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6 Nations

The Best Way to Bow Out

This weekend will see Rory Best call time on his Six Nations career and with that we look at his time in the championship

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Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

On Saturday Ireland captain Rory Best will finish up his Six Nations career when the final whistle blows in Cardiff.

It is fitting in a way that it will end where one of his biggest moments took place. Exactly 10 years on from Ireland’s Grand Slam heroics in Wales, they return looking to prevent their hosts from winning their own Grand Slam.

Either way, when the clock ticks past red, Best will head to the stands, speak to the media and possibly shed a few tears as he says goodbye to a tournament that has served him so well.

At 36, he has been given the luxury of calling time on his own terms, something a graceful player like him deserves.

Saturday will see him line-out in green for the 117th time and the 64th and final time in the Six Nations, 13 years on from his debut in the competition.

Few may remember his first couple of seasons with the squad as he had to settle for second fiddle to Jerry Flannery as Ireland won the Triple Crown in both 2006 and 2007 and claimed that famous Grand Slam in 2009.

However, when the Munster man bowed out of the game due to injury it was Best who took up the No 2 jersey and made it his own.

The team as a whole endured a tough time over the next three or four seasons but Best continued to put in good showings. His consistency at line-out time and his hard-work throughout games were often highlights as Ireland slumped to some poor losses.

Then came the arrival of Joe Schmidt, a move which pushed Best’s game on even further. Even with Paul O’Connell being the captain, Best could often be heard motivating and pulling his team though matches.

Back to back championships followed in 2014 and 2015, and with them Best’s influence was noted and rewarded both on and off the pitch.

He was the man picked to replace O’Connell as captain of the national team in 2016 leading them to a third-placed finish in his first campaign as captain.

Under his leadership Ireland have improved with a second-placed finish in 2017 and a Grand Slam first-place finish last year.

When Best lifted the trophy last year, it was just reward for a player who has given his all to his country’s cause throughout the years and has been selfless through it all.

Although this campaign has failed to live up to the heights of last year, things took a turn on Sunday against the French and it was the captain who set the ball rolling scoring his 10th international try in the third minute.

Speaking ahead of the final round of fixtures, Ireland fly-half and world player of the year Johnny Sexton has paid tribute to his captain.

“He’s been a brilliant captain for us over the last few years, always team first, always very selfless and leads on the pitch with his actions. He does what’s right for team all the time and we’ll miss him,” he said

Best’s shoes will be big ones to fill with the likes of Sean Cronin and Niall Scannell needing to step up to succeed the Ulsterman.

With four Six Nations to his name, four triple crowns and two Grand Slams, victories over Australia, South Africa and of course The All Blacks, Best will go down as one of Ireland’s greatest. Yes, we will have World Cup warm-ups and a World Cup before he is gone but Saturday will see the curtain fall on his incredible Six Nations career.

To go full circle, it is fitting in a way that it will finish in the Principality Stadium. However, Ireland fans and neutrals a like would love to see the perfect fairy-tale ending where Best lifts that trophy one last time ten year’s on from his team’s success in Cardiff.

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6 Nations

Emerging Ireland Squad Departs For Bloemfontein

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The Emerging Ireland squad have completed a three day camp in the IRFU High Performance Centre in Dublin and will depart this evening for Bloemfontein ahead of their participation in the Toyota Challenge.

Ciarán Frawley has been ruled out with a shoulder injury picked up playing for Leinster against Benetton on Friday night. Connacht’s Cathal Forde has been with the squad since Friday and will now travel to South Africa. Forde represented Ireland U20s in 2021 and made his Connacht debut against Glasgow in the URC last season.

Caolin Blade picked up an injury playing for Connacht against the Stormers yesterday and has been ruled out of the Tour.  Leinster’s Ben Murphy, who was a member of the 2020 U20s Six Nations squad, has joined the group travelling to South Africa.

Unfortunately, Munster’s Alex Kendellen and Leinster’s Alex Soroka have also both been ruled out of travelling to Bloemfontein. Kendellen will complete his return to play process while Soroka aggravated an existing foot issue.

Ulster’s David McCann joined the squad on Friday. He was a member of the 2019 U20 Six Nations Grand Slam-winning side before captaining the Ireland U20s during the 2020 season.

The squad will depart for South Africa this evening and arrive in Bloemfontein on Tuesday ahead of their first game against the Windhoek Draught Griquas at the Toyota Stadium on Friday (Kick-off 12.45pm Irish time).

It is hoped that all three Emerging Ireland fixtures will be available via a livestream on IrishRugby.ie – details to follow.

Emerging Ireland Squad – Toyota Challenge 2022:

Backs (15)
Robert Baloucoune (Ulster/Enniskillen)
Jack Crowley (Munster/Cork Constitution)
Shane Daly (Munster/Cork Constitution)
Nathan Doak (Ulster/Banbridge)
Cathal Forde (Connacht/Corinthians)
Jake Flannery (Ulster/Ballynahinch)
Antoine Frisch (Munster)
Michael McDonald (Ulster)
Ethan McIlroy (Ulster/Ballynahinch)
Stewart Moore (Ulster/Malone)
Chay Mullins (Connacht/IQ Rugby)
Ben Murphy (Leinster/Clontarf)
Calvin Nash (Munster/Young Munster)
Jamie Osbourne (Leinster/Naas)
Andrew Smith (Leinster/Clontarf)

Forwards (19)
Tom Ahern (Munster/Shannon)
Diarmuid Barron (Munster/Garryowen)
Thomas Clarkson (Leinster/Dublin University)
James Culhane (Leinster/UCD)
Max Deegan (Leinster/Lansdowne)
Brian Deeny (Leinster/Clontarf)
John Hodnett (Munster/UCC)
Sam Illo (Connacht/Buccaneers)
Cormac Izuchukwu (Ulster/Ballynahinch)
David McCann (Ulster/Banbridge)
Joe McCarthy (Leinster/Dublin University)
Michael Milne (Leinster/UCD)
Scott Penny (Leinster/UCD)
Cian Prendergast (Connacht)
Callum Reid (Ulster/Banbridge)
Roman Salonoa (Munster/Shannon)
Tom Stewart (Ulster/Ballynahinch)
Dylan Tierney-Martin (Connacht/Corinthians)
Josh Wycherley (Munster/Young Munster)

Emerging Ireland Fixtures – Toyota Challenge 2022:

(All matches at Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein)

  • Friday 30th September: Windhoek Draught Griquas vs Emerging Ireland, 12.45pm Irish time
  • Wednesday 5th October: Airlink Pumas vs Emerging Ireland, 4pm Irish time
  • Sunday 9th October: Toyota Cheetahs vs Emerging Ireland, 2pm Irish time.

Images & Content from Irish Rugby & Images © Inpho Photography


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6 Nations

‘Tour Experience Should Help Players To Kick On’ – Easterby

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The 35-man panel was announced yesterday for their upcoming trip to South Africa, which will see them play the Griquas, Pumas and Cheetahs as part of the Toyota Challenge, beginning on Friday, September 30.

Baloucoune was set to tour New Zealand with Ireland last summer, but a hip injury sidelined him at the end of last season. Now, a year out from the Rugby World Cup, he is determined to get back in the Test match fold.

Emerging Ireland head coach Simon Easterby sees the Bloemfontein series as a timely opportunity for the Ulster winger, who was capped against the USA and Argentina last year, to showcase his talent again in a green jersey.

“Rob was due to come to New Zealand with us and didn’t because of injury. He is certainly one that has been around the environment for a while, but he’s only got a couple of caps,” said Easterby.

“I guess him and a few others in there, we feel like there’s still a need for us to build time and exposure in what we’re trying to do.

“We’re really lucky at the moment that all the players are getting a high level of coaching and expertise in the provinces, but we do things slightly differently as the provinces will do.

“So, we need to make sure that we keep them aligned to what we’re doing in the national set-up. It’s not a million miles apart from each other, but there’s always going to be little nuances and differences that we have, that each province will do slightly differently.”

The Enniskillen man was in electric form at times during the 2021/22 campaign, his Heineken Champions Cup hat-trick away to Toulouse and a couple of dazzling scores in the URC standing out.

As one of only four Test-capped players in the Emerging Ireland selection, Baloucoune could have more of a leadership role to play in Bloemfontein where Easterby anticipates ‘a good standard of rugby’ and ‘a fast-flowing game, on potentially a dry track’.

His speed, athleticism and defensive and attacking skills look ideally suited for the three-match run, given the Ireland youngsters will be coming up against ‘some serious athletes in the three teams we will be playing against’.

Easterby continued: “For someone like Rob, who has spent time in the environment, he came in as a development player a couple of years ago and then won a couple of caps and did really well.

“Then he’s had to spend a bit of time out with injury. We would have loved to have seen him in New Zealand, getting opportunities out there, but we didn’t get that chance.

“So, he’s one that we feel will benefit from spending more time in our environment. Hopefully he goes back to Ulster after the experience and he kicks on again.

There’s this massive opportunity over the next couple of months, through the (Ireland) ‘A’ game and the autumn internationals and beyond that into the Six Nations and beyond, for players like Rob and others.

“The time spent with us, in the bigger picture, is hopefully going to expose them and give them a real good foundation for the season ahead because it is such a massive season for all of us.”

Versatile Leinster back Frawley, who turns 25 in December, is shaping up to be a contender for the Ireland number 10 jersey after his exploits in New Zealand.

During that second Test victory over Māori All Blacks, he stood tall in managing the game in wet and windy conditions in Wellington and contributed 10 points from the tee.

While Frawley has played most of his provincial rugby at inside centre, the Ireland management want to see more of him at out-half and this upcoming tour could see him really come to the fore.

“We feel ‘Frawls’ has the potential to lead in a number of different positions,” noted Easterby. “Obviously he’s played 12 a fair bit for Leinster, but we see him – which he did in the Māori weeks – as being a guy that can lead from the front at 10. You know, lead a week.

“He’ll be asked in the next few weeks to do a slightly different role to what he was doing in New Zealand because he had a lot of senior players around him.

“We feel like he has the ability to step up and lead the week as someone like, the extreme, that Johnny Sexton does week in and week out and has done for a number of years.

“Giving those players like ‘Frawls’ the chance to put himself at the forefront of a week, lead it and take the team to a performance on a weekend in that position of 10 is crucial for us.”

Frawley will certainly face some stiff competition for the starting berth from Munster’s Jack Crowley and Ulster newcomer Jake Flannery, who made the switch from his native Munster and has similarly lofty ambitions.

Getting these players up to speed with the rigours of an international set-up and playing in a challenging touring environment is of huge value to the national coaches, but also potentially for their provinces on their return.

“We’re still finding a little bit about Frawls and the way he can play. You can see that when they’re playing in the URC and they’re playing for their provinces, but it is slightly different,” said the Emerging Ireland head coach.

“It’s not hugely different but it is different when you have them in your environment across a period of a couple of weeks.

“Hopefully we can benefit from that time and Frawls and the other players can benefit from that time with us when they go back to their provinces after this trip.”

Images & Content from Irish Rugby & Images © Inpho Photography


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6 Nations

Easterby: Emerging Ireland Tour Allows Us To Look Further Into Talent Pool

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Presenting an early opportunity to work with and impress the national coaches in a World Cup year, an Emerging Ireland squad has been selected to compete in the upcoming Toyota Challenge in Bloemfontein.

Three of South Africa’s Currie Cup teams, the Griquas, Pumas and Cheetahs, will provide the opposition for a young squad coached by Simon Easterby, the national defence coach.

The 35-man panel includes four Test-capped players, three who saw action against the Māori All Blacks, and a number of players who featured for the Ireland Under-20s in recent seasons, including 2022 U-20 Grand Slam winners James Culhane and Chay Mullins.

These are the first fixtures for an Emerging Ireland side since the Tbilisi Cup back in 2015, with Easterby hoping those selected can make the most out of the tour and press their claims for further involvement in November and beyond.

“I guess to put it in context, and the year that presents itself leading to the Rugby World Cup, we know that we have a real good, strong core group of players that’s been with us for a number of years,” said Easterby.

“But, we have to try and grow the depth and look further into the talent pool, in terms of our squad going forward.

“This is a real opportunity to build some continuity for some of those players that would have been with us in New Zealand during the Māori games and spent time with us in the environment there.

“But, also bring back a few players who have been out of the system for a while due to injury or form, and also look at some of the depth in positions that we need to fulfil a World Cup year.”

Ulster’s Robert Baloucoune and Cormac Izuchukwu are both back from injury, as is Munster’s highly-rated back rower John Hodnett, while promising young tightheads Tom Clarkson, Roman Salanoa (pictured above) and Sam Illo will travel.

This week’s announcement that an Ireland ‘A’ team will take on an All Blacks XV in November should give an added incentive to the South Africa-bound group, who will first come together for a three-day camp at the IRFU High Performance Centre next week.

Easterby explained: “We know 33 players will go to the World Cup, but we all know that that number needs to be higher and we need to have a larger pool of players at our disposal.

“To do that and effectively have that number of players, we need to spend more time with players and get to know players, connect with players.

“That’s why there’s a good cross-section of players that have got a few caps, players that have spent time in the environment recently, but also players who won’t have had any time in the environment.

“That gives us an opportunity to expose them to what we’re trying to do as a team, and for us as coaches in particular, to connect with those players and get to know them a bit better in what will be a really challenging year.”

The Toyota Challenge, which will see Emerging Ireland play three times in nine days, beginning on Friday, September 30, is happening at the same time as some of the early rounds of the BKT United Rugby Championship.

Among those matches are interprovincial derbies in both Belfast and Galway, but Easterby said that there has been plenty of communication and hard work going on behind the scenes to ensure that both provincial and national needs are met.

“There’s been dialogue right through with Andy (Farrell) and the provincial coaches, in particular, discussing players, discussing their needs, our needs,” acknowledged the former Ireland and Lions flanker.

“There’s been compromises, there will be some selections that the province will feel that they’d be better served with them, but there’s also players that we feel would be better served, at this moment in time, exposing them to our environment.

“Looking at the bigger picture, the short to longer term is that this year presents itself with not just the three games in South Africa, there’s an Ireland ‘A’ game against a New Zealand XV in the autumn, there’s three Tests in the autumn, there’s the Six Nations and then there’s the pre-World Cup.

“So there’s not that many opportunities to expose players to the environment and find out a little more about certain players.

“With that in mind, we also have to feel like we’re not ripping the heart out of the provinces and taking too many players in one position.

“I’m sure there will be discussions along the way, injuries will inevitably happen throughout the next couple of weeks. We have to be prepared to be flexible and compromise as the provinces have in allowing us to select this team.”

Ireland head coach Farrell will be involved in the preparatory camp at the IRFU HPC, but will not be travelling to South Africa as he remains busy focusing on the November internationals and Rugby World Cup matters.

Easterby, who will be supported by fellow national coaches Paul O’Connell, Mike Catt and John Fogarty, said that Farrell will be ‘getting around and staying connected’ with the other Ireland players who will be returning for their provinces in the coming weeks.

“The timing of the tour coincides with a lot of players returning from their national break, the international players,” he added.

“So, player management and welfare has been at the forefront of a lot of what we’ve been talking about and understanding that, yes, we’re taking players out of the provincial system, but there will also be players re-entering their system at the same time as when we travel.

“To build depth we need time with the players, we need to find out a little bit more about them, about their personalities.

“We need to find out about how do they adapt to international rugby or at least adapt to situations where we’ve only got three or four training sessions to prepare for a game.”

Images & Content from Irish Rugby & Images © Inpho Photography


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