove Albion:

The hope: new manager, new ideas, new ethos, new philosophy. Potter will aim to excite the fans with an expansive style of play. Early wins should solidify his situation; otherwise could be in trouble and an early candidate for the push.

The fear: A poor start to the season. After their ruthless sacking of Chris Hughton, Potter could follow and the club could spiral out of control with a new manager with more new ideas to throw to the mix.

The expectation: The Maupay deal is make or break for the club. Glenn Murray dependency last season for goals was huge. Maupay has the talent and whether he can bring that form from Brentford to the top flight is another story. Relegation dogfight, will just about survive with a new manager in charge come the end of the season.

Burnley:

The hope: after a trying last season where injuries, lack of form and unusually generous defensive gaffes plunged the team into a relegation dogfight, it is hoped that this season will see a much improved side.

The fear: Squad depth is tight, hard working unit but the question remains on the goals front. Who will score?

The expectation: Sean Dyche will be focused on a good start to the season; no European football to contend with which hindered the side early doors. Mid to lower mid table is achievable. Turf Moor fortress will secure the forty points required.

Chelsea:

The hope: Frank Lampard era. The Chelsea playing legend returns to the Bridge, looking to galvanize the side.

The fear: The transfer embargo. Departure of Hazard who is huge, key player for the club last term. The owner and his thoughts on the club will be interesting as the season progresses.

The expectation: Early season form due to the new managerial arrive will make way for some trying results. The defensive side of the team looks vulnerable. Cahill and Luiz left the club; two solid professionals. Sixth place position for Chelsea.

Crystal Palace:

The hope: Wilfred Zaha’s head space is on point from this weekend. The player wanted out of the club but failed to secure a move away from Selhurst Park. He carries the attacking threat. Palace better hope that Zaha lights it up and secures as many points to forty before January before he goes to another club then.

The fear. Wilfred Zaha attitude. The squad need the player to deliver, a job for Roy Hodgson to energize and cajole the player.

The expectation: Palace and goals are always a problem. Apart from Michy last season, who else stood up along with Zaha upfront? Sufficient squad depth to just about survive but it won’t be pretty.

Everton:

The hope: more investment, more players, more potential and squad competition. Can Silva galvanize the new signings and make a concerted bid for top six this term?

The fear: the new acquisitions need time to settle. Are Everton defensively solid to keep clean sheets early in the season? The jury is out.

The expectation: Top eight position again beckons for Everton. Silva may be put under pressure early if the results are not good.

Leicester City:

The hope: Brendon Rodgers era. Attacking football philosophy, playing to Vardy’s strengths with early quick ball behind defenses.

The fear: Harry Maguire departure. There should be sufficient coverage with the likes of Evans in the squad but Maguire was a huge player for the club in previous seasons.

The expectation: Top ten finish for me. Leicester City have pace to burn on the flanks. If Vardy hits form early, there should be no relegation worries.

Liverpool:

The hope: can they go one better than last season? So agonizingly close. The players could not give anymore; the hesistation in January 2019 was decisive.

The fear: squad depth, interesting fixture calendar for Liverpool with the World Club championship in December. Can the squad sufficiently balance another competition to an already hectic calendar?

The expectation: unless City are taken off their perch, Liverpool are destined to be second again. They are the side who could topple City but need to take four points off City to secure the title.

Manchester City:

The hope: an incredible domestic season. Can they deliver this dominance in the Champions League? Keeping key players fit in the season. Sane out for seven months is an ominous start to the campaign.

The fear: Keeping key players fit in the season. Sane out for seven months is an ominous start to the campaign.

The expectation: they are the side to be beaten this season again. Pep and the squad are the best. The clear favorite again but a slip in form like in December could still happen.

Manchester United:

The hope: Harry Maguire signing is the catalyst to provide more stability at the back, improve the passing game from the back to boot.

The fear: lack of signings in central midfield and attacking positions. Herrera and Lukaku gone so the onus falls on the young squad players like McTominay and Greenwood to deliver.

The expectation: squad depth deadwood to be exposed at various points of the season. A sneaky top four if United beat Chelsea this weekend; otherwise Ole is under pressure along with Ed Woodward.

Newcastle United:

The hope: Mike Ashley leaves the club.

The fear: Mike Ashley stays at the club.

The expectation: Relegation dogfight. Wily Steve Bruce needs results past given his managerial resume which included a stint at Sunderland. The squad looks exposed if injuries play a part. Who scores the goals upfront with the likes of Perez gone to Leicester? Relegation beckons.

Norwich City:

The hope: Carrow Road fortress.

The fear: Squad effort not in doubt, squad quality is.

The expectation: Farke strikes me as a measured manager but he will have his work cut out for survival. Decent quality but don’t look like keeping enough clean sheets and scoring enough goals. A baptism of fire at Anfield tonight. Damage limitation. If they are thumped tonight, then they are doomed. Relegation.

Sheffield United:

The hope: Bramall Lane is a fortress. The home support is vocal and make an intimidating atmosphere.

The fear: Lack of goals becomes an issue early and often.

The expectation: Out of the promoted sides, Sheffield United may impress early doors but squad depth issues may surface. If sides can cope with Sheffield United uptempo game in the opening half of games, then Sheffield United could get picked off. Brave attempt to stay in the league but fear that they may be relegated.

Southampton:

The hope: new manager has had the summer to part his football ethos to the squad; got rid of Charlie Austin and Matt Targett surprisingly to spook the rest of the squad to perform.

The fear: If Danny Ings gets injured, who takes on the goalscoring mantle? Long is honest as the day is long but the goal / appearance ratio is low.

The expectation: Difficult season if Redmond fails to fire early doors. Just about will survive. The youth setup at the club will come to the club’s aid once more.

Tottenham:

The hope: Pochettino has a settled squad, no major squad inclusions and the side will look to rebound from the disappointment of the Champions League final. The first full season at the Lane; home form paramount.

The fear: The lack of transfer activity in the summer defensively. Trippier departure means that squad depth must deliver early. Can Dele be the key player for the club in midfield given Eriksen and an impending departure from the club in January?

The expectation: Flirting with a title race but will sit in third place again. Pochettino will look for pastures new come the end of the season.

Watford:

The hope: continue the good form of last season; early form was the platform. The attacking threat with Deeney and Success should pose issues for sides.

The fear: The chopping and changing at the club. What happens if there is an indifferent start to the season? Garcia immediately on the backfoot.

The expectation: Top ten position. Watford have sufficient quality to stay in the division yet not in the mix for top eight.

West Ham United:

The hope: the squad will galvanized after the departure of Marko. The squad looks settled for the most part and the emergence of Declan Rice as a leader this season. Felipe Anderson will be a key threat.

The fear: the love / hate relationship of the fans with the owners could influence matters on the pitch. An indifferent start to the season – take note.

The expectation: Midtable position again. Squad form inconsistencies key throughout the season.

Wolverhampton:

The hope: continue the form and quality of last season, an incredible debut season in the top flight. The football on show was sublime at times.

The fear: Europa League commitments means extra strain on the team. Burnley had challenges last season. Will the same fate fall on Wolves?

The expectation: Top eight / top ten berth would be considered a successful second season. Attacking qualities will pose opposition problems.

Kilkenny vs. Limerick Senior Hurling Reflections

Thrilling win for Kilkenny

A thrilling contest. A contest which went down to the wire, a contest where composure and calmness were tested to maximum, a contest where the physicality and work rate were at a different stratosphere. Kilkenny emerged victorious, dethroning Limerick from their All Ireland berth by the bare minimum. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the game the morning after.

Opening exchanges absolute key

Folks will point to the closing stages but this game was won in the opening quarter. Kilkenny as expected coming out of the traps superbly. Their play was incredible for the first opening twenty minutes. Kilkenny hunted in packs; they were ravenous in their appetite to chase and harry Limerick players with possession. Limerick particularly in the middle third could not settle into rhythm, tempo and the run game from deep was completely stifled. The four week hiatus appeared to be a factor for Limerick.

Kilkenny clearly benefited from the momentum built in recent weeks. That second half performance against Cork two weeks ago was the springboard for this early opening period salvo. With Reid, Fennelly causing massive issues with their pace, movement and scoring ability, Limerick were on the back foot, always chasing the game and as a result that poise and composure required to get over the line was constantly out of reach.

Credit to Limerick for the comeback, they could have easily folded in that opening quarter. The 1-8 to 0-2 deficit after the first quarter coupled with nine wides for the reigning All Ireland championship in that opening seventeen minutes were key factors to the overall outcome.

Limerick game plan derailed early

Kilkenny took the Dublin NHL semi-final and raised it up a few notches. Kilkenny management saw at first hand during the NHL that you give Limerick the time and space from deep to create their run game, it is curtains. This was not going happen yesterday.

The sheer intensity of the harrying and closing down Limerick’s key play makers in the middle third was a video exhibit on work rate. Everyone Kilkenny emptied the tank for the cause, once they could give no more, they were whipped off and the new player would come in with further gusto.

Nicky Quaid struggled to identify a primary ball winner in the Limerick half forward line throughout; sheer numbers and astute second ball winning pivotal by Kilkenny. The short puck out option was also negated by the early head knock to Declan Hannon who is the fulcrum for this Limerick side. He could not set any tempo from the half back line pocket.

Limerick Shot selection

You have to credit Kilkenny for the wide count tally for Limerick. It was the end result of pressure exerted from the Cats throughout. The nine wides at the start of the game, at least 2/3 of the wides came from rushed efforts with Limerick players under pressure to strike their effort. The pressure of getting back into the contest all too apparent with some misguided shot selection from long distance in the second half. It will be a sore video analysis from a Limerick perspective when they review the shot selection this week.

Cool heads were required at the death and two key cameos down the stretch come to mind. David Reidy went for the goal but given the angle, was a point a better option? The final sideline cut at the end. Was their sufficient time to look to create a chance better inside? Big moments down the stretch.

That 65

The post match reaction has centered on that final sideline cut. A couple of things to note on the play. Was Buckley back the sufficient distance? The cut was deflected but no one from the officiating crew saw it. It is a clear systems failure.

The ghost goal from last season between Tipperary and Waterford was supposed to be an one off but another key decision was missed. Can technology assist further on plays like this? Can a review system come into play where a team have two reviews during the contest, if a review is unsuccessful, loss a review.

Can VAR or the fourth official on the sideline not have access to replay footage and be alerted by officials if a decision such as this is missed? Big season call missed. The All Ireland final could have something similar.

There is the small matter that if the 65 was awarded, there may have been a chance that the effort could have gone wide. Given Limerick’s shooting from distance during the encounter, there was no guarantee that the game would have been level. A big call but the question is how Limerick got into that position before this incident?

There were other official decisions that can be scrutinized but the final play of the game has stuck out. The penalty call. The helmet shots which only saw yellow cards issued. TJ Reid handpass pinged. Swings and roundabouts but the 65′ miss is a bad one. GAA officialdom have to do something on stuff like that.

Looking Forward Limerick

Incredibly proud of the Limerick side yesterday. The opening quarter start was horrendous; they could have been overwhelmed but they refused to give up and their comeback has to be applauded. The age profile of this squad means that this side should be contending for All Ireland honors for years to come. The loss yesterday is a tough one to take, it will add hunger and dog to the side next season. I am excited to see how the side develops next season.

Kilkenny and Cody Deliver Again!

What a credit Kilkenny are for hurling. Cody emerges from the contest with his reputation further enhanced (if that is possible). This squad have had their challenges this season but when it has come to the crunch in the last two weeks, Kilkenny provided cohesive performances to get over the line.

Eoin Murphy outstanding in the goals; shot stopping and then his puck out strategy was clinical providing platform for Kilkenny to prosper. The full back line stuck to their task throughout.

Lawlor at full back emerged from this contest with enormous credit. The penalty call was 50/50 at best but how Lawlor responded and then took the game to Limerick with several outstanding defensive clearances bodes well for Kilkenny in a problematic position.

The half back line were heroic. Deegan work rate and ability to burst through Limerick challenges were eye catching.

I was delighted for Padraic Walsh yesterday; his performance at half back was all action, some terrific catches aerially and stifled the influence of Kyle Hayes to the extent that the Limerick man was forced back into his half back line looking for primary possession. Mission accomplished. Fogarty is an unsung hero in this side. His versatility to play multiple positions in the half back and midfield emerged yesterday with an assured performance from wing back.

The youth and experience upfront was a decisive factor in the outcome. Mullen for such a young player is playing at a level of a seasoned professional. The leadership down the stretch was incredible and along with John Donnelly was standout.

TJ Reid — outstanding. The complete player. The complete package with his free taking and then his open play which saw some vital primary ball possession in the final quarter which shifted momentum back into Kilkenny’s favor. Hurler of the Year is locked down surely after yesterday.

Colin Fennelly inside in full forward provided key cameo moments. His goal provided Kilkenny with their rewards for a dominant opening quarter. His ability to turn Finn and then clinically dispatch the sliothar into the net was top class. The goal provided further impetus for Kilkenny.

Brian Cody. Incredible management performance yesterday. Sixteen All Ireland semi-final wins out of nineteen. The greatest manager the game will ever see. This victory will be a sweet one for Cody; the satisfaction on his face post game was all you needed to know. His side had gone to the well again and they delivered for him again. The Kilkenny juggernaut never went away you know?

Limerick vs. Kilkenny: Key Battles

Evening throw-in is setup to deliver fireworks

The summer is hurtling along at a rate of knots. Wimbledon, One Day Cricket World Cup are in the books for another year. The Tour is about to conclude at the weekend which means that the All Ireland series is getting to the business end of the championship.

Limerick after their impressive Munster Senior Hurling final victory over Tipperary four weeks ago face a Kilkenny with momentum aplenty after an eye catching second half display against Cork. Will the four week layoff hinder Limerick? Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Curse of the Munster Senior Hurling Champions

In recent times, victors of the Munster inter-provincial senior hurling crown have struggled in the All Ireland semi-final fixture to get over the line. Limerick must be wary of the lay off effects today as they look for a second consecutive All Ireland hurling appearance.

The parallel for Limerick is when they entered the Munster SHC this season. After an excellent NHL campaign, John Kiely’s charges were caught cold at home to Cork; a performance which lacked composure all over the field. Limerick must start the game today on point; otherwise it could be a long evening at HQ.

Limerick run game

The intriguing pregame note is how Kilkenny look to stifle the Limerick run game. Limerick’s middle third when in full flow are incredibly hard to stop and was seen to full effect when the two sides met at Nowlan Park in the NHL. The running game from Limerick creating goal scoring opportunities which Kilkenny defensively had precious little answers on the day.

Their All Ireland quarter final fixture last season saw Limerick victorious and in the process creating several wonderful goal chances which only for Eoin Murphy would have seen Limerick win by a more handsome margin. The physicality and hard running lines of Limerick if on point will be extremely hard to stop.

Do Kilkenny deploy sweepers in the half back line to combat the run game of the likes of Lynch, Hegarty, Morrissey and the marauding Hayes at half-forward? Given the full back line vulnerabilities, this option looks likely at some points during the contest. I would expect John Donnelly to hover around the half back and midfield for a good chunk of this contest but by doing so could leave someone like Diarmuid Byrnes in acres of space to score from long range at will.

Kilkenny look to their experienced forwards

Kilkenny’s team selection is do or die from the first whistle. Zero room for error. A squad bench which has potential if unproven. The fact that Walter Walsh starts an indication that Kilkenny are looking to establish early momentum and a primary ball winner in the air in the opening period.

Kilkenny will look to go for the throat early as they typically do. TJ Reid has been wonderful this season. 5-52 so far this season. His contribution on the scoreboard a major factor for Kilkenny negotiating the Leinster SHC this season. His free taking unerring and his ability to score from play and provide stealth assists to the fore in recent fixtures.

Richie Hogan provided a timely cameo of his class last time out. A superb goal and a couple of instinctive points showing that Hogan is hitting form at the right time of the championship year. Given Limerick’s fitness and conditioning, can he play the entire contest?

Limerick man marking decisions

A couple of key decisions for John Kiely, Paul Kinnerk and management to get right this evening. Who will pick up TJ Reid? I suspect that it will be a collective responsibility player call, some zonal marking mixed with William O’Donoghue looking to track Reid at various times to throw different looks.

The Fennelly man marking job inside will be Mike Casey with Sean Finn providing support if required inside. Declan Hannon at half back will look to sit in the pocket and dictate play from just inside his half back line. Hannon cannot be moved around the field like what happened against Cork at the start of the championship.

Hannon dictates the run game for Limerick from deep. Hannon establishes tempo. Hannon is a primary game player from deep for Limerick. It will be interesting to see how Kilkenny look to negate Hannon’s influence as if unaffected, Limerick will be in prime position to win this fixture with a bit to spare.

Can Limerick convert goal chances?

The Kilkenny full back has been under the microscope this season. The full back position is an area where Huw Lawlor, Joey Holden have been exposed due to lack of defensive shape in front of them. Galway this season ran at Kilkenny from deep and created several goal scoring chances.

It is a day where Aaron Gillane could flourish if given the opportunity. His 2-36 tally has been excellent again and there have been spurned goal scoring opportunities as well. Gillane’s pace, power and ability to pick off full back’s with his pace and movement could be seen yet again today.

If Kilkenny decide to negate Gillane’s influence, Peter Casey and Graham Mulcahy also come into the reckoning. Casey’s performance last time out was sensational. His scoring prowess, work rate to the fore. Mulcahy has quietly gone about his business this season and I believe is primed for a huge performance today. His pace and eye for a score is never in doubt.

The Kilkenny full back line are in for an arduous task provided their colleagues can stifle Limerick’s run game and quick ball distribution inside. The threat from Limerick attacking line is relentless; their pace and power has caused endless issues for teams this year and I don’t see that changing today.

Verdict

The four week hiatus is the only concern I have for Limerick today. The bench impact is huge for Limerick in the final quarter of games, something that Kilkenny have yet to prove. If Limerick can get into tempo and scoring form early, they are well placed to win this fixture.

Kilkenny must start with gusto and go for the throat early. A couple of early goals to rattle Limerick confidence, build the lead heading into the final quarter where the Limerick bench impact will come to the fore.

The verdict rests in the defensive lineups. Given that Limerick have a more settled feel and look to the defensive units, they get my vote. Kilkenny’s full back line is a concern and Eoin Murphy will need to produce a top quality performance in the goals for Kilkenny. Limerick if on form will get goal chances and this time will convert.

An interesting throw in time. A fixture which needs to light up the championship. Kilkenny to provide a serious challenge but if this Limerick side are to be considered in the elite team ranks of recent times, they need to deliver a dominant, classy performance today. This group of players want more, want more silverware. Limerick by four points.

Munster SHC Final Preview

Intriguing subplots at LIT Gaelic Grounds

Apologies one and all. A quite hectic couple of weeks on the day job front has meant little time to blog, little time to reflect on the shadow boxing which went on two weeks ago in Thurles. This weekend should be completely different proposition as Limerick and Tipperary lock horns again for Munster SHC bragging rights. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the team news and key contests that will decide this provincial decider.

Team News:

Limerick team news was hardly a surprise. The return of Gearoid Hegarty into the starting lineup and Declan Hannon back at half back with Paddy O’Loughlin making way. Peter Casey gets another opportunity to impress in the forward line after a mixed performance last time out. The rest of the team ran along familiar lines. Cian Lynch back in the midfield area as well.

Tipperary’s selection was an intriguing one. We knew that Bonner Maher was out for the rest of the season and that Cathal Barrett was going to miss out on the provincial decider or was he? Barrett is named at corner back, a welcome boost for Liam Sheedy but is Barrett’s hamstring fully recovered?

It is a big call from Liam Sheedy and Tipperary management. The squad depth chart at corner back perhaps a concern for management. If Barrett plays on Sunday and pulls up with a more severe hamstring injury then conceivably Tipperary’s All Ireland hopes could be up in smoke before the All Ireland series begins.

Key Battles:

Can Limerick’s half back line set the platform to create the running game? Hannon’s return to the half back position will see game management and much improved distribution from defense. He will look to slot in front of the full back line and look to set the tempo and launch attacks from deep. The counter argument is that Hannon could be moved around the half back line thus negating his impact and allowing Callanan the space to produce a match wining performance yet again.

Tipperary’s middle third has impressed throughout this championship. Their ferocious work rate, slick skill set and movement has caught the eye with numerous attacking contributions from the Maher’s in the half back line, the play making brilliance of Noel McGrath, the energy and power of Michael Breen and the slick attacking lines of O’Dwyer, Bonner and Forde.

How Limerick look to negate these units will be intriguing to see. O’Donoghue and Lynch in midfield have huge roles to play on Sunday. O’Donoghue providing defensive nous and looking to man mark Noel McGrath at all times. Lynch’s running game from deep should pose Tipperary defensive issues to combat and his ability to create for the likes of Gillane inside.

The story of the full forwards could be a key talking point pregame. Both Aaron Gillane and Seamus Callanan have shown their brilliance this season and Callanan was sublime in Thurles two weeks ago. His goal oozed class and his movement caused Limerick’s full back line endless problems. Gillane had good moments as well but Tipperary adjusted well in the third quarter to cut the supply of ball into the Patrickswell clubman as Limerick’s running game waned significantly in the second half.

For Limerick to win, the run game is paramount. The run game needs to put Tipperary defensively under pressure. The run game should yield frees to keep the scoreboard ticking over. The squad depth looks favored for the reigning All Ireland Champions. The likes of Dowling, Flanagan, Ryan, O’Donovan to come in and make an impact.

Tipperary have massive potential in the likes of Mark Kehoe but the bench looks unproven and the decision to start Barrett an indicator that the corner back options in reserve are a tough vulnerable. If Tipperary stop the Limerick run game like they did last time out, then the Munster SHC title will be headed to the Premier County.

Verdict:

Plenty of Limerick supporters are quietly confident of a win this weekend but Tipperary personally are the favorites heading into this contest. They have been the form side of the province this season; their defensive and attacking performances have been standouts. 4/4 in the round robin. It seems harsh that they have to travel to their opposition for the decider.

Limerick management will have learned plenty from the loss to Tipperary two weeks ago. Tipperary’s full back line will be tested from minute one and if there are any doubts on Barrett”s fitness, they will be answered in double quick time. Sean O’Brien as well could be tested more extensively particularly if Peter Casey is deployed in a more advanced position.

Tipperary need to have this game put to bed heading into the final quarter so expecting a fast start from Liam Sheedy’s men. The bench impact is a concern and whether Tipperary will have the gap required to close out this contest heading into the final quarter remains up in the air. The absence of Bonner Maher is huge.

Head on the block time. Tipperary go into this as favorites but I suspect that Limerick management have devised a game plan and strategy to unsettle the Tipperary middle third to secure this victory. Peter Casey needs to deliver on Sunday and expect him to be a prominent player at the weekend. Limerick to edge this encounter by three points but Limerick’s middle third work rate and execution must be on the money this weekend.