Six Nations 2021: Ireland v England

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v England

Super Saturday’s second match saw England and Ireland completing their 2021 Six Nations campaigns in Dublin. England had been the victors in their recent encounters and soon took a 0-3 lead through the boot of Owen Farrell, though Jonathan Sexton soon cancelled this out. The match was a tight contest but Ireland found the breakthrough going into the second quarter with a lineout move, overthrowing to Jack Conan who peeled off the back of the line and – under pressure from Tm Curry – played the ball back into the gap between him and the line and straight into the hands of Keith Earls, who had timed his run to perfection an rounded Jonny May to go over in the corner. Sexton added the conversion before trading penalties with Farrell, and it looked like the game would see itself out to half time, until Hugo Keenan beat Elliot Daly in the air competing for a Sexton bomb into the 22. This put the Irish on the front foot and after a couple of phases, they managed to bring the ball up to the English 5m line, before Jack Conan picked from the base of the ruck and managed to power and stretch his way to the line for a second try, which Sexton converted for a 20-6 lead at the break.

Ireland looked like they had scored another try 9 minutes into the second half when Earls dotted down a Sexton cross-kick, however the try was chalked off for a knock on from Cian Healy in the build-up and the men in green were forced to settle for a penalty to extend their lead, while Sexton added another penalty on the hour. Things were looking bad for England, who were without a recognised fly half having replaced George Ford and then lost Owen Farrell to a head injury just minutes later – Max Malins having also pulled out the night before – but they were given a lifeline as Bundee Aki was shown a red card for a high tackle on Billy Vunipola. England kicked the resulting penalty to touch and after pulling in the Irish pack to defend the driving maul, Jamie George peeled off to the blind side and fed Ben Youngs to cross in the corner. The English discipline was – unsurprisingly for this tournament – lacking and Sexton added 2 more penalties to secure the game. There was still time for one final hurrah from England, and after Conor Murray was sent to the bin, stand-in fly half Dan Robson threw a wide pass to put Jonny May over with just minutes left, Daly converting for a final score of 32-18, that condemned England to a 5ᵗʰ-place finish.

James Ryan may be one of the darlings of Irish rugby, but I would argue that Saturday’s pairing of Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne is Ireland’s strongest second row.

While both of the pair have the physicality of locks, they play like extra back rows in the way they carry in the loose and act around the contact area, while they both have the energy to play the full 80 minutes at 100%. Even with CJ Stander having just played his last game in an Ireland shirt, the team has so many great options in the back row – Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Caelan Doris and Will Connors to name just a few – that having Beirne and Henderson in the second row allows the team more chance to tailor the back row to fit their opposition, such as playing carriers at 6 and 8 or a more defensive option of Connors and van der Flier on the flanks.

Do I expect the Irish to stick to this pairing once Ryan returns from injury? Not likely, though Beirne may return to 6 to keep the pair in the starting XV, but I feel that this is the second row partnership that will lead to the best Irish performances.

England

After last week’s great performance against France, was it any surprise to see England revert to type against Ireland?

Less that 2 years ago, England were playing in a World Cup final, but if you look deeper, the team was already stagnating under Eddie Jones. The win over New Zealand was the only performance of note in that tournament, with England benefitting from facing France and Argentina – both of whom were woefully lacking form – in the pools, and playing a quarterfinal against an Australian team that was also at a low point.

Following the tournament, England should have done as France had, change coaches and bring in the youth to give them a full 4 years playing together to build ready for RWC2023. Instead, Jones has stayed in place and the team has fallen apart. Too many players are picked on the strength of their name and performances years ago, while the form players who should be the stars of this team are not even getting picked for the squad. This has proved especially disastrous this year with the decision to keep picking Saracens players who had been relegated the the Championship so not played rugby for months, and it has left the team with players lacking match fitness in key positions. Meanwhile, the team has also unquestioningly gone for the new Eddie Jones approach of kicking the ball away at every opportunity and trusting a defence that isn’t actually as good as the think they are, while giving away dozens of ridiculous and completely avoidable penalties that kill off any chance of competing.

This 5ᵗʰ-place finish should be the last straw. Now is the time to move on from Jones before the team stagnates any further. 2 years is still enough time to bed in players like the Simmonds brothers and build this team up ready for the next World Cup.

Come on RFU, make the right decision!

Lions Watch

As well as the lock pairing of Tadhg Beirne and Iain HendersonKeith Earls put in a timely performance to remind Warren Gatland of his reliability. Jonathan Sexton has also done a great job of guiding the Irish attack as it has grown more expansive during the tournament.

Meanwhile, another anonymous display that included an early removal will surely put the nail in the coffin of George Ford‘s Lions chances, while Mako Vunipola was pulled off at half time after struggling in the scrum.

Six Nations 2021: Scotland v Ireland

Six Nations 2021: Scotland v Ireland

After a COVID outbreak caused their Round 3 match against France to be delayed, Scotland got back to playing by hosting Ireland at Murrayfield. It’s safe to say that they didn’t get off to the start they wanted, as Jonathan Sexton kicked a penalty after just 3 minutes to give the Irish the lead. The early phase of the game saw Ireland continue in the ascendency, and when Keith Earls, Chris Harris and Stuart Hogg failed to claim Sexton’s cross-kick into the in-goal, Robbie Henshaw was there to follow up an dot down the loose ball for the opening try, which Sexton failed to convert. This try appeared to wake up the Scots, and after Finn Russell opened his account for the day with a penalty and Hamish Watson won a crucial turnover penalty on his line, Scotland scored a try of their own that could only be described as rugby chaos: Stuart Hogg charged down a Garry Ringrose kick following a turnover and appeared to try kicking the ball up into his hands, only for it to bounce forward off his chin – not a knock on – before Hogg’s next kick sent the ball infield towards Finn Russell, whose own hack on caught out the retreating James Lowe and allowed the Scottish fly half to collect the ball and go over, giving himself an easy conversion to take the lead. That lead didn’t last long as good pressure on the kick chase gave Sexton another penalty, and after Russell missed a kick of his own, a silly offside from Ali Price let Sexton kick a third penalty to end the half with a 10-14 lead.

Ireland struck first in the second half with a lineout 5 metres from the Scottish line. The Scots successfully sacked the maul at source, but Ireland went through the phases with maximum aggression and Tadhg Beirne eventually found his way over the line, with Romain Poite adamant that he had seen a grounding of the ball despite relays suggesting otherwise. Sexton kicked the conversion and added a penalty to expand the lead to 14. As the half went on, the game became so fast and furious all that was missing was a cameo from Vin Diesel, but substitute Huw Jones managed to brush off a grasping tackle from James Lowe and burst between him and Hugo Keenan to score a crucial try for the Scots, which was converted by Stuart Hogg, who was taking over the kicking and fly half responsibilities due to Finn Russell suffering a head injury. An injury to Scott Cummings after Scotland had brought on all their replacement forwards saw replacement scrum half Scott Steele employed as a makeshift blindside flanker, but he didn’t look out of place and got stuck in with the pack as Scotland hammered on the Irish try line following a series of penalties in the Irish 22, and Hamish Watson finally managed to twist and turn his way over the line and get the ball to ground, with Hogg kicking the conversion to draw things level. Unfortunately for the Scots, Ali Price saw his box kick charged down in his 22 – not the first time in this year’s tournament – and though he recovered the loose ball, he was pinged for holding on with Iain Henderson latched in over the top, and Sexton took his time to kick the crucial penalty to hand the Irish a 24-27 victory.

While some poor discipline certainly cost the Scots at crucial times, there was something else that proved even more costly: their lineout. The men in blue won just 2 of their 8 lineouts, while they also gave away a free kick at one before the throw.

Of course the Irish lineout – under the tutelage of Paul O’Connell – will cause any team problems, but a team looking to regularly win against Tier 1 nations needs to be doing better. This far into the tournament, you can’t even use the absence of Fraser Brown and Stuart McInally as an excuse, as George Turner has had plenty of time with the starting XV and with 14 caps to his name can no longer be considered a rookie at international level.

With Italy up next, Scotland need to show a massive improvement in this area if they are to have any chance of being competitive there when they play their rearranged fixture against the French. If not, then then a season that promised so much will see them finish in the bottom half of the standings again.

Ireland

As well as stealing most of the Scottish lineouts, the Irish also managed to somewhat dominate the breakdown. The physicality of the Irish pack is always there with players Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, Iain Henderson, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne and CJ Stander, and having players like Robbie Henshaw and James Lowe just adds to that and helps put the team on the front foot in the contact, while other players are very technically good in contact too, allowing them to bring down their man maybe not with a dominant tackle, but till in a way that gives the jackal every chance of winning a turnover.

And now let’s talk about those jackals. The Irish don’t rely on just 1 or 2 players for their jackaling, 1-23 will be happy to get in there and latch on the ball, and so many of them are famed for their jackaling ability, especially when you have one or both of Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson in the second row.

With so many jackals on the pitch and players trained to tackle in a way that will give them the best chance to win the turnover, it makes it hard for a side to attack effectively, as they will have to commit numbers to the breakdown, and will eventually run out of support after a number of phases. Usually it would be the defence that would tire quicker during a protracted period of play, but by defending in this way, it allows the Irish to stay organised and limit the effort they are putting out, keeping them fresh to attack with clinical ferocity.

The Irish attack may still be a work in progress under Andy Farrell, but their defence will keep them in contention against most teams.

Lions Watch

While CJ Stander had a quieter match (by his standards), Man of the Match Tadhg Beirne and lock Iain Henderson must be securing their places in the Lions squad with fantastic all-round games, while Robbie Henshaw is arguably a contender for Player of the Tournament. Meanwhile, Hamish Watson once again showed that his talents at the breakdown are just the tip of the iceberg with some ferocious carrying.

Unfortunately, in an area with such depth, both Duhan van der Merwe and James Lowe will be disappointed with their performances in this match considering their lack of Test experience, while Jamison Gibson-Park struggled for consistency with his box kicks and Ali Price may have found himself getting charged down once too often for Warren Gatland’s liking.

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Wales

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Wales

Wales’ unlikeliest of Grand Slam campaigns continued on Saturday with their trip to Rome to face Italy. Wales secured the Triple Crown with a win over England 2 weeks ago and were ahead within minutes as Luca Bigi was pinged for being off his feet at the ruck, allow Dan Biggar to kick an early penalty. Bigi was penalised again just minutes later for not being back 10 before tackling Gareth Davies after the scrumhalf took a quick penalty in the Italian 22, leading to the hooker being sent to the bin. Wales took immediate advantage of the extra man, calling for a scrum and spreading the ball on first phase, with Dan Biggar’s wide pass putting Josh Adams outside his man to go over in the corner, with Biggar adding the extras. Wales were soon scoring again, with Josh Adams taking on 3 defenders to bring the ball up to the Italian try line. With the Azzurri defence caught narrow, Wales spread the ball wide to the other wing, where Louis Rees-Zammit took advantage of the overlap to send Taulupe Faletau over, Biggar just missing the conversion. The Italians were struggling to cope with the Welsh maul from the lineout and it proved costly for the next 2 tries as Ken Owens was driven over for number 3, while the maul set up the platform for Owens to break off and stretch for the line to secure the bonus point, with Biggar going 1 of 2 on these conversions. Wales had one more chance to stretch the lead before the break, but Dan Biggar’s pass to release Louis Rees-Zammit drifted forward and they were forced to settle for a 0-27 lead.

It didn’t take long for Wales to score once the game restarted, with Jonathan Davies running a straight line on first phase off a scrum, getting his arms through the tackle and offloading to George North to race in under the posts, giving Biggar an easy conversion. The game was long over as a contest, but the Italians were desperate not to be nilled, and Monty Ioane got them on the scoreboard by chasing his own chip into the Welsh 22 and holding strong through Liam Williams’ tackle, with Paolo Garbisi converting from the touchline. Wales almost had an immediate answer, but Josh Adams was a little to casual dotting down the ball as he rode a tackle in the corner, and it was adjudged that his foot had entered touch in goal before the ball was grounded. It looked like the Italians took a little hope from this, but any growing momentum was quickly dashed as they again found themselves down to 14, with replacement prop Marco Riccioni being sent to the bin for leading with the forearm. The penalty gave Wales possession and territory and after a series of phases close tot he Italian line, Callum Sheedy popped up on Josh Navidi’s shoulder to slip through for his first Test try, which he converted. As Wales took off their big names early to rest them ahead of next week’s Grand Slam decider with France, Italy started to get more possession in the Welsh half and create half-chances, but they could not find the finish and ended up being their own worst enemies, with Rees-Zammit intercepting Carlo Canna’s looped pass inside his own 22 and racing away to score untouched, Sheedy converting. Italy continued to press in the final minutes, but once again their accuracy failed them as they knocked on short of the line, bringing an end to a 7-48 loss.

Italy

After a somewhat promising start to the tournament, these last 2 matches have been embarrassing for Italy. They haven’t been accurate enough in attack, while their discipline has been absolutely awful, gifting teams possession, territory and points. as if that wasn’t bad enough, both of the last 2 games have seen 2 Italians get sent to the bin. It’s hard enough for them to stay competitive with 15 on the pitch, so spending so much time at a numerical disadvantage is killing them.

Of those 4 yellow cards, 2 were given to Luca Bigi, who as captain has been setting an awful example to his young team. The hooker has been a penalty machine all tournament, giving away territory and possession frequently with cheap infringements that were wholly unnecessary, while his 2 yellow cards have led to 4 tries while he has been getting a breather in the sin bin. As a captain, that just isn’t good enough – you wouldn’t see a player like Alun Wyn Jones getting pinged as cheaply or frequently. He may be one of the oldest and most experienced players in the squad, but that doesn’t necessarily make him captaincy material.

Maybe it is time that Franco Smith looked at other options for the captaincy. Carlo Canna provides similar experience and always leads by example even when being used as a crash ball option rather than a playmaker, while Seb Negri is another who is nailed on for a starting spot and always puts in 100%. Will we see a change in leadership next week? I doubt it, but Bigi will need a big – and clean – game.

Wales

I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve seen Wales change 13 or 14 men for this fixture and struggle for 50-60 minutes before finally pulling away at the end as they bring on all their top players. Well this time, as they finally look to put a run of results together, they made only a couple of changes, picking what could arguably be considered their best available XV.

This definitely ended up being the right move as the chemistry between the players was clear to see, and it helped Wales set a tempo early on that allowed them to dominate and secure the bonus point victory in just half an hour. Not only this, but it allowed players like Ken Owens and Alun Wyn Jones to get a decent run-out to stay match-ready, but also allowed them to get an early rest in the second half with next Saturday’s trip to Paris looming.

Could it be considered a missed opportunity to hand starts to a couple of different players, like Callum Sheedy and Uilisi Halaholo? Yes, but while these would have been the changes to make most sense, the starting midfield tri has very little gametime together, so the extra experience of playing together in a Test match could prove vital when the take on Les Bleus.

Lions Watch

It’s hard to really draw any thoughts on players whose Lions chances were harmed by this performance, as nobody performed so badly that they stood out in such a clinical performance, not even Josh Adams, who will surely ensure the ball is grounded quicker next time, with plenty of rivals for the wing spots.

One of those rivals for the wing spot will surely be Louis Rees-Zammit. There is nothing scarier in rugby than a player with pace and the Gloucester wing has that in droves, highlighted by his run home after the intercept, during which he may have just left third gear. Meanwhile just inside him, George North‘s transition into an international 13 is going much better than I expected and that versatility may just earn him a spot in the squad as Warren Gatland knows him well.

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Ireland

Six Nations 2021: Italy v Ireland

After a week off from the competition, the 2021 Six Nations returned with just 2 of the 3 scheduled matches following an outbreak of COVID-19 in the French squad. First upon Saturday was a trip to the Stadio Olimpico, where Italy were hosting Ireland.

The Azzurri were already missing a number of players coming into the match and lost scrum half Stephen Varney to injury in the warm-up, but took an early lead through the boot of Paolo Garcia. Ireland soon drew level through Jonathan Sexton, before Iain Henderson thought he had scored the opening try of the match, only for referee Mathieu Raynal and TMO Romain Poite to both decide that he had lost control during the grounding. This only delayed the inevitable though, as a series of phases just short of the line drew in the Italian defence, allowing the ball to be spread to Garry Ringrose, who crossed next to the posts, giving Sexton an easy conversion. Sexton added another penalty and then on the half hour match found themselves over for another try, with a break downthe blind side of a maul from Jamison Gibson-Park, Sexton and Keith Earls, and when the ball came left, Garry Ringrose offloaded to Hugo Keenan on a great line to go in unchallenged, leaving Sexton with another easy kick for the extras. Just a few minutes later, some silky hands from Ronan Kelleher, Sexton and Jordan Larmour saw Will Connors put over for a try out wide with Sexton scoring a much more difficult conversion. The game was at risk of getting away from the Azzurri, but a penalty at the end of the half gave them a lineout 5m out, and after bringing the ball infield for a couple of phases, Garbisi attacked the blind side and managed to get his arms through the tackle to offload to Johan Meyer for the try, which the young fly half converted for a 10-27 halftime deficit.

That was pretty much the last time that the Italians looked like scoring in this game, while Italy soon found themselves securing the bonus point as CJ Stander powered over just a couple of minutes after the restart, Sexton again converting. The rest of the third quarter was a dull affair as the replacements stared to break up the game, but all that changed on the hour mark as replacement prop Giosuè Zilocchi was sent to the bin for going off his feet at a ruck. From the resulting penalty, Kelleher took the tap and go, and a couple f phases later CJ Stander had his second try, though this was ruled out when the TMO found a knock on in the build-up. This as just a brief reprieve however, and after captain Luca Bigi was also sent to the bin, the Irish pack used their numerical advantage to control a 5m catch and drive, pushing Will Connors over for his second of the day, with Sexton once again adding the extras. The Irish thought they had another try just minutes later as James Lowe came onto a Craig Casey pass at pace to burst through the Italian line, but a TMO referral eventually decided that the replacement scrum half’s pass had gone forwards. There was time for one more try from the Irish, as one final attack ended with Sexton throwing a flat miss pass to send Keith Earls over in the corner, and the Irish captain kicked the conversion to secure a 10-48 victory.

Italy

This was the most disappointing performance so far in this year’s competition from the Azzurri, but it’s almost understandable. While they have been playing some great rugby at times, they are seriously missing the spark that some of their absent stars create.

While Johan Meyer can be relied on to make a couple of impressive carries per game – usually out on the wings – he and Michele Lamaro have so far failed to replicate the impact that the injured Jake Polledri has on a game, while Danilo Fischetti’s impact was missed in and around the breakdown today. Meanwhile in the back line, injuries have ruined what looked to be a bright future for Michele Campagnaro, while Matteo Minozzi’s 11 tries in 22 Tests have been severely missed as he ruled himself out of the tournament, describing himself as “physically and mentally tired, a bit too much to live another two months in a bubble.” And then to add to this, livewire scrum half Steven Varney was forced to pull out with an injury in the warm-up, leaving Italy with more experienced, but less deadly options.

Sometimes all it takes is one spark of magic to turn something into nothing, and these are the players who would usually be providing it. Paolo Garbisi is certainly trying his best to provide it when playing with ball in hand, but then lets himself down with his kicking game that invites the opposition to counter. Seb Negri can always be relied on to run hard, but Polledri’s absence is allowing defences to put more focus on stopping him, while Montanna Ioane has shown glimpses of the danger he possesses, but has generally been well marked by defences so far.

This spell of playing without so many gamechangers will benefit Italy in the long term, as it will force other players to step up and create those chances, leading to even more dangerous options when the usual stars return, as defences will have more stars to account for and will not be able to double up on them. If Franco Smith could find a way to convince the currently uncapped Paolo Odogwu to switch allegiance to Italy, that would be another player that defences would need to account for in their defensive planning.

Ireland

When it comes to the British and Irish Lions, the second row position is always going to be a tough call, with all 4 countries boasting such talent at the position. One person who is surely securing his place in the 2021 Lions squad (assuming there is one) is that of Tadhg Beirne.

Finally enjoying a spell of consecutive games in the Irish starting XV, Beirne has fully settled into Test rugby and is now showing the level of performances that those who have watched him play regularly for the Scarlets and Munster knew he was capable of. He’s a huge player and can use his physicality well, but is also so fleet of foot in the loose and has such impressive handling skills, while he is also an expert at jackaling over the ball while still supporting his weight. With this wide skillset and an incredible engine, he is one of the few players who is successfully managing to play both lock and back row to such a high quality.

With this Man of the Match performance, it is becoming all but impossible to drop him from the XV, putting him at 6 if you want a bit more ballast in your pack, or moving him into the second row if you want to add a different dynamic into your back row. Against the Springboks’ giant pack, don’t be surprised to see a dual-position player like Beirne earning a spot in the Lions squad, and potentially even pushing for a spot in the XV.

Lions Watch

So I’ve already waxed lyrical about Tadhg Beirne above, but I think that the entire starting back row for Ireland enhanced their chances of making the Lions squad, with CJ Stander continuing to highlight a return to form with another try, while Will Connors showed his reliability in defence as well as scoring 2 tries.

While nobody really stood out as having a bad performance, another solid performance from Jamison Gibson-Park and a great increase in tempo from replacement Craig Casey will surely be making it difficult for Conor Murray to earn his spot back when fit, while the continued form of Hugo Keenan means that Jordan Larmour is becoming somewhat of a forgotten figure, having a largely quiet first half today before being replace by Keith Earls.

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v France

Six Nations 2021: Ireland v France

Round 2 of the 2021 Six Nations came to an end in Dublin on Sunday as Ireland hosted France. Ireland were missing 4 experienced players from Round 1 through injury and suspension, but after both Billy Burns and Matthieu Jalibert missed early kicks at goal, Billy Burns broke the deadlock on 20 minutes with a penalty. A few minutes later, France found themselves temporarily down to 14 after Bernard Le Roux was caught tripping Keith Earls as they chased an Irish kick downfield. The Irish kicked the penalty to touch and thought they had taken an immediate advantage of the extra man as the spread the ball wide on first phase to James Lowe, who powered through Brice Dulin’s tackle to score in the corner, only for a TMO referral to find that his toe had brushed the touchline before he touched down. This let off appeared to galvanise the French, who immediately went on the attack and a series of offloads brought them into the Irish 22. With the Irish defence in disarray, the ball was spread wide to Charles Ollivon, who was able to outpace CJ Stander as he tried to get across to cover and score the opening try. Jalibert kicked the conversion and then a penalty with Le Roux back on the pitch to take a halftime lead of 3-10.

Les Bleus started the second half on the front foot and almost had another try straight away as Julien Marchand broke into the 22, only for Antoine Dupont’s attempted wide pass from the base of a ruck to be blocked by the face of dummy runner Paul Willemse. This attack cost Ireland Billy Burns, who went off for a HIA that he failed, while just a minute later, Cian Healy and captain Iain Henderson clashed heads and were required to leave the pitch for their own assessments. With so much leadership off the pitch, the French were able to get themselves into the 22 again, and when Jalibert reversed the play back to the right, his wide pass drew in James Lowe, who was stepped inside by Dulin, with the fullback drawing the final Irish tackler and popping the ball off to the looping Damian Penaud to extend the lead, Jalibert missing the conversion. The Irish desperately needed the next score and got it almost immediately, winning a penalty from the restart and kicking the ball up tot the French 22. Replacement hooker Ronan Kelleher’s first action of the game was to throw into the lineout, and the ball was stolen but not cleanly, bouncing in the 5m channel, and the Irish hooker reacted fastest to collect the ball and scamper in unchallenged. Ross Byrne kicked the conversion and added a penalty with 15 minutes remaining, but the Irish could not make any further breakthrough and after Jalibert struck the post with a late attempt at goal, the game fizzled away to a 13-15 win for Les Bleus.

Ireland

I can imagine that many people were nervous as to how Ireland would perform in this match with Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, James Ryan and Peter O’Mahony all missing. I would argue that the team actually performed better without them on the whole.

With Jamison Gibson-Park and Billy Burns controlling the game, the pace of the Irish attack was so much better, which allowed the Irish pack and midfield to get into the French early on, while Burns’ high bombs were putting Brice Dulin under incredible pressure. Unfortunately, the quality appeared to be missing on the bench, with Craig Casey not even trusted to come on while experienced and talented 9s like Kieran Marmion, John Cooney and Luke McGrath were all ignore. Similarly, Ross Byrne once again looked a passenger (and not in a good way) after replacing Burns and I think that it cost them. We all know what Sexton and Murray can do. Now is the time to leave them out for the rest of the tournament and look at other options, with one of the aforementioned 9s coming in to compete with Gibson-Park for the staring job and Ian Madigan coming in to replace Ross Byrne, as his ability to cover both 10 and 12 would allow him to either replace Burns or come in at centre to give the midfield a different shape late on.

At lock, I understand that James Ryan is the darling of Irish rugby, but he has always seemed to be a good workrate but little more, while this weekend’s pairing of Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson brought that and more. Capable of turning out at lock or 6, the pair brought dynamism with their carries, were dangerous at the breakdown and were also tireless workers in the tighter parts of the game, while Henderson certainly led by example from first minute to last.

Finally in the back row, I have always found O’Mahony to be a penalty risk if a referee is doing their job right, and while I’m not sure Rhys Ruddock was the right pick at 6, I would argue that Will Connors had a great impact in defence when he was brought on later in the game, while Caelan Doris will also provide a great carrying option once back.

France

I dare you to find me a better player in World rugby right now than Antoine Dupont. The Toulouse scrum half is a walking highlights reel! Every match, you can almost guarantee that if a player makes a break, he will be there on their shoulder to keep the attack going, while he has the pace and footwork to exploit the tiniest of gaps – and even highlighted in this match that he has a decent fend despite being one of the smaller players on the pitch.

Even when he’s not able to be so attacking, he’s still showing a range of skills, with a cultured boot – and the calmness to not rush under pressure – while his defence is also an underrate part of his game. And the scary thing is that at 24, he may not have even quite reached his peak yet, while he has a legitimate chance of starring at both the 2023 and 2027 Rugby World Cups. In the meantime, let’s just sit back and enjoy the show.

Lions Watch

Only the Irish to focus on here, and captain Iain Henderson put in a great performance all over the park, and was unlucky to not steal an attempted short lineout and long throw by the French on the own 5m line. Meanwhile, Hugo Keenan looked assured once again at the back and appears to be making the Irish 15 shirt his own, but will have to go a long way to beat out Stuart Hogg.

It wasn’t such a good day for James Lowe, who is currently getting limited chances to run at the defence like he would like to, and his disallowed try in a week where a number of wings shone for the Home Nations will hurt.

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Ireland

Six Nations 2021: Wales v Ireland

Round 1 of the 2021 Six Nations came to an end in Cardiff with Wales hosting Ireland at the Principality Stadium. Neither team had a 2020 campaign to be proud of, but it was the Welsh who had the better start, with Leigh Halfpenny kicking an early penalty after Peter O’Mahony was caught entering a ruck from the side. O’Mahony clearly needs to work on his ruck entry, as he was penalised again 10 minutes later for tucking in the arm and making contact with the head of Tomas Francis, leaving Wayne Barnes with no option other than to send him off. The Welsh were buoyed by the man advantage and soon doubled their lead after Jonathan Sexton was penalised for a high tackle on Johnny Williams. They let the Irish claw themselves back into the game however, and Sexton kicked 2 penalties to bring everything level. Then with just a few minutes left in the half, Robbie Henshaw ran a reverse and found a gap in the Welsh defensive line to break into the 22 before offloading to Josh van der Flier. The flanker was stopped just short, but a solid clean-out from the Irish allowed Tadhg Beirne to pick from the base and cross for the opening try, which Sexton converted for a 6-13 halftime lead.

The Welsh came out looking to play a bit more positive rugby after the break, and when they won a loose ball deep in the Irish half, Josh Navidi picked up from the base of the ruck and offloaded to outside centre George North, who used his support me to dummy his way past James Lowe to score in the corner, Halfpenny missing the conversion. 10 minutes later, wales found themselves in a similar position, and some soft hands under pressure from Halfpenny released Louis Rees-Zammit on the wing, who quickly got up to speed and dived in for the go-ahead try under pressure from Tadhg Furlong. Halfpenny added the conversion and a further 3 points just a few minutes later when Tadhg Beirne was harshly adjudged to have entered a ruck from the side. However the Irish hit back and with Jonathan Sexton off the pitch, Billy Burns kicked a penalty to cut the deficit to 5 points. The clock entered the red with Ireland in possession and making their way downfield, eventually winning an 84ᵗʰ minute penalty. Billy Burns went for the corner but overcooked his kick on a tight angle and the ball went out of play over the dead ball line, securing a 21-16 victory for Wales.

Wales

Wales should consider themselves very lucky to have won this game despite having a man advantage for over an hour of the game, because they played this game completely wrong.

With Ireland going down to 14 men so early in the match Wales should have been looking to keep the ball in hand as much as possible, probing along the defensive line to find the gap that will inevitably appear due to the 1-man advantage, whether it is by creating a hole in the middle or catching the defensive line too narrow to create space out wide for Rees-Zammit. In doing this, not only would it have created chances, but it would have also tired the Irish out, creating even more gaps to exploit as the game wore on.

Instead, Wales entered into a kicking duel with the Irish that on the whole they lost, while the Irish would then utilise their own possession and territory to work the Welsh defence as Wales should have been doing to them. It was only a couple of moments in the second half when Wales really played this right – and they finished both of these occasions with tries!

At the end of the day, a win is a win, but for me there are still a lot of questions about the way Wayne Pivac has this team playing.

Ireland

Ireland have such strength in depth throughout this squad, with almost all of the 15 men starting all able to be replaced by someone of similar quality. However, there are 2 key positions where the Irish are struggling to do this: in the half backs.

Though both Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray are in the twilight of their careers and hold the team back against top quality opponents, they are still given all the minutes by Andy Farrell, exactly as was the case under Joe Schmidt. Meanwhile, players in the form of their lives are lucky to make it onto the bench and get just a handful of minutes, usually once the result is secured. If they’re lucky, they may get a start against a team like Italy, but usually in a team so heavily changed that they build no chemistry with the first team players. This lack of chemistry with the first team and lack of minutes in key international matches leads to performances like today, where Billy Burns is brought on with just 10 minutes left and expected to change his natural game to fit into the scheme that has been made to get the best out of Sexton, and leads to extra pressure on their shoulders in situations like today’s final kick to touch, where they know they must be inch-perfect in order to to even stand a chance of being given minutes over the incumbents, and that extra pressure in an unfamiliar situation leads to mistakes.

At some point, Sexton and Murray will be unavailable, either through injuries or retirement. When that moment comes, Andy Farrell may regret having not given the players just below them in the depth chart more time with the first team.

Lions Watch

Tadhg Beirne and Robbie Henshaw were the standout players from this game and were very unlucky that being n the losing side meant they were not considered for Man of the Match, while CJ Stander looked more mobile than last season without losing any of his power. For wales, Alun Wyn Jones put in a true captain’s performance, carrying hard and repeatedly leaving Irish bodies crumpled on the ground following his tackles.

Arguably the biggest loser from this weekend will be Peter O’Mahony, whose red card just highlighted once again that he is not the player he was a few years ago due to the changed interpretations at the breakdown, while larger players like Beirne and Iain Henderson’s ability to cover the back row as well as lock will make them look more attractive against the massive Springbok packs. Similarly, Johnny Williams has a potential to be a bolter for the squad but needs the minutes at international level, so a failed HIA would have been the last thing he wanted, and he will be hoping that he is fit to face Sotland next weekend.

Six Nations 2021: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2021: 6 to Watch

It feels like only yesterday that the 2020 Six Nations came to an end, but we are already just a week away from the start of the 2021 edition of the Six Nations. In theory, this should have been a big tournament, with these being the last internationals before the British and Irish Lions Tour to South Africa, but the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is currently leaving that in jeopardy.

I’ve made clear my thoughts on whether the Six Nations should be going ahead in the current circumstances, but money talks, so to help myself prepare for the tournament and get in the spirit, I am back with my latest look a one player from each nation to watch out for during the competition.


England

He may already have just over 20 caps to his name, but with Mako Vunipola and Joe Marler out, this s te time for Ellis Genge to shine. Nicknamed “Baby Rhino” for his devastating ball carrying, Genge is now also developing into a solid scrummager, and at 25 he arguably still has the potential of playing the best part of a decade at the top level.

France

The absence of Romain Ntamack is a blow to Les Bleus, but also a great opportunity for Matthieu Jalibert to show what he can do. Capped before Ntamack, injury brought an early end to his first Six Nations, but this will be a great chance to build on his Autumn Nations Cup performances and try to establish a competition for the 10 shirt with Ntamack once he is available. A real attacking talent, expect to see him creating havoc with the quality of backs around him.

Ireland

Regular readers probably won’t be surprised to see me selecting James Lowe here, as I have been a big fan of him since before his move to Leinster. Having become eligible to play for Ireland through residency, I have been shocked at how little Andy Farrell has used him so far, but expect him to be utilised more as Ireland look to become more dangerous. Lowe provides something different to elusive runners like Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway and Hugo Keenan, in that he will be able to take contact and continue to drive himself forwards. If you go high on him, don’t be shocked to end up on the ground, watching him run away for a try.

Italy

The second fly half to appear on this list, 20-year-old Paolo Garbisi is one of the new young talents being trusted to play a key part in the rebuilding Italian squad. Garbisi looked assured during the Autumn Nations Cup and will look to build on those performances as he solidifies his place in the Azzurri XV. He will need his team to give him front-foot ball (which won’t be helped by Jake Polledri’s injury), but with a big boot and the confidence that comes with youth, he could be the one to lead this new generation of Italian rugby to improved performances and results.

Scotland

It’s probably no big surprise to see Duhan van der Merwe take this spot. Another wing to have recently qualified for his adopted nation through residency, van der Merwe brings a much more physical option to the Scottish attack out wide while still having the pace to exploit any gap. Early appearances have suggested that he will be given quite a bit of freedom to go hunting for the ball by Gregor Townsend, which could be just what the Scots need if they want to carryon last 2020’s success.

Wales

I was so close to picking Josh Macleod, but I’m not sure how much game time he will get, so instead I went for someone who has already been earning a spot in the squad: Louis Rees-Zammit. The Gloucester wing may still be young and have some learning to do, but he has one of the most dangerous weapons in international rugby – supreme pace. The only problem so far has been how the Welsh attack has wasted him and failed to give him the space to exploit, but if they can sort that out this year, he will be deadly!


During the Six Nations, I will be running a predictions pool on Superbru. For each match, you pick who you think will be the winner and the margin of victory and get points depending on how close your prediction was.

You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code tiernose

Guinness Six Nations

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Scotland

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Scotland

With 7ᵗʰ place sorted, it was on to Dublin, where Ireland faced off against Scotland for 3ʳᵈ place in the overall standings. The Irish were playing what Andy Farrell would probably consider his best available team and had the first chance to put points on the board with a penalty, only for Jonathan Sexton to put his kick wide. Scotland grew into the game and after Jaco van der Walt missed a kick on his Test debut, he successfully kicked his next 3 while Sexton also found success with a second effort. As the game began to open up around the half hour mark, an Irish attack was stopped by what referee Matthew Carley considered a deliberate knock on by Duncan Taylor and the centre was sent to the sin bin. The Irish took advantage of the extra man, kicking the initial penalty, and scoring the opening try just before the break, as Robbie Henshaw beat Darcy Graham in the air to a Sexton high ball into the Scotland in-goal, and Keith Earls beat Ali Price to the loose ball on the floor, though Sexton missed the conversion for an 11-9 lead at the halfway point.

The momentum remaining with Ireland after the break and they took advantage of it, with Cian Healy pushing over from a pick-and-go following a series of phases deep in the Scottish 22, before another set of phases in the 22 created a one-man overlap that allowed Peter O’Mahony to send Earls over in the corner, with Sexton adding both conversions. Scotland hit back with a wonderful solo effort from Duhan van der Merwe, sniping down the side of a ruck and past an oblivious Rob Herring before rounding Jacob Stockdale with an arcing run, van der Walt converting. However, the Scottish discipline let them down and Ross Byrne kicked a penalty. The Irish thought they had another try as O’Mahony was fed the ball in acres of space on the right wing, only for a covering tackle from van der Merwe to force him to put a toe in touch, but Byrne kicked another penalty to take the score to 31-16, and the Scots could find no answer in the final minutes.

Man of the match

Man of the Match Caelan Doris should be quickly becoming one of the first names on the team sheet. The Leinster back row brings an extra dimension to the Irish back row, making the hard metres alongside CJ Stander but also being able to open his legs and eat up the ground when given space.

Ireland need to find more ball carriers who can consistently make metres in attack in order to compete against the more physical teams like England, France and South Africa, and a back rower like Doris who can truck the ball up in the tight but also take the ball wider out helps to create a match-up nightmare.

Combining Doris with Stander also creates a degree of tactical flexibility, as both could conceivably pack down at 8 or 6 and do the same job around the pitch, allowing the team to vary who is at the base of the scrum to keep the defence guessing. With Stander an adept jackal, bringing in a flanker who will tackle non-stop would create a great balance to the back row and allow the star players to do what they do best.

Finding the balance

For so long, I have talked about how Scotland will be a threat if they can find the right balance, and it looks like they now have it in the back line. Ali Price is rowing into a very mature halfback and is probably underrated in his ability. In Stuart Hogg at 15 and whoever they have at 10 (van der Walt adding to the depth at the position with Duncan Weir, Adam Hastings and Finn Russell), they have a great playmaker axis, with Hogg creating space when he gets the ball out wide or coming in at first receiver to allow his fly half to play wider.

Duhan van der Merwe and Darcy Graham are arguably the most dangerous pairing on the wings, with Sean Maitland and Blair Kinghorn providing great alternatives, and with the current centre pairing, it looks like they are finally getting released.

Today’s pairing of Duncan Taylor and Chris Harris may be known more for their defensive organisation, which is an important factor in Test rugby, but they also help to create the platform in midfield by running at the line and also knowing when to pass. Harris especially has developed a better attacking game since his move to Gloucester and can be a danger in the 13 channel, while Taylor has the work rate that all coaches cherish. Combine this with the danger of the carriers in the pack and the dual playmakers, and the space will come for the stars out wide to shine.

It was notable that Scotland struggled to create without Taylor on the pitch, and also looked much more beatable in defence. Scotland need to get the Taylor/Harris centre pairing on the pitch as much as they can, or find someone who can come in and keep the dynamic going.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Georgia

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: Ireland v Georgia

The pool stages of the inaugural Autumn Nations Cup came to an end in Dublin as Ireland hosted Georgia. The Irish have been having an up and down tournament but got off to a good start as a series of phases in the Georgian 22 ended with Billy Burns gliding through a gap to score a try on his first Test start. Burns added the conversion and a penalty shortly after, but the Georgians hit back as Giorgi Kveseladze found a gap in the Irish midfield and exploited it, using Vasil Lobzhanidze as a distraction to beat Jacob Stockdale and stepping around Burns’ tackle to score under the posts, leaving Tedo Abzhandadze with an easy conversion to bring the score back within 3. Burns soon added another penalty to double the lead, and the Irish thought they had a second try around the half-hour mark after Rob Herring was driven over following a lineout, but replays showed that Beka Gorgadze had managed to get under the ball and hold it up. That only delayed the inevitable though, as Ireland went through the phases off the resultant scrum and created the space out wide for Hugo Keenan to score, with Burns converting. It looked like the Irish had another try as half time approached when Jacob Stockdale set Stuart McCloskey free down the left wing, however a review from the TMO showed that the pass from Stockdale had gone forwards, while one final attempt to score before the break was also adjudged to have been held up over the line.

The Lelos were looking much more competitive in this match and got the opening points of the second half with a penalty from Abzhandadze, but Ross Byrne – on early in the half for the injured Burns – replied with a penalty of his own. Substitutions, a couple of head knocks and a serious injury to Gorgadze stopped either team from building any real momentum in the second half, but the Irish finished the game on the attack and after earning an attacking lineout 5m from the Georgian try line, they faked the maul and instead sent CJ sStander on a charge for the line, however the Lelos succeeded in holding him up and holding onto a tied second half and a 23-10 final score. The result means that Ireland will face the Scots in the 3ʳᵈ-Place Final, while Georgia will face Fiji for 7ᵗʰ, assuming the islanders are able to play.

Taking their chance

Andy Farrell is going to have some big calls to make against Scotland. He needs to be looking to the future and figuring out the players who will be a key part of his RWC2023 campaign, but a 4ᵗʰ-placed finish would also be a very disappointing result, especially given the manner of their defeat to England.

For this game, Ireland put out a strong squad, but still managed to test their depth at some positions, with starts for players like Burns, Bealham and McCloskey and a debut for Shane Daly off the bench. I would expect that next week, they will go with their strongest available team, so who put their hands up for selection in this game?

Billy Burns had a strong first half, looking comfortable in his first start and getting the back line moving well for the second week running, while it was noticeable that the attacking quality dropped off in the second half after he came off. As someone who can also hold his own in defence, I would argue that the focus should be on Burns as the starting 10 moving forwards, with a view to having him as a leader within the squad by the time the World Cup comes around.

Hugo Keenan has had a great tournament and once again looked both dangerous with ball in hand and solid under the high ball. It’s hard to imagine that he won’t be a nailed on starter come the Six Nations.

Chris Farrell has been unlucky over the years that he has had to compete against Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, but he is taking his chance well and consistently helped the Irish get on the front foot in attack while remaining pretty solid in defence and has been one of their more consistent players in the tournament.

Tadhg Beirne is in such an interesting position, as he never really seems to have a bad match, but seems to struggle to hold down a place in the squad. An incredibly mobile player who is super dangerous at the breakdown, Beirne showed both of these skills in the first half, appearing a 6 in this game, but equally adept at lock. He feels like a slightly bigger version of Peter O’Mahony, but I feel he would be a great option as a 4, providing mobility and an extra breakdown threat to complement what appears to be the most balanced Irish back row of CJ Stander, Caelan Doris and Will Connors.

Building to success

It feels harsh to say, but the Lelos were poor in the first 2 weeks. This week however, they looked legitimately competitive against a 23 that was maybe not full strength, but still plenty strong enough to leave me expecting a very one-sided affair. That proved far from the case though, as the Lelos competed for the full 80 and were fully deserving of the draw in the second half, often pushing back the Irish with their solid defence.

To me, this is showing that part of the Georgian problem in the opening weeks was he lack of preparation, with them not getting to spend much time together ahead of the tournament and players spread throughout the French leagues, Georgian teams and a few in Russia or England. With such little time together – and much of that spent having to travel to Tier 1 nations who are too worried about themselves to travel to Georgia.

The Lelos need to start getting fair treatment, in the same was as people discuss the importance of Tier 1 Nations travelling to the Pacific Islands, they also need to be travelling to Tbilisi so that the Lelos can face top teams in front of a home crowd on a ground they know well. If they start getting that, it’s just a matter of time before they start getting results against Tier 1 nations.

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Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Ireland

Autumn Nations Cup 2020: England v Ireland

The second weekend of the Autumn Nations Cup kicked off in a wonderful fashion with England hosting Ireland at Twickenham. The English came in off a dominant win over Georgia and their impressive defence continued from the off.

After a tight opening 15 minutes, it was England who broke the deadlock as Owen Farrell made use of a penalty advantage in the Irish 22 and kicked a high ball out to the right wing, where Jonny May managed to rise above Hugo Keenan to win the ball and cross the line under heavy pressure from James Lowe. The Irish thought they had a chance to hit back minutes later with a lineout 5m from the England line, but their lineout issues returned as Ronan Kelleher overthrew his jumper and England won possession back, spreading the ball to Jonny May on the far wing who slipped through the defence before chasing down his own kick downfield for a stunning second try, which Owen Farrell converted. The Irish managed to regain some degree of parity but could not find an answer for the English defence. With just a few minutes left of the half, a risky Irish move off a lineout in their own 22 looked to have backfired spectacularly as Sam Underhill dotted the ball down over the line, but a referral to the TMO showed that he had completed the tackle on Jamison Gibson-Park and played the ball on the floor on the Irish side of the breakdown, meaning Underhill’s wait for a first Test try would continue as his team went into the break 12-0 up.

Ireland’s inability to severely test the England defence continued in the second half, and Owen Farrell punished their indiscipline with 6 points off the tee. However as the half went on, the English discipline began to slip and the Irish began to spend more time in the English 22. A clever kick from Ross Byrne caught the England defence out and Chris Farrell collected, only for Henry Slade to tackle him and roll him over the line to hold the ball up. As the clock ticked down, England’s win became all-but assured, but the Irish managed to earn some consolation as replacement Billy Burns chipped in behind the English line and Jacob Stockdale collected to go under the posts, with Burns adding the extras for a final score of 18-7.

The white wall

Ireland didn’t necessarily play a bad match here – besides the lineout – but they just had no answer for the England defence. While there is certainly reason to question Eddie Jones’ reticence to bring in some of the best attacking talents in the Premiership, the players that he put on the pitch are working so well as a formidable defensive unit.

They keep organised, they come up in your face and tackle you en masse to push you back from the gain line, while also taking their chances to slow down the ball and create turnovers. It hardly looks like they tire, but then as you tire, you see another player come on and do the same to you.

Argentina showed last weekend against the All Blacks how a great defence and doing the basics right can win you the game, well England’s defence puts them in that position and with special talent like Jonny May in the side, there is always that threat when they have the ball. Certainly I feel that there are players in the Premiership who could improve this team, but they are in a strong position already.

Tactical blunder?

It’s not often you can say this with your team down 18-0 at the time that you’re replaced, but Ross Byrne didn’t have a bad game. The Leinster fly half was given the start in the absence of Johnny Sexton, and would have wished for a much easier challenge so soon in his international career. However he played a solid, if unspectacular game, leading what was clearly an attempt to put England under pressure by peppering Elliot Daly with high balls – always a good plan – and kicking for the corners to take advantage of any territory. Unfortunately for him, England were able to deal with much of this and pay it back with interest, and it just didn’t seem like the Irish had and answer, though Chris Farrell had a degree of success attacking at 13. Probably the best moment of the game from Byrne was his last-second switch to a grubber that almost led to a try, but other than this it was a pretty basic gameplan from Ireland that barely troubled the home defence.

Billy Burns entered the fray in the final 8 minutes and, though there was little chance to show what he could do, the Irish attack already looked more dangerous. Burns was always a great attacking 10 at Gloucester and has continued as such with Ulster, being able to vary the attack with a series of passes and kicks. This was perfectly highlighted by the try at the end, recognising that the high pressure from the England defence would leave a gap in behind and putting in an inch-perfect chip for Stockdale to run onto.

And so with this improvement in the attack, a question should be asked of why Andy Farrell did not choose to bring on Burns earlier. It’s by no means a knock at Byrne, but the gameplan he was set up clearly wasn’t working, whereas a more varied attack may have got more success out of Farrell, Keenan and Lowe.

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