Tag Archives: Gordon D’Arcy

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.


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.


Photos courtesy: Geoff TrotterLuton Anderson.

McFadden the Answer at 12


McFadden is the PRO12's most accurate place-kicker. (c) Ken Bohane.

Praise for Fergus McFadden is a regular thing here on the pages of The Touchline, but the simple fact is that the 25-year-old is having a superb season for Leinster. His display against the Ospreys on Friday night showed exactly why he should have been starting at 12 for Ireland during the Six Nations. Gordon D’Arcy had a predictably disappointing tournament and he has been on the decline for the last year at least.

Despite some intermittent flashes of his old self, the 32-year-old has been far from his best for Leinster and the time has come to replace him at both provincial and international level. McFadden is his obvious and deserving successor, as proven by his performance against the Ospreys. He was as busy as usual with ball in hand, making several half-breaks as well as some other strong carries in traffic. He almost scored in the 56th minute after dummying and using his strong fend to break the Ospreys’ defence. Richard Fussell did well to haul him down.

Much has been made of McFadden’s missed tackle on George North in the Six Nations opener against Wales. It was a spectacular one and isn’t easy to forget, but that incident was far from the norm for the Kilkenny man. It wasn’t even McFadden’s tackle to make; he was forced to step in due to D’Arcy’s failure to take his man. Against the Ospreys, McFadden’s defensive game was solid, with one stand-out hit on Jason Tipuric just before half time, where he drove the Welsh international 5 metres backwards.


Despite his 11 caps, McFadden's international career hasn't burst into life just yet. (c) Liam Coughlan.

His place kicking was a little less smooth than usual, although he still converted 6 from 8. The best effort of the night came from inside Leinster’s half. McFadden’s routine off the tee is best described as unfussy. He certainly takes less time than other leading place-kickers but he consistently gets the job done. He is the PRO12’s most accurate place-kicker and will look to continue the massive improvements he has made in this area. Having him alongside Sexton for Ireland would also leave us with a proven goal-kicker on the field if Ian Madigan were to be used off the bench.

McFadden was clearly motivated to show what he offers after a frustrating Six Nations spent mainly on the bench. Another highlight of his performance was the booming 70m clearance kick out of Leinster’s 22 in the first half. It was a beautiful spiral and showed how hard the centre is working on his core skills. His ever-improving handling also showed up well as himself and Madigan worked a smart loop to release Nacewa earlier in the game.

All the signs this season point to a player who is working hard to improve himself and is really starting to peak. At the other end of the scale, D’Arcy is showing clear signs of decline and has passed his peak as a player. McFadden is the best inside centre in Ireland right now and if he continues this type of form, he must start at 12 on the Irish tour to New Zealand.

*Do you agree that McFadden is the answer for Ireland at 12? Do you think D’Arcy still has time left at international level? Would you like to see other players given a chance at inside centre? As always, feel free to drop a comment below with your thoughts and views!


Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Liam Coughlan.

Lack of Competition Is a Worry

Kidney's loyalty has cost Ireland this year. (c) Art Widak.

In the build-up to this year’s Six Nations, Declan Kidney’s conservative squad selection was not at all surprising. Loyalty is Kidney’s way. He maintains faith in the players who have done well for him in the past. There are positive sides to this loyalty. For example, it can contribute towards a strong spirit of togetherness within the squad, where every player knows he is valued and will not be discarded on a whim.

However, there are clearly negative factors to Kidney’s loyalty too. Picking players on past glories means ignoring absolutely crucial factors in current performance – form and confidence. Furthermore, when a player is almost certain of retaining his place in the team/squad even after a poor display, what effect does this have on his motivation? Competition within a squad is vital.

I’ve waited to write this piece until today because I didn’t want it to be a knee-jerk reaction to the embarrassment of Twickenham, but my feelings are still the same now. I don’t want to accuse Irish players of complacency as I understand that they always try their best for their country. But knowing that your coach is unlikely to drop you or give other players in your position a chance is not going to result in a player being at his most focused. 

Donnacha Ryan, passing, is one player who has shown high levels of motivation. (c) Ken Bohane.

A perfect example came on the stroke of half time last Saturday. English scrumhalf Lee Dickson was dithering over the ball at the base of a ruck just outside the English 22. Donnacha O’Callaghan, who started all 5 games in the tournament despite losing his place at Munster, stands idly at the back of the ruck watching on. Donnacha Ryan, making just his 2nd Six Nations start and with plenty to prove, ferociously clatters into the breakdown with an aggressive counter-ruck, forcing Dickson into conceding the penalty that keeps Ireland well in the game at 9-6.

Ryan jumps to his feet, pumps the air with his fist and screams, “Come on!” His teammates are visibly lifted, and there’s plenty of back-slapping and praise. Ryan is a man playing with high levels of motivation. O’Callaghan is a mere spectator. Again, I don’t want to start slating individual players, but the simple fact is that O’Callaghan has offered Ireland very little over the course of this Championship. In the past, he has been a vital part of Ireland teams, but that was when he had something to prove.

Much the same could be said of Gordon D’Arcy’s showing. There were dropped balls, kicks directly into touch and a badly judged switch of play when England looked to be on the ropes. The single most shocking incident was his attempted drop goal though. As we trailed 6-3, a thumping Ryan tackle on Dickson allowed SOB and Ferris to pile in for a turnover. Cian Healy’s pass to D’Arcy was poor, but to then attempt a ridiculously ambitious drop goal with very little space was hard to understand.

D'Arcy (12) has looked far from his best. (c) Ken Bohane.

The D’Arcy of ’07 or ’09 would have kept that ball in hand and battered into the English covering defence with confidence, looking for a hole to slip through, looking to create something. But this year’s version of D’Arcy, completely assured of his place in the team, doesn’t have that same hunger. Likewise Jamie Heaslip, the key example being Dylan Hartley ripping the ball from his grasp with Ireland in a superb attacking position in the England 22.

Tomas O’Leary’s case is a little different. He does have something to prove, having lost his place in both the Irish squad and with Munster. Still, it is Kidney’s loyalty that is the issue again. O’Leary should never have been near the Irish bench based on form. The decision to replace Eoin Reddan, who was having a decent outing despite one or two bad errors, was mindless. While I will stress that I will never blame individual players for a loss, some of O’Leary’s mistakes were costly.

His lack of confidence and sharpness was particularly evident as he carried the ball over the Irish tryline, providing England with the platform for their penalty try. Farrell’s kick was good, but the scrumhalf had options – either sprint to retrieve the ball before it got that close to the line, or have the belief to let it cross before touching down. As it was, O’Leary made no decision and England secured the game. His passing and box-kicking were both off the mark too.

There was more competition in the 2009 squad. (c) Arun Marsh.

When you look back to the 2009 Grand Slam-winning squad, the level of competition is obvious. Paddy Wallace started the first 3 games at 12, before D’Arcy got the nod for the final two games. At hooker, Jerry Flannery was first-choice but Best started the Scotland game and replaced Flannery in every other one. In the back-row, Ferris, Heaslip and Wallace were the front-liners, but Leamy came off the bench in every game as well as starting against Scotland.

At scrumhalf, Stringer kept the pressure on O’Leary, starting that Scotland match and appearing off the bench regularly. Rob Kearney was vying with Geordan Murphy at fullback, while Mick O’Driscoll and Malcolm O’Kelly ensured that O’Callaghan earned his place in the team.

Kidney’s loyalty has completely deprived Ireland of that level of competition this season, and the inconsistent performances are the result. On our day (vs. England last year/ vs. Australia at RWC) we are capable of beating any team. Those wins come when the entire squad is aggressive, motivated and hungry. A lack of competition in this current set-up means those performances are becoming more and more rare.


Photos courtesy:  Art Widak, Ken Bohane, Arun Marsh.

Key Areas for Ireland on Sunday

O'Gara struggled to break down the Welsh defence at the World Cup. (c) Joslyn Layne.

With the Irish team named, it’s time to move on to discussing the actual match on Sunday. Wales have yet to name their team with Rhys Priestland, Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts all doubts at the moment. It would be no surprise to see all three start on Sunday, but Wales will definitely be without World Cup second-rows  Alun Wyn-Jones and Luke Charteris. Also missing are tighthead prop Gethin Jenkins and hooker Matthew Rees. Those four are big losses to this Welsh side. Brian O’Driscoll is the only guaranteed first-choice player missing for Ireland.

Jamie Heaslip said yesterday that this game is a stand-alone fixture and has nothing to do with the World Cup quarter-final. He stressed the importance of moving on from that disappointment and that is certainly the right attitude. However, there are aspects of that game that can serve as a lesson to Ireland and influence how they approach this game. While the game on Sunday could, and probably will be a completely different type of game, it’s still worthwhile looking at where Ireland can improve on from the last meeting of the sides.

Selection-wise, the only changes from the starting team for that quarter-final are the inclusion of Andrew Trimble on the left wing in place of O’Driscoll, and Jonathan Sexton ahead of Ronan O’Gara at outhalf. Keith Earls moves into 13 to accomodate Trimble.

It is the choice of Sexton that looks like it could be crucial though. The Leinster outhalf has an undoubtedly more rounded attacking game than O’Gara. This is no slight on ROG, who is having a superb season and offers totally different strengths. Still, Sexton is far more of a threat in attack, well able to make breaks himself and his passing continues to improve. O’Gara’s distribution is spectacular at times, but he offers no threat himself. At the World Cup, O’Gara didn’t beat a single defender, while Sexton beat 6.

So why does this even matter? It matters because Ireland should have got a lot more from that quarter-final against Wales. Ireland had more possession (58%) and dominated in terms of territory (62%), yet they could only manage 10 points over the course of the game. While Wales’ heroic defensive effort played a massive part in this, it’s still a poor return. Ireland have to get more return from their possession and good field position on Sunday.

Jonathan Sexton's Try (Ireland v France)

Sexton, pictured scoring against France in the World Cup warm-up match, offers greater attacking threat. (c) Ross Wynne.

That’s why the inclusion of Sexton makes sense. If he can bring his Leinster form to this game, Ireland’s backline should be able to threaten the Welsh more often.  In that World Cup match, Ireland only managed one clean line-break. Once again, the supreme Welsh defensive organisation must be applauded for that. But it is easier for a midfield to defend when they know that the opposition outhalf poses little or no threat himself.

As was well-documented at the time, Wales targeted Sean O’Brien to great effect in the quarter-final. Despite making a whopping 22 carries, O’Brien only managed a total return of 24 metres, without beating a single defender. It’s essential that the Irish pack share that workload this time around. Promisingly, Stephen Ferris, Paul O’Connell and Cian Healy have been extremely effective on the ball for their provinces in recent months and they must look to take the focus away from O’Brien.

No. 8 Jamie Heaslip is another who needs a big game in terms of ball carrying. He had a strangely quiet night in the quarter-final and will surely be intent on imposing himself this time. O’Brien is at his best when he is given a chance to run at defenders one-on-one. He needs to do less of the close-in carrying from slow ball and be used with a little more space and time.

One of the most frustrating things for Ireland in that World Cup loss was the manner in which the tries were conceded, particularly Jonathan Davies’ one. The centre went through feeble tackle attempts from Cian Healy and Keith Earls. While Ireland’s defence is generally excellent, moving Earls to 13 puts a lot of responsibility on him. Wales will almost certainly target the Munster man’s defence and he will have to be at his most alert. With Gordon D’Arcy’s defence slowly weakening in recent times too, the Welsh will expect to get some change from the Irish midfield.

Another key area in Sunday’s game will be the breakdown. This is an obvious thing to say, as the breakdown has great importance in any rugby match. But the World Cup showed how vital the area has become in international rugby. The best teams at the tournament fielded breakdown specialists – the All Black’s Richie McCaw, France’s Thierry Dusautoir, Australia’s David Pocock, South Africa’s Heinrich Brussow and Wales’ Sam Warburton.

Ireland and Wales have had some great battles in recent years, not least at the Millenium stadium last year when Wales won in controversial circumstances. (c) Brendan Rankin.

This kind of player has arguably become as important to international sides as a star outhalf. Winning the breakdown battle is essential in international rugby. Post-tournament stats showed that at RWC 2011 the average number of breakdowns per game was 162, well up on 2007’s figure of 144. But the most relevant figure was that the highest number of breakdowns in any match was 225 in, you guessed it, the Ireland vs. Wales quarter-final.

Declan Kidney hasn’t found his breakdown specialist, but a collective focus on winning this aspect of the game has surely been stressed. Alternatively, Ireland could look to limit the importance of the breakdown on Sunday. The choice of Sexton at outhalf and more selective use of the big ball carriers relates back to this. With Sexton at 10, Ireland will hope to keep the ball alive more. Sexton’s threat will mean more one-on-one situations, and in turn, rucks that are easier to win. If O’Brien and Ferris are also used in better circumstances they can create better front foot ball, and limit the amount of opportunities for Wales to win turnovers.

That’s why this game has the potential to be completely different to the World Cup quarter-final. Ireland will surely recognise that they need to change the manner in which they attack the Welsh. Declan Kidney failed to alter the Irish game-plan for that loss, simply playing the same way they had in every match up to that point. The Welsh side altered their tactics to target the Irish side and now that is what Ireland have to do. It should be a fascinating battle.

Wales have yet to name their side for Sunday, but just a brief look at how their injuries might affect them. Losing their second-row will have obvious effects on the lineout. Alun-Wyn Jones is also one of Wales’ more prolific ball-carries. In the quarter-final, he was Wales’ top carrier with 12. The potential loss of Dan Lydiate would have an impact on the relentless Welsh defence. He made an incredible 24 tackles in the quarter-final, without missing one.

Jamie Roberts’ fitness will be important if Wales do look to target the Irish midfield. He is hard to slow down when he’s at his best. D’Arcy and Earls would much rather the prospect of Ashley Beck/Gavin Henson/Scott Williams at 12. Gethin Jenkins’ injury will be a relief for the Irish front-row and they will look to dominate at scrum-time. Finally, if Rhys Priestland were to miss out, it would greatly alter the Welsh game-plan. James Hook is a totally different outhalf, while Stephen Jones looks as though age is catching up with him.

There are plenty of reasons for Irish fans to be optimistic.


Photos courtesy:  Joslyn Layne, Ross Wynne, Brendan Rankin.