It’s here!! (Well, almost)

The Rugby World Cup starts tomorrow.  We’ve been building up to this moment all summer.  The Ovale clan is heading down under on tuesday for three weeks, so Palla will be ‘our man on the ground’.  Expect to see updates from his ‘World Cup Diary’.  Meanwhile, Egg Chaser will be looking after the Good Ship Cordite back home.  Our predictions and forecasts are in, New Zealanders are already panicking about not winning, and all that remains is to somehow watch the thing.  The kick-off times aren’t conducive to pint-swilling down in the pub, so what’s the best approach to enjoying the games at such alien hours?  Here’s a handy guide.
1.  Get Sky+ or UPC equivalent.  Nobody wants to be up at 4.30 in the morning to watch Fiji v Namibia.  Get in the recording facility, even if just for the month, and give yourself the option of watching it at a more reasonable hour.  You can fast forward through the endless scrum resets too.
2. Buy in breakfast beforehand.  Getting out of bed at 7am to watch France v Tonga is a tricky assignment, but that’s only half the battle.  Staying awake once you’re on the couch is entirely another matter.  It’s important to have the right breakfast.  Invariably that involves lots of protein and not so much carbohydrate, which is likely to induce food coma.  Think Bertie Wooster (eggs and bacon) rather than The Inbetweeners (rounds of toast).  And a pot of hot coffee is, of course, essential.  Bright light bulbs and a cool room are also likely to stop you nodding off.

3. Parents, take advantage!  If, like both WoC scribes, you have little people running around your house, you’re at a massive advantage.  7am wake up call, you say?  What’s new about that?  Take the easy brownie points on offer and watch the rugby (or ‘fighting’ as Little Ovale calls it) while your spouse enjoys a lie-on.

4. Take a power nap.  If you’re planning to watch Scotland v Romania at 2am in the morning, don’t try staying up all the way.  Chances are you’ll do the hard work and your eyes will fold over at around 1.35am.  Sleep cycles are four hours, so get to bed at 10pm for four hours and you’ll wake up feeling not so dreadful.

5. And finally, have Twitter open!  We’ll be tweeting our thoughts on as many games and key moments as we can manage.

One more sleep!  One more sleep!  One more sleep!

World Cup Preview: Ireland

Group C Opposition: Australia, Italy, USA and Russia

Pedigree: Very disappointing.  Ireland have never been beyond the quarter finals, and have twice been dispatched in the group stages, on both occasions by Argentina.  The only time Ireland went close to a semi-final was when Gordon Hamilton scored that try…

Players to watch: it increasingly looks like all hopes will be pinned on Sean O’Brien.  The Tullow Tank was the outstanding player in Europe this year, and if he can use his explosive carrying ability to blow away Southern hemisphere defences, then we will have a world star on our hands.  He’ll probably have to do it from the openside flank though, where he never appears quite the same player.  In the back division, only Andrew Trimble managed to play his way into the squad.  He’s a strong, hard running wing with much improved feet and hands.

Good tournament: If Ireland can finally make it to a semi-final Deccie will be back in the nation’s good books.

Bad tournament: Ireland should get out of a fairly benign group even if they underperform – if they get to the last eight, but are hammered by both Australia and South Africa, it will go down as a failure.

Prospects: Let’s be honest, they’re not great.  Ireland is a nation of optimists, and the majority of the media spent the summer talking up Ireland’s chances of beating Australia, and setting up a potential path to the semi final and – who knows? – beyond that.  Much of it seemed to be based on Ireland’s performance against England in this year’s Six Nations, when everything appeared to click and Ireland tore England to shred, beasting them up front and playing at a pace that England’s ponderous midfield couldn’t handle. 

But even a cursory glance at the data reveals this game as a complete outlier – Ireland were poor in every single other game this season.  The Autumn series was a wasted opportunity (zero minutes for Mike Ross, one game against Samoa for Sean O’Brien).  In all four other Six Nations games they were ordinary, and in the most recent warm-up games simply abysmal.  Even the Cork Con Mafia are no longer so optimistic.

Kidney’s idiosyncratic selections have bemused us in the past, but the squad selection showed his willingness to make the hard calls.  It’s now a question of gameplan.  The backs, coached by the ageing Alan Gaffney, are playing a wide-wide game with little depth, plenty of lateral running and little penetration.  One-out forwards rumble into contact, and the ball goes back and forth across the pitch.  It’s awful to watch and easy to defend.  It’s Scotland.

Nobody should be fooled into false hope because Ireland have been holding back a few set-piece moves.  The number of times these can be used in a match is not enough to make a huge difference.  Besides, they’ll be Gaffney’s moves, and the current style is Gaffney’s style.  Leinster fans will recognise it from the low try-scoring 2008-2010 era, when he was the backs coach.  Given Ireland’s lack of pace, we would love to see a game based on offloading, support runners and quick recycling – in other words, the game Joe Schmidt brought to Leinster.

Verdict: Ireland generally produce their best when pinned into a corner.  Expect them to run Australia closer than you might expect, but come up short.  The opposite will occur in Dunedin, and the Italy game will be tight.  Ireland should have enough to scrape by, but South Africa in the quarter finals will be a step too far.  A familiar quarter-final exit.

Stop Press! (Except the Online Ones)

It seems unfair to concentrate on the players, what with so many others putting their heart and soul into this World Cup. There’s been demand for Maori chiefs to welcome competitors at airports, astronauts to retrieve Morne Steyn’s kickoffs and Bayonne butchers wondering why Shontayne Hape is wearing their products on his hands.

Spare a thought also for the scribes and TV pundits covering the tournament – they have been forced to undergo an all-expenses-paid trip away from the Trouble and Strife for a month to watch rugby and drink Marlborough Savugnon Blanc. To cheer them up, we have put together a RWC preview of our favourite hacks and Stephen Jones.
 

Matt Williams (Setanta)

Style: Tends to start with a rabbit-on-the-headlights never-been-on-TV look, but then relaxes into matey banter with Franno. His perfect teeth and healthy tan cover a razor-sharp rugby mind, and his snippets of insider knowledge gleaned from his time in D4 and Ravenhill are always interesting.

Likely to say: Paddy Wallace is an amaaaaaaaaaaaaazing playah, reaaaaaaaaaaaaaally underaaaaaaaaaated
Unlikely to say: Let’s refer to New Zealand as the All Blacks

Jeremy Guscott (BBC)
Style: Self-satisfied, smug, paunch-bearing know-it-all. His judgement can best be summed up by his pre Six Nations verdict on Richie Gray – “He looks like he is running through treacle”. Errrr. Egg Chaser and his brother used to e-mail his BBC column with praise of rubbish players to see if he’d agree – our bigging up of Ayoola Erinle was a notable success.

Likely to say: Brian O’Driscoll isn’t a patch on the outside centre the 1997 Lions had
Unlikely to say: Interesting opinion Inverdale, I’ll take that on board

Ryle Nugent (RTE)
Style: Excited, excitable and exciting, roysh. Ryle has the refined voice and fur-lined coat of a man who has never left South Dublin in his life. His vocal range is huge, and one can generally tell how Ireland are doing merely by listening to the tone of his voice – anything mezzosoprano and above is good.

Likely to say: You beauty!!
Unlikely to say: Bring rugby back to the Northside 

Frankie Sheahan (RTE)
Style: Fiercely neutral and fair in his commentary, he rarely allws the origins of a player to dictate his opinion of them. No matter what you think of Frankie, you can’t argue that players from Cork and Limerick don’t get treated equally in his eyes. His day job is acting as agent for, among others, David Wallace and Tomas O’Leary – expect many references to how much they are being missed (truthful ones in Wally’s case).

Likely to say: Mick O’Driscoll is very unfortunate not to be here

Unlikely to say: What a performance from Jonny Sexton!

Stuart Barnes (Sky Sports)
Style: Surprisingly for a Sky commentator, over-enthusiastic and a strong backer of whatever Sky have the rights for at the time. When you push through the bluster, he’s actually a very shrewd and interesting analyst. Provided Whiff of Cordite with their favourite commentary moment last year in the Leicester-Perpignan game, as they discussed the collective noun for Tuilagi’s (winner: a terror of Tuilagi’s). While they talked, both Henry and Alesana took the ball directly into contact and got turned over.

Likely to say: I know Matt Banahan knocked on, but what power!
Unlikely to say: I know Matt Banahan is powerful, but what’s the point if you have hands like soap!

George Hook (RTE)

Style: Committed to saying the first thing that comes into his head, unless that happens to be a criticism of Munster. Specialises in popping some of the over-exuberant balloons inflated by the Irish press, but has morphed into a cynical parody of himself. Struggles to admit when his far-flung predictions turn out entirely incorrect.  The Irish players despise him.

Likely to say: We’ll get destroyed up front and lose
Unlikely to say: Keep the faith Tom

Stephen Jones (Sunday Times)
Style: Pointless curmudgeon who persists in his outrageously biased nonsense. To be fair, he makes great copy, and we don’t know if it’s us getting older or him getting more mellow, but we have found ourselves in agreement more than is healthy of late.

Likely to say: McCaw is running scared of the intensity of Edgely Park and Sixways by staying with the Crusaders
Unlikely to say: James Hook needs to improve his decision-making on the field

Gerry Thornley (Irish Times)

Style: Torn between Southside chic and Indie cool (Ms Ovale admits to a minor crush), Gerry can often be seen puffing on a Marlboro Light outside O’Donoghues. Favours the stubble, sunglasses and scarf look. Used to be Head Boy at St Deccie’s but has been usurped in favour of Fanning, despite fervent support for the regime. In fact, fervent support of pretty much everything Irish can be guaranteed.

Likely to say: I had to restrain Dave Pearson from licking Wilkinson’s boots roysh
Unlikely to say: Rugby is now a 22 man game, and Deccie needs to learn that

Lets hope the poor dears survive their tourism – Palla will be keeping a beedy eye out for photo ops, especially with Barnesy.

Needless to say, this blog also has a deep connection to Gerry, and we will watch with interest the reaction to his demotion – will he knuckle down and praise the junta more than ever, or actually begin to call the Great Leader out on his mistakes?

Charity Begins at Home

The most glamorous, long-awaited and exciting rugby tournament in the world is just eight days away.  For the likes of Luke Fitzgerald, David Strettle and Tomas Domingo, however, the next two months will be spent playing in their domestic leagues.  Yes, the Magners League Rabodirect Pro12 kicks off this weekend.  The Premiership also gets up and running, and the gruelling Top 14 has already started.  Here’s a quick preview of what we can expect over the domestic season, and in particular the first few weeks when the big boys are away.
Top 14
The Top 14 is generally best watched at the beginning of the season, when the tracks are relatively firm, and the end, when the high-profile and passionate finale is unmatched by any other club tournament – witness last year’s semi-finals in Marseille.  In the winter months it tends to turn into something of a drop goal competition, as packs are content to scrummmage for 80 minutes, and the likes of Wilkinson, Winiewski and Skrela sit dee in the pocket…

Possible winners: Toulouse and Clermont will always be in or around the playoff spots, and Perpignan and Biarritz will be looking for an improvement on last year’s mediocrity.  But this will surely be the year Toulon‘s riches finally tell.  They were pretty dire to watch last term, but a new coach (still unknown) will arrive to allow Phillips Saint-Andre to take the reins of the national team.  They’ve recruited exceptionally and have no Heineken Cup to distract them.  Already up and running, they beat Biarritz 20-5 in their first game.  Pilous, pilous!

Player to watch: Matthieu Basteraud finds himself at – where else? – Toulon in a bid to reignite his international career.  If he stays fit and focused there should be no stopping him.

Premiership

Ooooooooooooooooohhh!  You can almost hear Barnesy warming up his larynx for the shuddering hits and slow-paced slugfest that is the Premirship.  With the Sky-hype behind it, even the most mundane 6-3 win for Exeter over Sale is a classic.  Ok, so the Premiership isn’t really that awful – surely watching the Dragons v Connacht on a wet Friday night isn’t any better? – and we can’t help but love Barnesy and his customary roar as Oooooooooohhh! Jordan Turner-Hall! puts in yet another collosal hit on Jeremy Staunton.

Possible winners: It’s hard to see beyond Leicester, Northampton and Saracens.  Leicester look in the best nick – with Anthony Allen and Manu Tuilagi they have a genuinely exciting midfield.  They should be hungry after losing their title last year, and will be out for vengeance.

Player to watch: Matthew Tait is still only 25, but feels like he’s been around forever.  Finally, he has arrived at a club where he can fulfil his potential.  Possessed of a natural talent that few English rugby players can match, we would dearly love to see him deliver.

Rabodirect Pro12

Now rebranded, and hopefully, delivering more of a shake-up than last year, when the teams appeared to file into an Irish-Welsh-Scottish-Italian order.   The best hope of upsetting the order look to be the Scarlets, who have spent two years developing a talented and exciting team, which now looks primed to challenge for silverware.  Treviso will be looking to build on last season’s strong home form, and Aironi will be hugely improved.  But whither Scotland?  With Max Evans headed for Castres, Glasgow could be weaker again this year.

Possible winners: Munster have shed much of their deadwood, but could be set for a transitional season, blooding several young players.  It’s hard to see them being as consistent as last year.  Leinster are the most affected by World Cup call-ups, but if they can avoid last year’s terrible start they will be in the shake-up.  Ulster‘s upsurge will continue – their outstanding young backs will be a year older, and Mueller and Pienaar will be around to guide them post-world cup.  Afoa and Jared Payne are outstanding recruits, and if Ferris can stay fit, they could go one or two steps better than last year.

Player to watch:  Rhys Ruddock will captain Leinster in the first few weeks, a massive endorsement of his talent.  A naturally built specimen, he will be expected to provide the ball-carries for Leinster while Sean and Jamie make hay down under.  Both he and Dom Ryan should be challenging for starting shirts for the big games, and even Ireland, this year.