2023 Six Nations: Wales v Ireland

2023 Six Nations: Wales v Ireland

We’re back! And so is Warren Gatland! The 2023 edition of the Six Nations kicks off with a new era starting for Wales: the second Gatland era, as he returns to replace Wayne Pivac. And as far as first Tests go, they don’t come much harder than an Ireland team building towards what they are hoping to be their most successful World Cup campaign.

And it took just a minute before a clever kick by James Lowe helped give Ireland possession 5 metres from the Welsh line, and after phases of pressure, Caelan Doris forced his way over for the early try. It was all Ireland in the early stages as Wales struggled to find an answer, and the visitors made it 2 tries from 2 visits to the 22 as James Ryan drove his way over. After 12 minutes of dominance, what appeared to be a knock-on from Tomas Francis while attempting a tackle on Jonathan Sexton led to the ball going to ground, and as Wales kicked the loose ball on, Hugo Keenan just beat Rio Dyer back to the ball but was forced to take the ball over his own line, and Wales were able to convert their first moment of territory into a simple penalty for Dan Biggar, though Sexton soon kicked a penalty in reply as the Welsh defence continued to give away penalties. As the game reached the end of the first quarter, Wales finally started putting some phases together in the Irish half, but James Lowe read Dan Biggar’s pass to Liam Williams and snatched it to go in from the edge of his own 22 untouched. A timely counterruck on the restart from Adam Beard gave the Welsh a scrum in the Welsh 22, and when Joe Hawkins’ first phase crash ball ended just short of the line, Dan Biggar found himself just snagged by Garry Ringrose as he looked for the gap out wide and he was pinged for holding on. Another penalty against Biggar allowed Ireland to move deep into the Welsh half, and then another from Faletau allowed Sexton the simplest of kicks to stretch the lead to 24 points. As the penalties against the Welsh continued, a strong carry from Dan Sheehan was stopped just short of the line, but Doris was unable to keep hold of the ball as Kew Owens put in a timely hit just short of the line. A couple of penalties allowed the hosts to go the length of the pitch, and after George North crashed up to the line, Jac Morgan was held up on the line by Andrew Porter for a 3-27.

Wales needed a massive improvement after the break and certainly started brighter, with patience on the Irish line seeing Dan Biggar send Liam Williams over for a try. The Welsh were looking much better and forcing some penalties from a shaken Irish team, but errors continued to hit them at the crucial moments: lineouts being lost, not going straight or being won cleanly; knock-ons deep in the Irish 22; a floated pass from Tipuric too high for Rio Dyer. And things got even worse for Wales as Liam Williams was yellow carded for a high tackle on Sexton just after the hour mark. And the man advantage eventually resulted in the bonus point for Ireland as Josh van der Flier was sent over beneath the posts, while Mack Hansen was denied a try in the corner with the final play of the game as a bouncing ball and covering Alex Cuthbert conspired to thwart him, resulting in a final score of 10-34.

Wales

Boy has Gats got a task on his hands! And the one man he no longer has with him is Shaun Edwards, who not just made the Welsh defence super-reliable, but also super well-disciplined. Wales’ discipline was awful in this match, almost reaching double figures by half time. And what made it worse was how avoidable most of the penalties were, as established professionals like Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric were continually pinged as they tried to illegally slow down the Irish breakdowns, while there were also multiple occasions that the defensive line was setting up in an offside position in the Irish half.

It was the same under Wayne Pivac, and it needs to be changed as soon as possible if Wales want to turn things around, as this match just highlighted how penalties just take the pressure off the opposition and give then easy territory or an easy way to rack up a score.

The big question is whether Gatland and co can turn this around in time with the World Cup looming.

Ireland

The cliché with Ireland is that they build wonderfully and look incredible a year out from the World Cup, only to find that they have peaked too early and to have a disappointing World Cup.

With that in mind, the complete difference in the Irish performance of the first half and the third quarter is a little worrying. It’s as if the team thought they had done enough in the first half to win the game without trying after the break. The intensity was gone, and it was replaced with some stupid penalties, such as Andrew Porter gifting Wales with a penalty restart for diving on Liam Williams after his try. Wales were suddenly making ground with their carries and finding gaps out wide, and Ireland can also consider themselves lucky that Rio Dyer was stopped after Sexton’s lazy crosskick in his own half fell straight into his arms.

The Irish team has built so well through this cycle and managed so many historic moments, it feels like this second hal f will have just been a blip. But Andy Farrell and co need to make sure the team realise how lucky they were to get away with such a poor half of rugby and put a focus on the importance of maintaining their high standards for the full 80 minutes.


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Six Nations 2023: 6 to Watch

Six Nations 2023: 6 to Watch

We are now less than 2 weeks away from the 2023 edition of the Six Nations, and boy is this edition going to be exciting. Wales and England come in with new head coaches, while Italy arrive with genuine belief of picking up some wins after wins over both Wales and Australia in 2022. And to top it all off, these 5 matches will likely go a long way to helping the coaches select their squads for the 2023 Rugby World Cup, with only a couple of pre-tournament warm-ups remaining after the Six Nations.

And so with the initial squads announced, it’s time for my annual look at each squad and selection of a player to keep your eyes on. And with the World Cup so close, I considered looking at some players who are maybe on the fringes of the squads, but found myself largely selecting young players who at this point are probably pushing to start but may not yet be household names. Who would your picks be?

England

Billy Vunipola’s disappointing return to the England squad is over and Tom Curry is out injured (but would hopefully not be used at 8 by Steve Borthwick), so with Zach Mercer still in France, this is a chance for Alex Dombrandt to try making the 8 shirt his own. A strong but dynamic carrier and real threat at the breakdown, the arrival of Harlequins’ Nick Evans as attack coach will surely get the best out of the Cardiff Met alumnus.

France

France did things right by completely rebooting their squad at the start of the cycle with 2023 in mind, so most places in the 23 are now secured. However the retirement of Virimi Vakatawa for medical reasons and a recent knee injury ruling out Jonathan Danty for 3 months, the centre position looks a little thin. Step up Yoram Moefana, who will provide another hard carrying option in the midfield. If he can form a strong connection with Romain Ntamack and Gaël Fickou, could he oust Danty from the starting spot come the World Cup?

Ireland

Sticking in the centres here and Stuart McCloskey had a strong Autumn campaign at 2 with Bundee Aki missing through a ban. Well Aki is back now but McCloskey also remains courtesy of Robbie Henshaw’s ban. A strong carrier with an eye for an offload, the 30-year-old Ulster star should have arguably earned more caps, having not yet even hit double figures! Can he do enough to beat out Aki for the 12 shirt? This could be the difference between a place in the World Cup squad or watching the tournament at home.

Italy

The most-capped player on this list, Jake Polledri was well on his way to becoming one of the very best number s in the game until a horror injury left his career in the balance. Well he’s back and included in the Italy squad, but has had little playing time for Gloucester this season. At his best, he has the pace to exploit a gap and the strength to make ground with every carry, while he is also an accomplished jackal. The question right now is just what level he can reach ahead of the World Cup and how much we will see him in this Six Nations.

Scotland

While Duhan van der Merwe has one wing secured, Darcy Graham’s injury presents an opportunity for Kyle Steyn. Eligible to play for Scotland via his mother, Steyn brings pace and power to the wing, which is arguably something that Scotland have often not had enough of in their lineup. Scored 4 tries on his first start for Scotland against Tonga and will surely be keen to secure his place in the squad ahead of the World Cup.

Wales

Wales’ late capitulation against Australia in the Autumn may have brought about the end of Wayne Pivac’s tenure, but it was also the Test debut for Ospreys’ Joe Hawkins. A talented playmaker who appeared to make a real difference in getting the team firing against the Wallabies after a series of dour performances, he also seems to fit the Warren Gatland template of a big physical 12 as he is comfortable taking the ball to the line and taking the contact himself. At just 20 years old, Wales may have finally found the long-term successor to Jamie Roberts and Hadleigh Parkes.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Australia

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Australia

After defeating the World Champions and testing their depth against Fiji, Ireland’s Autumn Nations Series campaign came to an end with the visit of Australia. The Wallabies were looking to get back on track after following up an impressive display against France with an historic loss to Italy, and they thought that they had got a near-perfect start as Nic White sniped over for a try after just 3 minutes, only for a neck roll in the build-up from Dave Porecki to wipe it out, while Hunter Paisami was lost to injury, Jordan Petaia taking his place. Ireland had lost Jonathan Sexton in the warm-up, leading to a first Test start for Munster’s Jack Crowley, and the young fly half opened the scoring with a penalty after 9 minutes. In a tight affair, Bernard Foley missed with his first chance off the tee as the first quarter came to an end while a good kick to the cormed with 6 minutes left in the half jut saw the lineout stolen by James Ryan. Discipline was frequently costing the the Wallabies in the Irish half, and with 5 minutes left in the half, Folau Fainga’a—on a a HIA replacement for Dave Porecki—was sent to the bin for a neck roll, and the Irish took advantage of the extra man to go to the corner. But when Dan Sheehan was stopped just short of the line as the maul spun towards the touchline, Jamison Gibson-Park was not careful enough with his foot placement and played the ball at the ruck with a foot in touch, bringing the half to a disappointing end and the score at 3-0.

Ireland looked to start the second half positively and take advantage of the extra man, but were unable to find the killer pass to convert the pressure, while what looked like a try for Jamison Gibson-Park as Fainga’a was about to return to the field was ruled out as Mack Hansen just put a foot on the line before offloading to his scrum half as Nic White and Bernard Foley tried to force him into touch. As the game approached the hour mark, Bernard Foley kicked a penalty to draw the teams level, but any celebrations were muted as Taniela Tupou left the pitch on a stretcher following a non-contact leg injury. The crowd was brought into voice with 15 minutes remaining though as a strong carry from Caelan Doris off a lineout in the Australian 22 put the Irish on he front foot, and after Craig Casey’s snipe was stopped by a high tackle, the forwards drew in the defence with a series of pick and go drives, before casey’s flat pass allowed replacement Bundee Aki to crash over for the first try of the game, Crowley adding the extras with a simple conversion. And it was as if the try was a shot of Red Bull to the veins, as Australia immediately went down the field and spread the ball to send Petaia over in the corner, with Foley curling the conversion in. With just under 10 minutes remaining, Ross Byrne was brought on to replace the inexperienced Crowley, an just minutes after his introduction, a scrum penalty allowed him a kick at goal from out wide that he made look simple. With just 2 minutes left, the visitors won a penalty out wide ont he edge of the Irish 22 and made the call to go for the corner, only for them to concede a penalty as the backs came to join the maul and failed to enter from the back, and Ireland held on to secure the 13-10 victory.

Building again

For so long now the Irish centre pairing has been almost as easy to guess as the starting fly half if Jonathan Sexton was fit, with 2 out of Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki starting, and often the other on the bench. Now, after years of impressing for Ulster, Stuart McCloskey is finally getting selected again for the national team, but it’s hampering the team’s fluidity.

And it’s not his fault, but just a matter of chemistry. Those 3 centres were so used to playing in the various combinations that they could help cover for even a sub-par fly half, as they had the chemistry to naturally know where the other would be. Now, wth McCloskey finally getting a shot, he is finding himself having to get used to everything: the Irish system, different fly halves and also different centre partners, which also hasn’t been helped by his early injury against South Africa and Robbie Henshaw’s against Fiji. And to have 3 different starting fly halves over this time won’t have helped things either.

It just highlights the importance of not just building your 23 early in your world cup cycle, but the entire wider squad and beyond. Yes there will always be bolters, but you want to minimise the impact any late bolters or injuries to key players has on the squad chemistry. Mich like I have argued that Sexton has taken too many of the minutes this cycle, has there been too much focus on the main 3 centres, and could this come back to haunt the Irish in France?

Shooting themselves in the foot

This was a perfectly winnable match for Australia. Their defence found ways to cope with Ireland for much of the game, while their few attacks of note did find chinks in the Irish armour. However they continually shot themselves in the foot with poor discipline.

I lost count of just how many attacks were ended by a gold-shirted arm finding its way around an Irish neck, making it all too easy for the officials to call the neck roll, so many so that it not only cost them an early try, but also eventually led to Folau Fainga’a being sent to the bin, while the lineout that led to Aki’s try was courtesy of a penalty to touch, and Rob Valentini was lucky to have a SANZAAR referee in charge to deem his head clash with Dan Sheehan just a penalty rather than the card he deserved.

Is there not enough focus on discipline during the week? Is it an arrogance to think that they can get away without officials seeing? Something must be causing this issue. And it needs sorting fast, or the team will just continue its freefall down the world rankings.


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Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Fiji

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v Fiji

Having backed up their Summer Series victory over the All Blacks with a winover World Champions South Africa, it was a very different Test for Ireland this weekend as they welcomed Fiji to the Aviva Stadium. The Irish had made a number of changes from their “first choice” XV and were lucky not to go behind early on as Teti Tela’s early penalty was pulled wide. However it was just a temporary stay of execution, as just moments later the visitors spread the ball wide on halfway and got around the Irish to put Kalaveti Ravouvou over for the try, while things got even worse for the Irish as Robbie Henshaw’s game was brought to an end after just 4 minutes. Nick Timoney escaped punishment minutes later for a no-arms tackle on Levani Botia, and the Ulster back row took advantage of this to go over for Ireland’s first try after 15 minutes, a time that should have still been during his sin bin period. Fiji were struggling to find an answer to Ireland’s driving maul, and after Kieran Treadwell was held up under penalty advantage, Manasa Saulo was sent to the bin for the team’s accumulation of penalties in their own 22, and the Irish took advantage of the extra man in the pack to drive Timoney over for a second try. Tela soon added a penalty after Treadwell was caught offside at a clearance, but the Irish were straight back on the attack and Robert Baloucoune was sent over for the try in the corner, with Mathieu Raynal deciding that a crawl in the build-up from Jimmy O’Brien was legal. A breakdown penalty against Levani Botia as Saulo returned to the pitch allowed Ireland to kick up into the Fijian 22 again, but after a couple of phases opened up space to hit back on the blind side, Mack Hansen knocked on with the line a his mercy. However when some of the Fijian kick chasers started their run before they were played onside, Ireland were given another chance from 5m out and after going through the phases, Jack Conan tried to crash over out wide but couldn’t stop himself being pushed into touch. As Fiji looked to attack in the final minute of the half, Tadhg Beirne’s counter-ruck led to a turnover and as Hansen chipped on, Fiji just about covered it under heavy pressure at the expense of a lineout close to their line, but the defence held firm andBotia won a turnover that allowed them to kick the ball out to end the half with the score at 21-10.

With Fiji struggling for much structure in attack, Ben Volavola was brought on early in the second half, but the Islanders’ chances of victory were dealt a huge blow just 5 and a half minutes into the half as Albert Tuisue was sent off for a no-arms tackle that made contact with the head of Joey Carbery. Things soon got even worse as Api Ratuniyarawa was sin binned 5 minutes later for collapsing a maul, while at the other end of the pitch Cian Prendergast showed them how to legally deal with a maul, coming through the middle to get on the ball carrier and taking him to ground. As the game reached the hour, the 13 men of Fiji successfully turned over an Irish driving maul, but they were then pushed off their own ball on the resulting scrum, which wheeled perfectly for Craig Casey to send Hansen over on the blind side. As Fiji returned to 14 men on the pitch, a fabulous offload from Seta Tuicuvu to the looping Jiuta Wainiqolo allowed the wing to break and feed back inside to replacement scrum half Simione Kuruvoli to go over beneath the posts, to allow Volavola an easy conversion. Ireland continued to attack and look dangerous as debutant fly half Jack Crowley appeared to have opened up the attacking game with his introduction, but a series of individual errors meant that these chances continually ended in disappointment. However as the game entered the final 10 minutes, a strong carry by replacement Max Deegan took the hosts up to the Fijian 5m line, and Cian Healy finally burrowed over for the try, with Crowley kicking the conversion to secure a 35-17 victory.

Developing depth

With the World Cup less than a year away, Andy Farrell was clearly using this match to look at the depth within the squad with a view to filling the final couple of spots in the World Cup squad, but also to start looking ahead to the players who will be replacing the outgoing generation as we enter the next cycle going into 2024. So who really stood out among the fringe players?

Nick Timoney was lucky to avoid being penalised early in the game, but performed well for the rest of the match, with his 2 tries and a Player of the Match award deserved after his big carries, while replacement back row Cian Prendergast also looked a real handful in defence. Kieran Treadwell partnered well with Tadhg Beirne and though he gave away a poor penalty int he first half, he made up for it with some great carrying.

In the backs, Muster duo Craig Casey and debutant Jack Crowley certainly appeared to bring more to the attack than the starters, though it must be noted that they also benefited from the extra space caused by Tuisue and Ratuniyarawa’s cards. Robert Baloucoune will be disappointed with the lack of good ball that came his way, but his Ulster teammate Stuart McCloskey put in a solid all-round display to try and further his claim for a spot in the first team.

Their own worst enemy

We all know that teams like Italy and the Pacific Islands are not often refereed as leniently as the bigger Tier 1 nations, but even so, Fiji’s discipline is atrocious!

While you can understand the odd offside or breakdown penalty as every team gives these away, they were giving away basic penalties like chasing a kick from an offside position or poor tackle technique—just look at Tuisue’s red card, where his tackle on Carbery was always too high, but then made even worse as he led with the shoulder and made no attempt to wrap the arm, or last week where a swinging arm cost them a yellow card.

But what really kills them is their inability to defend the maul legally. It cost them a yellow card last week against Scotland and 2 in this match, and that will usually be enough to kill off any chance of victory, especially against the top teams. And it’s not as if they are unable to do it, as they successfully dealt with an Irish maul on the hour despite having 2 of their more experienced forwards in the bin, so if they can do it in those circumstances, why cant they do so with 15 men on the pitch?

I recognise that this is far from their only issue, and that for those playing in Super Rugby, the atrocious disciplinary standards of SANZAAR will not be helping the matter, but they have the physicality and skill to compete against most of the top teams, and while they clearly need a fly half to control this team and get them directed, simply just improving the discipline will be enough to put the pressure on some of those teams above them and start turning these gutsy losses against Tier 1 into wins.

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v South Africa

Autumn Nations Series 2022: Ireland v South Africa

It finally arrived, the match we’ve all been waiting for: the World Champions facing off against the #1 team in the world. The venue: the Aviva Stadium. The event: the Autumn Nations Series.

The Irish opened the scoring with a Johnny Sexton penalty just minutes in after Garry Ringrose collected a chip in midfield to get behind the Springbok defence. However an error off the restart and a penalty from the resulting lineout allowed the visitors early possession in the 22, and though the Irish defence held them out, it was at the expense of a simple 3 points for Damian Willemse. A close affair in the opening half hour saw neither team able to to threaten much with their possession, even when the visitors were down a man for 10 minutes following a yellow card to Cheslin Kolbe, while Stuart McCloskey—a late call-up to the starting line-up following Robbie Henshaw’s injury—was lost to injury after 27 minutes, allowing Jimmy O’Brien to come on for his debut, having initially been named in the Ireland “A” squad earlier in the week. Ireland finally had a chance after half an hour, though, with hooker Dan Sheehan charged down Willemse’s kick and kept pace with Jesse Kriel on the chase, only to knock on as he tried to ground the bouncing ball. This appeared to spur the Irish on in the following minutes and they took the lead with another penalty, while Conor Murray and Lood de Jager were both lost to injury, with Jamison Gibson-Park and Franco Mostert replacing them. A clever grubber from de Allende and chase from centre teammate Jesse Kriel set the Boks up for a cross-kick to Makazole Mapimpi, which was just covered by Robert Balacoune, and just moments later, James Ryan successfully stole a South African lineout on his own 5m line, with Tadhg Furlong doing a great job to recover the loose ball in his in-goal and power his way through contact to set up the ruck back in the field of play, denying the visitors an attacking 5m scrum and allowing Ireland to clear their lines. However the Springboks had time for one more attack off the resulting lineout, and some strong carrying in midfield allowed Cheslin Kolbe to kick a simple penalty to level the scores at 6-6 at the break.

As the second half kicked off, Furlong was added to the injury list as he failed to appear for the second half, but after his replacement Finlay Bealham was lucky to win a penalty when under heavy pressure at the scrum, Mack Hansen and Jimmy O’Brien both made breaks to force the visitors’ defence to give away a penalty. Sexton, himself struggling after taking a big hit, kicked to the corner, and though the Boks drove the maul into touch, the Irish got enough of a forward push for Player of the Match Josh van der Flier to just dot down for the opening try just before being pushed into touch. And they were over again in the same corner just minutes later after Caelan Doris reacted fastest to the ball shooting out the back of a ruck, with the ball quickly going through the hands to find the space against a defence in transition and spread the ball wide for Mack Hansen to score. This prompted the inclusion of Willie le Roux from the bench in place of Arendse. And the experienced fullback immediately started to improve the quality of the attack as the game loosened up, with a clever grubber to the corner creating a great chance for Kriel before he sent Franco Mostert over for a crucial try with 13 minutes remaining, Kolbe’s conversion rebounding off the post to keep the deficit at 5 points. With just 7 minutes remaining, Sexton made it a two-score game with a tricky penalty from out wide, which proved vital as Eben Etzebeth used his incredible wingspan to offload out wide to put Kurt-Lee Arendse over in the corner with 4 minutes left, Kolbe missing the conversion from the touchline, and the #1 team in the world were able to hold on in the final minutes to secure a 19-16 victory.

Statement

This was a statement victory form Ireland. Granted the Boks were missing the best player in the world and their clear first choice at fly half, but ireland were missing a few crucial players themselves (notably late omission Robbie Henshaw) and played over half of the game with a debutant in the centre.

While the gaps may have opened up later on as Willie le Roux took control of the game, the Irish defence had an answer for almost everything the Springboks could throw at them. They fronted up physically, stopped the Boks having things their own way in the kicking game and made some crucial turnovers. But more than that, they caused issues at the lineout and actually won the scrum for most of the game, though I would argue that Finlay Bealham got lucky with some decisions just after coming on. And then in attack, they put themselves in the right area of the pitch, attacked when the gaps were there and most importantly took their chances.

A year ago we began to see an Irish team that could throw the ball around from 1-23, and we saw that in key moments to take advantage of breaks and half-breaks, but no more impressive than Hansen’s try, which saw an incredible offload from Doris, followed by forwards and backs alike looking to get the ball to the men in space.

Having won a series against the All Blacks in New Zealand, they had to back that up this month. And a win over the World Champions was a great way to do so. Now, they need to find a way to maintain this level through the Autumn and Six Nations, while peaking as they go through the knockout rounds of the World Cup.

Grounded

The Springboks have a problem at fly half. While Handré Pollard is the clear starter, he has missed time of late through injury, and is still prone to some worrying off days. Elton Jantjies remained the back-up for so long despite very few “on” days, but disciplinary issues appear to have ended his international career. Andyet despite neither of these players having been taking up space in South African franchises of late, apparently none of the clubs have managed to create a fly half good enough to be considered.

Damian Willemse continues to be given the chances in Pollard’s absence, but the more that he starts at 10, the more that he looks like a fullback or centre who can fill in at the position, as he struggled to create any attacking shape in the attack, missed a crucial penalty kick to touch just after the hour at 16-6, and kicked out on the full under limited pressure with 10 minutes left, while he was lucky that Dan Sheehan’s charge down of his clearance kick did not prove costly.

The power of the Springboks will be enough to beat many teams, but in order to defend their title in France next year, they will likely have to play at least 2 or 3 matches against teams who can front up to them physically. At times like that, they need more from their fly half. 12 months out from the main event, it feels like this is the one area where they are seriously lacking. And if they choose not to then play Willie le Roux (whose ability as a second playmaker to take pressure off his 10 is massively underrated) at 15, it could cost them.

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Ireland in New Zealand: Team of the Tour

Ireland in New Zealand: Team of the Tour

We are one week on from that historic day that saw Ireland ear their first series victory over the Kiwis in New Zealand. A fantastic 3-Test series saw the Irish recover from a disappointing defeat to make history 2 weeks running to win the series 2-1, while the wider squad also got plenty of rugby during the tour with a 2-match series against the Maori All Blacks, which ended 1-1.

And so, as we spend this period after the Summer Tours patiently waiting for the beginning of the Rugby Championship,it’s time to look back over the tour to create my combined XV. Now this one will be a little different, as I have made the executive decision to base this on all 5 matches rather than just the Test series.

Who do you think should have made the XV? Let me know in the comments below.



My combined XV from Ireland’s 5-match tour of New Zealand is:

1) Andrew Porter: Oh how the All Blacks miss Joe Moody. In his absence, George Bower got the start in all 3 Tests… and if you’ve watched Squidge Rugby’s video on the 2ⁿᵈ and 3ʳᵈ Tests, you’ll know how poor his performances were! In contrast, Porter continues to play at a high level after moving over from the tighthead side. He may still have room for improvement at the scrum and should arguably have received a red card for his high tackle on Brodie Retallick, but in the loose he remains an important player in both directions, and carried well for an important early try in the 2ⁿᵈ Test.

2) Dan Sheehan: It was a quiet series for Codie Taylor as New Zealand struggled to create anything in attack. Sheehan meanwhile completely outplayed his more experienced opponents, being solid at the set piece and being an ever-willing carrier in the loose, with some clever footwork helping to beat the defenders. With Rónan Kelleher currently out injured, this Test series may have just given Sheehan the advantage in the race for the #2 jersey.

3) Tadhg Furlong: Maybe not the most notable performances from the Leinster tighthead, but he was solid and reliable all around the park, which is more than can be said for the All Blacks’ options.

4 & 5) Tadhg Beirne & Kieran Treadwell: Regular readers will know that I’ve been championing Beirne since his Scarlets days, but now his quality is becoming impossible to ignore even in the biggest Test matches. Solid and reliable all around the park, he put in some great carries to help get the Irish on the front foot, but really stood out in defence. If he wasn’t stopping the All Blacks with a tackle before the gain line, he was getting in with the jackal to win a crucial turnover or penalty. Became a one-man defensive behemoth late in the 3ʳᵈ Test, with a interception and a series of successful jackals stopping consecutive attacks. As for his partner, Kieran Treadwell gets the nod here after some solid performances against the Maori All Blacks, while he immediately acclimatized to the game when coming on late in the defensive efforts to finish off the crucial 3ʳᵈ Test.

6) Peter O’Mahony: A few times I have wondered if O’Mahony was past it and taking up a spot in the 23 that would be better suited to a young player who could benefit from gaining more experience. But these last few weeks saw him play arguably some of the best rugby of his career. Gains bonus points if his supposed dig at Sam Cane is true.

7) Josh van der Flier: Is he one of the most underrated players in world rugby? Ultra-reliable and constantly in the right place to make a tackle, he also appears to have added a bit more of a carrying game, just adding another bow to his quiver.

8) Ardie Savea: Probably one of the hardest spots to pick, and Caelan Doris is very unlucky to miss out, but Savea was one of the few positives for the All Blacks during this series. Has pace, power, good handling and a good rugby IQ. One of only a few players who frequently looked dangerous or caused Ireland issues, New Zealand were certainly hit hard by losing him in the 2ⁿᵈ Test.

9) Jamison Gibson-Park: If we were basing on just 1 match, Aaron Smith’s 1ˢᵗ Test was the most impressive performance, but he struggled to make an impact in the other 2. Gibson-Park may not have had such a stand-out performance but consistently kept the ball moving quickly form the base of the ruck to keep the All Blacks on the back foot.

10) Johnny Sexton: Like O’Mahony it recently looked like Sexton may be past his best but he was vital on this tour. Led the attack as he usually does, while his leadership was spot on. You just have to look at the way Ireland fell apart after his injury in the 1ˢᵗ Test to see how important he is to this team.

11) James Lowe: A quick shout-out to Connor Garden-Bachop, who looked dangerous going forward in both matches for the Maori All Blacks. Instead it was the former Maori All Black who gets the nod here. Like some other players on this list, he may have put in more spectacular performances in the past, but he was reliable both on offence and defence, and took his moments well to assist the Irish when going forward.

12) Bundee Aki: Came off the bench and impressed in the first 2 Tests after a solid first match against the Maori All Blacks, and took advantage of Garry Ringrose’s head injury to get a deserved start in the deciding 3ʳᵈ Test. Carried hard and with great lines to put the All Blacks on the back foot.

13) Robbie Henshaw: Split his time between 12 and 13 depending as to if he was partnering Bundee Aki or Garry Ringrose, but the quality of his performances never faltered. Did what was required in attack while helping to marshall the Irish defence..

14) Will Jordan: One of only 2 All Blacks to make the list, what makes it even more impressive is that Jordan does so from 1 start and one appearance off the bench. Jordan knows how to make finding and exploiting a gap look easy and was one of the few players to have any success against the Irish defence.

15) Hugo Keenan: What impresses me so much about Keenan is just how well he does the basics. He so rarely makes mistakes and then builds off that to produce an accomplished performance with regularity. Completely outplayed Jordie Barrett, despite the latter also being the All Blacks’ goal kicker.

New Zealand v Ireland: The 2022 Decider

New Zealand v Ireland: The 2022 Decider

Ireland’s 2022 tour of New Zealand came to an end with a final Test against the All Blacks. The 3-Test series was tied at 1-1, with 2 games against the Maori All Blacks leaving the tour balanced at 2-2, so this third Test in Wellington would truly be the decider.

The All Blacks had not lost consecutive Tests at home in over 20 years but they found themselves under pressure from the off,, and when captain Sam Cane tackled Josh van der Flier off the ball, Ireland kicked to the corner and mauled the Leinster openside over for the opening try within 4 minutes. In a tight first half that saw an error-strewn performance from the Kiwis, Jordie Barrett missed the chance to narrow the gap with an early penalty, but was more successful with his second attempt early in the second quarter. The Irish looked to be dealing with the All Blacks, and took a chance to hit them on 28 minutes as they found some space down the blind side, James Lowe getting in behind the line then feeding Hugo Keenan for the try, Sexton kicking the conversion before adding a long-range penalty just minutes later. The Irish were beginning to dominate the game, while the All Blacks were falling apart, and some quick hands from the men in green sent Robbie Henshaw over just minutes before the break, Sexton adding the extras to take him over 1000 points in Test rugby and Ireland to a 3-22 lead at the break.

The All Blacks started the second half in much better fashion, and after 3 minutes of concerted pressure, Ardie Savea stretched out to get a much-needed early try. Any hopes that this would spark a comeback by the All Blacks were given an extra spark as Andrew Porter was sent to the bin on 51 minutes for a high tackle on Brodie Retallick, and New Zealand quickly took advantage of the extra man to send Akira Ioane—only starting after Scott Barrett pulled out injured earlier in the day—for his first ever Test try. A Sexton penalty provided some respite for the Irish while crucially taking things back to a two-score game, but an attempt from halfway just minutes later rebounded off the post, and as both teams looked to re-find their shape, Ardie Savea’s inside pass released Will Jordan to go the length and score, Jordie Barrett’s conversion just missing as Porter returned to the pitch. back to a full complement, Ireland were back on the attack and some lovely timing on the pass from Hugo Keenan sent the rampaging Bundee Aki up to the 5m line, where Ardie Savea was pinged at the breakdown, and like in the opening minutes, the men in green kicked to the corner and set up Rob Herring to peel off the maul and stretch to the line, Sexton’s conversion making it a 10-point game with 15 minutes remaining. Rugby league convert Roger Tuivasa-Sheck came on for his debut with 10 minutes remaining and with the All Blacks set to have a scrum in the Irish 22, but a strong shove from the Irish pack made things awkward for New Zealand, who soon wasted their opportunity as Sam Whitelock caught Tadhg Beirne with a neck roll at the breakdown, allowing the Irish to clear their lines, while turnovers from Beirne brought an end to the next 2 attacks just moments later. With just 5 minutes left, Sexton hobbled off to be replaced by Joey Carbery, while Beirne was also removed for Kieran Treadwell, but the defence held firm to secure a 22-32 victory on the night, an historic 2-1 series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand and a 3-2 series win for the overall tour.

Clueless

I may have only got into rugby 20 years ago, and it may have been only 12 years ago that I became obsessed and started watching too much rugby (is there such thing?), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a poor All Blacks team.

In attack, they are panicking and going for the miracle pass or kick far too early, rather than going through the phases and putting the Irish under pressure, letting the space create itself… and that’s when they aren’t gifting the Irish with handling errors—has an All Blacks team ever struggled so much to even just hold onto the ball?—or moronic penalties, such as Beauden Barrett cleaning players out beyond the breakdown and Sam Whitelock’s neck roll. Granted they improved somewhat i the second half but they still rarely looked like scoring against 15 men and were constantly seeing their attack impacted by the Irish defence, with many of their tries requiring a moment of individual brilliance.

The side has been stagnating and falling apart under Ian Foster throughout his tenure, put in terms of the individual players, the quality is still there. Thanks to the stupidly early draws for the Rugby World Cup, we find ourselves in a position where only 2 of our current 4 top-ranked nations (New Zealand, Ireland, France, South Africa) can make it past the quarter-finals, and right now it’s hard to imagine that even the most biased Kiwi fans could genuinely believe that they would be one of them. This loss needs to be the catalyst for change, starting with the removal of Ian Foster (if he is not smart enough to step down himself) and the rapid appointment of a replacement—Scott Robertson being the obvious candidate— who can use the upcoming Rugby Championship as a chance to take stock of what he has and start building combinations. If they move soon, there may still be time to make the All Blacks competitive again in time for the World Cup.

The next mission

What a moment for Ireland. They were arguably the better team for much of the first Test, but fought back from disappointment to make history 2 weeks running, with a first Test win in New Zealand and now a first series win in New Zealand. They should rightly be proud of their achievements this summer.

However, now they have an even more important (and potentially more difficult) task: maintaining his level of performance and intensity for another year and a half, through to the end of the World Cup. The idea of Ireland peaking a year out from the World Cup and then going downhill in the major tournament is not a new one, an therefore Andy Farrell and the Irish leadership have a colossal task on their hands.

As mentioned above, the World Cup draw has left them on the wrong side of the knockouts and facing either France or New Zealand in the quarter finals (on current form, I would expect it to be France), and so this means that they will need to be at the top of their game to even make the semi-finals for the first time.

As great as the team will feel right now, the team cannot rest on their laurels and must look to continue pushing on. If they can, 2023 may become an even more historic year for them than 2022 has ended up becoming.

rugby new zealand crest black background

Maori All Blacks v Ireland

Maori All Blacks v Ireland

With Ireland’s Test series against New Zealand still all to play for following the weekend’s historic win in Dunedin, it was time for the wider squad to get another match with their second game against the Maori All Blacks. With tricky conditions courtesy of heavy rain just before kickoff, the Maori All Blacks forced an Irish error with a clever kickoff along the floor and quickly ut the pressure on the tourists, scoring off the first phase of a lineout as their support looped around to create an overlap and put Shaun Stevenson over in the corner. Perhaps emboldened by their early success, the Maori All Blacks looked willing to play form anywhere but gave away a lineout just outside their 22 when Alex Nankivell’s pass went astray, but captain Keith Earls took a quick throw to Jordan Larmour, whose run from deep saw him scythe through the Maori All Blacks defence before they even realised that the ball was back in play, going under the posts to give Ciarán Frawley a simple conversion. The home side were soon back on the attack though and looked set to score with a huge overlap in the Irish 22, only for Tyrel Lomax to knock on a pass that died on him. The home team were dominating possession but a lack of accuracy was causing them issues, and after Fraley extended Ireland’s lead with a penalty, the next Irish attack saw Gavin Coombes held up on the line, despite the Irish being a man down following a yellow card to Cian Prendergast. However, a penalty gave the Irish another chance and while they were stopped again, it was at the expense of a yellow car for Maori loosehead Ollie Norris for collapsing the maul, and with the game now 14v14, Nick Timoney managed to stretch out and dot the ball down over the line. The Irish were almost immediately under pressure after some great counterrucking saw the ball turned over to Caleb Delany—on early for the injured Reed Prinsep—whose break took him deep into the Irish 22, but Ireland were lucky to get away with a turnover as Maori captain TJ Perenara had his arm pulled away by a man who was part of the ruck, and as the halftime whistle sounded, the Irish went in with a 5-17 lead.

Frawley opened the scoring early in the half with a penalty, but the Maoris were soon back on the attack and when Delany broke down the left wing and played the ball back inside to Connor Garden-Bachop was pulled back by Jordan Larmour before he caught the ball, resulting in a penalty try and a yellow card for the Irish wing. As the match entered the final quarter, Joey Carbery was brought on for Michael Lowry after the fullback was injured in a hard but legal tackle from Stevenson, but the Irish had the momentum as the home team continued to give away a number of penalties, and after a few minutes of concerted pressure, Coombes forced his way over from close range to make the score 12-25 with 12 minutes remaining. The home team refused to give up though and when Ruben Love countered a loose kick and broker away, he fed Cullen Grace out on the win, and the Crusader’s offload back inside went back to Love, who narrowed the gap to 8, Josh Ioane’s conversion attempt looking ugly and going nowhere near the posts. With 8 minutes left, Stevenson took a risk going for a Carbery pass one-handed and failed to gather, and was sent to the bin for the remainder of the game, and the Irish took advantage of the man advantage to seal the game with 3 minutes remaining as a whipped pass from Stuart McCloskey sent Larmour over for his second try of the night. As the hooter sounded, another break from Love sent Brad Weber over for a consolation, and Ioane finally found his kicking boots right in front of the posts for a final score of 24-30.

Overplayed

Did the Maori All Blacks get their tactics wrong today in Wellington? While Ireland tried to play a more territory-focused game and only play rugby in the opposition half, the Maori All Blacks looked determined to play from anywhere on the pitch.

Now the decision was somewhat understandable, as they were frequently carrying over the gain line in midfield—Delany especially standing out with his—and finding the space to exploit to break and put the Irish under pressure. However they were far too inaccurate, with too many balls going to floor at crucial moments, such as the Lomax knock-on in the Irish 22 with numbers outside him, or players getting isolated and turned over in dangerous areas.

Of course, the conditions in the build-up wouldn’t have helped things, with some heavy rainfall right before kickoff. But there is also the matter that this is a team that rarely plays together. Matches are infrequent, usually just a couple a year, and as such the wider squad is usually used, resulting in a team that is currently looking different—and that is before you even account for who is available or not due to All Blacks selection!

While the Maori All Blacks have gone out to give the fans a match to remember and looked to showcase their skills, the lack of pragmatism has likely cost them a potential 2-0 series win here.

Solid success

This was a workmanlike performance from the players on the fringe of the Irish squad. The defence may have been breached on many occasions, but they tightened up in the red zone and crucially kept their discipline (though they certainly got the rub of the green at a couple of crucial breakdowns) and this forced the Maoris to play without the help of a penalty advantage.

Meanwhile with ball in hand, the Irish made sure that they were playing in the right areas of the pitch, which allowed them to focus on using the physicality of McCloskey at 12 and their pack to try to force their way over the line, with the skills of players like Larmour and Lowry then there to take advantage of the gaps this left out wide. But more than this it also allowed the Irish defence to put pressure on the Maoris deep in their own half and force some penalties in the latter stages of the game, while also stopping them get into any rhythm.

Are many of these players ready to go up against a Test team? Well Coombes looks like he should be knocking on the door for a spot on the bench—though the resurgence of Peter O’Mahony may have slowed hs route to the 23—while Craig Casey controlled the game well, Lowry grew into the game after some early fumbles and more experienced Test regulars Niall Scannell and Jordan Larmour put in timely reminders of their capabilities, but it will take more to have regular success in Test rugby.

New Zealand v Ireland

New Zealand v Ireland

Ireland’s summer tour to New Zealand reached its mid-point with the second Test against the All Blacks. The tourists had the stronger start last week and it was more of the same in Dunedin this week, with an early break from Tadhg Beirne bringing them into the New Zealand 22, and after a minute of concerted pressure Andrew Porter managed to bash his way over for the opening try within 3 minutes. Johnny Sexton kicked the conversion and a penalty ten minutes later, and the All Blacks soon found themselves put in more of a hole when Leicester Fainga’anuku was sent to the bin for a late hit on Mack Hansen, though the 14 men successfully dealt with the resulting driving maul after Ireland kicked to the corner. Things were about to get even worse for the home side though, as a hurried kick from Beauden Barrett was countered by Sexton and as he was brought down, his support man Garry Ringrose was tackled early by Ofa Tu’ungafasi, who joined Fainga’anuku in the bin—though how a penalty try wasn’t given is beyond me as referee Jaco Peyper and TMO Tom Foley were clearly seeing a covering defender that didn’t exist. Ireland’s attack however suddenly lost all cohesion an accuracy, which allowed the All Blacks to hold out and clear their lines before welcoming back Fainga’anuku, but they found themselves almost immediately back down to 13 as Angus Ta’avao (on to cover Tu’ungafasi’s absence at the scrums) went high on Garry Ringrose, resulting in a head-on-head collision. With a penalty in the All Blacks 22, Ireland chose to go for the scrum to force the All Blacks into pulling 2 backs into the pack (due to the scrums going uncontested until Tu’ungafasi’s return, both teams must field a full 8-man scrum) but once again the Irish attack lacked accuracy and a knock-on from James Lowe allowed the defenders to once again clear their lines and get back to 14 men, though some confusion as to who could come back on as player had to be sacrificed for replacement props had led to Ardie Savea being unintentionally replaced for the rest of the game. However after weathering a storm, the All Blacks found themselves finishing the half in the Irish 22, and after James Ryan was sent to the bin for failing to retreat at a penalty, Beauden Barrett (perhaps inadvertently) kicked the ball as it squirted out of a ruck before darting through the defence to drop on the loose ball over the line for the most fortuitous of tries, with brother Jordie kicking a simple conversion to cut the Irish lead to 7-10 at the break.

It was the Irish on the attack again in the early stages of the second half, and when another strong carry from Beirne got them up to the All Blacks’ try line, it was Andrew Porter again who dotted down for his 2ⁿᵈ try of the night and 4ᵗʰ Test try. As a close half continued, Sexton kicked 2 penalties to put Ireland 16 points ahead with 13 minutes remaining. With 6 minutes remaining, the All Blacks found themselves at the Irish try line but were held up 3 times in quick succession. They kept fighting and Will Jordan was sent over out wide for the try, but with Jordie Barrett missing the touchline conversion, scoring 11 more points in 2 minutes proved an impossible task and the Irish hung on for an historic 12-23 victory, their first ever win over the All Blacks in New Zealand.

Releasing the pressure

While Ireland can arguably feel aggrieved that Leicester Fainga’anuku only received a yellow for his hit on Mack Hansen and that no penalty try was given for Ofa Tu’ungafasi’s early tackle on Garry Ringrose, they only had themselves to blame for not being further ahead at halftime.

As accurate as they were around the pitch, when they made it up to the All Blacks 22, things started to fall apart for them. Even before they found themselves with the numerical advantage, a great opportunity came to a disappointing end as Robbie Henshaw failed to collect the ball as he came steaming onto it in an attempt to crash through the defensive line off a scrum. Then twice against 13 men, all cohesion seemed to disappear and the ball was being flung anywhere and everywhere, giving the All Blacks defence a chance to recover an get in on the steal one time, while a second resulted in a Lowe knock-on. Then in the second half, James Lowe ended one chance by sailing a long pass into touch on the edge of the 22 when putting the ball through the hands may have been sufficient.

It’s almost as if the Irish were panicking when they got close to the line, trying to force the try too soon. Porter’s tries showed how patience and concerted pressure in the 22 will break down the All Blacks soon enough, the Irish just need to trust themselves more, take a deep breath and work through the phases to earn the try.

New Zealand v Ireland

New Zealand v Ireland

Having lost to the Maori All Blacks in midweek, Ireland’s next stop on their tour of New Zealand was a trip to Eden Park for the first of 3 Tests against the All Blacks. Ireland had never beat the All Blacks in New Zealand, but got the first chance with some sustained pressure in the 22 that eventually saw Keith Earls go over for the opening try after 6 minutes. The All Blacks had seen their preparations interrupted by COVID cases and were looking very ordinary against a strong Irish defence, but finally managed to work some space for debutant Leicester Fainga’anuku on 20 minutes, and when the Crusaders wing was stopped just short of the try line, Jordie Barrett came onto the ball from the ruck at pace to crash over, before kicking the conversion to put them ahead. The Irish continued to look the more dangerous side, but when James Lowe slipped as Garry Ringrose tried to offload the ball to him, Sevu Reece was first to the loose ball and outpaced everyone in the race from his 22 to the Irish try line, while things got even worse for the Irish as the same phase of play saw them lose Johnny Sexton to a failed HIA. The momentum shifted with that and the All Blacks were suddenly looking the more dangerous, and they had their third try with 5 minutes left in the half as Beauden Barrett’s grubber into the Irish 22 was collected by Quinn Tupaea. And it was soon 4 as Aaron Smith sniped through the middle of a ruck and chipped Hugo Keenan, and though he failed to regather under pressure, Ardie Savea was following up to dive on the loose ball over the line, with Jordie Barrett kicking all the conversions for a 28-5 lead at the break.

The Irish got the start they needed in the second half though, as a series of phases just short of the New Zealand line eventually saw Garry Ringrose go over in the corner. However the All Blacks soon had the pressure back on the Irish, and when Ardie Savea got on the outside of Ringrose, who slipped off the tackle, he had the pace to make it over for his second try of the night. Ireland continued to fight though and again managed to spend some time in the New Zealand 22, which eventually resulted in Josh van der Flier crashing over from short range, only for replays to show that the ball had been dislodged as he went over by Rieko Ioane, just moments after he had also denied Joey Carbery with what appeared to be a high tackle. and the Irish were made to pay with just 10 minutes left as Pita Gus Sowakula went over off a 5m scrum to score on his debut. The Irish looked to end on a high, and after Andrew Porter was held up, replacement centre Bundee Aki managed to crash over from close range on the next attack to score. Karl Tu’inukuafe was sin binned late on for not rolling,but the All Blacks defence held out and Jack Conan and Josh van der Flier were both held up over the line and one final driving maul halted to secure a 42-19 victory for the hosts.

Extra ordinary

Obviously having COVID cases affecting the build-up (and a separate illness for Richie Mo’unga) is not going to help the All Black be at their best, but boy did they look ordinary. In defence, they were struggling to deal with all the pressure coming from the Irish, with minimal impact at the breakdown (unless you count the penalties they conceded), while in attack there was very little being created.

While some great work was done to release Fainga’anuku down the wing after 20 minutes, Tupaea’s try was a result of poor Irish covering behind the defensive line, and the other 2 in the half were purely opportunistic. Despite being 28-5 up, the All Blacks were arguably second best for most of the half and large portions of the second.

For so long, the All Blacks had such an air of invincibility that the game was almost won before it even kicked off. These days however, despite still having some absolute superstars in their ranks, the All Blacks are just another team—and that makes them beatable!

22 and a half men

I’ve quite frequently been of the opinion of late that continually playing Johnny Sexton is going to be the downfall of the Irish. And here we’re seeing it again. While he is a great player and leader for the Irish, he has played so many minutes that nobody else is getting even close to enough minutes of Test rugby to be able to slot in when Sexton is not available. The game completely turned when he went off in this game a heads dropped and such a large source of leadership and organisation.

As Ronan O’Gara stated before the match, Test rugby is about the 23 men. Sexton’s body rarely lets him play the full 80 minutes consistently at this level. They need a second fly half who—even if they are not at the same level as Sexton—can come in and still run this team to a high level. However with Sexton taking almost all the minutes when he is available, nobody has been able to get a real shot at the 10 shirt behind him, which means whoever is picked as Sexton’s understudy goes in underprepared.

Granted when you’re touring New Zealand you want to try and prove a point, but Andy Farrell and the coaches need to prepare for the eventuality that Sexton is not available at a key point in the World Cup and the best way to do that is to keep Sexton out for a run of games and focus on the players behind him. I would argue that the Autumn Tests should be about finding the next 2 fly halves on the depth chart and then using the 2023 Six Nations to give them as much Test experience as possible, while Sexton’s body gets a much-deserved rest to help him through to the end of the World Cup. Heck, with Sexton now being stood down for 12 days as part of the new concussion protocols, they may as well start the Autumn process now.