Tag Archives: Stephen Ferris

Munster’s Need is Greater

Leading out copy

O'Connell won't be leading Munster out tomorrow night. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Another chapter of one of sport’s great rivalries will be written in Thomond Park tomorrow night. While there’s no immediate reward at stake for this battle, there is plenty to play for. Munster’s need for a win appears to be far greater. We’re into the real business end of the season, with the HC quater-finals to come the weekend after this. While a Leinster loss tomorrow would be a blow for them, failure at home could have catastrophic effects for Munster.

Picture it: a Munster loss at home just 8 days before that massive quarter-final against an Ulster side who have no fear of Thomond Park. How would it affect the side’s confidence knowing that they had failed against even bigger rivals the weekend before? The consequences would reach further than the Heineken Cup too. Munster’s next three PRO12 games are against the Warriors (h), Scarlets (a) and Ulster (h). All three of those sides are still play-off contention. A loss to Leinster tomorrow puts Munster right back in the thick of that battle. A win would allow some breathing space.

Would a loss effect Leinster as much? On the surface, no. They currently have an 8-point lead over Munster at the top of the PRO12. Losing tomorrow would have no effect on their league position, while two of their final three fixtures are very winnable (Edinburgh at home and Dragons away). Next weekend’s quarter-final at the Aviva is against the Blues, who will be boosted by Wales’ Grand Slam. Still, betting against Leinster in that one won’t be on too many people’s agenda. A defeat to Munster is never welcome, but the fact that the game is in Thomond Park would reduce any ill-effects.

Kearney returns for Leinster at fullback. (c) Ken Bohane.

As if Munster’s mission was already not difficult enough, this season’s leading lights of O’Connell, Ryan and Murray have all been ruled out through injury. These losses will be as keenly felt as POC and BOD’s were by Ireland during the Six Nations. Others will now have to step up as Ryan for Ireland. He would have relished this game, still with something to prove after starting only two Six Nations games. Who will provide the leadership without O’Connell? Who will provide the aggression without Ryan?

Leinster’s deck of cards is almost full with the return of their complement of internationals. After some patchy form recently, Joe Schmidt will be keen to get back to their glorious December heights ahead of next weekend’s quarter-final. Last season, Munster got back on top of this rivalry with a narrow 9-13 loss in the Aviva being followed by a 24-23 win in Thomond Park and that 19-9 Magners League Final win. Their only meeting this season resulted in a 24-19 win for Leinster in the Aviva.

Elsewhere, Ulster are in action tonight against bottom side Aironi. It’s a good chance for Brian McLaughlin’s side to secure a try-scoring bonus point in Ravenhill and keep themselves in contention for a play-off spot. Stephen Ferris, Rory Best and Andrew Trimble return to the side after their Six Nations involvement. Interestingly, McLaughlin has gone for Lewis Stevenson in the second-row ahead of Dan Tuohy, who has had a great season up to this point.

Ulster Aironi

Ulster have already beaten Aironi 3 times this season, twice with bonus points. (c) Fabio Beretta.

McLaughlin has stated that a number of places are still up for grabs ahead of next weekend’s quarter-final in Thomond Park. Tuohy will be devastated if this is an indication of his coach’s thinking before that Heineken Cup outing. A bonus point tonight looks even more important when you look at Ulster’s three remaining PRO12 fixtures, where they face three inter-pro derbies in a row: Connacht (a), Leinster (h) and Munster (a).

Connacht also play tonight as they travel to take on a Dragons side who have enjoyed a superb turn-around of form recently. They’ve won 4 of their last 5 games, and welcome back Grand Slam trio Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau and captain Luke Charteris for this game. The pressure is on Eric Elwood to finish this season with a few more Connacht wins. It would be disappointing to let the season simply peter out.

This week brought more good news for Connacht ahead of next season with the announcement of Willie Faloon’s signature. The 25-year-old openside joins from Connacht with plenty to prove. He will relish the opportunity for more game time at the western province. Along with Dan Parks and Nathan White, Faloon should help improve this inconsistent Connacht team.

It’s another PRO12 weekend with so much at stake. Enjoy!


Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Ken Bohane, Fabio Beretta.

Scout’s Report: England

Tuilagi v Earls

Tuilagi vs. Earls will be a key battle. (c) Nigel Snell.

England come into the final weekend of the 2012 Six Nations with 3 wins from 4, and are still in with a (massively outside) chance of winning the Championship. Credit must go to interim coach Stuart Lancaster for refocusing a side who endured a nightmare in New Zealand at RWC2011.

Lancaster’s team has been built upon a base of solid, physical defence. That much is clear from the fact that only Wales (3) have conceded less than England (4) in terms of tries. The English, with 487, have made more tackles than any other team in this year’s tournament. These stats are impressive, but don’t paint a completely accurate picture.

Scotland managed 9 clean line-breaks against England in their opening game, and only lost due to their inexcusable failure to finish those chances. Next up, the uninventive Italian side managed to cut through the English defence 3 times. Missed Italian place-kicks proved crucial in the end, as England squeezed home.

An improved performance at the Millenium Stadium followed, as England narrowly lost out to Scott Williams’ late try. Whether or not it had anything to do with the media hype over the size of their backline, Wales attempted to take England on in a bosh-fest. That completely played into the hands of this England side, who well capable of aggressive defence in that type of game.

English Defence

The English defence has been impressive, but Wales and France played the wrong type of game. (c) Nigel Snell.

Wales do have enormous physical attributes in their team, but they would have been better served by using their pace to get around England, rather than trying to run through them. Last weekend, France were frankly appalling in attack. Their lack of patience was hard to understand as Lionel Beauxis repeatedly kicked possession away. However, the introduction of Morgan Parra after 50 minutes made a huge difference and shows Ireland the way to attack England.

Parra brought tempo to the French game. He was quick to every ruck, firing the ball away as soon as possible. Even with England restored to fifteen men, after Sharples’ sin-binning, Parra’s rapid delivery helped France to make inroads, with the pace of Wesley Fofana benefiting in particular as he made several line-breaks.

Eoin Reddan’s role tomorrow will be crucial. His most important quality is said to be his quick service, and we will need to play off it. England are suited to a slowed-down, physical game. When the tempo increases and the faster players (Keith Earls) get quick ball, they look less comfortable. Ireland have to play with as high a tempo as possible. That should suit Johnny Sexton, who always looks better when he has less time to make decisions.

Attack is where England have really struggled. Omitting the weak Italian team, England have the least carries, line-breaks, defenders beaten, meters gained and offloads of any team in the Six Nations so far. The one table that England are top of is ‘kicking from hand’ which they have done 113 times in 4 games. Against France, many of Farrell’s kicks were loose and aimless. Rob Kearney will be willing the English to kick to him in this manner.


Reddan's quick delivery will be vital tomorrow. (c) Nigel Snell.

Ireland’s defence has improved in every game of this campaign, and it needs to be stepped up again tomorrow. Stephen Ferris must back up his antagonistic words by leading an aggressive Irish defence. England play off outhalf Owen Farrell a lot, with forwards running lines inside him, or Tuilagi and Barritt taking switches or skip passes from the 20-year-old. Ireland’s line speed can shut this uninventive play down, and turn defence into attack.

Farrell has had an impressive debut tournament, and does look to have decent mental strength. However, The Touchline feels that Farrell can be ‘got at’. Not through targeting him in defence (his tackling is excellent), but through getting in his face, abusing him, looking to get him involved in scraps. If Donncha O’Callaghan serves any particular purpose to this Irish team, then surely this is it. Chris Ashton is another who has looked close to losing the plot on occasion this season, and Ireland must look to provoke the winger.

Ben Morgan has emerged as a key man for England, and he put in a superb effort against France, making Foden’s try. He’s a destructive ball-carrier and Ireland have to cut him down early. The No.8 has displayed good offloading skills so we may have to double up in taking him out of the game. Similarly, Tuilagi is  real handful in the centre. Earls’ defence has been surprisingly effective so far this season, and will have to be at those levels again tomorrow.

There’s no outstanding reason for Ireland to fear this English side. As Alan Quinlan’s superb column revealed this week, Irish players have become used to beating England. By playing at a high tempo, supporting Kearney’s counter-attacks and coming up aggressively off the defensive line, Ireland should maintain their impressive recent record over the English.


Photos courtesy:  Nigel Snell.

The Touchline’s Player of The Championship

(c) καρλο.

The RBS Six Nations released the shortlist for their Player of the Championship this week. The winner is to be decided by the public’s online votes, with 12 candidate to choose from. The candidates are the 12 players who were awarded the RBS Man of the Match in each match in the first 4 rounds of the tournament. It’s a silly way to choose the shortlist, as the Man of the Match award is decided by the naturally biased host broadcasters at each match. Check out the official list here.

Julien Malzieu doesn’t deserve to be anywhere near the shortlist, with only one good display against Italy over the course of the Championship. Yoann Maestri made an impact for France, but having him ahead of Richie Gray is ridiculous. Donnacha Ryan did make an impression for Ireland, but he didn’t start the first three games. There’s plenty of holes to be picked in the shortlist, and it’s arguably missing some of the strongest performers of this year’s Six Nations.

So, The Touchline has decided to make our own shortlist for Player of the Championship. 12 players is too many, so we’ve gone for the 7 players who we feel have stood out in the first four rounds. We’ve put a poll in at the bottom of the piece so you can let us know who you would pick! Next week, we’ll reveal who you voted as The Touchline’s Player of the Championship. Please feel free to comment, letting us know why you went for the player you did, or if you would have included other players on the list…


Rob Kearney

Kearney has made more clean line-breaks than any other player in the Six Nations so far. (c) Ken Bohane.

Kearney has been in superb form for Leinster all season, but he has stepped his game up to new heights in this Six Nations. While there have been questions marks over his covering tackling (Fofana’s try and Richie Gray’s effort), the 25-year-old’s fielding and counter-attacking have been inspirational for Ireland. The fullback has played almost every minute in Ireland’s campaign, only coming off with 8 minutes left against Scotland.

Kearney has looked supremely confident throughout the tournament, and the stats clearly back up the positive impression he has made. With 411, he is top of the ‘metres gained in possession’ stakes. He has made the most clean line-breaks with 6 and he is joint-top of the ‘defenders beaten’ list with George North, both on 15. Every time Kearney touches the ball, he looks like creating something. Hopefully, his confident form continues against England on Saturday.


Wesley Fofana

With 4 tries in 4 games, Fofana has had a dream start to his international career. The Clermont speedster has come from nowhere this season, taking his chance with his club side during the World Cup, and never looking back. Originally a winger, Fofana’s move to inside centre has been a massive success. His pace and awareness of space make him a constant threat in attack, and while he’s not the biggest man, his natural power and speed make him a competent defender (2 missed tackles from 31 attempts).

Despite Fofana’s excellence in the centre, Philippe Saint-Andre has decided to move him to the wing for this Saturday’s game in Wales. It seems a strange decision, but the 24-year-old did damage there after Clerc’s first half injury against England. Having beaten 14 defenders in 4 games, ‘The Cheetah’ (his nickname in France) will do damage wherever he plays. Keeping George North quiet will be a difficult task, but the French man has passed every other test so far.


Ritchie Gray

Gray on the way to scoring a brilliant individual try against Ireland. (c) Ken Bohane.

The 6’10” second-row has played every single minute for Scotland in this Six Nations campaign, and has been brilliant in every single one of them. Still just 22, the 20 stone monster gets better with every game. He is a definite 2013 Lion. With his obvious physical advantage, Gray is a lineout king, and has the most number of lineout takes of any player, with 18. While he hasn’t been too prolific with clean steals, he makes opposition ball constantly scrappy out of touch.

Added to that, the Warriors’ second-row has been hugely influential in open play. His athleticism and skills are spectacular for a man of his potentially awkward dimensions. His try against Ireland is an obvious example, and Gray is joint-top of the Scottish clean line-breaks table. His offloading game has been intelligent and accurate too. To top it all off, Gray has yet to miss a tackle in the tournament,  making all 33 attempts. He has been a truly complete performer for Scotland.


Owen Farrell

The English wonderkid was the source of plenty of hype coming into this tournament and he has lived up to much of it. Starting the first two games at outside centre, the 20-year-old was defensively outstanding if a little unspectacular in attack. His move to outhalf for the Wales and France games have seen him look a lot more comfortable. The entire English game has benefited from having Farrell direct play at 10.

For a young player in his debut international tournament, Farrell’s defensive game has been world-class. He has only missed 2 out of 33 tackles, but it is the power with which he hits that has impresses. His huge tackle on Harinordoquy last weekend was a perfect example. His distribution is steadily improving, and his place kicking has been very good. Kicking out of hand is one area where the youngster needs to improve, but he has plenty of time to do so. Farrell is already a guaranteed first-choice for England after this superb introduction to the international game.


Sergio Parisse

Parisse scoring against Ireland. (c) Ken Bohane.

It’s pretty much a given that Parisse is included in shortlists like this every single year. The Stade Francais man’ contributions for Italy are always magnificent and it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. His frustration at teammate’s poor efforts has been a little more evident this year, but it’s hard to blame him. It would be fascinating to see the No.8 operate within a better team. Imagine him with the Lions next year? He must do so himself. However, Parisse continues to give his best for Italy though.

The 6’5″ back-row has been Italy’s top ball carrier so far this tournament with 40, although Andrea Masi only trails by a single carry. That makes Parisse the 6th most regular ball carrier in the Championship. He has also made 5 turnovers in the 4 games so far. That said, this has not been Parisse’s best ever tournament. Uncharacteristically, he has missed 6 tackles. Still, he has stood out for Italy and is always one of the finest players in the Six Nations.


George North

It really is hard to fathom the fact that North only turns 20 next month. The Welsh winger is already one of the best wide men in world rugby and could easily become the undisputed number one. At 6’4″, well over 17 stone and with pace to burn, he is a beast of a teenager but that often masks just how good a rugby player he is. While it’s inarguable that North’s physical prowess gives him a huge advantage, he is also an intelligent player with a strong understanding of how he can best use his assets. He comes off his wing to great effect and is always looking for work.

North began the campaign with a brilliant try-scoring display against Ireland. His beautiful offload for Jon Davies’ second try showed his skills at their best. The Scarlets winger hasn’t scored since, but he has been hugely effective with ball in hand. Alongside Kearney, he has beaten the most defenders at 15. Defensively, he really hasn’t been called into action that much but has looked solid on those rare occasions. A definite Lion next year, and a phenomenal rugby talent.


Stephen Ferris

Ferris has been equally strong in defence and attack this season. (c) Ken Bohane.

Here at The Touchline, we are massive fans of Ferris. After a quiet opening game against Wales, the Ulster man has gone into overdrive with his muscular performances. Earlier in the week, we shared our love for Ferris, so read more about his displays and why he’s on this list here.


Honourable Mentions: Dan Lydiate, Ross Rennie, David Denton, Alex Cuthbert, Imanol Harinordoquy, Alex Corbisiero, Dan Cole, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny.



Photos courtesy:  Ken Bohaneκαρλο.

Ferris At a Different Level

Ferris makes a break in the Italy game. (c) Ken Bohane

Saturday’s win over Scotland saw yet another world-class performance from Stephen Ferris. We’re used to talking about the blindside’s phenomenal ball-carrying ability, but Saturday was more about the Ulster man’s defensive game. Ferris didn’t manage to get his hands on the ball as much as other games in this championship, but his work in the tackle and breakdown was inspirational.

In The Touchline’s opinion, Ferris has only been narrowly overshadowed by Rob Kearney as Ireland’s player of the tournament so far. Following a strong World Cup in 2011, Ferris has been unstoppable for Ulster in both the PRO12 and the Heineken Cup. His dynamic power on the ball is a nightmare for any team and he has been a real leader for his province. Based on that form, Ferris was relatively quiet in the Six Nations opener against Wales.

That loss to Wales didn’t see Ferris used in the right way in attack. Ulster get the best out of their talisman by allowing him to get on the ball in wider channels (good examples here and here), where his ability to beat players one-on-one is far more effective. That doesn’t necessarily mean having Ferris constantly hang around out on the wing, but it does mean using him less as a ‘hit-up’ runner off the scrum-half’s pass from the ruck, where multiple tacklers can slow him down.

The Italy match saw a massively improved performance from Ferris primarily because Ireland’s set-up for that game suited him so much more. When he carried, it was at least outside the first receiver, allowing him those one-on-one situations in which he thrives. The prime example was Ferris’ clean line-break through midfield ending with a lovely offload to Tommy Bowe, who uncharacteristically knocked-on. We could be seeing more successful link-ups from that pair next season with Ulster.

Ferris to Bowe for a try against Italy. (c) Ken Bohane.

Another aspect of the Irish game plan against Italy that suited Ferris was the more aggressive line speed. As was widely bemoaned in the aftermath of the Wales match, the Irish defence was far too passive, allowing Wales to win the majority of collisions. The Italy match saw Ireland up their line-speed. The more aggressive attitude grew again for the trip to Paris, where the first half saw Ireland into a healthy lead because of their superb defensive work. Ferris is magnificently suited to a blitz-style defence.

The flanker’s freakish strength and speed, allied with a strong understanding of how the blitz works, allow him to come up with important defensive plays. Ferris clearly relishes being given the opportunity to rush up in defence, making tackles on his own terms. After making only 8 tackles in the Welsh match, Ferris has led the Irish tackle-count charts in all three of the next games – Italy (12), France (14) and Scotland (18).

On Saturday against Scotland, Ferris actually only managed to get his hands on the ball 5 times. One of those was his try-scoring pass for Andrew Trimble’s try. His performance was all about defence. Inside the opening 10 minutes, Ferris had already made two turnovers of Scottish possession, the first with a choke tackle, the second a fantastic steal at ruck-time to win a penalty. The 26-year-old didn’t let up for the rest of the game, winning nearly every collision he was involved in.

With O’Driscoll and O’Connell missing, Ferris has become one of Ireland’s leaders on the pitch. His bruising carrying and defensive work are as inspirational as Kearney’s fielding and counter-attacking. We are lucky to have a player of Ferris’ world-class calibre and need to continue to get the best out of him.


Photos courtesy:  Ken Bohane.

Ireland Must Target Laidlaw

Greig Laidlaw Edinburgh Captain

Laidlaw, playing at scrumhalf for Edinburgh here, will start at outhalf for Scotland tomorrow. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Despite three loses from three, seemingly everyone is in agreement that Scotland have deserved more in this year’s Six Nations. The 23-17 loss to France in particular saw Scotland play with real attacking punch, offloading at every opportunity. Free-flowing attacking rugby is something that hasn’t been readily associated with Scotland in recent years but some key personnel changes have allowed them to play with a bit more ambition. Outhalf Greig Laidlaw has been a key part of that.

Tomorrow will only be the 26-year-old’s third start, and fifth cap, for Scotland. The Edinburgh halfback has played much of his rugby at scrumhalf and his first cap came there, as a replacement for Mike Blair in 2010. However, Laidlaw’s involvement with the Scottish Sevens side has helped him develop into the exciting attacking outhalf we have seen in recent weeks. His background at scrumhalf is evident in his quality passing, while his time playing sevens is clear in his elusive running game. Add to that competent place-kicking, and Laidlaw has been impressive for the Scottish.

There is one glaring weakness in Laidlaw’s skill set though and that is his defensive game. At just 12st 8lbs (80kg) and 5′ 9″, he is not the biggest guy, especially in comparison with some of the monsters in international rugby. When he plays at scrumhalf, Laidlaw has far less front-on tackles to make and his size is really not an issue. At outhalf though, Laidlaw has to deal with a lot more traffic. He never looks confident in the tackle.

Try for Dougie Howlett

Doug Howlett goes through a Laidlaw tackle to score for Munster this season. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Ireland must be merciless in their targeting of Laidlaw on Saturday. We have to get our strong carriers in Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip and Donnacha Ryan running at the outhalf whenever they get a chance. Laidlaw often tends to hang out on the wings in phase play as Scotland defend. If that is the case at the Aviva, then we must work the ball wide to give Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble one-on-ones with him.

Wesley Fofana’s try for France in that 23-17 win showed Ireland the way. Laidlaw’s opposite number, Francois Trinh-Duc, far from a physical specimen himself, bounced Laidlaw into the ground to put France on the front foot inside the Scottish 22. From that position, Fofana is hard to stop. Laidlaw’s missed tackle was the key though, putting Scotland into a defensive scramble. If Laidlaw does defend in this channel then Ireland have to repeatedly search him out.

It’s an obvious point to make, but France failed to exploit the weakness to it’s full extent. Apart from that missed tackle, Laidlaw only had to make 3 other tackles in his 50 minutes on the pitch. Wales were a little more ruthless, forcing the outhalf to tackle 10 times, of which he missed 3. It’s a basic tactic to target certain players when you have the ball, but it’s extremely rare to have a player as defensively weak as Laidlaw playing international rugby, so it needs to be highlighted.


Laidlaw, kicking for Edinburgh here, has scored 18 points for Scotland in this year's Six Nations. (c) Craig Marren.

The breathless tempo of international rugby can make it difficult to pick out individual players in the opposition defence. Ireland have to make it a team effort, communicating to each other where the outhalf is in the defensive line. Just as countless teams have targeted Ronan O’Gara over the years, we must now do the same to Laidlaw.

*Where else do you see the key battles taking place tomorrow? Do you think Scotland are a real threat to Ireland or do you expect a comfortable win? Comment below with all your views on tomorrow’s game…


Photos courtesy:  Craig Marren, Ivan O’Riordan.