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Negative victories and positive defeats: The difference between Ireland’s ’07 and present World Cup hopes

18 Aug

Sean Farrell

Rugby Correspondent

Now this is exciting! The past two weeks have seen Declan Kidney pick international teams for tricky away fixtures. The goal – despite Kidney’s protests – was to get those finely tuned motors up and running. A slow and sure warm up before we click into gear on these, the last two laps of our test run before New Zealand.

First up was the damp squib of a game against Scotland, do we expect anything more from a trip to Edinburgh? Much more heartening was last weekend’s jaunt to Bordeaux. Another loss, yes, but the performance was only a decent set-piece away from a win deep in French rugby country.

Yet, the admirable display did more than add impetus to the warm up series or give hope for the future. It helped to banish some aspects of our last trip to Stade Chaban Delmas (cue dramatic score from movie thriller – dun DUN dun) in 2007.

The warm up to that French debacle saw us wander into the lion’s den (good Christians that we are.) It was a hot and heavy midweek match in Bayonne, the Southwest outfit at that time were languishing in the second tier of France’s domestic competition and so, seemingly without fear of reproach, set about systematically lifting our ponderous World Cup bid off the railway tracks.

Reports differ on which carriage was targeted first, what is beyond doubt is that our engine, Brian O’Driscoll, was mercilessly targeted Super 8 style by substitute Mikeana Tewhata. The Kiwi played the part of the disgruntled truck driver four years before JJ Abrams unleashed his blockbuster on the masses.

Denis Hickie, who touched down three times as Ireland limped to a 42-6 win, could scarcely believe his eyes: “I thought those sort of games were a thing of the past.” The winger told the Belfast Telegraph at the time, “Brian got a blatant punch in the face from a guy he wasn’t even looking at which is pretty cowardly, but what can you do?”

Little over a week later, Italy came across to Belfast to wish us well in our going away party. They swamped in bold as brass, ate all the cake and swilled the free booze. They ruined the whole Friday night and made me do something I never did before or since during an Irish match, I switched off early.

It was as bad as Ireland have played in the modern era, on a par with the narrow win over Georgia just three weeks later. Like the 14-10 win by the Garonne, the match by the Lagan went down to the wire too.

Matteo Pratichetti’s converted try perilously close to the final whistle shot Italy into a 20 -16 lead. It was too late to cancel the flight to Bordeaux, I sighed and did what any self-respecting Irishman does when faced with crushing disappointment: grabbed my coat and headed to the pub.

By the time I looked both ways, crossed the road and moped through the door 60 meters from my own threshold, Donal the barman seemed in philosophic mood: “Terrible weren’t they” he said in an incomprehensibly upbeat mood. ‘Yeah, awful’ I lamented ‘first loss to Italy since…’ As he set me straight, Donal’s eyebrows raised higher than the pitch of his voice “No. They won. O’Gara scored a try!”

Disbelieving, I settled down to analyse the highlights before my pint of stout settled, ROG had done it again. Nowadays the ageing fly-half is forced to compete for his place but it’s not long since he was one of the three reliable totems which Ireland could always pin their hopes on.

This occasion, though, was not an example of his enduring class but more a big jammy stroke of luck. The talisman broke onto a questionable pass from Andrew Trimble and then grounded the score in less than convincing fashion. Long story short: Ireland won, just as they did in Bayonne; happy days, nothing to see here. Let’s just look forward to the World Cup, it’ll be alright on the night…

We hoped for the best but got more of the same. A shoddy display and a win against mighty Namibia led to us to being well and truly found out by Georgia who spent the dying minutes camped on our line and eventually trundled over only to be held up by Denis Leamy. Nobody was being fooled by the results anymore.

Ireland went on to Paris to be outclassed by the hosts and (needing a massive win to qualify) lost again to our favourite South Americans, who revelled in the kick and defend laden game-pattern of the day.

Results are not everything, far from it. The win in Bayonne was a physical pummelling, the narrow escape in Ravenhill a disaster. Compare these games to recent weeks when Kidney has sent understrength teams to hothouse atmospheres and got within inches of a win on both occasions.

The performances are there and the mood is good, that’s what has supporters excited. Because on Saturday we will see a green XV close to the one Kidney would choose to face Australia on September 17th.

The exception is Felix Jones, however much he merits a starting place, the Munster fullback still has a way to go to gain Kidney’s trust in a match of major stature. Elsewhere, the pack is in place – only Stephen Ferris could muscle in there. The half backs are building an understanding, Gordon D’Arcy is back in midfield and the back three is extremely dangerous despite the absence of Tommy Bowe who, once fit, should walk back into the right wing position.

All that said; the rallying cry from the sponsors of these warm up games must be heard. The build-up starts here and our boys in green must put more than half a game together against both France and England. Going into the World Cup under the radar is all well and good, but going on the back of four defeats could make for an impossible climb.

From Bayonne to the brink of something special, the prospect of victory, the chance of defeat; I guess that’s what makes it all so exciting.

Ireland (v France): F Jones, A Trimble, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, K Earls; J Sexton, T O’Leary; C Healy, R Best, M Ross, D O’Callaghan, P O’Connell (capt); S O’Brien, D Wallace, J Heaslip Replacements: J Flannery, T Court, M McCarthy, S Ferris, E Reddan, R O’Gara, L Fitzgerald.

Ireland XV (v Connacht) G Murphy; J Murphy, D Cave, I Keatley, F McFadden; P Wallace, I Boss; T Buckley, S Cronin, J Hayes;; M O’Driscoll, L Cullen; K McLaughlin, S Jennings, D Leamy. Replacements: D Varley, M Horan, D Ryan, N Ronan, C Murray, D Hurley, I Whitten


Leinster Crowned European Champions after Unbelievable Comeback

22 May

By Manus Lappin

The roof was closed for the game not that it really mattered as the principality’s capital was bathed in beautiful sunshine in the build-up to the game. As has long been the tradition, the four proud provinces of Ireland combined to offer support to the Irish team as Munster, Ulster and Connacht jerseys mingled with Les Bleu to create what can only be described as an eclectic carnival atmosphere ahead of kickoff. No other tournament in world sport can bring rugby supporters of the nation together quite like the Heineken Cup., and I guess that’s what makes it special.

It was Saints who got the game under way and in the opening few minutes it was they who enjoyed the lions share of possession. The first scrum on three minutes was a messy affair with Tonga’uiah trying to go to ground only for Mike Ross to hold him firm.

With 5 minutes gone, Saints had an attacking scrum just inside the Leinster 22. Saints No 8 Roger Wilson signalled a backrow move to his half backs, and when Northampton got the shove on in the scrum, the No.8 picked and darted down the blind side. One phase later and Saints openside flanker Phil Dowson pick up a fantastic offload from Callum Clark and was crossing the whitewash to open the scores in favour of Northampton. Myler made good the conversion and Saints took an early 7-0 lead after 8 minutes of play.

Leinster immediately went on the attack and one minute later they found themselves inside the Saints 22 for the first time in the game. From an attacking scrum, Leinster looked to be making good ground, only for D’Arcy to spill the ball forward in contact.

It was clear from early on that Northampton’s strategy was to close down the Leinster midfield, utilising a blitz defence to prevent Leinster moving the ball out wide.

An infringement by Brian Mujati at the breakdown, ten metres inside the Saints half handed Leinster’s Jonny Sexton a penalty and the opportunity to open his sides scoring account. The kick was good and Leinster were now off and running with 13 minutes gone.

On the cusp of 20 minutes Leinster were penalised for pulling down the scrum handing Myler another kickable penalty. In the battle of the scrum it was Northampton who were slowly gaining the upper hand and that is a facet of play which Leinster would have to address sooner rather than later. The kick was good and Myler extended Saints lead to 10-3.

Shane Horgan reclaimed the restart and Leinster launched their own attack gaining good ground before a clearance kick relieved the pressure for Northampton.
From the resulting lineout Strauss found Cullen and Sexton released his midfield for the first time in the game. The result of that attack was Brian O’Driscoll cut to within 5 metres of the Saints line before a fantastic last gasp tackle by Saints fullback Ben Foden curtailed his progress.

With 25 minutes gone, Brian Mujati was yellow carded for tackling Cian Healy off the ball when the Leinster prop was running a supporting line.
Despite being a man down in the scrum, on 28 minutes the Northampton scrum drove Leinster back much to the bemusement of Leinster skipper Leo Cullen who certainly felt there were some illegalities at work.

On the half hour mark it was Saints who were playing like the team with the extra man and when a massive gap opened up in the Leinster defence 8 metres from their line, Myler did not need a second invitation and darted through the gap. Two passes later and Ben Foden was touching down over the line to score a well deserved try. Myler made good the kick and Leinster now found themselves on the wrong side of a 17-3 deficit.

Saints were once again penalised and Sexton was handed a penalty 10 metres inside the Northampton half, left of the posts. Trusting in his form Sexton made the kick with lots to spare and closed the gap to eleven points at 17-6. As Mujati returned to the field of play, crucially Leinster had failed to punish Northampton who, instead bucked the trend by increasing their lead with a man in the sinbin.

Saints were beginning to hand out a lesson to Leinster and with 38 minutes on the clock, they were awarded another try. Leinster were caught napping first on the left, then on the right and that opened the door for Saints skipper Dylan Hartley to sneak over the line heaping yet more misery on Leinster. The conversion came off the upright but it was Northampton who entered the interval 22-6 points to the good.

If ever Leinster faced a serious test of character, it was now, and they would be required to call on all that experience and skill if they were to turn this one around. Every time Northampton made it into the Leinster 22, they came away with points on the board, and what was more worrying from a Leinster perspective, was the fact that each time Saints attacked the Leinster right wing, they made good ground.

HT 22-6

Shane Jennings started the 2nd half in place of Kevin McLaughlin as Sexton went long with the restart. Despite eventually gaining possession and working into the Saints 22, Leinster once again coughed up possession allowing Northampton to pin them back with a clearance kick but Leinster were a team with something to prove. With 43 minutes on the clock, Jonny Sexton finished off a fine phase of Leinster attacking which saw O’Driscoll, Heaslip and Nacewa make good yards. Sexton still had work to do and managed to nip over the line in the corner, converting his own try to close the gap to 22-13.

Suddenly small things were going against Northampton. Leinster were matching them in the scrum and therefore nullifying their set piece attack. James Downey was penalised for a deliberate knockon and Leinster found themselves once again attacking the Northampton 22. With a fine Heaslip break, Leinster were trying to stretch the Saints defensive line and when Gordon D’Arcy crossed the line on 50 minutes referee Romain Poite was in the perfect position to make the call. Initially the French referee called that the ball was held up, but relented and decided to allow the television match official to make the decision. To all in the stadium it looked like the try had been scored however the TMO ruled against and Leinster were denied on this occasion.

From the attacking 5 metre scrum Leinster powered up the middle of the field before the ball was worked left then right. Sexton and Heaslip linked with a superb looping move which resulted in the St Marys Outhalf cutting inside and powering past the last line of defence to score a tremendous try. Sexton converted his own try and in the space of 13 minutes Leinster had closed the gap to 22-20 and with it, brought themselves right back into contention with 53 minutes played.

More doubt was creeping into the Saints game when the normally surefooted Ben Foden knocked on 10 metres inside his own half giving Leinster an attacking scrum which they used to drive the Saints back forcing a penalty. Sexton was well within range at 11 metres inside the Saints half just right of the posts. The kick was good and for the first time in the game Leinster took the lead by 22-23.

Leinster signalled their intent on 57 minutes when Isa Nacew took a high ball and offloaded to Healy who powered his way up field to launch the next phase of attack. It would be Healy’s last play of the game as the Clontarf prop was replaced a minute later For the second time in the game cynical Northampton play was penalised when Phil Dowson was sin-binned. That particular action saw Sexton handed another penalty which true to form, he slotted between the uprights to extend Leinster’s lead to 22-26 with 61 minutes on the clock

With 64 minutes gone, Leinster once again found themselves within striking distance of the Saints line, this time showing patience to work their way up to the line. The final move fell to lock forward Nathan Hines who powered over the line managing to dot the ball down this time in clear view of Romaine Poite. It was a difficult kick from the right but Sexton made no mistake and Leinster now extended their lead to 22-33.

Saints had totally capitulated, their forward dominance was gone, and they were struggling to hold onto what little possession they had in this second half. Myler was replaced by Geraghty in a bid to try and add a bit more impetus into the Saints backline.
Foden and Ashron linked well to break into the Leinster 22 but that excursion was all too brief and Leinster managed to repel that wave of attack much to the credit of the covering tackle of Isa Nacewa.

As we entered the final minutes of the game the raft of substitutes by both teams chewed an extra few minutes and as Northampton looked to run the ball out of their own 22 the otherwise impressive Courtney Lawes uncharacteristically spilled the ball in contact handing Leinster an attacking scrum with 2 minutes left to play. All that was left for Leinster was to secure the ball in the scrum but Heaslip broke from the base linking with O’Brien to keep the pressure on. However as the clock ticked 80, Luke Fitzgerald took the ball and hoofed it into the proverbial row Z as Leinster were, for the second time in three years, crowned Heineken Cup champions.

What a turnaround, what a game of rugby and what worthy winners.

Man of the match – Jonny Sexton


15: Isa Nacewa
14: Shane Horgan
13: Brian O’Driscoll
12: Gordon D’Arcy
11: Luke Fitzgerald
10: Jonathan Sexton
9: Eoin Reddan

1: Cian Healy
2: Richardt Strauss
3: Mike Ross
4: Leo Cullen CAPTAIN
5: Nathan Hines
6: Kevin McLaughlin
7: Sean O’Brien
8: Jamie Heaslip

16: Jason Harris-Wright
17: Heinke van der Merwe
18: Stan Wright
19: Devin Toner
20: Shane Jennings
21: Isaac Boss
22: Ian Madigan
23: Fergus McFadden


15. B Foden;
14. C Ashton,
13. J Clarke,
12. J Downey,
11. P Diggin;
10. S Myler,
9. L Dickson;

1. S Tonga’uiha,
2. D Hartley [capt],
3. B Mujati,
4. C Lawes,
5. C Day,
6. C Clark,
7. P Dowson,
8. R Wilson.

16. B Sharman,
17. A Waller,
18. T Mercey,
19. M Sorenson,
20. M Easter,
21. S Commins,
22. S Geraghty,
23. J AnsbroTonga’uiah

Six Nations post-mortem:What next for Ireland?

22 Mar

By Sean Farrell

“Trimble fly-hacks it. Easter dives on it, secures possession. But Ireland arrive in huge numbers, at pace, with power, in the right body positions and their appetite for this… well it looks like they haven’t eaten for months.”

Commentator Ryle Nugent pretty much caught the mood after 38 minutes of Saturday’s win over England.

The tournament ended in elation after preventing England’s Grand Slam and ensuring that nobody has won the Triple Crown since the Six Nations trophy also resided west of Holyhead.

So how do you rate Ireland’s campaign? We got there in the end? Lipstick on a pig?

A little of both probably, but it is worth remembering that Ireland only played two home games and in both of them they were outstanding, aside from the glut of penalties handed to Morgan Parra.
The common factor in those games was Jonny Sexton wearing the number 10 jersey. Ronan O’Gara was excellent whenever he took the field, particularly off the bench, but against England Sexton had the ‘wow’ factor.

He began with an audacious tap and go on his own 22. It seemed England had trickled back, but Sexton took the phrase ‘play what’s in front of you’ quite literally and spun the ball left.

Goal kicking can often be his Achilles heel, and after he nailed his second penalty of the day it was clear he was in the groove. Chris Ashton was eager to test his mettle but Leinster’s 10 scored with his next kick and was only narrowly wide from the attempt which followed Tommy Bowe’s try.
That was the only mark on young master Sexton’s copybook and it is more than forgivable considering his contribution to the touchdown itself.
As much as the try seemed a waterfall of momentum, finally breaking the white levee. It proved that Ireland have been sorely lacking a slice of luck or two throughout the Championship.

From the 22 metre drop out, Andrew Trimble seemed to knock on before Donncha O’Callaghan and Paul O’Connell began their shock and awe attack, slide tackling their way into the red zone. On another day, O’Callaghan then could have been pinged for a high tackle as he caught Foden during his clearance.

On another day, that would have meant an English penalty on halfway, but it was not this day. Trimble unleashed Jamie Heaslip who relished the contact. Had this been Croke Park, the GAA brigade would be claiming Sexton’s quick tap penalty as a stylish solo run, his relatives in Kerry would be proud. Hell, Séamus Moynihan would have been proud of that one.

For Ireland, that moment will be the enduring memory of this championship. In one fell swoop the conservative option of an easy three points was given the coldest of shoulders and the St Mary’s man went for the kill.

A reasonable goal for Ireland and Declan Kidney is a world cup quarter final this year, the man himself would never admit as such but that is the base grade. Anything less will mean we’ve gone backwards in four years and will open the door for another dreaded set of Genesis reports and ‘root and branch’ reviews.

The awful performance in Cardiff last week, coupled with a historic Italian win, made us all shift uncomfortably. Ireland face Italy in the final world cup group game and the formbook suggests we’ll be battling it out for second place in Group C.

However, instead of looking behind us and worrying, there is a scenario that a rising Azzuri tide will simultaneously lift our own boats.

Throughout the Eddie O’Sullivan era and again this year, we have learned the hard way that facing Italy first up is always a stern (not to mention bruising) examination. If, for a change, the Azzuri can channel their pent up aggression into the Australian pack rather than our own, then perhaps we could make hay against the Wallabies seven days later.

Before the 2007 World Cup, Ireland came within a dodgy TMO decision of winning the Six Nations after hammering Italy 51 -24 on match day five. The nation had no reason to believe it could not lift the Webb Ellis trophy, but everything went wrong.

There will be some ghosts of ‘07 lurking around the camp between now and October. Not least a warm up game with France in the Stade Chaban Delmas where Georgia brought us to the brink. We also face a certain master tactician known as E O’Sullivan in our first group game.

Banish those ghosts and a first ever Semi-final could be the prize. However the hunger that Nugent spotted in Saturday’s first half cannot be allowed to wane. The numbers, pace, power and body positions will take care of themselves as long as the craving is within. Without it we are just four years older and four years fatter than the grief on the Garonne.

Lievremont makes five changes after goading English

5 Mar

France coach Marc Lievremont has continued his baffling selection policy after naming five changes in the team to play England at Twickenham Saturday.

France chiseled out a hard fought 22-25 victory over Ireland last time out. But despite Morgan Parra’s 100% kicking ratio in that game, Dimitri Yachvili, has been recalled to the scrum half position.

Parra provided 15 of les Bleus 25 points at Lansdowne road but his half back partner Francois Trinh-Duc must now adapt to playing with the more pragmatic Biarritz number 9.

Much of the headlines will surely be drawn by the inclusion of Sebastian Chabal. The Racing Metro forward, having played in the second row during the 2007 World Cup, has been handed a spot at open-side flanker in place of Julien Bonnaire.

Many felt that Chabal would be cut from the squad after his 78th minute looping pass almost allowed Ireland seize victory from the jaws of defeat. Fergus McFadden pounced on the loose ball to create the turnover, this in turn, set off a breathless backline move that ended just shy of the French five meter line.

That change will doubtless weaken the pack and the positional switch of Maxine Medarde to fullback could do likewise with the back three. Clement Poitrenaud will return to the bench, with Vincent Clerc coming onto his favoured left wing position in the reshuffle.

With 22 tries to his name, Clerc will always strengthen the side and inside him, Veteran centre Yannick Jauzion replaces Damien Traille as partner for Aurelien Rougerie in midfield.

With six tries to his name in just two games this campaign, England’s Chris Ashton is undoubtedly the man of the moment and France defensive coach Dave Ellis has hinted that he has a cunning plan to deal with Ashton at Twickenham.

“Ashton can be stopped. We used to stop Jason Robinson from scoring. You’ve just got to make sure that he doesn’t get the ball when he wants it.

“It’s not just about closing one man down. If you concentrate on doing that, then it only takes away your focus from elsewhere. Ashton is a finisher, just like Jason was, or Shaun Edwards and Ellery Hanley were in rugby league before them. It’s inbred in rugby league players.”

On that note Ellis widened his analysis from the wings to more general facets that will be needed in their game.

“First and foremost, you’ve got to stop giving England decent ball.

“Italy gave them far too much. They just let them play. They were allowed to play at their own tempo. We won’t let them do that.”

On Monday Lievremont attempted to stir up more ill feeling between the sides when he admitted:

“We don’t like them [the English] and it’s better to say that than be hypocritical. We respect them – well in my case at least I do. But you couldn’t say we have the slightest thing in common.”

The former flanker continued stating the obvious by hailing the perceived national traits of other countries involved in the Six Nations:

“We appreciate our Italian cousins with whom we share the same quality of life,” said Lievremont.

“We appreciate the Celts and their conviviality and then among all these nations we have one huge thing in common. We all don’t like the English.

“We beat Ireland yet left Dublin with the encouragement of all the Irish who said ‘for pity’s sake, beat the English’.

For Lievremont’s sake; Les Bleus need to overturn the chariot or else his words jibes will blow up in his face.

France team (v England): Maxime Medard, Yoann Huget, Aurelien Rougerie, Yannick Jauzion, Vincent Clerc, Francois Trinh-Duc, Dimitri Yachvili, Sebastien Chabal, Imanol Harinordoquy, Thierry Dusautoir (C), Lionel Nallet, Julien Pierre, Nicolas Mas, William Servat, Thomas Domingo.

Replacements : Guilhem Guirado, Sylvain Marconnet, Jerome Thion, Julien Bonnaire, Morgan Parra, Damien Traille, Clement Poitrenaud

In demand Leinster academy get chance to prove their worth

9 Feb

By Sean Farrell

While Ireland gear up for the visit of France in the Six Nations. Leinster, who will contribute almost two thirds of the Ireland starting XV, will be showing off their reserves as they take on Aironi the RDS tomorrow.

Predictably, it is the backline which is weakened most during the international period with Fijian one-capper, Isa Nacewa the only experienced professional behind the scrum.

They will pack plenty of grunt amongst the forwards with squad regulars, Dominic Ryan, Stephen Keogh and Rhys Ruddock (as captain) in the row behind Devin Toner and Kevin McLaughlin.

Head coach Joe Schmidt will hope that the youthful exuberance can be tempered by a solid base in the front row where Heinke Van Der Merwe and Clint Newland will be out to impress in the absence of Ireland’s first choice props; Cian Healy and Mike Ross.

Their hooker has no need to impress any further. Richardt Strauss has been a pivotal cog in Leinster’s brilliance so far this season and supporters will look to him to carry plenty of ball against the Italian outfit.

Although inexperienced, there is plenty to get excited about in this developmental line-up. This week it became apparent that French Top 14 clubs have begun to target the Leinster academy as part of their overseas recruitment drive rather than wait until they are tied down to comparable IRFU contracts.

Eoin O’Malley will draw huge interest as he starts in the centre and expect fireworks if these backs can work the ball wide to Andrew Conway, the speedster on the right wing.

Aironi too have lost players to international duty, but fullback Paolo Buso will make his Magners League debut after appearing for Italy A in their defeat to the England Saxons two weeks ago. As ever, former Munster back row, Nick Williams will seek to provide go forward ball off the base of the scrum.

However, with a few experienced heads in the mix the hosts should provide a good platform for the next generation to show their worth.

LEINSTER: 15: Isa Nacewa, 14: Andrew Conway, 13: Brendan Macken, 12: Eoin O’Malley, 11: David Kearney, 10: Ian Madigan, 9: Paul O’Donohoe, 1: Heinke van der Merwe, 2: Richardt Strauss, 3: Clint Newland, 4: Kevin McLaughlin, 5: Devin Toner, 6: Rhys Ruddock CAPT, 7: Dominic Ryan, 8: Stephen Keogh

Replacements: 16: Jason Harris-Wright, 17: Jack McGrath, 18: Simon Shawe, 19: Ed O’Donoghue, 20: Shane Jennings, 21: Isaac Boss, 22: Ian McKinley, 23: Niall Morris

Aironi: 15 Paolo Buso; 14 Kaine Robertson, 13 Gabriel Pizarro, 12 Horacio San Martin, 11 Danwel Demas; 10 James Marshall, 9 Tito Tebaldi; 1 Alberto De Marchi, 2 Roberto Santamaria, 3 Fabio Staibano; 4 Marco Bortolami (CAPT), 5 Joshua Furno; 6 Nicola Cattina, 7 Jaco Erasmus, 8 Nick Williams.

Replacements: 16 Luigi Ferraro, 17 Andrea De Marchi, 18 Luca Redolfini, 19 George Biagi, 20 Andrea Benatti, 21 Pietro Travagli, 22 Alberto Benettin, 23 Matteo Pratichetti.

Referee: Nigel Owens

Mixture of hardship and grace leads Kidney to just one change

9 Feb

By Sean Farrell

He’s back! The country’s most pre-eminent back-row Jamie Heaslip will once again fill Ireland’s number eight jersey when Lansdowne Road’s Aviva Stadium hosts France in it’s first Six Nations match.

Heaslip missed out on Ireland’s opening night jitters, a 13 -11 win over Italy in Rome, but has now recovered from his ankle injury in time to face the grand slam holders.

The Leinster stars inclusion means Denis Leamy is forced onto the bench as the island’s form forward, Sean O’Brien is switched to blindside flanker.

It was hoped that Ulster trio Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe (now of Ospreys) could make a return from injury but it seems their next outing will be the trip to Edinburgh in over two weeks’ time.

If there is any surprise in the selection it is the retention of Tomas O’Leary at scrum half. The Munster man has struggled to find form this season, often finding himself below Peter Stringer in the provincial pecking order.

Eoin Reddan will hope to make as strong an impact off the bench as he did in Rome when whipping the ball to Ronan O’Gara to land the decisive drop goal.

If there was one major positive to take from that game, it was the absence of injuries. We have become used to the sight of bodies being carried from the field as Ireland slog out another win over Italy.

This time around, it is hoped that the spate of injuries have already hit before the tournament and Heaslip is the first of a trickle of stars returning to the fold.

It is this mixture of hardship and grace that has led, head coach, Declan Kidney to name just one change.

Ominously, France too have made only one enforced change, and although Damien Traille is not the force he once was at inside centre, it would be difficult to argue that the team is weaker than last week.

Maxime Mermoz dislocated his shoulder in the win over Scotland, opening the door for Clement Poitrenaud to reclaim his fullback jersey as Traille is moved into the three quarter line.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect for Irish fans accustomed to heartbreak at the hands of the French is the name ‘Vincent Clerc’ which now appears on the replacements bench.

The Toulouse wing knows how to spoil a party when we introduce rugby to a new stadium, having scored the last gasp winning try the first time Croke Park was opened to the oval ball game.

Later that same year, he also hammered the nails in our 2007 World Cup coffin, touching down twice in the 25-3 defeat in Paris.

Though Marc LIeveremont has selected an impressive back three, Clerc is sure to play at least a quarter of the game. He is the only pacey option on a bench also containing Jannick Jauzion, Dimitri Yachvili and France’s most overrated enigma, Sebastian Chebal.

Up front, France are arguably at their most formidable, particularly when Irish scrums struggle to contend with teams like Australia, Wales and Scotland.

However, the sight of Mike Ross with a look of raw aggressive determination when defending his line in the second half against the Azzuri scrum is cause for optimism, as is the Clontarf man’s Heineken Cup form.

In that competition he has already come head to head with Thomas Domingo when Leinster met Clermont Auvergne and did more than hold his own.

Ireland: L Fitzgerald (Leinster); F McFadden (Leinster), B O’Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D’Arcy (Leinster), K Earls (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster), T O’Leary (Leinster); C Healy (Leinster), R Best (Ulster), M Ross (Leinster), D O’Callaghan (Munster), P O’Connell (Munster), S O’Brien (Leinster), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).Replacements: S Cronin (Connacht), T Court (Ulster), L Cullen (Leinster), D Leamy (Munster), E Reddan (Leinster), R O’Gara (Munster), P Wallace (Ulster).

France: C Poitrenaud (Toulouse); Y Huget (Bayonne), A Rougerie (Clermont Auvergne), D Traille (Biarritz), M Medard (Toulouse); F Trinh-Duc (Montpellier), M Parra (Clermont Auvergne); T Domingo (Clermont Auvergne), W Servat (Toulouse), N Mas (Perpignan), J Pierre (Clermont Auvergne), L Nallet (Racing Metro), T Dusautoir (Toulouse, captain), J Bonnaire (Clermont Auvergne), I Harinordoquy (Biarritz). Replacements: G Guirado (Perpignan), L Ducalcon (Castres), J Thion (Biarritz), S Chabal (Racing Metro), D Yachvili (Biarritz), V Clerc (Toulouse), Y Jauzion (Toulouse).

Wales 19 – England 26

5 Feb

By Paul Walsh

England wing Chris Ashton got two try’s as England kicked off the Six Nations with a hard-fought win in a compelling if not high quality encounter in Cardiff. It was England’s first tournament win in Cardiff since 2003.

Ashton touched down either side of the break and man of the match Toby Flood and his replacement Jonny Wilkinson kicked the rest of their points. Toby Flood had the stand out performance for England. His kicking was excellent as was his break for Ashton’s first try. While the likes of Flood and Ashton impressed Tindall was poor for England particularly his passing.

Early Welsh pressure saw a nervy-looking England concede two penalties but neither Stephen Jones nor James Hook were able to make them count.

England gradually settled into their routine and quickly began exerting pressure on the Welsh scrum with their size advantage. Their first foray in to the Welsh 22 lead to a try.

Poor Welsh defence allowed Flood to burst into a gap and his pass to Ashton saw him go under the posts for the opening score on 15 minutes.

Flood converted to give England a 7-0 lead which soon became 10-0 when the Leicester fly-half punished Wales again after another infringement.

Wales hit back shortly afterwards when James Haskell conceded a needless penalty in front of the posts to give Jones and Wales a simple 3 points.

Further Welsh pressure resulted in England scrambling to get back in position and Louis Deacon committing a blatant offside which saw referee Alain Rolland send him to the sin bin.

Jones added a penalty to make it 10-6 but Wales were unable to score again with the advantage of the extra man.

It was actually England who scored next on 32 minutes, Flood put over his second penalty when Andy Powell was needlessly offside at the breakdown and England went in 13-6 at the break.

Wales struck first in the second half with a penalty but in a key turning point Welsh tighthead Craig Mitchell was sinbinned for killing the ball at a ruck.

Flood scored three points to make it 16-9 and soon afterwards England seemed to have won the game when Ashton scored his second try.

Wales’ got a try through Morgan Stoddart which nearly rescued a game they never deserved to be in. Wales had fought back from 23-9 down heading into the final quarter to go within four points of England at 23-19 with 10 minutes left before a late penalty from the ever reliable Wilkinson guided the English home.

Although England should have killed the game earlier than they did, they deserved to win. They face Italy at Twickenham next and who would bet against them coming to the Aviva stadium on the 19th of March with a chance to win the Six Nations. England are far from the finished article and their dominance of possession was not reflected on the scoreboard. Despite this an opening day victory away from home should create momentum for Johnson’s men.