Thursday, 23 May 2013

I have moved! Change is good sometimes... I hope. Any posts in the future will be located at

Come take a look!

Friday, 8 June 2012

Nobody wants to prop up the table!

It was a long and trying season for Connacht rugby and while ultimately us loyal fans were given a silver lining to cling to, there are still plenty of worrying aspects of the season to mull over for the summer. Eric Elwood came in with a lot of talk early season about how Connacht were going to step out of the shadows and play, home and away, and ultimately this took a lot out of the lads on the pitch, with certain players being asked to tog out indefinitely (more of which anon...). However, while some players were being played to death in certain positions, a cloud of uncertainty seemed to descend upon Elwood and his buddies when it came to selection in other key areas of the pitch, most notably at prop and half-back. In mitigation for this, the departure of the 'Galway Four' - Hagan, Cronin, Keatley and Carr - left a serious hole on the team sheet and, while it would be easy to simply excuse the big man his selection mistakes in early season because of this, perhaps a more careful analysis might help shed some light on 'The Trials and Tribulations of Eric Elwood' this season. In the hopes of not getting a punch for slagging off the big man, I'm gonna start by focusing on an area that ultimately proved quite successful for us this season: THE FRONT ROW

EE: Stumped!
Early-season Galway can't have been a fun place to be for poor EE. He had some big decisions to make regarding the team and whether certain new additions to the squad were going to cut the mustard. Elwood must have feared that the team would slip into the old routine of having journeymen just plugging gaps in the team, and I'm pretty sure he was aware that he needed to unearth players who were going to be mainstays in their positions. In this light, huge emphasis was placed on young Rodney 'Ah not You again' Ah You, a tighthead who had come here via Canterbury and had successfully represented New Zealand at underage level. [Mind you, doesn't every junior All Black taste success?!] Poor oul Rodney just wasn't up to it in the tight exchanges as well as not looking entirely fit, and must have left Eric with a bit of a bad taste in his mouth. Rodney was clearly his bet for the future and the seeming inability to marry short-term success with a long-term gain must have given him a few headaches.

Meanwhile over on the looshead side, Galway native and all round strongman Ronan Loughney had started the season in good form, only making way in the number one jersey for the returning Brett Wilkinson, and Eric must have taken great solace from this source of solidity in the team. Loughney started the first three games of the season at LH, two of which Connacht won, and was part of a Connacht team which made a very positive start to the season, winning away at Treviso and at home to the Dragons and the Scarlets.

Rodney Ah You on the near (Tighthead) side alongside Adrian Flavin and Ronan Loughney at home to the Scarlets back in September. Rodney played all of this game, and we won too!

However the cracks were starting to appear for us by then and, alongside poor place kicking, the scrum was being shown up as the weakness everyone had feared it would be! By the time the first two rounds of the Heineken Cup rolled around things had taken a serious turn for the worst. Connacht had lost four games in a row and, although it would be easy to point out how this little matter snowballed against us, it is useful to note that three of these games were away at Swansea, Dublin and Belfast. That's a heck of a journey, one which did nothing to bolster Connacht confidence. The boys were never going to need a lift for the special occasion at the Stoop in November which marked our HCup debut, nor for the gutsy [can't believe I just used that phrase in reference to Connacht!] home display against the uber-prepared Dusatoir and co., both admiral performances in their own right.

Let's not get off track though. The scrum is at the heart of a team, and that importance seems to have become magnified in the last couple of seasons, both by the continuing dearth of top quality tightheads here in Ireland and also by the natural cyclical nature of the sport, placing renewed emphasis on certain facets of the game with each coming season. Everybody knew that Connacht were weak at this heart and justifiably attacked us there. The departure of Jamie Hagan had left us very ill prepared for top level scrummaging with journeyman Dylan Rogers and Leinster behemoth Stewart Maguire somewhat off the pace when introduced and Rodney now struggling with some injuries, Elwood needed to pull off a miracle, or at the least a bit of nifty selection magic. 

Ronan 'Rolocks' Loughney: Galway native, Irish speaker, bog-oak sculptor, degree in business. Oh yeah, and he's a pretty handy prop too, no biggy...
Who knows exactly how the decision was made but Ronan Loughney started on the right side of the scrum at home to Treviso in what would be a narrow loss. He had a torrid time of it the next week at home to Glaws in the HCup, coming off after a single minute of the second half for Rodney. I remember saying to a chap beside me in the ground that at least we now had a tighthead on the pitch, a comment which was as much tongue-in-cheek about Rodneys technical deficiencies as it was about the potential folly of picking players out of position. I was once again present and correct in Limerick on Stephens day, having my first trip to Thomond marred by a sloppy Connacht performance but I remember thinking that the game would stand to him.

Amazingly, by the time the Quins game rolled around, Rolocks was already included in the Wolfhounds squad, despite the fact that he had been out injured for a couple of weeks and had played only five matches at tighthead, not to mention the fact that this was just after the infamous fourteenth straight defeat for the boys in green. This may say more about the hunt for the rare 'ambipropsterous' breed [thank you Connacht Clan forum!] as much as anything else. In any case, the big man was welcomed back into the fold and put in a savage 77 minute performance, besting the much touted Joe 'Haircut' Marler on the Quins side. It was a watershed moment for Connacht's season and one which the lads richly deserved.

Eric Elwood deserves a lot of credit for this in my opinion, or at the least, Dan McFarland does. As I said, it was clear that the heart of the team wasn't functioning and Eric turned to the big Connachtman as a source of heart and fortitude, as well being an able technician and an intelligent footballer. We have heard so much in the last year or so about the best props being the ones with determination and canniness to hang in there and to readjust and keep competing, a la Mike Ross, and I believe this move had that kind of thinking stamped all over it!
A Connacht front row of Denis Buckley, Ethienne Reynecke and Ronan Loughney fights for all their worth in the Sportsground endgame against Quins. Galway will never forget!

Crucially for EE and Co., he wasn't let down down by the deputies either. Denis Buckley is an academy player who suddenly found himself promoted to the number 17 jersey in light of Rolocks conversion and ably backed up Wilko off the bench. The young fella is a decent prospect and didn't take too many games to get up to the speed of top level rugby, a very good omen indeed! He's a small nuggety prop, but shows good body-position around the field and looks a tidy scrummager. EE's ability to spring an energetic young player alongside the frantic skulduggery of Saffa hooker and all-round character Ethienne 'Mullet' Reynecke gave Connacht an endgame bite that paid dividends in our season resurrection. Whew!

All said and done then it was a masterful move and one which saw Loughney firmly entrenched in the NO. 3 jersey for the rest of the season, where Connacht went on to summon, seemingly from nowhere, a best ever league finish of 8th! [More of which anon...] But where do we stand for next season in the propping department? It's worth a quick look...

With the apparent departure of both Dylan Rogers and Stewart Maguire there's a fresh look to the props department and with the arrival of Nathan White from Leinster the roster looks something like:

Loosehead:              Brett Wilkinson, Denis Buckley
Tighthead:               Nathan White, Rodney Ah You, Finlay Bealham
Ambipropsterous:   Ronan Loughney

With the Connacht 'Eagles' about to compete in  the British and Irish Cup for the first time next season you would imagine that this is nowhere near enough props and, indeed, EE has stated that we were short at Hooker, Prop and Centre for next season. With the recent capture of Jason Harris-Wright from Bristol, and the promotion of Brian Murphy from Galwegians to fill a void at Centre, it would seem that Connacht are perhaps one prop away from being better prepared than they've ever been up front!

Some speculation has been made of a Jamie Hagan move back to Connacht, but with the big man having another year on his contract at Leinster, and the blues not exactly being weighed down with props, I imagine this is all just talk. The speculation regarding the now out-of-work Royce Burke-Flynn is another thing altogether and he may be departing Doncaster for one of several Irish destinations, we'll just have to wait and see.

Big lads! Wilko, Flavin and Rolocks.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Eoin Griffin: aka 'Grico'

Name:                   Eoin Griffin

Position:                Outside Centre

DOB:                    18/9/90

Height:                   1.86 m (6 ft 1 in)

Weight:                  93 kg

Club:                     Corinthians, Connacht

Representative:      Ireland U-19, U-20

School:                 Colaiste Iognaid

University:             NUIG

Part of the Ireland U-20 team which captured the Six Nations title in 2009, Griffin was very much a fringe player for Connacht coming into last season. And so it was that when Samoa rolled into Galway on 9 November 2010 that he was given his chance in the centre, and boy did he embrace it, getting a well earned Man of the Match award in the process. It was a great game to be at, and the young man really stood out that night. Here's the highlights for anyone who's bothered:

He was a given a fair chance after this but found himself picked on the wing more as the season wore on, and this really didn't suit the lad. I came across him round the NUIG campus during this time and when I asked him about it he said he definitely prefers the centre. In any case, with the departure of journeyman Niva Ta'auso he is very much the specialist outside centre in the squad and this has been reflected in his almost ever-presence there this season, culminating in a very good performance against Quins last week. At the moment, he's being paired with another young centre in the form of Dave McSharry, a man who's solid physicality seems to compliment Griffin's class very well. As a Connacht supporter, it's great to finally have two young Irish centres playing in tandem and forming a good partnership. It can only mean good things down the line. Here's a nice piece from the Times on the advent of proper back-play for Connacht, bout bloody time!

With a bit of further reading (by which I mean a rather biased looking wiki page! he apparently holds down 'several' in-house gym records and has been given the task of showing the other lads how to pass properly. Let's hope we don't see any of the fatties try their hand at this particular kind of pass!

Here's a nice piece that TG4 must have done on him, he's a grand soft-spoken lad and I hope we see a lot more of him for Connacht. Munsterfans are already proposing to poach him, but this is a real Connachtman and lets hope he's here for the long run!

P.S. I can't take credit for coining the 'Grico' nickname. Apparently the Connacht lads are to blame for the hype, which is saying something for the most down-to-earth squad in the country, by necessity you understand. No doubt Mike 'Macca' McCarthy had something to do with it...

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Potential for post-O'Driscoll stress

Got into a really interesting debate on Minty's channel the other day about the issue of centre and the 'heir apparent' issue, which is probably at the back of everyone's mind these days, so I thought I'd run through the options and see what the story is...

Point the first: Fergus McFadden is currently slotting in for Leinster in the famed 13 jersey and doing a fine job. But he isn't a true outside centre, and while I appreciate the mans ability to fill a void, there's a real debate to be had here: do we want to employ a talented back as our new 13, or do we want a true outside centre!

Firstly, I think Ferg has earned this chance. He has toiled in the background long enough to be given a shot now that the holy one is on a leave of absence. But McFadden is very much an inside centre. It's all in the way he takes the ball up with venom, he's like a racehorse pulling at the reigns. He's a superb athlete, his pace makes him electric on the break, and he's improving upon his peripheral ability to pass all the time. But he's just not gifted with that special 'footballing' brain that is required here, and so we keep looking. He's one of many within the current Ireland squad who could be ear-marked for this spot and, given the number of talented three-quarter's knocking about, it would seem plausible to push one into the centre. The obvious choices are McFadden, Fitzgerald, Bowe and Earls, with the latter seeming to be the managements particular choice, considering how they've selected him before. This could well be the wrong approach.

If we look at the international scene apart from the club scene we can see that there is very much a need for natural specialists in certain positions, going beyond the obvious specialist Hookers and Half-Backs. Specifically, I mean the Openside Flanker and the Outside Centre. The former is for another day (or just consult George Hook!) but let's take the international 13's for a second. Conrad Smith, Jacques Fourie, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Aurelien Rougerie are all ever present in their respective teams and the reason is quite simply that 13 is a hard position to play, particularly from a defensive point of view. Of these four, the former pair are out and out 13's and the other two are converts from the wing. Smith is a natural like BOD, and Fourie ticks all the boxes. Rougerie has done a fine job since being moved there without ever being sensational and Australia made the mistake of shifting AAC back to the wing during the WC when he had clearly spent the last couple of years mastering the position and making it his own. The point is, it's a bloody hard position to fill. Rougerie is fine and for me AAC is the anomaly (possibly should've been a 13 earlier) but when you start going beyond this group I think things get messy, with national coaches being forced to pick wings or just normal centres to do a job, a la Rougerie. Take Wales, who are currently playing two 12's in the shape of Roberts and Davies. What I'm trying to get at is that a long-term project is needed for Ireland and that genuine 13's should be considered before we start throwing backs at the position to see what sticks. And, believe it or not, we are fortunate to have some fine centres coming through...

Eoin O'Malley
At Leinster there's Eoin O'Malley, who played outside McFadden away at Clermont last season and was magnificent! He has jinking feet and appears rock-solid in defense despite his short stature. Right in the mold of D'Arcy and O'Driscoll then. Hopefully we'll get to see more of him in the absence of the great one.

Munster have unearthed a fine centre in the shape of Danny Barnes, who again is solid and runs hard and straight. Munsters failure to sign a marquee centre from abroad may yet reap huge benefits for this young man.

Eoin Griffin

At Ulster last season we saw the advent of Nevin Spence who's probably the most physically abrasive of the lot, but he's probably gonna be a 12 in the long run. Darren Cave is still only 24 and is a genuine outside centre with vision and poise and could yet prove himself in the Heineken cup cauldron.

At Connacht we have young Eoin Griffin who is improving with every game and is beginning to show himself a real breaking threat.

 I joked the other day that we should just get all these lads into a room and find out who is the most intelligent of the lot; it may well come down to the that in the long run. In any case, I just hope that the right candidate gets his chance and that we don't waste years trying to shunt someone like Keith Earls into the position if he really isn't suitted to the task. Here's hopin'.

P.S. Check out those like minded souls at Whiff of Cordite, far more erudite than I could ever hope to be!

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Centre at the Heart of the Problem

People have been expressing fear at their own optimism in the last couple of weeks and in answer to this I would like to suggest that, yes, we can actually win the World Cup. The good news is we have the game to stifle the opposition, and the big-game temperament to see out a tough decider, and that means we can beat anybody. In fact, this is exactly the kind of game needed to annoy and frustrate teams like Wales and France - our potential and respective quarter and semi final opponents - and even the kind of game which could make a nervous New Zealand think about their horrible World Cup record. OK, so that's maybe thinking too far ahead, but I just thought I'd mention that, whereas previously it was thought that we relied far too heavily on our backs, and were therefore always susceptible to being steamrolled at the set-piece, this new persona is one very much suited to knockout rugby. Injuries are still a worry, but that's to be expected. So to all those who are getting a good feeling about this World Cup but are too afraid to mention it; well I'm optimistic too!

Keith Earls
Saying that, things could have been better in the Russian game. It's easy to say that  a nine-try victory is a great achievement, but not when you consider the opposition, or that the other contenders put down much greater markers in round three, albeit mostly in better conditions and with less second-string players diluting the ranks. It must also be said that the final touchdown by Buckley was almost certainly not a try, as the big man appeared to be short of the line in the replays. Most worrying is the fact that we still haven't discovered a real killer edge out wide, and we must count ourselves lucky that the forwards have picked up the slack to such a degree. A lot is being expected of Keith Earls to create magic and become the 'star' of the tournament, and it's pretty unfair on the guy. You can see him trying his heart out to carry this burden, like when he danced through a gap for his second try. The problem wasn't the step, which was sublime, but the fact that he was doing it all on his own. One man trying to break every time is pretty easy to defend against, it's the greater movement of a backline that will make the difference against the big teams. Obviously, this will improve immensely with the return of O'Driscoll. He figured out a long time ago that he couldn't do it all on his own. In any case, my feeling is that backs-coach Alan Gaffney has quite a bit to work on. Lets hope it's all a bluff and he's keeping his best cards close to his chest for the games to come!

Paddy Wallace
Equally so in defense, we need the O'Driscoll-D'Arcy partnership in midfield to marshall the back line. Ireland had the best defensive record in the tournament after round two, and so it wasn't that surprising to see this record slip in round three when the two boys were absent. Most worryingly, the back-up centres haven't covered themselves in glory. Prior to this tournament I was one of those people who thought that the squad couldn't carry the under-powered Paddy Wallace, and that the in-form Fergus McFadden should be given a chance to nail down a centre berth, in light of the seemingly waning powers of Gordon D'Arcy. Boy have I changed my tune on pretty much all of this! We need D'Arce; that's a given; it's a defensive thing. As far as Wallace is concerned, people forget that he was a big part of the early stages of the Grand Slam team. Yes, he can be over-powered a little in the contact, but D'Arcy isn't a big man either. It's about intelligence, and an understanding of what your centre-partner is going to do. Paddy had a great game on Sunday. His passing and running were brilliant, as always. Unfortunately, he always looks good against poor opposition, and I guess that's the problem.
And finally we turn to McFadden, a player who I thought could be the midfield saviour we've been looking for. He was absolutely awful on Sunday! He slid in brilliantly to take that exceptional kick from ROG and score the opening try and I thought he would kick on and really put down a marker, but alas it wasn't to be. His defensive ability when moved into midfield was very poor, and he was at fault no less than three times for the second of the Russians' tries, both of which were better than any of our efforts! The Ruskies got great ball off the top of a line-out and the out-half threw an absolutely perfect pass to the blindside winger, running deep behind the two dummy-running centres, the second of whom caught Ferg completely flat-footed. Totally fixed at this stage, he now had to turn as the Russian winger got by him on the outside, he gave chase but was shrugged off by a superb fend. At this stage, rather pissed off with himself no doubt, he kept covering across and lined up the other winger who had just received the ball and was headed for the try-line. However, in his complete and utter haste and over-exuberance, he managed to completely over-run the ball-carrier who simply stopped for a second to let this would-be tackler fly past him. It was a great try. I couldn't help thinking back to Murrayfield in the first week of August. Scotland had been poor, we had been poor; no one really deserved to win. And yet, in the dying minutes McFadden had raced out of the line unnecessarily, allowing a terrible Scottish back-line to execute a game-winning try. This is a warning: Fergus McFadden should not play in the centre for Ireland in this World Cup. 'Nuff said.

Anyways, enough of this negativity! The good news is that, apart from a few knocks, we are relatively injury free, which is a miracle really. My friend has a saying, albeit a rather politically incorrect saying, which goes: 'Could be worse; could be fuckin' English!' Well, it could be worse, we could be Australian! Aside from losing miserably to us (never gonna get tired of that!), their injury count is so ridiculously high that they are planning to pick big No. 8 Radike Samo - him of the great haircut - on the wing this weekend. A sad state of affairs really. Could be worse, could be marking Samo!

Hope ye all enjoyed Canada v Japan on Tuesday morning, it was cracker! The sides drew four years ago and their was still nothing to separate them as the match ended 23 all. I felt sorry for Japan, they deserved a win, and there were a number of decisions which went against them, and rather unfairly too. Anyways, it was a joy to watch both these teams this year, and Canada's efforts will most likely see them secure third place in the pool and automatic qualification for the next tournament. 

It took Italy 67 minutes to secure their bonus point against a much improved USA team who were playing their last game of the tournament and certainly left nothing behind them. Hopefully they'll have done us a favour and the Azzuri will still be feeling the pain by kick-off time on Sunday. Once again, the scheduling is grossly unfair. As for the Italians, not a lot has changed. The scrum will be a real test and when Parisse gets the ball, anything is possible!

I'd like to know how people are finding the television coverage so far. RTE have been playing a blinder with their highlights show, which is full of wit and decent analysis. Shaggy seems like a nice guy, although the accent is a bit much, but I could listen to Conor O'Shea all night. Then again this is offset by the somewhat annoying Ben Kay and Frankie Sheahan. ITV definitely wins the award for worst coverage, a title they've inherited from Sky Sports who, thankfully, aren't involved. If you're lucky enough to get a panel of Girvan Dempsey, Gareth Thomas and Francois Pienar then that's kind of OK, but if you turn on the telly and Craig Doyle is asking mundane questions of former boyband member/ Scottish winger Thom Evans, then run a mile! Little has changed in Sellotanta where Matt Williams and Neil Francis have survived from the last World Cup. Matt is funny, whatever way you wanna look at it, and 'Frano' is so dreary that they kinda make sense in their own way. Watch this Risteard Cooper send-up and it'll all make sense, genius... I only wish that someone would have hired the great Liam Toland, without doubt the best, not to mention the most down-to-earth pundit in the country. Go figure...

Finally, the O'Gara-Sexton debate has been raging and I guess I had better state my opinion. During the Six Nations we enjoyed a bit of a see-saw between the two, which saw ROG come on after 60 one week and play a blinder, secure the start for the next week and proceed to play rather poorly. ROG is brilliant off the bench, that's a given. But what happens when ROG starts and things aren't going well? Sexton off the bench isn't nearly as effective because he doesn't have the sheer force of will to turn things around that Ronan has. Johnny's a good player, and a more physical defender. The kicking is a worry, but I still feel that to pick Ronan purely on kicking percentages is to concede to fear. We can win this game because we are the better team, not simply because we can kick a load of points. Whether that comes from Johnny having a blinder or from ROG coming on and playing saviour is irrelevant. Sexton to start and that way we're set up for anything.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Choking Wallabies and Mighty Minnows

Still can't believe it...

It was absolutely incredible to hear Quade Cooper saying after the match that he had been unaware of Ireland's choke tackle tactic before witnessing it first hand. Extraordinary stuff indeed! We've been using it for a couple of seasons at this stage, as have the provinces. Unbelievable... What with the incredible over-confidence on display from the Aussies all week and the loss of arguably their two best forwards, - in the shape of David Pocock and Stephen Moore - the omens were good, but it's still incredible.

I remember we played the Wallabies about two years ago in Croke Park in the first of our series of Autumn internationals. As usual, we came out seriously undercooked, and an emerging Wallaby team were well on top. This was the beginning of a couple of come-down seasons for Ireland, arguably lasting until Saturday! We had just won the Grand Slam earlier that year; Leinster had gone on to win the Heineken Cup for the first time, and a number of the squad had went out to South Africa and played extremely well for the Lions. It looked like things were on the up, but this was to be the start of the hangover for Ireland. We came out for the first game of the season and were definitely second best against a team already half way into their season. But out of the blue, right at the death, off the back of a good scrum platform, we pulled off a strike move that saw Brian O'Driscoll glide in under the posts, with the conversion sealing the draw. I couldn't believe it at the time, we had played so badly, but I realised that something had changed within the team; they could now play for 80 minutes and they now had a new belief in themselves. They had conquered the North and this was to be the start of a two-year period where Ireland would prepare to take on the South and finally establish themselves.

OK, so things didn't really go to plan thereafter. Ireland seemed to drift into a malaise that they couldn't shake off. The England game did affirm for many that this team had a big-game temperament and at this stage it really does look as if Ireland were waiting for this game to come around, in the end the poor build-up does seem irrelevant, this team's hard edge was already forged, in the Millennium Stadium, on the Highveld of South Africa and in the Southern strongholds of France.

The defense was brilliant on Saturday, as was the ferocity at the breakdown. The backrow proved, I think, that they can work as a unit. Everybody was so excited about seeing O'Brien cut loose that people forget that Stephen Ferris is a blind-side of the highest calibre. He was superb. But it was in the tight that we won this game. It's great to see that Rory Best seems to have set aside some of the hesitancy about his game and discovered a real confidence about what he's doing. Flannery may yet be missed but not while Best stays fit. I felt that Cian Healy would play a massive roll if we were to succeed and he's really coming good on his potential. The backs too showed the steely edge that was needed and I was glad to see Kearney back to provide some security and Tommy Bowe looking sharper now with every game. What a win! Those poor Aussies, I suspect, still don't know what hit them!

As far as Russia is concerned, there should be room here for the fringe players to have a go. People like Leo Cullen and Isaac Boss deserve their chance, while for someone like Sean Cronin, game-time is now more important than ever with the withdrawal of Flannery seeing him back in as first-choice back-up. But the centre partnership could be crucial. If Drico was fully fit I would say play him again with Fergus McFadden inside, testing out this potential starting partnership if D'Arcy's hamstring continues to trouble him. However, O'Driscoll is not fully fit, and was clearly playing through the pain barrier once again on Saturday. This is really tough as while ideally you might rest both centres, it would potentially be better for the future to find out how McFadden plays with one or other of the starting pair, sounding out his future role for the team down the line. In all likelihood there will be injuries in this World Cup, and with our fortunes now vastly improved we must be prepared to play the long game. As for those now calling for ROG and Sexton to be started together, a word of caution. Whilst this seems to have potential as a stop gap solution, a real centre replacement would always be better.

Adam Kleeberger of Canada
Elsewhere things are not now looking good for the minnows. The enthusiasm of some of the 'lesser' teams has faded somewhat, but it was absolutely thrilling to watch them having a fair crack at their power-house opponents throughout the first phase of fixtures. Namibia seem to have discovered some backs to compliment some of the grit up front. Centre Danie Van Wyk has been electric for them out wide, I don't think he even has a club! That could well change. Japan have been gallant as always with hooker Shota Horie and scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka in particular showing class. They're not called the Brave Blossoms for nothing, and have a wonderful continuity game. They will be pressing hard for a win in their two remaining fixtures against Tonga and the in-form Canada. The Canucks have been brilliant in the tournament so far, with Adam Kleeberger - winner of the 'best beard in the competition' award - ferocious at number 6 and DTH van der Merwe - winner of the 'longest name in the competition' award - providing some class in the backs. They really put it up to France, fair play to them. Things are not going so well for Samoa. Having lost one of their classy half-backs, in the shape of Tusi Pisi, they were unable to prevail against a really improved Wales pack, and must now rely on a do or die encounter against the Boks. An upset here would not please Ireland as it would bring the outcome of that group down to bonus points and such and could potentially see us still face South Africa in the quarter. OK, so I haven't done all the maths there so there's no need to be alarmed, it's highly unlikely anyways...

Everywhere else things are proceeding as expected. The big games to look out for now are New Zealand v France on Sat 24th at 9:30; Argentina v Scotland the next day at 8:30; whilst England v Scotland, Samoa v South Africa and Fiji v Wales - all the following weekend - could yet have a bearing. The Ireland v Italy game goes without saying as it could still be a tricky one. No-one ever really looks that good against Italy, we'll be happy to pull off the win. I'm really looking forward to Canada v Japan on Tuesday 27th at the lovely time of 5 AM, should be a cracker. Good luck sleeping pattern!

I thought I'd pick my 'Team of the Tournament (so far)' for the craic, enjoy!

Team of the Tournament (so far)

15. Kurtley Beale (Australia)
14. Vincent Clerc (France)
Paulie takes time out of a ruck to ponder my selection.
13. Danie Van Wyk (Namibia)
12. Ma'a Nonu (New Zealand)
11. Richard Kahui (New Zealand)
10. Rhys Priestland (Wales)
 9.  Fumiaki Tanaka (Japan)
 8.  George Stowers (Samoa)
 7. Sam Warburton (Wales)
 6. Adam Kleeberger (Canada)
 5. Paul O'Connell (Ireland)
 4. Brad Thorn (New Zealand)
 3. Mike Ross (Ireland)
 2. Marius Tincu (Romania)
 1. Cian Healy (Ireland)

So no-one's ever going to fully agree with a team like this, but I think I've gotten a healthy mix of star-players and surprise performers. What do ye think? It's incredible to think that three of the tight-five are Irish but they deserve it! They answered a lot of questions. Italy will ask plenty more...

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

As D-Day approaches: A Rugby World Cup Overview

So it looks like Cian Healy isn't going to make it for the USA game and that Gordan D'Arcy may also miss out. So no good news then. Since the defeat to England it's been very hard to find any positives from any of the warm-up games and frankly I'm sick of it, as I'm sure most of us are. At this stage there seems to an argument for ignoring the August internationals entirely and now focusing on how we go in the Pool fixtures. I'm all for that! And that, believe it or not, is the only positive for Ireland at the moment. That it's still all to play for...

So while it would be all gloom and doom to talk entirely about Ireland I decided to do a Pool by Pool guide thingy and just take it from there. Well, it was suggested to me that I should do one. So here it is...

Pool A - New Zealand, France, Japan, Tonga, Canada

New Zealand will not be delighted at having to face France in a World Cup again and, to be honest, they have every right to be nervous. Unfortunately for the All Blacks they appear to have peaked too early again, if only very slightly, and France seem to actually be in a very good place, despite the best efforts of their coach. In fact, I really fear what France could be like with the right coach! Don't get me wrong, New Zealand are still the best team in the world, but cracks have begun to appear in their game and this will more than ever make them a target for the pretenders to the throne, with whom the gap has definitely closed. Despite all of this, I still expect the All Blacks to top the group, but it is still contingent on the presence of Dan Carter and a couple of others like Richie McCaw and Kieran Read in the back-row. For France it's a little different. With the incredible depth in French rugby they have more or less a capable reserve in every position, though back-up fly-half is also a problem for them. If the ramblings of coach Marc Lievremont have done anything for them, it's that they have a huge number of players who have played in the team in the last few years, and this allows these so-called 'fringe' players to slot in all the easier. It makes them somewhat inconsistent, but it also means they are always capable of being world-beaters. If, by chance, the right fifteen players take to the field on the right day, they are lethal! Mind you, it's incredible how Lievremont could leave behind players of the calibre of Yannick Jauzion and Clement Poitrenaud. The mind boggles...

McCaw & Dusautoir, who famously made 38 tackles in the game which saw France knock New Zealand out of the World Cup four years ago, two more than the entire All Black team.
For the rest, I believe it's between Japan and Tonga for third place, making Canada the whipping boys. Japan won the Pacific Nations Cup earlier this year and must be considered one of the emerging nations, while Tonga probably don't have the same quality of player that Fiji and Samoa possess. They do, however, have Northampton's Soane Tonga-Uiha, probably one of the best loose-head props around. You should also look out for Connacht-bound Tongan winger Fetu'u Vainikolo. I might also point out that Japan have been known to be quite an entertaining team and, in fact, this could be a worthwhile group to keep an eye on.

Pool B - England, Argentina, Scotland, Georgia, Romania

Contepomi and Ledesma
This is not only a tricky group to call, it also has the potential to be the most physical! All five of these teams employ big packs and this is reflected in how they play the game. Aside from that, however, it could also be seen as the group with the least quality. If Pool A has the potential for a decent splattering of entertainment, then the opposite could just as easily be said about this group. Romania are likely to be worst off and while the Georgians will again menace their opposition up front, they may just about come up short. England would appear to be the team with the most quality here, if that doesn't say much, but the second place will be the most hotly contested. Argentina are not the team they were four years ago, apart from a few all-to-familiar names up front. But that in itself is the problem, great players like Mario Ledesma, now at 38, are too old and they are without battle-hardened replacements. In fact, I was astounded to hear Keith Wood say the other week that Ledesma was his elder by a couple of months! Equally so I'm not convinced about Scotland. They may very well progress ahead of the Pumas, but for me this will have more to do with whether the mercurial Argentine playmaker Felipe Contepomi has one of his off-days or whether he plays like a man inspired. Either way, it could be very, very boring!

Pool C - Australia, Ireland, Italy, USA, Russia

And so the group of interest. In fact, every one of these teams has a special interest in this tournament and that may make it great. The Russians are playing in their first ever World Cup and should not be taken for granted. As you would expect they are tough nuts, the annual match between themselves and Georgia being one of the great arm wrestles of the game, albeit at a lower level. No one expects them to do well, but the Americans will have their work cut out for them if they mean to avoid the wooden spoon. For the States, the opening game against Ireland has added significance, falling as it does on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. For these reasons, Declan Kidney may think twice about fielding completely second-string teams in these two ties The lessons of four years ago will not be forgotten...

Smug and sullen: BOD and Parisse
Italy are a rising force and have proven that over the past couple of years. In Sergio Parisse they have one of the games great talents and their victory against France earlier this year will have given them huge confidence. For obvious reason then they will be targeting us in the final pool game, believing their time is now to make a stamp on the international game. Ironically, the same could be said of Ireland. Having never progressed past the quarter-final stage, and having never really performed well at World Cups, Ireland also feel that they have come of age and will feel they need to make a mark on the world stage, buoyed on by the ambitions of the old guard, now at the end of their respective careers, Heineken Cups, Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam under their belts. OK. I'm just going to say it: Italy could beat us. On their day they can beat us, and that's a fact. On the other hand, they probably won't. Ireland should win this game with a bit of guile, they know how to beat Italy, and there will be no excuses if they don't. Well, except perhaps if they were to lose Mike Ross, but that's old ground...

As for the Wallabies, they are magnificent. They were well and truly brilliant in Brisbane a couple of weeks ago when they saw off the All Blacks to seal the Tri-Nations for the first time in ten years. If the All Blacks peaked slightly early then Australia seem to be peaking at just the right time. They can now claim to have the best scrum-half in the game in the form of Will Genia, and can also boast possibly the most creative player in the world right now in the shape of his half-back partner, Quade Cooper. Take a look at the famous side-step...

Pool D - South Africa, Samoa, Wales, Fiji, Namibia

O'Driscoll is snared by Jacques Burger of Namibia
This could well be the pool where anything happens. Well, barring a Namibian victory that is... They may have knocked seven kinds of shite out of us last time round, but the Namibians shouldn't be feared. Apart from their manic flanker Jacques Burger that is! He's been wreaking havoc in the Premiership since Saracens picked him up after he showed his proficiency for hunting down Irishmen at the last World Cup.

Seilala Mapusua
However, it's the other four teams who will be fighting it out for the knockout round places. Fiji and Samoa are real contenders to take points off the the two 'big' nations here, especially in the case of Wales, and while I'm not sure Fiji will have enough consistency to make it count, Samoa should progress to the quarters. You see, this isn't any ordinary Samoan side, they may be a team truly come of age, the 'Argentina' of 2011. Last Autumn they came to Dublin and knocked the crap out of us, and we were lucky to survive. A couple of months ago they soundly defeated the Wallabies in Sydney in one of the great days for Pacific Island rugby. Albeit it was an understrength team they put away, but take nothing away from the Samoans. They have the usual raw energy and abrasiveness up front with the likes of Toulouse monster-prop, Census Johnstone, amongst others, and tackling will be ferocious throughout the side. But it is in the backs where the real cutting edge has been discovered. In Seilala Mapusua they have a world-class centre of real ability, capable of unlocking any defense, and wingers like the scary Alesana Tuilagi, the speedy Sailosi Tagicakibau and the nimble David Lemi to feed off him. I predict Samoa have every chance of seeing off Wales, Fiji and Namibia and securing the second place spot.

James Hook
As I said, Fiji are not quite in the same place as their fellow islanders, but have every chance of defeating Wales once again. In fact, Wales must be cursing the luck of the draw here. Whilst the last loss to Fiji was four years ago, the Islanders secured a draw on their travels to Cardiff last Autumn and there is no reason to suggest that anything has changed for Wales in the past year. There has been more nonsense going on outside of the rugby and the team itself looks stagnant and without any real depth. For me, Wales have failed to make real progress in the last four years, specifically in the shape and management of their play. However, I've recently come to the conclusion that this is the very essence of Welsh rugby, a laissez faire outlook where the fate of the team doesn't really seem to be in the players hands, but is dictated by the direction of the match itself. Whilst, like France this makes them unpredictable, it also makes them eminently beatable and for this reason I don't see why Wales should progress in such a tough group. Mind you, that wouldn't stop them... Watch out for James Hook, a player who epitomises everything good, and bad, about Welsh rugby.

South Africa are very hard to gauge. Up until recently I felt that they were in real danger in this World Cup, but once again they seem to have turned it round at the last second. Whilst this team could be said to be a watered down version of the victorious 2007 side, that is still no reason for them not to do well. Like England they build their game around dependable factors, what is referred to as 'percentage rugby', and very much have the pace, power, accuracy and the set-piece to pull it off. However, they do have a seemingly witless coach and, should they get into a tactical battle, they may be lacking a certain amount of guile from the touchline. Believe me, this is not a biased preconception of the Springboks first black coach, this observation has been backed up on more than one occasion. Nowhere is this more clear than the selection at hooker. De Villiers has given the captaincy of the team, and therefore presumably the start, to John Smit, everybodies favourite team leader, when everyone knows that not only is Bismarck du Plessis the best hooker they've got; he's also probably the best in the world! More importantly perhaps, South Africa should be knocked out of this competition before the final because rugby has moved on. At least, we hope it has...
Springbok Captain John Smit and Coach Peter de Villiers