Jammy Lions beat Hapless Wallabies

It’s a win but unless they pick it up the Lions will be beaten off the park in games two and three. Here are the reason why:

Goalkicking – While Leigh Halfpenny put in an excellent performance making five of his six kicks, the Australians missed five of their nine efforts seeing 14 points go a begging. Whatever about James O’Connor’s three misses, Kurtley Beale’s two missed kicks in the final five minutes were unforgivable and cost Australia the game. The Australians should remedy their goalkicking before the next Test.

Lineout – Although neither side lost a lineout in the match, the Lions were extremely conservative in their throwing. Only going to the back of the lineout once in the match (a wobbly low thing which O’Connell did well to hold on to) prevented the Lions from releasing their backline off the set piece. All week rumour had it the Lions were holding their lineout cards close to their chest; however this performance shows they have held nothing special in reserve.

The scrum – Warren Gatland was vindicated in his selection of Alex Corbisiero at loose head with the Lions enjoying a healthy dominance in scrum for the first 50 minutes. However the replacement of all three front rowers in the second half was a disastrous move by the coach with the Lions losing a crucial scrum on the Wallabies five metre line and then another in the dying moments; the former deflated the Lions’ momentum while the latter should have cost them the game were it not for Beale to miss a relatively simple kick.

The bench – Quite apart from the disaster of the front row replacements, Ben Youngs was poor following his introduction in the 62nd minute and must shoulder some responsibility for the failure to retain possession from the scrum. Geoff Parling made little impression when introduced for the final ten minutes to replace the exausted Alun Wyn Jones. Gatland will have to rethink his options on the bench to rival the Australian numbers 16-22 for the next Test.

Focus – The Lions’ were caught out badly in the first half for both of Israel Folau’s tries; the first came from a simple tap and go from Will Genia while Jonathan Sexton and Sam Warburton missed open field tackles on Folau in the second. After Cuthbert’s try put the Lions up by eight points in the 49th minute the Lions’ intensity dropped leaving the door open for an Australian comeback. Warburton failed to rally his troops in the latter half of the game and were it not for the outstanding Alun Wyn Jones, Tom Croft and Paul O’Connell the Australians would have rumbled over for tries at the death.

The midfield didn’t work – Jonathan Davies did his best playing out of position at inside centre but he did not have he power to blast through centre as Gatland intended either Jamie Roberts or Manu Tuilagi might. Rather than change the game plan to accommodate Davies’ all-round ability (either by spin ball wide or by using the backrow as primary ball carriers), Gatland stuck to the power-12-crash-ball plan and almost came unstuck.

There was also a failure on the pitch to execute Gatland’s desire to have the 6 foot 4 inch wingers North and Cuthbert enter the midfield, a point which annoyed Stuart Barnes on Sky Sports commentary: “Why are they using the main tour placekicker Halfpenny through the middle when you have two big wingers on the pitch?!”, an exasperated Barnes complained midway through the second half.

Brian O’Driscoll was also disappointed with the failure of North and Cuthbert to involve themselves more in the game. When questioned after the match by a breathless and effusively sycophantic Will Greenwood about the Welsh duo, a slightly irritated O’Driscoll replied: “Obviously it’s fantastic [to have them on the wing] but, I think if everyone runs the right lines there are opportunities – when you’ve got guys the size of those two running down the twelve and thirteen channel then people will start marking them. Maybe they’ll come good in games two and three.”

Australian injuries had little effect on the Wallabies – In spite of losing three key backs and having to play a flanker in the centre for over half an hour, the Australian strength in depth was far superior to the Lions. The Wallabies rode their luck, played the game, and left the whinging about injuries to the Northern Hemisphere journos. Rewatching the tape the Australian team will learn much of what to expect from the Lions for the second Test.


First Test for Lions

The first Test match on Saturday is the first real test the Lions face on tour. The Australian club scene has put up little resistance to the touring party. After five matches only the Brumbies managed to notch up a win, beating an under strength Lions team on Tuesday as Warren Gatland opted to rest his starting fifteen. The Wallabies will be a different kettle of fish.

I think the Lions will win tomorrow, but there are *ahem* areas of concern.

Alex Corbisiero – Brought in as a loose head replacement for the injured Cian Healey, Corbisiero has made little impression in the warm up games, and has looked far less impressive than Mako Vunipola. The only logical reason for Gatland’s selection could be a wish to introduce Vunipola as an impact sub to create havoc in the loose for the final twenty minutes or so. Should the Wallabies win the first scrum of the match, even Gatland will know that his gamble has failed.

The Lineout – The throwing of Alex Hibbard and Rory Best in the warms ups left Gatland with no choice but to select Tom Youngs at hooker. Over the six matches played the Lions have won 51 lineouts and lost 17, meaning that one in three lineouts are going to the opposition. However the stats are slightly misleading: the Lion’s greatest lineout weapon Paul O’Connell has barely caught a ball (seven Lions have caught more than him) in an effort to keep the Australian coaching staff in the dark.

The Centre – Injuries to Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi have forced Gatland to select Jonathan Davies at inside centre. Ordinarily selected at 13, Davies will have a steep learning curve to fulfil the battering ram role designed by Gatland for the tour. As a rangey all-rounder, Davies will depend on the two Irish men flanking him for support. However should either Jonathan Sexton or Brian O’Driscoll fail to perform in their attacking duties, the Lions will be in trouble.

Wide Australian play – There are rumours that the Aussies could switch to spinning the ball wide (ala the Brumbies on Tuesday) which could test the Lions on both wings. With Alex Cuthbert’s defence a perennial subject of conversation and George North coming off a hamstring injury, the Lions could struggle against fast attacking play. However the Lions might well be able to take advantage of any expansive Australian play through the open field territory kicking of Halfpenny and the counter attacking pace of both Cuthbert and North.

The Bench – No Conor Murray, no Sean O’Brien. Talk about impact players…. Their exclusion defies logic.

The Aussies – They’ve been warming up behind closed doors; they’ve been written off by the English press; they’ve waited twelve years to revenge losing to the Lions in Brisbane because of Brian O’Driscoll’s genius. They will not go down without a fight.

Video: Rugby Media

Concussion turning rugby pitches into gladiator arenas

Picture via Fergus McFadden @fergmcfaddenWhen a picture of a Dublin cafe advertising ‘Free coffee for Dave Kearney’ hit the internet yesterday a colleague of Kearney’s, fellow Leinster rugby player Fergus McFadden, was the first to reply: ‘Nice gesture but don’t think he is out of hospital yet…’

Responding from his hospital bed, Kearney mustered a joke: he would accept skinny latte deliveries to his room. Yet two days earlier as he lay unconscious on the turf of Thomond Park no one was joking around. Following a kick to the head from Munster’s Paul O’Connell, Kearney was stretchered from the field, brought to hospital and diagnosed with concussion. O’Connell’s swipe was considered ‘careless’ rather than intentional by the independent citing commissioner and no suspension, warning or fine was issued.

Concussions in rugby are a ticking time-bomb for the sports’ administrators. As players continue to become stronger and fitter, the risk of head injury and brain trauma is multiplied. In response the International Rugby Board has formulated a detailed list of guidelines surrounding concussions which states that players suspected of having concussion be removed from play and sidelined until a thorough medical assessment deems them fit to play again.

However a controversial amendment to the guidelines, introduced on a trial basis last summer, has raised eyebrows. It states that a player suspected of suffering concussion will be allowed return to the action if they can pass a series of touchline tests lasting five minutes. Test questions include, ‘What’s the score?’ and, ‘Who are you playing against?’

The introduction of the ‘five minute rule’ led to a high profile resignation from the IRB’s own medical advisory committee. Barry O’Driscoll, a medical doctor and former Irish international, stood down after fifteen years with the IRB, arguing that ‘rugby is trivialising concussions’.

‘They are sending these guys back onto the field and into the most brutal arena. It’s ferocious out there. The same player who 18 months ago was given a minimum of seven days recovery time is now given five minutes.’

Quite apart from the O’Connell-Kearney incident, these comments follow on from a number of serious concussion cases involving Irish players. During Ireland’s clash with France in March, a blow to the head left Brian O’Driscoll confused and shaken. Visibly unsteady, he was helped from the pitch only to re-enter the fray minutes later and play to the finish. Frightening footage of O’Driscoll stumbling around the field as the final whistle was blown shows the need to completely remove the decision to play from the player, and to do away with the proposed ‘five minute rule’.

Perhaps more worrying than the injuries to O’Driscoll and Kearney were those sustained by Luke Marshall who suffered three concussions in as many games. Twenty-two year old Marshall was concussed in Ireland’s draw with France and another head injury saw him substituted seven days later in the Ireland-Italy game. Eleven days later, while playing for Ulster against Saracens, Marshall was knocked unconscious for the third time in four weeks. Coaching and medical staff from both Ireland and Ulster confirmed that Marshall was fit to take part in all games over the four week period.

The IRB tread a well-worn path when it comes to player safety in sport. Recent research into the long term effects of concussion on American Football players by Boston University has led to public outcry and the demand for rule changes. In 2011 the National Football League advanced the ball five yards for kick-offs; a minor change which resulted in a 50 percent drop in concussions on those plays. For the 2013 NFL season, independent neurological specialists will be present on the sidelines for all games to work with the team staff and will act autonomously.

Yet for many, these changes are too little too late. Boston University’s research has confirmed many former players suffer from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated brain trauma which can result in memory loss, mood swings and depression. The suicide of former players suffering from CTE has prompted an ongoing lawsuit involving some 4,000 former players against the NFL. The players allege the League knew the dangers of head injuries and failed to act accordingly.

If rugby administrators wish to protect players and the future viability of the game they would do well to heed ongoing developments in the NFL and the words of current NFL star Eric Winston, ‘We are athletes… We are not gladiators and this is not the Roman Colosseum.’

Picture via Fergus McFadden

State o’ the Six Nations: Week 2

The Six Nations Table after Week 2

The Six Nations Table after Week 2

Ireland 6 – England 12

In a nutshell
A disciplined English side hold their nerve against injury and knock-on prone Ireland in lowest scoring Six Nations match ever.

Beyond the nut
Handling errors from Ireland gifted possession and territory to England and became the difference between the sides. The first half was a comedy of errors: dropped catches from Jamie Heaslip along with knock-ons from Gordon D’Arcy, Mike McCarthy and Rory Best deflated the Irish team and put them on the back foot.

With poor performances throughout the field it’s harsh and unfair to single out one player for criticism, yet Declan Kidney must now consider either Ian Keatley, Ian Madigan or Paddy Jackson for the number 10 position in place of Ronan O’Gara. A younger O’Gara would have controlled yesterday’s game with astute kicks from hand and the penalty tee.

Yet on the evidence of yesterday it seems O’Gara – who will be 36 next month – is unable to compete at international level. His attempted garryowens were ill-struck, his kicks for touch from penalties were awful, and he sailed a crucial kick at goal wide. So slow was he in the loose that O’Gara was unable to pass on the run or feign a dummy, while on three occasions he failed the out-half’s most basic task of clearing his lines with the English pack tackling him before he could get his kicks away.

Injuries are a major worry for Ireland now with Simon Zebo out of the tournament and Jonny Sexton ruled out for the next match and possibly more. Sean O’Brien, Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll, Mike McCarthy and Donnacha Ryan all picked up knocks so Ireland will have to make the most of the two week break before travelling to Murrayfield. Meanwhile Cian Healy could face a long term ban for an alleged stamp.

It seems England of 2013 with Owen Farrell are a cut and paste copy of England 2003 with Jonny Wilkinson. The England 2.0 game plan is simple: win territory, win penalties and let the out-half kick the points. Farrell was calm and assured in his play yesterday which belied his 21 years and he could well be selected at number 10 for the Lions this summer ahead of Sexton.

Defensively the English were superb with Ireland never threatening to score a try. England captain Chris Robshaw led from the front with a superb display of tackling, ball carrying and decision making. The leadership shown by Robshaw was markedly absent on the Irish side and the 26 year old was rightly named Man of the Match.

Were it not for a few missed kicks from Farrell the score-line would have better reflected the England’s dominance.

France 6 – Wales 16

In a nutshell
Wales out muscle poorly selected and largely uninterested French side in bish-bash-bosh affair.

Beyond the nut
Pffffff. Awful rugby match. Why Philippe Saint-Andre refuses to start world class players like Morgan Parra and François Trinh-Duc is a mystery and his decision to introduce Trinh-Duc as a number 12 substitute would bewilder even Sherlock Holmes.

Wales will be happy with their effort and completing the biggest Welsh win in Paris since 1975 will kick-start their season.

A lot of huff and puff, couldn’t watch it all.

Scotland 34 – Italy 10

In a nutshell
Two breakaway tries sealed a Scottish victory over on Italy side still celebrating their defeat of France in week 1.

Beyond the nut
With Italy and Scotland both recording a victory maybe France will get the wooden spoon this year.

Live Radio Roadshow: Game On from the Aviva Stadium

Damien O'Meara setting Game On live from the Aviva

Damien O’Meara setting up for Game On live

This week RTE launched Game On a new one hour weeknight sports show to rival Newstalk’s outrageously popular Off the Ball. To mark the occasion they decided to set up camp in the IRFU suite of Aviva stadium in the company of the Irish Rugby Supports Club for a live broadcast.

It was a great night with usual presenter Damien O’Meara joined with guests Michael “the Voice” Corcoran, Shane Byrne, Brent Pope and Brian Kerr. Here are some of the talking points.

First question to Michael Corcoran, any thoughts on the Ireland England match?
Michael the Voice: “You could play Ireland and England in a Tesco car park and there’d still be a lot of interest in it.”
Right you are so. With mental images of Brian O’Driscoll ploughing through shopping trolleys, Damien asked again, what did Michael think of the game.
Michael the Voice: “The game on Sunday is going to be incredible. I mean I’ve been trying hard all week not to get too… ‘aroused’ is the word I was going to use…”
Damien’s a little unsure now. How about Shane Byrne? Thoughts? Ireland at home against England?
Shane: “If you can’t get up for that there’s something wrong with you.”
Titters of laughter from the giddy Irish Rugby Supporters Club. Poor Damien isn’t sure where to go next. Time to play a trump card: he goes to Popey.
Damien: “Brent, dig us out of the gutter and bring the standard of conversation back up – no double entendres now if you would.”
Brent, “Well I’m not aroused.”
Damien (stuttering): “Good, good. Well I’m glad to hear it… I don’t know what to say.”

Around 30 from the Irish Rugby Supporter's Club attended

Around 30 from the Irish Rugby Supporter’s Club attended

On went the chat and the banter. Damien inquired as to the fitness of the team: was Gordon D’Arcy recovered after limping off against Wales? Michael had been at the Millennium Stadium:
Michael the Voice: “To see Gordon D’Arcy coming out of the changing room last week it looked for all intents and purposes as if somebody had sawed off the bottom half of his leg from the knee down – and I mean that honestly.”
Gasps from the supporters club. But Michael wasn’t done yet.
Michael the Voice: “He had a tracksuit bottom him and his leg was taped up into position at that angle (motions with hands and description peters out).”
Laughter from the lads. Sorry what angle? Shane wanted to know the precise angle of Gordon’s battered leg. Michael has no answer. Brent wondered what Michael got in maths. Michael has no answer. To hell with the rugby, maths was a more interesting conversation topic.
Michael the Voice: “I read somewhere that Brian O’Driscoll has more caps for Ireland than the English backline…?” Damien steps in to help out.
Damien: “The starting fifteen have 242 caps between them which is only twice what Brian O’Driscoll has – if my maths is correct.”
Brian Kerr puts a hand in the air.
Brian: “We used to call it ‘sums’ in school rather than maths, and given your figures I reckon the English have an average of 16 caps each. So that sounds to me like not too much experience.”
One nil to the football pundit on a rugby panel.


The view from the IRFU suite

Damien: “Lansdowne Road as a venue, as a place – every time you walk down towards the train tracks – is it a place that brings back fond memories? Does it have a special place in your heart?”
You can hear a pin drop in the suite as misty eyed Irish Rugby Supporters Club members anticipate Brian’s nostalgia fuelled response.
Brian: “Eh… from the point of view of going to rugby matches?” (delighted Supporters Club members erupt with laughter)
Damien: (exasperated) “No soccer. From your career’s point of view… Thanks Brian.” Did Brian identify with hallowed Lansdowne Road from a soccer point of view?
Brian: “Not particularly… I used to come in the door as the manager of the international team, get off the bus and in the door and there’d only be pictures of rugby players all around the hall.”
Hmm… and how about the brand new shining stadium? Any improvement there?
Brian: “It’s a lovely stadium but I don’t think they’ve recreated the atmosphere in the stadium, certainly not in soccer – the rugby matches have been fine… I still like coming to the place but I’ve mixed feelings about whether the opposition are afraid of it. I don’t see teams coming here with the same fear as they did with the previous ground when the crowd were right in on top of you. I don’t get that sense now.”
Ah well, things looked nice enough from the swish IRFU suite. No smell of prawn sandwiches though the nibbles were lovely.
Here’s hoping the lads do as good a job on Sunday as the radio boys did yesterday.


Nibbles were had!

Gutsy Gonzaga beaten by Brave Blackrock: Pictures

A gutsy Gonzaga were beaten by a brave Blackrock in the opening round of this year’s Leinster Schools Rugby Senior Cup.

(click an image to start slideshow)

Ireland Six Nations Preview: The good, the bad and the ugly

Six Nation’s time. The question is will Ireland show up for the party or will they just be like drunken also-rans flapping about on the dancefloor?

The Good
As 2013 is an odd year Ireland will face the two favourites for the Six Nations title, England and France, at home. Winning the tournament’s opening match in Cardiff against Grand Slam holders Wales would create huge momentum for Ireland, and home support against les Blues and na Sasanaigh could be enough for Ireland to reclaim the championship.

The success of Munster and Ulster in this year’s Heineken Cup has bred confidence in the likes of David Kilcoyne, Craig Gilroy and Felix Jones while in Ian Madigan, Paddy Jackson and Ian Keatley there is hope for a future star at out half. 22 year old Simon Zebo has solidified the potential he showed in 2011 and should play a major role as a try finisher and broken field runner this year in a green jersey.

Leinster’s failure to qualify to the knock out stage of the Heineken Cup is a blessing in disguise for Ireland. With places up for grabs on the Lion’s Tour of Australia this summer, the Six Nations represents the last chance for Leinster’s marquee players to showcase themselves on an international stage.

The Bad
Untimely distractions have come thick and fast for the Irish camp and as of yet the dust has not settled. Declan Kidney’s decision to permanently install Jamie Heaslip as team captain in the place of Brian O’Driscoll has left a bad taste in the mouth for what is to be O’Driscoll’s final Six Nations. While his position in the team has come under pressure, there was no need to replace O’Driscoll as captain, and Heaslip’s leadership qualities will be pushed to the limit if he is to guide Ireland to victory.

Jonny Sexton’s move to Racing Metro has bred uncertainty among the Leinster camp with Rob Kearney believing Sexton’s departure could “open the floodgates” for an Irish exodus to overseas clubs. It’s a professional game and of course money talks, but rumours that Sexton demanded the tag of “top player wage” from the IRFU means that unity is far from a given in the Irish camp.

Over the past year pressure has mounted on Declan Kidney and his coaching staff. Repeated backroom changes mean that Les Kiss no longer holds both roles of Attack Coach and the Defence Coach, with Anthony Foley taking charge of the latter. Kidney’s current contract ends after the Six Nations and should only be renewed if, 1) he is proven right about Heaslip’s captaincy; 2) he successfully mixes youth with experience in the backline; and 3) Ireland perform well at Lansdowne against France and England.

The Ugly
Since this time last year Ireland have played ten games and only won three of them; beating Italy and Scotland in the 2012 Six Nations, and then defeating an exhausted Argentina in the 2012 Autumn series. Anything short of a good campaign this year will see fans calling for change.

Ireland Six Nations Schedule
Wales v Ireland Millennium Stadium Sat 2nd Feb 13 13:30
Ireland v England Aviva Stadium Sun 10th Feb 13 15:00
Scotland v Ireland Murrayfield Sun 24th Feb 13 14:00
Ireland v France Aviva Stadium Sat 9th Mar 13 17:00
Italy v Ireland Stadio Olimpico Sat 16th Mar 13 14:30