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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. Embed from Getty Images

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

Paul O’Connell Joins Ireland Coaching Group

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Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Former Ireland captain Paul O’Connell has joined the Ireland national coaching group as forwards coach with Simon Easterby to focus on defence.

Paul was capped 108 times by Ireland and captained the team to Six Nations success in 2014.  O’Connell’s distinguished playing career also included seven Test match appearances for the British & Ireland Lions across three tours and two Heineken Cup titles with Munster.

Since retiring from playing in 2015, Paul has held coaching positions with the Munster Academy, Ireland Under-20s and Top 14 side Stade Francais.

O’Connell commented:

“I am really looking forward to working with Andy and the rest of the coaching group. I worked with Simon as a player and am looking forward to working with him again. It’s an exciting young group of players to be involved with and there are talented forwards coming through across the four provinces that will no doubt be pushing for international selection in the coming months and years.”

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell commented:

“Paul brings a wealth of rugby knowledge with him and as forwards coach he will have responsibility for the forwards including the line-out working alongside John (Fogarty). He will also be another strong voice and leader within the group.

“Simon (Easterby) has a real passion for defence and having developed Ireland’s forward play over the past six years with the additional responsibility for the defence over the past 12 months, he will now be able to focus his energy and rugby intellect on this area of our game.

“The weekend’s Interpro games and the European fixtures in the weeks ahead will give players the opportunity to push for selection for the Six Nations squad. The squad will not be selected until after the Champions Cup Round 4 fixtures have been completed.”

IRFU Performance Director, David Nucifora, commented: “Paul is a young Irish coach with a huge amount of international rugby experience. We have been keen to find the right opportunity for him within Irish Rugby and we think the fit with the national squad will work well. He joins the national coaching group with immediate effect as they prepare for the upcoming Six Nations Championship.”

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6 Nations

Scotland name strong team for Wales

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Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images

Issued by SRU

Stuart Hogg will return to the Scotland starting line-up as Captain for the final round of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations against Wales on Saturday 31 October – kick-off 2:15pm.

Fresh from securing the European and Premiership double with his club Exeter Chiefs, Hogg plays at full back as one of five changes to the starting XV from the Scotland side that defeated Georgia 48-7 last week.

Finn Russell lines up at fly-half after winning his 50th Scotland cap in the Georgia victory at BT Murrayfield on Friday night, and is joined in the half-backs by Glasgow Warriors’ Ali Price.

In the back division, Blair Kinghorn shifts to the wing from full-back and replaces Edinburgh teammate Duhan van de Merwe, who is named among the replacements. James Lang and Chris Harris continue their centre partnership after playing together against Georgia.

In the pack fellow Exeter Chief Jonny Gray comes into the second row and Scarlets’ Blade Thomson is selected at number 8 and will run out on his club ground on Saturday in Llanelli.Hooker Fraser Brown is named as Vice-Captain and packs down with Rory Sutherland and Zander Fagerson in an unchanged front row.

Scott Cummings also retains his starting place to partner Gray in the second row.Edinburgh pair Jamie Ritchie, also a Vice Captain, and Hamish Watson make up the back-row with Thomson.

In the replacements Harlequins scrum-half Scott Steele could make his Scotland debut if called into action.

Adam Hastings and van de Merwe complete the backline replacements. Townsend can also call upon the same front row of Oli Kebble, Stuart McInally and Simon Berghan as featured in against Georgia, alongside Worcester Warrior Cornell du Preez and Edinburgh’s Ben Toolis from the bench.

“As a group we are very much looking forward to finally completing our fixture against Wales and returning to play Guinness Six Nations rugby again. We were highly motivated back in March, and that extra edge has come back into our training and preparations this week.
Scotland Head Coach, Gregor Townsend

“It’s been great to bring in quality and experience to our starting line-up with players such as Stuart, Jonny and Finn who have been involved in some high-level games in recent weeks. We were also encouraged by Blade’s display at the weekend for Scarlets, which is a timely boost given last weekend’s injury to Matt Fagerson.

“We are expecting a physical battle against a very good side, one which we will be working hard to stay in the fight and to finish the fight in Llanelli. Ultimately, this game provides an opportunity for us to end this extended championship on a positive note and go into the Autumn Nations Cup with some added belief in what this group of players can achieve.”

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6 Nations

Wales XV announced for 6 Nations finale v Scotland.

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Photo by John Berry/Getty Images

Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones will become rugby’s most capped international on Saturday when he makes his 149th test appearance (140th for Wales plus 9 British & Irish Lions caps).

Jones levelled the record last weekend but will take the honour for himself at Parc y Scarlets this weekend as Wales face Scotland in their re-arranged Guinness Six Nations finale (14.15 KO BBC & S4C).

At the other end of the international spectrum, Cardiff Blues back-row Shane Lewis-Hughes will make his first test appearance for Wales in a back-row alongside experienced Lions duo Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau.

Will Rowlands, fresh from the English Premiership Final with Wasps, comes into the side to make his first start for Wales and he packs down alongside captain Jones.

European Champion and English Premiership winner Tomas Francis comes into the front-row alongside Rhys Carre and Ryan Elias.

In the backline Gareth Davies partners Dan Biggar with Owen Watkin coming into the midfield alongside Jonathan Davies.

Liam Williams returns to the back-three to feature alongside Josh Adams and Leigh Halfpenny.

On the bench Sam Parry, Wyn Jones and Dillon Lewis provide the front-row replacements with Cory Hill and James Davies completing the forward contingent. Lloyd Williams comes straight into the matchday squad and provides backline cover along with Rhys Patchell and Nick Tompkins.

Issued by WRU

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