Ireland, a championship, 6 Nations and the old enemy.

We are currently in the middle of my favourite week of the sporting year. The run up to the opening of the 6 Nations 2017 is in full swing. Everyone is talking about permutations and combinations and when Saturday comes, it will be an explosion of rugby goodness.

Ireland go into this competition as near favourites again. A strong June and November has shown a big improvement on last year and along with a few defence coach it is all coming up milhouse for Joe Schmidt.

Coming into the opening weekend the Irish provinces have been performing well (Ulster aside). Munster have managed to channel deep horrible grief into a fantastic attitude shift on the pitch, along with a full Thomond park behind them they have become the team to fear in both the league and the cup. As a blue, that last sentence was very hard to type. Leinster have been consistently playing in 3rd gear and sweeping aside most of the team put in front of them. A lot of new faces getting game time, Leo settling into the role, Lancaster adding a strong voice to the team and the players have been performing. There is a lot more to come from the team which is a mouth-watering prospect. Munster appear to be playing at their top level, whereas Leinster look to have more in the tank. Connacht where minutes away from joining the top table in Europe but injuries decimated the most courageous team in the land. If they can be treated better, they will be eating steak with the reds and the blues. Ulster started well, but appear to have fallen off the rugby cliff, nothing is sticking, nothing is working but if they put a streak of wins together that will turn around. Top level players won’t misfire for long.

Domestically things are heating up for the second half of the season.

All of this being brought into the green jersey is great to see. The Ulster lads are delighted to be out of the white jersey for a while and reset themselves into the Ireland jersey. The rest are hoping to bring the form into the Ireland setup.

We open with a trip to Edinburgh to take on a Scotland side who are improving week on week under Cotter. A decent November where they beat Georgia, Argentine and really should have beaten the wallabies, but ended up losing by 1 point. This is a few years too early for Scotland, they have a fairly serious backline and a very good second row, but everywhere else, they are quite a distance behind Ireland. Ireland will have to watch the kicking; anything that goes to Stuart Hogg with any space will be threatened with a score. Outside of that, Scotland don’t really have many viable scoring option. Ireland need to show up, stick to the basics, keep the disciple and take every scoring opportunity. This should be an Ireland win with at least 1 score to spare.

A trip to Italy follows. Again, Italy are improving under Conor O’Shea.  Having beaten South Africa they confidence is up. They will put up a sterner challenge than before but they should fold after 50 minutes of pressure and Ireland will have some distance on the scoreboard.

We have France visiting Dublin on 25th Feb. This will be very interesting. Using form, France are just not at the races. They haven’t threatened to compete in the tournament in years. They have been a shambles. This year, there is a management change; they have given the players the week before the tournament off from their club commitments. It appears the French are taking this year’s competition more seriously than before. So will this make a difference? If Ireland prepare for the best French team, then they will win. If they expect the same team as previous years, then the French will cause the upset. Ireland mind-set will be hugely important in this game, if that is right then the team will win and march off to Cardiff with a whiff of a championship in their nostrils.

Wales have been shaky since Gatland left for the lions job. Mentally they looked bad in November, the players just didn’t play. Changing the caption to Wynne- Jones is a good call. He is a warrior and will be hugely important in this game. Ireland will need up up everything for this game, to put points on Wales and win the game will put the marker down for England. This will be close for 70 minutes, but I think Ireland come out on top by 3-5 points.

And then we get to the final day of the tournament. The day after St Patricks day, England come to Dublin. An England team unbeaten in 2016, who scared everyone in that season and who have been fairly classy in their play. Assuming that they have managed their injuries and come in with wins as Ireland have, this is for all the marbles. A grand slam/championship will be on the line. We know what England will do. They are big, mean and tough players with a silky backline. The game plan won’t have changed much since last year. It is up to Ireland to play the game to beat them. A lot of set piece, top discipline and savage defence will keep Ireland in the game. Some magic will be needed from the midfield to unlock England. This will be the game where Henshaw and Ringrose become saints in Ireland. Around the hour mark they will unlock the England defence, just after the first substitutes are made. Ireland will press on and win the championship.

Below is my team selection for the opening match (as at 31/01/2017 – Sexton ruled out 13:40)

  1. McGrath
  2. Rory Best ©
  3. Furlong
  4. Ryan
  5. Toner
  6. Stander
  7. JVDF
  8. Heaslip
  9. Murray
  10. Jackson
  11. Zebo
  12. Henshaw
  13. Ringrose
  14. Earls
  15. Kearney

Subs: Dillane, Healy, Bealham, Conan, Cerbery, Keatley (should be Madigan), Trimble, AN other


As usual, @nkeegan for debate and derision.

Ronda Rousey, being elite, arrogant and the first.

I thought I would let the dust settle, let everyone get it out of their system so I can try and have a rational, serious and sensible debate about the ‘greatest female MMA fighter of all time’ the woman who ‘brought women’s MMA to the world’, Ronda Rousey.

Much like all sport, this is a game of 2 halves. The first being the struggle and upward trajectory of the hardest working, most charismatic and self-effacing athlete in sport ,into the second, being the defeat of someone who has believed the hype, devoured the hype and demanded more things than Kim Kardashian at a photo shoot of her (fake) arse.

Ronda followed in her fearsome mothers footsteps into Judo. Becoming an Olympic medallist in 2008. I have washed away a huge amount of success in 1 sentence there, but in short, she has been an elite athlete all of her life. She has been guided by another elite athlete, her mother.  With the medal in her pocket, Ronda became lost. Working three jobs in bars and letting her training slide in favour of a few beers and whatever else, all to support her and her dog.

Ronda decided to take the jump into MMA and began training. Making her debut in 2010 began her arm bar journey into televisions around the world. Her charisma, her skill along with being the right person, in the right promotion at the right time meant she was made the figurehead of female MMA. She took the baton from Gina Carrano who started the journey and made it her own.  She was pushed hard and it was working. Ronda remained calm and appeared genuine in every appearance she made. The women who was working in the bar remained in place even as she had the world at her feet. The performances continued too, leading to a Strikeforce title fight against the (at the time) joker to her batman, Meisha Tate. Tate’s elbow was dislocated by the trademark Rousey arm bar and the title changed hands.

Again she remained the same woman who worked in the bar, very little had changed outside of the bank balance.

And then we get into the second half of the game. Strikeforce folded and the UFC brought in female MMA for the first time in history. Rousey was the right face at the right time. She was GIVEN the UFC bantamweight title. Let me repeat that, she was GIVEN the title. No eliminator / title fight between the top ranked women, it was handed to her like a free sample of sausages in Tesco. She also faced her first decent piece of adversity in the cage during her fight with Liz Carmouche. She suffered a dislocated jaw, but showed heart to come back and win via the dreaded arm bar. But she suffered her first damage in a fight. Was the armour weakening?

The Tate rematch was up next after injuries to the scheduled opponent. This was where Ronda appeared to change. During the filming of the ultimate fighter, she appeared to be a spoilt brat, unsporting and disrespectful fighter. The complete opposite of her career to this point. That was when the people began turning on her. It had nothing to do with losing; it had everything to do with her. The team around her became Hollywood agents, stylists and publicists. She was hearing ‘you are fantastic’ on a daily basis and her behaviour was changing.

But she kept winning.

Awards, money, film offers and endorsements where piling up. At the same speed as the behaviour was changing.

Cutting through some time, we got to Holly Holm. An elite boxer / kick boxer who had been training for Ronda forever. Ronda was her now usual disrespectful, obnoxious and arrogant self all the way through the promotion. She came into the fight not looking herself. She attempted to box an elite boxer. Again, let me repeat, the Olympic judoka thought she could outbox a multiple time world champion boxer. This was the pinnacle of the arrogance from Rona and her team. Her coach Edmund had convinced her that she was elite. He had convinced her that she was so far ahead of the rest. Ronda’s own mother was against this, she didn’t travel to watch the fight, she knew.

And as we all know, mothers know best.

Holm absolutely demolished Rousey. It was not a fight. This was Tyson losing to Douglas. The intimidation was gone.

After this she had run ins with Tate (again), and the tiny Paige van Szant (who dared to congratulate Holm via twitter).  Rousey then began the ‘they are turning on me’ nonsense when the backlash was being felt by her. She was so oblivious and arrogant (again) to not be able to see that it is her own behaviour that had people disliking her. It was all on her. But her entourage would never say that to her. She did zero promotion for her last fight against the fearsome Amanda Nunes. She was allowed this because she is managed by the new owners of the UFC. It backfired and millions of people were delighted.

In business terms, the backlash has worked for her. Millions of people bought the fight. Some to see her win, most to see her lost but they all paid money! 1.1 million PPV purchases were made. She is still money.

At the end of the day, there is no denying that without Rousey, an entire sport would be vastly different. She is a 1 in a billion (not million) athlete who could be a dynasty. Instead she is becoming the kind of person who she would not serve in 1 of the 3 bars she worked in while trying to survive.

That is the key; she is becoming (outwardly) the thing she would have reviled during her barwoman days.

@nkeegan for debate and discussion.