Eyes On: Ireland v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

Eyes On: Ireland v Italy – RWC2019 Warm-ups

The warm-up matches for the World Cup began on Saturday with Ireland taking on Italy at the Aviva Stadium. Both teams rested the vast majority of their starters, giving the rest of their squad a chance to earn a spot in the World Cup squads. Italy started well and put the Irish under pressure with 2 tries in the first quarter, but they were kept scoreless after that as Ireland grew into that match on their way to a 29-10 victory, through the Irish will be nervous after Joey Carbery left the field with an ankle injury.

Ireland

With the starting XV made up of players hoping to earn a spot on the plane, everybody will have wanted to make a good impression and stand out to the coaches. This led to a rough start to the match as the players struggled to gel, even against an equally experimental Italian team. After about 20 minutes, though, they began to settle down and find their rhythm. The defence took over in a way reminiscent of their 2018 Six Nations victory, while Joey Carbery and Luke McGrath took control of the game.

Obviously they will have much harder tests if they intend to win the World Cup, but if they can get their stars back on form, South Africa’s recent performances have shown just how effective a top defence can be, even against some of the most dangerous attacking teams.

Italy

During the Six Nations, I accused Italy of having too basic a gameplan to have success against Tier 1 Nations. Watching this match, I couldn’t think of anything else. This really came to a head for me when Callum Braley came on for his debut. As a regular last season for a Gloucester team that was great to watch in attack, he is used to a structured but varied offence. Soon after his introduction, I saw him bring the ball away from the ruck to the open side and look to slip the ball back to a runner coming between him and the breakdown… only to find he didn’t have any runner there!

Every single breakdown appeared to end with either a pick and go, a pass to a forward taking the ball (usually standing still) from the 9 or a pass to the fly half that would just see the ball shipped down the line. This was resulting in the Italians spending as much time going backwards on attack as they did going forwards, while one attack came to a dire end as flanker Giovanni Licata decided the best option was to kick the ball, only to slice it into the air.

The Italians are putting together a strong team, with great runners in the forwards and backs who can exploit the space, but they need to improve their variety in attack if they want to trouble a decent defence.

RWC2019 Winners & Losers

The Irish back 3 has some great depth, but aside from Jacob Stockdale, there are no real standouts at the moment. As such, a Man of the Match performance from Andrew Conway that saw him dominate his opposite number in the air and rack up 51 metres and a try will have gone a long way to earning him a spot on the plane. Luke McGrath also stood out to me as he did a good job of keeping his pack organised and linking well with the backs, while he was just an unfortunate stumble away from a try. For the Italians, Tommaso Benvenuti was one of the most dangerous men on the pitch despite little help in the centre, while Callum Braley set a good tempo after his introduction and brings a good level of top flight experience to the squad.

One player who will be very nervous following this match is Joey Carbery, who went off with an ankle injury. Luckily, the ankle isn’t broken but he now has to hope he can recover at a good enough rate to not be ruled out of the tournament. John Cooney must also be feeling pretty nervous after good performances by McGrath and Kieran Marmion (who was set as Conor Murray’s deputy before he got injured) in this match. For the Azzuri, Giovanni Licata did little to distinguish himself in a back row that it bursting with quality, while Giulio Bisegni really struggled to compete aerially against Conway and struggled to make an impact on the game in attack.


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RWC2019: Predicting the Ireland Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Ireland Squad

With the Pro14 and Premiership over for another season, thoughts are turning towards the World Cup and who represent their countries in Japan. The final days of May saw Joe Schmidt announce a 44-man training squad to prepare for the tournament.

This will be Joe Schmidt’s last Ireland squad selection as he has announced that he will be leaving his role as head coach after the tournament. This time last year, Ireland were on fire following a Six Nations Grand Slam and were about to go to Australia for a series victory. However, a number of stars under-performed in this year’s Six Nations and suddenly they look a lot more beatable.

Having had the chance to look at the training squad and some of Ireland’s other recent squads, I chose to pick the Irish for my next squad prediction. To be clear, this is not a matter of picking the 31 I would take, but rather who I think Joe Schmidt will take, so I have tried to avoid any biases I have towards any specific players.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, I think that Ireland’s 31-man squad will be…

Prop

No shock here if you have read my other squad predictions, but I am expecting Ireland to travel with 5 props. Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong are 2 of the best props in the world at this point and are almost certainly going to be the starters. Jack McGrath is a top-quality replacement at loosehead and though he has had some injury issues this year, I fully expect him to still make it onto the plane providing he proves his fitness, though I expect a 3ʳᵈ loosehead to travel as an insurance policy in the form of Dave Kilcoyne. As for the second tighthead spot, I expect that to go to Andrew Porter, who was the regular replacement for Furlong in the Six Nations.

Hooker

Joe Schmidt took 3 hookers to the last World Cup an I would expect the same again here given the much longer distance for a replacement to travel. Rory Best will be the clear favourite to start here and will be hoping to end his career on a high, while I fully expect Leinster’s Sean Cronin and Munster’s Niall Scannell to travel as his replacements.

Second Row

Ireland have an embarrassment of riches at lock, as shown by the fact that Quinn Roux does not make the 44 despite playing in 4 of Ireland’s 5 Six Nations games this year. Devin Toner is a key part of the Irish lineout so will surely travel along with Leinster teammate James Ryan. With some of the back rowers missing due to injury, I think that Tadhg Beirne will earn a spot off the back of a couple of great seasons with the Scarlets and Munster. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jean Kleyn takes the 4ᵗʰ and final spot, but I have instead gone for Iain Henderson due to his international experience.

Back Row

Peter O’Mahony has inherited Richie McCaw’s invisibility cloak and gets away with murder at the breakdown and constantly chopsing at the officials, so he is guaranteed a spot, as is CJ Stander, who had a poor Six Nations but is another quality player and experienced leader in this team, while he can also cover both flanker and number 8. Jack Conan is a different style of number 8 to Stander and in my opinion looked the better option earlier this year, so he will surely make the plane. The losses of Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy to injury are huge, so Josh van der Flier is all-but guaranteed a spot and Jordi Murphy gets my vote for the final spot, though I wouldn’t be overly surprised if Henderson was used as a 6 and a 5ᵗʰ lock (most likely Kleyn) taken.

Scrum Half

When he’s a his best, Conor Murray is one of the best 9s in international rugby, so there is no way Schmidt doesn’t take him. However this is where things get a little harder to predict. Given Murray has not been at his best this year, I considered taking 3 scrum halves, however Schmidt only took 2 to the last World Cup and seemed hesitant to take Murray off the pitch in the Six Nations despite his poor form, so I instead chose to pick just one other halfback. John Cooney did well when given the chance in the Six Nations and is also an option kicking off the tee, however I think that Kieran Marmion‘s performances for Ireland before injury will have been enough to earn him the spot. Honestly, any of the 4 scrum halves in the training squad have a good argument to make it onto the plane!

Fly Half

Like Murray, Johnny Sexton has been nowhere near his best this year but there is no way Schmidt will leave him out now. Joey Carbery has been the go-to replacement for Sexton and has had some great moments for Munster this season, so I expect him to travel, while his ability to also play at fullback adds to the versatility of the squad and opens up a spot for Jack Carty, who had a great Six Nations when given the chance.

Centre

Joe Schmidt often includes 4 centres in his squads and with me predicting that he will only take 2 scrum halves, that leaves enough slots open to do this. The first 3 largely pick themselves: Bundee AkiRobbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose. I think the 4ᵗʰ spot will go to Chris Farrell, who took part in 2 rounds of the Six Nations this season.

Back 3

All the selections I have made have left space for 5 players in the back 3. Simon Zebo is of course ineligible due to playing in France, which is a real shame. I think that Keith EarlsRob KearneyJacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour are the obvious picks here and I think that Andrew Conway takes the final spot as he has been around the squad more often than Mike Haley and Dave Kearney in recent years and has 5 tries from 12 appearances so far.


So those are my picks for Ireland’s 31-man World Cup squad, who do you think makes the list?

Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Wales v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

The entire tournament led to this moment: Wales taking on the Irish at the Principality Stadium with not just the tournament but also the Grand Slam on the line. A home victory would earn Wales the Grand Slam, whereas a victory for the Irish would see England win the title provided they beat Scotland. Unfortunately for Ireland and England fans, Hadleigh Parkes crossed the line in the second minute and Wales didn’t look back from there with 20 points from the boot of Gareth Anscombe seeing them go 25-0 up. Ireland looked set to be nilled but Jordan Lamour’s try on the final play of the game and Jack Carty’s conversion saw them come away with a slightly more respectable 25-7 score.

Shut down

This was an incredible performance from Wales! The nerve to go for a chip deep in the Irish 22 and take advantage of Rob Kearney’s wide positioning showed Anscombe’s confidence at 10 and he reacted well to his early shift to 15 following George North’s injury. Dan Biggar ran the game well following his early introduction and having Anscombe on the pitch as well gave them the extra playmaking ability to keep the Irish defence guessing. Coming into this game, Peter O’Mahony was in contention for my team of the tournament but he was invisible in this game, such was the quality of the Welsh support.

If anything, the defence was even more impressive. Though I would argue that the Irish attack was not at its best (more on that shortly), they were limited to just 2 chances of note, one of which was their try with the result already confirmed. A Johnny Sexton crosskick looked to have sent Jacob Stockdale away down the left wing, but Hadleigh Parkes quickly caught him and brought him down to end the attack. The choke tackle used to be an Irish speciality, but the Welsh made it their own this tournament and used it to great effect once again.

With the coaching staff set to leave following the World Cup, it looks like Wales could be hitting the form they will need to make a serious run in the tournament and send their coaches off on a high.

Over-reliance

During Ireland’s success over the last couple of years, some of the standout players for them have been CJ Stander and halfbacks Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. This year, none of them have been close to the player we know they can be.

Unfortunately, Joe Schmidt seemed very stuck in his ways this tournament and continued to rely on these players despite their drop in form. I was critical a few rounds ago about how long the halfbacks were kept on against Italy given the quality on the bench and this happened once again against Wales, with neither being replaced until the final 10 minutes with the victory already well beyond them. And yet despite this John Cooney and Jack Carty appeared to get the team functioning a little better – granted the Welsh may have taken their foot off the pedal slightly knowing they had won – and controlled the team on their way to the only points of the game. Stander as well also struggled to get Ireland on the front foot, generating just 9 metres from 14 carries over the 80 minutes. In comparison, Jack Conan took over at number 8 following Sean O’Brien’s replacement and made the same number of metres from just 6 carries, looking much more dangerous in attack.

Ireland have not turned into a bad team overnight, but in this match and this year’s tournament in general they have been poor. If Joe Schmidt wants a chance of finishing his Ireland career by winning the World Cup, then he needs to start selecting players on form rather than relying on players who have been stars in the past but are now struggling.

Growing options

Many teams will likely be jealous of Wale’s options at fly half, with both Anscombe and Biggar having impressed throughout the tournament. To have such quality options available, the question has often been which of them should be starting and who should be on the bench.

While Anscombe arguably brings more options to the overall attack, there have been questions over his place kicking, which has tested a lot this tournament with Leigh Halfpenny unavailable. Despite Dan Biggar being generally regarded as the better kicker, Anscombe was allowed to keep kicking duties following Biggar’s early arrival to the field this weekend and proved the faith in him well justified as he kicked a conversion and 6 penalties for a 100% kick success rate in this game.

While this not only suggests that he can hold the 10 shirt ahead of Biggar – who is an amazing player to bring off the bench – it also suggests that there may not need to be such a reliance on Leigh Halfpenny moving forward, which could open up extra options in the back 3 as it would allow the regular back 3 of this tournament (George North and Josh Adams on the wings, Liam Williams at centre) to continue playing together and building their chemistry as a group. If Halfpenny and these 3 players can keep themselves free of injury between now and the end of the season, it will be interesting to see who makes it into the back 3 for Wales’ next game.

Eyes On: Ireland v France – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Ireland v France – 6 Nations 2019

Ireland finished off the 4th round of Six Nations action with a match at home against France. For the first time this season, the French avoided making changes to the XV that put Scotland to the sword, but the performance would have left you thinking they had changed the entire squad. The French failed to get on the board in the first half, whereas tries from Rory Best, Johnny Sexton (who also contributed 2 conversions) and Jack Conan gave the Irish a 19-0 halftime lead. A Keith Earls try and Sexton conversion increased the lead to 26, before late tries from Yoann Huget and Camille Chat and 2 conversions from Baptiste Serin left the scoreline flattering Les Bleus with a final score of 26-14.

Work to do

Ireland may have come away with the bonus point victory in this game, but I think that this was more courtesy of poor French defence than anything special from the home team. Despite having 65% of the possession and 72% territory in the game, the Irish wasted a number of opportunities with poor handling errors. Potential tries from Cian Healy and Garry Ringrose were chalked off for knock-ons and a number of other great chances came to a premature end though poor handling. Had they been a bit more precise, then they could have had doubled their score.

Granted, there has been some rotation in the pack and centres due to a combination of injuries and resting players – including Rob Kearney’s late removal, leading to Jordan Larmour’s first start in the championship – will have hurt the team’s chemistry, however these players are still all regulars in the squad so you would expect better. I was happy to see Jack Carty and John Cooney get a solid 20+ minutes this week after barely being used against Italy and thought that Carty especially impressed with a couple of pinpoint kicks that kept the French deep in their own half.

The Irish will also be bitterly disappointed with conceding 14 points in the dying minutes as even when all the substitutions started they were in complete control and it was just a couple of defensive errors and penalties that cost them the chance of holding the French scoreless.

Coming into the tournament, many will have considered the Irish as the Northern Hemisphere team most likely to win the World Cup. On their recent performances that is looking less likely, but a big performance and victory in Cardiff at the weekend could change that outlook massively and still potentially win them the Six Nations.

Back to the beginning

Compare this French performance to the one against Scotland 2 weeks ago and you would never think that you were watching the same French team. While last week the French dominated the game, this week they struggled to even make an impact on it!

Despite having a recognised fullback in Thomas Ramos, it took less than a minute for the kick coverage to fail completely, with a kick form Jordan Larmour putting Ireland in position for what became Rory Best’s try. Ramos was also completely out-jumped when competing for a high ball in his own 22, which led to Ringrose’s disallowed try.

In defence, they found themselves manipulated by the Irish attack far too easily – most notably Yoann Huget biting on completely the wrong man, leading to him blocking off Fickou and leaving Sexton all the space in the world to take the ball on the loop and go over for a try – and can honestly consider themselves lucky to have not conceded more tries.

In attack they barely created anything, making just 138 metres in the entire game, a big difference from the 520 made against Scotland 2 weeks earlier! Louis Picamoles has been a big part of the French forward effort to create a platform, but in this game he was limited to just 2 metres from 2 carries – in fact all the forwards in the XV and on the bench combined for just 64 metres, half of which belonged to just 2 players!

While they just have enough points to avoid the Wooden Spoon regardless of the result at Italy, there is a distinct possibility that another performance like this could help Italy earn their first Six Nations victory since they won at Murrayfeld in February 2015. If the French are going to be so inconsistent in their performances, then they need to move on from Jacques Brunel, so that the next generation of players coming through like Antoine Dupont, Demba Bamba and Romain Ntamack can be in a team that actually has chances of success.

Inexperience shows

Last week I was very complimentary of the way Antoine Dupont played, however without the forward platform this week he struggled to perform anywhere near as well.

His running threat was gone – he made a total of 2 metres from 10 carries and was tackled in the in-goal by James Ryan on one occasion – but nowhere was his drop in performance more noticeable than when he was preparing to box kick. The kicking game is a more recent weapon in the 22-year-old’s arsenal and with his pack struggling to put him on the front foot, he was taking far too long at the back of the ruck and was caught out on a couple of occasions, most notably when Cian Healy almost scored a try as Dupont failed to notice that the ball had rolled onto the try-line, meaning that Ireland could come round and play it despite it still being in the ruck.

The kicking game is often one of the later things to develop in a young scrum half due to the experience needed to control the game effectively, so I am not overly worried for Dupont’s future prospects. However it looks like he will need a pack that can gain parity at least currently, so I feel that for now it would be beneficial to start Baptiste Serin in games where the pack may not be as strong, with Dupont there to come off the bench and take advantage of the gaps made as the opposition tires.

Eyes On: Italy v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Italy v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Sunday saw Ireland bring an end to Round 3 with a trip to Italy. While they made a number of changes in the pack, especially the tight 5, they put out their best available back line and tries from Quinn Roux and Jacob Stockdale in the first quarter suggested things could get out of hand. Italy got back into things though and tries from Edoardo Padovani and Luca Morisi gave them an unlikely 16-12 halftime lead. That was it for Italy though as they did not score a point in the second half, but they still made things hard for Ireland, who scored a further two tries through Keith Earls and Conor Murray to pull out a 16-26 victory.

 

Tried and tested

They may have got the win and the 4-try bonus point, but this was not a great performance from Ireland. The forwards went toe-to-toe with the Italians, but the backs struggled to have any significant impact on the game, with Roux and Earls going over from close range off Conor Murray playing the ball away from the ruck, Murray breaking off a driving maul and Stockdale pouncing on Italian errors at a kickoff.

Murray may have been credited with 2 assists and a try, but this glosses over a performance that was well below the level we expect of him, while Johnny Sexton was arguably even worse outside him. Sexton was also removed from kicking duties in favour of Murray.

After the game, Joe Schmidt appeared to suggest that Sexton had been roughed up a bit following the pass, but this is something that all top fly halves deal with when they take the ball to the line, yet Sexton appears to be the one who is most affected in terms of injuries. And yet despite both of them putting in poor performances, Murray was not replaced by John Cooney until the 71st minute and Jack Carty wasn’t brought on for Sexton until the 78th minute.

If I am either of those replacements, especially Carty, watching the man in front of them put in a poor performance and struggling to get the team going, then I would consider such a small cameo to be an insult. I understand that Murray and Sexton are the tried and tested options and I’m not suggesting that they be dropped moving forward, but if they get injured during the World Cup, then Joe Schmidt is running the risk of having to play someone who has just a handful of minutes’ international experience in 2 positions that are key to controlling the game.

Positives and negatives

Like their previous matches this year, this match suggested that Italy are a team on the up. They came into this game with Jake Polledri still unavailable and now missing Seb Negri and Sergio Parisse. Jimmy Tuivaiti and Maxime Mbanda played well in their absence (Steyn moved to 8 for this game) but the pair were both forced off the field due to injury. Jayden Hayward continues to play well in the absence of Matteo Minozzi and Tomasso Castello looked impressive when he replaced the injured Michele Campagnaro. For a team that has often struggled for depth, it is great to see that the depth in this squad is finally developing and while they didn’t score in the second half, the fact that they held Ireland to just 7 points in the final quarter is a testament to how much they have improved as this is usually when their performance has dropped off in recent years.

They are not perfect though. They still need to start scoring more tries and also make silly mistakes – they messed up 2 kickoff receptions in a row, 1 of which gifted Jacob Stockdale a try. Most importantly, though, they need to find a reliable kicker, as Tommaso Allan and Ian McKinley combined for 33% success off the tee, including a miss with the last play of the game to deny them a losing bonus point – why Conor O’Shea was adamant they attempt a difficult penalty from the touchline rather than kick for the corner is beyond me!

While it may go down as another loss, Italy are clearly taking steps towards claiming a big scalp in the tournament if they can continue to improve.

They deserve better

While I completely appreciate that Italy have been largely disappointing since their inclusion into the 6 Nations, I think the way that they are treated at times is absolutely awful.

Pundits and commentators are quick to throw out the stat of how long it has been since Italy won a match in the tournament and how many times they have been awarded the Wooden Spoon, while also talking about how well Georgia have done in recent years and leading the conversations about whether it is time Georgia replaced Italy in the tournament, without any mention that Italy actually won in Georgia 17-28 the last time they played each other! Georgia have arguably outgrown heir league, and the easy wins will mean that they continue to gain (arguably a small amount of) ranking points during the Rugby Europe Championship, while Italy are up against 5 Tier 1 nations so are always going to be at risk of losing ranking points during the 6 Nations, making the comparison to Georgia in the World Rankings look even worse.

The way they are treated during matches also does not seem in line with the Tier 1 nations in the tournament. Tito Tebaldi was (in my opinion) clearly blocked by Rob Kearney when chasing kick through into the Irish 22 – Tebaldi clearly turned away from Kearney, who continued to run across the scrum half and body-check him. Had this been the other way round, I would be shocked if the referee had not stopped the game to check the infringement with the TMO, yet in this case Glen Jackson chose to play on and had the TMO take a quick check in the background, while the commentary was immediately accusing Tebaldi of running into the defender and made no comment when the replay showed otherwise. I can’t help but feel that had it been a Tier 1 nation involved rather than Italy, the whole incident would have been treated very differently.

While I agree that Italy need to keep improving, all I ask is that they be given an equal footing and the same respect as Tier 1 nations and the teams around them in the world rankings.

Eyes On: Scotland v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Scotland v Ireland – 6 Nations 2019

Round 2 of the 2019 Six Nations kicked off on Saturday afternoon with Scotland’s second consecutive home match, this time at home to defending champions Ireland. The Scots came into this off the back of a win over Italy and started the better team, but 2 tries in quick succession gave Ireland a lead. Scotland pulled one back through Sam Johnson for a 10-12 halftime score, but the home team could not push on in the second half and Keith Earls finished off a Joey Carbery break to guarantee victory, 13-22 being the final score.

Missed chances

I have real sympathy for Scottish rugby fans as cheering for them is a roller coaster. Scotland created a number of chances against the Irish despite them defending well, but with the exception on Johnson’s try from a Finn Russell interception they were unable to cross the line.

One chance went begging when a Huw Jones pass went behind Tommy Seymour, causing him to check his run and give Jacob Stockdale time to get over and cover just short of the line. I’ve watched the chance a number of times and to me it is a matter of Seymour not holding his depth well enough, which is a poor error for an international winger of his experience.

Perhaps even worse was a decision to take a tap and go penalty 5m out with the Irish defensive line set, only to be turned over pretty much instantly. I understand that the penalty out wide was not necessarily a gimme for Greig Laidlaw and the lineout was clearly not functioning perfectly (it finished 7/10, likely hampered by the constantly changing cast of locks and back rowers due to injuries), but there must have been better options at that penalty than what they did.

While these were chances lost inside the Irish 22, there were also a number of attacks ended far too early by players trying to do too much as they chased the game rather than take the tackle and set up a ruck, while they were also let down at times by handling errors or silly penalties – while incredibly soft, Jonny Gray taking Sean O’Brien beyond the breakdown as Scotland had a chance to break down the right was unnecessary and stupid from a player that is one of the team’s leaders.

Scotland’s attack has come a long way in recent years and is looking good, but they need to start finishing more chances if they want to win regularly.

The understudy

After last weekend’s loss to England and with the Scots pressuring behind the gain line, losing Johnny Sexton after just a quarter of the match is the last thing Ireland will have wanted. The 2018 World Rugby Player of the Year has not looked at his best so far in this tournament and took a couple of hits early on that appeared to leave him struggling, but he did well to set up Jacob Stockdale for his try. Joey Carbery has been his international understudy for a few seasons now and has been playing very well of late for Munster, but he has had limited playing time against Tier 1 international teams.

This lack of experience appeared to show in the first half especially with Sam Johnson’s try, where his attempted pass to Rory Best was far too telegraphed and laid out on a platter for Russell to intercept. However he grew into the game in the second half and showed some of his Munster form for Earls’ try, recovering to take a poor bouncing pass from O’Brien, breaking through the tackles of Allan Dell and Rob Harley (who appeared to knock each other off the player), turn on the gas and run a line to draw in the winger, before throwing a wide pass to the now-available Keith Earls to score the third and final try.

With a week off either side of a trip to Italy, it will be interesting to see who gets given the number 10 shirt for the next match (assuming Sexton is fit). I would usually argue for picking Sexton for consistency and because 3 weeks without a match could see him off the pace against France in Round 4, but I think that with the World Cup just around the corner Carbery needs to have more time playing from the start to get used to controlling the game against fresh opposition at international level rather than coming on against a tired opponent.

Bish, bash, bosh

Last week, England pressured the Irish behind the gain line when defending and kept their defence on the back foot when attacking. Scotland tried to do similar this week but were unable to pull it off. The reason as far as I could see: the personnel.

Kyle Sinckler, the Vunipolas and Manu Tuilagi especially played such a big part in England’s highly physical approach last week, but the Scottish team did not have the players to pull it off. The back line especially does not have a crash ball runner like Tuilagi, instead focusing on a ball-playing centre pairing in Johnson and Jones with Peter Horne on the bench. In the forwards, Josh Strauss and Ryan Wilson are strong runners, but neither of them would be expected to have the impact of a Billy Vunipola (Strauss managed just 44 metres off 17 carries), while Wilson was replaced at halftime for the more defensive Rob Harley.

What impact does this lack of ball carriers have? It makes it harder to attack especially once they reach the opponents 22 as they do not have the players to punch it up down the middle and draw in the defence, making it harder for them to create the space to finish out wide.

Taking his chance

One player who has really impressed me over the first 2 rounds of the tournament has been Jamie Ritchie. Someone who probably wouldn’t have been starting were it not for Hamish Watson’s injury, Ritchie has really taken his chance so far. In this match, his 13 metres from 5 carries was bested by only Josh Strauss on the Scottish stats sheet, while in defence he completed 24/25 tackles and was a constant nuisance at the breakdown.

While the incredible raft of injuries in the back row is certainly hurting Scotland right now, when they get everyone back from injury Gregor Townsend will be spoiled for choice!

Eyes On: Ireland v England – 6 Nations 2019

Eyes On: Ireland v England – 6 Nations 2019

Ireland kicked off their Six Nations campaign at home to England on Saturday, but it’s safe to say things didn’t go as planned for them. England came flying out the blocks and went ahead within 2 minutes through Jonny May, while tries from Cian Healy and Elliot Daly left the halftime score at 10-17. A second half brace from Henry Slade confirmed England’s victory, while Ireland got a late consolation through John Cooney for a final score of 20-32.

 

Welcome returns

It was great seeing Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi back in the starting XV for England this weekend  and for me, it was one of the key reasons for their success. Often in recent matches, England have found themselves lacking the big ball carriers, which has often limited their attacking options. However having these two big names back, along with Mako Vunipola and Kyle Sinckler in the front row, gave the team a number of options when looking for the hard metres and this gave the attack a new edge where they could be attacking the Irish in a number of different ways.

Further than this, the added impetus from a couple of big names returning after so long could draw a big performance from the players around them, as happened in this game. Everyone stepped up in this match and did everything they could to deny the Irish even a foothold in the game. Johnny Sexton, Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose were quickly closed down every time they got the ball and it gave the players outside them very little decent ball to attack with.

Watching this game, I found the performance reminiscent of the win over New Zealand in 2012 under Stuart Lancaster. After a poor 2018, are things once again on an upwards trajectory for England?

Sorely missed

Though I wouldn’t say that his presence would have given Ireland victory, I really think Rob Kearney was missed this weekend. When it was suggested that Robbie Henshaw could start at 15 in the days leading up to Joe Schmidt’s team announcement, I scoffed at the idea considering how long it has been since he frequently played the position. I understood that with Kearney having just 1 appearance for Leinster under his belt since his return from injury meant he was unlikely to play, but I thought that we would see his deputy at Leinster, Jordan Larmour given the 15 shirt given his recent experience in the role.

Henshaw played a decent game, but he was put under heavy pressure which is exactly what you don’t want when playing in a position that you’re not 100% comfortable in. England continually had him running around his 22 trying to get to their kicks, which often found him finally getting the ball in a corner, close to his line, with a wall of white stopping him doing anything.

I can’t help wonder if Kearney’s presence would have helped as he is so good at getting himself in position ahead of time, it may have allowed him to deal with the England kicking game better. I think Kearney’s ability under the high ball would have been utilised too, as Elliot Daly was not tested in this area anywhere near as much as I expected given his performances in the Autumn Tests.

With a trip to Scotland (who will likely be fielding 2 recognised fullbacks in Stuart Hogg and Blair Kinghorn again) next weekend, it will be interesting to see if Henshaw keeps his place in the 15 shirt.

Unused

With just a couple of minutes left, and the game won, Eddie Jones brought on George Ford, Ellis Genge and Luke Cowan-Dickie from the bench. Now first off, I don’t understand why these changes were made with just a couple of minutes left as I doubt the players they replaced all got inured at the same point, but there was no time for them to have any impact on the match or really gain anything from the experience. And if he was just looking to give the players a cap, then why was Dan Robson left on the bench?

Gregor Townsend did something very similar in bringing on Adam Hastings with just a few minutes left, but besides getting players an extra cap, I don’t see what benefit it has for anyone!