Willie Anderson on the VCR

While idly thinking about how terrible Leinster were on Sunday, something popped into our head – was this the end of the great Leinster side? A few names are already gone – Dorce, BOD, Cullen, Jennings – and we’re certainly long past the peak. The difficulty about managing this type of decline is having to do a huge amount in a small period of time.

Consider the Munster Liginds – their peak was, ironically, the year Leinster finally broke through – 2009. They were European champions, the best team in Europe and the backbone of a cracking Lions side. But less than 2 years later, their shark-jumping moment happened – a 32-16 thumping in Toulon (then European novices) that was notable for how shocking it was to see such a great team eviscerated. That kicked off the gradual process of putting the Liginds out to seed, albeit not before winning that years Pro12, with the young Conor Murray to the fore.

Three years later, Munster made the HEC semi-final, also playing Toulon, but with only five of the players from 2011. There were still Liginds on the payroll – O’Connell, O’Callaghan – along with a few stopgaps – Downey, Dougall – but, amazingly, only 12 of that team are still at Thomond, and just one played in the first Toulon game five years ago. An incredible amount of change.

  • Toulon 32-16 Munster (Jan 2011): Warwick; Howlett, Earls, Tuitupou, J Murphy; O’Gara, Stringer; Du Preez, Varley, Hayes, O’Callaghan, O’Connell, Coughlan, Wallace, Leamy. Replacements used: Mafi, O’Leary, Darragh Hurley, Sherry, Buckley, O’Driscoll, Ronan, D Ryan.
  • Toulon 24-16 Munster (April 2014): Jones, Earls, Laulala, Downey, Zebo, Keatley, Murray, Kilcoyne, Varley, Botha, Foley, O’Connell, Stander, Dougall, Coughlan. Replacements used: Denis Hurley, Hanrahan, Cronin, Casey, O’Callaghan, O’Donnell
  • Players playing in both games (5): Earls, Cawlin, Varley, O’Connell, O’Callaghan
  • Players from 2011 currently playing for Munster (1): Earls

The same weekend as Toulon ended the Ligind, Leinster beat Racing Metro with 13 players who are still on the payroll (Nacewa, Fitzgerald, Sexton, Boss, Healy, Strauss, Ross, Ruddock, O’Brien, McFadden, Reddan, Toner, Ryan) and Ulster beat Biarritz with 7 men who are still plying their trade in Belfast (Trimble, iHumph, Pienaar, Best, Tuohy, Falloon, Henry) as well as BJ Botha.

Are Leinster facing the Munster scenario, where only one player is around in five years time? Or the ‘Leinster’ one, where the bedrock of the team is already on the books? Much of that in theory relates to the age profile – you’d look for your core 25-30 year olds to backbone that transition and help bring through the younger cohort. Looking at the 2011 Munster team, there is a dearth of players like that – something the Mole has looked at in the past.

Looking at the list of Leinster players (Heaslip didn’t play in that match – I know, weird – but was and is a key player from that era who remains on the books), the concern is not perhaps the age profile but injury-afflictions. The main age-related concerns are the two scrum halves, now more fitfully effective than ever, Nacewa and Mike Ross.  Heaslip can’t go on forever but is astonishingly durable and could conceivably go on for another three seasons – although Nick Easter might think that’s a low estimate.  Mike Ross is in decline, but with not one but two internationals – three if you count Mike Bent – waiting to take over from him, that position doesn’t appear to be a major concern.  The scrum half position is a live issue, though, and it remains very much in the balance whether Luke McGrath is technically good enough to be a Heineken Cup starter in the future.

What was worryingly evident on the pitch on Saturday was a lack of on-pitch leadership. Leinster’s biggest problem is that each of Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, Jonny Sexton, Rob Kearney and Richardt Strauss appear to be struggling under the weight of accumulated injuries.  Healy and O’Brien are two of Ireland’s most dynamic and explosive players, destructive ball carriers blessed with fast-twitch muscle fibres.  Their like is rarely produced.  However, neither has been able to be at their best over… what…  two to three seasons at this stage as a result of numerous injuries.  Jonny Sexton has had concussion issues and has yet to reclaim his usually regal form since his extended layoff.  On Sunday he was unrecognisable as the player we know.  Luke Fitzgerald’s class remains, but he’s another who is injured more often than not. Ian Madigan might be an important member of Joe Schmidt’s squad, but it’s reasonable to say he needs to spend at least as much time specialising and developing his own game as he does stepping into the officer corps. And there would have been Kevin McLoughlin too, profoundly underrated and at his best a hugely influential presence.  That’s your 25-30 class right there – guys who may only have seen Willie Anderson through the medium of video – but none at this point are where Leinster need them to be.

It’s worth mentioning of course that they are all just back from the World Cup, and fatigue is one possible issue – something Dorce highlighted today. That said, only Sean O’Brien of the above would be happy with his RWC performances – Ireland’s on-pitch leaders were largely from Munster (O’Connell, O’Mahony, Earls) or Ulster (Best, Henderson), and the 25-30 Leinster men were curiously absent when talking about Ireland’s standouts (Heaslip was the best Leinster player on view in our opinion).

This was to be the generation of leaders who would take over from the previous one; the O’Driscoll-Darcy-Cullen-Horgan-Jenno generation.  But if this group of players is taken out of the equation, for whatever reason, it’s a step down in terms of quality and experience to the next group of would-be leaders.  One man who has long been inked in as a future captain is Rhys Ruddock.  Tough and willing to put his body where others wouldn’t, he is an obvious contender, but he is only making his way back from injury himself.  But who else?  Leinster have a number of somewhat enigmatic talents such as Noel Reid, Jordi Murphy and Sean Cronin; players whose ability isn’t in question, but it’s not clear they have the credentials to become the spiritual successors to Gordon D’arcy, Shane Jennings and Bernard Jackman.  It looks a way off for the time being. Garry Ringrose looks nailed on, but ask BOD during the Gary Ella era how much difference at outside centre can make on his own.

We can all agree that Leinster are unlikely to be troubling the horses in Europe this season, but there is always the soothing balm of the Pro12.  Last year Leinster were hopeless in this competition, and it was that which did for Matt O’Connor (not the style of play as stated by Shaggy in the Sunday Times – Leinster fans were quite happy when Cheika was winning trophies without troubling the whitewash).  Leo Cullen will be expected to deliver Leinster to the semi-final stages and hopefully to go and win it.  But then this year it’s likely to be a soothing balm for pretty much everyone.  It seems unlikely that any of Munster, Glasgow, Ospreys, Scarlets or Ulster will be still alive at the pointy end of things in the ERC.  There’s only so much soothing balm to go around, and not all wounds can be balmed sufficiently.  But such a challenge will only be mounted if their key 25-30 year old leaders are at their best.  Leinster desperately need Healy, O’Brien, Kearney and Sexton to overcome their current issues and regain their effectiveness.  Failure to do so and this transition could be longer, and deeper, than anyone has probably considered.

Nothing to Celebrate

It’s been a grim and tragic weekend in Europe, and rugby’s relevance has been put in perspective. The games in France were postponed, and only Toulouse in the ERC were demanded to play – incorrectly in our view. As for us, we’ve been a bit bogged down with the Mini Eggs and Petit Pallas, but, in lieu of a full article, we tweeted our predictions for Europe on Friday. And we weren’t positive – we expected all three provinces in the ERC to go out before the knockouts – nothing about the on-pitch action has compelled us to change that call.

Ulster look hopelessly weak in the backrow – in three of this weekend’s six games, backrow forwards won MOTM, and backrow forwards are often the difference between the best sides and the pretenders. Win the breakdown and you win the etc. In a key position like number 8, Ulster will be fielding Nick Williams in direct opposition to Louis Picamoles and Billy Vunipola – ouch. Plus they have so little depth, they have been flaking around the AIL, giving Steven Mulholland a start against the Dragons – to say it didn’t work would be an understatement. Ulster have been linked with Victor Vito – it would be better if a transfer was somehow arranged for one of the quality Irish number 8s – but one way or another, they don’t have much hope with Diack and Williams in the first team.

Four years ago, when Ulster’s run of knockout HECs began, in the absence of Fez they fielded a backrow of Diack, Henry (only a couple of seasons into his conversion from 8), Wannenburg in a shuddering defeat to the Saints – Courtney Lawes physically dominated Ulster single handedly, and that type of superiority can be expected when Toulouse and Globo Gym come calling. While Saracens may have continued a recent inability to get a fourth bonus point try in Saturday’s facile victory over Toulouse, it is hard to envisage Ulster being in a position to take advantage of such sloppiness. Only Oyonnax can realistically be beaten over two legs.

As for Leinster, our thoughts were that we didn’t see a path to four wins for them, and with more than 140 characters, we’d truthfully have said that three looked like an ask. Now, following a desperately poor home thumping by Wasps, the goal becomes winning any game in this extremely difficult pool – away to Bath then two games against Toulon are all unlikely games to win. When Bath come calling in early January, they may be desperate for points against an already eliminated Leinster – don’t bet on that being won either. In addition to the quality of the teams in the pool, Leinster have to deal with the fact that Bath and Wasps feel they owe Leinster one after last year – and the joy of the Wasps players was obvious.

Even Jonny Sexton’s return was unable to galvanise Leinster, and indeed it might have been his worst professional display since he was packed back to St Mary’s seven year ago – leadership within the squad was sorely lacking and Cullen has some serious work to do. For all Jamie Heaslip’s qualities, his captaincy credentials have to be questioned.  It is well and good leading by example, and we imagine he is thoroughly respected within the squad, but there are times when a bit of blood and thunder are called for too.  The players still seem insistent that the squad are in a good place and a performance is just around the corner – a mantra that has been consistent for over a year. Perhaps it’s time to accept that isn’t the case and something urgently needs to change to break the malaise.  It was telling that after Dave Kearney’s untimely slip let Wasps in fdor a desperately soft try, not one player came over to him individually.  It’s at such times that leaders need to step forward, but nobody did.  Troubling stuff.

Munster at least won their game, but in front of a sparse crowd, the rugby on offer was dire, with error after error, and a bonus point only secured against the weakest team in the competition in the 74th minute. CJ Stander looked about the only decent player on the pitch. We felt on Friday that Munster would struggle to qualify while missing Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony. Last season, any time they were down two of O’Connell, O’Mahony and Murray, the level of performance was well lower.  Add to the loss column Tommy O’Donnell and, sadly again, Mike Sherry and things are looking grim indeed.  If we assume that Munster win their home games and beat Treviso away, bringing the pool down to bonus points, its going to be really tough to secure the necessary points without being at their best – which they clearly aren’t. Plus, at Saturday’s level of performance, they are unlikely to win all their home games. Next weekend in Paris will tell us a lot – a scoreline/performance like Saracens in January and the jig is likely up for Munster this year. It will be an incredibly emotional occasion for Paris and for Stade, and warning lights should be flashing.

On the bright side, we thought Connacht would win five games and get a home QF in the Euro Vase – even though they are 18 points ahead of the Hairsprays in the Rabo, this competition still carries a significant carrot. The Premiership sides should be favoured, based on last years engagement levels from the French, but Connacht have a good draw (the Siberian trip may have been arduous, but you’d be surprised how positive these things can be for team morale; the team that sleeps in the dugout together under a mountain of blankets stays together) and are playing better than at any time we can remember. Thank goodness for them.

BNZ – the Standard Bearers

And so came to an end the greatest tournament the game has ever witnessed.  New Zealand won, comprehensively, devastatingly and deservedly, and in doing so served up the prototype for what great, thrilling and effective modern rugby involves.  In 2011 they were crowned champions, but they barely stumbled over the line and were blessed by the manner in which the final was refereed.  This time, liberated from the chokers tag, they not only won, but served to demonstrate that they are the best team in the world by a distance, and the greatest of the professional era.

They are fitting champions of a superb tournament.  Indeed, we can only profess ourselves to be surprised by the sheer brilliance of the rugby that was produced.  It was only six months ago that we were despairing of a modern game built on brawn, robotic systems and lacking in skill.  The last two world cups were pretty mediocre in terms of the rugby produced.  We foresaw more of the same here, a sort of turbo-charged Six Nations, but this proved way wide of the mark.  In fact, it was not just the Championship sides that performed such attractive rugby, but many of the Tier Two nations also, not least Canada, Fiji and of course, Japan – who would have made the knockouts but for some generous refereeing in Scotland-Samoa and, of course, scheduling.

One argument that can now be canned is that winning tournaments requires something certain commentators refer to as ‘cup rugby’.  For ‘cup rugby’, see a dull, monotonous game plan involving aerial kicking and one-out runners.  Long a bugbear of ours, it has never made sense that the sort of rugby required to beat an opponent in one form of competition would be different to that of another.  And yet the myth persists that a conservative gameplan is in fact necessary to go deep into knockout rugby competitions.  Hugo MacNeill, who spent the tournament ramming his feet down his throat on TV3, noted that in World Cups you need a Ronan O’Gara-style fly-half, while a Felipe Contepomi type was too outrageous for this rarefied atmosphere.  The august critic had obviously failed to notice that Contepomi holds a bronze medal for his part in Argentina’s 2007 showing while Ronan O’Gara had never made it beyond the quarter finals.

New Zealand remained true to their principles to the end, committed to offloading in the tackle and, especially, passing flat along the gainline.  They may have tightened up in the rain against South Africa, but they were still the more expansive of the two teams and won the try-count by two to nothing.  Ultimately they won the tournament because of their superior skill levels and supreme rugby intelligence.  They have no problem stacking their forwards in wide channels, and when the ball gets there they have the skill to execute.  This gives their strike runners the freedom to roam the pitch and punch holes wherever they may choose.  It’s the exact strategy Rob Penney looked to bring to Munster, but he was laughed out of town for it.  Apparently it wasn’t cup-winning rugby.

The finale of the tournament has a habit of making the group stages look like mere preliminaries, and so it is here.  The past is a foreign country and all that.  And how ridiculous some of it looks from this vantage point!  What, for example, were England thinking?  Watching New Zealand’s all-court game makes it all the more unthinkable that they left Henry Slade in the stands and Ford on the bench, while Sam Burgess and Owen Farrell trundled about witlessly.  Did they think they could win a World Cup against New Zealand with such a ponderous game-plan?  And were we perhaps kidding ourselves a little bit that Ireland could live with this glorious company with such a mechanical, predictable approach reliant on kick-chase and mauling?  Had we better luck with injuries, could we have beaten Argentina and put it up to Australia?  It seems a lot to ask, a high level to compete against.

One other important factor is injuries.  New Zealand, by and large, stayed fit and healthy for the tournament.  Australia also, though they struggled when they lost Pocock for the Scotland game; indeed, they were almost unrecognisable.  They also struggled in Giteau’s absence when he was hauled from the pitch early in the final.  Like it or not, injuries play a huge part in a team’s fate.  Wales’ tournament was undone by injuries, and Ireland’s too.  It’s well and good putting up a no-excuses culture, but if you were asked three weeks before the tournament if Ireland could win a quarter-final without Sexton, O’Connell, O’Brien et al, you’d have objectively said ‘no chance’.  The closing out against France gave us a reason to believe we might not be so badly affected, but it soon became apparent just how terrible that French side was.

The question for now is: will Ireland be able to learn the lessons from this World Cup?  We’ve already posted that we’re unlikely to overhaul our gameplan overnight based on one loss to Argentina, and nor should we.  Ireland are Six Nations champions and will be competitive in that competition again this year.  But we note with interest Gordon D’arcy’s observations that the problem is rooted not in the national team coaching or current crop of players but in the fundamental skills learned in players’ formative years.  A sea-change in mentality will have to occur at every level.  Fail to adapt now and we may forever be playing catch-up.

If the revolution is to come several years down the line, the immediate evolution of the national team should continue apace.  It should not be forgotten that it is the provinces which feed most directly into the national team, and where the players’ day-to-day habits are formed.  Last year was an abysmal one for Irish provincial rugby, and the only way is up.  Leinster were an eyesore, Munster were dreadful, Ulster choked yet again when it mattered and Connacht were a bright spot, but ran out of steam.  We are far removed from Matty Williams’ ideal of a four-pronged provincial base all playing in some sort of ‘Irish way’, that inherently prepares the players for test rugby.  In all likelihood we will never attain such a thing.

However, it is encouraging that Leinster managed 14 offloads in their win over Treviso at the weekend, but tougher tests await, and we will watch with interest as the season develops.  There are a slew of promising players currently performing well in the provincial sides; Stuart McCloskey, Garry Ringrose and Noel Reid among them.  Will they be ready for international rugby come the Six Nations?  Maybe, maybe not; McCloskey looks the closest to stepping up a level.  Nonetheless, it is vital that Ireland show some signs of heeding the lessons that this magnificent tournament has provided.

Where next for Ireland?

There’s nothing quite like the hand-wringing after a World Cup exit.  England are not just reviewing whether or not to appoint a new coach but the very process by which they appoint coaches.  It almost begs the question, who will review the reviewers?  Heaven knows what the fallout in France is like, because they have serious problems.  The decline of one of the great and most fun rugby nations has been sad indeed.

And so to Ireland, who will have their own self-lacerating episode to get under way, following yet another pre-semi-final exit from the Grand Shindig.  No doubt, Schmidt’s eye for detail on the training paddock and in team meetings will extend to the review of his own performance.  Schmidt admits to pragmatism and self-doubt, so he will question his every decision along the way and see if he could have done things differently.

The way the tournament has panned out with all four Rugby Championship teams making the semi-finals has delivered a perfectly formed narrative with a great big bow on it.  It leads to an easy and obvious analysis that the game is played at a different pace in the south and with a higher level of skill that the European teams simply cannot match.

On the evidence so far, this is more or less true, but it has led to the knock-on argument that Schmidt should radically overhaul Ireland’s playing style in order to compete with the likes of Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.  It’s an argument not without merit but it’s worth looking at in greater depth.

First of all, what is Ireland’s playing style?  More often than not it’s a relatively mechanical one in which aerial domination is king.  Both half-backs tend to kick high into the air and the likes of Tommy Bowe and Rob Kearney’s principle roles are to reclaim these kicks.  Ireland confine most of their ball-in-hand play to rehearsed set pieces, from which they tend to get substantial reward.  Mauling, choke tackling and accurate breakdown work are also prominent.  However, they have shown, against Scotland in the Six Nations inparticular, an ability to keep ball in hand.  Against France, just two weeks ago, Ireland totally dominated possession and looked to put width on their game.  Indeed, even against Argentina, it was defence and not a lack of attacking nous that cost us.  Ireland scored two fine tries and 20 points in that match; had they defended better, that may have been enough to win.

It’s been argued in the last week that this is a gameplan devised to beat the likes of England, Wales and France but that it’s too limited to take on the better nations.  We’re not so sure.  And even so, most of the time, England, Wales and France are the opposition we face when we have to win – every spring in the Six Nations.  And nobody was complaining too much when we won the last two series.

We’re in the middle of the World Cup now, and as Demented Mole once put it, Ireland’s fans are like chefs, and work with seasonal produce.  We’re bang in the middle of The Grand Shindig right now, and the Six Nations seems a piddling consolation prize by comparison.  But memories are short, and come the spring we’ll remember what a big deal it is.  Ireland have won few enough Six Nations down the years, so we can’t really turn our noses up at them.

Besides, sticking all your chips on a tournament that comes around once every four years is a barmy strategy.  Stuart Lancaster has been pilloried for going on about 2019, so let’s not ourselves fall into the same trap.  It’s worth remembering that Ireland are out of the tournament because they lost precisely one rugby match.  Chances are we’ll have another quarter-final in four years time, but the idea of building a team with that one-off game in mind seems farcical.  There are so many imponderables and most of the things that will drive the result; form, injuries, the weather, team morale, are influenced by the hours, days and weeks leading up to it.  South Africa are in the semi-finals but they have arrived at their current selection and playing mid-tournament after a crisis-inducing loss to Japan in their first game.  So much for forward planning.

It also has to be remembered that Ireland play most of their competitive games in November and February, when conditions often dictate a duller gameplan.  The World Cup has been played largely on dry tracks, which has been a help to those more willing to run the ball, but in spring the matches are often played out on roly-poly pitches and in wind and rain. The first semi-final showed that sometimes the best teams need to play the conditions too. Ireland’s aerial bombardment was good enough to beat Australia last November.  Ok, it wasn’t in a World Cup, but anyone who thinks Australia weren’t there to win needs to watch the tape again; it was a game of thrilling intensity.

Another argument seems to be that “at Leinster Schmidt had them playing just like Argentina did, why has he gone away from that?”  A look at what’s going on in the provinces might be valuable at this point, just as it is to recall that at Leinster Schmidt had a midfield of Sexton, Darcy and O’Driscoll to work with, as well as a world-class offloader in the second row in Nathan Hines.  But last year he’d have looked at Munster and Leinster playing pig-ugly one-out rugby without pause for breath.  If the players are not able to pass or offload at provincial level, then what are the chances of getting them to do it at test level, where the space and time afforded are even less, and the pressure to execute even higher?  It can’t just be turned on like a tap, and Gordon D’arcy’s articles, where he has explained that Irish players are coached from an early age to support the carrier by hitting the ruck rather than looking for the offload, have been some of the most instructive reading of the last month.

Ireland do need to develop their attacking game, no question.  Perhaps we do not have ballers in the class of Fernandez Lobbe, Matt Giteau, Michael Hooper or Nicolas Sanchez, but last we checked Jonny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, Iain Henderson and Jared Payne, among others, were all comfortable playing with the football. The skills are there, and we should look to trust them a little more.  But there’s no need to throw – or should that be Garryowen? – the baby out with the bathwater.

That Sinking Feeling

Irish fans have been left with a familiar feeling, as their team has once again bowed out before the semi-finals of a World Cup.  It was a heartbreaking, spirit-sapping defeat, one that leaves as many questions as answers.  Just why were Ireland so passive in defending the advantage line?  Might Ireland have pushed on had we drawn level with a late penalty, or had the Argentinians been reduced to 14 men for the last 20 minutes?  And might everything have been different if we had something more closely resembling a fully fit line-up to choose from?

We’ll never know, but chances are with our best team on the pitch the scoreline might have been closer, but Argentina’s ability to change the point of attack with ambition and accuracy would likely have caused too much trouble in any case.  They are a better footballing team than Ireland, and proved here that rugby really is a simple game.  For all the changes the game has seen in the last 20 years, the combination of fast ruck ball and accurate passing will go a long way towards winning rugby matches.

What frustrates more than anything though, is that this team has continued the long-standing trend of Irish team’s failing to arrive at the emotional intensity required for a world cup quarter-final.  Ireland have shown up and given their best for precisely one such game: the 1991 Gordon Hamilton match.  In 1995 we were trounced by France, and same again in 2003 when the team had put huge energy reserves into two very hard pool games.  In 2011, the team was out-thought and out-muscled by Wales, and here we were simply outplayed by an at times rampant Argentina.  Joe Schmidt is highly regarded for his ability to prepare teams for tournament rugby matches, but the feral aggression levels appeared to be stuck on the sidelines with O’Connell, O’Mahony and O’Brien.

Schmidt will be thorough in dissecting the defeat, but he’ll also question his own decisions at length too.  Jordi Murphy looked a curious pick at 6, and despite a couple of big plays, he was mostly on the fringes of the game.  Donnacha Ryan at 4 and Henderson at 6 would surely have brought a bit more aggression and presence to the breakdown – yet the pair never saw the pitch together, and Ryan only came in when the game was lost.  Meanwhile, the decision to start Cian Healy also has to be questioned.  Healy ‘forced’ his way into the team after a non-impacting appearance off the bench against Romania.  His pre-tournament injury has simply not allowed him to get any sort of form going, and there are shades of trying to play someone into form in a global tournament here; such strategies have a high chance of failure.  Jack McGrath was a huge step up in energy and impact when he came on.

At outhalf, Madigan went into the tournament as our designated finisher, a role he performed with aplomb against France, with Wee Jacko as Sexton’s backup (Keatley’s role in the Six Nations). However, in time, the waters got muddied and Madigan assumed both roles. So when Sexton was confirmed as down, Madigan was the natural replacement – but it didn’t quite work out, in attack or defence. Will Schmidt regret changing his planning? The lack of depth at centre also came back to bite – we picked only 3 specialists in our squad – Payne, Henshaw and Cave. After Jared Payne got injured, Earls stepped in and had a pretty good tournament in the group stages, but as the only player to start all games, he looked completely bushed by the time of the Argentina game, and the defensive solidity of Payne was sorely missed. Schmidt must be asking himself 2 things – why was Cave brought at all, and would there have been value in considering McCloskey or Luke Marshall in the summer camps?

And as for the Comical Ali injury updates (O’Mahony was walking around the changing rooms .. Payne has a bruised foot .. Sexton has been training fully), one sympathises with Schmidt – its not his job to fully brief the opposition – but the tone of briefings changed markedly from the open discussions from previous squad announcements and Six Nations. We can understand what they were trying to do (or not to do) but what was that about?

In the aftermath, much of the focus has been on the northern-southern hemisphere divide, and rightly so.  The gulf is somewhat cavernous, and at times the European sides appear to be playing a different game.  We can’t help but cast our minds back to some of the pieces we wrote about the State Of The Game around the time of the Six Nations.  Looking back, perhaps we were really  writing about the State Of The Northern Hemisphere, and just needed to watch more southern hemisphere football.  This world cup has, so far, been the greatest I can recall, vastly superior to 2007 and 2011 in any case.  It’s largely down to the brilliance of the Southern Hemisphere nations, as well as Japan.  The supposed tightening up and reduction of gameplans to kick ‘n’ bosh so beloved of Irish commentators, who have ascribed it the title ‘cup rugby’, has thus far failed to materialise.  New Zealand and Argentina refused to be dragged into trench warfare; why bother when you can use your superior skill to amass 100 points between you?  Is that not cup rugby?  And Michael Cheika spoke of his desire to keep playing the Australian way, even if it meant shooting themselves in the foot umpteen times. The two semi-finals are mouth-watering, and, sad as it is, the Northern Hemisphere sides (with the exception of the mighty Welsh) won’t be missed.

Leaders, and Being in the Lead

On Monday, we worried about what Ireland would lose in the knockouts when they were without O’Connell, O’Mahony, Sexton and O’Brien. Sexton is now back in the mix, but we talked about 252 caps managing the endgame. As the dust has settled though, one thing we are a bit more sanguine about is the leadership within the Ireland group.

A friend once told us that he met some person or other who had worked in the backroom staff of the New Zealand rugby team.  ‘What’s it like to be in the New Zealand dressing room before a match?’ he dutifully asked. Said the Kiwi: ‘It’s actually pretty quiet.  They don’t shout at each other.  They don’t need to.’

No surprise there.  If Sir Ruchie wanted to get his point across, we can’t picture him shouting and roaring.  If he had a message to get across to someone, we can picture him doing it in his polite, charming, Gatsby-esque way; the same way as he talks to referees that has kept him from getting yellow carded in spite of umpteen cynical ball-killing exploits at the breakdown.  No doubt a quiet, authoritative word from Sir Ruchie goes a long way with other players in the squad.

So it was with interest that we read Jamie Heaslip’s comments about the team’s half-time discussions during the Ireland v France game.  Plenty might have clicked on the link expecting to hear about the latest speech channelling the spirit of the Somme, a tear-stained battle-cry of ‘Let’s do it for Paulie’ – but no.  ‘We just problem-solved’, said Jamie.  ‘We worked out what gaps had to be filled and how we would fill them’.

Superb leadership.  In the absence of Sexton and O’Connell, we didn’t know for sure what the leadership group would have been, only that Heaslip was now captain. He was one of five players who played in Kidney’s first competitive match – also a victory over France – who also played on Sunday, the others being Besty, Bowe, Bob and Luke Fitzgerald. Leaving aside Fitzgerald, who essentially had a four year international hiatus, and you have the elder statesmen of the Irish team. Throw in Conor Murray (43 Tests over 4 years including 2 for the Lions, and also one of Munster’s key men), Devin Toner (30 extraordinarily consistent caps over 5 years), the once-in-a-lifetime talent of Iain Henderson and the pleasant surprise of how prominent Robbie Henshaw was, and the generations that are passing the torch are clearer. (and in a neat kind of #hashtag, one from each province there).

It’s especially encouraging because Ireland always appeared to be a team that is emotionally driven.  Better when we’re bitter, happy to be written off, uncomfortable with the favourites tag, all of that ultimately defeatist nonsense.   It’s not a winning mentality; it’s the sort of attitude that will yield one off performances but will capture little in the way of silver.  Kidney’s Ireland epitomised it.  One imagines such concepts are anathema to Kiwis, and Joe Schmidt in particular.  The Kiwis have the favourites tag every time they step on to a rugby pitch and have to learn to deal with it.  It’s a measure of how far this team have come in the last two years that they have become so clear-minded, narrowly-focussed and are developing a winning mentality.

It all augurs very well for the weekend. Even with our injury losses, which would have been crippling in the past, the strength of the systems that Joe Schmidt’s Ireland are based on meant that the performance against France stayed at high levels even as players got carried off. The major difference is that, instead of bringing players like Henderson and Henry off the bench – Cheika calls them “finishers”, which we like – our finishers will be Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock. Good players indeed, our standouts in victories against England and South Africa respectively last season, but not quite in the same class.

A month ago to the day, we said this about a prospective quarter final against Argentina:

At this juncture, this looks to us like a 50-50 match – both teams are in the bunch behind NZ, SA and Oz and around the standard of England and Wales. Still, this is what our tournament will come down to to cross the success/failure line – a one-off match with Argentina. Based on how Schmidt has prepared his teams to date, we’re backing him to pull this one off. We’re far out and injuries etc will surely have an impact, but from here, we reckon we can do it.

The only thing we would change there is that SA are a level below NZ and Australia. Clearly our injury situation is severe and the Pumas were mighty impressive in their performance against BNZ. Some are pointing to relative sloppiness against Tonga and Namibia, but we aren’t buying it – this is a top class team that will take some beating. The scratchy BNZ displays in later pool games have devalued the Argentinian performance to a degree, but they still have one of the best scrums around, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Tomas Cubelli and the magnificent Nico Sanchez, who can’t help but put us in mind of Den Caddah in his prime. But, that said, we certainly have the game, and the coach, to win.

But what we do think is that given our injury situation, given that our finishers aren’t of the quality they were against France, we need to be in front at half time, and particularly on the hour mark. Schmidt’s teams have made a habit of being in front at the break – in 26 games, Ireland have only behind only 6 times at half time, and they lost 4 of those games. In the ones they won from behind, they were only a point behind (France and second Argentina Test in 2014). We are good pace-setters who like to play the game on our own terms – in our Six Nations defeats in this period, we struggled to adapt when we needed to chase the scoreboard. Its a must that we don’t let Argentina dictate the game, and stay in front through the third quarter.

One other thing to consider is that we don’t know yet in this tournament is the relative strength of the best Northern Hemisphere teams (Wales, Ireland) and the second tier Southern Hemisphere teams (Argentina, South Africa). Luckily, we have a pointer for us on Saturday – Wales vs South Africa. We fancy Wales in this one, but we’ll be feeling a lot less sanguine about Ireland if the Springboks shake off Gatty’s men and end up winning by 10 points or so. If the Welsh make a game of it, or win, we’re more confident in our prediction that Ireland can finally break the quarter final glass ceiling.

Blood, Sweat and Tears

Well. What about that? Ireland finally exploded into life in this tournament and it had everything great about the Schmidt era – strong systems, disciplined defending and accurate rugby – allied to the old school emotional highs of previous glory days. As Ireland’s players dropped like flies, the team, every time, stepped it up another level – the collective desire reaching higher and higher pitch. The so-called replacements managed to make the team even better, and the controlled fury displayed by the likes of NWJMB and Chris Henry would do the stricken O’Connell proud.

As the game went on, Ireland somehow got better and better – what started out with Peter O’Mahony continued throughout the game with Besty and Sean O’Brien, and was picked up and returned with interest by the replacements. The most incredible thing was the response to losing 2 gold-plated Irreplaceables and our best player of the tournament was how we didn’t collapse, but took the adversity, and turned it around on the French. By full time, Ireland had their fourth biggest victory over France of all time, their first double digit win in 40 years, and it could have been more.

The Mole opined on this forum a few weeks ago that he thought Henderson was better than Fez – certainly his tackle on Bernard le Roux was Ferris-esque, and on a big man too. He was truly unstoppable, as was Chris Henry in his cameo. With O’Connell, Henderson’s level of play is clearly now on a different and higher level, but its the intangibles you would worry about replacing. Munster and Ireland are typically 30% better (we’ve done the science) with O’Connell on the pitch – while the team has a strong leadership corps, O’Connell is still the heartbeat. By the same token, despite O’Mahony being our best player for the first 50 minutes, we lost nothing with Chris Henry. With Henry, its more of a step sideways to a different kind of player than a step down. Yet O’Mahony is Munster captain, and we have lost that.

And a word for Ian Madigan – you are coming on to replace Jonny Sexton – a Test Lion starter, one of the best outhalves on the planet. You’ve spent the last two years stuck behind a Kiwi journeyman at provincial level and had to listen to everyone telling you that you are the poor mans Carlos Spencer – and extravagantly talented player who cannot control a game. Well, way to answer them – the second half was bossed by Madigan in a performance we would be hailing as world class if was produced by Sexton, or Carter, or Sanchez. His emotions at the end of the game reflected how we all felt – immense pride, and definitely a few tears.

The mid-game losses were severe – Sexton was vomiting on the pitch, and it looked to us like a whiplash injury. With his history of head trauma, this is very bad news. There official story is that it was muscular, and we really hope that is the case. The alternative could be career-threatening .. as O’Connell’s injury looked to be. Tearing a muscle off the bone requires long-term rehabilitation, and one wonders if his Toulon adventure is still on the cards. Finally, up to the point he went off, O’Mahony was everywhere – the rock of our defensive lineout, he’s a massive loss.

The French, as *ahem* predicted by us, were atrocious  – Picamoles was a force of nature in the first half but in attacked they offered nothing bar speculative Scott Spedding penalties. We saw Flaky Freddie, and even Dusautoir was mishandling. This, of course, was entirely predictable – anyone with a set of functioning eyes could have seen Saint-Andre’s (lack of) coaching leading the team to this point. The team was unstructured, directionless and shapeless for four years, and chickens are coming home to roost. Despite all the claptrap we read last week about them, France were as bad as expected:

  • They have never been in better shape. Really? I would hate to see them in worse shape – wilting after an hour, they had nothing in the tank at the end
  • They are a united camp after spending months together. They were a collection of individuals, like they have been for the entire PSA reign
  • You never know what team will turn up. You do – they haven’t beaten Ireland or Wales in this RWC cycle
  • They prefer World Cups to Six Nations. Another cracker – this must be why they won the 6N in 2007 before crashing out of the RWC to a rubbish England team and then finished runners-up in 2011 before enduring a miserable RWC in which they made the final almost by default.

Thankfully, Barnesy never bought into this rubbish and stated unequivocally France were hopeless. He was in a sad minority. They will lose to a spluttering BNZ by 20 points.

The flip side of this is that, while we’ve beaten them so comprehensively, we have paid a massive price for doing so. When the emotional high dies down, you wonder would you have preferred to have played as badly as we did against Italy and lost, but have Sexton, O’Connell, O’Mahony and O’Brien (following his reaction to Pascal Pape, a dirty dirty player, giving him an impromptu prostate massage) for the quarter final. That’s a loss of 252 Test caps and 3 Test Lions – a huge price to pay. And, indeed, the successive highs were themselves driven by the losses – a counterfactual with O’Connell and Sexton present for 80 minutes could well end with a similar result without such a huge investment of emotional energy.

That experience is what we’ll struggle to replace. Joe Schmidt’s systems are so strong that the likes of Madigan, Henry, Henderson and McGrath can come straight off the bench with no negative impact on team performance. But it will be very different with upheaval in the camp (minimum three players being replaced), a diminished bench and the loss of 252 caps from managing the endgame. Factor in the investment in emotional energy expended and this will be a long tough tiring week for the squad, ahead of a really hard game. But for the moment, we’re still on a high.

Group of Dearth

The latter stages of the World Cup have started to take shape as the pools head towards their denouement with only the BNZ pool more or less sorted. In that pool, the standard of rugby has been strong, with BNZ creaking in the second quarter but putting in one of the best 20 minutes of football seen yet in their opening game with Argentina. The Pumas, for their part, have looked invigorated after four years of the Championship – in previous World Cups they have looked like a Northern Hemisphere team, full of forward power and strong kicking games, but here they look like a combination of South African forwards and Australian backs. And, speaking of huge forwards, Georgia have been cowed by no-one and the sight of their brutish pack staring bemused at the haka was one for the ages – we couldn’t think of a team less likely to be intimidated. Gorgodzilla has been a force of nature, and his emotional response to being named MOTM * on Friday night was what the development of Tier 2 rugby should be about.

Here in Ireland we have never quite got to grips with the concept that the pool stages of the world cup are for the most part a warm up exercise, and that the real business starts in the quarter finals.  In all except the freakish Pool of Death, the two teams coming out of each pool have been flagged well in advance, and so – even with South Africa’s early abberation – everything has panned out as expected.  The only thing down for decision in the vast majority of world cup pools dating back to whenever, is the fight between first and second, which isn’t always of great consequence.  In 2011, Ireland placed too much importance on having beaten Australia in the pool.  It was a fine performance and tactically shrewd, but ultimately immaterial.  In the quarter finals, when winning really mattered, Ireland fluffed their lines and Australia, who had come second in the pool, advanced to the semi-finals.

The only pool with no teams yet qualified (mathematically anyway) is the South Africa one. In reality, the Springboks are home and hosed – the defeat against Japan woke the squad up, and with Meyer privately briefing against Jean de Villiers’ twin for crimes against the gameplan in that defeat, the defeat and the captain’s injury has allowed Meyer to let yoof have its fling. Damian de Allende and the ginormous Lood de Jager have come in for JdV and Victor Matfield – the physical comparison with Scotland seemed unfair at times, and their pure beastliness will take them far but the team still feels a little callow at this point. Even if Wales lose to the Wobs, as seems likely, they might fancy a cut off these Boks. Second place will come down to Samoa-Scotland – if the Scots win, they are through, if Samoa win Japan will get through with a bonus point win against the USA. Whatever about (largely made-up) Celtic brotherhood, we for one will be cheering heartily for Samoa on Saturday.  But with Samoa a disorganised shambles, the Scots should coast into the quarter finals.

In the Pool of Death, England have had the huge misfortune to come up against two of the best coaches in the world coaching intelligent and focused teams, at just the wrong time. Australia followed up on Wales’ triumph with a scintillating display of scrummaging, backrow brilliance and creativity out wide – England’s props were taken out of the firing line before the hour mark! We’ll have a scapegoat watch on England later in the week, but few would have lived with the Wobblies on Saturday night. Fiji were also hotly tipped to cause an upset of one of the big three – in the event, they didn’t really come close, with just too much inaccuracy against good teams, but man they can play when they want to.

And what then of Ireland’s pool? The only one without any Southern Hemisphere skill or Pacific Island magic has largely stunk the tournament out, to be frank. The pool has been peppered with low standard and forgettable games, with Ireland-Italy merely being the latest – all three French games have been desperately poor quality. Canada have brought some of the effervescent Tier 2 buzz that have characterised the tournament, to be fair. The pool carries a faint whiff of the English pool in the last tournament – chock full of European teams (and Argentina in their previous Northern Hemisphere iteration) – the pool was defined by forward power and was eminently forgettable, barring the amusing off-field tales concerning the England players. When it came to the knockouts, both Argentina and England were dumped out without too much bother – and they weren’t lamented.

The nagging worry at this point is that the general lack of inspiration present proves fatal to Ireland and France in the next round when they will be abruptly exposed to high class rugby, with New Zealand and Argentina waiting, probably two of the best three sides to this point.

The Italian game at the weekend was, by some distance, the worst performance of the Joe Schmidt era – this is a very limited Italian side, yet Ireland somehow managed to make Simone Favaro and Edoardo Gori look like Schalk Burger and Aaron Smith. Schmidt’s success has been built on forcing mistakes from opponents through an extremely accurate kicking game, intelligent rucking and watertight defence – all three elements were conspicuous by their absence on Sunday. If it wasn’t for Italy’s inability to run a lineout (and O’Mahony’s defensive excellence – he may have been called Ireland’s Bakkies Botha last week (!) but could Bakkies have made that tackle? I don’t think so) today’s conversation would be very different, and much more fraught.

Expect the usual commentary about us playing badly being a good thing because <cup rugby> and <complacency>. In truth, cup rugby doesn’t involve kicking the ball away and hanging on by your fingertips, and you’d have thought that three games into a World Cup, we wouldn’t need a reminder of what is at stake. But there is good news – the expected return of Jared Payne and Bob will beef up our defence and kicking game, and it pretty tough to see Conor Murray playing this badly again. The lack of form shown so far this year by Sexton and O’Brien is a concerning issue – and while Schmidt might be tempted to turn to Chris Henry, we urgently need Sexton to show some of his best form.

Another positive is that this France team thrive on one thing and one thing only – beef in the tight. The set piece has been a continual strength, even against Italy, and that is unlikely to change. If our rucking work improves and our defence is a little less passive, we have it well within our werewithall to keep them out – add in how vulnerable they looked to DTH van der Merwe, and you might just expect the likes of Earls to look threatening .. if Ireland manage to get the ball to him. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater – if Ireland tighten up on the basics, they will beat an unstructured and poorly-coached France team, and that’s what they should concentrate on. Forget not knowing which French side will show up, let’s worry about ensuring the correct Ireland side show up – the one which kicks and rucks well.

* This being the first RWC in the mass social media era has been both good and bad – it’s been good for the fans worldwide who can now read the likes of Dorce and Charlie Morgan, whose forensic brilliance has been brought global by new meeja. The bad: the nonsensical MOTM system. Around the 50 minute mark of every game, a WR gnome nominates three players who are then voted upon by ver people. This horseshit system got the result it deserved on Saturday night, when Joe Launchbury was named MOTM in the aftermath of one of the great World Cup performances … by his opponents. Gorgodzilla is a rare exception.


It feels like a bit of a strange World Cup for the Irish at this point – we are still over a week from our first (of many we hope) peak while the tournament goes supernova around us. We haven’t even managed to get the usual pat-on-the-head platitudes about being the best fans, since the general atmosphere has been fantastic.  Minnows have been largely competitive, and then there have been the headline games. The Japan-South Africa and New Zealand-Argentina games on the first weekend were fantastic, but last Saturdays epic was one of the truly great World Cup games.

We were going to write a great piece about England’s great capitulation, but Graham Henry covered it all so comprehensively, his piece was unimprovable. Henry was scathing and unsparing. England were poorly selected, afraid to play rugby and choked in the last 20 minutes, making terrible decisions both on and off the pitch. It was a great article. What came through was Henry’s absolute disdain for what we call the ‘rugby of fear’. Not for Henry the usual hoo-ha of ‘cup rugby’, which is translation for ‘kicking to the other team and hoping they make mistakes’. You go out to beat the other team by playing them off the park. If you have lineout and scrum dominance, he said in so many words, why on earth are you not playing rugby with the high quality first phase ball? It’s anathema to him.

For the record, we cannot understand the decision to go down the line at the end. Whatever about the match situation, whatever about the relative percentages of a rolling maul versus a moderately difficult kick for a 7-from-7 kicker, the fact is – a draw virtually ensures England qualify. At the very least, it means an injury-ravaged Welsh side need to win twice.

But whatever of the erroneous final decision to decline the kick at goal, the choking began well before that. You could say it began the moment Ben Youngs departed the pitch and England suddenly began to clam up. ‘All the good stuff was coming through Ben’, they seemed to say, ‘What do we do now?’ Indeed, you could argue the choking began even before kick off, with Lancaster’s selection. We were critical of it, and our concerns came to pass. It was a selection of fear. A team picked not to lose.  A selection to put doubts in the minds of his own players. A selection the Welsh will have picked up and said ‘these chaps are worried’. It was hardly surprising that those doubts seeped from Lancaster into his players’ heads in the fateful final half hour.

Demented Mole wrote a great analysis of Australia a couple of weeks back, noting in particular the decisiveness of Michael Cheika’s actions as head coach. It raised a key point. Coaches’ decisions will not always be correct, but in acting decisively they will partially mitigate even those they get wrong. The best coaches act decisively. Joe Schmidt, for example. Say what you want about Ireland being boring or mechanical, but the coach is absolutely decisive in how he has set them out play, and how he picks the team. But Lancaster lacks decisiveness, and you struggle to see what England are trying to do. Even over the complete RWC cycle, its tough to map out what England have been building towards (bar Japan 2019, as Lancaster is so fond of pointing out)

The Wales selection seemed like throwing away two years of work on a playing philosophy on the eve of his biggest gamem and his team have a well-earned reputation for lacking decisiveness in clutch situations. What does he do now? Persist with the new game plan, or go back to the old one? Can he decide? He somehow wound up with a team on the pitch with around 2/3 of the cap total he had planned four years ago, another symptom of squad mismanagement.

Worse still was how England managed to make things worse, not better, in the post match interviews. In the immediate aftermath, Robshaw appeared to implicate the kickers Farrell and Ford for the decision to go down the line, before changing his mind and taking all the responsibility himself. Lancaster then appeared not to back his captain, after four years of four square support for every decision Robshaw made on the pitch. Farrell said he would have kicked if asked. Mike Brown just sounded disgusted his forwards had given away so many penalties while he was busy doing everything at full back. It all contrasted so badly to a Wales side that was steadfastly unified in the face of extreme adversity,  led outstandingly by Captain Sam Warburton and his brave Lieutenant Alun-Wyn Jones. One side had enough clarity of purpose to attack an opponents weak point (one paced outside centre) with four half backs on the pitch – and it wasn’t England.

What really struck us was Richard Wigglesworth having a pop at Will Carling for calling Lancaster’s England a “classroom-oriented environment” where the players are treated as “schoolboys”. To us, it sounds fair enough, but it was the contrast between Carling’s England and Robshaw’s England that stood out. Bum Face was appointed England captain after a handful of caps by young coach Geoff Cooke, taking over a side considered to have a disciplinary problem (sound familiar?), who hadn’t tasted success since the Beaumont Slam in 1980, with a few wooden spoons in between. However, between Cooke and Carling, they had fashioned a side that won the a Grand Slam in 1991 (the first of three for Carling) then went mighty close to winning their home World Cup later that year. Carling might have been able to work with Moore, Ackford, Skinner, Guscott, etc, but there was no doubt who was running the show – Bum Face would learn on the job, but he and his coach fashioned one of the Northern Hemisphere’s great sides in the same period of time that Robshaw and Lancaster have led England to this point.

It feels from the outside that the whole show is in danger of falling apart, with the camp seemingly coming apart at the seams, and there’s some serious work to do this week if England are to avoid a calamitous early exit. They now face a strong, coherent and settled (remarkably, considering how long Cheika has been in the job) Australia side, and you can be sure Cheika won’t be letting his side drop their intensity. England will rally; they never roll over for anyone, and it will be another huge, close game which will most likely be decided in the last 20 minutes. But increasingly, it feels like if it comes down to the wire late in the match, Lancaster’s England, like Kidney’s Ireland in 2013, will find a way of losing.

To The Panic Stations!

Have England lost their nerve? England are going to take on Wales in their almost-knockout pool game this weekend with a midfield consisting of Owen Farrell, Sam Burgess and Brad Barritt. In that order. So that’s Barritt at 13 then. 

With Billy Vunipola also coming into the team it’s a whopping four changes from the team which performed pretty modestly against Fiji. Vunipola at least looked impressive off the bench (and Ben Morgan might be a smidgen injured) as did Slammin’ but Barritt was anonymous – in his favoured position.

Does it constitute a small bit of panic in the ranks? Stuart Barnes’ considered opinion was that a change in mindset rather than personnel was required, and that any move away from Ford at this stage opened the possibility of England crashing out. It appears a frankly remarkable move to about-turn on the Bath midfield axis which has driven England’s best performances over the last 12 months. Has George Ford’s stock really plummeted on the back of one faintly ponderous performance behind Ben Youngs’ sleepy service? And just what is it that the more mechanical Owen Farrell can really do so much better?
England scored 18 tries in the Six Nations with the Ford-Burrell-Joseph midfield. Burrell has been left at home, and of course Joseph’s injury denies England their best back. But it’s as if his absence has caused the coaches to say ‘well sod this anyway. Passing the ball around was hard enough with Joseph in the team, now we’ve no hope. Let’s switch to kick and bosh instead’. Henry Slade, meanwhile, holds tackle bags and Cipriani is at home.

It looks suspiciously like Lancaster has been sucked into the old classic that world cups require ‘cup rugby’, and that cup rugby mostly involves very little rugby at all. It’s a bit early to be tightening up to such a degree.

Most of all, though, it looks like a selection Wazza Gatland will be thrilled to see. Farrell at 10? Easy meat. Brad Barritt at 13? Dan Lydiate will line him up all day long. Surely the big Welsh oil tankers are better off being moved around? Certainly Sam Burgess has a bit about him and his his offloading game will have to be policed closely, but all told the number of threats is reduced. Anthony Watson? His best chance of getting the ball is from Welsh kicks. 

We had England down to win this match. But now we’re not so sure. Wales are a bit injured but if they can get something approaching parity in the scrums and lineouts – where England aren’t any great shakes either – and if Alun-Wyn Jones is fit enough, they might just edge this one. 

Either way, a titanic battle awaits, even if it won’t be all that pretty. Altogether now – Ooooooooooooooohhhhhh!!


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