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6 Nations

Ireland’s Redemption Mission

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One of the worst Ireland performances of the Joe Schmidt era, coupled with some of the best rugby Italy have played in years, meant Ireland had quite the scare in Rome. The 9th of March will see the French arrive into the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. A competent win against the Scots in Paris last time may have papered over some cracks in French camp, but France do have a tendency to completely fall asunder when playing away from home. Two teams playing below their best, but what can Ireland need to do over the next few days to try get back in form?

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It is clear that some of the senior players are not motivated like they usually are. The best performers of the Six Nations so far have been fringe players trying to force their way into contention. Ultan Dillane stood out against Italy, and in his bench cameo in Murrayfield. Quinn Roux has been rock solid calling lineouts, John Cooney has shined for his all too brief cameos off the bench. The body language some players are showing makes it seem like there is dissatisfaction in camp. The usual high fives, slaps on the back, all of the usual signs of good team atmosphere are not as evident

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Ireland’s halfbacks, the envy of most sides in world rugby have been playing at a level some way below their very high standards. Conor Murray’s usually pinpoint box-kicking has been off kilter; forgivable perhaps for the England game where Eddie’s men did an outstanding job of disrupting Ireland’s kicking game. Keith Earls, usually Ireland’s main kick-chaser, was targeted with Owen Farrell’s up-and-unders. Earls being forced to field the ball, obviously took him out of the game, forcing Conor Murray to kick to touch more often than he would have liked.

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Kicking has not been Murray’s only problem. His passing has not been as crisp as it once was, not quite at his usual accuracy. Murray looks like he has lost muscle mass in his upper body,  due to his injury enforced layoff, and this seems to have had a knock on effect on his passing. It hasn’t been all bad from Murray, he kicked two goals and scored one of his trademark sniping tries against Italy, but he does look like a player out of sorts, perhaps not fully fit.

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Breakdown has been a problem for Ireland this Six Nations. Tom Curry made the seasoned Ireland back row look like amateurs in Dublin, counterrucking like an animal and winning jackal turnovers. Lack of turnovers threat is something that Ireland have been hurt by this year, and for that reason, Tadhg Beirne needs to start against France. Beirne is quite simply the best breakdown operator in the country, and Ireland will need that, and his ball-carrying, against a big French pack. Demba Bamba, Guilhelm Guirado, Felix Lambey, Arthur Iturria, Louis Picamoles, will all carry ball for days, and Ireland will need all the carriers they can get, so CJ Stander needs to come straight back into the squad.

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CJ Stander is one of the hardest working players in the Ireland squad. He has been criticised in the past by the likes of Stuart Barnes for putting up big numbers of carries, but not having a high enough count of his metres made. This is an unfounded criticism, by people who don’t pay attention to how CJ actually plays the game, and just looks at the stats, stats of course never tell the whole story. CJ takes all of the dirtiest ball, standing start, pod of three forwards in front of him, pick and go, you name it CJ will take that ball and he will make you a couple of yards. He doesn’t always give you big highlight reel carries like Billy Vunipola might do, but he is consistent in what he does. Munster have started using CJ on kick returns, and this something well worth considering for Joe, because once CJ gets going, he is a seriously hard man to stop.

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Joe Schmidt is undoubtedly one of, if not the best head coach in world rugby, but if you had to criticise him, his use of replacement half-backs would be top of the list. Murray and Sexton over the last year have been the best in the business, but as we have seen over the past month, even the best have their off days. John Cooney, the form scrum-half in the country has sat on the bench for the first three games, getting less than ten minutes in each game. Cooney has upped the tempo considerably when he has come on, and has made Ireland look a much better team. Discounting one 80 minute shift, John Cooney has 5 caps amounting to a total of 27 minutes of game time. For a guy who has single-handedly won games for Ulster this year, its borderline disrespectful.

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It’s a recurring theme with Schmidt. Even Kieran Marmion, who guided Ireland to a win over New Zealand has been massively under utilised. The Connacht half-back has been named on Ireland bench 23 times, 8 of these he wasn’t used, and he completed two 40 minute stints on the wing. Fair enough leaving Conor Murray on the field if it’s a very tight game and himself and Johnny are on song, but sometimes the kicking gameplan just isn’t working, and you need something different. John Cooney brings that. Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath both bring that. They need to be used. They need to be trusted. Aside from Conor Murray, Ireland have four international quality scrum-halves, and as Kieran Marmion proved last November, there is absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t be trusted.

Schmidt is not the only coach with an aversion to changing halfbacks. Many England fans were bemoaning the fact that Dan Robson and George Ford didn’t make it onto the park in Cardiff, even when it became apparent that the gameplan was failing. The starters may be better all round players, but sometimes you need a change. As with Joe, Eddie has trust issues.

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Tempo is something Ireland will need this weekend. The France forwards are real big boys, and Ireland will not want to avoid a battering match the likes of Sebastian Vahaamahina and Wenceslas Lauret. Ireland will need to run them around the park as much as they can, especially late in the game. This is where John Cooney and Jack Carty could shine. It would be great to see Jack Carty get a decent run this week. With his first touch of international rugby he made half a break. Imagine what he could do with more than two and a half minutes?

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Ireland have to get themselves back on track this weekend. This Six Nations may be a write off, but Ireland need to get their mojo. France are going to be a test this weekend. An unchanged lineup from the team that competently dismantled Scotland must mean that the winds of common sense have blown through Jacques Brunel’s moustache. The cliche of which France team is going to show up is overused at this stage, but has come true in a big way this Six Nations. France’s last away game may have been an unmitigated disaster, but you get the sneaking feeling Dublin could be different. Ireland will have a job on their hands, and they need to get it done.


6 Nations

Keenan’s Injury Rehab ‘Progressing Well’ As Ireland Squad Link Back Up Together

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Hugo Keenan was always confident that Ciaran Frawley would perform well against Wales last week, with the Skerries man marking his first start for Ireland by running in the hosts’ third try of the game.

Frawley deputised at full-back as Andy Farrell’s men made it three bonus point wins on the trot to extend their lead at the top of the Guinness Men’s Six Nations table to six points. Calcutta Cup winners Scotland are now their closest challengers.

It was a rare match for Keenan to miss, and such has been the ever-dependable Dubliner’s importance to the team during Andy Farrell’s reign, he has started 38 of their last 43 Tests. Only Jimmy O’Brien, Michael Lowry, and now Frawley, have stood in for him during that time.

Currently rehabbing the knee injury that he picked up against Italy, and with his sights set on returning against England on Saturday week, Keenan is hopeful of being available for selection for the trip to Twickenham.

“That’s the plan, hoping to get back for England. I was sad not to be out there at the weekend. Always tough watching from the stand, but rehab’s progressing well,” he said, speaking at an event to promote Energia’s #HalfAFan campaign.

“I’ve been worked hard. I’ve been in rehabbing the last day or two as well while the rest of the squad’s been off, so it’s always the annoying side of it, you don’t really get your days off.

“I’m happy with how it’s coming along, and progressing well. No (contact training), not fully quite there but we haven’t been in this week.

“We’re linking back up together tomorrow (Wednesday), we are going to be based in Energia (Park), then we’ve got the open training session (at the Aviva Stadium) on Thursday. Not too far off getting fully involved, so looking forward to being back.”

It is easy to forget that Keenan won four of his first six international caps on the wing, towards the tail end of 2020 and those uncertain Covid-19 times. Since then he has very much cemented himself as Ireland’s first choice full-back, and one of the best in the position worldwide.

Having been ever-present during last year’s Grand Slam-winning campaign and the Rugby World Cup, the 27-year-old is itching to get back to full fitness and ensure that it is only one game he has to sit out.

Commenting on the timeframe for his recovery, he explained: “I suppose the injury happened in the Italy game and four weeks from that would be the England game. I was trying to get back for the Wales match. It was just a week or two too early.

We sort of treated it – since we’ve known I’d be out – as a four-week injury. There was no point rushing me straight back into something I’m not ready for.

“So, I’m hoping to build up the load over the next 10 or so days leading up to it to get right for that one. You don’t enjoy the time on the sideline but hopefully it will be a case where I just miss one.

“It wouldn’t have been the worst timing because maybe sometimes a four-week injury in the middle of a Six Nations you miss three games rather than just one. Hopefully I’m getting lucky with that.”

Reflecting on how he sustained the injury, Keenan fell awkwardly in a 52nd-minute tackle from Italy replacement Giosuè Zilocchi. Just moments earlier, he had spearheaded a breathless attack from deep, breaking onto Craig Casey’s chip kick and bringing play close to the Italian 22.

“I saw him (Zilocchi) coming out of the corner of my eye, so I managed to get my legs off the ground, which meant a lot of the impact was taken, so it was nothing too serious.

“I tried to shake it off, but it probably wasn’t one I could have. We were in a comfortable position at that stage as well.

“You always are a small bit nervous, but we’ve got great doctors and great physios. They cleared my knee for a large part going into it (the scan), so I was pretty confident it was something pretty minor. I was reassured soon enough so it was all good.”

Frawley’s 80 minutes against Wales – ‘solid enough’ according to head coach Farrell – will certainly help to build more depth at full-back.

Jack Crowley got some game-time in the position against Italy, while of Ireland’s extended Six Nations squad, Jordan Larmour and Jacob Stockdale have also had international starts at full-back.

Mack Hansen (shoulder) and O’Brien (neck) will add to those back-field options on their return from injury later in the year. In the meantime, Keenan praised his Leinster colleague for his performance last Saturday, but would understandably rather be out there himself as Ireland’s last line of defence.

“I’ve been lucky enough that I haven’t been in that situation (sidelined for match week) too many times. I’ve had a good run of injuries.

“It’s something I don’t enjoy too much, I get nervous, I get worried. You can’t control anything when you’re on the side of the pitch, while when you’re in amongst it you’re distracted more, you’re just focused on the challenge in front of you.

“I thought Frawls went very well, didn’t he? It was great to see it. I don’t think anyone had any doubts about him, he’s an incredible footballer. We’ve all seen it for Leinster, and the small bits that he’s got a chance with a green jersey as well.

“He’s got a bit more time at 15, and I think there were probably a few question marks around who would play there with Jimmy and Mack out, but we were all very confident in him.

“It was great for him to get settled in early and get a try as well. I was delighted for him,” he added.

Energia ambassador Hugo Keenan was speaking as part of Energia’s #HalfAFan campaign. As proud partner of the Ireland Men’s and Women’s rugby teams, Energia understands that being a partner to both teams means showing support for both – so don’t just be #HalfAFan.

Images & Content from Irish Rugby & Images © Inpho Photography


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6 Nations

‘It’s A Great Appointment’ – Farrell On Murphy’s Move To Ulster

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With Dan McFarland stepping down as Ulster head coach this week, it has been confirmed that Murphy will take over the role on an interim basis following the conclusion of the Under-20 Six Nations Championship.

The Ireland Under-20s are in title contention again thanks to two opening wins, with Murphy having overseen back-to-back U-20 Grand Slam successes and a World Rugby U-20 Championship final appearance in the last two seasons.

Farrell first worked alongside Murphy when they were defence coach and skills and kicking coach respectively, during Joe Schmidt’s coaching reign with Ireland.

The pair have kept up a strong connection with Murphy continuing for a short while as a specialist kicking resource for the senior squad, and the Under-20s often training with Farrell’s men during the Six Nations window.

“I think it’s a great appointment. I think Richie will do a fantastic job (at Ulster), his rugby knowledge is second to none,” commented Farrell.

“He is a very experienced guy that has been an assistant for quite some time and I know that he worked with us for a short period before we went to the Under-20s, but that was his next step to take that type of mantle on and do it his way.

He has certainly done a fantastic job. I mean, coaching the Under-20s is coaching in its purest form, it’s bloody difficult because of the swapping and changing the whole time each year.

“It shows exactly the quality that he’s got and his knowledge of the whole game. I think the players up at Ulster there will love him.

“His attitude is great but first and foremost I think they will respect his knowledge, definitely.”

McFarland was in charge of Ulster since 2018 and guided them to the PRO14 final two years later. They looked to be finding form again with a trio of wins over Racing 92, Connacht, and Leinster, coming into the New Year.

However, last Sunday’s poor 19-17 defeat at the Ospreys was their third loss in a row, leaving them eighth in the BKT United Rugby Championship, and came just a few weeks after failing to reach the last 16 of the Investec Champions Cup.

Assistant coach Dan Soper will take the reins for their next URC fixture at home to the Dragons on Saturday week, before Murphy comes on board for their two-match tour to South Africa where they will play the Hollywoodbets Sharks and the DHL Stormers.

The Bray man will have to quickly get up to the speed as the Ulstermen then travel to Montpellier in the EPCR Challenge Cup’s round of 16, just after Easter. Given the people involved, Farrell is confident they can turn things around at Kingspan Stadium.

“Look, it’s obvious that we want all the provinces playing at the top of their game. If that happens, it’s a special place to be but it doesn’t tend to happen that often, does it?

“One thing I know for sure is that Ulster have got a fantastic squad and good people up there. The lads that we have within our squad are exemplary to the province, as far as their attitudes are concerned whether they’re playing or not.”

A dislocated toe, suffered during that loss to the Ospreys, means Iain Henderson is unavailable for Ireland’s clash with Wales on Saturday. His Ulster colleague, Stuart McCloskey, is one of only two backs on the hosts’ bench as they opt to return to a six-two split.

New-look Wales, who lost their first two games to Scotland and England by a combined three points, come to Dublin with a squad that has accumulated 662 caps, compared to Ireland’s 1012.

119 of those caps are provided by George North alone, while 21-year-old Exeter Chiefs lock Dafydd Jenkins continues as captain, and Cardiff back rower Mackenzie Martin could make his debut off the bench.

Asked what he is expecting from Wales this weekend, Farrell replied: “Playing against Wales, you know it’s always going to be a scrap.

“You know that every single time Wales play against Ireland, it means probably a little bit more to them, I’ve been told (that) over the years.

“So we’re aware of that, and we also know as well that Wales historically have got better throughout the competition.

“We’re five weeks into it come the weekend, from when we first started training. We know that they’ll be better and hopefully we’ve used our time wisely as well.”

Images & Content from Irish Rugby & Images © Inpho Photography


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6 Nations

Wales team to face Ireland in Dublin named

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Senior men’s head coach Warren Gatland has named the Wales side to face Ireland at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin in the third round of the 2024 Guinness Six Nations on Saturday 24 February (KO 2.15pm live on ITV and S4C).

There is one change to the starting XV that played England at Twickenham on 10 February, with Sam Costelow returning for Wales at fly half.

Among the replacements back-row Mackenzie Martin is in line to win his first senior cap this weekend and would become the 1,200th Wales men’s international.

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Tight-head prop Dillon Lewis would be making his first appearance of this Championship if called on from the bench.

Gatland said: “We are excited to go out to Dublin and test ourselves against one of the leading sides in world rugby. It’s a challenge we are relishing.

“We’ve made steps in the last couple of games and now it’s about building on that, learning from those experiences and taking that into this weekend.

“It’s about continuing to work hard, looking for accuracy in our performance across 80 minutes and also keeping our discipline.”

Wales senior men’s team to play Ireland at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin in the Guinness Six Nations, Saturday 24 February KO 2.15pm GMT. Live on ITV and S4C.
15. Cameron Winnett (Cardiff Rugby – 2 caps)
14. Josh Adams (Cardiff Rugby – 56 caps)
13. George North (Ospreys – 119 caps)
12. Nick Tompkins (Saracens – 34 caps)
11. Rio Dyer (Dragons – 16 caps)
10. Sam Costelow (Scarlets – 9 caps)
9. Tomos Williams (Cardiff Rugby – 55 caps)
1. Gareth Thomas (Ospreys – 27 caps)
2. Elliot Dee (Dragons – 48 caps)
3. Keiron Assiratti (Cardiff Rugby – 4 caps)
4. Dafydd Jenkins (Exeter Chiefs – 14 caps) Captain / Capten
5. Adam Beard (Ospreys – 53 caps)
6. Alex Mann (Cardiff Rugby – 2 caps)
7. Tommy Reffell (Leicester Tigers – 15 caps)
8. Aaron Wainwright (Dragons – 45 caps)

Replacements

16. Ryan Elias (Scarlets – 40 caps)
17. Corey Domachowski (Cardiff Rugby – 8 caps)
18. Dillon Lewis (Harlequins – 54 caps)
19. Will Rowlands (Racing 92 – 30 caps)
20. Mackenzie Martin (Cardiff Rugby – uncapped)
21. Kieran Hardy (Scarlets – 19 caps)
22. Ioan Lloyd (Scarlets – 4 caps)
23. Mason Grady (Cardiff Rugby – 8 caps)

Images & Content – Wales Rugby


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