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!

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 3 Reflections – Ireland

A weekend which did not fail to disappoint. Ireland just about got over the line over a determined Welsh challenge in an exciting test match.  Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the Ireland performance.

Ireland win but areas to improve upon

The moment Gareth Anscombe threw that sweeping pass out to the wing, it was heart in the mouth stuff. Jacob Stockdale had committed to coming inside, he needed to intercept the ball, failure to do so and Wales potentially had a game winning try well and truly on. Stockdale has to be commended for finishing off the intercept to make the game safe but it should not have come to that for Ireland to secure this test match victory.

The possession count for Ireland in this test match was excellent (78% in the opening period). Five tries scored against a Welsh defensive who have traditionally nullified the threat from Ireland. The back row produced a stellar performance to nullify the threat of Josh Navidi and contributed with endless ball carries to setup excellent Ireland field position so how come did Wales score three tries given limited opportunities?

The defensive shape of Ireland in the second half particularly last quarter was ragged. McFadden exposed several times in that last quarter due to lack of defensive cover. The Welsh third try will be a video analysis 101 moment for Ireland. McFadden’s decision to become the second tackler was fair enough but his inability to stop the offload was poor allowing Steff Evans ample time and space to score to setup a dramatic climax.

Rob Kearney at full back was exposed on more than one occasion in the aerial battle. Wales’ aerial kick strategy was on point in the opening period of this contest as Biggar executed his kicking to a high level. Stockdale is such a threat ball in hand but his defensive skill set is a work in progress; his decision making in defensive position will need to improve but the attacking threat is sublime.

Sexton with ball in hand was excellent but his kicking off the tee was a mixed bag. 3/7 off the tee told its own story. The first two penalty kicks were unconvincing at best and that set the tone for the day on this aspect of play. His decision to take a quick tap and go deep in the second half could have had massive consequences. Three points blown and potentially an injury worry with Conor Murray leg trapped in a ruck.

The Good

What worked for Ireland? The resiliency of the side again was to the fore. After a nervy opening where Halfpenny was unerring in his opening penalty attempt. Ireland went up the other end of the pitch to score. Sexton’s superbly identifying Halfpenny out of position setting up Stockdale for an excellent score. This set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Wales scored. Ireland responded.

The newcomers to the Ireland side rose to the occasion. Andrew Porter in the front row provided solidity at set piece and was busy in open play with his tackle count. Chris Farrell was sensational in the thirteen channel. The Munster center was prominent from kickoff, rising high to win an initial aerial challenge and also was the fulcrum to create line breaks. A worthy man of the match winner.

James Ryan and Devin Toner were excellent in the Ireland second row. Line out accuracy. John Ryan’s scrummaging was superb at the death to yield a critical penalty in the last quarter. Everyone contributed to this side. Squad depth issues not seen.

The back play at times was sensational. Keith Earls complemented Jacob Stockdale with several eye-catching breaks. His pace, ability to create try scoring opportunities from nothing seen to full effect in the second half when his kick on the sideline in the second half nearly saw a try being scored.

Conor Murray provided leadership throughout and his passing was on point. His ability to slot home the vital penalty on seventy-six minutes showed massive courage and determination given his injury scare moments before. Murray did need the post to assist but the kick needed to go over and he stepped over superbly. His aerial kicks saw productive results after a shaky opening quarter.

Looking further afield

Fourteen points after three games is an excellent return from Ireland but Joe Schmidt and management will know that there is plenty of scope for improvement. However, the squad depth question prior to the Welsh contest was answered emphatically. There is squad depth to fill in several positions in the second row, front row, back row areas.

Questions do still remain with regards to the ten jersey until Carbery gets the game time to show his worth. The cameo of McFadden was a mixed bag defensively and is an area that needs to be evaluated. The full back position as well needs to be examined. Rob Kearney is solid but we need other players to stake a claim to the jersey. A summer tour to Australia hopefully will address these concerns.

However for now. this has being an excellent start to the tournament for Ireland Rugby. Three wins from three sets up the team well but with challenges against the live threat of Scotland and also the perennially strong England at Twickenham, the Championship and Grand Slam is still very much wide open.

The Welsh Challenge

Wales announced their side to face Ireland in the eagerly anticipated Natwest 6 Nations fixture at the Aviva Stadium. An early team selection which shows confidence in the squad chosen for the fixture. It remains to be seen if Ireland’s team selection will look to focus on their strengths or focus on the Welsh threat. Hawkeye Sidekick reviews the Welsh team announced.

Team News

With experienced players back for selection, it was inevitable that Wales would look to change things up against Ireland. Dan Biggar makes his tournament bow at fly-half, a move which sees Rhys Patchell who started against Wales omitted totally from the test match squad with Gareth Anscombe dropping to the replacements. Anscombe’s cameo at ten against England along with his versatility to play three quarters and full back positions were positives in the decision to retain his services this weekend. Patchell travels with the side as a reserve, a blow for the player but the Scarlets ten has shown his ability in this tournament to suggest that he will get further game time before this tournament concludes.

Worcester Warriors try scoring winger Josh Adams is also omitted from the squad. His place in the side going to fit again Liam Williams who impressed for Saracens last weekend against Sale Sharks. Williams is a sublime talent, his ability with ball in hand coupled with excellent defensive and kicking game meant that Gatland and management were going to find it extremely hard to not select the former Scarlets star for this test match. Adams is a player who is on the upward curve and similarly to Patchell, I expect the winger to gain further test match minutes before the end of the tournament. A superb find for Wales this season, one that should develop into an excellent test match winger in the seasons to come.

The other big discussion point was whether the colossal back row Toby Faletau would feature this weekend in Dublin. His knee injury problems have being addressed but lack of game time was a key issue. You have to say the decision of Welsh management to allow Faletau to play for Bath Rugby and get good quality game minutes is the smart move given the performance of Ross Moriarty in this tournament. Moriarty’s work rate has being on point in this tournament and to be honest, the Gloucester Rugby player would have being disappointed to miss on his test match starting berth.

Team Selection

The word continuity comes to mind when you see the Welsh starting lineup. The number of Scarlets players (current and former) in the team means that continuity and cohesion between the pack and forwards is incredibly high. Scarlets expansive style of game has being seen to full effect with Wales during this tournament. Their ability to create line breaks from deep was evident in their Scotland win and on another day Wales should have had two more tries on the scoreboard (TMO gaffe on Anscombe try as well as the Scott Williams effort) against England.

The back line is loaded with pace and talent. Liam Williams and Steff Evans will look to exploit any defensive gaps from Ireland who have being guilty of several lapses in their victories over France and Italy. The Teddy Thomas try stemming from a quick line out, Ireland defensively not setup and Thomas took full advantage. The Italians took advantage of some poor Ireland defensive in the second half of their contest two weeks ago. Wales will be buoyed by this and Ireland will need to be on point defensively throughout particularly with a new Ireland three quarter partnership primed for the contest.

The Welsh three quarters will look to expose any defensive frailties in this new Ireland three quarter partnership. Aki will need to pick his moments to come off the line and make decisive hits to stop Welsh attacks in their tracks. How does Farrell or Ringrose look to protect the Ireland defensive line if Aki comes off the line and misses his tackle? Is the communication and understanding in the net new three quarters in two weeks sufficient in the Ireland ranks to effectively deal with the Welsh threat? I have my doubts.

Hadleigh Parkes provides power, physicality but also a good kicking game to keep back line opponents off balance. Scott Williams ability to break the game line is a positive for Wales and he will look for his back row players to create excellent quick ruck ball.

Leigh Halfpenny resumes service at full back. A sublime player whose kicking off the tee is unerring. Halfpenny will look to dominate the aerial battle in the opening period and look to come into the line when attacking opportunities allow. This is a quality back line for Wales and if the weather is dry, the Welsh side will be confident of creating out wide at regular intervals.

The half back battle this weekend in Dublin looks fascinating. Davies and Biggar lock horns against Murray and Sexton. Davies and Murray looking to create around the fringes but will look to their back rows to set the required platform at ruck time to execute this game plan. Biggar and Sexton will look to show different looks to keep their opposition off balance. Their ability to launch excellent diagonal kicks and aerial bombs could be key in the opening exchanges to create a territorial platform. Both players will also look to run the game at the gain line. Fascinating battle beckons in this area of the pitch. 50/50 for me.

The back row contest also looks like compelling viewing. Josh Navidi at seven has had excellent moments in this tournament. His performance against Scotland was sensational; his work at the breakdown to win opposition ball was to the fore. Navidi was closely watched by England but the Cardiff Blues back rower did have his moments, his work rate and tackle count were high throughout. A player who has the potential to be the decisive factor for Wales to win this contest. Both Shingler and Moriarty supplement Navidi with physicality, high work rate and mobility. The breakdown battle will be eagerly competitive. Josh van der Flier is a loss for Ireland in this area but Dan Leavy has filled the role with distinction against Italy.

The front five looks solid. The front row impressed against England who after reviewing the video analysis summoned the Georgians for scrum reps, a massive complement for the Welsh front row who were excellent at scrum time. Evans, Owens and Lee also provide mobility and excellent skill set in open play, recall Lee’s flick pass in the England test match.

The second row combination is the colossal Alun Wyn Jones and Cory Hill. Jones’ work rate and leadership sets the tone for others to follow. Cory Hill’s work rate is ferocious. The line out was an area which at times failed to fire in opportune attacking opportunities against England, an area Ireland could look to test out early in this contest. No weak link in this test side.

The subs bench has a good blend of youth and experience with undoubted match winners to come off the bench in the last quarter. Elliot Dee, Wyn Jones, Tomas Francis, Bradley Davies, Justin Tipuric, Aled Davies, Gareth Anscombe and George North are all solid picks. All players have international game minutes under their belt in this tournament.

Dee is a player of massive potential; his throwing to the line out and open play is on point. Jones and Francis provide excellent front row cover. Francis has played well for Exeter Chiefs this season; scrum technique has improved this season. The experienced Bradley Davies will provide solid work rate and leadership in the set piece upon his introduction. Tipuric in the second half at the breakdown could be an instrumental figure. Anscombe and North provide the creativity and nous to potentially unlock the Irish defensive late on.

This is an extremely solid Welsh side and when you consider that the likes of Rhys Webb, Jonathan Davies and Toby Faletau are not in the squad, this is a formidable test team selected by Gatland. Wales will be defensively sound throughout. Their breakdown work on point if given the opportunity by Ireland. The key question is whether the layoffs for the likes of Biggar and Williams will affect their performance. They are both superbly talented players but can they hit the ground running at the weekend? Time will tell. Ireland bottom line have their work cut out to beat this side. Is Warren Gatland destined to add more woe to Ireland this weekend? Roll on Saturday to find out!

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 2 Reflections

The second round of the Natwest 6 Nations tournament saw Ireland totally outclass an Italian side whose defensive frailties were exposed at alarming intervals, England go to the trenches to beat a determined Welsh side who will rue the TMO decision not to award Gareth Anscombe an opening half try and Scotland coming late to beat an extremely ill-disciplined French outfit at Murrayfield. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

England win but TMO dominates post game discussions

The video clip above is probably the talking point of the round this weekend and whether you are in the England or Welsh camp, you will have your points on why the try was waved away or not? It was an incredibly close call for the TMO to make. Glenn Newman had several angles. Did Gareth Anscombe touch the ball down first before Anthony Watson? Did Gareth Anscombe have control over the ball?

The fact that Anthony Watson immediately touched the ball down fully after Gareth Anscombe’s initial touch made the decision more complex for the TMO. No try was the decision but you see tries given for less than Gareth Anscombe’s effort and pressure on the ball. It was an incredibly pivotal point in the contest that England won 12-6.

If the incident does anything, it raises the topic of how much downward pressure is required to award a try from a TMO perspective. You tend to see TMO’s giving the benefit of the doubt to the attacking side in cases such as this in NH rugby. It has created a massive hole in the interpretation of downward pressure when a try is scored.

Full control is now required according to Glenn Newman, the response of the tournament organizers and World Rugby will be interested (if any) in the coming days to clarify this situation. It won’t be the first time this happens on a rugby game with high stakes involved.

The test match itself was an arm wrestle. England were very impressive in the first quarter and did not give Wales a chance of impose their will on the contest. The opening try for May was sublime. Farrell spotting acres of space in the Welsh defense to set May free who finished with precision.

The second England try was all about the imposing Joe Launchsbury who had the presence of mind to offload to the supporting May soon after with two Welsh players for company. 12-0 lead for England and it looked ominous for Wales.

Credit though to Wales whose work rate was immense throughout. The work rate was on point and the pack started to create a good platform from which penalties were being conceded by the hosts. Patchell had a mixed afternoon as England squeezed up with high defensive line speed minimizing his overall impact on the contest.

The key positive from the Welsh camp were the performance of the front row who were excellent at scrum time as well as the cameo of Gareth Anscombe when switched to ten. His flair and ability to get his colleagues over the game line was to the fore in the second half. The number ten position is very much for Anscombe after this display; assured performance.

Wales will rue the TMO decision but there was also the key try saving tackle from Sam Underhill whose tackle on Scott Williams saved a certain try. The lack of ball handling and composure at times from Wales also contributed to this loss. A key turnover just before half-time after Wales had turned down the opportunity of three points was a morale sapper.

England win this hard fought encounter; their defensive work was on point throughout. The back row stifled at the breakdown as Navidi struggled to gain a foothold in these exchanges. The half back partnership were efficient if not spectacular and Mike Brown produced an excellent performance at full back. Farrell was all action and his game management for the opening try sensational. To a man, England delivered the victory.

Ireland outclass poor Italy

Let us not beat around the bush here. Italy were shambolic. Ireland beat what was in front of them to the extent that the bench was fully cleared ten minutes into the second half. It was all very routine for Ireland as they set about dismantling the wafer thin Italian defense.

Line breaks were created with huge frequency in that opening period and it was no surprise that Ireland led 28-0 at the break. Henshaw crashing over from close range after the pack had sucked in the Italian defense. Naive Italian defending on the fringes saw Murray waltz in unopposed. Aki used his strength superbly to crash over from close range and the Connacht centre was again involved as his line break and pass saw Earls score for the bonus point try.

The fixture saw a couple of negatives from an Ireland perspective. Tadhg Furlong pulling up early doors was a concern; initial team report suggests that it is not serious but I am not so sure as the manner in which the Wexford man pulled up suggested more of a hamstring pull than a precautionary withdrawal.

Even more of concern was the shoulder injury sustained by Robbie Henshaw after his second try of the contest. The try was as a result of an intercept but the shoulder injury means a long period on the sidelines beckon. Disappointing for the player who was sharp along with Aki in their attacking duties.

Italy were hopelessly out classed but did manage to create a foothold in the contest in the third quarter as Ireland’s lack of cohesion (due to clearing the bench) saw three tries conceded in a seventeen minute spell.

The Ireland fringe players got good test match minutes. Larmour gave a glimpse of his attacking skills but also a realization that his defensive work is a work in progress. Carbery at ten looked to boss the game but lack of game minutes was evident in some questionable game management calls. Porter was superb in the front row. Marmion was efficient at nine. Stander and Healy professional in their work rate.

This game showcased Ireland’s ability to cut loose but the opposition was weak. The Georgia question and this tournament was a key thought personally in the opening period of this contest given how easy Ireland were creating and scoring tries at will. Italy can argue that they scored three tries but let us be honest, the scoreline flattered the Italians as Ireland’s continuity faded after fifty minutes. Italy lacked any guile up front and for all the back line intent with ball in hand, defensively were all at sea. Hard days to come for Conor O’Shea and management this season. 2019 RWC looks daunting already.

Ireland will look for positive fitness reports on Furlong but this was mission accomplished. Wales in two weeks time looks an incredibly tough encounter. Wales will not fear Ireland and given their personnel who will offload and create from expansive play, it will be intriguing to see how Schmidt approaches the fixture.

Sexton and Murray were excellent again. Keith Earls continues to impress; his last minute try saving tackle told you everything you needed to know about the player. Selfless, hard working, team player. The effort to save a last ditch tackle could be the difference between winning this tournament or not if points differences comes into play.

Scotland keep composure to beat France

A much needed morale boosting victory for Scotland against France at Murrayfield. The opening quarter was sensational stuff. France’s player of the season Teddy Thomas scoring a superb try to open France’s account. Their expansive approach to the contest a joy to see. Scotland facing an early period of crisis fought back well and recalled Maitland scoring well.

Laidlaw’s contribution today cannot be underestimated. The scrum-half provided experience and game management throughout, something that Finn Russell struggled with today. It was an out of sorts Russell today in terms of kicking, missing touch on a couple of key stages. Townsend down the stretch made the call to win this test match. Russell hauled off. Price on and Laidlaw switched to ten.

The move worked as Scotland’s pack started to win the 50/50 exchanges and French discipline issues surfacing at a rate of knots. John Lacey consistently pinging France for various offenses from not rolling away to offside. French composure was shot in the final quarter, such a critical juncture of the contest. The composure issues then saw some questionable game management decisions as well but by this stage, France were under the cosh. The game was as good as gone.

Laidlaw’s assured kicking securing the victory. The win was huge for Scotland; a backs to the wall week of preparation, another loss and it was curtains for the championship and would have raised questions on the recent Scottish team and their form leading into this tournament.

Gregor Townsend today delivered a message to his players on the park; failure to execute and you will be benched. To bench Russell was a massive call, it worked handsomely this time as Price was swift in his distribution speeding up play. The ten position ahead of the English clash will be duly noted. Russell needs to step up his performance levels. An intriguing two weeks to the England clash await.

For France, another test match which on another day should have seen a win. Their play in these last two games have at times being good but yet again the lack of discipline seen in the Guy Noves and Philip Saint Andre eras reared its head today. For the brilliance of the tries, France surrender penalties at an alarming rate and Lacey’s penalty count on another day should have seen a French player spend time in the sin bin.

France will argue with the officiating in these past two weekends but teams need to adapt to the officiating crew and in this second half, the discipline and pen count on show could not warrant a test match win. Plenty to address as Italy arrive to Marseilles in two weeks. France and Brunel in backs against the wall prep then.

Natwest 6 Nations: Round 2 Preview

After two blow out wins for England and Wales, both sides lock horns in a highly anticipated showdown at Twickenham. Ireland fresh from their last gasp (get out of jail card) win over France in Paris play host to an Italian side who travel more in hope than expectation. Scotland and France look to gain much needed momentum at Murrayfield. Intriguing fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action.

Can expansive Wales upset England on the road?

The key question of this weekend. Wales were excellent in their defeat of Scotland last weekend but Warren Gatland and management will be first to admit that Scotland were well below their best. It is also debatable that England defensive line speed will be as ponderous as Scotland’s last weekend which saw Patchell control affairs and unleash his back line with unerring frequency.

The back row battle at Twickenham is evenly poised. With the decision to allow James Davies to return to the Scarlets for Pro 14 action, it is down to Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric coming off the bench to grapple and torment England at the breakdown. Navidi was sensational last weekend in his breakdown work, winning ball and slowing down Scotland ball to a crawl. Tipuric continued the good on his introduction and his ball carrying was on point.

England’s back row looks solid. Sam Simmonds has taken his chance superbly at eight in the absence of Billy Vunipola. His brace of tries last weekend showed the player’s mobility, strength and speed. His breakdown work was on point as well as Lawes and Robshaw.

The half-back contest will be fascinating. Care vs. Davies. Ford vs. Patchell. The scrum-halves on show will look to create at every given opportunity so do not be surprised if there are plenty of open exchanges during this contest. Joseph’s inclusion is a key inclusion, his pace and power have caused issues for Wales in the past.

This is a contest if Wales can compete well in the scrum have a realistic chance of producing a result on the road. Can Wales then get enough ball in hand to ask questions of May defensively? It is a huge ask and England do have serious threats with May and Watson playing superbly with ball in hand.

This is the standout fixture of the round. England to shade this contest but the margin of victory could be minute. Wales will come to this fixture full of confidence, nothing to lose with everything to gain. England are the team under pressure to deliver. Intriguing fixture and subplots await.

Ireland’s back line given chance to deliver or else

The Ireland team announcement was delivered with four pack changes but significantly no changes to the back line. No expected Jordan Larmour debut? Why?

Joe Schmidt wants to keep faith with the back line who faced France, an opportunity to see the back division if provided sufficient space and quick ball to showcase their talents. The three quarter partnership is retained. Aki and Henshaw were solid defensively but there were precious little moments of attacking play and platform last weekend, hope for better this weekend.

Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale both looked dangerous with ball in hand. Earls’ contribution to the game winning drop goal cannot be underestimated. A marvelous take from an inch perfect Sexton diagonal kick, meters gained and momentum built.

Jacob Stockdale’s defensive side of play has being under the microscope this week. The Teddy Thomas try was a superb effort and plenty are pointing the blame for the try at Stockdale’s door given his missed first time tackle. Stockdale is still young and learning his craft, good to see management giving the player continuity in the position. No doubt Schmidt has worked with the player to address the defensive lapse this week.

The pack changes were spun in a strange manner. I was unclear whether Jack Conan was included or  CJ Stander dropped? Conan deserves his opportunity given his form with Leinster Rugby this season. Game time for squad members is paramount this weekend.

Dan Leavy was a no brainer inclusion in the back row. Toner gets the nod, looking to impress and probably needs with Beirne primed for international duty next season and James Ryan’s emergence as an international second row last weekend.

The prop competition between Cian Healy and Jack McGrath has being intriguing this season for club and country. Both players are driving each other on, superb to see. McGrath will relish the opportunity to cause serious damage to the Italian scrum.

The bench sees Kieran Marmion given the nod ahead of Luke McGrath, perhaps a horses for courses selection or was it based on training performance this week? Larmour will get his debut at some point and it will be interesting to see the player with space to impress. Solid team selection from Ireland.

Italy make three changes to their side, two personnel changes in the front row while Steyn comes into the back row. Ghiraldini’s lineout throwing was on point last weekend. 100% lineout success so to replace the experienced hooker will prompt Ireland to put pressure on the line out with Toner, Henderson and O’Mahoney looking to unsettle the Italian set piece.

Quaglio and Bigi will need to front up at scrum time but with Furlong and McGrath looking in ominous form, Ireland have the set piece advantage here and with it the platform to create try scoring opportunities. The back row battle will be interesting for the first three quarters but Ireland will be confident to improve their clear out work to allow Murray quicker ball despite Steyn and Parisse. Mbanda’s exclusion is a baffler.

The Italian back line showed glimpses of potential. Allan was composed with his distribution, kicking on point to unleash his back three but the back three were also guilty of some naive defensive game time decisions against England. Watson had the proverbial field day against Italy. Earls and Stockdale should follow suit. Ireland bonus point try win all the way.

Townsend wields the axe

Gregor Townsend does not do sentimentality obviously. No opportunity for the likes of Harris, Price, du Preez, Toolis and Welsh to redeem themselves after wretched displays against Wales.

Suffice to say that Townsend has gone for the shock and awe team selection to stir a reaction. The passive performance from Scotland last weekend was at odds to the side who impressed during the November internationals.

All facets of play were under par. Game management was mediocre. Price pivotal in the concession of the opening Welsh tries; intercept pass and then scrum infringement. Russell with a pack retreating could not affect influence.

The pack were second best. The scrum creaked at various points and then the line out system collapsed in the second half giving Wales ample opportunity to create a platform. Maitland, Horne did provide much needed impetus but it was not little too late. Hogg’s lack of game minutes also exposed in defensive work. A week later, will the wrongs of last weekend be remedied?

France were defeated last weekend but there was signs of optimism in their last gasp defeat. Their work rate and defensive structure remained until the final play of game. Ireland were unable to break France down in a well organized defensive display. Teddy Thomas with his only genuine cameo scored a sensational try. The young players in the side did not shirk their responsibility.

Brunel and the squad’s question this weekend is whether they can continue this work rate and defensive organization while also trying to open up their talented back line. It was not seen as Ireland did by and large control the tempo and territory last weekend.

The conditioning of the French side was on point last weekend. No last quarter collapse and the age demographic of the squad suggests that Brunel will focus on youth and players who will work hard for the cause. Machenaud again was excellent in his game management and kicking; more expected from the Racing 92 scrum-half this weekend.

Scotland are in a backs against the wall scenario. If they cannot raise their game this weekend, it will undermine everything that Scotland have built in the last two seasons. Townsend and management will be feeling the pressure and the team selection is designed to execute an open, expansive game plan whilst allowing Laidlaw to game manage when required. Scotland to win but it will not be easy.

Squad Profile: Fiji

After the demolition of the South African challenge, Ireland reset focus to face Fiji at the now sold out Aviva Stadium this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick previews Ireland’s next opponents.

Recent Form

Fiji have played seven internationals this calendar year. The calendar year saw a 37-14 loss to Australia in Melbourne but the side then bounced back and beat both Scotland and Italy in tight encounters.

The Pacific Nations Cup took place in July and Fiji beat Samoa comprehensively before defeating Tonga 14-10. Italy exacted some revenge for that summer loss with a hard fought 19-10 win at Catania.

Decent form but the lack of international games for Fiji and for the rest of the Pacific Island nations are doing little for the development of these squads.

Key Players

Ireland have to be careful this weekend when to go expansive. Fiji love the open field, slick offloading in the tackle and quick ruck ball are paramount to their game plan. Leone Nakarawa ticks all these boxes and much more.

The Racing 92 second row is a sublime player. Physicality yet finesse. Set piece effiency with speed of thought and an offloading game which is a manual in how to play the game.

Akapusi Qera is a legend for the national side. The flanker has had a distinguished international and club career playing for the likes of Gloucester, Toulouse, Montpelier and now Agen. His physicality, tackle count and breakdown skills will look to win turnover ball for his side to unleash fast counter attacks.

Vereniki Goneva should see some game time this weekend and his threat out wide will need to be quelled by Ireland. His powerful initial burst of pace is hard to stop and his try count for club and country is excellent. Another distinguished player who has played with several English club teams with distinction.

What to expect from Fiji this weekend?

It all depends on the weather in Dublin this Saturday. Dry track conditions will mean that Fiji will be able to showcase their undoubted running and offload game to full effect.

The Italian game saw flashes of brilliance from Fiji with some potential decisive line breaks only to be quelled by poor ball handling or discipline.

Nakarawa’s try was superbly executed; all down to the mercurial second row whose running line from thirty meters proved too good for the Italian defense.

The Italians did provide evidence of areas to exploit in the pack exchanges; defensively the fringes were a source of easy gain line yards for Conor O’Shea’s side.

Furthermore, a better side would have punished Fiji in the red zone on several occasions. Several excellent scoring opportunities presented themselves for the Azzuri only for ponderous game management or lack of incisive running lines to kill any momentum.

Expect a Fiji side who will look to attack from deep; the kicking game from Ireland needs to be on point this weekend as failure to do so will allow Fiji’s primary ball carrier to gain excellent field position.

Fiji ultimately I suspect will be exposed on the set piece; question marks on the defensive setup for mauls. Their defensive shape was very tight against Italy and one would presume that Ireland would be better at expanding field position when required.

This is an international which will hopefully create plenty of try scoring opportunities. The chance to see the likes of Leone Nakarawa in the flesh, offloading with three Ireland players on his case will be a joy to watch. Roll on Saturday!

Autumn Internationals: What to expect?

November. The end of season Southern Hemisphere tours are upon us and with 2019 Rugby World Cup looming on the horizons, these fixtures will be seen as an initial assessment on squad depth and where improvements are required. Hawkeye Sidekick casts his eye on what we should expect in the coming weeks.

New Zealand keen to reestablish dominance on tour

A drawn series against the British & Irish Lions in July, a series where New Zealand will feel that they left behind. This tour will be a chance to showcase their talent and provide an ominous statement of intent against NH rivals. The fixture list is intriguing as the All Blacks lock horns against France twice in the space of three days. November 18th sees a trip to face Scotland with a final tour game against Wales on November 25th. What to expect from New Zealand? Squad rotation will be seen to full effect next week with the fixture in Lyon. New Zealand have abundance of talent in their ranks and the likes of Perenera, Laumape, Fifita will look to deliver and give Steve Hansen evidence to continue in the side. This is a tour where Sam Cane could be the standout back rower for the All Blacks; his ability to read breakdowns and win turnover ball will be huge in this set of fixtures. The Welsh clash for the breakdown battle will be worth the gate admission fee. You cannot see how New Zealand will be beaten in this tour. Barrett is playing sublime rugby this season both from hand and boot and with an exciting set of backs to be unleashed at any time, the tour opponents have being duly warned.

Australia looking for consistency

Victory over New Zealand last month was a much needed tonic for Michael Cheika’s side to gain confidence. Consistency issues against New Zealand have being duly punished in recent test match fixtures so it was imperative that the Wallabies competed against the All Blacks first and foremost. The win was bonus territory and Australia come into this tour on good confidence scoring sixty-three points against Japan. Defense is a work in progress as thirty points were leaked. Arguments on the merits of this point but the late try concessions will have disappointed Cheika. Australia’s tour will see fixtures against Wales (familiar foe), England and Scotland. The key performance point for Australia on this tour will be how the front five perform as an unit. Consistency issues this season and the scrum has gone backwards against all SH teams at different intervals. Australia are an exciting side to watch in full flow, their speed of pass and running lines are excellent. Kuridrani is a key player in all that Australia in early phases. His power and running style means gain line breaks. Speight is a player who if given ball will create issues for all the NH teams. If the pack can go well on this tour, 2019 RWC chances are elevated. A key tour for Cheika and team beckons.

South Africa keen to impress new coaching ticket

Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Niebaner have departed Munster and will look with interest at the progression of this South African side. They commence the tour with a much anticipated tussle against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium. Recent form suggests South Africa are rebuilding nicely after a terrible shut-out loss to New Zealand this season. It was a pivotal fixture; the players have regrouped well and produce stirring performances thereafter running New Zealand to a close loss. Pride was restored in the jersey. This tour will be to identify key personnel to build the side around for the 2019 RWC. This is when South Africa typically start to show signs of promise and Ireland will be duly warned. Etzebeth and De Jager are a massive second row partnership, solid set piece execution. Jantjies at ten is developing into a world class ten. His ability to eye a pass is to the fore but his kicking game is a work in progress. Kriel provides energy and skill to the three quarters; excellent movement where gain line meters are gained. The Ireland test match will go some way to determine how South Africa approach the rest of the tour where they face France and Italy to conclude their tour. With changes to the management team, players will be keen to impress the newly joined Erasmus to the coaching ticket. Niebaner’s defensive skills will be an added boost to the Springboks; all starting to point to a revitalized South African outfit in 2018 and 2019.

Argentina looking to end season on a high note

A tough season for Argentina this season. They have competed for good stretches of test matches but have being let down by lapses in concentration and discipline have being exposed to the max. The most recent results against South Africa illustrated this point perfectly, several well worked tries scored but a red card to Lavanini (home game) opened the gates for South Africa to win with a bit to spare. Talented side with an abrasive front row who will test any side with their scrummaging ability. Creevy and Herrera are world class front row players and England have being duly warned on their prowess from last season’s encounter. Leguizamon is a superb eight, great skill set to the player and with Hernandez pulling the strings at ten, this side will not fear any opponent. England, Italy and Ireland are scheduled this month. The squad depth is a source of concern and it will be interesting to see if Argentina can reveal a couple of new players on tour to increase confidence and momentum ahead of RWC 2019. A disappointing international season but this November international series is an opportunity to end the season on a good note. Abrasive but well capable of exposing defensive weakness out wide, the Pumas deserve plenty of respect.

England look to continue improvement

Eddie Jones has being in bullish form ahead of the November internationals. His side went last season unbeaten until Ireland beat them at the Aviva Stadium in March and there was plenty of positives for Jones to reflect upon from last season. The pack were solid in set piece where Maro Itoje and George Kruis had excellent international seasons. Itoje’s work rate and pace for a forward is sublime and his versatility switching from back row to second row is such a valuable asset to England. Set piece was solid but questions remain on the hooker position. George vs. Hartley. Hartley getting the nod due in part to being captain but Jamie George has grown in stature last season and the British & Irish Lions tour has made him an even better player. Billy Vunipola’s injury will be an interesting subplot; a chance for Jones to run the rule over a couple of candidates. England’s attacking lines improved as the season progressed last year. Farrell and Youngs looking to hit back line players with pace hitting the line incredibly flat. The back line has being an interesting side-note to the international series. Yarde has being omitted. Solomona has had an opportunity to impress but it looks like May and Daly will be the key attacking threats for England. Test matches against Argentina (pack workout beckons), Australia and bankrupt Samoa will tell more about England but the key contest will be against New Zealand, all in good time.

Ireland move on without Zebo

Simon Zebo’s decision to move to France next season has seen the player omitted from the national team squad. Joe Schmidt quite clear on his intentions with Zebo, a player with creativity and flair from full back. Ireland will miss the player particularly in games where creativity is required to break up the field. Ireland’s squad selection apart from Zebo had few surprises. Sexton and Murray will be asked to control game management. Murray with his spiral kicks. Sexton looking to launch his back line at regular intervals. The front row looks excellent. Furlong is in incredible form currently and with Jack McGrath alongside, the scrum should go well. The question mark is the set piece; statistics for the Ireland hooker players are less than stellar and South Africa will look to expose this facet of play this weekend. The back row options are endless. It will be interesting to see how CJ Stander goes against his native homeland, excellent ball carrier and work ethos. This series of games will see hopefully who is best placed to fill the full back and ten positions. O’Halloran and Carbery will get game time at full back. Carbery potentially may get game time against Fiji at ten. Ireland’s weak point in recent RWC cycles has being their inability to find an adequate squad to fill multiple positions when injuries arise. Schmidt must take note of failures from the past. Argentina game will be abrasive; the pack exchanges will be interesting to observe.

Wales fresh faces looking to make impact

November has not being a good month for Wales in recent years; not many wins. Gatland has changed up the squad dropping the likes of Jamie Roberts, Sam Davies, Scott Williams and Luke Charteris from the squad. Excellent players but is this a sign that Gatland and management are switching their style of play. Australia do not seem to be buying it and are expecting physicality in ball carrying, abrasive breakdown contest. The squad dynamics though would suggest that if Wales can gain parity in the pack, a back line with the likes of Liam Willams, Steff Evans, Leigh Halfpenny must surely indicate fast ball out wide under the roof of the Principality Stadium. The back row has always being a strong area for Wales, hoping Josh Navidi gets game time as the Cardiff Blues player has being a consistent high performer in Pro 12 / 14 leagues this year. The front five will be an area where Australia and New Zealand will look to turn the screw at scrum-time. The front row looks vulnerable without the likes of Samson Lee in the ranks. Gatland looking to see new talent, will be intriguing if the players impress against Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa. Does Gatland bring back the players left out this time around?

Scotland look to continue upward progression

Scotland were the most progressive NH side last season. Under the management of Vern Cotter, the RBS 6N tournament went well. Despite the mauling against England, the side competed well and earned notable scalps against Ireland, Wales and Italy with an exciting brand of rugby. The back line play of Jones, Fife, Hogg and Seymour were to the fore and with solid game management from Russell and Laidlaw at half-back, the team played with an increased attacking threat. The pack were competitive. Gray’s leading from the front but there were issues defending opposition mauls and the scrum did struggle at times against England and France. New head coach Gregor Townsend will look to address these issues but also look to build on the expansive attacking style seen last season. His tenure for Glasgow Warriors means that the national side will look to execute an expansive style of play. The fixtures look tough with visits from New Zealand and Australia but confidence should be high before this with a visit from Samoa who are financially bankrupt and the appetite of the players on national duty may not be what it should be.

Italy need to build momentum

Conor O’Shea will look for Italy to follow the lead of Benetton Rugby and Zebre Rugby with more determined, competitive performances. There has being an upturn in performance with the two clubs this season and it is hoped that the national side will improve as a result. Plenty for O’Shea and management to work on. The pack is a work in progress, discipline and penalty count needs to be reduced and this is the key indicator to see where Italy are at after this month’s fixture list. Increased penalty count will lead to points conceded for Italy. The back line and half-backs need to be better; lack of threat out wide meant that opposition could stifle ball carrying from the pack creating turnover ball. November is a time where Italy need to show signs of improvement in all areas of the pitch. Let us not be started on the kicking off the tee; abysmal last year. Hopefully, there will be a positive run of performances from Italy but the fixture against Fiji will make or break this side. Fiji will fancy their chances. Italy need to send out a statement of intent. Argentina and South Africa are teams which Italy will look to compete well against but this weekend is their proverbial cup final to build confidence and momentum.

France: Club vs. Country

The fact that two fixtures against the All Blacks are within a three day period says a lot on French rugby, national vs. club is rearing its head. National team has suffered due to lack of training camps during the season when compared with other RBS 6N teams. Guy Noves is facing an uphill task; he has the players now but the game plan will be conservative. It has to be given the lack of training sessions that the squad has had. New Zealand (first test) will be interesting. Can the French pack be competitive for long enough to allow the back line enough ball to create try scoring opportunities? The second fixture against All Blacks in Lyon is a bit of a mystery. Is this a representational side or an actual test match? South African game will be a true indicator of where the team is at. France, mysterious as always. The clubs are patiently waiting for their assets back to resume league action next month. The disparity between national side vs. professional club is growing by the day. Sad development.

 

RBS 6 Nations: Wales vs. Ireland Preview

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Friday Night Lights at the Principality Stadium

The only Friday night fixture of this year’s RBS 6 Nations takes place this week with Wales and Ireland renewing acquaintances at the Principality Stadium. The Friday night kickoff time will make it a superb atmosphere for both fans and players alike. Hawkeye Sidekick looks ahead to the fixture.

Wounded Wales ready to make a statement

Are Wales seriously that far off the pace? This season to date has seen Wales enjoy good periods of dominance but the key issue has being putting points on the board. The Italian fixture on another day could have seen Wales win by forty points. They were dominant in all facets of play and only last ditch tackling prevented them from securing the bonus point.

The England game was one that got away from Wales. Leading deep into a terrific test match, Wales game management deserted them when they needed it the most. An errand kick downfield from Davies gave England the platform to attack. The finish from Daly was sublime; his pace scorched Cuthbert out wide and the game was lost.

The Murrayfield test match as Ireland found out was a difficult assignment for the Welsh. Wales in the opening period should have put more points on the board. Several chances were spurned and Scotland took full advantage with an excellent second half display where Hogg and Russell were to the fore with good attacking lines and game management. Opportunity lost has being the theme for Wales this season and it could be against Ireland where everything clicks with a complete performance.

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Warburton key to breakdown battle

The Welsh back row are going to have a massive say on the upcoming fixture with Ireland. The back row options are endless for Wales with the likes of Warburton, Tipuric, Moriarty, Faletau to chose from. The fact that Ireland will probably name O’Brien, Stander and Heaslip means that there will be no specialist seven for Ireland to compete in the breakdown. France exposed this area in Dublin and I would expect Wales to target this area as well; slowing down ball and pouncing when ball carriers leave themselves isolated.

The second row options are as good as anything in this tournament. Huge respect for Alun Wyn Jones as a player and leader. I cannot believe some people were questioning the guy after the Scotland loss. Jones is a natural leader; he has captained the Lions. His partnership with the abrasive Jake Ball is physically imposing. Jones defense against Scotland was superb; eleven tackles made, one missed tackle and one turnover won. The set piece has being solid so Ireland will have their work cut out to create a platform.

Wales half-back options have being on point. Webb and Biggar have formed a reliable and effective partnership. There has being comments specifically around their inability to launch an implosive back line but there were line breaks for Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies against Scotland. The three quarters has a nice balance to it. Davies is a superb player, has everything in the locker; physically imposing, great ball carrier and tackler with pace and passing ability to boot. Scott Williams is explosive with ball in hand, great game awareness, looking for the line break.

The wings speak for themselves. Liam Williams has being the standout back and player for Wales in this tournament (potential player of the tournament candidate). His tries in the tournament and ability to make game line yards with his stealth pace and movement has being a joy to watch at times. Aerially very strong and Saracens have signed a superb acquisition next season. George North, incredible talent and winger. He has being unlucky in this tournament; should have a couple of more tries to his name. His ball carrying has being on point.

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Leigh Halfpenny

Leigh Halfpenny at full back? Reliable as ever in all facets of play. His long range goal kicking is a real asset particularly for a closely fought fixture like Friday night will potentially be. Unless I am missing something, this is a formidable Wales team and will take a near on a perfect Ireland performance to get over the line.

Ireland’s steady progress

As Ronan O’Gara pointed out immediately after the France win, this fixture like Scotland is a banana skin for Ireland. Wales with two losses in the tournament are out of the championship running (realistically) and can play without excessive tournament pressure which could prompt the team to produce their best performance of this tournament. Ireland have made steady progress since their opening day loss to Scotland.

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Ireland line-out to be tested

What has worked for Ireland? The pack has being steady. The set piece has being solid if not spectacular. The scrum at times has worked well evident in the Italy and France tests but the line out options are a concern. Toner is the go to in the line out with Donnacha Ryan providing another reliable option. However, the third option is a concern. Peter O’Mahoney will probably start from off the bench and his prowess in the line-out is vastly understated. O’Mahoney is ultra reliable in this set piece area for both province and national team. Wales will look to compete and try to disrupt Ireland to the extent that the visitors will be forced to launch attacks from front of the line-out. Intriguing area beckons. Will Ireland eyeball Wales and throw to the back of the line-out given this scenario? It is perfectly setup.

The Ireland back row options have immense ball carrying ability but will it succeed against  the Wales back row who have in the past successfully negated this threat with early first time tackling and excellent breakdown work. Stander and Heaslip have being the models of consistency in their work rate and ball carrying. O’Brien at seven has had issues in the breakdown area but the Carlow native is improving with more game minutes on the pitch. I do not expect Joe Schmidt to change things for this test match so the breakdown area and taking care of the ball will be a constant strain for Ireland. The balance of the back row is a concern personally; no specialist seven like van Der Flier or O’Donnell in the ranks.

Ireland half-back options are standout performers. Murray has had an incredible season to date. The Munster scrum-half’s box kicks if accurate will provide Ireland with good territorial gains. His ability to identify gaps defensively from close range is another string to his bow this season. His speed of pass in rucks has increased and helped Sexton last time out with an assured performance.

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Sexton looking to repeat French performance

Sexton’s performance against France was nothing short of sensational. Given the lack of game minutes, Sexton was seamless in execution and game management. His drop goal in the second half in difficult conditions spoke volumes. Sexton if provided with quick ball can launch his back line but the question is whether Ireland can nullify the expected Welsh back row breakdown work is another thing entirely?

The Ireland back line have had their moments. The Scotland defeat saw some nice phases of attacking play which continued with the demolition of Italy. The France game was more an arm wrestle and back line action was limited. The three quarters of Ringrose and Henshaw will be pivotal for Ireland on Friday night. Henshaw is a superb footballer but has not had many line breaks in this tournament given that he has being first receiver from the half-backs primarily.

Ringrose has had the opportunity to create line breaks as a result; his deft turn of foot to the fore in recent test matches. His defensive work is a work in progress; a shaky Scotland performance defensively but the Leinster man has improved immeasurably in the assignments to Italy and France but given Wales’ three quarter and back line, this represents a serious test for the youngster.

The full back berth is potentially up for grabs. If Rob Kearney is not ready to go, Zebo presumably will slot into the position. Zebo reads the game extremely well, ability to make game line breaks from identifying mismatches is to the fore. Keith Earls has performed admirably in this campaign; solid performer and has scored a couple of tries to boot.

Verdict:

Two evenly matched sides on show this Friday evening. I have a feeling that this Welsh side are ready to produce a performance to silence the doubters. The back row battle and in particular the breakdown battle is a close call but goes to Wales, a lack of seven in the Ireland ranks may be exposed. If this plays out, Ireland will struggle to generate quick ruck ball against a Welsh side who pride themselves on their defensive structures. Ireland to win will need to dominate the scrum and line out. The scrum is a potential area for Ireland to make gains but Wales will equally target the line out particularly options other than Toner.

The fervent home support, Friday night lights effect will lift Wales to the extent that they will win the contest in a tight affair. Beware of the wounded animal and Wales are exactly that. Ireland and Wales have both lost to Scotland. Both sides in my eyes are very evenly matched. It is a toss-up but I think Wales hold the cards in terms of the breakdown area which will be the decisive area of play. Roll on Friday!

Sporting Year Review- The Good

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Connacht, Connacht, Connacht!

Connacht’s fantastic Guinness Pro 12 triumph which raised the league standard with their offloading, expansive style of play. The emergence of Dillane, Bealham, McGinty, Marmion, Healy, O’Halloran to name but a few as well as the leadership of Muldoon, Muldowney were to the fore. Their final performance against a strongly fancied Leinster team in Edinburgh was sublime. Four strong provinces of Ireland. The national side benefited as a result.

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Tipperary Senior Hurlers

Tipperary’s performance against Kilkenny in the All Ireland SHC final last September. Their ability to execute a game plan which exposed Kilkenny’s full back line and allowed the likes of Callanan, O’Dwyer and John McGrath to flourish in the full forward line was a managerial masterstroke. Apart from Clare in the NHL semi-final, Kilkenny took all comers but they had no answers off the bench to stem the flow of ball into the Tipperary full forward line. Kilkenny will be back next year but the rest of the chasing pack have renewed hope and confidence. An excellent hurling championship beckons.

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Austin Gleeson

The skill set of Austin Gleeson. The player is a freak of nature; has all the traits to become one of the hurling greats. Gleeson started in the half back line but the versatility of the youngster was evident in his performances in the half forward line towards the end of the season. Double award winning hurler of the year, Gleeson has the hurling world at his feet, will be interesting if the Deise county can get over the line and win Liam McCarthy next season.

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Waterford U21 Hurlers

Waterford U21 hurling team performances this season; one of the best teams in this age grade in the history of the competition. Their first touch, superb passing and goal scored were hallmarks of their season in this grade and they demolished Clare, Tipp, Antrim and Galway enroute to final glory. Shane Bennett was to the fore; a young man in the same career path ascent like Austin Gleeson. Massive underage potential in Waterford.

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Dublin Senior Football Team

The all conquering Dublin football team. Their skill and power was too much for everyone in the championship this season. Their demolition of Kerry in the NFL final was an indicator of what was to follow in Leinster. Jim Gavin negotiated the absence of defensive absentees with Cooper and Small slotting seamlessly into the back line. Diarmuid Connolly class was evident in the opposition fascination to nullify his influence but it allowed players like Dean Rock more time and space to score points. Mayo gave it as good a crack as anyone but Dublin’s overall squad depth came through. A memorable year for the Dublin and few will back against them retaining Sam Maguire next season.

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Mayo U21 Football Success – hope springs eternal?

Gaelic Football fans sometimes have short memories. Recast our minds back to Cusack Park, Ennis on April 30th and Mayo U21 footballers won a thrilling U21 football final over Cork. The emergence of Stephen Coen, Diarmuid O’Connor during this encounter should be signs of optimism for Mayo football fans despite the pot shots currently taking place by ex-manager, former players and current players of the senior panel.

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Leicester City – underdog come good.

EPL Champions. 2016 is Leicester City. A triumph which mirrored that of Connacht in the Pro 12 league. Leicester were given little chance even in January to be in the title shakeup but with a resolute defense led by Schmeichel, Morgan, Huth, Simpson, Fuchs; a hard working midfield with Kante and Drinkwater to the fore setting the platform for the likes of Mahrez and Vardy to score the goals to propel the Foxes to the league title. It was a victory for the underdog in a league where money wins over shrewd transfers signings typically. Leicester’s triumph will live long in the memory as a a story like this will not happen again for years to come.

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Annalise Murphy

The definition of determination and resiliency. The Dublin native was a forlorn figure four years ago in Weymouth having missed out on a medal. Fourth place is a horrible position for any athlete to occupy in an Olympics; some athletes would have being finished after such a heartbreaking final day performance but Murphy regrouped and worked hard to secure her thoroughly deserved Olympic medal. Her diligence in researching the Rio course was paramount and her superb performances on the water were to the fore. An incredible role model for Ireland.

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O’Donovan Brothers – Lifted a nation

The opening week of the Rio Olympics was filled with negative stories associated with Ireland. Shameful ticket distribution controversy, underpar Ireland boxing team performances which raised questions on preparation and failed drug testing results plighted the Ireland camp but then arrived the Skib’s finest rowing brothers to lift the mood of the nation. Their interviews with Joe Stack were sublime; they pulled like dogs to secure the silver medal and Paul went onto to further European rowing triumph in Rotterdam. Their fun loving style was legendary; their performances on the water were emphatic. Like Annalise Murphy, incredible role models to the country and rescued our Olympic reputation in Rio.

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Paralympics Ireland – take a bow

An incredible medal haul from Paralympic Ireland. Massive respect to the Paralympic movement for taking a zero drug tolerance stance to Russia; someone the IOC failed miserably to take. Jason Smyth, Michael McKillop continued their success but other Irish athlete parties came to promince. Eoghan Clifford, Katie-George Dunlevy / Eve McCrystal. The future is bright with sixteen year old  Noelle Lenihan who swam to a bronze medal. Inspiring two weeks of action and the team did the country proud.

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Ireland Horse Racing Success

In flat and national hunt, Ireland success was frequent. Willie Mullins, Aidan O’Brien, Gordon Elliott, Mouse Morris, Dermot Weld all won notable races in this calendar year. O’Brien’s procession in the Arc was the highlight from my perspective; hard enough to get one horse to place in such a prestigious event but to train a 1,2,3 in the French golden ribbon was superb. Shocking that Rte failed to acknowledge a sporting arena which has yielded so much success year in, year out and raises credibility issues on the Sports Year Awards ceremony.

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Carl Frampton – Two Weight World Champion

Best Irish boxer of his generation. Frampton had a superb 2016. He beat Scott Quigg in Manchester and then went onto beat Leo Santa Cruz in one of the fights of the year at Madison Square Garden. The tale of the tape is clear. In 2016, Frampton unified the Super Bantamweight Championsip and then went onto win the WBA Super Featherweight champion but obviously not good enough to get into the BBC Sports Personality of the Year list. His rematch to Leo Santa Cruz in Las Vegas promises to be as explosive as their first encounter. 2017 potentially could eclipse 2016 for the Belfast native.

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Conor McGregor

The most recognizable athlete in MMA, Conor McGregor had a superb 2016. Despite losing to Nate Diaz earlier in the year, McGregor dusted himself down and won the rematch. His victory over Alvarez at the back end of the year resulted in McGregor being a two weight world champion simultaneously for the first time in the sport. His promotional skills, his athleticism and striking ability has resulted in massive PPV numbers. Dana White will need to thread carefully with his most marketable product; signs of friction are there. It will be an interesting year for the Crumlin native. His Rte Sport award was just reward for a stellar year.