Ireland vs. Argentina Preview

Sean O’Brien makes a timely return

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

Sean O’Brien returns for Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

Argentina shift personnel and captaincy

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

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

Game Plan

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

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

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

Verdict

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

Ireland Summer Tour: Reflections

A key milestone achieved from this current Ireland Rugby management and playing squad, a series win, coming from behind to secure a 2-1 series win. A series which has provided useful clues to the makeup of the RWC 2019 squad setup. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the tour.

Back row versatility

The back row depth has being used to the maximum in this summer tour. From the initial back row unit of Murphy, Stander and O’Mahony in the first test, personnel changes aplenty with Jack Conan, Dan Leavy, Tadhg Beirne getting valuable game time.

What have we learned from this tour? The back row unit has versatility. The performance of Stander from the six position was sensational. Stander was immense in his breakdown work and his ball carrying, tackle count were to the fore throughout the series. It allowed Jack Conan to slot into the eight channel and he performed well with Murray at nine and O’Mahony continuing to disrupt Australia in line out and breakdown work.

When you consider that the likes of Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier were back in Ireland recuperating from injury, it presents a superb conundrum for Schmidt and management on who possibly leave out. The players mentioned will be doing everything in their power to regain their places in Leinster and ultimately look to catch the attention of Schmidt. The back row squad depth is vast and is an unit where cover is not an issue.

Hooker Depth Chart

The big loser on this summer tour has being Sean Cronin. The Leinster hooker was offered precious game time in a decisive test match but his failure to recover from injury opened the door for Niall Scannell and Rob Herring to further consolidate their places in the squad. Cronin is looking remote in the depth chart given this tour and with the confidence that Herring and Scannell have received during this tour, the odds of Cronin in RWC 2019 is slim.

There would be issues for Cronin with Leinster Rugby as James Tracy will look to push onto the next level this season. Tracy looks primed for considerably more game time in provincial action and that could spell even more issues for Cronin. A key season for Cronin beckons at Leinster Rugby let alone the national side. An opportunity definitely lost. Rory Best will slot back into the squad; the rest will do the captain a power of good and will come back fresh.  Great news for Ireland.

Half Back Dependency Issues

If there is a negative from the tour, it is that we still do not know the depth chart for the nine and ten positions. Put simply, if Conor Murray or Johnny Sexton go down (heaven forbid) with a RWC 2019 ending injury, we are going into the unknown as to the quality in the backup positions.

While New Zealand were able to slot Damien McKenzie into the ten slot last weekend to consolidate and evaluate his value at the position, Ireland were focused for a series win and that meant Murray and Sexton were the first names on the team sheet.

No significant game times for Marmion or Cooney so Luke McGrath in effect has not missed out on his ambitions to return to the national team setup. Byrne was seen in training sessions but not much else and Carbery did not feature in the last two test matches. November test series needs to answer these half-back depth chart questions, otherwise Ireland run the risk of going into the abyss heading into RWC 2019 battle.

Center Partnership

Some people were speculating that Bundee Aki was vulnerable in retaining his twelve position. Can we please stop this hideous fake news? Aki is the lock at the twelve channel. His work rate and ability to create gain line breaks so apparent last weekend in the Sydney test match. Early gain line breaks and then ability to support the kicking game, winning turnover ball. His defensive and tackle success rate is exceptional. The twelve channel is a lock. The twelve jersey is Aki’s.

This leaves the thirteen jersey up for grabs. Ringrose’s cameo in the second test match oozed class. His defensive nous has so improved in twelve months and his ability with ball in hand setting up opportunities for colleagues in the back line unit. Henshaw after a rusty opening test match came to the party last weekend. His defensive duties perhaps outweigh his attacking threat but an incredible option to have; his versatility to fill both positions in the three quarters key.

The squad depth then looks at the likes of Chris Farrell who Joe Schmidt admires. His 6 Nations cameo was massively exciting with his physicality on both sides of the ball. The likes of Arnold, Rory Scannell, Tom Farrell, Stuart McCloskey will be looking to impress early doors this season to get a foot into the camp for the November series. Interesting squad depth battle for the final three quarters berth beckons!

A Leader is born 

James Ryan was incredible in this summer tour. He is now the automatic second row option for Ireland and the question now for Ireland management to see how complements the Leinster Rugby lock best. Options aplenty here with Toner emerging with massive kudos in this summer series. Henderson had keynote moments in the tour as well. Beirne comes into the equation in this second row unit as well but does Schmidt see Beirne as the utility back? James Ryan, the question is when he gets the captaincy.

Front Row Conundrum

This is a summer tour where Ireland’s front row impressed massively in the last two tests. After a subdued opening test match (yes, there were good moments), the unit came to the fore in the last two tests where the line out, maul and scrum set piece were incredibly on point. The emergence of Porter and Ryan to the squad depth which provides front row versatility is a big plus. Jack McGrath needs to improve his discipline next season, otherwise Porter or Ryan could be ahead of the Lions player in the squad depth chart.

Adapting to officiating inconsistency 

Most pleasing aspect to this tour is how Ireland responded to adversity. Two yellow cards in the second test. Stockdale pinged in the final test match. The team were well organized defensively against a dangerous Australian outfit. The officiating over the test series are wholly inconsistent and Ireland could have lost composure with some rulings against them.

Ireland Rugby are a different proposition to the previous teams; their ability to stay composed, executing the game plan despite adversity is the hallmarks of this side. As long as the squad stay hungry for further success and continue to improve as individuals and from an unit perspective, it all leads to exciting times for RWC 2019.

Australia vs. Ireland: Series Decider Pregame Notes

After an excellent 26-21 win victory in Melbourne last weekend, Ireland have forced the series decider against an Australian side who failed to reach the heights of their Brisbane test match success. Hawkeye Sidekick highlights the key pregame notes from this Sydney test match decider.

Back Row Battle

I am like a broken record at this stage but the back row battle will ultimately decide who wins this test match series. Both sides have enjoyed dominance in this facet of play during the test match series. Pocock was sublime in the opening test only for Peter O’Mahony to dominate the breakdown proceedings last weekend.

Both units have made personnel changes for this fixture. Jack Conan comes in at eight meaning Stander moves to six and O’Mahony continues to operate at seven for Ireland. Leavy misses out due to injury. Australia have responded to last weekend by drafting Tui into the six jersey (a player who plays in the second row for Queensland Reds) to add physicality to the unit.

Hooper continues at seven while Pocock will operate at eight but will continue to be marquee player for Australia at the breakdown battle. Back row balance issues potentially on both sides, it makes for an intriguing final test series battle. The bench options may play a significant factor in the final quarter to win this finale.

Ireland Depth Chart Selections

Joe Schmidt has recalled Sean Cronin for this test match finale. The Leinster hooker gets the nod after no action in the previous two test matches and there were doubts that Cronin would feature on this tour. Scannell deputizes on the bench after an excellent cameo last weekend. Herring was good in the opening test match. Depth chart at hooker has being identified in the hooker position in the absence of Rory Best.

The half back positions still have a question mark on the depth charts. The nine position has being filled by Conor Murray meaning Cooney and Marmion have received precious little game minutes. The question on who deputizes for Murray remains a wide open question. Luke McGrath back in Ireland must be back in the running for the nine jersey given how this summer tour has unfolded. November test series has to identify the understudies for Murray ahead of RWC 2019.

The fly-half position will see Sexton start. Sexton was on point last weekend but hopefully Ross Byrne will get a cameo in the second half of this test match. Carbery got valuable minutes in the opening test against a pumped up Australian outfit. Byrne needs to experience the intensity of test match rugby as well.

Genia Absence

Big opportunity for Nick Phipps at the weekend. Phipps starting due to the injury to Will Genia last weekend, provides experience and solid game management. It will be interesting to see if Phipps can establish quick ball for Foley to unleash the Australian back line loaded with pace and talent. The kicking game between Murray and Phipps will be a key battle to see which side gains early territorial dominance. Yet another exciting battle beckons.

Forward Battle 

Australia’s front five will look to respond after last weekend’s loss to Ireland. James Ryan, Tadhg Furlong, Niall Scannell were particularly prominent in set piece and open play. The fact that Australia have gone for a 6:2 split in favor of the forwards for this test match indicates that Australian management will clear the bench to maintain tempo and work rate in the pack. Samu’s cameo cannot be understated as Tui will probably last for around fifty minutes. Samu’s physicality will be required to provide the cohesion and platform for Hooper and Pocock to control the breakdown exchanges.

Can Ireland’s back line fire? 

Stockdale makes a return to the starting lineup, the back line unit is the same that played in Brisbane. The back line struggled for cohesion despite some good moments. Sexton at the helm will look to unleash Aki and Henshaw quickly in this test match fixture. Earls, Kearney and Stockdale will look to dominate the aerial exchanges and hope that the half back options can identify mismatches in behind the Australian defensive line. The aerial battle will be intriguing. Folau was stifled last weekend and it will be interesting to see how the Australians address this facet of play.

Officiating Consistency

Hoping for some consistency officiating this weekend. The officiating last weekend at times left plenty to be desired for both sides. Offside, deliberate knock-on indiscretions were inconsistently pinged. A summer international series where officiating has had some negative commentary, hoping that the officiating this weekend is consistent from minute one to the end of the contest. No pressure on Gauzere then who will let the breakdown alone but ping on set piece and offside.

Rugby Union: Australia vs. Ireland – June 16th Preview

After a 18-9 reversal to Australia in the first June test series international, Ireland have it all to do to level the series in Melbourne this Saturday morning. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the key pregame talking points.

Australia: Steady as she goes

Given the performance of the side last weekend where the team impressed in all facets of play, it was hardly a surprise that Michael Cheika and management did not wield any changes for this second test match.

Australia impressed me with their work rate, physicality and aerial prowess where Folau was a constant menace for Ireland in the aerial exchanges.

The breakdown performance of Hooper and Pocock was sensational at times and more of the same will be the message from Australian Rugby management.

A week further to improve cohesion in the various pack and back units, expecting more fluency from the Australian half backs to unleash their three quarters faster, a dream scenario for Kerevi and Beale. The line out battle will be keenly watched, will their be an improvement in the set piece this weekend?

Ireland Hooker Selection

Joe Schmidt has named some expected personnel changes but the hooker position team news was a surprise to me personally. The absence of Sean Cronin from the twenty-three man squad is a key talking point.

Rob Herring got valuable game minutes last weekend; did fine in a pressurized environment. Niall Scannell gets his opportunity to prove his worth in this second test match. Herring goes to the bench and Cronin has a free weekend.

Sean Cronin is an outstanding mobile hooker, his line out execution has improved this season. There are rumors that his scrummaging last weekend was pinpointed in video analysis but I find that harsh.

Is Cronin part of Joe Schmidt’s plans? Unless Cronin can stake a claim for game minutes next weekend, it looks like Cronin’s ambitions to feature in an Ireland RWC 2019 squad could be in serious jeopardy, think there is more to this than just alleged form last weekend.

Ireland Breakdown SOS

The breakdown battle for Ireland was a constant struggle last weekend. When Hooper and Pocock are in full flow like they were last weekend, they make world class back rowers look stupid and at times, it was like that unfortunately.

Jordi Murphy, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander all struggled to create a platform for Ireland in this area and the selection of Dan Leavy to this test match is no surprise. Leavy has being outstanding in this facet of play this season for club and country.

I would expect Ireland management to monitor Hooper and Pocock particularly; look to negate their effect on the breakdown with comprehensive clear outs early doors, expect James Ryan to play a huge part in this game plan.

Ireland need solid, quick ruck ball and this is the ask of the back row unit this weekend. With Sexton chomping at the bit to unleash Ringrose and Henshaw on the outside, this test match series for Ireland rests on the back row unit.

End of Season Fatigue

Ireland’s impact off the bench last weekend was incredibly flat. There was no injection of work rate and energy to proceedings. Is this due to the end of the season and fatigue of a long hard season?

The bench this weekend for Ireland looks genuinely exciting. The prospect of Tadhg Beirne with ball in hand and breakdown work is a sight that I am looking forward to see. Porter, Larmour, Carbery will look to provide something different in the third quarter on their introductions.

This weekend will require the full twenty-three man squad to deliver for Ireland. Australia will have improved from last week, hopefully Ireland have not missed the boat in terms of last weekend but with Sexton at ten, Ireland have a chance.

Ireland Half-Back Conundrum

Just for arguments sake and Ireland do win in Melbourne, what does Joe Schmidt and Ireland management do in terms of the nine position? Conor Murray again starts with John Cooney primed to make an impact in the final quarter (or sooner).

This tour was a perfect opportunity to evaluate the depth chart at nine. Marmion needs game time as well to impress; the same could be said for the likes of Ross Byrne at ten but with no midweek games for the squad, it raises questions on the depth chart.

Regardless of the result this weekend, Schmidt and Ireland management need to give sufficient game time for nine and ten personnel. The question is less of a poser if Australia win this weekend but there is no form guide on depth chart for nine / ten at this time which with more than twelve months to go before the RWC, it is a concern.

Podcast Central: Ireland Grand Slam Special (Part 1 and Part 2)

The euphoria of Ireland’s Grand Slam win is captured in these podcasts recorded early this week. Hawkeye Sidekick and Philip Smith reflect on a superb day for Irish rugby!

Review of the England game. Ireland delivered to a man. England floundered with ball in hand. 

Reflections on Ireland and where Joe Schmidt’s side needs to improve upon before embarking on their trip to Australia this summer as well as the November visit of New Zealand to the Aviva Stadium.

Ireland Grand Slam Champions: Reflections

The Natwest 6 Nations tournament is in the books. A highly impressive Ireland performance securing a 24-15 victory over an English side who were kept at arms length throughout. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the success for the new Natwest 6 Nations champions.

Defining Ireland Performance?

Ireland’s performance at Twickenham personally was a defining moment for the national side. This was a controlled, clinical performance where the players executed the coaching game plan to the letter of the law.

The coaching mismatches were evident as early as six minutes into this contest. Ireland identifying Watson’s vulnerabilities under the high ball with Sexton executing the aerial bomb on point. The chase from Rob Kearney to disrupt in that aerial challenge, coupled with Ringrose’s support running to Kearney if the ball went loose was sublime.

The clinical nature in which Ireland set out about exposing England’s defensive gaps was astounding. The move to open up England for the second try was sensational. The roles of Sexton, Furlong, Aki to Stander who crashed over. Simmonds exposed badly in the England defensive line as Bundee Aki carved out a massive hole in the England defense.

England may have thought that the Ireland attacking threat was done for the opening period when the impressive Sexton went off for a blood substitution. Think again. Murray identifying slack defense in the England ranks allowing the try scoring machine Jacob Stockdale to create; nice kick over the top exposing Brown and May defensively to score the decisive third try before the interval.

The second half may have seen a reduced possession count for Ireland but the visitors were still dangerous with ball in hand. The fact that Ireland consolidated rather than hit the line for attacking line outs spoke volumes. Murray kicking on point as Ireland hit 24 points; now was time to soak up England pressure and close out the contest. Mission accomplished.

Ireland performances in the past would have being error strewn, nervy at times, winning a cliffhanger to secure the win but this was a calm, collected performance from Ireland. The performance level at Twickenham from Ireland is the blueprint going forward. All players were on point. Kudos to the back row, they dominated the open and breakdown exchanges which then saw England lose discipline thereafter.

Leavy, O’Mahony and Stander deserve huge credit for the work rate, ball carries and defensive work against England. The front five fronted up superbly as well against a lively opposition pack. Henderson’s selection was truly merited with a performance full of work rate, ball carrying and game management of the line out. James Ryan was outstanding; ball carrying and set piece execution on point. The front row continued to probe England in the scrum and work rate around the fringes was on point. Best in clear out work exceptional.

Ireland Squad Depth Identified

This was a challenging Natwest 6 Nations tournament for many teams due to injuries to several standout players. Ireland were no exception. When you consider the opening round of the tournament, Ireland were on the brink.

Teddy Thomas’ try had given the edge to France; more late heartbreak for Ireland to contend with but the team have shown incredible resiliency. 41 phases! 41 phases of hard work, fronting up, looking to break a resolute French gain line. The Sexton diagonal kick to Earls. Henderson’s ball carry making a couple more precious meters. Sexton drop goal. We know the rest! The momentum machine was now on overdrive.

Ireland squad injuries has created interesting test match selections and also provided key indications to the neutral whether Ireland have the squad depth. The answer with respect to the personnel drafted to the front row, second row, three quarters is an emphatic yes.

Andrew Porter’s cameo against Italy and Wales. James Ryan coming into the side to replace Donnacha Ryan. Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier provided quality support in the seven position along with Jack Conan at the eight channel. Sean O’Brien’s absence, a worry coming into this tournament negated well.

The thirteen channel was a source of injury woe throughout the tournament. Robbie Henshaw, Chris Farrell and Gary Ringrose all played massive parts to this side. Henshaw had an encouraging start to the tournament; his try showed his potential with ball in hand but then injury struck. Farrell then was summoned to fill the breach and what a contribution against Wales. Man of the match. Physically imposing, prominent in ball carries and game management but then injury struck again. Enter Ringrose who gave Huw Jones the run around in round four and then provided assured gain line breaks and the pivotal opening try against England.

Ireland Squad Depth Concerns?

At the start of the tournament, I questioned the squad depth of this side. Suffice to say that the injuries have helped answer this question in certain units. The nine and ten jersey are areas where squad depth is not yet fully determined.

Marmion played his part as the backup to the imperious Conor Murray; it was a shame that Luke McGrath was not able to play more game minutes as well.  Will John Cooney get an opportunity to impress after a promising Ulster debut season?

The ten jersey belongs to Sexton but we need to see the backup in this position during the Australian tour. Joey Carbery is the designate backup and should feature against Australia.

Can we determine a third option at the fly-half position? With Paddy Jackson currently in legal proceedings, other options need to be explored and assessed. Carty, Hanrahan, Keatley come into the mix. Tyler Bleyendaal’s injury woes continue. Does Rory Scannell come into the mix as an utility ten?

Key positions for Ireland ahead of the RWC 2019 to determine squad depth. Ireland’s fulcrum is Murray and Sexton and contingency is required in these positions if 2015 RWC injury crisis hits in the half-backs.

Natwest 6 Nations: Round Five Preview

The Natwest 6 Nations tournament concludes tomorrow with all eyes on Twickenham where England will look to do what Ireland did to them last year and deny Joe Schmidt’s men of the Grand Slam and Triple Crowns titles to complement the championship accolade already won last weekend. Scotland and Wales will look to end their campaigns with victories over a hapless Italy and progressively improving France respectively.

Solid England Selection

Eddie Jones has wielded the axe for the last game of the tournament. A huge compliment to the Ireland half back pairing is the decision of Jones to pair Saracens team colleagues Wigglesworth and Farrell together in opposition. Wigglesworth is a solid operator at nine; game management, good kicking game and will look to release quick ruck ball for Owen Farrell who is now playing in his prime test match position. Jones is frightened of the threat posed by Murray and Sexton; this half back selection speaks volumes.

Owen Farrell now from the ten channel can dictate play on his terms. His kicking game is on point and his decision making to pass the ball so close to the gain line allows his colleagues a perfect platform to create line breaks. Joseph’s inclusion at thirteen a direct result of Farrell moving to ten. Joseph’s power and pace with ball in hand could seriously test Ireland defensively.

Ben Te’o retains his place at twelve and will provide the abrasive ball carrying aspect to this England three quarters partnership. It will be interesting to see if England’s support running is improved from last weekend; only five offloads last weekend and for England to seriously rumble Ireland, they will need to create tempo in their running play with good support line running throughout.

The pack was always going to have personnel changes given the injuries to Hughes and Lawes. The back row will have a wealth of experience as Haskell and Robshaw will look to create breakdown dominance. Simmonds come into the pack at eight; will be interesting to see if Simmonds can produce quick go forward ball at the back of the scrum. Questions on back row balance here? Time will tell.

Eddie Jones has recalled Dylan Hartley and Kyle Sinckler to the front row. Dan Coles and Jamie George are omitted. The two starting players have massive potential and skill set but question marks on their discipline at times will be tested tomorrow. Ireland may look to target both in the pack exchanges.

On paper, England have named a side which looks to be their best of the tournament. With an explosive back three as well as Daly for long range penalty kicks, England will look to establish supremacy early and force Ireland chase the game resulting in more opportunities for England to exploit down the stretch.

Ireland’s team selection went along familiar lines. Devin Toner for Iain Henderson is a coaching selection call. Toner has not put a foot wrong in this tournament since coming in against Wales in round three. Henderson provides incredible work rate and energy which will be required to stifle the influence of Itoje and Kruis in the England second row. Toner coming off the bench to call the set piece in the second half could be huge.

The structured game plan that Ireland have employed in this tournament has reaped the benefits; four wins, three of which securing the try bonus point which has allowed Ireland to claim the championship with a game to spare. Ireland’s pack will face their stiffest examination so far in this tournament; imperative a solid platform is created in the opening quarter.

The set piece will be tested by England who despite their struggles on the road have produced good front five performances particularly in the set piece. France struggled at times last weekend in the scrum and line out so Rory Best and his pack will need to play the percentages in the opening exchanges, not to let the home crowd get too involved early doors.

Garner’s officiating at the breakdown will be intriguing to watch in the early exchanges. How do Ireland and England adjust to his officiating style? Garner attempts to provide teams the opportunity to become expansive. Garner is at times resolute in penalizing teams attempting to kill the ball so both teams will need to adapt this facet of play.

I expect a strong England challenge tomorrow. There will be a backlash. Several England players looking to impress Jones and management; stake a claim for summer tour starting berths. 50/50 call. Ireland will need to cope with adversity at different points of this test match. The defensive structure will need to improve further in comparison to last week’s performance.

Hoping for an Ireland win but given the superiority and dominance that England enjoy in Twickenham and the fact that Ireland have not won at the venue for eight years, I am slightly leaning towards an England win. The losses to Scotland and France have awoken England and tomorrow, we will see the response.

Scotland stroll in Rome

I will not dwell too much on this test match. Italy’s work rate cannot be faulted but there are fundamental flaws in their game plan. A half back pairing whose game management is a mixed bag. No distinct kicking game from nine allowing opposition to gobble up Italian attacking threats with ease. The back line defensive shape at times has being very poor; soft tries conceded at a rate of knots and worryingly the pack has being second best in recent games.

If the weather allows, Scotland could put a big score up with their expansive play. Scotland will be keen to bounce back from the loss to Ireland last week. A twenty point loss was harsh considering the opportunities that Scotland created in that test match. Huw Jones’ pass to Stuart Hogg if it had gone to hand was a try. Peter Horne’s intercept try. A couple of second half breaks resulting in poor passing at the critical time.

Scotland’s pack will look to impose their authority on proceedings. Nel returns to the front row and will provide set piece stability. The Scotland back row will look to stifle Sergio Parisse and allow quick ruck ball to be presented to Laidlaw and Russell to cause damage in the back line featuring Seymour and Grigg; two superb ball carriers and with the ability to create line breaks at will here.

With Richie Gray back in the test match starting lineup, this has all the hallmarks of being an arduous afternoon for the Azzuri in front of their home crowd. Italy have not progressed in this tournament, the elusive tournament win seems as remote as ever (now entering into a full third season). The hope is that the U20 players and improving Pro 14 club success can be the springboard for future national team success.

Scotland to win at a canter,expect plenty of tries and phases of sheer brilliance from Scotland who will relish the track conditions on offer. Scotland to win by twenty points, bonus point try secured well before the final quarter. For Italy and Conor O’Shea, time to reflect and see where improvements in player recruitment can be made.

Wales and France conclude the tourney

Warren Gatland has recalled the big guns to face a French side who after two consecutive wins in this tournament must travel to Cardiff in relatively high spirits. Captain Alun Wyn Jones returns to the pack along with flanker Josh Navidi, prop Rob Evans and hooker Ken Owens, while Aaron Shingler is on the bench. Dan Biggar is back at fly-half, and full-back Leigh Halfpenny and centre Scott Williams are also included.

France have being forced to make a couple of personnel changes. Guilhem Guirado is injured so his place at hooker is taken by Adrien Pelissie. Cedate Gomes Sa starts at tight-head prop in place of Rabah Slimani. Gael Fickou comes in on the wing with Benjamin Fall moving to full-back in place of Hugo Bonneval. Bastareaud captains the side.

Guirado for me is a big loss to this French side, his skill set and work rate set the tone for others to follow. Fickou is a thirteen playing on the wing, interesting to see how North and Liam Williams look to expose Fickou in the wide exchanges.

Wales are aiming to finish second in the tournament; considering the injuries that they have being dealt during this tourney, it is a good outcome. Squad depth is definitely improved in the Welsh setup with plenty of fringe players before this tournament now firmly in Gatland’s plans going forward.

The Welsh back line is exciting and I think given the personnel changes for France in this area, edge goes with the hosts. Parkes will look to negate Basteraud’s influence while Scott Williams potentially could produce a man of the match performance with his dynamic ball carrying and line breaks.

Wales to edge this one by seven points. France to show additional positives in this showing but the changes to the side ultimately could expose their squad depth down the stretch. Camara aside, question marks on the breakdown battle for France where Navidi’s breakdown work could be decisive.

England Team Profile

What a difference two games can make? Prior to travelling to Murrayfield, England were most neutrals tip to win this tournament. After a humbling loss to Scotland and a narrow defeat to France on the road, pressure is building on this England team and on head coach Eddie Jones. Can England scupper Ireland’s Grand Slam, Triple Crown ambitions? Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule on this current England side.

Fortress Twickenham

Ireland enter this fixture with confidence aplenty. Four wins from four in the tournament so far but the toughest road trip fixture looms large. Since the RWC 2015 debacle, England have made Twickenham once more a fortress, formidable venue for all foes and one that Ireland have not had the best of memories in recent visits.

Ireland’s last win at Twickenham came in 2010 with a 18-10 win. It is a poor record for Ireland to arrest even against a England side who are struggling for form and cohesion.

England Front Five Pack Platform

England’s recent losses in this tournament have being surprising but the front five have played to a high level. England pride themselves on the set piece and the statistics from last weekend’s loss to France saw excellent numbers.

England won both their scrums and disrupted France’s scrum (4/6). The line out functioned well with a 92% success and disrupted the French line out (54% success). The front five played well as an unit. George had an excellent contest and it will be interesting to see if the Saracens hooker retains his starting berth. Jones may be keen to bring Hartley back into the fold (why?).

Maro Itoje is a phenom; set piece execution coupled with his mobility, pace and work rate means that the Saracens second row will pose the single biggest threat to Ireland in this tournament. A front five unit who will test Ireland in all facets of play.

Back Row Woes

There is a question mark on the England back row selection for the Ireland test match. Nathan Hughes and Courtney Lawes will not feature due to injuries sustained against France.

No Billy Vunipola has being a massive loss to England in this tournament. The Saracens number eight provides the platform for the side to flourish. His ball carrying is incredible.

Given the injuries sustained by England in this unit, Chris Robshaw looks set to feature. An indifferent tournament so far, Robshaw provides experience but has being isolated in breakdown work as well as being penalized for offside infringements.

Simmonds and Haskell look set to feature for England; both will look to improve the breakdown facet of play. Simmonds’ mobility with ball in hand was seen to good effect against Italy with a brace of tries. The issue is whether the new back row unit has the balance required to offset at times rampant Ireland back row unit; question marks exist in the breakdown work.

England Game Plan?

After four rounds of the Natwest 6 Nations tournament, the England game plan has yet to take shape. The expansive side of play was seen against Italy and there were flashes against Wales. Progression so it seemed.

However, the last couple of test matches have seen England look quite one dimensional in their ball carrying with minimal offloading. Only five offloads from England against France last weekend; raising questions about ball carrying player offload options or is it a confidence issue within the ranks?

The Ben Te’o selection pointed to an abrasive ball carrying game plan and so it proved against France. I thought England would look to change things up and offload in the tackle more last weekend but it never materialized.

May and Watson received precious little quality ball to impress along with Daly. The game plan was conservative in nature. Penalties were slotted over from long range; no ambition to hit the touchline deep into France territory and test the hosts defensively on their own line until the death.

England right now have no game plan identity. The entertainment factor is in short supply. Will they unveil a more creative, expansive game plan against Ireland? Time will tell.

 

Penalty Count

The penalty count has being an issue in this tournament for England. Offside infringements the order of day against France particularly in the opening period when France were struggling to create a platform.

Fifteen penalties conceded by England. A yellow card issued to Anthony Watson whose high tackle prevented a near certain try. The penalty count is something that Ireland will look to expose; execute multiple phases of play and see if England come out of their defensive line too quickly.

Full Back Issue?

Mike Brown was the defacto England full back up until the Scotland test match in round three. Brown is an excellent test match full back. Defensively solid, good organizer and pace hitting the line.

It was a difficult game for Brown as England were defensively opened up against Scotland. Brown was the fall guy for the system failures.Anthony Watson was summoned to fill the role against France but it was an indifferent performance. Watson’s desperate high tackle on Fall saw a yellow card and a penalty try. It summed up his performance perfectly. Inaccurate.

England surely need to revisit the full back slot again. Will they decide to recall Brown or will they move Daly to the position? Intriguing management decision on a key position for England. Watson is a serious threat on the wing but the full back experiment failed in Paris.

Conclusion

In recent weeks, I have mentioned that this crisis for England is a blessing in-disguise ahead of 2019 RWC. Team issues have surfaced and England management have an opportunity to analyze and address these issues, improve and progress ahead of the tournament.

England is stacked with serious talent. Farrell, Ford and Care have the potential to create excellent line breaks if given the opportunity. Excellent kicking game when you add Daly’s big boot on long range penalties. All to play for. Ireland face their Mount Everest in the tournament this weekend, only a perfect performance from Joe Schmidt’s men will suffice to get over the line on Saturday given the expected England response!

Natwest 6 Nations: Round Four Preview

A weekend with the potential to produce massive excitement and talking points. A confident Scottish side travel to Dublin to face an Ireland side who will look to retain their unbeaten run in the competition.

England lock horns against arch rival France, an opportunity to bounce back from their loss at Murrayfield in round three. Wales with a much changed lineup face an Italian side looking for momentum and confidence.

Aviva Showdown

The weather forecast looks bleak in Dublin tomorrow; periods of rain with a significant breeze could reduce the expansive nature of this contest. Ireland’s team selection sees two starting lineup personnel changes from the side which defeated Wales in round three.

Tadhg Furlong returns to the front row in place of Andrew Porter who did not put a foot wrong against Wales. Devin Toner retains his second row berth as Iain Henderson must be contend with a place on the bench. Gary Ringrose as expected slots into the thirteen channel for the injured Chris Farrell.

Scotland have kept faith by and large with the squad which produced an excellent win against England in the previous round. Blair Kinghorn comes in on the wing to replace Tommy Seymour. Gregor Townsend has resisted the urge to recall Richie Gray and John Hardie to the match day squad.

For Ireland to win this test match, the front five must provide the platform early in the contest. Expect Ireland’s front five to test their Scottish counterparts in the set piece, look to create maul situations. Conor Murray’s kicking game will be keenly noted. Scotland will look to give Murray no time to setup his box kicks but Murray should get the pack coverage to execute this facet of play to test Kinghorn aerially.

In stark contrast, Scotland will look to play a less structured game. They will look to create quick ruck ball and John Barclay will play a pivotal role in this aspect of play. Laidlaw and Russell if provided with quick ball will fancy their chances of creating game winning line breaks considering the form of Jones, Horne, Hogg and Maitland out wide

This contest given the forecast may see the officiating play a significant part in the outcome. Waynes Barnes and Ireland have in recent times not being on the same page. Ireland will need to adapt early to  Barnes’ officiating of the breakdown as well as scrum time.

50/50 contest. Slight edge to Ireland given the weather promised; feel the side with a more structured game plan could triumph. Scotland will look at the Italian and Welsh second half performances against Ireland for hope and optimism. Ireland have not produced an all round defensive performance for eighty minutes so far in this tourney. Expect an exciting contest despite the weather!

France lock horns with England

The loss to Scotland could be a blessing in-disguise for this England outfit. All facets of play were not at the level required to win at Murrayfield. Eddie Jones has responded by making a couple of personnel changes. Hartley (injured) is replaced by George. Brown is dropped which means a full back role assignment for Watson. Ben Te’o takes Jonathan Joseph’s place at outside centre. Eliott Daly comes in on the wing to provide attacking threat and balance to the unit.

France come into this contest with a much required test match in round three under their belt. Even though the opposition was Italy, France needed a win to come from somewhere to build squad morale and team momentum. Brunel has not tweaked his starting lineup significantly for this encounter. The only change sees Trinh-Duc come in for enigmatic Beauxis at fly-half.

What should we expect from this fixture? England surely will start this contest with gusto and tempo. The inclusion of George provides excellent upside to Hartley who has struggled at times in this tournament. England’s scrum performance will be duly noted; a set piece which England prides themselves on was put under pressure by both Wales and Scotland. Improvement is required.

Can England’s back row clear out work at ruck time allow Care, Ford and Farrell to launch their runners? Te’o will relish any quick ruck ball down the thirteen channel. His duel with Bastareaud will be keenly watched; utter physicality on show.

Can England’s rejigged back line unit provide defensive stability whilst presenting France with a menacing attacking threat. Daly on the wing is a key component to this test match. His kicking game, coupled with his ability to create gain line breaks will be fascinating to watch.

France have competed well for long periods in this tournament. The pack personally has their standout unit so far. Their conditioning on point and have provided opposition so far with plenty of questions to answer. The set piece has being good, back row abrasive in breakdown and ball carrying.

However, the rest of the units within the side have a question mark over it. The half-back partnership has fluctuated from week to week. Trinh-Duc gets the nod at ten to partner Machenaud.

Can Trinh-Duc keep England off balance with a varied game plan? Can the Toulon fly-half produce a flawless kicking game to establish territorial gains and also improvise with drubber kicks if England’s defensive line positioning is off. I have my doubts.

The threats out wide have diminished with the omission of Teddy Thomas. He was France’s go to attacking threat in the first two rounds of this tournament.

I am not sure France have enough in the back line selection to seriously threaten apart from Bastareaud who will look to use his physicality to create line breaks. Will his colleagues be alert to provide sharp, incisive supporting running lines for the thirteen? I have my doubts again.

England for me are poised to produce a performance which will nullify France’s pack after fifty minutes and expose France defensively out wide late on. I would not be surprised if England secured a bonus point try win here given the concerns in the French back line unit.

Wales change their lineup up

Ten changes from Warren Gatland for the visit of Italy to the Principality Stadium. The side is not diminished much as Faletau and North are included to the starting lineup along with Bradley Davies and Justin Tipuric. The squad depth for Wales still looks strong when you see the subs bench. Eliot Dee gets the nod at hooker; a player with massive international test match potential.

Centre Giulio Bisegni replaces Tommaso Boni in Italy’s only change from their 34-17 defeat in France. The continuity in team selection is to be applauded by Conor O’Shea but the half-back performance against France was bereft of quality. No kicking game from nine exposed Italy, their play was incredibly one dimensional, living off scraps throughout.

What to expect from Wales? Given the experience coming into the side, Wales will look to create quick tempo from the first minute. Liam Williams assumes his best position at full back and his line breaks could devastate Italy defensively whose back line defensive work has at times left plenty to be desired.

Italy will work hard but the onus is back on the front eight to establish a platform, try to win the breakdown battle which will be no easy task. I am looking for points to be optimistic for Italy but having very little given their first three tournament outings. Not enough creatively out wide. Not enough game management and leadership in the half backs. A long day afternoon beckons for Conor O’Shea’s charges.

Wales to win with plenty to spare; would be disappointed for Wales if they do not secure a bonus point try win from this test match. Italy will look to upset the odds but George North potentially could have the proverbial field day if given adequate ball which looks a dead cert consider Faletau and Tipuric in the back row.

Scotland Rising

Scotland have announced their starting lineup who will face Ireland in a mouth watering Natwest 6 Nations fixture at the Aviva Stadium this weekend. A fixture which promises plenty of fireworks. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the Scottish challenge and Ireland will need to be at their very best to come out with a test match victory.

Team News

Speculation on the possible inclusion of Richie Gray and John Hardie were wide off the mark. You have to give props to Gregor Townsend for resisting the urge to recall these two standout performers and reward the players who produced back to back victories over France and England in this tournament.

The only change to the starting lineup is the inclusion of Blair Kinghorn to the wing who replaces the injured Tommy Seymour. Kinghorn has an excellent season with Edinburgh, his pace and line breaking ability to the fore. Lee Jones and Fraser Brown come into the replacements.

Pack Selection

The continuity in the front five is key here for Scotland who have impressed in the set piece in their recent tournament victories. A solid front row with McInally an absolute standout for Scotland. His performance against England was superb; his open play contribution and work around the breakdown was duly noted against England. The line out was on point too.

The scrum will be a fascinating battle at the weekend. With the expected return of Tadhg Furlong to the starting Ireland lineup, pressure will be applied by the hosts at scrum time. Berghan and Reid will need to quell the opening exchanges. Wayne Barnes initial impressions will be critical. The front row squad depth is excellent with the likes of Nel, Brown and Bhatti to come on in the third quarter, Experience and mobility in abundance.

The second row partnership of Grant Gilchrist and Johnny Gray provide physicality and set piece control in the line-out. A great compliment for the unit is that Richie Gray who has recovered from injury does not feature in the match day squad. Management are happy with their current second row partnership. Gilchrist’s work rate coupled with Gray’s leadership and organization has being a superb mix.

The back row performance against England deservedly won plenty of plaudits. John Barclay’s cameo was outstanding. His influence on proceedings this weekend will play a huge factor on who emerges victorious. England were quite frankly unable to quell Barclay’s influence. His work at the breakdown was superb, slowing down opposition ball and sharp to identify opportunities to steal ball as well.

Barclay was ably assisted by Ryan Wilson whose ball carries were abrasive and set excellent platform for Scotland to execute an effective exit strategy. Hamish Watson has being another standout in this Scottish side. His tackle count, work rate is immense and provides the perfect foil for Barclay to do what he does best and cause havoc for opposition.

The pack depth is stacked with experience. A big fan of David Denton who will lead by example with his lung bursting ball carries and high octane work rate around the fringes. Tim Swinson will continue to provide work rate in the engine room of the pack. No weak link in this pack selection despite the omission of Richie Gray and John Hardie from the test match squad.

Half Back Game Changers

A predictable pairing from Scotland for this test match. Massive test match experience in the nine and ten jerseys. Laidlaw provides leadership, unerring kicking off the tee and out of hand. The Clermont Auvergne scrum-half will look to get his half-back partner Finn Russell early possession to settle into the contest.

Russell was outstanding against England. His vast skill set was highlighted to the fore; clinical game management and passing to open England apart during the contest. His drubber kick for the opening try was inventive. His superb passing range seen for the Scottish third try. England were unable to stifle Russell which was due in part to Laidlaw varying the game plan and the Scottish pack provided quick ruck ball.

The half-back pairing on Saturday is going to be fascinating. Which partnership gets the platform from their respective pack to control proceedings? Murray’s kicking game is paramount to Ireland creating territorial platform. Scotland have in the past negated this with their ability to put pressure on the scrum half around the fringes. Fascinating tactical battle ensues.

Explosive Three Quarters

A nice contrast of styles in the three quarters unit. Huw Jones provides explosive line speed and line break potential. His ability to create seen to good effect against England when both Anthony Watson and Mike Brown were unable to laid a finger on the center crashing over in round three of this competition. His ability to collect the drubber kick for the opening try was excellent. A clinical try scoring thirteen.

Peter Horne is such an underrated player and his deft variation in attack with astute passing and an excellent kicking game keeps opposition three quarters off balance. The balance in this unit will pose issues for another new three quarter Ireland pairing. Aki and Ringrose most possibly will need to accurate on both sides of the ball. This Scottish three quarters have the ability to create game winning line breaks if given the chance.

Wingers

Blair Kinghorn for some may be a surprise inclusion but the Edinburgh player has being rewarded for an excellent season so far. Gregor Townsend has rewarded the player for his excellent form and if given the opportunity will provide a threat on the wing. Ireland will look to test Kinghorn in the aerial exchanges but the youngster will look to contribute from the opening whistle. A player with great potential.

Sean Maitland in contrast is a player of vast experience and class. His ability to create gain line meters in tight confines is an outstanding trait. Defensively solid, the British & Irish Lions wing is more than capable to finish off sweeping expansive Scottish attacking moves.

Full Back Maestro

The Scottish back line maestro is Stuart Hogg. The full back with ball in hand when joining the back line is incredible. His gain line statistics are sublime and provides opportunities for his back line colleagues to shine. Ireland have to be so careful with their kicking game. Any ponderous kicking down the field will be pounced upon by the Glasgow Warriors player.

Hogg’s organizational skills defensively are on point and is solid in the aerial exchanges. Ireland will look to negate the influence of Hogg with quick defensive line speed but Hogg will have a couple of opportunities to shine with ball in hand particularly in the second half if Ireland start to get loose defensively around the fringes.

Game Plan

Tempo is a key word for Scotland at the weekend. The ability to present quick ruck ball for Laidlaw is imperative for Scotland to have a realistic chance of victory in Dublin. Tempo is required from Ali Price whose pace off the ruck will look to ask further questions of Ireland defensively.

Ireland will look to play a more structured game plan, utilizing the front five to create the platform. It will be difficult given the performance of this Scottish front five in recent rounds. Ireland will look to test the Scottish maul defense early doors but it again has improved from a Scottish perspective.

This test match for many in Ireland was a banana skin fixture. As the test match approaches, the dangers which Scotland possess and the upturn in form since the opening day disaster at Cardiff loom large on the Ireland horizon. 50/50 contest despite Ireland’s home field advantage. Ireland have to produce their best performance of the tournament. Roll on Saturday!