Tag Archives: Ireland

England stuck in quicksand as tour to South Africa looms

A summer Test series turnover to South Africa seems inescapable unless England address the many factors that led to their Six Nations slump.

In the final round of fixtures, Eddie Jones’s team lost 15-24 to champions Ireland at Twickenham, and ended up finishing a lowly fifth in the table.

But even beating the Irish to pour cold water on their St Patrick’s Day and Grand Slam parade would only have papered over the problems that England currently face.

As it was, Jonny May’s last-minute try was not enough to spare the blushes of the lacklustre hosts who, across the tournament, could only amass 10 points more on the pitch than whipping boys Italy.

A crisis? Jones and his players don’t seem to think so, and I’m inclined to agree with them, so long as the debilitating issues that led to England’s worst finish in 41 years are addressed – and quickly.

Despite Sir Clive Woodward’s claims that England are now “staring down the barrel”, a summer resurgence against the Springboks is well within the realms of possibility. But the amendments and adjustments needed are four-fold.

Quick ball

An imperative product of any successful breakdown; however England’s ruck was comprehensively pulverised during this tournament, pilling immense pressure on the distribution of scrum-halves Danny Care and the returning Richard Wigglesworth, who had a torrid time against the Irish.

The decision to field an ebbing James Haskell was met with hostility from fans. As Jones plots to turn water into wine come June, he should look no further than 21-year-old open side Sam Underhill, who is expected to make his return for the SA series.

Although the ruck showed slight improvement against the Irish, it was still a far cry from the standard needed to see off the Springboks – and to stand any chance of beating New Zealand at the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

Better discipline

If the sound captured by referee Arund Gardner’s mic is to be trusted, the need for better discipline is a sentiment England captain Dylan Hartley shares.

Cries of “Discipline!” could be heard from the Saints hooker as he watched his side yet again make basic errors in transition and with ball in hand.

The Red Roses continued their Six Nation trend of ragged unruliness, but added an absence of composure against the Irish. This impacted on the scoreline, with England giving a way far too many penalties in all thirds, allowing a pressure lapse and the visitors to effectively pull their socks up.

England’s ability to finish a game strongly quickly becomes null and void if they trudge to the changing room 16 points down at the break. And although one of Jones’ best qualities is his ability to galvanise a squad, the discipline problem is as May suggested “an individual thing”, and improving it depends on strength of character.

A backline make-over 

The decision to drop George Ford and rotate the backline came with no overwhelming improvement to the fluency of midfield play. England’s running lines were very basic and predictable, giving very little option for Farrell to imprint on the game in Twickenham’s biting winds.

Jones does, however, admit to be flirting with the idea of introducing a specialist backs coach, but the problem stretches beyond that to the need for succinct passing moves and outside running lines.

Ireland’s defence seldom looked like cracking against the English, with Ben Te’o left bewildered and the dynamic centre position a real problem.

But whisper it quietly, Manu Tuilagi’s Leicester form appears to be carrying some sort of international promise. And should he be included (if fit) in the summer, a centre of such ferocious stature with such an ability to commit defenders as he does, should go some way to fixing the problem.

Rest and recuperation

 A hangover from the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour was inevitable. The statistics corroborate this, with England’s previous string of three defeats following the 2005 Lions Tour, and they went on to lose six consecutively.

The tumult and exhaustion of this year’s Six Nations campaign was transparent, with England’s Lions having played as much as double the club rugby as their Welsh, Irish and Scottish counterparts, resulting in increased calls for centralised contracts in the days following the Irish invasion.

Calls that will come to no avail, however, as the RFU’s current deal with the Aviva Premiership detailing club control over players, runs until 2024, meaning the boys will have to just suck it up.

The good news is, Jones seems to be entertaining the idea of resting some of his Lions this summer, which bodes well for the future of young talent and the development of the team.

England’s defeat to the Irish was not for lack of effort, but they looked sapped of all sustained intensity needed to compete on an international stage.

The media talked up the team’s regression, but a lot of this was just hyperbole. But coming in a week when Jones’ disparaging comments at a sponsor’s event about the “scummy Irish” came to light, it was apt that Joe Schmidt’s men underlined their status as Europe’s power players.

Ireland rugby image

Ireland’s Slam success – Six Nations 2018 Review

The Guinness flowed in London on St Patrick’s Day as Ireland defeated England at Twickenham to win the Six Nations and complete a Grand Slam, only the third in their history.

Italy, meanwhile, pushed Scotland all the way in Rome, but a late Greig Laidlaw penalty edged a 29-27 victory for Gregor Townsend’s side.

And in Cardiff, Wales defied expectation to finish second in the Championship courtesy of a 14-13 victory over France.

Before the tournament there were plenty of questions yet to be answered ahead of next year’s World Cup in Japan and many were addressed during this year’s tournament.

6th: Italy

Another Wooden Spoon for the Italians, but this was to be expected. The Azzurri gave Scotland quite a fright on the final day but otherwise provided little threat throughout the tournament.

Head coach Conor O’Shea and his staff could not spring any more surprises like they did against England in 2017, but one particularly positive note was the breakthrough of Matteo Minozzi.

The full-back only made his first start for Italy against England – having made his debut last November – but was a constant nuisance to opposition defences with his pace and handling proving difficult to stop.

Following the tournament opener against England, the 21-year-old scored tries in four consecutive matches – the first Italian to do so – and was deservedly nominated for the player of the tournament.

While Italy may have progressed as a team, so has everyone else. And with Scotland’s strong performances this year the Italians have been left behind as the only ‘easy’ game in the fixture list.

Next year will be their 20th appearance in the Six Nations, so they must disrupt those at the top of the table if they are to quash the on-going calls for promotion and relegation.

5th: England

On paper, it appears that England are in a crisis.

This was their lowest finish for 35 years in a tournament that included a first loss to Scotland in 10 years and a first Six Nations defeat at Twickenham since 2012.

Head coach Eddie Jones had only lost once with England before the tournament and confidence was high with a young, talented squad capable of beating anyone.

So what went wrong?

Damage was done in the first game against Italy. Ben Youngs limped off and the scrum-half was ruled out for the rest of the Championship with damaged knee ligaments.

His replacement, Danny Care, is a firecracker of a player but most effective when brought on for the final 20 minutes. When playing from the start the 31-year-old tends to fizzle out, such are the demands of international rugby.

England no longer had their metronomic No.9 to keep the forwards and backs ticking to the same rhythm but the problems go deeper.

Injuries did play a part. The absence of No.8 Billy Vunipola was noted, and while Exeter Chiefs pair Sam Simmonds and Dom Armand, along with Sam Underhill, performed admirably they did not have the same devastating effect as the Saracen with ball in hand.

Jones said following the Ireland defeat “some players may struggle to participate in future”. After a succession of losses, perhaps change is necessary, but worryingly there are few players demanding to be brought into the squad.

Back row James Haskell and Richard Wigglesworth seem to be nearing the end of their international journey, but they are not integral players.

This could well be another lesson in man-management from Jones, that no player, no matter how experienced, is assured of caps.

The captaincy debate will linger and this needs to be sorted quickly. Jamie George continues to pressure current skipper Dylan Hartley for the No.2 shirt, but whether Jones will pull the trigger and ask the Northampton man to step down, relinquishing both the captaincy and starting hooker position, is a question only the Australian can answer.

Owen Farrell seems a likely replacement for the captaincy, so a contingency plan is in place. Now it is up to Jones to make a decision. Soon.

4th: France

One positive that France can take away from this year’s Six Nations is that in the opening match they took eventual Grand Slam champions Ireland all the way.

Celebrations in Dublin would have been very different had Johnny Sexton failed in his last-play drop goal attempt.

A win in Le Crunch against England will always satisfy the demanding French supporters, but there were undertones of discontent.

Fans fondly remember the days of Didier Camberabero and Phillipe Saint-Andre, whose individual sparks would combine and explode into attacking moves that few teams could defend.

Even Freddie Michalak could get the Stade de France on its feet with his extraordinary vision and passing play.

But the Les Bleus seemed to neglect these qualities for which they were so revered. They seem unwilling to be daring or as brave as French teams have been in the past. The victory against Italy in Marseille highlighted this. Two opportunities to kick deep into the opposition 22 were overlooked with the three points being seen as the better option.

France won the game but could not muster a fourth try that would have given them an extra bonus point.

Head coach Jacques Brunel inherited a team lacking confidence and an identity of how they wanted to play. The use of electric runners such as Teddy Thomas clashed with midfield brutes like Mathieu Bastareaud, but the 64-year-old has at least found a way to win big games.

This ability to beat top teams will be very useful in 18 months time.

3rd: Scotland

Gregor Townsend’s side were seen as the wildcard going into the tournament.

Stunning victories, both home and away, came against Australia in 2017, and Murrayfield nearly collapsed last autumn when Stuart Hogg’s dash to the line in the last play against the All Blacks was cut short to deny them an astonishing win over the world champions.

But Scottish optimism was severely tested during their opening match against Wales. 14-0 after 13 minutes in Cardiff, and the away supporters forgot previous successes. The match ended 34-7 in the hosts’ favour, a flattering scoreline when you consider Scotland scored their try and conversion in the 79th minute.

However, as the tournament progressed, Scotland’s central players took responsibility. Captain John Barclay was magnificent as his side beat England to win the Calcutta Cup for the first time in 10 years.

His work at the breakdown was similar to that of Richie McCaw or Michael Hooper as England simply could not force penalties or achieve the quick ball needed to unleash the backs.

When 10-6 to Scotland, England were launching an attack into the opposition 22 but Barclay dug, forcing the turnover which ultimately lead to Huw Jones breaking the line once again and floating a pass out wide for Sean Maitland to score.

Jones was another who made a difference and is becoming the prolific try scorer his country has lacked. 10 touchdowns in 15 international appearances does not flatter him.

And when tries were not available Greig Laidlaw kicked perfectly whenever called upon. Against France his kicking was flawless, notching eight from eight including six penalties. The 32-26 scoreline in favour of Scotland was almost entirely thanks to their scrum-half.

The Scots certainly made their presence known having been slightly anonymous in previous years. If they continue to take down tournament front runners, soon enough they will become one themselves.

2nd: Wales

2018 was always going to be a year of experimentation for Warren Gatland’s side.

No longer could their previous style of narrow, forwards-based rugby be used as effectively as in the past. Change was necessary.

And this change required reinforcement. Hadleigh Parkes provided the oomph in midfield that has been missing since Jamie Roberts’ departure from the international scene.

Meanwhile Steff Evans gave a good account of himself as he continues to find his feat in Test rugby. Five tries in nine appearances so far – including a stunning one-handed finish against Scotland in the first round – put him on scoring parity with the great Shane Williams. Still a long way to go however…

The winger, and those inside him, were put to good use as Wales’ more expansive play got results, but fortune was integral to their success.

Wales were gifted all of their points in the 14-13 victory over France, and Francois Trinh-Duc’s missed penalty handed the Welsh a fortunate win in Cardiff.

However, no conversation regarding Welsh rugby can omit the forwards. Captain Alun Wyn Jones inspired his team once again, commanding the line-out with few problems, while back row Aaron Shingler caught the eye, combining ease with ball in hand whilst also doing the dirty work at the breakdown.

Gatland will be satisfied with his team’s work this year but the New Zealander will demand much more before he leaves his role after the World Cup.

Champions: Ireland

Under Joe Schmidt, Ireland are the real deal.

The Kiwi’s side have overtaken England and are now second in the world rankings, and can now expect to be present during the latter stages of next year’s World Cup.

They entered the tournament with a settled squad – only one uncapped player was included – but it was the relatively new Jacob Stockdale who lit up Championship.

The winger scored seven tries – a tournament record – in his first Six Nations campaign, and now has as many tries as he has caps 10 matches into his international career.

But the entire team welded together, all doing exactly what was required to win. While Stockdale was crossing the whitewash, Keith Earls provided invaluable experience on the other wing, and his try-saving tackle on Elliot Daly – tapping his heels – denied England a near-certain try.

Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton showed their usual class.

This was expected but they still had a job to do. Murray marshalled the Irish forwards for over 40 phases before Sexton lashed over a drop-goal from 40m in the final play to defeat France in the first round. Very few half back combinations in the world could replicate that.

And up front, Tadgh Furlong held the Irish scrum firm, allowing CJ Stander to carry from No.8. His 96 carries throughout the Championship was the second most in tournament history, only behind the 104 the Munsterman himself made last year.

Both led the pack along with captain and hooker Rory Best to make Ireland one of the most complete teams in the world right now.

Japan 2019 can’t come soon enough.

Ireland rugby image courtesy of Liam Moloney via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Review – The Battle by Paul O’Connell

To rugby union fans, the name Paul O’Connell is synonymous with the northern hemisphere game; he is one of the modern greats of the game, but has an incredibly humble background story.

He won over 100 caps for Ireland, won a Grand Slam in the Six Nations, been on three British and Irish Lions tours, and played in numerous World Cups, not to forget Heineken Cup wins as well.

Had it not been for Brian O’Driscoll’s brilliant career at the same time as his, he would have arguably been the best Irish player of his generation.

He was a die-hard second row forward, putting his heart into every tackle and getting stuck in at most of the breakdowns. He finally retired at the age of 35 in 2015, after an illustrious 14-year career with Munster, his home province.

Having played rugby for 10 years myself, I was keen to learn about his experiences playing the game at the top level, and this frank and honest memoir explains just how brutal rugby can be – not only physically, but mentally as well.

Calling it quits

O’Connell was a player who strived for excellence throughout his career, be it playing for Munster, Ireland or the Lions. He wanted to be the best, and he wanted to be in peak physical condition whenever he played.

“O’Connell is an honest man, and he knew he had run out of steam, which is fair enough for a player who had given his life to the sport for the best part of 20 years”

He recalls how, after years of doing it, he took the big decision to quit whilst swimming, a passage which resonated with me about my own childhood experience of playing sport.

He recounts having to tell his father of his choice, and how hard it was to get the words out, because, having put so much effort in to help him, he was worried his dad wouldn’t be happy with his decision. His reply? “It’s your decision and I’ll back it” – a similar reaction to the one I encountered.

Towards the end of my rugby career at youth level, I was finding the sheer physicality was taking its toll on me mentally, and even though we are completely different people, O’Connell was in a similar state of mind towards the end of his career.

Aftermath

O’Connell talks about getting injured in Ireland’s final game of the 2015 World Cup, saying: “It came into my head that I’d be stronger in the second half. And then, on 39.42, I got pulled out of the ring.”

This resonated with me after looking back at my career, playing one of the best games of my life, only to break my collarbone in a tackle.

The mental battle during the months of recuperation ahead is the toughest part of injuries – a key topic O’Connell which dwells on throughout the book.

He recalls how as entered the final phase of his career, the aftermath of matches began taking an increasingly tough toll. “When I got into my thirties, the same aches and pains were telling me it was time to retire.”

O’Connell is an honest man, and he knew he had run out of steam, which is fair enough for a player who had given his life to the sport for the best part of 20 years.

Choking

Nor was was it just on the field of play where the stresses and strains of an increasingly professionalised sport manifested themselves.

“He was a brutal player too, and reminisces about the dark side of rugby”

O’Connell recalls one training session where “we collapsed the maul and the digs were flying… I rained five or six punches down on the back of Quinny’s head… In the dressing room afterwards, he was laughing about it. He couldn’t believe I’d belted him.”

Contrast that with another episode in 2007 when, during Ireland training, he got into a scuffle with Ulster player Ryan Caldwell. O’Connell punched him, fracturing his jaw and knocking him out, and was terrified he was swallowing and choking on blood.

This was a turning point for O’Connell. “What happened to Ryan Caldwell changed me,” he reveals. “It was the worst moment of my career. I never threw a punch in training again.”

Brutal

I got great enjoyment out of reading this book simply due to the fact that I could relate to a lot of the issues that O’Connell discusses.

Of course, he’s a legend in his sport and captained his country, but having skippered my youth team for the last five years of my playing career, I could buy into where he was coming from.

O’Connell wasn’t your everyday modern rugby player. He flitted between sports, trying to find his niche throughout his teenage years, and didn’t begin to excel at rugby union until he was 16 years old.

He was a brutal player too, and reminisces about the dark side of rugby. “The first thing you do after kick-off, find your opposing player, and give him a shoeing without getting caught.”

As bad as it sounds that was kind of the enjoyment of rugby – there were never any hard feelings after the game, a shake of the hands and you just crack on with it. This is something that O’Connell emphasises throughout his story.

 Mental strain

The mental battle O’Connell went through was the most interesting topic of all, though. He’d beat himself up if a performance wasn’t up to standard, and even went through stages of depression when he knew he wasn’t good enough.Paul O'Connell in action for Ireland. (Credit: Irish Daily Star)

O’Connell was always in a battle with his mind about his fitness, for the last 10 years of his career, he doubted whether he was good enough.

He was so passionate about the sport he didn’t want to let himself or his team-mates down.

He was a player who took this kind of thing to heart. Perhaps it was the thing that spurred him on to achieve greatness.

This is something that many people can relate to, whether they play sport or not, I know I took some comfort in knowing that I can relate to someone who was as good at rugby as O’Connell was.

What I enjoyed the most is the connection you can have when reading an autobiography; you look for the similarities and whether you have been in similar situations. In this case there were many similarities and that’s what made it such a good memoir for me.

The Battle by Paul O’Connell is published by Penguin Ireland.