Guinness Six Nations: Scotland 13 – 22 Ireland

Ireland win secured

It may not have been pretty but the end justified the means for Ireland as Joe Schmidt’s pack took the game away from Scotland in the second half to secure a nine point victory. In a game played in blustery conditions, Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the result and post-game talking points.

Dominant Scotland start

The first ten minutes saw Scotland start with tempo and attacking threat. The usual suspects for Scotland looking to create gain line breaks. Strauss, Gilchrist and Hogg all involved early with Finn Russell looking to orchestrate the game from the ten jersey.

The early dominance potentially could have led to more than the three points for Scotland. Greig Laidlaw slotted over after their initial concerted attacking salvo was stopped by a determined Ireland defensive line. Hogg’s afternoon ended prematurely with injury as Blair Kinghorn was summoned from the bench. 3-0.

Ireland respond in quick fashion 

Ireland had precious little to offer from an attacking sense but they were in front on eleven minutes. Good hands from Ireland in midfield saw Jacob Stockdale put in a kick deep into Scotland territory. Chris Farrell pressure on Tommy Seymour seeing the Glasgow Warriors winger to throw a panicked pass to Sean Maitland which flew over the Saracens winger’s head. Conor Murray on hand to collect the ball and score. Sexton who was receiving treatment for an injury snatched at the conversion. 3-5.

Six minutes later, Ireland extended their lead with the move of the game. Ireland in midfield looking to setup go forward ball. The ball finally came to Sexton who spotted Stockdale with a fine running line inside. The pass was precision personified and Stockdale was through. With Hogg off the pitch, Stockdale was untouched as he dived for his try under the posts. Murray slotted over the extras. 3-12.

Sexton injury sees Carbery game time 

The crunching tackle on Sexton from Allan Dell was the cue for the Leinster Rugby fly-half to call it quits. Joey Carbery was summoned from the bench and his initial cameos were good, looking to take the attacking play to Scotland with flat running lines and passes to colleagues.

However, the tactic was executed once too often as Finn Russell identified the opportunity to come out from the defensive line and intercept just inside Scotland’s half. Russell was stopped just short of the try line by Keith Earls but the composure of the Racing 92 fly-half to remain calm to identify a supporting runner was to the fore; a delicate pass to Sam Johnson to score. A bad moment for Carbery. A great opportunity for Scotland to get back into the contest. 10-12.

Pivotal exchange on half-time 

Scotland buoyed by the Johnson try and the success of their kick game and gain line breaks in open play saw the hosts force Ireland penalty concessions. The five meter line out for Scotland the cue for an extended period of play. Phase after phase from Scotland looking for that elusive gain line break to secure the try to go into the break ahead.

Ireland’s defensive line speed was on point, not committing and looking to prevent the Scottish offloading game in the tackle. The work rate of Aki, Farrell in midfield to stem this threat noticeable. Scotland huffed and puffed but Ireland forced the unforced error from Scotland. Carbery kicked the ball into touch. 10-12. Half-time.

Decisive third quarter for Ireland 

The blustery weather conditions reduced the expansive attacking game plan for both sides. The conditions saw a couple of turnovers for both sides in the opening second half exchanges; pressure from both sides in defense impressive but lack of cohesion in attacking play also self-evident.

Cue the key game winning moment of the game. Joey Carbery who was posed serious questions by Scotland in this test match received a nothing ball just inside Ireland’s half. Instead of looking to pass the ball away or kick deep, the Munster half back decided to run the ball. He beat Rob Harley and suddenly acres of ground was in front of the Athy native.

His composure to wait and identification of Keith Earls who would be applauded for reading the potential game was to the fore. An excellent sweeping pass to Earls who touched down. Carbery had arrived to this test match. His conversion unerring. 10-19.

Scotland try to fight back 

A two score game and Scotland looked to score quickly but found Ireland’s back row in feisty mood. Slow ruck ball meaning that Finn Russell was unable to execute any potential dangerous Scottish attacking plays. Laidlaw had to settle for three points as Ireland defensively held their line well. 13-22.

Ireland immediately looked to secure pack platform and wear down their opposition. Several attritional phases later and Scotland were pinged for rolling away. Carbery stepped up to kick three points off the tee after a lengthy discussion with his side in the huddle. A key score. Scotland were facing down the barrel of a home loss. 13-22.

Reflections

Ireland’s mantra was clear from the first minute; a win was all that mattered. The game plan was at times conservative, ball carrying approach was to rule protect then offload.

The set piece, an area of potential Irish vulnerability was the standout. 12/12 from Ireland line out. Roux, O’Mahony called the line out well, did not complicate matters and utilized the key jumpers at various points. Ultan Dillane cameo in the line out to the fore in the closing stages; a couple of quality line out takes and stole a pivotal Scottish line out close to Ireland’s line.

A performance which provides Ireland with a platform to impress for the rest of the tournament. The performance at times today was a bit rushed, composure issues with ball in hand negating the good work seen by the pack.

The Ireland back three stood up to the test today. Rob Kearney’s experience was invaluable today; his assured display under the high ball and his ball carrying provided assurance for Ireland in the back field. Earls was peppered early but settled to the task. Stockdale (my man of the match) was a threat with ball in hand whenever the ball came to the Ulster Rugby try scoring machine.

Joey Carbery and Ireland management will have learned heaps on this showing from the ten. Carbery responded to the nervy opening period cameo, it can only assist the team and the player to see the second half performance. Sexton’s injury withdrawal presented an opportunity for Schmidt to evaluate Carbery and the Athy native’s second half display was excellent.

Scotland’s loss will be a disappointment for Gregor Townsend and management. A sloppy opening try to concede provided Ireland a platform into the contest and then a defensive line failure saw Stockdale cross in quick time. The Earls try coming from a missed midfield tackle; the defensive shape once Ireland got over the gain line is something that needs to be reviewed and addressed for Scotland.

Finn Russell’s form and attacking threat was excellent. The back line had their moments but the weather conditions negated additional impact. The pack was exposed in the set piece and expect England, France and Wales to target the set piece in the coming weeks!

The bench impact was huge today. Ireland’s impact players came to the fore with key contributions. Kilcoyne set the tone early with some abrasive ball carries. Porter, Dillane, van der Flier, Cronin and Cooney provided good moments. Dillane in particular winning a penalty, two line out and a line out steal.

Quinn Roux should view today as a success. There was plenty of pressure on the player ahead of this test match but his work rate, scrummaging and line out calls were what was required on the day. Roux should look to start against Italy and provide more cameo time for Schmidt and management to see the player in full flow.

Sean O’Brien for me was the other standout performer for Ireland. His ball carrying was excellent, his breakdown work and fringe defense standout. A player who delivered for Ireland today when it was required. If the player can keep injury free, then Schmidt has a player who can deliver for the side in spades!

Guinness Six Nations: Round 2 Preview

Intriguing weekend of fixtures beckon

After a hectic, exciting opening round weekend where France imploded, Ireland were brought to earth with an almighty thump and Scotland showed flair and creativity to see off Italy. The second round of fixtures sees intrigue aplenty. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the key talking points and who may win this weekend.

Storm Erik makes Murrayfield 50/50 call 

Both team selections had interesting calls. Scotland squad depth seen with the decision to bench hat-trick hero Blair Kinghorn for Sean Maitland and Josh Strauss coming into the back row at the eight channel for the unlucky Sam Skinner. Kinghorn omission is a tad harsh for a player who has excelled with club and country this season but has Townsend looked at the fixture last season between the two sides where Kinghorn was exposed in defensive play? Ben Toolis also will feel a bit forlorn about his exclusion, a quality cameo last week not enough to keep his place in the side. Johnny Gray has international experience and x-factor aplenty but is the shoulder injury fully addressed? Ireland will test it out early.

Ireland for their part have juggled the side around. Rob Kearney returns at full back for dead leg victim Robbie Henshaw. Kearney’s experience will be invaluable for the side but does he have sufficient game time and sharpness to deliver an assured performance from the full back berth? Chris Farrell gets the thirteen jersey and it looks like an abrasive three quarters unit with Bundee Aki. Huw Jones and Sam Johnson will be tested in their defensive first up tackles on Saturday. The pack sees Quinn Roux, Sean O’Brien enter the fray. Roux will co-call the line out with Peter O’Mahony so potential vulnerability for Scotland to exploit. A big game for Jack Conan to establish himself in the eight jersey. The back row unit for Ireland looks abrasive and physical but wondering if the breakdown will suffer particularly if Ritchie in the Scottish ranks? Time will tell.

It is a delicately poised contest. The weather conditions could be an absolute leveler. A wet and windy Murrayfield could negate Scotland’s back three attacking threat. This test match could turn into a pack orientated contest and with a big bench impact, Ireland potentially have the edge but only just. Ireland’s performance is the focal point; if the side can produce a good solid performance in the kicking game and set piece, Ireland will win this fixture. If the performance is a mixed bag like last week, then Scotland win this. Heart says Ireland here, pack platform will be paramount and I think Ireland have sufficient quality here and physicality to secure the win.

New look Wales looks primed for Italian job 

Ten changes from Warren Gatland and Welsh management for this test match, a perfect opportunity to run the rule on squad players and allow these players to feel vested in the team in the tournament. Win. Win. The selection is exciting and bold; liking the back row unit selection with Wainwright, Young and Navidi packing down. The depth in back row for Wales is frightening.

The half back unit gets a revamp. Davies and Biggar have the nous and experience to create and execute the game management to trouble an Italian side who were defensively exposed for being too rigid and tight last week.

The back line unit sees exciting Watkin and Holmes in the ranks. Jonathan Davies is captain and his experience for the debutantes in the back line will be invaluable. A side which potentially could produce fireworks and when you see the likes of Dee, Lee, Ball in the pack, it could be an arduous task for the hosts.

Italy make two changes to the side which were dogged yet totally outgunned against Scotland last weekend. Campagnaro slots into the thirteen jersey; a good move as the player has plenty of upside in his ball carries. Quaglio starts at prop. The squad is by and large unchanged, a clear indication that Conor O’Shea has decided on his core squad for RWC 2019. The pack looks abrasive as always but the back line cohesion and defensive organization is the issue and it was exposed last weekend.

Wales may endure cohesion issues early but with a dry weather forecast promised in Rome, this side will score potentially at will with their pace, movement and offloading style. Wales to secure the bonus point try win here. Italy will show some flashes of optimism but it will be another loss I am afraid.

England look to hold all the aces against Le Bleu

The reaction of English players at the Aviva Stadium last weekend said everything; this was a fixture that they had earmarked for months and to win with a bonus point to boot exceeded expectations. A win that should be the platform for further improvement in this tournament ahead of RWC 2019.

The only concern that I have for England this weekend is whether they can produce a performance similar in intensity, work rate and defensive precision to last weekend. They were so revved up for this contest that a repeat this weekend is overly ambitious. Injury to Maro Itoje is a blow but sufficient cover in Lawes, Launchbury and Shields if the need arises.

England will look to Henry Slade to provide the creativity and Manu Tuilagi with the abrasive ball carrying to setup the attacking platform. Owen Farrell’s form in recent has been outstanding and if provided with front foot ball could expose France’s feeble defensive shape.

France implosion last weekend. France opening period brilliance but it was the second half debacle which raises further questions on the coaching and direction of this side. The revelation of communication issues on the pitch from France in that second half (players unaware of their captaincy role) summed it up. The lunacy to throw a wide skip pass in wet conditions is only something that France could look to execute in a tight test match.

I will be blunt. If you want to watch England vs. France on Sunday, may I suggest watching the ladies international before this fixture as I sense England will provide further evidence of progression in defensive and attacking play. England to win with a bonus point try as I have my doubts on France’s mindset for the fixture.

Bastareaud is rumored to be back in the starting lineup. Where yet again is the selection policy from Brunel? France underage structures are reaping rewards but the senior team stinks at present. They will do well to get within seven points here. England by 15 points for me.

Ireland look to rebound at Murrayfield

Injuries mounting for Ireland

The reaction to Ireland’s opening round loss to a well drilled England side has been interesting to say the least. The mantra ‘you don’t become a bad team overnight’ should be the cameo but the social media reaction has been hilarious to see. Ireland look ahead to their second round fixture against Scotland realizing that their performance needs to improve but this performance needs to improve with a mounting injury list. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the selection posers for Ireland management.

Where are Ireland after last weekend?

It was a slow start to the tournament from Ireland. England hit the ground running and their line speed from minute one was incredible. They never let Ireland to settle into the contest and their physicality and aerial (yes) dominance in their back three laid the foundations for victory.

Ireland’s pack had a forlorn day. The line out creaked at pivotal times and were unable to compete against a well drilled England side who executed their line out with quick line out throws; the cohesion from the Saracens contingent massive. The line out dominance from England and the quick ball distribution had Ireland defensively on edge throughout.

Ireland fought hard and were leading this contest after thirty minutes (somehow) but the second England try after more defensive mix ups from Ireland’s back three saw the visitors sense their moment to win this contest. You have games where nothing comes off and Ireland’s half backs were under pressure from minute one. Murray and Sexton struggled for game management and the late intercept by Slade by Sexton summed up the day.

It was a disappointing result. The work rate was not in question but the tactical game plan and units unfamiliarity contributed no end to this loss. The game plan never deviated last weekend; was akin to the RWC 2015 quarter final loss to Argentina. Ireland continued to execute the same game plan and attacking line moves which were so behind the gain line that England were sprinting with intent on each defensive set.

The lack of variation in the game plan for me was the disappointing element to this performance; players did not execute the kick with the quality required in international test arena. One hopes from an Ireland that this facet of play fundamentally improves for the Murrayfield test match!

People have focused on the Robbie Henshaw’s full back positional switch. The experiment was unsuccessful this time but I sense that Ireland management may continue to trial this experiment potentially further. There were positional issues and lack of aerial dominance early doors saw England continue to pepper Henshaw. The back three unit defensively looked vulnerable all day collectively.

It was a timely reminder for the Irish sporting public and team last weekend. The performance was not at the level required to win the test match, the tempo control was England’s. Lessons need to be learned for the team and management particularly with a RWC 2019 tournament coming. A repeat performance against Scotland in this tournament and Ireland are facing a quarter final mission impossible potentially.

Injuries mount 

The sheer physicality of last weekend’s encounter with England was there in the Ireland rugby press release this week. Stander, Toner and Ringrose scratched from the squad due to injury. There are lingering concerns on the fitness of the likes of Keith Earls who was subjected to massive physical test under the aerial high ball.

The Itoje incident last weekend still grates for me personally; not one Irish player went to confront the Saracens lock on it. The team of us? Nope. Are you in? It is a no given the reaction of Irish players to support their colleague in the heat of battle. Someone in the camp hopefully raised the issue during video analysis. It was unacceptable and it made Ireland look like an easy touch (officiating crew was weak too).

Team Selection

Robbie Henshaw surely will get another crack at the full back position. Ireland management have to stick to their guns, otherwise the question why did they make the selection will be raised?

The wing options if Earls is passed fit should be the Munster Rugby speedster along with Jacob Stockdale who will hope for better quality attacking ball. The three quarters options looks intriguing. Who fills the shoes of Ringrose?

If Henshaw is retained at full back, then a couple of players come into the reckoning. Chris Farrell or Will Addison look the viable options. I think either player would seamlessly fill the position. Addison for me is a player of great upside and needs to see game time in this tournament along with Larmour and a game fit Rob Kearney.

Wondering on the ten position? Does Schmidt throw Joey Carbery into the tournament on the road this weekend? I am not so sure, only a thought. Sexton will be eager to deliver after a subdued performance last weekend but we need to see Carbery in the heat of battle against a quality test match outfit. No disrespect Italy but Carbery may not get that test in round three. Intriguing selection poser there, one that be beneficial for RWC 2019.

Murray will start at scrum-half. Schmidt’s go to man for a road trip like this. His box kicking will surely improve this weekend. The Munster Rugby scrum half will look to set the tone early. John Cooney potentially could get a test match berth against Italy in round three; it would be the perfect cameo for the Ulster Rugby scrum half to be initially evaluated with a view for additional test match minutes against France and Wales.

The pack will have changes. The front row will remain unchanged; suspect changes to this unit once the Italian fixture is on the schedule book. Healy and Furlong battled hard on all fronts with minimal rewards. Best was abrasive but the line out was a mixed bag at vital times.

The second row should see personnel changes. Toner if not 100% does not start and maybe it is time to evaluate Quinn Roux in the second row. Roux has impressed for Connacht Rugby this season. Schmidt is a big fan and he needs to be put into the line of fire from the first whistle.

Ultan Dillane comes into the bench reckoning as well. Toner’s ankle has to fully recover (have serious doubts that this will recover) so would scratch him for this game. Depth chart second row analysis exercise. Holland, O’Connor and Treadwell will look on with interest if additional second row bodies fall this weekend.

The back row unit will also have changes. Stander’s horrific facial injuries means that Jack Conan or Sean O’Brien are primed for the eight jersey. Conan for me would be the choice but Ireland management have been anything but predictable in their selections so far. O’Brien audition at eight? Do not be surprised.

The back row unit will be completed by van der Flier and O’Mahony who will look to assert influence on all facets of play. Work rate was exceptional but the sheer brute force of England snuffed out their breakdown and ball carrying threat.

Bench Impact 

The bench impact looks excellent. It is dependent on the first team selection but the likes of Kilcoyne, Cronin and Porter should an abrasive impact in the front row and with Nel absence, it could tilt the test match battle in the third quarter.

Cooney and Carbery will look on with interest on the bench; will they get meaningful game minutes on the bench? Carbery and Larmour’s versatility could be tested early if Earls has to go off injured early. It is a strong bench and their impact needs to be decisive when called upon this weekend.

What to expect?

A week where Ireland players have said the right things. The hurt from last weekend needs to provide an edge this week in the preparations for this Murrayfield test match battle. There will be personnel changes and cohesion issues potentially could still emerge. For players like Henshaw, it is time to produce an assured performance.

Otherwise, the opening round loss may descend into media panicked frenzied headlines that the side are collapsing around their ears! Don’t believe it, this is a tricky assignment at the best of times. A win would be great but it is the performance that what matters. Players who get their chance hopefully impress to build the depth chart further. Roll on Saturday to see the end results!

Guinness 6 Nations Preview: Players under the radar

Players who look destined to impress

The Guinness Six Nations tournament all kicks off next weekend and it is a tournament where the respective team coaches will look to solidify their RWC 2019 squad selections. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the sleeper players who could make an impact in this season’s tourney.

Italy: Michele Campagnaro

A horrendous injury ravaged season last year for the player but has impressed this season for Wasps. The player is abrasive in his ball carries and defensively solid. A player if Italy can secure go forward ball could easily impress. Conor O’Shea will look for more from his three quarters after a mixed bag last season.

Wales: Gareth Anscombe

There is massive competition for the ten spot in this Welsh side, a team which should go very close in this year’s championship. Why Anscombe? His versatility to play ten, fifteen and three quarters means that he should see game time in the tournament. His kicking and passing game is superb; his ability to get his runners on the front foot is a key asset. A player to seriously watch and monitor as the tournament progresses considering Leigh Halfpenny’s recent concussion issues.

France: Romain Ntamack 

France are in absolute limbo. The squad selection has five newcomers, expected reaction after their shock loss to Fiji last November. Romain Ntamack looks like a player who will be a standout for France in this tournament. His form for Toulouse has been sensational; his pace and attacking lines are sublime. His defensive side is a work in progress but his creativity will have the French nation salivating with excitement.

Scotland: Darcy Graham

A player whose progression in the last twelve months with Edinburgh Rugby has now seen his well merited national team call up. The winger is elusive with ball in hand and always seem to pop up for a decisive try. The back three positions will be hard fought with Hogg, Kinghorn looking for game time but for Scotland to realistically challenge in RWC 2019, squad depth needs to be identified and Graham fits the bill. The player could potentially be an absolute gem.

England: Jack Clifford 

The Queensland native should the under the radar player for England. His back row skill set is impressive; excellent versatility to pack down at flanker or eight. His ball carrying, breakdown work and defensive work is impressive and his physicality is well suited to Eddie Jones’ game plan mantra. The player could surprise Ireland next weekend!

Ireland: Will Addison 

It all depends how Joe Schmidt approaches the tournament. Does he give new squad members game time if the championship is still in the balance? This will be an abrasive tournament with plenty of player withdrawals. The three quarters section is loaded with talent but Will Addison did his claims no harm with an impressive November international series. His versatility to play full back and three quarters to the fore. His form for Ulster Rugby this season has been sensational; his ability to find the soft shoulder and kicking game on point. His defensive work has progressively improved as well.