NZ Ireland Preview

11 06 2010

Ireland have had less than ideal preparation for this encounter and it comes at the tail end of an arduous season. Injuries have been prolific and the pack in particular looks weakened. Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks and they would have hoped to come into this encounter all guns blazing as this is not a vintage All Black side.

The All Blacks have suffered injuries themselves, missing the likes of Andrew Hore, Ali Williams, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Ma’a Nonu. There are three new caps in their side including Benson Stanley at inside centre and this is an area Ireland will definitely target.

Realistically, we will more than likely struggle at scrum time so they will look to use off-the-top line out ball and attack the New Zealand centres. It makes sense for Ireland to play to their strengths and their strengths in this encounter lie out wide. Looking at the team sheet it is the likes of Kearney, Bowe, O’Driscoll and Heaslip who will frighten the opposition and it is imperative to get these players into the game.

Benson Stanley and Conrad Smith are both talented centres; Smith in particular has great hands and awareness. However, with quick ball, you would definitely fancy the Irish centres to cause some damage here. D’Arcy’s form has been impressive of late and his running game looks to be in good nick. He will look to expose the New Zealand debutant and punch some holes in their defence. Nonu is a big loss for the All Blacks as they often look for him to get them over the gain line. Conrad Smith has a classy touch but he won’t be steamrolling over the Irish cover.

O’Gara will also be looking to bring Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble off their wings and into play as mush as possible. Both are strong, dynamic runners and Bowe in particular can seize upon the slightest gap with devastating effect. It is usually these types of games in the Southern Hemisphere where Rob Kearney delivers his best form and how Ireland would appreciate that. In truth the Irish backline has a dangerous look to it and are certainly capable of creating problems for the All Blacks. It will be intriguing to see if Ireland deploy a counter attacking game from deep here but somehow it seems unlikely.

The decision to go with O’Gara had probably more to do with his experience than anything as this is unknown territory for Sexton. Kidney will bank on O’Gara to play an intelligent game, pushing Ireland into the right areas through his boot and then sending his strike runners into space. It must have been a tough call for Irish management but the logic is there for all to see. O’Gara has played against the likes of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter before down here and will know what is coming.

For Ireland to have a chance of succeeding, the line-out must function well as this will more than likely be their only source of quality set-piece ball. It is now a presumption that the scrum will struggle and the Franks brothers at tight and loose head for New Zealand will fancy this one. The absence of Paul O’Connell and even Leo Cullen will be sorely missed at line out time and it once again poses the question: What about Bob Casey? He is a big, physical lock who is a leader and a great lineout operator. Surely the type of player we could have used on this tour given the injuries we have? I appreciate Kidney is trying bring in fresh blood but picking Casey on this tour does not tie your hands into picking him for every subsequent game.

Given injuries and fatigue, this looks a long shot for Ireland but it is not beyond the realms of possibility. This is because, although strong, this is not the greatest All Black side of the modern era. The line-out must operate to maximum capacity and we could also do with a semi-solid scrum. The pack will need to work ferociously to quell New Zealand at the breakdown and our backs must be at their dynamic best. If all this comes to fruition, we have a chance. Otherwise, it could be a long eighty minutes.





The Last Hurrah

27 05 2010

As the final curtain draws on Michael Cheika’s time at Leinster, it is very difficult not to be impressed with what he achieved at the province. He has transformed them from nearly men with a soft centre to one of Europes powerhouses. The talent has long been there at Leinster but it took an excellent coach with a hard edge to uproot them from mediocrity.

It didn’t happen overnight and there have been some disappointments along the way but Cheika will leave the province in a great place. They have slowly but surely developed a tough exterior and, particularly in the last two seasons, a ruthless streak.  This is a different team with different values. The beginning of Cheika’s career at Leinster was typified by a heads-up, go from anywhere brand of rugby. It was free flowing and frequently pulsating stuff. Ironically, since this, his greatest successes as Leinster coach have been built upon the foundation of a solid defence.

It was this defence that was so impressive in the semi-final against Munster but it will have a sterner test out wide this Saturday against the Ospreys. The Welsh have a plethora of game breakers in their back line and none more incisive than Tommy Bowe. The form of the Monaghan man has been exceptional of late and people like Dan Biggar and James Hook are more than capable of unearthing a hole for the winger to gallop through. The danger doesn’t stop there with the likes of Mike Phillips, Lee Byrne and Shane Williams across the back-line. If they can get some quick ball, they will be dangerous for sure.

The battle of the backs looks mouth-watering as there is creativity and pace throughout both teams and the individual match ups will be crucial. You feel Eoin Reddan will have to be at his buzzing best to keep Philips busy and you can guarantee Jamie Heaslip will be keeping a close eye on him around the fringes. If Philips gets on the front foot, he can cause substantial damage.

There are interesting matches across the park and it will be very fascinating to see the two young out-halves come up against one another. Biggar has got quality but Sexton’s performance in the semi-final was assured and he looks to have put his kicking demons to bed. Jamie Roberts has already admitted the Ospreys will target Sexton but the young Dubliner doesn’t shirk a hit. The Ospreys will want to test him early on with some of their big runners, especially after seeing him nursing his jaw towards the end of the semi-final. One thing Sexton will not do is take a backward step and he will have his back row working for him.

The tussle in the back row looks similarly enticing with Marty Holah in particular a supreme operator and he will test Jennings massively. The big man Jerry Collins looks to be fit and he will put in his usual quota of hits but none of the Ospreys trio has the athleticism and class of Heaslip who once again could prove the difference.

The front five contest looks intriguing and Leinster will rue the loss of Cullen and hope to get their line-out motoring irrespective of his loss. The scrum should be tight but Leinster should have enough up front to shade it.

Ironically, the Ospreys are very similar to where Leinster were a couple of years ago: buckets of talent and getting very close but not quite able to take that next step. However Leinster’s experience in finals, coupled with home advantage, gives them the edge and they will go in as favourites.

It would be a fitting end for Cheika who has installed a winning mentality and has changed the whole culture of Leinster rugby. They are now winners who have a hard edge, not unlike the man himself.





Footby?

19 05 2010

You often hear people watching a football match saying: ‘He would never make it as rugby player- too soft.’ But what premiership football players actually would make up a good rugby 15? Herein lies the first (and probably last) amalgamation of the sports.

Here is my Footby 15, who would you have in it?

  1. Claus Jensen
  2. Micah Richards
  3. Richard Dunne
  4. Peter Crouch
  5. Emmanuel Adebayor
  6. John Terry
  7. Michael Essien
  8. Rio Ferdinand
  9. Aaron Lennon
  10. Frank Lampard
  11. Nicolas Anelka
  12. Wayne Rooney
  13. Carlos Tevez
  14. Craig Bellamy
  15. Steven Gerrard

Subs:

  1. Brad Friedel
  2. Andy Reid
  3. Pter Cech
  4. Nemanja Vidic
  5. Cesc Fabregas
  6. James Milner
  7. Didier Drogba




Not for the Faint-Hearted

14 05 2010

Deep breaths everyone; the white-hot rivalry that is Leinster versus Munster is about to be resumed. Yes, we would have preferred if it was the final but no matter as this will not be one for the faint-hearted. Munster will come into this one pained by the results against their foes this season and will be hugely motivated. This will be a fiery affair to say the least with lingering tensions between the two sides.

Disappointment in their respective Heineken Cup semi-finals will be put to bed as this one will not be hard to get enthused for.  The venue remains the RDS despite calls for Croke Park to be used for this massive occasion. This suits Leinster better as it now remains a home semi -final, something they have been working towards all season, rather than an 80,000 free fall where Munster would have achieved parity at the very least in the supporters stakes.

There are battles all around the park which will help decide this one; not least the clash up front from two wounded packs after their scrummaging humbling in the Heineken Cup.  You would have to fancy the side whose forwards come out on top. The line-out in particular should prove to be interesting given both sides will be without their main lieutenants in this area in O’Connell and Cullen. Securing set-piece ball will be vital and the battle at scrum time should be extremely interesting. Cian Healy will be looking to silence his critics and gain the upper hand over John Hayes but the Munster front row will want to prove the doubters wrong themselves and Flannery will be frothing at the prospect of tearing into the Leinster eight. The Healy/Hayes battle will be one to keep an eye on with the two current Irish props eager to impress.

It looks as if Johhny Sexton will play which is a massive boost for Leinster. Once again, we arrive back at the O’Gara/Sexton debate. What fuels this one even more (not that it needs fuelling) is the genuine feeling that these two aren’t exactly best friends. Recent separate interviews with the pair would suggest that there is frostiness still there and both will want to emerge smelling of roses after this one as the Irish coaching team and the country will be watching. Both players will be looking to get their team on the front foot and steer them into good positions on the pitch. Sexton will have a cut at O’Gara early on, no question, but the Munster back row will be lurking. O’Gara will look to give Sexton a lesson in tactical out-half play. It will be a proper battle between these two fiery and determined characters.

Another interesting clash is in the centre where four quality players will face up to each other and the potential O’Driscoll versus Earls battle could be electrifying. A lot will depend who has the superior ball to work from but the old maestro versus the young pretender is exciting to say the least. The youngster has the edge in pace but you will not a find a more astute rugby game in the brain than O’Driscoll.

Munster will be glad to have Dougie Howlett back in the squad and the men in red will look to get their danger men in some space like they did against Northampton in the Heineken Cup Quarter Final. If they can again create that tempo (O’Leary will be crucial to this) and play smart rugby, chances may appear. Leinster will look to get Heaslip into the game and across that gain line early on and feed from that with, Reddan looking to continue his recent run of form.

Whichever side achieves quality, front-foot ball will come out on top in this one as both have quality strike runners and potent weapons in the back division. The last time the sides met here, the score line read 30-0. It will be nothing like that come Saturday and this will be a tight affair. As in true derby nature, form will not count for too much in this one and anything can conceivably happen.  Due to slightly better form and home advantage, Leinster go in favourites and may just shade it. However due to previous defeats this season to Leinster and the nature of them, Munster will want this massively. This is not just another Magners League game, there is a final and silverware at stake so fasten your seatbelts as this will be high-passion, high-octane stuff.





Johne Murphy Interview

10 05 2010

Well Johne, how does it feel to be coming back to Ireland to play for Munster?

Really looking forward to it, it’s a big move for me, I’ve been here 5 years now, just starting to miss home a bit, looking forward to being able to pop in the car and drive up to see family and friends instead of having to rely on Ryanair!!

Was it a difficult decision to leave the Tigers and what motivated you to do so?

It was a really difficult one, I’ve made friends for life here and leaving them will be hard, I owe Leicester a lot the gave me the break and took a chance on me and I’m very grateful for that, but its just time for me to move on now and start another chapter

You have matured into a top class finisher at Leicester, racking up plenty of tries. Is that something you have specifically worked on and how?

Not really! I’m just lucky I’m in the right place at the right time more often than not!! You get used to playing with guys and knowing what they are going to do next instinctively so you just play off that really.

Munster and Leicester seem to share many of the same core values. Did this attract you to Munster?

Yeah it did, hopefully that will help me settle in and get to where I want to be when I get down there

Were you surprised by Lewis Moody’s decision to move to Bath?

I knew Lewis was moving, had been chatting to him a bit during my move and stuff so knew he was probably going else where but didn’t think bath, I was a bit shocked but I’m delighted for him. They have signed very well, and himself and Sam Vesty going there next year will make them a force to reckoned with

What kind of captain and person was Martin Johnson?

I missed him by a season, he never captained me, but hearing from the lads, he just knew what to say and when to say it, he could feel the vibe in the room and know whether to shout or to keep it calm. As a bloke he is a really nice guy, quiet but a really good guy

Is it true you shared a house with Martin Castrogiovanni? How was that?!

I did indeed, he moved in with me when I bought my place! Lets just say it was messy!!!

Declan Kidney and Richard Cockerill seem like very different characters. Are they as different as coaches as their personalities would suggest?

Personality wise they are very different, coaching is hard to compare because no two coaches will ever be the same or have the exact same structures or ideas, so yes they would be different!!

The Six Nations ended in disappointment but with some quality rugby played by Ireland at times. What was your take on the tournament and how did you enjoy training with the squad?

Scotland are a very good side, they should have beaten Wales bar their implosion in the last 7 minutes of the game, and they had their chances to beat England, so they should have been coming to Dublin fighting for the triple crown, so I think people need to give Scotland a bit more credit they got. But it was bitterly disappointing for the lads, but I have no doubt they can pick themselves up and have a great tour this summer. I loved training with them every week, it gives u a taste of what it is like and makes u want more, it’s a really good bunch of lads and fingers crossed I’ll get the chance to train with them a lot more.

With the World Cup just over a year away, are you hoping to get capped in 2010?

Every players dream is to get capped, so fingers crossed ill pick one up along the way to retirement! Just going to concentrate on getting stuck in with Munster and hopefully playing a few games with them, and then take it from there. I would love to get capped and try to edge my way into the world cup squad but need to get my head down and look after playing and training with Munster and then see what happens.

What kind of an impact do you think Ireland could have on the 2011 World Cup?

They can have a serious impact, people will be expecting a good showing and some upsets from Ireland and I really think there is a group of players now that can cause any team in the world a lot of trouble.

Have the Munster players at Irish training given you any indication of what to expect when you arrive for the new season?

Not really, you just get to see what they are like in training and no short cuts will be taken, everything is done to best of your ability and that is all that is excepted so I’m looking forward to getting down there and stuck in.







Heineken Cup Semis Review

4 05 2010

A weekend that promised so much ended in disappointment on all fronts as the French power proved too much for the Irish sides. It will be an all French final in Paris in what has been an all-French year in European rugby. If the Gallic game was so long associated with flair and craft, this weekend will be remembered for brute power and force. If these were key components to their arsenal, the scrum was their decisive weapon.

It all started on a wet Saturday afternoon in Toulouse and some of the early handling reflected the conditions with Healy and Reddan knocking on in the Toulouse 22. This was however a high-standard encounter and Leinster produced a fighting first half performance to go in a mere three points behind. The Irish coaching team were in attendance and will not have been encouraged to see the Leinster scrum get pulverised by the Toulouse pack time and time again.

Cian Healy was sacrificed after just thirty minutes and this will be a harsh lesson for the talented prop. The Leinster scrum struggled all day and not only cost them points but also cost them quality, front-foot ball. Not once really in the whole encounter did we see D’Arcy or O’Driscoll with a hole to run at. In truth Leinster never produced enough quick ball to stretch the Toulouse defence and provide space for their strike runners. But they kept their aggression and at 9-9, it seemed they could get close to snatching another victory.

The Toulouse set-piece was awesome and gave them the platform in the second half to unleash the likes of Jauzion, Medard and Poitrenaud. They began to use Jauzion as both a runner and a decoy and with a constant wave of unpredictable attacks; Leinster’s defence began to look stretched. Two tries followed and Leinster never really had enough in their locker to push this one to the death. Having said this, Heaslip finished off a fine move in the corner and, along with Berne’s superb conversion, got them to within seven.

Berne’s place-kicking was immaculate and his distribution solid but some of his kicking from hand was aimless and Sexton would definitely have offered more to the Leinster cause. As the ball was not ideal for fluent running moves, the men in blue could really have used Sexton to kick a few corners and put them in a few decent areas of the pitch to exert some pressure.

Ultimately the better team won on the day and the set piece was a massive factor in this. Leinster were good but not quite good enough and Toulouse seemed to have more power, dynamism and purpose around the pitch. This is an outstanding side with a wealth of talent and they will be favourites come 22nd of May so this loss was no disgrace.

Munster will feel just as frustrated as they are disappointed as this was a game they could have won. Going into the break leading 7-3, the all-guns-blazing second half performance never materialised. Like Leinster, their front five failed to provide a solid platform for the likes of Earls and DeVilliers to attack the sometimes suspect Biarritz defence.

Munster were worth their lead going in at the break and the Keith Earls try was a cracker. A superb turnover from De Villiers, a great break from O’Callaghan and excellent support from the immense Quinlan culminated in the youngster going over in the corner. The man from Moyross has matured into a top class finisher for both province and country. Flannery was another who was having a big game around the park and he very nearly put O’Gara over in after a powerful break through the Biarritz defence.

Although there was some quality play from Munster in the first half, their set piece was struggling and this was always going to take its toll throughout the course of the game. Their scrums have been in trouble before and they have emerged victorious but their line-out not functioning as well made it extremely difficult to play the game on their terms. Their tempo never matched what they produced in the quarter final.

With a slight wind at their backs in the second half and the appetising sight of Balshaw and Ngwenga in front of them, you would have backed Munster to play territory and put pressure on Biarritz from there. However, Munster probably looked more threatening with ball in hand and simply couldn’t get near the Biarritz set-piece when in promising areas.

The final nail in the coffin came when Warwick was nabbed trying to run out a deep punt and the imperious Yachvilli began to dominate in the second period behind a dominant pack. Munster were essentially strangled upfront by the Biarritz front-five and they never really had any quality ball to work with. The Limerick men were not at their best and were definitely capable of winning this but it just didn’t happen for them on the day. Like Leinster, the French set- piece and brutish power up front eventually told and the dream is over for another season.

A word too must go to a resilient Connacht side who were the closest of the Irish provinces to progressing to a European final. Wayne Barnes will not be the most popular man in Galway after missing a crucial Toulon knock-on and penalising Connacht at criticall times in the French side’s 22. Sean Cronin and Naoupo both went close for the men from the West but ultimately it was not to be. They came up against the money and glitz of Toulon and almost came away with a result in a typically rousing performance.

A common theme arises from the three encounters and that is the weakness of the set-piece and in particular the scrum. Any professional will tell you how difficult it is to win without solid set-piece ball and the Irish sides were out-muscled in the tight by their French counterparts. It is disappointing when you see the best young prop in the country get substituted in the opening thirty minutes. Ireland has to improve their production rate of props from an early stage in order to truly compete with the powerhouses of modern rugby.

You feel the two matches in France could have been very different games had they been home encounters for the Irish sides but it will be an all French affair in Paris and unfortunately, deservedly so.





Heineken Cup Semi-Finals Preview

29 04 2010

Semi-finals don’t get much bigger than this as four colossal forces of the Northern Hemisphere game come face to face this weekend in the Heineken Cup. Four top quality sides, two Irish and two French, will do battle to determine who contests the final on May 22 in Paris. Both are mouth-watering encounters and both will be of a ferocious intensity. It is games such as these which make the Heineken Cup so special.

The first semi final takes place on Saturday in what has all the potential to be a classic. Leinster fans will vividly remember their trip here in 2006 in the quarter final of the same competition with the memory of Contemponi going from underneath his own posts and Hickie finishing off the move in the corner still burning bright.

However, these are new teams and a new challenge awaits the men in blue. They will, nonetheless, be buoyed to see Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney return to the squad. It is yet unclear if both will be fit and you feel that Sexton’s fitness in particular is of critical importance to the Leinster cause. Leinster are taking every measure to get him match ready and they need to. Shaun Berne is a tidy ten but not in the same class as the likes of Sexton and you would fear for him under pressure in Le Stadium with the Toulouse back row bearing down on him. The Sexton decision will be made on Thursday but given the sheer magnitude of the game, he will be given every chance. If he doesn’t make it, the return of Kearney and his big left boot becomes hugely important.

Leinster will need all their guns blazing if they are to emerge from the South of France with a victory on this occasion. Toulouse will undoubtedly take them on up front and around the fringes, having watched Clermont do this so successfully at stages in the RDS. The French will bring their power game and the likes of Jennings, McLaughlin and Heaslip will undoubtedly have a containing job on their hands at times throughout the game. Similarly the French will look to go wide and the blitz defence utilised by Leinster will have to be at it’s sharpest to prevent players such as Heymans and Poitrenaud getting the ball in space. O’Driscoll will shoot up and Leinster’s judgement in this facet must be entirely accurate.

A key for Leinster will be the stifling of Yannick Jauzion. If the imperious no.12 begins to get over the gain line and get his off loading game going to runners either side of him, Leinster will be in trouble. They can’t afford to let the Toulouse centre in behind them as he will punish them. The forward battle will be key and if the Leinster eight can achieve some parity with their French counterparts, they have a chance.  There is no doubting they can score tries if they get some ball and plyers of the calibre of Heaslip and O’Driscoll can hurt any team in the world. On paper it looks a stretch for the men in blue but if their forwards can match those of Toulouse, its game on and anything can happen.

Munster come into their semi final frustrated that they will not have their captain and leader-in-chief Paul O’Connell at the helm. He is a big loss but this is Munster’s ninth semi-final in twelve years and this team have been in situations just like this before. Biarritz are not without their own injury problems with Damien Traille ruled out and doubts over the classy Harinordoquy. The number eight had an operation on a broken nose last week but Serge Blanco declared: “Imanol will play”.

Like Leinster, Munster come into this game on the back of a disappointing Magners League defeat but that does not tell the whole story. They were immense against Northampton in the quarter final and this side are capable of lifting their performances to a new plain when they really have to. You think back to that game in Perpignan in December and you get a flavour of what this side is capable of. There is a tempo Munster can go to in Heineken Cup games such as these which sometimes eludes them in the Magners League.

This will be a brutal encounter and if Munster can produce the same speed of ruck ball as they did against Northampton, they will be tough to beat. Players like De Villiers and Wallace will need to get them over the gain line and from there; their high intensity game (steered by O’Leary) can drive them to victory. They will have to pick their moments however and there will surely be times when O’Gara will look to kick a few corners on the hard ground of San Sebastian. The Biarritz winger Ngwenya is lightning but O’Gara will test him and he may not look so impressive going backwards with the ball over his head.

This Biarritz side are a quality outfit despite their lowly position in the Top 14 and their pack in particular will test the men from Limerick. They showed against the Ospreys that they are a formidable side in the San Sebastian and Yachvilli is a smooth operator. Iain Balshaw can expect a few aerial bombardments from O’Gara early on and if he doesn’t deal with them efficiently, he can expect them for the rest of the afternoon. Munster will also look to get some quick ball out to Keith Earls as on this hard ground, he can be potentially devastating.

Different challenges wait for the two Irish powerhouses and both are hugely difficult tasks. The mission looks less attainable for Leinster given their opponents but they are more than capable of producing something special to win against the Gallic giants. Two titanic tussles await and whisper it, but the two provinces could feasibly set up that all Irish final. What an epic occasion that would be.