The Brink of Disaster

Ireland’s Six Nations campaign has been described this week as “teetering on the brink of utter failure” (Cummiskey) and that we “need victories against Italy and Scotland to avoid a disastrous campaign” (Dorce). The second point is moot, since any year we lose to Italy it is disastrous anyway, but is the first true?

While missing Ross, Healy, Henderson, O’Mahony, O’Brien, Fitzgerald and Bowe, we drew at home to Wales, a team who we fancied to win the Six Nations, and the only Northern Hemisphere team have a successful RWC. The defeat to France was an awful spectacle and put our inability to score in lights. But then we went to Twickenham, and played quite well – we had three debutants (two starting), all of whom made big impressions – and with a little bit more composure in their 22 it could easily have been closer.

Stu McCloskey was dangerous with ball in hand, van der Flier started quietly, but grew into the game, finished strongly and should really have had a try had Ultan Dillane fixed Anger’s Mike Brown. Dillane himself was like Iain Henderson off the bench, an utter wrecking ball with huge carrying impact  – the English clearly hadn’t seen much of Connacht and were unaware that Irish forwards can occasionally run into space. Three successful debutants and, in reality, only only match point less than we expected at this point in the Championship. The defeat against France was grim, but potentially we could learn some lessons from it. Like the need to expand our attack maybe.

So, utter failure? Well, if we lose to Italy, it sure is, but that’s the case every year. It feels to us that, like a manic depressive, we have swung wildly across the spectrum of “we are going to win the World Cup” in September to “we have to make sure we beat Italy or it’s an UTTER FAILURE” in March. We are talking ourselves into a corner painting Italy as this must-win game – I mean it clearly must be won, but there is no doubt that it will be won. We could rest Ross (the Italy scrum got mullered against Scotland), Ryan (Dillane is hardly much of a step down anyway), Heaslip (Stander to 8 and Ruddock at 6), Sexton (Jackson in) and Payne (on the bench in case of emergencies) and probably still win easily. On the official Irish Rugby YouTube channel, Heaslip tried manfully to talk up Italy, but really didn’t do well, eventually stuttering to allow that it was a “pretty dark changing room” after the 2013 defeat.

In the event, it looks like we are going to revert to Plan A – stout defence and kick-ball – fit-again Jared Payne is likely to come back in at centre, with Henshaw going back to inside centre and Simon Zebo starting his second Six Nations game at full-back. Is this really the correct approach? Sure, McCloskey got panned by Schmidt for his offload in the third quarter, and is undoubtedly raw, particularly in his positioning, but it’s hard to argue he wasn’t effective – without a huge amount of sympathy from some of his teammates (the hospital pass from Kearney for example). We also have to ask about how we are going to score tries – against England we looked at our most effective in the third quarter when McCloskey and Earls were the focal points of our attack, hunting for space and creating go-forward ball – surely it’s worth another look? And we haven’t even got into the Payne-to-15 argument, but apparently, even with Rob Kearney most likely injured it is Simon Zebo and not Jared Payne that is being pencilled in for the 15 shirt.

Zebo’s return to the XV is welcome, because he brings pace that we are in dire need of in the backline, but a better backline might have had Zebo on the wing in place of Andrew Trimble, who has been ineffective in his first three matches, allowing for Payne at 15 and The Big Fella at 12. Admittedly, one of Italy’s few strengths is the Garcia-Campagnaro centre partnership, but if we were happy with McCloskey-Henshaw facing Farrell-Joseph, do we really think they can’t handle the Italians? Italy are a team that you can whack and bag early on, particularly at home – it doesn’t feel like a huge risk to keep the centres and try Payne at full back. One way or another Ireland will win if they play to anything like their potential.


Perfect Day

Well, wasn’t that nice? Brian O’Driscoll got the send off he deserved – an emotional Palindrome stood to applaud Ireland’s best player of the professional era for what seemed like a really long time. It had got kind of awkward – everyone was standing around smiling, delighted to have the opportunity to thank one of the greats, without reservation or glances at watches. A full ten minutes after the full-time whistle had blown, not a seat had been vacated as Ireland’s rugby fans paid homage. The umbilical cord between players and fans which was severed by the move from the rickety old Lansdowne Road 7 years ago seemed restored by 20 minutes of  soppy cheering at every glimpse of BOD on the big screen.

It was one of those “I was there” days, and O’Driscoll graced the stadium with a performance stamped with his personality. We have been fortunate to see such a day – not every player gets to end on his own terms – just look at some of O’Driscoll’s illustrious team mates from the Golden Generation:

  • Wally: carried off in agony on a stretcher in a meaningless RWC11 warm-up
  • Jirry: aborting comebacks until enough was enough
  • Rog: the conductor, sent into the wilderness following a shambolic performance in Murrayfield 12 months ago
  • Shane Horgan slid quietly out of view for Ireland before injury finished his career
  • Even knowing the end is coming in advance doesn’t always work out.  Denis Hickie pre-announced his retirement, but the the finale came it was in the abominable 2007 World Cup and nobody was in the mood for kiss-blowing goodbyes

At least John Hayes got a Thomond Park goodbye, but his Ireland career finished with even Mushy ahead in the queue; he missed the World Cup squad and that was that.

On Saturday, it helped too that the performance and game were so good – Ireland went out to win by a lot and ended the day 39 points up on the scoreboard. Devin Toner had possibly his best game yet (saying something), Eoin Reddan came off the benchset and set the tempo to greased lightning, and Johnny Sexton even pulled off the first successful Randwick Loop in years. Somewhere, Alan Gaffney is saying “I told you so”.

The bench contributed three tries and really iced the cake – in recent years the 60th minute has marked the time for Ireland to wilt and let the opposition dictate the pace of the game. Here they kicked on powerfully and professionally. Even Sergio Parrisse and Sandro Zanni would have made little difference, though undoubtedly Italy had one eye on next week by the end.

It was also a vindication of Schmidt’s selection, of which we were critical before the game.  Our concern was that without freshening things up, Ireland might have found their eyes flickering forward to Paris, but the focus was razor-sharp.  It’s a frequent occurance that a Schmidt selection raises eyebrows, but after the game it all seems to make perfect sense.  Will we never learn?

O’Driscoll himself did speak an uncomfortable truth after the game – that this will all count for very little if we lose in Paris. Ireland’s mental weakness in the face of the Gitane-smoking, stubble-faced, suave Frenchman will be thoroughly uninteresting to Joe Schmidt – the reality of the situation is that this French team are appalling and we simply must beat them and win the Championship. If we go out and lose in Le Stade, we’ll still remember the fond farewell we gave BOD, but he’ll still retire with just one Championship – nowhere near enough for a player who has contributed more than anyone in the Northern Hemisphere in the last 20 years, except possibly Johnno.

Even among fans, it seems there is still too much deferance to French rugby.  We should fear the backlash, apparently.  But what can France lash back with?  And wasn’t the Scotland game supposed to be the backlash to the previous rubbish performance?  And the one before that etc.?  They play at  glacial tempo, and the likelihood of them suddenly unleashing their inner Jauzion-Clerc-Heymans seems so remote as to be fanciful.  Schmidt, however, would appear to be just the man to cut through any such sentiment and ensure that Ireland have a healthy lack of respect for their opposition.  Heck, even Kidney’s stuttering 2012-13 vintage Ireland managed two draws with this lot.

BOD, and we, would prefer silverware to happy-clappy love-ins and we have put ourselves in a position to slay two ghosts – the too-long hangup about the French and choking within sight of the finish line [don’t mention the grand slam, we choked utterly in that game].  Let’s get the great man some more pots to show off in his dotage.

The Cup, the Plate and the Bowl

A non-vintage Six Nations campaign is heading for a straightforward blitz-tournmanent style finale.  In the last week, Wales and France will meet to decide the championship winners (The Cup).  England and Ireland will play for the Plate, or third place, and Italy and Scotland will tough it out for the Bowl (or to avoid the wooden spoon).

The Cup

Some of the mythology around the enormous Welsh backline was exposed this weekend.  Mike Phillips got overly involved in a fight with the English backrow, and Wales never looked like getting around England, so they just kept trying to go through them.  Getting into a boshfest with the Kings of Bosh is a risky game, and Wales were in a tight spot for much of the afternoon.  In the end they had just enough class to win out, with one of their smaller backs, reserve centre Scott Williams (weighing in at a puny 97kgs) coming up with a dash of brilliance to win it.  The Triple Crown is in the bag, and they are in a good position to deliver the slam, with France coming to Cardiff.

Here in Ireland we love nothing more than fawning over the French.  We’re spellbound by their pristine blue shirts, intimidated by their scrummaging power, awestruck by their handling skills, and swooning over Morgan Parra’s classic good looks.  But for all their Gallic genius, they rarely play all that well.  Truth is, they’re masters of just doing enough (unless they are playing New Zealand).  Not much has really changed under the new coach.  Sure, the selection is consistent, but the mentality is harder to shift.  France sleepwalked through the first 25 minutes here, and while their two tries were brilliant, there was no sustained greatness.  Trouble is, they are usually good for one outstanding performance a series.  One of Ireland, England or Wales will get it.

The Plate

England: played three, two tries, both chargedowns.  They’ve Strettle, Ashton and Foden in the back three, but they can’t service them with three midfielders with the distribution skills of combine harvesters.  Brad Barritt fought gamely again, and he’s not a bad player, but the lines of attack are too predictable.  For all that they probably scored a good try at the death, and after last week’s bottling exploits for his club, we’d all have loved to see the theatre of the last-kick wide conversion from Toby Flood to save a draw.  Two players who won’t enjoy looking at the tape this morning are Courtney Lawes, whose upright carrying style led directly to the Welsh try, and Mike Brown, who failed to fix his man with the non-try scoring pass to Strettle, and gave him an awful lot to do, when a stroll in was possible.

Declan Kidney is starting to get the hang of this newfangled ‘bench’ thing that other people keep banging on about it.  We’d heard of it ourselves, but weren’t quite sure what it was.  Turns out you can replace players during the game, sometimes even improving the side by bringing off a guy who’s tiring or not playing great and putting another player in his position.  Who knew?  All the talk this week will be that Ryan and Reddan should be starting in Paris (they won’t).  Both players are getting a raw deal.  Ryan is clearly the superior player at 4 to O’Callaghan, and is probably among Ireland’s best performers in the series so far, and it appears Reddan has never really earned the trust of the management.  He started their two best performances last year, and was influential in both, but found himself overlooked ever since.  Dropping a young player like Murray after two poor performances is not an easy call, but you feel that if Ireland are to have any – any! – chance of winning, Reddan needs to play.

The Bowl

Hard times for Scotland, who have improved out of sight this year, without getting the results to show for it.  Their handling and offloading was terrific yesterday.  Management are culpable for some outrageously bad team selections.  How was it that Hogg, Laidlaw and Blair had to wait until the third game in the series to take to the pitch together? Still, credit needs to go to them for making the changes. Scotland look like a team who might just win a few … if they can just win one.

It’s proving a difficult season for Italy, who haven’t really improved as much as people are letting on.  They were much more competitive last year, when they should have beaten Ireland and Wales, and toppled France.  The wooden spoon beckons methinks, as Scotland look to have too much for them – thouh they can be a different proposition in Rome.

It’s not been a classic series so far by any means, which had us wondering when there last was a classic Six Nations. Wales’ and Ireland’s grand slams in 2008 and 2009 were up against mediocre post-World Cup fields (France were off experimenting).  The best in recent times is probably 2007’s tournament, when strong France and Ireland sides went toe to toe, with France securing the Championship with the last play of the game against Scotland.  It’s been a while…

Six Nations Week 1: Wayne (Barnes)’s World

Week 1 has passed, and nothing really has changed. France are still great, England are still rubbish, Ireland still have no gameplan, Scotland can’t score tries, Wales are quite useful and Italy don’t win away.

But we decided to flesh out the above into something more concrete instead.  Our Week 1 Review, split by champions and old nags:

The Winners’ Enclosure


A four try win with a minimum of fuss is a reasonable start for France.  They didn’t look any great shakes for large stretches, but late in the second half you could see them start to enjoy themselves.  Wesley Fofana had a good debut, and his partnership with Rougerie is going to cause a lot of teams a lot of problems.  Louis Picamoles was transformed from a pussy cat at the World Cup to his wrecking ball best here.  Happily for France, their favourite opponenets, Ireland are coming to town for their habitual beating next week.  The fixture list is set up nicely, and the final game against Wales could be a decider.

Happiness Index: 3/5 – decent start to the new campaign, but the French public will demand a more complete performance next week


Ugh, that didn’t make for pleasant viewing.  New players, new captain, new gameplan… but the song remains the same.  It’s reassuring to see some things never change, and England just can’t fall out of love with the bosh.  Their backrow was thouroughly outplayed, and only when Morgan came on did they have any decent carrier on the pitch, but they defended doggedly and allowed Scotland to shoot themselves in the foot just enough to win the game.  For a scratch team it’s not the worst of starts, but going to a passionate Stadio Olimpico in Rome will be tough. The media loved it though – Stephen Jones was even saying how good Botha, Dowson and Farrell were.

Happiness Index: 3/5 – one away win in the locker, if they can get another next week they are looking at a successful championship


Missing four tight forwards, losing Warburton at half time, and with Rhys ‘Toto Schillachi’ Priestland having a shocker, you’d think the writing was on the wall.  But oh me oh my, what a group of matchwinners these guys have.  A sensational backrow, and the biggest, bruisingest, and skilfulest backs in the competition.  Roberts looked short of form, but Jonathan Davies boshed hole after hole in the Irish defence, while George North looks like the player of the age.  Hard running, clean lines, great angles. 

Happiness Index: 5/5 – Wales will be thrilled.  Gatty once again outfoxed Kidney and is a shoo-in for the Lions job.  Scotland at home next, and a great chance to build momentum.

The Losers Corner

Gerry Ending: Blind Dave Pearson! *foam* Wayne Barnes!! *froth* Les Kiss does know how to run an attack!!! *thumps desk* Mother Deccie of Kidcutta!!!!

Farmer Farrelly Ending: Sexton missed kicks! *thumps desk* Miniscule Leinster centres!! *foam* Where is Ooooooooooohhh James Downey!!! *froth* Padre PiO’Mahoney!!!!

Mega Happy Honest Ending: Ireland were like pussycats at ruck time – only substitute Donnacha Ryan attempted to slow Welsh ball, and he got speared for his troubles. Without BOD, Ireland were clueless at the breakdown, and clueless on how to play. Oh how we hoped the noises about an actual gameplan were true – why we believed them is another thing. The personnel sweep all before them in Europe at provincial level, but look like befuddled fools in a green shirt – it’s time for some coaching please. And by coaching, we don’t mean putting the video analyst in charge of attack. 

Happiness Index: 1/5 – very difficult to see how Ireland can have a good championship from here.  Paris beckons. Tomorrow we’ll be looking in more depth at Ireland’s woes.

Now, this is a tough one. Yes, Scotland lost in desperate fashion. Yes, they butchered countless chances. Yes, Robbo did select Dan Parks, who will surely never play for his country, or Scotland, again. And yet. We felt there were some chinks of light. When the Embra halves came on after 55 odd minutes, they played with real speed and purpose. The laughable handling of the players outside killed a lot of moves, but in at least some cases, they were genuinely unfamiliar with the whole “gainline” thing Greg Laidlaw was at and had to reach for flat passes. And the Scottish back row were brilliant, Ross Rennie’s mastery of ruck time harking back to the days of JJ and Finlay Calder. Robbo made a serious boo-boo in picking this team, and confidence is no doubt rock bottom, but they might actually have something to build on – if Laidlaw gets picked to start, Scotland might actually have *whisper* a platform.

Happiness index: 2/5 – at least they’ll get the right team on the pitch now.  All is not lost, but that was a huge opportunity blown


An 18 point defeat was within the bookies pre-match spread and Italy will be happy with that. Granted, the French barely broke sweat, but this was a match Italy were never going to win – what they needed was to leave Paris with their dignity intact. And they did that. They looked pretty breezy, contributed to a good quality and open match, and looked kind of rejuvenated. Clearly, without a 10, they are going to struggle, but they have a great back row, a good coach, a decent pair of centres and, now, a spring in their step. In terms of next week, they got the ideal result from England – an absolutely dire performance with a win, which means few changes are likely. Italy have never beaten England, but they will be waiting in the long grass of the Stadio Olimpico this Saturday.

Happiness Index: 3/5 will feel they’ve a good chance of grinding England into the dirt

Six Nations: Match Previews

After all the drama surrounding team selections, squad announcements and even refereeing appointments, the small matter of the actual games of Six Nations rugby take place this weekend.  We’re looking forward to it.  Now for the bit where we put ourselves in the firing line and predict what will happen.

Scotland v England

We hummed and we hawed.  We saw the England squad and thought they couldn’t possibly win.  Then we saw the Scotland team, with Dan Parks at 10, and thought they couldn’t possibly win.  Then we cried for a bit thinking about the two hours of our lives we’d each be giving up to watch the blasted game.  Then, finally, we saw the England team and went back to thinking they wouldn’t win.

This one’s all about the New England – new captain, new players, new attitude, new interim coach, new playing style.  The trouble is none of it looks all that great.  Mouritz Botha, Geoff Parling and Phil Dowson are adequate Boshiership journeymen rather than exciting new talents, while England appear to be looking to the least creative of the good sides in the country for their midfield (10 – 13 all Sarries!). Chris Robshaw captains the team, and he’s a good player, but looks a bit knackered and will be out of position on the openside.

Verdict: We’re going for Scotland because we just can’t see how England will be able to deliver the gameplan they’re talking about.  Lancaster says they’re looking to play at a high tempo, but high tempo requires quick ball, and just who is going to serve that up? The Scottish back row will be licking their chops at the lightweight trio England have served up – Scotland to shade a dour affair.

France v Italy

France will be looking to hit the ground running and have every chance of doing so.  They seem to have the right team on the pitch, something they haven’t had for some time.  Louis Picamoles keeps out Harinordoquy in what looks a position of real strength (Fulgence Ouedraogo can’t even make the 22), while Trinh-Duc is welcomed back to the starting line-up, with Beauxis a handy reserve.  All eyes will be on Clermont’s razor-sharp Wesley Fofana, who looks like a potential star of the tournament.

It should all be too much for Italy.  The Italians were poor in the World Cup, and never looked like troubling Ireland or Australia.  They just don’t travel.  Their home games, now in the Stadio Olimpico, will be worth watching and they may try to keep some of their powder dry for England’s arrival there next week.

Verdict: this one is set up for France to rack up some points; we expect them to win by a couple of scores.

Ireland v Wales

Obviously, this is the most interesting game from our perspective. Even before the Welsh squad started dropping like flies, we fancied that this was a game Ireland were targetting – the noises from the squad echo those we heard prior to England in March and Australia in October. Now, with the Welsh down several front-liners, Ireland will be confident as well as motivated.

We foresee an urgent and effective Ireland performance with some tries thrown in. Wales will play a smart game and target our weaknesses (second row in the loose and Earls’ defence at 13) but it won’t be enough. Ireland really want this one, and nearly all the squad go in brimful of confidence after the HEC group stages – stark contrast to Wales.

Verdict: We don’t think Ireland will blow Wales away early like they did to England, but they will have enough. This could be quite high-scoring – the Welsh backs are more than useful – 30-20 or something. Ireland by more than a score

Dwarf throwing, Retirements, Eye-Gouges and Fudged Drop Goals: We rate your World Cup

We’ve pored over Ireland’s exit in some detail.  Here’s a run through the other nations who’ll have fancied their chances to do well.

Scotland: Failed to Qualify from Group
Poor wee Scotland.  Pipped by both England and Argentina by last-gasp tries.  Against Argentina they managed to work a drop goal opportunity to win it, but hurried the kick.  Against England they probably would have won had they not needed to win by more than seven and seek a try themselves when in front on the scoreboard.  They manned up impressively in both games, but the reason they failed to qualify is available in just one statistic: no tries in their final three group games.  They have plenty of grunt in the pack and can keep teams like England on the back foot for long periods, but they just can’t buy a try.  Their backs moving the ball look slower and less accurate than most AIL teams.

Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Sleepy. Time to wake up and learn to catch and pass the ball properly.

Argentina: Quarter Final exit to New Zealand
Worthy recipients of the medal for bravery and courage in the face of unlikely odds.  A shadow of the force of 2007, but their great warriors Ledesma, Albacete and Contepomi refused to go quietly, even if they couldn’t conjure up the same quality as four years ago, with Juan Matin Hernandez a notable absentee.  Should have beaten England and squeezed through against Scotland at the death, and can take real pride in their showing against New Zealand.  They came up with the try of the tournament, with Conters showing a touch of his fading genius, and held the Kiwis tryless for three quarters of the game.  Not bad considering Lobbe was injured and Nigel Owens was shafting them at every opportunity.

Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Happy. Can go home knowing the left nothing behind them.

Italy:  Failed to Qualify from Group
Italy have become an obstinate side at the Flaminio, but the task for the next coach will be getting them to perform on the road.  Showed up well against Russia with slick hands and fast-paced attack, but in their final win-or-bust pool game, their surrender to Ireland was meek and indisciplined.  They talked a good game, with Castro declaring himself ‘ready for war’, but when the moment came they were blown away by Ireland’s greater arsenal.  Somehow, somewhere, a 10 has to be found who can organise their backs and dictate the play.  Until then, they’ll continue to struggle.

Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Grumpy.  Need to keep composure when things go awry.

South Africa: Quarter-final exit to Australia 
Rather unlucky to lose to Australia, but they couldn’t cross the whitewash and paid the price. They brought physicality and certainty to the tournament, and in Francois Steyn, had perhaps the player of the group stages. The problem was, without him, they really showed their limitations. Short of the ability to kick penalties from the halfway line, and without his creativity at 12, they ended up spending 75 minutes camped in the Aussie 22 and losing 11-9. Schalk Burger was immense all tournament, and they played better against Oz than Wales or Samoa, but when you can’t score you can’t win.
Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Bosh-ful – kicking, no creativity, physicality – they are England with discipline basically

England: Quarter-final exit to France 
Where do we start? The scarcely-deserved victories over Scotland and Argentina?  The late and nasty tackles?  The lack of ambition? The stupidity of some of the penalties they gave away? The chambermaid incident? A huge pity that Johnno bottled it and let the running game of last November fade into nothingness, for there are some quality players in this side. It may sound harsh, but they brought nothing to the tournament. It appears Johnno has taken them as far as he can, perhaps its time for a new beginning?
Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Sleazy Sneezy – go home unlamented
Samoa: Failed to qualify from group
After beating the Wallabies during the summer/winter, Samoa went into the tournament very much on the Welsh and Saffa radar, and any chance of being taken lightly was gone. And they duly weren’t, with both sides playing very sensibly against the Islanders and winning. Samoa themselves rarely took the handbrake off and paid the price. Having said that, they didn’t exactly get the rub of the refereeing green, and generally played well – for example, they might have won Group B (the group of dearth). And although Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu might have a point about IRB bias, he didn’t exactly make it very well, did he?
Mike Tindall Dwarf Rating: Dopey – had the talent to go further, but go home frustrated

RWC: Anthemwatch

With Egg and Mini Egg having sat through multiple anthems (and enjoyed some of them), it got us thinking – if the match ended after the music stopped (and, mercifully, before the Haki (plural) begin), who would take home Bill?

Let’s preview:


France: The clear favourite. La Marseillaise is, without any doubt, the best national anthem in the world. Even for non-Frenchies, it makes the spine tingle, and is so republican, it would induce Mike Tindall to start sharpening the guillotine for Granny-in-law. And then induce the rest of les proles rosbifs to start sharpening it for Mike Tindall. Here is a SPECTACULAR rendition, one night in Cardiff in 2007.

Italy: Some anthems seem very much appropriate for their country. For example, Deutschlandleit seems rich, confident and suave, just like the denizens of Munich, Stuttgart and Berlin. In the same vein, Il Canto Degli Italiani seems jaunty, cool, but slightly unreliable (whats with the oom-pah bit?), and is an appropriate combination of boring Milan, dangerous Naples and sexy Rome. Altogether now: bom-bom-be-bom, bom-bom-be-bom, bom-BOM-be-bom, bom-bom-be-bom!!

USA: The best thing about the the Star Spangled Banner is that Americans positively encourage involvement and interpretation, as befits a nation which defines itself by its ability to assimilate. Can you imagine any other country allowing noted rock or rap stars the option of doing their “version” of the anthem at the country’s biggest sporting event every year? Unlikely. Yet the Yanks can’t wait for the anthem before the Superbowl. It’s optimistic, emotional and adaptable – and very hard to dislike.


Russia: Now, Egg Chaser is no flaming Commie, far from it. But there is something powerful about the old Soviet anthem, now adapted for Russia. It’s not without its controversy, as many Russians rightly remember the murder and explotation of their countrymen and women by psychopathic leaders, and refuse to sing along. For most, perhaps, its the perverse pride in remembering when Russia mattered. Anyway, check out the Paul Robeson version from the 1940s and at least appreciate the idealism. And here’s a flavour of what non-Russian former Soviets think of the anthem.

Wales: As befits a nation of choirboys choristers, Land of My Fathers is tuneful, musically sound and enjoyable. The impenetrable Welsh tongue makes this local anthem very much exotic. Maybe its stereotypical, but the Welsh players also seem like better singers than other nations. Or maybe its just the magic atmosphere in the Millennium. Either way, its a dark horse for the title.

South Africa: Like Ireland, the South African ditty is a prisoner of history and politics. The anthem shares the distinction (with the Italian one) of being in 2 keys, although the South African one is in 2 keys essentially because it is 2 songs merged together – Nkosi Sikelil iAfrica and Die Stem. The current anthem contains 5 languages and tries manfully to knit together a desperately fractured country. In spite of the grim music (particularly in the second half), a national anthem is about much more than that, and the sight of 15 proud South Africans singing every word in 1995 was simply incredible, and lifts this to contender status.

Going home early:

England: An absolute dirge. God Save the Queen has bored generations of Englishmen and antagonized generations of foreigners, which is perhaps part of its ongoing appeal at home. In true British fashion however, it has a great backstory. Firstly, no-one actually knows who wrote the song, and there is disagreement over what key it hould be played in. Secondly, it has been continually re-written, and current and former colonies continue to drop it (including England themselves for the Commonwealth games!). According to “protocol”, the Queen doesn’t sing it, we wonder does she just think its shite.

Ireland: Once again, the Irish manage to out-do the English on the rugby field by having not one, but two dirges. The much and rightly-maligned Ireland’s Call is virtually unsalvageable, but Amhran na bFhiann isn’t a whole lot better. Now, Egg Chaser is as patriotic as the next man and sings it with as much gusto as anyone else, that is a medium murmur, but it’s all pretty uninspiring, which is disappointing from a nation which has some cracking old tunes – some close to Egg’s heart are here and here, although Tommy Bowe’s version of one old favourite was fairly … errrrr … average. Despite all that though, this was amazing.

Scotland: Flower of Scotland is so dull that this is generally accepted to be the most rousing version ever performed. The most rousing! Ever!! It’s a pity, because the lyrics very much appeal to the Braveheart Scottish self-image, although it can seem a little incongruous when being sung by Alasdair, Hugo and Hamish the Tartan Tories in Murrayfield, Edinburgh, the most British city in the UK. Scotland deserves much much better.

The Agony of Choice

So, what should we make of the win over Russia? It was wholely pleasant really, very unlike most games we play when we are expected to win. We ran in a few tries, a couple of lads put their hands up for selection, Mushy scored a try in his last game for Ireland, and Deccie has been left with some selection headaches for the crucial Italy game on Sunday – what is there not to like?

Italy’s bonus point win this morning over the USA! USA! USA!, coupled with our desperate failure  to get one on 9/11 means we have no room for manoever – if we had our Yankee bonus point in the bag, we could have afforded to lose by <7 points and still top the pool and qualify – not any more – a win is needed.

Now, what team will Deccie send out to do the business. He has decisions to make at 4, 10, 11 and 12 – lets look at them:

  • Second Row: Donncha O’Callaghan was not bad by any means against Russia; you got your usual combination of secure line-outs and hard work around the park – but it must nag that both Leo Cullen and Donncha Ryan looked more effective, at tight play and ball-carrying respectively. Donncha has held off an on-form Micko in Munster for 2 years now, and hasn’t faced serious challenge at this level yet. Deccie is a cautious man by nature, but picking Cullen against a lumbering and heavyweight Italian second row partnership isn’t a huge risk – its a possibility though, not a probability
  • Out-half: Here’s the question. Rog was named man of the match against Russia while Sexto missed a laughably easy kick just when the spotlight was on him. Its going to be an arm-wrestle, the logic goes, pick the man who can hit a barn door when required. However, its more complicated than that. Firstly, Teacher Pet tells us Deccie doesn’t want to pick Rog. Secondly, Sexton would be the horse for the Wales course – why drop him now? Thirdly, when we nearly lost in Rome in February, Sexton started. We think Deccie will consider that a worst-case scenario and stick with Sexton as his first-choice 10. Rog will undoubtedly have a part to play, but it will be from the bench
  • Left Wing: Andrew Trimble was again our most threatening broken-field runner from the left-wing. Its hard to see what more he can do to get a shirt, but Earls is the man in possession and is improving by the match. Trimble, to be truthful, deserves the shirt, but Earls has it – Deccie is unlikely to drop a man he has invested so much time in 
  • Inside Centre: If Dorce was fit, this wouldn’t be a question. But he isn’t, and he hasn’t been for a while. Paddy Wallace performed well last week, carrying well and bringing players into play where possible, and is clearly the backup 12. When Sexton came on, he filled in at 12 seemlessly, as he did earlier in the tournament. However, that’s not a serious option if winning the tournament is an actual ambition. You could move Bowe, Earls, McFadden or Trimble into the centre, but since Deccie has never done this, you assume he’s not going to start in a game of this magnitude. We have a feeling PWal might hold on to the shirt, unless Dorce proves his fitness of course.

There is a fair degree of nervousness about this game, most of it based on the display in Rome in February. However, we are quite sanguine about it all. Italy have the best number 8 in the world, but our back row unit is better. Set-pieces should break even. Semenzato is a good 9, but they have no 10. Tomasso Benvenuti looks a serious player, but will he see the ball? Italy have been purring up to now, but we think Ireland have enough to hold them at arms length, and maybe even pull away late on.

World Cup Preview: Italy

Group C Opposition: Australia, Ireland, USA and Russia

Pedigree: Not good.  Italy have never really brought the ferocity with which they play in the Six Nations to bear on a World Cup.  They have never been in the quarter finals before.

Players to watch: Italy’s hopes tend to rest on the impressive shoulders of one extraordinary man.  Sergio Parisse is the world’s premier Number 8; the phenomenal combination of glue-like hands, ferocious physicality and insatiable desire to win mke him the sort of player it is just a pleasure to watch.  He is helped out in the backrow by the excellent lieutenant Alessandro Zanni.  Italy need a bunch of backs to capitalise on the forward power, and they will be hoping that Tomasso Benvenuti and Andrea Masi will provide a spark of creativity to turn pressure into tries, and hopefully Fabio Semenzato follows through on an excellent 6 Nations.
Good tournament: They need to beat Ireland and make the quarter finals.

Bad tournament: If they go out in the group stages it will be a disappointment.

Prospects: Italy are in the best shape they have ever been in, and they have a reasonable chance of achieving their aim.  The days of the 60-minute Italian performance have been banished, and the Italian players are now fit and able for the full 80. Indeed, they staged late rallies this year to defeat France and scare Ireland. Gone, also, is the awful first-up tackling that allowed opponents to rack up scores with minimal creativity.  They won’t go down easily.

This is Nick Mallet’s last tournament in charge, and the players will surely want to do their marvellous coach justice. They need a couple of things to go in their favour.  They need Australia to beat Ireland, preferably handsomely, thereby making the final game in Dunedin a winner-takes-all shootout, the very type of occasion that will make Ireland edgy.  Then they need a rainy day in Dunedin (not a whole lot to ask for, by all accounts) and as many scrums as possible.  Then all bets are off.

Where they lack is at fly-half and in remaining composed in clutch situations.  They should have beaten Ireland in the Six Nations (Wales too), but when the pressure was on, they fudged a restart and allowed Ireland into drop goal territory.  Meanwhile, the search for the next Diego Dominguez goes on. Following Craig Gower’s injury (and subsequent code switch), and Kyle Burton being banished, Luciano Orquera will be the man responsibe for guiding Italy from the pivot role.  He will need to shape up and fast if Italy are to finally make an impact at a World Cup.

Verdict: Almost certain to come down to a nailbiting finish, but we suspect they’ll probably come up just short. 3rd in group.

Moments of the Season Part II

Yesterday, we had Egg Chaser’s moments of the season; today Palla Ovale takes us through the moments he won’t be forgetting for a while.  Yes, Cardiff features.

Leinster’s kids take it to Clermont.  The sight of emergency wing Fergus McFadden breaking the line off the back of a scrum on Leinster’s 10m line away to Clermont was the moment Joe’s gameplan had fully arrived at Leinster.  The move broke down as Sexton’s offload could’t quite find Nacewa and Leinster eventually lost the match, but the coach, shorn of all his Lions backs, had not only put faith in youth, but sought to have a cut in a stadium where nobody wins – it set the template for a magical season.

Sergio Parisse after Italy v France.  Whiff of Cordite sees nothing to be ashamed of in having a man-crush on Sergio Parisse.  And the sight of the great Italian No. 8 reduced to tears following his team’s historic victory over France in the Six Nations in Rome was a a truly special moment indeed.  In truth Italy should have won three games in this year’s series – they have learned to compete for 80 minutes, now they just need to find composure in clutch situations.  And a consistent place kicker.
Besty’s Inside Ball.  Ulster sparkled against Northampton with some eye-catching back play until the second half, when the Saints crushed their set piece.  Spence, iHumph and Trimble all caused the Northampton defence real trouble with slick handling and hard running.  But what was this?  Is that – it can’t be? – Rory Best giving the most subtly disguised inside pass into Andy Trimble’s midriff to split the Saints’ defence and set up a try?

Cullen holds the pass.  Yes, we had to mention that second half, and while Sexton’s tries, Hines getting over in his last HEC game for Leinster and The Penalty Scrum all stood out, the sight of Leo Cullen, of all people, somehow holding Strauss’ slightly inacurate offload encapsulated the performance.  Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, surely Leo would have dropped it, but this was 40 minutes of rugby when Leinster were simply irresistable.  A few rumbles later and Hines was over.