Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Exiled Irish: Transfers Update

Tim Ryan has left Italy to join the Dragons in the PRO12. (c) Daniela Pasquetti.

If you missed the recent Exiled Irish series, it basically involved highlighting some of the Irish players who are contracted outside Ireland. Here’s the original pieces if you need to catch up:

The Exiled Irish: Four Success Stories                The Exiled Irish: Youth XV Backline

The Exiled Irish: Youth XV Pack                                 The Exiled Irish: Allez Les Verts

The Exiled Irish: Stand Up For the Ulster Men              The Exiled Irish: Italia

In the last few weeks, a number of the players featured in these pieces have secured transfers which may take their careers to the next level. Let’s catch up with the players who have made moves ahead of next season.

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Shane Monahan

While the Rotherham Titans season finished their season with a poor Championship play-off effort (1 win in 6 games), Monahan notched two tries in that mini-series. The 25-year-old scored a total of 11 tries in 26 starts after joining from Connacht at the start of the season. His prolific form and physical presence on the wing (he also played 4 games at outside centre) has earned the Leinster Academy graduate a move to Premiership side Gloucester. The South-Western side have big ambitions, with others like Ben Morgan, Billy Twelvetrees, Jimmy Cowan and coach Nigel Davies set to join the club.

Gloucester do have strong options out wide, with Monahan set to compete with the likes of Charlie Sharples, Jonny May, Olly Morgan and James Simpson-Daniel for a place in the back-three. Still, this move can only be a positive one for the Irish man. Hopefully he gets plenty of opportunities to show his power and finishing ability. Monahan’s decision to take a risk by moving to the Championship last season looks like it may have paid off.

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Tim Ryan

After brief stints with Toulon in the Top 14 and Newcastle in the Premiership, Ryan spent this season with Italian Super 10 side Cavalieri Prato. The tighthead prop was first-choice (starting 13 games) as Cavalieri finished top of the regular season table. However, Ryan didn’t feature in the play-off stages as the Tuscan side were beaten by the Paul Griffen-led Calvisano in the two-legged final. It’s unclear whether Ryan was injured or simply not chosen due to his impending transfer to the Dragons. After those 13 league starts, as well as 6 Amlin Cup appearances, the 27-year-old has been signed by the Welsh PRO12 region.

Crucially, Ryan has secured a two-year deal which will allow him time to settle into the higher standard of the PRO12. Converted into a prop from the backrow as an 18-year-old, the question marks about Ryan during his four years with Munster were around his scrummaging. It will be interesting to see if his travels have improved that aspect of his game. His ball-carrying has always been explosive. Irish eyes will be watching the Dragons a little more closely next season.

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Jason Harris-Wright

Harris-Wright (wearing scrumcap) in action for Bristol this season. (c) Linda G.

Harris-Wright would have been McIlwaine’s team mate at Bristol next season but for his move back to Ireland to join Connacht. The hooker only joined the Championship team in November, leaving Leinster in the hope of getting more game time. The 24-year-old was rated highly enough to have made 11 appearances for Leinster, but the signing of Sean Cronin meant opportunities would have been limited. Unfortunately, Harris-Wright’s time at Bristol was disrupted by injuries, restricting him to 5 starts and a total of 11 appearance.

More encouragingly, Harris-Wright was first-choice at Bristol when fit, and he started both legs of their promotion play-off semi-final loss to the Cornish Pirates. Eric Elwood and Dan McFarland at Connacht will be well aware of what Harris-Wright offers. Having played in the back-row, the Dublin man is a strong ball-carrier, and his set-piece play is generally very reliable. Connacht certainly needed an extra hooker to complement Ethienne Reynecke and Adrian Flavin. If Harris-Wright can stay fit, there’s no reason he shouldn’t see plenty of action.

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David McIlwaine

Lots of people who read the Youth XV Backline piece were particularly excited about the potential of McIlwaine after viewing his highlight reel. While it’s always foolish to judge a player on a YouTube video, the fact that he made 8 appearances for Ulster before joining the Doncaster Knights at the start of the season suggests that the 22-year-old has plenty of ability. The signing of Jared Payne meant McIlwaine was unlikely to see much action at fullback this season. As it turned out, the season-long injury to the New Zealander may have allowed McIlwaine to showcase his exciting attacking game.

Still, the move to Doncaster has been a success for the ex-Ireland U18 & U19 international. The fullback started 17 games and scored 3 tries. He even took over place-kicking duties for part of the season, knocking over 12 conversions and 19 penalties. McIlwaine’s consistent form earned him a move to fellow Championship side Bristol. They finished top of the regular season table, but failed in the promotion play-offs. With no teams relegated from the Premiership, Bristol look likely to push hard again for promotion next season. McIlwaine will play a key role, and it’s very likely that we’ll see him playing Premiership rugby in the next few years.

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Exiles Round-Up

Elsewhere, 22-year-old No.8 Michael Noone, once of Leinster, has left the Doncaster Knights to join fellow Championship outfit Rotherham Titans. His job there will be replace Robin Copeland, the Championship Player of the Season and now with the Cardiff Blues. Also leaving the Knights are Irish trio Michael Heaney, Royce Burke-Flynn and Gareth Quinn-McDonagh. Quinn-McDonagh is back in Ireland and will play with Ulster Bank League side Young Munster, but it’s unclear where the other two will be playing their rugby next season. All three saw plenty of game time at Doncaster this year.

Joining the Exiled Irish for next season will be Eamonn Sheridan, who will hook up with Noone at Rotherham. The talented centre is 23, and at 6’4″ and 17 stone is very physically strong. The Irish underage international can offload too, and should be a big success in the Championship. His development at Leinster last season was halted by a bad leg break, so he will be eager to impress from the off.

Another young Irish prospect on his way to the Titans is James McKinney. The Ulster man is still only 21, but the emergence of Paddy Jackson has convinced him to leave his home province. The outhalf has two Junior World Championships under his belt and made 2 appearances for Ulster this season. He has plenty of playmaking talent and is accurate off the tee. His development at Rotherham will be fascinating.

Jeremy Staunton slots a penalty during his Wasps days. (c) Chris Brown.

 Jeremy Staunton, once of Munster, is reluctantly leaving the Leicester Tigers. It’s still uncertain where, or if, he will be playing next season. The Limerick man is now 32. Read this superb piece on Staunton by the Demented Mole.

David McGowan, who has spent the last number of years with French Pro D2 side La Rochelle has decided to retire after some serious injuries in the last couple of seasons.

Rory O’Kane, who contributes plenty of interesting comments here on The Touchline, brought it to my attention that Dave Ryan, once with Munster, has been training with the USA national team.  Now in Italy with Lazio, it would be great to see Ryan playing international rugby. Rory also pointed out that Tommy Seymour, once of Ulster and now with the Warriors, is also eligible to play for the USA. He was an Irish international at U19 level and started 14 games for the Warriors this season, including 4 in the H-Cup. The winger scored 3 tries. in those appearances. One to watch.

Another one worth keeping an eye on is Jamie Smithwho Tim Ryan will be linking up with at the Dragons. Smith is a versatile 23-year-old outside back. He joined the Welsh region at the start of this season on a three-year deal, having made 15 appearances for Ulster as well as being named their Young Player of the year in 2009. Unfortunately, the Irish U19 international has had an injury hit season, limiting him to 2 starts in the PRO12. Having recently undergone surgery, the hope would be that he’s back in action next season, showcasing his pace and running threat.

If anyone has any other info on Irish players playing outside Ireland and their transfer movements, please leave a comment below. It’s important that we keep up to date with how our young players are doing abroad. Do you think the moves highlighted in this piece will be successful? Are Sheridan and McKinney right to move away?

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 Photos courtesy: Daniela Pasquetti, Linda G, Chris Brown.

All Blacks Far Too Clinical

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Ireland started this game well and enjoyed the better of the opening 20 minutes. Their attacking play was very encouraging after some of the stodge served up in recent years. Sexton looked to put width on the ball and got his backline running from depth. The outhalf also added a few well-judged kicks in behind the All Blacks to mix play up. Ireland managed to create several openings (see Keith Earls at 22.05 in vid) but crucially didn’t take any of these half-chances.

The All Blacks were uncharacteristically sloppy during that period and indeed, after the opening quarter, the handling errors were 5-0 in Ireland’s favour. But the hosts recovered in supreme fashion. Savea’s massive hit on Kearney in the 18th minute (27.00) allowed Carter to stroke over a gorgeous penalty from half-way to make it 9-3 on the scoreboard. With that, the All Blacks started to take control. A sustained period of pressure inside the Irish 22 ultimately led to the game’s first try.

Ireland actually managed to repel the original attack and O’Brien won one of many Irish penalties at the breakdown. That phase of defending clearly tired the Irish as first Sexton got very little distance on the penalty and then Murray’s poor box kick was clinically punished by the All Blacks. The scrumhalf’s kick went from Ireland’s 22 to the NZ 10 metre line, far too long. The Irish chase could perhaps have been better, but Murray’s kick is the dream scenario for a counter-attack.

Reddan

Reddan needs to start next Saturday. (c) Nigel Snell.

The All Blacks recognised the situation immediately. They were ruthless in taking the opportunity. Earls and McFadden should have done better with the switch between Conrad Smith and SBW, but it was clearly advantage to the attacking team in that situation. Smith took out two defenders, then so too did Williams with his offload. Carter actually had three options to give the scoring pass. A sniff of a try and every single one of the All Blacks snapped into action. Clinical. (Starts at 34.35).

That was actually Murray’s second overly-long kick of the game. Check out 21.40 for a similar kick earlier in the game. This weakness in Murray’s game is something I’ve mentioned before. Munster conceded a strikingly similar try against Northampton earlier this season. Overall, the kicks summed up a poor display from the scrumhalf. Before the game, I backed him to provide speedier service than usual but it didn’t happen. Reddan must start next Saturday, especially if Ireland look to spread the ball again. All Blacks’ debutant Aaron Smith showed Ireland exactly what they were missing with his crisp delivery. Smith has since claimed he wants to speed the game up even more next weekend.

The 2nd All Blacks try also originated from an Irish mistake. In the 34th minute, Ireland knocked a penalty into the corner 5 metres from the NZ tryline. An efficient lineout followed and then Murray hit O’Driscoll on a flat line. The captain threw a poorly judged offload and the All Blacks countered the length of the field. After the match, O’Driscoll spoke about the need for Ireland to be more patient in attack. I’ve no doubt he was talking about himself. It was a superb opportunity for Ireland to score before the break, completely wasted. (Starts at 43.57).

Sexton

Sexton had a positive game. (c) Ken Bohane.

3 minutes after O’Driscoll’s offload attempt, Savea bashed over Kearney in the left-hand corner. While Israel Dagg showed decent footwork and a nice pass to put Savea down the touchline, the try really showed that Fergus McFadden is not an international-level winger, defensively at least. He’s a centre and should play there from now on. Essentially, the situation was a three-on-three and there was no need for McFadden to bite in. NZ exposed him badly, taking two phases in close after the lineout and then attacking down the blindside in McFadden’s channel. (Starts at 48.06).

So Ireland went from an attacking situation where they could have reduced a 16-3 deficit just before the break, to going in 23-3 down at half-time. This was further compounded by conceding within 5 minutes of the second-half. There’s a strange similarity here between Ireland’s rugby and football teams this weekend. Trapattoni’s men conceded in the 43rd and 48th minutes, while Kidney’s side let in scores in the 37th and 43rd minutes. Both 5-minute spells proved to be decisive in the games. Something in the Irish psyche?

Savea’s hattrick try just after half-time was the killer blow. Once again, the All Blacks’ possession stemmed from an Irish error. Attacking down the short side, o’Driscoll left a pass behind Earls and NZ won a lineout. Again, the All Blacks immediately recognised the opportunity. While it wasn’t quite a quick lineout, the ball came out of touch sppedily. Sonny Bill banged it up the middle, then Earls got too narrow in defence, allowing Retallick to offload. In that kind of space, Carter, Dagg and Savea are lethal. Simon Zebo should have done better with his covering tackle, but the damage was done earlier. (Starts 58.35).

This guy’s pretty good eh? (c) Adidas Italy.

With Carter kicking accurately from the tee that was 30-3 and Ireland done and dusted. They managed a consolation score after good work from Rory Best. McFadden got the chance to show his pace but it was an opportunistic try rather than a cleverly constructed score. (Starts 1.06.15). Thomson crossed for the All Blacks’ in the 55th minute immediately after the impressive Declan Fitzpatrick left the field. Ireland’s scrum went backwards and with Heaslip’s head down trying to scrummage, the space was there for Read to offload. (1.14.14).

The All Blacks became less clinical after that score, which meant that Ireland were spared more punishment on the scoreboard. They didn’t score again until the 78th minute, when Conrad Smith straightened his line in between two inexperienced players, Darren Cave and Zebo. One of the two should have got a hit in on Smith, but both made bad reads and the classy New Zealander went through untouched. Both players will have learned from it, and hopefully they get a chance to improve next weekend.

So positives for Ireland? I was really impressed with Fitzpatrick on his debut. He certainly dealt with the considerable challenge of Tony Woodcock, and Ireland’s scrum was really solid until his departure. Hopefully, his glutes are ready for next weekend and he can get at least another 40 minutes in. Interestingly, Ireland dominated at the breakdown, winning lots of turnovers. The first 20 minutes was encouraging from Ireland. If they can be inspired by the All Blacks’ clinical finishing, we should see a few more scores on Saturday.

Still, the All Blacks will get stronger too. They are playing with a bit more freedom now that the World Cup monkey is off their backs. They are on a different level to Ireland, and it would be a miracle to beat them in the next two tests. However, there’s still value to be taken from the games. More of the attacking intent, cut out the unforced mistakes and see guys like Tuohy, Zebo, Fitzpatrick and Cave learn lessons from the step-up.

What did you make of the game? What changes would you make for next weekend? Who did well and who did poorly in your opinion? As always, any comments are welcome!

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Nigel Snell, Adidas Italy.

All Blacks Watch: The Debutants

(c) Aftab Uzzaman.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has named three uncapped players in his team to take on Ireland in the 1st Test tomorrow. None of the selections are very surprising, with Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith and Julian Savea all deserving their chance. So how have they earned their first caps for the best international team in the world? Let’s take a closer look at each player and the form they carry into this series.

Second-row Brodie Retallick turned 21 only a week ago. He was an integral part of the New Zealand Under 20s side who claimed a 4th successive Junior World Championship title last year. From there, the 121kg lock went straight into an ITM Championship (the level below the likes of Canterbury, where new Munster coach Rob Penney had so much success) campaign with Hawke’s Bay. Retallick played a key role as the ‘Magpies’ earned promotion to the ITM Premiership, coincidentally beating Aaron Smith’s Manawatu side in the final.

In Ireland, lack of size and strength is very often an issue with our young second-rows. That’s never been a problem for the freakish Retallick. In fact, he has actually dropped weight since his school days, where he tipped the scales at 126kg. That made him hard to get off the ground at the lineout but he has since shed a few kgs and is now superb in the air. He’s also the tallest player in New Zealand rugby at almost 6’9′. His physical readiness meant Retallick went straight into the Chiefs’ first XV in this year’s Super Rugby campaign.

Retallick takes a switch off SBW at Chiefs’ training. (c) One Arm Photography.

The Chiefs sit top of the overall table coming into this break for the international tours. Retallick has been important to the Chiefs’ success. His work at the lineout has been impressive and his engine is huge. The 21-year-old is exceptionally fit. He recently beat Brad Thorn’s long-standing beep test record for a tight-five forward in New Zealand. That highlights Retallick’s impressive work ethic. He’s 6th in the Super Rugby tackling charts, with 169 in just 12 games.

Another of the lock’s strengths has been his work at the breakdown. Not in the sense of steals, but rather his effectiveness in cleaning out rucks during the Chiefs’ attack. Encouragingly, Retallick turned in perhaps his poorest display of the season in the Chiefs’ last match, a thrilling 41-34 win over the Blues. The 21-year-old forced a few offloads and passes and generally looked a little uncomfortable. From an Irish point of view, hopefully the added pressure of an All Blacks jersey results in something similar on Saturday.

Aaron Smith takes over in the 9 jersey. World Cup scrumhalf Piri Weepu has been struggling badly for fitness and form, but is still included on the bench. Smith is one of a number of exciting young 9s coming through in New Zealand at the moment, with TJ Perenara and Tawera Kerr-Barlow both unlucky to miss out. Smith’s form for the Highlanders means he is deserving of this chance though. His swift and accurate passing has been eye-catching, and much appreciated by the All Blacks selectors.

(c) Highlanders Rugby.

Back in 2008, Smith came off the bench for the New Zealand U20s as they beat England 38-3 in the final of the first-ever Junior World Championship. Following that success, he spent three seasons playing ITM rugby for Manawatu, pushing his way into the Highlanders Super Rugby squad last year, making 3 starts. However, it was the 23-year-old’s form in Manawatu’s run to that Championship final at the tail end of 2011 which really saw Smith announce himself. That convinced Highlanders coach to give Smith the starting role ahead of All Black Jimmy Cowan this year.

Smith has admitted that his focus at the start of this season had been getting starts for the Highlanders, and hadn’t even entertained the notion of an All Blacks cap. His superb performances have been one of the unchanging factors of an inconsistent Highlanders side this season. It seems like an idiotic thing to say about a scrumhalf but you’d be surprised how many don’t do it well – Smith’s main strength is his beautiful passing. He generally doesn’t offer as threatening running game that Perenara or Kerr-Barlow do. In terms of positives for Ireland, Smith is relatively inexperienced, and by his own admission, never expected to be where he will be on Saturday.

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The third new cap is left wing Julian Savea of the Hurricanes. The 21-year-old has been marked out as an All Black for some time now. In 2009, at the age of 18 and fresh out of school he played for the New Zealand Sevens team. The following year his 8 tries helped the NZ U20s to the JWC and saw him named 2010’s IRB Junior Player of the Year. A brilliant ITM Cup campaign for Wellington followed, with Savea scoring 8 tries in 12 games. A full All Blacks call-up would surely have followed sooner than now, but for a poor 2011 season.

The 6’3″ winger progressed to start 7 games for the Hurricanes but was generally quiet and didn’t manage to score a Super Rugby try. An ineffective ITM campaign followed with Wellington and the buzz around Savea died a little. However, this season has seen that buzz reach new heights thanks to his spectacular form for the Hurricanes. 7 tries in 11 games doesn’t tell the whole story. When you see that he’s in the Top 10 for metres gained (817), has made 4 try assists and 8 clean line-breaks you start to get the idea.

(c) Hurricanes Rugby.

At around 105kg, Savea is a big unit. He uses his power to great effect and regularly boshes defenders into the ground (1.14 and 2.07 in the vid below are becoming typical). However, he has neat footwork and general skills too. His Hurricanes teammate Beauden Barret has called Savea’s attacking arsenal the “triple threat“. So any signs of respite for Ireland? While the Hurricanes’ attacking game has lit up Super Rugby (they’re comfortably the top-scorers despite sitting 6th), their defence has been very poor (2nd worst in the table). Savea has been part of that weak defence, and is certainly more interested in attacking. Despite the fact that he’s a big unit, if Ireland can send some traffic down his wing, they may get some change out of the youngster.

The fact that the All Blacks have included three uncapped players does not mean that they’re putting out a weakened or experimental team. The rookies Smith, Retallick and Savea have each earned the chance to wear the famous black jersey. Still, it’s natural that Ireland will view their inexperience as a chink in the armour.

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Photos courtesy: One Arm Photography, Aftab Uzzaman.

Kidney Embraces Change

Ireland

Ireland are set for kick-off agains the All Blacks on Saturday. (c) Ken Bohane.

Declan Kidney’s team selection for Saturday’s 1st Test against the All Blacks shows he may be finally changing his loyal ways. With two new caps in Simon Zebo and Declan Fitzpatrick as well as five players who may not have expected to be starting, this is an exciting Irish team at last. Heavily criticised regulars like Donncha O’Callaghan and Gordon D’Arcy have finally been dropped. I, for one, am delighted with this Irish team.

There are interesting combinations everywhere across the field in this fresh-looking match day 22. Starting with the back-three, world-class fullback Rob Kearney is joined by newcomer Simon Zebo and, perhaps even more surprisingly, Leinster’s Fergus McFadden. If I had seen McFadden anywhere in this team, it was at 12 but his hard-working display on the right wing in the Heineken Cup final looks to have convinced Kidney. The 25-year-old will need to shackle the attacking talent of Julian Savea opposite him, but is certainly up to the task.

Much has been made of the choice to bring Zebo on tour ahead of other worthy young wings like Craig Gilroy, Dave Kearney and Tiernan O’Halloran. The Munster speedster is often accused of having a weak defensive game, and that is fair to some extent. From my point of view, Zebo is a 22-year-old with pace, evasiveness and confidence. He has scored 12 tries in 23 games in his breakthrough season. If he had done the same for a Super Rugby side, we would be hyping him beyond belief. Zebo is an exciting natural talent and will only improve with this kind of opportunity.

Simon Zebo Munster's try scorer copy

Simon Zebo is in for his first international cap. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

Brian O’Driscoll and Keith Earls make up the centre partnership for Saturday, and this will be a fascinating combination. By picking that pair, and having Darren Cave on the bench, Kidney has included the three best 13s in the country this season in his match day 22. Earls has been named at 12, but it would be no surprise to see himself and O’Driscoll swap in and out, particularly in defence. I can’t recall having seen Earls playing 12 before but after the impressive season he’s had, his confidence must be high. Up against Sonny Bill Williams and Conrad Smith, the Irish midfield will have a busy day.

The half-backs of Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray are fairly established at this level by now. Still, Murray’s selection at 9 will be greeted with grunts of disapproval, particularly from Leinster fans. Eoin Reddan’s crisp delivery has helped their attacking game flow this season but I still feel Kidney has made the correct call here. If the rain comes on Saturday, as expected, Murray is more suited to the physical encounter it would bring. Even if it remains dry, I believe that Murray can deliver quick ball. When he first came through at Munster, his service was notably swift. However, this season’s game plans at Munster and Ireland have slowed him down.

The back-row sees one change from the Six Nations, with Peter O’Mahony stepping in for the injured Stephen Ferris. The Ulster flanker is obviously a huge loss, but there may be positives in it too. Firstly, it means a much-needed break for Ferris’ body, but it also changes the attributes of our back-row. Although O’Mahony will wear the 6 jersey, his inclusion is likely to mean Sean O’Brien will get on the ball in attack a bit more. In defence, O’Brien continues to improve at the breakdown. Jamie Heaslip will be eager to put things right against the All Blacks, having lost the head, and the game, back in 2010.

SOB

O’Brien may see more of the ball with O’Mahony in the team. (c) Ken Bohane.

Dan Tuohy and Donnacha Ryan in the second-row are two players coming off the back of superb seasons. They’re a completely untested combination, but Kidney has seen sense in dropping Donncha O’Callaghan to the bench. As the heavier of the pair, Tuohy will pack down on the tighthead side at scrum-time. Look out for the locks in phase play as both are aggressive ball-carriers, and are auditioning for a spot beside Paul O’Connell in next year’s Six Nations. New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are bigger boys, but the Irish pair can match them around the park.

Finally, the front-row sees Declan Fitzpatrick in for the injured Mike Ross. The Leinster prop will almost certainly be back from injury for the 2nd Test, so this is Fitzpatrick’s time to shine. It’s certainly a case of being thrown in at the deep end, up against Tony Woodcock but this is what Ireland needed. Much has been written about our ‘tighthead crisis’ and this is the first step on the path to remedying it. Rory Best will need to guide his Ulster team mate through the game. He shouldn’t have any worries about Cian Healy on the other side. The 24-year-old is getting better all the time, and appears to be relishing his scrummaging duties as he matures.

Finally, the inclusions of Ronan Loughney and Darren Cave on the bench are very welcome. Connacht man Loughney will surely win his first cap, as he covers both sides of the front-row. Cave has been in standout form for Ulster all season and deserves a run. Overall, I’m delighted with this Irish team. It’s exactly what I’ve been hoping for. Even if Ireland don’t get close to the All Blacks, I’ll be happy that guys have been given the chance to stake their claim. Us Irish fans have endlessly criticised Declan Kidney’s conservatism in recent months. Now that he has made some exciting changes, we must not take a conservative view ourselves. Bring on Saturday!

Please leave a comment with your views on the team. Right calls? Wrong calls? Who should/shouldn’t be there? Have we got a chance on Saturday?

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Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Ken Bohane.

All Blacks Watch: Stopping Sonny Bill

Sonny Bill Williams is one of the best centres in the world, as well as a heavyweight boxing champ and a beautiful man. Jealous? Me? (c) Geoff Trotter.

With Steve Hansen having hinted that he will give Ma’a Nonu a rest during the upcoming three-test series against Ireland, it now looks almost certain that Sonny Bill Williams will be wearing the 12 jersey for the All Blacks. Even if Nonu wasn’t to be given a break, SBW would fully deserve to be starting at inside centre. The 26-year-old has been one of the best players in Super Rugby this season. His spectacular form for the Chiefs means Ireland will have to watch him very closely on Saturday.

The Hamilton-based franchise sit top of the overall Super Rugby table after 13 games. Sonny Bill has been a huge part of the success so far. His attacking game has been razor sharp, and he looks like a far more complete player than when he first switched from league. He’s gained the 4th highest number of metres in possession, with 984, behind only Hosea Gear, Andre Taylor and Ben Smith. Williams is joint 3rd for line-breaks on 11 and is the clear leader in the offloading table, with an incredible 29 in his 13 games.

It’s this ability to play the ball out of the tackle that makes Williams such a dangerous proposition. At almost 6’4″ and 108kg of pure muscle, he has a physique which has helped him to become the heavyweight boxing champion of New Zealand (video at bottom of this piece). William’s size and power allow him to take the tackle on his own terms and he always gets his hands through. As soon as SBW gets the ball, the offload is the first thing on his mind. It’s one of the most effective attacking weapons in world rugby.

Sonny Bill Williams

Williams is extremely powerful. (c) Luton Anderson.

Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll are both very powerful men, but at 5’11” and 5’10” respectively, may struggle to deal with Williams. The All Black will be confident of getting his hands through the tackle against both, and with Conrad Smith and Israel Dagg running the intelligent lines off him, Ireland could be cut to shreds. So it there a way to stop the Sonny Bill offload? It’s easier said than done, but O’Driscoll and D’Arcy have the experience and intelligence to dull the big man’s effectiveness.

Last Saturday, the Chiefs beat the Blues 41-34 in a brilliant, exciting game. Williams was excellent opposite his All Blacks’ rival Ma’a Nonu, clearly coming out on top of their individual battle. He scored one try with a powerful finish and set up countless opportunities for his team mates with his offloading game. However, there was one poor offload following a searing line-break. Williams was in open field and tried his signature one-handed offload despite the fact that he hadn’t actually been tackled.

That missed pass against the Blues at the weekend betrayed Williams’ obsession with playing the ball out of the tackle. It’s as if he needs to do it every time he’s in possession. Ireland have to turn it against him, frustrate him at every opportunity. Defenders either side of the tackle need to expect it every single time, try to intercept it or get a hand to it. The Irish must be prepared for him to get the ball away and be alert and ready to react decisively.

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It’s pointless to say that the Irish centres simply need to double up on Williams in the tackle. If it was as easy as that, then he wouldn’t be top of the Super Rugby stats chart for offloading. If they can team up, then one goes low and chops him as early as possible, while the other targets his ball-carrying arm rather than trying to wrap his upper body. That second tackler has to be deadly accurate when he targets Sonny Bill’s arms. But Williams will get one-on-one with defenders, so what’s the best thing to do then? If you go in high, he has a strong fend and real power in contact.

The defender has to take him low because if he does bump them off, Williams has the pace to punish the Irish defence. The simple fact is that the Chiefs man will get the ball away in the tackle. The Irish defence must have a collective awareness, particularly the back-row as they sweep across from set-piece play, and Conor Murray/Eoin Reddan as they sweep behind the defence in phase play. When Williams makes those offloads, these guys need to be in like a flash, smashing the All Blacks’ support player.

It’s just one aspect of the All Blacks’ game that Ireland have to deal with, but it’s a particularly lethal one. The in-form Williams represents an altogether different challenge to anything D’Arcy and O’Driscoll have faced so far this season. The battle in midfield should be a treat, especially with O’Driscoll looking so sharp himself in the Heineken Cup final (as the All Blacks recognised). Saturday’s 1st test should be tasty, and there’s no doubt that Sonny Bill Williams will be central to the outcome.

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Photos courtesy: Geoff TrotterLuton Anderson.

Wolfpuppies Show Grit

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The Ireland U20s opened their Junior World Championship campaign with an incredible 23-19 win over hosts South Africa yesterday. The ‘Wolfpuppies’ put in a phenomenal defensive effort, with both of their tries coming from blocked-down South African kicks. Irish captain Niall Scannell summed it up neatly for us in his post-match interview when he said that the Irish focus in the build-up had been on early, low tackles followed by other defenders getting in over the ball.

Ireland were excellent at the breakdown, and put that plan into perfect effect. The Baby Boks became extremely frustrated with the Irish side’s eagerness to compete at every ruck. The number of turnovers in Ireland’s favour at the breakdown was truly decisive. When the hosts did manage to get through a few phases, they scored their solitary try through Lions lock Paul Willemse. That period of pressure aside, Mike Ruddock’s Irish team managed to make the South Africans possession very scrappy.

There were some promising individual displays too for the Irish. JJ Hanrahan at outhalf maintained his cool throughout. His decision to pop over a drop-goal in the 56th minute to put Ireland 16-10 in front was particularly impressive. Similarly, his scything line-break in the first-half showed his awareness, as well a sharp turn of pace. The Kerryman will hope that New Zealand U20 and new Munster coach Rob Penney was watching the game, as his performance will have greatly impressed.

TOM CLIFFORD PARK

Irish U20s captain Niall Scannell (diving for ball) in Dolphin colours. (c) Liam Coughlan.

Tadhg Furlong at tighthead was immense in locking out the Irish scrum. Opposite him at loosehead for the Boks was Steven Kitshoff, already first-choice for the Stomers, who are 2nd in the overall Super Rugby table. But Furlong was the winner of their battle. Apart from one occasion late in the second-half, the Irish dealt capably with the South African scrum. Furlong played a vital role. As highlighted by the Demented Mole, the Wexford man is a serious prospect.

Iain Henderson burst onto the scene with this try against Munster last month. The Ulster man put in a superb shift yesterday evening from the second-row. He has played plenty of rugby at 6, and it’s easy to see why. He’s a real physical presence and has a massive engine. He never let up against the Baby Boks. Again, the Mole picked Henderson out as one to watch, and was not mistaken. There’s a real shade of Stephen Ferris in Henderson and we’ll certainly be seeing more of him next season for Ulster.

Picking out three individual players is probably not fair though, as this was a concentrated team effort from Ireland. Their willingness to throw their bodies into every collision was unwavering. Ruddock clearly had instilled the belief into his side that they could win this game. That was evident in the way Ireland came back from a shaky start, when it looked like the Boks might become dominant. We saw a few short passages of attacking cutting-edge from Ireland which bodes well, but this win was all about the physical side of the game.

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Hopefully the senior Irish squad took in the game, because the effort from the U20s was inspirational. This must count as one of the best-ever wins for Ireland at any underage level. Beating South Africa anywhere at this level is special, but to do so in their own back yard adds another dimension. Ireland now turn their focus to the match against England on Friday. The English ran in 9 tries in a 64-5 win over Italy earlier today (video above).

The memory of losing the Six Nations Grand Slam decider to England back in March will still be fresh in the memory for Ruddock and his squad. That game swung in England’s favour off the back of Irish errors and a lack of physicality. They will have learned their lesson and now the confidence will be up. Best of luck lads, there’ll be plenty of us watching on!

What did you think of the Irish win over South Africa? Which players stood out for you? Drop a comment below…

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Photos courtesy: Liam Coughlan.

All Blacks Watch: Series Squad Named

All Blacks

Ali Williams, Israel Dagg, Richie McCaw and Sam Whitelock are all part of the squad to face Ireland over three tests. (c) Adidas Italy.

Steve Hansen has selected his 30-man squad to face Ireland in the upcoming three-test series. The 1st test takes place at Eden Park next Saturday (kick-off is at 8.35AM Irish time). Let’s take a closer look at the players he’s picked and the kind of form they’ve been in so far in the Super Rugby season. Ireland have a seriously difficult task ahead of them if they are to get their first-ever win over the All Blacks, or even if they’re to be competitive at all.

This series comes at a far better time for the All Blacks. While Ireland’s players are at the end of a long, exhausting season, the New Zealanders are about midway through their campaigns and are at peak fitness. While the majority of both squads were involved in last year’s Rugby World Cup, Ireland’s front-liners have played far more games since then. Many of them will be running low on energy for this tour, and some will probably be questioning why they’re in New Zealand at all. Here’s the task facing them…

Hansen has gone for 2 hookers in Andrew Hore and Kevin Mealamu. Hore is the likely starter in next weekend’s 1st test, as Blues man Mealamu has been struggling with a calf injury recently. Witty 33-year-old Hore has started all but 2 of the Highlanders 14 Super Rugby games this season and has contributed plenty around the pitch. With Mealamu having been limited to just 7 starts, the last of which came in mid-April, and set to miss the first test, the impressive Chiefs hooker Hika Elliot will be drafted in as cover.

The battle-hardened Andrew Hore is likely to start at hooker. (c) Geoff Trotter.

The 5 props have picked themselves in truth. World Cup squad members Tony Woodcock and the Franks brother, Owen and Ben, return (watch the vid if you’ve got some free time, good watch!). They’re joined by the Crusaders’ Wyatt Crockett and uncapped 20-year-old Ben Tameifuna, who tips the scales at 140kg. He began the season not even expecting to see much action for the Chiefs, but an injury to Ben Afeaki catapulted the tighthead into the limelight and he has impressed with his physicality and skills. Hansen’s front-row for Saturday is likely to be Woodcock, Hore and Owen Franks. Ben Franks’ ability to cover both sides of the scrum should see him on the bench, although Tameifuna can do the same.

There are 4 locks in the squad, 2 of whom are uncapped. World Cup winners Sam Whitelock and Ali Williams are retained, while Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick join the squad. Williams is fortunate to be included at all after some uninspiring performances for the lowly Blues. Whitelock is an almost guaranteed starter, but it will be interesting to see who is alongside him. Retallick has just turned 21, but is already first-choice at the table-topping Chiefs and is a real physical specimen. Romano is a late developer at 26, having come through at Canterbury under Rob Penney.

In the back-row, Richie McCaw and No.8 Kieran Read are undroppable. The Highlanders Adam Thomson and Victor Vito of the Hurricanes are competing for the No.6 shirt. Thomson started the season in spectacular form, but Vito has gradually hauled his rival in with some physical displays. The momentum probably favours Vito now, but Hansen is likely to go for Thomson’s superior experience. 20-year-old Sam Cane is another fresh addition, but is still not a starter at the Chiefs so is here largely for experience. He looks to be the heir to McCaw at 7.

Captain McCaw has started the last three Crusaders games after recovering from a foot injury. (c) Stefano Delfrate.

Hansen’s selection at half-back has been greeted with plenty of controversy in New Zealand. Piri Weepu has been included despite being blatantly out of shape and form. He has spent plenty of time riding pine for the Blues and with the likes of Andy Ellis, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and 20-year-old sensation TJ Perenara having been left out of the squad, pressure will be on Weepu to step up for this series. Uncapped Highlanders No.9 Aaron Smith will provide the competition. He possesses a lovely, long pass and will surely see game time.

Dan Carter is back to full fitness and looking sharp so he’s the clear first-choice at first five-eighth. Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett are the other two outhalves in the squad. Cruden has been an important part of the Chiefs excellent season, and appears to grow in confidence every single week. He will be keen to get back on the international stage. 21-year-old Barrett has been the fulcrum of an exciting Hurricanes backline, making New Zealand finally look well-stocked behind golden boy Carter.

The four centres that Hansen’s gone with are Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams and Tamati Ellison. SBW has been one of the standout players in Super Rugby, and surely he can’t be ignored for a starting place alongside Smith. Nonu hasn’t been at his best for the Blues, looking tired at times. He went straight from RWC 2011 to Japan, then back into Super Rugby without a break and it appears to have caught up with him.

Nonu has struggled for form. (c) Luton Anderson.

29-year-old Ellison is an interesting but deserved inclusion. He made his only All Blacks appearance back in 2009, before spending two years in Japan. Now back in New Zealand with the Highlanders, his well-rounded game has earned him a return to the international game. Ellison has the versatility to cover the back-three as well as both centre positions, making him a valuable squad member.

Finally, to the back-three and there’s no let-up in the calibre of players. Israel Dagg will start at full-back and his threat is well-known. With World Cup wingers Cory Jane and Richard Kahui both out injured, there will be two new wide men. The uncapped Julian Savea has been a powerful presence for the Hurricanes. 7 tries in 11 starts for the  21-year-old tells the story. Zac Guildford has hit form at exactly the right time with his two tries against the Highlanders on Friday taking his season’s tally to 6.

Hosea Gear turned down a move to Japan in order to pursue his All Blacks dreams, but hasn’t been as prolific as his competition in Super Rugby. Still, 4 in 14 games isn’t bad and the 27-year-old has gas as well as more experience than Savea and Guildford. His teammate Ben Smith has been at fullback all season, but can play on the wing too. Whichever way Hansen goes with his wingers, he’ll be picking players in form.

Hosea Gear

Hosea Gear will be hoping to add to his 8 caps. (c) Geof Wilson.

It’s a seriously strong squad, laden with quality. If Ireland can beat these All Blacks, it will be their greatest result ever. I can’t pretend that I’m confident ahead of the first test but I’m as hopeful as ever. It may be the end of a long season for the Irish players, but the chance to beat New Zealand in their own back yard doesn’t come around too often. Ireland have nothing to lose, and Declan Kidney needs to stress that. Let’s have a go!

New Zealand name their team and bench on Thursday. Who do you think Hansen will pick? Do Ireland have a hope in hell? Drop a comment below with your contributions!

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Photos courtesy: Adidas Italy, Geoff Trotter, Stefano Delfrate, Luton Anderson, Geof Wilson.