Week 3: The good, the bad and the hilarious in the 6 Nations.

Week 3 of the 6 Nations may be the greatest one in my memory. There was absolutely everything. Nail biting moments, head scratching moments and moments of joy. It was the sporting equivalent of my wedding night.

We started with Scotland taking on Wales in Edinburgh. The former started slowly (did an Ireland) and Wales started solidly but not too spectacularly.  But with every missed opportunity and / or bad choice in kicking for the lineout instead of taking the points, they wilted. The confidence that team had years ago appears to be delicate. A Scotland team without Laidlaw and without a few other players won easily. A very unexpected start to the weekend. Going into the French match, Ireland would have zero fear of that Welsh team.

France where welcomed to the Aviva stadium. Well it was a ¾ full Aviva stadium because everyone remained at the bar instead of singing the anthems and settling into their seats.

As an aside, nothing annoys me more than people trying to squeeze into their seat when the anthems have started. If you aren’t bothered to get into your seat for the start of the game, then you wait until there is a lull in the game. It must be great having all that money to spend on tickets to a game you aren’t bothered with, but the rest of us aren’t in a position to waste the cash.

Anyway, back to the match. France started strong. They had been improving throughout this tournament   and they started with a bang. Ireland started a bit slowly, not badly like against Scotland, just slower. The first 15 minutes involved tougher collisions than you would see on a 4 car pile-up on the m50. Some massive hits. And then it started to change, Ireland plugged in and almost as one, turned the screw. It may have been the knock on costing the French a try but Ireland almost said ‘well, that was the best you had; now it’s our turn’. What came for the rest of the match was control, aggression, a playmaking pair who are on a different level to almost any other 9 and 10 in the sport and a rugby version of a triangle choke in MMA. Ireland strangled a France who have very little ideas but the shoots of a team that will cause damage in the next few years. Every stat was in Ireland’s favour, the main issue being, that there were more points to be taken in that match. A 10 point win against France would have been taken by all before the match. But once the second half started, I thought Ireland could get close to a bonus point.

It keeps Ireland in the competition, Wales and England wait when it gets to the big weekends.

Then came the delightful head scratcher that was England taking on Italy. Everyone thought it would be a landslide, an embarrassment for Italy. And then the game started. Italy decided to tackle and back away, tackle and back away. Everyone viewing reached for their smart phones and logged on to the IRB site to find the rulebook. Don’t lie! I know you all did the same as me! Then we saw it, they were avoiding the ruck to stop an offside line being formed. It was within the laws and was genius from Conor O’Shea. The meatheads from England where unravelling in the first half. They had no idea what to do to counter act this. Complaining to the ref along with a quick explanation of the rules from Poite meant very little. The first half showed an Italian side with pride and an English bully side on the receiving end of a mental master class.

The only thing that got England through the game was the regular Italian fatigue. They got the bonus point but the chink in the champions armour has been established. Like Tyson being knocked out by Buster Douglas in Tokyo, England are now human. Not to be feared. They take on a Scotland side on a high and looking to take another scalp.

The one thing that Ireland and Scotland have in common is that nothing motivates more than scrapping with the old enemy.

Ireland get on the ferry (or first class on the plane) to Cardiff on a Friday. This is after a week off which is massively beneficial after a bruising French match.  The confidence is back in the green machine. Whereas Wales are in the opposite. They have nothing to lose and that Welsh pride may appear, but if Ireland can put the pressure on, start well and maybe bring in O’Mahony for O’Brien Ireland will put Wales away.

But more on that closer to the time. As usual, @nkeegan on twitter and @kdubdd on the instagram. I am not sure what instagram is, but I am on it anyway.

Jackson or Sexton, Sexton or Jackson and other 6 Nations thoughts

In the words of the flight of the conchords, it’s business time!

The 6 Nations moves into the important minutes this weekend as week 3 of the competition kicks off. Scotland take on Wales and Ireland welcome the French to the Aviva and on Sunday England take on a battered and already beaten Italy.

For Ireland the call is Sexton or Jackson, Jackson or Sexton. Start with Jackson and bring on Sexton or start with Sexton and (assuming he gets injured) bring on Jackson. Some pundits think that when fit, Sexton starts and some think that Jackson has proven himself in the time sexton has been injured. Some also say that if Carbery didn’t get injured he would be the understudy for Sexton.

But let’s look at the 1 and 2 in the 10 shirt as it stands.

Jackson has recovered from being treated horribly by Declan Kidney way back in 2013. Kidney was feeling the pressure and threw Jackson into the team as a starter. It was maybe 12 months too early for Jackson and it put him back a couple of years in terms of his development. But now he has worked himself back into being a proper team general, a boss and has the confidence to be the playmaker. It was hard for him against Scotland. He had very little to work with due to an underperforming pack. The second half showed him come into the game more and scored a classy try where he backed himself. It was great to see. The team celebrating with him showed that they wanted it for him too, which is important.

Now onto the great Jonathan Sexton. The best 10 of the modern era? Maybe I cannot say that until the career is finished, but I haven’t quite put my blue jersey away yet. Sexton is more than a player. He has the ability to drag his team forward, to out think the opposition and to put himself on the line for his team and the jersey. The last one is a quality that every other player you will see on the pitch on Saturday will have so let’s look at the other two.  Sexton has on many occasions brought his team through a game. Going back to the Northampton Heineken cup final and it was Sexton who started the comeback and who took the half time team talk. He has been doing this as a regular thing since his big match debut against Munster in Croke Park. What I am saying is that there is a history there of Sexton bringing a team back from the brink.

Now on to out thinking the opposition. Both Sexton and Jackson have been good in this area over the last few seasons. Sexton and Leinster maybe depended on the loop pass and following the ball for too long, but that play has been updated and will be seen on Saturday if he starts.

So for me, the only real difference here is a history of performing at the top level in every jersey. Sexton leads that by quite a bit. Ulster are like Clermont, in that they are a semi-final team. Any time they are in a position to make final, they have struggled. Is that because Jackson was unable to out think the opposition? Or to bring his team forward into the game? Sexton has done this numerous times. Jackson has not had the opportunity to prove he has done this; yes he has played well in the green jersey, but not in a massive game. Carbery was called in as backup for Sexton in November which shows you where he is in the coach’s thoughts. Madigan has been out of inclusion since 2013, but that is another story for another blog.

Using history, Sexton is a nose ahead. Using form is impossible as Sexton hasn’t played. He has been injured. Whilst on the pitch he has been a different class to every other player he faces. He has shown an ability to hit the ground running after injury better than nearly any player ever injured in any sport. Jackson however has been there, week in week out and performing. He is one of the only shining lights this season for Ulster and he has been consistent and a game manager in green. So in form, Jackson is a nose ahead.

We are at a 1-1 so far.

So now. What about the team? If you were in the squad and you had developed a playing connection and a trust in your 10 over time and they switched it for the king of the jersey, how would you feel? Would you welcome the tried and trusted back into the fold? Or would you want to have the backup built up to the same level? Does it not put a bad message out to the team where form isn’t important, it is all about who did it best over a certain time period?

For me, I would start Jackson. I would put the message out there that no player is bigger than the jersey. I would trust the player who has played the position. I may be the only person on the island saying this but I think the team is more important than the player. For the French game, I think it sends a fantastic message if he starts Jackson. It is not out of charity; Jackson deserves the start through his play over the last while.

Imagine Sexton coming on with Healy and O’Mahony at 50 minutes to close out the game and win it?

Joe will pick Sexton; Ireland will win by a score and will march to Cardiff with a whiff of a championship in their nostrils.

Until next time, @nkeegan on twitter and @kdubdd on the instagram

Ireland v Italy, a preview,a review and some confusion

So how was your week?

Usually by this point in the 6 Nations I am calm and collected. Usually still recovering from an opening win against a team that hasn’t warmed up into the competition yet. Instead this time, it is Ireland who have yet to reach the gear required to compete.

You will have read hundreds of blogs, listened to every pundit on various media mediums and made your own minds up about what happened last week and we will not mention it again.

This week we take a flight to Rome. Home of the coliseum, pizza, parmesan cheese and a resurgent Italian team looking to take more scalps from top tier nations. Last November they beat the Springboks. While the ‘boks may not have been at their best, it would be Italy’s first big win in a long time and it means that if they do it once, they can do it again.

Most people know that Italy will be tough, they will be prepared and they will be going for it. Especially after last week. They had the Welsh in place for the first half. They looked strong, but again it was the fitness that let them down. Wales had enough in the tank to ease past. This week the Italians will be out to prove they have a gas tank to last the full 80. This mixed with Ireland coming off a loss is a concoction that will make the green army uneasy.

Uneasy? Really?

Well yes. The teams has been selected. Ireland brings in Healy and Ryan. No Trimble or Sexton, both apparently are having their injuries managed along with Peter O’Mahony. I am not sure what managed means, but it appears to mean ‘they are light running and won’t be making the starting team this tournament, but they look good in a team tracksuit’.

It is another smidgeon of confusion around the team which is constantly been jumped on by the media. Between that and a late bus, it has been non-stop all week

It is still a strong team, but it is hugely different to a team with Sexton at 10, Payne at 15 and Trimble on the wings (or as backup). Injuries are part of the game, but there is a huge gap between Sexton having a kick to beat England for the title and Jackson. Who would you bet the house on, who would you want to be taking that kick? Nothing against Jackson, he is fantastic, played well on Saturday and is in my fantasy rugby team. But all I am saying is that there is a gap there. Full back is the other position that may cause team confidence issues. Kearney has been improving over the last 12 months but Payne (when fit) is the man for 15, and I think that is where Joe was going until his kidney injury.

As you can see, it is all quite confusing. People where even calling to have Jamie Heaslip not start this week and move Stander to 8. This is the craziness that the Scotland game produced. And this is why Italy has a chance!

The players have to block out a huge amount this weekend and be hugely aggressive. Ireland where passive last week (feel free to read last weeks masterpiece after this to remind yourself) but this week they need to be ready to fight. Rugby is a team based combat sport and if you are not ready to be aggressive then the skills won’t save you.

So, enough talking, what is the prediction? Well Ireland will win with a bonus point. It will be a shaky 15 minutes until the first try and then the foot will be put down. At least 4 tries with a big margin of victory. But we will have a few nervy moments in the opening quarter.

Then we welcome the French to Lansdowne.

As usual @nkeegan or kdubdd on instagram for more.

The 6 Nations, promise, let downs and violence

So here we are. The first round of the 6 Nations has been and gone. To call it a rollercoaster of emotion would be a severe understatement. Ireland came into this tournament with defeats of southern hemisphere teams in the back pocket, some gutsy determined performances and a confidence seldom seen in a green jersey.

So what happened? Well I made the trek to the lucky pub with the Da and the rest of the trusted fellowship of the oval ball. We were confident but nowhere near cocky. My prediction was Ireland by 3 points. That figure was agreed on around the table. We expected a tough Scotland team who are very well coached and have a provincial team (Glasgow) performing quite well. Generally the agreement was that Ireland just had too much in each position for Scotland. If you could choose any of the 80 odd players for 1 team, there wouldn’t be more than 3 Scotland players on match day.

Never mind the bus arrival time. That is not a real excuse. These are professionals; they usually start their prep at breakfast on the morning of the game.

So what happened? Why where Ireland defending like Swiss cheese? Why was a team with a very strong defence and set piece torn apart like that swimmer in the beginning of jaws.

For me, it comes down to something very simple. There will be others who will speak in terms of technique, game plans and other fantastic sporting jargon. But for me, we just where not violent enough in the first half. We can talk about skill, precision and tactics in rugby, all of which are hugely important, but rugby is a game of semi controlled violence. If you show up to a fight, not interested in the fight or assuming you will steam roll your opponent, then you will lose every time. It was worrying to see, especially after the pre-game talk was so right. Much like Leinster when they face Connacht in the league final, Ireland sat back and asked Scotland to run at them. They were more passive than a hippy at Woodstock and that is just not the way to play a violent sport. Tyson wasn’t Tyson because he stayed on the outside and worked behind a jab; he was Tyson because he welcomed the violence and mixed it with his skill to become the machine he was. Ireland just didn’t do that for 40 minutes.

There where strange things happening too. Ireland defended like a pyramid. Meaning the line did not move as one, it was slightly behind time; Ringrose was shooting like it was 2009 at various points. Scotland saw this and after 2 breakdowns they threw the ball out wide and had overlaps every time. The positive thing is that this was sorted at half time and didn’t happen in the second half. A lot of improvements were made in the second half to the point where Ireland had the lead with the last quarter of the game to go.

Going in, Scotland had to play their best to win. They had some very cheeky line out calls which where fantastic to see. But they played very well. Ireland played well below par and paid the price for it. Especially in the first 40.

Safe to say, this will not happen again. Points are needed to be proven and to be on the scoreboard against the Italians. Who played well against Wales but don’t have a full game in them. The opening weekend was a shock for Ireland, but the tournament is far from over with no team looking beyond a loss.

Team selection for next week will be tricky. Henderson and Dillane looked short on match fitness, neither played badly but where not their usual explosive selves. So does Joe bring back Ryan? Will O’Mahony be fit enough? Will Sexton be fit enough? Will Madigan get a phone call?

For the first time in quite a while, there are a lot of questions going into round 2. I am looking forward to seeing if King Joe has the answers.

As usual @nkeegan is the place for further discussion.