Category Archives: Ireland Wolfhounds

Ruddock and his Wolfpuppies Ready For France

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Ed Byrne scoring for the Wolfpuppies during their 31-26 loss to New Zealand. (c) IRB.

The Ireland U20s play host nation France in the Junior World Championship fifth-place semi finals tomorrow evening after narrowly missing out on a spot amongst the top four teams. Similarly to last year, the Wolfpuppies have impressed greatly at this tournament. The amount of talent at Ireland’s disposal and the high skill level throughout the squad offer encouraging signs for rugby in this country.

One of most impressive things about Mike Ruddock’s team has been their attitude. Over the last three years, the Welshman has worked hard to instill confidence in his U20 sides. The aim has been to convince young Irish players that they are every bit as talented as their international peers. That message is clearly getting across, with a win over Australia and an excellent performance against New Zealand in which the Wolfpuppies were clearly not overawed.

Following that loss, a quote from outhalf Steve Crosbie stuck out. Expressing his disappointment, he revealed just how ambitious the Irish U20s have become: “There is no way we are taking our foot off the pedal here now. We set our goals to win this competition, but that’s not possible now.” The fact that Ireland will see their performance as something of a failure is reason to laud Ruddock’s work at this level.

This winning attitude can only benefit Irish players in the long-term. Whereas five years ago, several of our players at this level wouldn’t have had serious thoughts about a professional career, every single one of these Wolfpuppies will expect to become a full-time professional rugby player.

The single most impressive aspect of this team is the style in which Ruddock has them playing. The Wolfpuppies have been fabulously entertaining to watch. The squad is laden with skillful players and Ruddock has played to that strength. He has given his team the freedom to offload and encouraged them to move the ball into wide channels, where their excellent support play has stood out. It’s intelligent, well-organised rugby and refreshing to watch.

Ruddock’s name was one of those in the mix to replace Declan Kidney when it became clear that Ireland would be employing a new Head Coach at senior level. With Joe Schmidt now in place, we should be thankful that Ruddock remains in charge of the Wolfpuppies. His role in the development of these young players is crucial and Irish rugby should be working hard to ensure it continues for some time yet.

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Christopher Tolofua

Tolofua at Toulouse is 120kg of beef at hooker for the French. (c) Pierre Selim.

Ireland’s opponents tomorrow night are France. The hosts have had a mixed bag of a tournament so far. In the opening game, they were 30-6 losers to England in what was a jarring disappointment. Didier Retier’s side bounced back with a  45-3 win over a weak USA side, who went on to be beaten 119-0 by England. France’s final pool game saw their most impressive performance, despite losing 26-19 to South Africa.

Based on the reputations of the players, this is not a bad French squad. Hooker Christopher Tolofua has made 16 starts for Toulouse over the past two seasons, including two in the Heineken Cup. Playing his second year at this level, the 120kg battering ram takes some stopping. In the back-row, Yoruba Camara is joining Toulouse next season after developing at Pro D2 side Massy. The rangy flanker is quick, athletic and can offload out of the tackle.

Alongside him, No. 8 Marco Tauleigne is a chunky unit at around 115kg. He spent this season with Federale 1 champions Bourgoin, but is moving to Bordeaux in the Top 14 this summer. His carrying is muscular, meaning Ireland’s back-row will need to be alert. Out wide, the French can call on Biarritz flyer Teddy Thomas. He scored four tries in four Top 14 starts this season, as well as two against Gloucester in the Amlin CC. Already a 7s international, Thomas is elusive, pacy and full of flair from fullback.

Apart from those big names, the French can call on five other players who have experience in the Top 14: prop Cyril Baille (Toulouse), sub hooker Romain Ruffanech (Biarritz), lock Leo Bastien (Agen), scrumhalf Baptiste Serin (Bordeaux) and outhalf Vincent Mallet (Stade Francais). Flanker Mathieu Babillot has already made his Heineken Cup debut for Castres. Centre Thibault Regard and winger Gabriel Lacroix are regulars at Pro D2 level. In terms of senior club level experience, the French outdo the Wolfpuppies.

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Teddy Thomas of Biarritz is a danger man for the French. (c) IRB.

However, in every other aspect of importance to this game, the Irish have more to call on. Based on the performance’s of both teams at this JWC, Ireland are the favourites. France have the advantage of playing at home, but that did them no good against England and South Africa. Furthermore, the Wolfpuppies were 22-5 winners when these sides met in Athlone back in March. Both squads have changed somewhat since then, but Ireland have developed far more rapidly.

The Baby ‘Boks made plenty of metres in wide channels against France, and Ireland should look to exploit that weakness too. The French wingers are quick but very lightweight and that should suit the Wolfpuppies. England created several line breaks of the French defence with short passes to support runners inside and outside their centres. Again, those trail lines are something Ruddock’s men are good at, and we should hope to see more of the same.

The French pack are strong in their carrying around the fringes of rucks through the likes of Tolofua, Tauleigne and Baille. No surprise really, with Les Bleus legend Fabien Pelous as manager of the team. Ireland will need to ensure their defence is solid either side of the breakdown.

Ireland appear to have all the tools to ensure a 5th-place playoff final at the JWC for the second year running. Either Australia and Argentina await in that game. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, the French must be dealt with first. Here’s hoping that the Wolfpuppies will be celebrating another win tomorrow night.

At the end of the day, this is a development tournament with the aim of producing professional players. Irish professionals for whom beating the likes of Australia and France is the norm would be greatly welcome.

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You can listen to me talking about the Ireland U20s and this game on yesterday’s Big Red Bench on Cork’s Red FM. Have a listen here:

Photos: Pierre Selim, IRB.

Ireland Needs a Sevens Team

Samoa

Samoa beat New Zealand in the Las Vegas Sevens cup final last weekend with a thrilling last-second try. (c) Chris Dickey.

Watching 21-year-old Alex Cuthbert counter-attacking with confidence during Wales’ 27-13 win over Scotland on Sunday, it was easy to see his background in sevens rugby. Every time Scotland sent a poor kick to Leigh Halfpenny at fullback, Cuthbert was immediately off his right wing, head up and spotting openings. While lots of attention focused on the 6’6″ winger’s strength to go through Greg Laidlaw’s tackle for his try, there was less applause for the three occasions Cuthbert scythed through Scotland on the counter-attack.

Added to that understanding of space was the intelligence and footwork the Blues wide man showed to set up Halfpenny’s first try. Cuthbert spotted Lee Jones (Scotland 14) coming up hard off the defensive line, so slowed almost to a halt in order to give himself the time and space to burst around his opposite number and supply the scoring pass for Halfpenny. This fleeting piece of skill again betrayed Cuthbert’s sevens history. In the seven man game, preserving space then bursting past opposition is essential.

Cuthbert played for the Wales sevens team during the IRB World Sevens Series in both the ’09/’10 and ’10/’11 seasons, as well as at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Alongside him in that squad was another star of last weekend’s clash with Scotland, openside Aaron Shingler. Indeed, looking at the list of ex-Wales sevens players it’s clear why Wales coach Warren Gatland says that the code “has been an avenue for a few of our players.”

James Hook, Lee Byrne, George North, Andy Powell and Josh Turnbull have all turned out for Wales sevens teams in the recent past. The electric 18-year-old Harry Robinson is the latest man to have made the step up after being included in Wales’ Six Nations training squad. Wales use the sevens game in an intelligent manner, giving young players with potential the chance to play for their country in a relatively pressurised atmosphere as well as increasing certain skills that are key to the union code of the game.

The example of Wales is used here because they are a rugby nation with relatively similar playing numbers to Ireland. According to the latest IRB figures, there are 25,440 senior (over-18) male rugby union players in Ireland. Wales is slightly behind with 22,408. So despite having less players to choose from, Wales makes far better use of the sevens code to increase the quality of players in their international union squad.

Ireland currently has no sevens team. The last time Ireland were represented internationally was at the Sevens World Cup in 2009. James Coughlan, Paul Marshall and Felix Jones were all involved in that tournament as Ireland lost to Zimbabwe in the Bowl final. Six Nations rivals England, France, Scotland and Wales are all part of the 12 ‘core’ teams in the Sevens World Series at the moment.

Despite the IRB’s announcement last week that they will be increasing this core group to 15, we have still heard nothing from the IRFU. The qualifying tournament for those three new places will be held on 23rd-25th March at the Hong Kong Sevens. That event is probably too early, but the IRFU seriously need to consider the advantages of having a sevens team on the world circuit.

The commonly accepted excuse is that the IRFU doesn’t have the necessary funds to run a sevens team. By changing their priorities they surely could. Wales chose to have a sevens team rather than an ‘A’ team like the Irish Wolfhounds. Having only played one meaningless friendly against the English Saxons this season, how worthwhile is the Wolfhounds team? Bringing a group of players together for a one-off match with no chance of real reward is basically what the Wolfhounds set-up entails right now.

A magic moment as Zebo scores copy

Someone like Simon Zebo would be an ideal candidate for an Irish sevens team. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

That money could be better spent on allowing young Irish players to get out on the sevens circuit alongside continuing development with their provinces. Another potential avenue of funding a sevens team is being more selective in giving central IRFU contracts to players in their 30s (eg. Paddy Wallace, Denis Leamy). How much more can these players really offer Ireland at international level? Would that money not be better spent on increasing the quality and exposure of talented young players?

Getting a team into the IRB World Sevens Series would open up a potentially massive money-making event in the Dublin Sevens at the Aviva. The government should be pushing this idea to the IRFU, as they too would benefit from the influx of tourists attracted by an event like this. The excuse of funding doesn’t really apply here and the IRFU must stop resting on their laurels around this issue. With good planning, an Ireland sevens team could benefit our economy as well as, most importantly, our senior international side!

The prospect of guys like Simon Zebo, Andrew Conway, Fionn Carr, Rhys Ruddock, Tiernan O’Halloran, Peter O’Mahony and Ali Birch playing sevens in an Irish jersey is an exciting one. The IRFU needs to get a sevens team up and running. Hopefully, they start to see the advantages it could bring. As the Welsh model has shown, the sevens code can give union players unique and relevant skills.

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Photos courtesy:  Chris Dickey, Ivan O’Riordan.

Saxons Set-Piece Provides Platform For Win

Match Report

England Saxons 23-17 Ireland Wolfhounds

Saturday 28th January @ Sandy Park, Exeter

(Video highlights at bottom of piece)

David Kearney, pictured playing for Leinster, was the stand-out Irish player as the Wolfhounds outscored the Saxons 3 tries to 2, but still lost. (c) Martin Dobey.

In a match that failed to truly ignite, the strength of the Saxons set-piece proved crucial to their win. There were intermittent glimpses of quality from the Wolfhounds backline but they understandably failed to click. Indeed, as could be expected after only a week together, both sides lacked cohesion in a largely scrappy affair. The watching Declan Kidney won’t have any fresh selection headaches ahead of the Six Nations based on this game. Still, it was a worthwhile exercise with many players getting their first taste of senior international rugby.

The Saxons enjoyed a dominant opening ten minutes to establish a 10-0 lead. Outhalf Freddie Burns opened the scoring with a penalty after Ugo Monye’s intelligent defensive work at the breakdown. A patient Saxons maul then laid the platform for scrumhalf Ben Spencer to snipe over from a metre out.

The Wolfhounds will be aggrieved with the manner in which the try was conceded as George Robson blocked Isaac Boss at the fringe of the ruck. There were clear echoes of Nathan Hines’ involvement in Clermont’s try against Ulster last weekend. Referee Mathieu Raynal somehow missed the block and Burns added the conversion.

The Wolfhounds should have got themselves on the scoreboard four minutes later as Ian Keatley glided through the Saxons defence and released Simon Zebo down the left wing. But as is his wont, the Munster wing ignored the three supporting runners inside and backed himself. This time, the decision was wrong as Matt Banahan battered the 21-year-old into touch. A real chance wasted.

Strong carries from Chris Henry, Nevin Spence and Rhys Ruddock put the Wolfhounds back in position to close the deficit. Following the big men’s contributions, Keatley’s pass sent Eoin O’Malley on a wide line with the Saxons defence stretched. The Leinster centre straightened off his left foot and slipped a pass inside to the trailing David Kearney. Kearney had enough pace to glide through Andy Saull’s tackle and touch down. Keatley was off target with the straightforward conversion.

That was the last scoring action of the first-half as neither side managed to gain control of the game. However, the Saxons scrum did completely dominate, as it would continue to do after the interval. Just before the break, a scrum penalty gave Burns the chance to extend the lead but he dragged his 35m effort wide to the left.

Gloucester outhalf Burns kicked 13 points for the Saxons. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Saxons No.8 Thomas Waldrom was the beneficiary of a lucky bounce as the English side scored their second try on the 54 minute mark. After another strong Saxons scrum 5m from the Wolfhounds’ line, Burns attempted a grubber, intended for the in-goal area. But when the ball bounced up off Spence’s feet, Waldrom was in the right place to gather and stride over untouched. Burns tacked on the easy conversion for a 17-5 lead.

A positive response from the Wolfhounds ended with replacement scrumhalf Tomas O’Leary getting over for a try. Another powerful Ruddock carry from the base of a scrum was followed by Dan Tuohy and Stephen Archer getting their hands on the ball. O’Leary sniped from the resulting ruck and had the power to take Paul Doran-Jones’ tackle and stretch out for the score. Substitute outhalf Ian Madigan converted.

The Irish side couldn’t build on that score as the Saxons scrum continued to dominate. Burns again failed to reward that dominance as he missed with a poor penalty effort. He made amends soon after when the Wolfhounds were caught offside. With the Irish side attempting to play out of their own 22, the Gloucester outhalf wrapped the game up with another straightforward three-pointer after aggressive work at the breakdown from the English forwards.

The Wolfhounds managed a consolation score with the last action of the match. Ruddock’s strength in contact again set the platform. O’Leary hit Zebo, one-on-one with Matt Mullan. The wing used his pace to get outside the Worcester prop and dive over. As the Saxons second-row George Robson was named Man of the Match, Madigan was wide with his conversion effort.

The performances of Leinster tyros Rhys Ruddock and David Kearney were hugely promising. The No.8 carried strongly throughout while Kearney’s threat on the ball was complemented by his defensive awareness. O’Malley showed flashes of his attacking ability and defended strongly. Ulster’s Dan Tuohy also offered several examples of his mixture of brawn and skills while Mike McCarthy was reliable in the lineout.

No.8 Ruddock put in a muscular performance. (c) Art Widak.

Stephen Archer and Brett Wilkinson will have learned plenty from their losing battle with the Saxons front-row. Archer is still only 23, very young in propping terms. Days like today are all part of the steep learning curve for novice props. Gavin Duffy at fullback had a day to forget, looking jittery whenever the ball came near him.

Overall, Declan Kidney may be slightly disappointed that no one made themselves impossible to ignore ahead of the clash with Wales next weekend. There will almost certainly be no surprises in the selection for that game, certainly not on the basis of what was offered in Exeter today. From this point, all the focus is on 3 o’clock next Sunday afternoon, when Ireland begin their Six Nations campaign looking for revenge.

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Photos courtesy:   Pierre-Selim, Art Widak, Martin Dobey.

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Here’s the three Irish tries from Dave Kearney, Tomas O’Leary and Simon Zebo:

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