World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 3

Just 10 days remain until Kidney names his World Cup squad, and last week’s performance and this week’s team announcment give us a little insight – but not too much – into who is likely to go and who isn’t.

On the surface, it all looks rosy for Donncha Ryan, who, having played in the second row last week,  is now given a chance at 6, and so can prove his versatility and bag himself a spot on the plane.  But think forward to next week, and the backrow could be something like Locky-Wallace-Heaslip, and the complexion would look somewhat different.  Would you rather play at home to France with Jamie and Wally beside you and Paul O’Connell in the second row, or go to Bordeaux with no O’Connell and Leamy at 8?

The same applies, to a lesser extent, to McFadden, who didn’t play well last week and finds himself out of the team – but next week in all likelihood BOD will be back.  If he was to play 12 inside BOD it would be seen as an endorsement of his chances. So it’s not all over quite yet for Ferg, though he looks odds-against at the moment.

Following the team announcement and last Saturday’s game we can infer a little about who’s looking good and who isn’t.

Practicing ordering fush’n’chups: All the back three. Rob Kearney came through 80 minutes and looked sharp.  He gets another start on Saturday.  Already a Kidney favourite, he can start laying a claim on the 15 shirt for the Australia game.  Luke Fitz looked a lot more confident, and though he kicked the ball away a little too often, he wasn’t exactly blessed with options by the time the painfully slow ball he was supplied with. Andy Trimble played with great intensity, as usual. All three look to be heading southwards next month.

Still hanging on the telephone: Donncha Ryan did reasonably well on saturday, but he will have a tough job on Saturday convincing that he’s an international 6. He’s up against Thierry Dusatoir dans la sud de France, so no pressure.  Jerry Flannery’s return was positive, but all he did was miss one throw. We need to see some of the old Jirry mongrel before declaring him back for good.

Buying their Electric Picnic tickets: It looks like Peter Stringer’s terrific international career may finally be up.  Sent to La Rochelle to play with Munster, he is the only scrum half yet to see action for Ireland.  Unless he starts at home to France next week, which he won’t, then the game will be up.  Shane Jennings always needed to make a big impression to win Kidney over, and injury looks to have robbed him of that chance. We are presuming Wally will get a start next week in the 7 shirt, with Jenno togging out against Connacht.  A pity.

As for the game itself, it could be a long night for Ireland.  It’s not the most defensively robust 9-10-12-13 Ireland have ever put out and Mermoz and Marty will most likely look to run at the goalposts and hope for some change.  Keep an eye out for the French debutant, Biarritz No. 8, Raphael Lakafia.  We haven’t seen too much of him, but he’s regarded as a huge prospect and someone who could star at the World Cup.

Finally, Meejawatch.  It was interesting that Brendan Fanning and not Gerry Thornley had the inside track on the team this week.  Could Kidney be playing them against each other?  Gerry will have to up his uncritical fawning over the regime and justification of tactics and selection, no matter how bogus, to get back into Teacher’s good books.

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World Cup Preview: Australia

Group C Opposition: Ireland, Italy, USA, Russia

Pedigree: More than respectable – took Bill home in 1991 and 1999, each time the outstanding team in the competition. Dragged to the final in 2003 (and almost won it) by their outstanding half-back combination – George Gregan’s refrain of “Four more years mate” in the semi will freeze Kiwi blood for a very long time.

Players to watch: [WoC Ed: Just look at the age of these lads …] Gregan’s spiritual successor Will Genia (23) is the man who makes the Wallabies tick, although it’s Quade Cooper (23) who gets the headlines – though, with footwork like he has, its kind of deserved. Outside them you have the similarly talented Kurtley Beale (22) and James O’Connor (21). All 4 won’t even be at their peak until 2019 – be afraid, be very afraid.

Good Tournament: This time last year, a semi-final may have been acceptable. After keeping pace with NZ throughout last season, followed by the Reds Super Rugby success this year, its looks like a final appearance is the minimum requirement.

Bad Tournament: Being put out by any team that doesn’t copy that funny pre-match dance Munster patented in 2008.

Prospects: After throwing their toys out of the pram following an Andrew Sheridan-inspired destruction in 2007, Australia paradoxically managed to get running rugby banned by the IRB for 2 years. Luckily, everyone saw sense, and the emasculation of Morne Steyn has coincided with an upturn in Aussie fortunes, helped, of course, by the emerging talent mentioned above.

Robbie Deans has patiently been building towards this tournament for a while – as recently as 2009, they only won one Tri-Nations match. In that tournament, Deans blooded some of the players that now backbone his team, included Cooper, O’Connor, Genia, David Pocock and Ben Alexander.

From 6 back, they have a huge amount of options – even captain Rocky Elsom is under serious pressure for his place from the superb Scott Higginbotham, whose Tri-Nations appearances off the bench have been outstanding. And in the back division, they have piles of creativity and danger – as we write, Matt Giteau can’t make the 22, and Berrick Barnes’ un-retirement is a footnote. The problems lie further forward. Like Ireland, they have only two props who can scrummage, and Deans has found it difficult to settle on a hooker and second row combination – they can occasionally get mauled up front, and there are only so many times you can turn that around.

In a tournament like this, there is always a requirement to tough out games, particularly at the business end, which may not suit the Wallabies – the semi-final against England or France already looks like a flashing warning light. Despite the advancement in the last two years, 2015 is probably a more realistic target.

Verdict: They should beat Ireland, and will have to dig deep to negotiate a very tricky semi-final (especially if France click), but New Zealand will be a bridge too far. Beaten finalists.

World Cup Preview: Georgia and Romania

Group B Opposition: Argentina, England, Scotland

Pedigree: The World Cups started too late for Romania, who were a force in the amateur game, regularly winning against the Six Nations sides. They have been left behind since the late 1980s and the dawn of professionalism / being allowed to leave the country after Ceacescu was strung up with piano wire. Georgia were a success in 2007, thrashing Namibia and holding Argentina to 6-3 at half time, while the memory of Ireland beating them by no more than a held-up TMO decision will remain seared into the collective conciousness of Irish rugby forever.

Players to watch: Your appreciation for these two sides essentially boils down to one question: do you like scrummaging?  The Top 14 is awash with Georgian props, and at least two of them, Clermont’s Zirakashvili and Toulon’s Kubriashvili, are world class. The good news for Georgia is that they have more than just a scrum, and in brutish Montpellier flanker Mamuka Gorgodze, they have a backrow beast who will wreak havoc wherever possible. Romania’s star asset is the tough and – let’s face it – dirty Perpignan hooker Marius Tincu. Watch your eyes, chaps.
Good tournament: Romania will be looking to escape with their dignity intact. Georgia, however, will be looking for a win over Romania, and to make life awkward for the big boys.

Bad tournament: Letting the scoreboards run up too easily will upset either of these feisty nations.

Prospects: Rugby’s popularity in Georgia is thought to be a result of its proximity to an ancient traditional game called ‘Lelo Burti’ (pictured right; it translates as ‘field ball’) where a non-specific number of large men from neighbouring villages compete to carry a heavy ball over the opposing village’s river creek. And, back in the day, they used decrepit old Soviet tractors as scrum machines. Notice is thus served of how Georgia intend to play in New Zealand. They’ll be hoping for rain lashed boggy pitches, and as many scrums as possible.

The fixture list has given them a good chance of causing an upset.  They have Scotland up first, and indications are that they are targeting them for a serious shock. The Scots are entering the World Cup somewhat undercooked, and would want to be mindful, or their river creek could be in jeopardy.

It should be noted that Georgia are the 7th best team in Europe, and Scotland are 5th at best – plus 9 of the squad (all forwards, surprisingly) play regular Top 14 rugby – they aren’t no-hopers by any stretch of the imagination. And they are coached by former Scotland coach Richie Dixon, who was enticed to Tbilisi after the notoriously penny-pinching SRU handed him his cards in 2009 – it’s just too good a story not to happen, isn’t it?

For Romania, things look less promising. A few years back, they knocked off Italy, and again ran them close in France 2007, but they have regressed. Their route to the World Cup was something of a struggle, including a loss at home to Portugal, before ultimately overcoming Uruguay to qualify.  If they can keep the scores down, and get a few players noticed by some upwardly mobile French clubs it will be an achievement.

Verdict: Georgia will beat Romania, and while they won’t beat Scotland, they’ll give them a right good scare. Romania will go home empty handed.

World Cup Preview: Scotland

Group B Opposition: Argentina, England, Georgia, Romania

Pedigree: Perennial quarter-finalists, never once failing to make the last eight. In 1991, they went one better, and were a Gavin Hastings shanked kick away from the final. Last time out, they nearly took Argentina from the long grass.

Players to watch: Lets be honest, this Scotland squad is pretty low on inspiration. However, that isn’t to say they are hopeless. In Richie Gray, they have a man who will be a Lion in 2 years time, and who the pack will be built around for many years to come. Sean Lamont is a rare example of a leader in Andy Robinson’s team – his criticism of his team-mates during last years 6 Nations showed he was willing to step up. Another potential Lion is Max Evans out wide.

Good Tournament: Given the amount of gloom currently hanging over them, a quarter-final would be seen as an achievement, although a 50 point demolition by the All Blacks is a dubious reward.

Bad Tournament: Giving Argentina and England decent games is the baseline, even if they get edged out in both, but if they come close to humiliation against Romania or (especially) Georgia, Scottish hearts will sink even further.

Prospects: Whiff of Cordite sat in Croker in 2010 and watched in astonishment as the Killer B’s dealt with the much-vaunted Irish back row with ease. That really should have completed a deserved Triple Crown for the Scots – a one in a million collapse against Wales and a draw against England  were both games that should have been won. Come November, when they followed it up with victory over South Africa – their second Southern Hemisphere scalp in two years – we were expecting a big 6 Nations.

But it didn’t happen. Andy Robinson took a step back and let the team take it to the next level – sink or swim time. And boy did they sink. A decent second half against a disinterested France and taking advantage of indiscipline to run Ireland close were as good as it got. At least they beat Italy, but the tournament was hugely disappointing, with the performance against Wales in Murrayfield among the worst test performances in living memory.

After that, Robbo withdrew what passes for his big guns from ML action, targetting the World Cup. Allowing for summer rustiness, a last minute win over (at best) the Ireland reserves was just better than unacceptable. Next up is Italy, then its playing the firsts into form against Romania and (gulp) Georgia. It’s eerily similar to Ireland’s preparation in 2007, and just ask Eddie how that turned out. Mind you, at least they’re skipping the Polish cryotherapy chambers and the Bayonne day trip.

This really is a make or break tournament for Scotland – they pretty much got the best draw possible, and are under pressure to take advantage of it, something they haven’t thrived under in the past. If they do blow-up, Robbo will likely head back home, and it’s back to the drawing board once more.

Verdict: Things are not looking hot. England will have too much, and Argentina should beat them in a mucky kick-fest. The real dread in Scottish hearts is what the Georgians might do to them – it’s safe to argue that Scotland have the worst scrum in Group B. If they manage to dispatch Georgia comfortably, they might just have the confidence to take on the Pumas and battle through. We don’t think it will happen though. A proud record to come to an end – out at the first hurdle.

World Cup: Irelandwatch Episode 2

It sort of crept up on us. One minute it was the middle of the summer and the next Ireland were playing an international rugby match.  Declan Kidney named his team at luncheon yesterday, and true to form, trying to infer a whole lot from it is like trying to pick up mercury with a fork.   It’s hard to reason that the selection advances or hinders anyone’s possibilites of touring.
First of all, there is good news that Rob Kearney, Jerry Flannery and Tomas O’Leary are back in action and fit for selection.  Expect to see Kearney and O’Leary feature heavily over the next four weeks – both are seen by management as key First XV players, and both need the gametime badly.  Given Flannery’s history of aborted comebacks, management might be more careful with regards to him, but we expect he will be dying to get out and play.

Now for the spots still up for grabs:

  • This was possibly Conor Murray’s best chance of seeing action, and his touring chances could be receding.  There have been indications he is not considered as close to the squad as we had hoped, and this is another.
  • In the backline it’s a big opportunity for McFadden to show what he can do.  He’s pretty adept at 13 as well as 12 – we all know how well he played last year, he just needs to take up where he left off.
  • Don’t worry too much about Niall Ronan’s surprise appearance.  The Lunsterman had a pretty ineffectual season last year, and won’t be anywhere near the final squad.  He’s just keeping the shirt warm – Jennings is available for selection next week and Wally and SOB will be in the mix too, so Ronan will be thanked for his time and bundled back home.
  • Confession time – we know next to nothing about Mike McCarthy, though we understand he had a good seaon last year for Connacht.  He’s probably behind Locky and Donncha Ryan in the shake-up for the 4/6 spot (although Brendan Fanning suspects otherwise), but we look forward to seeing him
  • Ligind watch: the entire Munster 2008 front row is on the bench – we could see a very poignant triple substitution around the 60 minute mark
Finally, it’s great to see Leo Cullen captain the side, the 100th man to lead out his country.  The Wicklow lock has been harshly treated in the past, and while he may not be the most eye-catching player, he is a fine captain, firm but polite in dealing with referees, and he knows when to talk and when to walk away.

And, regarding the game itself, it could be a scrappy affair (read: GRIM). Scotland look to have a slightly stronger pack out and should just about shade it.

World Cup Preview: Argentina

Group B Opposition: England, Scotland, Georgia, Romania

Pedigree: The newest rugby superpower, and at this level, it has been at Ireland’s expense. Lyon in 1999 and Adelaide in 2003 were close, but we got panned in 2007. In that respect, we weren’t alone – France were beaten twice, and the extent of the Pumas’ quality in France was illustrated by the air of disappointment that surrounded them only finishing 3rd.

Players to watch: If a Martian landed on Earth and demanded to know what a prop forward was, WoC would put forward the redoubtable Rodrigo Roncero – always fun to watch and a master of the dark arts. Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe provide the class in the backrow, and Santiago Fernandez has been a revelation at Montpellier this year – we hope to see him re-produce his regular season form.  Meanwhile, Leinster fans may even get to see what Mariano Galarza actually does on a rugby pitch.

Good Tournament: Argentina are top seeds in this group, and will plan to beat England, then continue their hex on the French in the quarter-final and reach successive semi-finals.

Bad Tournament: Losing to the Scots, something of a bogey team for Argentina, and going home early.

Prospects: Argentina go into a tournament with respect, for the first time. Four years on from 2007, its hard to credit that virtually nobody had them coming through the group. In the event, they were one of the best teams in the competition, regretably freezing against the Boks.

To an extent, the objective is now different. In 2007, the team played with a controlled nationalistic fervour to show the world they meant business, and demanded to be seen as equals. This time around, the generals of 2007 (with the exception of Pichot and Hernandez) may still be there, but with a new generation being gradually infused, retrenchment is the order of the day. The lack of regular engagements precludes a definite judgement on where they stand, but they seem to be a level below four years ago.

The set-piece still bristles with menace and intent, and the two back-rows mentioned above are among the best around, but the backline isn’t quite together yet. In the halves, Dr Phil is a flaky 10 and Vergallo has yet to fulfil his promise. Ouside those two, its more perspiration than inspiration. As usual, European rugby sustains the Argentinian team and Bustos Moyano and Agulla have impressed since coming North, however, the aptly-named Marcelo Bosch is more typical of the approach. Also, its going to be interesting to see who kicks goals – while Contepomi wouldn’t be regarded as the best under pressure, Bustos Moyano scored 283 points for Montpellier, and nailed many a pressure kick.

The attritionary nature of this pool will suit Argentina’s pack, but having England first may be a disadvantage – last time out they improved as the tournament went on, and the leathering of France in the 3rd place playoff was the most complete display of any team. It’s likely to come down to a Scotland-Argentina showdown for second place here, and Scotland have the misfortune of being first up for the huge Georgians … just before they play the Pumas.

Verdict: Vigourous debate is ongoing at Cordite Towers. Firstly, we both agree that England should take them. Regarding second place, Palla Ovale points to Scotland’s impressive record against the Pumas (better than Ireland, France and England), whereas Egg Chaser sees a much stronger XV taking on a Scotland team harrowed by the Georgians (much like Ireland in 2007) and putting them out of their misery. Egg’s (slightly) greater conviction just carries the day, but NZ will whack and bag them in the quarters.

World Cup Preview: England

Group B Opposition: Argentina, Scotland, Georgia and Romania

Pedigree: Plenty of it.  Indeed, England are the great World Cup overachievers.  Nobody is better than they at gritting their teeth and finding a way to the final, no matter how awfully they are playing.  The memory is hazy, but I believe they won the cup in 2003.

Player to watch: Much depends on whippersnapper scrum half Ben Youngs.  He was dynamite in the autumn against Australia, when he set the tempo and unleashed the English backs at speed.  But two shockers in the Palindrome in the spring have raised questions about his ability to play on the back foot.  He is coming in to the World Cup on the back of injury and a delayed preseason.  Can he get his spark back? If Johnno gives Manu Tuilagi a run-out in August and he seizes his chance, England’s atttacking play could be transformed. The young lad isn’t quite yet the successor to Bod, but he is dynamic and exciting – just ask Barnesy.

Good Tournament: England expects and all that.  They will be looking to make the final, though a semi-final would be a pass mark for a young side.

Bad Tournament: If they bow out in the quarters or before, it will be considered a disappointing showing.

Prospects: This is a more talented, and better coached, squad than the one which somehow turned themselves around and made the 2007 final.  Looking through the side, there are plenty of reasons for the rose-clad chariot swingers to be cheerful.  Any England tight five will always be dogged and resilient, and the return of Matt Stevens augments an already strong front row.  Much (too much?) is expected of Courtney Lawes, and the backrow will be nicely balanced, with Lewis Moody and Nick Easter accompanied by one of the Toms Croft and Wood.

At half-back they’ve the youthful vigour of Youngs and Flood and outside them they’ve running threats in Chris Ashton (a contender for the top tryscorer of the tournament) and high-class full-back Ben Foden.

It’s a young side, and they have the look of a team enjoying themselves.  They’re playing a more attractive brand of rugby than has been seen from an English side in who knows how long, and they are the Six Nations champions.  But, as always with England, this leads to over-confidence.  In the spring, following wins against Wales and Italy, we had an explosion of media hyperbole.  England were primed to win the World Cup! They had destroyed the twin powers of Wales and Italy!  Swing Low! Expectations were checked after the defeat in Dublin, but we all know that once England get off to a winning start against Argentina, the media hubbub will begin again.
Besides the hype, there is also the material weakness in midfield.  Shontayne Hape has yet to show he is an international 12, and Mike Tindall will always be Mike Tindall, even if he spends his pre-season becoming Mr Ugly Royal Bird. What a pity Matthew Tait and Olly Barkley have been so poorly treated.  But if Johnson takes a risk, and gives Manu Tuilagi a chance to wreak havoc, things could get interesting.
Verdict: Should have enough to top the group, and they usually have France’s number, so a semi-final is very achievable.  Probably a top midfield away from being a finalist.

World Cup Preview: Canada, Japan, Tonga

Group A Opposition: New Zealand, France

Pedigree: Canada have the best pedigree here, with a quarter-final appearance in 1991 in their locker, and generally respectable showings. Japan have just 1 win in 6 tournaments (which, oddly, Egg Chaser was at), and Tonga, historically the weakest Pacific Island, had their best showing in 2007, winning two games and running eventual winners South Africa close.

Players to watch: Former Kiwi and Leaguer Cooper Vuna is coming off a decent year with the Melbourne Rebels, and could shine on the Tongan wing. And don’t forget Barnesy wet dream Oooooohh Soane Tonga’uiha.

Cherry Blossom scrumhalf Atsushi Hiwasa was named emerging Asian player of the year this year, and if the lightweight Japanese forwards manage to get him some decent ball, he could make an impression.

Canada boast Paulie-basher and Clermont battleaxe Jamie Cudmore and the splendidly-named (and splendid) back-rower Chauncey O’Toole – who may well be an Osprey next season.

Good Tournament: Tonga will fancy themselves to win twice and run a big gun close. Japan will want to beat Canada, and repeat their PNC treatment of Tonga. Canada just want a win, but might be quietly confident of a second.

Bad Tournament: Tonga losing to a fellow minnow, or the others going home empty handed.

Prospects: All 3 of the small fry in Group A seem to be on the up. Japan won their first Pacific Nations Cup this month, pipping Tonga to the title with a last minute bonus point try against 12-man Fiji. The traditional Japanese weakness is size, so it was a pleasant surprise to see them deal with the Pacific Islanders. Tonga themselves were relatively happy with a second place finish – it took a surprise 28-27 victory for Japan to ultimately deny them the title (which also would have been a first).

However, Tonga have the comfort of knowing they have some big guns to bring back in, unlike the Japanese, and 6 weeks in camp pre-tournament (2 more than in 07 where they almost stunned the Bok seconds) will likely leave them primed to go from the off. If it were France first up, you might have half an expectation of a contest, but Les Bleus play them last and will be in their stride by then, and tend to enjoy the open rugby Tonga serve up.

Meanwhile Canada had a comfortable win over Italy A in the Churchill Cup and gave a respectable account of themselves against a Saxons side in the final which contained more than a few senior caps. And in last year’s edition, they knocked over France A. They are well-organised and well-funded, and are not to be underestimated – they have made life very uncomfortable for most 6N sides at some point (you may recall a last minute Rog penalty to salvage a draw back in Gatty’s time).

Verdict: This is essentially a 3 country mini-league – NZ and France will beat them all. Japan will go home luckless and winless (again), with the consolation of Mils Muliaina giving their domestic league some kudos. Tonga will be the one to put the heart across a big gun if they are under-estimated, but we have a sneaking suspicion the Canucks are going to run them close – the big game for Tonga is against the All Blacks, and Canada will be sitting in the long grass a few days later. Canada to win twice.