Guinness Six Nations: Ireland Team Thoughts

Ireland team selections looks intriguing

An interesting couple of days beckon for the Ireland Rugby squad and supporters to see who will start against the French. Jacques Brunel has named an unchanged side (surprise, surprise) for this test match so all focus is on Joe Schmidt and Ireland Rugby management on who gets recalls, who gets another chance to impress. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the potential team selection calls ahead of Friday’s team announcement.

Front Row:

Despite the good performance of Dave Kilcoyne in Rome, Cian Healy will slot back into the front row for this test match. His experience will be required for what looks a tricky opening quarter against a hefty French pack. Healy’s work rate early should set the stage for Kilcoyne to make the required impact off the bench in the third quarter.

Rory Best is locked on to be the hooker this weekend after the mixed performance of his backups in round three. Line out misfires, penalty concessions by both hookers on duty in Rome means that Rory Best will seamlessly return to the side. The question is who will fill the back up hooker sub bench place; it is a toss up between Niall Scannell and Sean Cronin. Scannell may be the solid option for Ireland in the line out execution and may just have the nod.

The other front row position will be filled by Tadhg Furlong. The Wexford man’s performances have been solid in all facets of play and Ireland will hope for the player to impress at scrum time along with Cian Healy. The key question here is the bench and who gets the nod? Andrew Porter or John Ryan are the viable options. It is another 50/50 call for Joe Schmidt to make as both players have played well in recent months.

Second Row:

James Ryan should come back into the test match starting lineup. His work rate, physicality and athletism are sensational. His ability to manage the maul will be required in this test match both from an attacking and defensive perspective.

The big question is who will partner the Leinster Rugby second row for this fixture. Quinn Roux had a mixed day at the office in round three; the malfunctions in the line out means that the door is a jar for Iain Henderson to earn a recall. This is a huge test match fixture for Ireland in the context of RWC 2019 preparations and suspect that Henderson will get the nod given how the line out set piece spiraled out of control in Rome.

Quinn Roux and Sean Cronin in particular from the pack face an anxious wait on whether they are even in the match day squad. Tadhg Beirne’s sensational form with Munster Rugby means that Roux is under pressure to keep his squad berth. Intriguing selection poser for Ireland management on the five position.

Back Row:

It is fair to say that the Jordi Murphy eight experiment failed to get off the ground against Italy in Rome. CJ Stander if fit and raring to go should get the nod. Murphy and Conan potentially have minimal time now to impress Ireland management in the back row given Wales in the last round looks like a titanic tussle already.

The other back row positions should be filled by Peter O’Mahony and potentially Josh van der Flier whose mobility, tackle count and ability to create breakdown opportunities for himself and others could sway the decision. O’Brien as an impact sub in the third quarter looks likely here, need abrasive ball carrying options off the bench to test the French defensive line who have shown vulnerability in the second half of games.

Half Backs:

The usual suspects will get the nod and hope that the players around them assist in providing faster ruck ball in which to work with. The ball presentation for Murray has to improve; the body positions of Ireland players at ruck time has been poor at times thus resulting in Murray having to delay his delivery of pass to Sexton.

Sexton and Murray will look to ask serious questions of the French back three in the kicking game which has been inconsistent in recent rounds. I sense that we will see a far more improved performance from the unit. The bench options are intriguing. Is Joey Carbery fit or not? Contrary reports in recent days. Does Jack Carty get another opportunity off the bench? Quite simply, if Carbery is not 100%, don’t play him and Carty instead.

Three Quarters:

If Bundee Aki passes his HIA return to playing protocols, then he should slot back into the twelve channel to renew his partnership with Garry Ringrose who should return from injury. There is a nice balance in this unit. The abrasiveness of Aki with the subtle movement and skill set of Ringrose. Chris Farrell did little wrong against Italy but Ringrose is fresh and raring to go here and Ireland management will not hesitate to select the Leinster Rugby star.

Back Three:

Familiarity breeds contempt and the back three should be Rob Kearney (full back) with Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale on the wings. Kearney is the trusted, reliable go to for the full back berth and for the French test match, Ireland management will not have had to think much on the full back berth. Kearney is probably one of the first names on the team; his absence exposed in the England loss.

Earls and Stockdale will hope that Ireland can provide quicker ruck ball to impress. Both players have shown flair in attacking play but also shown vulnerabilities in defensive and aerial kicking duties. It is questionable whether France will seriously test these players in the kicking game defensively but they will be asked defensive questions when France are in full flow in the opening period.

Team Selection:

Front Row: Healy, Best, Furlong

Second Row: Ryan, Henderson

Back Row: Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander

Half Backs: Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton

Three Quarters: Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose

Wings: Keith Earls, Jacob Stockdale

Full Back: Rob Kearney

Bench:

Pack: Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Beirne, Sean O’Brien,

Half Back / Back Options: John Cooney, Jack Carty and Andrew Conway (if Jordan Larmour is unavailable for selection)

The five key elements for Ireland rugby to beat France at the weekend

Ireland cohesion rests on good fast ruck ball presentation!

In this blog, Hawkeye Sidekick pinpoints the five key elements which Ireland need to execute to beat France in round four of the Guinness Six Nations tournament.

1.Move the French pack around the park;

Very physical and meaty French pack (950kg at the start of the tournament), going to be a long hard slog for Ireland’s pack but if they can ball carry with pace, this French pack will lose discipline and stray offside which will create penalties and ultimately good field position to attack France deep in their own half.

2.Solid set piece

The Ireland set piece needs to be on point this weekend. France at scrum time will look to pose serious questions of our front five early so Ireland’s front five need to front up to the early onslaught. The line out malfunctions against Italy in round three cannot happen this weekend; otherwise France will have a great chance of victory on the road. Solid line out calling will be the order of the day as the weather conditions long range look mixed from Best, Ryan, Henderson and Roux.

3. Cohesion

The keyword coming from Joe Schmidt in recent weeks. Ireland have shown flashes of quality attacking play. The Keith Earls try against Scotland.
The excellent Jacob Stockdale try against Italy. The tournament so far has seen a number of promising attacks halted due to unforced errors; the final pass not going to hand. It is slowly progressing and hopefully should improve for round four of the tournament.

4.Ruck Time

A lot of people have pointed the finger at our half-backs for Ireland’s cohesion issues but not many have pointed to why the half backs have been unable to execute to their ability. The ruck time has been a mess from Ireland and clean, fast ruck ball has been in short supply for Murray and Sexton to work with. I am hoping that the clear out work is much improved from Ireland this weekend, good body positions to allow Murray to get the ball out of the ruck faster. If this happens, expect massive an upturn in Ireland’s attacking play. This French side defensively still look vulnerable and will provide gain line breaks for Ireland but it all comes down to quick ruck ball.

5.Kicking Game

An element of Ireland’s play which was not beyond reproach in the last two years has suddenly come under the microscope. The aerial kicking has being inconsistent and the open play kicking has not exposed opposition back three’s defensive so far. The kicking game was used to good effect by England in their heavy win over France. Owen Farrell consistently having space in behind the French back three to create territorial field position for which England attacked the French line out.

Guinness Six Nations: Italy vs. Ireland Reflections

Bonus Point win secured but questions raised for Ireland

At the start of the day, the objective was clear for Ireland. A bonus point try win was the minimum requirement on a perfect February afternoon in Rome. The mission was accomplished but not before a nervy examination from an Italian side who were abrasive and impressive with ball in hand when given the opportunity. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Now is not the time to panic

The mass hysteria from the Irish Twitter feeds during this game was surreal. You thought that Ireland had lost this test match quite heavily such was the commentary on the performance. The players and management will be the first to acknowledge that elements of the performance were patchy but after going in at half time 16-12 down, they won the second half 0-14.

It feels like damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If Ireland had trounced Italy today, it still would not be good enough for some. A second successive win and Ireland are within striking distance of both Wales and England. After the England loss, this is as good as it can be for Ireland at this juncture of the tournament.

It is time for the Irish sporting public to take a deep breathe, relax and give the management and players the time, the support, the space to regroup to address the issues exposed today and move on with confidence for the French fixture in two weeks time.

The Good

We have to start with the good news. The Ireland attacking threat of Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls lit up this contest from an Ireland perspective. Both players when give sufficient ball impressed. Stockdale for me was our biggest threat of the afternoon and anytime he got the ball, gain line yards were made with ease. Keith Earls nous and ability to create something from nothing was seen to full effect in that second half; sublime line breaks and then his try was about pure opportunism.

The ability to dust themselves down at half-time when down 16-12 was admirable given the circumstances. The team were caught rotten on the
Morisi try, looking to play expansive and a breakdown in the move led to the kick downfield. This was an afternoon where nothing seemed to stick for Ireland; the more harder they tried, the more unforced errors came. It was a frustrating afternoon but to come away with a bonus point try win given the scenario at half-time was pleasing.

Italy”s attacking play was negated somewhat in that second half. Tebaldi’s influence on proceedings waned on fifty minutes and Ireland took control of the aerial battle. Tebaldi had a good afternoon up until that point as he played off the cuff, something that I have not seen him do. Italy were expressive with ball in hand, this is what they should be looking to do from now on.

Unforced errors capped off the Irish performance but at least Ireland were creating genuine try scoring opportunities. Earls and Stockdale line breaks in the second half on another day could have seen tries scored.

Aki injury affected rhythm and tempo

The opening quarter was decent from Ireland. Yes, there were a couple of early knock on incidents but Ireland with Bundee Aki and Chris Farrell looked dangerous when given quick ruck ball to work with. The two players were central to the Quinn Roux try.

Whether it was related to the withdrawal of Bundee Aki but Ireland’s threat in the three quarters for the second quarter was minimal and contained. Italy’s defensive line speed easily preempting Ireland’s attacking moves as Ireland ball carriers more often than not received the ball in a static position. Ireland were not probing the outside channels nor where they creating territorial platform with any type of kick game from open play.

Frustrating day for the Ireland half backs

Sexton at ten set the tone with his usual playing on the gain line but the tempo and cohesion around him was not there this afternoon. As a result, Sexton was more often than not getting a late Italian hit such was the delay in ball carriers getting into the position that Sexton required of them. It was a frustrating afternoon.

Murray will have mixed feelings on the afternoon. Ireland’s presentation of ball at ruck time has been poor so far in this tournament and it continued today. The new pack personnel perhaps not cohesive enough but Murray needed to get a stray Ireland forward leg out of the way more often than not to get the ball away; precious few seconds wasted and allowed Italy to defensively setup.

The scrum-half did score the crucial bonus point try for Ireland; crashing over when Ireland’s maul delivered. Murray will wonder on some of the protection issues that were clearly apparent today. The sight of an Italian forward coming in straight through the gate unchecked ripping the ball from Murray will not be an image or sequence that the Irish players or management will want to see.

Breakdown Imbalance

The breakdown area saw O’Mahony have several marquee moments but Italy had their own moments in that second and third quarter. The breakdown nous of a Leavy or van der Flier was missed. O’Brien tried hard without success. Murphy was ineffectual. Leavy, van der Flier will have duly noted the back row imbalance today.

Squad players get chance with mixed results

The key element from this test match from my perspective was how the squad players who were given sufficient game time to impress today fared. It is fair to say that it was a very mixed bag with some perhaps missing their big opportunity to secure a place for the Ireland RWC 2019 squad.

Dave Kilcoyne put in a combative, abrasive performance in the front row. His scrummaging winning Ireland early attacking platform. His ball carrying and tackling were on point; it was a satisfactory performance from the UL Bohs player and should see more action before the end of the tournament.

Sean Cronin started his first Six Nations test match today and it was a trying day on a number of fronts. The line out malfunctioned; the misfires were not all down to the hooker but there were a couple of overthrows in that second quarter which coughed up easy field position. Cronin was also caught offside in his eagerness to get off the line.

The fact that Cronin was whipped off after forty-seven minutes was a statement that Cronin was the fall guy for the set piece issues; harsh. Niall Scannell came on; the line out was still inconsistent and a high tackle yielded an Italian penalty. Rory Best and Rob Herring will have watched the proceedings with interest. Best will come back in for the France game. Herring may be given game time given the difficulties at hooker today. Hooker depth chart and the backup slot is up for grabs.

Dillane and Roux had mixed afternoons. Roux started the game well and his try was well executed; his drive to the line emphatic. The line out that went so well against Scotland was exposed at regular intervals today as Dean Budd in particular proving an absolute hindrance for Ireland to execute the line out with any confidence of efficiency. Dillane was all action; had key moments in his tackling and ball carries but there were also some unforced errors (not the only one to commit this). Dillane continued to pick himself up and it showed his spirit and resiliency to keep going until the end.

James Ryan is guaranteed to start against France and whether Iain Henderson features looks to be an intriguing question right now. Henderson was all action in his cameo appearance and whether Quinn Roux will be given another opportunity will rest on who was at fault for the line out misfires during video analysis this week at Carton House.

Jordi Murphy and the number eight experiment will surely be consigned to the filing cabinet where Robbie Henshaw and the full back experiment was consigned a couple of weeks ago. Minimal impact with ball in hand, no significant go forward ball for Ireland to capitalize on as Murray continued to use other runners at regular intervals. Jordi Murphy has flexibility to fill the other back row positions but the eight channel option is questionable after today. Jordi Murphy missed a big chance today to impress.

Andrew Conway came in unexpectedly early due to the HIA withdrawal of Bundee Aki. Conway was sharp with ball in hand, was put under pressure defensively once or twice due to Tebaldi’s game management to switch play out wide at regular intervals during that second and third quarter. Conway was not given ample quick ball to truly impress but it was a solid outing and one that management will have duly noted.

The other substitutes that came on did their jobs sufficiently well in the short amount of allocated time given. John Cooney looked sharp with his passing and kick game to close out the contest. Jack Carty’s cameo saw a couple of decent plays hitting runners with good speed. The forward bench options all contributed to the win late on.

A win for Ireland in Rome. Italy contributed to the test match with a good display but Ireland know that there is work to be done on the training paddock in the next week to get to the level required to compete and beat France.

Pre-Ireland Rugby Team Selection Notes

Time to experiment or go with tried and trusted?

On the eve of Ireland Rugby team selection for the Italian fixture, it will be interesting to see what Joe Schmidt and management decide in terms of providing continuity while attempting to run the rule over certain players in specific positions. Hawkeye Sidekick tries to preempt (if you can Joe Schmidt) the team selection.

Full Back:

Rob Kearney yet again showed his worth for Ireland with an assured full back performance against Scotland. The key question now is whether Joe Schmidt decides to retain Kearney in the position or does he look to either (a) retry the Robbie Henshaw full back experiment or (b) look to the likes of Jordan Larmour or Andrew Conway to show their worth. I suspect that Henshaw may get further game time at fifteen; it is realistically the fixture to give the Leinster Rugby player another opportunity in the position without having adverse impact.

Back Three Makeup:

If the decision is to go with Robbie Henshaw, then Schmidt will immediately look to retain Jacob Stockdale and Keith Earls on the wings for continuity. It would be perceived a risk by management to change all back three positions given the potential for cohesion issues on both sides of the ball. The hope is that Larmour or Conway secure valuable game time in this test match; suspect that one of the players will get that game time and it will be probably Jordan Larmour.

Center Partnership:

Bundee Aki should see more game time action at twelve. The question mark is whether Chris Farrell is fully fit to take his place at thirteen. Farrell has had issues with his leg / knee in recent weeks but given the team bulletin today, it looks like Chris Farrell will fill the thirteen channel. Abrasive ball carrying the order of the day.

Half Back Partnership:

Joey Carbery is primed for the ten jersey to build on his performance last time out against Scotland. After a nervy opening cameo, Carbery produced a strong second half performance which saw the pivotal gain line break for Earls to score the game winning try. Carbery needs game time ahead of RWC 2019 and will get it during this test match.

The scrum half option debate is interesting but I suspect that Conor Murray will start the contest to provide experience and leadership. There have been differing viewpoints on Murray in this tournament; think he is the victim of his own brilliance and world class high standards. There have been kicking inaccuracies but his overall play has been on point for me.

The hope is that John Cooney will get more than the customary three minute cameo at the death to provide further game tape for Joe Schmidt and management to evaluate the Ulster Rugby player.

Front Row:

The unit went well in Murrayfield with the scrum particularly impressive. The Italian scrum looks vulnerable and it could be a cast of switching up front row personnel for this test match. Dave Kilcoyne and Sean Cronin for me should get the nod. Kilcoyne’s all round play has elevated to new levels this season while Sean Cronin has become a try scoring machine for Leinster Rugby. Tadhg Furlong should potentially start to provide some consistency in the front row. John Ryan’s impressive form should see additional game time this weekend.

Second Row:

James Ryan will start this test match. The Leinster Rugby lock has been a standout again during this campaign. The intriguing team selection is who partners Ryan. I think Quinn Roux has to be given more time considering his performance against Scotland in round two. With Tadhg Beirne just back in training after his knee injury, Iain Henderson is available if there are issues in the set piece.

Back Row:

I think it is fair to say that there will be minimum changes to this unit given their performance last time out. O’Mahony potentially may be the player to be rested for this fixture with the likes of Jordi Murphy desperately looking for game time. Jack Conan and Sean O’Brien will surely get the nod for this game and considering the absence of Sergio Parisse in the Italian back row, the Ireland back row unit will be keen to assert their dominance early and set the breakdown platform.

Potential Starting Lineup:

15. Robbie Henshaw

14. Keith Earls

13. Chris Farrell

12. Bundee Aki

11. Jacob Stockdale

10. Joey Carbery

9. Conor Murray

8. Jack Conan

7. Sean O’Brien

6. Jordi Murphy

5. James Ryan

4. Quinn Roux

3. Tadhg Furlong

2. Sean Cronin

1.Dave Kilcoyne

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!

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!

Confident Scotland primed for Ireland scalp

Fortress Murrayfield.

Saturday afternoon sees Scotland take on Ireland at Murrayfield. The home side will pose attacking threats aplenty while their pack and defensive setup has improved significantly. Ireland will be fully aware of the challenge which faces them. In this blog, Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the key strengths of this Scottish side.

Attacking Threats

Finn Russell

Gregor Townsend has allowed his side to express themselves with ball in hand; carrying on the ethos from Glasgow Warriors. The play making options for Scotland are many.

Greig Laidlaw provides experience and shrewd game management from scrum half. His understanding of the game and unerring kicking off the tee means that Finn Russell can fully focus on open play and how impressive was the Racing 92 half-back last weekend.

A sensational diagonal kick exposing Italy’s vulnerable back three where Blair Kinghorn gleefully accepted for the opening try of their victory last weekend. It demonstrated invention, creativity and game awareness that Italy’s defensive line were too tight. The kick was on the money. The result thereafter was never in doubt.

The marauding Stuart Hogg also comes into the equation when it comes for attacking threat. His ability to create coming into the line from the full back position is world class. His invention to the fore in his try last weekend; a deft touch to put the finishing touches to another subtle kick from Russell in behind a shell shocked Italian defense.

Hogg’s big boot means that the kicking game from Scotland will also challenge Ireland in this department along with Sean Maitland and Blair Kinghorn who will be full of confidence after his hat-trick last weekend. The pace and power of this back three will expose Ireland if the play opens up into an unstructured contest particularly in the third quarter.

Evolving Pack 

The pack has improved immeasurably in the past two seasons, evident in the record of the side at Murrayfield (unbeaten in this tournament for the last two seasons). The pack will be buoyed by the impressive form of the Edinburgh Rugby contingent who have impressed in the set piece exchanges for club and is translated to national team duty also.

Solid front five against Italy albeit Nel looks a scratch for the Ireland game which is a blow considering his form for Edinburgh Rugby this term. Dell and McInally are experienced international performers and with an abrasive and industrious second row partnership of Toolis and Gilchrist, the set piece has been on point. Solid line out call management expected.

The back row unit has fluctuated due to injuries. Skinner had his opportunity but had to withdraw early to be replaced by Josh Strauss who showed extremely well in the breakdown and ball in hand exchanges. Ryan Wilson is another abrasive ball carrier. Wonder if John Hardie will be involved in this fixture for his breakdown work ability?

The pack have been critiqued in recent years for their maul defense but this has improved particularly under Townsend’s watch. There is no significant weak link in this pack and their combative, workmanlike style will pose Ireland’s pack which has been disrupted with injuries.

Lengthy Injury List

Scotland do have injury issues of their own. The back row has been depleted with injuries. I have mentioned Skinner’s unfortunate injury against Italy but David Denton, John Barclay and Hamish Watson are also key marquee names unavailable for selection in this unit.

When you add also the likes of Richie Gray, Cornell du Preez, Zander and Matt Fagerson, Luke Hamilton, Byron McGuigan, Matt Scott, Rory Sutherland, Duncan Taylor, Blade Thomson, George Turner and Jon Welsh — that is a lengthy injury list.

One thing is for sure. Scotland’s depth chart will be fully identified at the end of this tournament and if it is any indication from last week’s performance, Scotland will be a live threat in the pool phase of the RWC 2019 for their opponent this weekend in Ireland.

Any vulnerabilities?

The only genuine disappointment for Scotland last weekend was when Berghan was sin binned. Italy who were second best suddenly came back into the contest and scored two tries in those ten minutes of the contest. The two tries were different score concessions; first one was pack intensive drives close to the line and the second one was open play where Italy offload suddenly opened a 2:1 opportunity.

It was the only negative from an excellent Scotland performance last weekend. No doubt Townsend has called this out in video analysis and the team will be primed for further improvement against Ireland. A nation expects. A nation demands a victory, that nation is Scotland!

Guinness Six Nations: Round 1 Preview

Two home wins, one road win predicted

Hawkeye Sidekick has tried to temper his excitement for the start of this tournament all week but tonight resistance has been futile. Hawkeye Sidekick is akin to a child waiting for presents on Christmas Day. Time to call these opening round fixtures.

Welsh consistency to beat unpredictable French 

Wales are my tip for the championship. They will start the tournament with a road trip win in Paris. France are truly coming into this tournament with zero momentum after a miserable November test series, zero selection policy from a head coach who is throwing options at the wall hoping that it sticks.

What happens if Romain Ntamack does not deliver tomorrow night? Does Jacques Brunel persist with the player or shun him? Where does Mathieu Bastareaud come into the equation? Does Mathieu Bastareaud have a future in the national side? The vibes from the French camp leading into this fixture is frenzied panic. Individual talent usurps any cohesive unit here and that is a massive concern. Dupont omission from the squad is a baffler too.

Wales on the other hand have gone for players who are on form and the lineup has a consistent feel to it. A strong twenty-three man squad selected by Warren Gatland. I like the pack setup, their mobility and work rate will cause a beefy French pack no end of issues. The Welsh set piece should run well with Ken Owens calling the line out and with a host of world class jumpers in Jones, Beard to chose from.

The half back partnership is exciting. Tomos Williams and Gareth Anscombe are having excellent seasons. They are been pushed hard for their places by Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar. A great problem for management to have. The back three and three quarters are potent with ball in hand, defensive solid under the aerial ball and have kicking options in Parkes and Davies to steady the ship when required.

The bench impact for me is weighed towards the visitors. France at the breakdown look vulnerable as Navidi and Tipuric will look to isolate Iturria early doors. If Wales can settle and execute efficiently, they should be able to win this test match. France will provide the flash of brilliance but the cohesion issues in the pack and three quarter defensive vulnerabilities due to a net new partnership makes Wales a strong bet for a win here.

Scottish pack to provide platform for victory 

This is an exciting side named by Gregor Townsend. A lengthy injury list has not diluted the quality in the side with Sam Johnson getting his debut in the twelve jersey. The back three looks potent with Hogg, Kinghorn and Seymour primed to impress with ball in hand. Hogg hitting the line should have devastating results for Italy at the weekend.

The half back partnership has vast experience. Finn Russell has had a superb opening to his Racing 92 career. Greig Laidlaw is consistently a high performer and his kicking game and shrewd game management will provide the pack with assured leadership.

The front five has evolved and is progressing well. Nel scrummaging and overall play has been excellent for club and country this season. Gilchrist and Toolis will bring physicality, work rate and set piece execution to proceedings. Hamish Watson’s injury means an opportunity for Jamie
Ritchie to impress and if the player impresses, it provides Townsend with another player to call upon in the depth chart.

Italy come into this tournament looking for much needed momentum. The emergence of Benetton Rugby in Guinness Pro14 and European Challenge Cup pool performances coupled with Zebre Rugby improvements means that Conor O’Shea should have a player base who are playing with confidence and belief in their ability to win matches.

The strengths are in the pack for the Azzuri. Ghiraldini wins his 100th cap, a selfless performer for his country. Sisi and Budd form a potentially promising exciting second row partnership while Sergio Parisse is the focal point of the back row with his ball carries and creativity from the base of the scrum.

The issues for Italy continue to be their cohesion between half backs and back line. The back line and particularly back three need to step up to the party as their defensive performances have fallen short of the standard required in test rugby. Their aerial ability at times is poor and provides opposition with easy pickings. Their attacking threat is a mixed bag and can sometimes squander chances when patience with ball in hand is required.

For me, Scotland hold all the aces here. Despite Italy running Scotland close last season, I sense Scotland have moved on a further level since then. Italy continue to flounder looking for an elusive 6 Nations win. Scotland with a bonus point try win; the key aspect of this game is the three quarter partnership and whether Jones and Johnson defensively and offensively can provide the quality required to suggest Scotland are genuine title challengers.

Ireland disciplined approach the key to victory

This test match could be the story of the full backs selected for the Ireland / England fixture. Daly and Henshaw have question marks over their selection. Daly and his abilities to deal with the aerial game have been called into question in recent weeks. His inclusion instead of Mike Brown has raised eyebrows.

Robbie Henshaw plays in a position where he impressed in as a Connacht Rugby player a couple of seasons ago. Whoever provides their side with assurance in this position could be a key positive and factor in who wins this game.

The England pack is Saracens led. Vunipola’s, George, Itoje and Kruis should provide cohesion in the set piece. The scrum and line out should be on point and look to pose questions on Ireland’s line out in particular. The back row is abrasive but whether they have the breakdown nous to unsettle Ireland is an entirely different question.

The back three options for England ball in hand look potent. Nowell has shown well in recent weeks. May’s pace and creativity unquestioned. Their ability under the high ball will be tested; will the England back three have learned from their encounter with Ireland in Twickenham last March?

Ireland apart from the Henshaw full back selection has little surprising news. The side on paper is along predictable lines. A strong Leinster Rugby contingent in the pack. A potent back row with O’Mahony, Stander and Josh van der Flier looks well balanced and with Sean O’Brien to be summoned from the bench, the pack looks strong.

The three quarter partnership of Aki and Ringrose continues to flourish, one of the reasons why Henshaw is playing in the full back berth. The full back depth chart is stacked for Ireland. Larmour, Addison, Conway and Carbery could fill the void. Henshaw’s versatility is been tested this weekend.

This game comes down to two key points. Discipline and the kicking game. England are vulnerable of getting on the wrong side of officiating crews; offside indiscretions setting the tone early. They need to nip this in the bud. The kicking game will be the key point. Ireland’s ability to box kick and win the kicking game has provided the platform for the side. England need to provide variation in their play but I do not see it in this selection.

Manu Tuilagi at twelve is an asset with ball in hand but at times defensive and discipline issues can surface. It will be fascinating to see how Aki and Ringrose look to expose Tuilagi in open play with ball in hand? A brutally physical test match beckons, slight edge to Ireland given their defined and disciplined style of play but they need to hit the ground running from minute one.

Rugby: Ireland U20 vs. England U20 Preview

Intriguing opening fixture for Ireland

Irish Independent Park (Cork) plays host to Ireland U20’s opening fixture, a daunting fixture on paper against an England U20 side who contested the 2018 U20 World Cup final against France. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the team selections.

What time is kickoff?

The game is on Friday, Feb 1st with a 7:15pm kickoff time. If you cannot get to the fixture, the game is live on RTE 2.

Form Guide:

After a disappointing campaign last season, Ireland head coach Noel McNamara will look for an upturn in fortunes for his charges. It was a challenging season last year for the side who struggled for cohesion.

There was a third place finish in the 6 Nations tournament but the U20 World Cup was a complete disappointment. A win against Japan prevented Ireland from been relegated from the U20 World Cup tournament.

England U20 were competitive last season. They finished second to France in the 6 Nations tournament; a road trip loss to Scotland was a pivotal result in their campaign. Their encounter against France was incredibly abrasive and physical. Players taking out at regular intervals with minimal intervention from match officials. A strong U20 World Cup campaign for England saw a final appearance but this time France avenged their 6 Nations loss with a 33-25 win.

Team News:  Ireland

Ireland’s side has potential to impress. Scott Penny has been a standout for Leinster Rugby senior team this season when given his cameo. The back row player will be ably assisted by John Hodnett (UCC / Munster Rugby) and Martin Moloney (Old Belvedre / Leinster Rugby).

Josh Wycherley (Young Munster/Munster), Dylan Tierney Martin (Corinthians/Connacht) and Charlie Ryan (UCD/Leinster) need to execute at set piece to provide a platform for an exciting half-back pairing for Harry Byrne (Lansdowne/Leinster) and Craig Casey (Shannon/Munster) who will look to launch their captain David Hawkshaw (Clontarf/Leinster) in the three quarters.

The Cork crowd who will attend this fixture will see plenty of county talent in full view. Josh Wycherley (Bandon), John Hodnett (Rosscarbery) and Jonathan Wren (Cork Constitution / Munster Rugby) will start and exciting Sean French (Cork Constitution / Munster Rugby) to make an impact off the bench. The home crowd will be fully behind the side.

Team News:  England

England’s side named is loaded with experience at this age level. The big news from their team selection today is the inclusion of three key players. Marcus Smith starts in the ten jersey, a player who has the full array of skill set to test out this promising Ireland U20 side.

Ted Hill (Worcester Warriors) is well regarded by Eddie Jones so much so that the player got his senior debut against Japan last November. Marcus Street starts his third U20 campaign, vastly experienced and his set piece has been consistently good.

Players to Watch: The Ten Jersey

The battle of the ten’s will be intriguing. Harry Byrne (brother of Ross Byrne) is a player with massive potential and upside. He will require the Ireland pack to set the platform but has an excellent kicking game and his ability to launch his runners at the right time was seen last season.

Marcus Smith is a player who potentially is a dark horse for England RWC 2019 inclusion. His dynamism with ball in hand is to the fore; he will look to engage defenders in order to create gain line breaks for colleagues. The kicking game is good (can be improved upon) but it is his flair with ball in hand which will be highlighted in this fixture.

Verdict: England

Out of the England side who lined out against France in the U20 World Cup final last year, nine players start on Friday night. This experience speaks volumes at this level of competition; the cohesion and understanding between these players gives England the edge in this fixture. Noel McNamara’s charges will do well to get anything out of this encounter. England look too slick, too experienced for an ambitious Ireland side. Cohesion issues to start the tournament but England have the experience and understanding to secure this win with a potential BP at the death.

Guinness 6 Nations Preview: Team Expectations

Team expectations vary

The opening weekend of the tournament is fast approaching with a couple of standout fixture. France entertain Wales on Feb 1st and on Saturday, Scotland host Italy before Ireland and England clash in a game which looks like a massive physical contest already. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at each side’s expectations for this tournament.

Ireland: The side to be shot at 

Reigning tournament kingpins. The side who toppled New Zealand last November. The side are on the pedestal and will be shot at during this tournament. E

The expectations will be to retain the championship but it is a tough ask with progressively improving England, Scotland and Wales on the schedule. No grand slam this year.

If the championship is off the table, perhaps it would be wise to get more game time for squad members who are vying for those final spots for RWC 2019; solidify squad selection ahead of Japan later in the year.

The scrum half options are looking stretched with Marmion, McGrath out of the selection plans for now. Blade comes into the squad as third choice and it is an superb opportunity for John Cooney to secure valuable ground on Marmion and McGrath in the battle for the backup scrum half berth.

Wales: Serious championship contender

The final goodbye for Warren Gatland and this tournament. An end of an era for Wales this season as Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones take over the national team reins after RWC 2019.

I sense that this will be a superb championship campaign for Wales. A couple of injuries but the squad has the right blend of youth and experience. The pack looks formidable with Owens, Lee, Jones, Tipuric in fine form at present.

The half back options look really good with an explosive back line containing Jonathan Davies in the three quarters to game manage and then you see Jake Ball coming back from injury against Leinster Rugby last night, squad depth will be boosted by the end of the tournament.

They would be my pick for the tournament. No grand slam but they have Ireland at home which could be a winner take all fixture finale. Gatland may get his hands on the 6 Nations in his season finale with Wales.

England: Eddie Jones Show  

England have the talent pool to be a viable contender for the championship but discipline issues still are a question mark for me. The back three will need to improve their aerial ability; it will be tested next weekend in Dublin.

The plus point is the pack setup. Their set piece should be extremely strong with Maro Itoje playing superbly well for Saracens this season. The pack contains the Vunipola brothers who will provide platform ball for the half backs. The fitness of Owen Farrell is a concern heading into the tourney.

Eddie Jones will look to unsettle opposition teams and officials with pregame comments; there will be some good sound bites too but the pressure is on Jones ahead of the RWC 2019. Another mediocre tournament showing here and his position could be under serious threat before departing for Japan.

Scotland: Squad progression key 

The injury list is big and Gregor Townsend has been forced to shuffle the squad personnel for this tournament. I think it is a blessing for Scotland; make decisions on the RWC 2019 squad and further confirm the depth charts across the side.

What to expect from Scotland? High tempo attacking offload game. The players are well suited to the game plan and they will look to expose defensive lapses from anywhere on the field with Stuart Hogg and Blair Kinghorn in the ranks.

The issue is potentially the pack. The set piece at times could be under considerable pressure from the likes of England, France and Ireland. How will Scotland improve their maul defense? It was exposed last season in this tournament. A strong showing against Italy next weekend is a must.

France: Destination Unknown 

Serious limbo. Serious anarchy in the French national side. Brunel is throwing the dice with this squad selection with Ntamack leading the squad selection sheet as a marquee player even though he is yet to be capped.

We are fully aware of France’s player pool, talent and ability to play off the cuff but the squad and team have suffered so much in cohesion issues in recent years. Players come in, players go out. No continuity and the team has suffered.

What am I expecting? Strong set piece execution with a mixed bag in open play. The half back pairing is up in the air. Who does Brunel go for? Less than twelve months from a RWC and there are still massive questions on the first team selection let alone the squad.

Wales at home on Friday night is the most important game for France in over four decades; a loss here and this spirals out of an uncontrollable tailspin. A nation will look on with interest, fear and intrigue all in equal measure!

Italy: Improvement the key 

Italy will not win this tournament. Italy probably won’t finish in the top three but for Conor O’Shea, there needs to be viable signs of improvement and optimism going into the RWC 2019.

The Benetton Rugby’s resurgence this season should provide momentum for the national side but the international test match arena is a different animal and their defensive organization was cut to ribbons in November. Abrasive pack phases but precious little in attacking play in the back line.

Scotland on the road to start the tournament. A key fixture to see how Italy fare; they will be buoyed by their performance last season when the two sides met but lack of composure and game management to close out the fixture was punished by Scotland’s late push.

Improvement is the key here, otherwise Italy enter into the run in for the RWC 2019 with minimal confidence and optimism. Let’s hope for the tournament organizers that they can win a game here; otherwise the Georgia debate will surface yet again!

Predictions:

  1. Wales
  2. Ireland
  3. England
  4. Scotland
  5. France
  6. Italy